This book (thankfully denoted as “A Novel” for those of us that don’t know how books work) is a departure from Jasper Fforde‘s popular Thrusday Next series. Instead of being based on an alternate England where literature crosses over with reality, Shades of Grey is the story of an alternate England where color perception denotes your social standing. There is a Colortocracy in place and it ensures that everybody is kept in their right place. Purples (those that can see, well, purple) are at an almost religious position and Greys are of such little importance that they don’t even have to follow the Law of Munsell, the man that instated the Colortocracy after the Something That Happened. All of this is to say that it’s kind of like a typical utopia/dystopia story like 1984, A Brave New World or Brazil. Everything seems pleasant at the beginning but the reader slowly learns about the way the world works and that it may be more sinister than we initially thought.
Ever since the 1-2 punch that is 1984 and A Brave New World there hasn’t been much new in the way of dystopian fiction. They all follow the same pattern so you pretty much know what you’re getting into story-wise. Luckily Fforde realizes this and makes the world more important than the story, at least in this first (and – so far – only) book in the trilogy. He throws the reader right into the middle of the action and begins by slinging terms like “wrongspotted” and “National Color” around with little explanation of what exactly those terms mean. He builds upon these terms and we soon realize that each person can see only one or two colors naturally and that the hero, Eddie Russet, is a pretty high perceiving Red. That he can see so much red makes him desirable to some and a threat to others in the Outer Fringes town he is sent to as a punishment for trying to improve line-queuing. This is a society where the Laws of Munsell are king and only through clever loopholery can on improve the way things work. In fact, through successive Leapbacks most technology and art have been destroyed in order to create a streamlined society so that the people can focus on chromatic improvement.
If all of this seems like a lot of ideas and no story you’re kind of right. The book takes place over the course of a week or so and much of it is just Russet going around and figuring out how the town works and falling in love with a Grey named Jane. But he can’t marry her because marrying for love and not chromatic improvement is the silliest of follies. Everything is done to set up your next generation to be of a higher perception. Fforde brings the lighthearted clever prose the Thursday Next series was known for over to this one and it’s a good thing he does. The weight of explaining all of the new concepts here and telling the story might have been too much for the book to handle without the little laughs we get as the characters root around an abandoned city for spoons (which, of course, have postal codes on them which, of course, have been rendered close to useless through various Leapbacks that have all but destroyed the Postal Service as we know it) and marriage brackets and pools much like those that pop up at the beginning of every sports tournament. It’s a clever book that moves quickly through its 400 pages thanks to Fforde’s writing and plotting.
Of course, this is the beginning of a trilogy of books. As such there’s a lot of build up and only a little payoff. I suspect that, much like the Lord of the Rings books, this first section’s climax will look small in comparison to the end of the trilogy as a whole. That’s not to say that Shades of Grey’s Balrog fight isn’t exciting. The climax brings several relationships to a head as well as opens the world wide open. Some things are explained but have little impact as of right now but seem like they will be of great importance later in the series. I’m alright with this as long as the payoff actually happens. As is the last section is much more exciting than the previous 300 pages and really sets up the rest of the series quite well. The book is certainly worth a read for those that like clever dystopian futures and fun – if a little light – writing. And, if you’re not down with the French language, here’s a little hint:
- Turned up, as in describing the nose.