Fiction: "Shades of Grey," by Jasper Fforde.
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James Cameron's blockbuster film "Avatar" isn't the only current route to new fantasy worlds. Bibliophiles of a certain stripe also must check out "Shades of Grey" by the sly and sprightly storyteller Jasper Fforde.
Mr. Fforde is the British wit behind Thursday Next, the futuristic investigator who solves crimes against literature in a popular series that began with "The Eyre Affair." Those books introduced readers to Fforde's singular mix of fantasy, mystery, humor and pun -- qualities he brings in spades to this new book.
Here he creates a future in which hue is the coin of the realm. Every human is born with a unique but limited ability to perceive color.
The social caste system revolves around perception. Those who perceive in the blue family hold less status than Reds, for instance, which in turn are bested by Yellows, and so on. Greys occupy the bottom rung.
The story begins as Mr. Fforde's first-person narrator, a young Red named Eddie Russett, is traveling with his father from their home in Jade Under Lime into the Outer Fringes. There, the elder Russett is on temporary assignment as a substitute "swatchman," a doctor who heals with color. Eddie himself is doing government-forced penance for pulling a prank on a friend at lunch. He has been assigned the task of conducting a "chair census" in the town of East Carmine.
Eddie plans to complete the assignment, then win the hand of Constance Oxblood, daughter of a prestigious Red family.
But even before he and his father reach their destination, Eddie meets the mysterious Jane Grey, who ignites his natural curiosity about the Orwellian social system that has been maintaining a dull stasis for centuries. Soon Eddie must decide whether to keep coloring inside the lines, or to follow a more passionate and dangerous path.
Mr. Fforde's cleverness is his blessing and his curse. We can feel his glee as he invents one absurdity after another such that Lewis Carroll would admire. ("Yellows are permitted to break Rules in the pursuit of Rule-breakers, but all Rules to be broken must be logged beforehand, and countersigned by the Yellow prefect.")
Yet he frontloads with details that overwhelm readers seeking their bearings. I struggled to understand the basic workings of this world. Do Reds only live in towns with red-sounding names, for instance? Is the government-supplied "synthetic color," with which entire gardens are sometimes painted, visible to all?
Eventually, the characters and their world became clearer, and I simply relaxed into all that Ffordean frivolity.
"Shades of Grey" would be a thin tale if it didn't reflect and obliquely comment on the real world around us, but Mr. Fforde has his priorities right:
First, be funny and entertaining. Second, make 'em think. But only a little.
"Shades of Grey" II and III are promised at the end of this book, and I'll admit it, until they're out, I'll feel a bit blue.
First Published February 21, 2010 12:00 am