The Laird Takes a Bride
Lisa Berne’s Penhallow Dynasty series continues with The Laird Takes a Bride, a rather hard to love little volume about a spinster and a disreputable laird with a long past behind him.
Fiona Douglass is, at twenty-seven, still a spinster. The only one of the four Douglass girls to remain unwed, she still yearns for Logan Munro, who had courted her nine years before but had then turned around and married Nairna, Fiona’s younger sister. Fiona keeps busy by managing her life with lists while dodging less-than-well-meaning suitors; she may be past the first flush of youth, but she is an attractive marriage prospect due to the dower lands held by her father. When Fiona drives away the three latest hopefuls, her father suspends her dowry and she is later forced by clan edict to attend a gathering at Castle Tadgh – on pain of death.
Laird Alasdair Penhallow is the kind of guy who inspires believable rumors that he’s ridden a horse through his castle stark naked on a dare. The scandal of the Eight Clans, he’s happy with his silly, drunken, carefree bachelor lifestyle – until an ancient edict is revealed the day after his thirty-fifth birthday by Dame Margery, the oldest and most respected member of his clan. It seems that any Laird of the Castle Tadgh who isn’t married by his thirty-fifth birthday must immediately invite the marriageable maidens of the Clans of Killaly to Tadgh to stay. The Laird then has thirty-five days to choose a bride from these invited women and thirty-five more to marry her – and if he fails, he will be put to death. When the clan’s ancient tome confirms this, Alasdair shrugs – he is thirty-five and without an heir, so, taking the advice of his similarly free-wheeling Uncle Duff, Alasdair decides to make a marriage for the sake of begetting a son, rejecting the concept of love wholeheartedly.
Fiona and Alasdair enter into courtship with a mutual sense of dislike for one another, and it seems unlikely he’ll choose her from the assembled maidens, but when Alasdair’s initial choice dies in a raid during which Fiona proves herself incredibly useful, she seems suddenly worthwhile. Fiona is not the biddable, easily put-aside bride that he’d been searching for – Alasdair was imagining someone far more buxom and far less cold – but left with no other choice and with Fiona firm upon the notion of not returning to her father, they marry abruptly and unemotionally.
When Fiona sets out to fixing the castle’s many operational flaws, she incurs Alasdair’s displeasure – especially when she takes over the room of his beloved late mother and changes it to suit her tastes. The couple goes on loathing each other, but meeting at night to perform their ‘duty’ begins to crack the frostiness between them. But when Fiona demands information that Alasdair refuses to give her, she retreats back home. Can Fiona overcome her strong desire for Logan, and Alasdair his own private scars and disinterest in intimacy to forge a bond worth fighting for?
The Laird Takes a Bride is, in a phrase, a strange book, and the best word I can think to use to describe it is ‘soggy’. Berne’s prose is engaging and playful – there’s a note of Bridget Jones’ Diary to it – but the plot, characters, and romance are all over the place and make a muddle of a mess that’s less than charming for the reader to untangle.
Perhaps the biggest problem lies in the interactions between Fiona and Alasdair and their general personalities. Far too much time is spent on Fiona’s lust for the lost Logan – we are even treated to a scene in which she fantasizes about him on her wedding night! – and the moment at which she finally decides to put him aside is so abrupt in light of her obsession with him as to be unbelievable. Fiona is tough and practical and intelligent and warm by turns, but she’s mostly icy and hard to like.
Alasdair is worse. For a man who’s introduced as party-hearty, there’s nothing charming or fun about him; indeed, he seems filled with the same anger that Fiona’s been trying to dodge by leaving home. He’s understandably burdened due to a tragedy in his past, but Berne can’t seem to decide how sociable he should be and there’s generally not much that’s appealing about him.
The relationship between the hero and heroine is utterly charmless. It’s filled with nonstop, childish bickering far past the midpoint of the book and even once they begin to bond and open up with one another, there’s still petty sniping. When their connection turns tender it’s hard to believe in either of them, because they’re both so painfully hardheaded. Something miserable hangs over their romance, which feels as ungainly as a dancing giraffe most of the time.
And then there’s the plot. Fiona’s desire to get away from her family is understandable, but there is – frankly – nothing really romantic about the notion of our two protagonists being forced into romance on the pain of death (and I hardly believe that Alasdair’s relatives would execute him for basically no reason beyond old superstitions). Clan tradition or not, murdering someone for being unmarried in the 1800s would be punishable by law; perhaps if the author had set the book in an earlier time period, I might have believed it, but not in a more sophisticated just-pre-War of 1812 world. All of this leads to a twist that’s so painful I almost literally saw stars when I read it. Without spoiling a thing, all I can say is that in the 1800s things Would Not Have Happened That Way. The author’s research – if, indeed, she did any – isn’t well applied for most of the book; it feels like it could’ve taken place at any point at any time.
The rest of the plot is painfully weak. Not much tension is milled out of the contest for Alasdair’s hand; indeed, though the book makes a big deal of it, it takes up much less of the story than one would presume from the blurb. Fiona is kidnapped and witnesses a slaughter during a raid; her middle-aged cousin falls in love with Alasdair’s uncle; things happen to Nairna and Logan back home, but not much of it feels like it makes a real impact on the characters, whose epiphanies only seem to be lightly connected to most of these events. And the way the author chooses to resolve the tension between Fiona and her father and Logan and Fiona is limp at best.
While Berne’s writing shows promise, The Laird Takes a Bride is riddled with weaknesses in terms of plot, characterisation, romance and overall construction and I can’t recommend it.