As one of those Scottish people Outlander keeps going on about, my tolerance for cultural portrayals of my home country by non-Scots is shockingly low. This is mostly my own fault and partly thanks to many hours of lectures on Scottish ethnology featuring viewings of Brigadoon, but it does make reading certain strains of romance difficult. It takes one hell of an author to not only help me overcome that self-inflicted block and pick up a Highlander romance, but to make me enjoy it too.
And, shock horror, I really liked Tessa Dare’s latest.
Madeline Gracechurch’s social anxiety has left her barely able to walk through a busy crowd, let alone able to cope with her upcoming debut on the London scene. In a moment of panic, she tells her family she already has a sweetheart, and begins writing letters to her imaginary love, Captain Logan MacKenzie. The good captain is everything a woman could ask for: handsome, honourable, utterly dedicated to Madeline, and perfect in a kilt. It barely matters that he’s not real. After he has served his purpose, Madeline graciously kills him off in the throes of battle and enjoys her solitude in her Ross-Shire castle, free of societal restraints. That is, until the real Captain MacKenzie comes a-knocking, with possession of her letters, and a demand for her hand in marriage.
When A Scot Ties The Knot falls into a few of the genre’s trappings that usually have me running for the heathery hills, but Dare is savvy enough to know when to pull back and acknowledge the silliness of the tropes, even as she gladly indulges in their inherent appeal. One scene involving Logan and his men discussing exaggerating their images as rugged Highland men to appeal to English women epitomises the story – Madeline has created a fake fiancé based on common clichés and favoured female fantasies but Logan knows those clichés exist for a reason. However, I do wish that Dare, and other non-Scottish authors writing the Scottish dialect, wouldn’t write down every inflection of the Scottish accent. On the page it reads clumsily and almost like a parody of how we talk. This is disappointing given how self-aware the rest of the book is regarding the romanticising of the Highlander image.
Like Dare’s first book in the series, Romancing the Duke (the series is a trilogy of unconnected stories bound by a common theme of women residing in castles), her latest effort is a fluffier affair than generally expected from historical romances of this period. There are moments of real pathos (one subplot involving a shell-shocked soldier elicited a few misty eyed moments) but overall it’s a far easier going read with less focus on drama in favour of the burgeoning relationship. It helps that our romantic pair are deftly developed and the decisions they make are in keeping with the story’s internal logic, even as it gets a little soap opera.
Dare’s genre savvy is what truly makes When A Scot Ties The Knot a worthwhile read for any historical romance fan, even those weary of the Highlander setting such as myself. This is a book that simultaneously manages to lovingly prod the genre’s expectations while wholeheartedly embracing them.