Hard-Hearted Highlander by Julia London
Set in the years following the terrible Scots defeat at Culloden and the subsequent ravaging of the Highlands by the English, there is a dark and moody undertone to this book, embodied in the hero, Rabbie MacKenzie. Rabbie's fiancee was lost in the ravaging and he is hurt and embittered, frankly suicidal at points during the book. Convinced by his family to accept a betrothal to a young Englishwoman in order to reverse the family's failing fortunes, he runs headlong into the serious problem that he can't stand her.
This was where the book absolutely fell apart, for me. Yes, Aveline was a whining little ninny, but she was also seventeen and being forced into a marriage she wanted no more than Rabbie did. A genteel Englishwoman of that age is probably equivalent to an eleven-year-old girl today in how little she understood the world, how sheltered she was. Aveline was treated with nothing short of cruelty by the entire narrative, most particularly by Rabbie. She was a child doing her best in an untenable situation, and the book went out of its way to basically slap her in the face for it. I did hope that she'd get her happy ending with the man of her dreams but instead there was a horrible reversal that quite unnecessarily devastated her.
Bernadette, the supposed heroine of the book and Aveline's 'friend' behaved absolutely reprehensibly, and so did Rabbie. Rabbie was engaged to another woman and the pair of them cheated. Rabbie made little real effort to end the engagement, dumping all the burden on Bernadette's shoulders when she had no power to do anything about it, and was an utter heel throughout the book.
Having a tragic backstory doesn't absolve you of the responsibility to at least attempt to treat other people decently. Or do I have to channel my inner Jake Peralta here?
Not one person in this entire book treated Aveline with any real decency except for Rabbie's sister Cat, the only person in the book I actually liked. Frankly, for the rest of them I had little emotion left but contempt by the end, and the eventual news of Aveline's marriage was clearly supposed to leave us saying 'yay, at least she didn't end up an old maid'. I did not say yay. Trading one fiancé you don't like for another fiancé you don't like? Not a step upwards.
The book is well written and the language beautifully descriptive. If you like broody asshole Scottish heroes and heroines who are willing to sleep with a man engaged to another woman, you might enjoy it. I'm afraid I really did not. Two stars.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review through NetGalley.