Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde is one of the world's premier quirky writers, and I say that with the highest appreciation. He started off with the deeply metafictional Thursday Next series -- about a heroine who can dive in and out of books to fix them, and does -- and has gone on to write other series about dragonslayers in a pseudo-modern Balkanized UK and hard-boiled detectives in fairy tales (both of which are also pretty damn good).

Early Riser was his new novel for 2018, and, for about the next three weeks in this country, is still his newest book. (The Constant Rabbit is on the way, and already in print in the UK.) As of right this moment, it's a standalone, but it could turn into a series.

Right now, it looks most like Forde's previous standalone SF [1] novel, 2010's magnificent Shades of Grey. It's set in a unique quirky but self-consistent world -- Grey was a medium-future insular Britain ruled by levels of color sight and a generationally-slow stepwise dismantling of all technology and civilization; Riser is set in an alternate world with massively higher, and possibly increasing, glaciation and consequently hairier humans who mostly hibernate the winter away; its Britain is not as deeply insular but all of Fforde's books are about Wales first and everywhere else barely at all -- and features a young man of minor means and background who is rapidly thrown into the deep end of biggest secrets of his world.

So this is about Charlie Worthing, who grew up in what the reader eventually figures out is a government creche, populated mostly by the children created by government requirement to keep the population from plummeting. The world is deadly, mostly because of Winter: only a small handful of people are awake then, and many of them don't make it to Spring. Of course, a lot of sleepers don't make it to Spring either, which is seen as the way of the world. The entire society is organized on a minimum-viable-skills basis, so whoever is left alive at any given time can keep things going...and it's pretty clear that's because "whoever is left alive" has been random and capricious over and over again for a somewhat different version of the history we know. And where are we in that history? From what I gleaned, it's the early 1990s -- but I could be wrong.

Charlie has few options in life: he was expected to stay as Assistant House Manager of St. Granata's Pooled Parentage Station for as long as he survived. More than that: he should be happy for that job. His birth deformity made his life shaky to begin with and St. Granata's gives him Morphenox, the drug that keeps sleepers from dreaming during hibernation and has greatly reduced the number of non-wakers over the past generation.

But instead Charlie has found another way out, trying to make his own life for himself. That falls apart, due to enemy action, in the first pages of Early Riser, and Charlie instead finds himself as a very junior Winter Consul, part of the elite group that keeps the peace while most of the world is asleep. And, like many Fforde protagonists, he's very rapidly thrown in much deeper than he expects, sent far away to a place he can't escape from, and enmeshed in various plots that he only dimly realizes at first even exist.

Winter is even more deadly than the weather: there are bands of Villains emboldened to attack with most of the law-abiding population asleep, and zombie-like Nightwalkers irreparably damaged by Morphenox, and maybe -- if you believe some rumors -- semi-supernatural Wintervolk as well. Plus some very large organizations that don't get along with each other very well and are trying to squeeze Charlie, each from their side, for ends that he hasn't figured out yet.

So the question of Early Riser is: will Charlie make it to Spring? And what will he need to do, or to become, to survive that Winter?

I finished Early Riser a month ago, after taking nearly a month to read it, so I'm not going to go into great detail with names and places and plot explications. (This has been a hell of a year for my reading life, but I hope I'm digging out now.) And I don't seem to have had the same initial reaction to Riser as I did to Grey, which I thought was a near-masterpiece when I read it and which still bulks large in the memory. But that may be me: Riser is smart and sharp and full of well-drawn characters who fit into this deeply weird world very precisely.

Fforde writes books in corners of Fantastika that he excavated and furnished entirely himself, and they are all damn good books. I can think of no other writer like him: his humor is sometimes vaguely reminiscent of Pratchett, but that humor is pretty deeply buried in his books these days; that was more typical of the early Thursday Next novels or the two Nursery Crime books. Early Riser is a book about looming death and danger, and a society structured around those threats, as seen by someone who's smart enough to figure things out but doesn't know as much as he thinks he does. Fforde writes books that hit that rare trifecta of being utterly sui generis, deeply readable, and deeply resonant in a literary way. All his books are worth reading: this one, as a standalone, is a great first choice.

[1] I'm not going to define what the "S" stands for. But Fforde definitely works the Fantastika side of the street in all of his work to date.

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