This is truly a fantastic book. I can't praise it highly enough. The plot, characters, pacing and, above all, the back story, make this a brilliant novel and a fantastic début. And, being a Yorkshire lass myself, it was certainly gratifying to find a novel that doesn't rampantly stereotype all Northerners.
The story begins in 1806, when two theoretical magicians with the wonderfully Dickensian names of Segundus and Honeyfoot encounter the reclusive scholar, Mr Norrell. Their quest is to find out why magic, which was once so common in England, particularly in the North under the 300 year reign of the Raven King John Uskglass, is now a distant history to be studied by gentlemen like themselves. But they discover that, for all his bookish and condescending ways, Mr Norrell is in fact a practical magician, which he proves by bringing all the statues in York Minster/Cathedral to life. Having brought his powers to the attention of the public, he immediately sets of to London, where he plans to help in the war effort against Napoleon, and in the process resurrect English magic.
At first he is not taken seriously, and it soon becomes clear Norrell will go to any lengths to become the only magician in England. But when he encounters Jonathan Strange, another magician, he seems to wake up to new possibilities. He takes Strange on as a pupil. But the two men are too different for the partnership to last. Norrell is secretive and unfriendly, hoarding magical knowledge and desperately preserving his own prestige. Strange is charming and gregarious, and becomes a hero in the wars. What starts off as mild rivalry soon escalates into a feud, with far reaching consequences.
If you've see the size of this book, you'll understand it's a hard thing to summarize. At almost 800 pages it's not a coffee table book, it's a coffee table. But don't be put off. It's fast moving, brilliantly written, wryly amusing and full of nods to the ghosts of literature past. It's also quite beautiful, and I'm not just talking about the pretty cover. It's part Lord of the Rings, part Harry Potter, part The Crimson Petal And The White and part Jane Austen. I raced through it in 3 days, and am already halfway through my second reading. Apparently there's a sequel in the pipeline, and at the minute I'd gladly put back Harry Potter 6 by years to have that instead.