Dark Shepherd by Fred Gambino (book review)

I first came across Fred Gambino’s name in 2011 when I found a copy of his art book ‘Ground Zero’ (2001) in a shop I visited while on holiday. I had a quick flick through and immediately bought it. I’d seen his pictures gracing various Science Fiction book covers for years without realising who he was. The book was a revelation and I’ve been a huge fan of his work ever since. Over recent years, Gambino has moved beyond book illustration into working as a concept artist for TV, computer games and several Hollywood films, including ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’ and ‘Thor: Ragnarök’.

But there’s a big difference between being an artist who gets books of their pictures published from time to time and being someone who writes books. While there are, of course, some people who are as talented with a pen as they are with a paintbrush, I imagine there are lots of artists who are not much good at writing. Just as, I’m sure, there are plenty of writers who are not much good at art.

Fred Gambino turns out to be excellent at both. As you’ll find out if you read my recent interview with him, which is being published here on SFCrowsnest simultaneously with this review, Gambino has been a professional artist for decades, but he’s been an unpublished writer of SF stories for just as long.

As of now, he’s no longer unpublished. The small genre publisher NewCon Press is producing Gambino’s debut novel, ‘Dark Shepherd’, in multiple editions. There’s a deluxe version of just 24 hardback copies, printed on silk paper and featuring several extra pieces of art, including a hand-drawn sketch. This, I’m afraid, is already sold out. Luckily, there’s also a limited edition signed and numbered hardback, as well as a paperback and an eBook edition. Whichever you buy, you’ll be treated to a beautiful wrap-around cover painted by Gambino himself.

The story revolves around Breel, a woman who works in the starship dismantling industry on the terraformed asteroid Hope. When she abruptly loses her job, she finds herself thrown together with Matt, a starship pilot, and his crew. They have to escape from Hope after it’s invaded by soldiers from the evangelical Church of Second Light, apparently looking for Breel, Matt or possibly both. Breel has no idea why she’s of interest to the religious cult, although Matt seems to know more than he’s willing to share. What secrets is Matt hiding and why does Breel seem to be so important to his plans for taking the church on?

I loved this novel for many reasons. I’ll focus here on three: the characters, the imagery and the evolution of the storyline.

Gambino has a natural ability to create engaging characters. Starting with the main protagonist, Breel emerges clearly in the first couple of pages of the book. She’s a confident and capable loner, used to having to fight her corner in a male-dominated job. It’s easy to sympathise with her anger and frustration as she is repeatedly belittled and undermined by her sexist colleagues. However, as the story evolves and she gets into ever more unfamiliar territory, it’s interesting to see how her character develops, becoming stronger in some ways but more vulnerable in others.

On the other hand, Matt is an enigma from the start. He’s handsome and charming and seems to fit the role of swashbuckling starship captain to a tee. At the same time, though, he has a more serious side, which comes ever more to the fore as their flight from the Church develops. At root, he’s hiding something from those around him and that secrecy makes him intriguing.

It’s not just the major characters that stand out from the page. Gambino is equally good at creating memorable minor characters, including those that are destined to meet an unfortunate end. On several occasions, I found myself warming to a new character, only for them to fall foul of some agent of the Church of Second Light. This made the story feel that much more urgent and vital, ensuring that I was fully immersed in the battle playing out between our heroes and their opponents.

Talking of the baddies, I have to applaud Gambino for his invention of the Church of Second Light. In one sense they are simply another apocalyptic religious cult, created by flawed humans who enjoy exercising power over others, preferably through the medium of extreme violence. However, Gambino gives the Church a credible back story, a charismatic leader and a realistic bureaucracy, imbuing it with a level of realism that makes it truly scary.

Given that Fred Gambino has spent his life producing visual art to bring SF books, films and games to life, it should come as no surprise to find that his story settings are rendered with great skill. Images of many of the people, places and ships that feature in the novel can be found on the Dark Shepherd gallery on the author’s website www.fredgambino.co.uk/dark-shepherd-gallery and I’d urge you to take a look at them. Even if you don’t, though, Gambino’s facility with words ensures that the imagery floats effortlessly off the page and into your head. I had no trouble at all in visualising the scenes as I read them and I thoroughly enjoyed the immersive nature of his writing.

I also liked the fact that the novel’s storyline evolved and changed with every chapter. What at first appeared to be a simple tale of two plucky heroes pitted against an evil empire soon morphed into a much richer and more complex story involving alien technologies and a potential threat to the future of humanity.

‘Dark Shepherd’ is an enthralling, energetic and pacy example of space opera at its finest. Fred Gambino has shown himself to be as talented a writer as he is an artist. I can’t wait for the sequel, ‘Reality Rift’, due out from NewCon Press in 2025, so I can find out what happens to Breel and Matt next.

Patrick Mahon

May 2024

(pub: NewCon Press. 299 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £13.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-910953-78-1)

check out website: www.newconpress.co.uk

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