Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair (Viking, 2002)

Enter a world where things are very, very different.  Where in 1985, Britain is a virtual police state, engaged in border wars with the People's Republic of Wales, and well into the 131st year of the Crimean War.  Where all told, thirty divisions of Special Operations take care of business, everything from Neighborly Disputes (SO-30) to Art Crime (SO-24) to Weird Stuff (SO-2) and Weirder Stuff (SO-3), to ChronoGuard (SO-12) and Internal Affairs (SO-1).  Thursday Next is part of the Literary Detectives (SO-27).  Her beat: manuscripts, forgeries, literary crimes, and keeping tabs on Britain's national treasures, including the much-beloved first editions of Dickens, Swift, Shakespeare, Austen and the Brontes.  It's a strange life, one she shares with her pet dodo (left over from that cloning fad), enjoying the occasional visit from her time-traveling fugitive father.  And then the unthinkable happens.  A precious first edition of Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen, and Thursday gets a visit from an operative of SO-5.  What does SO-5 do?  He's not saying.  But he has the authority to recruit Thursday into an operation of vital importance, and the knowledge of who could have stolen such a priceless, well-guarded artifact.  None other than the deadly, dangerous, diabolical Acheron Hades, a man who can sense when his name is spoken, and whose persuasive powers simply can't be believed.

And thusly is Thursday Next dragged into a bizarre series of adventures involving conspiracy, counter-conspiracy, time travel, and more, facing off against Acheron Hades time and again.  The initial foray against Acheron and his brother Styx ends in dismal failure, but it serves as a stepping stone to catapult Thursday even deeper into a fine mess.  Enter such oddballs as Stoker (Agent, SO-27: Vampire and Werewolf Disposal). Enter Thursday herself, tossed back from the future to deliver a message only she can understand.  Enter Uncle Mycroft, wacky inventor and creator of the HyperBookworms.  Enter Baconians (convinced Bacon wrote Shakespeare) and the members of the 112th Annual John Milton Convention.  And enter Edward Rochester, literary hero of the book Jane Eyre...

The very fate of literature is at stake, especially when someone discovers a way to breach the barriers between reality and fiction.  First fictional characters turn up dead.  And then Hades commits the ultimate sin: he kidnaps Jane Eyre herself, holding her for ransom.  It's up to Thursday, Rochester, and friends to save the day before Hades can commit literary homicide and ruin civilization as we almost know it.

Fforde has created a truly unique, fascinating new world, filled with over-the-top characters and an unforgettable atmosphere.  This is the sort of book Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett might have created if they'd ground up Dickens and Lewis Carroll for some highly unorthodox cigars, and gotten schnackered one fine weekend.  The humor is unconventional, the literary tributes unmistakable, and the plot highly original.  This is a world where people go to Richard III in the same way they might see the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the real world, right down to the audience participation.  This is a world where just about anything can happen, and seems rather likely to happen anyway.  Time-traveling literary detectives, extinct species brought back as pets, a villain worthy of any hero, and enough twists to keep even the most scholarly of English majors bemused.  The Eyre Affair is one of those peculiar books only a Welshman with a severe and possibly unhealthy love for literature could have created.  In short, it's damned good, managing to combine wackiness and comic adventure without losing its grip on the suspension of disbelief that makes it all possible.  I'm hooked, and eagerly awaiting the next adventure of Thursday Next, SpecOp.