Shades of Grey by Jasper FfordeIt’s been a long, long time since last we met – and I’ve read many, many books. Let’s start this up again, shall we?

I’d like to start out by writing a little bit about the author of “Shades of Grey” and his prior works. I read Jasper Fforde*’s first book, “The Eyre Affair,” when it came out in 2001.  Set in a world in which literature has the same importance as sports or celebrities have in ours, it follows a Special Operations officer, Thursday Next, as she tries to thwart literary crimes. There are now five books in the Thursday Next series, and the sixth will be published in January 2011. I highly recommend them, but I do advise you to read “Jane Eyre” or the Cliff’s Notes version before reading “The Eyre Affair.”

His second series is about Detective Jack Spratt, head of the Nursery Crime Division in Reading, England. With his sergeant Mary Mary, he investigates crimes committed by (or perpetrated on) nursery characters. In the first book, “The Big Over Easy,” Jack must solve Humpty Dumpty’s murder. (You didn’t think he just fell off that wall all on his own, did you?) In the second book, “The Fourth Bear,” he solves Goldilocks’ disappearance, uncovers a nuclear cucumber conspiracy, hunts down the cakey serial killer The Gingerbread Man, and answers the riddle of the three bears’ porridge-temperature differential. This is my favorite of his series, and I listen to both books on my iPod all the time. I’m eager to read the final installment, “The Last Great Tortoise Race,” which will be published in 2011 or 2012.

In the first book of his new trilogy, “Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron,” Fforde has created another fantastical universe, and it’s the strangest one yet. In a world where all people have color blindness, your caste in society is determined by what colors you can see. Purples are the aristocracy, Yellows are the law enforcers, Greens are higher than Blues, and Blues are higher than Reds. Greys occupy the lowest rung of society and are relegated to menial labor. Artificial colors that can be seen by everyone are available but costly, and must be processed by using scrap color dug up from the ruins of a past civilization (us, presumably).

Every aspect of life is strictly controlled by the state, and there are many rules to define what technology can be used or produced. For example, it is forbidden to manufacture spoons, so spoons are jealously guarded and passed down through generations. “Leapbacks” are scheduled regularly, which means that old knowledge and technologies are removed and banned. Those who run afoul of the system and lose too many merit points are sent to the rebooting facility, and are never heard from again. Like in any restrictive society, people figure out how to get around these strict rules by obeying the letter of the law but not the spirit. “Train tracks” were banned, but not “train track,” so all the trains run on one rail.

Eddie Carmine, a Red from a Green sector, travels with his father to the town Vermillion, on the outer fringes of Red Sector West. He is eager to return home because he hopes to marry Constance Oxblood and run the string factory owned by her powerful Red family, but is thwarted at every turn. He falls in love with a violently disagreeable Grey named Jane, who at the beginning of the narration has just shoved Eddie headfirst into a carnivorous plant. Together they begin to solve the mystery behind a swatchman’s death, the ancient civilization’s end, a ghost town named High Saffron, the deadly mildew and what goes on at Reboot. While some of these mysteries become clearer, there’s plenty left to explain in his next “Shades of Grey” book, to be published in 2012.

Verdict: 7.5 out of 10. It’s not my favorite Fforde book, but it’s an excellent debut for a series that promises to be mind-bending and highly intelligent.

*Full Disclosure: I met Fforde at a book signing in Chicago during the publicity tour for his second Thursday Next book, “Lost in a Good Book.” He was lovely, and he helped me to coerce a friend into reading “The Eyre Affair” by writing “Now you have to read this book. – Jasper Fforde” on the inside cover. So I’m quite fond of him.