Thursday, November 19, 2009

I'm a Blue, my ex is Orange--this explains so much...

Shades of Grey:
The Road to High Saffron
by Jasper Fforde Artifacture from before the Something That Happened may be collected, so long as it does not appear on the Leapback list or possess color above 23 percent saturation.

Did you understand that? You would if you were Eddie Russett, the 20-year-old, first-person narrator of Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron. Eddie knows that the above is one of Munsell's innumerable Rules. "The Word of Munsell was the Rules, and the Rules were the Word of Munsell. They regulated everything we did, and had brought peace to the Collective for nearly four centuries. They were sometimes very odd indeed: The banning of the number that lay between 72 and 74 was a case in point, and no one had ever fully explained why it was forbidden to count sheep, make any new spoons or use acronyms. But they were the Rules..." Not surprisingly, this is a society that has embraced "loopholery" enthusiastically.

Eddie's society is a Colortocracy, where social status isn't determined by merit or by birth, it's determined by which color(s) 0f the spectrum you can see, and how much of them. Eddie's a Red, which is next to lowest on the totem pole. Oranges are higher than Reds, Yellows higher than Oranges, and so on. The only ones lower than Reds are the Greys, or achromatics. They can't see any color at all. They're the unappreciated workers of the society.

In Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde has created a richly imagined future that revolves entirely around color, and the perception of it. Explains Eddie, "No one could cheat the Colorman and the color test. What you got was what you were, forever. Your life, career and social standing decided right there and then, and all worrisome life uncertainties eradicated forever. You knew who you were, what you would do, where you would go and what was expected of you."

As the novel opens, Eddie doesn't want much from life. He wants to fulfill his Civil Obligations as best he can. He wants to marry into the prestigious Oxblood family. And he does have a few fairly radical ideas about improved ways to queue. Other than that, he wants to avoid the perils of swans, lightning, and mildew. But that's before he travels for the first time in his life, to the Outer Fringes, where the Rules are interpreted differently. Eddie's a fish out of water, and we're meeting people and learning about life in the village of East Carmine right along with him.

It is there that Eddie meets a Grey named Jane. He's smitten immediately, and that's even before she threatens to kill him. Jane, rude in a world without rudeness, violent in a world without violence, leads Eddie gradually down a path that has him questioning everything he thought he knew about the Colortocracy--in a world that most definitely does not value questions or those that ask them.

By now, you many have gathered that this novel is a bit of a departure for Fforde. There is so much going on that it's hard to take it all in, and virtually impossible to summarize. While undeniably funny, the humor is darker and a bit less overt. Shades of Grey is more challenging, sophisticated, and substantive than anything we've seen previously from Mr. Fforde. In a word, it's brilliant! The cleverness he has always displayed in his Thursday Next novels is dialed up several notches here, as he points his satirical eye at a world so strange and outlandish that comparisons to our own are inescapable. I'm not convinced that all of the Fforde Ffanatics will embrace this latest work, but I suspect most will. And I, for one, with be looking forward with great enthusiasm to Shades of Grey 2: Painting by Numbers and Shades of Grey 3: The Gordini Protocols.


  1. Hmmm ... Now that I've finally read you review, I'll be very curious what others think. We both loved it, but I guess I'm thinking it's a bit more accessible then you did.

    Did it remind you at all of Hunger Games? it did me a bit. Also, I've seen people calling it young adult. What do you think about that? It would have to be a pretty sophisticated youth.

  2. Hey Nic,

    Regarding accessibility... When you get right down to it, I'm a fairly conventional reader. I don't venture much into science fiction and only slightly more into fantasy. I think readers more familiar with the tropes of those genres may find the novel very accessible and for readers less familiar it will be less obvious. I didn't find Shades of Grey to be inaccessible or difficult, but I definitely had to use my brain. I think the word I used was "challenging," and there's definitely nothing wrong with that.

    It didn't remind me of Hunger Games at all--other than the fact that I'd consider both to be dystopian novels, but I read so many of them this year it seems hardly noteworthy.

    And YA? Definitely not. I mean, young people could read it, but I would NOT consider this a young adult novel. I think some readers think any fiction that's not completely realistic or naturalistic falls into the young adult category.

    Yeah, I'm also really curious to see how this novel is received. You described it as Fforde at his Ffordey best, and I wrote that it was a bit of a departure. Didn't you think it was a bit more substantive and less fluffy than his earlier works? A little more "there" there, as it were? I mean, I guess you could read the book on a fairly superficial level and enjoy the humor and whatnot, but there was so much food for thought. And I am REALLY looking forward to the sequels!!

    So, are you going to come into SF on January 9th (the correct date) to see Mr. Fforde with me?

  3. Hey --- Yes, I did think it was more substantive which I guess is partially why I think it's him at his best. I think for a first time reader of Fforde, this would be my recommendation, because you don't have to be as up on literature as with the other books. I'm always a little at a loss b/c I'm not up on all the Dickens.

    -----Spoiler ------

    I think the part that reminded me of Hunger Games was at the end when Jane and Eddie went to Saffron and sort of decided to try to change the system. And also, sort of the disregard for individuality (in the whole book), the class system and the political undertones (overtones?)

    -----End Spoiler ------ (that wasn't much of a spoiler, but I don't want to ruin anything for anyone who may be poking around.

    Anyway, loved it. And totally can't wait for more. And I think I'm going to Portland on the 9th. Stupid travel.

    I am definitely coming to SF for Bite Me though.

  4. I finished this last night and loved every minute of it. It was thought provoking as well as laugh out loud funny. I had to laugh at Eddie's invention at the very end because a co-worker had suggested that very solution when I told her about the spoon problem! Thanks for this recommendation Susan, it was a shining gem!!! I love finding new authors and it is so much easier now that I have you finding them for me!

    Oh and Nicole, I totally get your Hunger Games comparison. You are right, they are similar and they have both captivated me.