Lost in a Good Book

Reviewed: December 27, 2006
By: Jasper Fforde
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton / New English Library
372 pages, $14.99

Thursday Next lives in a version of our world where things are just a little different. The place is recognizable enough, but the history has taken some left and right turns. The time frame is sort of the late 1980s, but England has been fighting the Crimean War on and off for nearly a century, matched against a Russia which never had a revolution and still has a Tsar. Thursday’s England is a democracy and Wales is an independent republic. Something like the aborted German invasion of 1940 apparently took place and was successful, but the 1,000 Year Reich is nowhere in sight.

What is there instead is the Goliath Corporation, which seems to have its tentacles in just about every legal and illegal operation in the nation, and is therefore often involved in whatever case Thursday might be investigating.

The biggest difference (an author’s dream no doubt) is that people really, really care about literature. Thursday is an agent with the Swindon SpecOps department 27, the Literary Detectives or LiteraTecs section, and her job is to prevent having terrible things from happening to classic literature. For instance, if someone gets hold of a manuscript copy of a book and changes it in any way, it can change the entire story in every printed edition.

Another branch of SpecOps is the Chronoguard, which Thursday’s father worked for before he became disillusioned with government policy and turned rogue. One gets the impression that he is working to bring Thursday’s reality into greater sync with our own, but he isn’t at all clear about that whenever he turns up to meet with her, freezing time all around them so they can have a brief chat.

At the end of book one, The Eyre Affair, Thursday got married to her old flame,  Landon Parke-Laine, and is getting on with her life when book two opens, about three months later.  Goliath Corp. lost a valued agent when Thursday left him trapped in a copy of Poe’s poem “The Raven” during the events of book one, using a device called a Prose Portal which her uncle had invented to allow people actually to enter fictional realities. Goliath wants their man back and so they arrange for Landon to become a non-person by messing with the time line. Thursday is the only person who recalls he every existed, and she has a dreadful time trying to explain why she’s pregnant with his child.

Thursday has to solve all of this mess somehow, and incidentally prevent the world from being turned into a giant mound of Dream Topping, which she learns about when her father drops by to warn her of this threat to everyone’s existence.

The solution hinges on the fact that fictional realities are simply another type of reality. Within the fictional world there is an organization called Jurisfiction, a police force composed of literary characters and real people, who perform much the same function as LiteraTecs, working between the lines of the fictions they inhabit.

Thursday learns, with the help of a number of fictional characters, to move between books, simply by reading herself into their worlds. This is just a more extreme version of what happens to any accomplished reader who has managed to achieve such a degree of suspension of disbelief as to be “lost in a good book”, as the old saying goes.

Within these “worlds” she manages to locate the embodiment of the memory of her lost husband, foil the plots of Goliath Corp. and, with the aid of her time travelling father, find a way to keep the planet and everything on it from being turned into Dream Topping.

Fforde’s work reminds me somewhat of the late Douglas Adams, who stood science fiction on its head with the five books in his Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy (not to mention redefining the word trilogy), as well as that of the vastly more prolific Terry Prachett, whose Discworld fantasy series (35 volumes and counting) has done much the same for the thud and blunder style of heroic fantasy pioneered by Robert E. Howard in his tales of Conan.

These novels are chockfull of literary references and characters. Chapters headings, for instance, are often quotations from the work of Thursday’s official biographer, Millon De Floss. Miss Havisham (from Great Expectations) is a key member of Jurisfiction. The Librarian in the Grand Library of the fictional realm is the Cheshire Cat from Wonderland.

So far there are four books in this series, with a fifth due out next summer.

Fforde has also started another series, set within fairy tale fiction and featuring the adventures of Detective Inspector Jack Spratt. I assume these are parodies of the classic British mystery in the same way that the Thursday Next books parody the thriller.