The book is an interesting presentation of an alternate version of history where magic was truly a force in England but it's time had also passed. But now magic was coming back and it was here that the story tried to explore what this older England would be as magic began to return.
In the story magic is treated as the sort of scholarly endeavor that only a true gentleman would be in a position to get into. It just so happened that the men that actually got into magic were, well, men with quirks of their own.
Synopsis: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a alternative history fantasy novel written by Susanna Clarke. The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars and is one that has won several awards including the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
The book is divided into three main sections - Mr Norrell, Jonathan Strange and John Uskglass. In this alternate England, magic had been lost to time and such and thus the only magicians were scholarly ones who would meet from time to time to discuss theoretical magic. The loss of magic in England had something to do with the departure of John Uskglass, also known as the Raven King who once ruled England and Faerie.
All that changes when one of the magical societies learns of the existence of Mr. Norrell, who is rumored to be able to perform practical magic. The group eventually verifies this for himself but in time Norrell calls for the magical societies to be disbanded and that only practical magicians (namely himself) can perform magic. And as Norrell is asked to perform various magical feats from time to time and he eventually takes on an apprentice in the form of Jonathan Strange. And the other twist involves a certain Gentleman that Norrell manages to summon that may mean pretty bad things in the long run.
The book is approached like one of the scholarly texts of magic that Norrell has hoarded in his collection of magical books. It has a crazy number of footnotes that refer to a bunch of other fictional books of magical history and various other anecdotes from the fictional historical England that was once defined by magic. At times it's all interesting and clever. At other times it feels like a lot of reading additional material that might be helpful but also doesn't always impact the overall story. This is where a lot of my difficulty derived from - the need to go back and forth between footnotes and the story itself in order to get the full experience of this book.
I see now that the TV mini-series did an amazing job of bringing this story to life in a manner that is more easily approached by readers. Things were a bit of a struggle across the first two volumes of the book but I'll concede things did pick up a bit in the last volume. But hey, that's where the big climax was and a fair amount of interesting magic, so it's only natural.
The book's tone sort of toggles between the scholarly part of things and the fantasy escapism we look for in such books. And it's not like there's a heck of a lot of magic in the book. It's just that you have the heavy scholarly bits balanced against the not so heavy bits that aren't necessarily lighter. It's a great story and some compelling writing but it's also a lot of work to get through.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a very detailed depiction of an England with a grand legacy of magic. It's also a daring adventure in its own right against an unseen foe and a prophecy that is fated to be fulfilled. Thus the book gets a good 3.5 feats of magic out of a possible 5.