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'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell'

While Clarke's generally formal style and slightly arch tone may suggest a mid-Victorian narrator (who isn't so much telling us about English magic as reminding us of it), her characterization is very 20th-century. She keeps us guessing about the true natures of her dramatis personae, whether the toady Drawlight, the caddish Lascelles, the courtly Stephen or the thuggish John Childermass. No one in these pages is purely good or evil, though her greatest creation is certainly the fairy king -- vindictive, frivolous, self-deluding, charming, utterly full of himself. And very, very dangerous to cross. Stephen, Sir Walter Pole's black servant, finds himself the unwanted focus of the gentleman's benevolence:

"Suddenly Stephen heard someone say in a vivid whisper. 'You are quite right to pay them no attention! For when all is said and done, what are they but servants and drudges? And when, with my assistance, you are elevated to your rightful place at the very pinnacle of nobility and greatness, it will be a great comfort to you to remember that you spurned their friendship!' It was only a whisper, yet Stephen heard it most distinctly above the voices and laughter. . . . He had the odd idea that, though only a whisper, it could have passed through stone or iron or brass. It could have spoken to you from a thousand feet beneath the earth and you would have still heard it. It could have shattered stones and brought on madness."

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Eventually Mr. Norrell begins to conquer London -- and yet the Raven King's prophecy spoke of two magicians: Who is the other? Certainly not Vinculus, the gypsy-like fortune-teller -- even though he is rumored to possess a lost book written by John Uskglass. (Only the youngest or most unimaginative readers will fail to guess the nature and location of that magical text.) So who will arise to rival Mr. Norrell?

Despite a name worthy of a DC Comics superhero, the long-nosed, red-haired Jonathan Strange is a prickly, Mr. Darcy-like young man who discovers that he possesses an almost innate capacity for magic. With his new bride, Arabella -- herself a witty cousin to Elizabeth Bennet -- he sweeps into London, and there, to everyone's surprise, is accepted as Mr. Norrell's pupil, his only pupil. Can this partnership last? The pair appear complementary -- the secretive bookworm, the headstrong over-reacher. While Norrell performs his magic from the security of his enchanted library, Jonathan Strange actually joins Wellington in the field and proves of pivotal importance in the Peninsular Campaign and at Waterloo. Indeed, the hundred pages devoted to his use of magic to shift the tide of battle are so brilliantly integrated into known history that they seem as true as anything in a reliable life of Wellington or in David Chandler's classic Campaigns of Napoleon.

Nearly all stories about magic are, in the end, variants on The Sorcerer's Apprentice. If we meddle with the natural order of things -- and what else is magic but such meddling? -- eventually we will go too far, matters will escape our control, and the consequences will redound on our own head or on those we love. After her resurrection, Lady Pole seems highly animated, then grows more and more listless, incoherent and strangely desperate. Whenever Arabella visits the zombielike invalid, she encounters a charming gentleman with thistledown hair whom nobody else seems to notice. He keeps offering her gifts, which Mrs. Strange properly refuses. But why is he so interested in her? And why does almost no one else ever see him?

Many books are to be read, some are to be studied, and a few are meant to be lived in for weeks. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is of this last kind. Clarke reportedly took 10 years to write her novel, and she counts on our willingness to linger over conversational repartee and Gothic hugger-mugger, to attend to the inventiveness of each episode, to slow down and savor the period style:

"It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week."

Though I admire Susanna Clarke's imaginative dexterity and deeply enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I didn't find it quite as spellbinding as expected. To a large extent Clarke treats magic as simply an arcane branch of learning, like medicine or physics, and its practitioners as essentially applied scientists. I found myself longing for just a bit more lyricism and poetry. This is, for instance, a very masculine book, with no particular interest in the female characters, who all seem typecast: tubercular invalid, spirited wife, resourceful ingenue, et.al. Moreover, sex plays virtually no role in the story. In Clarke's Faerie, beautiful women may be forced to dance all night, rather like Grimm's 12 princesses, but that's about it: One looks in vain for the corruption of the innocent, the Walpurgisnacht orgy, the vampiric Lamia and the Belle Dame sans Merci.

So Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell may or may not be the finest English fantasy of the past 70 years. But it is still magnificent and original, and that should be enough for any of us. Right now all we really need to do is open to chapter one and start reading, with mounting excitement: "Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. . . ." •

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His weekly live online book discussion takes place on Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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