I was sorting through new releases for a book to review this issue when Victoria Roberts’ romance novel “X Marks the Scot” captured my attention with its cover art (Fabio in a kilt) and its horrendous title (is he a Scottish pirate?). I expected smut set in Scotland—nothing more, nothing less. But “X Marks the Scot” surprised me. Not for its sex scenes, of which none occur until halfway through the story, and not for its role in the larger Scottish romance genre, which is actually a thing. I was surprised because “X Marks the Scot” toes the line between a trashy romance novel and an unlikely love story. It has decently developed characters and a good sense of humor, and while the plot is full of incongruous dialogue, repetitive phrases and overabundance of clichés, it manages to be entertaining in its absurdity—and oh, is it absurd.
We begin the story with Declan MacGregor, a Scottish manly man hailing from the Highlands, whose two main concerns in life are women and drink. But after Archie Campbell, an enemy of the MacGregors, is killed following his attempt to take the king’s throne, Declan is assigned the role of escorting his dead enemy’s sister to court. Liadain is a healer whose life is spared after she helps the MacGregor sisters escape. She hates the stuffy pretenses of the court and also wants to return to the Highlands, because this makes her character unique and unconventional, or something.
She bonds with Declan, her kilted bodyguard, over long walks in the garden and their mutual attraction. We know they dig each other because Roberts shoves their sexual tension into her audience’s face with quality descriptions like, “She wore a gold-colored gown that clung to her curves in all the right places” and “His fingers gently rubbed her [shoulders, you scoundrels].” From this point, the story is predictable. It’s a romance novel. They fall in love. Tartan and haggis and ale for everyone.
But as aforementioned, their unsurprising love story is not what captured my attention; I was immersed by their conversations, which are a cacophonous hodge-podge of 17th century Scottish brogue, the occasional foray into Gaelic and modern turns of phrase. “Ye donna realize how truly painful that was for me,” Declan jokes after he admits something civil to Liadain. “Cease, ye rogue,” she says. In truth, the relationship between Declan and Liadain is one of the novel’s redeeming qualities; at certain moments, the couple is adorable in a kind of ridiculous way, particularly when Liadain must apply a mud salve to Declan’s bare “arse” after he falls into a pile of nettles. It was arguably the weirdest scene in the novel and intended to be a bonding moment between them, but really, an ass rash is hilarious and Liadain’s awkwardness made the moment memorable.
Secondary to the relationship between Liadain and Declan is the assassination conspiracy that serves as the story’s central conflict; fans of “V for Vendetta” will appreciate Roberts’ allusion to Guy Fawkes. In all honesty, this subplot has a lot of potential, but it is diluted by the appearance of forgettable characters and a too-easy resolution. I was also distracted by the double entendres Roberts scattered throughout the story, which I’m still not sure were completely intentional. “Declan would show Dunnehl a Highland barbarian when he shoved his broadsword up the lord’s English arse,” the narrator warns. Even more unfortunate is the sheer number of repetitive phrases and worn-out romance tropes that drag the story down into trashy novel territory. If I never have to read “wanton desire,” “bonny lass,” “her long raven tresses” or “pure masculinity” again, it’ll be too soon.
“What had ever happened to a pleasant evening of satisfying each other’s lust and just saying fare-thee-well in the morn?” Declan pouts, and for a moment, the Highland barbarian ventures into meta-commentary. The novel’s cover and title suggest a conventional kilt down, tresses up smut fest, but the story itself tries to deal with themes of marriage, love and sacrifice. I would love to see Roberts expand her pretty awesome assassination plot and place less emphasis on the Liadain’s and Declan’s by-the-books love story. But as it stands, “X Marks the Scot” is just a bottom-bin romance in a gilded kilt.
Rating: 2 arrows to the knee/stars