Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of those books that I absolutely adore, and yet find myself hard-pressed to recommend without a suitable disclaimer attached. So here is said disclaimer: this novel is slow-moving, tends to wander, and requires a lot of patience and a sizeable investment of time. If you make this investment, however, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will reward you in spades.
The novel takes place in the 19th Century, and concerns itself with two English magicians, Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange, who set about to restore English magic. Far from throwing fireballs and duelling dragons, Norrell and Strange are beset by much more mundane challenges: the battle for English magic is one of reputation, so the main obstacles to the main characters' goal are English society and etiquette... not to mention each other.
Though it might not sound breathtaking when summed up like this, the main strength of Susanna Clarke's novel is actually in this formidable restraint she demonstrates throughout the book. Her world, although populated by magicians capable of moving entire cities from one continent to the other, and Faeries as old as Humanity itself, is actually rooted in a deep historical realism you would normally associate with period dramas. Ultimately, this serves Clarke's stronger fantastic elements: since they exist in such a vividly realistic world, they are all the more fantastic for it.
The characters of Norrell and Strange, much like the rest of Clarke's world, are depicted with restraint and humor, and throughout the course of the novel, become vivid, complex, and unforgettable characters. Mr. Norrell, for instance, far from being an exhuberant sorceror, is an insecure middle-aged man who is obsessed with preventing English magic from escaping his grasp. Strange, more excentric (yet still in every way a British gentleman), serves as a delicious counterpoint to Norrell's cavalier attitude, and the friendship and rivalry that grows between them over the years is definitely the highlight of the book.
This is one of these novels that I read slowly, over the course of 2 months, savoring one chapter every night before bedtime. By the time I reached the last chapters, I found myself looking forward to the evening, when I would once again spend time with the characters I loved so much. Most of the novel is slow and the plot tends to wander without apparent purpose, but the ending is deeply satisfying, and I am left hoping another 800-page sequel is in the works.
Some critics have mislabelled Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as a "Harry Potter for adults." This couldn't be any farther from the truth, and does Clarke's novel a big disservice. While both are concerned with magicians, the comparison ends there. That being said, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is definitely a mature, intricate story. Much like, say, an aged whiskey, it is not for inexperienced palates, but those readers who like their novels to be as complex as their drinks will find Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell an unforgettable delight.