For once, believe the hype. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the best fantasy novel of the year, perhaps of the last several years. Breathtakingly original, it defies conventions and expectations at every turn while all you get to do is sit back and watch its story unfold with a big fat smile on your face. It's no surprise that the back of the dust jacket features a fawning quote from Neil Gaiman; this is precisely the kind of book he's been trying to write all his career. In her debut, Susanna Clarke knocks it out of the park and into low-earth orbit. While so much fantasy that comes from within the F&SF publishing and fandom culture has, for good or ill, remained largely imitative — many writers are trying to be either Martin or Pratchett, and the movies have persuaded some to try to be Tolkien again — it has taken writers who haven't necessarily grown up within the culture and absorbed its formulas and clichés (and so many of them are from England, like Rowling, Constantine and Miéville) to bring fresh ideas and approaches to fantasy at long last.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell tells a sprawling, Dickensian story of a great magical rivalry in early 19th century England. Susanna Clarke confidently establishes her alternate-Earth setting as one in which magic once played an extremely commonplace role in the history of England, only to fall into disuse after its most celebrated practitioner, John Uskglass, known as the Raven King, disappeared. While many believed, and continue to believe, that the Raven King will one day return to rule his territories in the northern half of the isles, over the years the practice of magic has pretty much entirely disappeared, and the only magical societies that exist are devoted to theory and history. Magic is simply something a gentleman does not do. The fact is that none of these self-styled magicians can do magic, but it's the kind of thing one says to compensate for a lack of ability.
Out of the blue appears Gilbert Norrell, who has taught himself how actually to do magic by studying books, having assembled over the years the most impressive private magical library in existence. Norrell only emerges from obscurity to respond to a challenge by the York Society of Magicians to prove his claims. When Norrell does so — forcing the society to disband, as per his end of the agreement — he is filled with the urge to put his powers to use in the service of his country. Norrell travels to London and promptly becomes a novelty in upper class society, but he still cannot persuade anyone from the government to see him or take him seriously. That is, until the fianceé of a Minister whom Norrell has been trying to wangle an appointment with dies of a lingering illness. Norrell resurrects her, immediately becoming a national sensation. He now has the ear of the government and begins using magic, mostly in the form of illusions, to confound the French.
What Norrell has not revealed to the public is that his revival of the young woman involved cutting a rather dark deal with a strange inhabitant of the land of Faerie. Fairies have always been integral to English magic; the Raven King himself was an orphaned child raised by fairies. This particular fairy, however, is a deeply sinister bloke. Identified to us only as "the man with thistle-down hair," he grants his power to Norrell to raise the young woman only at the cost of half her remaining life — a term which, the way he phrases it, ends up meaning something a bit different than what Norrell thinks. He also takes another possession from the young woman, that will bind her to him.
As his fame grows, Norrell, who has always been more than a little haughty and arrogant, becomes exceedingly so. He goes berserk at the very idea of other magicians in England; he is obsessed with being the only one, and to that end, he bullies other wannabe magicians (who are charlatans, admittedly, and deserve it) and buys up every magical book in the country before anyone else. He believes only his ideas are the best for the future of English magic, and he is especially critical of the reverence accorded the Raven King. But despite his hubris, his celebrity remains unabated. And deep inside, Norrell's outward contempt for Uskglass is in truth resentment at what he sees as the Raven King's abandonment of England.
It comes as quite a shock when another practicing English magican, young Jonathan Strange, happens upon the scene. But when Norrell finally meets Strange, he relents his usual strident ways and eagerly welcomes the young man as a pupil. Strange is still new to magic, only in command of some minor spells, and in him Norrell sees the chance to mold a protegé in his image. Strange is a little wary of Norrell's inconsistent character, but for a while the two men enjoy a strong partnership. But in the back of Norrell's mind always lingers an unspoken fear that his pupil will one day become his rival.
The inevitable rift begins when Strange is sent to the continent to help a skeptical Nelson against Napoleon. Experimenting with spells he's never used before, and some he has to write himself, Strange has smashing success, and his eyes are opened to the vast possibilities of magic that Norrell insists on suppressing.
Lurking in the background of all this is the subplot of the mysterious man with thistle-down hair, who has possessed Lady Pole, the woman Norrell resurrected, to such a degree that she is little more than a living, breathing ghost, believed mad and pitied by all who know her. Also falling under the fairy's influence is Stephen Black, Lady Pole's husband's estimable negro butler. The man with thistle-down hair won't leave Stephen alone, promising to make him King of England. Stephen protests against all of this attention, but still cannot separate himself from the fairy's increasingly dark designs. Who the man with thistle-down hair is, and what he really wants, remains shrouded in mystery even as this witty and dazzling novel takes a darker turn in its final third.
At just over 780 pages, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell clicks along at such a comfortable pace that it seems, if not much shorter, just stunningly well-structured for its size and scope. In all its length there is not a single instance of padding, never an eye-glazing moment of pure, dull self-indulgence. To a degree, the story is episodic, but every event is precisely positioned in the narrative to build upon previous events and lead smoothly into upcoming ones. Rooted in two unique and memorable characters, the story just sweeps you up and carries you along, never lapsing to tired clichés nor trading in sentimentalism for its emotional depth. Clarke's best thematic conceit is her often hilarious depiction of the politicization of magic, leading to the kinds of rivalries you always see in real-life politics, or the arts and sciences. (In fact, this would be an excellent book to read between volumes of Neal Stephenson's intimidating Baroque Cycle. In addition to giving readers a nice overdose of Anglophilia, an interesting comparison could be drawn to the rivalry in those books between Newton and Liebniz.)
And as a storyteller, Clarke simply knocks you off your feet. Her imagination seems as impossible to contain as a hyperactive chihuahua in a shoebox. Her droll observations of English life are, remarkably, made all the more penetrating and funny by her deliberate (but not excessive) use of archaic spellings — "chuse" for "choose," &c. — that fit the time period of the story. Clarke mocks English tendencies toward pomposity in a manner that's never condescending, even when her subject might seem to deserve it. At other times, her sympathetic approach to figures long ridiculed is really something. One of the book's best scenes depicts a visit by Strange to poor mad King George, and we're left to wonder if madness is really what is afflicting him. And in the manner of Pratchett and other British fantasists, Clarke peppers her text with footnotes to enhance her world's history. The difference is that you could turn one of Clarke's footnotes into a whole novel. Some run for three pages and have better plots than many trilogies. I swear, this woman's children must have grown up listening to the greatest bedtime stories in the world.
Told with a level of grace, humanity, and a real sense of the mystical that few novels attain either in or out of the fantasy genre, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a rare masterpiece. It's a book to be savored and passed on to your children and theirs.