Read-Along: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell—Volume III

NorrellFrom Goodreads: The year is 1806, England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains, the reclusive Mr Norrell, whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrel. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms that between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.

I made it! I am happy to report that I finished the book in time for the final review of the read-along hosted by Vishy and Delia. Here’s my review of Volume III (it contains some spoilers):

Volume III was definitely my favorite part of the book. Volume II ended with a bang, and Volume III mostly kept that momentum going. I was skeptical, but the book managed to tie all the pieces into a cohesive story without leaving any loose ends.

After writing his first book about the history and practice of magic and seeing it almost completely destroyed by Norrell, Strange decides to travel to Europe. In Italy, he meets the Greysteel family and likes their company so much that he stays in Venice with them. Through them, he comes into contact with a mad old woman—a key moment in his attempts to summon a fairy. I was impressed by the ingenious storytelling and imagination that finally led to Strange meeting the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. The book flowed so well in these pages, and the language was beautiful:

“The box was small and oblong and apparently made of silver and porcelain. It was a beautiful shade of blue, but then again not exactly blue, it was more like lilac. But then again, not exactly lilac either, since it had a tinge of grey in it. To be more precise, it was the colour of heartache.”

While dabbling in black magic and madness, Strange finds out that his wife is not dead, but only enchanted. He also discovers the secret to Lady Pole’s strange behavior. In return, the gentleman with the thistle-down hair curses him with a veil of darkness, misery, and solitude. After that, Strange is surrounded by eternal midnight, no matter where he goes. When he visits Aunt Greysteel and Flora in Padua, people can see the “black tower” leave Venice and arrive in Padua accompanied by a terrible rainstorm.

In the meantime, as more and more people in England are suddenly able to do magic, Norrell prepares for Strange’s return from Europe. With Childermass and Lascelles in tow, Norrell returns to his library in Hurtfew Abbey. After a particular strong argument between the first two, Norrell sends Childermass away. Lascelles flees when Strange and his darkness arrive. He ventures into Faerie and promptly—and justly—gets stuck there. Childermass meets up with Mr. Segundus and, due to an increased sensibility to magic, realizes that Lady Pole is enchanted. After he reunites her with her cut-off finger, he sets out to return to Norrell and Strange to offer his assistance in their fight to free Mrs. Strange and Stephen Black.

As the gentleman with the thistle-down hair prepares to tell Stephen Black his real name, Vinculus comes back into play, Mr. Norrell gets entrapped in Strange’s blackness, and John Uskglass makes an appearance. Quite unintentionally, Strange and Norrell help Black defeat the gentleman with the thistle-down hair and take his place as king. In one stroke, two prophecies have been fulfilled: the one Vinculus has been carrying with him and the one the gentleman told Black. Again, I found this crescendo quite ingenious.

In the end, Norrell and Strange are happy to do and discuss magic together again. Arabella is safe with the Greysteels in Italy. John Uskglass has left, and magic is receding from England, leaving behind lots of would-be magician who believe in either Norrell’s or Strange’s philosophy. (Interestingly, the writing on Vinculus’ body only changed, not disappeared!)

So how can I wrap up my review of this book? I have to admit that I haven’t made up my mind yet about my overall opinion of the book. Volume III was great, but it hasn’t made me forget how painfully slow I found Volume I. While everything has come together beautifully, I still feel that there were too many people described in too much detail throughout. I enjoyed the slightly sarcastic tone throughout the book, but I thought the story flowed better in those parts where we had more descriptive narration and less sarcasm. If I hadn’t participated in this read-along, I know it would have taken me much longer to get through this book.

“‘Mr Norrell, do not be fanciful, I beg you. Who else could it be? How many nameless slaves can there possibly be in Yorkshire?’ This was so very reasonable a question that Mr Norrell offered no further objections.”

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9 comments

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed your first read along and that the read along gave you that extra push to stick with the book! I found the first volume exceedingly slow as well but thought it was worth sticking with as I found volume III great. Clarke really does tie up some of the story lines in an ingenious way so it was worth seeing these play out (in my opinion). Thank you for reminding me of some of those wonderful passages again!

  2. Beautiful post, TJ! Glad to know that you liked volume 3 very much. I loved that passage you have quoted about the box having the colour of heartache. It is one of my favourite passages. I also liked very much what you said about two prophecies being fulfilled by one event in the story. Thanks for joining us in this readalong. Hope you enjoyed the ride.

  3. I’m glad you liked the book and I agree with you that Volume III was the best.
    Loved the paragraph you quoted, I almost forgot about it, “the color of heartache” – beautiful description. I rarely make notes when reading a book, a bad habit, especially when I want to write a review afterwards.
    Thanks for participating and I hope you can join us again in a future read-along!

      • Your first read-along? That’s great! Any suggestions, pros/cons?
        I am thrilled that you enjoyed it, looking forward to having you on board in the future.

      • For me, this was the perfect book for a read-along. I got the extra push I needed to stick with the book from the read-along schedule and the very positive reviews of the other participants. I liked that everything other than the suggested review dates were left open. So no cons, just pros. 🙂

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