How to Train Your Highlander
Mary Elizabeth Waters lives up to her nickname, The Hellion of Hyde Park. A Scottish lass sent to mix with polite company at the insistence of her English mother, Mary Elizabeth has no time for the social constraints of polite society. She mixes with everyone regardless of class; she rides like a demon, and dances reels with shameless vigor and wears knives strapped to her thighs. All of these personality traits cause the members of the ton to blanch at her very presence, which is – happily – her main aim. She desires a life of freedom among her doting da and their clan, and refuses to be cooped up in the shackles of wedded bliss just to satisfy the rules. Sent to meet her mother’s dear friend the Duchess of Northumberland in the hope that she’ll make a happy match with the woman’s son, Mary Elizabeth plots her escape from their matchmaking.
Harold Charles Percy, the reclusive Duke of Northumberland, likes his garden and the open ocean more than he likes people. Forever the quarry of fortune hunters, he wants nothing to do with his mother’s marriage plans and simply wants a woman who likes him for himself. Though he’s attracted to Mary Elizabeth at first sight, he presumes her to be much like her title-seeking contemporaries and thus tries to avoid her after her arrival.
They meet (again, as their first meeting actually occurred in book two in the series) when Mary Elizabeth trips over the hole near an outdoor pathway into which he plans to transplant a rose bush, and her reaction is to pick up a shovel and help him finish the job – while he stares at her behind. As per their earlier meeting, she assumes him to be a stable boy and he declines to correct her assumption so that he can get to know her better, though he’s still quite certain he doesn’t want to marry her.
When Mary Elizabeth comes upon a large, ill-tempered black stallion among the duchess’ cattle who also happens to be Harry’s favorite, she vows to ride him and Harry develops a sense of respect for her. Unfortunately, he has vowed to marry the most undemanding woman possible, the sort who will leave him alone to his books, gardening, sailing and astronomical pursuits, and Mary Elizabeth is most certainly Not That. Though he desperately tries to ignore the attraction he feels for her, Mary’s pert forcefulness is both invigorating and unusual to him. For her part, Mary Elizabeth is impossibly attracted to Harry, firm awareness that marrying a commoner would be dangerous aside. Further flirtation causes Harry’s motives to change; he fears a union with him will boil the wildness out of the girl. Truths come out, relationships grow more difficult, and Mary Elizabeth and Harry develop two different schemes – she to seduce him and then run away home to Scotland after her mother orders her to marry Harry or return to London, he to contract a marriage between them behind her back. Which one will win?
How to Train Your Highlander is a book-long battle between mildly charming prose and two of the most uncharming characters you’ll ever lay your eyes on. On one level, one is apt to conclude that Harry and Mary Elizabeth deserve each other. On the other, who can stand them for long enough to watch them reach their HEA?
Mary Elizabeth is your classic hoyden heroine with a love of horseflesh, swords and the outdoors. She’s not an entirely terrible person, being salt of the earth and genuinely caring towards those around her, but this is balanced by an embarrassing streak of immaturity; she spends a good chunk of the novel behaving like an indiscreet child with a violent temper. Logic is not her friend. How sensibility-adverse is she? It takes 146 pages for her to finally figure out the blatantly obvious truth that Harry is the Duke. No, Harry’s not doing that good of a job of hiding his relationship to the his mother, the duchess. And no, when the moment of realization does come, she doesn’t put the pieces together on her lonesome. She does have a life outside of the hero, and a love of her land and people, but that’s barely a reason to endure her brattiness. She’s a shallow idiot ruled by her glands.
And then there’s Harry, an Old Skool hero who wants both his privacy and Mary Elizabeth’s sweet, sweet can. Oh, does he love her bottom and oh, will you read many paragraphs about Mary Elizabeth’s posterior. Harry is another of the writer’s science-loving heroes, but unlike Robbie and Prudence, Alex and Catherine and Arthur and Serena -the heroes and heroines of her previous books in the series, all of whom turn up in this one and all of whom had fairly reasonable relationships – Harry is the kind of hero who thinks his knife-wielding, wild-horse-riding, dancing, sassy-mouthed lover will be totally cool with his contracting a marriage between them without even proposing. Yep. Harry’s as dense as Mary Elizabeth. That threat of a spanking sure will solve their deeply-rooted problems with the truth.
You’d think that would mean these two unusual individuals would be made for each other, but no, their combined chemistry is based on lust with a few similar interests. A hundred pages from the end of the story they’re still lying to each other, with full complicity of what can only be described as an idiot plot (just SAY THE THING, Mary Elizabeth!). I cannot for the life of me imagine the marriage surviving once the sex and “challenge” of chasing one another grows tame. The main conflict revolves around Mary Elizabeth’s fear that Harry will somehow curtail her freedom and her hatred of being forced to choose, even though he explicitly loves her just as she is. Her boldness turns uncharacteristically wishy-washy around her mother in order to facilitate the plot, which just leaves the reader annoyed. Their motives switch on and off like stoplights and when Harry ultimately lays out the terms of their life together and she takes this sanguinely I wanted to punch him in the balls. That Mary Elizabeth shrugs and gives in because the sex is just that good makes no damn sense. The girl threw a knife at another man for a smaller transgression!
The prose is smooth, if average, and a lot of tropes from Ms. English’s previous books turn up here, from the continued misunderstanding between hero and heroine providing the conflict to its tendency to borrow from Taming of the Shrew, which the author has rewritten for another series. The last fifty pages of the novel drag along with family to-dos, a tacked-on love scene and a drawn-out pre-wedding scene. Ms. English gets points for making her nineteenth century characters feel like nineteenth century characters. Unfortunately when they’re as annoying as Harry and Mary Elizabeth, accuracy doesn’t help make the book even the slightest bit engaging.
Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier