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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Firedrake.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel
Susanna Clarke
:Bloomsbury USA(September 8, 2004)
: 1582344167

If Jane Austen and JRR Tolkien were brought back from the dead and asked to coauthor a novel together, the result might look very much like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

At the night of the Napoleonic wars, the last British magician, Mr. Norrell, comes out of seclusion to restore magic to England.After demonstrating to everyone’s satisfaction that eh is, indeed, a magician of significant power, he travels to London,where he quickly becomes embroiled in the political and social scenery. While there, he takes on one Jonathan Strange as his pupil. Strange too, becomes embroiled in politics (and the wars, where he serves as Duke Wellington’spersonal sorcerer), and eventually separates from his teacher over a philosophical dispute (Strange wishes to investigate magics relating to Faeries and the Raven King, the most powerful magician ever to live in England. Mr.Norrell feels this is unwise.). A great deal of scandal, magic, intrigue,mystery, and some violence ensue.

Be advised, I’ve left out quite a bit. Trying to summarize this book is a bit like trying to summarize the Lord of the Rings. There’s far to much happening there to do it any justice. So the question is, is it any good?
Absolutely, if you like this sort of thing.

Clarke has a wonderful, very vivid writing style. It’s engaging, and descriptive, and flows well. It also reads very much like Pride and Prejudice (the only one of Jane Austen’s works I’ve ever read). If you appreciate that sort of 18thcentury style dialogue and wit, then you will appreciate Clarke’s writing. If you find that sort of writing dry, or annoying, or otherwise unengaging, then you will not enjoy this book.

Which will be a shame, because it is a wonderfully written book. The characters are, for the most part, well fleshed out and engaging (the exceptions might be Mssrs. Drawlight and Lacelles, who are almost cartoonish in their villainy). The plot is intricate, interesting, and managed to surprise me numerous times, which is more than I can say for a lot of books.

Clarke has clearly done an immense amount of research, and put an immense amount of work into the book. She not only convincingly recreates 18th Century England, but she alters it’s history, changes the course of the Napoleonic wars, and does it all with footnotes that at times, left me wondering what was fiction and what was fact. It’s an incredibly immerssive, entertaining read.

Oddly, one of the reviews posted on Amazon says that “comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable.” I guess because, you know, they’re two books about magicians in England. Which is about as far as I’d take the comparison. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has a lot more depth, fewer cardboard characters,and in general, is a much stronger piece of literature. I’ve got plenty of love for Harry, but this is leaps and bounds above him.

Richard A. Knaak (April 1, 2000)
ISBN: 0595092144

I first read this book when I was in the sixth or seventh grade, and I loved it. It turned out to be the start of an entire series, which loved even more, until it sadly died off. The author has revived it in the form of six PDF stories available through his website (,which I have not yet picked up, but certainly plan to. I decided to re-read these mostly as a form of comfort food…we lost the family dog earlier in the week, and I wanted something that would cheer me up. Born to Kvetch, the next book in my queue, didn’t seem to do the trick. So I went with this.

So, right, the book.

Firedrake begins a series of tales set in the Dragonrealm, a world ruled (at least, at the start of the series) by a race of shapeshifiting Dragons. Several generations ago, agroup of human sorcerers, calling themselves the Dragon Masters, rose up and tried to free humanity from the Dragon Kings’s rule. They failed, and theDragon Kings still rule, but the war has left them weakened. So when the find that Cabe Bedlam, descendant of the leader of the Dragon Masters, is alive and well, they decide he needs to be destroyed quickly. Things go downhill from there very fast, both for Cabe, the Dragon Kings, and the Dragonrealm.

This isn’t a deep series, but it’s fun. Lots of fun. Knaak has created a very interesting world, and Firedrakegives only the barest glimpses into the world’s history and nature. There are lots of memorable characters floating around, from Darkhorse (a magical being composed of the Void), Shade (a cursed immortal warlock), various Dragon Kings,and the Gryphon (a humanoid pseudoshapeshifter). Cabe Bedlam himself,unfortunately, isn’t quite as interesting…he’s mostly just a Luke Skywalker archetype, right down to the evil father. Of course, his father is crazy and utterly irredeemable, but the basic idea is pretty similar.

This is one of Knaak’s earlier books, and it does show. The writing is a little clumsy at times, and the Dragonrealm is inhabited by annoying number of indescribable magical servants. Fortunately, these servants don’t DO much…but the large number of indescribable things running around started to get a little wearing. But overall, it flows pretty well, and I enjoy the almost cinematic way in which he presents certain scenes.This could actually be turned into a really fun movie in this day and age, though I doubt it would happen, or happen correctly.

Even with the occasionally clunky writing, I still love this book. I remember the series getting better as it goes along. I'll find out soon, I suppose. It’s always nice to visit old friends.

Also, I have to say that Knaak was one of the cooler authors I've ever met. He signed a book for me once and was very friendly to a starry-eyed 17 year-old with visions of becoming a writer. Cool guy.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the Furry

The Good, the Bad, and the Furry: Choosing the Dog That's Right for You
Author: Sam Stall
Publisher: Quirk Books (April 25, 2005)
ISBN: 1594740216

The Good, the Bad, and the Furry contains a short opening section, in which the author explains his reasons for writing the book, and offers some basic dos and don’ts for deciding to purchase a dog at all. There’s also a brief word on the benefits of mutts, who are often looked down on in comparison to purebred dogs.
The bulk of the book contains descriptions of about 100different breeds, ranging from the relatively common Golden Retriever, to the not so common Basenji. It’s not an entirely comprehensive review, but it’s certainly a pretty good start. Each section contains a short history of the breed, a list of it’s problems, benefits, basic personality, and a “if someone broke into my house, this dog would,” for those who expect their dogs to actually stop burglars.
The book is very well written, and a lot of the descriptions manage to be humorous, as well as fairly engaging. The author definitely doesn’t pull any punches about the downsides of the various breeds either. Part of the Dogo Argentino (I love that name) description reads “Unless you’ve got a wild boar problem in your neighborhood, this is probably too much dog for you.”Pretty straightforward.

A couple of the Amazon review suggest that not all of the author’s information, particularly in regard to some of the mastiff and terrier breeds, is accurate. I’m not familiar enough with those dogs to say for sure.Certainly, his descriptions of the Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever are pretty dead-on (including the fact that well-bred Goldens are actually pretty damn smart). 

This isn’t a complete dog book, and I wouldn’t use it as a sole reference for choosing a breed, but it’s definitely a worthy starting point.