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Once more, Patrick Nielsen Hayden saves the day.

Well, he did. —I finished Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell a bit back, and enjoyed it quite a bit, finding the digressive length (both of opening acts and footnotes) muttered over elsewhere to be delightful and ultimately necessary: groundwork to build a proper floor from which to kick off into, well. To say much more would spoil; I’ll just note that magic is abominably tricky to pull off, and Susanna Clarke manages to step nimbly from Potteresque cantrippery to Lovecraftianesque occultiana (the latter as architected, perhaps, by Peake) while playing allegorical games on several levels: John Holbo reads it as philosophy, naturally enough; I read it as writing, with Norrell as critic to Strange’s writer, and if that explains why I still found Norrell the more sympathetic when all was said and done, well, it doesn’t make me any happier about it.

But: the day, and its salvation. While reading it, I’d perk up whenever I stumbled over its discussion elsewhere, like this Crooked Timber post, which led me to John Clute’s review, which I dropped like a hot potato halfway through, when I learned of a plot twist I hadn’t yet tumbled to. (Should have paid attention to those spoiler warnings.) Stung, I slunk back to the book, consoling myself with the idea that I would have seen it coming soon enough, and anyway, the gotcha is the least important part of a plot twist; otherwise, we’d all save time with Cliffs Notes. —What I hadn’t noticed was how the book had been spoiled on a more fundamental level: Clute, you see, tells us that Strange & Norrell is but the first book in a proposed series.

Which surprised me—the book is a long way off from your door-stopping wodge of extruded fantasy product, and though I couldn’t tell you how exactly it doesn’t step like a volume one, nonetheless, it quite clearly doesn’t; it carries itself neatly, of a piece, whole. —Now, this doesn’t prevent it from being volume one of a proposed series, any more than keeling over suddenly in the middle of a jungle prevents Cryptonomicon from being a single book, prequels notwithstanding. And series and sequelæ are pretty much a fact of life in the Beowulf game these days. So I didn’t question Strange & Norrell’s status as volume one of; even began reading it in that light (indeed, couldn’t help but), wondering how the story would go on from here, wondering which characters would play what roles the next time ’round. Wondering, but also worrying, even fretting, because Clarke pulls off her magic trick about the only way you can: by hinting, alluding, suggesting, glossing; by taking crucial bits for granted, by knowing when to let up, so the readers come the rest of the way themselves. And because Clarke’s enterprise is to thin the walls between worlds and bring the magic back, the only place she can go is where Strange & Norrell stops: right up to the gates themselves, or maybe a step or two beyond. The stuff Clute presumes would fill out the next two volumes of Clarke’s three-book contract—the stuff, in fact, he seems to think is missing from the story—would be too much; would leach the magic away by nailing it down. Those gaps, I thought, were there for a reason, and while it’s hardly impossible that volumes two and three wouldn’t be worthless, still: they felt like they’d be mistakes. I began to resent the shadow they cast over what I was reading here and now. —There and then, rather.

So tonight I’m bopping about old posts and threads and decide on a whim to check on John Holbo’s midstream review, where I find this comment from the electrolit Patrick

Allow me to presume on my small acquaintanceship with Susanna Clarke in order to tell you that John Clute’s assertion that Jonathan Strange was planned as the beginning of a series was entirely pulled out of John Clute’s ass. There is no such plan. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a complete work.
Susanna has more recently said she might write a different novel with the same background, but it would not be about the same people. And yet people keep repeating Clute’s entirely erroneous assertion that the book is the start of a planned-out series à la Jordan, Martin, Donaldson, etc. It’s not, and it never was.

And it’s astonishing: not one word of the book I read has changed, and yet it’s suddenly so much better. What a wonderful trick! My thanks to you, sir; kudos and hosannahs.

  1. Rose    Nov 29, 02:46 PM    #
    Oh, thank god it's not real! I stayed up last night to finish it and had never even contemplated the possibility of sequels. I had a very difficult time making the transition from The System of the World to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell but it was eventually worth the effort especially because the work was so self-contained and still expansive, and sequels would have destroyed that for me.

  2. Patrick Nielsen Hayden    Nov 30, 05:37 PM    #
    De nada, dude.

  3. Sidelights    Nov 30, 05:46 PM    #
    http://www.nielsenhayden.com/electroside/archives/2004_11.html#005836
    Now that's what we call a snappy headline...

  4. Kevin Moore    Dec 1, 12:32 PM    #
    "cantrippery"? I googled it, and this entry is the only appearance in the english language, you word-maker-upper you!

    So: "cant" + "trip" + "frippery" - "f"?

    Or just "cant" + "frippery" - "f"?

    However, nice use of "wodge." Like so many terms bequethed by the Brits, it sounds like something you'd bring up after downing a pint.

  5. Mark    Dec 1, 01:25 PM    #
    Cantrippery from Cantrip, perhaps?

  6. Robert    Dec 1, 01:25 PM    #
    Oooh, I know this one!
    'Cantrippery' must be from 'cantrip', an
    obscure archaic word, derived from Scots
    English, for a prank or magic spell. Used
    in RPGs to denote a minor (zeroth level)
    spell.
    Since the magic in the Potterverse is highly
    stylized - the wand waved _so_ while the
    words are pronounced _thusly_ - it delighted
    me to see it described as 'cantrippery',
    with its Dickensian evocation of 'frippery'.

  7. Kevin Andrew Murphy    Dec 7, 10:57 AM    #
    Robert has the proper etymology of it, and since old Unearthed Arcana cantrips required both a gesture and a magical phrase, the description is particularly apt for Potter-verse magic, where even potent death curses require only a flick of a wand and a latinate pun.

  8. scribblingwoman    Dec 7, 01:25 PM    #
    Counting my chickens
    Here is my holiday reading list, and growing. I am taking bets on how many I actually get through. Must...

  9. Crooked Timber    Dec 9, 01:16 PM    #
    Beyond good and evil
    Jennifer Howard of the Washington Post has a longish article-cum-book-review on the ‘uses of fantasy’ in the most recent Boston Review on “the uses of fantasy,” where she gets it very badly wrong, but in an interesting way. She ...

  10. Lis Riba    Dec 16, 05:29 PM    #
    I've only barely started on Strange & Norrell, but in some respects it's reminding me of another book I discovered this year which is very likely to make my Top N list the end of the year. The Amulet of Samarkind by Jonathan Stroud. YA, fictional England ruled by a bureaucracy of wizards. Very richly developed world, good characters, complete in itself though I was pleased to see it labelled as "trilogy" because I actually wanted to follow the characters further.

    Here was my review after I first read it, with an excerpt

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