From its first sentence, you know that Shades of Grey, Jasper Fforde's newest novel, will have nothing to do with his earlier ones -- nor with any novel by any other author you've read so far this year, or are likely to read in what remains: "It began," says Edward (Eddie) Russet, "with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant."
In another author's hands, a sentence like that might seem artificial, a gimmick -- a sentence to kick off a writing exercise, maybe. But Fforde is up to bigger stuff here.
Eddie Russet's world, his England, exists far in the future, separated from our own time by an event known only as The Something That Happened. (That's a typically Ffordeian bit there: funny, arch, and allusive, as though taking it on faith that of course the reader already knows all this.) We are known to them as simply the Previous. Whatever The Something That Happened was, it must have been cataclysmic: while the people of this future age are indeed people, civilized people at that, they're determinedly ambivalent about technology. Old Ford Model-T-era vehicles may be used, for instance, but nothing newer.
Other changes are present in the book's world as well. The most common causes of death are lightning, the plague known as the Mildew, and -- sit down for this one -- giant swans. The countryside beyond town limits is populated by megafauna and other exotic animals (giraffes, giant sloths, flamingos), Pookas, and the dangerous RiffRaff, uncouth and murderous folk with no respect for their civilized betters. The roadways of the Previous are constructed of a material known as Perpetulite, a sort of self-cleaning, self-renewing asphalt.
The most bizarrely radical change in humans, though, has been optical: people's eyesight has evolved in such a way that their vision is color-specific. Their surnames reflect the portion of the visible spectrum in which their family specializes; Eddie Russet's family, for example, is Red, while his nemeses the Gamboges are Yellow. (Per Wikipedia, gamboge is "a partially transparent dark mustard yellow pigment.") Within their color, individuals are rated by how strongly they see that hue: someone who can see a lot of different reds -- carmine, crimson, garnet, and so on -- falls higher on the social scale than someone who can see only one or two. Furthermore, the color families themselves are arranged hierarchically within the social order: Purples at the idle, nearly regal top, and at the bottom, occupying all the drab, manual-labor and service positions, the Greys.
It's one of the Greys, in fact, whose story arc intersects with Eddie's in life- and perhaps world-changing ways: the enigmatic, tart-tongued, and fetchingly retroussé-nosed Jane, who both attracts and discomfits him. (Yes, Jane Grey. Unlike Fforde's previous books, Shades of Grey is not built upon a framework of literary play. But he manages to sneak in a few such references here, particularly among the Greys. There's also a Zane and a Dorian Grey.)
As the story opens, Eddie and his Dad are dispatched to East Carmine, a village on the outskirts of the populated world: Eddie, as punishment for challenging the accepted order of things, particularly regarding efficient queuing (he's required to conduct a chair census there); his father, as a temporary replacement for the village swatchman -- a sort of doctor, who heals sick and injured people through the careful application of color. There in East Carmine, they both encounter experiences far beyond the controlled mundanity they're used to: murder, exile, terror, adventure, and something which can only be called love. And it's all rendered in Fforde's characteristically light (sometimes hilarious) tone.
To the author's great credit, the strangeness of the post-Something That Happened world is rendered plausible without requiring the reader to look back for reminders or ahead for explanations. As ever, while Fforde clearly loves building his stories of contrivances, he does so without making them feel contrived. You never feel manipulated or played for a fool when reading a Fforde title. His plots are marvelously complex, following traditions of rising and falling action, denouement-before-climax, events and settings shown rather than told about, and all the rest...
And yet somehow, by the end, you always know that the story you've just encountered is anything but conventional.
If you have read Fforde's earlier books -- the Thursday Next literary-detective series, and/or the Nursery Crimes series of murder mysteries in the land of Mother Goose -- you should not hesitate to pick up Shades of Grey. It's different, but it's Fforde, and that's all you need to know.
If, on the other hand, you haven't read his earlier stuff… if you think all the above sounds rather labored, and not a little bit precious... do give it a try anyway. (Brief PDF samples are currently available at Fforde's Web site.) You may find you have more in common than you'd expect with the inhabitants of Shades of Grey's landscape. If nothing else, you'll have read a quirky adventure story -- and maybe been launched, without knowing it (even perhaps against your will!), into a planned trilogy, eager for the next installment.