I received this book from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $29.99.
If you tried reading one of the Thursday Next books and you hated everything about the whimsy of Fforde’s alternate world, just stop reading now: this book won’t be for you.
If you quite liked the early Next books and got a bit sad as they got sillier, keep reading.
If you’ve never read a Fforde book, you can keep reading too.
And if you’re a hardcore Fforde fan who’s been waiting… and waiting… and waiting for the sequel to Shades of Grey… well, this isn’t it, but it does mark Fforde’s return to writing after a hiatus of a few years, so: maybe it will arrive at some point?
This book is immediately recognisable as part of Fforde’s very particular way of constructing alternate worlds. There’s just enough recognisable from our world – what else would a Welsh near-zombie play but a Tom Jones song – but with some completely and wildly different things thrown in. In the Thursday Next world, the Crimean War never ended, and genetic manipulation means people have dodos as pets. Here, humanity hibernates. The vast majority of the population packs on fat, grows a winter pelt, and sleeps away the winter. Except, in more modern times, for the Winter Consuls – and a few dangerously antisocial types. The Winter Consuls help to keep things running through the winter; like keeping the antisocial types under control.
Charlie is the focal character – he’s just joined the Winter Consuls and is, of course, discovering that everything is not as it seems (whatasurprise). Through Charlie as novice, the reader learns about the Winter and how to survive, as well as about Morphenox – the drug that helps with hibernation, preventing the previously hideous losses, although only if you can afford it – and the various criminal and/or mythical types who also stay awake through winter. Oh and this isn’t just the winter of our world; this is the sort of winter that means mammoths are still alive and well. And global warming will mean something rather different.
It’s a very silly book in a lot of ways. There are silly/amusing jokes riffing off contemporary culture, and for some reason a massive painting of Clytemnestra. But at the same time, Fforde touches on all sorts of intriguing social ideas that might come about because of the hibernation – or simply from different ways of doing things. Like mandating childbearing, but providing the option to pass that responsibility off – to the willing or the desperate. Loss of population from hibernation means that society has developed coping mechanisms such as requiring every citizen to have at least general capabilities, and significant infrastructure to be commensurately accessible to those with those capabilities. Which does interesting things to notions of mastery, I think, although that’s not a huge part of the story. There’s clearly different things going on in terms of international politics, too, but it’s barely touched on.
I feel that Fforde is quite a divisive author. Readers are either willing to go along with his particular method of looking at the world and enjoy the ride, or the first couple of pages will make you angry or annoyed or bored. In general, I really enjoy his work. I think that milking too much out of one of his worlds leads to problems like the later Next books where things went beyond my tolerances – but that’s true of a lot of sequels. Fforde is doing what the best SFF does: making tweaks to the world and showing the consequences, and making the reader think about how those things reflect the world in which we actually live. And if there are jokes about ‘Winter cutlets’ and Carmen Miranda along the way, I’m up for it.