Okay, I admit it, the book scared me. Not because of the content, but because of its near 800 pages and the four-inch thickness of it. Quite an investment in my reading time -- would it be worth it?
The story has captured me. Susanna Clarke has written this story has a scholarly tome, complete with footnotes, as if she were only relating, or dissecting, a piece of English history. Most of the basic facts (such as the war with Napoleon) are true. There's only one exception: the story is about English magic, the magic of Merlin and Faeries. She does it so well that you end up doubting your past knowledge of English history: Could the war against Napoleon have been won with the help of magic? Has this been a deeply held secret only now revealed?
Clarke has developed her main characters so well that they are totally believable. We admire Mr. Norrell but don't like him. We despise Drainwright and Lascelles, but are amused by them. We hold our breath, wondering what Lar, the King of the Faeries, will be up to. Johnatan Strange fascinates and frustrates.
Here is an excerpt from a review by Claire E. White, from the Internet Writing Journal:
Written with a dry, very British sense of humor, the narrator delivers the history with an intimate, confiding, tongue in cheek tone which works very well indeed. One buys into the fictive dream and, after about 30 pages or so, historical fact and fiction have merged. In fact, Ms.Clarke's world is so vividly-imagined that it seems quite real. This impression is reinforced by the numerous, droll, detailed footnotes which assist those who have forgotten some of the more arcane or obscure magical historical tidbits.
The book has been called Harry Potter for adults, and in the fact that it deals with magic and has a sly humor behind the prose, that is somewhat true. But Ms. Clarke's entertaining style and worldview call to mind more the work of Neil Gaiman and P.G. Wodehouse than of J.K. Rowling. Ms. Clarke's words are accompanied by the marvelous pen and ink drawings of Portia Rosenberg. Susannah Clarke has produced an immense book, both in sheer heft and in terms of literary value. It is an extraordinary achievement.
I could not agree more.