Back in 2004 I remember seeing Susanna Clarke on TV promoting her book Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book about two magicians in England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. I recall that the book was inevitably labelled as Harry Potter for grown-ups, which was a bit annoying as that was an epithet I was hoping to gain for my own work. At the time I was in the midst of writing The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil, a story about four magicians in Blackpool just after the millennium. That’s about where the similarity ended but, all the same, I was envious of her success when I felt I was writing in a similar genre.
I have a policy of avoiding the work of other authors where their ideas might be similar to mine from a worry not to inadvertently plagiarise and the danger of convergent similarity. Convergent similarity, where two authors independently come up with the same idea, is always a risk and the best solution is to not have read the other work. However, I had a disturbing experience while writing The Hidden Masters with the use of the phrase ‘the interconnectedness of all things‘ imagining this to be a phrase common to discussions of metaphysics which is the bread and butter of much of my work. The idea of such interconnectedness sort of fits my personal world-view and as such my fiction and non-fiction often draw on this idea. So imagine my horror when I realised that ‘the interconnectedness of all things’ is a phrase first used in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books and, worse, it’s used liberally throughout those stories as an explanation of the way Dirk Gently investigates his cases. I found myself having to search my manuscript and rewrite each instance of the phrase. Suffice to say there are really no similarities to the Dirk Gently stories in the Hidden Masters despite some reviewers making more general comparisons to Douglas Adams. For this reason I avoided Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in print ten years ago but I was pleased to see the book dramatized by the BBC recently.
With The Hidden Masters established in print for nine years now I feel more comfortable to find out what it’s all about. I’ve only caught the first two episodes so far and I’m hoping to see the third tonight (unless there was an F1 Grand Prix this weekend). So I can now say that I am very impressed with the story and the characters. I’m not sure what I expected of the magicians but I particularly like the idea that they are reviving a practice unseen in England since John Dee and Edward Kelly in Elizabethan England. I particularly like the way the two magicians represent different approaches to magic, the first with an academic book learning style and the second more intuitive which seems to reflect the difference between the wizard and sorcerer character classes in a popular role playing game. When I heard about the story I’d imagined two magicians at odds with each other involved in some sort of magical duel and I’m pleased to see that the plot is more multi layered, with unexplained characters and various behind the scenes goings-on. Having said that, I’m waiting to see how this plays out. I am struck that the manifestation of magic in Clarke’s universe is in no doubt with hugely supernatural events occurring before people’s eyes in ways that could never be explained in any other way. This is an issue I struggled with long and hard. Eventually I decided to try to avoid this, preferring to leave it to the readers’ imagination whether it really was the magic that made something happen and whether the characters are magicians at all. In the end, by the time I understood this issue, I found that I was so committed to a particular supernatural event that I couldn’t take it out of the story so I ended up with a mixture of the two. How this will play out in any further Hidden Masters novels I have still to decide.
So I urge everyone to catch the BBC production of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The production has all the characteristics of a great BBC costume drama with the added bonus of magicians casting spells. There’s a touch of comedy, though not enough to spoil things, yet when the sinister moments occur they are nicely disturbing with good use of sound effects and just a touch of visual effect without overdoing it. Conversely the large magical events make full use of CGI but are infrequent enough to retain their impact. Finally, the characters and their situations are well crafted right down to the smaller parts. I have developed a particular dislike to the foppish hanger-on with the affected pronunciation of ‘Mr Norrell’ and I’m beginning to realise that he might be destined for a sticky end at some point when Mr Norrell’s patience finally snaps.