Long-time historical author Hannah Howell has taken a break from the mysticism of her English Wherlocke family and brought the writing game back to the Highlands of Scotland with her latest novel, Highland Chieftain. This book is the 21st in the Murray clan series and that might just be part of the problem. While the book is a cute read, it has been done before and done before by Ms. Howell. If you are looking for a fresh view of the Highlands through Hannah Howell’s eyes, this book will probably disappoint. If you are looking for nostalgia and a comfort read, then come on in and sit right down.
Like most Hannah Howell heroines, Bethoc Matheson is slightly past marriageable age for medieval Scotland. She is independent and resilient enough to most likely make it on her own (even in those times), but she has a duty to protect those weaker than herself and that is what she does. Her father is extremely abusive, but most of his abuse is directed not at Bethoc, but at her younger “brothers”; brothers in name only as Bethoc’s father has been stealing children for some time and passing them off as his own. One day while wandering near the lake, Bethoc comes across a nearly unconscious man who has been badly beaten and left for dead. Somehow, she is able to get him to a secret cave where she sets his broken leg and begins a long journey of caretaking.
Sir Callum MacMillian (who appeared when just a child in Highland Angel) is in the Highlands looking for a missing relative when he is set upon by ruffians who beat and then attempt to drown him. Bethoc rescues him after he washes ashore and then hides him away from those same ruffians for weeks. By a strange twist of fate, Bethoc happens to be in possession of the young boy for whom Callum has been searching. As Callum recuperates, he gets to know Bethoc and what he learns about her is all good. The weeks it takes for a broken leg to heal allow Callum and Bethoc to develop a close relationship and by the time his kinfolk arrive to rescue him, Callum is ready to take Bethoc with him when he leaves.
This book has been a hard one for me to review. There are elements about it that I really like (such as the agency given to our heroine and the respect from our hero); elements that have had me coming back for more Hannah Howell every time I discover a new book of hers. If I had never read a single one of her novels before this one, I might have actually given Highland Chieftain a higher grade. But her Wherlocke books show a higher standard of writing that once read, cannot be forgotten. The maturity of the writing in that series has now cast a shadow over the Murray series. What used to be light-hearted, cutesy Scottish-set heavy-on-the-brogue reads have now become tired formulaic novels that I feel as though I have read before. This novel is not bad. It is just not as good as I have come to expect. If one is new to the work of this author, then I believe this book will be a very enjoyable read; one that might even inspire the reader to pick up more of her books. But after forty-plus books in print with twenty of them featuring the Murrays of the Highlands, it must be hard to come up with fresh material and that is what this book lacks the most – a fresh perspective.