If anyone has cause to curse the appearance of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, it’s Jasper Fforde
Although similarly named, Shades of Grey (and published almost three years ago in 2010) could not be further in content from the Twilight inspired, bondage fuelled adventures of E.L. James’s trilogy. Technically a dystopia, Fforde’s book is set in the former British Isles some few hundred years after an unknown event, pleasingly referred to as ‘The Something that Happened’, changed life as we know it. However, Fforde’s distinctive, humorous voice combined with his affable (if naïve) hero’s commentary on the niggling little details of his life prevent the plot from sinking into the typical mire of dystopian despair.
Eddie Russett navigates his way through a rigid society determined by perception of colour. The history of this new world is handled with a light touch, using Eddie’s discoveries and observations as he moves from the cosmopolitan Jade Under Lime to the wilds of East Carmine as opportunities to explain the world and to propel the plot. For reasons that are not explained, humanity has evolved (or devolved depending on your perspective) to have an extremely limited, genetically determined ability to perceive colour. The majority of people can only perceive a single colour, and a limited amount at that.
In this world, colour rules all: it can cure diseases, is highly prized and determines not only your standing in society but your children’s as well. Pockets of the world are artificially coloured to allow viewing by all, but natural colour (and the ability to see a lot of your particular shade) determines your chose of career and even your marriage prospects. As a ‘Red’ perceiver Eddie is low enough down the social scale to be bossed around by the ‘Green’, ‘Yellow’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Purple’, but higher than the servant class of the Greys. In this position, Eddie is the perfect candidate to shake up years of indoctrinated thinking.
While following the hallmarks of traditional dystopia with its restrictive set of rules determining every aspect of existence, from the mundane spoon shortage to the life determining Ishihara ceremony, Shades of Grey is at heart a mystery. The book opens with our hero waiting to die and lamenting his curiosity after stumbling across a secret that he doesn’t fully understand. Fforde takes his time, slowly unfolding his world as our unwitting hero becomes exposed to undisclosed truths and embroiled in plots that go over his head. The reveals are satisfying, if a little predictable, with layers of seemingly unrelated details slotting neatly together just when Fforde wants them to, and not a second before.
The journey is fun with some great characters. The Grey servant Jane is a beacon of open subversion while the selfish, racketeer Tommo is surprisingly endearing. From the last rabbit to the carnivorous Yateveo, Fforde clearly enjoyed himself while creating his world and his enthusiasm effortlessly sweeps his readers along with him.
Overall an entertaining read and a promising opening to a mooted trilogy, which no doubt will further confuse internet search engines and potential erotica readers alike. If by any chance, you have been directed to this page from a search for the previously mentioned trilogy, I urge you to give up that *ahem* quest and instead read Fforde’s witty and entertaining novel. The rest of you will probably enjoy it as well.