by Rachel Gillig
Series: The Shepherd King #1
Publication Date: September 27, 2022
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
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.
That delightfully creepy cover caught my interest but it was when I read the blurb that I decided I absolutely had to read this book. It’s an utterly engrossing debut, with dangerous mist-filled woods, treachery and lots of gothic vibes – plus an enemies-to-lovers romance. As a note, when I first started reading this, I thought it was a standalone. It most definitely is not and to say that I’m very much interested in reading the next book right now, well that should give you a hint about how it ends.
It used to be that the people of Blunder would go to the Spirit of the Wood and ask for magical help. The Shepherd King, though, used that magic to craft the Providence Cards, and eventually all magic was banned except for them. In retribution for the losing the worship of the people, the Spirit has made the mist encroach more every year on Blunder. Anyone caught in the mist without a talisman becomes infected with wild magic and eventually degenerates. When Elspeth first comes down with the infection, her father, rather than turning her in to the Destriers, sends her to live with her aunt and uncle.
She pretends that she escaped unscathed and without magic, but in reality, after touching her uncle’s Nightmare card, now a Nightmare lives in her mind. The possession is minimal and for most of the eleven years, it’s been content to spew enigmatic rhymes in her head. But when she asks it for help, it can lend her strength and speed – but at what cost? When she encounters – and escapes from – a group of highwaymen intent on stealing her uncle’s Cards, something seems off. And soon it’s clear that those highwaymen were actually high-ranking nobles, including Ravyn, the Captain of the Destriers, intent on securing enough of the Cards to rid Blunder of the mist forever – and they think Elspeth can help them. Surrounded by possible enemies, Elspeth’s Nightmare may be the only one she can depend on.
“In the end, the Nightmare continued, it does not matter how and why the Cards are used. Nothing is free, nothing is safe. Magic always comes at a cost.”
The world building was absolutely fascinating. There are twelve types of Providence Cards, and according to legend, all of them were bargained for by the Shepherd King. Each has different magic and a different price. The Scythe, for instance, allowed its user the power to control others, but at great pain to themselves. Much like Pokemon, there are more common cards and rarer cards, with the rarest never having been found. The others are either in the care of nobles or the king. Legend says that reuniting one of every type of Card will allow the bearer to defeat the mist once and for all, but no one, not even the king, has ever been able to do that.
“What creature is he, with mask made of stone? the Nightmare said once more. A Captain? A highwayman? Or beast yet unknown?”
Elspeth is twenty but she’s been very sheltered, cautious of being around too many people for fear her infection would be revealed and she would be hunted like an animal. She’s cynical and resigned, knowing that no matter what, the infection will eventually cause her to degrade and lose her mind. When Ravyn and the rest of the conspirators approach her with their plan to rid Blunder of the Mist and heal the infected, it’s the first taste of hope she’s had in eleven years. But even then, she’s not willing to share the full extent of her magic with the Captain of the Destriers, a man meant to hunt the infected. But as their missions to recover the last cards they need continue, she gradually starts to trust Ravyn and the others. After all, it’s clear he has secrets of his own. And as you can probably guess, there’s a slow-burn romance that ignites between Elspeth and Ravyn, part forced proximity and part them recognizing their similarities. It’s enjoyable enough but not what really sold me on the book.
The relationship I really loved was that between Elspeth and the Nightmare. There are only two Nightmare cards and they allow the user to read others’ thoughts and talk to them mind-to-mind. For Elspeth, though, it’s a literal presence in her mind, full of gnashing teeth and yellow eyes. It treats her almost like a younger sibling, taunting her with knowledge but only answering in rhymes. But when it truly matters, despite being a literal bloodthirsty monster, the Nightmare is still protective of Elspeth. After all, the more she depends on it, the more control it gains over her…
“Be wary. Be clever. Be good.”
Overall, this was a delightfully atmospheric read, perfect for spooky season. I will definitely be picking up the sequel!