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