The last two books I reviewed were new novels by writers I’ve enjoyed in the past, and they did not disappoint. It’s even harder when the book is by one of your very favourite authors in the world, and they haven’t released a new book for quite a long time so that you actually miss the announcement of the new book, and then you finally get your hands on it and … well, the expectations for Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser were pretty high, is what I’m saying. I knew it was a stand-alone book unconnected to his other work, and I wasn’t expecting another Thursday Next, but … well, let’s just say this is not my favourite Jasper Fforde novel.
I mean, you’ve got to (I’ve got to) admire a novelist who tries new things and strikes off in bold directions rather than followed tried-and-true paths that have led to bestsellers in the past. In Early Riser, Fforde brings the reader into an alternate-reality version of our world where, for reasons I didn’t fully understand, almost all humans in northern countries hibernate through the long, cold winters. The novel’s main character, a hapless young man called Charlie Worthing, has just signed on to work as a Winter Consul, one of the small group of people who stay awake during the Winter to safeguard the sleeping masses. And from there … it just gets weird.
There’s a lot going on in Early Riser — a lot of premise, a lot of characters (some quite brilliantly drawn) — a lot of different factions competing with one another. They are competing for control of many things (I think): of the half-alive, zombie-like people who have awakened from hibernation with low brain function but the ability to still perform basic tasks, of Morphinex, the drug people rely on for an easy, dreamless sleep, and of a viral dream that a lot of people seem to be sharing during hibernation, that holds the keys to … honestly I can’t even remember what.
It’s confusing, is what I’m saying. Or it was to me. I admire detailed and thoughful worldbuilding, but there’s so much world being built here that I just got lost in the details. It’s a key part of this story that Charlie can’t really tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, but I couldn’t even tell who all the guys (and girls) were, much less what side they were on, never mind why.
Jasper Fforde has always been a writer that demands a reader be pretty clever to keep up with him, and I’ve always been up to the challenge and loved his work, but this one … just defeated me. I did stick with it and was kind of engaged by the ending, but had it not been by one of my very favourite writers, I would have given up on it halfway through.