This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by Christine. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Short Historical category.
This new historical romance from May McGoldrick pits one spirited lass against her biggest challenge yet: a Highland lord who has no desire to lose his heart.
Innes Munro has the ability to “read” a person’s past simply by touching them, but her gift comes with a heavy price: her freedom. Forced to stay at desolate Castle Girnigoe, Innes never expects to be drawn to the wounded warrior who haunts its dark passages and challenges her at every turn.
Conall Sinclair, the earl of Caithness, carries the scars of battles with the English and the lash marks of their dungeons, but the wounds that fester within give him even greater pain. Isolating himself from his clan and the rest of the world in a tower perched on the wild Scottish coast, Conall is reluctant to let the spirited Innes close to him, however neither can deny the growing passion that ignites with every look, every touch.
But can Conall ever love a woman who can read his darkest secrets and feel the pain he hides… and can love really tame all fears? As dangerous forces close in, Conall and Innes must take the ultimate leap of faith and forge a bond of trust that will save them both…or lose each other forever.
Here is Christine's review:
When I first read the synopsis for Taming The Highlander by May McGoldrick I was very excited because it had so much of the catnip I enjoy in a romance novel, including a learned heroine, mystical stones and a tortured hero. Seeing it was an award nominee only whetted my appetite all the more. Once I started reading however, it became harder and harder to push through it. So many more intriguing books came my way that I gave it up for quite a while then had to talk myself into going back, rereading what I had forgotten, and finally finishing it solely because I had committed to reviewing it. The treat had turned into a chore.
Set in the Scottish Highlands of 1544, the heroine, Innes Munro has inherited from her mother a fragment of stone that enables her to not only “read” the emotions and experience of any person she touches but feel the physical sensations, including pain, that a person went through. Innes has used her talents for most of her twenty seven years serving as the chief advisor to her father, Baron Folais, clan chief of the Munros, helping to further the clan’s interests. For the past three years she has also been “reading” the suitors for her younger sister Ailein’s hand and reporting back to her all their flaws, mistakes and lies, causing Ailein to reject them, one after another. Having recently decided this was depriving Ailein of a chance to not only judge for herself, but marry, Innes refused to “read” laird Bryce Sinclair when he came to court her sister. Instead she relied on her sister’s “weak-kneed reaction” to the young, handsome and recently widowed Scot. Now Innes has traveled with her family to the castle of clan Sinclair for Ailien’s wedding. Knowing her “gift” will deprive her of having a husband and family of her own, and tired of her stepmother’s jealous criticisms, Innes is determined to carve out new life for herself as soon as she sees her sister married and settled. Seeing Bryce’s older brother’s portrait, then meeting the reclusive earl himself, stirs something in Innes, who immediately strikes sparks off of Conall.
The hero, Conall Sinclair the earl of Caithness, is a veteran of the Scottish wars with the English, to whom he lost his right hand and freedom until his younger brother Bryce emptied the coffers of their clan to free him from their dungeon. Long thought dead, Conall returned to find his younger brother made laird in his stead and his former betrothed had wedded his brother, become pregnant and died in suspicious circumstances all while he languished as a prisoner. Feeling Bryce deserves the title of laird, and stewing in guilt for the clan bearing the cost of his ransom, Conall chose to become a virtual recluse in their castle. Now that the wedding day has arrived and Bryce is to marry his beautiful and wealthy Ailien, Conall cannot help but but be drawn from afar to the bride’s older sister. With her serious demeanor, habitual black dress, ubiquitous gloves and streak of white in her dark hair, Innes is no beauty by conventional standards. Conall tries to resist the lure of her attractions but after Innes tumbles into his arms on the stairs he can think of little else. Standing between them is Innes fear that no man can accept her “gifts (as her father rejected her mother) and Conall’s belief he is repellant and unloveable due to his physical and mental scars.
Writing all of this out makes it sound much more interesting than it was to read. Both Innes and Conall are good initial concepts for characters, but McGoldrick never fleshes them out or does anything original with them. We are told that Conall lost his hand, is scarred and suffered terribly in his imprisonment, but he never struggles to adjust to being a one-handed warrior. He rides, catches Innes in his arms when she tumbles on the steep stairs and fends off other fighting men without any problems. Unlike other books, such as The Admiral’s Penniless Bride by Carla Kelly, where the military man has lost a hand, we never see Conall struggle with his loss or his dexterity. For a warrior whose entire identity centered around his fighting skills, It’s as if Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones just shrugged and carried on without missing a beat. Conall is solitary and has some nightmares but he never progresses from a cliche of a the boiler plate “dark and tormented” hero. Oh, and he has a tame wolf named Thunder, because of course he does.
Innes bored me a bit on my first reading and then started to grate on me by my second time around. She wears only black because she is “mourning the loss of innocence in the world” which sounds like the kind of pretentious statement one expects from an emo teen not an almost 30 year old woman. When her sister comes to her crying on her wedding night because Bryce, who had wooed and charmed her up to this point, suddenly did a 180 degree turn and declared they would have separate chambers and their marriage was just for procreating. Innes mostly takes Bryce’s side implying Aliein is being childish, that it is clan business and she better suck it up and thank Bryce for “covering” for her not wanting to have sex with him. In the meantime Innes plans her future where she will travel about where she wants, then eventually pick some convent to settle in. She has no intent to use her powers again or help her country or her fellow Scots in any way. Clearly she is unfamiliar with the concept of “With great power comes great responsibility.”
While Ailien is learning her new duties as wife of the laird, settling into her marriage, working hard and trying to find out the circumstances of Bryce’s first wife’s death, Innes goes for walks, refuses to attend meals in the hall with the others, sketches and tells Conall (who correctly points out wandering off unarmed and on her own is dangerous) that she does and will do exactly what she pleases. Must be nice. She also steadfastly refuses to use her powers to help Ailien find out why and how wife #1 “fell out a window.” Bryce is not under suspicion because he was “away” at the time, but if my sister was the most desirable and well dowered young lady in the Highlands (and even if she weren’t) I’d take a secret peek at her impoverished husband myself, just to make sure Ailien wasn’t married off to a budding Bluebeard. Or maybe I just like my sister a lot more than Innes likes hers.
When we finally see Innes use her well hyped powers, it’s a bit of a let down. Sure she feels Conall’s suffering when she brushes against him, but the guy just came back from a couple years in a dungeon after his hand was cut off in battle. You don’t have to be Sookie Stackhouse to pick up on his pain. I can’t predict what I will have for lunch tomorrow, but even I could suss out that much. Innes also astounds some young ruffians (and the Sinclair brother’s aunt Wynda) by telling the ruffians what village they came from and their mother’s name, but it seems like the kind of cold reading Sherlock or Patrick Jane from The Mentalist could just pull out of their memory palace, no magic stone required.
Innes and Conall eventually do become involved after a series of chess matches and meetings and every member of their respective families has either been scheming to bring them together or is completely thrilled with the idea. Everyone is also either oblivious to or completely fine with them having a lot of premarital sex. Ailien’s virtue was CLAN BUSINESS that had to be advertised at all cost on her wedding night, but Innes and Conall are above all these petty rules and customs that their siblings were subject to. When Conall finds out Innes’s secret there is a bit of angst (he doesn’t want to cause her pain) but it gets worked out pretty quickly.
Eventually the Big Bad shows up in the form of an Englishman who is marauding his way through Scotland, searching for all the pieces and holders of the original stone tablet from whence Innes’s fragment came.
By the time he shows up in the area, he has already picked up the terrifying skill of bringing people back from the dead by killing the previous possessor of this talent and taking their stone. As the power of the stone is not passed on unless the holder is dead AND their stone is taken by another, you would think Innes would do something sensible like: 1.) secretly bury the stone in the cellar of the heavily guarded castle she is staying in or 2.) entrust it to Ailien (who is next in line for the power) so that if Innes is killed Ailien will automatically succeed her 3.) put it any place other than on her person, so if she is caught there is no point in killing her and/or the power will not pass to whatever maniac is killing people for it 4.) have some secret pocket or specially designed place in her clothes to conceal the stone if she insists on foolishly walking around with it everywhere she goes.
Of course Innes takes none of these, or any other, sensible precautions, (despite being described throughout the book as uncommonly clever) so when she is betrayed by the secret castle villain, the toady of the Evil Englishman can just tear the pouch from her waist and triumphantly carry it to his master, leaving her to be murdered.
Of course Innes isn’t killed, the stone is taken by the E.E. to set up the next book in the series, Conall and Thunder save her and the couple from the previous book (whom I know nothing about and in whom I have no emotional investment in) show up in the nick of time to lend a hand and spread the prequel bait for their story. Innes and Conall get their happy wedding, anyone left with the stamina for it can follow the quest for the stones in the next book, and I have finally reached the end of my endurance test and assuaged my Catholic guilt over not finishing the novel previously.
I do however, still feel a bit guilty about my review because this is not a horrible book. It’s not an F or even a D grade. It’s just very, very mediocre. It’s actually the hardest kind of review to write because there is nothing to either gush or rave about. There is nothing new to be found here – which isn’t a crime in itself as I really enjoy tropes or even very simple romances if they are particularly well written, touching, charming or just fun. This book isn’t. This is the kind of book where nothing stands out. It’s not poorly written or outrageous. It’s….OK. It’s the kind of book that is damned with faint praise and in the golden days of yore would make its way to the used paperback store to get traded in for something better. It does make me wonder, as I often do this time of year, about how this C- book made it onto the list of finalists. Do people really think this is amongst the handful of best books in its genre published in 2016? Because sadly, I don’t.