A Rare Holiday Book Review: Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair

Welp, it’s Friday morning, and as of tomorrow I’m off nine days for the first time, really, since ’05. THAT is a long story. (Or three years of tumultuous, always unpredictable blogging, read the backlog. ;) No WONDER I’ve been so tired for so long. It’s amazing I’m still ticking. Wow.

I’m looking forward to doing very little. Seeing a few friends and family, but I’ll mostly be enjoying time to myself that will hopefully be filled with good movies, naps, and more great books.

I don’t usually do book reviews because there’s plenty of book-review places for you to browse, but also because I’m not much of a reader these days. (I pore over the web all the time instead). When I was a kid, I was the book-a-day type. Before the internet, I was a book-a-week type.

I’ve worked in a bookstore, have been a librarian, and took publishing courses at SFU, so you know I’ve got the literary thing under my skin.

So, it’s with great excitement that I share the latest series I’ve gotten into. Now, Harry Potter I had read before it even hit bookshelves ‘cos I was working at Duthie’s Book, back in the day, and spent the next several years turning people onto him. In fact, the last book review I did was for another series I discovered on the first book and is now being made into a feature by Pixar, How To Train Your Dragon by Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the III and Cressida Cowell. (A reader emailed me after she bought the books for her son, who, out of the blue one day, just strutted into the room she was in and thanked her profusely for the book, said it was the best ever, he wanted more, then turned around, went back to reading, and was never seen again. Books: The way to get some free time for yourself if you’re a parent!)

Sadly, this Thursday Next series is already onto its FIFTH book and I’ve only found it now.

Surely others have found it before me, but in case you’re sadly lacking its presence in your life, I’m here to fix that woeful lack.

In a nutshell, Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series is to literary crime solving what Harry Potter’s world is to wizardry. But before you sit down to read The Eyre Affair, book one in the series, it would do you some good to turf anything you know of time, space, and crossing through dimensions. You thought I said it was about literary crime solving? Well, it is. But it’s NOTHING like you could possibly imagine. Take your imagined idea of a literary crime solving series and throw some serious drugs into the mix, odes de Douglas Adams, a love of Shakespeare, and dimensional travel into the mix and you’re still going to be a million miles short of the destination to which Jasper Fforde will happily lead you.

The series is set in 1980s in London, and it’s not before long that you realize this is not a London you’re familiar with. Instead, it’s an England that’s been at war for more than a hundred years in the Crimea.

And besides that, it’s a whole other world of worlds. A world filled with Baconians and Miltons. A world where literature is the drug everyone thrives on, and even casual passers-by on the street will argue venomously about whether Shakespeare really wrote all his own plays, or whether the lawyer Francis Bacon did and payed Shakespeare to pretend to be the playwright. It’s a world where, if you can think of it, there’s a Special Ops division dedicated to finding crime in it.

Like, LiteraTec. Where crimes involving literature are solved. Like, thefts of first editions, trafficking of elaborately faked first editions, or, when things get hairy, a character jumps from his fiction world’s pages and instead crashes into reality and unleashes havoc.

Thursday Next is our heroine, the young woman from LiteraTec who was a hero in the Crimean War and went back to save some of the fallen in her troop during a failed offensive. And in case you think she’s just another lovely bookworm, Thursday offers some pretty simple advice for being good at your job, like she is at hers.

“Words are all very well, but a nine-millimetre really gets to the root of the problem.”

From the first page of the first book, The Eyre Affair, in a chapter called “A Woman Called Thursday Next” (each chapter opens with a brief excerpt from the fictional future about the early days of LiteraTec with Thursday Next):

“. . . The Special Operations Network was instigated to handle policing duties considered either too unusual or too specialized to be tackled by the regular force. There were thirty departments in all, starting at the more mundane Neighborly Disputes (SO-30) and going onto Literary Detectives (SO-27) and Art Crime (SO-24). Anything below SO-20 was restricted information, although it was common knowledge that the ChronoGuard was SO-12 and Antiterrorism SO-9. It is rumored that SO-1 was the department that polices the SpecOps themselves. Quite what the others do is anyone’s guess. What is known is that the individual operatives themselves are mostly ex-military or ex-police and slightly unbalanced. “If you want to be a SpecOp,” the saying goes, “act kinda weird . . .”

MILLION DE FLOSS
-A Short History of the Special Operations Network

My father had a face that could stop a clock. I don’t mean that he was ugly or anything; it was a phrase the ChronoGuard used to describe someone who had the power to reduce time to an ultraslow trickle. Dad had been a colonel in the ChronoGuard and kept his work very quiet. So quiet, in fact, that we didn’t know he had gone rogue at all until his timekeeping buddies raided our house one morning clutching a Seize & Eradication order open-dated at both ends and demanding to know where and when he was. Dad had remained at liberty ever since; we learned from his subsequent visits that he regarded the whole service as “morally and historically corrupt” and was fighting a one-man war against the bureaucrats within the Office for Special Temporal Stability. I didn’t know what he meant by that and still don’t; I just hoped he knew what he was doing and didn’t come to any harm doing it. His skills at stopping the clock were hard-earned and irreversible: He was now a lonely itinerant in time, belonging to not one age but to all of them and having no home other than the chronoclastic ether.

Continue reading the excerpted first chapter here — after you finish reading ME, of course!

It’s really too complicated to pull one of the funnier passages out later, since most of it will confuse you, but take my word for it, and look for Jasper Fforde’s Erye Affair if you’re tired of the same old sombre, dry reading. And if you’re a lifelong bookworm who wishes like hell someone could capture the weird madness of the fiction world and tie it into reality, Jasper Fforde’s finally done that, but instead of just doing that, he’s used influences from Douglas Adams and so many other great writers, because it’s a world entirely about writing. I can’t even begin to explain all its complexities to you, because I don’t want to… you really must read it first-hand yourself.

One reviewer called it “ingenious,” and it really is. Another reviewer said, “There are shades of Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, A Clockwork Orange, 1984, and that’s just for starters!” Oh, you have no idea, readers. You must, must, must check it out. You must!

And I’m glad I’ve got four other books to move on to when I finish this one. That’s right, I’m only half-way through, but my colleague is giddy knowing that I’m on the first book. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I can’t wait for you to get to the rest of the series — it just gets better and better in every book!” With a world this complicated, I can see how setting it up might get in the way of the plot (which it doesn’t, as it’s compulsively readable) so I can’t wait to see how Fforde does when he doesn’t need to waste his time introducing us to the Chronoguard, Goliath Corp., Jack Schitt, Acheron, the Baconians, or anything else.

I can’t wait. :)