Border Hostage by Virginia Henley
(Delacorte, $22.95, R) ISBN 0-385-31826-X
It is perhaps problematic that I have concluded that the best part about Virginia Henley’s latest Scotland-based romance is her depiction of the political turmoil and violence that characterized the “border” between that country and England in the aftermath of the Battle of Flodden (1514). Now, it happens that I am quite interested in the topic; after all, my ancestors were borderers. But I am not sure that the ordinary romance reader will be as taken with the subject.

The plot seems eminently predictable and the characters were all too familiar. We have the half-gypsy hero, offspring of a union between a lovely gypsy girl and Rob Kennedy, Laird of Galloway and one of the richest men in Scotland. Heath has been raised by his gypsy grandmother, from whom he inherited magical powers. His illegitimate birth means he has no property, even though he has the friendship of his sister Valentina and her powerful husband, Ram Douglas.

We have the headstrong heroine, Raven Carleton, who has also inherited magical powers from her grandmother. Raven, with tresses of the same name, has enjoyed unusual freedom compared to most girls of her age. Her doting father has allowed her to go her own way and even to train falcons, a most unladylike activity. Her proper mother insists that it is now time for Raven to settle down and marry. Raven has a most eligible suitor - Christopher Dacre, son of Lord Dacre, Warden of Carlisle Castle.

The two meet after Heath escapes death at the hands of outlaws who mistook him for his brother-in-law. Encountering Raven, Heath steals her horse and her shirt and heads back to Scotland to plot revenge against the men responsible and to get back his horses which they stole.

Heath and Raven meet again in Carlisle where he is looking for his horses. There is the usual spark that flies between the two. If Heath is mightily attracted to Raven, he has other motives as well. He believes that Chris Dacre and his father were responsible for the raid, especially since Chris is riding his stolen stallion. Determined to recover Blackadder and to gain revenge, he and some Douglas men waylay Chris. Since Raven is riding with her proposed betrothed at the time, Heath carries both of them off to Castle Douglas. He releases Dacre when the ransom is paid, but holds onto Raven.

As a reviewer, I have a responsibility to explain my reaction to this book. Why did I not like it? Usually this is pretty easy to do, but I find myself struggling in this case. I could talk about the writing. Most often, I do not notice the writing style when I am reading a book unless it is especially good or especially bad. I must say that as I was reading Border Hostage, I did notice more than a few infelicitous turns of phrase and awkward sentences. Was this perhaps because I was not engaged in the story?

I also felt that the author’s determination to introduce as much sensuality as possible into the story smacked of manipulation. From the rather shocking opening scene to the sensuous dreams that occurred with remarkable frequency and in stunning detail, it seemed that the author was simply aiming for an R rating rather than furthering the story with these episodes.

There were other aspects of the book that I didn’t enjoy. I found the heroine a bundle of contradictions and not especially interesting. I found the hero pretty stereotypical. I found the behavior and attitudes of many of the secondary characters implausible and often unlikable. And I found the reading heavy going; it took me days to finish this book.

I should have liked Border Hostage. It has one of the qualities I prefer in my romances: using real historical situations as a major part of the story. Certainly Henley portrayed the situation along the border in a very accurate fashion. But as for the rest of the book, I fear it didn’t work for me.

--Jean Mason

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