First off, if you’re looking for that sex-bondage book, this ain’t it. I know, I also had to double-check the title when someone suggested it. I wonder if Mr. Fforde received any messages from people who made the same mistake. As with any book I review, if or when I get my hands on the next one I’ll review that one as well, and link it up to this. Shades of Gray also has some of the best cover art I’ve ever seen.
The story revolves around a world named Chromatacia and a character named Eddie Russett. In this world (or nation; Fforde never really shows how large this country might be) worth and social status are measured by your color perception. Grays can only see monochrome and are menials, and the progression up the ladder goes all the way up to the Reds. What you can see also determines who you can and can’t marry. For example, a Green and a Red could never be a legal couple, and marriages are planned based on the color perception of any offspring; marrying for love without considering the chromatic consequences is seen as a sure path to familial destruction. There was an event, Something That Happened, and the world was changed from whatever it was before, to the color system dystopia implemented by a man named Munsell.
Russert is sent to the remote town of East Carmine to perform a chair census as punishment for a practical joke, and therein meets a variety of strange characters, such as The Apocryphal Man, who is ignored by law since history is illegal, and Jane, a Gray who has a cute nose and will punch you if you mention it. The ironclad social levels and arrangements, at first whimsical and odd, are later discovered by Eddie to have a darker hue, and he must fight against everything everyone know is right to prove the true-blue truth. And possibly to avoid being killed by vicious swans.
It’s much in the same style as Fforde’s other stories and series: funny, weird, and deftly created. He has a gift for building a world in just a few descriptions, leaving your mind to fill in the blanks. Fforde doesn’t linger on the strangeness of the worlds he makes, instead the reader allows the continuous layers of oddity to wash over them until it all seems natural and at the same time each one is a fresh revelation.
The plot is carefully laid out in a complex society, and I wasn’t surprised when I found out it was the first in a series-such an entrenched and strange world couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be upended in the space of one novel. The characters are likewise sparingly described, but you don’t care. They’re still good, and keep the plot moving along briskly.
Again, characteristically of Fforde, he has a host of various humorous and interesting references, such as the name Munsell itself, the various town and people’s names as colors, and the idea that the place you are sent before you “move on” being the Green Room. The nonsense is never wasted either, such as the fear of swans and the rationing of spoons. Each little tidbit builds the world even deeper and adds color to it. Or perhaps shades of meaning.