An unusually sure-footed first novel, this literary folly serves up a generally unique stew of fantasy, science fiction, procedural, and cozy literary mystery—but in the end is more dancing bear than ballet.
In an alternative Britain where literature is as important to the masses as movie stars are in our own, kids trade bubble-gum cards of Fielding characters, Baconians go door to door like Jehovah's Witnesses preaching Francis Bacon's authorship of Shakespeare (while radical “New Marlovians” firebomb their meetings), and Richard III is weekly participatory theater, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Thursday Next, a veteran of the Crimean War (still being fought after a hundred years), is a LiteraTec, assigned to crimes such as stolen manuscripts and, because time travel is common, very convincing forgeries. Her father, a renegade ChronoGuard, travels time fighting historical revisionists, occasionally visiting Thursday to check his progress (“Have you ever heard of someone named Winston Churchill?”). Acheron Hades, whose supernatural powers make him the third most dangerous man in the world, steals the Prose Portal, an invention allowing travel between literature and reality, and the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit, then ransoms one of the minor characters. Things get worse when he gets his hands on Jane Eyre. Thursday pursues Acheron into the text of the novel (always a puzzlement to Brontë fans because of its oddly truncated close, in which Jane never returns to Rochester), defeats him, and gives the story its familiar happy ending. Back in her own world, Thursday marries her true love in scenes that parallel the novel she's just escaped, aided by characters she'd thought she'd left there. While endlessly inventive, the invention here displays more whim than whimsy (names like Jack Schitt, Millon de Floss, and Oswald Mandias get a grin, but no more), and the world this young Welsh newcomer creates lacks the integrity that makes the best fantasies both startling and enduring.
Still, it's a welcoming and amusing place to pass a few hours.