Jasper Fforde is one of those writers that defies genre conventions, and even within his own body of work, he’s written some books that won’t have cross-over appeal. The Tuesday Next series, for instance, is pure fantasy silliness, based on the premise that there is a book/media world that becomes a live-action play whenever a book is read. The Nursery Rhyme series–my favorite–is equally silly, revolving around a detective solving crimes related to Humpty Dumpty and The Three Bears. Fforde’s pushed boundaries even further in the past few years with Shades of Grey and his latest stand-alone, Early Riser. I’d be hard-pressed to categorize it as either sci-fi or fantasy, as he does seem to take some pains to make his world semi-explicable according to Earth-laws, but at the end of the day, it’s typical Fforde weirdness.
The set-up is a world that swings dramatically from frigid Winter to a normal Summer, requiring the majority of inhabitants to hibernate in Domiciles during the Winter months. It’s a super-intriguing premise reminding me of Hugh Howery’s silos in Wool, but really, that’s not Fforde’s point, and there are mostly just intriguing but limited details on how the society operates. There’s a young person who becomes a member of the Winter Counsul, the group that sacrifices health to stay up and maintain order during the lean winter months. A supposedly quick mission of turning in a brain-dead ‘sleeper’ takes him and his preceptor Logan to the outlying and wild Sector Twelve, and unusual circumstances progress as they start to hear rumors of a ‘viral dream’ causing those who can’t hibernate to go crazy.
It’s a genre-bender to be sure. Sci-fi, fantasy, dreamscape fiction, apocalypse, mystery, coming-of-age; it draws elements from all. This is a book where–you may laugh–you need to read all the words if you expect to enjoy it. (I don’t always, especially with ‘meh’ level books). It was engrossing and consuming, and took a little bit of work to read. There’s very little background or exposition, and what is there may not matter again. For instance, the story opens at the place Charlie Worthington resides, a sort of orphanage/baby-making nunnery. Does it matter? Only in context of his beginning, and perhaps in assumptions others might make about him. But you have to be able to go with the reading flow, content to understand as much as Fforde gives and possibly extrapolate the rest if you are going to enjoy it.
Definitely less silly than Fforde’s earlier books, which isn’t to say it is without humor, both incidental and situational. It took me awhile, but there’s a running joke about how awful various attempts at making ‘coffee’ on limited supplies are. There’s also a cute running gag where two characters meet and one is invested in imagining a shared history that is both funny and a little sad. As usual, Fforde has quite a bit to say about capitalism. There’s some side bits about the English and Welsh relationships as well. Thankfully, no cheese.
I found it a satisfying read, but fairly sure it isn’t one that will make it into my library (unlike The Nursery Crimes) Cross-recommendation: The Gone-Away World. Also feels a little similar to China Miéville in general boundary-pushing.