The Eyre Affair is the first in the Thursday Next series of bookish mysteries by Jasper Fforde, and I am pleased to have discovered it. The alternate world inhabited by Thursday Next (our protagonist) is ingeniously imagined, fully realized, and great fun: centrally, books are very, very important, and justify an entire branch of law enforcement (which is, admittedly, sort of a stepchild in the law enforcement community, but we’ll take it). Extinct species have been recreated through genetic engineering: Thursday has a pet dodo bird named Pickwick. In a sobering parallel to reality, the Crimean War is ongoing; Thursday opposes it, having served, herself, and having lost her beloved brother in action. Wales is an independent republic. And on, but you get the picture: Fforde is a fine worldbuilder, and his is a world both hilarious and serious.
Thursday works as a LiteraTech, one of those book-police, and is still scarred by her experience in the Crimea, and the loss of her brother there. She remembers fondly her former fiancé, who lost a leg in the same battle, but can’t quite be with him, for reasons we have to learn as the book unfolds. Her father is a time traveler, put briefly, and we get occasional time-stopping visits from him which also color the alternative universe Thursday dwells in. She finds herself a villainous opponent in Acheron Hades, her former college professor and now professional criminal extraordinaire. He has special powers (appearing in various forms, impervious to gunshot wounds) and Thursday is uniquely able to combat him, although not without personal injury and great risk. Their conflict takes Thursday back to her hometown, where we meet her delightful inventor uncle Mycroft (he of the bookworms), and witness the (clearly inevitable) reunion with the former fiancé.
The genius of The Eyre Affair, in case I have not sufficiently made this point, is the world that Fforde creates. All the little details are charming, fun, and silly in the best possible way; the characters are likeable and real. Thursday’s trauma as a war veteran is believable and makes her a fuller character. Her uncle is sweetly flawed and fabulous. Only Landen, the former fiancé, might be a little saccharine; and this is the book’s only real shortcoming: where Fforde digresses into romance he tends to be a little too sweet. His skill is not particularly apparent in terms of plot. The mystery story is fine, passable, amusing – and the villain is deliciously evil, taking pleasure in evil for its own sake – an adequate vehicle for the characters and worldbuilding that are Fforde’s greatest strengths. The love story is a little bit pat, but who cares? Give me more Thursday Next, set in this outrageously entertaining alternate universe, and I will be happy. Oh, and audio reading by Susan Duerden is fun and perfect; I will be looking for her reading of the next book in the series as well.