The cover on the left is the U.K. edition and the one on the right is for the U.S. market. I purchased the U.K. version because I generally prefer the U.K. covers for Fforde's books and because I was afraid they would change the spelling for the American readers. Changing the spelling really annoys me.
It is nearly five hundred years since Something That Happened took place and the Britain we know is gone. That event is not explained but it changed the way the world operates. Society is organized by colour perception. The status of citizens of the Colourtocracy is determined by the percentages of the spectrum they are able to perceive. The Greys are at the low end of society. Marriages are arranged with the goal of being able to move "up spectrum" but relationships between complementary colours is absolutely forbidden -- if you remember your color theory, blending complementary colours produce white, grey, or black. Doctors have been replaced by swatchman who use flashes of colour (Chromaticology) rather than drugs to treat people.
This is the world of Eddie Russett. He accompanies his father, a swatchman, to the Outer Fringe town of East Carmine. His father is to take over temporarily for the previous swatchman who it is believed accidentally overdosed on a powerful sedative shade of green.
In East Carmine, it doesn't take Eddie long to come into conflict with the town elite, a dangerous situation. Complicating matters is his attraction to a strange, mysterious, aggressively antisocial young Grey woman named Jane (Fforde does love to play with names). As Eddie settles in he begins experience unease with the conditions in East Carmine: the swatchman may not have accidentally overdosed, the Greys are badly mistreated, and Jane's rebellious nature begins to look like a reaction to the rot at the core of the whole of society, the Collective.
I became a fan of Jasper Fforde with the Thursday Next series. There he created an amazing world where literature and reality crossover. The books are a delight for literature majors and anyone who loves to read.
Shades of Grey takes place in an apocalyptic world and is darker than the Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series. In the Acknowledgements he apologies for the tardiness of the book and says that "it proved rather more difficult to get on paper than ...anticipated." I believe it. Fforde put considerable care in developing the structure of this world. You can enjoy reading without looking into the background but it is more fun if you know some things:
- The rules of society were supposedly laid down by someone named Munsell and Albert H. Munsell was an artist that developed the Munsell color system.
- The Ishihara test use to determine a person's dominate colours and thus place in society is an actual test us to assess vision defects.
- U.K. Postal codes
- Color theory
- Decimal color designations
Fforde has a nice web site for Shades of Grey with lots of fun stuff and I recommend you visit it here. You will also find a contest based on Shades of Grey. Unfortunately, I found out about it after I read the book but I was pleased that I knew the answers to several of the questions. You can see the quiz and the answers here.
Two more books are planned in the series: Shades of Grey 2: Painting by Numbers; and Shades of Grey 3: The Gordini Protocols. We'll have to wait, though, as the next book will be One of our Thursdays is Missing, January 2011.
For me, Fforde's books are both entertaining and mentally stimulating and Shades of Grey satisfies is both areas.