England has no practical magicians. Of course, schoolboys are given basic lessons in magic, and there are a number of distinguished societies of magicians that study the history of magic, but no-one has been able to put this magic to any use for hundreds of years.
That is, until the 1800s, when the Learned Society of York Magicians encounter Mr Norrell, a retiring gentleman with an enormous library. Unlike the members of the Learned Society, Mr Norrell is a practical magician. He is convinced by members of the Society and by his servant Childermass that he should go to London and restore English magic to its former glory.
This is an absolutely fascinating book, with glorious characters. Mr Norrell is the most petty and particular hero I have ever encountered. He’s totally obsessed with his books, to the extent that he finds it hard to allow even Jonathan Strange, his student, to read them. He is also insistent that there is only one way for English magic to become respected – and it is his way.
Jonathan Strange, despite forming the first half of the title, doesn’t turn up for absolutely ages. He is also a gentleman, although one who comes to magic in a rather different way. He meets a disreputable magician (who can’t do magic), who gives him two spells he’s taken from Childermass. Strange tries them, and finds that they work. Since he wants a profession to impress Arabella, his fiancee and later his wife, he takes up magic, hears about Norrell, and goes to London to become his student.
The universe for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a wonderful one, a place that I didn’t really want to leave at the end of the book. It is set in an England that differs from our own only in that magic used to play a bigger part. The north of England was ruled for three hundred years by John Uskglass, also known as the Raven King. He then left, and magic has been impossible ever since. This fact is not really shown upfront at all – instead the narrator and characters keep referring to Uskglass, and previous magicians, as though it should be obvious to the reader that these things have happened. The effect is as though a book from an alternate universe fell through to ours, and it is both beautiful and interesting.
There are so many things I could say about this book, but I feel I would give away too much of the plot. Just – read it. If you like classic novels you will like this (it is written as though by an author of the 19th Century). If you like fantasy, this is also a good choice. And, if you don’t like to read at all, try watching the adaptation the BBC has just finished. It’s very nice, absorbing, and best of all it comes with BBC special effects.