Those of you who have read the Thursday Next books (and if you haven't, for goodness sake why not? Pick up a copy of The Eyre Affair immediately!) won't be surprised to hear that Jasper Fforde has branched out into writing for children. If ever there was an author who had the sort of imagination that children would immediately recognise and respond to, it is Fforde and The Last Dragonslayer is going to the top of my 'books to buy for birthday presents' list as of now.
Set in a country that is just about and absolutely immediately recognisable as the England we all know and occasionally love, Fforde tells the story of Jennifer Strange, one time foundling in the convent of The Blessed Ladies of the Lobster, currently Acting Manager of Kazam Mystical Arts Management and (I don't think I'm giving too much away) soon to be The Last Dragonslayer, responsible for riding the country of the Last Dragon, Maltcassion. Not, you understand, that Maltcassion has done anything to warrant his being got rid of, but he is sitting on thousand of acres of prime real estate and while he remains alive no one but the Dragonslayer can set foot there.
Lightly disguised as a walk through the realms of a fantasy world that you have to have a seriously clever mind to have thought up, Fforde, as usual, casts a searing eye on the greed and folly of the consumer society in which we live. If Jennifer has to kill Maltcassion, and she seriously hopes that that won't prove to be the case, then she feels that the least she can do is turn the land into a sanctuary for some those animals whose very survival is threatened by humankind, such as the buzonjis, the shridloos and of course, the quarkbeast. (I'm sorry, there are no dodos or mammoths in this book. Fans of Pickwick will need to pick up the latest adult novel, One of Our Thursdays is Missing. I'm hoping there will be a reappearance of the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat as well.) Everyone else simply wants a piece of the very expensive action. Hounded on every side by companies demanding she endorse their products, real estate developers who want to build theme parks and supermarkets and warring monarchs who want to create yet another bloody battlefield, Jennifer has until Sunday lunchtime to decide what to do. And you thought you had problems making you mind up what roast to cook.
You don't have to be mad to enjoy Fforde, but I find it does help if you have followed the White Queen's advice and practised believing six impossible things before breakfast every morning. Once you've got the general idea you will find an absolute and irrefutable logic in every thing he writes. For example here is Maltcassion on what he calls 'the more endearing features' of humankind.
'Well, counting in base ten is pretty wild, for a start,' he said after giving the subject a moment's thought. 'Base twelve is far superior. You also have extraordinary technical abilities, a terrific sense of humour, thumbs, being built inside out - '
'Wait! Being built inside out?
'Of course. As far as the average lobster is concerned, mammals - with the possible exception of the armadillo - are built inside out. Any crab worth his claws will tell you the soft stuff should definitely be on the inside. Bones in the middle? Whoever designed you was having a serious off day.'
Argue with that, I dare you.
Jasper Fforde is one of the most original voices writing today and I am so pleased that he has turned his attention towards children, who will recognise him as one of their own and enter into his world without a second thought. If you haven't already had your own passport stamped then I recommend you do so immediately.
PS I have just checked the Mammoth Migration Site and I think the Lammer Herd and the Grampian Herd are due to cross paths in my back garden tomorrow morning. We who are about to die, salute you. It is a very small back garden.