Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
Reviewed by Sara Polsky
02 April 2010
The newest offering from Thursday Next creator Jasper Fforde affirmed one thing I already thought about him: I'd really like to visit his brain.
In Shades of Grey, the first installment of Fforde's latest series (there appear to be three books planned), he has created another amusingly offbeat universe. This time, the world is a future version of our own (in which we are referred to as the Previous, and Fforde's characters know very little about us). This world is built around color: every individual can naturally see only one color on the spectrum. A redhead without red perception, for example, won't know her own natural hair color unless a Red tells her. One's color perception determines one's social status, with Purples at the top and Greys, who cannot see any colors at all, at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Synthetic colors are available to create full-color images and landscapes, but they cannot match the vibrance of natural hues, as Fforde's narrator, a Red named Eddie Russett, realizes while looking at an original painting, a Caravaggio, from the time of the Previous. Russett had seen pictures of the painting before, but "those images had been monochrome, and here for the first time was something I had not suspected: The drapes above the scene of Frowny Girl Removing Beardy's Head were in a most spectacular shade of crimson, which counterpointed the spurt of arterial blood, also a vivid red" (p. 142). The specific shades of red Russett can see further define his place within the social hierarchy.
Eddie Russett is lucky to have particularly strong red perception, which gives him a shot at a prestigious career and an upmarket marriage. So he begins the story feeling generally content with life in Chromotacia and the rules of the Colortocracy.
But before Eddie can take his formal color-perception test and get married, he must travel with his father to middle-of-nowhere East Carmine, where his father is filling in for a recently deceased swatchman, Chromotacia's equivalent of a doctor. The Russetts quickly learn, of course, that there was something fishy about the previous swatchman's death, and that the colorful (pun intended) residents of East Carmine aren't exactly sticklers for society's rules, manipulating and bribing each other far more than Eddie is used to seeing in "civilized" society. And then there's Jane, an East Carmine Grey whose mysterious comings and goings and defiant attitude toward the Colortocracy intrigue Eddie even though her hue would make her a socially unfortunate match. Inspired first by his desire to earn Jane's trust, and gradually by what he learns about the Colortocracy, Eddie starts to question the rules he's grown up with.
As always, Fforde puts his zany, humorous stamp on the world he's created. There are plenty of cute plays on words (one of the reasons I think the inside of Fforde's head would be a fascinating place to visit) as well as some less punny social satire. And readers of the Thursday Next books will enjoy a few scenes with literary humor, such as the one in which Eddie visits East Carmine's library. There are no books, but an eager staff of librarians follows Eddie around, telling him where each book would have been, back when the collections of the Previous were still intact.
The satirical slant of the book has drawbacks, though. As Eddie's stay in East Carmine lengthens, he is exposed to some of Chromotacia's darker facets, such as what it really means when a misbehaving member of society is given a train ticket to something called Reboot, and what the deadly illness called the Mildew really is. But the light tone of the book never fully matches the gravity of the revelations Eddie is facing, which makes it hard to take them seriously.
Worldbuilding is another of Fforde's strengths that also ends up turning into something of a roadblock. Fforde clearly puts a tremendous amount of thought into every element of his world, from what the society's rules and government agencies are called to how the color-based hierarchy works. Fforde seems to have thought through how the premise of varied color perception would alter every facet of society; it never feels like Chromotacia is haphazardly thrown together. But Fforde has also loaded a lot of that careful worldbuilding into the front half of the book. As a result, the first half or two-thirds of the novel ask the reader to wade through a lot of detail about a society and characters they don't yet care for and have patience that the story will eventually gain steam. (It does.)
And despite all of Fforde's careful worldbuilding efforts, the very nature of the world he has created made it difficult for me to connect with that world through a book. The story rests on the idea that people have limited color perception, but their world includes many of the same objects that, in our universe, are full of color, such as carefully cultivated gardens and Caravaggio paintings. It took a while for me get into the mindset of the book instead of overlaying the reading with my own experiences of a full-color world.
In spite of those issues, the novel does work. The humor is trademark Fforde, the concept is quirky, and the secondary characters, particularly Tommo and Violet, two of East Carmine's more rule-bending residents, are delightful. (In fact, they are at times more interesting than the reluctant hero narrator.) And while Eddie's attraction to the contrary Jane at first doesn't seem to make much sense, Jane's transition from hating Eddie to liking him is gradual enough that I was rooting for them by the end.
Shades of Grey is merely a book that asks the reader's patience. Fforde fans with faith probably won't find it too difficult to stick with him until he finishes pulling all the details of the world together and gets the story moving. And for those who are willing to wait it out, the story's pickup in the last third promises faster-paced adventures in the rest of the series.