The Bride of Black Douglas
This was not the worst book I have ever read, but it’s in contention for the most exasperating. There’s a lot of promise here, including a terrific backstory and acceptable prose, but it’s consistently undercut by illogic, anachronisms, and head-scratching inconsistencies. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a decently-written book shoot itself in the foot so many times.
The setting is Scotland and England in 1785. Meleri Weatherby has been betrothed from birth to neighboring lord Philip Ashton, but lately she’s caught him in cruelties to animals and servants that make her question the wisdom of becoming his wife. Unfortunately, Meleri has little recourse, since her beloved, aging father suffers from what we would recognize today as Alzheimer’s Disease, and can’t be depended upon for protection. The scenes with Meleri’s father are the most touching, emotionally-realized interactions in the book.
Meleri takes matters into her own hands and decides to run away, but first confronts her brutal fiancé, rather than leaving him a note or something – this is not a smart move. But she escapes unscathed because the brutal Phillip is not always too smart either. Though he soon remembers how badly he needs her dowry, there is no information so important, nor any experience so formative that a character won’t forget it instantly for reasons of plot in this book.
As soon as she leaves home, Meleri runs over Robert Douglas, an impoverished Scottish earl who has been ordered by the king to marry an Englishwoman in three weeks. They size each other up and propose. With a brutal fiancé on one side and a three-week royal deadline on the other, wouldn’t you hurry up and get married? Not these two. Meleri is feisty and Robert is broody, and both are on emotional hair-triggers. That’s about it for characterization, except that they, like everyone in the book, are big fans of aphorisms, referencing Shakespeare, Homer, and even, incongruously, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
When the anachronisms are so blatant that even I catch them, a historical romance is in serious trouble. The oddest thing is that most of them are completely nonessential, and disrupt the flow for no appreciable gain. There’s a throwaway remark about Robert surviving a month-long coma, with no explanation of how this was possible. It seems unlikely that a meat-eating hunt enthusiast like Meleri would be put off at the thought of eating cute widdle squirrels, but she is. And with such considerable effort to create a long-winded version of Olde-speak, why destroy it with cutesy lines like “You bet your claymore”? Worst, for me, was Robert’s belief that his twin sister committed suicide. He doesn’t know if she killed herself or was murdered, but he chooses to believe the former. Shouldn’t he want to deny what, in his religion, is a mortal sin?
There’s a considerable amount of blather about how superior the Scottish are to the English, to which everyone, including the resident Englishwoman, seems to subscribe. Despite her background, Meleri is the only person the Douglas family ghost will show himself to, and this interaction greatly enlivens the very end of the book. The family legend is endearing – everyone believes in the ghost of Black Douglas, even though no one has ever seen him, because he vanished from his own portrait 100 years after his death.
The legend surrounding Black Douglas is nicely drawn, and Meleri’s interactions with the ghost, as with her father, are endearing and poignant. In fact, the hero is only the third most interesting male character. That’s one of many signs that this is a book to miss.