Jasper Fforde's 'Thursday Next' Series, the Natural Progression for Harry Potter Fans
Many Harry Potter fans grew up with the character and his stories. The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first released in 1997 and was an immediate success. Its 1998 release in the United States, under the title ...Sorcerer’s Stone, led to the 2001 film adaptation, and the subsequent seven sequels culminated with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 (the movie divided the book, released in 2007, in twain) a decade later. Although a satisfying conclusion, for some the ensuing dearth was unbearable, and the result is 2016’s sudden Potter resurgence. Not only is there a play about an older Harry, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, starting this summer and being published in script format, there’s also a new prequel movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, coming out in November.
But here’s the thing: a big part of the appeal of the Harry Potter books was their childhood perspective and growing up with the characters. The movies, conversely, have not only that, but the benefit of seeing actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson evolve from precocious 11-year-olds to hardened 17-year-olds. So certainly Fantastic Beasts offers up the opportunity to return to the Wizarding World and see whole new aspects of it, America and the past of the Roaring ‘20s—but will it pull off the characters? Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander could be great, but something tells me focusing on adults is antithetical to what makes these stories so special.
Instead, how about a series to scratch that Potter itch that is aimed at adults from the jump? Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series is the best option. Starting with The Eyre Affair, released in 2001, as of 2012 there have been six follow-ups with a seventh, Dark Reading Matter, to be released at an as-of-yet undisclosed date. Ample reading material, and no promise of an end date in sight.
The Eyre Affair follows SpecOps 27 agent Ms. Next, a literary detective investigating literature-related crimes. The story is set in 1985 Great Britain, but not one familiar to the audience: in this alternate universe, England and a never-revolutionized Russia have been fighting the Crimean War in perpetuity. The Crimean War in reality lasted from October 1853 to March 1856 and was fought between then Imperial Russia and an alliance of France, the United Kingdom, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia. The conflict was over the rights of Christians in the Ottoman Empire-controlled Holy Land. In The Eyre Affair the interminability of the war creates a butterfly effect, advancing technology (although the British favor dirigibles as air transportation) and seemingly replacing religion with passionate academia. The differences stem from even earlier, however, as in this world Jane Eyre, published in 1847, ends with the titular character accompanying her cousin, St. John Rivers, to India rather than returning to nurse Mr. Rochester to health and fulfill their romance.
There's a small hint, as well, in a quote that precludes chapter 2, that perhaps it is inevitable that Next's universe became more like ours.
There are two schools of thought about the resilience of time. The first is that time is highly volatile, with every small event altering the possible outcome of the earth's future. The other view is that time is rigid, and no matter how hard you try, it will always spring back toward a determined present.
But later books don't necessarily support that thesis. More likely, Fforde simply wanted to lay some ground rules to allow the audience to accept that some things will be the same, but there's leeway to change whatever he wants.
The scene is set for Next, a 36-year-old Crimean War veteran living in London with cloned pet dodo Pidwick, to cross swords with Acheron Hades, a former university professor turned nefarious criminal mastermind of indeterminate, and possibly supernatural, power. He kidnaps Next’s uncle, Mycroft, a brilliant but eccentric scientist who has created a machine, the Prose Portal, that allows people to enter text, everything from poems to novels. The rule of the game is if an aboriginal manuscript is amended, it changes every copy in the world. Consequently, Hades steals Jane Eyre and kidnaps the eponymous ingénue at the midpoint, blaspheming a much-loved book. Next pursues Hades into the text itself where she must save Eyre and restore the book, in the process adding a few changes of her own.
First of all, what makes this comparable to Harry Potter is the tone. There is a sense of whimsy and properness that is distinctly British. For those familiar with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and that's everyone, right?), the humor is along the same lines but without, perhaps, the biting cynicism. Instead there's a fine balance of characters accepting the fantastical as an everyday occurrence while at the same time slipping in the right amount of awe when appropriate. Fforde also masters, much like Rowling, the art of worldbuilding with ease, throwing out large swaths of history and culture with a grace and economy that never feels like info dumping exposition. Fforde trusts the audience will accept this world because the characters are so enjoyable, and Next herself is the right amount of world-weary and bemused to make it all palatable. He also withholds enough to leave things mysterious.
The major difference is, of course, that the Thursday Next series is science fiction and not fantasy. There's cloning, time travel, dimensional travel, and plasma rifles codenamed STONK, but as Arthur C. Clarke once famously exclaimed, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And that's how Fforde treats it, with gadgets and gizmos explained with technobabble or not explained at all. Another staple of sci-fi and the growing tensions of the 1980s present here is a mega-corporation known as Goliath, with its obsessions with weapons and the bottom line, that is right out of a cyberpunk novel. Of course, none of the Thursday Next books are actually cyberpunk, even if there is an urban feel and sense of Big Brother bureaucracy to the government's (mis)management of the war.
Instead there's more of a magical realism approach to the circumstances of Next's life. Magical realism is, of course, fiction that portrays the unreal as natural in an otherwise grounded or banal backdrop. Examples would include the books of Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami. No one hesitates very long when confronted with the improbable, such as Hades's abilities that seem to be out of the ordinary even in Next's world.
First of all, no one bats an eye at the on-the-nose names that permeate their lives. There's Next herself, who is introduced without comment. Acheron Hades couldn't be any more evil if you called him, say, Lucifer de Vil. But best of all is the not-so-subtle Jack Schitt, a Goliath Operative that is an insufferable pain in Next's side. This is well in line with the silly mouthfuls that are Harry Potter characters, with Remus Lupin seemingly born to be a werewolf and Alastor "Mad Eye" Moody having a surly disposition. The wordplay here is totally self-aware but presented with a straight face, and what makes Next so endearing is you can sense the cheeky smile in the corner of her mouth whenever confronted with this absurdity.
And while most of the nonsensical is in the realm of science fiction, there's a bit of child-like imagination going a long way. Next, for instance, was able to enter Jane Eyre without the benefit of machines at a young age, and it's hinted she hasn't since because she's lost something after a lifetime of heartache.
There's even SpecOps 17 that deals with "suckers & biters", evil and supernatural beings, but when Next meets the one operative her reaction to learning of the existence of vampires and werewolves is nonchalance. Harry Potter doesn't qualify for this distinction, as Harry as audience surrogate leaves the comforts of the normal world and very specifically enters into the magical world. It would fall more under the category if, for instance, the entire story was from Ron's perspective with no other alternative but the Wizarding World.
And perhaps that's what marks Next as the adult progression from Harry Potter: her dreary acceptance of awe. Like a noir detective, she is at once comfortable with what she considers mundane and what should also be astonishing to her. There's the aforementioned mad scientist uncle and casual bumping into a vampire slayer, but there's also her father, the member of the Chronoguard. Although he has been erased from history, he freezes time and pops in for tea with Next on occasion, often to dump provocative tidbits or inadvertently set things into motion.
But this acceptance and lack of awe isn't glum, it's endearing and more importantly adult. Next is the kind of character that so rarely attains prominence in fiction. She's a tough, unmarried career professional in her mid-30s, and although romance enters the series it's not very front and center in the first book and has a tinge of melancholy. Her concerns feel mature and complex, and a natural extension of where the Potter series ends.
The Harry Potter books are gradually and subtly about the deconstruction of idles and realizing that heroes are only all too human. In Order of the Phoenix Harry comes to find his perfect male role models, his father, Sirius and Lupin, were bullies toward Snape in their teen years. Deathly Hallows, meanwhile, sees Dumbledore's name posthumously smeared in relation to the death of his young sister and connection to the dark wizard Grindelwald and the truth about Snape, that he's always had Harry's best interest, revealed.
The Next books, by contrast, and The Eyre Affair in particular, are simultaneously about disillusion and loyalty in the face of harsh truths. Next has turned against the war effort and sees it as pointless and wasteful. She has little faith in government as a whole, and strongly distrusts its ties with the Goliath Corporation. At the same time she stands by her father, who has been discredited and disavowed, no matter what, and practically worships her brother who died in the war. Whereas the Harry Potter series is about the sacredness of old institutions, from Hogwarts to the Ministry of Magic, and keeping them from being tainted by fascists, Thursday Next is about digging in to what matters as you get older: family and the freedom of choice.
It's amazing that the Next books haven't been adapted into a Hollywood franchise yet. They're built in with the Tumblr crowd in mind: a strong female character; an aching love story with ex-fiance Landen Parke-Laine that has a will-they, won't they quality to it; plenty of other enticing characters to ship Next with; the potential for amazing visuals; a wealth of stories to adapt; and enough cameos by famous literary characters to make Once Upon a Time blush. That final point is crucial, as Fforde is somehow able to depict everyone from Mr. Rochester to the Cheshire Cat (renamed the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat due to "boundary changes") without a false note.
So this is not a polemic against Harry Potter. Anything but. Those books are not just childhood treasures but reveal hidden depths and fascinating cautionary messages when read and re-read (or watched and re-watched) as an adult. But as an adult it's nice to be reflected in adult characters with adult concerns. The Thursday Next series is to perfect answer to the question of where to go next after leaving, or in-between revisiting, the Wizard World of J.K. Rowling. It has rollicking adventure, charm and dry humor and a distinct sense of Britishness that will feel new and familiar at the same time.
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