English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.

But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England's magical past and regained some of the powers of England's magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French.

All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative-the very opposite of Mr Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington's army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different. For Mr Norrell, their power is something to be cautiously controlled, while Jonathan Strange will always be attracted to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic. He becomes fascinated by the ancient, shadowy figure of the Raven King, a child taken by fairies who became king of both England and Faerie, and the most legendary magician of all. Eventually Strange's heedless pursuit of long-forgotten magic threatens to destroy not only his partnership with Norrell, but everything that he holds dear.

Sophisticated, witty, and ingeniously convincing, Susanna Clarke's magisterial novel weaves magic into a flawlessly detailed vision of historical England. She has created a world so thoroughly enchanting that eight hundred pages leave readers longing for more.

SPOILER: sent in by Martina who says... (condensing a 700+ pages book into a couple paragraphs is tricky, but I'll do my best)

This story is set in an alternate Britain at the dawn of the 19th century, a Britain where magic once was a powerful and everyday force but has since become extinct (or rather, misplaced). It is only known as a theoretical study until Gilbert Norrell proves that he has rediscovered the art, and he sets out to earn magic a prominent place in British society once more.

Distrustful and jealous of other potential mages' power, he nevertheless eventually takes a pupil, Jonathan Strange. Together they prove their worth to the government, but during the Napoleon Wars, when Mr. Strange is sent to the front while Mr. Norrell remains in London, they become estranged. They finally seperate over a quarrel about the Raven King, an ancient northern king of legends who, raised by faeries, was the one to bring magic into England. There is an ancient prophecy by the Raven King which seems to point to the two mages among other things, but they are as of yet unsure as how to interpret it (and Mr. Norrel, who despises the Raven King, dismisses it outright).

They now work towards seperate goals and, occasionally, against each other; this is further complicated by a third party, an ancient faerie king who was once secretly summoned by Mr. Norrell and who now has a door into the realm of humans again and both intentionally and unintentionally causes harm to humans, among them Jonathan Strange's wife, whom he kidnaps while letting the mage believe she died. Stephen Black, a human servant to whom the faerie king has taken a deep liking, tries to rein him in but in this is very rarely successful.

Jonathan Strange, travelling to ease his sorrow, now practices magic with even less caution than before, and manages, among other things, both to unleash magic to its fullest extent in Britain again and to get himself cursed into being surrounded by perpetual darkness by the faerie king. When he returns to Britain, he reunites with Gilbert Norrel and together they, while trying to contact the Raven King, happen to fulfill his prophecy, at least the parts about the second coming of magic and the rise of Stephen Black to a king of Faerie (the prophecy is not particularly easy to interpret, for the mages as well as the reader).

In the end, Gilbert Norrel has too been captured by the curse on Jonathan Strange, so they set out together to discover new places of magic now that it has returned to full strength, while Arabella, Strange's wife, freshly rescued from the faerie kingdom, stays behind in England to wait for his return. Meanwhile, new mages in Britain form new guilds, calling themselves Norrelites and Strangeites depending on whose perspective on magic they follow.