Shades of Grey
by Jasper Fforde
Viking Penguin, 2009
A most marvelous book -- a dystopian science fiction/Ffordian adventure, well up to the standards of Fforde's earlier works.
Fforde has a gift for taking an amazingly unbelievable situation and slowly adding puzzle pieces until things fit together. Unfortunately, this writing style limits what I am willing to give away in a review, as I do not want to spoil any of the wonderful surprises, and I don't want to overwhelm potential readers with inanities that I am unwilling to resolve. But here's what I can tell you:
The story is set in the far future, probably around 2800, and society has devolved, as it always does, into a dystopian society with too many rules, a strict adherence to social classes, and a warped understanding of those shreds of history not yet forgotten. Society is based around color blindness, or more specifically, what colors one can see; Purples are quite high status, Greys, as you might expect, the lowest of the low, and our hero, Eddie Russett, comfortably middle-class, about half-way up the Red scale.
We start out with a limited view of an Alice-in-Wonderland-like world, where rabbits and spoons are very special, where death by mildew is a constant threat, although perhaps not as constant as the ever-present dangers of man-eating swans and lightning. These are merely background, however, as the story is really about how Eddie has to travel to the hinterlands to take a chair census.
Or actually, as we slowly find out, the main story is about Eddie discovering that there's a bit more to life than just following the rules and marrying up-spectrum. It turns out that the chair census is not quite what it seems, and that there's more to the spoon shortage than meets the eye. Of course, there's the moralistic bit about Greys being humans too, and a good bit of inter-color intrigue, with backstabbing and beige-market dealings and not a few attempted murders. We learn about the Previous (although never as much as we would like), and a disturbing amount about the present (more than we would like, really).
I cannot do the spirit or style of the book justice. If you have read The Eyre Affair (and you should), then you will have an idea of what to expect - high quality humor and nicely framed ideas written about in a way that makes the story continuously more serious and more amusing at the same time; chaos that builds indefinitely while making more and more sense... And a very good story to go along with all of this.
As you might have guessed, I highly recommend this book. Particularly if you are a fan of dystopias, silliness, and/or science fiction mysteries. However, if you find this review off-putting, I would recommend starting with a lighter book, the aforementioned The Eyre Affair; Shades of Grey is not a sequel, but takes the twisty view of narrative and reality introduced there and applies it with a bit more intensity.
The sequel to Shades of Grey will be Painting by Numbers, and is expected out in 2013 (update: still not out! Maybe 2019?). Be warned, Shades of Grey ends with the promise of great things to come, and the wait for a sequel may cause severe withdrawal symptoms. But it's worth it.
The Shades of Grey Website.