Romance, faith, history and suspense will keep readers turning the pages of CHILD OF THE MIST, this well-paced first installment of Kathleen Morgan's series "These Highland Hills."
It's 1564, and for eight years there has been bitter feuding between the MacGregor and Campbell clans. To bring about the end of the feud, Anne MacGregor must leave her father's castle in Western Perthshire, Scotland to "handfast" with the brooding, dark-haired Niall Campbell, "Wolf of Cruachan," tanist and successor to the chieftainship. Yet, despite their union, Clan MacGregor (nicknamed "Children of the Mist," from which the book gets its title) may be doomed to lose its lands through the treachery of the Campbells.
Barely 18 years old, Anne is already a wonderful healer, skilled with herbs and in midwifery. Her strange gray eyes and remarkable healing abilities spawn uneasy rumors, and some call her the "Witch of Glenstrae." Yet Anne looks only to Jesus for help and assistance, and refuses to let rumors keep her from her divinely appointed work. "I've a God-given gift to help others. Just because my talents lie in paths different from most women, I cannot serve the Lord by hanging back in fear."
A romantic relationship is the last thing on the mind of the handsome Niall, who still mourns the loss of his wife, also named Anne, and their son in childbirth. But he cares deeply for his clan, and an alliance with the MacGregors seems the best way to bring peace to the land.
The ancient custom of "handfasting," a man and woman pledged to each other and living together without marriage, will be new to many readers. Morgan explains that handfasting was socially acceptable at this time in Scotland --- the woman suffered no loss of reputation if it didn't result in marriage. (Handfasting is still practiced today but mostly associated with non-Christian religions.) Anne insists on chastity during the handfasting, which adds sexual tension to the story, as the widowed Niall strives to keep his promise not to take advantage of Anne (which becomes more and more difficult for him as he spends time in her company). While angry at her situation, Anne also finds herself "stirred" by him....
Well, you can guess the rest. The way the romance will end is telegraphed to readers from the moment Anne curses Niall in the early pages and muses, "even the thought of touching him sickened her, vile, vicious beast that he was..." (Isn't it always the man the protagonist hates who she ends up falling desperately in love with?). Although Niall obviously desires her, right up until the end there is the "he loves me, he loves me not" sort of worries by Anne. No surprises here.
The real suspense comes in discovering who else is working behind the scenes to usurp Niall as leader of the clan. Is it Uncle Duncan, with the cold, steely eyes? Is it Hugh, a cousin of Niall's who everyone believes has gone mad after betrayal by his love, Dora (who is burned at the stake)? Or is it Nelly, the voluptuous serving wench who tempts Niall with her seductiveness? Is it handsome and charming Cousin Iain, who falls in love with Anne and may have designs on becoming chief? Or could it be the harsh clergyman, who is zealous in his persecution of witches? Morgan knows how to spin out the suspense right up until the very end.
Although dialect can be tricky and has been the downfall of more than one good novel set in an exotic historic locale, Morgan uses the Scottish brogue with discretion, enriching the story. There are a few unfortunate moments, such as when Niall compares a man taming Anne's strong spirit with a man taming a spirited filly. It's a tired analogy that crops up in too many romance novels. And occasionally readers will find themselves confronted with unusual Scottish words, such as "clarsach," "murrain" and "tanist," some of which can be figured out from their context in the story, while others are a bit more elusive.
However, CHILD OF THE MIST is a smoothly told historical Scottish romance, complete with clan feuds, interesting characters, historical details, and Christian faith versus superstition. It's a promising start to the series.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011