February 02, 2010

BOOKS: Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde (2009)

If you've read Fforde's Thursday Next series (about the police officers for responsible for what happens inside novels and other fiction) or his Nursery Crimes series (hard-boiled detective stories set in the world of nursery rhymes), then you know that he packs more geniune inventiveness and novel ideas into ten pages than most novelists give us in a lifetime.

The premise this time is that humanity has largely lost the ability to see color. It is implied, though never conclusively stated, that this is our own world, several hundred years down the line; there was, Fforde tells us, Something That Happened to cause this change, but it Happened long enough ago that no one can remember exactly what it was. Whatever the Something That Happened was, it caused a lot of other odd changes, too; swans are now greatly feared predators, and there's a perpetual shortage of spoons.

In this society, one's social standing is based entirely on what colors one can see and how well one sees them. The Purples and Reds are the social elite; the Greys are the servants and menial laborers. Our hero is Eddie Russett, who is about to turn 20 and take the color perception test that will determine much of the rest of his life. He and his father have been relocated to the podunk village of East Carmine, where he is quickly caught up in the local social politics; he may even be pushed into an arranged marriage with the hateful Violet deMauve. (Her family is slipping towards the Blue end of Purple, and desperately needs the bloodlines of a strong Red like Eddie to keep from slipping entirely into Blue.) But the woman Eddie finds himself drawn to, much to his own horror, is a Grey named Jane.

Shades of Grey starts off as a light, breezy comedy, but by the end, Jane has revealed to Eddie some of the darker secrets of their world, and the novel is dealing with substantial ethical and moral issues. That's not to say that it ever becomes heavy or ponderous; Fforde has too light a touch for that. I'm already eager to read the next volume in the series.

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