This fantastic alternate history novel by Susanna Clarke was 10 years in the making and a best-selling Hugo Award winner when it was finally published in 2004. Clocking in at 500 pages, this tome isn’t for everyone, but it’s a must-read for Anglophiles, history buffs, and those wanting to lose themselves in an intricate fantasy with fully-realized characters.
It’s England in 1806 and the Napoleonic Wars are raging. In fact, it seems the British might even lose. But the tide of war changes when curmudgeon Gilbert Norrell demonstrates true magic in front of a group of scholars. The crowd is amazed because, despite numerous accounts of magic being practiced in historical texts, none of the spells have worked in over seven centuries. Mr. Norrell’s demonstration makes him a celebrity overnight, and he moves to London to help the war effort and revive “practical magic”.
Meanwhile, young Jonathan Strange begins practicing magic himself, demonstrating astonishing aptitude. Soon, Strange and Norrell become pupil and mentor respectively, a tenuous partnership of conflicting ideals that will forever alter the course of British history.
The real genius of this story is in the retelling of British history. But even if you’re not into history, you might nevertheless enjoy this book because of the magical premise and the characters. I cannot emphasize the characters enough, because their complex motives, desires, and needs make them come alive on the page.
There is a BBC miniseries based on the book that begins airing in the United States on June 13, 2015. I wonder if the magic will translate from page to screen.