This book begins in 1494, and we meet Ellen MacArthur, who lives with her grandfather and who is promised in marriage to a local kinsman. Ellen is described as small and dainty but with a great intellect and wisdom beyond her 19 years
(I found it strange reading a story with the heroine with that name, as Ellen MacArthur is the famous British yachtswoman).
When Ellen's safety is threatened by another kinsman, Balgain MacArthur, she is sent to live at court with King James to keep her safe from a kidnap attempt. Upon news of her grandfather's serious illness, she returns to Lochearn to discover it was a ruse by Balgain MacArthur to enable him to become the new laird - and he has killed her grandfather and her fiancé. She has been escorted to Lochearn by Duncan Armstrong, a border lord who happened to be visiting King James and accompanied Ellen as a favor to the King, and he helps protect Ellen when she escapes Balgain to return to King James.
The King decides Ellen and Duncan would make a good couple and arranges for them to marry. However, Duncan's home is positioned on the border, and there is a great deal of raiding between the English and the Scots. When the raids get more personal between Duncan and Sir Roger Colby, Duncan doesn't realize the problems that may be caused by his outwitting Colby - and that his trust in his wife may be tested to the limit.
The strange thing about this book is that the story appears to have finished halfway through, when our heroine finds happiness with her husband, Duncan Armstrong. However, the story continues, moving more to politics, border raiding and kidnapping rather than initial
Highland romance of the first half. The second half is significantly less enjoyable a read, partly because of the unlikely events of the plot and because of the engineered mistrust between Ellen and Duncan that apparently keeps them emotionally apart - but only slightly - for the final quarter of the book.
The author's writing style is quite spare, with little description of place or people. The romance is a slow-burn one, where the hero and heroine gradually recognize each other's strengths and slowly slide into love. In some ways, this is a realistic depiction of love and was probably the way that true love blossomed in that historical period, where matches were made for dynastic or power requirements rather than emotions. But the second half of the book, once the romance is out of the way, turns into more of an earthy series of sex scenes between hero and heroine with coarse language and a repetitive nature. The romantic element seems lost; it becomes more about lust and
is less enjoyable to read as a result.
Scotland in the fifteenth century was a rough place, and fortunately the characters in this book didn't approach events with a twenty-first-century mindset, as so often happens in historical romances. Ellen is aware that her husband's men are raping various English women during their raids, and although she clearly doesn't like it, she understands that's how things are
- although she appears to consider that if it happened to her, then her husband would no longer want to be with her - rather a double standard there! Reading the book with my
twenty-first-century mind, I found much of this aspect difficult to stomach, but it certainly adds a little more authenticity, even if the author tries to soften the blow by telling us the women probably enjoyed it.
Although the story is good overall and covered an interesting part of English/Scottish history with the Princes in the Tower and other things, somehow
Small's pen doesn't quite paint the events and people in enough depth for it to be a truly satisfying read, and the digression in the second half of the book to the kidnapping
isn't very successful in terms of plot and believability.