Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Shades of Grey

by Jasper Fforde


Throughout human history people have always found absurd and arbitrary ways of organising a social hierarchy, whether by skin colour, caste, or what your parents did and where they came from. In Shades of Grey the deciding factor is colour perception. People in this future society have become colour-blind to a greater or lesser extent, and in the kingdom of the colour-blind those who can see hues most clearly find themselves at the top of the tree.

Eddie Russet is a young man with good red vision. He hopes to marry into the prestigious Oxblood family, but he's been sent to the backwater of East Carmine to conduct a pointless chair census, and he's wearing a badge that says "Needs Humility". His trip is supposed to be brief, but Eddie soon loses his return ticket and gets mixed up in local squabbles that could have him detained for longer than he planned.

Jasper Fforde has created an extraordinary world obsessed with petty rules. It's all based on the infallible word of Munsell, and Munsell had Rules for everything. From the trivial to the bizarre, his pronouncements are followed with the kind of religious fervour that would make the Puritans seem easy-going. This novel mixes heavy oppression with the kind of silly bureaucracy of Douglas Adams' Vogons in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. In places like East Carmine on the Fringes of civilisation there's a lot of cheating going on as people bend or quietly break the Rules, or they make up ridiculous excuses rather than admitting there's something wrong with the laws they live by. It's funny, but it's also a mordant satire on religion and the failure to question traditions.

The story is set in a genteel environment of retro Englishness, where people have servants and they drive Model T Fords. This is all the result of a series of Leapbacks, when modern technology was abandoned in favour of simpler, older ways. Society is going backwards. History, science and modern technology have become a mystery to people, who are now blind in more than one way. It's like a backwards version of the early 20th century, except for a few tantalising glimpses of advanced technology that can't be erased so easily from the world. There are self-healing roads, Everspin machines that seem capable of something close to perpetual motion, and the Swatchmen who use colour for healing. These things remind us that there's far more to this world than initially meets the eye.

Eddie isn't inclined to rock the boat, but his active imagination and his natural curiosity can get him into trouble. He manages to attract the hostility of Jane, a Grey woman. Jane is more than a little violent, but Eddie falls for her in spite of himself. He also gets involved with the shady money-making schemes of Tommo, a reckless and sly young schemer who is nevertheless very likeable. But when one of Eddie's newfound friends disappears he starts to suspect something sinister lies behind the outward harmony of this colour-obsessed society.

Shades of Grey is barmy and brilliant. It's all very jolly until Eddie scratches the surface and finds a dark undercurrent of madness, secrets and unyielding cruelty behind the Colourtocracy. The story has a clever mix of old-fashioned charm and far-future zaniness, where people are terrified of giant swans, lethal Mildew, night terrors and carnivorous plants. What appears to be random oddness often turns out to have a well-considered purpose, and the plot is always lively and hugely inventive. Eddie has just the right combination of bravery and circumspection in the face of unreasonable figures of authority, so he's pretty endearing, and his adventures are anything but grey.

4th January 2011

Book Details

Year: 2010

Categories: Books

  Science fiction
  Male Protagonist  

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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Jasper Fforde