It's conceivable that, after a decade-long run as one of the more popular speculative fiction writers, even Jasper Fforde could be in need of a challenge. Over that period, he's written five wildly inventive "Thursday Next" novels that follow the literary adventures of Next, a female detective in an alternative universe where England is still fighting the Crimean War, the country is controlled by the unscrupulous multinational Goliath Corporation and Next herself is the dubious owner of a cloned dodo named Miss Pickwick.
In this Nextian universe, characters move between that world, the RealWorld, and the pages of the BookWorld, where they act out scenes from novels while villains try to sabotage the plots, among other genre-bending activities. As the series has shown readers, the real Thursday is quite skilled at plunging into BookWorld and catching characters who have tried to escape their stories.
The desire for a challenge, however, prompts some writers of popular series to kill off their protagonists, effectively silencing the public clamor for more of the same and closing the door on a chapter in their own careers. In "One of Our Thursdays Is Missing," however, Fforde takes a much more imaginative, challenging path by "remaking" the entire BookWorld that he has crafted over the course of the series.
The remade BookWorld, which had been housed in the multi-story Great Library in previous Next novels, is now arrayed inside a sphere — think of the inverse of Earth's globe. Now all the categories of fiction reside on what is called Fiction Island (the Thursday Next series has its own little spot there), and genres jostle for territory and supremacy.
"The Crime genre was always relatively large," we're told, "as were Comedy, Fantasy and Science Fiction. Horror had gotten a boost recently with the burgeoning Urban Vampires sector, while some of the lesser-known genres had shrunk to almost nothing."
Just such a battle forms the backdrop upon which the slender thread of the novel's plot hangs: There's a long-running dispute among several categories — Racy Novel, Women's Fiction and Dogma — in the northern part of Fiction Island that has escalated and is "threatening to erupt into a genre war at the drop of a hat."
It's just the kind of situation in which the real Thursday would intervene — except that, as the title tells us, "One of Our Thursdays Is Missing." But which one is missing — is it Thursday from RealWorld, Thursday in BookWorld (she's referred to as "written Thursday") or someone else, a Thursday stand-in? As if these questions aren't confusing enough, written Thursday has more immediate concerns — she's received a call from Col. James "Red" Herring of the BookWorld Policing Agency. The Agency's Jurisfiction Accident Investigation Department needs her to investigate why narrative from an unknown book is falling from the sky, a chunk of which has landed on a car park and prevented Lola Vavoom from falling to her death, a scene that's being enacted from another book.
Written Thursday is aided in her investigation by Sprockett, a mechanical butler: Reminiscent of Frank Baum's Tik-Tok (the Tin Man of the Wizard of Oz), Sprockett is a wonderful wind-up robot and maker of oddball cocktails whose emotions are discernible by an arrow that helpfully points to the appropriate word on his forehead. The pair set off on a journey that takes them together and separately across Fiction Island in search of the source of the fallen narrative as well as into the amusingly disorienting RealWorld and up the Metaphorical River in search of Thursday's missing alter ego.
"One of Our Thursdays Is Missing," like other Fforde novels, is jampacked with spot-on parody, puns and wry observations about words and genres that will delight literary-minded fans of the series. Even those new to the Nextian universe must admire the audacity of the world Fforde has created, with its Steampunk-influenced contraptions, double entendre literary landmarks and skewering of the publishing industry, even the popularity of "the ghostwriter's" books. Ironically, this abundance of material may also make this latest installment, remade world notwithstanding, a bit bewildering for those new to the series. And though it's tempting to look for guidance in the previous Thursday Next installments, it's better to just suspend disbelief, fasten your seat belt and enjoy the mind-bending TransGenre Taxi ride with Thursday Next, Sprockett and the rest of Fforde's wacky and wondrous creations.
Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.