|Ilsabeth Murray Armstrong is in a sticky situation when we meet her in the first pages of Highland Protector, and she has no idea what she’s about to get into.
Ilsabeth is a young woman who comes from a close clan and also a close-knit family. She’s devoted to them, but has also decided to follow her heart and fulfill her wish of her own home and children by becoming engaged to the very handsome Sir Walter Hepbourn. Lately, she’s become a little suspicious of Walter as he has been acting differently, he hasn’t tried to be intimate at all, and she suspects that her betrothed may have taken a mistress.
Ilsabeth is angry, and she goes unannounced to Walter’s home to confront him. She accidentally stumbles on Walter discussing a plot to overthrow the king with his cousin David. Ilsabeth is so stunned by this turn of events that she remains hidden and listens to the man talk. She soon discovers that Walter was betrothed to her to get close to her clan, whom he hates, and he has murdered a king’s man with Ilsabeth’s dagger to shift the blame and stain her family’s name.
Ilsabeth takes off running, thinking that she might have time to warn her family to flee before the king’s army comes around to bring them in, but she is soon found by her cousin who tells her that the family has fled into hiding and the army is hunting for her. The cousin delivers a missive to Ilsabeth from her father that she must seek Sir Simon Innes, the King’s investigator to discover the truth and help her.
Simon Innes is a man with a horrific childhood, mostly because of his terrifying older brother Henry who is now laird of his former clan. Henry tortured and taunted the much younger Simon until he was laird, and then he kicked Simon out of the clan after a love triangle is discovered. Simon was determined to make something of himself and also find justice for others the way he couldn’t for himself. Simon worked hard to become the King’s trusted investigator, his conduct above reproach at all times. He has found satisfaction in helping others find truth and justice, and has helped other Armstrongs accused of various crimes.
When Ilsabeth comes to him, he is completely unprepared to feel something more than compassion for the accused murderess. Ilsabeth’s honesty, integrity and devotion to her family strikes at Simon in a way that makes him want to trust women again and he steels himself against the weak feelings while he agrees to shelter Ilsabeth at his home while he investigates the murder.
However, it soon becomes clear that the murder has been well planned and executed, and the truth of how it happened it elusive to Simon. While he spends time with Ilsabeth, he realizes that she has been taken advantage of most cruelly by Walter, but he has no proof. The King isn’t willing to wait for the execution of the traitor who killed his man, and if he finds out that Simon has been protecting the suspect that he’s supposed to be hunting down, he will lose everything.
Highland Protector is a wonderful story, rich with Scottish lore and great characters. Hannah Howell is a master at small details that make the reader feel like they have been transported to Scotland in summer 1479.
Ilsabeth is a well crafted heroine. Though she is branded as a traitor and a murderess to the other characters from the beginning, her strong spirit shines from the first page. She’s honorable, feisty, intelligent, and often tactless. In some ways, she reminded me of some of my favorite heroes. I liked that she had no simpering, wily ways even though she knows that she has been neatly trapped into a terrible situation.
Simon has a lot of baggage. He stops just short of being a tortured, desperate soul but manages to seem world-weary and yet hopeful at the same time. There is no doubt that Simon has had a tough life but the telling of his trials is so slowly unraveled and so honestly portrayed that it was just a part of who he was, not a sob story. Simon’s drive to find truth and fairness in the very dangerous world of the king’s court is understandable and frustrating as it seems at times that he has chosen an impossible mission for himself that he is bound to fail at. But Simon’s wit, determination and hope in the face of rumors and accusations makes him even more heroic.
Highland Protector is well written, fun to read, it has suspense and romance all bundled together. It was a wonderful read, and is highly recommended.