Highlander Unbound
by Julia London, historical (2004)
Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-6506-7

To risk sounding like a McDonald's commercial, I am really loving Julia London's way with characters. I am not too fond though of how the author's less imaginative handling of her plots often clashes really badly with her vividly drawn and often unusual characters. It's a pervalent problem I notice in Highlander Unbound as well as in the author's previous novel. The clichés are often unnecessary and I always feel that the vivid and likeable characters are better off in a better story. Maybe one day the author will come up with that story.

In Highlander Unbound, the Scottish branch of the Lockhart clan has been hit hard by financial troubles ever since their "beastie" (a statue supposed to bring good luck - and I don't mean good luck as in hocking it for money) is stolen from them. Royal Highland Regiment Captain Liam Lockhart has traced the location of the beastie to the English branch of the Lockhart clan. His plan now is to worm his way into these itchy-fingered Lockhart people and then run off with the beastie before they can catch him in the act.

He ends up enjoying the far from hospitable B&B services of Lord Farnsworth, but the bad service is more than made up for by Farnsworth's daughter Ellen. Ellen has a daughter, Natalie, that lives in a fantasy world of her imagination. Ellen has always put her nine-year old first and foremost in her list of priorities and she is becoming more emotionally drained as she tries to understand her daughter. With Liam, she manages to find some quiet time for some genuine moments of connection with another adult. As for Liam, he is an unpolished man of action that often feels uncomfortable walking around in polite company. His secret as well as Ellen's would soon test their developing relationship very severely.

What the author does very well here is to painstakingly flesh out the relationship between Ellen and Liam so that I am slowly coaxed into investing my emotions into their story. While on paper Ellen and Liam seem to be familiar characters ("Single Mother" and "Highlander Hero" respectively), as the story progresses they become more and more real to me. They soon stop being the single mother and the highlander very early in the story - they become Liam and Ellen, characters in their own right. Natalie has her share of Haley Joel Osment moments, but on the whole she comes off more as a character of her own right and less of a plot device to bring the couple together.

With such well-drawn characters, Ms London's less-than-inspired treatment of her plot really stand out like a sore thumb. While the characters don't make me mutter "Bah, this is just another cliché, why am I reading this again?", the plot twists make me want to scream in frustration. Ellen comes really dangerously close to stupid martyr territory as the story progresses, and while I understand her motives (in a way), her actions and the subsequent fallout all scream clichés, and very exasperating clichés at that. It gets to a point in the story where I begin to question why the author is making her wonderful characters behave in preprogrammed robotic romance character antics. It is my wish that I will come across more romance novels where the characters won't behave in uniformly predictable ways when confronted with their issues, and because the characters in Highlander Unbound are well-drawn, I am led to believe that this book will be one such book. My disappointment when it isn't is keen because of my initial high expectations.

In a way, I'd be more than happy to recommend Highlander Unbound and suggest that you put Julia London under your list of authors to watch out for if you haven't read her before. She has been on an uphill glide when it comes to her characterization, and in a romance novel, very good characterization means half the pleasure is already delivered to the reader. Just be careful that the initial portion of the story may coax you into setting really high expectations for the rest of it. The subsequent dip into mundane plot twists can really disappoint you if you fall into the same trap as I did.

Rating: 82

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