One of the problems a romance writer needs to solve is, How do you keep 'em reading after your lovers have declared - and probably consummated - their love? Georgette Heyer's lovers never kiss until the last chapter, so the question never arises. Romantic suspense writers depend on their mystery to keep their readers reading. Other writers use the lovers' own uncertainty about their relationship to sustain the reader's interest… which frequently, but not always, results in the dreaded Big Misunderstanding. In The Highlander's Touch, Karen Marie Moning fails to find her solution. As a result, I found the first two-thirds of the story charming, the last third ho-hum.
Since her father's death, 23-year-old Lisa Stone has been the sole support of her dying mother. This has meant foregoing college to work two menial jobs, with all her earnings going to pay her mother's medical expenses, including a day nurse to care for her while Lisa waitresses. Lisa's only solace is her night job, cleaning a museum. At least while she works at the museum, she can both appreciate and learn from the displays.
On this night, when she is cleaning the office of the museum's Director, Lisa sits down for a moment in the Director's chair and, exhausted from her daily routine, falls asleep. She is awakened shortly after 5:00 a.m. by the approach of the Director and a colleague, eager to look at a new artifact that Steinmann has just purchased for the museum. Lisa knows that if she is discovered, she will be fired, so she hides in the kneehole of the desk.
The two men open a small chest that Lisa had noticed earlier, sitting on Steinmann's desk. They examine the flask within without touching it, but Lisa is not so careful. Eaten up with curiosity, as soon as they leave, she crawls out from the kneehole and picks up the flask. Immediately she falls through time, ending up in Castle Dunnottar in 1314, face to face with a nude giant of a man.
Lisa's first reaction is to believe that she is asleep again and dreaming, but in fact she is facing Circenn Brodie. The laird of Brodie is a man with unusual responsibilities and unusual powers. Among his responsibilities is his obligation to provide a refuge for a few knights Templar who have survived Philip of France's brutal destruction of the Order.
Moning handles the subsequent confrontation between Lisa and Circenn with a light, humorous touch. Circenn has sworn that he will kill whoever returns with the flask so that its fairy powers are not revealed. However, he assumed that the finder would be a man, not a lovely woman wearing such tight blue trousers; i.e., jeans. For her part, Lisa's reaction is to believe she has fallen asleep again and is dreaming. If so, how come she bleeds when the 6' 7" hunk's sword pricks her neck? After all, she thought that dreams were "penalty-free zones."
Moning maintains her lighthearted tone through Lisa's adaptation to the 14th century and through most of Lisa and Cin's courtship. Lisa finds herself falling in love not only with Cin but also with a lovely, unspoiled Scotland. Nevertheless, she has a compelling reason to return to her own time…her dying mother…and she believes she has the means to do so if she can only find the flask that caused her problem in the first place. Her skirmishes with Cin as she tries to outwit him and find his hiding place lend an entertaining dimension to their courtship.
The problems with The Highlander's Touch begin once Lisa realizes there is no easy way home…probably no way home at all…and has to confront her grief over not only her mother's death but her father's earlier death. I understood that Moning needed to treat Lisa's grief seriously, but I found Cin's advice to her inappropriately post-Freudian: "Feelings, emotions - they are neither right nor wrong. They cannot be assigned a value. Feelings are. By labeling a feeling wrong, you force yourself to ignore that feeling." And so on, at some length. The result, at least for me, was that Cin's attraction quotient fell sharply, never to recover.
Even so, had the author been able to reestablish the tone of the first two-thirds of the book, I might have overlooked her slip into psychobabble. Unfortunately, the magical solutions that resolve Lisa's and Cin's problems were so improbable, so unlikely, that I rapidly lost interest in their ultimate resolution. Nothing in Moning's earlier world building had prepared me for such drastic magical effects.
I can recommend the first two-thirds of The Highlander's Touch as an entertaining story with a charming and likeable pair of lovers. A flit through the remaining 140 pages should be enough to let the reader know how the story winds up without spending too much time on the improbable events.
--Nancy J. Silberstein