Heaven and the Heather by Elizabeth Holcombe
(Jove, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-13402-3
Sabine de Sainte Montagne has accompanied Mary, Queen of Scots, from France to Scotland as one of her ladies. Sabine’s late unlamented, brutal father had sent her to the queen five years earlier getting Mary to promise to marry her to a good man. Mary has arranged a marriage for her with Lord John Campbell, a powerful Scottish noble. Sabine, for no reason whatsoever, has decided she will not marry Campbell and intends to flee. She has five gold sovereigns in her sac that will enable her to make her escape. Also in the sac are some of her drawings. In spite of a crippled right hand, Sabine is a talented artist.

Niall MacGregor has come to the harbor to petition Mary on behalf of his clan. Campbell has declared the whole clan outlawed so that he can seize their lands. Niall creates a diversionary commotion so that he can reach the queen. Instead he encounters Sabine, whom he knows is Campbell’s fiancée. Unintentionally, he divests her of her sac; he knows this is the key to an audience with Mary.

Sabine panics when she discovers the loss of her sac. Mary has decreed that she will wed Campbell in a fortnight, and now her means of escape is gone. Niall deliberately encounters her at a masquerade and pressures her into arranging a meeting with Mary using her sac as coercion.

Niall’s audience with Mary does not accomplish what he intends. She orders him and his companion arrested, but they are able to escape. Campbell’s remarks don’t entirely relieve her concerns. The Queen decides to take her court to the Highlands to learn more about her people.

At Campbell’s castle in the Highlands, Sabine overhears the nobleman talking with another. What she hears will lead her to run away and into Niall’s arms. Together they will battle to foil a plot against the Queen.

This book’s major weakness is its poor character motivation. The reasons behind Sabine’s opposition to Lord John Campbell are never explained, and this lack undermines the entire plot. As a heroine living in the Elizabethan era, Sabine’s attitudes and actions simply make no sense. In sixteenth century Europe, women of her class did not expect to marry for love. Women married for property and position, and marriages were often arranged by families to benefit themselves, not for romantic reasons or even always for the good of the individuals involved.

Queen Mary is complying with Sabine’s father’s request to marry her to a good man as well as strengthening a nobleman’s allegiance. Sabine’s determination to avoid the marriage is inexplicable. Of course, Campbell turns out to be evil through and through, but Sabine does not know that when the story begins; in fact, she hardly knows the man at all. He is a man of high position and wealth and is a trusted councillor of her sovereign. This guy looks to be a prime catch. Sabine, however, isn’t going along with it. She’s going to flee, escape.

Was it so terrible to be called the most beautiful woman in Scotland over and over again, to be coveted so much ... to have a man who “made allowances” for her imperfection? Oui. It was.

Having rejected Campbell for no apparent reason, she’s impressed by and attracted to Niall, who’s the leader of an outlawed clan and whose life expectancy doesn’t look too promising right now.

“He’s so free, and, yet, he holds my thoughts captive. The memory of his grin, of his eyes, of his very being.”

Not only doesn’t Sabine have any reasons for initially rejecting Campbell, her punctuation leaves something to be desired as well.

Heaven and the Heather is a plot-driven story. Characters act in ways that serve only to advance the plot. Sabine is not the only character whose motivations are obscure. Campbell’s villainy is so over-the-top that he becomes a caricature rather than a credible character.

The treasonous plot against Mary also suffers from a lack of foundation. It provides an opportunity for Sabine and Niall to run hither and thither and spend a lot of time together, but it comes across as uncoordinated and doesn’t add much historical depth to the story.

Its less common time period - the court of Mary, Queen of Scots, before her difficulties with the English - may prompt some readers to check out Heaven and the Heather. Readers who consider character motivation an important aspect of fiction, however, will want to think twice.

--Lesley Dunlap

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