I’m not one to use superlatives often. Call everything “the best” and people will begin to place a lesser value on your opinion thinking you’re won over too easily. But here I can say with confidence that this is indeed the best book I have read in many years. In fact, it might very well be the best book I’ve ever read, or at least one of the top three or four. In other words, I can’t say enough about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
What’s amazing to me is that this is a debut novel. It took Susanna Clarke ten years to write it, but it’s her first. Set in pre-Victorian England during the Napoleonic wars, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is part Jane Austen, part historical fiction, and part Lord of the Rings. It tells the story of the two titular magicians who rise to stardom in England centuries after English magic is all but forgotten and decayed. Magic used to be prevalent in England, thanks mostly to the long reigning King of the North and first great magician, The Raven King.
But practical magic eventually ceased, and England was left with theoretical magicians, scholars who studied magic but who had neither the skill nor the inclination to actually DO magic.
Enter Gilbert Norrell, whose goal it is to bring about the restoration of English magic, but whose paranoid disposition prompts him to horde all the books OF and ABOUT magic and then prohibit anyone (including his only pupil, Strange) from reading them. Strange, for his part, is a tall, somewhat arrogant gentleman who learns much of his craft by trial and error. (He’s forced into this method since Norrell won’t relent the books filled with spells and enchantments.)
I don’t want to give away too much of the story. You’ll have to experience it for yourself. I knew hardly anything about the plot when I began reading and that, I’ve decided, is the best way to approach it. I would do you a great disservice by revealing more here. All I can say is that you won’t regret picking it up. Of course, you may find it a bit heavy; it’s 800 pages long and at first glance seems a bit daunting. But trust me, when the last page is turned, you’ll be begging for a thousand more.
It’s terribly cliche to say so, but this book is pure magic.