Lost in a Good Book
The Well of Lost Plots
By Jasper Fforde
Published by Highbridge Audio
Read by Elizabeth Sastre
There is such a thing as too much. In my review of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair I pointed out that, in my opinion, Mister Fforde put far too much into the setting for this series. There is nothing wrong with a fantasy world that includes werewolves, vampires and other undead. There is nothing wrong with a fantasy world that is also a science fiction world (I write books in worlds that cross the fantasy-science fiction boundaries all the time – it’s become quite fashionable in some quarters, in fact). It is okay to have a story set in a world with advanced genetic engineering so anyone can make their own pet dodo, or society in general can have a sub-class of servants of Neanderthal stock. It’s okay to have time travel. It’s okay to have time travel in which alternate histories, no matter how unlikely) come and go frequently. And it is even okay to have such alternate histories in worlds where people take their fiction so seriously that there is a vast underground business of literature counterfeiters and government agencies whose job it is to stop them. It is okay to have the government secretly (or not so secretly, really) controlled by a large and greedy megalithic corporation. And it is even okay to have worlds in which it is possible to enter a book, interact with the characters, change what happens and even a world in which those characters can travel to other books and even into the real world.
It is hopelessly muddled and unnecessarily complex to have a world that does all of that and more, especially if the very first book starts out with such a world full-blown and expects the reader to come up to speed in the first chapter. If you want a rich complex fantasy/SF world it is best to start out with grounds of commonality with the real world and introduce the differences one at a time. It’s also a good idea not to throw stuff into the world just because you want it there when it has nothing to do with the plot. For example, the existence of werewolves, vampires and Supreme Evil Beings (apparently they come in six-packs) in the world of Thursday Next has no bearing on the plot whatsoever save to help make the book a few pages fatter. The story would have stayed essentially the same without them, therefore they should never have been there in the first place.
What saves Mister Fforde’s Thursday Next stories is the fact that while he may have a penchant for lumping everything he can think of into a fantasy world regardless of whether it is needed or even if it fits, the man can write a darned good story. It’s just that his stories would be even better if he applied the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle to his world.
Okay, I had my say, and led with “What’s wrong with this picture?” Let’s get down to the stories themselves and, of course, with what is right. Thursday Next is a literary detective who works for England’s Special Operations Force 27 (Spec Ops or SO 27 NB: I think I said she was in SO 25 last time around – my bad) whose job it is to deal with literature-related crimes. This is definitely an alternate world, as in this one we don’t have whole departments that do nothing but verify the authenticity of discovered manuscripts. We also do not have pseudo-religious missionaries going from door to door asking if you have accepted Sir Francis Bacon as the one true Shakespeare. But this part of it fits the basic premise and is quite amusing as well.
Since the first book of the series, Thursday has become a celebrity for having both saved the novel Jane Eyre and changed the ending to one that, for the most part, the readers like better. In doing so she also killed the main baddie, Archeron Hades and imprisoned another bad guy Jack Schitt in a copy of Poe’s The Raven. Naturally that only puts her in real trouble now, first from Jack’s half-brother, the predictably named Brik Schitt-Hawse and Hades’ sister, the equally predictably named Aornis. Oh let’s face it, the character names are far too predictable. This is not the place to come for imaginative names.
Thursday kind of muddles her way through a series of surreal adventures in Lost in a Good Book and eventually discovers the “Book World” of Jurisfiction, where she has been expected to be a new agent for quite some time – she’s late. I got the impression, that this was where the whole series should have started and stayed as it’s a better constructed world than the whole conglomeration mentioned above and in The Well of Lost Plots my opinion became set since most of that story takes place in the book world where it all fits so much better.
In any case one thing leads to another an Thursday finds she is wanted for a number of crimes, as well as revenge at the hands of Schitt and Schitt-Hawse and Aornis Hades and decides to hide out until it is safe for her to return to the real world. Naturally she chooses to hide in a book that is in the Well of Lost Plots where stories are really made – authors just think they do the work.
The Well of Lost Plots picks up where the last book left off and with a somewhat re-written conversation with the character Thursday will be filling in for a character named Mary Jones (Sergeant Mary Mary from two of Fforde’s other stories) before that character takes a cab out of the book as fast as she possibly can. Thursday is still an apprentice Jurisfiction agent and is learning the ropes from Miss Havisham (Dickens’ Great Expectations). As well as waiting for the continuation of her trial for having changed the ending of Jane Eyre and dealing with her loss of memories due to some mental mischief from Aornis Hades.
All is not routine, even in Jurisfiction, however, on the eve of a new operating system known as UltraBook whose proponents claim will revolutionize fiction… or will it?
As I listened to The Well of Lost Plots I could not help but notice that while Fforde’s real world might be hopelessly complex, the book world is actually very well-crafted with just the right amount of complexity for a fantasy world. It is as though the author suddenly realized that maybe the setting really did have problems. Certainly it seemed to me that this was the perfect setting for a Thursday Next novel or any fantasy novel. The world is rich without being needlessly complex because the richness is implied rather than shown through needless cameo scenes.
However, even though I take serious issue with the so-called real world setting of the series, Mister Fforde writes a darned good story so even if he has sloshed together far too much into a single fantasy world for it to hold together well, the story is still worth reading.
In my review of The Eyre Affair, I said that Susan Duerdan was the voice of Thursday Next for me. Well, apparently so is Elizabeth Sastre. Both readers add a wonderful bit of sparkle to their readings that one cannot help but like Thursday Next as she goes from one adventure to the next.
Thursday Next is a richly drawn character with a complex and varied past. A Literature Detective one might expect a nerdish bookworm, but, no she is a woman of action; a former soldier, college athlete and more. And Miss Sastre also makes her sound perky and vivacious. Thursday seems to live on the outside of her skin, which may be an illusion caused by the book being written in the first person, but Elizabeth Sastre follows every emotional nuance at the character as the story progresses.
She also voices the other characters in interesting ways without having to resort to funny voices and accents and yet each character is easily discernible from any other in the scene, so in all, Miss Sastre delivers a fine performance, well worth listening to.
I was going to include the fourth Thursday Next novel, Something Rotten, in this review as it finishes up the story arc created by the first three, but since my copy involves a different reader I believe I am well justified in putting it off just one more week. Stay tuned!