The Highlander is a wackadoodle crazysauce “historical” romance. You can totally judge this book by its cover, which features a kilt, a partially unbuttoned shirt, a dress from the antebellum South, and the kind of sunset you only get after nuclear weapons have been discharged. I loved it to bits.
The book has an extremely high squick factor, especially in the first two chapters. The prologue involves a disposable sex worker being disposed of. (Hello, offensive trope). In the first chapter, the heroine, who is in a mental asylum, is tortured and nearly raped. Other trigger warnings go out for child and pet abuse (described when Liam – our improbably Irish-named hero — discusses his childhood). Once the reader gets past the first chapter, things do lighten up considerably, thank goodness.
Philomena, our heroine, is in the mental institution because her evil abusive husband put her there, even though he knows perfectly well that she is not insane. Philomena is saved from rape in the asylum in the nick of time by Dorian Blackwell (from Byrne’s book The Highwayman) and Christopher Argent (from The Hunter). Many plot points were lost on me because I have not read The Hunter, a book in which apparently Philomena does something heroic and earns the loyalty of both Dorian and Christopher’s wives.
After the rescue, said wives decide to have Philomena go by the name “Mena” and assume a new identity as a governess. She will work for, I shit you not, Lieutenant Colonel Liam Mackenzie, The Demon Highlander, Laird of the Mackenzie Clan (imagine writing all that on a check). Needless to say, Mena is terrified of The Demon Highlander, but she cannot resist his kilt-clad muscled thighs, and he cannot resist her large bosom.
A digression: I have a large bosom as well as “generous hips” and a rather enormous ass. I also have a roly-poly, saggy, big belly. I detest it. All my efforts at achieving an attitude of feminist body positivity crash and burn as soon as I regard my tummy. This leads me to point out that there are tons of “curvy in just the right places,” “voluptuous,” and “well-endowed” heroines in romance. Can’t they ever have large bellies to match? Every time a heroine worries about her weight it turns out that she just has a big bosom and wide hips. Where’s the tummy love?
ANYWAY, Mena’s big problem is that she doesn’t want to tell Liam that she is on the run from an increasingly inconvenient husband. Liam’s big problem is that he has a horrible legacy of trauma to work through, is trying to be a non-abusive father to his children (spoiler alert – he’s very good at it) and he’s trying not to just whisk Mena off to the moors to have his way with her. Liam gets a lot of points in this book for basic decency, which is only allowable because his past was so awful that basic decency is a significant accomplishment. Complicating their romance is a ghost that roams the halls of Ravencroft Keep – did I mention that the handsome widower Lieutenant Colonel Liam Mackenzie lives at Ravencroft Keep? Well, he does. Also there’s a puppy (it doesn’t die – it’s fine).
I don’t consider this kind of romance to be historical; it’s more of a fantasy. I’m here for the general sense of old school crazysauce, and I love how Kerrigan Byrne writes it. She keeps all the elements that are so delightful about Old School mayhem – broken-down carriages, heroines with hair “like a garnet cabernet,” ghosts, melodrama — you name it, but she leaves out the rapey heroes (alpha yes, rapey no) and turns on the feminism. The story combines all of the familiar elements of old-school crazysauce but with a much more explicitly modern feminist slant and focus on the female characters’ empowerment. Watching Mena come into her own and assert herself is truly delightful, as is the theme of women helping women. Above all, the book is just a ton of fun.
I did not like this book as much as I liked Byrne’s first book, The Highwayman (as I mentioned, I haven’t read The Hunter). I thought the construction of The Highlander was not as tight, and that certain triggery scenes, particularly the first section of Chapter One, were gratuitous and problematic. I was also taken aback by the fate of Mena’s abusive husband. I can’t say that I felt sad, as that character was reprehensible in every possible way, but I was taken aback. I also disliked the plot device wherein all conflict would be resolved if Mena just told Liam about her husband.
For the most part, though, this book was a fun diversion for me during a difficult time. Other than her inability to convey important information, Mena is an intensely relatable character and I loved watching her build a supportive community around herself. If you enjoy the kind of romances that include lines like “Dark waves of hair hung long and heavy with moisture down his back, and menace rolled off the mountains of his shoulders in palpable waves” then you’ll like this book.
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The Highlander by Kerrigan Byrne
August 2, 2016
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