The restoration of English magic by Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a wonderful alternate history fantasy novel set in Regency England during and after the Napoleonic wars. The decade-long crafting that Susanna Clarke put into her genre mixing first novel rewards the fantasy reader with something different than they have read before.
The premise of the novel is that magic returns to England after disappearing two centuries with the works of Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange, who then put their ‘powers’ to work in helping Great Britain in the fight against the Emperor Napoleon first on the sea and then on land. However, the personalities and magical philosophies of Strange and Norrell are completely different from one another which leads to the split of their pupil-tutor relationship and mild rivalry especially when it came to the figure of the mysterious Raven King of Northern England. Intertwining with the main story arc are numerous secondary characters with their own arcs that combine in the novel climax that the reader doesn’t see coming but is satisfying once completed.
Clarke’s combination of faux-Austen and faux-Victorian prose give the novel an authentic feel to set-up the alternate historic aspects of the novel as well as the class distinctions between various secondary characters that come into play. One of the greatest aspects of the novel is the worldbuilding that Clarke puts into her story, which can be seen in around 200 footnotes that cover everything from reference books of magic to folklore concerning various English magicians including the Raven King. The distinctions between northern England, the former realm of the human-fairy Raven King, and southern England/London is not just rural and urban but romanticism and rationalism concerning magic that Clarke uses effectively.
Although the faux-Austen/faux-Victorian prose does give the story an authentic feel, it does take time for the reader unfamiliar with them to get use to. Although Clarke creates a wonderful alternate history of Regency England using magic to face Napoleon, she does forget to take in account the effects of the long reign of the Raven King in northern England would impact all of British history due to the dynastic implications of various nobles not influencing the politics of England and Scotland because they no longer have their lands. While one can forgive Clarke’s mistakes in alternate history because she focused on the bigger story, the one thing I personally was upset with was that the reader wasn’t given a name for the antagonistic thistle-down haired gentleman.
Upon completion of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I felt very satisfied with the time I spent reading this wonderful novel. Adding fantasy to Regency England and the influencing the Napoleonic wars really awakened the history buff in me adding to my enjoyment of the novel. If you are an open-minded fantasy reader, I recommended this book to you.