Highlander Unmasked
by Monica McCarty
(Ballantine, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 978--0-345-49437-5
One thing that has consistently ruined Scottish historicals for me is the use of dialect. As if a few unintelligible words and a couple of "dinnas" and "kinnas" guaranteed authenticity. McCarty doesn't go down that path. Nor does she indulge in the other main flaw: lecturing her readers about the customs and conflicts of seventeenth-century Scotland. While her research seems thorough, it is also in tune with the needs of her story and the interest span of at least one reader. Still, with its standard plot and dull characters, Highlander Unmasked isn't very memorable.

Meg MacKinnon is on her way to the court of King James in Edinburgh to find a husband. Her only brother is a little simple, so the man Meg marries will be responsible for defending her family land and protecting her clan. It is imperative that he does so without usurping her brother's titular authority.

Meg's party is attacked, and a group of warriors under the leadership of handsome, masked stranger comes to their rescue. They don't stay for introductions.

Once at court, Meg meets several good candidates, but Meg is only interested in one: Alex MacLeod. She suspects he is her masked savior. He adamantly denies it. He also denies any interest in her.

Alex is lying about both things. Although he is attracted to Meg, he doesn't have any time for romance. He is much too devoted to another cause: protecting the Highlands from English settlers and their Lowland allies. He is at court to learn about any plans, and doesn't want anyone to suspect that he is a spy. That is why he must keep his identity as Meg's mysterious warrior secret.

Alex spends a good portion of the book trying to convince himself and Meg how little he desires her. First, he tries to ignore her. Then, he pushes her on someone else. Finally, he makes her believe he has been using her. At the same time, he can't keep his hands, mouth, and other body parts off her. Talk about sending mixed messages. No wonder Meg is pretty confused. His behavior doesn't stop her from loving him and on deciding they were made for each other. I don't think I would be spoiling anything if I mentioned that she eventually proves her point and he accomplishes his mission.

There are quite a few fights, and McCarty does a good job depicting them. Unfortunately, they don't make up for the overall lack of conflict where the lovers are concerned. The same basic scene is redone a number of different times without moving the story forward.

Nothing shows Alex in a very good light. He bullies Meg, lies to her and manipulates her. Maybe that's the way of an alpha warrior, but it doesn't fit my definition of a romance hero. Meg isn't much better. Until the end, she shows little sign of using the leadership qualities and intelligence she is said to have.

A few subplots aim at adding further conflict, but they don't go very far. The minor characters didn't add much to the story, either: Meg's highly romantic mother belongs in another century, and the villain is a bit over the top.

Highlander Unmasked does have some good parts, but four-hundred  pages are too long for a story that could easily have been told in half the amount.


--Mary Benn

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