A long long time ago, Northern England was ruled by a powerful magician king, The Raven King, John Uskglass. Magic was abundant and many famous magicians learned and taught the craft. However, for hundreds of years since its heyday, magic has been dead in England. Gentlemen who call themselves magicians, are in fact, mere scholars of magic, debating and collecting spellbooks without doing any practical (or even impractical. heh) magic.
But in the 1900's, along came Gilbert Norrell, the only living practical magician and the only practical magician England has seen in a long time. Norrell is secretive and bookish and not very unlikeable, quite unlike what one would think a magician is (as the book itself points out). However, Norrell manages to rise in society and government by bringing back to life the dead wife of a high ranking official.
Then along comes Jonathan Strange, who is quite the opposite of Norrell. He has and innate talent in magic and taught himself with very little books (since Norrell hoarded most of the magical spellbooks). He is sociable and genial. Because they the only magicians around, Strange becomes Norrell's student. They ultimately quarrel and break apart due to different philosophies. From then on moves the story which includes humans enchanted and kidnapped by faeries and other such magical matters.
The book is divided into 3 parts, the first is where we are introduced to Norrell. The second is when we are introduced to Strange and his path intersects with Norrell. The third part is entitled John Uskglass and takes us to the final story.
The book is written in a charming and formal manner but the writing is very witty. In fact, I who am known to be humorless among my peers (i.e. I don't watch comedy) chortled a few times. The book is veery long but its the kind of book I like. It wanders around for quite a while but never becomes boring. The story gains momentum during then end and becomes quite exciting. There are wonderful footnotes, and really, it's like an alternate history of England if magic were around to help in the Napoleonic wars and other historical events.
I really liked it and would recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy and doesn't mind long books.