Book: How to Blackmail a Highlander by Michelle McLean

Reviewer: Bethany

Age/Genre: Romantic Suspense, Highland Period Romance

Reading Accoutrements: A warm blanket and a cup of tea…or a hot toddy 😉

Content Notes: Spousal Abuse/murder, views of women as heir incubators

After the last book that I read – a contemporary military romantic suspense – I wanted a change of pace. I still wanted to read a romance novel; my boyfriend and I have an anniversary approaching and romance is in the air. So, I chose a period romance set in England and the Scottish Highlands.

How to Blackmail a Highlander follows Lady Alice Chivers, the daughter of an English earl. Alice was told at some point before the events of this book that she was betrothed to Reginald Nash, the eighth Earl of Woolsmere, an old man with a reputation for going through wives like handkerchiefs. Alice considers herself a practical girl with few romantic notions and has even told friends that she would be lucky to marry an old, titled gentleman who would leave her a wealthy widow. However, Woolsmere gives her the creeps and frequently insinuates – when no one else is around to overhear – that she will end up like the rest of his wives if she doesn’t produce an heir. Desperate to escape the clutches of such a villain, Alice devises a plan to run away. The only problem? Her plan hinges on the cooperation of one very stubborn Highlander.

Philip MacGregor was once a member of a band of highwaymen who stole from the criminal elite in order to return items to their rightful owners. When the leader of their band, John MacGregor, and his wife, Elizabet, were banished by the king and went into hiding, Philip became his eyes and ears…and occasional messenger. Philip was sent to deliver a message to Elizabet’s best friend (Alice), letting the English girl know that her friend was safe and happy. It was supposed to be simple: deliver the letter, wait for a response, deliver the response to Elizabet. He didn’t count on Lady Alice Chivers trying to run away, using him as her personal escape hatch. 

Philip resolves to get rid of Alice as soon as possible. He just doesn’t count on how stubborn and resourceful the girl can be. The two butt heads all the way across the country in a battle of wills that can only end one way in romance-novel-land: True Love.

Okay, enough about the plot! I have things to say, starting with my thoughts on two stubborn-as-sin main characters being ridiculous through an entire book. I understand that McLean wanted her protagonists to have characteristics that made them unique while driving the plot (as most authors do). But I have a couple of complaints:

  1. A stubborn Highlander? How original. (Did you get the sarcasm there? Because a stubborn Highlander isn’t unique. There is a stubborn Highlander in every period romance that includes Highlanders as characters. Ugh!) It usually doesn’t bother me as much because the “stubborn Highlander” can have redeeming qualities or is only stubborn about one thing.
  2. Even the most stubborn of stubborn people are not stubborn ALL THE TIME. Sometimes, they don’t have an opinion on an issue. Sometimes, they recognize the value of another person’s idea. I know McLean wanted to demonstrate the character trait to the reader, but when the character trait is behind every single action taken and word spoken, it’s not a trait anymore. It’s a cliche. An annoying one. Subtlety would have been appreciated.
  3. Characters can and should have more than one personality trait that determines how they will react to a particular situation. These characters had other personality traits, but their stubbornness was the only trait that dictated their actions.

The vast majority of this book is spent with the two protagonists at odds for one reason or another. Alice seems to enjoy the arguments she has with Philip – probably because their spats provide a challenge, as Philip actually acknowledges her intelligence and argues her points instead of brushing her off with a comment about her pretty little head. It takes Philip to the end of the book to realize that he enjoys the challenge of arguing with Alice. He spends a lot of time thinking that he wants someone biddable who he can take care of, but eventually Philip realizes he would be bored forever without Alice to argue with.

This book also made me realize that I have a bone to pick with the entire period romance genre. How is it possible that the male protagonists of these stories realize that the young women experiencing London seasons have very little power in their society – to make decisions about significant others, behaviors, or appearance – yet they still get angry at them when those same young women are forced into a dangerous circumstance? Philip’s internal dialogue basically spells out that he recognizes Alice’s situation is precarious and potentially dangerous…and then he gets angry when she tries to take control of her own safety and extricate herself. Grr!

Granted, in most of these romances, the male protagonist ends up helping her get what she wants. I’m just always irritated by the inevitable mental rant I have to read about how, “she should listen to her father,” and “accept that women of her station don’t marry for love.” (Because, obviously, any girl who grew up so frivolously can only be upset by a senseless cause like love.) Or, “she should be grateful that she will get to live in such luxury, blah, blah, blah,” and then he makes a comment about how shallow she is. Can I please have a male protagonist in a period romance who doesn’t think the women around him should just be grateful to be bought and sold because they aren’t poor? That would be less annoying.

Perhaps part of the reason I was so irritated was that I came into this book unaware that it was number three in a series (that I haven’t read), so it took me a minute to catch up with the various characters and learn the circumstances of Alice’s social life. It didn’t take me too long, as McLean did a good job of recapping necessary plot points from previous books without too many spoilers. The novel is easily read as a standalone, although I am interested in reading the rest of the series someday.

If you’re a fan of headstrong characters…I mean, really headstrong…and a good period romance with a gorgeous Highlander or three, you might be interested in How to Blackmail a Highlander.

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