Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Review - Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey

Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron by Jasper Fforde
Published by: Viking
Book Provided by Viking
Publication Date: December 29th, 2009
Format: Hardcover, 390 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Edward Russett lives in a very organized and hierarchical society. What color you can see is everything, creating color castes, from the regal purples to the proletarian greys. Eddie is a red living in a green world. Eddie has upset the balance of good behavior and polity by playing a prank on a purple, Bertie Magenta, son of Jade-under-Lime's purple prefect. But he also has dangerous notions on how to improve queuing. To atone for his error and gain some humility he is being sent to the fringes of polite society to conduct a pointless chair census. His father, a Swatchman, who is, for all intents and purposes, a doctor, is accompanying him to East Carmine, to fill in for their recently deceased Swatchman, Robin Ochre. Little does Eddie realize what is about to happen to him could change everything. At a stop over at Vermillion on the way to East Carmine, Eddie fails to see the last rabbit, but saves a grey illegally wrongspotting as a purple and is accosted by a girl with a very retrousse nose who is unaccountably rude and in danger of being sent to reboot to learn some manners. Eddie can't help being intrigued. On the train ride to their final destination Eddie is bullied around by a green and then befriends a yellow, Travis Canary, on the run from reboot and offering hits of lime, the best euphoric color. But he has not had his last run in with nasty types, the yellow working the train station, Bunty McMustard, is just the first in a nasty streak of yellow that runs through the red streets of East Carmine.

Nothing interesting happens in East Carmine, so a new Swatchman and his son sure cause a lot of excitement. From Eddie's new best friend, the shyster Tommo, trying to place him in the "reds" marriage market, to the prefects demanding respect and Eddie's return ticket to Jade-under-Lime, to a green Lincoln swatch illegal drugs market, to suspicions of the old Swatchman being murdered, to the mysterious naked man who lives in his house that no one can openly admit to seeing, to the new surly maid, who happens to be Jane, the girl with the retrousse nose, his arrival has caused an avalanche of excitement to this small border town. But will Eddie, with his unwelcome queuing suggestions, be able to stay out of trouble? Can he avoid the everyday dangers of lightning, man-eating Yatveo plants and swans, while staying on the right side of Tommo and the yellow prefects son Courtland Gamboge? Plus what if he decides to abandon his half promise to the bitchy princess Constance Oxblood back home and make a go of it with Jane? That's if she doesn't kill him first...

But fate seems to have a plan... and it hinges on Eddie's insatiable and unsuitable curiosity. Eddie won't let go of the wrongspotting grey from Vermillion. As he starts to investigate, his life becomes more and more a target for danger. From Yatveos to Courtland to Jane, he is not safe. But on an expedition to Rusty Hill, the town abandoned due to the Mildew outbreak that killed the entire populace, Eddie starts to learn the world is not as it seems. Behind the veneer of order and manners, there may be a darker agenda and secrets of the past, before "The Something That Happened", that the Colortocracy doesn't what the people to know about. And the appearance of a National Color representative, Matthew Gloss, might be more than just as an examiner for the Ishihara that the 21 year olds will be taking for their final color placements, Eddie among them. But after a fateful game of Hockyball, Eddie is branded a liar and agrees to head an expedition to High Saffron... a place where no one has ever returned from. But even if Eddie returns, his future seems bleak, and the toppling of a corrupt government, nigh on impossible, unless he has Jane by his side.

The first book in a new series from Jasper Fforde, the author of the Thursday Next and Nursery Crime Series, is sure to be another hit. From the man who created a world where characters in books police their own plots, we are treated to another inventive story, this time centering on color. If you strip away all the color theory and color related aspects, you are left with a very basic, but solid, post apocalyptic, post something that happened world, akin to the best dystopian novels, the likes of Orwell's 1984. An evil, unseen government is trying to keep their people in line by separation, isolation, ignorance and strict rules enforced by fear, even if the rules are more geared toward maintaining politeness than anything else. Enter plucky and likable Eddie, who has notions above his station and falls for a girl who hates his guts all the while butting heads with the local authorities and asking a few too many questions. While I'd read and like a book like that, it's all the levels Fforde places on top of this simple structure that make this book memorable and one of the best books I've read this past year. Of course, being in the arts, I could have a bias for color theory based jokes, but even with just a simple grasp of color gleaned from your box of Crayola's as a kid, will make this book that much more multilayered and enjoyable.

The color jokes run the gamut from the dictator's, I mean leader's, name being Munsell, the creator of the first workable and adapted color theory with the naming of hue, value and chroma, to the test for their color placement, the Ishihara, being the test for color blindness in our world. But it's not just these, or the jokes of color pipes being upgraded from RGB to CMYK, sure to send any graphic designer into fits of hysterical laughter, but the way Fforde seamlessly integrates it into the plot and has color as the lynch pin of this society. Plus just the thought of how color has become so dominate a force is intriguing. How humans have somehow evolved so that they can only see specific color frequencies and have lost the ability to have their pupils dilate is something I hope will be answered in the next book in this series. I wonder if something happened to human's brains so that color, which is a function of our brains and technically doesn't exist without the brain interpreting the data objects send, can't be properly processed. It's an interesting dilemma and I really look forward to finding out what Fforde's explanation for this phenomenon is.

But, as with any post apocalyptic society or even parallel society, it's the mystery of how our world became this world. Trying to work out exactly how things evolved, and not just the physical changes, but other more significant ones. Like how did swans become large and such a danger? Why is there such a fear of lightning? Who knew rhododendrons would be such a threat? Also the little jokes where we know what things were, but that they have morphed into something totally different, like the titles of the mandatory musical theater adaptations being slightly off kilter... "Red Side Story" anyone? Or how they assume the RISK board game is not only a map of how the earth was, but of the color distribution of the inhabitants. Then of course you encounter the deeper mysteries of the plot that keep you reading late into the night. What really happened to Robin Ochre? What does reboot really entail? Because if someone told me they were sending me on the night train to Emerald City, I know I'd be nervous. Also the discovery of what is really going on with Mildew and the still looming question of what about the spoons makes me content but at the same time desperately wanting the next volume. I can not wait for the next installment, and if it lives up to this first book, it will be well worth the wait... even if I'd prefer not to wait.


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