[21 August 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
It’s a rule of life that nothing is quite as wonderful as we remember it—Mom’s famous cake is good, but not great; the old vacation spot is pretty, but not idyllic; the “best movie ever” is entertaining, but nothing spectacular. Rules, however, are made to be broken, and it’s a thrill to see Jasper Fforde crush this one in his latest Thursday Next extravaganza, First Among Sequels.
That’s right, Thursday’s back. For those who might have forgotten—as if anyone could—we met our heroine first in The Eyre Affair. This fifth novel in Fforde’s brilliant series begins a new chapter in Thursday’s life.
It’s been 14 years since Thursday protected her own world—a fictional but parallel England—and the literary universe from evil in Something Rotten. Since then, LiteraTec, her division of Spec Ops, has been officially closed and forced to go undercover as Acme Carpets; Thursday has continued her work in Bookworld’s Jurisfiction department (quite literally, the policing agency that keeps order within the world of fiction); and she and her husband, Landen, have produced three children. Topping her list of worries, however, is her son, Friday, now 16, who is supposed to be taking over as chief of the time-traveling Chronoguard and, instead, sits around his room like a lump.
Then there are crises like the stupidity surplus the government has built up by constantly taking reasonable action, and all the carpets that her ostensible job demands she install. Jurisfiction issues include the death of Sherlock Holmes (via a waterfall), the sudden absence of humor from Thomas Hardy novels, and the potential war between the Racy Novel genre and the Ecclesiastical and Feminist. To top it all off, due to her own great fame, Thursday has been featured in many novels (fictional versions of Fforde’s own) and now must deal with her doubly-fictional counterparts, who exist in Bookworld.
It all sounds massively confusing, but the magic of Fforde’s writing is that it actually isn’t. With skill and a grin, he welcomes the reader into the crazed, madcap world that is Thursday’s, and suddenly it becomes easy, even irresistible, to accept time-travel paradoxes and jumps into and out of fiction.
Partly, this is due to the fun in Fforde’s writing. Time travel is explained by references to Saturday Night Fever, and favorites like the footnoterphone and the Cat Formerly Known as Cheshire are back. Partly, it’s because Fforde is able to mask clever satirical jabs, particularly political ones, as ridiculous fictional issues, such as the stupidity surplus and the ineptitude of the Council of Genres. Mostly, though, it’s because, even after all this time, Fforde still obviously delights in literature.
Whether he’s dropping a piano into Emma (Frank Churchill has to take the blame) or revealing the dangers of oral tradition (for the characters and the storyteller), his excitement and creativity are constantly evident. He even brings in some modern fiction in this latest book, instead of sticking entirely to classics—Harry Potter is a Bookworld celebrity, and Temperance Brennan, the forensic anthropologist of Kathy Reich’s mystery series, makes a special guest appearance.
Occasionally, Fforde’s writing does become a little disjointed. On his Web site, he explains that he initially began the book with six very disparate ideas, which he wrote in chunks and then dropped into the larger narrative. Fun as Fforde’s book is, such disconnected writing shows. Many sections, while delightful, appear tangential to the larger narrative.
Then again, as the novel’s ending reveals, this book is meant to be followed by a sequel (and probably many more after that). This makes it difficult to label something as unnecessary, since it could prove essential in a later book. After all, a few seemingly throwaway ideas provide the linchpin of this novel’s conclusion (and a clever conclusion it is). Perhaps the strange and unforeseeable plot twist involving Thursday’s children, or the idea of cheese so strong it has to be chained down, neither of which matters much here, will become essential in future books.
In the meantime, we’ll just have to enjoy Thursday and her world as Fforde gives them to us—exciting, eccentric, and exceptional.