The first book in the planned Shades of Grey trilogy, The Road to High Saffron, reveals that Jasper Fforde is capable of more profound writing than I previously thought. I’ve read almost every other book Fforde has written, mostly comical books in which the characters waltz in and out of other books. The Thursday Next series is one of my favorite series written in recent years. It’s funny and intelligent, but it’s not what I would call deep. Shades of Grey shares some of the same zaniness and wit, but the ending is one of the most moving things I’ve read recently.
The Shades of Grey series takes place in what Fforde described as a time long enough after an apocalyptic event that people don’t really know what happened, but it’s talked about. Consequently, the event is only ever referred to as Something that Happened. It’s up to the reader to try and piece together what happened. In the world the STH created, people can only see certain colors. As I read, I tried to imagine what it would be like to see only shades of red or blue or yellow and failed. The characters in this book can only see certain colors and what they can see determines their jobs and their place in society. The people at the bottom of the totem pole are Greys, who don’t see color at all. On top of all this, the society is ruled by a Byzantine collection of rules, purported to be the rules created by the original founder, that lock everyone into a rigidly polite Collective. Those who disobey or question or even try to innovate, are punished. This world is not as grim as the last few sentences might make it sound. This dystopic science fiction, but there’s enough humor and absurdity to leaven it.
The book is narrated by Eddie Russett, a young man who is on the cusp of joining the adult world. Once he takes his color test, which determines how much color he can see, he’ll take his place in society. His life takes a detour when the prefect, like a mayor and sheriff combined, sends him to the edges of the Collective’s world to learn humility by conducting a chair census. Once he arrives in East Carmine, Eddie tries to fit in, but things start to go bad for him once he stumbles on to a mystery. First, he encounters a dead man with a false identity, then a conspiracy involving stolen medicine, and then Eddie starts to question why things are the way they are. A series of oddities and a string of bad luck leads Eddie to volunteer to go into the wilds of High Saffron where the last pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
The first two thirds of the book are interesting, but most of this part is full of explanations of the color code and the rules and incidents that illustrate how different this world is from ours. It’s very interesting, and I was hooked, but the best part of this book is the ending, when everything comes to a head. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that there really is a vast conspiracy. The heartbreaking part comes when Eddie takes his test and realizes that he’s not allowed to marry the girl he loves. I realized it at the same time Eddie did, and I felt terrible for him. It’s a testament to Fforde’s ability as a writer that I felt such a connection to his goofy but honorable narrator.
I am really looking forward to the next books in this series. I’m so glad that Fforde is being published. There are only a handful of writers that I’ve encountered that have such a wildly creative streak. I am often astounded at what Fforde comes up with, as well as delighted.
Update, 8 July 2017: As far as I can tell, no new entries in this series have come out.