(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)
The Eyre Affair (2002)
By Jasper Fforde
Viking / ISBN: 0-670-03064-3
It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the literary genre known as "speculative" fiction; for those not familiar with it, the genre primarily concerns itself with historical questions of "what if?" What if the South had won the Civil War, for example, or the Nazis World War II? What if computers, robots and nuclear weapons had been invented in the 1840s instead of the 1940s? It is a great genre for those intrigued by the issues raised in science-fiction, but who do not care for the more hard-edged fetishes of that particular genre (the spaceships, the lasers, the aliens); because ultimately speculative fiction relies a lot more on real history and sociology for its ultimate entertainment value than most traditional sci-fi, making it a good place to regularly find big crossover hits.
One such hit, for example, has turned out to be the delightful 2002 speculative novel The Eyre Affair, by the Douglas-Adamsesque Jasper Fforde; it has in fact inspired an entire series of popular novels since then set in the same speculative universe, collectively known as the "Thursday Next" series because of its main protagonist. The latest, First Among Sequels, just came out this summer; I've heard a lot of great things about all the books in the series, so thought I'd start at the beginning and finally experience them for myself. And man, what a speculative world this turns out to be -- it is an entire alternate Earth that Fforde creates, in fact, one much like ours in many ways but with there also being telling differences. Like...
--In Fforde's world, Russia never had a Soviet revolution, and is still run by the Tsarist royal family;
--As a result, England and Russia have been fighting the Crimean War for 131 years now, the entire thing turning into a Vietnam-like unwinnable mess that neither side can politically walk away from anymore;
--As a result of that, England in Fforde's world never reaches Empire status, with among the results being a fiercely independent and antagonistic Republic of Wales, as well as a virtual police state in England itself, put in place by an all-consuming private corporation called Goliath;
--It is in some respects a book nerd's dream world, a world where obscure Victorian authors are considered rock stars, and the argument over whether Shakespeare really existed or not one that spills over into street gangs and organized religions;
--And it is also a world where several topics we consider "supernatural" are to them very real and even blase -- a world that has perfected cloning, a world where time travel is an accepted reality (if not a highly controlled activity), with a series of secret government divisions in charge of regulating and policing the various industries involved.
We as the readers, then, are thrust into this highly inventive world through its main hero, war veteran and literature detective Thursday Next, who at the beginning of The Eyre Affair is unexpectedly bumped up into one of the super-secret divisions of England's military structure, because of being one of the only people alive to have seen face-to-face the book's main villain, full-time rabble-rouser Acheron Hades (aka "The Third Most Evil Man On Earth"). Turns out that Next's uncle Mycroft is a bit of a mad-scientist inventor, who among other things has recently created a "Prose Portal" that will let real people and fictional characters move back and forth between the real world and fictional books; Hades has stolen this portal, and is now threatening to screw with all kinds of beloved novels unless his outlandish demands are met, demonstrating his seriousness by executing a minor character from Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit and in effect making him disappear from all the various copies of the book around the world.
Yeah, I know, at first it might seem to be a whole lot to get one's head around, just to enjoy a breezily light murder mystery; but much like the Harry Potter series, Fforde has a gift at placing a lot of these details in the background, making them just noticeable enough to be enjoyable but not enough to be distracting. In fact, the entire five-book Thursday Next series gets compared a lot to the Harry Potter series in general, and I think for good reason; they both are very British in tone, both rely on a "taking fantastical things for granted" attitude for their main entertainment value, and both excel at painting a vivid picture of a world very similar to ours but ultimately an unreal place. The Eyre Affair is a book to be wallowed in for the universe it presents, not necessarily admired for the plot itself (which is admittedly slight) or for Fforde's particular writing style (which many people consider pedestrian, although I think is a little better than that).
Now to be sure, readers should also be warned that this entire series is also specifically designed for the erudite, and that the more you know about arcane literary works of the 1800s (Fforde's favorite time in literary history, unsurprisingly enough), the more of the jokes throughout the Thursday Next universe you're going to get. The plot of The Eyre Affair, after all, completely and totally hinges around the actual Charlotte Bronte novel Jane Eyre; I myself had to read the plot outline at Wikipedia before even beginning to understand the jokes on display at the end of Fforde's novel, and know for a fact that most of them still went right over my head. That said, the world of Thursday Next is a luxuriously rich one as well, an endlessly inventive one that rewards the slow and careful reader; it's no surprise, I think, that the series has become such an inarguably huge hit among the bibliophilic crowd. The Eyre Affair is a book bound to immediately and profoundly appeal to the average reader of the CCLaP website; I'm very glad that I tackled it myself, and am now highly looking forward to the other books in the series.