Title: Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron
Author: Jasper Fforde
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Dystopia
Publisher: Viking (US) / Hodder & Stoughton General (UK)
Publication Date: December 2009 (US) / January 2010 (UK)
Hardcover: 400 pages (US)
Part social satire, part romance, part revolutionary thriller, Shades of Grey tells of a battle against overwhelming odds. In a society where the ability to see the higher end of the color spectrum denotes a better social standing, Eddie Russet belongs to the low-level House of Red and can see his own color—but no other. The sky, the grass, and everything in between are all just shades of grey, and must be colorized by artificial means.
Eddie’s world wasn’t always like this. There’s evidence of a never-discussed disaster and now, many years later, technology is poor, news sporadic, the notion of change abhorrent, and nighttime is terrifying: no one can see in the dark. Everyone abides by a bizarre regime of rules and regulations, a system of merits and demerits, where punishment can result in permanent expulsion.
Eddie, who works for the Color Control Agency, might well have lived out his rose-tinted life without a hitch. But that changes when he becomes smitten with Jane, a Grey Nightseer from the dark, unlit side of the village. She shows Eddie that all is not well with the world he thinks is just and good. Together, they engage in dangerous revolutionary talk.
Stunningly imaginative, very funny, tightly plotted, and with sly satirical digs at our own society, this novel is for those who loved Thursday Next but want to be transported somewhere equally wild, only darker; a world where the black and white of moral standpoints have been reduced to shades of grey.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 of a planned trilogy
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book: You already know my weakness for all things apocalyptic and dystopian. Blend that addiction with the quirky, absurdist style of Jasper Fforde, an innovative use of color, and I am a happy, happy girl.
It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant. It wasn’t really what I’d planned for myself – I’d hoped to marry into the Oxbloods and join their dynastic string empire. But that was four days ago, before I met Jane, retrieved the Caravaggio and explored High Saffron. So instead of enjoying aspirations of Chromatic advancement, I was wholly immersed within the digestive soup of a yateveo tree. It was all frightfully inconvenient.
So begins the narrative of Eddie Russett; twenty-years old, son of a well-reputed Swatchman (doctor of sorts), almost engaged to the well-connected Constance Oxblood, and secretly can perceive of a shockingly high percentage of Red. Eddie’s world is a Colortocracy, with a strict hierarchy (called the Chromatic Scale) based on the colors that individuals can perceive – Purples are the highest, followed by Greens, Yellows, Blues, Oranges, Reds, and, at the very bottom of the scale, the subservient Greys (incapable of perceiving any significant amount of any color). While each class can perceive of their own color in nature, every other color appears gray – unless it’s artificially painted and enhanced (a very expensive, and seen by some as a garish, ostentatious flaunting of wealth).
As such, Eddie, although part of the nouveaux couleur Russett family, has a carefully planned, bright future ahead of him. That is, until he and his father are sent out by the Collective from their cushy city life in Jade-Under-Lime on assignment to East Carmine, in the Outer Fringes of society – Eddie’s father is to fill in Swatchman position, while Eddie is assigned to conduct a census of all the chairs in the town (as Eddie explains, “Head Office is worried that the chair density might have dropped below the proscribed 1.8 per person.”). On the way to East Carmine, however, everything changes for the young Russett. He and his father discover a Grey masquerading as a Purple and a beautiful but prickly young Grey named Jane – whom Eddie instantly is smitten with (at their first meeting she threatens to break his. When they finally reach the Outer Fringes, Eddie discovers secret plots, cutthroat politics, and murder cover-ups – and again that strange, abrasive (but beautiful, retrousse-nosed) Jane. Eddie begins to question his entire society, and why he was sent out to East Carmine in the first place.
Shades of Grey is unquestionably one of the most deeply original books I have ever read. It’s bizarre, it’s absurd, it’s detail-laden, and, well, it’s…awesome. As quirky and smart as this book is, Mr. Fforde’s writing and his strange world never feels forced or contrived (a “trying-too-hard” pitfall I’ve unfortunately seen in other works of quirky, absurdist fiction). Rather, Shades of Grey puts me in the mind of the strange, delightful humor and world building of Terry Pratchett. Part of Mr. Fforde’s success is in those devilish details, as I adored all of the details in this novel. The ridiculous rules imposed on this Colortocratic society (“The Word of Munsell was the Rules, and the Rules were the Word of Munsell,”) range from an absolute prohibition on the production of spoons (causing a spoon shortage, making spoons one of the most valuable commodities), acronyms are outlawed, and handkerchiefs must be changed daily (and always folded). These rules are enumerated in pre-chapter epigraphs throughout the book, for example:
1.1.19.02.006: Team sports are mandatory in order to build character. Character is there to give purpose to team sports.
184.108.40.206.028: Ovaltine may not be drunk at any time other than before bed.
These sort of flourishes are everywhere, delighting and enhancing the reader’s picture of the world. Trains and the occasional Model-T are the primary modes of transportation (and are very limited). Familiar ancient relics are in this strange new world too – the Oz Monument (yes, for that Oz), the boardgame Risk, the strange A Christmas Story like throwback to Ovaltine.
In the midst of this rich, bizarre bouquet, the plotting falls second to the world building. Which is perfectly fine by me, as the story thread is there, and though it’s left behind at times for description, there’s enough mystery and plot to keep readers thoroughly engaged. In terms of characters, they too come short when compared to the details of the novel, but they are still undeniably compelling. The first person narrative voice of Eddie is delightful – he’s a bit of an unintentional fool, in his schoolboyish optimism, his crush on the antagonistic Jane, and his unquenchable curiosity. Jane is another stellar character too – her first lines to Eddie floor me (upon being elbow-grabbed by our intrepid hero, she responds, “Touch me again and I’ll break your fucking jaw.”). The other, assorted characters are varied and quirky, adding, if you’ll accept a lame pun, another layer of color to the story.
And then, there’s the reason I picked up this book in the first place – the dystopian and post-apocalyptic elements. And, I’m happy to report, just as with the details and world building aspects of the Shades of Grey, the dystopian angle is exquisite. One thing I absofreakinglutely love in a book is an author that doesn’t hand-hold his or her readers – unlike, say, the most recent episodes of LOST where subtext is as elusive as a hot shower. That is to say, Mr. Fforde lets these dystopian elements and the backstory of his world come out gradually, as Eddie reveals, piecemeal, little clues about the history of the Collective. What eventually becomes clear is that something has happened to Eddie’s world (referred to throughout merely as “The Something That Happened”), that changed everything – people became only able to see certain colors, chaos ensued until the great Munsell imposed order with a set of rigid, unchangeable rules. Outside of the Colortocracy’s borders there are the dreaded “Riffraff” – only alluded to as savage, uncivilized heathens. And then, there’s “The Rot” – a mysterious, fast-acting disease that infects citizens seemingly at random, and for which there is no cure. There’s a stagnation of ideas, a loss of technology (relics of which remain, silent and unused). These dystopian elements are little tidbits, revealed throughout the book (biochemical weapons, the presence of dangerous things in the Night, the intense fear and sensitivity the people in this world have to the dark)…and it’s very cool stuff.
In fact, the only place where Shades of Grey falls a little short is in extending some social commentary or analysis (as the blurb of the novel alludes to). The Color caste system is unflinching and based not necessarily on birth or wealth, but on the percentage of color seen (as taken in the one time only Ishihara exam) – an intriguing idea. But Mr. Fforde doesn’t really go into a true social critique of his color-caste world, which seems almost an automatic assumption. He could have taken this in a commentary on race, on apartheid, on classism, in a satyrical way. Reading, I found myself asking a number of questions that didn’t really get addressed – for example, are all these peoples’ skin tones the same? Even in shades of grey, a black person would look different than a white one. I even found myself questioning if these characters were even really PEOPLE at all! I felt like it could have been a lost Twilight Zone episode, in which Eddie, Jane and all those in this strange Collective are dolls or automatons. Regardless, even though Mr. Fforde never really “goes there” and doesn’t address any deeper rooted issues, this just means there’s room for exploration of these in the next two books. Plus, everything else is so wonderful in Shades of Grey, I could care less.
Overall, I loved this novel. LOVED it. I cannot wait for more, with the next two books!
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
A Morning in Vermillion
220.127.116.11.021: Males are to wear dress code #6 during inter-Collective travel. Hats are encouraged but not mandatory.
It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant. It wasn’t really what I’d planned for myself— I’d hoped to marry into the Oxbloods and join their dynastic string empire. But that was four days ago, before I met Jane, retrieved the Caravaggio and explored High Saffron. So instead of enjoying aspirations of Chromatic advancement, I was wholly immersed within the digestive soup of a yateveo tree. It was all frightfully inconvenient.
But it wasn’t all bad, for the following reasons: First, I was lucky to have landed upside down. I would drown in under a minute, which was far, far preferable to being dissolved alive over the space of a few weeks. Second, and more important, I wasn’t going to die ignorant. I had discovered something that no amount of merits can buy you: the truth. Not the whole truth, but a pretty big part of it. And that was why this was all frightfully inconvenient. I wouldn’t get to do anything with it. And this truth was too big and too terrible to ignore. Still, at least I’d held it in my hands for a full hour and understood what it meant.
I didn’t set out to discover a truth. I was actually sent to the Outer Fringes to conduct a chair census and learn some humility. But the truth inevitably found me, as important truths often do, like a lost thought in need of a mind. I found Jane, too, or perhaps she found me. It doesn’t really matter. We found each other. And although she was Grey and I was Red, we shared a common thirst for justice that transcended Chromatic politics. I loved her, and what’s more, I was beginning to think that she loved me. After all, she did apologize before she pushed me into the leafless expanse below the spread of the yateveo, and she wouldn’t have done that if she’d felt nothing.
So that’s why we’re back here, four days earlier, in the town of Vermillion, the regional hub of Red Sector West. My father and I had arrived by train the day before and overnighted at the Green Dragon. We had attended Morning Chant and were now seated for breakfast, disheartened but not surprised that the early Greys had already taken the bacon, and it remained only in exquisite odor. We had a few hours before our train and had decided to squeeze in some sightseeing.
“We could always go and see the Last Rabbit,” I suggested. “I’m told it’s unmissable.”
But Dad was not to be easily swayed by the rabbit’s uniqueness. He said we’d never see the Badly Drawn Map, the Oz Memorial, the color garden and the rabbit before our train departed. He also pointed out that not only did Vermillion’s museum have the best collection of Vimto bottles anywhere in the Collective, but on Mondays and Thursdays they demonstrated a gramophone.
“A fourteen- second clip of ‘Something Got Me Started,’ ” he said, as if something vaguely Red- related would swing it.
But I wasn’t quite ready to concede my choice.
“The rabbit’s getting pretty old,” I persisted, having read the safety briefing in the “How Best to Enjoy Your Rabbit Experience” leaflet, “and petting is no longer mandatory.”
“It’s not the petting,” said Dad with a shudder, “it’s the ears. In any event,” he continued with an air of finality, “I can have a productive and fulfilling life having never seen a rabbit.”
This was true, and so could I. It was just that I’d promised my best friend, Fenton, and five others that I would log the lonely bun’s Taxa number on their behalf and thus allow them to note it as “proxy seen” in their animal- spotter books. I’d even charged them twenty- five cents each for the privilege— then blew the lot on licorice for Constance and a new pair of synthetic red shoelaces for me.
Dad and I bartered like this for a while, and he eventually agreed to visit all of the town’s attractions but in a circular manner, to save on shoe leather. The rabbit came last, after the color garden.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: As I’ve mentioned before, there are two more adventures planned for Eddie and company – Painting by Numbers and The Gordini Protocols.
Understandably this review might be a little confusing – and reading Shades of Grey takes some getting used to as there’s a lot of terminology and crazy stuff going on. Luckily, Jasper Fforde has an awesome primer on his book website to help keep things straight. The website also has a ton of awesome extras, such as an interview with Jasper Fforde, downloadable content, and a series of wicked cool movies – there’s the official book trailer:
…and then check out one of these National Color ” Peril Infogandas”:
I need to read more Jasper Fforde. STAT. Suggestions, anyone?
Also, on one final note – aren’t these covers grand? Both the US and UK ones truly rock.
Verdict: Skimpy on the thematic punch, but delectably juicy in all the details, world building and characters – I loved this book. Shades of Grey is seriously smart, chock full of bizarre humor with brains and heart. This is an amazing, truly original, highly imaginative work of fiction. And it is at this point my single favorite read of 2010.
(Ok, one last note – I know these books are marketed in the “literary fiction” section of bookstores, but this is a feast for the dystopian, for the Terry Pratchett-lover, for the Douglass Adams fan. Seriously. READ IT, folks!)
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Spider’s Bite by Jennifer Estep