Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Shades of Grey

The year in fantasy started for me when I walked into the bookstore and saw Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey sitting proudly on the new arrivals shelf.

The largely white cover looks a little bland when compared to the riotously colourful jackets for the most recent editions of Fforde’s Thursday Next series. On a second look Shades of Grey’s cover has a few splashes of colour; red, yellow, green and blue, the rest of the images have numbers in them, like an old paint by numbers picture and that is a tantalising hint as to what lays within.

Shades of Grey is a complete fresh start for Fforde, it is set in an entirely new world and has no characters from either the Thursday Next series or Nursery Crimes. There are however some of the quirky elements readers have come to expect from Jasper Fforde. Seemingly mundane and easily obtainable objects and substances are in short supply (jam, especially loganberry and spoons), made up fauna and flora abound (rhinosaurs and the yateveo, a particularly vicious and voracious flesh eating plant) and strange hybrid sports are popular (unicycle polo and hockeyball, although to be honest I couldn’t tell the difference between hockeyball and field hockey, including the violence.)

The setting is a post apocalyptic Britain some 500 years after Something that Happened. The residents are kept in a largely oppressed state due to a large number of bureaucratic, ridiculous and ever changing rules. People are classed according to how much of a particular colour they can see, with Greys being the lowest on the totem pole and fit for only menial labour. There are hints of Orwell’s 1984 and Big Brother, the strictly enforced colour vision system and the practice of ‘rebooting’ those who don’t fit in has echoes of Aldous Huxley. Somehow amongst all this unpleasantness Fforde still finds humour, in tone Shades of Grey is far more satirical than any of his previous work and there is an edge that has not been present before. He also takes careful aim and fires off barbs at elements of our own society such as: eBay, Facebook and texting.

The hero of this piece is Eddie Russett, an inoffensive young man with a better than average Red perception who has dreams of marrying the beautiful and powerful Constance Oxblood, heiress to a string empire and maybe even becoming a Prefect. Eddie’s life is changed forever when he’s sent to the rather sinister outer town of East Carmine and meets the strong willed Jane, a Grey with the cutest retrousse nose he has ever seen. Eddie’s search to find the answers to questions he should not have asked is gripping and compulsively readable.

If you’ve read and enjoyed Jasper Fforde before then Shades of Grey will not disappoint. If you haven’t encountered this marvelously talented writer before then you should also read Shades of Grey, you will not regret the experience. A word of warning, this is the first book in a trilogy, it’s mostly self contained, but you will want to read on for the further adventures of Eddie Russett and the ‘colour world’ that he inhabits.

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