Ten years in the making, Clarke's playful debut novel is a beguiling mix of history and fantasy that brings to mind some of the best British novelists, including Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and best of all introduces a good old-fashioned magician. The novel opens in 1808, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. Mr. Norrell, a scholarly gent from Yorkshire who is an expert in the supernatural lore of England, has mastered the magic of the faeries and become a celebrity in his native land. His powers are so advanced, in fact, that he is able to raise a woman from the dead. At the urging of the British government, Mr. Norrell relocates to London, where he puts his powers to use by assisting with the war, and he is soon engineering illusions like an 11-day barricade of France by means of English ships created out of rainwater. His young pupil, an aristocrat named Jonathan Strange, has also become a proficient magician, but his ideas about the uses of enchantment differ from those of his teacher, and the pair's ideological divergence eventually leads to conflict. In the end, Strange's headlong and impulsive use of his powers threatens to bring about his own destruction. Clarke uses some excellent narrative devices to authenticate her tale; there are footnotes throughout, and she employs the vernacular of the 19th century. This wonderfully compelling novel, which was named the 2005 Book Sense Book of the Year in fiction, is a surprise sensation that lives up to its reputation.
A reading group guide is available online at www.bloomsburyusa.com.