Highland Devil is the twenty-second installment in Hannah Howell’s series, The Murrays. Howell creates a clear, historic picture with a rich world of characters for her readers to delve into. You can pick up and read this one without having read the previous books, but you will find that there are a sizable number of characters to try to keep straight, especially if this is your first time in Howell’s Scottish Highlands.
When recently orphaned Mora Ogilvy and her young brother are visited by their nasty cousins, she never expects that they’ll not only be forced off of their land but will also end up fleeing for their lives. Her cousins have plotted to turn the local townspeople against her by accusing her of murder in order to steal everything she has left to her name and everything that her recently deceased parents ever worked for. Her cousins had hoped to leave her permanently silenced, unable to seek help or refute their claims. Mora is wounded in flight, but she knows she must find her brother, from whom she has been separated, and get help.
In her desperation, she sneaks into the campsite of a lone rider in an attempt to steal his horse. The horse has other intentions, however, and throws her – a thief for his master to catch. But Sir Gybbon Murray is not a cold-hearted man; he sees that Mora is injured and he listens to her story. Mora has determined to turn to some distant relatives for help – and luckily for her, Gybbon and the rest of the Murrays are very close to the family she’s seeking. He’s promised to help her, and even though it means putting her trust in this complete stranger, she has no other choice.
The cast of characters in this novel runs the gamut; from Mora’s evil cousin Robert who seems to have descended deeper and deeper into madness, to Mora’s adorable runt of a cat Freya who is fierce and protective of Mora despite her small size. Howell often leaves the reader with an inkling that there’s more to some of the characters (I imagine they feature in her other novels), but they’re still a rambunctious and fun cast to follow (barring the evil cousin).
Mora and Gybbon’s attraction to one another is immediate, and they’ve thrown their lot together in order to ensure Mora’s survival which raises the stakes. Their romance is a slow build, however, with a heavy focus on resolving Mora’s plight, and there are periodic moments where the author leaves the couple entirely in order to tell the story from the vantage point of Mora’s cousins. When their relationship becomes physical, it happens at a point in the book that feels just too early in the relationship. There have been the obligatory flirtations and hints, of course, but not as much as we might expect from a historical romance before the couple takes things to the next level. Mora’s thoughts and feelings towards Gybbon are clear on the matter:
Her love was a part of her; she knew it was there every time she looked at him.
But Gybbon’s thoughts are not immediately reciprocal:
Gybbon was not sure what he felt for Mora, but the thought of being pressed into a marriage with her did not make him shy away.
As a reader interested in the romance, I found Gybbon’s lukewarm feelings frustrating, especially since they never seem to be resolved. He just simply leans into the relationship without so much as a single struck-by-lightning moment where he realizes he can’t live without Mora. Even when he finally realizes it pretty late in the game, it takes about a page of outward conversation for him to convince himself and vocalize it. To give us such a headstrong, feisty female protagonist but give her such a lackluster confession of love from her hero seems a bit wrong, especially as we know she deserves better.
Highland Devil was a quick, easy read, but not one I would recommend to friends. If you’re a die-hard highlander fan, The Murrays might float your boat, but I would not suggest starting with this entry.