The Eyre Affair
Welsh author Jasper Fforde fills his debut novel, The Eyre Affair, with airships, super-powered secret agents, and a surprising amount of fiery, Shakespeare-related discussion for a story set in 1985. In the author's world, the British secret service has been divided into 30 "Special Operations" divisions, with duties ranging from dealing with domestic disputes to disposing of vampires and werewolves. Meanwhile, a corporation-controlled Great Britain (minus a sovereign Wales) has been at war with Russia over Crimean territory for the better part of two centuries. The book is narrated by Thursday Next, an agent of the 27th division of SpecOps, dedicated to the pursuit of literary frauds. In her England, knowledge of literature is a point of national pride, and Shakespeare is honored by weekly, Rocky Horror-like performances of Richard IIIand by vending machines where animatronic mannequins recite the bard's soliloquies (unless the "Will-Speak" in question has been vandalized by militant Baconians). Next's colorful family includes a brother who preaches on behalf of the new Global Standard Deity, an inventor uncle who's perfecting a Retinal Screen Saver for daydreaming office workers, and a rogue father who bounces around the timeline trying to keep history straight while avoiding his former colleagues in SpecOps division 12, the ChronoGuard. The Eyre Affair follows Next's attempts to prevent arch-villain Acheron Hades from entering the original manuscripts of great books to hold beloved characters for ransom. The story builds to the moment when Next corners Hades in the margins of Jane Eyre, in the process changing the ending of that novel to the one we know in our own, less fanciful world of 2002. The Eyre Affair may sound like the work of Douglas Adams, but Fforde is closer to Italo Calvino, by way of Peter Hoeg. His heroine is matter-of-fact, dealing with insecurity and romantic troubles as often as she deals with maggot-like creatures that eat words and belch out synonyms. The Eyre Affair is about people who have intimate, meaningful relationships with books, and about how reading can induce a dream-state so strong that the perception of history itself changes shape around the reader. Fforde clearly has fun constructing a version of the universe that conforms with his own bibliomania. But he's also made an effort to keep his narrative tight and his characters colorful (with names like Turner Paige, Victor Analogy, and Jack Schitt), because he wants his readers to disappear into the text as the heroine does. It's welcome news that the author already has a sequel ready to go to press, an atmosphere as magical as The Eyre Affair's is too special to be abandoned when the back cover closes.