In Jasper Fforde's fourth installment of the Thursday Next series, the literary detective returns to the real world, known as the Outland, from her stint as the BookWorld Bellman, the person in charge of the policing agency inside books whose task it is to maintain story lines within fiction, known as Jurisfiction. As a single mother (her husband having been eradicated in the second book of the series), Thursday has her hands full. Not only does she have her son, Friday, to care for, she also has her pet dodo bird, Pickwick, and Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, in tow.
Like the earlier books in the series, Something Rotten is set in Swindon, England, in the 1980's; however, this is a very different England from the one with which readers may be familiar and a very different 1980's from those that readers may remember. In this alternate reality, Wales is a socialist republic; croquet has the cachet of world-league soccer; fictional characters leap out of books, and real characters leap into them; dirigibles ply the sky rather than airplanes; extinct species such as dodos and Neanderthals have been genetically reengineered; and members of the ChronoGuard slip in and out of the time stream.
The wildly imaginative alternative reality and plot structures can be very confusing for the uninitiated reader, and the fourth book of the series is probably not the place to start an exploration into Thursday's world. Rather, a first-time reader ought to look up The Eyre Affair(2001) and read the other books sequentially to follow the complicated construction of a strange, yet oddly cohesive, alternate world.
For readers who have already met Thursday and her gang, however, Something Rotten offers another foray into a familiar, albeit wacky, landscape. The book picks up where The Well of Lost Plots (2003) closes. As Something Rotten opens, Thursday is still the Bellman and is still in BookWorld, tracking the escaped Minotaur by following a series of custard-pie-throwing incidents occurring unexpectedly in a number of Westerns. When Emperor Zhark comes to the rescue of Thursday and Colonel Bradshaw, destroying most of the book they are in, Thursday decides that she has had enough of the BookWorld and wants to return to Swindon, her home, and begin anew her search for her eradicated husband, Landen Parke-Laine.
The Council of Genres, however, refuses to accept Thursday's resignation and gives her a leave of absence instead, instructing her to deal with escaped fictional character Yorrick Kaine, who is trying to become dictator of England in the Outland. In addition, Thursday finds herself saddled with Hamlet, prince of Denmark, who is concerned that he is not being interpreted properly in the Outland. To complicate matters further, Thursday must find ways to provide child care for her son, including importing Mrs. Bradshaw (a dress-wearing gorilla married to the colonel) from the BookWorld.
The plot then branches in several directions. In one subplot, Thursday works toward reactualizing her husband by approaching the Goliath Corporation, which has now become a “faith-based corporate-management system” complete with “Apologaria,” places where people who have been wronged by Goliath can go to receive apologies. In one such visit, Thursday encounters her former nemesis, Jack Schitt, and ultimately recovers her husband, although Landen flickers in and out of the time line for several chapters.
In a second subplot, Thursday tries to avoid being assassinated by the notorious hit woman known as the Windowmaker. In reality, the assassin is Cindy Stoker, mother of an infant child and wife of Thursday's friend Spike. Spike and Cindy's roles in the novel turn out to be crucial to the climactic ending.
Another branch of the plot occurs because of Hamlet's sojourn to the Outland. While Hamlet has been...
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