Friday, July 9, 2010

Book Review: Shades of Grey [2010]

Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde, is the second novel I have read recently that takes color and makes it a central and essential function of the story (the other was Warbreaker). Maybe this is a new trend to watch? Fforde, well-known for his absurdly clever Thursday Next series, takes a leap in a different direction into post-apocalyptic dystopia, as the world of the novel (Chromatacia) is organized into a strict and self-policing color hierarchy. People are ranked according to the colors they are able to see, with purple being the highest and grey the lowest. Set in the United Kingdom of a far, far distant future--after the "Something That Happened," whatever that might have been--Shades of Grey explores a society entirely bound by the sometimes nonsensical rules attributed to a figure known as Munsell. Rules such as: "Unicycles are not to be ridden backward at excessive speed" and "All residents are required to make sacrifices for the good of the community." In the world of the Collective, free movement and independent thought are frowned upon, advanced technology is being progressively phased out, marriages are arranged to result in the most highly colored offspring, the landscape is plagued by lightning and giant swan attacks, and there is a severe shortage of spoons.

We are introduced to these and other curiosities (some tantalizingly familiar, such as a passing mention of "Chuck Naurice") through the first-person narration of Edward "Eddie" Russet, who has been sent to the Outer Fringes to conduct a chair census as a punishment. His father, who accompanies him on the journey, has been sent to replace the previous Swatchman (essentially a doctor who administers carefully chosen color swatches to heal the sick), who died unexpectedly. When Eddie arrives in East Carmine (place and person names in the book all have some color-based significance), he falls in love with aggressive and chromatic-hating Jane Grey, who threatens to kill him several times and actually attempts it twice. Despite being half-promised to Constance Oxblood back home, Eddie finds himself falling rapidly into life in East Carmine--making friends and enemies, learning the ins and outs of the town and its eccentrics, and becoming increasingly invested in the ongoing mystery of the Swatchman's death. Unfortunately, Eddie's propensity for questions (intelligent or not) and kind heart are not qualities that are likely to lead to a long and healthy life as a productive citizen of the Collective. And neither is his attraction to Jane. Fforde has created a fascinating and somehow believably absurd world which conveys enough glimpses of our own to make you wonder whether anything would ever make the Earth's population trade religious faith for the religion of following the rules.

Grade: A

Random Thoughts:

I also enjoyed the portrayal of librarians a great deal, although it was deeply sad that the constrictive nature of the Collective lead to their guardianship of empty shelves where books used to sit. Ah, bureaucracy.

The idea of "megafauna" quite frankly makes me giggle, as does this Bestiary of some of the creatures mentioned in the book, including bouncing goats. Fforde somehow manages to be completely silly and satirically pointed at the same time. There's also a lovely history of barcodes available.

This is a book that I both listened to in the car, and then read on paper when I didn't want to stop and have to wait to find out what happened next. It had the same narrator as The City & The City, which was a little weird at first (since I had just recently finished that one), but it turns out that John Lee is a pretty kick-ass narrator who can sell whatever material he's given. I enjoyed both versions, and would recommend them both. 

I wonder if this book might find some interest among a YA audience, as the story has some "coming of age" elements, and Eddie is only twenty. Either way, I do look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Dead Mother: Yes
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