(On Cable TV, September 2017) I suppose it was only a matter of time before the Marquis de Sade became a romantic figure for our so-called enlightened age, portrayed as fighting the true monsters of social righteousness. Yeah … have they even tried reading de Sade’s stuff? Of course, having Geoffrey Rush in the lead role helps a lot in making de Sade’s sympathetic … and measuring him to even-worse antagonists is just stacking the deck unfairly. At its best, Quills is a meditation on freedom of speech, and how obscenity (from a writer) isn’t quite as bad as outright demonstrated sadism (from his jailers). It’s generally OK at portraying this point, although I really was not pleased with the death of a character during the film’s third act—it seemed cruel even in a film built around cruelty. Executed with some competence, it does celebrate the written word no matter its medium or intent and as such gets some mild built-in interest. Still, it’s Rush’s performance that’s most interesting here, and director Philip Kaufman’s handling of difficult material that becomes efficient to the point of invisibility. Quills is really not supposed to be historically accurate, so any criticism in this direction becomes relatively moot. Fans of Jasper Fforde’s fantasy novels will be happy to see his name in the end credits—before becoming a best-selling author, Fforde was a film crewmember and he worked on movies such as Quills.
Viking, 2011, 362 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-02252-6
Jasper Fforde is not what we’d call an ordinary writer, and his novels are not what we’d call ordinary fiction. Euphemistically called a “writer of humorous fantasy”, Fforde is constantly willing to engage in a playful exploration of genre fiction. His novels feature characters breaking out of their novels, communications by footnotes, time-travel from one volume to another, an exploration of genre fiction as a grand library, cheerfully absurd parallel universe and more meta-fictional jokes than can be listed on a single bibliography.
The fifth entry in the “Thursday Next” ended, as faithful readers may recall, with a heck of a send-off: the Bookworld threatened by a serial killer, a dirigible going down in flames and Thursday radioing back to headquarters that they may have a problem.
If you were expecting a sequel to that particular moment, however, expect to be mystified: As One of Our Thursdays is Missing begins, we’re dealing with an entirely different Thursday: The written one, portraying the “real” Thursday Next’s adventures within Bookworld. Never mind continuity, especially when Bookworld itself is remade into a geographically-based metaphorical island. (There’s a map.) The new plot is that the real Thursday Next is missing, and the written one feels compelled to take a leave of absence to find her. Among other perils, the written Thursday has to leave Bookworld to go investigate in the real world… becoming a human for the first time, and trying to figure out how the real Thursday lives from the clues left to her in the fictionalized novels in which she plays the real one.
Yes, the meta is quite heavy with this one.
Fortunately, it’s all handled with Fforde’s usual light-hearted flair. The rules of the universe having changed (there are several hilarious excerpt to “Bradshaw’s BookWorld Companion” to help us along the way), and re-learning them alongside the similarly-befuddled Thursday isn’t too painless. Fforde’s usual invention is on display as he features a robot companion, a dangerous mimefield, a battle in micro-gravity, peace talks between warring genres, a trip upriver in a rigidly-defined subgenre and more meta-fictional games than you can quite grasp at first. (One word: Toast.)
The highlight of the book, however, has to be the sequence in which the written Thursday is thrown into the real world. Suddenly, life becomes far more complicated for someone who has to get used to gravity, heartbeats and the rest of real life that never makes it into fiction. It’s not a brilliant piece of invention, but it’s a neat and revealing take on the venerable “visiting alien asking what it means to be human” trope.
It’s all amusing and eminently readable, but in-between the inventions and wordplay there’s a real question as to whether Fforde has simply given up on the continuity of his series (if continuity was ever his intent) and where the series can go from here. But that may not be much of a concern given the twists and turns that Fforde has provided in his series so far. It does feel like a discontinuity, though, and it will be up to the next volume to patch things up: Fans can hope to get a satisfying closure to the fifth volume, but at this point the entire series is really in Fforde’s very unusual hands.
Viking, 2009, 390 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-01963-2
It took a year of silence for Jasper Fforde fans to realize how privileged they had been. From his spectacular debut The Eyre Affair in 2001 to First among Sequels in 2007, Fforde was able to deliver one highly imaginative novel per year, every year for most of a decade. But after setting up a heck of a cliff-hanger in his seventh novel First among Sequels, Fforde’s schedule slipped in 2008 and more than a year went by without a new book from him.
The reason for the delay became more obvious when Shades of Grey was finally published in late 2009. A novel set in an entirely different universe than the ones that hosted his Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series, Shades of Grey is an ambitious debut for another trilogy… one that sends Fforde in pure Science Fiction territory.
At first glance, it looks like a typically British, somewhat comfortable universe. Our protagonist, young Eddie Russett, is traveling with his father to their new temporary home: a small village in which nothing is supposed to happen. It initially looks like a cozy British countryside novel, with trains and post delivery and tea spoons and village elders and teenage romance and nothing out of the ordinary.
But look closer, because this is a very different world. For one thing, people are distinguished and segregated by their ability to see color. Red; Greens; Blues; Yellows; Greys and so on: Apparently, everyone in this world is partially color-blind, and what you see (including how well you see it) definitely determines your rank in society. Our boy hero Eddie is about to be formally tested for his color perception in a late-teen rite of passage, but there’s a lot to do in-between. After all, his father is replacing an essential Chromaticologist who died in mysterious circumstances, and their new rural town reveals itself to be rotten to the core.
Shades of Gray is both a departure and showcase for Fforde’s core strengths. Fans will be immediately familiar with the way Fforde introduces all sorts of satirical details to set up his world, with the clarity of his prose, or the delights of his imagination. After a few swim-or-sink pages in which this new world is carefully constructed, readers are once again reminded why Fforde is such a dependable author: it’s a fantastic experience, and pretty soon everyone plays along with the color-blind premise.
And that’s when more interesting Ffordian tics appear. The “Shades of Gray” of the title serves double ironic meaning is describing a world that has more black-and-white rules than could be considered possible. This distantly post-apocalyptic society has been engineered for stability at all costs, and periodic technological regressions ensure that everyone remains free from choice. Our narrator Eddie is not entirely conscious of his own indoctrination, and one of the particular pleasures of the novel is to see him race to a cognitive breakthrough of the kind so beloved by SF readers. Not that the readers know terribly more than him; we do realize from various clues that Eddie and his fellow citizen aren’t human in the sense we are today, but many of the mysteries of this world have been left to solve in the other two novels of the trilogy launched by Shades of Gray.
Where it is a departure from the usual Fforde novel is that it is quite a bit slower and grimmer than its predecessors. The pacing is quite a bit more restrained than previous novels, reducing the number of subplots and allowing his characters to breathe a bit more easily. Elsewhere, the nature of the world in which Eddie lives is totalitarian in ways that jokes about Goliath Corporation and the Toast Marketing Board in the Thursday Next series only scratched. The ending, surprisingly bittersweet, sets up latter instalments by denying complete victory to our protagonists. While Shades of Gray is just as strange, funny, thrilling and fresh as Fforde’s previous novels, its intent is considerably more serious.
We can only guess at what this means for the next instalment in the series. The small surprise of Shades of Gray, however, is that I am now looking forward to its sequel with as much anticipation, if not more, than resolving the cliff-hanger at the end of the latest Thursday Next novel. Now that’s a successful first volume!
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.
Hodder & Stoughton, 2006, 383 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-83572-9
First, a quick note to existing Jasper Fforde fans who may still be wondering if The Fourth Bear is worth reading: Yes, it is. As a follow-up to The Big Over Easy, it’s seamless. You won’t be disappointed. Go get it.
But chances are that there are no existing Fforde fans who are still wondering if they should pick up The Fourth Bear. Fforde’s fiction is so unique, so inimitably his own that he tends to attracts a cult-like following. Better yet: his books have a pleasant consistency of quality that makes it hard to quit once you’ve enjoyed one. After a highly successful quartet of meta-fictional novels featuring detective Thursday Next, Fforde side-stepped into an alternate universe of “Nursery Crimes” with The Big Over Easy: The Fourth Bear is its sequel.
As with the previous volume, Jack Spratt’s universe is a highly unusual combination of sentient animals, nursery rhymes brought to life, unique crime-fighters and strange sporting pursuits such as competitive cucumber-growing. Jack Spratt, constantly underfunded and underestimated, finds himself suspended after a regrettable incident featuring the Gingerbreadman, and must be discreet in investigating the disappearance of a golden-haired reporter last seen going into a house with three bears.
The beauty of Fforde’s fiction is how he manages to cram jokes, ideas and plots in the same space. A telling cover blurb (“Great not just because it’s very funny but also because it works properly as a whodunit” —Observer) highlight that despite the ridiculousness of Fforde’s invented universes, his plotting is rigorous and holds up to elementary scrutiny. Indeed, The Fourth Bear is his best mystery yet: I found myself reading along for the plot as much as for the jokes, especially when it veered from crime novel to thriller. The ending itself is a solid piece of suspense and action writing.
But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t jokes, of course. Among other things, Fforde spends an inordinate amount of time setting up a multi-barrelled pun so awful that even the characters in the novel remark “It seems a very laborious set-up for a pretty lame joke, doesn’t it?”, followed by “Yes, I really don’t know how he gets away from it.” [P.320]. More familiar puns, such as “the right to arm bears”, make a better impression and form the backbone of the plot. At least Fforde partially redeems himself by coining the word “thermocuclear”, not as a typo, but as a punchline. And I’m not going into that whole porridge smuggling subplot, or what happens when Dorian Gray becomes a used car salesman. Add to that an series of numbered Plot Devices that the characters can see coming, and the meta-fictional games of Fforde’s previous fiction aren’t all that far away.
But jokes aren’t all that worth remembering about The Fourth Bear. In terms of characterization, Fforde delves a bit deeper into Jack Spratt’s own history, giving him a bit of marital strife when his wife learns that he’s a Person of Dubious Reality. Meanwhile, the relationship between his assistants Mary Mary and Constable Ashley gets upgraded one notch, leading to a laugh-out-loud scene in orbit that’s too good to spoil.
I’m pleased to note that the “Nursery Rhyme” aspect of this novel is a bit lighter than in The Big Over Easy. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the concept: It’s just that as someone who grew up in an all-francophone household, my comptines are not quite the same as the ones taught in English: some of the references in the series fly way over my head, and that feeling of being left out of some jokes didn’t seem as strong in this second entry. (Although some of Punch and Judy material is very British and would benefit from a bit of contextual reading: Fforde attempts riskier humour than usual with those characters, and some of it approaches bad taste.)
Overall, this is a smooth read, easily as good as the author’s previous novels. That Fforde is writing deliriously funny novels is one thing: That he’s able to do so with regularity (at the rhythm of one novel per year since 2001) is even more astonishing. If you haven’t jumped on the Fforde express yet, go back to The Eyre Affair and work your way up: If you like the first book, chances are that you won’t be able to stop from reading them all.
Hodder & Stoughton, 2005, 398 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-83568-0
If you have read any of Jasper Fforde’s previous books, you know what to expect from The Big Over Easy: zany fiction espousing genre-bending meta-fictional tricks, utterly readable prose, good gags and sharp characters embracing their clichéd (or counter-clichéd) nature. After four book in the Thursday Next series, The Big Over Easy is the beginning of a new series, very loosely connected to the previous one. (By this, I mean that the connections are one-way: readers of The Well of Lost Plots will have a blast reading The Big Over Easy, but there are no explicit references in the other direction) In this volume, detective Jack Spratt and his newly-transfered assistant Mary Mary investigate the unfortunate death of Humpty Dumpty, found cracked near a wall.
Yup; After lampooning the entire genre fiction establishment in his previous four books, Fforde returns with a crossover between crime fiction and nursery rhymes. Jack Spratt’s world is just as likely to include three murderous pigs and women with really long hair than bad cars, office politics and forensic evidence. The Nursery Crime Division of the Reading Police Department isn’t glamorous (in fact, it’s pretty much the local laughingstock), but Spratt is too conscientious a cop to let that drag him down. Still, he too would like to be part of the Guild of Detectives, and submit his thrilling adventures for inclusion in Amazing Crime Stories magazine…
Oh yes, the patented weirdness of Fforde’s funny fantasy is back. While The Big Over Easy is generally more grounded and a touch more controlled that Fforde’s previous books, no one will mistake this for conventional fiction. Not when sight gags include nursery rhyme characters trying to fit in the real world, or a spiritual leader called “The Jellyman”. Fforde has a gift for heightening the fantastic with a good dose of the mundane, and so Jack Spratt’s affection for his troublesome car tend to be cute rather than annoying. (Well, cute to us and annoying to him)
The Big Over Easy, as the title suggest, is perhaps more effective when it’s riffing on the conventions of the crime fiction genre. There is a lot of wonderful material about the convoluted nature of mystery plots in here, as well as how master detectives would be seen (or adulated) by their peers. Fforde’s plot itself cheerfully goes down a tremendously complicated route, so don’t be afraid to let go and not be too frustrated at the solutions pile up.
Fforde’s sense of sly humour and limpid prose also remains intact. Reviewing one of his books tends to be an exercise in picking favourite gags, which I’m trying to avoid. What is certain is that next to The Eyre Affair, this is his most accessible book. Readers who haven’t tried any of his fiction yet will find much to love if they start here. (I doubt, however, that readers frustrated with Fforde’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to plotting will be any more pleased here, though The Big Over Easy is a bit more restrained in real-world matters.) A fair warning: Don’t be too surprised if, once firmly in the novel, you don’t want to stop reading.
One thing that did trip me up, in the interest of full disclosure, is that my knowledge of nursery rhymes is sub-par: Having been raised in a francophone environment until way past the weaning age for comptines (and not being a parent myself), I don’t have the instinctual knowledge of nursery rhymes ingrained in native English speakers. Those for whom English is a second language, or who may have forgotten even the most basic nursery rhymes may want to sneak into a young nephew’s room and read up on his documentation before diving into The Big Over Easy.
Otherwise, this book is all gold. Good solid concept, smooth execution and the usual Fforde laughs. Who could ask for more? Oh, wait, me! I can’t wait until Spratt’s next adventure, already announced as The Fourth Bear…
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.
NEL, 2003, 360 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-340-82592-8
There’s never a dull moment in the life of Thursday Next, and that serves both as a plot description for The Well of Lost Plots as well as a plotting technique for Jasper Fforde. In this third volume of his enormously amusing humour/mystery/fantasy hybrid, Fforde continues to throw everything he can imagine at us grateful readers, and if he stretches things perhaps a tad too far in this entry, it easily remains a must-read for everyone who loved Next’s first two adventures.
If you haven’t read The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book, you may want to start there and come back after. Events in The Well of Lost Plots begin right after those of the previous book, and little time is spent catching up: If you remember the conclusion of the second novel, Thursday Next has decided to retreat from the alternate reality in which her husband has been erased from history and wait out the birth of her child in a novel still under construction. (Hey, don’t ask if you haven’t read the first two books.) The story picks up weeks later: Thursday is living the quiet life of a secondary character, but trouble is brewing in Text Grand Central, what with the disappearance of several Jurisfiction agents and the imminent introduction of UltraText[TM] technology.
Seemingly proceeding on the principle that you can’t have enough of a good thing, Fforde sets the vast majority of The Well of Lost Plots inside the fictional universe of books first glimpsed in the first volume and defined in the second one. At the exception of two chapters set in the real world, all of this third tome is spent shuttling back and forth between novels and the Grand Library linking all of them together. As you would now expect from a Fforde novel, subplots multiply in an attempt to show us as many cool things as possible. We go deep in the “Well of Lost Plots” to find out how stories are constructed, how characters are defined and how unsuccessful fictions are slated for destruction. Amusingly enough, Fforde’s mythology reduces authors to mere transcribers, an ironic reversal when you compare it with the hundred of stories portraying authors as the end-all of literary creation, from Misery to Wonder Boys.
But there’s a story of sorts behind it all, a twisty maze of double-crossings involving renegade Jurisfiction agents and an attempted takeover of Text Grand Central. Beloved characters die, Next investigates, everyone is a suspect and it all finds a somewhat satisfying deus-ex-libris ending at the 923rd Annual Fiction Awards. Meanwhile, Next herself has to deal with the aftermath of her husband’s eradication… or simply forget about it.
As with Fforde’s first two books, The Well of Lost Plots is aimed at enthusiastic readers, and works on quantity as much as quality; there’s simply so much stuff to enjoy that it’s almost impossible to pause and reflect. In fact, this third volume starts to show the limits of Fforde’s premise: While all is well and fun, there’s a clear sense that this is almost too much; by setting almost all of his story inside the fuzzy boundaries of explicit fiction, Fforde also fudges with rules and limits. Anything can happen and pretty much everything does. Readers may start to yearn for the relative simplicity of Next’s native Swindon.
There are also a number of troubling inconsistencies. Whereas Lost in a Good Book played around with the idea that Next was as fictional as the rest of the characters, The Well of Lost Plots makes her an Outlander whose reality is undisputed. The death of one character seems to contradict the epigram at the beginning of the second volume’s Chapter 29. But Fforde may have something else down his sleeve for Book Four, so let’s not be too quick to judge…
Still, there are small problems compared to what you’ll get from the novel. Gems abound, such as the Wuthering Heights rage counselling session; the vision of all the other Grand Libraries; the way Generics are transformed in authentic Characters; the fantastic vyrus-fighting action sequence; the cameo appearance by Gully Foyle (Jurisfiction agent for the SF genre, as it turns out); the hilarious way Jurisfiction decide to deal with a shortage of “u”s. Wonderful.
Of course, this book practically sells itself to Fforde’s fans, who probably pre-ordered the book as soon as it was announced. Onward to the fourth volume of the series, Something Rotten.
NEL, 2002, 372 pages, C$14.99 tpb, ISBN 0-340-73357-8
Jasper Fforde made quite a splash with his 2001 debut novel The Eyre Affair, a dazzling mix of humour, alternate fantasy, thriller and romance in a world where barriers between fiction and reality aren’t quite as solid as anyone would think. This assured debut quickly won him the favour of book-lovers around the world, and the least one can say about the sequel Lost in a Good Book is that it won’t disappoint any of his fans.
Fforde leads us once more into his madcap alternate reality via the narration of detective Thursday Next, a woman of uncommon abilities and unparallelled contacts. Her father is a time-traveller, her colleague is a supernatural slayer and her pet is a dodo. Given that her enemies range from criminal masterminds to the Goliath mega-corporation, it doesn’t take half a book before her husband is erased from history. Next step? Recruitment by a very special policing force and the impending end of all life as we know it.
Oh, yes, all the fun of Fforde’s first novel is to be found in Lost in a Good Book, and much much more. This sequel deals heavily with the reality/fiction transgressions that shined so brightly in the first book, playing well to his established crowd of book-loving readers. Picking up scant weeks after the events of The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book fulfils the first requirements of a good sequel by confronting its protagonist with the consequences of her earlier actions.
Once more, Next has to defy the odds against her and navigate through impossible adventures to make it alive at the end of her novel. What’s new in this volume are her added powers and responsibilities as a junior member of Jurisfiction, an organization dedicated to keeping literature free from tampering. You see, all books in history are kept at the Grand Library, most novels have lives of their own and Jurisfiction is the agency that keeps it all in order…
This particular subplot leads to one of the best scenes in the entire novel: As Next greets her compadres in literary enforcement, she recognizes them easily from classic works. But then…
“Welcome to Norland Park, Miss Next. But tell me, as I am not so conversant with contemporary fiction – what book are you from?”
“I’m not from a book.”
Upon which her interlocutor “looked startled for a moment, then smiled even more politely” [P.265]
Heh. And if you don’t think that’s mildly clever, just wait until Next uses decreasing levels of entropy to her advantage.
But one could quote favourite bits for ages without touching upon how Lost in a Good Book lives up to the expectations raised by its title: There isn’t much in this book that isn’t tons of fun, from the daily details of the protagonist’s life to neat ideas (such as communication through footnotes) and an increasingly sophisticated mythology featuring all, er, creation. Readers should rejoice, because Fforde is writing catnip for bibliomaniacs. (From the title of the third book of the series, The Well of Lost Plots, I’m guessing we’re not done exploring meta-fiction. Particularly absent is the role of the authors in this fictive cosmology, which is probably being kept in reserve for a latter instalment)
This being said, Lost in a Good Book comes with its share of dark moments, characters being eliminated and a finale that is more of a temporary respite than a conclusive victory, suggesting that this is only a middle tome of a continuing series. While few would designate this series as anything but a comedy, I suppose that every character will have to take a few hard knocks until the grand happy ending.
But don’t let this discourage you: If you enjoyed The Eyre Affair, it won’t take much to convince you to race through the rest of Thursday Next’s adventures. I myself am rationing all Fforde Ffiction to one per month, and there are regrettably only two more to go. Know simply this, though: During Lost in a Good Book, I never peeked at the page number to gauge my progress through the book. Not once.
NEL, 2001, 384 pages, C$14.99 tpb, ISBN 0-340-73356-X
Every book has an intended audience, and it’s not hard to see that The Eyre Affair is best dedicated to hard-core book lovers, avid readers and English Literature majors. Who else could appreciate this mixture of romance, adventure, mystery and fantasy in an alternate universe where the Crimean war still unfolds in 1985, where time travel is not unheard of, where the written word is still the dominant form of entertainment and where people can travel in and out of novels?
Oh yes, Jasper Fforde’s fiction is aimed straight at the intellect of people who wish that coin-operated Shakespeare quoting booths were installed in every train station. That Richard III showings had the popularity of camp ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW revivals. That there would be such a thing as a “literary detective”, ill-paid would it be.
In the meantime, we can live vicariously through the adventures of the capable Thursday Next, a SpecOps agent with curious family relations, much historical baggage and a messed-up sentimental life. A classified assignment with SO-9 quickly turns ugly as arch-criminal Acheron Hades (such a great character name!) kills off her partner and escapes in the wilderness. It gets more complicated when the original manuscript of Jane Eyre is stolen and Hades starts messing with the novel, changing all copies of the book worldwide…
Oh, what a charming alternate universe is weaved by Fforde in this first volume of what looks like an open-ended series (three more volumes have been published so far; reviews forthcoming). Satiric and believable, with enough hooks to allow further development if needed, Thursday Next’s universe is a book lover’s fondest wish come true. Barriers between fiction and reality are malleable, the written word reigns supreme and one never quite knows what’s going to happen next.
As you may guess, the reading pleasure derived from The Eyre Affair is considerable. Narrator Next is a capable heroine with just enough problems to make her sympathetic and even the avalanche of convenient coincidences (let’s see: her father is a renegade time-traveller, her uncle is a genius inventor, she’s an ex-student of Hades and all of those things come into play as the plot unfolds) doesn’t do much to dampen our amusement.
Perhaps the best thing about it is the sense that this is unabashedly high-brow comedy. I may not have caught all the literary references, but it doesn’t change the comfortable sense of being in an imagined universe that’s utterly sympathetic to hard-core readers. References fly high and low, but catching them all isn’t necessary in order to derive considerable enjoyment out of the whole tale.
Also worth noting is the easy way Fforde mixes and matches genres in order to develop his story. While a thriller template forms the backbone of The Eyre Affair, it also features a substantial romance and borrows the atmosphere of classic comedy. The alternate universe in which Thursday Next operates is introduced through techniques borrowed from the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, leading to a book you can equally lend to SF fans and mainstream readers.
Some will say that this book could only have been written in Great Britain, and they’re probably right: It co-exist comfortably alongside the dry wit of series such as Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld sequence while possessing its own distinct identify.
What else is there to say in order to convince you to go out and buy this book? You know you you are. You already know if a trip to an alternate universe in which books are wildly popular appeal to you. If not, what are you doing reading this review?
(Sequel: Lost in a Good Book)