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Shades has lots of imagination but lacks heart
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‘Shades of Grey’

By: Jasper Fforde

Price: $25.95 (hardcover)

Rating: Three out of five bookmarks

It’s hard to define what exactly is the genre for Jasper Fforde’s latest novel, "Shades of Grey."

Is it science fiction? Mystery? Self-discovering journey parable? Commentary on modern society? Or is it a hodgepodge of all those things, with some killer balls of lightning, spoon obsession and an overabundance of exposition thrown in?

The story centers around Edward Russett, a young man who lives in a society where everyone’s status in life is determined by what color hue they are — that is, which color of the spectrum they perceive the world most clearly. Being a Russett, Eddie sees primarily in red, but Reds are pretty low on the social ladder. He wants to marry into a higher class family who is looking for a Red to strengthen their family’s hue, and he has his eye set on the affluent Oxbloods.

Unfortunately, Eddie’s plans are set back when he is he is labeled a delinquent, and sent to a far away village named East Carmine, where he is to perform "useful work" as penance.

While in East Carmine, he meets Jane, of the Grey class, who is treated pretty much as slave labor. Jane is quirky, outspoken and aggressive, unlike anyone who Eddie has ever met. While trying to work out his feelings for her — and at the same time being pursued by the very wealthy but completely stuck-up Purple snob, Violet deMauve — Eddie stumbles upon hidden secrets, a murder mystery and the enigma of High Saffron, a place of peril that no explorer has returned from alive.

As you could probably tell by the synopsis, the novel is full of color-related themes, right down to every person’s and every town’s name reflecting a certain hue. Fforge paints (no pun intended) a very detailed world of unusual ideologies and rules, which everyone must adhere to despite that no one understands why such rules were put in place (for example, why is it that everyone can only own one spoon, while you can have has many forks or knives as you want?) One problem is that in the novel’s attempt to have us understand exactly all the abnormalities of Eddie’s society, as well as the whole color-perception concept, it spends more time on the minutiae than the actual plot.

"Shades of Grey" made me nostalgic for Lois Lowry’s young-adult read "The Giver," another novel about people being given allotted roles in life without choice.
But where Lowry’s book was able to communicate all this concisely, Fforde takes a lot of time to cover all the specifics and unfortunately, this slows the pace of the story.

Granted, this is the first book of what will be a trilogy, so I understand the author is trying to set up all the information we will need for the next two installments. But if the author is planning for two more books, could not the information have been more spread out so not to slow down the story? For example, why do the characters constantly talk about killer swans that threaten their safety, but we never actually see any? (And yes, that was one of the things I was looking forward to.)

That is always the trickiest part of introducing readers to a fictional world, even if some aspects are based on the world we know. There has to be enough illustration for us to understand this new reality, yet not get bogged down by it. I feel like the characters were not developed as well as they could have been. Even though this story does present much creativity and novelty in terms of ideas, it is no substitute for the humanity that this story wanted us to feel, but ultimately lacked.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her
about it.

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