I had been mulling a reread when my friend Sam picked this one up, so I jumped back in. I vaguely remember the buzz when the book was released was very much in the reductive “what if Harry Potter, but more grown-up?” vein, which is not what this book is, at all.
I’ve been reading a lot of Austen over the last couple of years, and I think Jonathan Strange made so much more sense to me this time around.1 The way Clarke introduces her characters, the way she comments on their class and social position—there’ so much here that’s very much in line with Austen’s thematic and stylistic preoccupations.
I was also struck by how…leisurely it unfolds. Like, there’s a plot, but it’s kind of loose, as opposed to a machine always driving the action forward. At times Clarke introduces characters and you think, there could be a whole other book there, if she chose. The copious footnotes evoke the richness of lost English magical history. There’s a whole stretch with Jonathan Strange swept up in the Napoleonic wars on the European continent, and Norrell is basically absent from the book. At times it feels like a product of an era when novels were written in serial fashion.
I was surprised at how bittersweet and open-ended the ending is. In today’s never-ending, IP-mad world it would be a clear springboard into a sequel, but I prefer to think of it as Clarke simply stating that not everything gets tied up neatly.