The Highlander's Desire
It’s frustrating to read a book which could have been good, but isn’t. That’s exactly how I felt as I read The Highlander’s Desire. The 18th century Scottish setting had potential – goodness knows this was a time of high drama in Scotland. The Cinderella aspect of the story had potential as well. After all, who wouldn’t want to root for the lady wrongfully denied her heritage? However, this book couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to be a dramatic historical or a fairytale taking place in some sort of land beyond time. As a result, it succeeds at neither.
In the prologue, we learn about the basis for the hero’s jaded attitude toward marriage as well as his hatred for a rival clan. Fair enough. Jump forward two years and now jaded hero has set his sights on traveling to Kilgorra to make a political marriage. By marrying the laird’s daughter Catriona, Lachann MacMillan will be able to protect his own lands from attack by sea. Given that this book takes place in 1720, a time of some turmoil in Scotland, one would expect to hear mention of Jacobites and tensions with the English, but there was far more talk of Norsemen, which I found a little surprising for this time period. It doesn’t matter too much in the end, though. While we get the occasional snippet of historical background, Kilgorra often ends up seeming like a fantasy land out of time, with the characters living in a self-contained little world.
At any rate, Lachann gets to Kilgorra a day early and in addition to surprising his hosts, finds himself surprised to see a rival clan leader there before him. It appears that Lachann will have some competition for Catriona’s hand. Unlike his rival, Lachann starts immediately getting the lay of the land and winning the respect of the villagers, as well as finding himself quite taken by a servant girl named Anna. Unbeknownst to Lachann, Anna is actually the laird’s stepddaughter. It seems that the laird was so overtaken by his second wife’s death that he just sat back and allowed his daughter to abuse the heck out of Anna and turn her into something of a servant. Luckily for Anna, she had a devoted maid or two looking out for her. Oh, and animals seem to like her, too. Cinderella plot, anyone?
As the book moves along, we quickly figure out that Anna holds much more allure for Lachann than Catriona. Lachann makes some dutiful attempts to court the lady of Kilgorra, but really he spends much more time getting to know Anna. As Lachann and Anna spend time together, I kept longing in vain for Lachann to find out the secret of Anna’s true identity, but it takes a ridiculously long time for this to happen. While the “I’m cynical about marriage” hero is all too common, it’s at least understandable in Lachann’s case and he seems like a decent guy. The heavyhanded contrast between Anna and Catriona drove me nuts, though. Anna is the perfect lady of the manor, sweet-tempered and putting everyone on Kilgorra before herself.
And then there’s our villainess, Catriona. Small-minded and deeply selfish, Catriona could easily have inspired righteous anger in many a reader if only she had more of a character. She certainly shows plenty of nasty behavior but instead of getting to see a deeper characterization behind it, the author instead fleshes out the character by resorting to cliches that needed to be retired long ago. For instance, how do we know from the beginning that Catriona is bad news? Well, she isn’t married but she likes sex. Not only that, but we’re given several strong and obvious hints that she likes kinky sex and has had it with more than one man. And the runup from slut-shaming to “Catriona is a monstrous woman” just continues from there. Not only did I find it offensive, but also just plain lazy. Showing us the inner darkness of a true villain would have been so much more interesting and would have shown so much more skill on the author’s part.
While the author does intensify the drama of her plot throughout the last third of the book, as well as adding a bit more interest to Catriona’s characterization, the book still ends up being a somewhat less than average read. All the twists and turns regarding Anna’s character seemed unrealistically over the top, and while I can appreciate a good-natured, sweet heroine, Anna was just too bland for me and the story itself more frustrating than special.