Fantasy may be the greatest comeback story of the past 10 years. A decade ago, nobody wanted anything to do with it. All that stuff--swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons--was so nerdy even science-fiction fans looked down on it. Science-fiction fans had Star Wars. Fantasy had--what? Willow?
Now all that has changed. Two of the biggest, megabillion-dollar entertainment franchises in the world, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, come from fantasy novels. A group of outrageously talented writers is busy rescuing fantasy from under a mountain of New Age junk, collectible card games and heavy-metal album covers: J.K. Rowling, of course, but also Neil Gaiman, Phillip Pullman, China Mieville and George R.R. Martin. Now a fortysomething silver-haired British book editor named Susanna Clarke has done something even they couldn't. She has written Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Bloomsbury; 800 pages), a chimera of a novel that combines the dark mythology of fantasy with the delicious social comedy of Jane Austen into a masterpiece of the genre that rivals Tolkien.
It makes a certain kind of cosmic sense that a writer of fantastical literature should come from a relatively mundane background. Clarke, the daughter of a Methodist minister, was born in Nottingham, went to Cambridge and then took a series of publishing jobs in London. The first glimmers of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell came to her during a year she spent teaching English in Bilbao, Spain. "I had a kind of waking dream," Clarke remembers, "about a man in 18th century clothes in a place rather like Venice, talking to some English tourists. And I felt strongly that he had some sort of magical background--he'd been dabbling in magic, and something had gone badly wrong." The man would eventually become Jonathan Strange, but her sorcerer's apprenticeship was a long one: it took Clarke more than 10 years to finish the book.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is set in an alternative version of early 19th century England, one in which magic is real but on the wane, to the point that there are only two practicing sorcerers left in England. The pair are a pleasing study in contrasts: Mr. Norrell is exceptionally learned but shy and fussy. "He is," a character remarks, "at one and the same time, the most remarkable man of the age and the most tedious." Strange is charming, young, fashionable and romantic. Clarke could have called the book Sense and Sensibility if the title weren't already taken.