Charming the Highlander
Grade : A-

Never heard of Janet Chapman? That’s about to change, right now. If her debut novel, Charming the Highlander, is any indication, her name is going to soar quickly to the top of the discerning reader’s list of must-buy authors.

Charming the Highlander is set in contemporary northwestern Maine, and tells the story of Greylen MacKeage and Grace Sutter, lovers destined to come together despite the inconvenient circumstance of their temporal and geographical separation: he’s a Scottish laird making his mark among the warring clans of the 12th century Highlands and she’s a 21st century scientist working on the commercial applications of space travel and planetary colonization. It’s a match made in heaven. Just ask Pendaar, the wizard responsible for jolting Grey forward through time, determined to trigger the cosmic events that will eventually bring forth Pendaar’s successor, whom he has a mere two centuries left to properly train.

Unfortunately, due to the sometimes uncooperative cherrywood staff Pendaar uses to cast the spell, it’s not just Grey who is propelled through time; three of his warriors, the six McBains who had unexpectedly staged a surprise attack on them, and all of their weaponry and warhorses suddenly find themselves in a very different-looking twentieth century Scotland. But with the aid of Father Daar, a very “resourceful” priest they immediately encounter, they learn how to survive and prosper over the next four years, even if they don’t quite understand the hows and whys of their new circumstances. Eventually, they all come to settle in Pine Creek, Maine, where the financial assets they have accrued through Father Daar’s judicious mentoring (not to mention the practically-supplied satchel he conjured to bring with him through time) are put to good use. The MacKeages have secured vast acreage to hold a ski resort along with the modern castle they call home; Michael McBain, the only survivor from that clan (the others have died, most from standing in thunderstorms in the hope of getting jolted back to their own time) has purchased a tree farm.

We first meet Grace Sutter at the bedside of her dying younger sister, Mary, in a Norfolk, Virginia hospital. Mary had arrived from Pine Creek some months before, reticent both about her reason for being there and the circumstances surrounding her pregnancy. On her deathbed, she tells Grace about her love affair with Michael McBain, her spontaneous flight to Grace’s doorstep after hearing his delusional tale about having traveled through time, and the attempted journey back to him cut short by her fatal accident. She secures a promise that Grace will take the baby pulled safely from her womb to his father in Maine, leaving the naming of his son to Michael. It is this deathbed promise which leads Grace back to Pine Creek and her destiny.

Grace and Baby meet Grey on a commuter flight from Bangor, Maine, to Pine Creek. They are the only passengers, and they’re at the mercy of a hotshot pilot who overestimates his ability to get them safely to their destination despite the extreme winter weather conditions. When their plane goes down about ten miles from Pine Creek, the pilot is killed and Grace quickly learns to trust in Grey to get her and Baby to safety.

Once back in Pine Creek, Grace must concern herself with a number of problems. She must meet McBain to decide whether he’s sane enough to be told he has a son (especially given her attachment to Baby, and reluctance to give him up). She needs to figure out what to do about the attraction she shares with Grey and the bond that seems to have formed between them. She also has decisions to make regarding her own future in terms of career and Baby. On top of all this, she has to get McBain and the MacKeages to work together to forestall the otherwise inevitable financial setbacks that will result for all of them from the uncommonly harsh weather conditions they’re experiencing, and deal with an hysterical boss/boyfriend named Jonathon (who shows up at her sister’s house in Pine Creek needing help deciphering the data being transmitted from a satellite pod they had launched some weeks before). That’s not even to mention the consortium Jonathon had apparently made a secret deal with on the side, the fact that they might be wanting Grace’s technology for nefarious purposes and the indications that they have sent hired thugs to “secure” her so she can unscramble the transmission data for them. It all comes together in an entertaining and well-written tale in the hands of this very talented author. And there is so much to like here.

Grey and Grace are the most fleshed-out characters, and I loved Chapman’s consistency; she never forgets that Grace is, foremost, a scientist and Grey a 12th century warrior as she describes events through their eyes. But she also never forgets that adaptability is the hallmark of survival, and she shows how Grey’s abundance in this regard not only kept his own clan safe while most of the McBains perished, but makes him, believably, the ideal mate for Grace. There’s pleasure in watching all of these characters interact and in Grace’s amusement at their lack of technological knowledge, assessment of their volatile moods, and her humorous but pragmatic thoughts as the thugs are carting her off:

"Time is what she needed now, time for Grey to come after her. And he would.....And then look out, Grace thought with a secret smile to herself. Superman would come to the rescue. She only hoped he would bring a gun and not his sword."

What I most like about this story is the fact that there isn’t a single TSTL-heroine moment, no acts of Big Misunderstanding idiocy, and it all plays out in a way that I absolutely could not predict. Certainly we all know the eventual outcome, but the details of how it evolves are pleasantly surprising; it’s not that there’s anything necessarily extraordinary here (although the time travel/magic elements are very well done), just that the author never takes the predictable path in a single scene.

And it’s the details the author provides that provide such rich context, and breathe life into her story. Grace is a scientist, yes, but with an awed appreciation for the unpredictable forces surrounding her. It not only enables her to see the possibility of time travel, but makes her a worthy match for a man whose existence began when brawn won over brain, when instinct and native intelligence made up for the absence of high technology. Grace is independent and determined, yet recognizes her own cowardice in not being able to walk over and respectfully cover up the dead pilot while Grey is out reconnoitering their location after the crash, her hesitation in getting involved with Grey, and her inability to let go of her sister’s ashes (which she keeps in an Oreo cookie tin!). And even though I have a pet peeve about thirty-year-old virginal heroines, Chapman made her believable. Her transformation into a woman evaluating her own existence is made believable by the entrance of Baby into her life, and in keeping with the magical element of the story, Chapman gives Grace an “interesting” family history.

Grey is a pragmatist who doesn’t initially understand the purpose of his presence in the 21st century but realizes that the clan’s future depends on their acceptance of and adaptation to their new existence. His attraction to Grace is immediate and electric, but his appreciation of her as a possible mate grows along with his respect for her intelligence, courage, determination and her trust in his ability to protect her.

The only fault I can find in this book is some silliness late in the story: overly emotional behavior that is inconsistent with Grace’s character up to that point (it’s reminiscent of a Garwood heroine at her silliest), and some scenes featuring her brothers, who behaving annoyingly with their protective male posturing regarding her virginity. These elements yanked me out of the narrative flow and thankfully only take up a small portion of the book. And yet the book downgraded from an A+ (perfect and then some) to A- in my estimation.

Still Charming the Highlander is a remarkable first novel, and Chapman is, with that very minor exception noted above, sure-footed about where she is going and what she wants to show us along the way. While I’m not generally a time travel and magic aficionado, these elements seemed believable to me because of the intricacy and consistency of the details Chapman provides. As for the rest, I was entertained, intrigued and emotionally connected throughout, and am looking forward with great glee to seeing what more she has to offer in the future. (Luckily, I won’t have too long to wait; Loving the Highlander is due out in May 2003).

Reviewed by Donna Newman
Grade : A-

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : February 4, 2003

Publication Date: 2003

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Donna Newman

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