Hodder & Stoughton, 2004, 393 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-83827-2
There’s something rotten in the state of England. Fortunately, Thursday Next is back on the case, two years after the events of The Well of Lost Plots. As Something Rotten begins, the twin pressures of Jurisfiction leadership and homesickness are getting to her: After a problem in a genre Western is solved in an entirely unsatisfactory fashion, she decides to get out of the Bookworld, come back to Swinton and finally get her eradicated husband back.
This fourth book in the Thursday Next series is meant to be a conclusion of sorts to the series, and so a whole bunch of errant plot threads are tied back together one after another in the madcap fashion by now so familiar to Fforde fans. Something Rotten reaches back all the way to The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book for references and in-jokes, successfully concluding the series. (Maybe.)
This being said, there’s enough new material here to keep everyone interested. Next doesn’t come back alone from the Bookworld. For one thing, her infant son (Friday Next, of course) comes back with her, giving rise to all sorts of complicated situations of which finding day care is the least difficult. For another, she’s shepherding Hamlet as he visits the real world to assess his own reputation. This wouldn’t be a Fforde novel without tons of subplots, so you can also expect Thursday Next to confront assassins, coach a cricket team, save the world, team up with agent Spike for another supernatural adventure, get news from her deceased time-travelling father, deal with Neanderthals, find cloned Shakespeares, deal with the Goliath corporation and fight the evil Yorrick Kaine. Whew!
Given the depth and complexity of Fforde’s imagined universe as developed over the first three books, I can’t imagine how a new reader would react at the sight of all this stuff. But for faithful fans of the series, Something Rotten is pure gold. Fforde doesn’t necessarily preclude further volumes in the series (you can even see hooks for something called The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco buried into the plot-line of the novel), but we should be grateful that he’s willing to bow out in style. After setting most of The Well of Lost Plots in the fictional Bookworld, Fforde wisely re-sets Something Rotten to take place almost entirely is Next’s “Real World”. It gains in plausibility, but loses in invention. While it would be an exaggeration to say that the world of Thursday Next has gotten boring, it’s true that it doesn’t offer as much that’s completely new.
Still, Swinton is a pleasant place to visit, and the fevered pace of Fforde’s invention is almost as manic as in the previous books. What’s more, it even finds a very dramatic ending that deftly balances real emotion and amusing slapstick. Also included is gentle political satire (as Denmark is designated as the root of all evil as part of a dastardly plan by Yorrick Kaine), the usual typographical finds (here, a historical figure speaking in Gothic fonts) and two or three revelations about the characters’ future. All told, Something Rotten is just as readable, just as enjoyable and just as amusing as the first three books of the series, giving form to a quartet that’s well worth recommending to every ardent reader on your Christmas list.
With this, a natural end to the Thursday Next series, Fforde and ffans find themselves at a branching point: The author surely has some other universes to create, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll allow his readers to box him into a narrow series of books that is perhaps best left complete. We’ll see: His next book, The Big Over Easy, is supposed to be a stand-alone book. Better a singleton than overcooking a series which, at this time, seems to have reached its potential.