Pandora's Box

On a Highland Shore

Kathleen Givens
2006, Medieval Romance (1260s Scotland)
Pocket, $14.00, 400 pages, Amazon ASIN 1416509909

Grade: B-
Sensuality: Warm

We are working on a database improvement to accomodate the need for two grades per book, but until then, the two PB columnist's grades will be averaged together. Linda's grade for On a Highland Shore is a straight B; Cheryl Sneed's is a C+

Margaret MacDonald is two weeks away from her wedding day in Kathleen Givens' On A Highland Shore when she finds her betrothed in bed with her best friend.  Heartbroken, she swears she will not marry Lachlan, but he is cousin to King Alexander and her family needs the alliance her marriage will bring.  Her father sends her off on a tour of the clan's crofts and a visit to court to give her time to rethink her decision.

Upon her return, she and the brother and sister traveling with her, find that their entire village and household - hundreds of people - have been brutally raped, tortured and murdered by a Viking raid, and several little boys, including Margaret's brother, taken away. 

While still assessing the damage, Gannon MacMagnus arrives on the scene with his brother and men.  Gannon is half-Irish and half-Norse, but his loyalties are firmly on the Irish/Scots side, as his father and brothers were killed in a Norse raid years before and he was subsequently raised in Ireland by a step-father.  He has been sent to Scotland to consult with Scottish lairds who have been subject to the same Viking raids suffered by those on the Irish coast.  He and his men bury the dead and take the MacDonalds to a neighboring holding where he works with Irish and Scots to find a way to end the raids, and he and Margaret fall in love.  But, she is betrothed to another, both are bound by duty elsewhere, and, with evil and carnage all around them, does love stand a chance?

Linda: This month AAR reviewer Cheryl is joining me to discuss Kathleen Givens On A Highland Shore. Cheryl, I really enjoyed this book - how about you?

Cheryl: I enjoyed it very much for about three-quarters of the way through. I'd mentally given it a solid B until the last 75-100 pages and then it went down to a C+. I feel like I didn't finish the book so much as survive it!

Linda: I was on the edge of my seat flipping pages as fast as I could read during the last 100 pages - what a wild ride. I had never read Givens before and I really enjoyed her writing style. I am not a big fan of Medievals because of how women were treated in those times and I find it hard to root for a couple where the man has all the power. But, Givens overcomes that with the hero, Gannon, who was an alpha in the best form of the word. Margaret is a great match for him and equally strong. Givens' writing style is concise and to the point - no tendency to over-describe orthe use purple prose here. Also, she made me feel very much grounded in Scotland and Scottish history.

Cheryl: I agree, Linda, the book felt very grounded, historically. The date is 1263 and I had thought that by then the Viking raids in Scotland were long a thing of the past and that the Viking presence had been diluted or expelled. So I did some Googling before I even started the book and found that this year was the year the Vikings were finally driven out of the islands of the west coast of Scotland. There's also a very good author note on this.

I'd never read Givens before, and had no preconceived notions about her, but I love the Scottish Medieval period and so looked forward to this book. On a Highland Shore has strong writing, interesting leads, and plenty of action going for it, but I found that parts of it were very hard to read.

Linda: I didn't have that problem and mostly noticed that the action rang true to my memories of history. The history in this book is definitely not of the wallpaper variety.

Cheryl: That's true, and I expected it to be dark - any book about Viking raiders and which contains words like "bloodshed and betrayal" on the back cover blurb will be. But this felt unrelenting. Most of Margaret's family, her entire village - hundreds of people - are wiped out and indeed several villages are attacked and we get to read in great detail about the raped, brutalized, tortured, and bleeding bodies of the family and friends Margaret has to walk through and over - several times. I can name, right off the top of my head, to about a dozen people we get to know by name throughout the book who die graphic and horrible deaths. I'm sure it was accurate, Givens seems the type to get these details right, but it was too much for me. There were so many deaths of people I liked in the last 50 pages alone that I was shell-shocked and just wanted to finish the book and be done with the horror. Not the feeling I'm looking for when I pick up a romance!

Linda, you mentioned that Gannon was an alpha at his best. I liked both Gannon and Margaret and found them both to be admirable characters. He's steady - a good warrior and a good man.

Linda: Yes and his care for his brother and his men is easy to see. I loved the relationships among and between his siblings. I also was appreciative that the hero was named Gannon and not some hard to pronounce name like Margaret's brother Rignon. I just can't picture a hero named Rignon.

Cheryl: LOL! I found myself giving Rignon a French kind of pronunciation myself. But Gannon's brother had an odd name as well - Tiernan.

Linda: I think that sometimes authors should forego historical accuracy to give us names that are not off-putting. Plus there are men's names like Hugh that have been used forever.

Cheryl: Exactly. If I find myself tripping over a name every time I read it, it really starts to annoy me and takes away from the story. I don't know why this is hard for some authors to understand. An annoyed reader is not a happy reader....

Linda: Exactly, if I'm trying to figure out how to pronounce a name like Iphigenia, it pulls me out of the story.

Cheryl: Margaret - a nice, solid name! - is a strong person and a good match for Gannon. She is the eldest of seven children and a natural leader, which causes some conflict with her younger brother who is already wanting all the privileges, and none of the responsibility, of leading the clan. After discovering her betrothed and best friend in bed two weeks before their wedding, she refuses to marry him, which causes major problems as he is the King's cousin and the family needs the alliance. I admired her steadfastness and resolve, but also that she recognized when it was time to capitulate.

Linda: I wasn't sure how historically accurate Margaret's rebellion was, but I cheered during the wedding scene when she stood up to all of the men in her life and denounced her skunk of a betrothed...the loathsome Lachlan.

Cheryl: Though Margaret and Gannon are in love with each other, they each know their duty and the wedding to Lachlan does take place. However, it is immediately followed by this delicious scene you mention which puts everything - including any consummation - on hold while things are sorted out. To say more would ruin the scene for potential readers.

Let's get back to my main problem with the novel - what I consider to be the excessive, and unnecessary, violence in the last 75 - 100 pages. It brought the book down from a B to a C+ for me. How do you grade it?

Linda: My grade is a solid B. There were no draggy spots, the story flowed well, and I really liked the author's style; it kept me involved with the characters and their horrible situation.

It did not hit me as being excessive - seemed fitting for the times and the mythology if not actuality of the Norsemen. Givens stayed witihin bounds for me. Perhaps I accepted it because I was so involved with Gannon and Margaret. Gannon is such a strong hero, not only a warrior, but the perfect match for Margaret. Margaret is a bit of a fish out of water, which is always my favorite type of heroine. She is strong and not afraid to state her objections or intentions which was probably not typical for women of her time.

Cheryl: I agree it was a violent time and Givens is probably accurate in the brutality of the Norse raiders, but the ending, especially, seemed gratuitously violent. For instance, at the very end, just off-handedly tossed in there, we're told that an entire group of people whom we'd met earlier in the book were killed (trying to avoid spoilers here!) The story was already over, and these deaths had no impact any of the action. Was that necessary? I don't think so. And the last raid on a village that had already been hit and where many people died - including people we'd known the entire book and had grown to care for - their deaths were just casually mentioned. As I said, I really felt buffeted by it all and just wanted the book to be over.

Linda: I do agree with you about the group you mentioned, as I read it I thought it need not have been thrown in--we had certainly already seen the Viking's barbarity. The descriptions of the battles and their aftermaths were wrenching, but the violence did not cross the line into too graphic for me. Intense yes, but possibly because I was so caught up in the story it didn't damage my enjoyment of the book. Plus, since it was a romance I knew all would come right in the end.

Just as I have not been a big Medieval reader, I am not a big fan of Viking books so have not read many, but compared to books by Johanna Lindsey ( I hated her Vikings) and Catherine Coulter (Vikings less loathsome), I certainly felt more grounded in Scotland and history. Not too mention that the hero was very likable - I wanted to kill the jerk in Lindsey's Winterfire.

What author's writing did this most remind you of?

Cheryl: I've read even fewer Viking books than you have. Helen Kirkman's series (which I've enjoyed a lot, though they take place in the Dark Ages and the Givens book is a Medieval) is about it, so I can't compare Givens to another author with the same subject matter. But, overall I'd say the violence and remorseless brutality, was on a par with some of J.D. Robb's truly heinous villains. In an historical setting, this could also compare to some of Madeline Hunter's grittier Medievals, although taken to a more intense degree. But I tend not to read very violent books, so don't know who else to compare her to. In terms of setting and historical accuracy, I'd say this could compare to Jo Beverley's Medievals.

What did you think of the paranormal aspect to Gannon and Margaret's relationship? Gannon and Margaret both recognize each other when they meet. Margaret was told by the king's seer as a child that she'd face "dragons" and if she chose the right partner - the "golden man" - they would triumph, otherwise she would die. Gannon fits this description to a T. Gannon has heard voices in his head for years, he has premonitions, memories of the past and the future. They know that they belong together, yet she is betrothed and her family and king say she must marry, and each have their separate duties. I liked this aspect of the relationship. How about you, Linda?

Linda: Actually the whole seer/paranormal aspect was my only problem with the story. I think I have read too many books with paranormal elements lately and I just thought the whole seer thing a bit much. I think that Gannon and Margaret would have been drawn together by their obvious character and strength without the hocus pocus.

Cheryl: I agree that Margaret and Gannon would have been drawn to each other without any additional "hocus pocus" and, while I don't like vampires et al, I do like seers, and destiny, and the feeling of connection that goes beyond the present. There's a great scene where Gannon and Margaret are standing on a hilltop among some ruins and Gannon has a memory of them having done so before. Was it a vision of the future or perhaps that they had been there together in a past life? It's not explicitly stated, but they both feel the "fate" of their being together. I liked that scene.

Linda: I liked that scene too, but think Gannon could have felt the pull of the past without the seer's predicitions. But, the paranormal stuff was not enough off-putting as to make me dislike the book, it just seemed unnecessary. I also found myself anxious for the hero and heroine to meet, which doesn't happen for almost 1/3 of the book. When I read a romance, things don't really begin to click for me until the hero and heroine begin to connect.

Cheryl: Like you, I usually like the h/h to meet earlier rather than later, but Givens did a good job of showing the two of them on their parallel courses to the meeting, and the way they met - practically over her parents' dead bodies - had great impact.

Margaret and Gannon's story was almost bookended with carnage. There's the opening raid which killed most of Margaret's family, and while awful, I thought Givens did a good job of conveying the horror of it and Margaret's reaction to it. The middle is more her and Gannon's story and court intrigue and planning to deal with the raiding. But then, we ended with more and more, and to my mind, over-the-top brutality which ultimately took me out of Margaret and Gannon's story.

Linda: Interesting...I found myself on the edge of my chair waiting for Gannon and Margaret's reunion and the resolution of their story. Yes, there was a lot of carnage and I did wonder why Gannon who was such a great strategist didn't figure out what would happen after their defeat of the Norsman. But, I was so involved in their story that the carnage just seemed to fit in with the tone of the story. Margaret's peril is hard to go into without lots of spoilers, but I really admired her actions and character in a horrible situation.

Cheryl: Why didn't Gannon the strategist figure that out? Because Givens had to separate them and put Margaret in peril, of course! <g> I agree - I saw that coming a mile away, which is what helps fuel my feeling that the ending carnage was unnecessary and could/should have been prevented.

Linda: Gannon's reaction, his grief and his cursing of himself for failing to realize what the Vikings would do was very real. He knew he screwed up and felt the weight of all the losses deeply. But, I admired his ability to recoup and set a new winning plan into motion - his heroism is definitely believable.

Cheryl: Yes, he is a smart, capable - and thinking - warrior, a bit unusual.

Did you have any problem with the ages of the characters? The only age we're given is Margaret's sister Nell, who is 12, and I was a bit uncomfortable with the two potential romances set up for her with two different young men. At one point Nell says her mother was married at her age, and again, I'm sure it was historically accurate, but I live in 2006 and was uncomfortable with it.

There's a sexually active brother between Nell and Margaret, so I'm guessing Margaret was 15-17 yrs old. While I usually like to know the ages of the romantic leads, perhaps it is better that I didn't! At least Margaret usually acted in a mature manner, so I didn't think about her young age too much.

Linda: I think it was stated that Margaret was 17 and one just has to adjust one's perceptions to the reality of the times. In an age where most people didn't see 40, women were married very near to puberty. I'm glad, though, that Nell will be older when she re-meets her hero Liam in the next book.

Cheryl: 17? I'm glad you recall that. I kept an eye out for an age, for I always like to know, but don't recall that, although it feels about right.

We are left at the end of the book with several unanswered questions and the fates of two of Margaret's siblings are unknown. Sequels, I presume, but don't think I'll be reading them, even though I can't imagine successive books being as brutal as this one. But I could be wrong, so it may be best not chance it!

On a Highland Shore has strong writing, interesting leads, and plenty of action, but was so hard to read - especially the ending - I felt I was being constantly buffeted by the brutality, so much so that I wouldn't have finished it were I not reviewing it.

Linda: I for one will definitely be reading Nell and Davey's stories and I liked Givens writing enough to check out her backlist. Thanks for joining me this month, Cheryl. Happy reading.

--Linda Hurst and Cheryl Sneed, for

-- Pandora's Box

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