Shades of Grey: Fantastic setting, flat characters

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Jasper Fforde Shades of GreyShades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

In the world of Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde‘s newest novel, your social standing is partly decided by your ability to perceive color: most people can only see one color, and some people are more color-sensitive, allowing them to see their color better than others. In this “Colortocracy,” the Greys — who can see no color at all — are the lowest class and little more than serfs, those who are most sensitive to their color become community leaders (or “precepts”), marriages are arranged to get the best possible color perception for the offspring, and inter-marriage by complimentary colors is strictly taboo.

Edward Russett is the son of a swatchman (a doctor who heals his patients by showing them specific shades of color) who is moving to a new community, situated on the Fringe of society, to replace a recently deceased swatchman. As he settles in, it gradually becomes clear that the village is filled with intrigue — including the mysterious circumstances of the previous swatchman’s death, and a young Grey girl who appears to be be more than she is.

As we learn more about the structure and history of the Colortocracy, it becomes increasingly clear that, despite Jasper Fforde’s typically cheerful style, this is a dystopia. A large part of the enjoyment of reading Shades of Grey is finding out how its society works, so I don’t want to give away too many details, but rest assured: it starts out interesting and unique, and gets better — but darker — as the story progresses.

If we graded novels just on the originality of the setting, Shades of Grey would be a 5 star book, but unfortunately that’s not the case. I felt that most of the characters had a cartoon-like quality to them, with the villains just a little too villainy, the heroes too heroic, and so on. The fact that they’re also conveniently color-coded made this even more apparent. In a nutshell, most of the characters in Shades of Grey have little or no depth and are mainly vehicles to move the plot along and illustrate aspects of the setting. The exception is our hero Edward Russett, who has a great subversive streak and a biting sense of humor which I really enjoyed.

Shades of Grey features some by now recognizable Jasper Fforde quirks, like the use of animals in unexpected contexts (e.g., dodos in the Thursday Next books, vicious swan attacks in Shades of Grey), and the alternative forms of mass entertainment that arise with the absence of TV (e.g., Rocky Horror Picture Show-like performances of Shakespeare in the former books, a morse-based underground radio in Shades of Grey). Literature buffs will once again have a blast rooting out all the subtle and not-so-subtle literary references and puns. Jasper Fforde also returns to poking fun at excessive bureaucracy in all its forms — in this case even starting out every chapter with a quotation from the quasi-religious book of rules the Colortocracy lives by. Finally, it’s great that, just like for the Thursday Next books, Jasper Fforde has once again provided an entire website with tons of extra information about Shades of Grey.

All in all, Shades of Grey is a good novel that, if anything, felt unbalanced to me. The setting is fantastic, but the characters are flat. The novel is at times hilarious, but the humor feels out of place in the dystopian setting. The novel is unique and never boring, but juggling these contrasts makes it almost uncomfortable to read. Still, I definitely want to find out more about the origins of the Colortocracy and am genuinely looking forward to Painting by Numbers, the next novel in the trilogy.

Shades of Grey — (2009) This will be a series. Publisher: Part social satire, part romance, part revolutionary thriller, Shades of Grey tells of a battle against overwhelming odds. In a society where the ability to see the higher end of the color spectrum denotes a better social standing, Eddie Russet belongs to the low-level House of Red and can see his own color — but no other. The sky, the grass, and everything in between are all just shades of grey, and must be colorized by artificial means. Eddie’s world wasn’t always like this. There’s evidence of a never-discussed disaster and now, many years later, technology is poor, news sporadic, the notion of change abhorrent, and nighttime is terrifying: no one can see in the dark. Everyone abides by a bizarre regime of rules and regulations, a system of merits and demerits, where punishment can result in permanent expulsion. Eddie, who works for the Color Control Agency, might well have lived out his rose-tinted life without a hitch. But that changes when he becomes smitten with Jane, a Grey Nightseer from the dark, unlit side of the village. She shows Eddie that all is not well with the world he thinks is just and good. Together, they engage in dangerous revolutionary talk. Stunningly imaginative, very funny, tightly plotted, and with sly satirical digs at our own society, this novel is for those who loved Thursday Next but want to be transported somewhere equally wild, only darker; a world where the black and white of moral standpoints have been reduced to shades of grey.

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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

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