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ARC Review: One Dark Window (Shepherd King #1) by Rachel Gillig


Release date: 27 September 2022

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Boxes: FairyLoot October YA

Synopsis: Elspeth Spindle needs more than luck to stay safe in the eerie, mist-locked kingdom of Blunder—she needs a monster. She calls him the Nightmare, an ancient, mercurial spirit trapped in her head. He protects her. He keeps her secrets.


But nothing comes for free, especially magic.


When Elspeth meets a mysterious highwayman on the forest road, her life takes a drastic turn. Thrust into a world of shadow and deception, she joins a dangerous quest to cure Blunder from the dark magic infecting it. And the highwayman? He just so happens to be the King’s nephew, Captain of the most dangerous men in Blunder…and guilty of high treason.


Together they must gather twelve Providence Cards—the keys to the cure. But as the stakes heighten and their undeniable attraction intensifies, Elspeth is forced to face her darkest secret yet: the Nightmare is slowly taking over her mind. And she might not be able to stop him.

 

Review


One Dark Window, in general, is a perfect October book. Spooky season and Halloween vibes come together nicely in this tale set in the misty, dark woods full of scariness, ghosts, and yellow-eyed monstrosities. The characters are sneaky like robbers and are, for the most part, generally likable with realistic faults. If you’re looking for an adult horror romance with a complex plot and organically interwoven magic system, this may not be the book for you. The author says it’s “YA accessible,” but I think that may only be applicable to the simplistic plot structure and not the sexual content or graphic violence with very descriptive, gory wound depictions, fitting the book solidly in the adult genre. The story also ends on a massive cliffhanger, which makes this a possible reread (for those who have that kind of problem) waiting to happen.


The most unique thing about this book is the magic system. Many books have been written about court intrigue, tyrannical monarchs and plots to overthrow them, and ancient kingdoms overturned by current ruling families whose impending comeuppance makes up the plot of a story. Not many books have been written about magic cards that grant power (with severe limitations) to the holders. The Providence cards and the magic they grant feel a bit like a gimmick to me. The collecting of them drive the plot, which only consists of three or so places (the village and its surrounding woods and a couple of castles), and the pacing of said plot stretches very thin and moves at a snail’s pace in this book. Since the book carries an adult fantasy classification, the book could very well have touted 600 or so pages and gotten the whole story taken care of in one go. After all, fantasy readers are used to having huge tomes lodged at them, so a 600+ page debut would not have made too many folks balk.


As for characters, Elspeth and our Captain make for a great romantic couple. The two don’t resist too much, and once they give in to their feelings, the characters around them react in entertaining ways, which provides some nice comic relief to break up the dark atmosphere and tone of the book. Supporting characters don’t take too much away from the two lovers, but I found myself liking all of the ones I should like and hating very vehemently the ones I should hate.


Unfortunately, the rating for me dipped below a 4 because the book transitioned from one place, setting, and/or conversation to another in the most disjointed ways. Not only did the narrative slow significantly in places, but it did not flow smoothly. I had to, several times, go back and figure out where the characters were, what they were currently doing, and what they were talking about several times. Also, the settings and happenings felt repetitive—lots of fights in the woods, lots of clandestine searches for cards, and a couple of visits to a derelict structure in the woods—and it was hard to keep things in order.


Overall, 3.5 out of 5 stars. Gillig’s debut was not completely terrible. It was an enjoyable story with a unique (albeit gimmicky) magic system and likable characters. The setting and tone provide the perfect mood for spooky Halloween season. The biggest drawbacks for me were the limited scope—the book only had three or so settings—and the choppiness of the story transitions. I had to go back and reread a bit to reorient myself a few times, but these issues may be resolved in the polished, final version, which is why I didn’t ding it too much. It’s also a debut, but it felt like one giant set up for the real action to come in the next book (and a bit like butter spread over too much bread), and it ended in a steeeeep cliffhanger. I’m not a big fan of those, and I usually wait until an entire series is out before starting it because I hate them so much. I hope FairyLoot does a matching edition for the sequel. It'll suck having a hardcover of the first book and only a paperback of the second.


My thanks to NetGalley for the eARC, for which I give my own opinion.




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