The Shepherd King, #1: One Dark Window
By: Rachel Gillig
Published: September 27, 2022
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Folklore
There once was a girl, clever and good, who tarried in shadow in the depths of the wood. There also was a King—a shepherd by his crook, who reigned over magic and wrote the old book. The two were together, so the two were the same:
The girl, the King…and the monster they became, (Chapter Three).
Readers often take for granted that either a book’s cover or a book’s description is enough to seize their attention. However, these marketable methods are presented so that the book is purchased, meaning there is no guarantee the book will be read. One of the main reasons this occurs is because there are other books whose descriptions and book covers come across as more appealing than the other one(s). This tends to happen with debut novels where there is enough emphasis about the book which grasps our attention, but we don’t read it immediately. In most cases, by the time readers get to the book to read, they scold themselves for not reading it sooner. I almost did this with One Dark Window—Rachel Gillig’s debut novel. To say neither the cover nor the description does the book justice would be a HUGE understatement. This Gothic fantasy is this year’s mind-blowing book!
The protagonist in this novel is Elspeth Spindle. She is 20 years-old at the start of the book, but her story begins 11 years earlier when she caught and survived a deadly fever. In Elspeth’s country, Blunder, this fever infects mostly children at random; and, if they survive the fever, then those individuals are said to be “infected,” but not with what you would believe. Survivors of the fever develop “magical symptoms” such as new abilities and/or strange sensations. Yet, it appears Elspeth has no magic, which means she doesn’t need to fear being arrested or even executed by the King and his associates. Unfortunately, Elspeth’s (and her family’s) relief was short lived when a young Elspeth wandered into her uncle’s study and touched something she shouldn’t have touched. For 11 years, Elspeth’s mind has been shared with a being known as Nightmare. During that same time frame, Elspeth has been living with her Aunt Opal and her family—she is very close to her cousin, Ione. Elspeth’s father, Erik, and her stepmother, Nerium, sent her to her aunt and uncle’s estate to fight off the fever. While Elspeth’s father couldn’t allow her to return home because he is the Captain of the Destriers—the King’s elite soldiers—Nerium doesn’t want her to return home because Elspeth is a reminder of her late mother, Erik’s first wife. Nerium and Elspeth’s half-sisters, Nya and Dimia, take their pleasure in excluding Elspeth from family functions, including Elspeth’s own birthday celebration. Besides Ione, Elspeth has Nightmare for companionship—not that she has any choice. Nightmare has “gifted” Elspeth with enhanced physical abilities (i.e. endurance, speed, etc.) and alerts her and protects her when harm is heading their way. However, Elspeth knows she can’t maintain her secret for much longer because sooner or later someone will find out about Elspeth surviving the fever. Elspeth decides to attend the King’s Ball where she meets the Yew Family, close relatives of the King. It turns out this is not the first time Elspeth has met this family. The Yew Family has taken it upon themselves to search for a way to “cure” Blunder of its curse; and, they believe Elspeth can help them do it. Ravyn Yew—the eldest of the children—convinces Elspeth to help them with their quest. Elspeth agrees because she wants Nightmare gone from her mind. Strangely, the more Elspeth works with the Yew Family, the more she relies on Nightmare, who reveals the actual cost of Elspeth using his magic. Elspeth must make a choice between whose survival is more important: hers and her family’s; the Yews and the Royal Family; or, the entire realm of Blunder. Keep in mind that as Elspeth develops, so does Nightmare.
There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot focuses on Elspeth’s involvement to break the curse. After Elspeth is attacked, she is coaxed into joining a trope of highwaymen whose purpose is to steal ALL of the Providence Cards so the curse can be lifted off Blunder. One of the individuals involved in this is Ravyn Yew—the King’s nephew and a soldier who is training to be the next Captain of the Destriers, the role Elspeth’s father holds currently. Ravyn Yew and his family—NOT the King’s family per se—are willing to commit treason in order to save Blunder. The second plot delves into Elspeth’s time at Court. Both Elspeth’s and Ione’s families are of nobility and their time at Court for the festivities aligns ALL of the court and the political intrigue occurring there whether or not they want to get involved with them. In addition, it seems High Prince Hauth Rowan is interested to know why Elspeth and Ravyn are spending so much time together. There are a few subplots which correlate with the plots while providing elements of world-building to the narrative. The first subplot delves into Blunder’s Curse and the ”magic” of the Providence Cards. According to Blunder’s history, the Legendary Shepherd King “bartered” for the Providence Cards, and they were given to him. At the same time, history and legend state that ALL of the Providence Cards—78 total—are required for lifting the curse. Which leads to the second subplot: Why wasn’t the Shepherd King successful in breaking the curse when he was the one who had access to all of the Providence Cards in the first place? And, why hasn’t the Royal Family—the Rowans—attempt to do it themselves? The third subplot investigates Elspeth’s host relationship with Nightmare. The lore and the history of Blunder warns there is a cost to ALL magic. After 11 years, Elspeth is starting to rely on Nightmare more and more. Elspeth wants the curse to be lifted and her mind to be her own again, but she is running out of time and her mind is not the only thing at stake. The plots and the subplots are multifold, but they are layered in a way so that they all connect to the narrative while presenting it on a vast scale for the audience to grasp how the microcosm of the conflict affects the macrocosm of the Kingdom.
The narrative in this book is very stimulating. This is because while the narration is in first person from Elspeth’s point-of-view, Elspeth’s thoughts and stream-of-consciousness are “shared” with Nightmare. Elspeth cannot have any private internal thoughts because Nightmare is in her mind, literally. At the same time, Nightmare is a sentient being who is so powerful that his—yes, Nightmare is male—thoughts, memories, and stream-of-consciousness bleed into Elspeth’s mind. In other words, Elspeth begins to “witness” Nightmare’s past experiences the same way Nightmare experiences Elspeth’s present life. The memories, the flashbacks, and the streams-of-consciousness of these two characters make them reliable narrators. And, while the narrative can be followed by the audience easily, they will notice the significance of Nightmare being hosted in Elspeth’s mind, and the consequences of it.
The style Rachel Gillig uses for One Dark Window is both creative and conspicuous. This narrative is a combination of dark fantasy and Gothic fiction, but is contains elements of folklore as well. The blending of the tropes from these literary genres transformed this book into its own folklore fantasy tale. The fantasy is obvious to the readers, but the folklore emerges thanks to the “old book” mentioned and quoted (by the characters) throughout the narrative. “Old” stories and tales—especially myths, legends, and folktales—contains elements of truth and aspects of history within them. Whatever is left of an era and/or a moment in history is often reduced to a “simple” story—or, even a song—that is passed on for posterity. Most of the characters in this narrative are aware of how much historical content is in the “old book,” while they remain unaware of what was omitted from it and how much was forgotten by the descendants. Another thing to know about the style are both the Providence Cards—based on Tarot Cards (there are 78 cards with 22 Major Arcana cards)—which fans of both The Night Circus and the Persona series will be familiar with. Not to mention, the use of rhyme throughout the narrative demonstrates the amount of creativity placed on this story by the author. Fans of Dr. Seuss, Eminem, and (the video game) Child of Light will be impressed by this excellent use of word choice and sentence structure. The mood in this novel is tribulation. There is a curse that affects the kingdom, the protagonist is cursed, and the sources of magic are cursed. Everyone within the kingdom must choose between magic and exhortation. The tone in this novel is time. The amount of suffering that has been happening throughout the kingdom comes across as being an ordeal. Not everyone makes it out in the end, yet the moment for it to end needs to occur sooner rather than later.
The appeal for One Dark Window have been very positive. Although there have not been many readers for this book yet, the percentage of the readers who gave this book between 4- and 5-stars is 85%. The ratio should be relevant for how much readers enjoyed this book. Fans of dark fantasy should read this book; and, fans of Gothic fiction and/or folklore will enjoy this book, too. Fans of similar books—especially Nettle & Bone and Road of the Lost—will enjoy this book the most. This book belongs in the dark fantasy canon; and, the revelation and the cliffhanger at the end of this book makes the wait for Book 2 feel like a curse that needs to be broken.
One Dark Window is a clever and a creative debut novel. I am glad other readers and bookbloggers convinced me to read this book, otherwise I would have missed out on an excellent (dark) fantasy story. This book is one of the most underrated speculative fiction books of this year; but I can see a cult-following for it. Read this book and you’ll know what I’m mentioning is all true.
My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!
Thank you Orbit Books for sending me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.