I had never before read a Karen Ranney book although I had read a lot of praise for her book Tapestry. I shied away from that book because I am not a big lover of the Beauty-and-the-beast stories. But I was gratified to see that she has a backlist that she has made available at a very deep discount as e-books. Since I always wanted to try her work, I picked this one up and it only cost one dollar!
This was a a real bang for the buck! My first impression as I was reading it was that it felt very old skool. Like a Kathleen Woodiwiss, Shirlee Busbee, Laurie McBain or Rebecca Brandewyne. In fact, it had the vibe (if not the sheer scope and epic-ness),of one of my very favorite Brandewyne books ever, Forever My Love.
For one thing, this romance novel is not very romance novel PC. The H&H commit eyes wide open, unapologetic adultery with each other. Heroine is a widow Kathryn Siddons who had a pretty unhappy life to this point. She grew up the acknowledged bastard of a lowlander Earl. However the only privilege that granted her was a formal education and an advantageous marriage. Except her so-called advantageous marriage was to a man who physically abused her. After his death she just wanted to get away from the place where all she ever felt was shame.
With no money (she had no dowry when she was married), no prospects and a son to take care of she consents to being to companion of her niece, Sarah and travel with her to her new home in the Scottish Highlands as she marries the powerful and rich Hugh MacDonald.
Hugh contracts an arranged marriage in order to hedge his bets against what he sees as future sweeping changes in Scotland. He believes his alliance with Sarah's powerful (but poor) family will provide the necessary bulwark.
Hugh and Kathryn fall in love at first sight. The only problem is, it is on the eve of his wedding to Sarah. AS the whole party travels to the MacDonald land, Hugh and Kathryn fight an attraction that only increases the longer they are in each others presence.
The book is very well written and the first half is full of longing glances and fraught conversations between the forbidden lovers. Ranney really knows how to string out the sexual and romantic tension between these two people who really shouldn't mooning over each other, but totally are.
Added to that there is the threat of war and lots of portentous signs and ominous feelings. This is set during the time of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 that is famous for the scorching defeat of the Scots at the battle of Culloden. This was another reason this book felt closer in spirit to romances of the 80s than of those that came later. It had that darker, grittier tone that seemed to lay over those older romances like a blanket. Even so, this book does most of it's war stuff off stage so-to-speak so I never felt the characters were really as involved or as in danger as they could be.
For those that really, really, really dislike even the merest hint of adultery stay far, far away from this book. Hugh and Kathryn are totally in love and he's married. At first they just talk about it and think about it a lot. But then they decide to consummate their love. So they are in full physical adultery for quite a bit of the book. To add insult, Sarah is not made out to be a mean or evil person. She's simply clueless and a bit of a drip. I'm glad Ranney didn't try to justify Hugh adnd Kathryn's relationship by making Sarah someone to despise. I think by making Sarah so...simple, she actually knocks the h/h off the pedestal they often occupy in romance.
I don't dislike adultery in romance novels. I am often curious how authors can use it in romance because I don't see it as a black and white issue. Depending on how it is written and handled, it can royally piss me off or it can make me think. This author had the latter effect on me. I think she sold her story even with the adultery element. I felt very sorry for Sarah but not because she was being cheated on by her husband. She had issues were way beyond mere adultery.
All in all a very good book and definitely a dollar well spent.