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Jasper Fforde – Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron

August 30, 2010

102. Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron by Jasper Fforde (2009)
Shades of Grey, Book 1

Length: 390 pages
Genre: Dystopian science fiction

Started: 19 August 2010
Finished: 22 August 2010

Where did it come from? Birthday present from a friend.
Why do I have it? I’ve enjoyed all of Fforde’s previous books that I’ve read, so was excited to read his new one too.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 12 March 2010.

If no one can see
color, then I guess grey hairs
aren’t such a big deal.

Summary: In Fforde’s dystopian future, centuries after the mysterious Something That Happened, society is very rigidly stratified by color. But not the color of your skin or the color of your clothes, but rather the color that you can see, and how well you can see it – as decreed by the Rules, the Word of Munsell. With the exception of rare and expensive univisually-pigmented items, most people can only see items of a single chroma. Eddie Russett is a Red, the lowest Chroma on the heirarchy – although not as low as the Greys, who cannot see any natural color at all. He and his father have been sent to the town of East Carmine on the fringes of civilized society: his father as a replacement Chromatician (doctor), and Eddie to conduct a chair census as a lesson in humility following a school prank. On their way, they stumble over a strange anomaly: the death of a man who was pretending to be a color that he wasn’t – a serious crime – and the sudden appearance of Jane, a rebellious and opinionated Grey. Eddie’s highest ambition had been to return home and marry his fickle but wealthy semi-fiancée, Constance Oxblood, but he finds himself impossibly taken with Jane, and increasingly convinced that there is something strange going on in East Carmine… and possibly in the Collective as a whole.

Review: The inside of Jasper Fforde’s mind must be a fascinating place… the worlds that pour out of it onto the page certainly are. The world of the Colortocracy is every bit as detailed and every bit as imaginative as his literary-centric Thursday Next world, if not more so, but it revolves around a completely different premise and offers totally new worlds to explore.

While the upside reading a book with such a unique and detailed world is clear – imagination-firing and fascinating are two adjectives that come to mind – there are some downsides to it as well. Most dystopian novels follow roughly similar rules regarding the stratification of the haves and have-nots, and although the general stratification schema of Fforde’s Colortocracy feels familiar to readers of dystopian fiction, not much else does. Fforde’s worldbuilding is so unique, so complex, and doled out in such tiny chunks, without any noticeable exposition, that it took at least half of the book just to get the readers established in the world. The result is that the pacing feels a little off; for the first half of the book I was reading closely, trying to assimilate each new tidbit about how the world worked that Fforde let drop, but it seemed like nothing much was actually happening, and I would have been hard-pressed to point to where the plot was going.

The good news, however, is that all of the long set-up totally pays off in the end. Once Fforde’s sure you’ve got your feet on the ground, the plot takes off like nobody’s business, and it turns out that a surprising number of those seemingly insignificant details that populate the first half of the book aren’t so insignificant after all. (Even the details that aren’t significant plot-wise are wonderfully clever, and subtly done – for example, “brown” is casually used as a swearword, presumably due to its implication of indiscriminate color mixing – and I felt inordinately clever every time I picked up on one of the clues or references.) There are some plot twists and reveals that were truly surprising but still organic to what had come before, and once I was engaged in the story there was no getting me out… and I find that I’m still thinking about the world, and the story, and the characters, even after enough time that such things would normally have long since fled my mind.

Two quibbles, though. First, as a biologist, I couldn’t help thinking about the physiological basis of how the different color visions would work. Even ignoring the idea of univisual pigments that everyone can see, the notion of unichromatic vision doesn’t make sense to me, given what I know about the way human cone cells work. But, as with so much science fiction, I will let that slide and suspend my disbelief in the service of an interesting story.

My second quibble: 2014?!? The sequel’s not coming out until 2014?!? That’s a travesty. The ending is so good, and just enough of a cliffhanger that I want more, and I want it now. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I was initially unconvinced, but this book eventually sucked me in and made me a convert. If you like either dystopian fiction or Fforde’s brand of inventive, slightly off-the-wall worldbuilding, then Shades of Grey is worth your time – and your close attention.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Official Book Website, which is brilliantly done.

Other Reviews: Coffee Spoons, Desperado Penguin, Grasping for the Wind, Kay’s Bookshelf, Presenting Lenore, Steph & Tony Investigate
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 21: “Even now, if you took me half drowned out of the yateveo, sat me on a log and said, “Listen here, Eddie old chap, what exactly was it that you found so attractive?” I would simply waffle abou her small, almost perfectly upswept, retroussé nose, and you’d consider me insane and put me back.” – (esp. of the nose) turned up.
  • p. 114: “He was found eight months later a mile beyond the Outer Markers by Greys on coppicing duty.” – to trim back (trees or bushes) to form a coppice. (In retrospect, I knew the word, but it was one more bit of “things are different in the future, huh?” that didn’t immediately make sense to me in context.)

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2010 12:04 pm

    How funny! I posted my review of this today, too! I had the same reaction to it – initially I was very unsure, and now I’m absolutely on pins and needles for the next installment.

    Nice review! Fforde’s mind must be a very interesting place, for sure!

    • August 30, 2010 12:37 pm

      Jessica – I didn’t even look at the dates… too funny! But it had already cropped up in the Book Blogs Search Engine, so that’s good! ;)

  2. August 30, 2010 12:11 pm

    2014?? Really???

    Now that is a disappointment, by then I will probably forget everything that happened in this book :(

    Right now this is my favorite Fforde, so I am very looking forward to the sequel(s). But 2014…

    • August 30, 2010 12:38 pm

      Kay – I am trying to be optimistic about it and think “well, I’ll get to (have to) re-read the first one in a few years.” :)

  3. August 30, 2010 2:29 pm

    I plan on reading this author soon. I think I’ll try the Thursday Next series first.

    • September 5, 2010 11:01 am

      Ladytink – The Thursday Next series is also excellent, and has its newest book coming out a lot sooner than 2014.

  4. August 30, 2010 2:34 pm

    Oh, this looked so good. I quite enjoyed The Eyre Affair, but mystery series aren’t my cuppa (although when I want one, I reach for Fforde). I’m glad you enjoyed it, because you make me want to read it right now!

    • September 5, 2010 11:03 am

      Omni – I guess the Thursday Next books technically are mysteries, but I never think of them like that, since there’s so much else going on. I hope you get the chance to pick this one up!

  5. August 30, 2010 11:37 pm

    I’m a big fan of Fforde as well and I’m looking forward to getting a copy of this sometime soon. The premise alone is making me giddy. Add Fforde’s hyperactive imagination and now I’m close to leaving the house and searching for this in my favorite bookstores.

    • September 5, 2010 11:04 am

      Lightheaded – Hee! Hyperactive imagination is in full force here; just about every detail in his worldbuilding contains some out-there element.

  6. August 31, 2010 10:52 pm

    I completely agree with you that Fforde’s brain must be fascinating. I haven’t read this one yet and now that I know how long I’ll have to wait for two, I think I’ll keep putting it off.

    • September 5, 2010 11:05 am

      Trisha – That’s probably a good idea; I can’t say that I wish I would have waited to read this one, but I can say that I wish the next book was coming way sooner!

  7. September 1, 2010 1:55 am

    2014? Man, that’s a looooong wait…\

    I’m glad to hear the second half is so awesome. I tried to read this a few months ago, but ended up abandoning it prior to the 100-page mark because I just wasn’t sure it would be worth the time commitment. (It took me hours and hours and hours to get to, like, page 86). I’ll have to see if I can get it from the library here.

    • September 5, 2010 11:07 am

      Memory – I can understand; there is a lot of initial investment required just to get your footing in the world. Maybe it will go quicker on a re-read? But in any case, once things start happening, they start happening like crazy.

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