The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde
After thoroughly enjoying The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book, I was eager to jump into Jasper Fforde’s third novel in the Thursday Next series, The Well of Lost Plots. Happily, the standard remains high; even if The Well of Lost Plots is not quite as good as the first two, it’s still a lot of fun.
The Well of Lost Plots picks up right where Lost in a Good Book left off, with a pregnant Thursday Next laying low in the BookWorld to avoid the clutches of Goliath and SpecOps in the real world. Thursday is hidden in ‘Caversham Heights’, a detective potboiler set, somewhat hilariously, in Reading, whilst she also undergoes training with Jurisfiction, the BookWorld equivalent of the police force. On the eve of the release of the ‘UltraWord’ update to book technology, several Jurisfiction agents are murdered and it falls to Thursday to solve the mystery. Throughout all this Aornis Hades continues her assault on Thusrday’s memories, trying to make her forget that Landen, the father of her child, ever even existed.
This novel takes place almost entirely in the BookWorld, with the alternate universe setting established in The Eyre Affair appearing only briefly. I wasn’t at first quite sure if that was a good idea; the BookWorld is incredibly entertaining, but the best wacky science fiction/fantasy settings have a grounding in amusing mediocrity and believability as well; it’s this quality which I think gives Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork its charm. The lore of the BookWorld is thankfully built as well as that of the ‘real world’, allowing a whole new range of bizarre silliness to amuse and delight the reader. With every book of Fforde’s I read I become more and more convinced that his comic worldbuilding abilities stand alongside Douglas Adams and Pratchett.
Although the first two novels also followed the ‘seemingly separate plot strands all converging together at the end’ plot structure, it’s all a little bit too directionless here. It takes a good third of the book to really get a sense of narrative thrust, with the early sections largely involving Thursday being introduced to new elements of the BookWorld; don’t get me wrong, these scenes are entertaining, and I’m glad they’re there, but it leads to the novel having a slightly dodgy sense of narrative flow. The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book were a bit loose structurally too, but it’s more of a problem in The Well of Lost Plots. Still, when the actual plot properly gets going it’s a lot of fun, and this is still a great book, just not quite as great as the first two.
In terms of pure laugh out loud moments these books just get better and better. Being set in the BookWorld, there’s a massive reliance of literary references, and if you’re not particularly familiar with at least a decent chunk of the English canon that might lessen the appeal. That’s not to overstate my own knowledge, there were vast swathes of this novel that left me clueless, but you can’t study English literature for three years without picking up some stuff. The fact that this book is literally set inside the abstract concept of literature allows for all kinds of silly and fun little gimmicks; a section where Thursday travels into the footnotes, whilst the characters of the main text continue on unawares, was a particular highlight, but this book is filled with moments like that. Fforde keeps his tongue firmly in cheek, and techniques which would be awkward or obnoxious in a less irreverent author are always fun and entertaining here.
Thursday is a great protagonist, tough, stoic and incredibly likeable; she’s the sort of character that you want to go out for a drink with. The supporting cast of the ‘real world’ in the first two novels are largely absent here, with the literary characters introduced in Lost in a Good Book standing in as good replacements. Great Expectation‘s Miss Havisham is a standout, but this novel is filled with amusing literary cameos, with some of the best including Sir John Falstaff, Count Dracula, Prometheus and Heathcliff. Fforde is great at undermining our expectations of these characters, whilst remaining true to their source works to mine for some great comedy.
The Well of Lost Plots may be a bit of a mess structurally, but it’s an incredibly entertaining mess, and essential for anyone who enjoyed the previous adventures of Thursday Next. Fforde has written plenty of books about this character, and I’m looking forward to dipping back into this weird and wonderful world that he has created.