Source of book: My wife owns this book
I am at a bit of a loss to describe what this book actually is. It is a detective story of a sort. It also has elements of science fiction. It has really bad puns. It inhabits a very peculiar world that warrants exploration – but the book was too short to do it justice. It does, however, have sequels, which could be interesting.
The basic alternate reality that Fforde creates is one where the Crimean War never ended, Churchill died young, and Hitler was stopped by a powerful and ruthless corporation. England and Wales are separate countries with their own cold war. England itself has become a police state with secret agencies whose purposes are unknown, perhaps even to their agents. Yes, plural agencies, including one responsible for policing literature. In this universe, literature is taken extremely seriously. Imagine Raider fans, but with Shakespearean conspiracy theories.
The final piece of “reality” in this universe is that literature has its own literal world, and that it is possible to cross over to that world from the “real” world. If this were not already odd, it is apparently possible for mortals to alter literature if they are able to enter the world of a book through its original manuscript. Thus, if one were to kill a character of a novel, he would no longer exist in any copy of the novel thereafter.
The protagonist of this book and its sequels is Thursday Next, a rather hard boiled “LiteraTec” agent. As this description hints, this is a detective story rather in the tradition of “American” detective stories. In addition to the familiar heroine, the other elements are present. There is never really any question who committed the crime. The plot concerns the tracking and neutralization of the villain, not the solving of any mystery. This is an odd combination at first, the American detective story as written by an Englishman and set in an imaginary, dystopian England.
I try not to ruin carefully laid plots with spoilers, so I will not further describe the details of the story.
This book is the least serious book I have read this year, and I was due for a light read. Again, classification is difficult because this book doesn’t fit a well defined category. I originally argued to my wife that it also lacked a target category of reader. After all, it is best read by those who have an extensive knowledge of the English classics, a large vocabulary, and a good grasp of history. However, it also is too short and too fast paced to really be considered deep or anything more than a weekend paperback. My wife did point out that she and a few friends love Fforde, and they appear to sell reasonably well. Thus, there must be non-literary sorts that read these as well. Who knows?
I will admit that it is unfair to judge this book without reading the later books in the series, as my wife considers the sequels to be better written. What I found disappointing in this particular book is that there are a number of interesting ideas that are never developed. While we get to know Thursday Next fairly well, and get a bit of information about the villain, Acheron Hades, the rest of the characters are mere names without personalities in any true sense. Some are “expendable crewmen”, of course, but I found I could not remember most of the other characters. Okay, so the batty inventor uncle was memorable, but that’s it.
Fforde also hints at political commentary. Again, it is never truly developed, and is jettisoned as the plot picks up speed.
The strength of the book is the detective narrative itself. If Fforde had spent less time on back story, this might have been a memorable page turner for that alone. Alternately, had his word count allowed him to develop both characters and politics, this could have been a farce or satire. So, one can either sigh at what might have been, or enjoy what really is an enjoyable book that gets better as it goes on.
A caution: there is a good bit of violence and vulgarity in this book, including some rather unprintable puns. Nothing particularly shocking for the hard-boiled genre, and common in most modern novels. Fortunately, Fforde did not feel it necessary to add sex, which would have been irrelevant to the story. Don’t get me wrong: sex can be important to a narrative; but too often these days, it just distracts from a plot that was running right along fine without it.
This book was definitely not a waste of time, but also is unlikely to end up stuck in my memory like some of the others I have read recently. Take this one on vacation, or use it to escape from reality for a while. Sometimes we all need a light read.