Every review I’ve seen so far of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell mentions the Harry Potter series. I understand such connections insofar as both the book at hand and Rowling’s series consist of people casting spells, but so far as I am concerned, the similarities end there. I will also say that if you’re considering reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell because you liked something by Rowling, stop now. Clarke’s book weighs in at close to 800 pages, but is probably half again as long as Goblet of Fire because the text is quite small, smaller still in the numerous and extensive footnotes.
I found the novel at first to be almost intolerably dry. By page 100, I considered simply putting it down and writing it off as a failure. Set in early 19th century England, Clarke’s prose is an intentional mimicry of the starched-collar diction of that era, replete with strange (to Americans) spellings (“connexion” for “connection,” &c.), with long-winded exposition and a penchant for (almost) needless character development that rivals that of Stephen King (think uncut The Stand). However, I was soon after drawn into the book, both by the interesting machinations of the plot and the quality of Clarke’s writing. Like Rowling, Clarke endeavors to create a magical world, which involves not simply narrating the plot, but taking great pains to illustrate the customs and the history. The footnotes (as if one were reading not a novel, but a textbook history) are voluminous, and describe the various magical publications, folklore, and etymology referenced in the text. I found this to be one of the most charming parts of the novel, as they go a long way towards building up a complex setting. Beware, though, that if reading history seems to you altogether dry, I would again advise you not to read this book.
In general, I found Clarke’s construction of a magical schema to be even more enjoyable than Rowling’s. Unlike the Harry Potter series, though, Strange & Norrell can be maddening at times in the plot’s refusal to divulge its secrets. The end of the book, though it can be considered a resolution of sorts, felt almost disappointing in its vagueries and anticlimax. What one expected to pass does not particularly do so, perhaps something of a remark upon the elaborate mythology built up throughout the novel.
One other facet of Clarke’s book that interested me was the Saxonic/Germanic influence of naturalist magic, so very much seen in the Grimm’s fairy tales. Magic is generally accomplished by allying oneself with the forces of nature, not so much by one’s own merit or skill. Strange & Norrell‘s mythology revolves around a magical king, who, by the end of the novel, becomes something of Christ figure, post-ascension. On that same note, Clarke surprised me (sort of) by incorporating the religiosity of 19th century England as well. Authors like Rowling don’t mention it at all, probably to avoid a controversy. I can’t remember Clarke writing anything particularly controversial, but on several occasions the concomitant existence of Anglicanism and Magic arose, particularly as it related to the adoption of Saint names by faeries.
The bottom line is, this is an excellent book. Whether it will be excellent for you to read depends upon your patience, your interest in a realistically constructed (for a fantasy novel) metaphysic, and your ability to get through the beguiling prose. I recommend it.