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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2004

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell," "ABC T-Rex"


"Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell," Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury; 2004; 782 pp.

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Know what's intimidating? Fine print -- 782 pages of it -- bound in a black hardcover with the white silhouette of a raven streaked across it.

If the mere sight of Susanna Clarke's book "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" makes you feel like David taking on Goliath, try reading it a few years from now.

But if you're looking for a different take on magic (this is no "Harry Potter," and what sweet mercy that is!), and you've already finished with that other giant of fantasy fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," this might be the book for you.

The truth first: Although Clarke's debut novel has been hyped as the only literary production of this century to rival Tolkien, this is not anything like "The Lord of the Rings." That, however, need not be a bad thing. Where Tolkien's Middle Earth is peopled with wizards and hobbits, Clarke's magicians are often, in her own words, "so quiet and timid as to be English without a doubt."

Magic, in Clarke's vision of an alternative 18th-century England, is so theoretical, so much the stuff of academic debate and little else, as to be . . . well, almost fuddy-duddy.

It wasn't always like that, though. In the old days -- and here Clarke, like Tolkien, lays brick by brick a vigorous mythological foundation for her story through false footnotes -- magicians were powerful enough to summon up faerie servants for themselves, to change the seasons, to move mountains even. But now, all that is left are magical societies to debate ad nauseum on tedious magical treatises. No one really does magic any more.

Except for Mr. Norrell, that is, the first practical magician England has seen in hundreds of years (in great part because he has rooted out the competition by meticulously buying out every bookseller in England with any book on magic worth having). All the significant knowledge on magic is stuck in Norrell's library where no one else can touch it. And if Norrell had his way, this is where magic would safely remain.

That is until Norrell goes to London and brings a dead woman to life to win attention in government circles. Feeling out of place among the "chatterati" of the big city, he begins for the first time to yearn for company -- and finds it eventually with a like-minded counterpart, Jonathan Strange.

Here, Clarke deftly retells the Napoleonic Wars as if their course were changed by magic. Norrell and Strange become the most essential element of British war strategy: building illusory battle-ships out of rain; making the roads their enemies march upon disappear; and keeping tabs on Napoleon's movements by peering into a silver bowl of water.

However, as the war recedes, the partnership turns into a personality clash between the cautious Norrell, who wishes magic to remain within safe bounds (read: his bounds), and the savvier Strange, who finds himself obsessed by the ancient, elusive figure of the Raven King, the greatest magician of all, who once ruled the realms of both England and Faerie.

Meanwhile, Norrell's first act of magic in London has sparked off a chain of events that both magicians will have to reckon with till the end of the novel.

Unknown to anyone else, he has entered into a pact with a faerie so malignant that it makes J.K. Rowling's Voldemort seem like a teddy bear. As faerie magic slowly spreads its tentacles, dense woods shoot up out of nowhere; people fall into brutal enchantments; and madness takes even Strange to the edge of reason.

"Magic, which had seemed so familiar just hours before, so English, had suddenly become inhuman, unearthly, otherlandish," writes Clarke. It is because the first half of the book reads more like something out of Jane Austen, where magic is the subject of teatime conversation in genteel living rooms, that its slow transformation is all the more horrifying. In fact, the narrative pace is so sluggish at first, you feel like you could step out for a game of croquet (or whatever it is that readers in Jane Austen's time did when they weren't reading), return 50 pages later and find that not much had happened.

But if you stick with the book, your persistence will pay off. In the second half, events race across the page like ticker tape, the seemingly insignificant details of the first half grow in complexity and the book sucks you in like quicksand.

Dark lands shadowed by the flight of ravens . . . murky paths beyond mirrors . . . a death knell sounding relentlessly -- this is eerie, uneasy stuff to make your skin crawl.

And this is where Clarke compares with Tolkien, by treating this utterly fantastical world as fact; telling her story with such conviction that not once for 782 pages do you pause to doubt that what Clarke is telling you is anything but real. She works magic, so compelling and oh so subtle, she could have only learned it from the Raven King.

For mature readers, 14 years and over.

"ABC T-Rex," Bernard Most, Voyager Books; 2004; 32 pp.

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Got a sibling who needs help with their ABCs? Enlist the help of T-Rex in this alphabetical buffet of a book, where our famished dinosaur-hero devours his way from A to Z with gusto.

T-Rex loves his ABCs so much, he eats them all up. "A was appetizing," writes author Bernard Most, as our green giant chomps into A. It helps that he's also surrounded by Acorns, Asparagus and Apples. Was B only the Beginning? It was, and it got even Better (perhaps because there were Bagels, Bananas and Buns to go with B).

This inventive little picture book will give young readers a real taste for the alphabet by reminding them of what most of them love most . . . food. The glossary at the end is great to help kids locate what they've missed, whether it's the nutshells on the page for N or the ice-cubes on the page for I.

By the time T-Rex takes a Hunk out of H, young readers should be Hungry for more.

For children 3 to 7 years.

Both books are available at Kinokuniya, Shinjuku ( [03] 3354-0131); they can also be ordered from Tower Records Shibuya, 7F ( [03] 3496-3661).



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