Fiction Reviews

Red Side Story

(2024) Jasper Fforde, Hodder & Stoughton, £20, hrdbk, 374pp, ISBN 978-1-399-73176-8


It has been 15 years since the first book in this series, Shades of Grey (not that one!) was published in 2009. At the time it was well received and here is the sequel.

The main concept behind these novels is clever and - dare I say it - colourful. Eddie Russett and Jane Grey live in an alternative UK, where society and the strict levels of hierarchy within it are determined by which colour you can mainly see. So Eddie, mainly seeing red, is a middle level operative - a ‘Mr Average’ - to you and me while Jane is monochromatic, the lowest level you can get.

In the first book they met, fell in love, was nearly killed by a group of Yellows and sent to High Saffron, all whilst avoiding ‘the Green Room’ - not a place for celebrities to relax in before being interviewed, but in a Logan’s Run kind of way a place where you go to die (albeit peacefully.)

In this book, at the start, the two are living in East Carmine, trying to lie low out on the fringes of Red Sector West. The problem is, is that they're about to be trialled for the death of Courtland Gamboge, a Yellow they were with in the last book, Despite them being innocent, it seems that the trial is set against them: all is not fair within their cosy environment. What is the truth of their world? And is there somewhere safe – purposefully unseen but watching them – across the sea?

The couple end up travelling across Chromatacia, attempting to overthrow the Collective and survive at the same time. The result is that we find out more about Eddie and Jane’s world and the people within it. Some of their discoveries are revelatory, but I won’t spoil those for you.

Much of the fun in reading a Jasper Fforde book is just going with the journey. The book is filled with snarky and witty comments, with even the names having meaning. There are so many ideas being juggled here - sly observations on society and the class system, conformity and the need to be individual, the need for justice and also to sometimes break rules – are all mentioned along the way, not to mention conspiracy theories, analogies to Brexit and transport improvements such as HS2. I also found it good fun spotting all the cultural Easter eggs, from a Star Wars reference to Richmal Crompton’s William, with a dash of Oz thrown in.

With all of that in mind, suffice it to say that the setup of the world is clever and the writing is witty and literate – typical Jasper Fforde. The only issue is that if, like me, you haven't read the first book this initially makes no sense at all. There is a huge information dump in the first chapter that quickly gives the reader an idea of what is going on, but for those new to the series, it is a bit in your face. The ideas are so many and the plot so wild that you can spend a lot of your time, as I did, rereading paragraphs in order to make sure you have got all of the references. I can see that for some it may be a case of being too wacky, too much at once.

Once past that initial précis and setup, the book settles into a more comfortable, if breathless, pace.

Along the way I was reminded of so many other ideas with similar themes – there are touches of the aforementioned Logan’s Run, but also The Prisoner, 1984 and even The Truman Show, as our heroes come up against the Collective system, trying to both escape and discover the reality of their world. Phrases regularly used, such as “Apart We Are Together” have a chilling ring to them, echoing the meaningless phrases thrown out by our present-day politicians.

The ending resolves key issues, some of which I understand go back to Shades of Grey, but there is also a degree of setting up for another book. If you make it to the end, I suspect that the fact that there will be another book will be greeted with glee.

In conclusion, I would suggest you go and read Shades of Grey first and then going on to this one. Fforde is undoubtedly intelligent, witty and clever and these books show a writer determined not to keep things simple. Whilst willing to poke fun at our societal morals and ideas, Jasper also shows us that he is able to take smart ideas and have fun running with them. It’s a wild, yet internally logical, ride.

Mark Yon


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