Can I just say this? I normally fucking hate Scottish romances. Between the incessant “ochâ€™s!” and “yeâ€™s” and using the words “lass” and “Sassenach” in every other sentence, many historical romances set in Scotland tend to be pretty damn cheesy. (As an aside: Word is objecting to my use of “normally fucking hate” and is delicately suggesting that I change it to “normally am fucking,” “normally fuck” or “normally was fucking.” It says something about meâ€”nothing too flattering, I imagineâ€”that I find this really funny.)
So when I learned that one of my favorite authors, Karen Ranney, was writing a series set in Scotland called The Highland Lords, my heart sank. But compulsive bitch that I am, I still bought the books when they came out. I did put off reading them for about three and a half years. Then I ran into a dry spell a few weeks ago and decided eh, what the hell, and grabbed One Manâ€™s Love off my TBR shelf. And you know, I was pleasantly surprised. This book is actually very enjoyable, even though it employs some romance clichÃ©s I tend to dislike, like a Too Stupid To Live incident and a hero with a double identity.
Ever since he was a child, Alec John Landers, Earl of Sherbourne, has made annual visits with his mother to Gilmuir in Scotland to spend time with his grandfather, who is laird to the MacRae clan. When in Scotland, they donâ€™t acknowledge his English side; instead, heâ€™s known as Ian MacRae and allowed to run wild with all the other MacRae children. Along the way, he develops a boyish tendre for the beautiful and feisty Leitis MacRae. Then on his eleventh birthday, his mom pulls classic Too Stupid To Live shit: she goes off riding alone, despite warnings of recent raids by the rivaling Drummond clan. Of course, beautiful Moira Landers nee MacRae is found dead that same day, presumably killed by the Drummonds. In a fit of pre-pubescent angst, Alec disowns the Scottish side of family and declares hatred of all things Scottish forever.
Fast forward to July of 1746. Itâ€™s only three months after the extremely bloody Battle of Culloden. Alec is now a highly regarded colonel in the British army, decorated by none other than the Duke of Cumberland himself. And just as Cumberland was known as “Butcher Cumberland” (and not for his love of a good cut of steak, if you know what I mean), Alec has earned the sobriquet Butcher of Inverness. The Disarming Act is being reinforced with great zeal in Scotland (although I think Ranney mightâ€™ve meant the Act of Proscription, which wasnâ€™t enacted until August 1746) and Scots can be jailed for playing the bagpipes, wearing a kilt or a tartan, speaking Gaelic, or expressing any other features unique to Gaelic culture. And oh wondrous fate, Alec finds himself assigned to head the brand-spankinâ€™ new fort thatâ€™s been built right next to Gilmuir Castle.
Things are a mess on MacRae land. The clan, which used to number hundreds of people, is now down to a few dozen starving members. Alecâ€™s childhood sweetheart, Leitis, is alone in the world except for her cranky uncle Hamish. And Hamish isnâ€™t much help or comfort: he stubbornly insists on doing assheaded things like play the bagpipes, which inevitably sends a swarm of English soldiers down from the nearby Fort William to punish the whole village for harboring a criminal. Alec arrives at the village just as the English soldiers, headed by the suitably villainous and ugly Major Sedgewick (theyâ€™re always ugly, if theyâ€™re not they end up reforming and getting their own sequel), are burning the houses down in an attempt to get the people to reveal where Hamish is hiding.
Alec is sickened by the destruction and orders the fire put out, then has Leitis put under his protection under the guise of using her as a hostage to guarantee Hamishâ€™s future good behavior. He doesnâ€™t dare reveal that heâ€™s really Ian MacRae and no longer quite as fervent in his hatred of the Scots. As for Leitis, she thinks heâ€™s OMG hot and vaguely familiar-looking, but also an Evil Swinish English Oppressor. But dammit, he keeps doing nice things like saving the village and treating her well while sheâ€™s under captivity. Whatâ€™s a poor romance novel heroine to think?
And hereâ€™s where the plot gets a little bit silly: Alec decides he needs to do more to help the MacRaes, so he dons a nifty little half-mask, wears all-black clothing, calls himself the Raven and with Leitisâ€™s help starts stealing army supplies from under the soldiers’ very noses and distributing them (the supplies, not the soldiers’ noses) to the village. Besides the rather mind-boggling risks they take and the incredible incompetence the English army shows, one canâ€™t help but wonder why romance heroines (and superhero girlfriends) are so susceptible to being hoodwinked by the flimsiest disguises. But to Ranneyâ€™s credit, she quite convincingly portrays how Leitis is fooled. Leitis also canâ€™t quite shake the feeling that the Raven is somebody familiar to her, so sheâ€™s not completely brain-dead.
Of course, all hell breaks loose when Leitis finds out who the Raven really is. But the resolution to all the troubles and dilemmas they face (both as a couple, and as a clan) are worked out satisfyingly by the end, and I was very pleasantly surprised by the solution that Alec came up with.
Ranney pulls no punches in describing the privations the MacRaes suffer, and this is probably one of the best features of the book. You get a pretty good sense of how horribly the Highlanders suffered under the British regime after their defeat at Culloden. Some reviewers on Amazon.com complained about how this aspect interfered with their happy fantasyland, but those people are pussies, donâ€™t listen to them. Oh, and nobody in the book speaks in an idiotic brogue. Big, big props to Ranney for avoiding that particular pitfall.
The two main characters are quite well-rendered, Alec more so than Leitis in my opinion. We see how his feelings about the Scots evolve from his impulsive, childish hatred to something a lot more compassionate and complex. Leitis is a pretty standard Feisty Romance Heroine, ready to defy death for the sake of her pride and sassing the hero every chance she gets, but hey, she didnâ€™t annoy me too much, which is a lot more than I can say about most Feisty Romance Heroines.
So anyway, if you like Ranneyâ€™s books but you were feeling nervous about the whole Scottish aspect, donâ€™t beâ€”she doesnâ€™t disappoint. I, for one, really enjoyed reading this book. Even the sillier aspects of the plot are treated with some depth and respect. On the other hand, if you like romances that are all love and bunnies and roses or Scottish protagonists who say shit like “ye ken, wee lassie?” all the time, this might not be your cuppa.
The Highland Lords novels, in the order in which they were published:
One Man's Love
When the Laird Returns
The Irresistible MacRae
To Love a Highland Lord
So In Love
Why do romance novel titles suck so hard?