When I read Jasper Fforde’s 2002 debut, The Eyre Affair, I was blown away by the creative genius that inspired the author to create an alternate version of England, circa 1985. The brilliant combination of sci-fi, mystery, and romance was somewhat reminiscent of Douglas Adams, Monty Python and Woody Allen but very much Fforde’s own innovative concept. I wondered, though, if his second book have the same impact or if it would fall prey to the dreaded sophomore slump. I’m relieved to report that Lost in a Good Book is a strong effort that has me firmly hooked on the series. Lost isn’t quite as impressive as its predecessor but it made me chuckle out loud almost every page, and it forced my unsuspecting family members to hear so many clever quotes that their eyes glazed over.
We’re back in Fforde’s England, where the Crimean War has just ended after raging for more than a century, airplanes haven’t been invented but genetic engineering is common, and the Goliath Corporation is in charge of absolutely everything (in fact, Goliath has magnanimously rated Lost in a Good Book SFA or Suitable for All despite violence “only on people who deserve it”). Our intrepid heroine, Thursday Next, is still garnering public attention for ridding the world of the evil Acheron Hades and saving Jane Eyre from destruction (and in the process, giving it a much happier ending). Thursday, a Special Operations Literary Detective, takes her mission to protect the world’s major works of literature seriously; in this version of reality, the great books of the world are considered more important than gold, movie stars or politics.
Thursday wants to maintain a low profile and enjoy newlywed bliss with her true love Landen Parke-Laine, but unfortunately she’s not allowed much time to relax. Spec-Ops wants her to appear on several popular talk shows to improve the organization’s reputation. The Chrono-Guard, Spec-Ops’ time travel division, wants Thursday to locate her father, who has gone rogue in his attempt to ferret out corruption in the ranks. Worst of all, the Goliath Corporation isn’t happy that in the process of saving Jane Eyre, Thursday left behind Jack Schitt, one of their executives, in the gloomy pages of Poe’s The Raven. In order to force Thursday to rescue Schitt, Goliath takes the drastic step of having Landen eradicated. No, he’s not killed, exactly - Goliath goes back in time to change the outcome of a childhood accident. Now Landen no longer exists, except in Thursday’s memories. She’s determined to get him back, but the Prose Portal, which Thursday used to enter directly into Jane Eyre, has been destroyed by her uncle Mycroft, a mad but brilliant inventor, so she can’t go back to The Raven and find the odious Schitt.
Fortunately, there is another path into the heart of the literary world. Thursday is contacted by a representative of Jurisfiction, a cadre of fictional characters who police their own books. Thursday learns to “bookjump” with the help of characters such as Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham and Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat (the local boundaries have been re-drawn so he’s really now the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat, although he readily admits that his new name “doesn’t have the same ring to it”). But rescuing Landen is more complicated than it seems, and Thursday also has to contend with characters who speak to her in footnotes, re-engineered Neanderthals, the “Thursday Next Workout Video” and the end of the world, which will happen on December 12 unless Thursday can stop it. But she gamely carries on, noting that “they always say the first time you save the world is the hardest.”
As I mentioned in my review of The Eyre Affair, there’s no doubt that Jasper Fforde can be funny. He has that zany sense of the bizarre that fans of Monty Python and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will recognize and appreciate. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the many hilarious ideas he utilizes - some well-developed, others just tossed off - not to mention the groaningly bad puns he likes to use with his lesser characters’ names. But can he tell a compelling story or create characters that we care about?
The answer is a qualified yes. The novel takes a little more time than Eyre Affair to get off the ground. Fforde throws so many unusual concepts at the reader that it’s occasionally overwhelming and confusing. He takes a few narrative detours, such as a chapter in which Thursday accompanies a Spec-Ops 17 friend on a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-type mission, before the hunt for Landen finally gets going during the last third of the novel. Although a few plot lines are resolved (I don’t think I’m spoiling the story if I let it slip that the world does NOT end on December 12, 1985), there are many loose ends left hanging for next year’s novel, The Well of Lost Plots.
The majority of the characters, for the most part, are little more than a collection of idiosyncrasies and jokes, with two notable exceptions. Thursday is taking shape as a well-rounded heroine; the loss of Landen is handled with great tenderness and poignancy and it becomes obvious that the fearless detective does have some vulnerabilities. Surprisingly, Thursday’s pet dodo, Pickwick, really comes into his own as a very endearing house pet. I’m now rather attached to him and hope he continues to play an important role in future installments.
I don’t know how many more Thursday Next books await us, but I can tell you that I may order The Well of Lost Plots from the U.K. this summer because I don’t want to wait until 2004 to see what happens next (or what happens to Next). If you haven’t read The Eyre Affair, don’t be a Neanderthal; go do so immediately and then get your hands on Lost in a Good Book. Then sit back and marvel at the mind that can create such inspired silliness.