Every now and then, a strikingly original and popular work temporarily levels the playing field for genre fiction. What Star Wars did for science-fiction movies, Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings films did for fantasy epics, and Alan Moore's Watchmen did for superhero comics, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books have done for fantasy: They've reassured mainstream publishers that the genre can be worthwhile in financial and literary spheres alike, especially when it comes in the form of a terrific, phenomenally ambitious book like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
Susanna Clarke's 10-years-in-the-making debut novel begins in 1806, in an alternate England where magic-workers were once powerful, active, and numerous enough to have their own courts, laws, traditions, and heroes. Chief among them was the Raven King, who ruled northern England for 300 years and had kingdoms in both Faerie and Hell. But then magic seemed to simply dry up; as the book opens, the so-called greatest magicians of the age are the society gentlemen who meet in York to argue over "long, dull papers upon the history of English magic," though they've never actually worked any magic themselves.
The exception to the rule is the elderly hermit Mr. Norrell, who reveals himself as the only practicing magician of his time, in the process discrediting and disbanding the York society. What initially seems like a small act of righteous vengeance rapidly becomes part of a pattern: Norrell claims he wants to return magic to Britain, but holds a narrow view of who should be allowed to practice it, and what kinds of magic should be permitted or even acknowledged. Meanwhile, rich, idle gentleman Jonathan Strange casually discovers his natural talent for magic; impressed by his skill, Norrell breaks with habit and adopts him as a pupil.
Their stormy relationship takes up much of Clarke's 800-page book, which unfolds in elaborate, exquisite detail. Initially framed as a faux-scholarly, dry historical novel, complete with close to 200 footnotes citing magical texts and explaining references, Jonathan Strange initially lulls readers with the drawing-room realism of a Jane Austen novel. But after establishing its version of reality, the book flowers into a sprawling, wild adventure. Clarke seems as comfortable with her seamless blend of history and fiction as she is with her brand of antiquated spelling ("chuse" for "choose," "dropt" for "dropped," and so forth) and the reserved formalism of a story set in a time when gentlemen conducted arguments via scholarly monographs.
Norrell and Strange's various movements throughout society, politics, the Napoleonic Wars, England, Europe, and ultimately Faerie are as phantasmagorical as any moony children's book about unicorns and dragons, but Clarke grounds it all in convincing, compelling style. If Rowling hadn't made literary fantasy safe, popular, and profitable, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell might never have been published. But then again, Clarke's gorgeous debut might simply have taken the Harry Potter books' slot as a proving ground, an example of how dedication, creativity, and skill can breathe new life into any genre.