What a lovely, fun book this was!
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell takes place in an alternate Georgian England in which magic--though real--has not been successfully practiced in Britain for a couple of centuries. There are still gentlemen who consider themselves magicians, though only theoretical ones; they gather to read each other long boring papers on the proud history of English magic, including its greatest practitioner, the Raven King, who was raised in a fairy court and ruled northern England for three hundred years. One member of the York society of magicians, curious about why magic no longer works in England, asks the question of the reclusive Mr Norrell--who shocks him by asserting, and later proving, that he is indeed a competent practical magician.
And with that, the magical renaissance on the sceptr'd isle is underway. Soon Mr Norrell has been enlisted by the government for what aid he can offer in the war against France. Later, he acquires a pupil, Jonathan Strange, and as time wears on their magical philosophies begin to diverge on certain points: Norrell wishes magic to be proper, gentlemanly, and above all English. To him, this means turning his back on the wild fairy magic of the Raven King and his followers; but Strange isn't so sure. The decisions each makes in favor of his views drive the narrative.
Such a wonderful narrative it is, too! Clarke writes in the formal-yet-conversational tone of Austen or Trollope, and serves up footnotes to fill in the gaps of our thaumato-historical knowledge. I love the old-schoolness of her fairies--child-stealers and tricksters--and the ease with which she incorporates the Napoleonic wars into her bewitching tale. This is that very rare novel for fans of fantasy and comedies-of-manners alike.