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McClairen's Isle:
The Passionate One

by Connie Brockway
(Dell, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-440-22629-5
Connie Brockway's books have given me many hours of pleasure and so it was with great anticipation that I picked up her June release. When I finished this first installment in her planned series about the Merricks of McClairen's Isle, I found myself strangely puzzled. Many of the hallmarks of a Brockway story were present: a tortured hero, a brave and attractive heroine, a plot full of danger and intrigue. And yet, I felt there was something lacking, something that keeps me from recommending this book. Perhaps as I try to reconstruct the story and my reactions to it, I will be clearer about what went wrong.

The prologue introduces what must be one of the nastiest villains I have come across in a long time. Robert Merrick, the dissolute and amoral son of a Sussex earl, arrives at the McClairen stronghold in the Highlands sometime before the '45 and woos and wins the laird's niece, Janet. But greed and ambition lead Merrick to betray his wife's family to the English in the wake of the revolt. His reward: McClairen's Isle and his reinstatement into "respectable" society. When his wife voices her growing suspicions about his role in her family's demise (and when she seems to be a threat to his social aspirations), he murders her. She leaves him with two sons Ashton and Raine, whom he dislikes, and an infant daughter, Fia.

Some fifteen years later, Ashton Merrick is dancing to his father's tune. He and his brother Raine were captured by the McLairens and turned over to the French. Robert, now Earl of Carr, had ransomed his eldest son but left Raine to rot in a French prison. Ashton does his father's business so that he can amass the funds to free his brother. Carr orders Ashton to leave his London haunts (where he has become infamous as one of the wicked Merricks) and to hie himself to the north of England where he is to find one Rhiannon Russell, his father's ward. He is to escort Rhiannon to the Carr mansion on McLairen's Isle, Wanton's Blush.

Rhiannon Russell has lived for fifteen of her twenty-two years with the Fraziers, after her family was destroyed in Cumberland's rampages after Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion. A lovely and spirited young woman, she is engaged to marry Philip Watt, the son of a Frazier neighbor. She is startled when Ashton Merrick arrives, claiming to be her guardian's son. She has only a vague memory of any guardian, and this of being turned away when she sought shelter with him many years ago.

Ashton had thought that his father planned to marry Rhiannon. (Carr had married twice since Janet's death and in both cases, the wealthy wife had died mysteriously.) Ash is actually delighted that his father's supposed plans are to be thwarted so he decides to stay around for the wedding. His sophisticated ways attract the innocent Rhiannon who is marrying not for love but for security.

Rhiannon's guileless charm works on Ash as well. He feels strangely protective of her, especially when it appears that there have been two attempts on her life. And when the dissolution of the restraints of society on Beltrane Eve bring the two together, neither can resist the attraction.

And then, there is another attempt on Rhiannon's life, so Ash kidnaps her and takes her to Wanton's Blush, and then, he becomes even more suspicious of his father's motives, and then. . .

I think I've got it! Now, no one enjoys a complicated plot more than I do. I like my stores richly detailed and fully developed. But there can be too much of a good thing. I have a feeling that, in the interest of setting up her trilogy, Brockway found herself with too much material and too little space. And so, as I was reading The Passionate One, I found myself both overwhelmed with backstory and yet underwhelmed with character development.

In particular, Ash's character, actions and motivations remain murky. I know that his prime motive is to rescue his brother. I know that he spent time in a French jail, I know that he has a reputation for wildness, I know that he has a pretty low opinion of himself, but I know strangely little about how he became the man he is. Thus his behavior toward Rhiannon, alternately kind and cruel, makes little sense.

Rhiannon is a more fully developed character. She is the traditional innocent heroine with a deeply passionate nature and a core of steel. Her fascination with the worldly Ash is completely comprehensible and her behavior is always in character.

There are some incongruities in the plot that detracted from my enjoyment. For example, I was never quite clear how Carr came to be Rhiannon's guardian, especially since she is supposedly a relative of Carr's second wife and yet, when the '45 occurred and she was orphaned, his first wife was still alive. Also, I did find the mention of Carr's possible holdings in Australia a bit puzzling since Captain Cook had not yet discovered that continent.

I applaud Brockway's desire to undertake a series of related books since I am very fond of this particular format. However, the problems with McLairen's Isle: The Passionate One suggest to me just how difficult a project a trilogy can be. Will I read the next two books? Yes, I think I will. I am certainly interested in discovering Raine's and Fia's fates. And I shall hope that, having set up the background, Brockway will be better able to concentrate on the characters and relationships.

Still, the problems I had with The Passionate One prevent me from recommending it unconditionally.

--Jean Mason

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