In the world of Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde‘s newest novel, your social standing is partly decided by your ability to perceive color: most people can only see one color, and some people are more color-sensitive, allowing them to see their color better than others. In this “Colortocracy,” the Greys — who can see no color at all — are the lowest class and little more than serfs, those who are most sensitive to their color become community leaders (or “precepts”), marriages are arranged to get the best possible color perception for the offspring, and inter-marriage by complimentary colors is strictly taboo.
Edward Russett is the son of a swatchman (a doctor who heals his patients by showing them specific shades of color) who is moving to a new community, situated on the Fringe of society, to replace a recently deceased swatchman. As he settles in, it gradually becomes clear that the village is filled with intrigue — including the mysterious circumstances of the previous swatchman’s death, and a young Grey girl who appears to be be more than she is.
As we learn more about the structure and history of the Colortocracy, it becomes increasingly clear that, despite Jasper Fforde’s typically cheerful style, this is a dystopia. A large part of the enjoyment of reading Shades of Grey is finding out how its society works, so I don’t want to give away too many details, but rest assured: it starts out interesting and unique, and gets better — but darker — as the story progresses.
If we graded novels just on the originality of the setting, Shades of Grey would be a 5 star book, but unfortunately that’s not the case. I felt that most of the characters had a cartoon-like quality to them, with the villains just a little too villainy, the heroes too heroic, and so on. The fact that they’re also conveniently color-coded made this even more apparent. In a nutshell, most of the characters in Shades of Grey have little or no depth and are mainly vehicles to move the plot along and illustrate aspects of the setting. The exception is our hero Edward Russett, who has a great subversive streak and a biting sense of humor which I really enjoyed.
Shades of Grey features some by now recognizable Jasper Fforde quirks, like the use of animals in unexpected contexts (e.g., dodos in the Thursday Next books, vicious swan attacks in Shades of Grey), and the alternative forms of mass entertainment that arise with the absence of TV (e.g., Rocky Horror Picture Show-like performances of Shakespeare in the former books, a morse-based underground radio in Shades of Grey). Literature buffs will once again have a blast rooting out all the subtle and not-so-subtle literary references and puns. Jasper Fforde also returns to poking fun at excessive bureaucracy in all its forms — in this case even starting out every chapter with a quotation from the quasi-religious book of rules the Colortocracy lives by. Finally, it’s great that, just like for the Thursday Next books, Jasper Fforde has once again provided an entire website with tons of extra information about Shades of Grey.
All in all, Shades of Grey is a good novel that, if anything, felt unbalanced to me. The setting is fantastic, but the characters are flat. The novel is at times hilarious, but the humor feels out of place in the dystopian setting. The novel is unique and never boring, but juggling these contrasts makes it almost uncomfortable to read. Still, I definitely want to find out more about the origins of the Colortocracy and am genuinely looking forward to Painting by Numbers, the next novel in the trilogy.