KMM’s Highlander series

Doctor’s office reading it isn’t

I finished the last Highlander book available to me not long ago, Spell of the Highlander (which seems to be the last of Karen Marie Moning’s “Highlander”

book, so far).  These were really fun books (though I do wonder if I would have blushed quite so much during the “Worst Cooks” episode involving stuffing one’s own sausage if I hadn’t been reading them) (I’m sorry, that whole part of the episode was just brim-full of double-entendre, visual and verbal) … but. 

On the whole, I can’t read romance novels.  They give me hives.  They get thrown against walls.  I am judging the whole class of books based on the few I’ve dipped into or actually ploughed through, but I think I’m safe to do so… I wrote a letter to, I think, Dorothy Garlock after I was stranded at work one day without a book and someone – very kindly, if misguidedly – loaned me a Garlock historical romance.  It was one of the most painfully moronic things I’ve ever cracked open.  Put it this way: if it hadn’t been a loaner I might have lit it on fire in the parking lot, is how bad it was.  There are exceptions, of course, where the writing and characterization surmounts the genre; I’m usually led into them by the author’s other-genre or fuzzy-genre work, like with Rosemary Edghill (eluki bes shahar) and Shana Abé who was shelved in SF&F, and – well, I flat out can’t count Diana Gabaldon as a romance writer.  And, now and then, the bookstore or library sale or simply the cover art slips one by me in the guise of a fantasy – and that’s how I came to read KMM.  And I was embarrassed, but … I like it. 

Now, the “Highlander” novels are very formulaic.  Every heroine is everything I understand a Mary Sue to be: basically, a stand-in for either the author or, in these cases, the average reader.  It’s always the same: Tiny little five-foot-and-not-much-more blonde – why are they always blonde up until Jessi?  And why are they ALL so tiny when the men are all so

cover = *gag*

very … big?  In every dimension? – who doesn’t have much of a life (despite the fact that she’s beautiful), is a virgin, and is very intelligent stumbles onto, into, or over Scot who is a foot taller, twice her weight, VERY well endowed (and she usually has the opportunity to marvel at the latter fairly soon after meeting him), very wealthy (or with magic so it doesn’t matter), and usually from the past, though he is always very modern-minded in terms of wanting and admiring an intelligent woman.  He thinks she’s perfect, he simply is perfect, and by the end of the book (this isn’t really a spoiler) she’s pregnant and if not married to him about to be.  It amazes me a little how consistent that is. 


I suppose the vocabulary of sex scenes is fairly limited, but I honestly could happily go the rest of my life without reading the words “bottom”, “tummy”, and “boobs”, among others, in a book aimed at grown-ups.  (“Tummy” is one of those words which in my opinion should never under any circumstances in any format be used by anyone older than, say, six.  And those under six should be taught better.)  These are extremely intelligent men and women who are being described in the “Highlander” novels, and if her bio is true Ms. Moning isn’t stupid; there has to be a better way than baby talk and lame euphemism.  Oh, and I need to say it makes me queasy when the female lead takes in the sight of the astoundingly beautiful Scot and says “Yum!”  It made me queasy just writing that.  And it happens in several books. 

Also in several of them (if not all) is the issue of force.  None of the heroines is taken by force by the hero (almost the reverse, in some cases), but there is always present the aura of I Am The Laird, What I Say Goes.  I guess that’s the allure of the Middle Ages and thereabouts as the time period the men hail from … But it’s interesting that while these books owe their very existence to James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, Jamie has never been guilty of most of the characteristics of the “Highland” characters.  Claire would kill him.  In KMM’s books, the men are not only pig-headed chauvanists (though amazingly enlightened with that), the women like them that way. 


And I *still* hate “doona”.  AND (as indicated) this whole series owes everything to Diana Gabaldon (who, as I’ve said, is extremely lucky that her books are magnificent, because she has a lot to answer for). 

Viewed as a collection of parts, these books are to be avoided at all costs, avoided like the plague, ranked with Garlock and so on in the “if I have nothing else to read but this and a Staples catalog I’ll take the catalog thanks” department.

But somehow the whole, as is often true, is much better than a collection of the parts.  Somehow, even knowing that the young virgin lassie will avoid “tupping” the massive Scotsman for over a hundred pages though there will be several close calls, after which they will do so non-stop; even knowing that toward the end the Scotsman will inevitably be put into great danger and/or the two will be separated – usually tragically and without any possible way of ever seeing each other again – and then magically reunited, usually after she has discovered she’s pregnant … Even with the stylistic choices that make me wince … Even though this should be some of the worst schlock ever committed to print and I refuse to be seen in public with these covers … I admit it.  I enjoy these books. 

I posted about To Tame a Highland Warrior a few months ago, and expounded on my issues with liking KMM then.  That one takes place entirely in the 16th century, and is the only one with no time travel: both Grimm and Jillian were born and raised and stayed put in a nice (if not very convincingly period) tempo-linear fashion.  KMM was trying the waters, I guess; I wouldn’t be very surprised to find out that the rest of the series evolved from brainstorming on this one.  I don’t think there were any Keltars in this – but Adam Black, aka the Fae prince, aka Robin Goodfellow, aka sex in leather trews, plays a large role.  It was a book with a deeply stupid premise, but strangely enjoyable anyway.  Again, the pattern was set.

The book before it in the series, the first “Highlander” book, was Beyond the Highland Mist, in which Adrienne de Simone, who has had a terrible life, is bumped back in time and becomes the beloved of Sidheach (Hawk); she is summoned by an evil sorceror-type.  And of course Hawk falls for her.  And of course she resists.  Again, Adam Black = large role.  It should have been dumb as dirt; it was fun. 

Then there was … er.  Unfortunately, the titles are another reason I should hate these books, because they have very little to do with the stories, and they all blur together.  I dislike theme titles.  Dark Highlander and Immortal Highlander are five and six (?) in the series, and to me the titles are interchangeable; I kept picking up the one when I meant the other. 

1. Beyond the Highland Mist (1999) – Hawk (Sidheach (Sid-hawk) James Lyon Douglas) and Adrienne de Simone; she goes back and stays there (16th c) – she orphaned and terrorized in 20th century
2. To Tame a Highland Warrior (1999) Gavrael McIllioch/Grimm and Jillian St. Clair, contemporaneous, Grimm Hawk’s right hand – 16th c
3. The Highlander’s Touch (2000) – Circenn Brodie (half Fae) and Lisa Stone – Templars and cup and curse (cleaning job in museum, zipped back in time and wanders)
4. Kiss of the Highlander (2001) Drustan MacKeltar and Gwen Cassidy, he enchanted and sleeping through from 16th c to present, back in time, back again
5. The Dark Highlander (2002) Dageus MacKeltar and Chloe Zanders, meet in present day and go back (he time-hopped?)
6. The Immortal Highlander (2004) Adam Black and Gabrielle O’Callaghan – cursed Fae
7. Spell of the Highlander (2005) Cian MacKeltar and Jessi St. James, he cursed and from 9th century; no time travel otherwise; present day; elements of farce

Next came The Highlander’s Touch, in which a cup – one of the Sidhe Hallows (not the Deathly Hallows) – is stolen in the 16th century, and Circenn Brodie (not one of the Druidic MacKeltars, but not an ordinary man) ensorcels it so that whoever next touches it, presumably the thief, will instantly appear before him.  And, as the person will presumably be the thief, Circenn swears that he will kill him.  However,  whatever happens in between, the next person to touch it is Lisa Stone, 21st century cleaner for the museum where the cup has landed.  A few dizzy seconds later, she is in front of six feet and change of naked Scot.  It’s really a nice idea, and different way to yank someone out of her own time period (a bit), and done rather well: she’s shocked by the transportation, and so is he.  This was not his intent, even though the spell worked exactly as it was supposed to.  As a man of his word who has, long before his oath to kill the thief, sworn never to harm a woman, he has to figure out a way to reconcile the two vows.  (I forget how KMM worked out when Lisa dropped in on Circenn in relation to when he placed the spell; I should go back and check.)

((****SPOILER****) To me the answer to the problem of how Circenn would avoid killing Lisa was obvious; he very specifically swore that when the thief appeared, he would kill *him*.  Lisa, not being a him, would be exempt.  Ta da.)

The stories of the MacKeltar family of Druids begins in Kiss of the Highlander (really?  I’m supposed to take a book called Kiss of the Highlander (or To Tame a Highland Warrior) to the waiting room of the doctor’s office?), with the story of one of Sylvan MacKeltar’s twin sons, Drustan. 

It’s kind of hilarious, actually, to look at the last four books side by side by side (by side).  We start off with Drustan MacKeltar in Kiss, who is the epitome of muscle-y masculine beauty.  He’s amazing.  He’s the best thing ever.  Then we come to Dark Highlander, and his twin brother is just even more beautiful and amazing; he and his brother look very much alike, but Dageus is just … more.  Better.  *Then* comes Immortal, and, well, Adam Black makes the rest of them look … less.  THEN comes Cian MacKeltar, from the 9th century, and while he resembles his ancestors and he never has to be compared to Adam (so far), he has something spectacular the twins don’t.  Poor Drustan: he’s the plain one. 

Lisa is the sole KMM heroine who has a reason to want to go home and separate from her (apologies to Beethoven) immortal beloved; she is needed.  All of the other ladies – er, lassies – are orphaned only children with no ties, no close friends who ever cross their minds, no job they care enough about to even call and let their boss know they’re still alive – not even a goldfish.  Except that Adrienne had a cat – and that drove me crazy, because the whole first part of the book emphasized how much she adored that cat and how very much that cat meant to her… and then *blink* she’s in the 16th century and never even thinks about the poor creature for several days and about a hundred pages. 

I think apart from certain aspects (like the stalker qualities of Adam, though that was pretty well dealt with in his character) I like The Immortal Highlander best; it was the only time I actually wondered how she was going to wrap it all up.  The ending could have been a hemorrhagic character violation – but it wasn’t.  She made it work. 

My impression is that if she wanted to KMM could do better than these books – and from the raves I’ve seen she does in the Fever series.  I’d like to think that the choices made in the Highlander series, of vocabulary and plotting, were a combination of growing pains as she matured as a writer along with a recognition that a decent percentage of the audience for these books was going to be the romance crowd – for which she aimed at the lowest common denominator.  It’s a shame; with a little revision these could have been really fun romantic fantasies rather than fun fantasy romances. 

I listened to a Book Lust interview with Susan Wiggs, who is on my List if somewhat shamefacedly, and she said something which should be obvious, and which these books teach me (along with those of Ms. Wiggs): it’s better to take and evaluate each book as itself on its own rather than condemning entire shelves-full off-hand.  There are abysmal romance novels, and there are some gems; there are gems among what they call literary fiction, and there are abysmal novels there as well. 

It’s just harder to take a book seriously when it has a mortifying title, a worse cover painting, and a cover blurb that makes my pitching arm itch.  Poor books – they actually do deserve better.

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2 Responses to KMM’s Highlander series

  1. Helen says:

    hello again :) I love this and have sent the link to my sister who is a huge DG fan – me? not so much :) … Have just opened book one of The First Law series (The Blade Itself) by Joe Abercrombie. A new author to me and so far I am enjoying his style.

  2. stewartry says:

    Hello again! I have looked at that book on Amazon many times – I’ll have to finally order it when the income tax refund comes through.

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