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+