Series: The Shepherd King #1
Published by Orbit (9.27.2022)
Genres: High Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult
Format: Audiobook, 432 pages
Length: 12 hours, 44 minutes
Narrator: Lisa Cordileone
Elspeth needs a monster. The monster might be her.
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.
Buckle up, ladies and gents. Because I have a LOT of complaints.
Firstly, I want to say that I listened to the audiobook, so some of my spellings may be off. I thought the MC was ‘Elsbeth’ for almost the whole book, until I finally looked at the synopsis; so I’m sure the other character names are probably spelled weird too lmao.
Secondly, WHY DO I ALWAYS LET THE HYPE MONSTER GET ME?! WHY AM I ALWAYS A BLACK SHEEP?! Baaaa. The reviews for this book are insane, so my expectations were sky high. Not to mention, I feel duped because going in I expected this book to be the atmospheric Adult gothic fantasy/horror it’s marketed as. What it really is, though, is a YA fantasy romance masquerading as something it’s not. The only thing that’s not YA about this book is the sexual content. Sorry, but this book absolutely does NOT read as Adult fantasy. Other than the sexual content I mentioned, this book is absolutely a Young Adult novel. It’s much too juvenile to be labeled as Adult.
I do have to say, this book started off STRONG. In the beginning, I was super intrigued! The concept of magic being an infection and magical tarot cards (aka Providence Cards) is freaking AWESOME! (Although I would have liked to see waaay more of the “magic comes with a cost” proof, since the book constantly harps that using the Cards has dire circumstances, but we never actually saw any of that?) The concept of the ‘Nightmare’ that Elspeth shared her mind with was also awesome, and that she saw the Cards as colored auras. The beginning is a little confusing, because I had no idea what kind of world we were in, but I was really enjoying it despite not knowing what the heck was going on.
However, despite the fantastic concept, the world and characters are super generic. The world building is vague, and so is the magic system. There was this evil Mist that makes people go crazy, which was the entire reason they were looking for all 12 Providence Cards, but it was barely part of the book at all. We only saw maybe two scenes with it, despite it being the Biggest Baddie of the entire book besides the Shepherd King himself. Also, I guess there was a spirit of the mist? Which was also barely mentioned, and I still have no idea what the deal is with the spirit, who she is, or how/why the Mist happened. Like I said, vague.
I got the characters mixed up a lot in the first half. It didn’t help that some of the names sounded too similar. Hawth, or Hauf?? (the slimy prince, however his name was spelled. I had no idea if she was saying “th” or “f” at the end of it) and Hawthorn, Raven and Rowan, Elm and Emery…I feel like these were a poor choice. It’s like a thing in fiction that you don’t name characters with the same first letter in their name, because readers will get them mixed up. I guess Gillig didn’t get the memo. (And maybe I’m just spelling them wrong, but they were still pronounced too similar.) Anyway, I was constantly getting almost all the characters mixed up (especially the male characters) because they’re all flat and vapid. The only ones with any personality are the twins and Jesper. I actually loved Jesper! Oh, and I spent at least a quarter to third of the book thinking that Raven was one of the princes, because there were so many and they were all so generic I couldn’t tell them apart.
The main character was the worst offender. I quite hated her, actually. Elspeth was whiny and annoying AF, and by the last half, I wanted her to be real so I could punch her right in the mouth. She was adamant in the beginning that she would never let the Nightmare take her over, right? But she kept saying that, yet her actions were the exact opposite because she was so helpless and stupid (seriously, she made terrible decisions constantly, and kept falling down or passing out) that she had to keep asking him for help. Then, when he inevitably killed someone while he was in control, because that’s what he does, she would wail about it and be all *whiny voice* “what did you do?” or “why would you do that?” BECAUSE HE’S A DEMON AND HE KILLS PEOPLE. And even more irritating? She continued to ask him for help, knowing that he’d killed people. So the whiny ass “what did you do?” and bellyaching when she regained control and found he’d killed/maimed was repeated multiple times. It was insufferable, and even the narrator sounded whiny as hell and grated on my nerves.
It may have been partly because she was horrible, and partly Raven had all the personality of a wet rag, but the romance was AWFUL. Mostly it was that there was zero chemistry between them and it moved WAY too quickly. The were attracted to each other, which is fine and makes sense, but after one kiss they were suddenly madly in luuurve. -____- It was such a horribly done enemies-to-lovers – and ya’ll know that’s my favorite trope – because it was straight up instalove. Color me salty. The awful romance made me lose all enjoyment in the story, so I was just sighing and eye rolling constantly at the disgustingly lovey-dovey parts. Which was basically the whole last half. When things got “sexy” (it was not sexy) I found myself pressing the “skip 15 sec” button REPEATEDLY because I could not do it. One time I’m pretty sure I tapped that damn button 15 times. Gag.
The Nightmare was really cool, and in the beginning I was super intrigued by him. Especially when Elspeth made a comment along the lines of “years later, I wouldn’t be scared of him at all.” SO, I was expecting much, much more from their dynamic – a la Artemisia and the Revenant from Vespertine. However, it was nothing like Vespertine (seriously, read that instead), and kind of felt like a cheap rip off without the fantastic banter that made me adore the Artemisia-Revenant dynamic. The relationship between Elspeth and the Nightmare had so much potential, but it was squandered. They barely interacted at all, except for when Elspeth was in danger. (Or when the Nightmare was spouting weird poetry, lol.) It was assumed that he cared for her a little at the end, but there was no buildup, or any genuine glimpses of that.
Speaking of poetry – while I liked the verse a lot, I wish it wasn’t so repetitive. The first and last line were ALWAYS the same in her verses, and the repetition would have been fine – if it only happened sometimes. But it was literally every. single. verse, and it started to get annoying after about 6 chapters of it. There were 35 chapters.
So, I’m extremely confused about something. Elspeth met Emery at the Equinox party, and I swear she said he looked close to her age. That’s definitely the impression I got in my head. And I’m pretty sure he was even drinking?! I’m also fairly certain the narrator spoke in a normal male voice for him in that scene. However, at the end View Spoiler »when they rescued him « Hide Spoiler they said he was just a little boy, 10 years younger than Raven, and the narrator was speaking in a little kid voice. W T FFFFF?! Was the dude she met at the party that saw through her to the Nightmare a different person, and I’m just misremembering it?!?! SO. CONFUSED.
Ending on a positive note, I did like the ending! View Spoiler »I love when authors don’t spare their characters, so I quite enjoyed the fact that the Nightmare kept growing stronger until he completely took over Elspeth. (However, I’m quite positive it will be magically fixed in the second book, so the surety that she isn’t going to be actually dead ruined it a bit for me.) « Hide Spoiler
If I split the book into two halves, here’s how I’d rate it:
First half: 3.5-4/5
Second half: 1/5
I can see the appeal and why this book is wildly popular. If I hadn’t despised the romance (and the MC), and it hadn’t completely lost me in the last half when the romance entirely took over the story, I might have enjoyed it a bit more.
Writing style: 3/5
Overall rating: 2/5