Rival magicians square off to display and match their powers in an extravagant historical fantasy being published simultaneously in several countries, to be marketed as Harry Potter for adults.
But English author Clarke’s spectacular debut is something far richer than Potter: an absorbing tale of vaulting ambition and mortal conflict steeped in folklore and legend, enlivened by subtle characterizations and a wittily congenial omniscient authorial presence. The agreeably convoluted plot takes off with a meeting in of “gentleman-magicians” in Yorkshire in 1806, the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The participants’ scholarly interests are encouraged by a prophecy “that one day magic would be restored to England by two magicians” and would subsequently be stimulated by the coming to national prominence of Gilbert Norrell, a fussy pedant inclined to burrow among his countless books of quaint and curious lore, and by dashing, moody Jonathan Strange, successfully employed by Lord Wellington to defeat French forces by magical means. Much happens. A nobleman’s dead wife is revived but languishes in a half-unreal realm called “Lost-hope”—as does Stephen Black, the same nobleman’s black butler, enigmatically assured by a nameless “gentleman with thistle-down hair” that he (Stephen) is a monarch in exile. Clarke sprinkles her radiantly readable text with faux-scholarly (and often hilarious) footnotes while building an elaborate plot that takes Strange through military glory, unsuccessful attempts to cure England’s mad king, travel to Venice and a meeting with Lord Byron, and on a perilous pursuit of the fabled Raven King, former ruler of England, into the world of Faerie, and Hell (“The only magician to defeat Death !”). There’s nothing in Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, or any of their peers that surpasses the power with which Clarke evokes this fabulous figure’s tangled “history.” The climax, in which Strange and Norrell conspire to summon the King, arrives—for all the book’s enormous length—all too soon.
An instant classic, one of the finest fantasies ever written.