Australian author Catherine Jinks’ latest book Shepherd is a bloody, pacey visit to convict era Australia. The main character, Tom, is a teenager, transported to Australia for poaching and working out his time as a shepherd on a remote sheep station in the Australian bush. His life has not been an easy one up until this point but things are about to get much much worse.
When the book opens Tom is already in trouble, possibly dying after eating some native berries. The narrative then flicks back to when he was vaguely happy: working in a remote outpost, looking after a flock of sheep with a man called Joe and three dogs. But things quickly go downhill following the arrival of a new helper Phelim “Rowdy” Cavanagh and soon after, convict Dan Carver, a man both Tom and Joe thought they had left for dead and now back for revenge. Carver’s philosophy is not to leave any witnesses alive whereas Tom’s is to save as many colleagues and animals as he can. The rest of the book chronicles Carver’s bloody and violent pursuit of Tom.
Shepherd is at its heart a chase thriller, in which a resourceful hero has to outwit a seemingly unstoppable and indestructible foe (think The Terminator as a good if wildly anachronistic comparator). Carver’s strengths force Tom to use all of his knowledge and ingenuity as a poacher (tracking, moving silently, setting traps) to avoid capture and create effective diversions. This structure is the perfect scaffold on which to build Tom’s history, and most of the action is underscored by relevant episodes from Tom’s short but eventful life. So that by the end of the book the reader has a very strong and clear idea of Tom and the events that have shaped him.
With its relatable teenage protagonist Shepherd skews a little YA but it is fairly graphically violent in some places so it is certainly not for younger readers. But older teens and adults will get a very visceral and compulsively readable look at some aspects of the convict history of NSW.