Jasper Fforde's writing is well-known, thanks to his popular "Thursday Next" series. In Shades of Grey his abilities reach a whole new level. While the Thursday Next books are entertaining, Shades of Grey is brilliant. The world he creates is unique and fully-realized, if not always fully explained, and it's a much darker and more dangerous place than the settings of his previous novels.
Fforde drops the reader into an unfamiliar landscape with no ramp-up; we are aware from the outset that this is a futuristic world markedly different from our own. The book's first paragraph is typical of the style and tone evident throughout the novel:
"It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant. It wasn't really what I'd planned for myself - I'd hoped to marry into the Oxbloods and join their dynastic string empire. But that was four days ago, before I met Jane, retrieved the Caravaggio and explored High Saffron. So instead of enjoying aspirations of Chromatic advancement, I was wholly immersed within the digestive soup of a yateveo tree. It was all frightfully inconvenient."
It's a technique designed to disorient the reader, and one's confusion lasts well into the book. And, it's not that the plot settles into a more comfortable format, but instead it's the reader who adapts more fully to the author's world. The setting's utter originality is one of the things that makes this book such a fascinating read. I found myself constantly going back to paragraphs in an attempt to better envision the marvels Fforde describes, or to simply enjoy his allusions to items that are strange to his characters but well known to his present-day readers. Part of the fun of the novel is deciphering these cultural icons as described by someone with no frame of reference or understanding of their significance. Those familiar with Ffordes previous novels will find this approach familiar.
The author's sense of humor shines throughout the novel. Much of it is absurdist - think "Monty Python" - which some will undoubtedly find overly silly. Those who enjoy reading the works of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman, however, will find Fforde's comedy right up their alley. It's British humor at its finest.
Fforde has previously demonstrated his talent for creating remarkably likeable and three-dimensional characters, and readers will find his latest protagonist irresistible. Eddie Russett's world may be unfamiliar, but he himself isn't. He begins the story as a naïve young man content with the status quo, only to find himself gradually losing his innocence as he begins to open his eyes to the inequity built into his culture. The novel is, in many ways, a stock coming-of-age tale.
Although Shades of Grey has a large cast, each individual is so well-depicted and distinctive that confusion is completely avoided. The surreal nature of the society in which the book is placed allows the author a lot of latitude to give depth to even the most minor of characters.
Shades of Grey is the first book in a series, and while Fforde brings this novel to a satisfying conclusion, he by no means answers all the questions he raises. He leaves his readers eager to return to the dystopian world he has created if for no other reason than to satisfy their curiosity about how such a warped society arose in the first place. The novel may not appeal to all of Fforde's fans, as many will find its bizarre setting and deeper themes too much work to enjoy. However, the book's sheer originality and top-notch writing are likely to attract a host of new devotees. Shades of Grey is Fforde's best book to date.
Watch the promotional film for Shades of Grey made by Fluent for Hodder and Stoughton (Fforde's UK publisher):
Next in Series
No sign of a publication date for the next volume in the Shades of Grey series, but Fforde has just published a sixth volume in his Thursday Next series, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, and looks to be publishing Practical Magic later this year, the second volume in his Last Dragonslayer series for children.
This review was originally published in February 2010, and has been updated for the March 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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