Series: Shades of Grey #1
Published by Penguin on 29th December 2009
Genres: Adult, Sci-Fi
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It’s summer, it’s hot, it’s our world, but not as we know it. Entire cities lie buried beneath overgrown fields and forests. Technology from another time litters the landscape, and there is evidence of great upheaval. Welcome to Chromatacia, where for as long as anyone can remember society has been ruled by a Colortocracy. From the underground feedpipes that keep the municipal park green, to the healing hues viewed to cure illness, to a social hierarchy based upon one’s limited color perception, society is dominated by color. In this world, you are what you can see.
Eddie Russett wants to move up. He has better-than-average red perception, and he is on a half promise to Constance Oxblood, whose powerful family wants the reddest possible son-in-law to strengthen their hue. But once Eddie and his father relocate to the backwater village of East Carmine, these carefully cultivated plans and expectations are quickly upended. In this new town, Eddie must contend with lethal swans, sneaky Yellows, inviolable rules and an enforced marriage to the hideous Violet deMauve. But then he encounters the intriguing Grey named Jane, whose bold defiance of the Rules makes him realize that the apparent peace of his world as much an illusion as color itself.
As Jane opens Eddie’s eyes to the cruel regime that lies behind the gaily painted façade, he realizes that understanding the social order is one thing, but questioning it is quite another. Quests are considered unthinkably rude, and rudeness, along with bad manners, uncouth language and inadequately shines shoes, leads to one place: permanent relocation, or Reboot. Eddie must tread a very fine line between total conformity – accepting the path, partner and career delineated by his hue – and an instinctive curiosity that only gets him into trouble.
In a world of enforced simplification, answers are in short supply, and every question begets another: What was the ‘Something That Happened’? Why does no one ever return from the long –abandoned village of High Saffron? Where did all the spoons go? Is there more to color than just color? Most important, can Eddie ask Jane out for tea and cakes at the Fallen Man before she has him eaten by a carnivorous tree?
Oh, look! Another book involving shades of grey! Unlike the last one, however, this one doesn’t spit upon the face of literature. I apologize for the length of that above summary, but, in all honesty, I believe that it’s warranted. And not just because it saves me the trouble of trying to explain this book, which is a task that I don’t think that I’m capable of tackling in any reasonably succinct way.
Shades of Grey is really, truly, unabashedly odd. I’d ignore the genre tags if I were you, as they really aren’t accurate. I just had no idea how to classify this one. It’s one of those stories that is very hard to describe in only a few sentences, with a basic premise that raises so many questions that you’re sort of forced to provide more details to potential readers so as not to leave them completely bewildered.
Notice how I said “completely bewildered.” Be prepared to get cozy with the second word in that phrase, because it’s going to describe you accurately throughout the bulk of this tale. If you’re at all familiar with Jasper Fforde’s work, it will come as no surprise to you to know that this book is likely going to be one of the strangest that you’ll encounter anytime soon. There’s nothing else quite like it out in the market right now, nor has there ever been (to my knowledge, at least). Fforde has one of the most fascinating imaginations that I’ve ever come across, and his ideas are nothing short of brilliant. I suspect that drugs may be involved here, but you can never be sure with these artist types.
The result is worldbuilding so surreal, so thoroughly realized, that it’s almost overwhelming at times. Fforde wastes no time throwing you headfirst into the madness, and you’re left to puzzle it out on your own as best you can. Believe me when I say that you’re probably going to spend the bulk of the book having very little idea of what’s going on. For the reader who likes to have the “rules” of their stories clearly laid out before them, this will drive you to insanity. While it’s nice that the author avoids info-dumping or treating audiences as though they’re idiots, it’s rather frustrating to have so many new and odd details piled on so quickly. The problem is that, while many of them come to make sense (in their own, bizarre way), just as many do not, thanks to the simple fact that they’re not supposed to. The peculiarity of this society in which we find ourselves is one of the central themes explored, and how needless many of its ways are. As a result, much of what is left unexplained probably never will be, and sorting these particulars from those mysteries that have answers forthcoming is a weighty task.
This is the only real problem that I have with Shades of Grey. Fforde’s oddball storytelling is refreshing and immensely enjoyable, but it’s also convoluted, and my floundering throughout much of the book, desperately attempting to find some sort of anchor via which I could make sense of it all, was frustrating. The upside is that once it all began to fall into place (more due to my putting the pieces together myself rather than any sort of explanation on the book’s part), the experience as a whole became much more satisfying. I guarantee that it’s worth struggling through the first half or so, despite how lost you may be at first – it’ll (sort of) make sense eventually, I promise you. Fforde’s genius becomes fully apparently only over time, and once it does, you’ll be glad that you stuck with him.
As for the story itself, there’s not much to say. It’s slow and deliberate (though never stagnant), and ends up feeling more like one long buildup to the “real” plot of the series than like a solid tale in its own right (something that really doesn’t become apparent until the last few chapters). The bulk of the book deals with the complex network of relationships, double-crossing, alliances, and feuds that populate the small town of East Carmine, with hints of a dystopian tragedy hinted at occasionally and not coming to the forefront until the end. It may not be the most exciting of adventures, but the sheer force of Fforde’s cleverness and the character’s eccentricities keeps the pages turning.
And do be warned: You’re going to have your heart broken, thanks mostly to our central couple. Eddie and Jane’s relationship develops slowly (so slowly, in fact, that they aren’t really “together” until the conclusion), making it that much sweeter once it comes to fruition. Of course, Fforde cannot permit his characters (or his readers) to be happy, so he makes sure to end things on not one, but several big cliffhangers. Tragic cliffhangers. “I-need-the-next-book-right-now-but-since-I-cannot-have-it-I’m-probably-going-to-die-from-these-feelings” cliffhangers.
Brutal. Thanks, Fforde.
It’s quirky, well-written, smart, witty, and emotional. It has everything that a certain other book with a rather similar name does not have. I’d recommend that you go out and read it immediately, but, considering that the sequel isn’t expected to be released for another few years (what in the world is Fforde up to?!), you might want to wait so that the interim won’t be quite so brutal.
Until then, you can find me in the corner willing Fforde to write faster, and possibly crying. You’re free to join me if you decide to give Shades of Grey a try.
I hope that you do. It’s lonely over here.
I loved Jasper Fforde’s previous books–in fact, my agent sold my own series as “Sookie Stackhouse meets Thursday Next.” (She’s far too kind.) But I didn’t get very far in this one before I put it gently back on the TBR pile. And I say “gently back” rather than flung against a wall because I want to like it, I want to read it. Now I think, based on your excellent review, that I’ll give it another try.
Slightly reminiscent of Jasper’s phenomenal worldbuilding is Stephen Hunt’s steampunk series, only minus the humour. Have you tried Stephen’s books? Court of the Air, etc. Not YA per se, but there’s always a young central character.
Ah, thank you. I was beginning to think I was the only one who really enjoyed this and was waiting eagerly for the next. Curse Fforde and those other series taking up his writing time! And kids, too. Stupid author trying to have a life.
I am pretty sure if poor Jasper knew that the-book-which-shall-not-be-named would be published 2 years later, he would have called “The Road to High Saffron.” Ugh.
I thought this book was merely ok when I first read it in 2009, but re-reading it 1)without skimming 2)aloud, with my partner- really helped me to appreciate this book. I am dying to see what happens next, but if Fforde never writes a sequel, I think this book could stand alone. It certainly prompts a lot of interesting speculation!
Laurens Loquacious Lit
I read this a couple of years ago and I can’t remember most of it, because as you say it is quite bewildering. I remember finishing it and thinking What. The. FUCK. JUST. HAPPENED.
But I love that he’s so crazy and all over the place with it and had those awesome little rule book segments in the beginning like Chicken being a vegetable on the 4th Tuesday of every month to ensure that vegetarians got enough protein 😀
You’ve written one of the best summaries of any Jasper Fforde book I’ve seen. Honestly, with this and his Thursday Next series, I usually have to give up because they almost defy categorizing and short summaries. I usually point people to the Nursery Crime series as a good introduction to his writing, since 1)they’re a little less convoluted, and 2) I can almost explain what they are.
Too bad Fforde isn’t more well-known. Every time I hear a reference to 50 Shade, I initially think it’s about this book.
2014: Year of the Buggery | Cuddlebuggery Book Blog
[…] Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde It’s weird and a rather difficult story to get into, but Fforde’s latest series is near bursting with charm, quirks, and some of the most interesting worldbuilding you’re like to find in any work of fiction. It’s only flaw lies in the fact that the sequel is as of yet on the far, far horizon. […]