Goodreads summary of Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison (review below- THERE WILL BE MANY SPOILERS):
A cynical twentysomething must confront her unconventional family’s dark secrets in this fiery, irreverent horror novel from the author of Such Sharp Teeth and Cackle.
Nobody has a “normal” family, but Vesper Wright’s is truly…something else. Vesper left home at eighteen and never looked back—mostly because she was told that leaving the staunchly religious community she grew up in meant she couldn’t return. But then an envelope arrives on her doorstep.
Inside is an invitation to the wedding of Vesper’s beloved cousin Rosie. It’s to be hosted at the family farm. Have they made an exception to the rule? It wouldn’t be the first time Vesper’s been given special treatment. Is the invite a sweet gesture? An olive branch? A trap? Doesn’t matter. Something inside her insists she go to the wedding. Even if it meant returning to the toxic environment, she escaped. Even if it means reuniting with her mother, Constance, a former horror film star and forever ice queen.
When Vesper’s homecoming exhumes a terrifying secret, she’s forced to reckon with her family’s beliefs and her own crisis of faith in this deliciously sinister novel that explores the way family ties can bind us as we struggle to find our place in the world.
LAST WARNING! MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW. I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t do Black Sheep and Rachel Harrison justice without talking about the entirety of the book (except the very end). Also, so much of what I want to talk about is interconnected. There was just no way around it.
OH! One more thing- Rachel Harrison- if you happen to read this, know that everything below is meant as the greatest compliment. I LOVED Black Sheep. Its humor might bring out mine, but it is only meant to be a raving review, not funny like laughing at you or the book. 😊
Reason #1- Vesper
First, can we just get the main character’s name out of the way? The poor girl has been labeled with the name Vesper her entire life. As for Rachel Harrison, I can’t help but wonder if this is a nod to Spaceballs (Vespa), only because the humor in Black Sheep is so witty; I’d put it right up with the best of witty comedy (although much darker humor than Spaceballs and others).
And Vesper has a lot in common with Vespa. They are both princesses. It is just that one is the princess of a planet and the other the Princess of Hell. They both find a lot of strength they never knew they had, building their confidence and self-worth along the way. Vesper is an intelligent, witty, conflicted character you absolutely HAVE to root for. Especially when she is quite literally going through hell.
Reason #2- Writing
Getting serious for a moment- Rachel Harrison’s writing is off the charts. While Black Sheep has dark humor in spades, it also has poignant, profound moments.
Wrestling with my nerves, which had steadily grown more formidable the closer I got to home. I imagined my anxiety as an amphibian, a slick, nimble creature dancing under my ribs… Alive. Tricky. Slippery. Quick. Difficult to catch.
Vesper’s complicated relationship with her family allows for the humorous and the serious to come spilling out. And due to how Rachel Harrison writes this book, with nothing spoon-fed to readers, you can happily read it two ways. You can enjoy the book for what it is on the surface: a daughter returning to the Satanic Cult she was born into, to find out her Dad is Satan, that she is the Princess of Hell and all the antics that ripple out of it.
Or, you can enjoy that and read below the surface. There, you’ll find universal themes about family, blood (literally biological and of other kinds) ties, facing our… um… demons? And growing strong enough in ourselves that we aren’t defined by our family and what we were raised to believe. Being different is okay; there is nothing shameful about it. Nor about standing up to your family in those beliefs.
Reason #3- Pacing
Hold on for the ride! There is no time to settle into Black Sheep. It kicks off like a rocket and then doesn’t stop from there. Very little information is dumped or background given before you are thrown into the mysteries surrounding Vesper’s family. Nor is there much offered in why she left them, outside of the “strict religious upbringing” she was running from. Part of the reason for this is Rachel Harrison’s writing and execution. Many will say it is best to go into Black Sheep without knowing anything. And while I can’t say that it is invalid, I will say that I don’t think the spoilers here will ruin your love for this book.
It is too fast; the execution is done too well for any part not to be enjoyable. I would completely agree if it were a slower book, where the plot is a bit obvious and the writing subpar. But that just isn’t the case with Black Sheep. Rachel Harrison is just that good.
Reason #4- Because When You Are Raised In A Satanic Cult
Not that Vesper really ever saw it that way, and in seeing it as a religion, she just didn’t mention the worship of Satan.
Despite the general public’s conjectures about Satanism, I’d never once thought of Hell’s Gate as a cult. It was a church. No one was forced to stay. But if you left, if you chose to forsake Satan and live among the unchosen, you were essentially dead in the eyes of the community.
‘The reason I’d never told anyone that I was raised in Satanism was because I knew it’d be impossible to continue the conversation past the assumptions, to escape the misconceptions. One I’d learned out in the world was nobody’s so different… We worshipped ods of our choosing. Satan. Christ. America. Celebrities. Captalism. Clean Living. The New England Patriots. La Croix. I failed to see how Satanists were any different from Catholics or whoever, whatever, though I knew if I stated this publicly, I’d likely be stoned in the streets or burned at the stake… I grew up in Satanism. It wasn’t weird to me.
However, make no mistake (and Vesper does realize this eventually), it was a cult. You can’t return if you leave; you are to marry within the cult. There was a leader that everyone worshipped. And being raised in one, even if you manage to escape, leaves a mark. You don’t suddenly join a cult. I mean, there isn’t some meeting called join a cult, and you just walk in and sign up. However, you can be born into one, therefore not having a choice. In the same manner, you don’t just leave a cult. I mean, physically, Vesper left. Emotionally, she was still reeling, never genuinely getting past her childhood trauma, until she returned home and found out the darker secrets held from her. Speaking of dark secrets…
Thank you to Berkley Publishing and Penguin Randomhouse Audio for the advanced audio of Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison, which releases on September 19th, 2023.
Grace <held> a butter knife up to the light to determine its cleanliness… ‘thank the Lord.’
‘Speak of the devil,’ I said
Reason #5- Because When Satan Is Your Father
Vesper always believed she didn’t have a relationship with her dad because her horror movie star mother slept with an outsider. However, nay nay. And when she discovers that her dad is actually Satan, the leader of the Hell’s Gate Cult, it is something.
‘And if I’m Satan, and you’re my daughter, that makes you…’
‘A fucking tragedy,’ I said… ‘So let me just… My mother is a horror icon, and my father thinks he’s the devil and secretly runs a faction of Satanists. I should be entiled to free therapy, right? I have to be.”
Satan, being your dad, makes you Hell’s Princess. And duties, responsibilities, and obligations come with that title. FOR FUCKS SAKE, can Vesper endure anymore?
Well, she has to. This is the part I WON’T get into, but needless to say, Vesper is put through the wringer on the whole… this is what Hell’s Princess is fated to do. Again, you can read on that level, and I wouldn’t fault you for it. This book is wildly entertaining.
But if you look closer, take the Satan bit away, and you are left with an estranged father coming back for his daughter and the conflicting emotions accompanying it. Of course, she still loves him, Satan or not. Of course, he loves her (as much as Satan can love anything, I suppose). Do you reconnect or run from the reality of the situation? Do you forgive or hang on to that anger, wasting time now granted to spend time with your father?
At the end of it all, Black Sheep is a riot of fun. And then it is also a tale of family, the bonds with them, and what you can cut out from your childhood. Take it as it is, or go deeper. Either way, Rachel Harrison will ASTOUND you.