I think listening to the audio might have been confusing if I hadn’t read this before, since there are many footnotes and several of them are quite long. (I’ve read the print version twice). But I loved listening to this book. Simon Prebble’s narration is wonderful.
This book definitely isn’t for everyone. As other reviews have pointed out, it’s written in a 19th century style, including traditional spellings like “shew” and “chuse.” (This took some getting used to; I think all the editions of 19th century classics I’ve read have had the spellings modernized, so I wasn’t familiar with the older spellings.)
The novel is set in a magical version of England during the 19th century (1806-1817), in an alternate history in which the northern half of England had once been ruled by John Uskglass, a magician raised in Faerie. Also known as the Raven King, he was the greatest magician in England’s history. The story begins in a reunited England in which the history of magic is still remembered, and there are “theoretical” magicians who study it, but magic is no longer practiced. Then the Learned Society of York Magicians discovers that there is one practicing magician in England: Gilbert Norrell, who lives in Yorkshire and has strong views about the proper limits of English magic.
The novel starts out slowly, and at first takes a light tone, but becomes darker and weirder as it goes on. The intricacy of the foreshadowing is truly amazing, and I think I appreciated it more on this reread. The two central characters are deeply flawed, but very memorable. Strange is the more likable of the two of them, but he’s careless and arrogant at times, and Norrell despite being a deeply unpleasant person, is such a convincing character that it’s hard to be entirely unsympathetic to him.
and the secondary characters — Childermass, Lady Pole, Stephen Black, Arabella Strange, Vinculus — are equally vivid. (I think Childermass is probably my favorite from that list, because of the air of mystery that surrounds him.)
… Childermass knew the world. Childermass knew what games the children on street-corners are playing – games that all other grown-ups have long since forgotten. Childermass knew what old people by firesides are thinking of, though no one has asked them in years. Childermass knew what young men hear in the rattling of the drums and the tooting of the pipes that makes them leave their homes and go to be soldiers – and he knew the half-eggcupful of glory and the barrelful of misery that await them. Childermass could look at a smart attorney in the street and tell you what he had in his coat-tail pockets. And all that Childermass knew made him smile; and some of what he knew made him laugh out loud; and none of what he knew wrung from him so much as ha’pennyworth of pity.