by Monica McCarty, historical (2009)
Ballantine, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-345-50338-1
In many ways, Highland Warrior is an admirable effort. Monica McCarty avoids littering her story with cosmetic nae, ken, and other words and phrases from Scottish Words for Dummies that will make her story come off as if it is written by some American lady who is trying too hard to convince the world that she's the romance genre's answer to RL Stevenson. Ms McCarty is also ambitious enough to introduce an epic scope to her story, with this early 17th century Highland romance moving beyond a tomboy in a castle to encompass a more political scope.
Please be patient with the heroine Caitrina Lamont, folks. She starts out an utterly spoiled and ignorant young lady who is convinced that she knows everything about the world. She is not an easy character to follow, especially during the many scenes early in the story when I feel my hands instinctively wanting to strangle her, but the story arc in this book is her emotional growth and maturity. Give her time - and really, given the events that befall her in this story, it is hard not to have my heart break for her.
Caitrina, you see, doesn't at first suspect that the arrogant man who visits her father's holding in Ascog, the Isle of Brute, is more than another fellow who attends the annual games. Sure, he is hotter than the usual guys and he has seen her bare rear end in their embarrassing first encounter, but she knows enough to realize that he is from the Campbell clan and therefore her clan's enemy. She reacts like a spoiled hoyden and says plenty of mean and cutting things that she doesn't mean to drive him away... only to see him again when his people descend later in this story to brutally cut down her father and other members of her family in a devastating attack.
What happens is this: Jamie is actually trying to discover whether Caitrina's father is offering shelter to Alasdair MacGregor and his men. Jamie works for the Marquis of Argyll, you see, and Argyll has issued the Scottish equivalent of the fatwa on Alasdair and other MacGregor outlaws for their brutal pillage and plunder spree throughout the region. The Lamonts are bound by honor and tradition to provide hospitality to even their worst enemies, and in this case, Caitrina's father is also bound by an old debt between the two families to offer protection to the MacGregors. Jamie suspects this to be true (and it is), so he uses the desire to court Caitrina as an excuse to linger around the Ascog Castle. He does his job too well, however - he fails to arrive at Ascog Castle in time to stop his own brother's men from decimating the Lamont men for their crime.
Jamie decides that he loves Caitrina, enough to offer her the promise that Ascog Castle can be rebuilt for what is left of her clan and herself, and our heroine doesn't really have much choice but to accept his marriage proposal. She is starting to realize that Jamie isn't a monster when the tumultous political situation of the early 17th century keeps coming in between their fragile peace.
The plot of Highland Warrior is definitely meaty and more substantial than usual, and for a long time, this is a very good read. The author uses the political situation of that time to create a near-impossible situation for her characters to find any middle ground, and I am intrigued to see how she pulls this one off. The pacing is good, the way Caitrina's world crumbles around her is heartbreaking, and I definitely approve of Caitrina's ability to keep herself together when any other woman would have wanted to crawl into a hole and die. For a pretty long while, I'm convinced that this is a keeper waiting to happen.
Unfortunately, things don't turn out to be as good as I hoped they would be. Caitrina's transformation is quite convincing in the sense that she doesn't transform into an unnaturally sage and wise woman overnight, but she is put in a very unfair situation by the author. Jamie, you see, mutates into an ass as the story progresses. Despite the fact that throughout this story, starting from the moment his people brutally butchered her family down, his people have attacked, wronged, or subjugated Caitrina's people twice. She really has no reason to believe a word he says. I feel that it is his onus to earn her trust, not the other way around, because Caitrina's only sin here is to be spoiled and very sheltered in the first quarter or so of the story. Even if Jamie isn't solely responsible for the heinous betrayals on her family, she has no reason to put much faith in his words.
And yet, Jamie insists that she must have faith in him even as he doesn't trust himself to tell her the full extent of his plans. The last third of this story is a non-stop sequence of bad communication and hopelessly bad misunderstanding culminating in Jamie throwing a fit because he feels that the wife is trying to manipulate him. Can he blame her for trying to do so? I don't want to give away too many spoilers here, so let me just say that the lives of her family are in his hands and he high-handedly expects her to trust him when he won't even tell her what he wants to do with those people. And remember, by that point, his people led by his brother had wiped out most of her family and Argyll had also committed a dastardly betrayal of the trust of Caitrina's people, one that Jamie couldn't stop. He's being really unfair to expect Caitrina to have faith in him by that point. Even worse, he never seems to consider that Caitrina is walking a fine line in her position - some of her own people view her as the enemy due to her attempts to defend her husband against their accusations, so she could easily be killed by them just for the crime of believing enough in him to try to defend his name and honor. No, to Jamie, it isn't enough - Caitrina needs to have blind faith in him or else clearly she doesn't love him as much as he supposedly loves her.
And given that I have never seen any indication of Jamie loving Caitrina here for anything beyond her physical appearance, I am hard pressed to muster any empathy for Jamie here.
Ms McCarty seems to understand some of the issues here, as she has Caitrina wondering to herself how Jamie could still be loyal to Argyll after the man's betrayal of them all. Ms McCarty also tries to tell me that Jamie is loyal to Argyll because the man is seen by Jamie as the best hope to bring peace in Scotland. That's fine, but that still doesn't address the issue of how Jamie and Caitrina is ever going to find a middle ground to have a happily ever after. Instead, I get a most disappointing ending where the heroine apologizes to the hero for not having complete faith in him. That's... missing the point completely, actually.
Sigh. Still, I do have to admire Ms McCarty for trying to tackle something different, meaty, and ambitious in this story. Even if she doesn't succeed completely, I respect the intention, which is why, even if I find the romance unbelievable, a part of me really wants to give this book a higher score.
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