Hodder & Stoughton, 2007, 398 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-340-75201-2
What I find most remarkable about Jasper Fforde is the way every one of his novels feels like a never-to-be-topped bravura performance. Given that he’s now written seven of them, that’s a more impressive achievement than you may think. Lesser authors may squeeze trilogies out of thin concepts, but Fforde seems determined to top the Van Vogtian ideal of a new idea every 800 words. A savvy mix of literary references, genre concepts, crystal-clear prose and good clean fun, Fforde’s novels don’t have plots as they have an avalanche of plot complications and conceptual set-pieces. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “a Fforde fan who has only read one of his books”: Usually, reading one Fforde means collecting them all. His fan-base is rabid, and it’s easy to see why.
First Among Sequels is the fifth book in the Thursday Next sequence, but it’s not quite a direct sequel. For one thing, it takes place in 2002, fourteen years after the climax of the fourth book. But Thursday Next is living in a universe where five novels have been adapted from her life: four volumes drenched with sex and violence, followed by a fifth “kinder and gentler” tome which sank without a trace. But that’s the least of Thursday’s problems, as she struggles at ACME Carpets, which is really a front for an officially-disbanded SpecOps. But even that is a cover of sorts for Thursday’s continuing activities as a Jurisfiction agent.
But wait! Thursday’s problems don’t stop there. There’s still a do-nothing teenage son to contend with (especially given how he should have started climbing ChronoGuard’s corporate ladder three years ago), cheese smuggling, a resurgent Goliath corporation, a dangerously stupidity-free government, a ghost with a message, declining readership, a husband suffering from writer’s block, more trouble in the world of fiction (including a sudden death for Sherlock Holmes) and a Jurisfiction partner who is nothing less than the fictionalized representation of Thursday herself.
The first hundred pages are a bit slower than usual, but that’s partly because they’re dedicated to an updated tour of Thursday’s universe, twelve years later. There’s a lot of stuff to remember, but Fforde does a fine job at holding our burdened minds through a refresher course in how his elaborate hodge-podge of concepts works together. (No, I’m still not convinced that it all fits together. No, I don’t think that’s important either.) Once again, we’re shown SpecOps, Jurisfiction, the Great Library, the Council of Genres, Text Grand Central, the Well of Lost Plots…
It’s a lot of stuff to juggle, but Fforde does it with aplomb and practised chaos. One of the continued pleasures of the Thursday Next universe is how the crises all seems to take place on different levels at once: At home, at work, elsewhere in Next’s “real world”, in Jurisfiction, across time… Most of those subplots end up being extensive justifications for elaborate set-pieces, but as long as the pages turn (and believe me, they turn quickly), who’s to complain? (As usual, it amuses me that authors count for nothing is Fforde’s grand mythology. This remains, first and foremost, a series for readers.)
I won’t spoil all of the conceptual gags and set-pieces that pepper the book, but the first two are worth a tease. First is a small passage in which the Thursdays feel what it’s like to be in a passage read by a superreader (“a reader with unprecedented power of comprehension; someone who can pick up every subtle nuance, all the inferred narrative and deeply embedded subtext in one tenth the time of normal readers.” [P.72]), a concept nearly certain to be explored anew in a latter volume. (The nice thing about Fforde’s prose is the way it makes even average readers feel like superreaders.) The second good piece is a “refit” sequence describing how books are regularly maintained and overhauled “every thirty years or a million reading, whichever is soonest.” [P.93], a segment giving a new sense to “critical re-evaluation”. But I’ll remain coy on the two madcap tricks in Chapters 36-37, both of which are worth loud “I can’t believe he’s doing this” laughs.
It all amount to another smooth and easy success for Fforde, who takes up a universe that seemed tapped-out and gives it another cool spin. There’s plenty of good material here (including bits of choice political satire), and the only bad thing about Fforde’s books is that they end far too soon. One warning, though: this is for those readers already familiar with Thursday Next’s universe. Everyone else should start back at The Eyre Affair.
What seems clear is that First among Sequels is, fittingly enough, the first of another cycle of Thursday Next novels. Not only are a number of new issues raised and left hanging (including the infamous X-14 cheese), but the book ends on what is nearly a cliffhanger, and ends up being a clear slingshot into the next book. Impatient readers beware: They may want to wait until all of the new Next books are in bookstores before starting to read.