Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Four by Two

Shades of Grey
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Ages: 12+

Thanks to an audiobook expertly read by John Lee, I finally found the courage to bite into this woolly, dystopian, world-building type fantasy by the author of the "Thursday Next" novels. I admit, I had held paper copies of the book in my hands a few times, and considered buying or borrowing it, but my heart always failed me. I remembered what heavy going it was, breaking through into The Eyre Affair—an effort that included reading Charlotte BrontĂ«'s Jane Eyre for my first time—though since I did, the rewards have been rich indeed. And now that I've successfully penetrated another daringly original world out of Fforde's imagining, I am glad to find out that this book is also the start of a series. Now that two more novels are projected in what is currently a "Shades of Grey" trilogy, this first book has been retroactively retitled The Road to High Saffron. Or so Wikipedia told me, when I went to check the spellings of proper names in the book. All of the copies I have seen, including the audiobook, simply bear the title above. According to Wiki, the planned sequels will be titled Painting by Numbers and The Gordini Protocols.

Now that I've cleared my throat and rubbed my hands together, so to speak, let's see whether I can briefly explain what this book is about. Sometime in our distant future, the society we know has come to an end. The civilization that takes its place is organized around the ability to perceive color. Color perception is limited, and nobody can see in the dark, apparently because of the narrowness of everybody's pupils and a lack of "rod" photoreceptors in their eyes. Your status and role in the community are based on which one or two (if any) of the primary colors you can see, and how strongly or how many shades thereof. At the lower end are the Greys, who can see less than 10% of any color and are restricted to menial tasks and manual labor; their lack of rights and frequent mistreatment places them not much above slavery. At higher color levels, the community is divided into clans by which color(s) they can see, led by a council of prefects representing each primary and secondary color. Those with the highest levels of color perception automatically rise to the top of the social order. And "order" is most definitely the word of the day, in a society strictly governed by a set of Rules that regulate every aspect of life down to the tiniest, fussy detail.

Basically, if you want the short version of the story, it's a totalitarian nightmare. You might have a hard time believing that people would put up with such restrictions, including a number of rules that seem frankly insane. But generations of terror and ignorance have bred a population that meekly accepts these rules... for the most part. The people of each village live in fear of straying too far from the town boundaries, lest nightfall catch them away from home. They live in daily fear of lightning strikes (especially ball lightning), giant man-eating animals (especially swans), and a disease called the Mildew, which has been known to wipe out entire villages and even, in one instance, a whole sector. They live in ignorance of their own history, due to a succession of "leaps backward" and "de-factings" which relieve them of more and more books and technology. They live in complacent acceptance of the rules left behind by a mysterious figure named Munsell at the time of the "Something That Happened," rules which determine everything from what each person should wear to who can marry whom. Besides the usual industries and agriculture, they devote a lot of labor to digging color scrap out of the ruins left behind by the Previous (i.e., us), converting the scrap into pure color which they need to make their world interesting, to make food and clothing attractive, and to fight back against the Fade. Besides that, they need color for a range of medicinal purposes, ranging from cures for constipation and wound care to life-saving measures and strong narcotics. In the world where Eddie Russett lives, color is everything.

Eddie Russett, age 20, narrates the story. He has been brought up to serve the collective with an admirable selflessness. A strong Red (though this will only officially be known after his Ishihara test), Eddie is on "half-promise" to marry a girl from a wealthy Red family, an arrangement that will benefit both of their families. His only shortcoming is a streak of inquisitiveness. He offends against the sanctity of the rules by suggesting an innovative way to queue for meals. So, when his father (a "Swatchman" who practices color-based medicine) gets sent to relieve one of his colleagues in the frontier town of East Carmine, Eddie is packed off with him on a ludicrous make-work assignment—a census of chairs, if you'll believe it—as a lesson in humility.

Even before they reach the village, Eddie's inquisitive nose picks up the scent of a mystery, which deepens hourly after their arrival in East Carmine. It starts with a Grey being caught "wrong-spotting"—wearing the badge of a high-caste Purple—and a fierce girl with a cute nose is somehow involved. We know from the beginning of the book that Jane (she of the cute nose) is eventually going to push Eddie into the digestive tract of a carnivorous tree, and yet in spite of her roughness and tendency toward violance, Eddie falls right in love with her. Their romance deepens in tandem with the mystery as Eddie becomes convinced that someone murdered one of his friends, and that someone also murdered his father's predecessor as the town Swatchman, and that someone who can see in the dark is lurking in the village. He sees something like a ghost, and makes other strange discoveries, during an expedition to a neighboring town that had been wiped out by the Mildew. He plays matchmaker to a couple who are willing to risk Reboot (a one-way transportation to the Emerald City for those who earn too many demerits) to be together. He bargains for information with the Apocryphal Man who lives upstairs, and who is officially Not To Be Noticed, even if he walks right into a public meeting with no clothes on. He agrees to look out for suspicious characters on behalf of a visiting National Color agent, while at the same time promising Jane that he will keep her secrets. And in only a few fast-paced days, he becomes dangerously involved in the complex politics and personal relationships of East Carmine.

In those four days or so, Eddie survives more than one attempt on his life. He makes new friends, only to be betrayed by them. He attracts sworn enemies, only to save their lives. He wins and loses not one but two desired fiancĂ©es, only to be forced into a hideous arranged marriage. He loses his virginity (mild adult content here) and most of his merits, only to win big in the Ishihara sweepstakes. He offers himself up as the leader of an expedition to the village of High Saffron, from which no previous explorer has ever returned. He finds out what's really going on in his sick, twisted world—and what's all but unprecedented: He lives to be in a position to change things. And in the very end, he must make an appalling decision in order to safeguard his chance to make the world better.

Unsurprisingly, given the hilariousness of Jasper Fforde's other books, this is a hilarious book. But it's also an immensely intelligent, mentally challenging, thought-provoking one. And as the story builds toward its conclusion, it becomes increasingly suspenseful and gripping. The last page is unexpectedly devastating. Under all the humorous quirks and whimsies that keep, as it were, a head of foamy froth on top, there is a dark, strong liquor that savors of horror and evil. It's really a complete book in itself, requiring no sequels, if you don't mind leaving to imagination the outcome of Eddie and Jane's campaign to change their world. But now that I've seen the train roll out of East Carmine station, taking a piece of Eddie with it, I won't rest easy until I read what happens next.

The Woman Who Died a Lot
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Ages: 14+

In book 3 of the second quartet of "Thursday Next" novels, we find Swindon U.K.'s greatest literary detective facing a vast array of mid-life challenges, such as controlling the residual pain in the leg she broke in her previous adventure, not being bitter when command of the newly re-organized Spec Ops literary division is handed to a younger agent, settling into a new career as director of the Wessex All You Can Eat at Fatso's (Drink Not Included) Library Service, and having trouble remembering to visit the body-art parlor to ask why she got a tattoo reminding her that her daughter Jenny is a mind worm created by a super-villain able to tamper with people's memories. She has to face budget cuts, a mysterious series of book vandalisms, crises in the lives of her two teenaged children, and an impending smiting by a wrathful Deity—all while being repeatedly replaced by lookalike synthetic life-forms, built to last only a day or so, for some reason best known to the world-domination-coveting Goliath Corporation. So yeah, her plate is pretty full.

At this point, you need to understand—and please ignore the fit of evil laughter I'm having at the notion suggested by the word "understand"—a few things about the world Thursday Next lives in. Right up front: it's not exactly our world. It's one of the seventy-odd alternate realities that exist alongside, or under, or (gulp) some yet-to-be-invented-preposition our world. It's a pretty daft world; though, mind you, so is ours. But it's a world that should particularly appeal to bookish people like you and me. For example, in Thursday's reality, literature is taken very seriously. Librarians are legally empowered to use deadly force to recover overdue books, and to protect library holdings from theft and vandalism. Fans of many authors include militant extremists who are not above committing deadly violence to protest revised editions and negative criticism. And the Goliath Corporation wants, among other things, to cash in on the vast, untapped market that exists within the Book World—the text-based reality where the settings and characters one imagines while reading, exist and dwell.

I'm going to leave it at that for now, because the more I try to explain it, the more ludicrous it sounds. The point is, Goliath wants into the Book World; but until now, only Thursday Next could go there. But with highly advanced "Day Players" running around—those synthetic folks whose superhuman mental and physical abilities make up for their short shelf life—there is now a real chance that Goliath will find a way in. And you can bet they won't go as polite visitors; their mission is to control and exploit.

While Thursday tries to work out what the Goliath angle is this time, she finds herself constantly having to check whether she's really herself or a Day Player double. Meanwhile, she must try to figure out why Goliath is so interested in copies of not-very-rare manuscripts by a mediocre medieval saint. Meanwhile, her family's fictional butler (don't ask) is trying to explore the Dark Reading Matter where deleted fictional characters go, using the imaginary childhood friends of dying people, together with early-model dodo birds brought back from extinction by cottage-industry genetic engineering. Meanwhile, Thursday's genius daughter Tuesday is trying to perfect her anti-smite shield technology in time to save downtown Swindon from a scheduled smiting due at lunchtime on Friday. Meanwhile, Thursday's son Friday struggles to cope with the knowledge that the illustrious career he would have had in the ChronoGuard (defenders of the optimal timeline) has been replaced with a prison sentence for murdering an obnoxious twerp named Gavin Watkins. Meanwhile, Thursday's brother Joffy, spiritual leader of the Church of the Global Standard Deity, bravely resolves to face incineration in the divine smiting as an act of protest, while the only apparent way to save him (by luring the smite out of its fore-ordained path and onto a tent full of really sinful people) is one that will only enrich the evil Goliath Corporation—and so Thursday must somehow stop it. Meanwhile (!!!) Aornis Hades, mnemonomorph (that means she can toy with your memory), has escaped justice for her crimes and is hiding right under Thursday's nose—a problem that, for reasons you can easily imagine, will be nearly impossible for the Next family to resolve, especially as Aornis nears the completion of her plan to make them her slaves.

That's enough meanwhiles for a couple of books. And yet all of that is in this one outrageous, hilarious, bizarre, brain-tickling book. All of that, plus a Welsh-built car that handles like a tank (because it is one), an order of nuns who worship a lobster, an order of monks who constantly throw themselves out of windows, a former celebrity stalker who is now studying to earn his hermit license, a peel-off painkiller that gives new meaning to the word "bootleg," a man who ages backward on one side of his body, and the dilemma of how to save the planet from an oncoming asteroid using time travel, which hasn't been invented yet. Or rather, it has been retroactively determined that it will no longer be invented. Find the loophole in that and you just might be loopy enough to experience Thursday's world. Trust me: The book will go by quickly, in a whirl of sexy, funny, smart, and action-packed surprises. And while some long-running conflicts are finally resolved in this book, I hope and trust there will still be plenty of juice left over to run the rumored final book in the series: Dark Reading Matter.

Trials of Death
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

In book 5 of the "Saga of Darren Shan," a.k.a. "Cirque Du Freak"—or book 2 of the "Vampire Rites" trilogy, which is the second of four trilogies within the same—half-vampire Darren starts to look less like an eternally whiny teenage git and more like someone with the potential to be a hero. But it looks as if he may need to be drowned, roasted, sliced, and skewered along the way. As you would expect from the ending of Vampire Mountain, Darren must either pass five trials of physical courage, luck, and endurance—any of which could kill him—or, upon failing or wimping out, face execution by being dropped repeatedly into a pit of sharpened stakes. While none of the possible deaths offered by the randomly-drawn trials sounds much better than that, Darren opts to face fate on his feet.

But after seeing Darren survive his first three trials and growing more confident that he is going to make it through them all, what happens next may not be what you expect. Just when I was enjoying the predictable groove the book had fallen into—livened up by an escalating series of scary close-calls—author Darren Shan (actually O'Shaughnessy) did the thing I least expected: the unexpected. And by giving his story a surprisingly surprising twist, he actually surprised me. Well done!

Okay, to be honest, I had noticed some hints and fore-shadowings. It isn't so much what happened that surprised me, as when it happened, and where it left poor Darren at the end of this book. Let's just say that there's a highly placed traitor in Vampire Mountain; an invading force of the vile Vampaneze clan getting ready to strike at the unsuspecting vampires; a faithful friend lying lifeless in the dark; and one disgraced young hero who, when offered the choice between joining the enemy and certain death, chooses the latter. It really seems like time is up for Darren.

How the next installment, titled The Vampire Prince, is going to pull him out of this cliff-hanger is a breathlessly urgent question, considering how the end of this book leaves Darren not dangling from a cliff, but actually plunging to his swift and gruesome doom. Me? I'm not worried. I've got Book 6 (or Book 3, if you prefer) on hold at the public library. I'm sure it will become available before the suspense drives me insane. (Twitch! Giggle!)

The Vampire Prince
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book 6 of "The Saga of Darren Shan," also known in some markets as the "Cirque du Freak" series, begins where the previous book left young half-vampire Darren—in a damp, dark place deep within Vampire Mountain, hurtling down a subterranean river toward all but certain death. Even after he (barely) survives his tumble out of the mountain, Darren faces odds stacked mightily against him. He has failed the trials that were to decide whether he is to be accepted by the vampire clan or executed. He has run away from a death sentence, which also carries a death sentence. And a vampire he counted on to help him, turns out to be a murderer and a traitor working with those enemy bloodsuckers, the Vampaneze.

As Darren slowly recovers from his injuries, naked in a winter wilderness and surviving only by the help of a pack of wolves, he faces some tough choices. Choices like going back to face the music for his disgrace, only to warn the vampires of the danger that lurks within their halls—and doing it before Kurda Smahlt is invested as a Prince, with the power to command absolute obedience. If Darren does not act soon, Kurda will have access to a wonderful stone that enables the Vampire Princes to locate any vampire in the world. And Darren knows that Kurda already has Vampaneze allies hidden in the mountain, ready to begin carrying out the prophecy that says they will wipe out the vampires.

In this dark, violent, dangerous adventure, Darren shows courage, resourcefulness, and the ability to feel compassion toward his enemies. He faces the fury of battle, an assassination attempt, and a trial for his life. He learns more about how vampire society works, and thinks about how it should change. He sees death, grief, and disabling injury come to people he cares about and respects. He experiences the agonizing dilemma between two options in which good and evil seem equally mixed. He proves himself worthy of being spared the death sentence that hangs over him, yet must face a system of vampire laws which are slow to change and which recognize only one way to cheat a death sentence... a solution that may surprise you as much as it surprises Darren.

The fact that this book concludes the "Vampire Rites" trilogy (the second of four trilogies in this 12-book series), should not discourage those of us who are captivated by Darren Shan's (or rather O'Shaughnessy's) unique twist on vampire lore. The next trilogy is titled "Vampire War," and its first book is Hunters of the Dusk—which I expect to pick up at my neighborhood library today!

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