Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

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Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A treatise on modern history and current society hidden a totally silly, gloriously realised fantasy.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General
ISBN: 978-0340963036

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Sometimes with authors you just don't know what you've been missing. Other times you do. Jasper Fforde has long been on my catch-up list. Snippets of Thursday Next and reviews and interviews were enough to convince me I had to get to know this work.

My chance finally came with the first in a completely new series: Shades of Grey.

The first instalment is called the Road to High Saffron and that, as much as anything else, is what makes one suspect that we are in England. It is an England far into the future however. It is some 500 years after the Something That Happened to change the world as we know it. There are many clues in the book as to what the Something might have been, but no answers. The characters do not know what the Something was, nor whether knowing will make life better or worse. Most of them don't even think about it at all.

The impact of the Something was to wipe out the basis for the then current civilisation. Since it happened, there have been a number of leapbacks which have steadily made ancient technology, pre-Epiphany technology, more and more proscribed. Suggestions abound that this has been for political rather than practical reasons.

The Something wasn't purely political though. One outcome is very physical. Most people can only see one very narrow range of natural colour. Red. Or blue. Green. Or Yellow. Purple maybe. Or orange. The degree to which they can determine even that colour in the natural light spectrum also varies. Which colour they can detect, and in what degree, determines their whole life. It dictates who they can and cannot marry; it determines the level of power and influence they may achieve. In some circumstances it prescribes their future professions.

For such a society to function there must be two things: total and ultimate control by the powers that be, and a subhuman (or at least sub-civilised) workforce to do the dirty work. These are the Greys. Those with no colour designation: allegedly also without colour perception. They live in their own ghettoes, by their own rules, but they are controlled by the state which forces them to work to support society at large.

This is the world in which we meet Eddie Russet. In need of humility after a college prank he is being banished to East Carmine on the outer fringes in order to conduct an utterly pointless chair census. As it happens, this deporting is softened by virtue of the fact that his father will be travelling with him. Russet senior is a Swatchman – a healer by use of colour. He is being sent not on a punishment posting, but to temporarily replace the Swatchman of East Carmine who has just been found dead in unusual circumstances.

Strange events begin to occur even before they get to the new village, not the least of which is Eddie falling in love with a girl he sees but briefly as they attend an unexpected death in a paint shop en route. Jane, for she it quickly becomes evident is the object of his attraction, she of the retroussé nose and severe right hook, turns out to be the Russetts' servant girl in their new abode. This can only spell trouble.

Jane, naturally, is a Grey. Not the lowest of the low – that would be the Riffraff, the legendary feral people that live beyond the outer markers – but as low as it is possible to get in polite society.

What was she doing in the paint shop? More to the point, how did she get there? And back again in so short a time? And who exactly was it that died… and why?

Add that to the mysterious death of the Carmine Swatchman and you have the basis of the story: a classic murder mystery. Who died? Whodunnit? Whydunnit? Howdunnit? And, most perplexingly of all, what is the link between the victims?

Of course Eddie will set out to investigate.

Not intentionally. Intentionally he just wants to serve his time, go home, marry upstream into the string factory empire of the Oxbloods. Falling in love with Jane, falling foul of the local charming con-merchantry, meeting the apocryphal man, and a pretty severe hockey match are just some of the things that will change is mind.

Of course it is all frivolous and fantastic. It is silly and full of extended metaphor, and it is an utter delight. Shades of Grey is the kind of book that you know you will read again because, just like the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett, you know you didn't get all of the jokes first time around.

Much of the humour is focused on the basic premise of the chromo-centric world. Utter despair would result if everyone lived in a monochrome world even if the two colours were not black and white. The state has therefore instituted Universal Colour. A national network of pumped through colour based on the standard CYM spectrum (cyan, yellow, magenta for those who don't read their print cartridges), false colour that everyone can see. Of course the system fails on occasions with interesting results.

There is more to Shades of Grey however. It is an Animal Farm for our time. It looks at modern society with all of its technological advancement and the risks that lie within it. It looks at power and how it is maintained. It considers our history – the great leapbacks are surely reference to the Great Leap Forward. The controls are Orwellian in their nature, which in their turn merely reflected the world as it was. That these resonate today shows that nothing has greatly changed. It considers what we are doing to the planet, and what in a thousand years or so might remain of that, of us and our modern lives. Books of course, are severely restricted. Maps have all but vanished. And there is a strange prohibition on the manufacture of new spoons.

The best running joke of all does not lie, as one might at first suspect, in The Rules. Each chapter begins with one of these. They are quoted throughout. They are the word of Munsell. (Sample random quote: Unnecessary sharpening of pencils constitutes a waste of public resources and will be punished as appropriate.) No, the best joke is in the Loopholery. The method and means by which the Rules are circumvented. Loopholery is a recognised science, and a rich vein of satire.

The world Fforde has created in Shades of Grey is colourful beyond description.

The plot is reminiscent of the interwar yarns of boys own escapades – communal dining and enforced sport make it easy to think that you're back in Greyfriars – with Jane added to give a Modesty Blaise touch (or maybe just a 'Jane' touch for those old enough to remember?). It rattles along at a reasonable pace, given that we know from the outset it will only cover four days in its 400 pages. There are enough clues and red herrings to keep you guessing, and the good guys / bad guys are so easily determined.

The real enjoyment though is definitely in the setting and the sniping at the real world. Can't wait for volume two.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: If you like this you're probably already a Terry Pratchett fan, but if not why not start with the Amazing Maurice...

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