Who believes in magic anymore? Usually only the very young, the very gullible and those who make their living in the film industry. But despite the unlikelihood of magic existing in any discernible or quantifiable form, it hasn't made our stubborn hunger for it any less. First-time novelist Susanna Clarke does an admirable job of not only tapping into this need but mining it for all it's worth -- all within the guise of one Big Whopping Novel.
The story opens with the meeting of the esteemed gentlemen scholars of York - who consider themselves magicians despite never having performed a single spell. The research is the thing, you see, and while the great tradition of magic seems to have gone dead in England, that hasn't stopped the scholars from believing themselves experts on the subject. When some of their number go to meet the reclusive Mr. Norrell, however, they are chagrined to discover that magic is alive and well and taking its tea in an enviably well-stocked library. For his part, Norrell is about to meet another of his kind - a magician - who could not be more his opposite. Jonathan Strange is charismatic, wild and seems to belong to the tradition of the mysterious Raven King, whose footnoted exploits underlie a remarkably believable history of magic in England.
At the same time, King George has long since gone quite mad and Napoleon is outmaneuvering the British army and navy. Clarke situates her novel firmly in a specific time and place - and somehow the Age of Reason (that sensibly enlightened period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries) couldn't be more perfect. Magic blooms in the most prosaic of surroundings (in drawing rooms and on battlefields) and Clarke's observations are deliciously arch in much the same way as Jane Austen's comedies of manners (to wit, Pride and Prejudice). There are many kinds of magic, it turns out, and Clarke understands that only a few of them have to do with gargoyles coming to life or mysterious fogs changing the course of the Napoleonic wars. Crafting an intricate history is a sort of magic, on a par with making drawing room conversation relevant to a plot or crafting a wicked turn of phrase. By conjuring such things, Clarke more than earns her robes and wand.