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The Last Highlander by Claire Cross
(Jove Time Passages, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-515-12337-4
***
While reading The Last Highlander, for some reason I kept being reminded of a ridiculous old Saturday Night Live skit featuring a tartan-clad Mike Myers as a Scottish shopkeeper. "Welcome to all things Scottish," he says. "Our slogan is 'If it's 'no Scottish, it's crrrrap!'" What, you may ask does this goofball TV skit have to do with a time travel romance? Well it's that "all things Scottish" angle.

Romance readers have always been highly supportive of "all things Scottish." The laird and the bonny wee lass is one of the tried and true subsets of the genre. Fans of Scottish/Highland romances knew about the country's magnificent history and fascinating clan culture long before the rest of world ever saw "Braveheart". And it is this same knowledge that ultimately causes The Last Highlander to ring false. It reads all too clearly as author Claire Cross's Scottish research trip a travelogue of modern Scotland complete with where to eat in Edinburgh and where to sleep on the Isle of Skye. This is the Scotland of the tourist brochure, a view from the Caledonian chamber of commerce. Readers are not so much transported to the mist covered mountains as they are handed a rent-a-car.

At the same time, the author's depictions are more "Local Hero" than "Trainspotting" a rose and thistle bordered picture of a "cute" country. So The Last Highlander is disappointing, despite some clean writing and a few fascinating passages of Scottish folklore.

It is 1314, and Alasdair MacAuley has just secured Edinburgh Castle for Robert the Bruce when an old crone appears and taunts him into taking a dare. She claims the castle is the lair of Morgaine le Fee of Camelot lore. Alasdair accepts the dare and tumbles down a flight of stairs. When he awakens he is at the foot of Morgan Lafayette, an American illustrator of children's books visiting Scotland with her sister and brother-in-law.

There's vague mention of the wizardly aunt who raised the Lafayette sisters from childhood. This is meant to explain why, without knowing a thing about the tall, blonde guy in the kilt, Morgan's sister proclaims him "perfect" for her sister. Morgan, meanwhile, has discovered the large crystal that Alasdair used to travel through time. She recognizes it as being part of the Scottish regalia. But when she tries to return the stone, no one recognizes it. Alastair's trip through time has changed history. In the blink of an eye Robert the Bruce goes from hero to scoundrel, the Scots are wiped out at Bannockburn, and the British flag flies over Edinburgh castle. Cynical Morgan thinks Alasdair has somehow "arranged" all of this in order to cover his thievery.

For his part, Alasdair thinks Morgan is the mystical sorceress of Camelot and that he has crossed over into the realm of Faerie. He sees the modern world though wide eyes, but accepts it all rather easily, viewing it as enchantment. If you're looking for any of the classic "fish out of water" scenes requisite to time travels, you won't find them. Alasdair has no trouble coping. He doesn't wrestle with modern plumbing or find himself bound in 20th century clothing. In fact, no one notices that this guy who hasn't a shilling to his name spends the entire book moping around in a 700 year-old kilt. You'd think someone would comment.

Instead, we get tiresome pages of nice guy Alasdair trying to break through the defenses of the skeptical Morgan, a woman so hurt by love that she hasn't looked at another man for ten years. Alasdair knows instinctively that his only chance to return home is through Morgan. Yet her reaction to the Scot runs so hot and cold that the reader is left feeling sorry for this homeless lug who has no choice but to follow around a woman who is too fearful of committing to anything.

In the end it's Alasdair's simple faith and a handful of faerie stories that cause Morgan to lose her heart. As an illustrator in search of a subject, Morgan is enchanted by the tales of Tam Lin and Thomas Ryhmer and their adventures with the wee ones. Indeed, author Claire Cross retells these stories so well that they were far more compelling than story in which they were set. And it is only when Morgan gives herself up to the power and beauty of these stories that the reader gets a glimpse of the woman that lurks behind the armor the fey creature who may or may not be descended or reborn of her famous namesake. This is the Morgan who could bewitch a man across time. This is the Morgan that would have anchored The Last Highlander and given it the spark it lacked.

--Ann McGuire


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