Och! This was a frustrating book! Lois Greiman's Highland Scoundrel is the second book in a trilogy about three cousins who find love and danger in a fantasy setting loosely based on 16th century Scotland. Although this is not a book for the avid history buff, it is a light, whimsical, good-hearted romp with a wee bit of a puzzle thrown in.
The frustration is caused by the characters; they are just too delightfully modern. Instead of feeling peeved at their anachronisms, I found myself wanting to see them bloom in a more appropriate setting. The author says in her cover notes that she feels "a need to take a walk in the Middle Ages where men are bigger than life, the horses are bigger than anything, and I have an untamable mane of flame-red hair down to my hips." The problem is, she has created some genuinely contemporary characters. The women are actually – rather than reportedly – competent, and the men are honestly respectful of the women as people. I just hate to see characters like these limited to fantasy – even in fiction.
This book tells the story of Shona MacGowan and Dugald Kinnaird. Shona is the only daughter of Roderic the Rogue and Flanna MacGowan. Although she has no sisters, Shona's two first cousins are very close, and the three young girls have sworn a pact on a magic amulet to take care of each other always. As the book opens Shona is grown and we know that she has been the loved and trusted companion of James, the ten-year-old boy king of Scotland. She has also adopted a young street boy, the same age as James, who tried to pick her pocket. Kelvin, under her sponsorship, has become a playmate for the lonely king.
Shona and Kelvin are called back to the Highlands as her father convenes a gathering of the clans – ostensibly as a show of strength during the politically unstable times – but really, as Shona believes, to tempt her to choose a husband from among the gathered lairds. Shona encounters Dugald Kinnaird as he is on his way to her home, Dun Ard castle – at the time she is practically naked in a stream attempting without success to catch trout. It is part of the fun of this book that this typical scene ends untypically with Shona pulling Dugald into the drink and escaping on his horse.
After that introduction it comes as no surprise that the two of them are destined for each other and determined to dislike each other up until the last moment. Not only are they at odds socially, but it soon becomes clear to the reader and to Shona, that Dugald is not all that he seems to be. The whole scene at the castle with Shona's suitors is a farce that reminded me strongly of Jenny Crusie's Manhunting. None of the men (except Dugald, of course) are up to Shona's weight, but she tries desperately to appear demure in the hopes of living down her reputation as a hoyden.
There's a truly lovely bit of business with her father, who, having ensured that she is as competent as any man, is now trying desperately to persuade her to choose a man who will help her "settle" her wildness. He also struggles with wanting to keep her when he knows she must grow up and leave him; just as Shona understands that part of her dilemma is the difficulty of finding a man who can compare with her magnificent father. It is refreshing to see Shona's parents struggling with her emergence as a sexual adult – and their own feelings about that – and to witness Shona's attempts to declare her independence without disappointing her parents.
Dugald is an enigmatic character with a strange past which is disclosed to the reader, but not to Shona. He is suspicious of Shona, but succumbs to her wild spirit nonetheless. He's genuinely impressed with her competence and has no problem acknowledging her abilities; they excite rather than intimidate him. One of the frustrating things about the book is that the plot devices keeping him and Shona apart seem like no more than that – devices. They are well-matched and both of them feel it. Dugald is supposed to be pursuing a mystery but he doesn't do enough thinking to be a credible sleuth; instead he spends a great deal of time watching Shona, confronting Shona, and teasing Shona. Many of these scenes could have used some editing. Another irritation is that these two are keeping so many secrets that there are barriers between them right up to the final disclosure scene, and that limits their intimacy. We just don't see enough of them enjoying each other.
There is plenty of adventure, however, after Shona and Kelvin are called back to court. Kelvin is kidnapped and it takes the combined efforts of Dugald, Shona, and the mysterious Liam (look for his story in the next Highland Bride book) to rescue him. I thought the mystery made particularly good use of a pretty standard plot element. (I know that's a tease, but if I tell you exactly what I liked it will ruin the mystery!) This is not a "deep" book, but neither is it empty-headed. The characters have an emotional landscape, it's just more modern than the setting of the book, and that kept me from enjoying it fully. Several of the characters (including Shona's parents) who appear in this book have books of their own so, if you do like this writer, and you're not troubled by anachronisms, you'll be set for a long while.