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Thursday Next: First Among Sequels
By Jasper Fforde


 
I seem to be making a habit of featuring my favourite authors on this page. I see no reason to buck the trend now, and so bring you the brilliant Jasper Fforde. Mr. Fforde first caught my attention back in 2001 with a little story entitled “The Eyre Affair”, which gave us his version of 1985 Swindon, a very different place than the one in current residence in the UK. The entire planet is centered around literature. The Classics play a part in everyday life. Instead of cigarette machines Britons now get their fixes dropping coins into a Will-Speak machine for little slices of the Bard. The words of the classics are sacrosanct and when one of the most famous heroines of literature is kidnapped, Swindon’s finest Special Ops officer, Miss Thursday Next, is on the case. By way of the Prose Portal, an invention of her brilliant, eccentric uncle Mycroft, Thursday is able to pass into fiction itself and right the wrongs that will so direly affect the real world, as well as the literary. 


The original and ambitious premise was enough to pull me in, but it’s Fforde’s engaging writing style that gives the books their sense of fun. Fforde’s obvious love of the classics is what gives the series its steam, but his references to literary characters and places throughout never make those who aren't as well-versed feel left out. The adventures of Thursday, her SpecOps crew, her devoted family (- including her rogue, time-slipping father), and some eeevil villains usually based out of the omnisciently powerful and corrupt Goliath Corporation, as the center of attention, sets you up for a wild, surreal ride. As a Jurisfiction agent, Thursday’s guide through the innermost working of books is The Cat Formerly Known as Cheshire. Fforde’s idea of punishment for errant characters range being doomed to read the ten most boring books ever written, to being erased completely from the pages of whichever book you originated from. Fforde creates a world where inventions like the footnooterphone, the Chronoguard, and armies of "Rebecca"’s nefarious Mrs. Danvers clones are used as a defence force. 


It’s been three years between the last Thursday Next adventure and this latest one “First Among Sequels”. After the previous book, “The Well of Lost Plots”, I was pretty sure we’d heard the last of our heroine, ash she’d finally retrieved her husband, Landen, after his “eradication” by the Goliath Corporation, and was well pregnant. It seemed all of Thursday’s reasons to risk life and limb had been eliminated one by one and all the bad guys duly punished. It seems I was mistaken… 


In “First Among Sequels”, Thursday is a wife and mum of two and a half kids, including her eldest, Friday, a slacker with well-prophesied potential. Thursday alleges to live a life of domestic bliss working at Acme Carpets, a not-particularly well-hidden front for the remaining branches of the Special Operations Network, which, though abandoned due to lack of funding, refused to fade away. Because Thursday is such a multi-tasker, not only is she holding down the fort as a carpet vendor and SO-27 officer, but she still wields a mean TravelBook, a device which is her passport in and out of the literary world. This chapter gives us a twist, wherein, Thursday herself, having had her cliff-hangers serialised, is in charge of training her allegorical doppelgangers, both extreme black and white versions of herself, for positions on the Jurisfiction force. All is not well in the Great Library, as Outlander ReadRates have reached their lowest ebb and various genres battle for preferred placement on bookshelves. Add to that the Goliath Corporations latest eeevil schemes; the appropriation of Mycroft Next’s technology to create the Austen Rover, a bus meant to take high-end day trippers through the classics, and a "Pride and Prejudice" reality program where viewers can vote their least favourite Bennet permanently out of Jane Austen’s most famous work, and their attempts to retrieve Mycroft’s recipe to unscramble eggs… Yes, typical mischief in the worlds of Thursday Next. 


“First Among Sequels” will be a welcome addition to the series for Fforde’s die-hard fandom (- There have been “Nextie” conventions held in Swindon). For all the goings-on in the story and, boy, does it go on; the one solid constant of the tale is the evolution of Thursday, herself. One of her Cadet clones is a brash, oversexed, shoot-first, ask-questions-later action hero, and the other as a peacenik, earth mother, more concerned with yoga than how to defend oneself (- or anyone else) in a gunfight. Neither one fully represents the Thursday we have come to know, but the balance the real Thursday sets between the two puts on a fine point on who she is now, Thursday is a wise, loving wife and mum who needs to get out and lay down the law every now and again (- even if her adoring husband isn’t completely aware of all his wife’s high-risk activities.). Her defence of her son in the face of a possible apocalypse (- say that three times fast) shows us that while she’s still a brilliant officer, even without her being aware her priorities are set in stone. 


Fforde brings in all the characters who have become dear to Thursday’s readers, including an all too brief appearance by Pickwick, Thursday’s moulting, home-cloned dodo, Pickwick ( - luv her!), and a protoplasmic cameo by Thursday’s Uncle Mycroft. However, as has been the case with some of the previous chapters in the series, First Among Sequels suffers from being told in fits and starts, with little flow to the story. It feels like a series of ideas that Fforde was looking to connect, which at times seem to slog along (– stupidity surplus, I’m looking at you!) clogging up the arteries of the story. Newcomers will be boggled by the myriad of convoluted plots elements, and the volume of characters old and new, requires a scorecard to sort out. I was very much looking forward to this new chapter, and was sad to find myself skimming through pages; eyes glazed over with the endless natter of quirky detail thrown at my head in place of the loopy, yet clear narrative that made the series charming originally, and it left me bored. I felt a lot of what I was reading I had read before, but with more bits of twee minutiae and tiresome subplots to jazz it up and make it look interesting. Outside of the appearance of Spike, Thursday’s occasional SpecOps teammate (- and who really needs his own spinoff, by now), and the clever premise of “Bennetmania” - the Austen reality show, there was nothing in First Among Sequels that caught my attention. The big, climactic set piece came down with a thud, and the achingly obvious cliff-hanger ending was far below Fforde’s standard. Nothing in “First Among Sequels” made me want to read whatever is Next Among Sequels.  
(- yeah, I know, but I could’ve said I hoped it was Last Among Sequels, instead…)

~ Mighty Ganesha 
Sept. 3rd, 2007
 

 

 

 

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