In 2004 Susanna Clarke published Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Bloomsbury; OverDrive Sample), a moody, lavish literary fantasy novel set in an alternative 19th century England full of magic.
It was a sensation, reaching number three on The New York Times bestseller list, winning the Hugo Award for best novel, and getting longlisted for the Man Booker.
Still, for all the readers who adored the book, including Neil Gaiman who praised it lavishly, there were others who were not as charmed.
Now the BBC has adapted it into a seven-part mini series, airing on this side of the ocean on BBC America (Saturdays at 10 p.m.) and reaction is split again.
Mary McNamara, writing for The LA Times’s “Jacket Copy” says it is “a deft combination of Dickensian satire, Austenian wit and Gothic anxiety. For those put off by beheadings and orgies and even for those who are not, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a welcome return to literate magical fantasy.”
David Fear, in his Rolling Stone review, calls it “extraordinary” and says that it offers “some of the most fantastic imported TV you’re likely to view this year… the show’s immersive deep dive into the mystic is likely to leave jaws on the living-room floor.”
Dissenters include Mike Hale writing for The New York Times. He calls it “largely unremarkable” and warns “those who enjoyed the best-selling book to temper their expectations.” The highest praise Hale manages is “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is great to look at. It moves along at a gallop, and it’s not boring, even if it’s not exactly engaging either. Most important, it has appealing performances by Bertie Carvel as Strange and particularly by Eddie Marsan as the crabbed and proud Norrell.”
The AV Club, slightly less disappointed, wraps up its review with “The BBC’s first episode demonstrates it can pull off the story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll pull off the magic.”
Those knocks aside, it seems readers are responding. Holds are at very respectable levels for a book that came out over a decade ago, in some places topping a 3:1 ratio.
For libraries that need new copies, Bloomsbury has released a new TV tie-in edition. Readers’ advisors might want to take note that the audiobook version narrated by Simon Prebble (Macmillan Audio; CD and downloadable) is well worth suggesting as well.