Reviewed by David Harris
Skinny Pete went to sleep, underfed and bony
Skinny Pete went to sleep, and died a death so lonely.
The enemy aren’t the Villains, nomads, scavengers, insomniacs, Ice-Hermits, Megafauna, nightwalker, hiburnal rodents or flesh eating cold slime – it’s the Winter.
This is a standalone volume from Jasper Fforde, not part of the ongoing Thursday Next series or a continuation of Shades of Grey, a potential series that seems to have been blighted by a quite different book with a similar name. However, in tone I’d say it is more similar to Grey than to Next, taking place in a fictional version of our world which is, while fantastical in some ways, not magical.
The world of Early Riser might best be described as an alternate timeline, a planet and landscape identical in many ways to our own, with a lot of technology, cultural references (“Fawlty Dormiorium with Sybil, Basil and Polly and so forth – ‘don’t mention the Ottoman’ “) and history in common, but where – rather than a trend to warming – global cooling (“snowball Earth”) is happening, with the winters bitter and a glacier advancing across “the Albion peninsula” (the separation from the mainland never having quite happened, although a belt of marshland following what to us is the Channel shows where a warmer era led to higher sea levels).
The sheer wintriness of this book (apart from being very agreeable to read during the 2018 summer heatwave) motivates the plot in many ways. In this reality, humans hibernate and always have, clustering in “hibernatoria” – multistorey, circular buildings with floor upon floor of sleeping cells, all heated by cosy nuclear piles in the basement (“Hotpots”). Hibernating is a serious business, governed by law and custom. One needs to put on enough fat in the Autumn to last through till Spring, and anyone not attaining their healthy “Winter weight” is looked at askance. Fforde lovingly describes the whole culture around hibernation, making it, in the end, quite a cosy idea. The hibernatorium is more than a sleeping cave, it is a home, a community, with dining room and (as a fine illustration in the book shows) many other facilities. And a Porter guards the entrance, staying awake through the Winter to protect their charges.
Of course, it’s not all cosy. Only the lucky (and rich) are entitled to supplies of Morphenox, a drug that prevents dreams and so saves on energy (and fat depletion) allowing a greater chance of survival. But Morphenox has a potential side effect… a small number of those who take it lose their minds in sleep, waking as “nightwalkers”, effectively zombies. Yet the risk is considered worth it, not only for individuals who are less likely to starve over Winter but for the good of the species – survival is vital because, in such a hostile climate, population is under threat, so there is mandated childbearing and a great deal of care is taken of orphans in “the Pool”. Anything that reduces attrition is welcomed and HiberTech, the company that makes Morphenox, is a power in the land.
The land itself is Wales, the story taking place in early winter in mid Wales when Charlie, a newly appointed novice Winter Consul – an order who stay awake through the cold months, guarding the population against Villains, Wintervolk (monsters) and disasters (like meltdowns in the Hotpots – ventures from Cardiff to the interior to deliver a nightwalker to HiberTech. A simple job for a newbie, and he’s accompanies by a vertebral Consul, so what can go wrong?
A great deal, of course. What with hostile colleagues in Sector 12, the formidable duo of Arcadia, head of security at HiberTech and Toccata, the top Consul in Sector 12, missing nightwalkers, a massive bet hanging on whether or not the Gronk is real, hippies on a quest for real dreams, and a terrorist movement seeking a return to Real Sleep – and more – there is plenty going on. Indeed the book is so rich, with such a cast of characters that it can be overwhelming at times, or at least it would be if those characters, and the setting wren’t so perfectly realised.
There are also some hilarious strands, such as the Villains, (“Villains generally lived on the edge of the ice-fields and often raided nearby towns for pantry and domestic servants”) who prove, of course, to be English and upper class, the banter between Jonesy and Charlie in which they spin a wholly fiction, longstanding love affair out of thin air despite having only just met (and never actually bundled each other) or barely fictional names such as that of ” ‘sleep extreme’ guru Gaer Brills”. There are also some very sharp observations (“She was making up nostalgia”, “right-wing hardliners loved a good panic”).
Behind all this, though, there is a well constructed and devious thriller plot. As Winter falls, a secret is in play, its preservation essential to the way of life of Charlie, his colleagues and the wider population – and its revelation key to preventing rather nasty fate for many. In a headlong, catastrophe-stern series of encounters, not all of them waking, Charlie will be tested to the limit and find out who he can really trust. Because many of those around him are basically two-faced and have their own agendas…
It’s not a short book, but the pages fly by, with fascinating new details of that intricate, well-delineated world coming in all the time, even as the sinister events of Winter unwind and Charlie fears for his life. By the end, I was sorry that the story had to stop but there is a wonderful coda in the form of some posters and other material including, of course, advice from the Ministry of Sleep.
In all an excellent addition to Fforde’s imaginary worlds, even if it does remain standalone (but i hope it won’t).
David blogs at Blue Book Balloon. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far. David works in tax but promises he isn’t going to bring that up here.
Jasper Fforde, Early Riser (Hodder & Stoughton, 2018). 978-1473650220, 416pp., hardback,.
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