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Clarke is an extremely funny writer, which is rare in fantasy Rowling is sometimes goofy, but Clarke is genuinely witty. But what really sets Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell apart is its treatment of magic. Clarke's magic is a melancholy, macabre thing, confabulated out of snow and rain and mirrors and described with absolute realism; it's even documented with faux-scholarly footnotes. When spells are cast (and they frequently are Clarke isn't one of those stingy fantasists who doles out, say, one spell every hundred pages), they come with consequences of both the intended and the unintended varieties. When Norrell brings to life the wooden figurehead of a captured French ship he and Strange are enlisted in the fight against Napoleon instead of divulging useful military secrets, the figurehead promptly cusses him out: "Having passed all her existence among sailors she knew a great many insults and bestowed them very readily on anyone who came near her in a voice that sounded like the creaking of masts and timbers in a high wind." The greater the spell, the more dire the consequences. When Norrell attempts to bring a friend's wife back from the dead, he plants a seed whose dark tendrils entwine the entire novel.
Clarke has another rare faculty: she can depict evil. Much of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell takes place in the shadow of a powerful and fascinatingly cruel fairy who makes Voldemort look like a Muppet. This is not kid friendly, although precocious kids may go for it. Clarke reaches down into fantasy's deep, dark, twisted roots, down into medieval history and the scary, Freudian fairy-tale stuff. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell reminds us that there's a reason fantasy endures: it's the language of our dreams. And our nightmares.
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