Set during a period of indeterminate rule and conflict, How to be a Scottish Mistress by Adrienne Basso is a refreshing foray into the historical romance market.
I wasn’t expecting the novel to be set quite so early as the 1300s, but this sets up the historic conflict between England and Scotland as to which king would preside over the Scottish nation. The book begins with an introduction to Lady Fiona, wife to the Baron of Arundel in England, who witnesses her husband displaying some rare leniency to Gavin McLendon, a Scottish lord who has a special arrangement regarding supplies. When Fiona’s husband is killed a few months later, she escapes with here stepson, Spencer, who has become crippled from a broken leg that hasn’t been reset properly.
Knowing that he will never be acknowledged in England, Fiona takes her son across the border to Scotland, seeking help from the only man she has yet to ask. She wants Spencer to be trained to fight, aware that there are ways he can be taught to compensate for his injury, but more than anything she wants to assure his safety. When Fiona is brought before Gavin to broker a deal, with no land or supplies left to give him, she offers herself as a bargaining tool instead. As she had been married to her older husband for ten years and not produced an heir, Gavin believes her to be barren, and so consents to take her as a mistress in return for training Spencer.
Fiona isn’t thrilled at the prospect of becoming a mistress, especially as she has little sexual experience, but she will do anything to secure Spencer’s future and give him a chance to reclaim his kingdom and birthright. Now under McLendon’s control, Fiona is spurned by the other women at his keep, shunned for being English, and has to suffer the loneliness of being without a companion to confide in. However, when it comes to Gavin and his gentle lovemaking, both soon find themselves falling in love and unable to fight their passion for each other.
For Gavin, he is not as heartless as the arrangement may make him seem, as he is highly attracted to Fiona and believes the deal to be in both their best interests. She is there to support him when he has some hard decisions to make, as King Robert desperately needs alliances from the nearby kingdoms, which may force Gavin to marry one of their daughters to form such an allegiance. There is also the issue of his bastard brother, Ewan, who often raids their supply stores for grain or attacks in order to secure the kingdom he feels entitled to.
I was doubtful upon picking up this book, as I had no idea what to expect and did not anticipate such an exciting read as I was met with. What I found was a well written historical romance that ticks a lot of boxes in terms of the mistress/lord stereotype. I liked how gentle Gavin was with Fiona, but at the same time he has a savage Scottish masculinity that cannot be denied. I also liked how he was under the assumption she was barren, and was expecting this to be corrected very quickly but was surprised to see this forming one of the concluding revelations. One issue that I did find was one of historical inaccuracy, as I found it hard to believe some of the finer garments found at the keep, although this is mainly down to personal preference.
Fiona was a highly intelligent character, a strong woman with a mind of her own who would do anything to protect her child, despite not being his biological mother. She had led a very sheltered life, having been with an older husband who considered her more of a daughter than a wife, hence the lack of intimacy. However, I liked the fact that she was not afraid to stand up to this scary Scottish lord, determined to prove her point in all matters. She wouldn’t just go running to him whenever she had a problem, but would instead resolve it herself with grace and fortitude. I thought she made a great match for Gavin’s roughness, which made reading the book more enjoyable.
I found Gavin to be a great masculine lead, full of power and dominance but also a softness of character when it came to Fiona. He came to realise that he didn’t want to marry for the convenience of the king, instead seeking to find a way out of the engagement. It was often easy to forget that he had so many other worries when it came to his scenes with Fiona, as when it was just the two of them all he could see was her. I enjoyed seeing him slowly become devoted to her, as it was clear from the outset that the pair couldn’t live without each other.
The relationship between the two is hot and steamy, with numerous fiery love scenes throughout the book. These scenes were well written and not out of place in the plot, something which often irks me in other books of this genre. I did think the ending was resolved far too quickly with not enough action, but the epilogue rounded off the story nicely and gave a solid but predictable conclusion. It would have been nice to have a bit more focus on matters outside of the keep, such as the war with England and the allegiances to King Robert, but overall this book made for a great historical romance that was easy to sink into and read quickly.
This book is a good romance tale, drawing on the stereotype of a mistress and her lord falling in love with each other. It has a good written style to keep you interested, although the ending was a little lacklustre in terms of drama. However, the characters are very well explored and I enjoyed reading about a period of history which isn’t often used in historic fiction, as well as enjoying the focus on Scotland as opposed to the typical English setting.