In my pre-reviewer days, this book would have been a did-not-finish for me. It’s not a horrible book, but character inconsistencies nearly gave me eyestrain from excessive rolling. The Chieftain is the last in a series of books, and while it can stand alone well enough, I wonder if the history of the previous stories would have made the problems at least more tolerable.
Chieftain Connor MacDonald of Sleat has determined that a political marriage is necessary to gain the army he needs to fight the MacCleods, who have invaded MacDonald territory. Wanting to avoid the path of his womanizing father, Connor vows he will remain faithful to his chosen wife, even if he does not love her. He moves into Trotternish Castle and prepares to do battle while searching for a desirable mate among the daughters and sisters of the chieftains of potential ally clans. Meanwhile, Connor’s uncle Hugh is plotting to usurp leadership of the MacDonald clan by sending an assassin to kill Connor.
The sister of Connor’s best friend, Ilysa has been in love with Connor forever and follows him to Trotternish to run his household. She’s crushed to learn that he plans to wed, however, she agrees to remain at Trotternish until that day. Ilysa has The Sight, and when she senses that Connor is in mortal peril, she tries to warn him. Instead of heeding her advice, Connor scolds her for overstepping her place, and when Ilysa resorts to drastic measures to keep him safe, he orders her to leave Trotternish.
Back home, Ilysa’s sisters-in-law give her a makeover so she will be better able to find a husband. Her transformation stuns Connor, and his general horniness becomes lust directed at Ilysa. She asks to share a single night with him, and though it goes against his vow to avoid potentially fathering a bastard, Connor succumbs to temptation. Despite his guilt and determination that their tryst was a single-night encounter, Connor comes to need the escape and comfort Ilysa can offer him. The two begin an affair, both knowing that it must end when the wife Connor has chosen comes to Trotternish.
Straight off, I’m not a fan of trying to capture accent in dialogue. To demonstrate the flavor of Highland speech, Mallory’s characters say “ye” and “no”, except when they say “you” and “not”, which is pretty much equally and without any consistency. Eventually, I was able to ignore this affectation, but at the beginning I found it distracting.
Connor is your typical unbeatable warrior, able to cut down five men all by himself and then walk twenty miles back home bleeding from various wounds. To his credit, once he begins his affair with Ilysa, Connor doesn’t try to fight his feelings for her even though duty requires him to take a more politically advantageous wife. The idea of being with another woman makes him miserable.
In the span of only a couple of weeks, Ilysa becomes so beloved and integral to the workings of Trotternish Castle that when she leaves, the cook falls apart and no once can manage to do so much as heat a bowl of oatmeal. Add her unparalleled healing skills, quiet wisdom, and hidden beauty and Ilysa becomes a bit too perfect to be true.
Additionally, Ilysa is a widowed virgin, her deceased husband apparently good only for giving Ilysa a reason to keep her beautiful hair wrapped in an ugly cloth until her sisters-in-law pull their Marcia Brady. When Ilysa is shocked and horrified at the suggestion that he perhaps favored other men, I nearly threw the book against the wall at this stereotypical reaction.
Many of the things Ilysa does felt unrealistic or out-of-character. For example, to work a spell, the supposedly practical Ilysa walks miles, alone, in dangerous country to dance nearly naked in a faery glen. Not only did this make Ilysa seem rather daft, it served no purpose except that an ancient seer had predicted Connor’s wife would be found amongst the faeries. To add insult to injury, after performing the spell, Ilysa makes the sign of the cross when she sees an ominous figure. Is she both Christian and pagan?
Ilysa dresses in ugly, ill-fitting clothes because her mother taught her not to draw attention to herself. Yet after her sisters-in-law convince her to reveal her beautiful hair and wear more flattering gowns, Ilysa abandons her dowdy ways with ease, making the whole character trait feel like it existed only so she could go from ugly duckling to swan.
When Connor ignores her warnings not to attend a meeting for fear he will be murdered, Ilysa tricks him into a dungeon cell where she locks him up for three days. Not only does Connor look stupid falling for her trick, the chieftain of the clan goes missing for three days and no one is concerned? The answer to this is flimsy at best.
The one bright spot of the book involved Lachlan, a character who begins the story believing that Connor is his enemy due to old hatreds passed down to him by his father. As Lachlan gets to know Connor, he realizes his loyalty is misplaced. Rather than remain a one-dimensional villain, Lachlan’s transformation comes naturally, setting him far above the mustache-twirling Hugh.
I received an ARC for review, and a few editing mistakes caused me pause. I can only hope that these are corrected for the final published version. Too, the timing in the story felt off, wounds taking weeks to heal only to be completely healed a day later, agreements to meet in three weeks taking far longer to actually happen. These are minor problems but did take me out of the story.
While The Chieftain can stand-alone, characters and events from prior books in the series are mentioned frequently. Too, the multitude of clans and relationships among and between them confused me as to who was aligned with whom. I finally managed to boil down the central conflict to MacDonalds versus MacCleods with the evil Hugh thrown in as an extraneous villain.
Those who have read and enjoyed the other titles in the Return of the Highlanders series will probably enjoy this final installment. As for me, The Chieftain left me shaking my head in bafflement, and I was happy to be finished with it.