Monday, November 01, 2004

A surprisingly good read

Finished reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Most excellent read, and like most books I've enjoyed recently, I enjoyed it because it surprised me.

I had been fooled into reading it as if it were a historical novel. Quite a few reviewers have compared Clarke's writing to Austen or Dickens, and everything about the novel - the title, the look, the font, the style - led me to treat it as if it were one of those detail-heavy, character driven, long-winded drawing room type novels. The nameless narrator (who speaks to you as if you've known him/her all your life, in a very Austenesque, very Classic Realist omniscient narrator way) speaks entirely in the present tense in the many footnotes accompanying the text, as if now were the 1800s. There's a wealth of accurate historical detail - the description of the battle of Waterloo, for example, something I know well, and was quite pleased to see the attention to detail there (down to some of the more bizarre 'truth is stranger than fiction' moments, like the button salesman turned aide de camp).

Somewhere along it line, to my surprise, it turned into a fantasy novel - in fact, it reminded me of Tad Williams' Dragonbone Chair, with menacing faerie creatures and an unwitting hero. The connection is probably more due to the fact that Tad Williams had come up in a conversation with Tym, than any real similarity, since Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is quite in a class of its own - an entirely new breed of creature, I think, which makes it hard to describe. Think Jane Austen meets Harry Turtledove, an alternate history of an England where magic once ruled, and will rule again, played out in dusty libraries in isolated country houses.

I think I enjoy books that surprise me in this way because I've become too canny a reader - too aware of the mechanisms and conventions of writing, and so easily bored by them. I zipped through Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code in one day, because it was fluff, though entertaining fluff. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, on the other hand, caught me off guard, and I liked it.

The remainder of the weekend not spend reading saw me painting up some of my backlog of 15mm miniatures. I've been sitting on a bunch of Carthaginian figures for the longest time, some really nice ones from the two best companies (in my opinion) in the business - Corvus Belli and Xyston. These guys make about the nicest 15mm ancients figures you'll find, and since I've ordered a bunch more figures for a Mycenaean army, I thought I'd better get these painted and out of the way before the other stuff comes in.

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