Thursday, September 04, 2008

First Among Sequels

Like many parties in the world, the Jasper Fforde series of novels that centre around Thursday Next is yet another one that I am late for. Showing up late often means that you’ve missed some of the festivities and have to play catch-up to get yourself to the same state of mellow bliss that your fellow revellers have less difficulty in reaching, given that they usually have a head start in working their way through the cocktails list.

So normally, I would expect reading First Among Sequels, the fourth in the Thursday Next series of fantasy/comedy fiction to be a bit challenging. Most fantasy novels that run across several volumes tend to be fairly closely interrelated, and as a reader you suffer terribly if you try to pick one up and try to work your way through it without the benefit of having read earlier volumes.

Thankfully, First Among Sequels does not suffer from this particular malaise of the multi-volume genre of writing. Fforde writes a standalone novel that for first-time readers like me does not overwhelm or discombobulate with multiple, cryptic references to events and characters from earlier volumes; where a character is repeated, a brief and helpful description is supplied, sufficient to let said character stand alone, but also purportedly to allow the reader familiar with earlier works connect all the dots. Similarly, events from prior novels are explained in brief, and for the first time reader offer just the right amount of colour to be useful background without boring you with excessive verbiage.

So what exactly is First Among Sequels about? Well, you see, that’s the hard one to explain. Thursday Next, secret agent and member of the officially-disbanded Secret Operations Network’s Jurisfiction department, is charged with the maintenance of law and order within BookWorld, the world / dimension / weird sort of place which is the place that all stories and novels are set. BookWorld is where stories actually happen, fictional characters exist, and narratives are played out on a daily basis. A journey into BookWorld could mean running into Cinderella, Gandalf, Juliet, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and even Flash Gordon. Next, having inspired several novels about her exploits, has variations of herself wandering through BookWorld, but since they’re “written” differently from her bear little resemblance to her other than physical (hence the title).

Next juggles her role as a member of Jurisfiction with the challenges of raising a family in Swindon and running an illegal cheese smuggling organisation – the separation of the Welsh Socialist Republic having led to a significant decline in cheese imports into the country. But her time in First Among Sequels will be complicated by having to deal with some unusual apprentices training to be Jurisfiction agents, trying to prevent the Books Council from turning Pride and Prejudice into an “interactive” reality show edition (a surreal attempt to stem a staggering fall in readership levels across the world) and also trying to ensure that her son, meant to be the future of the ChronoGuard (time travellers) actually gets his act together and joins the force instead of being a teenager that doesn’t bathe or shave and prefers to spend the day sleeping. Throw in legions of Mrs Danvers, who operate as the armies in the BookWorld, the Stiltonistas (Swindon’s infamous cheese mafia) and an evil corporation called Goliath that is trying to harness the technology to facilitate travel between BookWorld, and you have a novel of over 250+ that keeps you engaged, and often laughing out loud.

Fforde is reminiscent of Douglas Adams in his ability to create a parallel world in his writing, with the humour very dry and tongue-in-cheek and, well, very English. The writing is engaging, though by page 175 you do start to wonder about the point of it all. Though it sometimes feels as if Fforde had too many good jokes built into the story to risk editing out, generally though you get to the end without too much grief. And if you are a lover of literature, you can only admire and laugh at all the many references that he manages to pull into a tight script. Fforde also successfully works biting criticism of today’s culture, where reality TV and abysmal pop culture has led to a massive decline in good literature.

All in all, though a little long, First Among Sequels is an entertaining read, something to clear your literary palate in between more serious works of fiction, but for a lover of literature and for someone who knows their books, it is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the world of books. And perhaps as the biggest sign of what an enjoyable read this book is, I will be tracking down earlier volumes of the Thursday Next series...