Thursday Next is an agent with SpecOps who police the 1985 she lives in. In this reality the Crimean war is still ongoing, Wales is a communist republic and more or less a closed country, and one of the most popular pastimes is reading. Thursday hails from Swindon, here in the UK, but lives and works in London. She lost a brother in the Crimea and fought there herself, her brother's death being the source of a huge controversy connected with The Charge of the Light Brigade.
The story begins when the original manuscript of Charles Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit is mysteriously stolen from a museum. The box it was contained in is untouched and the thief does not appear on the CCTV tape. It appears this is the work of arch-criminal, Acheron Hades, and Thursday is recruited by another SpecOps department to help catch him. In a botched attempt her new partner is killed and Thursday badly injured; it seems Hades is a completely unprincipled scoundrel, going so far as to even kill his own brother in an effort not to be caught.
Thursday returns to Swindon but the Hades problem will not go away: Hades has noticed her and the next thing he does is to kidnap her uncle Mycroft who is a bit of a mad professor type. He's invented a book that can be used to enter the world of books, and Hades puts Mycroft's wife into a Wordsworth poem to make Mycroft do his bidding. 'His bidding' involves interfering in the ending of Jane Eyre for monetary gain; in this reality that book has a different conclusion to the one we're used to. It seems that the only one really capable of stopping this villainy is Thursday Next but how is this possible when Hades is always one step ahead and completely ruthless to boot?
Lots of people love this series so I was expecting a fun read and I got one. The cleverness displayed by the author reminds me a little bit of Terry Pratchett but in reality this story was not much like anything I've ever read before. Favourite bits were things such as the Will-speak machine where you put a coin in and got a Shakespeare quote; the John Milton convention going on at the hotel where everyone came dressed as the author and had changed their name to... John Milton; and a scene where a 'Baconian' knocks on the door and tries to persuade Thursday that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays... in the manner of a Jehovah's Witness trying to convert you on the doorstep. Beautifully done and very funny.
I love the idea of a world where books are the thing and not TV (although TV does exist). Where everyone has read classic literature and not only thinks nothing of it but has an opinion and knows all the charcters in minute detail. Where absolutely everyone has read Jane Eyre and loathes the (wrong) ending. And where the stealing of an original manuscript is a catastrophe of earth-shattering proportions.
It helps to have some knowledge of Jane Eyre to read this book but it's not strictly necessary. To be honest, this book makes me want to reread it as I last read it as a teen, although I have seen several execellent dramatisations since. I think I liked the Mr. Rochester in this book better than I liked the 'real' one!
I'm now wondering what the other books in this series hold - which books are involved, what happens to Thursday, and whether or not more of Mycroft's wonderful inventions are instrumental in the plot. I've just checked and the next book is Lost in a Good Book and seems to involve Neanderthals, Just William and Flopsy Bunnies. Sounds great and I shall be checking to see if my library has it tomorrow. I really need another new series...