First among Sequels (Thursday Next Book 5)
By Jasper Fforde
Published by Recorded Books
Read by Emily Gray
Retcon: /ret’kon/ (a contraction of “Retroactive Continuity”) 1. n. A situation in series fiction in which a new story reveals something about a previous story, sometimes leaving the basic facts the same while completely changing how they are to be interpreted. 2. v. The act of writing such a story about a character, object, or even fictional sets of physics.
I probably should have included a definition of retcon before since quite a few sequels I have reviewed had at least some form of retroactive continuity. In Part 2 of Don Quixote, for example, Cervantes decided for no particularly discernable reason to reveal that Quixote’s contemporaries were not only aware of the tales recorded in the First Part (ostensibly written by a Moor named Cide Hamete Benegeli), but were all avid readers of the stories as evidenced when Quixote shows up at an inn to hear someone reading one of the latest stories out loud. A bit later, with the same medieval sense of humor displayed in the first book, the obviously mentally ill Quixote is abused both physically and emotionally by his fans. In a way it was the literary equivalent of a comic breaking the fourth wall.
Actually, mild forms of retcon happen almost naturally in many series. I must admit that in my own Plethora of Deities Series I was forced to retcon in the third book in order to make the first two books fit together as a series. The worlds in which the first and second books existed were very different and, in fact, I was not thinking of them as a series at the time I wrote them even though I used many of the same characters. Solution? Retcon, of course! I went back and explained why the world was different in the first book.
Why do I bring this up? Because Ffordes’ First Among Sequels, the fifth Thursday Next novel appears in many ways to be a massive retcon of the whole series in which he writes off the incongruous ChronoGuard by explaining that they have been traveling through time in spite of the fact that Time Travel has never been invented and might even prove to be impossible. Apparently they can do it because it might be invented. Well, it might have taken a whole novel to do it, but I, for one, am glad to see them go. The Chronoguard was a useless device in the Thursday Next novels that served only to explain why her father never existed, a situation that also had very little bearing on the basic plots of the previous novels save to ensure the world would be in dire peril of coming to an end every week if Thursday didn’t do something strange and esoteric like winning a full-contact Croquet match.
This is not to say that Fforde has finally learned how to construct a believable fantasy world. Apparently not as we learn right from the start that there is a “Stupidity Surplus” in England (and other countries) that the authorities can only alleviate partially by shipping their stupidity to other countries. (to me the obvious solution would have been to let the government fall and elect a new set of politicians since most of the “Stupidity” seemed to be generated by them) Except it turned out that Stupidity is something that must be used and the fictional solution is to turn Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into a reality TV show. Keep in mind that in Thursday’s universe, there is the possibility of traveling from the “Real” world to the fictional one and back again and that by subjecting Pride and Prejudice to this treatment would change every copy of the book irreparably. I’m not sure why, since in earlier books that only applied to things done in the original manuscript. Wouldn’t it be better to use a more recent edition, since that would allow the producers to do the show over and over again and maybe even have teams from each edition competing against each other? Or is that not stupid enough?
So it appears that the way to deal with a surplus of Stupidity is to do something incredibly stupid. Once again I maintain that our politicians are more than capable of alleviating any Stupidity Surplus every time they meet and that reality programs, while all pretty darned stupid are really just part of the problem, not the solution. I have not yet read the later novels, but I understand this is not the end of the National Stupidity Index.
Much has changed since Book 4 of the series. SpecOps has been disbanded, sort of, and forced to work underground while selling and installing carpets. I kind of approve of that and wonder if we can relegate a few other governmental departments to doing something useful for a change. Thursday is also no longer in charge of JurisFiction, the Book World’s police force… well good for her, her term was up, but she is still an operative, though she has tried to keep it a secret from her husband. Another plot point that is still hanging around for some reason is Aornis Hades who put a mind worm in Thursday’s head some time back. What any of the Hades family is still doing in this series escapes me. They were always my least favorite and a non-essential part of the stories. Well, maybe in another several books we will learn why Aornis chose to make Thursday believe she has three rather than two children. It certainly had no real significance in this one.
Another major complaint is that in the time since the fourth book in the series, the Thursday Next stories have been written down (and fictionalized) forcing Thursday to deal with two fictional versions of herself, one far more violent than she could ever be and the other far too into Peace, Love, organic teas and various nonviolent philosophies to be believable in her role. Actually, I did not mind the other versions of Thursday, but found the whole thing too egotistically narcissistic on Mister Fforde’s part to be stomached. (See Part 2 of Don Quixote, above). I was hoping that he would reveal that the so-called “Real World” or “Outland” was just a special case of “Fictional World,” but mabe that is something he is working up to?
In all, though I think the world is still too complex for the basic plot of the story. There is still too much happening for a fictional universe to be held together and in fact it does burst at the seams a few times. However, that complaint aside, this is an improvement on earlier volumes of the series and I must admit that my opinions are not universally shared, since for the most part the Thursday Next books have received favorable reviews.
What garners the good reviews, in my opinion, is not the world in which these stories are haphazardly set, but the fact that Mister Fforde has the ability to write a darned good story even if he has no idea of where to stop when world-building.
However, I think Fforde’s writing is improving. This novel is not quite as cluttered up as his earlier ones were. However, if you have not read any of his stories, please do not start here. In fact the biggest strength and weakness of his stories are that they each build on their predecessors. This is normally a good thing, but in this case you will be hopelessly confused if you don’t start with The Eyre Affair.
Emily Gray, who read the fourth book of the series, is back. I felt she did an adequate job when I reviewed Something Rotten, and at first likened her reading to that of a stiff Hollywood stereotype of a librarian, but she soon loosened up and gave it a good reading and if I did not enjoy her style as much as those of her predecessors, well, then that is a matter of taste. This time, however, I thought she did a fine job, and enjoyed listening to every word she spoke.
I felt she had just the right reading speed and her accent was delightful to listen to and she did not play with “Funny Voices” so while she did vary her voice a bit for each character, I was not jarred by abrupt transition or the odd sounds you sometimes get when a woman attempts to sound like a man (or vice versa in some other books).
So, all told, this is a very good story that overcomes the obstacles of being set in a somewhat amateurishly constructed fantasy world and if completely brought to life by the vocal talent of Miss Gray.