When this book came out it achieved a brief flurry of positive attention:
An instant classic, one of the finest fantasies ever written.
Clarke's imagination is prodigious, her pacing is masterly and she knows how to employ dry humor in the service of majesty.
-New York Times Book Review
I have to admit, I bought into the hype and an aggressive marketing campaign. There are, I believe, a ton of copies of this novel sitting, unread, on many bookshelves.
The story is thus: In 1806, Gilbert Norrell is the preeminent gentleman magician in an England where magic has long ceased to be of importance. He has accumulated virtually all the published works of magic available in the country in his library in Yorkshire. His purpose is to basically control how magic is percieved and prevent things from returning to how they were hundreds of years ago. In those times, John Uskglass (The Raven King) was the ruler of England and the Faerie kingdom where magic was pervasive and respected.
He is, however, convinced to move to London and work to bring magic back to England upon his terms. And so it goes for 200 pages. On the scene comes Jonathan Strange, a prodigal magician. Strange is a cool guy with no agenda other than a love for his wife and practicing magic.Strange and Norrell hook up as Master and Student but Norrell wants to fully control how Strange develops. They both work closely with the government in the ongoing war with Napoleon over on the continent.
Eventually Strange is asked to go to France to work closely with the Generals and help defeat the French. This is one of the better parts of the book where actual magic is done.
The final act concerns the ultimate schism between Strange and Norrell where their unique views on magic and its place in the future of England are played out.
Clarke has an amazing writing style and descriptive ability. If for nothing else, this was the real reason why I stuck it out with this book. All the characters are fully realized and although I cared little what happened to them, I sure loved the milieu. The interweaving of the voices of the two main characters was skillful and admirable. It is not your typical fantasy book by any means but she deserves kudos for striking out on her own.
Unfortunately, whether it is my being wedded to a traditional narritive plot structure or just the fact that there are long streches of this book that are dull, I cannot recommend it.