Considering I spent about 4 hours this morning reading the latest Harry Potter book (what can I say? I read fast), I figured it was past due time for me to write about Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I completed back in June. It is perhaps inevitable that my review will compare JSMN to Harry Potter (although I try not to spoil your reading experience of either book by refraining from revealing plot details). Superficially, the similarities between them (both about practitioners of magic, both written by British women) are great.
Having read both JSMN and all 6 Harry Potter books, I am of the opinion that they could not be more different. As I wrote earlier, Clarke's novel is far more balanced character-wise. While the adventures of the "two English magicians" Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell take up a substantial portion of the book (although the former does not appear until after the first 200 pages have elapsed), the reader still gets to examine the internal motivations and decisions of a large cast of supporting characters. In the Harry Potter series, the reader sees almost all of the book through the eyes of the young protagonist. While it might be interesting to occasionally see events from another character's perspective, this does not occur, except for occasional introductory and concluding chapters (incidentally, the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire does not count, as it appears to Harry as a dream).
Of course, the continual focus on Harry Potter would be a bit easier to bear if he were actually human. Not once in the six hundred and some pages of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince did he do anything that I found objectionable. Since the book covers about 9 months in the 16-year old Harry Potter's life, I find it difficult to believe that he could do nothing wrong. While I understand that there might be some backlash if Harry got drunk on butterbeer and trashed the Gryffindor common room, not once does Harry misbehave in subtle ways, like disregarding the feelings of his friends or lying for his own benefit. By contrast, the characters in JSMN seem almost malicious. Mr. Norrell has spent most of his life crushing the spirit of other English magicians in order to ensure his supremacy. Jonathan Strange, while more sympathetic, is by no means perfect.
This may have to do with the nature of the world that J.K. Rowling has created. The conflict between the "good wizards" and Lord Voldemort's Death Eaters is Manichean in its simplicity. While some half-hearted attempts are made to explain why Voldemort, Snape, and others are mean (flashbacks to bad childhoods), no reason is given why Harry Potter, who spent the first 11 years of his life living in a cupboard under the stairs, is so good. He is our hero; they are our villains; no other reasons are necessary. Why is Voldemort evil? Because he likes it that way. While JSMN has villains, they are not easily categorized as evil. Some are despicable characters, although they are occasionally helpful. One, a fairy prince known as "the gentleman with thistledown hair" simply does not follow human morality.
Part of the difference might be Susanna Clarke's thoroughness in the creation of her universe. One thing that annoyed me about later Harry Potter books was the creation of new magical devices and characters solely to close plot holes. A need for the ability to quickly travel long distances instantaneously? Floo powder. Need the same ability, but without the reliance on fireplaces? Portkeys. With Clarke, however, I feel that everything is explained, thanks to the copious footnotes that reference imaginary books, provide additional backstory, or reference tales of magic that the characters are familiar with but that we are not expected to be. While some may claim these footnotes (which sometimes extend for several pages) detract from the appeal of the book, I appreciated them.
In conclusion, even the way the two books approach endings is different. Each Harry Potter book ends with triumphant Harry, who has yet again defeated Voldemort and looks forward to another exciting school year at Hogwarts. The ending of JSMN is literally far darker. In fact, the last sentence is "Then he turned upon his heel and disappeared into the Darkness." It manages to be just ambiguous enough that the reader hopes there will be a sequel, but would still be satisfied if there was none.
Postscript. I wish to forestall possible complaints that I am being unfair to Harry Potter. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a work of adult fiction; is it any surprise that it is more complex? Well, yes. Maintaining the same set of characters for seven books is a difficult task; one that, despite her billions, I do not envy J.K. Rowling. There is a reason that most authors decide to stop after one or two sequels. Rowling, however, decided to write seven. I find that there is a clear shift in her writing style after the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. There is also a similar shift in the plot, changing from "young British schoolwizards having thrilling adventures, ending in a climatic fight with evil" to "young adult British schoolwizards go to school; talk about impending fight with Voldemort." After three books in this vein, it begins to grate on the reader's soul. Thanks to the success of the films, we will probably still be hearing about Harry Potter in 2010.