August 26, 2007

BOOKS: First Among Sequels, Jasper Fforde (2007)

5th in the Thursday Next series.

Thursday is one of the finest agents in Jurisfiction, the police agency responsible for what happens inside books. Most of her fellow agents are themselves fictional characters; Thursday's mentor, for instance, was Jurisfiction legend Miss Havisham. Thursday is the rare Jurisfiction agent who comes from the real world -- the Outland, as it's known in BookWorld -- and she travels back and forth between the two worlds.

First Among Sequels finds her training two potential new Jurisfiction agents, who happen to be the fictional versions of herself from the five Thursday Next novels. Why two? Well, there was an author change after the fourth book, and the Thursday from The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco is (literally) a different character entirely. Now, if it seems to you that neither of these fictional Thursdays bears much resemblance to the Thursday you read about in those novels, or if you don't remember reading The Great Samuel Pepys Fiasco, have no fear. Those anomalies are part of the fun, and Fforde resolves them nicely by the time the story is over.

Thursday's frustrating stint as a trainer is just one of the story threads woven throughout First Among Sequels, and for the first half of the book, they seem to be entirely unconnected. There's the reluctance of Thursday's slacker son, Friday, to join the ChronoGuard -- the time traveling police -- which poses a problem becuase Friday is supposed to invent the technology that allows time travel, and if he doesn't do that, then the ChronoGuard will have been unable to do all the fine work it's done over the last several decades. (Not only that, but there's the little problem of time itself unravelling, and that needs to be taken care of by the end of the week.) Jurisfiction is also struggling to understand the declining interest in reading in the Outland, a decline which threatens the very existence of the BookWorld; and Friday is being visited by the ghost of her uncle Mycroft. In the second half of the book, Fforde cleverly weaves these threads together, and what had seemed like amiable, digressive rambling proves to be a carefully planned plot.

As always, there are marvelous jokes, many of them tossed off in the background (there's a terrific Thomas Hardy joke, and how many novels can you say that about?). Fforde keeps coming up with new aspects of BookWorld, and ingenious new ways to expand its territory; I particularly liked the chapter in which Thursday finds herself trapped on the steamship Moral Dilemma.

You could probably get through First Among Sequels without having read the earlier Thursday Next novels, but there are a lot of references and plot details that would be clearer if you had. And they're all terrific books, filled with outlandishly clever ideas, so there's no reason not to start with The Eyre Affair and make your way through the series. If you've been reading all along, you surely won't be disappointed by this latest installment. The best news is that there will be at least one more volume to come; this one ends with a lovely cliffhanger that promises another set of inventive complications.

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