Jasper Fforde's first novel, 2001's The Eyre Affair, opened up a fantastically creative alternative England in which cloning kits make dodos into house pets, cheese smuggling is a lucrative underground profession, and people are so passionate about literature that they adopt their favorite authors' names in droves, necessitating a numbering system to distinguish between all the William Shakespeares. After publishing three sequels at one-year intervals, to diminishing returns, Fforde took a break from Eyre protagonist Thursday Next to write a couple of increasingly strained "nursery crime" mystery spin-offs.
But Next is back in action in First Among Sequels, which takes up her adventures 14 years later. Britain's Special Operations Unit, which polices everything from time travel to crimes in the BookWorld—the literal, physical realm where fictional characters live—has largely been disbanded, which hasn't slowed Next down. In the BookWorld, she's trying to make a decent JurisFiction agent out of the soppy, meek hippie version of herself from a badly written biography. In the real world, she's again at odds with the monolithic Goliath Corporation, which is inserting physical probes into the BookWorld. And as usual, a dozen other things are going on, involving her uncle's absent-minded ghost, a squabble between literary genres, and Next's lazy 16-year-old son, who refuses to join SpecOps' time-travel unit, to the horror of his straight-and-narrow future self. Meanwhile, a reading public caught up in celebrities and reality TV is turning away from books altogether.
Eyre Affair was the only Thursday Next book to feature a strong central plotline; the sequels have been a morass of brief snippets going in divergent directions, and First Among Sequels is no exception. Fforde comes up with fascinating ideas by the fistfuls, but rarely takes time to explore them in any depth, and when some of his plotlines remain unresolved, it seems more like distracted indifference than intent. And while most of the significant subplots are lively good fun, packed with wry literary allusions, a pleasantly absurdist British sense of humor, and Fforde's usual wild invention, all the ponderous explanations of BookWorld mechanics seem unnecessary, given how far the series has come without them. Mostly, though, First Among Sequels feels like it's working too hard to keep things moving along at a rambunctious pace, at the cost of commitment to any one storyline. It's shallow fluff, and easy to enjoy on that level. But Fforde has proved he's capable of more, and it's hard not to hold him to his own high standards.