Fforde’s “Shades of Grey” brings new colors to the dystopian novel

Natalie Schermer

Imagine a world without color, a world of black and white and all the grays in between. Then imagine you can only see one color — everything else is gray. This is Eddie Russett’s world.

Eddie lives in a colortocracy, where most people can only see one color and your social rank is determined by which color you can see. As a Red, Eddie is next to last in the color rankings — the higher your color is on the spectrum, the higher your social rank, all the way to Purple. Reds are only above the lowest of the low: Greys, who can’t see any color at all. The Greys are outcasts, manual laborers who do all the dirty work in society.

Eddie is a bit of a goody-two-shoes. While most everybody around him will do anything to move up in the world within their spectrum, Eddie is content to obey the rules (of which there are many, including a requirement for each city to put on two plays a year and a ban on manufacturing spoons) and do his job. Until he finds himself sent to a remote town to take a chair census, where he meets Jane. Jane is a Grey who’s fed up with the system and, with her insight, Eddie starts to see where things just don’t line up — and uncover some strange mysteries in the process.

“Shades of Grey” is a new universe for author Jasper Fforde. I’m an ardent fan of his Thursday Next books, so this one had a lot to live up to, but Fforde met the challenge admirably. Fforde’s world-building in “Shades of Grey” is perhaps the most impressive thing about the book. From the first page, you’re immersed in this universe in the best way possible: where you’re not quite sure what’s going on but there’s no way you’re going to stop reading. Nothing is explained, but the information is dropped here and there, and you figure it out as you go along. It’s overwhelming and confusing and completely absorbing.

One of the things that’s never explained — nobody knows, really — is why color perception is limited. It’s implied that it’s an after-effect of the Something-That-Happened, some type of apocalyptic event long in the past. The post-apocalyptic world and overhanging, controlling government lends a dystopian tone to the novel: Eddie and Jane’s fight against the colortocracy brings to mind Montag and Clarissa in “Fahrenheit 451,” or Winston and Julia in “1984.” The whole book is sort of “Brave New World” crossed with the whimsy of Roald Dahl and the wit of Douglas Adams. It’s the same whimsy we’ve seen in Fforde’s earlier books, but “Shades of Grey” has a more serious feel overall.

The book closes with quite a few loose ends — it’s not the most satisfying of endings and it’s made even less so because of how completely immersive it is. Luckily, there are two sequels planned, but they’re unfortunately still without release dates. So pick up “Shades of Grey, ” but be warned — you won’t want to stop and at some point, you’ll be forced to.