In the early 19th-century England of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the existence of magic is a given. Everyone knows of the Raven King, who escaped from the Fairy kingdom to rule northern England and introduce magic to the Britons centuries before.
But, in 1806, no magic has been seen in England for years. Those who call themselves "magician" are only theoretical magicians, meaning that they study magic and magicians, but lack the ability to cast spells themselves. One day, a group of theoretical magicians discover the reclusive Mr. Norrell, who proves himself to be a formidable practical magician - the first of his kind seen for decades. A few years later, Jonathan Strange emerges - a young man with even stronger magical abilities, but with no training in how to use them.
Norrell takes on Strange as an apprentice, but Norrell is careful not to teach the young man too much. Together, they become celebrated magicians and use their powers to help Lord Wellington and the British Empire defeat the Emperor Napoleon. Later, Strange and Norrell split and become rivals. This turns very bad after Norrell tries to discredit Strange and Strange embraces madness as a way to contact the malevolent fairies who live on the other side of Hell and possess powerful magic.
The story shows the rise to power of two talented men and the corruption brought by that rise. Both men are tempted to enlist the aid of the malevolent fairy race in order to boost their magical abilities and increase their reputation. But the fairies, who rule a kingdom beyond Hell, are malevolent and untrustworthy. Dealing with fairies risks the lives and souls of all around the magicians.
The contrast between Strange and Norrell makes for a great story. Norrell is bookish, deliberate, and secretive. He buys up all the books on magic he can find, in order to keep other magicians from reading them. Strange is adventurous and tries to expand his horizons - even going so far as to try training other magicians.
Both magicians struggle with the dark side of magic. Norrell's first attempt at summoning a fairy allows him to raise a young woman from the dead. This makes Norrell a national celebrity; however, the consequences are disastrous - the fairy maintains control over the woman, transporting her each night to his castle on the far side of Hell. Norrell vows never to try again. Strange reads of how the Raven King used Fairy Magic and believes he can summon and control a Fairy. He concludes that he must become mad in order to summon a fairy, so he uses magic and drugs to make himself temporarily insane. The Fairy appears and more disaster ensues. The Fairy of the story - known only as "the man with thistle down hair" controls a number of humans, including the woman he helped raise from the dead; Stephen Black, a servant to whom he promises the throne of England; and Strange's wife. Even King George III's famous bouts with insanity are attributed to the man with the thistle down hair.
I really enjoyed this book. I liked the characters and the adventures; I liked the relationship between Norrell and Strange and how it evolved over the years. I liked the ethical struggles of the magicians, such as whether it was acceptable to use the dark fairy magic to do good deeds; and I liked the style of the book, which reminded me of an English historical text, complete with added footnotes.
If you are looking to explore a world that could have been and believable characters, I highly recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.