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The Frost on His Shoulders

Lorenzo Mediano's The Frost on His Shoulders is a tight little masterpiece, told by an unnamed rural schoolteacher who begins by assuring us that the story buried deep in the newspaper was wrong about the tragedy that happened in 1934, in a village in the Spanish Pyrenees. "Of course, I might be wrong," he qualifies. "No one ever really knows for sure what dwells in men's hearts."

Ramón Gallar is a bright, handsome shepherd boy, who loves reading and borrows books from the schoolteacher. He falls in love with Alba, the daughter of wealthy Don Mariano, the most powerful man in the mountains. Scornfully rejected by the girl's father, Ramón swears he will return with money, and becomes the legendary smuggler known as the Desperado. As in any grand folkloric tale, an epic showdown looms.

Laced with the fears and beliefs of a brutal mountain world, the novel builds relentlessly to an unexpectedly horrifying ending. Every twist and turn in the story is crucial, and Mediano's melancholy schoolteacher brings it to a perfect surprise ending. The Frost on His Shoulders is an old-fashioned folktale of forbidden love told with genuine suspense, unabashed enthusiasm for the genre and breathtaking control. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle