Return of the Highlander
by Sara MacKenzie
(Avon, $5.99,R) ISBN 0-06-079540-9
****
Morven "the Black" Maclean's been given a second chance. After his death in 1746, he became a legend - a legend who callously left the women and children of his village to be slaughtered. But now, the Fiosaiche (a sorceress in the between worlds) has told him he has one last chance to make it right, to cleanse his name and his soul. But to do so, he must travel to 2006 and enlist the help of the one woman who still believes in him.

Biographer Bella Ryan finds herself fascinated with the Black Maclean, much to the chagrin of her very much alive boyfriend. Despite his bloody legacy, Bella remains convinced there is more to this historical figure than has been uncovered. But after all these years, however will she prove it? It isn't just a matter of publishing a best-selling book, for Bella, it's about clearing the name of a man she'll never get the chance to meet.

Or so she thinks, but when strange voices and shadows start appearing at her cottage, Bella begins to realize that sometimes the past really does come alive.

As the first in a three part series, Highlander has the difficult task of not only setting the tone, but also building the world for the books to come. McKenzie's done an excellent job of piquing my interest with her skillful use of Gaelic mythology, her fascinating descriptions of the between-worlds and her creation of a strong central character for all three novels. The Fiosaiche provides the glue for the trilogy, but isn't just a stock character or a plot device. She's a kick-ass mythological creature: all-powerful, a bit cruel at times but ultimately willing to bend the very fabric of time for three special men who've managed to capture her attention.

And McKenzie does make us feel that Maclean is special. Sure, he's an arrogant beast from a time when women were little more than chattel. But he's willing to learn. Maclean, despite being taken aback by Bella's independent streak, quickly learns to hold his tongue and rethink his opinions on "woman's work."

Bella herself is quite a character. She enters as an overweight, under-confident woman. But, unlike most heroines, she's beginning to think the problem may not be her. She's rethinking her own opinions on life and becoming stronger even before she "meets" Maclean. She quickly ditches the over-critical boyfriend and starts accepting herself for whom she is. She isn't a simpering heroine, waiting for a rescue; she's a determined young woman who has started to realize that she's more than what other people think of her.

What surprised me about this one was the amount of time it takes for Bella and Maclean to meet. Usually the leads meet quickly (and cutely). McKenzie takes a different tact: Maclean has to earn the right to be seen. In fact, for the first hundred pages or so, Bella never even knows he's there. While his voyeurism might sound creepy, it's actually endearing to observe his frustrations with the history Bella's compiling. Maclean still isn't sure what happened right before he died, but he knows it wasn't what the historians say. After all, he was a kind and caring clan leader, not one who'd leave his people to be butchered, right? As the facts unfold, Maclean himself begins to wonder if he really is the monster history has made him out to be.

While the ending (and villain) of this one's a bit predictable, overall the book is more than satisfying. I found myself, while not unable to put it down, very eager to pick it back up. Fast-pacing, twisting in just the right places, Return of the Highlander is a refreshing read with an unforgettable hero.

--Amanda Waters


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