|I was not looking forward to Hannah Howell's Highland Wolf. The Scottish dialogue I spotted when I thumbed through it was an immediate turn off: I read romance for pleasure and not to struggle with archaic syntax, unfamiliar jargon and unintelligible spelling. I forced myself to slog on, and was not rewarded for my troubles. In fact, Scottish dialect is not the worst thing about this romance allegedly set in fourtheenth-century Scotland.
James Drummond's wife died under suspicious circumstances, and he was accused of her murder. He escaped capital punishment by going into hiding (I suspect that is where the title comes from, although the book does not really go into it). Under Scottish law, he had to forfeit his title, his lands and his young daughter to his cruel and profligate cousin, Donnell McKay. Now, disguised as a French artisan, he returns to his castle with plans to redeem his name, regain his lands and reclaim his child. He finds unexpected help in Annora MacKay.
Born out of wedlock, Annora cannot aspire to an honorable marriage and an independent existence. Still, she has little admiration for Donnell and even less for the ruthless and sadistic men he keeps around him. She only remains under his protection because of Meggie, a little girl he says is his daughter. She is determined to use her privileged position to uncover the castle's dark secrets. She is also resolved to resist all attempts to match her with Donnell's henchmen -- and to give in to her attraction to the handsome Frenchman.
Annora is the weakest point of this novel. She is such a bundle of contradictions that even at the end her character remains confusing. Although she experiences first hand the consequences of extra-marital affairs, she has very little compunction about having one herself. There are occasional hints about her second sense, and yet she makes so little use of it that I began to think it was an authorial afterthought. Annora is set on investigating Donnell's bad deeds, but does not have the most basic idea of what this involves. For example, she does not hesitate to enter his private office without verifying that he won't be there. Then again, Donnell's subalterns are not exactly the brightest around. Annora has no problems escaping their protection for frequent bedroom romps with James.
Annora is one of those romance heroines who is lost in the wrong time period. Her demands for autonomy would ring truer in the mouth of a nineteenth-century suffragette, and her experiments in free love would be more fit for a Haight-Ashbury hippie. There are few other attempts to create a historical atmosphere. In fact, were it not for the omni-presence of Scottish dialect, the book could have been set in medieval Japan, and I would not have noticed the difference.
James, whose background loosely ties into the Highland series Howell has been penning for a while, is not that much exciting than Annora. The secondary characters, whether they are cardboard villains or stereotypical heroes waiting for a book of their own, do not add much to the story. As for the plot, the pacing is acceptable, but things fall so easily into place at the end that I lost all interest in the main conflict.
In the final count, the unconvincing characters, the simplistic conflict and the bland setting all add up to a two.