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Highland Destiny by Hannah Howell
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-5921-3
**
In a wee nutshell, this is the wee tale of how a wee lass from a disadvantaged background achieves love and acceptance.

In the year 1430 wee Maldie Kirkcaldy (yes, it rhymes, isn't that cute?) embarks on a mission of revenge against her wicked father after giving a deathbed oath to her dying mother. Her mother, daughter of a Scottish clan laird, had given birth to wee Maldie then been abandoned by Beaton, her married, faithless lover, and so turned to whoring to support herself and her wee bastard daughter.

After the abduction of his wee brother Eric, Balfour Murray, laird of Donncoill, has launched a losing assault on the fortress of the evil Sir William Beaton of Dubhlinn. But Beaton, in typical villainous fashion, has set a deceitful trap for the Murrays. (It must run in the family. Archie Beaton nearly destroyed Brigadoon.) In the ensuing ruinous battle, Balfour's other brother Nigel is seriously wounded. On their return to Donncoill, wee Maldie deliberately places herself in their way, offering her healing skills, in order to further her cause against Beaton.

Even though his forces have just suffered a crushing defeat in battle and his brother is critically wounded, Balfour's not too weary to be fiercely attracted to the wee lass. Likewise, wee Maldie's not so preoccupied with her wounded patient to ignore Balfour's manly attributes.

Wee Maldie accompanies the Murrays back to Donncoill where she nurses Nigel back to health. Both brothers are lustfully attracted to the wee lass, but even though Nigel has been favored with many lassies' glances in the past, only Balfour's kisses thrill the wee Maldie. Experiencing a unique sensual response to the manly laird, she surrenders her innocence to him.

But Balfour has questions about the wee lass's past. Boy, does he have questions! Where did she come from? Why is she there? Why is she so secretive? Is she in league with Beaton? Can he trust her?

Eventually Balfour locks the wee Maldie in her wee room because he suspects she's a spy for Beaton. (He's had a constant guard on her. How was she supposed to be circumventing the surveillance?) Wee Maldie decides the only way she can prove her innocence is to escape from Donncoill and rescue wee Eric from Dubhlinn. In a scheme that would fool only men with wee brains, wee Maldie escapes and heads straight to Dubhlinn. Surely this is evidence of her collusion with Beaton, isn't it?

Ms. Howell is an established author with a backlist of entertaining stories; among my favorites are ones set in Scotland. There was in those, however, an infectious energy that's lacking in Highland Destiny.

There are a variety of reasons why this book isn't successful.

One major flaw is insufficient plot to sustain 300 pages of action. The result is a heavily padded story. Dialogue between characters is separated by paragraphs and even pages of introspection. It's most annoying to read characters' replies when there's been such a break in the dialogue that the reader's forgotten the question.

The excessive introspection is itself aggravating. Every chance remark and casual action is analyzed backwards and forwards. These characters engage in such examination of psychological motivations, hidden agendas, and suspected duplicity that if the story were set in the early twentieth century, they'd be Freudians.

The story positively wallows in psychological motivation. Balfour's emotionally bruised because the lassies have always preferred his better-looking brother. Maldie's convinced that no one can want her because of her parentage and deprived background. What ever happened to the lusty lads and lasses of yesteryear? To swirling kilts and skirling pipes? To whacking lassies on the backside and reiving cattle? These people seem pathetic.

I felt no emotional connection with any of the characters and found their constant and repetitious suspicions annoying in the extreme. Don't they have anything to do expect suspect each other of treachery? Okay, they go to bed a lot, but they suspect each other there, too.

Even the writing style became aggravating. Especially irritating (as you've probably figured out) is the overuse of 'wee.' Apparently the author believes that generously embellishing the text with 'wee' will give her story an authentic highland ambience. It got to the point that I wanted to whip out my wee scissors and snip the word off the pages.

I expect an author to employ a dialect when setting her story in the Scottish highlands to instill a sense of place some dinna and canna and ken go with the territory. Here the characters think and speak in a combination of Scots brogue and king's English that seems artificial and contrived.

Highland Destiny is the first in a trilogy. In the second book Nigel goes off to France. Let's hope that his adventures are a lot more entertaining than his brothers ... and have a lot less psychological angst.

--Lesley Dunlap


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