Iona by Melanie Jackson
(Leisure, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-8439-4614-8
Lona MacLean is the leader of the small group of the MacLean clan on Iona, the burial island of the old kings of Scotland. The island is remote and desolate, the population impoverished and decimated by war. Lona feels responsible for protecting the few remaining members.

Following the death of her husband at the Battle of Culloden, Lona had been forced to marry Donnell MacKay, a thoroughly nasty, vicious man, because he stood in favor with the English. Donnell suspected that Lonaís brother had hidden Bonnie Prince Charlieís treasure on Iona prior to his death, and he has been greedily searching for it. Fearful that Donnellís discovery will bring down the Sassanachís wrath on her people, Lona is prepared to murder her husband, but in the end is instrumental in his accidental death.

Niall MacKay, Donnellís cousin, a sometime Dutch spy, comes to Iona to seek out the treasure. He is stunned to find that the woman he believed to be an ugly, shrewish crone is in fact young and beautiful. Lona is equally impressed with Niallís attractive appearance and congenial manner. While she had denied knowing anything about a treasure to Donnell, within a day sheís telling all to his cousin Niall.

Niall now has the task of getting the people of Iona and the treasure off the island before the English or the MacDonalds overrun it.

Iona is an under-plotted historical romance with huge gaps in logic, ponderous pacing, florid language, a huge chunk of canny Scots sayings (including a quote from a Robert Burns poem more than a decade before the poet was born), and maybe some ghosts but maybe not.

A significant part of the book is devoted to setting: the rocky landscape, the rough sea, the weather (usually raining), the howling winds (or are those the ghosts?). Much of the all-too-plentiful overwrought language in the book describes the setting.

If Niall had been a more imaginative man, he would have said that the damnable, persistent breeze that carried the clinging fog after them into the shale cave sounded like the bones of the restless dead rubbing together, or perhaps earth-bound spirits whispering their Pictish chatter with smashed jaws from under their heavy cairns where they twined and twisted in uneasy rest.

While the author is successful in creating a somber atmosphere, the focus on setting interferes with the momentum of the story.

On the other hand, thereís not much of a story to interfere with. Thereís lots of highland quaintness going on but not much happens for pages and pages. Thereís a possibility the grumpy Cook may be trying to poison Niall. Who is the mysterious Callum? Niall and Lona both fantasize about bedding the other, but they donít do anything about it. Niall has an unconventional past that is gradually revealed, but adds virtually nothing to the story. And why does Lona despise Donnell but instantly trusts his cousin?

Little attention is given to character development. Niallís got a nice smile. Lonaís dedicated to her peopleís welfare. Thereís no sense that these two people are meant for each other unless being the only two good-looking individuals on a remote island qualifies.

On a personal note, one detail that I found to be a major annoyance is that in print Iona and Lona look so similar. Did the heroine have rocky cliffs? Did the island say something? Is it worth rereading to find out? Why didnít an editor recommend a name change?

I know a romance is proving unsatisfactory when I start practicing my math skills by mentally calculating how far into the book Iíve read. It was not a good sign that my first result in Iona was shy of a quarter of the way.

--Lesley Dunlap

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