What do you get when you mix incredible historical detail with a Cinderella-type heroine and a complex, muddled plot? Well, among other things, you get a very frustrated reader! Hidden Heiress is such a mixed bag I hardly know how to describe it. While Amanda Scott has a talent for drawing the reader into the world of sixteenth century Scotland in a very compelling way, both the characters and the plot of this book suffer from some problems.
Elspeth, our Cinderella-like heroine, lives with Sir Hector Farnsworth, his shrew of a wife, and their two nasty daughters, Drusilla and Jelyan. The Earl of Angus, who claims to be her father, has placed her in their care. Naturally, the Farnsworths enjoy the fruits of Elspeth’s menial labor. After all, she must pay for her upkeep somehow! Thus we have the classic situation of the quiet, obedient female being abused and overworked by the evil “stepmother” and “stepsisters.”
Elspeth is ambling along quite nicely in this miserable life of hers when she unexpectedly bumps into Sir Patrick MacRae in the woods. Sir Patrick is in a difficult situation. He serves Finn McKenzie, Lord Kintail, who is also his best friend (Finn’s story was told in the previous book, Abducted Heiress). Since Finn and his wife have been imprisoned by Cardinal David Beaton, who is kind of acting as the “pope” of Scotland, Patrick has been forced by Beaton to spy on the English for him. Thus, when we first meet Patrick, he is hiding out in the woods by Elspeth’s home, Farnsworth Tower. The Earl of Angus has set some men on his trail, and they want to nail him for being a spy.
For reasons which are unclear, Elspeth trusts Patrick immediately. It is hard to understand why she should be so trusting of strangers when the people in her own home treat her so terribly. Perhaps it is because he is “the handsomest man” she has ever seen. Although he is dressed in hunters’ garb and speaks like a commoner, she can tell from his arrogant bearing that he is somehow someone of consequence. Elspeth is so taken with Patrick that she helps him hide by suggesting he apply at Farnsworth Tower to work as the falconer for Sir Hector. Naturally, Patrick is quite skilled in working with birds, and thinks this is a terrific idea. As Elspeth and Patrick begin to see one another on a daily basis, the attraction between the two of them grows. It is a forbidden attraction, and one that lands Elspeth in a heap of trouble before the whole ordeal is over.
There are many factors complicating the relationship between these two characters, not the least of which is that neither are who they appear to be. Patrick, of course, is not a falconer, but a knight. Elspeth’s true identity is not revealed to Patrick and the others until the book is nearly over. However, the reader very quickly learns that Elspeth is indeed the “Hidden Heiress,” because there are some “wee people” who are trying to find her and bring her back to her home and her inheritance.
If this plot sounds confusing, that’s because it is. There is way too much going on in this book, making it difficult to concentrate on the actual romance. Important characters fade in and out, causing a lot of confusion. Some characters, like Nell (Elspeth’s real mother) are interesting and well rounded, while others, such as the evil Drusilla and Jelyan, are stereotypical - just there for show. The wee people have their own cast of characters, and their own little soap opera going on. Unfortunately, this only serves as a further distraction from the romance between Patrick and Elspeth.
Patrick is a likable hero, although he does get quite critical of Elspeth at times. Elspeth is not particularly interesting as a character. She is bland and passive, relying on Patrick and the wee people to rescue her from every situation. It’s hard to believe that these two would ever really fall for one another.
While Hidden Heiress had some exciting moments, the road to a happy ending is long and difficult, and not even very satisfying, due to the lack of any real passion between the characters. This is unfortunate, because this book really had some wonderful historical descriptions. Specifically, the discussion of falconry was fascinating. There is no doubt in my mind that Amanda Scott is quite talented, both as a historian and as a writer. This is a writer that I will most likely give another shot in the future.