It’s not terribly surprising to me that I should love a book by Jasper Fforde. I’ve read six of them already (the first four in the Thursday Next series, and two Nursery Crime novels), and have enjoyed them all immensely. Fforde’s books are incredibly witty and rich in detail, not to mention comic and just plain fun.
Shades of Grey is the start of a new series (the title of this first book is technically Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron), and was a blank slate, as far as I was concerned. When the book was lent to me, I knew nothing of it except the title, that it was unrelated to Thursday Next and Nursery Crime, and that it was Jasper Fforde (the latter fact being enough to warrant reading it, of course). I didn’t know what genre to call it, I didn’t know what to expect.
The book started off slowly, an immediate difference from the Fforde books I’d read previously. I was not discouraged, however, as the book was doing something I absolutely love: introducing a completely foreign, well-fleshed, detailed world to the reader slowly, through the character’s eyes and the natural progression of the story. Good world-building is something I adore in fiction, and Shades of Grey has a vibrant world, the exact nature of which is never fully revealed – because the protagonist, Eddie, is only starting to discover it himself. The setting is post-apocalyptic, in a world that has changed considerably since the “Something That Happened” approximately five hundred years previously. People in this society are not terribly curious about the past (except to wonder why the Word of Munsell does not allow the manufacture of new spoons), or about the workings of their world beyond their own social circles. Because of this, while towards the end of the book some significant facts about the Chromatic society are revealed, the majority of it is still a mystery, to Eddie and to the reader. The hints and clues and puzzles are intruiguing! All the remnants of Previous society which remain, in pieces and largely unusable. All the references to National Colour and how they control society.
Eddie Russett was never much of a questioner, aside from his ideas of improvements to queuing theory. His most pressing concern in life was whether Constance Oxblood would choose him as her husband. You see, the Oxblood family are quite prestigious and wealthy, but have been growing low in colour perception over the generations, and Constance needs to marry a strong perceiver of red to boost her offspring’s hue. Chromatic society revolves around colour: a person’s social status is almost entirely derived from what colour they can see, and how well they can see it. Eddie and Constance are Reds – they can only see that single colour in the natural world, and only know colours involving yellow or blue in synthetic form. Red is at the bottom of the Chromatic hierarchy, which ranges through the rainbow to prestigious Purple, and are only above the working-class Greys and the Riff-Raff, who are outside of society. Colour perception is the basis of quite a strict class system, which Fforde says is based on the Edwardian class system. Everything is calm and orderly and unquestionable in Eddie’s world… until he is sent to the Outer Rim village of East Carmine to conduct a chair census. There, everything is a little… strange. He meets many new and unusual people, most noticeably Jane, a Grey who despite her lack of hue is not afraid to stand up to people and to question Chromatic society. She also has an incredibly retrousé nose – but Eddie has to be careful, the last person to compliment her nose lost an eyebrow!
After a bit of time getting to know the people of East Carmine, the book becomes more of an adventure, and a mystery, as Eddie tries to figure out what’s going on in the village and in all of Chromaticia, all the while having to keep up his prospects with Constance Oxblood and his prospective entry into the string industry, trying to win Jane’s affections (or at least keep her from trying to kill him again), keeping hold of his railway ticket back home to Jade-under-Lime, and keeping out of trouble! Not to mention avoiding ball lightning, giant swan attack, and carnivorous trees.
Fforde’s writing style is what I’d generally describe as “colourful”, despite the fact that the characters in this book perceive the world as largely monochromatic. I’ve mentioned the detail before, but it’s something I keep coming back to when discussing these books. Everything that happens is rich and vivid, exciting and fascinating. In a way, it defies genre: technically science fiction in setting and plot, but with a fantastic, adventuresome feel.
This is the sort of book that, on finishing, I immediately want to discuss with others who’ve read it. There is a lot going on, in the world and in the characters – some explicit, some only hinted at. Writing this review without spoilers has been quite a challenge! It will be very interesting to see how the exploration continues in the next book.
Speaking of the next book, I don’t know how I’ll manage to wait until it comes out. I’ll have to keep myself occupied by reading The Last Dragonslayer and catching up on the two most recent Thursday Next books!