BBC America's wondrous mini-series Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a costume drama with spells, monsters, and cutting-edge special effects, has been dubbed by some critics Harry Potter for the adult set. Others liken it to Doctor Who as told by Jane Austen.

A seven-part period drama set in the first decade of the 19th century, it's all that and so much more.

Premiering at 10 p.m. Saturday, Strange is based on Susanna Clarke's best-selling 2004 debut novel, which tells an alternative history of England.

Clarke, who spent a decade on the tome, introduced the fabulous fictional premise that magic was a well-developed practice in England but had been all but forgotten for centuries. At the dawn of the Industrial Age, magic existed only as a topic of endless academic debate among self-styled "gentlemen magicians" who founded dinner clubs such as the Learned York Society of Magicians.

The premiere episode opens during a gathering of the society. A collection of well-fed, middle-age petit bourgeois are scandalized when a young member complains that though he has heard about the exploits of great magicians of yore, he has yet to witness actual magic.

The gents mock the lad. They're theoreticians of magic, they say with pride. "Does an astronomer create the stars?" asks one with pompous incredulity. The gents are knocked off their high horses by Mr. Norrell (Ray Donovan's Eddie Marsan), a real magician who makes stone statues speak.

Ambitious and not a little ruthless, Norrell exploits England's war with France to secure a position in London's corridors of power. Learning that the war minister, Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West), is in mourning after the death of his fiancée (Alice Englert), Norrell uses the power of a nefarious fairy (Marc Warren) to bring her back to life. The magician then promises Pole he can help England win the war.

The series picks up more steam with the entrance of Bertie Carvel (Babylon) as Jonathan Strange, a charismatic novice with a powerful, natural talent for sorcery, who joins Norrell as his apprentice. Strange balances out the older man's mercenary qualities with a measure of affection and compassion.

Endlessly fascinating and driven by special effects every bit as sophisticated and powerful as the writing and characterization, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a classic.

TV REVIEW

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Premieres at 10 p.m. Saturday on BBC America.EndText

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