"Shepherd of the Black Sheep" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Blood Bound Books
Written by Kristopher Triana
2018, 265 pages, Fiction
Released on July 30th, 2018
Kristopher Triana’s Shepherd of the Black Sheep was an unexpected pleasure, one of many random books to appear with little fanfare on a book reviewer’s desktop, but once opened was exceptionally difficult to put down. It’s not a horror novel as such, more of a dark mystery thriller heavy with the pain and uncertainties life can bring. However, there’s much to admire in this tight well-written story, with sympathetic characters and a few scenes with the emotional kick of a sledgehammer. Sometimes the horror lies in the manner in which the tale is told, and that is certainly the case with Shepherd of the Black Sheep.
The novel is narrated in the third person by Tom Hardgrave, an old man and rancher who after the sudden death of his daughter becomes sole custodian to his granddaughter, eleven-year-old Paige. Much of the early sequences are played out via Tom’s inner struggles as he tries and fails to connect with the girl, who has emotionally shut herself down after the loss of her mother. They may seem like small things, but Tom stresses over what to buy her for Christmas and other things pertinent to a child becoming a teenage girl. The grandfather is a widower, and throughout the novel there is a deep sense of loss and melancholy as he also reflects upon mistakes he made with his own children many years earlier. You might not think you’ll easily connect with this old guy, but I found him to be very well drawn and easy to make a stand with. My only gripe would be his distain of modern technology, which is referred to many times; I know plenty of granddads who have iPhones!
Set in rural Vermont, the bleak winter, the snowy forests and spartan landscapes are beautifully described and although Tom has spent his life farming in this locality, as he gets older every year is slightly tougher to survive. Taking responsibility for a little girl he barely understands is only one of many problems when he also has debts to pay and needs to sell a calf to the local butcher just to get by.
Before long things begin to look brighter for Paige after she becomes best friends with the daughter of a rich and influential local family, Alice. The two girls are inseparable and create a complex fantasy world called Sopheria, full of magic, romance and good versus evil feuds. Characters such as Princess Katandra and Sir Rowan are larger than life to both girls, but there is also a dark side to their world, with a character Page calls the ‘Dark One’ threatening the peace of the land they have created.
After lulling the reader into a false sense of security, Shepherd of the Black Sheep takes a shocking turn when Alice is brutally murdered whilst out playing with Paige in the local forest close to Tom’s ranch. Much of the novel concerns the fallout of the death and this single act dominates the book. Paige was the only witness; the police investigate and a drifter passing through town is the prime suspect. Things are muddied further as Tom is very old friends with the local sheriff and tensions in the local community run high when the drifter remains at large. But nothing is that simple and the novel spirals in some clever directions and you’ll get no more spoilers from me.
Even though Shepherd of the Black Sheep is written with deceptively simple sentences, they have real power and a real flow permeates the prose. After the death of Alice, the sequences between Tom and Paige truly crackle as the old man tries to figure out what is truly going on inside his granddaughter’s head. Part of the success of the novel is attributed to the fact that most of the time we truly do not know how damaged psychologically Paige is. There are hints here and there, and although the ending might not be a huge surprise, the way everything plays out is done brilliantly and is nail-biting reading.
And as the story progresses, the escalation of circumstances from the death of Alice is outstanding, and this ramps up the tension sky high and once it hurtles towards its climax you will not want to put the book down. Also, it would take a stone-hearted man not to feel sympathy for poor old Tom, as no matter what he does things just get worse. Overall, it’s a highly entertaining novel, deceptively easy to read, but very cleverly written. It’s quite short and if you’re looking for a break from more traditional horror, into something a bit more realistic, then Kristopher Triana’s Shepherd of the Black Sheep is an excellent choice.