Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

The magician's apprentice
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The Independent Culture

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According to the latest data from the genre-fiction trendometer, "science and the future" are still down, while "magic and history" remain most definitely up. This should come as no surprise: we're already in a science-fiction nightmare for which even the invention of the iPod provides but small consolation, and the most ardent dystopia-philes seem reluctant to invest cash in reading about another one.

Meanwhile, movie-makers bring back King Arthur and refight the sieges of Troy and the Alamo, while Captain Jack Sparrow rules the waves. Former cyberpunk visionary Neal Stephenson reinvents the Age of Enlightenment with an ecstatically unholy glee, and magic - of both the stage-illusionist and "genuine" occult varieties - is firmly in the ascendent. JK Rowling, Philip Pullman and co attract both young and adult readers, as mainstream thriller-smiths such as Jeffery Deaver don the top hat and tails, alongside the odd literary novelist.

Susanna Clarke's debut novel, long-listed for the Man Booker prize, is already causing a stir among devotees of both alternative history and fantasy. Set in the opening decades of the 19th century, it's the tale of how the two titular magicians, among other adventures, win the Napoleonic Wars through occult means.

As the story opens in 1806, theoretical magic retains its dedicated following among hobbyists of the educated classes, but practical magic is considered to have died out until the prickly, reclusive Mr Norrell - he remains "mister" throughout most of the story, though he is eventually outed as a Gilbert - comes to the attention of the "gentleman magicians" of York.

Reluctantly, he is persuaded to suspend his endless studies of magical texts in his legendarily extensive library to appear before their society. Much to their consternation, Norrell is the real thing: he can perform genuine magical feats. Soon, his fame spreads far and wide, bringing him into contact with London high society, with which he remains less than comfortable despite the lionisation of his talents.

He is persuaded to accept as his apprentice a young protégé, Jonathan Strange, who is everything Norrell is not: handsome, personable, at ease and committed to experience and experiment as the road to wisdom, whereas his mentor is dogmatically insistent on the primacy of books. Despite the cautious, secretive Norrell's attempts to restrict Strange's progress, the pupil becomes first colleague, then rival in the ancient "English magic" once practised by the mythic Raven King.

Is Norrell trying to control Strange out of jealousy, or to prevent him from exploring areas of genuine peril? And does Childermass, Norrell's mysterious, laconic factotum with "the wild romantic looks one associates with magicians", play a larger part in the unfolding events than appearances might suggest?

Is the down-at-heel street magician Vinculus the mere charlatan Norrell dismisses him as being? And why is Stephen Black, the calmly omnicompetent black butler of the Cabinet minister Sir Walter Pole, caught up in an eerie Grimm fable in which he dreams each night of dancing at an elegant society ball, only to wake footsore and exhausted?

Clarke's narrative is a studious pastiche of leisurely, discursive 19th-century prose, complete with archaic spellings ("shew", "chuse", "stilish" and the like) and a copious use of faux-pedantic footnotes. The result is a sort of Jane Austen Powers.

It is packed with neat, deft touches; peopled with an intriguing and varied supporting cast; linguistically and socially utterly authentic in its evocation of its idiosyncratic version of its chosen era; movingly redolent of the author's affection for both her protagonists; and builds to a resolution that satisfies both logically and poetically.

If the book ends up as engaging rather than riveting, cosy rather rather than visceral, that represents a distinguishing mark of its sub-genre as opposed to a flaw in the author's craftsmanship. This is not raw-head-and-bloody-bones so much as a gentle period comedy of supernatural manners.

Charles Shaar Murray's 'Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop' is published by Faber

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