I will just start with the few elements I actually liked about Veronica Wolff's Sword of the Highlands: the Scots setting, the nicely bad villain (though I did have a problem with his comeuppance), and the escape sequence near the end. However, I had issues with the hero, the heroine, the plot, the romance, the pacing, and the ending.
While Magda Deacon - an art restorer for the Metropolitan Museum in modern Manhattan - cleans a painting of James Graham, the 1st Marquis of Montrose, she falls through the portrait into 1638 and into his bed. James is intrigued by the woman who lands on top of him. He calms her down (she is rather hysterical) and decides to help her with her problems, whatever they are. However, James is busy organizing an army to fight against Charles I because he is turning the Church of Scotland "too popish."
After a round of golf, James and Magda take off for his country estate. Along the way, Magda confides that she is from the future. James takes this with amazing calm and believes her. He has some ideas about how it may have happened, ideas that will have him tracking a traveling monk. But there is no time for him to do so, as he must go off to do battle for his religious beliefs.
The greatest difficulty I had with the hero was his occupation as a religious warrior, a Covenanter. He sees his cause change from religious rights into a land grab by his greedier "allies" over a course of a few battles and becomes disenchanted. So he leaves to make a deal with the king and begins to fight for him. When I read the author's note, I figured out another problem: James Graham was a real person and the novel was based on twelve years of his life story, but the major events are all crammed together, so that the reader goes from one incident to another in rapid succession. A smaller issue, but one that niggled nonetheless, was his annoying habit of calling the heroine "hen," even after she asks him to stop.
Since the story revolves around James, Magda appears less frequently than in a normal romance. Around him she lacks much personality of her own, but when she is kidnapped by the villain, she becomes more resourceful and very nearly interesting, though when she is reunited with James, her inner wimp re-surfaces. Then, when he is in danger, she again becomes active. It is almost as if she has a split personality or maybe a Wonder Woman complex.
In this novel, absence makes the heart grow fonder. The hero and heroine are physically separated for much of the novel - they just do not have enough time together - so when they declared that they are in love, it failed the believability test. It was as if the author shoe-horned the romance into the plot. It was not a good fit.
Some of the story's pacing bothered me. James goes off to visit the king, a journey that will take about a month, at roughly the same time Magda is kidnapped. Her adventures seem to take about at week at most, and yet they are still able to meet up at the same time. The time-travel and warrior plots do not mesh or come to a logical conclusion. The ending totally negated the reason for the heroine being a time-traveler - Magda could have come from the same time period as James and the story would have been the same.
Reading the author's note made it obvious that she fell for James Graham, who appears to have had an interesting life and came to a tragic end. Yet by sticking too closely to real events, Wolff greatly lessened the romantic tension and dramatic moments in the story. The parts that are not based on fact are the best parts of the story. I don't enjoy giving bad reviews, but with so much going wrong in this novel, I can't help it.
-- Carolyn Esau
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