Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

‘Can a magician kill a man by magic?’ Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. ‘I suppose a magician might,’ he admitted, ‘but a gentleman never would.’

This is one of the best books I have ever read. It is like an eccentric collaboration between Alexander Dumas and Jane Austen if they wrote about magicians, class, racial identity, politics and English magic.

Magic is returning to England and Mr Norrell the only practicing magician left in England is determined he shall decide what kind of magic that shall be. Conservative, civilised and straight out of one of his many books. And then a younger, wilder magician makes himself known and the two men engage in an intense friendship and bitter power struggle.

Susanna Clarke has invited us into an alternative history of England. Mad King George is on the throne and the Napoleonic War rages on but magic has left its footprints all over history. The most striking example of this is the Raven King, a man one magician fears and despises and the other longs to behold. The book is filled with wonderful characters. Ladies, servants, magicians (theoretical and practical), crooks, soldiers, dukes, politicians, poets, gentlemen, kings and fairies and so many more and each stood out with their own peculiarities and vibrancy. Each has their own story and Clarke winds them all together into a gripping and expertly plotted book.

The writing is witty and romantic and eerie. The civilised (more or less) English society is juxtaposed against the wilderness and ancient ways of the other places that hide just out of sight. And the polite society similarly clashes against the darkness and cruelty that can lie in men’s hearts. All the characters are flawed, little cruelties and greed and jealousy but Clarke gives each at least one redeeming quality so that nobody is just a villain in this book. One character I felt a vague dislike for at the start of the book enthralled me more and more throughout as Clarke revealed layers of humour and complexity in him.

The author has liberally used footnotes in the novel to add references to books that have never been written, side stories, notes and biographies. I was unsure of this before I read the book but they are fantastic! They add to the richness and complexity of the story and compliment the illustrations in the book. Both make the novel seem more authentically of the Napoleonic era.

There are also excerpts from academic essays the characters have written, newspaper articles and histories of people who only exist in Clarke’s version of England. All is crucial to the battle of wits throughout the plot and how a review published on magical theory or a book can rival the brutality of war.

I couldn’t put this book down or stop thinking about it. It is over 1000 pages long and I hauled it around everyday (even though my job required I had to carry my bag constantly) just so I could read one more chapter. Susanna Clarke has written a book of short stories that accompany this book. I can’t wait to read them. Or read the sequel…

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Review: I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan

I, Lucifer, Fallen Angel, Prince of Darkness, Bringer of Light, Ruler of Hell, Lord of the Flies, Father of Lies, Apostate Supreme, Tempter of Mankind, Old Serpent, Prince of This World, Seducer, Accuser, Tormentor, Blasphemer, and without a doubt Best Fuck in the Seen and Unseen Universe (ask Eve, that minx) have decided – oo-la-la! – to tell all.

Finally the other side of the story claims the subtitle of the book. Of course we have already heard the other side- Dante, Milton, Blake, Wilde and Byron are just some of the few who have written from the view of Satan not to mention the many versions that have appeared in the last two decades. I think this is the cleverest and funniest attempt out of the latter however.

Glen Duncan writes as Lucifer in a stream of consciousness. He is a wicked psychopath who is congratulating himself on various disgusting activities in one of the first scenes where he is visited by a solemn angel. The plot is that God gives Lucifer one last chance to redeem himself by living a month of blameless life in suicidal writer Declan Gunn. Lucifer, of course, treats this as a holiday and abuses his body with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and anyone he can lay his hands on. He is also sarcastic, immature, disgusting and hilarious.

The funniest moments of his transition to a human being (and there are many) is watching him experience a garden with the five senses which reads like a trip on LSD.

Pornography, that’s what it was, a wild pornography of colour and form, the shameless posturing, the brazen succulence and flaunted curves, the pouting petals and pendulous bulbs, Fronds of things. The soft core of a giant rose. I was unprepared…So Lucifer in the garden, spun around by colours and concussed by smells. Weak as a kitten, I heard and saw myself as if from a distance emitting a series of feeble noises and gesticulating like an imbecile.

I laughed out loud in public reading this book in many places but towards the middle, Lucifer’s endless sarcasm and lust and drug taking grew…boring. What interested me back into the novel were his memories of biblical events and the build up to the climax of the novel which illustrated the effect being in Declan Gunn was having on Lucifer. The emotions that he felt rebelling against God sweeps aside the lights, the cigarette smoke screen and music leaving the devastation of what it is like to be us. Because that is what Lucifer recognised in himself as far back as his tempting of Eve and his acknowledgement that when it comes to the Almighty they are seen in the same light. Often one of the human beings will express something emotive which Lucifer will deny but the reader can see the analogy as clear as day.

The sky (even I’ve got to take my hat off to Himself when it comes to summer skies) was high and beaten thin, the low sun softly exploding pale oranges and watery greens into the upper margins of lilac and blue. The whole thing had a distant, bleached quality to it that made me in Gunn’s body feel small and lonesome, not unlike the way he himself used to feel as a child, when his mother would treat him to an extortionately priced helium balloon which would invariably slip from his wet grasp and go sailing up into the vast and lonely distance, until Gunn, nauseated by his relationship to something now so remote, would begin to feel dizzy and afraid.

This book is a guilty pleasure to somebody who grew up with Christianity, Judaism or Islam. The effect was lessened a bit in my case as it is very strictly based on Christianity but it was similar enough that it felt very shocking to read. The part that really made me laugh the most was Lucifer’s version of the crucifixion which had he and his minions trying desperately to stop it and free Jesus while the side of the light was trying to do the opposite over the issue of a technicality. I would recommend this book. The writing is lyrical, bawdy and though the plot is not perfect it is a very enjoyable read.

Review: Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

Dead Witch WalkingSynopsis                        

Rachel Morgan is a white witch and runner working for Inderland Security, in an alternate world where a bioengineered virus wiped out a great deal of the world’s human population – exposing the existence of the supernatural communities that had long lived alongside humanity.

For the last five years Rachel has been tracking down law-breaking Inderlanders in modern-day Cincinnati, but now she wants to leave and start her own agency. Her only problem is that no one quits the I.S.

Marked for death, Rachel will have to fend off fairy assassins and homicidal weres armed with an assortment of nasty curses. She’s a dead witch walking unless she can appease her former employers by exposing the city’s most prominent citizen as a drug lord. But making an enemy of the ambiguous Trent Kalamack is just as deadly as leaving the I.S.

Review

Urban fantasy is a genre I like but how many times have I picked up a so called gritty urban fantasy novel only to find it is a paranormal romance in disguise. Not this time.

Reading this book was an eye opener and has raised the bar for me for all urban fantasy books. This is what urban fantasy should be. I’m so happy to find one with a gripping plot, flawed characters and a complex and layered world instead of yet another romance masquerading as urban fantasy.

Rachel Morgan is an appealing and sympathetic protagonist for a long series. In the first book she is smart but not wise, an idealist and her morals are very black and white compared to everyone else in the book. It is obvious this is a character that will be going through a lot of character development through the series and that is exciting to me. The rest of the cast are so well developed that even if they are in just a few scenes they stick very easily into your conscious. It is a book full of ambitious, cunning, bloodthirsty plotters and I love it because like all good stories we are constantly trying to figure out the motives of everyone just like Rachel is.

The writing is sharp and clear which makes the thrilling elements of the book very effective. There is a lot of humour and snarky dialogue in the book which works very well as the protagonist has a likable voice.

Some of the writing is a bit strained in the action scenes or when Rachel is bringing someone in as if the author is writing her this way because she thinks an urban fantasy heroine is supposed to sound streetwise but it feels a little forced.

Overall this is a engaging debut and the start of a brilliant urban fantasy series.