Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Posted by Simcha 8:28 PM, under | 3 comments

If you were able to only see one color, which color would you choose? Perhaps green, so that you can enjoy the crisp freshness of the grass or maybe blue, so that the vivid hue of the sky will always be visible to you. Or you may be unfortunate enough to only see gray and to forever live in a world with no color at all.

Edward Russett lives in a world where each person’s vision is limited to a single color and an individual’s social status is determined by that color which they are able to perceive. Those on the lower spectrum of the color chart must show obeisance to those above them, and the Greys, who can’t see any color at all, are universally despised, and doomed to toil as slaves for the higher hued.

There are also many strict, and often preposterous, laws governing this futuristic society, all of which are meant to prevent humanity from sliding back into the catastrophic ways of the Previous, from the long-gone pre-Epiphanic society. In order to help humanity remain on the straight path, a detailed list of laws and regulations was drawn up, governing every aspect of life and leaving little to chance or individual choice.

Yellows are permitted to break Rues in pursuit of Rule-breakers, but all Rules to be broken must be logged beforehand and countersigned by the Yellow prefects.

Approved words to be used in oaths and chastisements can be found in Annex 4 (permitted exclamations). All other cusses are strictly prohibited.

The cucumber and the tomato and both fruit; the avocado is a nut. To assist with the dietary requirements of vegetarians, on the first Tuesday of the month chicken is officially a vegetable.


Unfortunately, the production of spoons was not included as a permissible activity and therefore spoons have become one of the most valuable commodities, coveted by all. Rule breakers are fined demerits and after gaining a certain amount of demerits, individuals are sent off to be Rebooted, though no one is sure as to what that entails since the rebooted persons are never seen again.

Edward is a Red who has big plans to improve his family’s color standings by marrying the wealthy and purple hued Constance, if his father can come up with a tempting enough dowry. But Edward’s plans hit a snag when he is sent to the outer-fringe community of East Carmine to learn humility, as a punishment for pulling a prank.

It’s widely known that the fringe communities are barbaric, though Edward is shocked to discover how little regard for the rules they actually have there. There is cheating, and violence and even some You-Know going on between many of the town’s young men and women. In fact, there are a lot of strange incidents in this little town, most notably the sudden death of the town’s previous healer, which Edward suspects might involve some fowl play. And Edward’s natural curiosity won’t allow him to sit idly by when there may be a mystery afoot, especially if it involves the refreshingly violent Grey, Jane, who Edward finds himself drawn to, despite the fact that she keeps threatening to kill him.

The longer Edward stays in East Carmine the more secrets he stumbles upon which are better left hidden. But Edward’s nature leads him to seek the truth, even when the search can lead him down a dangerous path.

I am a big fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books and I have been really looking forward to reading Shades of Grey. Although it sounded very different his other books, I was eager to give it a try.

Shades of Grey starts off with a rather rambling explanation given by Edward as to how he eventually ends up falling in love with Jane and getting eaten by a tree, events which all begin with his trip to East Carmine. While this seemed to me like a pretty weak beginning to the book, once the story actually began I was quickly drawn in.

Shades of Grey was a fun and entertaining read full of the kind of ingenious concepts and wild ideas that I have come to expect from a Jasper Fforde novel. The humor is more subdued than in his other books, which is appropriate considering the dark undertone of the story, though it is clearly present. And while I did think the pace was a little too slow at times- as by the middle I was wishing for some action already- this didn't really bother me too much.

There was really only one issue that I had with Shades of Grey, though it is a pretty large one, and that is the main character, Edward. Actually, my problem is with both Edward and his father. I had quickly warmed up to both of these characters from the very start, attracted by their easy relationship with each other and their exchange of humorous banter. As we soon discover, in this world many parents view their children as little more than as a ticket to a higher social standing, and Edward’s comfortable and loving relationship with his father is actually unique.

I also really liked the fact that despite Edward’s innocent and guiltless personality, he is still strong enough to stand up for himself and resist being used by others. Immediately on arrival in East Carmine many of the locals approach Edward to ingratiate themselves or to put him in his place, but Edward stands his ground, refusing to give in to bullying or bribes.

But about half way through the book both Edward and his father seemed to change and deflate losing their animation and personalities. Edward’s father becomes a cardboard figure in the background and Edward’s actions are rarely accompanied by any thought or inner reflection, turning him into a shallow two-dimensional character that I had a hard time relating to or caring about. I was particularly bothered by how unaffected Edward is by certain events which should have been traumatic, strongly affecting his relationships with those around him. But instead Edward easily reconciles with those who have wronged him, which I found disturbing and highly unbelievable.

So while I really enjoyed reading Shades of Grey, it was a bit of a disappointment as well. Considering that Thursday Next is one of my favorite book characters, I was surprised at how negligently Fforde treated the characters of this book. Though I actually really liked how many of the female side characters in Shades of Grey turned out, so perhaps Fforde is just more skilled at creating female characters then males. But oddly enough, while generally this issue with character development would put me off the story as a whole, in this situation I really still enjoyed the rest of the book due to the wonderful and creative world building, though it would have been so much more effective if Edward had been better executed.

3 comments:

Thanks for the review! I've been interested about Shades of Grey! I haven't read any of his books, but now I'll add the Thursday Next series on my list!

I won this book in a contest. I'm only on page 87 of the read. Sadly, I put it aside for other books. Though I do plan to pick it up again. I actually feel guilty for not enjoying it as much as I should since it was a wonderful gift.

Thanks for the review. I'll have to work my way toward the center. Perhaps I'll change my mind about it. :)

Aleksandra: You should definitely read The Thursday Next books. They are awesome and so much fun. Though I do want to warn you that for some reason I always have a hard time getting into them in the beginning of each book.

Reena: I really enjoyed Shades of Grey that I have read reviews from readers who had a hard time getting into it. I think you really have to appreciate the world building and magic system to enjoy this book as the characters themselves are not so compelling, in my opinion at least.

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