Women of the Dunes
Women of the Dunes made me want to visit Scotland. Old legends, ancient ruins, and sprawling estates—it seems very different from what I find in my own American backyard.
Archaeologist Libby Snow grew up an ocean away from Ullaness, but her grandmother in Newfoundland raised her on tales of the area. These stories were carried across the sea by Ellen, Libby’s great-great-grandmother, who fled from Scotland under mysterious circumstances. When the chance arises to take part in a dig there, Libby jumps on it. She arrives a few months before the work begins, to explore the community and see if she can answer questions she has long had about her family’s past.
While she is looking over the Viking burial mound her team plans to excavate, Libby meets meets Rodri Sturrock, younger brother of Sir Hector Sturrock and manager of the family estate. The mound lies on their land and Libby quickly learns Rodri is very protective of the property. And not without cause; the estate’s church and home have been robbed of valuable artifacts in the past. Despite coming from a wealthy family, Rodri is very down-to-earth, and quickly strikes up a friendship with Libby. It seems they will work together well in the coming months.
When a hard rain reveals century old bones on the surface area of the mound, Rodri invites Libby to stay with his family and help oversee the police excavation of the body. It’s clear, from the boots worn by the corpse, that this find doesn’t belong to the Viking history being researched. It’s also clear to Rodri that having Libby and the police working together will prevent bad publicity surrounding the find from leaking to the media and ensure the original burial site is not damaged during the investigation. As things unfold, present events are tied to the past – both to the Viking legend of an enigmatic lady named Ulla, and to the mystery of Libby’s great-great-grandmother.
It took a few chapters, but once I got into the book, the mix of old legends and fresh mysteries hooked me. It’s not the death-defying, fast-paced adventure you might find in other stories, but instead a slow uncovering of secrets long kept. Although history seems bound to repeat itself here, there were still enough twists to surprise me, and I found this element of the story quite satisfying.
However, I wasn’t quite as enthralled by the romance aspect of the plot. I liked both Libby and Rodri as individuals; they are quietly determined people going after their goals in life and there’s an air of competence about both of them which is attractive. Yet although they’re destined for each other, I never felt any real spark between them. Libby does have moments of curiosity about Rodri’s household setup – wondering if his housekeeper is just his housekeeper – but beyond that the pair seem to have a platonic friendship up until the last chapter. This wasn’t a major mark against the book, since it wasn’t billed primarily as a romance, but the awkwardness of the romantic elements did put me off a little.
The other main complaint I had was the characterization of the book’s villains. There’s a sort of intrigue going on in three dimensions here – with Ulla, Ellen, and Libby. The former two stories are told through flashbacks, which are well spaced and add to the atmosphere of the book overall. Each narrative has its own villain, and as history repeats itself, they all resemble each other to a degree. While in one sense, this tied the past and present together, it also made the villains seem flat and one-dimensional. Whether it’s just that there wasn’t time to develop them, or that making them more distinct individuals would have changed the story’s direction, I can’t say. But as the modern-day portion of the story reached its peak, I couldn’t quite accept that all the problems driving that portion of the narrative were created by one person who was wholly evil. Everything I learned about that character hinted at increasing levels of villainy, until they felt more like an ogre from a storybook than a real person.
Overall, though, I would recommend Women of the Dunes if you’re looking for a slightly dreamy escape into historic Scotland. Don’t pick this up expecting a sweeping romance novel, but if you’re up for some intrigue and a journey to the past, this should be right up your alley.