I haven’t read anything by Kerrigan Byrne before, but after reading The Highwayman, that’s something I think I’m going to have to rectify quite soon. Set in the late Victorian era, the story centres around a man who has been so brutalised that he believes himself to be beyond redemption and the young woman who has lived in his memory as a talisman through the darkest days of his life. So yes, it’s an intense story, full of lush, lyrical language and lots of angst and thus, might not be to everyone’s taste. But I’m a bit of an angst-bunny and am always ready for a story that puts me through the emotional wringer; and apart from a few small (ish) niggles, I enjoyed the book very much.
Infamous crime-lord Dorian Blackwell is the scourge of the Metropolitan Police Force. He has fingers in practically every illegal pie in England, a wide network of informants, henchmen and officials in his pocket as well as a large number of legitimate business interests and has become, in the years since his release from Newgate Prison, a very wealthy and influential man. News of Blackwell’s arrest by Chief Inspector Sir Carlton Morley occasions a growing mob outside the entrance to Scotland Yard, full of people eager to catch a glimpse of the Blackheart of Ben More – which proves frustrating for Mrs Farah MacKenzie, a respectable widow who works at the Yard as a clerk, as she is unable to enter her place of employment.
Farah is to take notes during the Inspector’s interrogation of Blackwell, and finds herself inexplicably discomfited by the man. His build, his mismatched eyes, the sense of leashed strength and power are both horrifying and compelling, and thoughts of him dog her through the next few days – until she returns home one evening to find Blackwell waiting for her in the shadows.
Farah is drugged, kidnapped and taken to Ben More castle, Dorian Blackwell’s bolt-hole on the Island of Mull, where he informs her that he has abducted her so that he can keep a long-standing promise to an old friend. Imprisoned at a young age, he and the other younger boys were regularly beaten, tortured and raped by inmates and guards alike, until they grew bigger and stronger, and were able to band together to protect each other from such treatment. At night, to counter their loneliness and exhaustion, one of their number, Dougan MacKenzie, would tell them stories of his “fairy” – the silver-haired girl whom he’d met and befriended at the orphanage in Scotland where he was brought up. Dorian and Dougan were like brothers and eventually came to rule the roost at Newgate – and when Dougan died, Dorien vowed to seek out and protect his Fairy at all costs and to restore her to her rightful inheritance.
Dorian’s motives for helping Farah are not completely altruistic however. As the only child of the Earl Northwalk, she should have inherited wealth and title, but the man to whom she was betrothed as a young child has swindled her out of her birthright. If she marries Dorian, he tells her, he can assume the title of Earl, take a seat in the House of Lords and enter society. Already deeply fascinated and increasingly attracted to the man, Farah agrees, with one condition. Dorian proposes a marriage of convenience, but Farah, having grown up without a family, wants children of her own.
There’s a lot going on in this book, too much to be able to encapsulate in a review. The main draw is the intensity of the relationship that grows between the wounded, tormented Dorian and Farah, which is very well-set up; and Ms Byrne really excels at showing the depth of emotion between them, sometimes as much by what is left unsaid as by their words and actions. The author’s prose is often very beautiful, especially in the way she describes Dorian and relates his inner darkness to the shadows in which he likes to envelop himself: The air around Blackwell seemed to darken, as though the shadows gathered to protect him.
Even when he sat, Blackwell managed to loom. Even when silent, he threatened. Though candles illuminated his tall, wide frame, he seemed a spectre of muscle and darkness and shadow.
The book captured my interest right from the first page. The opening section, in which we meet our two protagonists as children and get to watch them grow together and eventually pledge themselves to each other is truly lovely. The characters are strongly-drawn, although I will admit that Farah is almost too good to be true at times, and that Dorian, although he has done many things of which he is less than proud – including murder – is more of a philanthropic crusader than a truly blackhearted man, despite the things he thinks and says about himself.
While I enjoyed the book, there are a number of (mostly) minor issues that kept it from being a DIK. As a result of his experiences in prison, Dorian refuses to touch or be touched, thinking himself to be so tainted as to be unworthy of physical closeness or comfort, and believing that he will contaminate anything he comes into contact with. I have to take issue with how quickly he is able to overcome this particular problem; it’s one of the major points of conflict between him and Farah, and when it’s no longer needed, it conveniently disappears. The plotline concerning Farah’s inheritance and the danger she faces from her former betrothed isn’t very well developed and I never felt any real sense of peril because he only really exists on the periphery of the story.
The sex scenes in the book are perhaps a little rougher and more earthy than found in many historical romances, but while I have no problem with that, I do find it difficult to believe that a well-bred, virgin heroine like Farah could be so uninhibited and comfortable with the things she’s asked to do, especially during her first sexual experiences.
I can’t deny there’s an element of predictability to the storyline, but even considering the reservations I’ve expressed, I’m still giving The Highwayman a recommendation because the strength of the central relationship and the beauty of the writing kept me turning the pages. As I said at the beginning, it might be a little overly extravagant in tone for some, but if you’re in the mood for something Romantic (with a capital R), then it’s definitely worth a look.