BookPage starred review, February 2019
Imagine that the world never transitioned out of the ice age, but humanity’s long history has stayed more or less the same. To get through the winter, humans hibernate. Within this world, all the great artists, writers, historical figures, Shakespearean characters and Grecian myths endure, but they are reframed within an alternate reality that centers on humanity’s 16 weeks of sleep.
The pharmaceutical company HiberTech has developed a drug that allows humans to sleep dreamlessly through the winter, expending 30 percent less of their bodies’ hibernal fat reserves and requiring less strenuous preparation for the “Hib.” This comes with a caveat: One in every 3,000 who take the drug doesn’t quite wake up. Referred to as Nightwalkers, these unlucky people appear to have some vestige of their past lives rattling around, but their consciousnesses are nowhere to be seen. HiberTech has been developing methods to rewrite what’s left of the Nightwalkers’ consciousnesses in order to “redeploy” them. After all, one in 3,000 makes for good business.
A select few humans don’t hibernate, including Charlie Worthing, who joins the Winter Consulate to help keep the rest of humanity safe during the four months of winter. Charlie soon finds himself escorting a Nightwalker to Sector 12 in northern Wales to claim a bounty from HiberTech’s headquarters—and to follow up on rumors of a viral dream.
As Charlie is pulled deeper into a mystery he hadn’t meant to sign up for, readers are looped into a tale of dreamers, thieves and an elusive, mythical creature called the Gronk who folds its victims’ laundry, collects severed pinkies and has a strong preference for Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes.
Jasper Fforde is in fine form in his 14th novel, stringing along this adventure with wry wit, a sometimes-bonkers plot and a joke that takes a hundred pages to sneakily find its punchline. If not for the absurdity of the tale, Early Riser could’ve easily been a mere allegory of the dangers of global warming and Big Pharma. But what matters most is the nature of humanity, as empathy saves the day, and our good guy has no reason to wonder just how good he is.