Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

It doesn’t seem nice (or business savvy) to waste the time of literary agents who are obviously not excited about the type of book you write. So you do research, you target your queries based on what they’ve represented and the books they say they enjoy reading.

Dunham Literary, Inc. is friendly with my graduate program, and both Jennie Dunham and Bridget Smith have come to visit our residencies before. They are fabulously nice people, and it made sense for me to do some research on Bridget’s likes and dislikes, because she is looking for YA authors to represent.

Thankfully, an old high school friend and former roommate of mine had lent me his copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. He loved it, and since I trust his taste in most things (movies, books, boards games, his lovely wife, their wonderful cats), I was going to read it eventually. When I heard that Bridget loved it, I bumped it up on the list.

It’s a long book, of course. It can be a bit of a slog to get through some parts, though eventually there always seemed to be a good payout. All in all I’m very glad I read it, since I now know that I don’t (and might never) write the kind of books that really excite Bridget. It isn’t the type of book I would write, but it has plenty of merits to recommend it.

First, for the good.

The characters of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are fascinating. Likewise their close friends/advisors are sufficiently fleshed out, and everyone has a different motivation and ends up mucking things up one way or another because they’re slightly at odds to what someone else wants. The sheer pride and obstinate vanity of Mr. Norrell is humorous and frustrating at once. The mentor/apprentice relationship seems to be entering my reading sphere fairly often lately (what with The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun), and this one is a nice exploration of a mentor too full of himself to see straight and a respectful but refreshingly independent apprentice doing his own thing regardless.

The magic is woven into the historical aspects with grace. The descriptions of magic done on the fields of battle, the illusions used to fool enemies, all are delightful and well-executed. Clarke has very clever notions, and folds them into the story organically.

The “villain” if you want to call him that, acted just as his nature bid, and saw no fault in his actions. He wasn’t menacing so much as unknowable, living a life at cross purposes with normal mortal souls.

Sometimes the characters and turn of events surprised me, and I usually enjoy that sort of thing.

Now, to the not so good.

It’s a long book, and covers a long span of time. I feel like it takes a great deal of setup to even get to the main plot and relationship that matters most. It feels accurate, that a story this complex would unfold over such a span of time, but it was slightly frustrating for me to not see the general direction the novel was going in sooner than three-fourths of the way through.

There aren’t enough women, and the ones who are in it tend to suffer too much in silence. Yes, it’s a product of that time period, but I didn’t see much of the fire in their souls that commends me to characters. It’s a man’s world and men dominate the book. The women act to provide plot twists and motivation for the men to stop sitting in salons debating the future of England’s magic.

The footnotes didn’t really add or detract anything for me, which tells me they were probably unnecessary. I suppose once you’ve read House of Leaves it’s difficult to ever consider footnotes necessary if they aren’t being used to create a whole new layer of meta in a story. Still, I can’t say that I would have enjoyed this book any less without the information contained in the footnotes, which makes me think they aren’t worth distracting your attention from the main narrative to hunt down and read.

Even with the bad, though, this is still a beautiful book for what it wants to be. The writing on the sentence level is great, and the ending was fitting and beautiful in a kind of sad, lonely way that perhaps only people with tastes similar to me would appreciate (nothing’s tied up in a nice bow. It’s more complicated and germane to reality, and I like it).

If you’re looking for an interesting historical fiction with a touch of the fantastical thrown in–and you don’t mind long novels–this one is definitely for you. Also, props to the author for writing this exactly the way you would imagine Brits of that time period dealing with magic. On that alone it’s worth a read, because it makes you laugh when you stop to think about it.

A Meeting at Corvallis

As the third book in the first trilogy, you expect the stakes to be raised. War, definitely. Probably some of the characters we know and love dying. Political intrigue, more fun weapons and farming hacks from these people still adapting to a changed world.

I was a little disappointed at first when everything seemed to jump around a bit. There are a lot of storylines here that all have to converge together, and thankfully Stirling does a pretty good job juggling them. It’s a far cry from the first book, which made you fall in love with Mike and with Juney. But all the players in this third book are important, and the different plot lines converge in an epic climax.

There is a nice sort of interlude at times, when we’re following Rudi Mackenzie. His scenes are less action-packed—three or four characters at once instead of everyone on a battlefield fighting a war. It makes sense, having read the next trilogy, that Stirling would want to take time to develop Rudi and get readers interested in him. He’s a fun character, and I like him while he’s still a kid in this first trilogy, full of a pure, childlike wisdom that makes him intriguing.

A Meeting at Corvallis is an epic finish to the Mike/Juney storylines, so if they are the only reason you’re reading the books you probably don’t want to move on to read The Sunrise Lands. If, however, you love Rudi Mackenzie and want to see a lot more of him, you should read what they dub the Emberverse II books (sort of a sequel series to the initial trilogy). If you like Stirling’s writing, it’s worth it to keep reading the books. And if you’re Pagan, it’s even more worth it. Rudi lives his Paganism in a way that Juniper Mackenzie could only dream of, since Rudi was born into a world where Paganism was one of the major religions, except an eccentric oddball religion that many people considered cult-like.

The Protector’s War

This book takes place eight years after the events of Dies the Fire. We get more Juney and Mike, with all the supporting cast of characters that you grow to love during the first book. In addition, we get some awesome British characters thrown into the mix, which widens the scope of things.

There’s war brewing between the Mackenzies & Bearkillers and the Portland Protective Association. Which puts our characters in danger, and makes for some fun sweeping battle scenes. You get to know a little more about the characters in this one, but don’t have the same prolonged exposure to single characters that you did in the first book. Though, it’s pretty hard not to fall for young Rudi Mackenzie. He’s eight years old, and precocious as anything.

This book is mostly a bridge between books one and three, but not at all boring. You get nice escalations of characterization, plot, and world building. The apocalypse problems of “oh shit the world has changed and everyone is killing each other” shift to problems of organizing groups of people for protection and farming. You get to see some more of Astrid and Eilir, too, which is great, because I love them.

If you liked Dies the Fire, you’ll like The Protector’s War. And it’s infinitely worth reading so that you can get to A Meeting at Corvallis for the big finish.

Dies the Fire

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a big deal for me. I’ve always thought that raising the stakes is the best way to see who a character truly is. On a small scale you could say that’s why I prefer YA over adult fiction so often—because for teenagers things are often perceived as life or death, even if “death” is only social suicide. Why do I prefer speculative fiction over realism? Same thing. Stakes are usually higher. Characters facing magic or new frontiers or intergalactic wars—bigger scale, higher stakes. Frodo can bring down this great force of evil if he just manages to walk to Mordor and throw a trinket into a volcano. One character, making all the difference.

So apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is great, because it rips away everything a character knows and loves, and we get to see what’s left. What they can make of themselves, when they have nothing.

Dies the Fire follows two strong protagonists who become leaders in a world Changed. Gunpowder doesn’t explode anymore. The laws of physics have changed. No electricity. No electronics, period.

I like Mike because he’s a bit of a hardass, and gets shit done while protecting his people. Juniper is great because she’s strong but yielding enough to be really likable. And, she’s Pagan. How cool is that? S M Stirling gets the details right, too, which really helps. No mis-representation of Paganism for the sake of Hollywood thrills here.

This first novel of the first trilogy of the novels of the Change (say that ten times fast) starts right at the Change itself, which is cool to witness through both our protagonists’ eyes. And for this particular apocalypse scenario, it’s better that we can watch the characters face the Change head on, rather than joining them years after the fact. Still, the novels could all be considered post-apocalyptic because they really deal more with the fallout of the Change than with the Change itself. Empires are built back up and go to war, that sort of thing.

I like Stirling’s writing style, too. He’s got plenty of details in there, writes good dialogue, and knows how to get us invested in these characters by showing us their flaws right alongside their strengths. I’ve read this first trilogy a few times now, and it’s definitely worth it. An excellent read for the post-apocalyptic novel fan, the avid reader who happens to be Pagan, and the speculative fiction reader who enjoys adult fiction with strong characterization and semi-epic storylines (seeing as the second trilogy follows the second generation).