Book Review: One Dark Window by Rachel Gillig
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Shepherd King
Publisher: Orbit (September 27, 2022)
Length: 432 pages
It might be the spooky season, but just because the nights come earlier and there’s a chill in the air, sometimes a book needs a little more than mood to help get it off the ground. One Dark Window is certainly an ambitious debut that strives for those Gothic fantasy vibes and romantic allure, but the polish just isn’t quite there.
The story follows Elspeth Spindle, who survived a mysterious illness in her childhood which left her with magical abilities. Fearing persecution, she goes in hiding to live with her aunt and uncle, keeping the secret of monster trapped inside her head—an ancient spirit she calls Nightmare. Sometimes Nightmare controls her, but sometimes, it also protects her.
In addition, Elspeth gained the power to absorb the essence from the Providence Cards, twelve magical playing cards that give their owners special abilities. But this magic also has a cost. When the Providence Cards were created, this also destroyed Blunder, the world in which the book takes place. It’s a dreary existence, and nowhere is safe. One day, Elspeth runs afoul of a highwayman while in the forest, and discovers that the bandit is in fact Ravyn Yew, the king’s nephew in disguise. Ravyn also happens to be the Captain of the Destriers, the kingdom’s fearsome law enforcers and the very people Elspeth hopes to avoid.
Fate has other plans, however, as our protagonist unwittingly becomes the key to the Yew family’s mission to reunite the Providence Cards and cleanse the blight from Blunder. This unfortunately requires her to get close to Ravyn, to whom she feels a connection growing in spite of herself. Meanwhile, the Nightmare inside her mind is also becoming stronger, and Elspeth wonders how much longer before it takes over her mind completely.
No doubt with all these elements, One Dark Window had the potential to be the dark and eerie novel it aspired to be, but due to a few missteps and questionable stylistic decisions, it fell short of those expectations. Mainly, we have a story here that struggles with an identity crisis. For one, rather than Gothic, things felt more melodramatic. We’re clearly going for an atmosphere that’s dark, violent and bloody, yet this is somewhat sabotaged by the cringey Young Adult vibes not to mention the cheesy, riddle-me-this way the Nightmare speaks.
I also feel that while author Rachel Gillig is obviously talented and has a way with words, she stumbles with the narrative and pacing. Momentum was very slow to build, and even once we had achieved it, the plot struggled to maintain it. Then there was the slow-burn romance between Elspeth and Ravyn, which to its credit was a luxuriant and seductive, but it was also hard to see self-indulgence or shake the feeling that Gillig prioritized their romance arc even though it was only supposed to be a subplot. No other relationship between Elspeth or any of the other characters got nearly as much attention, and the glossing over of other parts of the story also made some the big reveals at the end very predictable.
Ultimately, my feelings for One Dark Window were as mixed and confused as the novel’s direction and themes. There’s a sense that it tries to be too much and so it doesn’t quite meet any of the goals that it set for itself, and as you know, books that are neither here nor there are always the hardest ones to review. Bottom line, I probably would have enjoyed this one a lot more had I been in the mood for a YA fantasy romance, which I’ve been known to crave on occasion. This time though, I’d been expecting something more mature and a lot darker, and while there were hints of that which came through, it just wasn’t enough.