Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey: Quirky dystopian fantasy

Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey (2009) became a literary dystopian fantasy cult classic for good reason. Read our full review.

Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey book cover with shadow against red background with text below that reads Book Review, Quirky dystopian

Publication: Penguin Books 2011. First published 2009.

Genre: Fantasy, Drama, Adventure, Literature

Shades of Grey Book Synopsis

The New York Times bestseller hailed as “a rich brew of dystopic fantasy and deadpan goofiness” (The Washington Post) from the author of the Thursday Next series.

Welcome to Chromatacia, where the societal hierarchy is strictly regulated by one’s limited color perception. In this world, you are what you can see. But Eddie Russet wants to move up. When he and his father relocate to the backwater village of East Carmine, his carefully cultivated plans to leverage his better-than-average red perception and marry into a powerful family are quickly upended. 

Eddie must contend with lethal swans, sneaky Yellows, inviolable rules, an enforced marriage to the hideous Violet deMauve, and a risky friendship with an intriguing Grey named Jane who shows Eddie that the apparent peace of his world is as much an illusion as color itself. Will Eddie be able to tread the fine line between total conformity — accepting the path, partner, and career delineated by his hue —and his instinctive curiosity that is bound to get him into trouble?

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Book Review

I was thoroughly entertained by the quirkiness of and clever satirical social commentary within Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair and Early Riser. So, I have had this novel on my wish list for some time. Plus, the upcoming release of its long-awaited sequel, Red Side Story, gave me the extra push needed.

Shades of Grey lacks a little momentum in its early stages – for me its only noteworthy weakness. But, this novel’s latter half is a real page turner. There were two clear contributing factors to the slow start, which oddly, turn out to actually be strengths in the long run.

The first is Jasper Fforde’s detailed focus and time spent on world-building. To an extent, one could argue this is a necessity for readers to get their bearings in dystopic fiction. But as we know, there are numerous fantasy authors such as Mark Lawrence penning fast-paced openings to epic sagas. Ultimately though, it was not long before I was enthralled in the mysteries of this chromatically challenged world. In some ways this dystopian society is a larger ‘character’ than all those contained within it.

‘How long have you been janitoring?’ I asked, as we watched the largest boulder being moved as easily as if it were a feather. ‘Thirty-one years, give or take,’ he replied. ‘Seen three Leapbacks in that time, each one worse than the one before. I dread to think what they’ll ban next. I suppose you’re too young to remember tractors?’

And mysteries abound. For example, roadways built by the people that lived before Eddie, called Perpetualite, were living organisms that either removed or absorbed debris. This and numerous other intriguing details suggest scientific advancements occurred prior to ‘cancel culture’ getting out of control and there being a complete U-turn on current momentum toward truly diverse and inclusive societies. This is a gross oversimplification of course. Context and nuance is everything in Shades of Grey, just as the title suggests!

Secondly, when we first meet our protagonist Eddie he is just a good law-abiding citizen with minimal independent thought, and thus only a minimally engaging.

He wore no spot-badge nor gave any hint of Chromatic hierarchy, which didn’t help me decide whether I should talk up or down to him.

But, it’s really just a case of all coming-of-age and transformative story arcs needing to start somewhere.

‘Edward, Edward,’ he said with a patronising smile, ‘there are no unanswered questions of any relevance. Every question that we need to ask has been answered fully. If you can’t find the correct answer, then you are obviously asking the wrong question.’

Along the journey that is Shades of Grey, Eddie flourishes into a very canny underdog and endearing leading man.

I didn’t set out to discover a truth. I was actually sent to the Outer Fringes to conduct a chair census, and learn some humility. But the truth inevitably found me, as important truths often do, like a lost thought in need of a mind. I found Jane, too, or perhaps she found me. It doesn’t really matter. We found each other. And although she was Grey and I was Red, we shared a common thirst for justice that transcended Chromatic politics.

And feisty Jane… well for me, she was the star of this show from word go.

It is worth noting that while Jasper Fforde offers up almost countless clever satirical threads in Shades of Grey, he leaves most of the follow-through to occur in readers’ minds. In his more recent release Early Riser, the social commentary is more overt; he uses a heavier hand. I look forward to seeing how he has handled this aspect in this novel’s upcoming sequel, 14-years later.

If, like me, you love cleverly quirky characters and appreciate a dose of absurd and farcical humour, then you’ll be tickled-pink (yes, my attempt at chromatic humour) by Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey, and then eager to read its follow-up Red Side Story.

More Shades of Grey reviews

“This series starter combines the dire warnings of Brave New World and 1984 with the deevolutionary visions of A Canticle for Leibowitz and Riddley Walker….It’s all brilliantly original.”—Booklist (starred review)

“It’s bizarre, it’s absurd, it’s detail-laden, and, well, it’s…awesome. As quirky and smart as this book is, Mr. Fforde’s writing and his strange world never feels forced or contrived.” – The Book Smugglers

“Fforde is an author of immense imagination. Not satisfied with just a few layers of Dickensian jokes and revisions of the physical universe, he creates an archeological treasure trove for readers… The coming-of-age story and manic-pixie-dream-girl romance don’t need to be much more than icing on the cake to make Shades of Grey a fancifully satisfying concoction.”—The A.V. Club

“It’s a shame that the title of this book is similar to another very famous title as the subject matter is completely different and this book to most people will be much more satisfying to read… This is a very detailed book with lots of comedic and dark moments hidden within this seemingly idyllic world.” – Fantasy Book Review

About the Book Author, Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde spent twenty years in the film business before debuting on the New York Times bestseller list with The Eyre Affair in 2002. Since then, he has written another twelve novels, including the number one Sunday Times bestseller One of Our Thursdays Is Missing; the Last Dragonslayer series, adapted for television by Sky; and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller Early Riser. He lives in Wales. Check out his website.