The traditions of English magic stem primarily from the Raven King, a shadowy figure who emerged from Faerie (kind of an alternate dimension) around the 11th century, established and ruled the Kingdom of Northern England by the power of magic and fantastical armies. He ruled for 300 years and then disappeared, seemingly taking most of the magic with him. Some magicians remained and tried to preserve things as best as they could. But, by the early 1800s, magic was all but dead and most “magicians” were simply men interested in the old books of magical history. One real magician remained, the socially awkward and cantankerous old man Gilbert Norrell. Norrell is simultaneously striving for a return of English magic, while at the same time hoarding all the useful magical texts and techniques for himself. The reasons are unclear, but probably he is deathly afraid of the consequences of serious magic in misguided hands.
Jonathan Strange stumbles into magic almost by accident, but a strong innate magical sense quickly establishes him as Norrell’s peer. First Norrell’s student, Strange later becomes his rival due to a reckless eagerness (in Norrell’s point of view) for the general return of magic. (Which really is kind of interesting, since Norrell’s summoning of a Faerie King, who becomes the main villain of the book, to help impress the English government was indeed reckless.) In the end, Strange decides that to really understand things, he must make himself insane. The funny thing is that he’s right and it works — maybe this says more about the nature of magic in this book than anything else.
I really enjoyed the depiction of magic. It’s always full of mystery and at least a bit dangerous. It’s not so much fireballs and magic wands, but a somewhat uncontrollable tapping into a real power, much larger than the magician. I think my favorite instance is in the first part of the book, when Norrell makes all the statues in/on a cathedral come alive and speak, all at once. One of them just repeats over and over the details of a murder it witnessed centuries ago, and has obviously been waiting for its moment to publicly condemn the perpetrator. Another good one was the creation of wind and rain ships outside of French ports, to make them think they were blockaded.
Really a good read, although I didn’t really like how the ending wrapped things up (or rather, failed to wrap some things up). Some really funny dialogue and memorable characters. The main villain, the Faerie with the thistledown hair, is suitably crazy and frightening at the same time.