The very best books, the kind that make reading a extraordinary and incomparable delight, are those that offer up a sumptuous journey to places and with people you would never otherwise have the pleasure of coming into contact with.
By doing so, they offer up a glorious sense of escape from the banality of day-to-day life while simultaneously, by some magical balancing of two seemingly discordant elements, shining a light on the vagaries of that very reality.
It’s a brilliantly diversionary piece of imaginative wonder and Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser is infused with it to a dizzyingly enthralling degree.
Hailed as the king of alternative realities by many, Fforde has long demonstrated an affinity for taking our world and remaking it in lushly different images, many of them appealingly absurdist and yet rooted in some very insightful and incisive observations about the human condition.
He is, in other words, gifted with a rare ability to spin both a fabulously hilarious yarn while at the same time, lay some very pithy home truths on the line.
It means that books like Early Riser, his first since 2014’s The Last Dragonslayer III: The Eye of Zoltar (part of The Dragonslayer trilogy) are both transportively sparkling delights in which you can lose yourself wholeheartedly and happily without regret and riveting excursions into some of the best and worst that humanity can offer up.
“I was leaning on the broad tracks of the Sno-Trac, heart thumping, nervous as hell, looking as professional as I could in my snug-fitting Winter Consul’s uniform. Aside from my domestic duties within the Consulate I’d spent two weeks at the Consul Training Academy learning basic survival skills and various modules on the physiology of sleep, dreams, Villains, climate, wind-chill, the H4S radar set and even the Wintervolk. The tutors had looked me up and down and there had been muttered conversations behind my back regarding preparedness. Most Novices got a whole Summer to train.” P. 31)
That’s quite a feat of writing, impressive in an almost neverending list of wonderful ways, especially when you are well into the book and realise that not only are you laughing and marveling at the sheer magic of it all, as a world like your own but most assuredly not unfolds before you, but you are having some long, deep thoughts about how alternate realities are not, in some ways, that different to our own since we, sometimes lamentably, are still there.
Centred on the character of Charlie Worthing, an insurance liability who has spent his life in a Pool – these are essentially religious orders of a sort devoted to nothing more than birthing and distributing children to people for whom the idea of being pregnant themselves is anathema – Early Riser details a society entirely in thrall to the perils of Winter.
In this gorgeously and yet dangerously loopy version of Earth, Winter lasts for four months, a time so cold and perilous that sleeping through, much like a hibernating bear, is the only reasonable option.
Given the great shadow that Winter casts over society, pretty much everything is devoted to mitigating its many drawbacks with everything from the sleep-inducing drug Morphenox (named after you-know-who), made by the mysterious HiberTech, headquartered in the nether regions of Sector 12 in Wales, to Dormitoria, where people can sleep away the frozen, inactive months when everything all but shuts down, birthed by humanity’s obsession with the season.
All these preparations and systems are not without their problems – Morphenox, for instance, turns one in 2000 of those who take it into Nightwalkers, zombies of a kind who crave human flesh while at the same time retaining one key skill or personality trait that defined them in their pre-Winter conscious life.
It’s in this world of Winter fears and comfort that Charlie Worthing becomes a Winter Consul, essentially the police force keeping an eye on things when most everyone else has jumped into bed for a very long nap.
They are not alone with all kinds of people, from the Dormotoria’s Porters through to the Villains out in the wastes – these criminals are in fact displaced English gentry who found themselves on the outer following the Class Wars; this is but one small exquisite piece of societal critiquing that makes this book such a treat to read – the mythical (or are they Wintervolk, who seem to exists only in dreams … until they don’t, and the Winsomniacs, people who, like dissenters down through history, aren’t too keen on upholding the Winter orthodoxies.
The society that Early Riser brings to frigid life is exuberantly, richly imaginative, springing to life with such fearless vivacity that it takes no time at all for everything you read to feel as real as the chair upon which you’re sitting to read the book.
So lustrously and with such power of description and hilariously flawed humanity does Fforde bring this alternate world to life, throwing in enough commonalities that it almost feels like home, that you almost feel as if you could reach out and touch it. (Probably best not to; like many Winter Consul Novices, you can lose precious bodies that way.)
“I thought of Mrs Tiffen, who had been redeployed, then Josh and how he wasn’t happy with it. Then Lucy Knapp and her pride at working at HiberTech, and Aurora and what it might actually have been like – physically and psychologically – if I had bundled with her. I thought of Toccata and her aggressive manner, then about Laura’s desire to see Wintervolk proven, the somewhat-unhinged Jonesy with her fictional nostalgia and Fodder with his much-needed nightmares, and then Birgitta. Finally, I thought about how I should have heeded everyone’s advice and let Mrs Tiffen go. Logan would be alive right now and I’d be back in Cardiff, safely watching the Winter from indoors, and not crouched in an empty room during a blizzard, armed to the teeth and with orders to kill someone.” (P. 238)
As Charlie investigates the mystery at the heart of the narrative – how are so many disparate people all experiencing the same viral dream and why is it killing them; this would be a big deal in any world but in one where sleep dominates much of the year, it’s HUGE – we come to appreciate that his world is one vastly different from our own and yet startlingly similar, infected by many of the same maladies that afflict our own.
There are people on the make, corporate malfeasance, gossip, perverted interest, skewed humanity, a dearth of compassion, ambition, sex, greed and grossly twisted morality – and while the setting may seem humorously diverting at times, the issues at play are very real.
This lends Early Riser a heady and intoxicating mix of English silliness, the kind celebrated by Terry Pratchett and Monty Python, and some fairly intensely sobering naval gazing, the kind that makes you stop and think “Are we really like that? Is it actually that bad?”
It is, in fact, but Fforde casts it all a lighthearted, lyrical light much of the time, as much Agatha Christie as All the President’s Men ensuring that while some pretty serious stuff goes on, the absurdity is very much front and centre too.
It all ensures that Early Riser is a brilliantly complex and engaging book, one possessed of beguilingly memorable characters, fascinating societal observations, whip-smart dialogue and a sense of the gloriously silly so palpable that you can almost reach and touch it.
And in a world this loopy and yet staunchly, realistically human, who knows where that may take you?