SHADES OF GREY: THE ROAD TO HIGH SAFFRON
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In his first several novels, Jasper Fforde carved out a comfortable niche for himself looking at a gonzo world in which fiction and reality mixed, whether it was literary world of Thursday Next or the fairy tale world of Nursery Crimes. In Shades of Grey, Fforde stretches beyond his comfort zone, achieving a novel which fails to deliver much more than it succeeds in amusing.
Eddie Russet is a 20 year old accompanying his father to the village of East Carmine, ostensibly to help his father, the equivalent of a doctor, and to serve out his own sentence of conducting a chair sentence, in punishment for a practical joke he played. The Russets live in a highly regulated society based on the writings of the Munsell and in a world in which individuals can only see a portion of the visible spectrum.
Set at least 500 years in the future after Something Happened to change things, Fforde provides little information about how our world with multichromatic vision became the future in which individuals can only see an individual color. Although Fforde very may reveal something of this change in one of the future novels in the series, it doesnít matter, because by the end of the book, Fforde hasnít provided enough detail to make the reader care enough about the discoveries Eddie might make in the future.
Eddie is presented as the everyman, a young man introduced to a new environment through whom Fforde is able to explain the world, since Eddie must apply his knowledge to a new location. In addition to the lack of color, Eddieís world is highly regimented by the rules stated by Munsell and enforced by prefects, those whose vision has a higher saturation color. It is all too easy for a curious stranger, as Eddie is, to run afoul of those rules, even, or maybe especially, as he tries to improve his society.
Much of Shades of Grey is a mystery novel, with Eddie trying to uncover the secrets that surround the inhabitants of East Carmine. Unfortunately, the mystery tends to fail because, while Eddie doesnít have the knowledge, one other character, Jane, could easily provide what he needs. He isnít delving into the unknown, merely the hidden. Even when Eddie leads an expedition to the mysterious High Saffron, Jane seems to already have the answers that should save him the trip. Furthermore, although Fforde sets up a strong attraction between Eddie and Jane, it is difficult to see a basis for the attraction as Jane is often shown as reprehensible as any of the other denizens of East Carmine. Aside from Eddie, Fforde simply doesnít provide sympathetic characters for the reader to connect with.
While Shades of Grey has many of the individual elements of the Thursday Next or Nursery Crimes novels, it also demonstrates that the gonzo writing and off-the-wall ideas which Fforde is so good at creating are not enough to carry a novel, let alone a trilogy. Readers need to be able to care about the characters and their situation, and understand their world, no matter how strange, in order to gain a stake in the novel. Shades of Grey, unfortunately, lacks these elements.
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