Needless to say, I was delighted when I went to the library last month and discovered that Fforde had launched a new series. The first installment, Shades of Grey, was perched on the shelf right next to Something Rotten. (There will ultimately be three novels in the series.) I immediately checked it out and brought it home. Like most of Fforde's books, I finished it very quickly. Had I not had to work a ton of shifts that week, I probably would have knocked it out in a single afternoon. As it were, I wound up taking two or three days, and I enjoyed every single page.
I loved Shades of Grey for three key reasons:
- I am obsessed with dystopian novels. Ob-freaking-sessed. It is my favorite genre, and if there were enough of them to where I could read nothing else for the rest of my life, there's a good chance I'd do exactly that. I was hooked from the moment I finished reading The Giver in fourth grade. I'm actually considering hosting a dystopian novels challenge in 2012 (don't have enough time to get one together for 2011).
- I really like Jasper Fforde's previous work, and Shades of Grey is just as good, if not better, than many of his other novels. I know a lot of people aren't really into speculative fiction, but I have something of a soft spot for it. I don't generally care for science fiction or fantasy (too many spaceships and unicorns, respectively, substituting for plot devices and good writing), but I like the idea of A World That Is Kinda Like Ours But Not, that has its own set of conventions and rules that the author consistently follows. Fforde is an expert at crafting familiar yet disconcerting worlds that are plausible yet nevertheless keep the reader's curiosity piqued. He is also quite whimsical and silly at points, and the levity of carnivorous plants and the illegality of spoon production help to keep the story from becoming leaden and depressing.
- I have spent excessive amounts of time contemplating the following things: why humans can't see color in the dark, what it's like to be colorblind and unable to see my favorite color (green), whether my cats can see in color, and why I sometimes dream in black and white and others in color.
Shades of Grey, like all of Fforde's novels and pretty much all dystopian works in general, is a work of speculative fiction that takes place in a world that is very similar to the one that we inhabit, but has many disorienting differences. Foremost among these is that the world revolves around color and the ability to see it; one's social rank is determined based upon which colors you can see, and the extent to which you can see them. Color vision is measured on a 100-point scale, and if you can see two colors within a certain number of points of one another, you are designated a secondary color (purple, orange, or green). One's ability to see color determines everything, from one's employment to one's marriage prospects, leading to cutthroat competition to ensure that one's family rises through the perception ranks. For if one is Grey and sees no color at all, one is condemned to a life of servitude and menial labor. Most of the characters in Shades of Grey see only one (sometimes two) colors; anything of another color that has not been artificially enhanced through the application of distilled pigment appears grey. Also, they can't see in the dark at all.
Weird hierarchies are a hallmark of dystopian novels, as are the mystery-shrouded origins of said hierarchy. Shades of Grey is no exception. Something Happened a long time ago, and ever since then, the world has been ruled by a book of occasionally relevant, sometimes obscure, and often ridiculous Rules that dictate everything from the necessity of team sports to the sanctity of queues to the banning of spoon production (spoons become a hot commodity as a result). Such orderly societies inevitably produce discontents, and Eddie Russett, the protagonist, is very emblematic of the accidental revolutionary who pops up throughout the dystopian genre. Much like Winston Smith in 1984, Eddie is very much invested in the social order; he is desperate to marry up-color into the Oxbloods, an old family that controls a large string empire in addition to possessing an impressive Red pedigree. When a childish prank gets him sent to the far reaches of Chromatacia with a humiliating assignment (conducting a chair census), he meets a number of individuals who turn his view of the orderly society upside down. Havoc ensues.
I can't say much more without giving the whole thing away, so I'll stop here. I can't wait for the next installment to come out next year, and I highly recommend this book. 5 out of 5 stars.