Initial Thoughts on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: Fantasy Tropes, Pineapple Ale-Houses, and Wishes for 2015

I’m in the middle of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  Her writing is masterful, clear, assured, and gorgeous. As perfect as you can get.  Mr. Norrell is a somewhat weasel-y, nervous magician, and strikes me as an incarnate of Poe. I’ve met Jonathan Strange as well, who is beginning to come into his own as a magician.

I love the detail in this book. Today I read a passage about a certain ale-house called the “Pineapple [that] had once been the refuge and hiding-place of a notorious thief and murderer.”  What a name for an ale-house! Mr. Norrell’s righthand man Childermass, a man with a somewhat darkly colored conscience and perhaps sinister ulterior motives, meets one of his master’s enemies in the bowels of this alehouse: “Three greasy steps led down from the street-door into a gloomy parlor.  The Pineapple had its own particular perfume, compounded of ale, tobacco, the natural fragrance of the customers and the unholy stink of Fleet River, which had been used as a swear for countless years.”  I just love her writing.

This book is “perfect fantasy” in the sense of common tropes: magic, 19th century, faerie folk, finicky men, sort of Sherlock-y, a Raven king, or anything Raven-ish, towns that end in ‘shire’…  It’s inherently and fabulously British, and I love that, of course.  That being said, part of me asks: haven’t we been here before?

In 2015, I wish for a canonical-feeling fantasy text that’s not inherently British and that does not center around men/boys/Anglos-only, and that perhaps turns these tropes on their heads and introduces new ones. These texts I wish for do exist, but they haven’t been adapted into things such as television shows (BBC is adapting JSAMN– in fact the first episode has already aired) and they haven’t been massively successful from a commercial standpoint with a Western audience.  Commercial success does not have to be an indicator of quality, but whatever the quality, it brings the story to the masses.

What if Jonathan Strange had been Joanna Strange? Or, if the first faerie to appear in the text, the gentleman-with-the-thistle-down-hair who rules over Lost-Hope, were a gentlewoman?  Just a few wonderings amidst much praise…

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