If you are one of the legion of readers like myself who have a life-long fascination with Scotland, you will probably want to add Susan King's The Stone Maiden to your growing shelf of Scottish fiction. The Stone Maiden is a well-researched, competently written story of love and change in the Highlands during the 12th century.
The year is 1170 and Clan Laren has been decimated by its feud with neighboring Clan Nechtan. Alainna MacLaren’s father and brothers have died in the feud, and she is left to lead the Clan. Cormac MacNechtan threatens to end the feud by marrying Alainna, by force if necessary. The only reason he doesn’t force her immediately is because she is still protected by the Stone Maiden.
The Stone Maiden is a 12-foot high pillar across the loch from Kinlochan, Clan Laren’s fortress. Legend says that if a man of Clan Nechtan harms a woman of Clan Laren, he will suffer for it. The legend goes on to say, however, that the fairy spell laid on the Maiden will expire in six months. Once the charm is lifted, Cormac tells Alainna, he will act on his threat.
Alainna’s solution to Cormac’s threat is to travel to Dunfermline, pay homage to King William, and ask him to choose a husband for her. She stipulates that the husband William selects must assume her name so that her children will carry on the clan's surname, MacLaren. However, when she presents her petition, William seizes the opportunity to do what all Norman rulers do…place a Norman knight in a strategic position, with orders to build a stone castle to hold the location.
The knight he chooses is Sebastien le Bret, much to Sebastien’s dismay. When he was sent to Scotland three years earlier, Sebastien left behind a son, now five years old, in Brittany, in the care of the monks who raised Sebastien himself. Left with the monks when he was two years old, Sebastien is a self-made man, intensely proud of the surname…le Bret…which stands for all he has accomplished at age 31. He wants only to return to Brittany, reclaim his son, and reinforce his son's rights to property in Brittany.
Sebastien and a force of 20 knights ride west and north from Dunfermline to claim Kinlochan, and the scene is set for a confrontational romance between the beleaguered Highland heiress and the proud Norman knight, right?
Wrong. Sebastien is exactly the sort of man most of us dream of in a husband…patient, slow to anger, understanding. These are all desirable traits, but they do not make for a fiery romance. Instead, Alainna and Sebastien enter into a gentle, unhurried courtship, enriched by tableaus of Celtic life in the 12th century.
In fact, these tableaus are one of the principal strengths of The Stone Maiden, as Susan King interweaves Celtic myths and folkways into her story and contrasts them with the new ways the Norman knights bring with them. Somehow, however, she didn't convey the grit and fortitude that it must have taken to survive in such a marginal economy. More weight given to the daily difficulties that Clan Laren encountered would have made Alainna's world more believable and might have added intensity to this rather mild story.
To sum up, reading Susan King's The Stone Maiden was an agreeable but generally unexciting experience. Readers who persevere will find the last quarter of the book, when the feud with Clan Nechtan heats up, more engrossing than the earlier episodes. For me, however, the conflict came too late to upgrade my rating from three hearts.
--Nancy J. Silberstein