Trying to describe this mercurial book is a tricky thing to do succinctly, being that it crosses so many generic boundaries and historical styles. Pastiche would be a good starting point. Drawing the flavours of certain nineteenth century writers such as Jane Austin and Charles Dickens into her prose Clarke uses the same eloquence and wit that you would expect to find in that period. But where as many modern readers might find the likes of Dickens a dense and dark prospect, Clarke manages to create a wonderfully light literary infusion of the style but still make the tone accessible. It is a pastiche also in its genre, part historical novel, part alternative history, part social comment, part fantasy, and part gothic romance.
The plot line opens with Mr Norrell a, largely, armchair scholar of magic, trying to revive English magic, something lost to their current age. After a number of incidents of varying success, Jonathan Strange enters the storyline, a magician of much skill who firstly befriends and then becomes the target of the jealousy of Norrell. As ones fame rises the others dislike grows and the once friends become bitter rivals.
Within this frame there are wonderful detours, into an alternative fairy realm, as a military magician helping Wellington to fight The Peninsular War, via Byronic escapades in Venice and numerous plot twists and turns between.
As a social comment the book explores some interesting concepts both of the books time and of a more universal nature. It explores jealousy and Englishness, it flips the north-south cultural divide on its head, pits reason and logic against mystique and ambition and even echoes the science verses religion debate in its explorations of practical verses magical solutions.
It is a unique book in that it manages to encompass so many styles and genres, but will appeal to fans of classic literature as it will steam-punk enthusiasts, readers of historical and social comment as it will pure fantasists. In many ways it could be seen as a highbrow answer to Harry Potter or Dickens goes down the rabbit hole. A remarkable and very lengthy book at nearly 800 pages but one that will not only take you on an amazing journey through a past that looks familiar yet feels otherworldly but make you think along the way.