The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair CoverFrom the back cover:
Welcome to a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide.

The Eyre Affair takes place in an alternate version of 1980s England wherein Winston Churchill died as a teen, Wales is a socialist republic, and technology allows time travel to exist yet prohibits recording security camera footage on anything more advanced than a videotape (Fforde can dream big but not dream medium, it seems.) Literature is a very big deal in this universe: original manuscripts are kept under armed guard, kids trade Henry Fielding cards, ardent fans of John Milton abound, and literary crime (frauds, forgeries, etc.) is rampant. To combat this last, the Literary Detectives division of the Special Operations Network was formed.

Thursday Next has worked in the London office for eight years, handling mostly routine cases. When the original manuscript of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen and master criminal Acheron Hades suspected, Thursday is called in because she was once a student of Hades and can identify him. Through a long and winding road that involes a transfer to Swindon, a bizarre detour into vampire-fighting, and attendance at an audience-participation rendition of Richard III, Thursday pursues Acheron, eventually into the pages of Jane Eyre, where their confrontation changes the outcome of the novel (into the version we know).

My list of complaints is longer than my list of compliments. I didn’t like the alternate universe very much, nor the ubiquity of cloned dodos, nor the silly names for some characters, nor the plot about the corrupt weapons dealer attempting to extend the Crimean War (already in its 131st year). The main problem, though, was Thursday herself, who is irritatingly perfect. She’s practically revered by the general public and every man wants her. Her former beau is willing to ditch his new fiancée if Thursday will just give the word. Her new partner is instantly smitten. Acheron Hades is impressed with her and declares her his greatest adversary. Hell, even Edward freakin’ Rochester from Jane Eyre has taken a shine to her!

On the brighter side, parts of the story that seem random do come together in a reasonably clever way (even the supernatural excursion into Slayerdom was eventually relevant) and I found Acheron quite amusing. He’s gleefully, hammily evil, so his appearances are quite fun, though I wonder how Thursday was privy to what was said in meetings at which she was not present (this being a first-person narrative and all). One baffling point is that, once he makes it into Jane Eyre, Acheron sort of sits around docilely for quite some time. It’s puzzling, but by that point in the novel I was just shaking my head and saying “whatever” whenever such things occurred.

Ultimately, I am torn. You’d think that with my general meh feeling about the world and decidedly less positive view of its protagonist, I would be firmly opposed to continuing the series, but that is not, in fact, the case. I’m willing to give it one more shot, at least. Maybe it will grow on me.


The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde)

The Eyre Affair CoverThe Plot
Thursday Next lives in a world where time travel is possible, cloning is something everyone can do, and where the general population is as passionate about the arts as they are about religion in ours. As a result, literary forgeries, copyright infringements and book piracy are high profile crimes, and Next is a LiteraTec, a detective whose main focus is on dealing with all crimes involving literature. But even she is surprised when crimes against literature turns into crimes against literary characters: after her uncle Mycroft invents a machine that allows people to literally enter a book, it turns out that said machine can also be used to remove characters from the book into the real world. Now the master criminal Acheron Hades is threatening to destroy several of England’s most beloved classics, and Thursday Next has to stop him.

My Thoughts
I had heard good things about this series before we chose to read it, but I didn’t know (and had chosen not to find out) any details, because I wanted to go in without having been spoiled. Having had few expectations, then, it would be a bit silly to say it wasn’t as anticipated — except it wasn’t, a bit.

The world of Thursday Next is an alternate Earth of some kind. Much is similar to our own world, but much more is different. Now, in my past experience with series of books set in an alternate history of Earth, the differences tend to hinge on identifiable differences between that world and ours which have then rippled forward and caused historical divergence. For example, in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, the big difference is the existence of dragons and their kin, and this has affected world history in ways which are still being explored. In Jo Walton’s Small Change books, the UK agreed to terms with Nazi Germany and withdrew from WWII before it really got underway, leaving many of the upper classes still able to indulge their fascist sympathies. The setting in Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy may be rather too changed to really be called an alternate history, but Strange Horizons has an incredibly in depth analysis of it available for the interested.

So what am I getting at here? Well, in all of the three examples above, the author has thought carefully about the changes they were making and how the ramifications altered the world. While reading, the worlds make internal sense. This was not the case for the setting presented in The Eyre Affair. There are plenty of changes in this alternate Earth, but they don’t seem to hang together well at all. This is a world where time travel is possible and incredibly advanced bioengineering is embarked upon by amateurs at home — and yet their computers still operate with valves and tubes? I’m sorry, what? The technology is out of whack.

There are also lots of clever asides and nudges at history embedded in the text, a number of which I’m sure I didn’t pick up on, being American and well versed in U.S. history rather than British or European. Some were important: the Charge of the Light Brigade has been shifted up a hundred years or so (the war in the Crimea is still going on as the book opens), for instance, and is an important touchstone for the heroine, Thursday Next, as she is a survivor. Others seemed, perhaps, to be setting up for future plot in the ongoing series, but this was less clear.

Part of the problem is that Fforde seems to have fallen victim to the impulse to say too much about the world, far before it was necessary. There’s a reason authors reveal things slowly and only when they need to: first, excess information can bog down the narrative and confuse the reader; second, once you’ve said something, it’s out there and you’re stuck with it — even if you have a better idea of how to handle it in a later book, when you’re actually going to focus in on it. Sure, you can retcon, but that just makes the fans angry.

A secondary result of the information packing (beyond the added confusion and internal contradictions) was that the actual real plot of the book — the danger posed to literature and to the world by Mycroft Next’s Prose Portal — felt like it didn’t ramp up until well past the midpoint of the novel. Once it did get properly underway, the narrative tightened up almost immediately and became far more readable and coherent. Enjoyable, in fact: it was a good idea and an interesting one, and I think it should have been given more pages than it was allotted. The title of the book, after all, is The Eyre Affair, not How Thursday Next Came to Be in Swindon That One Time.

In Short
This book was hampered by the fact that it wanted to be more clever than it actually was. Fforde didn’t seem to decide until halfway through if he was writing a punny Xanth romp or a novel with a plot that was going somewhere; once he settled on the latter, it got better and wrapped up not unsatisfyingly. For anyone who enjoys trying to pick out every sly reference and allusion in a work, this book would be a gold mine. For those who aren’t as enamored of such things, it’s not bad, if you can wade through the confusion of the first half (which is considerable.) Will I seek out the rest of the series? I can’t say I’m chomping at the bit, but I won’t rule it out.


J’s Take on The Eyre Affair

The Eyre Affair CoverI’m not quite sure I knew what I was getting into when we decided to read The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. I’m not quite sure I knew what I was getting into when I started to read it. Or when I was in the middle of reading it. Or now that I’ve finished.

What the heck is this thing?!

Our library has labelled it Mystery. Which most likely means Fforde is typically a mystery writer. Because I can’t say there’s much of a mystery involved in this book, though there is a crime. I guess. Yet I can’t call it an alternate history either. Or science fiction. I would call it fantasy if I had to, but a fantasy reader would typically be disappointed by it. Then again, I can only assume a mystery reader would be completely confused!!

Then again again, I was completely confused!!

Just when you think you’ve got the world and the story figured out, it’d take a 90 or 180 degree turn. And not necessarily in a horizontal direction either. And to label it bizarre might make you think it was bizarre in a cool and interesting fashion. It’s not.

It’s just not.

So the premise? Okay, it’s 1985 for starters. Which normally wouldn’t be a problem for me, but it was just one more thing I had to keep reminding myself of. And it’s the UK. Erm, I think. Well, I guess not, really, since Wales is its own country. But, anyway, something resembling the UK. And it’s an alternate history, in that people are really obsessed with literature. By which is meant classic British literature for the most part, I think. Shakespeare is really big. And there are a couple of really cool points around this part of the premise. Shakespeare animatronic coin-op machines. The original manuscript of Jane Eyre being on display and a page turned every couple of days, so regulars can read it… verrry slowly. I liked that idea. It may even be true. And then there was a Rocky Horror Picture Show version of.. was it Richard III? Very big on audience participation.

The real author of Shakespeare's plays...

... is, of course, Tim Curry!

The main character is a SpecOps operative, LiteraTec, basically a book cop. And since the Dickens Chuzzlewit manuscript is stolen, well, it’s what she does, right? Or something.





So then to add to this premise, there’s a ChronoCorps, which does time travelly-fixy-uppy stuff. The main character’s Dad is one of those guys. And she ends up dabbling in it herself, of course. He tends to retroactively fit things into the time stream. So that bananas were genetically created and then planted back in the past. And things like that.

Do I need to even mention the blimps and the dodos? Probably not. Steampunk and alternative history readers won’t be at all phased by those. And, really, minor point. And nothing to do with anything.

11 days of The Doctor: Day 9
Great Source of Potassium

Okay, so have you got your mind wrapped around all that yet? Because there’s also vampires and werewolves for no good reason.

And the bad guy is like immortal or a wizard or something I don’t even.

AND THEN! The main char’s uncle is a crackpot mad scientist, but the lovable sort, you know, and he invents something to let you go into books and change the story. And if you change the story on the original manuscript OHNOES!

If this all sounds awesome to you, more power to you, go ahead and read it. If you’re just confused, then, believe me, reading it won’t make you less confused.

Aside from all of that, the story was not, I believe, very well-written. I was halfway through the book and I felt like we were still at the setting-up-the-story phase. Sometimes there’s be odd bits of text that.. well, I thought the main char was also narrating part of it, but how could she know what was going on? She sort of guessed things she wasn’t there for. And then when it came to the big climax, I was confused. Granted my mind was also wandering because I was bored.

And then I can also quibble that in one chapter there were two misuses of the word ‘onto’. And then later on there was the reverse problem with ‘near by’.

As for the characters themselves, I felt the main character was pretty detached from her emotions. Colleagues are killed and she doesn’t seem to really feel anything. She has conversations with a man she claims to love, but they’re all very analytical conversations. She’s even pretty detached and third person narraty when she’s giving a report to her superiors about something that went down. I mean, narraty in a pseudo-literary sort of way, not a detailed-police-report kind of way.

Jane Slayre Cover
Yea, I went there.

For the whole Jane Eyre thing, I have not read Jane Eyre. Yet when they discuss the ending of it and Eyre running off to India, I did kind of guess that was a false ending. This was pretty much confirmed for me by the way that the characters in the book (Jane Eyre) are forced to do and say things that you really don’t think they would have given the narrative of this book. Kind of like reading a parallel novel where, now that we know a lot more about the secondary character of the first book who is now the main character of the second book, you can’t quite believe that character would do and say the things s/he did, but the author’s kind of stuck with the scene the way it was written the first time.

Apparently there are more books about this main character, whose name is Thursday Next, which totally reminds me..

The names in here are stupid! And none more stupid than Jack Schitt.


So there are more books in this series, but I can only imagine what they’re about. Will Next be going into another book? Who knows? Will she be messing with the past? Travelling to the future? Fighting more vampires? Eating brains because she’s been turned into a zombie? Going to Mars on a recumbent bicycle? There is just no telling. None at all.

Before I close, I probably shouldn’t neglect the Crimean War. Which is still going on. But I know nothing about the real Crimean War. Except there was one. So. Yea.

In summation, not the worst thing I’ve ever read, but possibly the most uneven hodgepodge thing I’ve ever read. And I will not be reading another thing about Thursday Next. And probably not another Jasper Fforde either.