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Jasper Fforde
Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

Viking / Penguin Putnam
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-670-01963-2
Publication Date: 01-10-2010
392 Pages; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 01-02-2010

Index:  Science Fiction  Fantasy  General Fiction

There's a schism in the world of world-building. It's quite stark, really and the extremes are so distant as to be quite literally separate worlds. To cross from one extreme to the other is not unheard of, but it clearly requires a significant level of writerly skill. To combine them is almost unheard of.

Jasper Fforde's work — in his Thursday Next and Nursery Crime novels — is set in a world that is clearly not ours and has no historical connection to ours. It's a second world fantasy, where the rules of reality are different, even if the people are not. There's no chain of historical events that leads from where we are, or were, to the events in 'The Eyre Affair.' These books are delightful, inventive japes that speak to us, but not directly about us. So when you read 'Shades of Grey' and encounter a world nearly as weird as anything in his other novels, you might be tempted to think it is another second world fantasy. It certainly reads like one, to begin with. But Fforde is up to something very new here. 'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron' is a dystopian detective story, in which the detectives are ordinary citizens of an extraordinary world, trying to discern just how things got from where, as it happens, we are now, to where they are — in Colormatica, which is, we learn, a "Colortocracy."

If you're scratching your head now, wondering what a "Colortocracy" is, wait until you start reading the novel. Fforde's newest novel preserves the pleasures of his previous work, but adds depths that cast shadows back into this world and our lives. He's written a gritty dystopia that is also quite literally a colorful, silly and fun fantasy. But it's a fantasy that is unfolds our world with barbed humor, some amazing world-building and utterly charming characters. Plus, it makes you wish for the impossible. It's a superb and amazing reading experience.

The story begins when Eddie Russet, who lives in a world where classes are segregated by color perception, is sent from his home in Jade-under-Lime to the boondocks village of East Carmine to do penance. He's tasked with conducting a Chair census. He's a Red with a good family decent prospects, until he falls for the girl with the retroussé nose, after which, he starts to tumble down into a rabbit hole that will, it seems lead back to our world. It's a reverse epic of discovery for Eddie and the reader both.

Jasper Fforde's 'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron ' has it both ways at once. It's a silly and fun voyage of discovery, in which the nature of the world is the plot driver. Eddie accepts his almost beyond-bizarre world, and so, in turn do we. It's reads as fancifully as the world of Thursday Next, but there is clearly a level of grit and dirt and hardscrabble reality underlying all the wonder, and that's what both Eddie and the reader discover as the book unfolds. 'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron ' is a classic journey of discovery that is also like no other of its kind, due to Jasper Fforde's incredible wit and imagination.

While 'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron' is really quite weird in setting and society, Fforde has the writerly skills to make his characters as familiar and likeable as anyone you might meet on the way to or at the grocery store. Eddie, his father, Jane, the sleazy Tommo, even the treacherous Courtland, are all "just chaps," regular guys in their own oh-so-weird and nearly inscrutable world, Fforde breathes life and joy into reading about every character so every page and every step towards understanding, such as it is, is joyful for the reader.

Fforde's sense of humor and his imaginative satiric skills are in their highest form here. 'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron' is every bit as goofily enjoyable as everything else he's written, but there's a level of world-building under the goofiness that is startlingly impressive. This is not simply fantasy; this is science fiction so well conceived that it doesn't read like science fiction, not at first. But as the novel progresses, readers will take note that Fforde loves his mystery fiction. The mystery here is the science fiction world-building beneath the apparent fantasy, and the resolution is impressive. Yes, 'Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron' is the first in a series, and readers will anticipate the coming novels. This is a story of revolution and reconciliation, not just within the novel itself, but as well, within the literary world it was born in.

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