Shepherd's devilishly clever debut isn't just a swashbuckler, nor is it just an historic thriller or a police procedural or even an allegory with a soupçon of magical realism. No. It's an elegant admixture of several genres and a smashing feat of derring-do that roller coasters between the 16th and 19th centuries. And although there is a satisfying conclusion, it is less important than the ride. With all its twists and turns, there is a singular free fall that clinches the story, making the whole thing exceptional.
In 1564, young Billy Ablass is bound for Plymouth, there to make his fortune, hoping to return to his beloved wife Kate with enough money to set themselves up on a fine farm. Maybe to raise a family. But from the moment he steps aboard the Jesus of Lübeck with the blackguard John Hawkyns, we and Billy become awash in the gritty romance of high seas...
Beyond the Book
Shepherd's English monster is a being that has no conscience, no soul. In Jewish lore such a creature is called a golem
. It has the appearance of a man but is a nonhuman creation brought into being by magic. Both the concept and the word date back to the Old Testament and the Talmud (the book of Jewish law). The word is variously translated as "unformed," "imperfect" and "shapeless mass," and is often used to indicate a clumsy and brutish being. Before he was infused with a soul, the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 38b) describes Adam as "kneaded into a shapeless husk" of dust - in essence, a golem.