The Wild Rose of Kilgannon

On a Highland Shore
by Kathleen Givens
(Pocket, $14.00, PG-13) ISBN 978-1-4165-0990-5
With On a Highland Shore, Kathleen Givens begins a new series about three siblings and their adventures in thirteenth century Scotland. It is a prequel of sorts to her Kilgannon novels, set five hundred years later. The latter derive their names from the church built by the main characters of this one.

When Margaret MacDonald discovers her betrothed in bed with her friend, she demands the end to their long-standing engagement. Since Lachlan is cousin to Alexander III of Scotland, only the King can make such a decision. Margaret's request isn't even considered. Her presence at court nevertheless saves her life, even if it doesn't spare her yet another tragedy.

For, while she is away with her older brother and younger sister, Norse seamen attack her home, abduct one brother and kill her remaining family and friends. Determined to track down her missing relative, Margaret enlists the help of Gannon MacMagnus, a half-Irish, half-Norse warrior who is an ally of the Scots. They are attracted to each other, but have to contend against further attacks as well as her court-sanctioned marriage, before they can find happiness together.

Margaret and Gannon are endearing and captivating, and their story is engrossing. Nevertheless, On a Highland Shore reads more like a chronicle of social strife with a romance woven through than like a love story set against the background of historical feuds. The two don't meet until a third into the novel. Though well matched, they could have managed just as well on their own.

To understand the complicated political networks and alliances that threaten the uneasy peace between the Scots and the Norse requires some knowledge of the period. Givens adroitly weaves information into her narrative without droning endlessly. A note appended to the book provides further details.

Given this eye for accuracy, Margaret's determination not to marry her betrothed might come off as fanciful and anachronistic. Yet Givens does an admirable job making it historically credible. For one, women did have the right to choose (although less so, as someone points out, in Norman-influenced territory). For another, in the eyes of other characters, Margaret's behavior appears foolish, na´ve and even threatening. Her successive failures highlight the constraints placed on men and women as well as the resignation that must have prevailed.

Givens is a talented writer, and her storytelling skills breathe life and passion into long forgotten events. The narrative flows easily, pulling the reader along with it. But a couple of things jarred. I eventually got used to the Scottish-sounding dialect the characters speak, but it did irritate me. If this is a bid for authenticity, it isn't completely convincing: modern Scots must be as different from that spoken in the thirteenth century as today's English is from its medieval counterpart. Similarly, paranormal elements, such as Gannon's psychic sense and Margaret's prophetic seer, were not only unnecessary but also distracting and confusing in a novel with realistic overtones. Lastly, the final action sequence is excessive and even inconsistent with what goes before.

The PG-13 rating is more for violence than sexuality. The novel is rarely graphic (I can think of several Disney films which are more gruesome), but it doesn't deny the brutality of the Norsemen's raids. No one is spared, not even readers' favorites. If you have a hard time seeing horrible things happen to likeable characters, give this one a miss. On the other hand, if you prefer rich story lines, textured narratives, stirring romance and grounded explorations of the complexities of the past, On a Highland Shore may be just up your alley.

--Mary Benn

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