Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
(from the book jacket)
It’s summer, it’s hot, it’s our world, but not as we know it. Entire cities lie buried beneath overgrown fields and forests. Technology from another time litters the landscape, and there is evidence of great upheaval. Welcome to Chromatacia, where for as long as anyone can remember society has been ruled by a Colortocracy. From the underground feedpipes that keep the municipal park green, to the healing hues viewed to cure illness, to a social hierarchy based upon one’s limited color perception, society is dominated by color. In this world, you are what you see.
Eddie Russett wants to move up. He has better-than-average red perception, and he is on a half promise to Constance Oxblood, whose powerful family want the reddest possible son-in-law to strengthen their hue. But once Eddie and his father relocate to the backwater village of East Carmine, these carefully cultivated plans and expectations are quickly upended. In this new town, Eddie must contend with lethal swans, sneaky Yellows, inviolable rules and an enforced marriage to the hideous Violet deMauve. But then he encounters the intriguing Grey named Jane, whose bold defiance of the Rules makes him realize that the apparent peace of his world is as much an illusion as color itself.
As Jane opens Eddie’s eyes to the cruel regime that lies behind the gaily painted façade, he realizes that understanding the social order is one thing, but questioning it is quite another. Questions are considered unthinkably rude, and rudeness, along with bad manners, uncouth language and inadequately shined shoes, leads to one place: permanent relocation, or Reboot. Eddie must tread a very fine line between total conformity – accepting the path, partner and career delineated by his hue – and an instinctive curiosity that only gets him into trouble.
In a world of enforced simplification, answers are in short supply, and every question begets another: What was the “Something That Happened”? Why does no one ever return from the long-abandoned village of High Saffron? Where did all the spoons go? Is there more to color than just color? Most important, can Eddie ask Jane out for tea and cakes at the Fallen Man before she has him eaten by a carnivorous tree?
The world has become a place where seeing in color is becoming a thing of the past and no one knows why. Something terrible happened in the past and no one knows what that was either. There are rules you must follow and conventions you are expected to conform to but no one knows where they came from. Fforde throws you right into this new world without any warning. I like the fact that he does not feel the need to take us by the hand and carefully explain every little thing. But it does mean that you have to give the book a chance. At first there are a few things that just don’t make much sense but as you move along things start to fall into place. Some things at least. Some things continue to elude you as they do for the characters themselves. Why is no one allowed to make spoons? It is a rule and must be obeyed but no one knows why. Why can’t poor Eddie make suggestions for a better queuing system? Well, it just isn’t done. People have been following the rules so rigidly for so long that no one can remember what they were made for in the first place. The lack of colored sight has made color so important that is rules everything. And everyone lives under the constant fear of Reboot, this vague punishment that you know is bad but are uncertain of the specifics. It is a depressing place if you think about it. But Fforde manages to work his wit and humor into the book so that it is not all depression. He tells you that librarians draw circles around their eyes and connect them with a line cross the bride of their nose as a sign of their job but no one can remember what it means. The people have to be on the look out for killer swans. And the characters are fun and entertaining. But it all happens in a world where people who can’t see any color are treated as inferior. Where strict conformity to the rules is expected and enforced. Where curiosity and questions will get you in trouble. Where Eddie is forced to find out cold, hard things that there will be no turning back from. Where he will have to decide what is the greater good and how much he is willing to give up for it so he can make life and death decisions. So it isn’t that Fforde does not address serious issues in the book but they are blended with a subtle lightheartedness that stops the entire tone of the book from being depressing and at the same time manages to make the ugly parts of the society stand out and still look ugly. And in with the humor there is a slight sense of dread always hanging over everything. It is an oddly fun book for one that deals with issues that are not traditionally funny like prejudice, the dangers of asking no questions and trying to eliminate the past, the consequences of finding truth and figuring out what to do with it, and making hard choices about what is truly important. It is the first book in a trilogy so there are many things that are left unexplained and unresolved at the end of the book but it did come to a nice place to take a pause before the next book which you will want to read to see how everything works out.