Enchanted by You

 
The MacLean Groom
by Kathleen Harrington
(Avon, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-380-80727-0
****
The MacLean Groom, the first book in Kathleen Harringtonís ďHighland LairdsĒ trilogy, is an entertaining and impressive read. I say impressive because the author accomplishes a number of remarkable feats that go beyond the expected (but not always delivered) task of simply writing a good book. Yes, the plot is complex and clever. Yes, the writing is clean and evocative, the conflict is strong and credible, the characters are well-developed and sympathetic, and the sexual tension is unmistakable. But the best part is -- thereís more.

For instance, Iíve rarely seen a seventeen-year-old heroine thatís both so believable and so likeable. Even in the year 1498, a seventeen-year-old girl is still a girl, bound to be somewhat naÔve and immature. But make her too naÔve and immature, and youíve got a heroine who -- while possibly very realistic -- is usually unbearably irritating. In Lady Joanna Macdonald, the author somehow strikes the perfect balance, creating a young woman who is admittedly idealistic and inexperienced, but is also good-hearted, intelligent, and brave.

True, when faced with the prospect of marrying the laird of a warring clan, Joanna does some rash and foolish things. But somehow, theyíre all understandable and quite forgivable, and itís easy to see that she does these things out of loyalty and strong conviction, not childish petulance. I sympathized with her even while I shook my head at her mistakes.

Maybe Iíd better explain a little about the plot before I get too carried away. The laird Joanna is being forced by the king to marry is Rory McLean. I wonít go into the numerous political and financial motives behind this alliance, or the history of bad blood between the MacLeans and the Macdonalds, but it comes down to this: although Joanna would rather marry pond scum than Rory MacLean, sheís simply got no choice.

Or does she? Her clan is depending on her to save them from an alliance with the hated MacLeans, and theyíre more than willing to help her find a way out --with or without her best interests at heart. So with their help, Joanna devises a ruse to stall the marriage until arrangements can be made for her to secretly marry someone more suitable. The plan? Sheíll disguise herself as a serving boy, and the stupid, savage MacLeans will never be able to recognize her for who she is.

Rory, being very intelligent and only a bit savage -- in a good way, you know -- sees through this ploy almost immediately. Heís none too thrilled about this marriage himself, but heís resigned to it and good-naturedly determined to make the best of it. So, pretending to be fooled, he sets about getting to know the ďserving ladĒ and, at the same time, letting his future wife get to know him.

Rory is another remarkable character. Heís a warrior and an unromantic man (at least, he thinks so), but heís also good and gentle and blessed with a sense of humor. Somehow, the author conveys the sense that he respects Joanna for her courage and intelligence, even while heís one step ahead of her all the time, and sometimes even amused by her attempts to best him. I donít know how it is that he never seems the least bit patronizing or disgustingly fatherly, but he doesnít.

I liked watching these two interact. I liked the way they learned about each other and began to work changes on each other. I believed that they were a good match -- two good people with similar values and temperaments who are both, eventually, wise enough to look beyond their position as adversaries to see each other as people. But the conflict between them is strong enough that even as Joanna begins to care for Rory, she still canít give in to the idea of being his wife. For credible reasons, her loyalty to her clan means more to her than her own happiness. Itís solid, poignant conflict -- almost always the best kind.

And yet -- another impressive feat -- even with this serious conflict, the book isnít somber or dark. At the same time, it isnít light or frivolous. Another perfect balance -- itís filled with humor and fun, emotion and tenderness.

With all of this praise, you may wonder why I didnít assign this book the rare five-heart rating, and Iíll admit I came close. But it just didnít draw on my emotions in that strong, undeniable way my five-heart favorites do.

Nevertheless, itís a great, fun read, and again -- thereís more. The next two books in this trilogy will clearly feature Roryís two half-brothers, who are introduced in this book. I for one am eagerly anticipating their release.

-- Ellen Hestand


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