As I read this book, I wondered two things. First, what was the average age of marriage for Scots women in the early 16th century? Second, why do all the names of the Scottish Highland clans begin with Mac?
The answer to the first was hard to find. Women did marry at a much earlier age than men – males needed to establish themselves economically before they could wed. Girls could marry as young as 12, but rarely did so. Several studies indicate that the average age for a first marriage for early Renaissance women was close to 18. The answer to the second question took just a moment to find. The prefix “Mac” means “son of” in Gaelic. Until the 1500’s, Gaelic-speaking Scots had just one name and were identified by their father. So, in Margaret Mallory’s satisfying Highlander romance The Guardian, the hero is called Ian, son of Payton, and he is a member of the clan MacDonald who live on the Isle of Skye.
In 1508, Ian is forced to marry his thirteen year old friend Sileas MacKinnon. This unwanted union occurs because, as Ian rescues Sileas from her malevolent stepfather (the toad is about to proffer Sileas to a child rapist), he has no choice but to spend the night with her and thus compromises her. (I had a hard time with the idea of Sileas, a skinny child with too big teeth, being old enough to be compromised. Hence my wonderings about the age of marriage.) Ian is 18 and in love with a beauty he’s met at court in Stirling – the home of the then Queen: The French Mary de Guise, bride of King James V, and an important part of the Auld Alliance of Scotland and France. Ian is unequivocally unhappy with his forced matrimony and, as soon as the ceremony is done, he leaves the Isle of Skye, accompanied by his three boon companions (Connor, Alex, and Duncan, each of whom will have a book in this series) and heads to France to battle the English. Five years later, Ian and his three comrades return — they come home when they hear of the Scottish defeat at Flodden (one of the worst in Scottish history) where their chieftain and his brother were killed. Connor is now the true head of the MacDonald clan, but his iniquitous uncle Hugh Dubh, “Black Hugh,” has seized control of the clan. The four returned Highlanders endeavor to ensure that Connor becomes chieftain, something Hugh fiercely fights.
Now that Ian has returned home, he plans to have his marriage to Sileas annulled. (He gets irate whenever he considers his forced marriage and does not consider himself really married.) However, his plans go awry when he discovers that, in his absence, Sileas has become a gorgeous, shapely beauty. (This exasperated me. Couldn’t she have just turned into an attractive woman? Why does she have to be the most stunning woman he’s ever seen?) Sileas has been living with his family since he left, waiting for him to return. (She, of course, has always loved him.) Suddenly, Ian is unsure whether he wants her as his wife or not. He knows he wants her in his bed, but he needs time to decide whether he wants her to be “the last woman he ever took to his bed.”
I enjoyed this book. Ms. Mallory did her research and her book is full of fascinating and often real Scottish history and characters. The love story between Ian and Sileas, despite a few too many “Oh, why doesn’t he love me” moments on her part, is charming. Ian’s acute lust – compromised by his old anger – is balanced by Sileas’s struggles to fend him off until he truly wants her as his wife. Their sexual connection is strong and sweet and, when they do finally bed, it’s because they are ready to be truly wed, and are unmoored from their unhappy past.
Ian’s and Sileas’s love story is set firmly into the larger story of the MacDonald clan and its political machinations. Alex, Connor, and Duncan, as well as many others in the clan, are substantial, fascinating characters. Ms. Mallory does a nice job of placing the clan’s story — which will continue in the other Return of the Highlanders books – in its context of early 16th century Scotland. As I read, I learned about a variety of weapons, a range of kinds of ale, the relationship between Scotland and France, unusual courtship rituals, Gaelic cultural customs, and more. I am always pleased when, in historical romance, the history is as rewarding as the romance. Such is the case in The Guardian.
There were two things I didn’t like about this book. The first was the frequent appearance of the famed Scottish ghost, the Green Lady. She materializes at excessively useful times, at one point even stopping a rape. I don’t mind a little magic in my romance — in fact this story begins wonderfully with the four Highlander lads having their futures foretold by the local seer. In The Guardian, however, the Green Lady is used in ham-fisted ways and weakens the narrative. The second is an annoying occasion where Sileas, convinced that Ian doesn’t care for her, endangers the entire clan. It doesn’t make sense that Sileas, who cared faithfully for Ian’s family for five years, would suddenly become a ninny-headed dolt. I wish that Ms. Mallory had relied less on ghosts and a TSTL moment and more on her convincing characters and plot.
On the whole, however, The Guardian is a well-written, entertaining historical romance. I look forward to the next story in the series, that of Alex, which is scheduled for publication this coming November. Alex, like Ian and the other returned Highlanders, is hugely engaging. I believe Ms. Mallory will have legions of new fans with this captivating new series.