By November 17, 2011 1 Comments Read More →

Variegated Shades of Grey

I’ve tried in book groups and in print to describe the pleasures of Jasper Fforde’s latest series starter, Shades of Grey, and on every occasion the task has defeated me. It will probably thwart me again.

I could get lost in the delightfully quirky details of the dystopian future world that Fforde sketches–a world in which colors, along with the wealth of society’s accrued knowledge and technology, are slowly draining from the world. The economy is based on collecting and trading in colored fragments of the past and odd bits and pieces like spoons, which because of the bizarre rules that dominate society can no longer be manufactured. People can only see one color, in some cases none, and their position in the  heavily stratified society is decided by which color they can see, how strong their color perception is, and whether they can make advantageous marriages. But I’m already a hundred words into describing the book, and I’m not even close to capturing even the charms of the setting.

I could write about Fforde’s charming characters–the naive but honorable and resilient protagonist Eddie Russett; the Grey woman Jane who captures his heart with an adorable nose, strict defiance of the rules and regular threats of violence; the scheming, ruthless, but charming Tommo Cinnabar and his fantasy marriage league; Eddie’s swatchman (a healer who does his work by showing patients different color samples) father; the nasty cast of Yellow and Purple villains that are out to rule the town with an iron fist; or the shady figures behind the national colortocracy. But again, I’m hardly doing these folks justice and I’ve already been describing them for several sentences.

I could focus on the book’s central idea, the dystopia that on one level seems completely bizarre and nonsensical, but on another has disturbing connections to real world societies, both past and present. There’s a terrible, ugly menace in the events of this book–economic slavery; murder; accidental death by mildew, swan attack, lightning, or horrors in the dark; and systemic death through “reboot” for those who break too many of the arbitrary rules. But despite all this ugliness, the book is sublimely silly, with Fforde creating a delightful comedy of manners reminiscent of Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog or the best of P. G. Wodehouse. So what do I say when a book is disturbingly real and yet brimming with the most creative and detailed fantasy I’ve read in some time? How do I explain that I found the book’s events appalling, yet found myself smirking or giggling at almost every page?

Despite the legions of fans for his Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series, Jasper Fforde is an author whose premises I have heretofore liked much more than the result of his books. Shades of Grey on the other hand, is a master work. Where I’ve found some of his other work clever, I found this book both smart and satisfying. It is so dense with detail that the setting may thwart some readers before they can gain full entry, but it’s worth the effort. Book group readers, whether or not they normally read fantasy, should find plenty of content into which they can sink their teeth. This is the start of a series, but the ending, while leaving much to explore, is satisfactory in and of itself. If you stick with it, I bet you’ll be waiting with excitement, like me, for the publication of the next book Painting by Numbers.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "Variegated Shades of Grey"

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  1.' Becky says:

    Neil, I agree with you completely. I loved this book, while others did not. I tried to comment on why I think this is the case in my review of the book which you (or your readers) can access at

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