Desert Isle Keeper
A DIKlassic Review
originally published on February 18, 2004
The bloody Border feuds between the English and the Scots are both terrible and fascinating. But while many have written about them, few books give much consideration to the human side of the brutality marking Border life hundreds of years ago. In The Linnet, Elizabeth English brings this time and place to life, showing both the horror and the beauty of it all. The hero and heroine really have to work for their happiness, but following them along their gut-wrenching journey is ultimately rewarding.
After traveling the world as a musician, Ronan Fitzgerald is now apprenticed to Fergus the taibhsear, a type of healer/seer. His master, who had previously treated Lady Maude Darnley, is dying, so he sends Ronan in his place to tend to her. Ronan is told little by the old healer, so he does not know what to expect when he reaches the stronghold of the Darnleys and meets Maude, his unwilling patient.
In many ways, Maude, who is cold and harsh to those around her, is the terror of the Darnley home, and her rude and callous mistreatment of family keep her detached from her own household. These qualities have also given rise to malicious gossip among the rival Kirallen family, who currently hold her brother as hostage to ensure a truce. Not surprisingly, Maude’s initial resistance to the healer’s apprentice is so vehement that it appears unlikely that she will ever again find herself on good terms with the healer.
Ronan, however, is both wise and persistent. His kindness, intelligence, and abilities stand him in good stead as he seeks to find out what ails Lady Maude beneath her haughty exterior. Ronan is one of the first to guess that a truly troubled heart lies beneath Maude’s cold demeanor and he sets about trying to help Maude free herself from her self-imposed prison. From then on, their story is one that is often wrenching, dark, and violent, but not totally lacking in humor since there are light scenes interspersed throughout to keep the reader from being utterly wrung out by the intensity of Maude and Ronan’s tale.
Both the hero and heroine are great characters. Maude is cold, haughty, and downright nasty in the beginning. Still, there is a sort of vulnerability lurking beneath it all. Though the Darnleys and Kirallens are at peace for the present, Maude has known the ravages of past feuds and bears the scars of them. As she opens herself up more and more and shows her inner struggles to Ronan and to the reader, she becomes a much more likable character. Her inner self is portrayed so vividly and so well that at times it aches to read her story. Still, the reader cannot help becoming involved and wishing for Maude to live and be happy.
Ronan is also well-drawn. At times he appears almost saintly in his kindness and wisdom, but he has a certain sense of humor that keeps him human. He tries his very hardest in everything he does, but he is not perfect in all things by any means. Somehow this makes him ever more endearing.
Ronan and Maude also truly enjoy each other’s company and don’t seem to find it necessary to fall passionately all over one another every time they meet. Their conversations and the time they spend together playing music are obviously a joy to them both and it’s refreshing to see a couple able to befriend one another, as well as becoming lovers.
For the most part, the secondary characters were also well-done. Characters from English’s previous novels make appearances, but they have an actual purpose in the story and are not merely there to remind the reader that they are living happily ever after. These secondary characters have very distinct personalities and rarely act as mere cardboard cutouts to move the story along.
With brilliantly written characters and a story powerful enough to suit them, The Linnet is an all-round winner. It is somewhat unusual, though, and as much as I loved it, my sense is that it may invoke equally strong reaction on the other end of the enjoyment spectrum. If you’re looking for a dramatic romance that offers something different, I urge you to seek it out.