Review: Grey by Jon Armstrong

189. Grey by Jon Armstrong
Publication: Night Shade Books (February 7, 2007), ebook
Genre: Sci-Fi, Romance?, Speculative Fiction
Rating: Buy it (see new rating guide)
Read: September 19, 2010
Source: Free download from Night Shade Books
Summary from Amazon:

For Michael Rivers, life is perfect. He is tall, handsome and worshipped by billions of fans around the globe. He is wealthy beyond measure, the heir apparent to one of the high-tech corporations that controls the world. He is fashionable, setting trends with his wardrobe of immaculate designer suits. And Michael is in love with Nora, his beautiful, witty and equally perfect fiancee. When an assassin’s bullets pierce Michael’s body before the cameras at a press junket, everything changes. Forcibly separated from Nora, his illusions shattered, Michael seeks to uncover the reasons behind the attempted assassination. Michael delves deep into his past, finding that all paths lead to a time when he was the golden boy, dancing furiously to the beat of notorious all-night Rage parties thrown by his father.


Okay, so you know sometimes when I review a book I say the topic/genre/whatever isn’t my “thing” and so you should take that review with a grain of salt, especially if it’s YOUR thing? Well, Grey is the sort of book that is my thing. It’s my thing so hard I’m surprised I didn’t burst something in my brain when I read it, because I really adore almost everything about Grey. The author calls it “fashionpunk,” which I suppose is a take off of cyberpunk with an emphasis on clothing instead of machinery. It’s set in a future version of our world, and it’s gloriously fucked up. It’s almost a dystopia, but not in the traditional sense. It’s more like what the Western world is like today times fifty and mutated with something that breathes heavily in your closet at night.

That’s the sort of thing I love to read about. Transmetropolitan is set in a similar world to Grey. Feed is another similar book, and the Uglies series, maybe also Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Anyway, I just really enjoy reading about future versions of ourselves, because books dealing with that tend to have something truthful and insightful to say about our own time period. That’s always fun to read.

The best thing about Grey (besides the setting) is the writing. Those sentences suck you in and won’t let you go– which is why I ended up reading it in a single day. I couldn’t STOP READING, and that’s kind of nice sometimes, in a book. Alright, not “kind of,” it’s WONDERFUL to have in a book. Here, here’s the first few paragraphs:

Nora and I finished our fried whale and plum sandwiches, our cream coffees, and the cocoa and coca pastries, and sat in a comfortable silence as landscapes of buildings and millions of well-wishers whirred past the windows at six hundred kilometers per hour. Halfway on our train-date, after the conductor blew the massive, buzzing horn, and the waitresses in their black-and-yellow-striped honeybee uniforms, complete with dangerously sharp-looking stingers, cleared the dishes, Nora closed her right eye and gazed at me with her left; I, in turn, did the same, and it was like we were the perfect couple.

This was our fourth and last date before our marriage, and while the whole thing had been arranged between our parents to complete the merger of our families’ companies, I could not have imagined or wished for someone as wonderful as she. Standing just an inch below my six foot three, with shiny black hair, a light walnut complexion, and obsidian eyes, her features were wide and open like an innocent doll, but she was also intelligent and witty. Most impressive of all was that she, like myself, loved the fashion magazine Pure H. We quoted from it, dressed and struck poses like the models, and felt that we were just like the beautiful and tragic people of our dreams.

See? Told you.

And besides the writing, it’s a lot of fun tracing where Mr Armstrong thinks our society went to get from here to there. It’s fashion, celebrity, magazines, sexual, uh, “openness,” I guess, and so on– basically, our pop culture society ramped up to 11. Not really somewhere I’d want to live, but a lot of fun to read about. I was especially interested in how the characters treated magazines like we’d treat fine novels; I don’t remember reading about someone reading a novel, just short magazine copy, which makes me think about all those articles talking about how the attention span of modern times is not what it used to be 100 years ago (it’s true, too).

Now, there are some problems with Grey. The character development was very slow, and the ending disappointed me because it a) explained something I had already knew from reading the story in the first place, and b) was kind of…low-key compared with the rest of the book. Instead of a bang it ended with a whimper, and that was sad. I was also somewhat annoyed with how women were treated: there were the prostitutes, strippers, groupies, socialites and models, and then there was a tutor and, as a secondary character, a CEO. I suppose it’s a statement on how that society conducted itself, and to be fair the tutor was the most sensible person in the entire book, but then it turned out [SPOILER, highlight to read] that she was an uber-assassin anyway and she DIED at the end, so…I don’t know. I wish there had been more powerful women in there, somewhere, someone more like Michael’s tutor except not [SPOILER] dead and/or evil.

Nora was NOT interesting to me, but she played a large part in the book, especially in Michael’s motivations. But she was so busy being the romantic heroine for most of the plot she never did anything useful, and she never got any character development or any real personality beyond what Michael thought she had. She and Michael get almost no screen time together, but Michael is so sure he’s figured her out based on the fact that they both read the same magazine and subscribe to the grey philosophy– but is that really all she is? Is that all Michael is? The review at Strange Horizons brings this up, and they had something interesting to say that might explain it: “But again, this can be turned around: the criticism of Michael and Nora—a criticism of the inherent superficiality of love in our society, related more to class and social distinctions than actual personal connection—seems to be part of Armstrong’s general project. Michael and Nora fail to overcome the superficiality of their world when they develop a relationship based on little more than material similarities.”

That view of things makes the ending more sensible, when Michael seems to have grown as a person and a character, and the world seems like it might be somewhat different than it was in the beginning of the book, but really it’s all the same. That might be why I was disappointed with the whimper of an ending, because there AREN’T really any lasting changes in either characters or setting, and that’s what I was hoping for.

Or maybe it’s just a bad ending, I don’t know.

I think also my disappointment with the women of Grey is that so much of sci-fi and especially dystopian-type stories is that women always get screwed over. In dystopias they’re always virtual slaves (except in the case of Y, The Last Man), and in sci-fi they’re almost non-existent. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part it’s a male-dominated genre, and that’s, yeah, disappointing. More strong female characters in sci-fi and dystopian novels, please!!

Anyway! Yes, despite my problems with the female characters, I enjoyed Grey a lot, like I said. It’s a good book to spend a day reading, for sure.


Get your own copy for free from here or buy a paper version @ Amazon and support Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog!

Other reviews: SF | Strange Horizons (which is a really good review all around, and helped me figure out some things re:the book’s motifs and so on) | Elf M. Sternberg | Fifty Pages

Mr Armstrong has another book coming out in December, Yarn, and I’m definitely going to check it out! It’s a prequel to Grey, so…yeah!

0 thoughts on “Review: Grey by Jon Armstrong”

    1. I would say try it, because it IS free and because besides the lack of really good female characters it’s well-written. 🙂

      I don’t know why adult dystopian novels are so hard on women. One thing I’ve noticed about YA dystopian fiction is that women tend to be treated better than in adult dystopian fiction; I have no idea why that is, but I’m glad that SOMEONE is willing to not screw women over when the world ends. (Not that I’d categorize Grey as a dystopian novel.)

  1. great write up! I’d heard about this book, and now I am really intersted in reading. I like dystopian, I don’t mind shallow people, i like weird futuristic views on romance. . . and i especially like delightfully fucked up.

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