Mad for the Plaid
We all begin reading a book with certain expectations that define our reading experience. We form ideas and make assumptions based on the book’s assigned genre, cover art, title, and description. If our expectations are not met, we are often disappointed, which is why a book’s presentation is so important. It sets the stage for the reader. If I had realized Mad for the Plaid was a more a farce than an historical romance, I might have liked it more because I would have expected an implausible plot that abandons historical accuracy and characters who behave irrationally.
Mad for the Plaid is the third stand-alone book in Karen Hawkins’ The Oxenburg Princes series, which is centered on the royal princes from the fictional European country of Oxenburg and their beloved grandmother, the Grand Duchess Natasha Nikolaevna. Natasha is funny, opinionated, lovingly manipulative, and a little cantankerous. She is the princes’ only maternal figure, since their mother passed away when they were young. Each prince has his own book and this one features the oldest brother and heir to the crown, Prince Nikolai Romanovin, otherwise known by the less-than-royal-sounding nickname, Nik.
The year is 1824 and Natasha is visiting her good friend Lady Edana, in northern Scotland. Edana’s twenty-two year-old, unmarried granddaughter, Lady Ailsa Mackenzie, holds the unconventional and unlikely role of her family’s estate manager while her father and five older sisters are living in London. Ailsa is unusually independent and mature for a young woman at the time, because she grew up quickly, having to care for her dying mother while her sisters attended boarding school and her father was doing something else. Ailsa has no desire to experience a season in London alongside “silly girls” nor does she want a husband. She is content to live in Scotland, never marry, be the sole guardian of her family’s estate and look after her grandmother.
While Natasha is on holiday with Edana and Ailsa, Nik is in Edinburgh on a secret mission. He receives a missive from Ailsa informing him the Grand Duchess is missing and most likely abducted, but she assures him she will find her so there is no need for Nik to worry. By this time, Natasha has been missing for eight days, and Nik fears this could be a ploy to use his grandmother to manipulate him politically. He appears concerned but contradicts himself by hesitating to leave Edinburgh to rescue her, because his absence might result in a scandal that could damage his ability to negotiate. Since I was not exactly sure what he was negotiating, it was hard to decide whether or not it’s really more important than his grandmother’s life.
Luckily for Natasha, Nik does not have to make the tough decision himself because the summit he is due to attend is delayed for three weeks. He assembles an unimpressive search party – one honor guard and one courtier – to travel to Ailsa’s and find Natasha.
Meanwhile, Ailsa and Edana arrive at a different explanation for what happened to the Grand Duchess. They hypothesize Natasha has eloped – yes, eloped – with a neighbor when both were inadvertently caught in the middle of a plot designed to start a clan war. The ladies reach this convoluted conclusion after finding Natasha’s abandoned, overturned and bullet-ridden carriage and receiving an anonymous ransom note. But even then, Ailsa believes she can solve this crime by herself and rescue the elderly lovebirds. Why would she need to call the 1824 version of the Scottish police or ask her absentee father to return from London? Why would her grandmother demand she do so when Natasha is merely a friend of forty years standing? All Ailsa must do is deliver the ransom money to the meeting place in the brutal wilderness at the very northern end of Scotland and then free the hostages. She at least has the option of two routes to get there. She can choose either the quicker but steeper roads through the mountains or the longer, meandering roads through the dense forest. In a rare display of an awareness of time, Ailsa picks the faster route even though it is rugged and “nigh impossible to traverse” in places. She is sure she can handle it with her one male cousin, two grooms, and one tracker.
Before Ailsa can set out to save everyone, and twelve days after Natasha’s disappearance, Nik arrives with his search party of three. Ailsa still wants to do everything herself and attempts to sneak off without him, not telling him about the clues she has discovered or her suspicions about the clan war. Nik discovers her intentions and demands he be included in her rescue party. Maybe he can help considering he is Natasha’s grandson, seven years older than Ailsa, has experience of hostage negotiations and will one day be a king and govern a country? Ailsa reluctantly allows him and his two friends to join her.
As the rag-taggle search and rescue group travels through the uninhabited mountain range, any impropriety of Ailsa traveling alone with seven men is avoided because her cousin is traveling with them. Nik and Ailsa begin to strategize together, but Ailsa continually tries to take control. Her motivation appears to be to prove herself and not any real concern for the two prisoners. Nik has to constantly remind her that this is his grandmother and he has experience with kidnappings.
The group makes the long and treacherous journey to deliver the money, discover the perpetrators and rescue the elderly kidnap victims. Their adventures along the way allow Nik and Ailsa the time to get to know each other and fall in love. Why would anyone be so distracted by their grandmother’s abduction that they wouldn’t have the time for romance?
All I could think about while I was reading Mad for the Plaid was that no one displayed any outrage over the kidnapping, any sense of urgency to rescue Natasha or any credible fear for her safety. No one knew who took her or their true intentions. The only clues are not reassuring – a crudely spelled ransom note and an ambushed carriage. Even if Natasha is healthy and strong spirited, she is still an old woman. I could not focus on much else, because everyone was acting contrarily to what I would expect to be reasonable human behavior when your grandmother is kidnapped at gunpoint and held prisoner. If she was just eloping without telling anyone, I would have thought it silly, but it wouldn’t have been the plot black hole that the kidnapping storyline created.
The idea of Natasha having a gentleman admirer would have been cute if I hadn’t been more worried about her health and well-being. Natasha is a delightful character, and the interaction between her and Edana are fun to read, but I was angry with Edana for allowing Ailsa to do everything by herself. Nik and Ailsa trade witty banter and have chemistry, but their laissez-faire attitude turned me off and frustrated me. The mystery of who kidnapped Natasha is clever and not predictable, and the story has some unexpected twists with some funny moments, but all this was overshadowed because I could not believe or relate to it.
I might have enjoyed this book if I had been warned beforehand to change my expectations; therefore, allow me to act as your warning. I can only recommend Mad for the Plaid if you are able to suspend your disbelief over the unlikely kidnapping of the hero’s grandmother, can accept the absurd reactions and actions of the characters, and consider it more fantasy than fiction.