Review of Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey

The Road to High Saffron

by Jasper Fforde

Viking, 2009. 389 pages.
Starred Review

Nobody writes such bizarre books as Jasper Fforde. No, I need to revise that: Few people write such bizarre books as Jasper Fforde. The back cover mentions Douglas Adams, and I have to admit that Shades of Grey does remind me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the same sense of all the normal rules of reality being suspended or bent in bizarre ways.

The first three paragraphs set the stage pretty well and will give you a feel for the book:

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.

Eddie Russett is the narrator, soon before he undergoes his Ishihara to discover what colors he can see and become a full-fledged adult. Eddie lives in a society centuries after Something That Happened and drastically changed the world. In Eddie’s world, your social position is determined by how much and what colors you can see. Marriage is tremendously important, in hopes of having children with higher color perception. Greys are the lowest level, the working class.

Eddie’s father is a healer, a “swatchman.” He shows people swatches of color to heal them. At the start of the book, he saves a man’s life before “eye death” occurs. Eddie’s father is also going to the Outer Fringes to replace East Carmine’s former swatchman who died under suspicious circumstances.

Their society lives according to the Rules of the wise Munsell who lived centuries before. Unfortunately, Munsell did not see fit to allow the manufacture of spoons, so spoons are extremely rare and highly valued. In the Outer Fringes, people are a little looser with the Rules, but people like Eddie who ask questions and think about how to improve queues are still regarded with suspicion and live in danger of reboot.

Eddie meets some interesting characters in East Carmine. There’s Jane with the incredibly cute nose who once tore off someone’s eyebrow when he asked her out. There’s Tommo who would sell his own grandmother for merits. There’s Courtland, the son of the yellow prefect who will probably be the yellow prefect himself some day. And then there’s Violet, who needs to marry a strong Red like Eddie in order to be sure that her children will still be Purple. And when Violet wants something, Violet gets it.

But there are some sinister and some odd undercurrents in East Carmine. The Apocryphal Man lives upstairs, but no one can speak about him because the Rules say he doesn’t exist. And Eddie first saw Jane in Vermilion, but she wasn’t on the train, so how did she get to East Carmine? And why does no one ever come back from High Saffron?

I confess that it took me quite a long time to get into this book, and I almost decided not to finish it. I checked it out when my hold came in, and I wasn’t necessarily ready for something that is more of a cerebral exercise in oddity than an emotional story. But I did keep going, and by the end of the book, I was charmed. Eddie does learn the truth, and now I very much want to read the upcoming sequels to find out what he is able to do about it.

Like all of Jasper Fforde’s books, this one is extremely clever and very funny, once you’re engaged in the story. My sons are Douglas Adams fans, and I’m definitely going to recommend it to them.

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