04 August 2007

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels

In the Thursday Next novels, Jasper Fforde has created a universe that is irresistibly attractive to book lovers. It is a world in which literature has such importance that Britain's Special Operations includes a "Literary Detectives" division, to which our heroine (Thursday Next) belongs. Original manuscripts of great books are kept under lock and key because changes to the original (such as eliminating a character or altering her fate--an important plot element of The Eyre Affair--are immediately reflected in every extant edition. And it is possible (via innate talent or specialized devices) to physically enter the world behind the books, which is governed by administrators and bureaucrats sometimes even more annoying than real-world ones, as well as an organization called Jurisfiction, which tries to keep the wheels of literature turning smoothly (characters in their proper places and plot threads neatly tied).

What's amazing about the Thursday Next novels is not that Fforde has come up with conceits like these, but that he continually comes up with more of them, and that he manages to sustain them over several volumes. For example, in First Among Sequels, we are introduced to Britain's "stupidity surplus." The ruling Common Sense party has been acting with such probity and pragmatism that the country is in danger of a huge explosion of stupidity if something isn't done soon. What for another author would be a disposable one-liner becomes a robust plot thread for Fforde. (This is not to say there are no throw-aways in Fforde; there are plenty, which is sometimes disconcerting.)

As with many multi-volume series, the first novel displays the most energy and originality, and the subsequent ones all have some rough or dull spots. But there's typically enough ingenuity and suspense to carry you through; in particular, First Among Sequels offers plenty of outlandish ideas, essential paradoxes, and urgent mysteries to keep your left brain busy while your right brain follows the occasionally lagging story.

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