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Thursday, May 27, 2010

What I'm Reading: Shades of Grey

I love Jasper Fforde's 2 light and literary fantasy series and always eagerly await his new books (click here to see what I have said about Fforde's books in the past). This winter, Fforde began a new series with Shades of Grey set in a dystopian, post apocalyptic world (after "the thing that happened") where people can only see a limited color range and the world is run by a series of odd rules set by a long dead leader. No one is allowed to think for themselves and what colors you can see (and how much) dictates your place in society, with the color-blind relegated to near slavery. Unlike his highly literary previous series, in the Shades of Grey world, librarians are left to roam bookless stacks. The horror!

This novel got mixed reviews so I was in no hurry to read it; that is until Betty championed it on the BPL Browser's Corner. I trust Betty. She has led me to some very good books. So I read Shades of Grey and boy and I glad that I did.

After finishing the novel, I totally understand why it got mixed reviews. It is because of its appeal.

This is not a light, fluffy literary romp in a parallel universe like the Thursday Next series or the Nursery Crimes. This is a serious, dystopian novel in the style of a Fahrenheit 451 or 1984. In Shades of Grey we follow one young man as he literally comes-of-age in Fforde's created world. He moves to a new town, meets new people, and with the help of a young woman named Jane, who dares to openly question the status quo in a world where those who passively follow the rules are rewarded, begins to question everything he has ever been told.

Like other dystopian novels, Shades of Grey has a darker tone. This could bother some fans of Fforde. I personally love dystopian fiction, especially how it uses a speculative world to make you more closely examine your own place in your society. I also enjoy the darker, cautionary tone, but it is completely different from Fforde's other, very popular series.

Here's a great example of the darker tone from the text. As our hero is deciding to continue his fight for justice at the end of the novel, he is warned that innocents may have to die. As the book closes, he is tested on this front. He has to knowingly send 2 of his friends on a train to certain death so as not to give away the larger mission. This is a dark moment for our hero, and a much more morally ambiguous choice than Fforde's jaunty heroine Thursday Next would ever have to make. Personally, I loved the complexity, but not all may agree, especially given Fforde's previous work.

In terms of pacing, it is important to point out that like all first books in a fantasy of science fiction series, the book starts off slowly. Fforde has to introduce us to the physical world, its rules, quirks, and characters. He has created it and we are along for a tour. The reader has to keep reading and trust that everything will be explained throughout the course of the story. Luckily, I knew to trust Fforde and keep going. Then, like others in its genre, Shades of Grey slowly picks up the pace until it speeds up into a compelling page turner by the end. I was literally left wishing there was more.

Thankfully there will be another book to continue the story. Fforde does tie up the loose ends of this novel, but leaves the reader waiting to find out what will happen in the next adventure. Darn you Jasper Fforde...now you have me hooked on 3 series.

Three Words That Describe This Book: dystopian fantasy, thought-provoking, great characters

Readalikes: Earlier in this post, I mentioned that Shades of Grey is an example of dystopian fiction. Click here for a longer list of dystopian novels.

But if pressed for specific readalikes, I would say that this book is Terry Pratchett's Discworld series meets Fahrenheit 451. Discworld because it creates what appears to be an outrageous, fantasy world, but one which both skewers and comments on our current world in a way that is entertaining, thought-provoking, and a bit frightening. Fahrenheit 451 because of the storyline of a hero being awakened to what is wrong with his world by a young woman who has dared to question everything.

Nonfiction readers may also be interested in reading more about color theory after finishing  Shades of Grey.


Laurie Cavanaugh said...

I wasn't in a hurry to read Shades of Grey because of the reviews, also, so I'm glad to see your recommendation and will check it out soon. I've enjoyed Jasper Fforde's other books on audio.

Becky said...

I have done a mix of reading and listening to Fforde's books in the past. If you do listen to Shades of Grey, please let me know how it was.