Marisa Richards is an ordinary young woman, living an ordinary life until the day she visits the Roskovich Carnival. There, in the sideshow tent, she views the body of Alexi Kristov, a purported millennium-old vampire who is being held captive in a deep sleep, although she doesn't believe a word of the wild tale the carnival owner tells. As she's trying to get a closer look at Alexi, Marisa injures herself, leaving behind a bit of blood. Little does she know that the scent of it awakens the vampire who becomes obsessed with possessing her. Upon returning to the carnival, she meets a handsome man who arouses her interest. After sharing a couple of dates, he reveals that he, too, is a vampire who is searching for Alexi. At first, she thinks he's lying, but soon she becomes unquestionably aware that the creatures she thought were nothing more than myth or legend are indeed real. But despite her strong attraction to him, Marisa doesn't think she can bring herself to love a vampire.
Grigori Chiavari is a two-hundred-year-old vampire who lost his family to Alexi's cruelty. After his children were killed and his wife, Antionette, was enthralled by Alexi to be his slave, Grigori was approached by a female vampire who offered to give him the Dark Gift so that he could seek vengeance, something he eagerly accepted. He's been hunting Alexi ever since, but for nearly a century, the Roskovich family had Alexi imprisoned out of his reach. Now in need of money, they've taken him on tour, only to lose him when he awakens. When Grigori meets Marisa, she stirs something within him that he hasn't felt since Antoinette, but when he reveals what he is, she fears him. Not to be deterred, he vows to protect her from Alexi no matter the cost. With the help of a vampire hunter, they search for their enemy through time and space, but even if they can neutralize the threat he poses, can Marisa ever come to love Grigori in spite of what he is?
Shades of Gray is the first book in Amanda Ashley's Shades series (also named Vampire Trilogy on some websites). While attending a carnival, Marisa, a human woman, visits the sideshow tent where all sorts of unusual "people" are on display, but none are more odd than a purported thousand-year-old, evil vampire named Alexi. As she tries to get a closer look at him, she injures herself and the scent of her blood awakens the creature who goes on a killing spree throughout the city, although his true obsession is with finding Marisa and making her his. But Grigori, who is also a vampire, and Edward, a human vampire hunter, make her acquaintance separately, both with the express purpose of protecting her. Grigori lost his entire family to Alexi's cruelty and Edward has sworn to kill all creatures of the night, but the two men have formed an uneasy alliance while working against their common enemy. When Alexi kidnaps Marisa, they travel to the past in search of her and deal a serious, though not fatal, blow to their foe. Grigori and Marisa gradually fall in love, but Marisa struggles with what it might mean to be with a vampire. However, just as she's come to terms with it and things seem perfect between them, Alexi returns, and this time, he may succeed in his mission.
Marisa is an ordinary human woman with a very ordinary human life. She's a secretary to an attorney and cares a great deal about her family, though they all live far from her. After visiting the carnival and accidentally awakening Alexi, then meeting Grigori and Edward, her life goes from ordinary to extraordinary overnight, as she discovers that the creatures of the night are indeed real. She also suddenly finds her life in danger as she's pulled into the search for Alexi in the hopes that he can be found before doing her harm, a search that also leads them to the past. As they work together, she finds herself deeply attracted to Grigori, but struggling with the idea of being involved with a vampire. I couldn't help feeling that Marisa was a very underdeveloped character. What I've outlined here is about all we get to know of her, which is precious little. She's a twenty-four-year-old, modern-day virgin who seems intent on waiting for her wedding night, but with no real reasoning given for this decision. For such a young woman, she's into some rather old-fashioned things (eg. John Wayne movies). She spends the better part of the story insisting that she can't be with Grigori because of what he is, repulsed by his need to drink blood to survive, and not really trusting him. Then during the last third or so of the book, she has a miraculous turnaround with little thought or reasoning going into it beyond the fact that she can't stop thinking about him. Unlike in most paranormal romances I've read, Marisa is pretty timid and isn't even close to being a kick-butt heroine. Not all of them have to be, but when Edward tries to kill Grigori, the man she supposedly loves, she doesn't do anything beyond begging him not to. Even in the climactic fight scene against Alexi, it takes Grigori pushing her to get her to really act. Normally I love sweet heroines, and while I didn't exactly dislike Marisa, her passivity could be rather frustrating at times.
Grigori is a two-hundred-year-old vampire, who in his human life, had a beloved wife and two children. Obsessed with Grigori's wife, Antoinette, Alexi killed his son and daughter, and enthralled Antoinette, turning her into a zombie-like creature with no will of her own except to please her master and be his minion. After losing his wife and kids, Grigori was approached by a female vampire who offered him the Dark Gift in order to avenge his family, something he eagerly accepted. Ever since, he's been hunting Alexi, who always seemed to be one step ahead of him, but then Alexi was captured by the family who owned the carnival and placed in a crypt out of Grigori's reach until they decided to take him on tour with the carnival. Now Grigori is back on the hunt, but when he realizes that Alexi has targeted Marisa, he vows to keep her safe. She stirs him in a way that no other woman has since Antoinette, but even after two centuries, he still pines for his wife. However, once he receives some closure on that part of his life, he's ready to make Marisa his if only she can accept him and if Alexi doesn't get to her first. In spite of Edward's assertions that he's evil like all vampires and Marisa's misgivings, Grigori is a genuinely great guy. Although he killed some people in the beginning, once he learned to control his Hunger, he hasn't killed anyone in a century and a half unless it was for his own self-preservation. He's never anything but kind and gentle with Marisa and is willing to put his life on the line to protect her, which is why I had a hard time with her distrusting him for so long. Out of all the characters in the book, Grigori is probably the most well-drawn, but even still, when he flipped to being the one having some doubts after Marisa finally acquiesced, I couldn't help feeling just a tad irritated with him.
Not only is Marisa an underdeveloped character, but so are Alexi and Edward. Aside from supposedly being bored after a millennium of life, Alexi just seems to be evil for the sake of being evil. Edward is merely from a long line of vampire hunters, and as such, hates all creatures of the night. Although he doesn't trust Grigori, they have an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend type of relationship, reluctantly working together to take down Alexi. But once the task is finished, Edward is determined to kill Grigori, too, even though Grigori has never done anything to him, which didn't entirely make sense to me. Another thing that troubled me was the relationship development between Grigori and Marisa. For about two-thirds of the book, I felt an emotional disconnect between them. In spite of being very attracted to Marisa, Grigori still pines for Antoinette, and when he comes face-to-face with her after all these years, it only exacerbates the problem. Then once he finds closure, he gets over her rather quickly to turn his focus back on Marisa. For Marisa's part, she's distrustful of Grigori, which always puts a damper on any burgeoning romantic feelings for me, because I can't see how two people can have a successful relationship without trust. As I mentioned before, she's also repulsed by his need for blood and absolutely insistent that in spite of falling in love with Grigori, they can't be together, because he's a vampire. Then at the prescribed turning point in the story, she simply gets past most of these concerns and decides that she wants a life with him after all. Not only that, but she starts thinking about letting him turn her vampire as well. There just wasn't enough thought going into any of this to make Marisa changing her mind this quickly and drastically believable.
In addition to weak character and relationship development, I thought the plot was pretty thin, slow-paced, and lacking in focus. Things kind of drag through the first half of the story until they travel back in time. However, this part doesn't last long before they return to the present. Despite being one of the better parts of the story and even though it provides a bit of action and adventure, this section didn't really serve any purpose I could discern that couldn't have been accomplished in the present. Once Alexi is temporarily neutralized and they come back, literally nothing much happens again until the very end. Grigori and Marisa go on dates, talk, kiss, and simply spend time together and that's about it. Then their relationship finally culminates, followed by Alexi's return, but I felt like he was dispatched a bit too quickly. I really thought the story would have been better if Alexi's threat had been more intense and immediate, instead of him being rendered to the background or out of sight for a large part of the narrative. As an aside here, I was also deceived by the cover (I have what I believe is a copy of the original publication). The models are shown in period dress on the front, and on the back, there's a horse and carriage, which made me think this was a historical paranormal when only a small portion of the book actually takes place in the past. It's predominantly a contemporary paranormal.
Ultimately Shades of Gray was merely an OK read for me, not terrible but neither was it great. I was able to power through in spite of there being parts that were rather dull for this genre. Even though some of the characters were underdeveloped and occasionally frustrated me, I generally liked Grigori, Marisa, and Edward. Edward goes on to become the hero of the next book of the trilogy, After Sundown, and apparently Grigori (and maybe Marisa) are in it as well. In looking at the cover blurb, it sounds rather interesting, and as it turns out, I have the book on my TBR pile. However, after reading a total half-dozen novels and novellas by this author, most of which have fallen into the OK rating zone, I'm not sure if I'll be in a hurry to pick it up.
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