First Among Sequels is (I think, but I may have lost count) the fifth in the Thursday Next series. Halfway through this novel it would be fair to say I was disappointed. Not a lot had happened, and most of the text was a reiteration of the ideas of the earlier books in the series. While several years have elapsed since Something Rotten, Thursday has acquired several children, and is no longer a literary policewoman, despite all this ostensible change, everything felt very familiar.

Then about halfway the book seemed to wake up, sit upright, and give itself a good shake. In fact Fforde seems to have spotted what was happening himself, because he introduces a couple of very clever ways of stopping lazy reading – that is where the reader doesn’t really engage with the text, pays only partial attention, and doesn’t mind too much about the detail – like when taking a train ride you have been on many times before you don’t look out of the window. Spoiler alert – don’t read further if you don’t want to know how he does this. The first of these techniques is that one of Thursday’s children doesn’t exist – she is a mindworm implanted by Aeornis Hades, a mind controlling villain from an earlier book. Thursday is convinced she exists, and when told she doesn’t has only moments of lucidity before relapsing into the illusion again. It explains why the child is so under-written, and the reader realises with a jolt that they had not been paying enough attention to realise what had been happening. Later on this lesson is reinforced with a subtle, unflagged and very clever change of narrational point of view. I don’t mind admitting it had me tracking back a chapter or so to spot what I had missed at first.

This is confident playful writing by a writer at the top of his game. Fforde creates a deliciously dark villain in Thursday Next 1-4, and although she is killed off “textually” at the end of the novel, as we always knew she must be, I would not be at all surprised to see her return. In reading First Among Sequels I was reminded of some of the better episodes of Doctor Who, where time travelling allows just about anything to happen, including dead characters to reappear. There’s a wealth of other really funny and interesting ideas, plus an appearance of one of my favourite characters in literature, to make this a really worthwhile and valueable addition to the series. Fforde is in complete control of his material, despite sometimes juggling with concepts which in lesser hands would be simply silly (e.g. the recipe for unscrambled eggs), but definitely pulls it off.