I was reading an article about book cover design and one of the experts interviewed mentioned that, in romance, anything with a kilt on it is bound to sell. Duh. What red-blooded woman doesn’t have a visceral response to a hunky guy in a kilt? But it got me thinking, what is my favorite kilted book cover of all time? The answer to that got me pondering my favorite Scottish series, the Dark Sword/Dark Warrior series by Donna Grant.
In full disclosure, you need to understand that, while set in roughly the 1600s, this is not historical romance, but rather fantasy. Using a history stretching back to the time of the ancient Celts to explain its world, this series takes a paranormal approach to explaining the warrior ethos of the highlanders it features.
In an effort to rid their shores of the Roman invaders, druids practicing dark magic (known as droughs), asked a group of gods previously relegated to hell to inhabit the bodies of the best warriors from each clan in order to make them invincible fighters. The druids who had kept to the ways of life-giving magic (known as the mies) objected, but in their desperation the Celts agreed to call forth the gods.
You can imagine how this could potentially backfire. The gods were ecstatic to be freed and more than happy to unleash their violence on the Romans until they fled the shores of Scotland. But, the thirst for blood far from slaked, they turned on each other. With the wide scale slaughter occurring in their country, both groups of druids determined to band together to find a solution.
Druids – it’s not all mistletoe and stone circles.
In the end, the gods could not be sent back, so the ancient priests and priestesses found the spell which would bind the god within the man, returning each warrior to his human state with no memory of the atrocities he had committed. The god was still within him, but now the warrior could live a normal mortal life, with the god passing to the next best warrior of the clan upon the demise of his human host.
All was safe for centuries until one power hungry drough, Deirdre, came upon an ancient scroll which listed the name of only one of the clans which possessed warriors who hosted the bound gods – the MacLeods. Murdering their entire clan in an attempt to draw out the warrior, Deirdre manages to lure the three brothers, Fallon, Lucan and Quinn, to her mountain lair, torturing them and releasing their god, which it turns out is actually shared between them since they are warriors of equal cunning and strength.
But the brothers escape and take decades to learn to control the god inside them. As long as their god is able to emerge (in their case, at their will) the MacLeods are immortal. This is the backstory we discover in the first book of the Dark Sword series, Dangerous Highlander (a more in depth and better written account can be found at Donna Grant’s website).
How I picture the cliffs and landscape surrounding MacLeod castle.
They hide from Deirdre where she would never look for them, at the ruin of their old castle which the local people think is haunted because of the massacre which occurred there years ago, and this is where our story begins. Middle brother Lucan sees a beautiful girl lose her footing on the cliffs by the sea and on instinct shifts into his god form to save her. It is obvious to him and his brothers that Cara has some kind of druid magic, but her parents were murdered years ago and she has grown up sheltered in the local convent.
It turns out that Lucan saving her isn’t just fortunate because he’s the handsomest man she’s ever seen, but because she didn’t know that she was a target of Deirdre’s as well. The entire village is slaughtered while Cara takes refuge at the MacLeod castle and, together, Cara and Lucan must figure out why Deirdre wants her so badly. Lucan knows that there is no way he’s letting Cara out of his life now that he’s found love after years of loneliness. Not everyone handles Lucan’s new happiness the same way; while Fallon begins to drag himself away from the alcohol he’s used to numb his god and resume leadership once again, Quinn is painfully reminded of the loss of his wife and son, so much so that he walks right into a trap and is captured by Deirdre at the end of the book.
All the main characters are thoroughly drawn and well-established in this first book, but Lucan is such a sexy sweetheart that it’s no wonder Cara falls so hard for him. Seeing Cara learn about her druid inheritance and wrestle with her burgeoning power helps the reader discover much more about the druid side of this world, and we begin to see the pull between druids and warriors as romantic partners.
Forbidden Highlander (Dark Sword #2 – Fallon and Larena’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, May 2010)
The fight against Deirdre is the ongoing story arc of both series and Donna Grant picks the story right up in the second book, Forbidden Highlander. After Quinn is captured, Fallon decides to go to Edinburgh to gain help. While at court, he spies the stunning Larena Monroe, who is looking for some help of her own. The sexual pull between them is undeniable, but Larena harbors a secret, a couple of them actually, and she doesn’t know if she can trust this gorgeous warrior.
Fallon quickly realizes that Larena is the perfect match for him but will she join forces to help him save his brother is the question. The discovery of other warriors who have tamed their god gives the MacLeods much better odds in the fight against Deirdre, but no one knows if it will be enough.
Larena is a fiesty, loyal heroine and you know from the first that this is a match made in heaven. Fallon carries a lot of guilt over his previous use of alcohol to escape the pressures of his god, but with the emotion shuttling between them, he is able to let go of his past and embrace a future with the woman who he wants as his wife.
There is a little overlap between Forbidden Highlander and the third book in the series, Wicked Highlander. Quinn’s story picks up in the dungeons of Deirdre’s mountain cave where he has to deal with the fact that he’s been duped into being her prisoner. When the evil druid throws a beautiful young mie druid to her supposed rape and death in the dungeon, Quinn simply reacts, taking her under his protection.
Wicked Highlander (Dark Sword #3 – Quinn and Marcail’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, November 2010)
When Marcail wakes up from her injuries she is with a warrior who possesses a voice like warm honey. She wouldn’t think she could feel safe in such a location, but with Quinn by her side she does. The attraction between them is instantaneous and only amplifies as she discovers why he carries such guilt over the death of his wife and son.
Quinn cannot imagine that he would find such peace and happiness in the arms of this turquoise-eyed beauty in Deirdre’s dungeon, but he realizes that if Deirdre discovers his feelings for Marcail, it can be used to hurt them both. Knowing his brothers will come for him, his first thought is Marcail’s safety, particularly after he discovers her power and why Deirdre can’t hurt her (but desperately wants to kill her).
I love several of the books in this series (and enjoy them all) but I usually have to reread Wicked Highlander once every couple of months. Quinn is so tortured in the other books that seeing him find redemption in the middle of a dank prison with Marcail (she’s my favorite heroine) renews your faith in love.
Worried we just ran out of MacLeods? Don’t be. The fact that they are joined by other equally as hunky warriors means Donna Grant has given us an unending supply of troubled men fighting the good fight against evil.
Untamed Highlander (Dark Sword #4 – Hayden and Isla’s Story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, April 2011)
No one knows evil like Hayden Campbell, who hates the evil droughs with every fiber of his being. In the fourth book of the series, Untamed Highlander, Hayden scouts the area around Deirdre’s mountain after freeing Quinn and Marcail, finding a woman almost frozen to death in the snow. One touch and he knows that she is his, but when he discovers she is a drough, and worse, someone who helped Deirdre all these years, he fights the attraction for all he’s worth.
Isla did work for Deirdre, accepting the black magic under duress as the evil woman held Isla’s family members hostage. The final stand Isla took against her almost ended Isla’s life, but she finds herself in MacLeod castle surrounded by mies and warriors. Most of them seem willing to give her a chance, but Hayden reminds Isla that she is a woman first and a drough second. He spends as much time pushing her away as kissing her breathless and when she discovers why he hates droughs so much, it only accentuates the guilt she feels over her years of being Deirdre’s pawn.
Once Hayden realizes that Isla is more than her history with Deirdre, he begins to break out of his prejudice, finally recognizing that she is just as tortured and damaged as he. He almost loses her, but finally makes her his own, not only helping him by finding his soul mate but helping their cause by bringing in such a powerful ally.
Shadow Highlander (Dark Sword #5 – Galen and Reaghan’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, August 2011)
Since the moment we met Galen in the forest in the first book of the series, he is a binding force of reason with a good sense of humor and a seemingly bottomless stomach. But he avoids touch in any form since one of his powers is being able to read the minds of whoever he comes in contact with. In Shadow Highlander, Galen gets a book of his own and a mission that will bring him face to face with his destiny.
The warriors at MacLeod Castle have caught wind of the fact that there is a powerful druid relic that Deirdre wants. With careful scouting, Galen and some other warriors head out to scout the likely locations it could be housed, including a cloaked area of Druid power near a lake. Discovering an aging and rather helpless band of druids, Galen endeavors to move them back to the castle for protection, but not before being powerfully drawn to the beautiful young druid in their midst, Reaghan.
Reaghan loves her peaceful existence but can’t help thinking that there is something more to life, a thought only amplified when she meets the irresistible warrior bent on helping her community. She burns at his touch and Galen is baffled that he cannot read Reaghan’s mind; she is immune to his power. But strange flashes of memory added to the growing knowledge that she can’t remember all her existence lead them the realization that Reaghan has a power that puts her in danger, and its solution could mean the end of the love that has sprung between them.
Darkest Highlander (Dark Sword #6 – Broc and Sonya’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, January 2012)
The final book of the Dark Sword series has a tough job to do. Not only must it tell the story of the romance of its two main characters but it also needs to set up the premise for the next series, Dark Warrior, which will pick up right where it lets off.
Broc has been a presence from the very first book, but as Deirdre’s winged henchmen he has committed as many atrocities as Isla did before openly joining forces with the MacLeods. Broc has been working as a spy all this time, one bent on undermining Deirdre as well as protecting something very precious to him – the powerful mie healer, Sonya and her sister, Anice.
When Anice dies in a chaotic battle at the end of Shadow Highlander, Broc lashes out at Sonya for not being able to save her sister. In Darkest Highlander, Sonya leaves the castle bereft at the loss of her sister and her own healing magic, which appears to have deserted her. She suspects that Broc loved her sister and that she will never win his affection now that she couldn’t even save the person she has cared for all her life. Stumbling in the wild, Sonya is set upon by a wolf.
Naturally, Broc is filled with remorse for the way he accused her. He has watched over Anice and Sonya since they were children, protecting them even while working for Deirdre, who would have loved to have killed these two druids for their mie powers. But it has always been brave Sonya who has held his heart since she became a woman and the thought of something happening to her chills his blood. Rescuing her from the wolf in the nick of time, he takes her to a local inn to treat her and is astonished when she tells him that her healing power is gone.
Sonya is thinking about more than her lack of healing power in the room she and Broc share at the inn, since his handsome form fills her mind and heart. As the two of them are drawn together, Deirdre steps up her game with a final push to beat the MacLeod allies to the final relics that will give her the power she needs to defeat them and dominate the world.
There were a few parts of this book that hit a weird note to me. Namely, we get the impression that Broc “knew” Sonya’s sister in a biblical sense. Anice was a little mentally off, which is why for years Sonya thought that the handsome warrior Anice spoke of seeing was a figment of her imagination, and Broc pushes the carnal knowledge of Anice aside with a “I’m but a man, after all” kind of comment while affirming it was always Sonya he had a thing for. Hmm. I’m not sure that works for me. Even if it was just a kiss, it feels yucky and wrong. And Sonya just lets it go – I thought she was spunkier than that. Let’s hope I’m misreading this scene.
Time travel – because sometimes you can’t manage to kill your evil villain in your time, you have to go forward to ours!
What does work for me is that Deirdre is chilling in this book. She’s desperate enough to be even more dangerous than usual (which is saying something) but when she finds herself at the mercy of a villain even more powerful than she, well, that just throws ice in my veins. I was really surprised at the death of one of the warriors (it was so sad, I thought he was terrific and loved him from the third book) and even more surprised at the time travel aspect that is setting up the next series. Is it Karen Marie Moning who deserves this trend of whisking hunky highlanders into the modern era? I’ll thank her anyway.
So our fearless crew is scrambling to not only get revenge for the death of one of their own, but to recover his brother who has gone missing enraged with grief, and to figure out where the hell Deirdre has ended up. They can’t defeat her if they can’t find her and Broc uses his amazing location ability to figure out that Deirdre is 400 years forward in time.
Midnight’s Master (Dark Warriors #1 – Logan and Gwynn’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, May 22, 2012)
Luckily, they have some powerful druids in the castle who are able to whip up two spells, the first one throwing some of the warriors forward in time to attempt to find Deirdre and the other spell putting a bubble of protection from time over the castle, protecting it’s non-immortal inhabitants (the druids) from aging. The castle dwellers agree essentially to wait the 400 years at the MacLeod home and meet up with the warriors for whom this day will feel like yesterday when they arrive in the future. Do druids just really have spells like this in their arsenal? That seems like pretty quick thinking. Only for Donna Grant am I willing to suspend the disbelief.
And so Midnight’s Master, the first in the Dark Warriors series, begins. Logan Hamilton, the jesting hottie who hides his own dark secrets arrives in modern day Scotland. He’s understandably surprised at some of the details of his country in the future, but with the god inside him, his ability to process information is practically a superpower and he rapidly adjusts. Drawn to the area around the Isle of Eigg, where the last showdown with Deirdre occurred and where the last artifact she sought is probably housed, he makes inquiries and stumbles upon the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.
Midnight’s Lover (Dark Warrior #2 – Ian and Dani’s Story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, June 26, 2012)
Gwynn Austin is a Texan searching for her father, a professor who specializes in ancient Celtic history. While the two of them don’t have the best relationship by a long shot, after her mother’s recent death, he is her only living relative. Hearing he quit his job at the university and hared off to Scotland, she follows determined to track him down. One look at the Scotsman wearing a tattered kilt that doesn’t quite look like the others she’s seen and Gwynn knows she is not in Texas anymore. But what Logan tells her changes her whole sense of identity.
Logan can feel Gwynn’s power – she has inherited a druid legacy (and aren’t we all relieved considering these warriors need druids to fall in love with!) which directly relates to the relic Deirdre and our new uber-villain want. Logan helps her understand the situation and what’s she’s up against and Gwynn throws in her lot with the MacLeods and anti-Deirdre brigade.
Gwynn is plucky, can-do heroine who is instantly likable and who takes genuine pleasure in Logan (luckily she’s okay with much, much older men since he’s around 500 years old by now). Once she wraps her head around the Deirdre/time travel concept (and it’s easy for her to do as being in the vicinity of Eigg and Logan ramp up her previously latent mie powers) she is all in and ready to fight evil. The scene where she leaves a special Christmas present for Logan is so sweet that I got all sniffly. Donna Grant awesomeness, for sure.
I did have more than a few questions related to the time magic piece. The MacLeod brothers et. al. who stayed in the castle had the bubble of protection which sheltered them from aging. Clearly this was for the non-warriors, since their god keeps them immortal, but the druid women have managed to not age a bit. However, they have to stay at the castle. Granted, they’ve got the internet now, but that feels like they are trapped to me. This might have been okay back in ye olden days when travel was a slow-moving pony cart, but this seems a little more like a prison once you start thinking about 19th/20th/21st century modes of travel. Do they have legal documentation? How did their castle get modernized? Did Fallon get an electrician license? Did anyone get online degrees? How would you keep yourself from going crazy for 400 years waiting for the other warriors to find you? You can’t have awesome sex all the time with your warrior husband, particularly when there are others around (or maybe you can – suddenly 400 years seems more manageable).
Midnight’s Seduction (Dark Warrior #3 – Camdyn and Saffron’s Story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, October 30, 2012)
You can see in the book cover progression for the new Dark Warrior series that, while we can all mourn the loss of the kilts, there are compensations. The cover model representing Logan for the Midnight’s Master book cover is not ungifted in the posterior department, and you can see above that the next book in the series, Midnight’s Lover (due out at the end of June) has got a pretty sweet bicep shot, complete with cool tattoo.
Midnight’s Lover is Ian’s story, the warrior who lost his brother in Darkest Highlander and got shot forward in time against his will. Since he was temporarily insane from the doubling of his god power, it will be interesting to see how he gets himself off the proverbial ledge and what woman helps him come to terms with his grief.
We are back to bare chests, rippled abs, and (ahem) a lengthy dagger by the time the third book rolls out (due at the end of October). Toward the end of Midnight’s Master, the first book, the warrior crew raided the mansion of our new villain who is attempting to manipulate Deirdre and gain total power. In his dungeon, Camdyn MacKenna discovered a beautiful blind druid chained to the walls and it is her story and his that will be showcased in this third book, Midnight’s Seduction, seen above. Considering the fact that she was held because she is a powerful seer, I think our warrior group could have a powerful new ally in Saffron.
Midnight’s Warrior (Dark Warrior #2 – Ramsay and Tara’s story) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, November 27, 2012)
The fourth book, Midnight’s Warrior, seems to be set farther along in time than the first few, since its description clearly states that the heroine, Tara, has been on the run, avoiding both the warriors and the villains for ten years.
But Ramsay MacDonald (love Ramsay!) finds her, and once he holds her he knows that his secret is going to come out. Ramsay not only has the power of his god, but also holds a significant amount of druidic power, a force he might not be able to tamp down when he is around Tara.
Donna Grant indicates that there will be four more Dark Warriors books coming out in 2013, but she’s going to run out of warriors at some point, I’d imagine. There is potential in other areas that I would guess she’d exploit. We saw that there were plenty of other warriors in Deirdre’s dungeon with Quinn in the third book, and since they are immortal, that would mean they could have also lived those 400 years and be in the present time (and have one hell of a history, I imagine). The idea that one of these warriors could have been killed at some point in the last 400 years by another warrior would also create the potential storyline that the god would go to another member of that warrior’s clan, yet this person could be a modern human having to suddenly deal with wrestling a god. These would be fascinating stories to read, especially in Donna’s capable hands.
Dark Craving (Dark Kings #1) by Donna Grant (St. Martin’s Press, July 31, 2012)
I don’t know when she finds time to sleep and shower considering that not only does she have these Dark Warrior books coming out, but she also writes on her blog that St. Martin’s asked her to come up with some related enovellas that would complement the books, leading her to come up with the Dark Kings spin-off series.
Each of the Dark Kings enovellas will come at the end of July, August and September and feature characters that will be introduced in the Dark Warriors books. By the, um, look of the book cover for the first in the series, Dark Craving, I think this premise seems very promising! With a publication date of end of July, I am not happy about the fact that these still aren’t up for me to pre-order, but I’ll be keeping a close eye for when Amazon finally puts them up for purchase.
Donna Grant is a talented writer whose affinity for Scotland makes her a natural fit for readers who love their kilts and highlanders. It’s a testimony to her abilities that we still want to keep buying her books, even when the kilts are taken out of the equation. I guess as long as it’s still a hunky highlander as the hero, she’s got a following.