Color. Look around. Note the shades of greens and blues out the window. The yellow and orange threads in a carpet. Now imagine all but one shade gone. You can only see one natural color. Everything else comes through to you through artificial paints, as if Ted Turner’s colorization had taken over the rest of the palette. And that’s only if your town can afford to keep the artificial color pumps on.
Welcome to Jasper Fforde’s new novel, Shades of Grey. Since an unexplained incident sometime in the distant past, almost everyone in the world can see only one color. People are ranked according to which color they can see and how much of it they can see. The Greys see no color and are at the bottom of the caste system. Reds are just above them, with higher status and power granted the further along the color spectrum you are. Signs tell us the univision world was once very similar to, or perhaps was, our world: Picasso and Vermeer paintings still exist.
At the start of the novel — or rather, right after the main character tells readers he’s being digested by a tree — Eddie Russet accompanies his father to an outlying village with little synthetic color. As the village prefects explain their looser interpretations of the color laws, readers get tantalizing glimpses of the rules that govern Fforde’s latest world. Great Leapbacks have erased most technology, etiquette must be followed, and spoons are incredibly important to one’s self worth.
All Eddie wants is to earn enough credits to leave the village and earn the hand of his beloved Constance, a member of the highly regarded Oxblood family. A Grey named Jane soon ends his hopes of a normal, unassuming life by introducing him to thoughts of revolution and forcing him to decide what matters most: marrying up and upholding the laws of the community or falling in love and standing up for honor and integrity.
The Univision world has existed for hundreds of years, so characters are familiar with intricacies readers are not. Some parts of the world are very similar to the real world, while others are not. It’s easy to get bogged down in the differences and throw your hands up and walk away.
Readers familiar with Fforde’s Thursday Next novels may have a leg up in understanding Shades of Grey. The best approach is to tilt your head slightly to get a different perspective and let Fforde’s deftly drawn characters and well-paced plot pull you along. It’s not necessary to understand all the laws of the world. After all, Eddie is starting to question some of them and even break one or two. Besides, Fforde plans two more books in the series, which may — or may not — explain why swans attack and what causes Mildew.