By Jasper Fforde
Published by Recorded Books
Read by Emily Gray
Something Rotten is the fourth Thursday Next novel and concludes a long story arc that began in The Eyre Affaire although it is fair to say that each volume does tell a complete story. A reader could start in anywhere, but the whole thing is more enjoyable if you start at the beginning.
As I have explained before (in my reviews of The Eyre Affair and of Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots) Thursday Next, in spite of having a name that sounds like the time on an invitation, is a literature detective (or Litera Tec) working for the English governmental department SO-27 with her office based in Swindon. I have commented on the over-complexity of the world in which all this is set, so I will not go into that now save to remind readers that at least in my opinion any story that takes the better part of two books to give the reader a handle on just what is happening in the background is probably too much. An alternate history Fantasy or SF world needs either to be directly descended from this one or diverged from a single defined point in the past. I’m likely forgetting something in such a concise definition, I know…
Basically, I am trying to say that somewhere there is a line between a rich, complex world, and one that is totally over the line. The point of a story’s setting is to give the reader a place in which to imagine the characters doing what they do and as such they need to be able to hit the ground running, so to speak. In many ways it is easier for a reader to accept a world that is totally unrelated to their own (say a story on an alien world about the aliens themselves) because the reader starts with the notion that they do not know this world. However, when a world is still this Earth and involves humans in a history that at first sounds like the one we grew up learning in school, it becomes more difficult to absorb the differences.
For a full accounting of the differences between the world of Thursday Next and this one, you will just have to read the books. Mister Fforde appears to delight in twisting and turning everything to his own amusement and, sadly sometimes some of his twists contradict some of what he has written earlier… Well, lately I’ve been rereading some of my own stories and caught similar contradictions and plot holes in them, so who am I to judge. In spite of his tendency to throw a world together in the same way some people make a salad, by tossing everything in the kitchen together regardless of whether they should go together, Mister Fforde writes an excellent story that overcomes the deficiencies (or perhaps the word should be superfluities) of the setting he has created.
Perhaps the most important difference between Thursday’s world and our own is that literature is taken far more seriously than it is in this one. The fact that there is an entire government agency in charge of policing literature-based crimes is an indication of that. Add on to that, the missionaries going from door to door to proselytize the believe that Sir Francis Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare, the on-going problem concerning the trade in counterfeit first editions of literature and supposedly rediscovered works of the masters and the tendency of there being so many people who want to change their names to that of various famous writers they need to be numbered and even so get into arguments over who is the real one among themselves, and you start to get a notion that the people of Thursday’s world may not even think as we do.
In the first book we learned that some fictional characters can leave their books at will and visit the “real world” and in the next two books it seems that almost all of them can, it’s just that most do not seem to want to. Even so, one of the recurring bad guys of the series turns out to be a fictional character from the “Book World” who is currently a politician in the real one and ascending to power in a clumsily-written and heavy-handed Hitler-like fashion and for some reason, in spite of the fact that England had been occupied by Nazi Germany a generation earlier, no one seems to notice the parallels. Also, in spite of have many secret government investigative agencies, none of them have ever noticed the vast influx of fictional characters coming and going from the real world. I’d have thought that Thursday’s SO-27 might have noticed by then at least.
Oh, sorry. Once again, I am complaining about the setting. Trust me, the story is well worth plodding through the marsh that is Fforde’s setting. It is not that I disapprove of any one fantasy element in his world, but find the whole thing a giant mishmash. Much like a child with a box of crayons unable to decide which colors to use, just uses all of them regardless of which ones complement the others.
Anyway, It turns out the “Book World” also has its own police organization, Jurisfiction, which has been waiting to recruit Thursday for a long time, if one she would figure out how to get there. She finally arrives and apprenticed to Miss Haversham from Dickens’ Great Expectations, but now she has been accused of a “Fiction Infraction” by having changed the ending of Jane Eyre (to the one we know in this world) and must stand trial. After getting a continuance from Kafka’s The Trial, she goes through a long series of adventures, in which and eventually choose to take refuge in the Book World while pregnant and for a couple years afterwards. She eventually becomes the head of Jurisfiction, for reasons that ring almost as hollow as those by which J. J. Abrams allowed James Tiberius Kirk to go directly from academy cadet to four-ring captain of a star ship. Fforde’s own “Anything can happen in fiction,” explanation while not directly applied to his supposed “real world” comes off as a failed excuse.
And in spite of all that, the Thursday Next series is well-worth reading.
At the start of Something Rotten, Thursday has decided it is time to leave the Book World and return once more to her own world, although eventually found guilty of her fiction infraction, she has not yet been sentenced (and I will not give away that ending – although it turns out to be a bit too predictable for a book touted as a mystery). Meanwhile her husband is still non-existent, and she has brought Hamlet into the real world, to stay at her mother’s house along with Otto von Bismark, Emma Hamilton and a large flock of dodos.
Hamlet cannot return to the Book World because his play has merged with The Merry Wives of Windsor, creating The Merry Wives of Elsinor which apparently “takes a long time to get funny, and, when it finally does, everyone dies.”
Warned by her father that the fictional Yorrick Kaine’s ambitions will cause world-wide nuclear destruction unless the local Croquet team wins the 1988 “Superhoop,” Thursday must find a way to separate Hamlet from The Merry Wives of Windsor, bring her husband back to life, stop Goliath from becoming a religion and help the Swindon Mallets win the match. (NB: Croquet in this world is an exciting full-contact sport that, to my surprise, is based more on common Garden Croquet and not the competitive version Association Croquet played in some country clubs. Of course there are several variations of Croquet, so this is really just one more.)
In spite of the silliness and with the various flaws (which are mostly not related to the silliness), the story is worth your time. I recommend it. Besides if you have already managed to get through the first three books you really need to see how it all turns out.
Emily Gray’s reading does not quite have the sparkle that Susan Duerdan’s or Elizabeth Sastre’s did of the previous volumes. However, even though I do not consider Miss Gray’s reading to be as good as those by Misses Duerdan or Sastre that does not mean she does not read well. She does. It does take a chapter or two. Miss Gray does a very good reading of the text. It’s just that the others were excellent in comparison.
Thursday may not sound quite so vivacious in Miss Gray’s voice as she did, but really her reading is quite listenable. Her reading does seem stiff for the first chapter or so, as though she does not quite believe what she is reading, and given the extraordinary oddities of Thursday’s World, perhaps this is understandable, but she soon finds her stride and gives a good performance that enhances the story.
So to sum it all up. Once again Jasper Fforde has delivered a well-written and interesting story (and yes, I consider it an excellent story even if I find many faults in the setting for it) and Emily Gray reads it well.