Susanna Clarke’s novel, Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, is large both in terms of physical size and epic scope of story. Set in the early 1800s it is a tale of alternate history in which magic is real but almost completely forgotten in practice. The York Society of Magicians meets regularly to discuss English Magic as history and tradition. None of them are practical magicians. They can not actually work magic.
In fact, the only practical magician in all of England is Gilbert Norrell. Discovered by two of the York Society’s members, Norrell is persuaded to move to London to aid the government in the war against Napoleon and to restore the practice of magic to England.
Soon, another magician appears in England- Jonathan Strange, a self-taught magician who has a natural instinct for magic. Strange improvises magic that Norrell has struggled to learn from his vast library of books. Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil, but soon the differences between them pushes them apart, resulting in a rivalry. The two have fundamentally opposed views on the topics of Fairies, fairy magic and the mysterious Raven King. This conflict shifts the novel, resulting in a hauntingly Gothic, dark character.
Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” is filled with fascinating characters, romance, adventure, nefarious villains and wonderful plot turns and twists. There is a rich history of English magic with numerous footnotes, some of which could be complete short stories in and of themselves. The writing is magnificent and stylized such that you almost believe the book had been written in the 1800s.
This is a novel that drew me in completely and made me want to believe in English magic. It is an absolute masterpiece of fantasy literature and a book that I am sure to revisit many, many times over the years.