Title: Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
I didn't think I knew what I was looking for in a fantasy book, but apparently this is it. Susanna Clark manages to write a story that doesn't rely on superfluous action, has interesting characters with real struggles and flaws, and worldbuilds without overwhelming the reader. Yes, Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell is long, but it doesn't feel like it goes on too long. In fact, I was rather sad to depart from its world.
I read a lot of fantasy when I was younger, but as I grew pickier and pickier about my books, I stopped reading it for the most part. The vast majority of the best sellers were throwing out the same old tripe, just with slightly different flavors. You'd get archetypal characters who radically changed depending on the plot's whim, a set-in-stone over-powered magic system that makes the world work, and a plot that feels over-engineered to cause conflict that could easily be avoided.
This shows early on, although the book has a bit of a slow start. Rather than the characters info-dumping at us (which I'd like to inform a lot of authors is not a way to get around 'show don't tell'), most of the missing worldbuilding is supplied in footnotes. This not only allows the reader to get a better sense of the book, but also gives it a historical tone, where you feel like you're reading a work set in the world... even if these are things the average lay person might be somewhat familiar with.
The illustrations also add to this feeling. In many ways, they feel like the illustrations you'd find in an old history book before reproduction or photography became easier.
Another thing I loved was how magic is not integral to the world's function at all; in fact, England has been getting by without it for some time. We actually see that once they have practicing magicians, they don't quite know how to apply them in ways that can help the most. The lengths Strange has to take in order to make magic help them in the Napoleonic war is quite substantial, and has a rather large impact in the grand scheme of things.
It's not uncommon for there to be black magic that needs to be avoided at all costs in a fantasy book, but one thing I really liked about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is that like many things, the line where one can draw the difference between magic and magic that should not be practiced is not always clear. At what point has one gone too far? It's really unclear.
Then, to ice the cake, we get to deal with the mentor/pupil relationship between Norrell and Strange respectively. There's nothing that makes me happier about reading a long book than knowing it's going to dive into those kind of relationship dynamics. We get to see the errors both of them make in navigating their relationship as well as the general turmoil fomenting.
The prose is very, very dry, which to some might be a bad thing, but to me, it fit the book perfectly. When you combine dry prose with the footnotes, it honestly felt to me like we were reading the book we were supposed to, a book on the history of the two magicians who brought back magic to England. Oh, and speaking of: I loved the way that prophecy was semi-subverted. There are a lot of fantasy books that try to go on about how prophecy is imprecise or misleading, and then try to do a plot twist, but that's not what happened here at all.
So yeah. Fantastic book. Would read again. And again. And maybe again, if it weren't so long.