Book Review

My Heart’s in the Highlands by Amy Hoff

Tara: Hello! It’s me, once again crashing one of Shana’s reviews (thank goodness she loves me). I was SO excited when I found out she was reading My Heart’s in the Highlands, because I’d just finished and was desperate to talk to someone about it. This book is BANANAS and kind of messy, but I was into it.

Shana: Meanwhile, I was quietly squeeing to myself, with no one to talk to about how ridiculous and amazing this book is. I have a lot of nostalgia for 90s-style Highlander epics, but I hate alphaholes so I can’t read them anymore. Babes, My Heart’s in the Highlands has everything I loved about those books, but with two women instead. We get a protective lover in a kilt and a lady scientist who’s appalled, yet intrigued, by the rough manners of her muscular Scottish rescuer. Plus, a demisexual heroine, and a cameo by a fucking Viking warrior queen.

Who cares about plot holes when you have all this joy?

Tara: So what’s it about, anyway? In 1888, Lady Jane Crichton is a scientist and one of the first women to go to university in Edinburgh. She has some pretty exciting news for her husband (a gay man who’s lovely and needed the political cover of marriage): Jane has built a time machine and going to take it for for its first real flight. Something goes majorly wrong, however, because when she wakes up, Jane is not where she expected to be. It’s the year 1293, she’s in the Highlands, and she’s been found by a hunky warrior woman named Ainslie.

I imagine she’s built like Huntara from She-Ra.

Shana: I was imagining tall, broad, and strong-willed Brianna from the Outlander books (not the TV show). But, Huntara’s hair is clearly better.

Tara: Right? Anyway, turns out, Ainslie is local royalty, and she helps Jane settle into life in their island city while Jane tries to figure out how the hell she could possibly fix her time machine. Jane is shocked that their buildings are warmer, their clothes are more comfortable, and their social mores are way more open-minded than what she was used to in the Victorian era. For example, rape is rare and strongly punished, men are expected to cook, and women can be warriors, academics, and blacksmiths. As they spend more time together, Jane and Ainslie fall for each other very hard, very fast. But Jane wants to get back home, plus she has a secret. Can she and Ainslie possibly work out a relationship with all of that against them?

Shana: Ainslie’s family rules a fiercely independent kingdom of traders in the Hebrides islands. The culture is a mix of Celtic and Norse, and her parents flip “traditional” gender roles. Mom’s a Viking warrior and dad’s a caring romantic. Ainslie openly courts Jane, although Jane’s too busy with her time machine and learning how to fit in, to notice at first. Ainslie’s parents and brother play matchmaker, and they were adorable. I loved when the queen scolds their daughter by saying “Ainslie nic Domhnaill…We do not kidnap brides! We do not go viking!”

Tara: Oh yes, I do so love what a major badass Ainslie’s mom is. Her whole family dynamic is lovely, with Ainslie as a warrior and her brother wanting to be a doctor. They were a total joy to read about.

More importantly, though, how about Ainslie and those arms? I’m sure a handful exist, but I don’t think I’ve ever read an f/f romance with such a muscular woman before and I was absolutely delighted when she showed up. Ainslie really is the best part of this book for me because she’s incredibly strong, yet so sweet. I appreciate how tender she is compared to Jane, and how fiercely she loves Jane almost from the start.

Shana: Yes, she was incredibly swoonworthy. Also good at murmuring sweet nothings in Gaelic. It was nice of Jane to keep getting into scrapes so I could enjoy Ainslie rescuing her.

It’s such a treat, getting a historical heroine who is super strong, and had no sense of there being any limitations on what women could do. Jane is also strong in her own way, because she’s trying to carve her own path in a famously restrictive time period for women. When she travels in time, she’s suddenly trapped in a place where her being tall, smart, and loud isn’t a flaw. Jane’s self confidence just blossoms in this book, and I loved watching her slough off all the sexist beliefs she’d internalized from loser Victorian dudes.

Tara: Yes! Seeing Jane grapple with the difference between the social context she’s used to and the new one in the thirteenth century was a high point for me too.

Back to my crush, Ainslie: she reminded me of old-school romance heroes, in both the best and the worst ways. Early on in their acquaintance, she sort of just pushes Jane around and is a gruff, yet gentle jerk. I liked that a lot because even though she’s pushy, she has so much heart. The part I was less cool with is that there were times where consent was just not something Ainslie took into account at all while having sex with Jane. Jane had a good time during all of those scenes, but the consent came across to me as dubious at best in a scene later on.

Why the consent seemed dubious to me

At one point in the back half of the book, Ainslie thinks Jane has been using her and the rest of her clan. So, when she rescues Jane from the people Ainslie thinks Jane is working for/allied with, she sort of throws her down and fucks her in a way that really blurred the lines for me. Jane seemed to sort of get into it, but I read her as also being bewildered in the moment, which didn’t sit well with me.

Shana: That was a low point for me too. For the most part, I thought Ainslie’s sexual partnering was pretty similar to a typical historical romance hero; overwhelmed with lust, and desperate to please their partner. But in that one scene their dom/sub sexual dynamics slid right past passionately forceful, into dubious consent. Ainslie sneers at Jane, and calls her a harlot. It was gross, and didn’t jibe with Ainslie’s characterization for the rest of the book, where she’s strong but very loving. I did appreciate that afterward, Jane has to come to terms with her shame about her desire to have Ainslie dominating her, and ultimately communicates her boundaries to Ainslie.

Tara: Oh yeah, I was super pissed about the “harlot” comment because it was SO far away from what we’re used to seeing of Ainslie. I remember thinking “she would NEVER!”

This wasn’t the only thing that made me scratch my head. For example, absolutely no one in 1293 questioned whether Jane had actually traveled through time. They all just basically said “sure, yeah. That tracks.” I found all of that hard to believe and had to shrug and accept it as part of the overall WTFery of this book.

Shana: The “science” of time travel also made no sense in this book. Jane travels back and forth a few times and then her machine suddenly becomes sentient and takes her wherever IT wants to go. Her science friends seem unperturbed. OH-KAY.

However, I loved how Jane thought about time travel as a proud Scot. Unlike most time travel stories, life in the past is far more comfortable for her than Victorian Edinburgh. When you take away the possibility of creature comforts in the “future,” you’re just comparing two places where antibiotics haven’t been invented yet. So, Jane’s main challenge is how to handle living in the past of the Highlands when she knows the pain of struggling Highlanders in her present. Traveling in time to live among people she knows are going to be conquered, and who she believes will have their way of life wiped out, is very painful for her. That dilemma resonated with me as a woman of color, in a way that time traveling stories about White people often fail to grasp.

Jane isn’t attempting to alter the course of women’s rights, or Scottish independence, she’s just deciding if she can be happy living in the past, knowing what she knows about the future. I found this quandary very thoughtfully handled, especially when Jane later travels back to learn about Highlanders in her present and starts to understand how her Scottish identity has been anglicized.

Tara: What did you think about the pacing? I ask because it didn’t work for me at all, especially with Jane going back and forth between 1293 and 1888. I kept wondering “what the hell is even happening NOW?!” I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong, beyond knowing it felt off, until I looked at the official blurb for the book and saw how prominently it calls out Jane’s secret. Then I understood that the relationship development doesn’t dictate the pacing, the reveal of Jane’s secret does. This is particularly strange, because the secret doesn’t really end up affecting their relationship, certainly not with the dire consequences Jane was anticipating.

Shana: I was happy with the pacing for the first half of the book because I was floating on a sea of low-conflict fantasy, occasionally interrupted by Jane being thrown over Ainslie’s shoulder and dragged off to bed. The second half had enough crazysauce to fill an entire second book. At one point Ainslie and Jane set a room on fire, have sex in it while it burns around them, and escape armed soldiers out a castle window.

How we felt about this scene

https://media.giphy.com/media/l1J9I8VneXftm5esE/giphy.gif

I was confused, but also entertained.

Things start getting wilder when The Secret reappears, and Jane leaves the bubble of the islands to visit the rest of the Highlands.

Prepare to be underwhelmed by the secret
The secret is that she’s a member of a rival clan that Ainslie and her family hate. This first aggravates, and then resolves a war.

The last few chapters really dragged because I think the conflicts were resolved too early.

Tara: HAHAHAHAHA! Best gif ever, because I felt the same way during the fire sex scene.

Another thing I want to note that bothers me is the cover. Neither of these women look anything like Ainslie and that’s a damn shame. Who doesn’t want to see a ripped woman on a cover? (Seriously, there’s a reason why Chelsea M. Cameron’s cover for Anyone But You gets a lot of love… ) And especially a ripped Highlander woman?

Shana: I’m torn because this is my favorite f/f cover of 2020. I think it’s exceptionally beautiful. But neither of the heroines are the willowy people this cover depicts. It’s a shame because there’s some cool historical detail about Highland customs that could have inspired an interesting cover. Thanks to this book, I now know what an earasaid is.

I thought the historical setting was both a strength and a weakness. The medieval Hebrides are not a common setting for romances, and I had trouble believing some of the stuff in this book, like frequent baths, and women being able to be chiefs. The writer seems to have anticipated that, because 15% of the book is devoted to historical references. I was schooled, and impressed. Many characters were even real historical figures, including Ainslie’s parents! But then we get stupid small inaccuracies that even casual readers of historical fiction would clock, like white satin wedding dresses in the 13th century. What did you think?

Tara: To be honest, the history buffs in the Bitchery might find this book frustrating because it’s all over the place. The guide at the end is helpful for anyone wanting a more fulsome understanding of the times in which the story takes place, but it doesn’t help that there are some glaring errors. For example, the feasts in 1293 would never have had potatoes on the table, and yet they were there in the book. I wouldn’t say this sent me into an actual Potato Rage, but it made me question everything, so I had to throw my hands up and just suspend disbelief all around.

Shana: Wow, I missed the potatoes! On the positive side, there are historically accurate characters of color mentioned. Now can we talk about Jane inventing a vibrator and the Druids wanting her to share her magical new invention with them?

Tara: Shana, I fucking cackled at the vibrator. I could not even. I can’t blame those Druids though. Who doesn’t want a good vibrator?

Honestly, I have no idea how the hell to grade this book. On the one hand, I had a LOT of fun. Like, the more bonkers it became, the more fun I had, which is very much in its favour. On the other, it has some pretty big structural and historical problems that took away from my enjoyment.

Shana: I think readers who miss old school batshit romances, but are also annoyed with men, might like this. Why, that’s me! I also love stories that creatively reimagine the historical past, and this a great book for that. I think readers who like a slow burn romance or, ahem, logical reasoning, would be disappointed. The characters get together early in the book and there are dropped plot threads, and unrealistic science that’s never fully explained. For me, this book was both fun and made me think about suppressed indigenous histories. I’d love a sequel starring Jane’s lesbian friends. If you can suspend all disbelief and are happy to just hang on for the ride, we recommend My Heart’s in the Highlands with caveats. But if you can’t set aside glaring oddities, inconsistent science, and a brief detour into potentially dubious consent, this will not work for you.

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My Heart’s in the Highlands by Amy Hoff

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  1. 1
    Penny says:
    8+

    “I think readers who miss old school batshit romances, but are also annoyed with men, might like this.”

    Me me! Love this collaborative review. Y’all made my day!

  2. 2
    Lisa F says:
    2+

    Hah! This is such a fun read and it made me want to indulge in the goofiness of the book!

  3. 3
    Nina says:
    0

    WHat a lovely thoughtful review. But why use two standard females on the cover? It should be possible to show female strength without verging into cover snark territory.

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