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Monday, April 26, 2010
Author: Jasper Fforde
Reviewed Format: Hardcover
Release Date: December 29, 2009
Eddie Russet has plans--big plans. He has a higher-than-average red perception, is developing an advance system of queueing, and is on half promise to Constance Oxblood, even if his poetry is a bit unimaginative. In Chromatacia where society is ranked according to their perception of color, Eddie, as a red, could do with moving up the spectrum. Although his poetry isn’t winning her over, Constance and the Oxblood family are eager to strengthen their hue. A marriage to Eddie would be socially secure. But Eddie’s plans quickly change when he’s relocated with his father to East Carmine, a city on the Outer Fringes. For Eddie, it’s an opportunity to conduct a chair census and learn some humility; for his father, it’s a temporary position to replace the loss of the town’s color swatchman.
Fearful he’ll lose out to Roger Maroon for Constance’s hierarchal affections, Eddie’s completely preoccupied until he meets Jane, a rebellious Grey who, as a Grey, doesn’t even have a place on the scale. Ironically, it’s Jane who opens Eddie’s perceptions to a side of the Colortocracy he’s never thought of before and introduces him to doubt. Now Eddie begins to go against 20 years of indoctrination by questioning the rules and regulations intended to enforce a predictable, simplistic, and complacent lifestyle. Will he discover the “Something That Happened,” make it to High Saffron, or conform to social norms and marry into a family with an acceptable hue, all while avoiding the Mildew?
Jasper Fforde took an extremely detailed approach to Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron. There were so many euphemisms there were times the narrative threatened to overwhelm me. Despite this, I found most of Fforde’s writing to be quirky, humorous, and wickedly observant. Colors are personified as people emulate the shades they perceive (Purples are lofty and bossy; Greens are a bit pushy; Yellows can have cruel streaks); Fforde is consistent in his representation of each. In fact, he never relents in his dedication to make Chromatacia as fully realized as possible. The world-building isn’t bogged down with long, unnecessary expository musings--Fforde provides the information as it becomes necessary, to execute witticisms, as Eddie comes across something we may be unfamiliar with. He immerses us into his world by pieces, as if we had fallen into East Carmine ourselves and began experiencing this strange and colorfully strict future first hand.
While most of the narrative has the type of developmental inertia that strips the fiction of any lingering and dispensable prose, the thematic concerns seemed to fall just short of what I’d been expecting. Shades of Grey is the first in a trilogy--that might explain some of the dissatisfaction I felt with areas that were left unexplored. I can only hope the “answers” Jane gave Eddie are explained in the next two books. Cursory motivations and speculations are fine for a first installment, but I was a bit put off Shades of Grey was all introduction. The ending was surprising, especially considering the efforts of Jane and Eddie. It sets up the trials sure to affect them in the other books, but it’s all too bureaucratic, convenient, and conventional for my tastes. I’ll definitely be drawing on my patience to see the end result of this trilogy!
The plot aside, I thought many of the characters were hilarious. Some were deliciously scheming and intolerable, which made them all the more troublesome and intrusive for poor Eddie. That being said, I do wish some of the characters weren’t so one-dimensional. I kept hoping one or the other would break with protocol and act against their color, or at the very least, act against their character. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say I wished some were less predictably evil. To be fair, it’s their predictability that makes for some of the most uncomfortable and funny moments; not everyone sticks so steadfastly to their stereotype, though. In not sticking to a characteristic stereotype, they do fall victim to Spectrum conformity, which is, I suppose, a different aspect of the same thing. Eddie realizes it’s going to be a long and difficult road unwinding the Collective’s “built-in resistance to change. Not just in technology and social mobility but in ideas” (p. 244).
It seems Eddie and Jane’s seditious plans have only yet begun. They work quite well together, despite her open loathing and disrespect of him throughout most of the book. There really are many endearing eccentrics in East Carmine--I was a huge fan of Lapis Lazuli, the resident librarian whose grasp of historical facts is clearly the result of an oral tradition not entirely reliable (Chuck Naurice; M’Donna; The Complete Sheer Luck Homes). The characters fit well in their nonsensical world with all of its outlandish and arbitrary rules.
Shades of Grey is a fun combination of British humor, mystery, romance, and satire. Fforde’s attention to detail is impressive, if a bit overwhelming. It was easy to become absorbed within the political machinations of East Carmine, even more with Fforde’s disarming humor. I’m curious, to say the least, where the next book, Shades of Grey 2: Painting by Numbers will take us. Whether it ventures into the mind of the Collective or not, it’s a sequel I’ll be eagerly looking forward to. While I wait, I think I'll try his Thursday Next series!
Thank you to Viking Books for my free review copy.
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