Review by Jared Kavanagh
Picture courtesy Amazon.
The year in 1985. Britain and Russia have been fighting the Crimean War since 1854. Wellington died at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, possibly killed by French revisionists. The Isle of Wight has been returned to France. There’s an independent Socialistic Republic of Wales. Technology follows a path different enough that the main character has a home-cloned, regenerated dodo.
And all of this is covered in the first chapter.
This is the alternate history of The Eyre Affair, one of the hardest novels to categorise that I’ve ever read. Weird doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s probably more on the speculative end of fantasy to anything else, but there’s science fiction elements, romance, thriller, and a healthy dose of mystery, among others.
What it definitely isn’t is a work of alternate history as a genre.
The Eyre Affair makes no attempt to pick a historical divergence and explore what happens from there. Indeed, there is no single divergence. The Crimean War is into its thirteenth decade, but what happens in this novel isn’t a series of consequences of that war continuing. The alternate history is all over the place, and deliberately so. Fforde didn’t try – and didn’t seem to be trying – to write a firmly-grounded work of history. Fforde is here to tell a story, and the alternate history is simply part of the canvas on which he tells that story. (Though there are airships. It’s an alternate history, so there have to be airships).
Thursday Next is – as well as being a Crimean War veteran and dodo wrangler – a literary detective with SO-29, dealing with fraudulent versions of Shakespeare’s lost Cardenio, fake Samuel Johnson first editions, illegal literary traders, copyright infringement, and other such matters. (There are a total of 30 divisions within Special Operations, some others of which are Neighbourly Disputes, Art Crime, and the ChronoGuard). Her father is a rogue time agent, or possibly a heroic warrior defending humanity against corrupt temporal bureaucrats.
And again, all of this is captured just in the first chapter.
What follows from there is a rollicking ride through an entertainingly alien version of our world. One in pursuit of the mysteriously villainous, possibly demonic Acheron Hades, who’s been kidnapping fictional characters and holding them for ransom in our world. In a world where literary matters are taken seriously enough that London has around four thousand people named John Milton, and thus anyone who’s a literary namesake tattooed behind their left ear (say hello to Alfred Tennyson 117). And where the Shakespearian authorship question leads to Baconians door-knocking to explain why Shakespeare could not possibly have written his plays, and extolling the virtues of their preferred candidate. Where detective Thursday Next is trying to find a way into fiction to save Jane Eyre.
The plot is part mystery, part thriller, but with plenty of entertaining detours along the way. Fforde has a lot of fun playing with references to literature (among much else) as part of the story. I’ll freely admit that some of them went over my head – I hadn’t actually read Jane Eyre at the time when I first read The Eyre Affair – but these are done in such a way that they give a bit of heightened entertainment for those readers who get them, but don’t make the story impossible to follow for those who aren’t familiar with them.
There’s also a healthy chunk of humour throughout, including what for me were a couple of laugh out loud moments, the crowning one being a rather different production of Richard III. My copy has a quote from Terry Pratchett on the back cover which reads: “Ingenious – I’ll watch Jasper Fforde nervously.”
The romance subplot may not be to everyone’s taste (I’ve seen mixed takes from readers over the years), but to me it tied in well with the other literary references.
This is very much a first novel, in the sense that there’s a lot to admire but also a few awkwardly done scenes. One was the old classic of where the (first person) protagonist looks in the mirror to describe her looks, which is a rather awkward way of doing things. Another was where what should have been a key action scene conveniently had the protagonist have a blackout and then tell the whole thing via a police interview later, which was needlessly detached from the more immediate effects of an action scene. (And Fforde can write decent action scenes elsewhere in the novel). For me, these were minor things which didn’t significantly detract from the more interesting elements of the novel, but they are there, nonetheless.
While this story isn’t a conventional alternate history tale, that doesn’t make the alternate history aspect of the setting mere window dressing, either. Without giving any major spoilers, this history’s version of the Charge of the Light Armoured Brigade is critical to the life of the protagonist Thursday Next and her interaction with other characters, to pick just one example.
As is presumably clear by now, I enjoyed this book when I first read it, and I enjoyed it again when re-reading it for this review. It does seem to be a classic Marmite book in that people tend to love it or hate it without much middle ground. For anyone who is looking for a book which follows the conventions of a single genre, or even a two-genre crossover, this probably isn’t the book for them.
The Eyre Affair is deservedly a classic work of alternate history, without being part of the genre of alternate history.
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