I really did like this novel a lot, though I guess some people are put off by the length of the book, the tone, or the impressive amount of footnotes. It's made a lot of lists for being one of those novels people pretend to have read. I don't know if someone should go out of their way to lie about having read it, but I will admit that it's a pain in the ass carrying this book around with you, and I can't imaging someone trying to read a few pages on a bus or train, the thing has some weight to it. I should have sucked it up and read this on my Kindle.
The tone of the novel reminded me a lot of Connie Willis' work, perhaps because of the very Britishness of it. Clarke really get into the historical side of things, and even introduces a few real life characters like the Duke of Wellington. Both writers are willing to bide their time and let the story wander in order to build setting and tone. This can be a bad thing for some readers, and many reviewers voice complaints about the slow moving story, for both authors. Willis' work can sometimes irritate me, but she always seems to pull it back together with her stellar conclusions. I had no complaints about Strange and Norrell, the novel takes it's time, but all of it is worth it, and I didn't go into the novel expecting to be finished in a day.
Several of the reviews I've read have described the book as 'Historical Fiction,' 'Magic Realism,' and 'British Comedy.' Though the novel really defies categorization, Clarke does a good job of avoiding some of the major pitfalls of these genres, while at the same time utilizing what makes them good. Yes, this can be seen as an alternative history novel, which I usually don't like, but instead of my usual boredom I was excited to see the true life characters like Wllington make an appearance. I enjoyed how Clarke crafted her magic, and while she did make it almost omnipotent in utility I felt it stayed true to the world Clarke had crafted and contributed to the story.
At first I was shocked that this is Clarke's first novel, but now I've found out that she had been working on it for over a decade. It seems sad, since she has crafted such a complete world, that we will not be revisisting it any time soon. An author as slow and deliberate as this will not be cranking out a book a year, or writing a long involved series. Strange and Norell does stand alone, but throughout the author raises enough questions that another novel wouldn't necessarilly be pandering, there's more than enough left to explore in a sequel, I just wouldn't expect it anytime soon.
One of the plot points that Clarke left open (other than the ending) was the fate and truth about John Uskglass. I continue to feel that I am missing something and a closer read of the novel will reveal where he actually went and why he left England. Perhaps it is meant to be just a mystery, but I feel like Clarke knew exactly what she was doing with the character, and is unwilling to leave anything to chance. The author leaves several of these strings dangling off her story, like mentioning in one of the footnotes that Wales has been hidden from public view and is now considered a myth, but it is not as irritating as it sounds and goes a long way to building the world the characters inhabit. I just wish I could get to the truth about Uskglass, maybe someone has a better idea than I do.
I felt like the character of Vinculus was trying to say that Uskglass' magic had guided all the action of the story, but that would seem to imply that The Raven King had to plan hundreds of years in advance to defeat the man with the thistle down hair, something we already know not to be true as Uskglass is the king of the fairies (If you are trying to read this review before reading the book I won't even mention that was a spoiler because I totally lost you there.) Though the end of the novel seems to imply that Uskglass views Strange and Norell in the same way a person views an ant, their summoning of Uskglass obviously works and like Vinculus says, they are all living in Uskglass' magic. Anyway, I just finished the novel yesterday and I'm still trying to parse out where all the characters ended up. Maybe I'm devoting a little too much thought into this but I feel like I missed something and wish someone would point it out to me.
So despite being a long and intricate novel this is actually a pretty light read. Other than a few light criticisms about class distinction (which I don't think anyone is defending anyway) the author has no deep or powerful message to convey to the reader, just an interesting and compelling story, and that's not a bad thing. Most books that aim simply for fun and entertainment are not nearly as long as this one, nor as complex. The marvel here is that Clarke is able to keep the reader pulled into the story without losing any of our interest over the seven hundred pages of the novel.
There are several other good reviews out there for this novel, and the only bad ones I've seen have complained about the length, the British tone of the novel, or the lack of action. People should realize what they're getting into when they open this book, and if you aren't a fan of involved descriptions of 18th Century England I'd steer clear of this one. But if you don't mind taking a slower and more deliberate look at characterization and story progression, this is just a great novel to read.