Most fantasy books are merely bad ripoffs of Tolkien, or other well-known (though not always great) authors. Hero's journey, quests, stock characters, etc.
But Susanna Clarke dazzles in a subtle way in her debut novel, "Jonathan Clarke & Mr. Norrell," a sprawling historical-fantasy opus that took a decade to write. Think if Jane Austen had written fantasy about feuding magicians, and you'll have a pretty good idea of how this reads -- a slow-moving and intricate story, presented with a delicate, sumptuous style like a bejeweled silk gown transformed into words.
It's the early 19th century, in England. The Napoleonic wars threaten England, but that's not the only struggle going on. Magic is all but dead in England; the so-called magicians don't actually want to handle it, but want to leave it to old books and stories. Once the English magicians were powerful and respected, but now they just write boring essays about magic. Except for Mr. Norrell, a cautious little Yorkshire man who taught himself how to do magic.
However, things take a twist when he gives his help in the battle against Napolean -- a new magician enters the scene, the enthusiastic and charming Jonathan Strange. The two magicians begin to work together, but things begin to go awry when Mr. Norrell realizes that Jonathan is attracted to all magic -- including the more dangerous varieties. He's increasingly fascinated by the legend of the Raven King, a changeling child who ruled Faerie and Earth...
Historical fantasies have rarely been as detailed and rich as this one -- usually either the "historic" or the "fantasy" is abused. Often the best authors can do is write alternate universe stories where America lost the Revolution, the Roman Empire never fell, or vampires existed since time immemorial, and so on. But Susanna Clarke shatters that with her richly-realized look at 19th-century Britain, with unique magic and a slight mythologic twist. This is an England where, even though magic is stagnant, it's still something of rich power, awesome presence, and the creatures involved in it are completely otherworldly.
Clarke keeps her writing solid, detailed and dignified, also footnoting extensively, with little wry winks and nudges to keep the book from being too serious. It does get tedious at times, and the finale gets a bit stretched out, but the positive far outweighs the negative. She has a flair for the historical parts of the book, keeping dates, battles, and political movement entwined in the plot.
But she doesn't neglect the fantasy either; there's a mythic flavor in the story of the Raven King and the old magicians, reminiscent of old legends from ancient times. Her handling of magic is especially good -- less is more, and hints of past greatness make the magic all the more stunning.
The title characters are the best of the book -- both are products of their times. Mr. Norrell is cautious, studious, ingenious and quiet, the sort of person you could imagine chatting with some classic author about the nuances of their work. On the other hand, Strange has more of the wild, society-be-damned wit that characterized some great artists of that time -- like a less promiscuous, more magical Lord Byron. And there's a memorable array of supporting characters -- servants, faeries, scholars and the like.
If Jane Austen had written like Diana Wynne-Jones, the result would have been something like "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell." Well-written, enticing and thoroughly original, this is a keeper.