I read this last week (so as to review it for the Guardian; the piece should appear in a Saturday paper some time early next year). Not to gazump that review, but in sum my verdict was: thoroughly enjoyable, although my rapture was slightly muted by this-and-that. See later for more details. But Fforde has many, many fans, and they will love this novel; and some who are not fans may well be won over it; and it will sell as many copies as Celebrity Autobiography (Class II), and about half as many copies as Cookery, which (I hardly need add) is Many Many Copies. Which is excellent for everybody.
Still, I have reservations. The novel is, narratively speaking, a little underpowered; about 150 pages too long overall; worse, a tad cosy. Still: Fforde has mastered a beautifully accomplished comic tone, and is capable of modulating it from Wodehouse, through Adams, to Python. I know how technically complex and challenging that is to do, deceptively so in fact, and I salute him. It's not laugh-aloud, but it's very agreeable and winning and charming, and often smile-visible (or whatever the smile equivalent of laugh-aloud may be).
Now, what's great about Fforde is his voice, as it parses his comfortably madcap world, and his likeable characters. Like his other novels, Shades of Grey is not urgently plotted; it's more a pleasant meander around his imagined world:
In a society where the ability to see the higher end of the color spectrum denotes a better social standing, Eddie Russet belongs to the low-level House of Red and can see his own color—but no other. The sky, the grass, and everything in between are all just shades of grey, and must be colorized by artificial means.That amazon.com summary, I could add, really doesn't capture the tone of the book at all. Anyway. My point is this: Fforde isn't content letting his readers meander pleasantly around his novel. He wants to primp up some Oh! My! God! narrative tension, and so he starts he book thuswise:
Eddie's world wasn't always like this. There's evidence of a never-discussed disaster and now, many years later, technology is poor, news sporadic, the notion of change abhorrent, and nighttime is terrifying: no one can see in the dark. Everyone abides by a bizarre regime of rules and regulations, a system of merits and demerits, where punishment can result in permanent expulsion.
Eddie, who works for the Color Control Agency, might well have lived out his rose-tinted life without a hitch. But that changes when he becomes smitten with Jane, a Grey Nightseer from the dark, unlit side of the village. She shows Eddie that all is not well with the world he thinks is just and good. Together, they engage in dangerous revolutionary talk.
It began with father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit, and ended up with me being eaten by a carnivorous plant.Trying too hard, I'd say. Elaboration makes things worse ('it wasn't all bad, and for the following reasons: Firstly, I was lucky to have landed upside-down. I would drown in under a minute, which is far, far preferable to being dissolved alive over the space of a few weeks'). But, look, see: since Eddie narrating this 500-page novel, this presents the reader with two options.  Eddie dies, and somehow manages to communicate these detailed 500 pages in the space of 'under a minute', or, conceivably, from some sort of afterlife.  Eddie is rescued in the nick of time. Spoilers-in-Reviews are to be discouraged,* so I shan't say which option the novel plumps for. But readers aren't idiots, and will have their suspicions. Since it does not ratchet the tension, and since it's kind-of alien to Ffrode's proven novelistic technique, I must say I don't like it.
*Although, as it happens, my Native American name is 'Spoilers-in-Reviews'.