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The sign on the wall of London's King's Cross station marks Platform 9 ¾, the spot where Harry Potter boarded the Hogwarts Express to begin his magical journey. Often tourists have their picture taken under the sign, but today there are only frazzled commuters racing up platform 9A to catch an express train to that other, not-so-mystical centre of learning, Cambridge. On board, they open their copies of The Guardian or, less often, one of Britain's heat-seeking tabloids. Inescapably, one or two are reading The Da Vinci Code.

If we could fast-forward this scene a month, some of those commuters would no doubt be using two hands to haul out of their bags an 800-page novel, about two rival 19th-century magicians, called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

Its author, first-time novelist Susanna Clarke, has lived in Cambridge for the past decade. Slim and silver-haired, her wire-rimmed glasses held on with a scholarly cord, she enters a café and immediately apologizes for her tardiness, although she's less than 10 minutes late. This morning has seen a "flurry of e-mails" from Time Out New York, whose editors wonder if she can journey to London -- immediately -- for a photo shoot. She told them she cannot. You imagine she told them with good grace and a certain amount of crispness.

This is what it must feel like in the calm before the storm. "It doesn't feel all that calm," she says with a laugh. When her novel -- which last week made it onto the longlist for the Man Booker prize -- is published in the next few weeks, the winds will certainly pick up. Already her publisher, Bloomsbury (also home of the Harry Potter novels), has sold the book in 23 countries. Reviewers' copies, bound in black and graced with the silhouette of a raven, have reportedly sold for more than $200 on eBay. Time magazine called the novel "a masterpiece of the genre that rivals Tolkien."

But what genre is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, exactly? How about a fantastical-historical-satirical-military comedy of manners -- replete with pages and pages of footnotes. The presence of a mysterious magician-king, various enchanted mirrors and diabolical faeries do indeed suggest the world of Harry and Hermione. But the characters' extravagantly twisted names (Honeyfoot, Drawlight) bring to mind Mervyn Peake, and the desert-dry wit is Trollope or . . . somebody quite distant from J. K. Rowling.

"I love Borges," says Clarke. "He was always writing about libraries and scholars, and I loved those stories when I was younger. Another book I loved was Umberto Eco's The Nam e of the Rose, which was also about a library, and scholars who are mean to each other."

The library in her novel contains all the books of English magic, and belongs to Gilbert Norrell, the last of the country's practical magicians and a man determined to keep all wizardly lore to himself. That is, until he takes as his pupil an insouciant upstart named Jonathan Strange.

They bicker and fall out over perceived slights and magical minutiae, like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis with spell books and frock coats.

In the meantime, though, they are called upon by the British government to aid the Duke of Wellington in his campaign against Napoleon. (Strange helpfully moves the city of Brussels to America for an afternoon prior to the Battle of Waterloo.)

The Waterloo chapter was the last one Clarke wrote, the culmination of a 10-year novel-writing campaign. "I had no idea I could write those scenes," she says. "I was quite dreading that part of the research, first because I was going to have no sympathy with that -- with soldiers and war -- and second, because it was going to be technical and difficult, and I wasn't going to understand it. But the military history was very interesting, very vivid."

The results are remarkably vivid as well, with phantom seahorses rescuing ships, Neapolitan zombies lurching about and an armada made of rain.

Dressed in black jeans and an olive cardigan, wearing no jewellery except for a watch and no makeup save for a hint of pink lipstick, Clarke speaks animatedly and precisely, perhaps the legacy of 20 years as an editor (mainly of cookbooks).

She has a way of sizing you up that is not rude but exacting, like a classics scholar trying to interpret a particularly difficult passage in Greek. She considered a career in teaching, and if she had, she would have made an excellent headmistress: Bad girls could never have withstood that gentle scrutiny.

Clarke has had a lifetime to practise conjuring fantastic scenes in her head. As the daughter of a Methodist minister growing up in the north of England, she got used to moving every four or five years, and finding companionship in beloved books of magic and fantasy.

(She has a younger sister, as well as a brother who died four years ago and to whom the book is dedicated.)

Ten years ago, when she was 33, she found herself stuck in Bilbao, Spain, teaching English to executives, and in the middle of writing a detective novel that was going nowhere. She fell ill, and to distract herself, she began rereading The Lord of the Rings. "Around the same time, I thought what I should probably do is start writing a fantasy, as those were the sorts of books I loved best when I was a child."

So for years she wrote fragments -- "some quite polished" -- set in an alternative England where magic was not dead, just discredited. Originally the novel was set in the late 18th century, but Clarke found herself gravitating toward the early 19th century -- toward Jane Austen's world.

"Once the novel was set there," she says, "I could draw on her observations about social behaviour and use that as a basis, which was great."

There is definitely a sense of Austen in the book, a satirical rapier hidden behind the cushions, and a host of well-drawn secondary characters, particularly the pompous ones. ("Reddish-brown is such a fickle colour," one aesthete notes about Strange's hair. "It has no wear in it.")

While she painstakingly compiled all of her bits into a novel, Clarke was aware of fellow novelists gaining fame around her: J. K. Rowling, of course, and Phillip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy was successfully adapted for the London stage last year. Well, she thought, at least I know people are interested in magic.

What she did not know at all for certain, until very late in the process, was whether she could finish the book. "People would say to me, 'Why don't you think you can finish? Are you afraid of finishing?' And I'd say, 'No, it's just a lot of work.' " She laughs, placing the emphasis on "a lot": It is a long book, and she is, admittedly, a slow writer.

She likes to call the book a joint success, because for years her partner, Colin Greenland, also a speculative-fiction writer, cleared the dishes and put up with a distracted spouse while her head was in 19th-century London and Yorkshire. "It's not just my success," says Clarke. "It's his as well."

Greenland only read the manuscript two weeks ago, when Clarke received her first copies from the publisher. Was she concerned about his reaction? She looks bemused at this suggestion.

"I wasn't particularly worried at that point. I was pretty sure he'd probably like it."

The book had a second midwife, who will not be around for the christening. Clarke's first agent was Giles Gordon, a celebrated literary figure, who championed the book from the manuscript stage. He sent it to Bloomsbury, who bought worldwide rights immediately. Gordon died last year after a fall at his Edinburgh home. "A wonderful, wonderful man," says Clarke, gazing out the window.

Now, as she continues to work on the next novel, a sequel of sorts containing some of the same characters, her current agent, Jonny Geller, is fielding offers from Hollywood for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Sitting in a pub the previous night with Greenland and another friend, Clarke had allowed herself to think ahead, after the reviews and the book tour and the readings, to the day when her novel hits the big screen: Jude Law and Michael Gambon? Hugh Jackman and Bob Hoskins?

Clarke is keeping mum for now, preferring to leave that job to the professionals. She only hopes that the actors will be as well-cast as the ones in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which she loved. For now, she's just happy to have the book out in the world instead of in her head, where it was "taking up too much room." Out in the world, where celebrity will likely change her life.

Does she see herself, one day soon, smiling out from the cover of Hello! magazine? "Oh my," she says, somewhat horrified, sitting straight in her chair. "I certainly hope not."