Thursday, February 21, 2008

Shades of Gray


James, Jessica. 2008. Shades of Gray: A Novel of the Civil War in Virginia.

A piercing blast from a bugle preceded the sound of galloping horses by seconds. Captain Alexander Hunter tore his eyes away from the horse and rider he pursued and focused on a Federal calvary unit now pursuing him.

The title is key here. It lets you know what to expect, and what not to expect. Civil War. Virginia. Any time a novel is set during the Civil War, expect bloodshed. Especially if it's set in Virginia. Shades of Gray. This is of course alluding (is alluding the right word???) to the ethics and morals of war. Not black. Not white. Not even just gray. But shades of gray. So expect lots of ethical dilemmas and 'hard' conversations on what is morally right and wrong and honorable and dishonorable. The first sentence is also important. It lets you know that this isn't a novel about Northern women or Southern women on the home front waiting and praying while their men go off to fight. The narrative places you right in the action.

We have two main characters. One man. One woman. But what you might not be expecting is that both have already been mentioned in that first sentence. One directly, one indirectly. Our hero is a Confederate. A Virginian. Alex Hunter. Our heroine. Well, she goes by many many different names. Andrew Sinclair. Yes, Andrew. Though the Federal army mostly just calls her "Sinclair." Maryann Marlow. Andrea Evans. All but the last being code names. You see, our spunky young heroine (17 when the story opens) is a spy for the Union army. She didn't start out as a spy, not exactly, but her work as a messenger naturally developed into much much more. She is fearless. She is reckless. She is very spirited. She is well matched to oppose Captain Alex Hunter. The two are enemies. Definitely enemies.

The novel is all about torn loyalties, torn allegiances, conflicting interests. The Civil War did tear families apart. It wasn't unheard of for brothers to be on opposite sides facing each other in battle. Immediate and extended families could be torn apart. And lovers. Was it so difficult to imagine that the heart might have its own loyalties? That love might come in unexpected places, in unexpected ways? Alex Hunter does have a brother in the Union army. And this brother is loved. He even goes to his brother's bedside when he is injured. He makes him a promise, a solemn promise to take care of his brother's love, his 'unofficial' betrothed. This woman? None other than Andrea Evans. Though I believe she is going under a different name at the time. She is there too. By his side. He recognizes her not as the boy who has given him chase in the past, but as a woman living in Richmond, Virginia. A woman he's danced with and flirted with. He realizes then that appearances can be deceiving.

Shades of Gray is 524 pages in length. It is complex. The characters are well fleshed out. The plot has many twists and turns. It is an engaging read. Especially the first half of the novel. I didn't want to put it down at all. My eyes kept getting heavier and heavier, but I wanted to keep going. I told myself "just one more chapter" at least half a dozen times. For me, the second half of the novel wasn't quite as good. The plot became a bit messier. The ending, well, I'm not going to have any spoilers but I think the ending should have come 24 pages sooner. If the narrative had ended with the Civil War, I feel it would have been a stronger conclusion. As it is, there are two chapters that serve as an epilogue of sorts. A fifteen years later. And a twenty-five years later (ten years after the fifteen years chapter, but twenty-five years from the Civil War).

Did I like it? Did I enjoy it? Would I recommend it? Yes. Yes. Mostly. I enjoyed this one. I couldn't put it down for the most part. And while the ending left me slightly unsatisfied, the last twenty-four pages do not negate the five hundred pages that I did enjoy. It is still a thoroughly enjoyable read. It was good. I think for those that love Civil War novels it would definitely satisfy. Of course not every one loves historical fiction. And of those that love historical fiction not everyone loves the Civil War setting. And of those that love Civil War settings, not everyone loves those that take place on and off the battlefields. So I think the book definitely should be recommended to those that fall into that area, that target group.

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