Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
Can you imagine what was going through the mind of Jasper Fforde’s publisher when 50 Shades of Grey became huge? I could never read it in public, but I really enjoyed Shades of Grey, which is an overall denser and heavier experience than the light and breezy Thursday Next novels. It may contain no whips, spanking and only a tiny dash of sado-masochism, but I guarantee that Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey is the best novel containing those words in the title out there.
Shades of Grey takes place in a distant future society, many years after an unknown apocalypse known as the ‘Something That Happened.’ Something changes in humanity’s eyesight and now society is divided by what colours they are able to perceive, with Purples at the top and the lowly colourblind Greys at the bottom. This society is known as the Chromatacia and is governed by The Rules, a series of bizarre edicts which seek to control even minute details in behaviour and to thoroughly stamp out any possibility of rebellion. Colour is everything in this society, to the point that particular shades can be used as medicine or even, in the case of certain shades of lime green, as recreational drugs.
Eddie Russet is a Red, the second lowest caste to the Greys, who seeks to marry upwards into the Oxblood family, raising his social status considerably. However, a minor rebellion in suggesting a more efficient queuing system sees him sent to the Outer Fringes of the Chromotacia to learn humility. He winds up in the town of East Carmine and meets Jane, a Grey with a fiery temper and an irreverence for the established order which Eddie has never seen before. Eddie becomes embroiled in the shady local politics of East Carmine and begins to uncover the lies and horror that underpin the entirety of Chromotacian society.
Typically of Fforde, Shades of Grey is aggressively high concept. The world can be difficult to wrap your head around at first, but I think this is intentional because it highlights how utterly unquestioning the characters are about the bizarre strangeness that surrounds them. Shades of Grey is a focused book, set almost entirely in one village, exploring the Chromotacia in microcosm rather than the big picture. This is a wise move, especially with a sequel due this year which seems set to deliver on a greater scale. At times the focus on petty village life got a bit draining and I wonder if this novel is just a little too long, but I was never pulled out of it enough to think about stopping.
This wouldn’t be Jasper Fforde if it wasn’t also very funny; I love people dealing with ridiculous situations in an extremely straightforward manner and this is something of a Fforde speciality. He did this to great effect in the Thursday Next books and does it possibly even better here. He’s rather good at straightforward, unpretentious worldbuilding, giving us enough to keep us interested without drowning the reader in jargon and details to remember.
Eddie is a straightforward character, much as Thursday Next is I suppose. The more lively characters are those which surround him, with the complex and entertainingly aggressive Jane standing as the clear highlight. The characters overall aren’t quite as strong as in his other books however and I hope we either get to see existing characters given greater development or new characters introduced in the sequels.
Shades of Grey is a typically strange book and slightly harder work than Fforde’s other stuff. When the trilogy is completed I think it may ultimately be more rewarding and I’m looking forward to getting back into the Chromotacia before too long.