Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: HIGHLAND SANCTUARY by Jennifer Hudson Taylor

There's something ancient, mysterious and lovely about Scotland. Perhaps it is that mystery that makes it such a frequent setting for medieval romance novels. In Highland Sanctuary, the latest historical romance from Jennifer Hudson Taylor, Scotland's rich beauty sets the stage for a sweet fairytale to blossom between an epileptic servant girl and a handsome future chieftain of the MacKenzie Clan.

The sitch: Serena Boyd is a capable, educated and beautiful peasant, but her past is shrouded in mystery. Although she works in Braigh Castle, she lives in a tiny community known as the Village of Outcasts. Plagued by the fear that someone outside the village will witness one of her strange "fits" and brand her as demon-possessed, Serena avoids spending any more time than necessary outside the village. It is shortly after sustaining a minor injury due to one of these fits, however, that she meets a newcomer to the area, Gavin MacKenzie.

Gavin, the heir to the MacKenzie Clan chieftainship, has been hired to guard Braigh Castle and its new laird, Iain MacBraigh, while his younger brother oversees the restoration of the decrepit castle. The previous laird may have been murdered — and ominous happenings seem to threaten all associated with the holding. Gavin needs to discover the villain behind these attacks and restore peace and order to Iain's new holdings, but in the process of discovering why the Village of Outcasts, in particular, is being targeted, he loses his heart to one of its residents.

In a pseudo-Cinderella tale starring Serena as the servant girl, Gavin easily steps into the role of the prince. But, unlike the fairytale version, this princely fellow is not alone in his pursuit of the beautiful castle servant. Iain MacBraigh, Serena's employer, has taken a shine to the fair maiden, as well. But Iain is far less likely to be affected politically for marrying a peasant girl from the Village of Outcasts than a future chieftain. And his pursuit of Serena does not sit well with Gavin.

Both men declare their affection for Serena, but she refuses their offers. Serena doesn't believe either man would want her if they knew the extent of her disorder or witnessed one of her "fits." Even if they would accept her, she does not wish to bring shame upon either man. Still, it is not easy to deny her heart when it beats so strongly for Gavin.

Hits and misses: There are two main villains wreaking havoc in this story, but the men have unrelated goals. Their paths intersect indirectly, but the earl of Caithness is not nearly as diabolical as his indirect partner-in-mayhem and the scenes in which he appears are not nearly as compelling as those starring his counterpart.

I would have appreciated a bit more direct foreshadowing concerning the object of the earl's greed — even the mention of its existence earlier on in the tale could have made its inclusion seem truer and less device-like. That being said, the twist that brought the other villain (Serena's biological father) into the story was very well done. That dude was totally twisted and while he was on center stage he owned it.

Although I would have liked to have felt the threat of his madness earlier in the book, I felt there was sufficient foreshadowing to know that Daddy Dearest would, eventually, appear. While this villain was on the scene the author held me in the palm of her hand as I tried to guess what redemption or condemnation would be executed by his twisted tongue.

To read or not to read: This novel has a large cast of colorful minor characters and, although few of them get concentrated page time, they are each clearly drawn individuals. When you visit the Village of Outcasts, you leave as a friend. I enjoyed getting to know these characters and hope to see more of them in the future. I also enjoyed the playfulness introduced by Gavin's brother, Leith — a character who I can only assume will star in his own novel soon. I would have liked to have heard more from this plucky-comic-relief character and, if he does get his own book someday, I hope it has a bit less heaviness — and a bit more lighthearted banter — than this more serious story.

Gavin and Iain are both good-hearted, swoon-worthy fellows. When Serena realizes she has unwittingly stepped into a Cinderella triangle, she handles the situation with grace that belies her humble station. Serena definitely has that Cinderella-like shyness going on, but she is an original heroine, despite the comparison.

There is no golden-bow miracle on the resolution of Serena's happy ending. This isn't the sort of Christian romance where everyone's prayers get answered in exactly the way they'd like; it is much more realistic than that. Yes, there is a happy ever after, but it's the kind that makes you look forward to seeing Serena as a minor character in a sequel — just to check in to see how she's doing.

A tale of love, loss, sacrifice and acceptance, Highland Sanctuary is a clean, sweet romance that celebrates the ability to conquer prejudice and fear through love.

(This review originally appeared at USA Today's Happy Ever After, a romance fiction blog)

Serena's Rating:


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