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Book Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

# Genre: Literary Fantasy, Adventure, Comic Fantasy
# Hardcover: 400 pages
# Publisher: Viking Adult
# Publication Date: December 29, 2009
# Language: English
# ISBN-10: 0670019631
# ISBN-13: 978-0670019632
# Author Website: Jasper Fforde

Color adds beauty to the world around us. Without green grass and blue sky all would be drab and grey. But what if our entire society were based on our perception of color? What if our social status was pre-determined by just how well we perceive a certain color? Jasper Fforde gives us just such a world in Shades of Grey.

Edward Russett is a Red, able to perceive a great deal of that color, but not much else. His life had been pretty normal up until he is sent to the Outer Fringes (along with his healer father) in order to conduct a chair census. Russett soon encounters Jane, a Grey, lowest tier on the social strata. But there is more to Jane than is readily apparent. Though a toe-the-line sort of fella, Russett’s involvement with Jane, and the strange behavior of the people of the Outer Fringes soon involves him in a world of mystery in a society that is extremely rigid. Jane and Edward discover the secret behind the abandoned town of High Saffron, the reason behind the rigid code of Munsell that orders their lives, and their own revolutionary fervor for effecting change.

Besides having a strangely spelled last name, Fforde is both a great humorist and a great writer. Though the world he creates is utterly strange, he eases the reader into the narrative carefully by using humor and punnery. The early part of Shades of Grey is extremely funny, best likened to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. But Fforde goes beyond entertaining with just humor and satire, creating a compelling narrative that explores one of the most basic facets of humanity, our curiosity.

Edward narrates the entire tale. This allows Fforde to carefully build his surreal world in coherent fashion so the reader is as comfortable in that world as Edward himself. Edward is a young, not yet considered a man, but still old enough to be savvy when he encounters events outside his usual experience. Edward becomes fascinating as he acts both really foolish and really clever, sometimes within the same scene. It makes him quite human and easy to identify with.

Jane is the archetypal strong-willed woman. But at the same time, she has some vulnerabilities, and it makes her rough and tough personality all the more attractive. Edward certainly falls under her spell, to quite humorous effect. Jane is the all-knowing one in this story, and a great deal of the story is involved with Edward trying to ease out her knowledge in bit-sixe nuggets.

Fforde also does something I don’t normally like, but that works out great here. He put the ending at the beginning. Even before we know who Edward is, we already know that Jane put got him caught by a carnivorous tree, and that the entire story is being told as he is being slowly digested. This plot structure adds some hilarity to the beginning, and places the reader immediately into a wondering mode that can’t help but draw you into the novel.

I do think that there is one inconsistency in Fforde’s story. Several times he mentions that the only color Edward can see is read, but then describes other colors that in theory, Edward should not be able to see. This seems inconsistent with the first claim, though there may be a logically explanation that is implied but not stated in the story.

Some readers will also be disappointed by the ending. Shades of Grey is the first in a trilogy, and it ends as one. Though some of the plot lines are wrapped up, there are several left open, and one in particular may disappoint in its incompleteness. As for me, all it has made me do is hunger to read more Fforde.

This is great fiction, and highly enjoyable for its complexity, its originality, and its humor. Fforde is a wonderful writer, a real pleasure to read, and Shades of Grey is as beautiful as it is funny. I highly recommend it. I, for one, am going to find more Jasper Fforde to read, as I have not found a book so wonderful to read since I first read David Eddings in middle school, and I am happy to give Fforde pride of place beside all the favorite reads on my bookshelf.