I’m always up for a good fairy-story retelling, and having heard good things about this author, I picked up Beauty and the Highland Beast with reasonably high expectations. I can’t, however, say that they were met, because while the writing is very good and the tension that leads to the dramatic finale is skilfully built, the characterisation of the two leads is inconsistent and the romance is underdeveloped.
Alasdair Og Sinclair, the son of the chief of the Clan Sinclair, has a formidable reputation as a leader of men, a skilful strategist and as a man with a good head for business. Using his talents in all those fields, he has made his clan a fortune and proved that he will be a worthy chief when his time comes. But tragedy strikes when he is tasked with escorting his cousin Jeanne to a French convent. At Berwick, they are captured by a group of English soldiers who are bent upon revenge on Dair for his engagement and plundering of their ships. His crew is murdered, Dair is tortured and savagely beaten and Jeanne is abused, raped and killed in front of him, leaving him a broken man. One of his captors helps him to escape and to return home, but Dair is so badly injured in body and mind that his survival is in doubt and he is believed to be mad. The Sinclair orders the local healer be brought to attend his son, but she knows there is little she can do. She tends to Dair as best she can, cleaning and dressing his wounds, but knows there is nothing she can do about his mental state. Fearing for her life should she anger the chief, she suggests that as a virgin was – indirectly – the cause of Dair’s state, then only a virgin will be able to heal him.
Padraig Sinclair sets out immediately to find his son a virgin bride, and, knowing that The Fearsome McLeod is blessed with a dozen daughters, pays a visit to his stronghold with a view to securing the hand of one of the McLeod ladies for his son. Of the four or five of the ladies of marriageable age, it seems that the one best suited to the task is clumsy, scarred Fia, who spends most of her time healing wounded animals. She is quiet, a bit odd and is often almost invisible amongst her bevy of beautiful sisters, but she agrees to travel to Carraig Brigh to see if she can do anything to help, believing she is going there as a healer and not as a potential bride.
Dair is immediately rude and dismissive of Fia, but she sees past his injuries and dishevelled appearance to the angry and lost soul beneath and finds she wants to help him, regardless of his unpleasantness. She realises that what needs is the simple comfort to be found in the presence and understanding of another person, something she is able and willing to provide. Fia blossoms at Carraig Brigh, gaining confidence in her healing skills and discovering a previously unsuspected backbone of steel which enables her to stand up for herself when necessary. But this is one of the inconsistencies I mentioned; the change from the timid, clumsy and unremarked daughter to the young woman who captivates practically all of the men of the Clan Sinclair happens almost immediately, and it’s as though she’s become a different person. The same is true of Dair, who is supposedly full of anger, tortured by his memories and plagued by guilt, and yet after one night of Fia soothing his agitated dreams by singing to him, much of that anger and guilt seems to disappear. It’s a very difficult balance to strike when a character in a book is traumatised; the trauma has to be believable if it is going to put the character into the dark place required by the story, but if the author goes too far, then the cure/redemption is not credible. The problem here is not that Dair’s return from the edge of madness is not possible, it’s that it happens very quickly and without much effort on his part or Fia’s.
The story proceeds as expected, but the romance between Fia and Dair is poorly developed and ultimately disappointing. I never felt a strong attraction or deep emotional connection between them, and in fact, they don’t spend a great deal of time together; instead, there is a lot of filler about Fia’s ferocious cat and her activities as a healer. As I write this review, I am struggling to recall anything memorable about either the romance or the leads. Fia is kind and understanding and Dair is … grumpy, which doesn’t really qualify him for the Beastly epithet as per the book’s title. I admit, however, that he made more of an impression on me later in the story, when events force him to assume leadership of the Clan and he gets the opportunity to really show what he is made of. That said, however, the change from supposed madman to decisive leader is another transition that happens far too quickly.
The pacing of the book is uneven, with the first two-thirds being rather slow and the final third suddenly ramping up the tension and the action. This section is the best thing about the book; the author takes things in a darker direction and does a good job of showing what a perilous thing it was to be a woman and a healer at this point in history.
Beauty and the Highland Beast had the potential to be a much more engaging novel than it actually is, but it suffers because too much time is devoted to peripheries at the expense of character development and interaction. Dair isn’t much of a beast; his horrific experiences are certainly enough to have unbalanced anyone, but not enough time is spent on exploring his mental state and showing him gradually responding to Fia’s persistence and gentle care. Fia is set out to be the unattractive, shy sister who is unlikely to marry; yet suddenly she’s charming the birds from the trees and men are falling over themselves for a bit of ointment and a bandage! Nothing is made of how she must feel at being sidelined by her family (albeit unintentionally) and all in all, she’s fairly nondescript. There are better retellings of Beauty and the Beast out there, so I’d encourage you to seek out one of those instead.
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