It’s always nice to find that a sequel is as good as, if not better than, its predecessor. When the Laird Returns, the second book in Karen Ranney’s five-book series about the MacRaes, is pretty damn decent. There’s enough derring-do to keep you interested in the action, the characters fall in love and learn to compromise and grow with each other along the way, and there aren’t any annoying overused plot devices (like the “hero with a double identity” chestnut employed in One Man’s Love). In short: this is going to be one boring-ass review.
It’s 29 years after the events that ended One Man’s Love. Alisdair MacRae, eldest son of Ian and Leitis MacRae and a very successful ship captain, is visiting the ancestral MacRae lands that were abandoned when the clan decided to escape to Nova Scotia instead of suffering the full brunt of British rule in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. He wants to look at Gilmuir Castle, which he’s heard so much about but never seen in person. But really, the visit is supposed to be a quick detour; he’s on his way south to London to talk to his father’s stepmother. When Ian MacRae (born Alec Landers, heir to the Earl of Sherbourne) decided to commit treason and aid the Scots in defying and eventually escaping the British, his stepmother, Patricia (who aided the escape) had him legally declared dead and her son installed as earl. However, her son is now dead, and Alisdair is presumed to be next in line to inherit. Alisdair has every intention of refusing the earldom. His life, he thinks, is with the sea and with a steady, sturdy woman in Nova Scotia.
Until he rescues a beautiful young woman named Iseabal. Iseabal is the only child of Magnus, laird of the MacRae’s age-old rivals, the Drummonds. The ruins of Gilmuir and the strange, sudden disappearance of the MacRae clan has always stirred her interest, and Iseabal uses every opportunity she has to escape there from the intensely abusive Magnus. Then one day, while exploring the castle, she quite literally falls down a hole. 30-year-old ruins that have been bombed to fuck and back by British cannon are full of holesâ€”who knew? Not Iseabal, apparently. But conveniently enough, Alisdair is right there to yank her out.
Alisdair doesn’t really think too much of the encounter. Gilmuir and the MacRae land are actually foremost in his mind, especially when he sees the land being grazed over by sheep. He finds out that Magnus Drummond has been ceded the ownership and use of the property, and on impulse he heads over to the Drummond stronghold to buy the land back. Magnus is willing to sell it, on one condition: that Alisdair marry his daughter too. It’s not every day a man gets to marry a woman he pulls out of a hole, but fate has selected Alisdair for just such a destiny.
After the wedding, Alisdair and Iseabal and immediately sail for London, where Alisdair plans to annul the marriage and tell his step-grandmother gently but firmly: Thanks, but no thanks. But on the voyage down the two of them discover Things of Great Hotness about each other. For instance, Alisdair discovers that Iseabal is a sculptor, which he finds to be a turn-on. And Iseabal discovers that Alisdair has a genuine core of kindness and gentleness to him, and that’s a turn-on for her too, especially given her experiences with her father.
And Alisdair’s plans all go awry once he sets foot in London, of course. He doesn’t expect to like Patricia quite so much, for one. He also doesn’t expect the Sherbourne estate to be quite so prosperous. He suddenly realizes that if he accepts the earldom, he’ll have enough money to rebuild Gilmuir and start a shipyard there, and since the MacRae land has become a new obsession of his, he makes an old woman very happy and accepts the title. Similarly, his plans to annul his marriage to Iseabal are abandoned when Patricia, playing matchmaker, makes him aware of what exactly he’s giving up.
The happy couple sail back to Scotland to rebuild their future, except Magnus, as befits a romance novel villain (romances are not known for their multi-dimensional, believable bad guysâ€”I know, SHOCK, HORROR, GASP!), has reneged on the deal and has reclaimed the land. And so begins a battle in earnest,and Iseabal feels herself horrified at the depths her father will sink toâ€”so much so that she begins to doubt that Alisdair can truly love the daughter of the man who is able to commit such atrocities.
But they work it out in the end (I know, SHOCK, HORROR, GASP!), and everybody gets their just desserts. No, trust me. They do. There’s even a really sweet secondary love story involving Fergus, Leitis’s older brother and presumed dead at Culloden in the previous book.
Ranney does a good job of creating characters that aren’t quite your usual, run-of-the-mill romance novel archetypes. Alisdair strikes a nice balance between being confident and assertive on one hand, and being a genuinely nice guy on the other. Iseabal is one of the more interesting characters I’ve encountered lately. Her abuse at the hands of her father has led her to exercise extreme restraint over any outward manifestations of emotion, and her struggle with the repression is presented very believably. Alisdair’s desire and corresponding efforts to break through that restraint are similarly well-portrayed.
The writing style in this book is quite beautiful; it’s lyrical without being overwhelming. Ranney has a very distinct voice, and although I’ll read just about anything she releases, a few of her books have collapsed under the weight of her prose style (My Wicked Fantasy is one book that comes to mind, and Above All Others is actually almost completely unreadable because of it). Thankfully, she manages to avoid that particular pitfall in this book.
When the Laird Returns is a pretty entertaining book. It’s well-written, and it doesn’t insult your intelligence, though it comes close to calling it mean names a couple of times. Check it out. If you’ve read and enjoyed other Karen Ranney novels, look this up. If you’ve never read any Ranney, I suggest trying Upon a Wicked Time or My Beloved to get you hooked, those two books kick ass.
The Highland Lords novels, in the order in which they were published:
One Manâ€™s Love
When the Laird Returns
The Irresistible MacRae
To Love a Highland Lord
So In Love