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Classic review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

A delightful, intelligent fantasy that has been called "Harry Potter for adults."

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Finally, desperate to attract attention, he employs the services of two insufferable dandies who decorate his house and engineer his social engagements with a kind of gaudy flourish entirely at odds with his personality. It's a 19th-century version of "Queer Eye for the Magical Guy."

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His reputation improves further when he agrees to take on a student, a precocious young man named Jonathan Strange, whose scholarly passion is combined with the winning social graces that Mr. Norrell can never manage. "Strange was everyone's idea of what a magician ought to be," Clarke writes. "He was tall; he was charming; he had a most ironical smile."

Theirs is a peculiar partnership: Strange respects his mentor enormously, but finds him tedious and annoying. Norrell, meanwhile, is thrilled to have such a talented student, but hides books from him and remains paranoid about creating a rival. There's a typically comic moment in which Norrell clings to a volume he's just recommended to Strange, refusing to let go even as he hands it to him.

Only a touch of pixie dust falls in the first few hundred pages of this marvelous historical novel, told with a dry wit that will appeal to fans of Jane Austen. Either by instinct or design, Clarke drops supernatural elements into the plot slowly and sparingly, luring fantasy readers along, while acclimating skittish newcomers to this genre gradually.

Determined to convince a skeptical government that magic can help the war effort, Norrell suspends his principles against employing fairies and invokes one of these wily figures to revive the wife of an important politician. The spell works, but it sets in motion a conflict with a more dangerous foe than Napoleon, one that eventually twists the relationship between Strange and Norrell and threatens to plunge England into eternal darkness.

Clarke mingles military and magical history with remarkable success, conveying the horrors of war along with her own surreal inventions, such as a fleet of decoy ships made of rain or a battlefield where hands of mud pull French cavalry to the ground. The eerie beauty of these moments along with the absence of cool magic devices to market at Burger King keep "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" from clunking to earth. Clarke knows just how light bends when the natural world overlaps with the supernatural world and all the shadows "turn and face another way." She's as deft at describing the flutter of gossip at a dinner party in London as she is at describing a gown covered in small shrieking mouths in Fairyland.

In a fantastically paced conclusion, the ominous horror of what's preying on England comes into focus, even as the setting shifts into the cloudy world of enchantment that Clarke captures with such haunting effect. Both Strange and Norrell must set aside old prejudices to save themselves and those they love. Their success is uncertain, but Clarke's isn't. Move over, little Harry. It's time for some real magic.

Ron Charles is a former Monitor book editor.

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