That would be Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, an immensely large novel whose stylish white-on-black and black-on-white covers are occupying miles of shelf-space everywhere. Summary: it’s a good book. Herewith notes plus ramblings on travel and reading.

Gaming Heathrow · What happened was, I came home from Antwerp via Brussels and London. Northern Europe’s weather was bad and the air schedules were hurting; the flight to Heathrow was delayed. Bearing my tight connection to Vancouver in mind, I decided to check my rollie as luggage, although it’s perfectly legal in the cabin. (This caused a little difficulty after I Christmas-shopped in Brussels airport and staggered onto the plane festooned with shopping bags like a mall victim).

Anyhow, Heathrow, as usual, was congested and slow and generally sucked, and by the time I finally got to the Air Canada desk, the fellow shook his head doubtfully: “I’m afraid you are rather late, sir.” I smiled sweetly and said “I do have checked luggage,” knowing full well that it would have transited Heathrow much faster than I and be secure in the plane’s hold. He looked pained and reached for his phone to call the gate. In this era of terrorism, no plane can fly without a passenger in the cabin belonging to each and every bag in the belly. And they really don’t want to unpack the hold to find that one unaccompanied Samsonite.

As I finally got into the terminal, the big voice in the rafters was intoning “Will Mr. Bray please proceed now to Gate 389.” But I had a problem; I’d realized that I’d read everything in my carry-on and was about to get on a 10-hour flight sans pages to turn. Unthinkable. But hey, I had a bag in the plane, so I stopped by the bookshop (Heathrow’s one redeeming feature) and that’s how I got this book (and read the first two-thirds of it).

Strange & Norrell · The best thing about this book is the plot and pace; it lopes right along, really never failing to be entertaining. Some have complained about the idiosyncratic deployment of Jane Austen spelling; I don’t think it helps much but it doesn’t get in the way either. The people in it are largely interesting and most are nicely fleshed out, with only a few spear-carriers. The cameos from famous historical personages—Wellington, Byron (especially), the mad King George—are good fun, and the locations—here and there in Britain, Spain in the peninsular war, Venice—have lots of colour and feel historically authentic. The reviews say it’s full of literary references, but I only spotted a couple so I guess I’m not literate enough.

The two protagonists, named in the title, English magicians both, are twitchily obsessive about their work in a way computer geeks will find familiar and comforting. And the magic itself is really very good; a plausible presentation of what real magic in the real world might be like, should such a thing exist.

One gripe; our authoress’ cast of characters is very male-heavy; the women who appear do so mostly as hapless victims of magic, pawns at best on the board. I would beg Ms Clarke, in her heavily-prefigured sequel, to include one or two interesting members of her own gender.

But on balance I think this is a good story well told, and most people would like it.

Reading in General · I’m going through a lot fewer books these days; the problem is that the combination of RSS, wireless, and decent on-screen typography has made it terribly convenient to read the world in real time, instead of reading books, and the world is telling an interesting story, almost always. It’s hard for authors to compete.

But I think I’ve swung too far away from books toward the world, and am going to make a conscious effort to swing back a bit.

I’ll say one thing though; text presented in ink on paper is a highly-advanced technology, better than what you can get from a computer screen. Within certain limitations; although Strange & Norrell is elegantly typeset in Baskerville with generous leading, its 782 pages make it awkwardly large, thick, and heavy. Something lightweight and electronic would be a lot easier on the wrists.


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January 15, 2005
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