First, I should say that I think that the book is absolutely brilliant. The world is brilliantly rendered, the narration is dryly hilarious, the characters are very human and the plot is exceptional. However. I understand that is the sort of book that you have to click with. If you are one of the fortunate people who slips into the story and can barely put it down, you will love it. If you try and force yourself to read it, you will hate it.
The book itself is a lengthy and well crafted story about how The Magic Comes Back
to an England in the early 19th century that has long since been bereft of true magic. The greatest magician of them all, the apparently immortal Raven King, disappeared nearly four hundred years before, after a three hundred year reign, and magically swiftly went into an apparently terminal decline.
Enter Mr Gilbert Norrell, the last practical magician left in England, on a mission to restore English magic. But there's a small problem. Norrell is a small, nervous, asocial and paranoid man, who doesn't satisfy the expectations that a magician be Tall, Dark and Snarky
, and swiftly falls prey to the manipulations of Dirty Coward
Christopher Drawlight and John Lascelles, with only the mysterious John Childermass, his servant, who appears to have some prophetic abilities of his own, as a tempering influence.
Then comes Jonathan Strange, a wilder, more classically magical figure, being at one point a bigger Byronic Hero than Byron himself, to the point where the other man is taking notes
, who becomes Norrell's apprentice and, later, his rival.
The story explores the rivalry between the two, with Norrell's fussy, scientific and logical approach to magic compared to Strange's wilder, more mystical approach (both have a point - Strange is the one to reignite English magic with his insight through insanity
but Exact Words
are a very key point in the final act of the story) and their progression through the intrigues of the day.
And throughout, their story is mirrored by the story of Deuteragonist
Stephen Black, a black butler to minor character Sir Walter Pole, who goes through a number of trials and tribulations at the hands of a Faerie only ever referred to as 'the gentleman', who develops a particular hatred for both Strange and Norrell.
And the Raven King casts a shadow over it all...