I don't like whimsy and I've never liked the randomness of the original Alice books where things just happen with no underlying logic, but the reason I like Fforde is that he always plays by the rules of his created world, which in this book especially, are the rules of fiction itself.
Oh, and I also find the stories very very funny!
Thursday Next, Jurisfiction Agent and main character of the series so far (this is the sixth book), is supposed to be taking part in some important peace talks between Racy Novel and Woman's Fiction, but she has vanished without trace. There is no sign of her in the real world where she lives with her husband, two real children, the dodo Pickwick and the imaginary child Jenny. Neither can her friend and fellow Jurisfiction Agent Commander Bradshaw find any trace of her in the book world.
Meanwhile, the written Thursday, heroine of the fictional Thursday Next series is struggling to keep her remaindered books alive. She is not exactly like her RealWorld counterpart, other than in looks, and prefers to keep the series dignified and respectful rather than allow the action-packed sex and violence that her predecessor, an earlier written Thursday favoured. She feels she has the real Thursday's approval for this approach, though real Thursday hasn't visited the series for quite a while.
To add to the complications, the BookWord, familiar to fans of the earlier books, has been remade on a geographic model. Instead of jumping directly from book to book as they have done in the past, characters now have to travel from one to another by various forms of transport across the interior surface of a vast globe. As books move from genre to genre, due to the whims of readers' shifting tastes, marketing, or perhaps because a so called autobiography has been found to be totally fiction, huge books fly in conveys across the sky.
When one of these, the Murders on the Hareng Rouge, crashes in mysterious circumstances, Commander Bradshaw wants to know why and asks the written Thursday to take real Thursday's place and investigate. It seems for a while as though it was a routine accident, but then Thursday, aided by the mechanical man Sprokett who she had earlier rescued from a mob, delves deeper and discovers that it was sabotaged, brought down by a Rhetorical Worm.
Can written Thursday find the real Thursday? Could she actually be the real Thursday all along, hiding in plain sight from the Men in Plaid who for some unknown reason want to kill her? Or is she perhaps suffering from some strange form of amnesia and simply thinks she's the written Thursday rather than the real one? She certainly starts to behave less like her prim and proper self and more like the real Thursday as the book progresses and the search takes her from the comfortable certainty of her fictional home out into the scary RealWorld where events can be random and have no particular significance whatsoever. Suffice it to say, Fforde skilfully steers all the complex plot strands to a very satisfying conclusion.
I always wonder how non-writers see the Thursday Next series. In some ways I would have thought that Jasper Fforde is a writer's writer. He plays not only with the conventions of fiction but also with the whole process of reading and the way readers partially construct the story and even feed their interpretations back into the novel, not to mention the way fiction and visual media like film interact and there is a very funny joke about Harry Potter early in the book.
Yet despite this playfulness, Fforde somehow always keeps a firm grip on the narrative strand and never lets the story get too ridiculous, or as they say nowadays, his books never "jump the shark" and always manage to stay just the right side of believable.
If you're not already a fan of the series, it's probably best to start with The Eyre Affair and read the books in order, though having said that, this book should also work for newcomers to the series because this is an independent adventure that doesn't really depend on what has gone before. For old fans, however, this story is a welcome return to the strangeness that is the BookWorld and it finally explains the reason for all the Toast Marketing Board product placement in the earlier books!