One Dark Window, Book 1 of The Shepherd King

Book Reviews / Friday, September 30th, 2022

By: Rachel Gillig
Genre: Dark Romantic Fantasy
Audience: 18+
Publisher: Orbit Books

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

CONTENT: Please see this link for Content Warnings:

“That’s how the best lies are told-with just enough truth to be convincing. For a time, I even found myself believing the lie-believing I had no magic…
But that was a time I tried not to remember-a time of innocence, before Providence Cards.
Before the Nightmare.”
Rachel Gillig, One Dark Window

One Dark Window, Rachel Gillig’s debut fantasy novel is an engrossing and beautiful dark romantic fantasy. I was captivated by her characters, the world she created, and the highly unique magic. The main protagonist is Elspeth Spindle, who tells the story from her perspective. She lives in Blunder, a mist shrouded world where magic is illegal, save for those who have Providence Cards. The magic of the Providence Cards was a truly extraordinary concept. There are twelve cards that were created centuries ago by the Shepherd King, each one having a different power. Elspeth has the unique ability to absorb whatever magic the card has, and she can see their colors, thus allowing her to know who possesses them. As a child, she touched the Nightmare card, absorbed it, and the Nightmare now lives in her head. She does not know who he is, but he “protects” her. The Nightmare is clearly an ominous and malevolent presence which only gets stronger. The King of Blunder wants all the cards, and Elspeth is caught up in a plot against the King to obtain them, as it is the only way she and the others can be cured. Ravyn Yew, the Captain of the Destries, the Kings Elite Guards and the King’s nephew, is entrenched in the plot, along with his family and the king’s younger son. To get the cards first would end the cruelty of the king’s rule and the eventual rule of his cruel oldest son. The more Elspeth is drawn in, the more she and Ravyn develop a strong attraction to each other. I loved this slow burn romance, where they become comfortable to reveal shared secrets and passion. One Dark Window is a rich, romantic fantasy, and with its dark undertones, it is evocative of books like Hannah Whitten’s For the Throne and For the Wolf. This debut novel is superbly written by Rachel Gillig and I loved everything about it. One Dark Window  is an absolute must read for fans of romantic fantasy. I truly believe that fans of any fantasy genre will love One Dark Window.

I truly enjoyed all the characters in One Dark Window. Elspeth is a strong female protagonist, learning to hide both the secret of her magic, and the Nightmare that lives within her. She evokes so many emotions. I felt sorrow for her that she goes through so much, but in the end holds her head high and makes it through. The shining light in her life is her cousin Ione, whom she shares everything with, except the Nightmare. Ione’s arc takes an unexpected turn, which leaves Elspeth torn. The slow burn romance with Ravyn Yew was written so well by Ms. Gillig. In the guise of “courting” she goes to live with his family, but the true reason is the plot to get the Providence Cards. Elspeth is invaluable because she can see them. Ravyn is stoic and shows little emotion, until Elspeth coaxes him out of his shell, and he does the same for her. Their relationship was a joy to see. I felt genuinely happy for them.

“I thought we weren’t pretending,” I murmured.
He stripped the rose’s thorns with his blade. “It’s just a flower. Flowers don’t play games.” He offered it again, once more asking my permission. “May I” …He stepped to me and placed the rose atop my head, weaving its stem into the willow crown…When he stepped back, his hand grazed the hair along my cheek.”

Rachel Gilling, One Dark Window

The other side characters were just as well-developed. Ravyn’s cousin, the King’s youngest son, Renelm, was subjected to his father’s cruelty and came to live with Ravy’s family. His loyalty to them is unshakable, and he’s very witty. I enjoyed his banter with the other characters. In every story, there needs to be the bad to balance the good, and Ms. Gillig does not disappoint. King Rowan and hid eldest son, Hauth, are both brutal. They seek the one missing card, The Twin Alders, of which there is only one. With a complete deck, they can lift the mist surrounding Blunder, but also rule despotically. It is for this reason that the quest by others to find that card is necessary.

The pacing and prose were excellent. There were so many twists, turns and court intrigue that there was never a time that I was not fully immersed in the story. One Dark Window is told in the first-person narrative of Elspeth. I think that was the perfect choice as she lives with the Nightmare in her head. As the story unfolds, we truly see the Nightmare for what he is. We need Elspeth’s perspective as we not only get hers, but the Nightmare’s as well. He often whispers to her about what people are, what they are feeling, what they fear, and he always says he can help her. She holds this secret inside and has for eleven years since she touched the Nightmare Card. Elspeth’s growing attraction to Ravyn was a shining spot in her life that is slowly being consumed. She desperately wants to find all the Providence Cards so she can finally be cured of the magic. Ms. Gillig writes this “relationship” between Elspeth and the Nightmare as it begins to evolve into something more sinister.

“The Nightmare’s hiss became a roar. He flooded my mind with a sudden, venomous fury. Prince of brutes, he snarled…
What did you do? I cried, to afraid to look back

The Nightmare’s voice was like hot iron. The berry of rowan is red, always red. The earth at its trunk is dark with blood shed. But a prince is a man, and man may be bled. He came for a girl…
But got the monster instead.
Rachel Gilling, One Dark Window

The magic system was one of the most unique I have read. Magic is brought on by “the fever”. If someone pulls through and is infected with magic, indicated by black running through their veins, they are taken by the King and locked away. The practice of magic is illegal, and the King and his son Hauth control it with an iron fist. Those who harbor them can face execution. The magic is tied to the Providence Cards, as those infected have different effects in how they interact with them. However, it is interesting that those without magic can also use the cards. The idea of the Providence cards was an amazing concept.

Overall Thoughts

One Dark Window is Rachel Gillig’s debut fantasy. It was truly a wonderful read that I enjoyed immensely. With its rich, dark world, unique magic, and slow burn romance, I was swept away into the world she created. The story is told from the perspective of the main protagonist, Elspeth Spindle, and by extension, The Nightmare that lives within her. The magic system centers around twelve ancient Providence cards, created by the long dead Shepherd King. One was the Nightmare Card. When Elspeth had the “the fever” that can bring magic, she was able to absorb whatever the card was by touching it. This is how the Nightmare became a part of Elspeth. King Rowan and his son Hauth, the cruel rulers of Blunder where Elspeth lives, want all twelve. Elspeth wants them as well as they would cure her and others. She is swept up into a plot against the King to find the cards before he does. It is here she meets Ravyn Yew, both Captain of the King’s Elite Guards and his nephew. Elspeth joins him and others as they race against time to find the remaining missing cards. Through it all, there is a slow burn romance brewing between Elspeth and Ravyn. There is court intrigue, plenty of action, plot twists and turns, and amazing magic with the Providence cards that Ms. Gilling weaves together seamlessly. Through all this, Elspeth and Ravyn are drawn together by a shared secret, and their romance was beautifully told. I highly recommend One Dark Window for any fantasy reader, and anyone who enjoys a slow burn romance with a touch of darkness.

Summary (from NetGalley)
Elspeth needs a monster. The monster might be her.

Elspeth Spindle needs more than luck to stay safe in the eerie, mist-locked kingdom she calls home—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 the kingdom of the dark magic infecting it. Except the highwayman just so happens to be the King’s own nephew, Captain of the Destriers…and guilty of high treason.

He and Elspeth have until Solstice to 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, darkly, taking over her mind. And she might not be able to stop him.

My sincere thanks to Orbit Book for a copy of the book and NetGalley for an eBook.

Find out more about Rachel Gillig on her website:
Purchase One Dark Window on Amazon

Rachel Gillig was born and raised on the California coast. She is a writer and a teacher, with a B.A. in literary theory and criticism from UC Davis. If she is not ensconced in blankets dreaming up her next novel, Rachel is in her garden or walking with her husband, son, and their poodle, Wally.

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