Winter is coming. And it’s not George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones.” Instead, it’s Jasper Ffordes first novel in five years, “Early Riser.” Until five years ago, Fforde had been releasing about one novel a year, mostly in his “Thursday Next” series and his young adult series, “Chronicles of Kazam.” However, due to his self-proclaimed “creative hiatus,” he hasn’t produced a novel since 2014. The good news is “Early Riser” is worth the wait.
“Early Riser” is a wildly imaginative ride through an alternate Wales that is a completely insane mixture of fantasy and thriller. I can’t overstate how original this novel is. The first part of it is consumed with world-building, and absorbing all the jargon takes some work. But it is worth the effort.
Winter lasts four months. The rest of our human history has still occurred, but it has happened with the reality of an annual ice-age winter that forces humanity to hibernate. This means that Fforde can riff on current politics, entertainment and culture, adapted to his world of harsh winters.
During hibernation, people live off the stored fat in their bodies. (This means the ideal body type is not thin, but a body with enough fat to survive a winter. The skinny die in their sleep.) But not everyone can sleep. A select few must stay awake and manage the dangers that come with the winter.
To conserve energy, some sleepers take a drug called Morphenox, which interrupts the ability to dream. Dreaming burns excess calories. But Morphenox has a side-effect: it causes an occasional sleeper to turn into a nightwalker. Captured nightwalkers can be repurposed to do socially useful activities without monetary compensation, which creates a black market for nightwalkers.
Against this backdrop, a clueless young man, Charlie Worthington, joins the Winter Consul Service. When Worthington takes custody of a nightwalker and loses her to kidnappers, he finds himself trapped in the highly dangerous and weird Section 12 in the heart of winter. There he must navigate the nasty local politics, avoid the possibly nonexistent Wintervolk (and, most dangerous of all, the Gronk), confront the old English aristocrats known as the Villains, and try to figure out what is going on with an apparently viral dream that features an old blue Buick.
Between the novel’s weirdness, and heavy plotting, Fforde frequently pauses the action to sum up a character’s predicament. This slows things down a bit, but is absolutely necessary to help the reader understand the world and the crazy stakes at play.
If this is the kind of imaginative effort he delivers after five years, let him take his time between novels. This is marvelous and the kind of novel that only Fforde can write.