Jasper Fforde won me over years ago with his introduction of Thursday Next in a series of novels that were equal parts fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and just all-around good storytelling. Even when it surfaced that he was writing a fifth book in the series, after he had pretty much wrapped up all of the loose ends of the series in the fourth one, but he still managed to pull off a story that worked (so long as you can tolerate self-referential bits).
The Road to High Saffron is the first in a new series titled Shades of Grey, which is set in a future world where people are now colorblind, and are assigned a particular class status based on which colors they can see, and how much of it they can see. This leads to the purples being the highest social class in the society (because they can see red and blue), and where the people who can see almost no color are designated “Greys,” and are reduced to the menial labor class. It’s an odd world, where color means everything, and the government pipes color into residential areas the way that we pump water into ours. The thing is, no one can see all colors, so the society here doesn’t work unless everyone is working together. The society has very rigid rules to work toward that end, and whatever means can help take the society to that end are justifiable. It leads to a very dystopian future, which has a lot in common with Huxley’s Brave New World.
In this book, the story revolves around Edward, the son of a swatchman (who is the society’s version of a doctor; certain colors in this world have a medicinal effect, but only certain people are allowed access to them) who has been sent to one of the towns outside the urban areas to replace a swatchman who recently died. The mood and character of the town is very different from the city Edward and his father are used to, and as they spend more time there, Edward realizes that the Utopian ideal that the society is selling isn’t all that it seems to be.
This is a typical Jasper Fforde novel. It’s very compelling, very interesting, with a cast of likeable characters fighting a battle against beauracracy and tradition. The mystery is satisfying, as is the conclusion, but I did have a couple of issues with some of the characters. One of the characters made a complete change near the end of the book, and while the change made sense, the progression to that point seemed rushed. In addition, there was a plot device that carried through about 4/5ths of the novel, which turned out to be little more than a teaser. It was slightly annoying, but not enough for me to not enjoy the story. Of course, this is the first novel in a projected series, so maybe some of these issues will be resolved and/or explained in future volumes.
One word of caution, though: It’s very difficult to get in to the novel. Fforde doesn’t waste any time with easing the reader in to the setting and its implications to society. He just starts in that world, and lets the explanations come through the progressing narrative. This is fine (to be honest, I prefer that sort of exposition), but for a world that’s so different, in a novel that is far outside the writer’s normal body of work, it was a bit of a struggle. After about 50 pages, everything became clear, but those first 50 pages were a little confusing. The payoff of the story overall, though, is worth the effort.
If this is your first Jasper Fforde novel, then stick with it and let the story engross you. If it isn’t, you won’t need much encouragement to stick with it, since you know the author knows how to spin a yarn. It’s definitely worth it.