UK Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: Dystopic Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy, humour, conspiracy
During those bitterly cold four months, the nation is a snow-draped landscape of desolate loneliness, and devoid of human activity.
Well, not quite.
Your name is Charlie Worthing and it’s your first season with the Winter Consuls, the committed but mildly unhinged group of misfits who are responsible for ensuring the hibernatory safe passage of the sleeping masses.
You are investigating an outbreak of viral dreams which you dismiss as nonsense; nothing more than a quirky artefact borne of the sleeping mind.
When the dreams start to kill people, it’s unsettling.
When you get the dreams too, it’s weird.
When they start to come true, you begin to doubt your sanity.
But teasing truth from Winter is never easy: You have to avoid the Villains and their penchant for murder, kidnapping and stamp collecting, ensure you aren’t eaten by Nightwalkers whose thirst for human flesh can only be satisfied by comfort food, and sidestep the increasingly less-than-mythical WinterVolk.
But so long as you remember to wrap up warmly, you’ll be fine.
You can imagine the excitement then the crushing disappointment when I heard that Jasper Fforde had a new book coming out, BUT it still wasn’t the long-awaited sequel to Shades of Grey, which I have been waiting on for NINE YEARS now. NINE. YEARS. Nearly a third of my life.
It’s fine. I’m fine.
Early Riser more than anything is another demonstration of Fforde’s uncanny ability to create new versions of the world based on changing one element and extrapolating outwards, unrestricted by science. Strictly speaking, this book could classify as Sci Fi, but some of the elements are beyond science and definitely more into the fantastical side of things, which is why I leaned towards fantasy.
The world of Early Riser is a cold one, with humans a hibernatory species and encroaching ice caps meaning that winters are getting colder and longer every year. Society has evolved to work through summer and sleep through winter whilst a handful of people stay up and ensure that the sleepers are kept safe – from freezing, from nuclear meltdown of the heating systems in each dormitory (the only thing able to efficiently heat such a large building for such a long time), and from becoming a sleep-zombie, or a Nightwalker, due to an adverse reaction to the drug Morphenox, which keeps people safely asleep for the whole winter. Provided they don’t turn into a zombie.
Nightwalkers are all but braindead, shuffling and unfocused, inclined to eat other humans unless kept fed with more appropriate food. Some are ‘tricksy’, able to perform skills remembered from their waking lives. These Nightwalkers can be retrained into simple manual service over the summer, and then come winter they are ‘parted out’, their organs redistributed to fully awake people. Sometimes, young Nightwalker women are ‘farmed’ out to help combat the population loss due to deaths during hibernation – a social issue which has religious orders dedicated to continually bearing children, and gives every woman a social requirement to have at least one child.
Perhaps because of this, another aspect of the society is that it has become somewhat Matriarchal. This is only hinted at and never explored fully, but you get references to Jane Bond instead of James Bond, and medals given for the number of successful pregnancies.
There’s a lot to unpack in the world building for Early Riser, because Fforde throws us right in and things only come up when they are actively the focus of the narrative, rather than being packed into massive dumps of exposition. It’s nearly halfway through the book before it’s mentioned that humans in this world are furry, growing thick winter pelts and needing to groom for lice after hibernation. Missing extremities are a common thing, due to the severe cold; and the entire population strives for fatness. If you’re thin you’re a health risk, unlikely to survive the long months of sleep without food. Beauty is ascribed to larger sizes, and society holds that up as the ideal.
The plot itself is a decent conspiracy mystery – viral dreams, unexplained disappearances, and potential winter fairies taking people from the snow. It’s good, enjoyable, but perhaps doesn’t really pick up the pace until you’ve passed halfway. Like Shades of Grey, this is a long book, and the pacing works with that. It’s never slow, and it’s certainly a slightly easier read than Shades of Grey, but there’s a while to wind the tension up to the point where you feel you have to keep reading, as opposed to just wanting to. In that way, it’s quite a relaxing read.
The cast is majority women, and as usual for Fforde there’s a delightful mix of strange, wonderful characters. Equally as usual, the society seems to follow the same traditional British mannerisms as in his other books, with a passion for Tunnock’s Teacakes and a fondness for literature and classic television.
It’s pretty much everything you’d expect from Fforde, in terms of quality and enjoyment. He lets the darker side of his narrative show through a few times, perhaps that could have been developed more for more impact, but it works well with his usual irreverent tone as well. I think it works well as a stand-alone too, as it has been advertised. The plot doesn’t carry any further questions following its resolution, and the world has been built sufficiently in the one book that I don’t think there is anything more that needs to be developed.
And, maybe, since it’s a stand-alone it won’t mean a new series is holding up my Shades of Grey sequel. Live in hope.
- A solid offering that sits comfortably alongside Fforde’s previous best offerings. Enjoyable and easy to read.
- Same irreverent sense of humour that generally characterises his work – it’s familiar for people who know his other books and have seen it develop, may take some settling into if this is the first Fforde you’ve tackled.
- Some great world building that isn’t bogged down by description and exposition, but is revealed as information becomes relevant to the narrative. This does mean continually having to re-imagine your mental picture of the scene, but that can be fun.
- Continual descriptions of cold and snow, followed by descriptions of warm and toasty rooms, does make you yearn for winter to hurry up so you can get under the blankets.
Rating: 5/5 – It took me longer to read than most books, but it didn’t feel like hard work and was a lot of fun. I felt very relaxed by the end of it!