The first in Fforde’s Thursday Next series has been recommended to me more times than I can count, and from about the first few pages, I could see why. Anyone who had spent any amount of time talking books with me knows I absolutely love Sir (P)Terry Pratchett’s writing for the way it blends humour and seriousness to amplify the effects of both. Fforde appears to aim for a similar effect, and at times achieves it. Perhaps it’s because I hold Pratchett so high and this was my point of comparison, or because my internal structural editor flared up a bit; but while I enjoyed the book, there were some parts that I really had to grind past. It was good, and I’ll definitely read on in the series, but at times it was a struggle.
But first, onto the blurb!
There is another 1985, where London’s gangs have moved into the lucrative literary market, and Thursday Next is on the trail of the new crime wave’s Mr Big.
Acheron Hades has been kidnapping characters from works of fiction and holding them to ransom. Jane Eyre is gone. Missing.
Thursday sets out to find a way into the book to repair the damage. But solving crimes against literature isn’t easy when you also have to find time to halt the Crimean War, persuade the man you love to marry you, and figure out who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
Perhaps today isn’t going to be Thursday’s day. Join her on a truly breathtaking adventure, and find out yourself. Fiction will never be the same again.
Okay, first of all, I cringed at that first line. I’m not a huge romance reader, but this seemed a cheap way to introduce a romance subplot. As a reader, I don’t care if a character has romantic interest or not – I care about whether presented relationship is believable. This line left me with a skeptical mindset from the start, as it implied that any boyfriend was better than none. I know it’s tongue in cheek, but first impressions matter. This was not a great first impression.
I’m also not sure this is a particularity accurate blurb. Jane Eye doesn’t feature until quite a way in, and the Shakespeare question is completely irrelevant to the plot. Thursday is only passively involved with the Crimean war, and the romance. . well, I’ll get into that later. I didn’t enjoy or believe that element.
That said, the opening of the book is brilliant and engaging. Thursday is a LiteraTec, part of the London Spec Ops team that addresses literary crime. She’s pulled into a higher echelon of Spec Ops to assist with a crossover crime that is uniquely connected to Thursday’s past. The next section is full of action, some emotive pulls with characters that quickly relatable, and then (*SPOILER WARNING*) are killed. The traumatic event promises a great cat-and-mouse chase, introduces a fascinating world, and puts Thursday back in the hometown she abandoned ten years prior. Delightful awkwardness and absurditities ensue.
Another fantastic element is Fforde’s writing of the Crimean War. In Thursday’s universe, 1985 is the 113th year of the war between Russia and England over the Crimea Peninsula. I was reading this at the same time that coalition troops were pulling out of Afghanistan, so yeah. There were feelings. Thursday has some pretty strong feelings too, and is at odds with other veterans who hold various views. Expected to support her former commander, and hassled by media and the public alike for comment, Thursday is clearly uncomfortable talking about it with anyone. In this, I think Fforde captures an element that I haven’t encountered much in fantasy. Fforde presents veteran opinions as being non-homogeneous, and avoids Thursday’s military experience defining her, while maintaining it constantly at the back of her mind. I connected quite strongly with that element. Also the idea that opinions are presupposed, whether accurately or not, is a very real element that is often not handled well in fiction.
The problem was that the Thursday’s experience in the Crimea is essentially irrelevant to the story. Its part of who she is, but the somewhat intrusive Crimea arc does not impact the main plotline in the slightest. It seemed overdone and in competition with the main plot, and therefore required a conclusion. To put is bluntly, I wasn’t convinced in the slightest by this arc’s closure. If the war was as easy to fix as this conclusion suggested, then the conflict would not have gone on for 113 years.
Similarly, the romance sub-plot was of questionably relevance to the story, yet soaked up quite a bit of time. There were two explicit interactions with the main plot, however neither relied particularly strongly on the subplot. Moreover, I didn’t buy into the relationship. (*SPOILER WARNING FOR REMAINDER OF THE PARAGRAPH!*) As I mentioned earlier, for me a romance needs to be about the relationship. This was a relationship from ten years prior that seemed to go straight to an all-or-nothing rekindling. I didn’t buy that their relationship had remained unchanged in the ten years, nor that after exactly one date (which ended poorly), Landon was ready to marry someone else. His justification seemed unconvincing, and his backflip and proposal to Thursday was equally unconvincing. To be honest, I saw Landon as one who saw family as a personal achievement, and practiced emotional blackmail. I didn’t quite detest him, but it was close.
Now, before I get too ranty and invite all the criticisms of Fforde fans, I just want to reiterate – I did enjoy this book! While there were other elements of backstory that seemed overdone, the irreverent style was fun to read and the idea of stepping into a manuscript to change it is fascinating. Thursday’s not-quite-mad scientist uncle Mycroft is great, and Archeron Hades is an antagonist I can absolutely believe in. Usually I’m a fan of an antagonist being the hero of their own story, but Hades leans gleefully into evil and Fforde nails his characterisation. His henchmen are likewise quite enjoyable to read, though again their relevance at times is questionable.
The plotline itself through, since I’ve mentioned only subplots so far, is enjoyable too, particularly Next’s and Hades’ interactions with fictional characters. My biggest issue was simply that there was not enough of it, because it seemed to be pushed out by subplots. As a result, it was pretty straight forward. (*SPOILER WARNING*) Find bad guy, bad guy gets away. Go after minions. Leads fall through. Find corruptions, go a little rogue and set up an outlandish showdown. It was delivered well, if a little rushed, but it felt like there was so much more that could have come from this, and that was kind of pushed out by the external elements. When cliffhangers are followed by, ‘Oh that? That was just a prank’ styled chapter openings as well, I felt cheated out of a story at times. When that story was present though, it was great.
In conclusion, I think it was a little stuck as to whether it was about literary crime, or about the life of Thursday Next. The main problem and the themes seemed to focus on the former, while the subplots focused on the latter. This wasn’t so much an issue, but the two seemed to work against each other rather than tie in and strengthen the story. I got the feeling some of it may have been referencing Jane Eyre as well, as it had a strong intertextual vibe, so maybe me being a little ignorant of classical texts, I missed something there.
All in all, I would still recommend this book because it is fun more than anything else. The interruptions by Thursday’s father are hilarious, and while bordering on being a distraction, are probably just infrequent enough to still just be fun. Also, if you’re not like me and perfectly capable of turning off your inner editor, and not comparing to (in my opinion) literary geniuses, you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did.
So in that sense, I’m giving it 3.5 chronostars. Its good, it’s enjoyable, but I was just a little frustrated at the distractions and felt could do with a little more direction. But still, there’s enough in there I’ll be reading on to see what happens to Thursday next. . . .er. . .next.