As a big fan of May McGoldrick’s historical romances, I’m sad to say that Highland Jewel was a bit of a disappointment. While the first book in the Royal Highlander series, Highland Crown, balanced romance and action perfectly, Highland Jewel loses its way, leaning heavily upon action sequences, and giving us a hero who moralizes for too long. Parts of it work beautifully – specifically its peeks into the early British suffragette movement and into the family life of the heroine – but the romance just doesn’t come together.
We open almost thirty years in the past and revisit a plot point from Highland Crown, as another piece in the evolving mystery behind Cinaed’s origins is revealed. Queen Caroline of Brunswick, who was often rumored to have more than one illegitimate child by the time of her divorce from King George IV, becomes a major player on the scene. The novel visits Caroline before her nuptials, and she is revealed to be Cinead’s biological mother. Just as things are getting interesting, in a blink we’re back in the highlands and the late 1840s once more.
To keep herself safe from Isabella’s (heroine of Highland Crown) many enemies (and frankly some of her own), Maisie Murray dwells within Cinaed’s family stronghold, Dalmigavie Castle. Maisie has been plunged into a funk – she yearns for Niall Campbell, the man she’d hoped to wed and who rejected her for her own safety. Maisie had thought their relationship forged in fire – after the Peterloo Massacre, she became an activist for feminist causes, marching in the streets for voting rights as a member of the organization she’d co-founded, the Edinburgh Female Reform Society. When Niall – brother of her co-organizer and friend, Fiona – saved her during a protest turned violent, Maisie believed she had met a man who worried for her fiercely and disagreed with her strongly, but protected her right to march. Now bereft of her friends, her love, and the activism that defined her life, Maisie is rudderless and purposeless, stuck once again pretending to be the quiet, spare child her father had always thought her. But the entire castle is astir with talk of soldiers from the border coming to negotiate with Cinaed, to offer reinforcements to his agitation for Scottish Independence. When one of those men turns out to be Niall, Maisie believes he’s there not to help, but to slay her new brother-in-law.
Niall had a reason to leave Maisie behind. A decorated war hero who is part of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment, he had to choose between his love for Maisie and his love his sister and country. He chose Fiona, who is being held as insurance that he will complete his current mission, which is to prevent Caroline from making contact with Cinaed, and thus giving legitimacy to his claim to the throne. (Admittedly, this part of the plot is extremely unlikely.) Was Niall just cozying up to Maisie for information? Or is their love real?
Highland Jewel is an uneven experience. While Maisie isn’t an interesting force of nature like her sisters are, I liked her; I enjoyed her determination, her strength – she’s the voice of reason in a family of hotheads – and while that clearly positioned her within her family, it helped her to grow as a person. I also liked the notion of her having two identities – dutiful daughter and activist.
But oh, did I initially dislike Niall, who lectures his grown sister like a child about the dangers of participating in protest movements, hating the notion of her being violent or militant because she was a mother. While he grows to worship Maisie and gets grounded in the civilian setting he’s always wanted, he doesn’t seem to really accept her feminist leanings or that of his sister, which made the romance a hard sell for me. In fact, by the end of the book, Maisie is lost ‘in worship’ of him, which ignores the family/love/activism balance that so drove her at first.
Unlike the previous book, which achieved a good balance between the romance and the action, the romance in Highland Jewel feels as though it’s been pushed to the back-burner, and as though the passion between Niall and Maisie is less important than the tension between Niall and the British government and Maisie and her sense of belonging. The backwards structure of the story doesn’t help the movement of their romance; disjointed thanks to starting with a flashback, moving to the present, then going back months to explain Niall and Maisie’s first meeting, it robs all the present day action of proper immediacy. It is, however, not difficult to track the characters’ emotional progress.
I will note that Cinaed is slowly but surely turning into a William Wallace/Braveheart kind of figure among the people, which is…I suppose somewhat plausible for a bastard pirate with a medium-sized castle and a sideways (but not really) claim to the united throne of Britain. And please note – this book stays on the pro-Scottish/anti-English tack the first book established, though anyone who liked Caroline may well agree with its anti-monarchist sentiments.
Highland Jewel is fun as an action story, good as a character drama, but as a romance it didn’t quite convince me. Hopefully the next book will see the authors return to form.