Television: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

I tried to read this book a very long time ago because so many people were raving about it—people whose opinions I generally trusted. Still, I didn't make it very far. It's a massive tome, for one thing, and I was perhaps not in the right frame of mind for that kind of story.

I hadn't much planned to try the television series either, but again I heard it was "so good." So I decided to give it a try. And it is good, if a bit dense. By which I mean there are a lot of characters and a lot going on. Which is not a bad thing—I'm not saying I can't keep it all straight or anything—but it's something that has to be done very carefully else it becomes (a) confusing, or (b) simply irritating.

Maybe I come from the old school, or at least I was taught by the old guard. While I comprehend a certain amount of jumping around, can see fine reasons to do it now and then, I do get annoyed when shows do it simply for the sake of keeping things moving. Some shows do it because they think the audience will get too bored if they stay with any one thing very long. Some do it in order to obfuscate, thinking they'll keep viewers coming back by leaving various threads hanging. And "threads" is the right word; a story with many characters and plots must be carefully woven into a larger picture. Else it's a mess. A colorful mess, perhaps, but a mess nonetheless.

Game of Thrones is a show that weaves threads well. There are a lot of characters and a lot going on in that show, certainly, and some of the plots I enjoy more than others, but at least it all has the feel of having purpose. None of it is wasted. (It's too expensive to produce for them to waste anything.) I would guess, based solely on the first episode, that Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will be similar. Though dense, thus far I've seen nothing extraneous. Hopefully it will remain dense but lean, maybe only a little fat for flavor now and then.

If you're wondering about the show itself, it's set in England during the Napoleonic War. Both title characters are magicians, and there is a prophecy that two magicians will return magic to England. Norrell has long been a reclusive, self-taught magician. Strange is a novice who falls into magic while looking for an occupation in the hopes of convincing his sweetheart to marry him. Ostensibly the two men will be rivals of some kind (a mirror meant to show Strange his "enemy" produced a vision of Norrell reading beside a fire), but we haven't gotten there yet.

There is also a street magician named Vinculus; a bit of a nut job, he's the one to cite the prophecy. He goes on about "The Raven King" which keeps reminding me of The Yellow King they kept touching on in True Detective. Though of course this is very different. (Or maybe it isn't? Might be too early to tell.)

In any case, I'll keep watching for the time being. And maybe I'll even be inspired to go try reading the book again. But I might rather get a paperback copy, since the hardbound one really is hefty.


Christine Rains said...

I tried reading the book twice years ago, and like you, I didn't make it far. I had no idea that it was made into a show. I'll keep reading your reviews, and if it does get better, maybe I'll give it a try.

M said...

It's definitely worth a try. Might not be everybody's cup of tea, though.