Shades of Grey is Jasper Fforde´s latest work and the start of a new series.
In this book, Fforde presents an original, dystopian world which is ruled by a colourtocracy. That means that its people´s place in the hierarchy is defined by the colour they are able to perceive. The main character, Eddie Russett, is a Red and soon to take his Ishihara, the all-defining test that will determine his standing and which cannot be repeated. Before this happens, Eddie is told to conduct a chair census in the off-beat village of East Carmine. Once there, Eddie meets and falls in love with a Grey named Jane who slowly opens his eyes to the dark sides of the world he is living in.
This is the first time that Fforde creates everything himself, the world of Chromotacia and the characters in it. There´s lots of his usual wordplay and puns and general whimsicalness though: the ridiculous rules of Munsell and a curious shortage of spoons, not to mention the postal code allocation.
“The cucumber and the tomato are both fruit; the avocado is a nut. To assist with the dietary requirements of vegetarians, on the first Tuesday of the month a chicken is officially a vegetable.” (51)
Eddie is a naive person, never really questioning the system. But then, for him things are going very well. He is quite sure that he has a strong perception of red and is as such on a half-promise to the Oxblood Constance. Through this marriage Eddie will marry into the rich aristocracy and bring much- needed red to the too blue violet Oxblood family. Colour perception is suposed to change through the generations so that no family will always be of higher or low standing, somehow this seems to be changing recently though, with families doing everything they can to keep their high position in the hierarchy.
The strange world Eddie lives in exists in the future, after the Something-that-Happened, which put an end to the Previous (us if I understood that correctly). Even though the colourtocracy is structured after the colour-perceiving abilities of the people, everyone can only really see one colour. As colour is everything, great pains are taken to make their world vibrantly colourful, but colouring is expensive and raw colour can only be taken from things from Before. These artefacts from our world are referred to as leapbacks and are mostly forbidden (such as the use of bikes).
Thanks to Jane´s influence, Eddie finally starts to take notice of the dark side of the colourtocracy and starts to question the system. It also helps that he moves to the fringes where people are said to be strange and strange things are certainly going on. There is the road to High Saffron, a place no one has ever returned from, there is the railway that takes people who do not conform to the system for reboot to the Emerald City, books from the Previous are kept away from people because of their dangerous content. Over this society looms the influence of an all-knowing deity called Munsell (sounds a bit like the wizard of Oz) who has set-up the system and provided people with the rulebook.
Although I adore Ffordes writing and dystopian literature, I had problems at first to understand the society depicted in Shades of Grey, Fforde invents all kinds of new and strange terms and it took me a while to figure out what they meant. Perhaps I´m slow on the uptake, but I really wish he had thought to provide a glossary. The characters grew on me (as did the novel) and I found Jane to be a great heroine and as Eddie shed his rose-tinted glasses he became more likable as well. In the end I was very curious about the solution to the mystery of High Saffron and the system, however although steps plans are made by Jane and Eddie, the ending leaves the reader hanging, and excited for the sequel.
I very much enjoyed Ffordes invention of the colourtocracy (as far as I know this has not been done before) and the points he is making on issues such as class. This book is thus much darker than Fforde´s previous ones, although there is plenty of his trademark humour. This combination mostly works but sometimes I found it a bit trying and distracting from the topic.
Fforde spends much of the novel trying to bring this dystopian society to life, and I think this comes at the cost of plot and characterization. However, as a reader of dystopian literature I´m quite used to long descriptions of the political system and a slow plot. Things do pick up in the latter part of the book though and as this is the first in a three-book series, I´m sure the other will make up for it. If you manage to stick with Shades of Grey through long and very detailed descriptions you´ll be rewarded with a fast-paced ending. I have to say that I did not love this book as much as I had thought I would, perhaps my enjoyment of dystopias and Fforde´s writing cancelled each other out. But the last part of the book was good enough to make me want to try the rest of the series as well.
Some of my favorite passages:
“`We re-enact the previous Friday every Tuesday, then every Saturday morning is re-enacted the following Thursday.” (64)
“Marrying for love was not forbidden, it just didn´t make any sense.” (69)
“`The Most Serious Affair at Stiles,´she announced, `Murdoch on the Oriented Ex-Best, The Glass Quay, A Missed Simile´s Foaling in Snow, Gawky Park. . .´ “(89)
“`Hello!´ she said brightly. `I seem to have cut my finger off.´ – `Actually, you´ve cut two off´, said Dad, examining the wound.” (107)
“`How do you put a hole in string?´ – `I tie it in a loop´.” (111)
“I was going to say something dazzlingly amusing and erudite in reply, but I couldn´t think of anything, so instead I just grinned with affected good humour.” (185)
Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I´ll add a link!