Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hitting consistent pay dirt: Enjoying Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

These days, I seem to have done a respectable job of clearing my bookshelf of trash and increasing the greatness-of-story- per-linear-foot. With the exception of the weak Riddlemaster Trilogy (Patricia McKillip), I've gone from one good book to the next, the latest of which is the formidable 800-page Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This book, said by Neil Gaiman to be one of the best of fantastic literature in the English language, is a sheer pleasure to read: full of vivid narrative, sharply and memorably drawn characters, and nostalgic period touches. What is it about? Here's the jacket copy:
English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.

But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England's magical past and regained some of the powers of England's magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French.

All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative-the very opposite of Mr Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington's army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different. For Mr Norrell, their power is something to be cautiously controlled, while Jonathan Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic. He becomes fascinated by the ancient, shadowy figure of the Raven King, a child taken by fairies who became king of both England and Faerie, and the most legendary magician of all. Eventually Strange's heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens to destroy not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.
Pure gold. There are very few books which inspire me to keep reading past the 400-page mark, and this one kept me raptured long after that. If you fancy the idea of pouring Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales into a blender along with Jane Austen's victorian England, then you will love this book.

While I'm at it, I might mention a new reading habit I've picked up. Between longer books, I like to dawdle a while with collections of short stories, several of which I have found to be excellent collections and well worthy of sustained interest. Here are a few:

The Avram Davidson Treasury: I've mentioned this one before, and it bears repeating. Covers fantasy, science fiction, and mystery all with equal success. I have yet to come across a more accomplished master of the short story form, and his engaging, humorous, and bizarre styling in such compact form is sheer artistic genius. Get this one as soon as you can.

The Essential Ellison: Harlan Ellison stands with giants like Ray Bradbury and Alfred Bester as masters of the early science fiction world. His short story "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman is worth the price of the (very, very large) collection.

The Short Works of Jack London: Wow, I love short stories written in early 1900's. Surprisingly, the author of famous works like "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang" shares a lot in common with fantasy writers like Conan-creator Robert E. Howard. London is a great writer of short stories, some of which have some quite fantastic elements, including the discovery of a lost world beyond the Yukon complete with wooly mammoths.

Blood Curdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre: This is the best collection of H. P. Lovecraft yet published, including nearly all of his best work. Lovecraft was the father of modern horror, and while displaying a restraint and refinement uncommon to modern works of that sort, these tales will most certainly haunt your dreams.

Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy: This collection is more uneven than some of the above, but it contains one of my all time favorite fantasy short stories, a terribly shocking and moving piece called "Six Hypotheses" written by Joyce Carol Oates. I don't know how much fantasy/horror she writes, but this is one powerful story. Lots of other good stuff in this collection as well.

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