Tuesday, October 09, 2007

First Among Sequels, by Jasper Fforde

I can't believe I haven't written about this one yet. I adore Jasper Fforde. If you are, like me, a geeky English major, there is nothing funnier than The Eyre Affair, the original Thursday Next adventure. Set in a highly literary "alternative history," the Thursday Next series stars Our Heroine, a lowly government worker in the SpecOps department. Her beat? Counterfeit classics--a truckload of Spenser with a street value of millions? She'll stop it. Need help verifying a lost Shakespeare play? She's got the equipment. If it's written in ball point pen in a lined, spiral bound notebook. . .authenticating is the easy part. Convincing the owner is the hard part.

It is clear that Fforde loves literature, and he loves words. He has created a version of England that is populated with the kind of literary groupies most of us wish we could be. Door to door evangelists for the theory that Francis Bacon wrote the Shakespeare plays. At diner booths, there are no juke boxes. Instead, there are "WillSpeak" machines: put in your coins and get a puppet reciting Shakespeare monologues.

Once you have accepted that this England is only tangentially related to our world, the pseudoscience of it becomes even funnier. Reverse bioengineering has created a world in which woolly mammoth migrate through back gardens, and there are no ducks, but dodos are wonderful pets. Thursday's father is a member of the ChronoGuard--time travelling policemen who enforce history. Thursday's father has gone rogue, and the Guard are after him.

According to Fforde, time-travel is hard to write. The inconsistencies start to pile up, and after about the third book, he was making promises to himself that he would never write any more time-travel books. First Among Sequels is his delivery on that promise.

He had to finish up the plot lines he had started, which took him until book 4 of the series. This latest is either Book 5 of the old series, or Book 1 of a new series, and in it he writes himself free of the ChronoGuard permanently. Which is really all you need to know about the plot.

Because the plot is the engine that steams you through the book, but the fun is in the details. It helps if you've read a lot of classical/canonical fiction, because then the jokes are funnier. I happened to have gotten Cold Comfort Farm from Mr. Sweetie for my birthday, and so Fforde's comment about "something nasty in the woodshed" made more sense to me than if I hadn't read it. But you don't have to be particularly well read to appreciate that the bad guy's name is Jack Schitt.

And don't ask, just go to www.jasperfforde.com for the complete post-reading experience!

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