England, early 1800s. The country is at war with France under Napolean. Magic—the practical kind, anyway—has not been seen in the land for hundreds of years. The only magicians left are theoreticians, men who had never caused a “leaf to tremble upon a tree or made one mote of dust alter its course”. But all that is about to change.
Enter Gilbert Norrell, a practicing magician. A recluse, he lives in an old house in Yorkshire, surrounded by his precious books on, and of, magic. He is attended to by his manservant, Childermass, himself no stranger to the occult.
Norrell is determined to make English magic respectable again. He travels to London to offer his services to Sir Walter Pole, the minister of war. Sir Walter refuses to take him seriously. “Magic is not respectable, sir.” But this rejection only makes Norrell more determined. He sees his chance and decides to revive Sir Walter’s fiancé, Emma, who has just died. But Norrell’s powers as a magician are not powerful enough to bring back the dead. For that, he needs to put aside his normal caution and call upon “old magic”, far more dangerous and unpredictable. The fairy he summons is not cute little thing with wings: it is a “gentleman with thistledown hair”, cold and treacherous. The gentleman strikes a bargain with Norrell: in return for bringing Emma back, he gets half of whatever life she will have.
It works. A grateful—and convinced—Sir Walter allows Norrell to help with the war.
Meanwhile there is talk of another great magician in England. In Shropshire, Jonathan Strange, a feckless son of a landowner, discovers by accident that he has a talent for magic. Wanting to learn more, he goes to London to meet Norrell, who takes him on as a pupil. Strange reads about the old magic of the Raven King and is intrigued, but Norrell refuses to talk about it, saying that it was the reason English magic had fallen into disrepute. Strange, however, is determined to bring it back, with or without Norrell’s help.
In the meantime, the gentleman with thistledown hair is whisking Emma off as soon as she is asleep to dance all night in his Kingdom of Lost-Hope. Emma is going crazy, and no one can understand what is wrong with her because the spell prevents her from talking about it. When she tries, what comes out is completely unrelated to what she is trying to say.
Things slowly come to a head—Jonathan awakens a long-sleeping magic, the gentleman goes a little too far, and Norrell watches helplessly as his life’s work is slowly undone.
The sprawling book pulls you into an alternative reality where you can believe that an entire fleet can be conjured out of rain, and horses out of sand and ocean. This is a modern Victorian novel, both in the writing and the many, vividly drawn characters who inhabit it. There is not enough space here to do justice to the many twists and turns of this tale. Some of the action takes place in extensive footnotes peppered throughout that also detail the history of English magic.
But essentially, this is a book about knowledge and the power it brings. Norrell denies Strange the knowledge he craves because he doesn’t trust him with it, and so brings about the very thing he dreads—the breaking down of the barriers between the old magic and modern England. The two men at the heart of the book couldn’t be more different from each other: Mr. Norrell, cautious and pedantic, whose knowledge comes from books; and Jonathan Strange, flamboyant and reckless, who does things by instinct. And the third man who is also at the heart of the book is the gentleman with thistledown hair, conniving and manipulative, who will stop at nothing to take anyone he wants for himself.
At almost 800 pages, this is not a quick read, but it is a complex, layered book and a pleasure to get lost in.