Jasper Fforde

 

The Eyre Affair

 

Well, I can't help but go hard on comparison in this review - which is a bit harsh because it stands on its own. However, the feel of Adams and Pratchett is so strong... Moreover it may be useful to point out where Fforde differs from both.

The rules of the world - the glee with which the author can hurl his characters through six impossible things before breakfast - is straight out of whatever comedy/sf/fantasy sub-genre you could call the Adams/Pratchett thing. Fantasy/SF allows them wonderful licence in imagining worlds just a bit like ours but exaggerated or twisted. Indeed, Fforde is clearly writing alternative history/near future and tying his events more closely to the current time. A world where literature is followed more like football teams or religious cults, for example, is the sort of amusing and well executed notion I'd expect to find in either other author. The moderately central plot driving device of the Prose Portal felt very much like something Pratchett would build around (and even reminded me of Voldemort attacking Ginny Weasley from his magical diary).

The characters, similarly, are generally charming - and I think this is core to their popularity. For all the darkness and life threatening situations that can arise, most of the people, particularly the central characters, are amicable eccentric company - you like spending time with them. Fforde, like Pratchett and unlike Adams, throws in some irredeemable baddies along the way, but they don't set the tone of the book. Moreover Fforde's action hero Thursday Next is given some breadth as a character - haunted war veteran, smart-mouthed Chandleresque detective, vulnerable girl in love - and the book pretty much got away with it.

What particularly impressed me earlier on - apart from the laudable feat of being able to produce something worthy of comparison to two such able writers - was the mixing of serious and emotional bits with the comedy. I think Fforde pulled this off better than Pratchett, who can be irritatingly preachy at times, and Adams who feels just a bit more random to me. Thursday's personal saga with her comrade brother and her first love surprisingly integrates with an over the top fantasy-comedy. And her older brother, who I assumed was set up for a fall, actually was a pleasant surprise and a powerful vehicle to help Thursday overcome some demons. Really enjoyable to have a funny and clever book that can also even offer a bit of half-decent drama.

I was a bit disappointed with the dénouement, it felt a too colour-by-numbers feel-good to me. Since Hades had no history or motive but just was this superhuman psycho out of and moving to nothing, his ultimate and pretty casual demise didn't mean that much. Fforde didn't give him any character (stock master criminal #4, even down to the arrogant educated dialogue): as Tony Hines ably said in *his* amazon review: `And if you're looking for a complex antagonist, forget it; Archeron Hades, Thursday Next's nemesis, might as well go by the name Snidely Whiplash and twirl his handlebar moustache.' Sure he was playing with the Shakespeare thing of all these happy weddings to finish the day, but it got a bit cloying for me (and Landen is the merest foil) - if he was just going to spoil us with the big cake at the end I'd rather just have had a little `happily ever after' epilogue.

Yeah, for all its strengths of humour, charm and originality, it should never be sold to anyone as a detective novel (and yes, this is possible even in a novel requiring so much suspension of disbelief). The central mystery doesn't exist - we know from almost chapter one who the bad guy is (and we don't even have an attempt to slowly work out the motive or vulnerability to solve how to defeat him). In a sense it's more a thriller - but with the wildly random tangents (hey, let's save the world from a temporal anomaly on the way home), it's a bit silly to expect the reader to run with any sort of suspense: we're aware that the rules can all change in an instant. The way `The Chamber of Secrets' deals with *its* prose portal is far more satisfying, plotwise, as a mystery/thriller. I think Fforde needed to tighten things up a bit to try for this aspect of the book, or alternatively to consciously make the thriller aspect incidental and revel in his anarchic stuff (as Adams often does -
although the fabulous Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is surprisingly coherent). As it is he falls a bit between two stools – the weak thriller plot has too much screen time.

 

Whatever, a nice discovery – there’s not too many of this calibre, and I’ll look forward to reading some more of his stuff.

 

January 2005