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The Shepherd King Books by Rachel Gillig: a MUST READ Fantasy Series (review)

GENRE: YA Fantasy
LENGTH: 822 pages (across 2 books)

Elspeth Spindle lives in the misty kingdom of Blunder where there are two types of magic. There is the magic that is controlled through twelve Providence cards and there is the forbidden, unpredictable magic that stems from the fever. In order to cure the fever Elspeth and her allies must unit the Providence deck.

Perhaps the most compelling relationship within this series is that between Elspeth and the Nightmare. The Nightmare is a creature that lives inside Elspeth's head after she absorbed his soul from one of the Providence cards. The two share a symbiotic relationship that, before reading, I expected to be a lot more hostile. The Nightmare is cryptic when he speaks but he is much more Elspeth's ally than her enemy. The books often repeats the phrase 'the girl, the king, and the monster they became', and I think this perfectly encompasses just how intertwined the two are.
Ravyn is Elspeth's love interest. Ravyn is a very stoic character. Even though their chemistry isn't as explosive as most I actually liked its quiet strength and how it wasn't specific to any romantic trope.
The other prominent character is Elm - Ravyn's cousins. Elm borders between a main and side character in the first book. As we only see him through Elspeth's eyes we don't get the most flattering picture of him. The second book elevates him to a main POV character and shows him in a more favorable light. I was rather ambivalent about him in the first book but I really grew to care for him in the second book.
One character I wish we'd gotten to know a little better is Ravyn's sister, Jespyr. She's a member of the Destriers (the king's guard). From what we do get to know about her we see she's a sort of tough tomboy type but that she's also kind. I was hoping the second book would give her more of a chance to shine, but though she does end up playing a pivotal role in the book she always feels like a semi-forgotten character.

The first novel is told exclusively from Elspeth's first person perspective while the second book adds Ravyn and Elm's perspectives (though for some reason they are in the third person).
The world of this novel does have the trope of magic being outlawed - which is quite common in fantasy books. However, the magic system revolving around the cards is unlike any I've seen before. The world is very well developed in the first book but even more so in the second. In the second book, we get to understand the kingdom of Blunder's history more fully.
The writing of these novels is spellbinding and poetic. They're like stepping into a gothic fairy tale. While the first book is very linear it does have some really clever foreshadowing. The second book has concurrent plot lines - one following Elspeth and Ravyn and another following Elm. I liked how even through the two books felt distinct from one another in many ways the writing style and tone remained so they still have that connective tissue.
Most of this duology is wonderfully paced. The only part that isn't is the ending. It feels a little too rushed, almost like Gillig was eager to be finished while I still longed for a little more time with the characters and world. I don't think there would have been enough material for a third book, but I think the second book could have easily had an extra 30 or so pages to wrap things up.

This is Gillig's debut series but it's some of the most phenomenal YA fantasy I've ever read (and I've read a lot). The writing is mesmerizing. I never wanted to leave Blunder. I can't recommend this duology enough. Sad as I am it's over, I look forward to what Gillig writes next!

One Dark Window (book 1): 4.75⭐️
Two Twisted Crowns (book 2): 4.5⭐️
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