It is a rightly celebrated book that's been out for a few years now, and while it's not nearly as accessible and inherently joyful as Rowling's septology, it is also more Literary. Therefore you can read it and then tell people you read it, and then feel smug about yourself even though it's a book about magic and that sort of thing is generally not something you're supposed to be proud of reading. Think of it as the opposite pole on the fantasy spectrum from Twilight: A grownup book for earnest readers who appreciate complicated characters, nuanced relationships and smart prose.
This is a fine cover. It was enough to get me curious about the book and once I read the jacket, I knew I had to read the rest.
The book is also very much a period piece. A Victorian period piece set amidst the Napoleonic Wars no less; a scenario some might consider the 'periodest' of period pieces. Consequently, the writing is not streamlined to suit the modern tastes of text messaging and net slang. The stilted properness of the era feels like it has been slightly exaggerated to poke fun at itself. Clarke has more in common with Austen and Dickens than Rowling, Lewis or Carroll. The book is thoroughly contemporary in it's fusion of society and magic, however, a trend that currently dominates the fantasy genre. There is also a wink of meta-fiction in Clarke's writing. The entire book is riddled with footnotes referencing a vast corpus of magical scholarship and history that Clarke has dreamed up. Many of these footnotes are short stories unto themselves; brief fairy tales of the old school with archetypal characters in need of harsh social lessons.
So what is the damn book about? Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell of course. Two men who have been destined to bring magic back to England. The practice of magic is deeply ingrained in the history of Clarke's England, but recently, actual practical magic has all but departed in Britain, leaving a bunch of pompous old men practicing "magic theory." Enter Mr. Norrell, a neurotic, highly introverted man who stuns the world by doing actual magic. Later on in the story (further along than I would have preferred in fact, we meet Johnathan Strange), a romantic, mercurial young man who takes up magic on a whim, and ends up as Norrell's apprentice. The book details both magicians' efforts in the Napoleonic Wars, and the strains of their social relationship caused by differing opinions on magical practice. There is also a scheming fairy who must be overcome, distressed damsels in need of rescuing, and several human antagonists of varying degrees of despicableness.
The book is in part, a comedy of manners. We have well-intentioned oafs, ill-fated everymen, scheming control freaks, sharp tongued servants, superficial rakes, saintly wives and flawed husbands. One of my writing teachers once told me that dialog is as much about what characters hear as it is what they say, and that is extremely evident in Clarke's writing. Miscommunication, both supernatural and mundane, pervades the book. There are segments of the book, particularly at the beginning of the narrative, where the pompous social interactions feel quaint and not quite as clever as they are supposed to be. At times, the book moves at a tediously deliberate pace, and there were some passages where I was desperate for Clarke to just get over herself and get to the point.
The point being the magic, of course. Clarke's haunting scenery and her magical phenomena are equally wonderful to read. Spoilers are sprinkled throughout this paragraph, so you may want to skip it. We have ships made of rain, ornate fences that have turned rosy with rust, chilling ruins of the fairy realm and comical geographic juggling. There is very little in the way of combative magic in the book however, even amidst the war, which on the one hand is tremendously refreshing, but also somewhat disappointing. We never get to see a magical duel between the titular magicians, which struck me as a tremendous lost opportunity. Their reconciliation is also too abrupt, and I think it skirts some of the personal issues that played a hand in their separation. I'm not saying that Norrell is in love with Strange, and that he felt betrayed on both a personal and intimate level, or that Strange blames Norrell for the death of his wife and trying to control him and English magical society in its entirety... no wait, that's exactly what I am saying. There is a lot of fascinating subtext that gets no real resolution. The brief glimpse we get of the enigmatic Raven King is suitably climactic but it's also a terrible tease, as we are no wiser of his intentions or motivations.
The Man With Thistle-down Hair is an awesome antagonist.
The fact that the book uses illustrations, albeit sparingly, is a nice touch, and one that I heartily approve of. I was surprised to learn, via Wikipedia, that some reviewers found them to be overly sentimental and inappropriate. I'm all for mixing text and images, especially since illustrations were a fairly big deal during the narrative's time period, and given that contemporary society is increasingly visual, I don't see how their addition is a anything less than an awesome move. It's a fusion of past and present tastes and Portia Rosenberg's are pretty damn good.
So, do I agree with Neil Gaiman's assessment that it is "Unquestionably the finest English novel of the Fantastic written in the past 70 years?" No. At least, not without some tricky qualifiers. If we are invoking 'finest' in the sense of Fine Arts and use "English novel" to refer to a specific novel of exceptional Englishness, then yes, perhaps. Clarke's prose are tremendously more complicated than Rowling's and her characters are more subtle and complex. And Anglo-files will be in heaven with the book's Victorian pomp. I have to say that I prefer Potter's saga however. Up until the very end of Strange and Norrell, there is very little urgency to Clarke's prose. Things simply happen, or don't happen, and it is frequently hard to appreciate what is at stake in the grand scheme of things.
That said, I can't wait for the sequel, and I'm glad I didn't read this right as it was released in 2004. Given that the first novel took 10 years to write, I'm not holding my breath for the follow up, or for the film adaptation that is supposedly in the works. Seeing how it's going to be a long wait, you might as well snatch up Strange and Norrell now. It'll keep your mind warm throughout the long winter.