IT COMES IN A BLACK edition and a white edition¹, and I suppose this symbolizes the two schools of thought warring within. If you've been in any chain book store this month, you've seen its emblem—the raven in flight, the big swirling ampersand. Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is something extraordinary: many adult fantasy novels are taken seriously by their readers, the nerds among us; Strange & Norrell is taken seriously by its publisher and its critics as well. It is a small complaint, then, to say that it is taken perhaps a bit too seriously by its author.

IT IS ONE OF THE great themes of fantasy, maybe even the theme: that some art or technology of incredible power has been lost, lost for ages—and just now, just in the present, it has been resurrected. We seek awakening, we seek renewal—I don't know, we seek something, because from The Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time to Stargate, this theme resonates.

In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel, the lost art is magic. This is England as the Nineteenth Century opens, and magic—founded in this country by a king who was once its strongest practitioner, a king who reigned three hundred years—is not practiced any longer. Oh, hundreds of magicians still argue vigilantly over its customs and methods and history, but the casting of actual spells is beyond them.

Enter Gilbert Norrell, a strange little recluse of a man, who hoards books and does his damnedest to end the career of any magician he can find. Who is also, by the way, the first Englishman to do magic in centuries. Mr. Norrell's purpose is to restore magic to England, provided it is studied and practiced under his terms, and preferably by no one but him.

Jonathan Strange, a young man who stumbles upon magic on a whim, who is to become Norrell's colleague, student, and adversary, has something slightly different in mind.

THE SUBJECT HERE IS NOT good versus evil, but a clash of ego and philosophy. The novel's villains are driven by fear, weakness, and self interest; its heroes by ambition and wonder. This complexity is what makes the novel a work of serious fiction, what prevents it from being an epic. Epics are fate-driven and rarely concerned with shades of motivation. Characters act because they must act, they must save the world or all is lost, etc., etc. Strange and Norrell want with everything they have to restore magic to England, to found a school of thought, to—well, many other things that I won't spoil—and even if the whole story has been foretold, even if it is fated, it is a story that stems from their intentions.

This is not my complaint. That it is not epic I find refreshing. That it is character-driven I find engaging. In a book about magic, about the re-awakening of mysticism, my complaint is that there is so very little that is spellbinding. Jonathan Strange in particular seems to be driven by his own imagination, and yet he seems limited and his spells tend to do little more than move things about.

The novel takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, and not long after the magicians present themselves to society, they become employed in fighting back the French. This leads to a scene suggesting great imagination, a port blockaded by ships, sails, and even a crew, all made of mist. Yet once on the ground, Mr. Strange finds himself mostly occupied by making roads and then tearing them up again. This may be useful, but for a magician it seems petty.

That said, Clarke handles the particulars of spell-casting rather well. As a matter of plot, the novel's magic must follow certain rules: Spells must have limitations, bad results must be possible and irreversible, there must be no "take-backs." This is why, in the classic short story "The Monkey's Paw," the father isn't allowed to wish never to have made any wishes—we as readers don't accept stories that "cheat" that way. In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Clarke skirts on the edge of cheating (she allows resurrection), but never really falls in. There is also the danger that spell-casting will devolve into a game of Mornington Crescent, which is to say a conspiracy among the magicians to pretend each isn't speaking complete gibberish. This Clarke nearly overdoes.

You may have heard that this novel is, well, Harry Potter for adults. Don't believe it. It's true Clarke shares a publisher with J. K. Rowling, and that Rowling's success almost certainly affected the publisher's interest in pushing this novel, but the two authors share very little in terms of style. Clarke's work is witty but cold, while Rowling's prose is anything but subtle and a great deal warmer. I'm not the first, I'm sure, to make this comparison: I can think of few writers Clarke's work more clearly resembles than Jane Austen. Considering the setting of this novel, however, that's probably deliberate.

THE MAIN TASK OF A writer of fantasy is to construct a new, unique world, and in this Clarke has succeeded. Her overwhelming footnotes, the dozens of side tales told by one character or another, the books and customs and politics of an England not quite as it is, but wholly consistent unto itself—these build a believable whole, they tell an engrossing story, they suggest perhaps something more.

There is talent here, a great deal of it. I believe, on the evidence of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, that Susanna Clarke does have some great books in her. But for the time being, with this, her first novel, we'll have to settle for simply "good."

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
780 pages, Copyright © 2004 by Susanna Clarke
Illustrations Copyright © 2004 by Portia Rosenberg
ISBN: 1-58234-416-7

1: Only in the first edition. Apparently there were smearing issues with the black raven on a white background, and these have been discontinued. There are, however, now two black editions—one smoothe and glossy, the other matte black, thick, and textured—as well as a red edition with white trim.

This review previously appeared on slashdot:

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