I have many good things to say about this book and hardly any bad ones (very unusual position in which to find myself). It was really just a great novel.
Clarke does a very good job of evoking Austen and Dickens, both in her language style: “For here is comfort! Here is refreshment! To sit in the shade of tall trees--such as these--by a sweet, chattering brook--such as this--is generally allowed to be the best restorative in the world." and in the content and plot. She weaves a long novel full of characters that could be out of Dickens (Drawlight especially felt Dickensonian to me), as well as providing the reader with so many historical figures (Wellington, Napoleon, Lord Byron) in great detail. Her description of upper class ballrooms and dinners was also strongly reminscent of Austen. I really would have not had a hard time believing that this novel was written in the mid-1800s.
She also has a great knack for quaint turns of phrase which oftentimes turn poignant. She can both compliment and insult her characters, while sounding so very proper: “Now, had you and I the power to seize by magic any human being that took our fancy and the power to keep that person by our side through all eternity, and had we all the world to chuse from, then I dare say our choice might fall on someone a little more captivating than a member of the Learned Society of York Magicians, but this comforting thought did not occur to the gentlemen" or "What is beauty for, I should like to know, if not to stand as a visible sign of one's superiority to everyone else?"
Ultimately, though, I think my favorite aspect of the novel was that all the characters were subtle. We did not have to sit through the black/white and evil/good symbols of so many other books. Clarke does not set her world up such that there are clear lines. All of the characters are both good and bad and all are very human. Some have more positive characteristics than others, and clearly some are better liked, but rather than belabor even this point, Clarke allows the reader to emphathize with all of them and relate to all of them and even understand all of them. She represents the subtle differences between good and evil and does not force the reader to feel either that things are simplistic or that she (as the AUTHOR) is belaboring any sort of “we are all good people” message.
Even the man with the thistle-down hair, who is arguably the villian (and one of the funniest characters in the novel) is still simply just very narssistic. He is never generous, but he gives Stephan everything simply because he likes him. He is just a fairy, and fairies have different moral codes. My favorite example of his inability to recognize anything outside his own wishes came in his story to Stephen about how he discovered Stephen’s name: "'Now, you should know, Stephen, that wood has a stubborn, proud nature; it does not readily tell what it knows--even to its friends. It is always easier to deal with the ashes of the wood, rather than the wood itself. So I burnt the poor man's house to the ground, placed the ashes in a bottle and continued on my way.' 'Burnt, sir! I hope no one was hurt!' 'Well, some people were. The strong, young men were able to run out of the conflagration in time, but the older, enfeebled members of the family, the women and infants were all burnt to death.'"
Of course, while the man with the thistle down hair was trying to do everything in his power to help Stephen attain his kingship, Stephen himself was drowning in depression: "But for the rest nothing amused him; nothing satisfied him. All was shadows, emptiness, echoes and dust." Enchantment is not satisfying, it is simply a lack of one’s own will. And here, of course, Clarke echoes one of my favorite themes: when everything is given there is no sense of achievement and hence, no satisfaction. Stephen is not a real king; Strange and Norrell bestow upon him powers for a short time, but he is unable (and really unwilling) to actually fool the earth. He is not the Raven King re-incarnate; he is simply a man come to manage Lost Hope after having dispossessed the former owner.
Another example of this variation in characters is seen in Norrell. He festers with a desire to destroy any other magician and he hordes all knowledge until he actually meets Strange and then: "Norrell, who had lived all his life in fear of one day discovering a rival, had finally seen another man's magic, and far from being crushed by the sight, found himself elated by it." Of course, as soon as Strange leaves, Norrell once again forgets that he enjoys his company, but when Strange returns, Norrell again realizes that he appreciates a collaborater. We all make choices that we regret; we all do things that later seem to have been misled. I loved that Clarke’s Norrell wavered through the novel; he kept his inner selfish being, but was overpowered by his good sense when actually near Strange.
The two aspects of the novel that did pull me a bit out of the time period were Clarke’s efforts to incorporate feminism and racial equality. I could almost believe that the novel was written mid 1800s except that she portrays two fairly strong female characters (Arabella has much control and influence over Strange and Lady Pole in the end is a feminist on the run) and she chooses to rant a bit about racism: "skin can mean a great deal. Mine means that any man may strike me in a public place and never fear the consequences. It means that my friends do not always like to be seen with me in the street. It means that no matter how many books I read, or languages I master, I will never be anything but a curiosity--like a talking pig or a mathematical horse." I do not disagree with her ideas, but I felt like Clarke was too overt for the time period.
There were two other quotes that I found amusing. The first: "Country gentlemen who read in their newspapers the speeches of this or that Minister would mutter to themselves that he was certainly a clever fellow. But the country gentleman were not made comfortable by this thought. The country gentlemen had a strong suspicion that cleverness was somehow unBritish." made me think of descriptions of the American public after George Bush Jr. won our Presidential elections; apparently the American people are just more comfortable with a less-than-clever man.
The second was just funny: "peculiarly uncomfortable Natural Law which states that whenever a person arrives at a place where he is not known, then wherever he stands is sure to be in the way."
Finally, I was glad that the plot was never completely resolved. At one point in the novel, I thought that Vinuculus was the Raven King, at another point I thought Stephen would serve as a vessal for possession by the Raven King. I am still fairly certain that the man with the thistle down hair was the Raven King’s fairy who is bitter because of poor treatment. And I was glad that the Raven King is still out there, just biding his time. I also expected Strange to venture on the King’s Roads again, but kind of liked that he didn’t. Certainly there is still a huge world here that Clarke could embellish upon, it is always a good sign for me when the loose ends are not all tied up and wrapped in a bow.
Overall it was creative, compelling, entertaining and well written novel. Absolutely fabulous book.