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Shades of Grey

by Jasper Fforde

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Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
© Penguin
Penguin, January 2010

Jasper Fforde may just be my new ffavorite author. He makes my job easy and enjoyable and perhaps even entirely unnecessary. You don't actually have to continue reading this review, really. If you are at all disposed to dystopian and decidedly satirical coming-of-age steampunk, with a healthy dose of Monty Pythonesque laughs, you may skip to the end of this page where I recommend getting your hands on a copy of Shades of Grey immediately.

Things are not as they appear - at least not to Eddie Russett. At 20-years-old, Eddie is a rule-follower in Chromatica, the civilization that has replaced our own some 500 years after a nebulous cataclysmic event took our race out of the picture. Eddie's is a race of people who each perceive color differently and who are ordered into a "colortocracy" based upon these perceptual abilities.

At the top of the spectrum are the imperious Purples, for whom eggplant and lavender appear in their natural splendor; sea and sky are visible to the Blues, and Green citizens are privy to much of the natural world that appears colorless to Reds, Yellows, and the others. At the bottom of the pecking order are the Greys who see no color and who, though they comprise about a third of the civilization's population, occupy little better than slave status beneath their hued brethren.
Status quo is the modus operandi for the collective's residents. Laws, known simply as "The Rules" were handed down centuries before by Chromatica's founding prophet, Munsell (the very real founder of the Munsell color system), and provide residents with a complete, though often logically absurd, blueprint for behavior. Nonconformity is discouraged and even in the most mundane of circumstances, severely punished, which is how Eddie finds himself shipped off to a backwater burgh as a lesson in humility for his attempt to improve public queuing.

It is there in East Carmine that Eddie starts to question his heretofore unquestioned adherence to Munsell's precepts, subversive behavior attributable in no small part to his infatuation with Jane, a revolutionary Grey with a cute nose and a sharp left hook. Speaking of hooks, Fforde snags the reader handily in the novel's first paragraph:

"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 Carvaggio, and explored High Saffron. So instead of enjoying aspirations of Chromatic advancement, I was wholly immersed in the digestive soup of a yateveo tree. It was all frightfully inconvenient."
And we're never let really off the hook; at the novel's end, Fforde jams a foot in the doorway to keep Shades of Grey from closing completely. Certainly there are answers, but questions and problems remain, enough to bait us for the two books yet to come. Jasper Fforde is very funny - something of a cross between Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams - and his imagination is immense. With its thoroughly entertaining satire and intricately wrought world, Shades of Grey is a pleasure throughout.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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