The story opens with the capture of the infamous Scottish raider known as Rabbie Redcloak. Hugh Graham, an English deputy, plans to hang Redcloak without a trial. Knowing this may bring dishonor to her family and trouble to the already volatile border, Hugh’s sister Janet frees the prisoner who then abducts her to save her from her brother’s legendary wrath. As it turns out, Rabbie’s real name is Quinton and he is the cousin of the powerful Walter Buccleuch. Buccleuch insists that Quinton must marry Janet to keep her safe from English retribution for treason, to restore her honor and to keep the borders quiet.
As overused as the device is, I adore marriage of convenience plots where two strong personalities are forced to reconcile. But Scott’s characters and their motivations are never compelling enough to enliven the story or drive the action. We never really understand why Hugh is so bent on flouting border law and killing Quinton. This is a serious problem because Hugh is the closest thing we have to a villain. We’re told he has a temper, that he beats Janet, yet she doesn’t seem to fear him, and in fact, is quite fond of him. None of his servants seem scared of him and we never actually see him do anything really bad. He isn’t crazy. He isn’t evil. He isn’t even really misguided. He just seems to have had common sense suspended for the sake of moving the plot along.
Of course, a great hero and heroine can save any story, but both fall short of this task. Quinton and Buccleuh are so similar that Quinton ends up coming across as a less powerful, less interesting version of his cousin. For an outlaw/noble leading a double life, he’s got a surprising lack of edges. (And a beta without a few rough spots is just plain dull.) I also never connected with Janet. The way she chooses to aid Quinton in his escape is explained as if it makes perfect sense. But there seemed to be plenty of solutions that wouldn’t have made it so very obvious that she had disobeyed her brothers orders and committed treason. In fact, Janet makes a lot of bad choices and we’re never really sure why. She has no real loyalty to England, no deep sympathy for Scotland, and her growing attachment to Quinton is utterly passionless. To give you an idea, Janet, recalling their lovemaking, thinks it was “more than satisfactory. She looked forward to repeating it.” It sounds less like sex than a favorite recipe. And frankly, the word inserted doesn’t belong anywhere near a love scene.
I appreciate that Scott tried to avoid romance cliches. Our hero and heroine do none of the I hate you, let’s go to bed that substitues for real chemistry in so many forced marriage plots. They have lots of rational discussions, but they read more like narration than snappy dialogue and it all gets pretty tedious. There are important, powerful characters who influence the plot, but we never meet them. There are lots of details about local customs, but Scott tells us about them instead of showing them. In addition, the book is full of action sequences: a raid, an escape, an attempted rape (of course), but none of these scenes are very exciting. The prose is lackluster and, despite the frequent use of bairn, wee, and ken, Scotland’s landscape and people never really seem to come alive.
The most disappointing part of all of this is that there is a moment at the story’s climax when Janet truly does take the lead with real courage and the plot picks up. In addition, Scott’s ending is clever and even a bit spicy. But these bright moments only make the rest of the book seem more lackluster. Scott’s love of border lore and her attention to detail are laudable, but if you want to be truly transported, there are countless other romances set in Scotland that will take you there.