Jasper Fforde hasn’t released a new book since 2014, and that is a long time for him. I have been waiting and waiting (so patiently) for the third Nursery Crime book, but it just doesn’t seem to be happening. Neither does the second Shades of Grey book. But now there is this book, which is not actually out in the US until 2019, so I bought it from Book Depository. I’m glad I did this anyway because the UK cover is so much better than the American one. It has a cutout cover and when you lift it up those people are on the beach, and I just love it.
But, okay, the actual book. What Early Riser reminds me of the most in tone and style, if you’ve read his other books, is actually Shades of Grey (which was subtitled The Road to High Saffron after they decided it would, eventually, have sequels; but my copy just says Shades of Grey on it). It has a completely original world that can be a bit dense to get in to, and the satire functions in almost exactly the same way. Fforde builds a world that is so ridiculous and implausible that his characters’ actions reflect the absurdity of our own society and behavior.
Early Riser is set in a world where winters are so severe that humanity has chosen to hibernate every year. Everything is built on this premise: their social structures, their reproduction, their body image, etc. And almost everything is completely upside down from our world. Because if you don’t have enough body fat, there’s a high chance you won’t make it through the winter, attractive people are those who are fatter, and skinny people are seen as undesirable. Larger bodies are seen as signs of wealth and stability (much as it was in the middle ages). There is a constant threat of population decline, and a high chance of not lasting the winter, either because you never wake up, you wake up wrong, or mysterious monster figures get you. As in other Jasper Fforde satires, there are also nefarious corporations, conspiracies, and absurdities abounding. But this book is actually the darkest thing I’ve read from him. Its humor is definitely humorous, but it’s a darker, bleaker humor.
Our main character is Charlie Worthing, a somewhat hapless young man who blunders his way through a lot of things. He’s decided to become a Winter Consul, one of the select few humans who stay awake all winter, caring for the sleeping others. It’s a very dangerous job, most newbies not making through their first winter, and he basically only takes it out of spite. He has no idea what he’s doing. As a result, his POV isn’t the most helpful in decoding Fforde’s world, because any clues dropped we as readers have to put together. Charlie ain’t going to do it.
As other reviewers have noted, the barrier to entry on this one is pretty high, even higher than most of his books, as there is such a lot of worldbuilding and terminology to understand. You do eventually get it all, but it takes longer than it should. I don’t think I’ve ever read a Fforde book I haven’t enjoyed, but this one, though the premise is incredibly intriguing, isn’t my favorite of his. The complications take away a bit of the enjoyment. Still, on re-read, I bet I would like it a lot better. It would also make for a fantastically creepy and funny movie. Nobody has yet been able to successfully translate Fforde into film yet, so I guess I’ll be waiting a while on that.
[3.5 stars, rounded up]