Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series takes place mostly in an England that’s a republic a Wales that’s a socialist republic; of Scotland there is practically no mention, though I cannot say whether that is a comment or happenstance. The Crimean War was still being fought in 1985, and there are various other bits of history that have been jumbled around. Far more important, though, is the difference in the role of culture. Croquet is a major competitive sport, and books are taken very seriously indeed. Riots have been known to break out over differing interpretations, librarians are top-ranking civil servants, and some groups aim for political power by changing the canonically accepted versions of certain texts.
Thursday begins the series as a literary detective, and over the course of several books she levels up, revealing an ability to read herself into books, so that she is interacting with the characters and possibly changing the original text. She discovers more and more about the BookWorld, including its own special guardians, called Jurisfiction. In the outside world, there are more and more interactions with the ChronoGuard, a time travelling police force where her father is a long-serving agent. The books are wildly inventive, and often hilarious.
The Woman Who Died a Lot begins with Thursday unable to enter the BookWorld and the ChronoGuard disbanded. Structurally, this was a good move on Fforde’s part: toning back Thursday’s abilities so that she could not just pull out a trick from a previous book and solve the problems. What problems? Well, a week from the novel’s opening a cleansing pillar of divine fire is due to destroy a major part of Swindon, Thursday’s adopted home town, and messages from the future indicate that mere hours after the cleansing fire her son Friday will cold-bloodedly murder a local teenager.
As the story proceeds, it also becomes clear that the characters are contending with a villain returning from previous volumes, Aornis Hades. She is capable of manipulating people’s memories so subtly that they have no notion that they have interacted with her at all. The first few times that the characters’ lives are retroactively changed are some of the best passages in the book. Fforde does not signpost the changes at all — the characters have no idea — but attentive readers will note differences and pick up that something is going on. Moments like that are Thursday Next at the series’ best, inventive strangeness that feels perfectly natural within the setting. It’s not that strong all the way through — the contortions teeter a bit between wonderfully surprising and trying too hard, plus I never thought that any of the major characters were in serious danger — but it is an enjoyable jaunt, a good continuation of the tales of Thursday Next.
The Woman Who Died a Lot is the seventh Thursday Next novel and seriously not a good place to start. Begin at the beginning, with The Eyre Affair