This is either the fifth, the sixth, or the first book to feature Thursday Next, depending on how you're counting.
Those who have read the first four will no doubt consider it the fifth, but there's a book they won't be familiar with on the list of previous Thursday Next books in the front, The Samuel Pepys Affair, which has a line through it and a notation that it is no longer available.
Moreover, this book claims to be the first one featuring the *real* Thursday, not the highly fictionalized one suitable for action/adventure yarns more-or-less invented for the previous books. That Thursday is also a character here, along with the Thursday Next from the unavailable fifth book. If that's not enough duplication, there are the Danver clones -- multiple copies of the austere housekeeper from Rebecca.
It's difficult to describe the Thursday Next novels to someone unfamiliar with them. They take place in an alternate universe -- but then, what book doesn't? You can't possibly meet the real Rabbit Angstrom, after all. He doesn't exist. So a world where he *does* exist, however much like our own it may be, must be an alternate universe.
Fforde takes this idea and plays it to the hilt. There is a whole universe of universes, a vast Bookspace in which whole universes made of books float, mingling in groups of related genres. Thursday can go between the "real" world (well, it's real to her) and the book worlds, and does so in her job as an agent for Jurisfiction.
Thursday's real world is obviously not ours -- genetic engineering has brought back the dodo, for instance. But the differences often make hilarious comment on our own real world.
For instance, the book opens with the news of a hotly contested political debate about the stupidity surplus.
"The reason for the crisis was clear: Prime Minister Redmond van de Poste and his ruling Commonsense Party had been discharging their duties with a reckless degree of responsibility that bordered on inspired sagacity. Instead of drifting from one crisis to the next and appeasing the nation with a steady stream of knee-jerk legislation and headline-grabbing but arguably pointless initiatives, they had been resolutely building a raft of considered long-term plans that concentrated on unity, fairness and tolerance."
The problem with this is that sooner or later, the stupidity is going to have to come out. Instead of being a little bit stupid more or less all the time, the government was building up a surplus that could only be expended by something monumentally dumb. "Only a blunder of staggering proportions would remove the surplus, and the nature of this mind-numbing act of idiocy was a matter of considerable speculation."
There's also the ChronoGuard, a sort of time travel police, an organization Thursday's son, Friday, is destined to grow up to be head of, except that it's three years since he was supposed to have joined and he shows no signs of interest in it whatsoever.
Fforde's stories are so full of literary in-jokes that even though I'm fairly well read I'm sure I missed half of them. Witty, charming, funny, exciting, puzzling, imaginative and rollicking good fun, this book is a delight even if you've never read any of the others. I know this because it was my own introduction to the series, and I can't wait to go find the others.
First Among Sequels
By Jasper Fforde
Viking, 366 pages, $24.95