Hero in the Highlands
Suzanne Enoch has a long line of successful Scottish romances behind her, and this book is a delightful addition to her long backlist. She takes us back to the highlands in her latest set of Scottish-set romances, No Ordinary Hero, the first of which, Hero in the Highlands, features career soldier Gabriel Forrester and land steward Fiona Blackstock.
Major Gabriel Forrester is a soldier, and a damn good one at that. Nicknamed The Beast of Bussaco, he is brutally strong, clever on the battlefield and is an instrumental force in Wellington’s army. He is away at war when his distant uncle, the Duke of Lattimer, dies, and Gabriel inherits his land and title. It seems that the estate has become seriously run-down due to the mismanagement of the previous duke’s steward, and while Gabriel has no interest in living the life of a nobleman, he has a strong sense of duty so he sails to Scotland, accompanied by his aide-de-camp, Sergeant Adam Kelgrove, with the intention of setting things to rights.
The first time Gabriel sees Fiona Blackstock she has just waded into chest-high mud to save one of her tenant’s cows and is quite thoroughly stuck. His assistance in engineering her escape results in her spitting, angry resentment and thus begins their conflict, complicated by occasional moments of attraction. Fiona’s family has lived in Lattimer Castle for centuries, and Fiona is proud of what she’s done with what little she has at hand. She is not at all pleased at the idea of having to hand over the reins to some Sassenach soldier lordling from the much-hated England, so she puts up an obstinate and stubborn front. But, patiently and slowly, Gabriel wears down Fiona’s defenses by pitching in and being unpretentious, and in turn he slowly begins to appreciate her knowledge of the people and his land. Soon they’re working together as a team and canoodling between rides on manure carts and dunkings in dangerous bogs.
But even as their partnership solidifies into love there’s trouble ahead. An ancient curse has been placed upon the Lattimer line by the castle’s original owner, something neither Gabriel nor Fiona believe in but also something that’s left most of the townspeople reluctant to be near Gabriel. And there’s the matter of the sheep; the fact that hundreds of them at a time keep going missing up in the mountains, the main reason why Fiona withheld her financial records from Gabriel and the townspeople’s ultimate evidence of the curse. But ultimately it’s the arrival of the Duke of Dunncraigh, beloved of the people and head of Fiona’s clan, which forces her to choose between her love of Gabriel and of her people.
Gabriel is a decent fellow, quite practical and very much a by-the-book Dudley Do-Right. If I have a complaint to lodge against him, it’s definitely that it’s almost too easy for him to overcome the slings, arrows and obstacles Fiona throws at him.
In general, I enjoyed Fiona, who is in turn salty and earthy and strong; she has lived a life without Gabriel and rightfully enjoyed it, and now that he’s there she’ll gladly let him enhance her world. Sadly, the story’s biggest problem is her reaction to him. Her anger is justified, which is why I’m only slightly dinting the grade, but the way she goes about expressing it makes her seem occasionally cartoonishly hotheaded and childlike, especially for a woman who’s led her people for years in the absence of her brother’s presence. This effects their romance to a degree, but if you can get over that initial bump then there’s lots of amusement and joy to be held in their romance.
The supporting characters are a fun bunch too for the most part; the best is Kelgrove, Forrester’s assistant, a wonderful voice of reason in his life. The various townspeople they have to deal with are all funny and charming for the most part too. On the other hand, Maxwell really doesn’t exist as a character beyond being an obvious, cardboard villain.
Enoch’s prose is rousing and her characters spring off of the page, brimming with life and humor. Her research is very good and her characters drive the plot beautifully. The biggest problem I have with the prose, though, is her tendency to rely on spelled-out phonetic accents: so if ye didna ken people speaking with a wee bit of brogue in their voices you might not enjoy this book.
I, however, enjoyed it enormously and am looking forward to seeing what Ms. Enoch brings us with her next novel.