Topic #3: Read a book about books
Book: The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde (from the Thursday Next series)
The year is 1985 and England is in a difficult spot. There are the usual border tensions with the Republic of Wales, of course, but there’s also rioting in the street over the legalization of surrealism, as well as escalating hostilities with Russia as the Crimean War approaches its 132nd year. Officer Thursday Next of SpecOps 27–whose duties consist of investigating crimes against literature–has troubles of her own. Even a decade later, she’s still reeling from the brother she lost in Crimea. She’s crippled by loneliness, and yet, she has no idea how to build a personal life. Even her career seems to be stalling out. However, when Acheron Hades, the third-most-wanted criminal on Earth and Thursday’s former English professor, steals a device that can transport people into the world of books, only Thursday has the brains, the courage and the sheer stubbornness to protect England’s most beloved works of literature from meeting a terrible fate.
Although The Eyre Affair revels in the absurd, it benefits from a grounding in police thriller tropes. While the literature-obsessed England of Jasper Fforde’s imagination–controlled by a sinister mega-corporation and vulnerable to inexplicable holes in the space-time continuum–may be unfamiliar, this is a very conventional story at its heart. Thursday Next is a familiar protagonist: she has a cool head for detective work, but an itchy trigger finger in a firefight and an indomitable will to get the job done, whatever the job may be. If she’s going to defend the English literary canon and rescue her kidnapped mad-scientist uncle from Hades, she’s also going to have to fight the pencil-pushers in her own department, who are trying to rein her in. It’s like a story straight out of 1970s TV, and that’s just fine. Because the world itself is unfamiliar, and delights in surprising the reader even hundreds of pages in, it’s important that the reader has a recognizable narrative to follow and a protagonist that’s easy to root for.
The book has a brisk pace which I appreciate, but it sometimes comes at a heavy cost. With so many alternate-history details and science fiction elements packed into less than four hundred pages, passages that would benefit from a little more space get trimmed down to the barest essentials, becoming something more like summary. I would have been happy to spend another hundred pages with Thursday Next, and it’s obvious that Fforde could have used them. The denouement was particularly rushed, with Thursday steered rapidly from scene to scene to resolve as many subplots as possible without giving the reader time to really savor any of them.
Other than the appealing simplicity of Thursday as a protagonist, most of the cast is rather forgettable, serving their roles and leaving no real impression. In theory, several of them should be interesting, including Thursday’s clergyman brother and her vampire-hunting coworker, but neither of them actually do very much, and their presence comes off more like an excuse for tangential world-building than for any kind of drama. On a similar note, Acheron Hades is one of the most conceptually interesting villains I’ve ever seen in a book: a man so skilled in deception that his ability to lie transcends common sense. He can convince almost anyone to do almost anything, no matter how terrible. What’s more, he can even lie about his appearance, effectively disguising himself at will. And yet, in terms of his actual characterization, Hades is pretty unremarkable. A lot of his schemes would be just as appropriate in the hands of someone without his supernatural advantages, which feels like a terrible waste of his potential.
That said, The Eyre Affair sparkles with cheerful creativity. Alternate-timeline England is full of jokes that book lovers everywhere will appreciate, one of my personal favorites being how easy it is to start a conversation with a stranger on the true authorship of Shakespeare. The fact that characters can literally walk into books is also a great deal of fun. Although that element was used more sparingly than I would have liked, it culminates in a somewhat rushed but still spectacular climax. As a world-builder, whether it’s something plot-crucial or the most cursory of details, Fforde has a knack for coming up with something unexpected every time.
Final Grade: C+