Any book whose hero is named John Stewart, Earl of Athol, will catch my attention, particularly if he is tall, bonny, and red-haired. The trick, I found, as I read May McGoldrick's The Dreamer" is to turn attention into interest. Despite promising elements, The Dreamer never did quite make that transition for me.
John Stewart, age 37 and cousin to James V of Scotland, holds nearly all of the eastern Highlands from Elgin to Huntly, but his overlordship has been far from peaceful lately. An outlaw named Adam of the Glen is raiding his crofters, burning homes and barns and running off livestock.
John is determined to solve his problem by capturing Adam, but John's ailing mother has another solution. Marry and produce an heir, she tells him, and Adam will give up and go away. "Adam believes he has the right to live off your land…Adam of the Glen is your brother." Or bastard half-brother, to be more exact.
In fact, John has already made arrangements to marry his mistress, and Ellen Crawford is traveling north from Stirling to join him at that very moment. Traveling with his betrothed is Catherine Percy, at 25 the oldest of three sisters. After Catherine's father died in the Tower of London, imprisoned for refusing to sign Henry VIII's Oath of Supremacy, her mother sent her three daughters north from Yorkshire to separate hiding places in Scotland. Catherine hopes for sanctuary in Elgin and for the earl's permission to establish a school there.
On the last night of their journey, John Stewart joins Catherine's little party late at night, planning on an intimate reunion with his mistress. Instead, in the sort of mistake that is a staple of romance, he finds himself in bed with Catherine. Before he discovers his error, he has compromised her severely enough to feel obliged to marry her.
At this point in the story, McGoldrick has set up a romance…John and Catherine's marriage of convenience…and a sub-plot involving the earl's half brother and his reasons for harassing the John's tenants. Both romance and sub-plot are set within a larger framework designed to unite a trilogy, one book for each of the three Percy sisters. Unfortunately, the framing plot is the weakest of the three.
The Percys are guardians of the Treasure of Tiberius. When Henry seized Edmund Percy, his wife and daughters had to go into hiding. Nevertheless, Percy's wife, Nicola Erskine -- the off-stage puppet master of this drama -- was able to make elaborate arrangements to keep the Treasure safe. Henry's Deputy Lieutenant in Yorkshire, Arthur Courtenay, is in hot pursuit, determined to track down the Treasure and keep it for himself.
Sir Arthur swallows the trail of false clues Nicola Erskine laid down, hook, line, and sinker. Instead of beginning his search for her daughters immediately, he allows himself to be diverted by a map discovered in such an obvious way that its authenticity must be questionable. Although Sir Arthur gnashes his teeth and swears dire oaths, his bone-headed decisions detract from his villain status and undermine the believability...and interest…of this story line.
The romance between John and Catherine was somewhat more entertaining. I enjoyed John's bursts of temper…I like a man who cares enough to get angry…but Catherine's attitude toward establishing a school at Elgin Cathedral struck me as somewhat anachronistic. Had her ambitions gone no further than establishing a school, I might have found her efforts believable. Instead, Catherine's determination to make a career of teaching in her school struck me as entirely too modern and detracted from the authenticity of her character.
The sub-plot involving the earl and his half-brother, Adam, was the most interesting of the three story lines. It was also the most to be affected by the unsatisfactory ending of The Dreamer. McGoldrick winds up 320 pages of narrative and sets the stage for the next two books in the last 50 pages, with the result that the brothers' conflict is brought to a rapid and unsatisfying resolution. Sir Arthur Courtenay's pursuit of Catherine concludes just as quickly and unconvincingly.
Overall, Dreamer had too many flaws for me to recommend it, although die-hard devotees of the Scottish novel may find the accuracy of the historical events a redeeming factor.
--Nancy J. Silberstein