Monday, September 7, 2009

What's Old Is New

Before the proliferation of blogs, romance readers congregated on message boards. I was mostly a lurker on the AAR Boards, but inevitably the same debate would crop up every few months. Some reader(s) whining about how historical romance "ain't what it used to be." I'll admit, most of the time I rolled my eyes and moved on. I didn't agree with about 90% of their whining. That said, 10% of their whining was spot on. Historical romance in the 1970s, 1980s and the first half of the 1990s definitely had more meat on the bone. There was a real "saga" quality to the stories. They were bigger in scope, and there was ::gasp:: actual history to be found. The stories felt less interchangeable. Now, was all historical romance back in the day great fiction? ::Snort::, that's a big "Hell no." Some of it sucked ass. But my theory has always been that it's not the purple prose and "forced seduction" readers miss, so much as that "saga" feel.

First with Broken Wing, and now with Highland Rebel, Judith James seems determined to resurrect historical romance as we once knew it. The best part? She's reminding all of us how great those "big" stories can be, without drowning her tales in mind-numbing purple prose and having her hero rape the heroine until she falls in love with him. She's taken the best of the "old" and the "new" and melded it into a winning combination.

Jamie Sinclair has no use for religion. Protestant or Catholic, it doesn't much matter to him. That said, a man has to pick a side, and he's most likely to pick the side that will make sure his bread is buttered. With James II now sitting on the thrown, Jamie has thrown his lot in with the Catholics. It's on the battlefield that he spies Catherine Drummond, daughter of a now dead laird who has ridden into battle to rescue her foolish baby brother. Naturally it goes awry, and she's captured by a rather large group of hardened soldiers. Yeah, this will not end well for her. But riding to her rescue is Jamie, who immediately plucks her from their clutches and in a bid to save her, marries her on the spot.

The rest of the book essentially follows their marriage. It's a very inconvenient one for Jamie, who was promised a wealthy Catholic heiress by King James II to restore his coffers. It's very convenient for Catherine, who as a wealthy Highland heiress, is an inconvenience to her uncle, cousin and brother. They're determined to marry her off to have her out of their hair and secure a valuable alliance. She wants no part of it - so naturally being already married is quite beneficial to her. However with so much political unrest surrounding them, their marriage will be anything but easy. Jamie plays a very dangerous game, and Catherine's beloved Highlands will soon be choosing sides.

Some of you might recall that I was one of about three readers who didn't want to have babies with Broken Wing. I had a lot of issues with that story, uppermost being the writing style. So I can say with absolutely certainty (and you won't be able to convince me otherwise) that Highland Rebel is flat-out a better written book.

Jamie is one of my favorite types of heroes. Yes, he has a tragic past and plenty of baggage, but he doesn't wallow too much. He knows the way of the world, and how quickly fortunes can change. In fact, his fortunes change several times over the course of this story. He's a charmer, a rogue, and a bit of a scoundrel. He'll sell his loyalty to the highest bidder, just so long as that bidder actually has a shot in Hell at winning. Jamie's main mission in life is to look out for Jamie.

I'll be honest, Catherine annoyed me considerably for the first 50 pages. If you're going to ride into battle, at least cut your damn hair to disguise yourself better. Also, she's rather combative with Jamie when it's rather blatantly obvious that he's just saved her from being raped to death by a gang of soldiers. She struck me as rather dense. All that being said, readers need to stick with her past page 50, because that's right around the time the author fills in her back story, which I found interesting and it really helped to flesh out her character. Also, she stops acting so dense, and that certainly helps.

The Restoration period of English history is largely neglected in historical romance, and is one ripe with possibilities, if only for all the political maneuverings and court intrigue. It provides the author with plenty of fodder, and gives the romantic couple plenty of conflict to overcome. That said, the ending of this story is rather, well, open-ended. Make no mistake, the characters get their happily ever after, but the author doesn't lay it all out at the reader's feet. It actually reminded me a bit of the ending of All Through The Night by Connie Brockway. There's no epilogue showing Jamie and Catherine 10 years down the road with children running wild around them. It's up to the reader to imagine what shall happen to them next. What adventures they'll encounter. I rather liked it, although I'll admit I would have loved more closure for some of the secondary characters.

It took me a week to read the first 50 pages of this book, and one evening to plow through the last 400. Once I got sucked in, I couldn't seem to stop myself from reading all the way to the finish line. If you're a reader who digs stories with that Big, Sweeping Saga feel to them, you really have to read this book. There's really nothing quite like it out there, except for maybe James' debut novel Broken Wing. That being said, Broken Wing was the kind of story that I was selectively recommending, where Highland Rebel is one I think historical romance lovers everywhere need to consider giving a shot. It's got great history, interesting characters, and a wonderful sense of adventure. It misses an 'A' because I've no burning desire to reread it, but that doesn't make it any less "good."

Final Grade = B+


Kristie (J) said...

Ooooohhhh - a B+ - That is a very good grade on the Wendy scale *g*.
I'm glad Cat came around for you - I figured she would *g*.
And I so agree with you! I think all romance readers should give it a shot too! Not that they are all going to love it - the reviewer at AAR didn't - but it does give a glimpse to new romance readers of the best of the best that we used to be able to find - but is so very rare anymore - thick and meaty and the chance to really ENJOY the history we read about, not just wallpaper a room with it.

Wendy said...

Kristie: Just read the AAR review. Um yeah, wow. Totally disagree with her on pretty much every level - but then I didn't want to have babies with Broken Wing, so that probably has something to do with it.

Highland Rebel IS different from BW, and I'm glad it is. From a personal standpoint, I think the writing is better in this book, and I found the characters more interesting. I know you loved Gabriel, but after a while his sulking got on my nerves and Sarah was all too ready to sit herself on the shelf for him while he traipsed around acting like a jackass. I found Jamie and Cat more evenly matched, and I loved that she called him out at the end when it's apparent to everybody that he loves her - he just won't acknowledge it to himself.

'A' grades are reserved for books I know I'll want to reread. This was a very good story, and I enjoyed it quite a bit - but I don't feel like I'll ever reread it. But I did think it was an accomplished story, I loved the history, I liked the characters, and I enjoyed the overall scope. So B+ it is :)

Kristie (J) said...

I think Highland Rebel the better written book too - which is a good thing that shows the author is getting better. You know me and my weakness for the wounded hero though - which is why BW had a bigger impact on me. But I found Jamie Sinclair an even more complex and fascinating character than Gabriel.
It really is hard to compare the two because coming from the same author - they really are quite different.
And I love the scene at the end when she declares: "Has it occurred to you Jamie, that it's not my life's goal to convince you of anything? I've no intention of convincing any man I'm worthy of his love. I'm something special, English. A man should get down on his knees and weep tears of gratitude if he's lucky enough to have me."
I wish more heroines would take that kind of attitude instead of just being grateful the hero loves them.

SonomaLass said...

This is the second recommendation I've heard for this book, and the other was also based on the depth and quality of the history. I have to admit that when I first heard of it, my only reaction was "she named a Scottish hero Jamie? Seriously?"

Guess I will be reading this one. Thanks for the recommendation.

PeggyP said...

Hi all, after seeing the review on Kristie's blog, I trucked out to B&N this morning and got the last copy!

So guess what I've spent most of this lazy Labor Day doing? I've got about 100 pages to go and can say most definitely, this is a damn good book! And while I liked BW and thought it a good read, this is a better story and a better written book. And I love a sweeping saga to death, historical or otherwise!

So, I hope to see a GSSD soon, that be a Great Sweeping Saga Drive!

Wendy said...

SonomaLass: Ahhh, but Jamie isn't Scottish - so 'tis alright. He's English.

What I liked about this book was that the history was integral to the plot. Sometimes you hit on some historical romances and they feel "interchangeable." Change a few dates, change a few fashions and the story could take place anywhere. Not so with this story.

Peggy: Heh - I'll leave a Big Sweeping Saga Drive in Kristie's capable hands! She's been reading romance a lot longer than I have and her knowledge of The Old School far surpasses mine!

Kwana said...

Thanks for this review. I'm sucked in. I didn't go gaga for Broken Wing either but the darn book stayed with me for a long time which says a lot for it. This is on my list for sure.

Tara Marie said...

This is actually the first Highland Rebel review I've read completely through. I like the time period, but honestly, the title is very off putting--I hate to admit that, too many flash backs to bad scottish romances of old.--LOL

@SonomaLass--"she named a Scottish hero Jamie? Seriously?"--exactly, I rolled my eyes at that.

I'm heading over to Amazon to put in my order.

Kati said...


Wow! A B+! OMG. I'm shocked.

I have this book in my stack, and will now bounce it up to the very top to read, since I also need to do the review. Thanks for a really great review, Wendy!

Wendy said...

Kwana: You'll have to try this one. Most of what annoyed me about Broken Wing wasn't an issue in Highland Rebel.

Tara Marie: Frankly, the title is very misleading...I think. Most of the story takes place in London and Ireland. Heroine is Scottish - but has traveled quite a bit, and hero is English. I don't have my copy sitting in front of me to double-check, but I'm guessing out of 450-some pages, maybe 100 pages of the story takes place in Scotland. Maybe?

Kati: Y'all need to start going over to pick on Rosie. You all think I'm a hard grader? She's WAY tougher. Trust me on this.

Tracy said...

I am SO glad to hear this! I didn't want to have babies with Broken Wing either and have been putting off reading Highland Rebel for that reason. I'm so happy to hear that you liked it!