In 2004, Susanna Clarke unleashed her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a sprawling, 1000-plus-page epic fantasy on the world. Neil Gaiman hailed the novel as “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years,” a time period that notably includes The Hobbit and all of The Lord of the Rings. The novel was an enormous success, with Clarke’s writing compared favorably with any in the history of the fantasy genre (and indeed it surpasses even some of the most celebrated) and her created world, one very different from any previously seen, hailed as one of the most intricate and deeply-constructed since Tolkien.
The novel was a dark version of historical high fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century where magic and a connection to a magical realm ruled by faeries is historical fact. “Magicians” are those who study the history of the craft, until one man, Gilbert Norrell, reveals that he is capable of performing magic of the type magicians have previously only studied. Norrell undertakes to return magic to his country but warns that the historical connection to faeries is dangerous and cannot be resumed due to the awful nature of those creatures. However, when Norrell’s quest meets with jeers and laughter from his government, he turns to exactly the magic he warns against, making a deal with a faerie to perform a feat beyond his skills–a decision that will eventually undo him. Another magician, Jonathan Strange, eventually arises, but questions Norrell’s hatred of faerie magic, which Norrell is never willing to explain. Continue reading