Evil was the first word that came to mind when Anne Garthwicke came upon ominous Castle MacCairn. Duty bound to help her father appraise the holdings, she had no choice but to stay. Her reservations only grew as she worked, surrounded by ancient weapons that included a wicked-looking broadsword bearing an inscription she couldn’t begin to decipher. And her trepidation deepened still more after meeting the laird. Proud and powerful, he embodied all the wildness of the Scottish highlands and incited dreams of carnal passion such as Anne had never experienced. But his temper was as mercurial as the sea. Achingly tender one moment and roughly forceful the next, Ruairdh MacCairn had a beast within straining to break loose. And according to legend, it was only a matter of time before the monster would escape. Anne already knew her heart was lost, but she could only hope that when the moment of fate arrived, her body wouldn’t be sacrificed as well.
My impression of this tale – pretty average. From start to finish, there was no sudden brilliance that caused my heart to skip a beat, nor did the gothic mood and atmosphere (so central to a tale such as this) grip my imagination.
Ruairdh, the laird of the MacCairn clan, is one tormented dude indeed. For five hundred years, each male in his family had turned mad by his fortieth birthday. It is due to a curse, you see, placed on his family by a vengeful witch. Ruairdh is determined that the curse will end with him. As he feels the madness presses ever closer, he makes preparation to meet his fate.
Enters Anne and her scholar father, whom Ruairdh hires to authenticate and catalog his ancestral home and all its assets. Anne, long-suffering, loyal and logical, is the assistant and companion to her father. As his eyesight has deteriorated steadily over the years, she takes over his work while he claims all the credit. The longer she stays at the castle, the more she is drawn to Ruairdh, both during her waking hours, as well as in her sleep, for they share the same erotic dreams. She also sees the malevolent specter that roams the castle, as it moves in to claim its prize – the last of the MacCairn … Ruairdh. Anne, who has by now given her heart and body to Ruairdh, will not lose him without a fight. Oh no. She will fight the specter and even sacrifice her own neck before letting Ruairdh go.
The writing is readable but not entirely evocative. The dark, tense and broody gothic mood and atmosphere aren’t nearly strong enough to last till the end, hence, the story feels part-gothic, part-mainstream historical. The pacing is uneven – it feels as if the story unfolds in a leisurely manner for two-thirds of the book, but the ending/resolution is stuffed into the last two chapters.
The portrayal of the lead characters is also uneven. Ruairdh alternates between tormented - moody, and charming - sexy. Anne is a generally smart girl who is guarded and correct. As the story moves along, she becomes feisty and uninhibited. They, surprisingly, turn out to be quite a well-matched couple.
The one incident that made me roll my eyes is when Anne runs head-long in the middle of the night to the forbidden east tower – all because she thinks her father may have gone there. Now why didn’t she check his bedroom first, before haring off in such a hare-brained manner? She is supposed to be smart and logical, for heaven’s sake! (And why do authors persist in making our clever heroines do ridiculous things like that, I’d like to know?)
All in all, this tale is neither great nor atrocious. Yeah, it is just average.