“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
I've read a couple of Grace Burrowes' Windham series as well as a couple of her MacGregor series, and while none were awful, neither were they books I wanted to read over and over and none instilled a burning curiosity/longing to see the other couples in those series reach their HEAs. So I purposefully did NOT search out her 'Lonely Lords' series and had no interest in her newest 'Captive Hearts' series. Until I read a review from a friend at Book Likes. That review intrigued me enough that I bought the first book and read it. Or more accurately inhaled it. The book was The Captive, and I knew I couldn't rest till I'd read the other two - The Traitor and The Laird.
The central theme for all three books is survival - how to survive an abusive spouse, or extreme torture as a prisoner of war, or being illiterate, or being a reviled outsider in your country of birth and cursed as a traitor. Or how a marriage survives the desertion of a spouse or the horrors of child abuse. These are dark, very dark, themes that offer no easy answers, that push and pull the protagonists throughout each book. But these books are all optimistic despite the tormented characters and their very emotional journeys from wounded to healing. Part of surviving is learning to thrive after the horrors endured and overcome. I'm drawn far more to books with a hero or heroine who's had obstacles to overcome, a scarred and scarring past to work through. It's that journey of working through those unresolved issues that I find fascinating and add a richness not only to the characters but to the overall story.
The writing in all three books is beautifully elegant, crisp, not too flowery, and a joy to read. They would be good just for that reason alone, but when you add in the fact that Ms. Burrowes certainly knows a thing or three about crafting multi-dimensional characters and how to make me, the reader, love them, cry with them, worry over them, and rejoice with them, then you have books that are at a level above the ordinary offerings. This series is so well done, and I especially love that the book titles tell something about the hero's story as well as the heroine's. It's a series that I am very glad that I read, and despite a few problems with each book, they are all three going on my keeper shelves.
The Captive is probably my favorite of the three in this series. Christian has every reason to shut down completely, considering the torture he endured at the hands of Girard and Anduvoir at the Chateau. But, he recognizes in Gillian someone who knows exactly how he feels and why he feels that way, though not at first. She doesn't faint at his terrible scars, tremble when he barks at her, or back down when Christian retreats behind ducal airs. Nor is she shocked that he sleeps with a knife. Gillian is more than a no-nonsense lady, practical in all things, competent. She is smart, intuitive, self-contained, resilient, forged with a core of steel. There is a pivotal scene very early on in The Captive between Gillian and Christian that hints at the depth of Gillian's ordeal. While Christian is scarred physically and emotionally by his time with Girard the Interrogator, Gillian appears to have endured an equally horrific captivity at the hands of her now deceased husband.
'If you find yourself in difficulties, wanting to smash something, say, or scream profanities and take up arms, you put in your mind a picture of what you can look forward to, you add details to it, one by one, until the picture is very accurate and the urge to do something untoward has passed.'
He liked that she'd walk arm in arm with him, liked that she'd lecture him about how to endure...torture. 'You do this when the morning calls become too boring?'
She looked down, as if puzzling something out.
'When I am vexed, beyond all tolerance, but can do nothing to aid myself, when I want to descend to the primitive level of those who lash out in violence at blameless victims, then I do this in my mind.' (pp. 81-82)
Where The Captive is weak, for me, is in a somewhat rushed ending and a villain who stuck out like a sore thumb for me. He was so obvious from the first that Girard almost served as a red herring, there simply to draw attention away. Don't misunderstand me. Girard, the Interrogator in the chateau, is a villain, but the one responsible for most of Christian's ordeal and who is ironically intertwined in Gillian's as well was much too easy to figure out. When he makes his final play, I wasn't surprised. I was, however, disappointed in the way Christian ignored the warning signs, especially his daughter's distress, leaving both Lucy and Gillian at risk. What saved this plot line was Gillian's quick thinking and her indomitable spirit.
Gillian and Christian are a wonderful couple who heal each other, who both find a nurturing partner in the other. Their romance is lush and beautifully written and detailed. As I think back on their travails, I'm not sure which was worse: Christian's ordeal as a prisoner of war in the Chateau or Gillian's ordeal at the hands of Lord Greenslade. Both characters endure captivity that is absolutely horrific and terrible and scarring. Grace Burrowes' The Captive is strongest in its ability to show the healing power of love, how to endure, how to survive, and and how to pick up the threads of life afterward and move forward. That is pretty powerful message, and a story that stays within my heart and mind days after finishing The Captive.
The Traitor picks up after The Captive, offering up a different perspective on Robert Girard the Interrogator from the Chateau. Yes, he's the one who tormented and tortured Christian Severn, Duke of Mercia. He's also half English, heir to an English barony. Sebastian Robert Girard St. Clair was visiting his mother's French relatives with his parents when war broke out between England and France. His father is forced to return home to England without his wife who has become too ill to travel, and Sebastian stays with her in France. After her death, he joins the French army to survive and makes a name for himself because of his ability to accurately read people and to ferret information from enemies. This is how he ends up in charge of extracting military intelligence from English soldiers and officers at the Chateau. After the war is over, he is permitted to return to England as Baron St. Clair, known colloquially as the Traitor Baron, and despised by all for his deeds during the war.
I loved the way Sebastian and Milly slowly come together and how she is able to help him begin to work through his guilt over his actions during the war. Sebastian has very good reasons for not falling in love with Milly, but I loved how joyful he was that all the barriers he put up between them get knocked down, enabling him to do exactly what he wanted to do: marry her. I completely understood how having half of England slapping gloves against your face, one at a time, puts a bit of a damper on romance, marrying, ensuring an heir and a spare for the barony, and embracing a happy ever after.
I applaud Ms. Burrowes for taking a chance to tell a story of redemption for a man who did some truly awful, horrible things to his countrymen. The Traitor was a somewhat successful redemption even though I'm not totally sure I buy into Sebastian's justification/rationalization for all the physical and emotional damage he did to other human beings, especially men he considered in his heart to be his 'countrymen.' This was, for me, one of the weakest aspects of The Traitor as was Milly's attempt to sugarcoat/excuse Sebastian's involvement in the destruction of so many men's lives. She was so quick to exonerate him just because Sebastian was not the one personally responsible for the capture of these English soldiers and because he didn't kill them before/during/after they spilled their secrets. Milly's defense of Sebastian, though understandable because she loves him, greatly diminished the harm, physical and otherwise, brought to bear on these men in order to break his spirit. This conversation between Gillian, Duchess of Mercia, and Milly was disturbing to me.
'...Sebastian has endured much, had no allies through any of it, and still grapples with the results of decisions he had no hand in. He needs no defending, but he deserves loving.
Her Grace adjusted her whip. 'He tortured my husband, among others. If you could see-'
Mercia had come to find the knife a comfort. Milky still did not fathom what Sebastian meant, and she might never.
'I can see. I can see that Sebastian's choices haunt him, and I can see that every man he held captive is now strutting around on English soil, nursing a grudge with more care than you likely on His Grace's heir.' (pp.288-289)
To reduce Sebastian's victims as bearing a mere 'grudge', as if what they endured at the Chateau was no more than, say, betting on the wrong horse, or losing pocket money on the roll of the dice trivialized the emotional, spiritual, and physical damage inflicted upon them by a fellow Englishman. It was particularly disappointing and unexpected considering the humiliation Milly lived with all of her life because of her dyslexia.
I never doubted Sebastian's remorse, his inner turmoil, from the choices he made as the Interrogator at the Chateau, but I'm not sure there's not something irretrievably broken inside him that allowed him to pull out other men's fingernails, break their bones, create an embroidery of scars all over their bodies and then justify it as a means for the prisoners to hate him instead of themselves for breaking under torture and giving up secrets. But, these books are about survival, the hard choices put before a person in order to survive, and how to live with those choices and decisions when life evens out and isn't just about making it from moment to moment.
Despite that, I ended up really liking Sebastian a lot. I liked the French/English duality in his personality and character, his love for his Aunt Freddy, and the way he made sure all the 'paste' that replaced St. Clair jewels during the war, pawned or sold to keep her and the estate from penury, were replaced with genuine gems, one by one, after he returned to England. I loved that he did this secretly and at great personal expense, but even more I loved that his Aunt Freddy knew he was doing it and chose not to say anything to him. The relationship between these two was wonderful in many respects. Sebastian did not shrink from the consequences of his role as the Interrogator. He met each and every challenge for satisfaction on the field of honor with dignity and courage, and I couldn't help but feel sympathy for Sebastian because he fully expects that one day a challenger would indeed end his existence.
What I enjoyed the most was Sebastian teaching Milly to write her name by 'dancing' the letters first across the room and then across the paper. She hates the letter 'e' with its 'narrow little loop that she consistently loses track of until Sebastian waltzes her through its shape - 'three steps up, a little shift, and three steps back.' In this way, she feels the pattern, and identifies it as a similar pattern in the chain stitch she uses in embroidery. Then they waltz the letters 'l' and 'o' until she feels their pattern also. This was so delightful and touching. Sebastian is so patient with Milly and has such a heart of a true teacher in these passages that it's impossible not to like him. I loved the imagery of Milly dancing the letters on a piece of paper, instead letters that dance around, as if playing a particularly cruel game of hide and seek.
The Traitor for all my complaining is a captivating (sorry!). The writing is delightfully smooth and flowed so beautifully. The main characters were layered and complex, and the secondary characters like Brodie and Aunt Freddy and the Professor were almost as well-defined as Milly and Sebastian. Though the twist at the end did stretch my credulity a bit (maybe more than a bit), and I did have a few issues with the resolution of Sebastian's redemption as well as Milly's dismissive attitude toward the victims of Sebastian's actions, I enjoyed The Traitor very much.
The Laird is the final book in the Captive Heart series by Grace Burrowes, and it is undoubtedly the darkest of the three, having a story line dealing with victims of child abuse. Revelations were made about Michael Brodie and his reason for being the companion/guard/henchman for Sebastian St. Clair at the end of The Traitor, but finding out he married Brenna MacLogan nine years ago and immediately left her to go off to war was unexpected. Michael's story picks up with his return to Castle Brodie, how he picks up the threads of his life there with his wife and his kinsmen.
In the nine years since he left, so many things have changed. His father is dead, his mother has left and taken all of his sisters with her back to Ireland, his tenants appear browbeaten and wary of him. Worse, Brenna is a stranger to him, and appears to welcome him about as much as when you bite into an apple and find a worm. I wasn't sure how or why he expected a warm welcome from Brenna since she hadn't received so much as a note from him since the day he left. Worse, he remained in England for a full two years after the hostilities ended again without a word to her. Puzzlingly, Brenna is viewed with distrust and dislike by the tenants as well as people in the village, and she and his Uncle Angus appear to be at the point of daggers drawn each time they meet. Michael has his work cut out to mend fences all the way around.
The Laird would have had sufficient page-turning tension just with this plate full of conflicts, and probably would have been an engaging book in resolving a reuniting lovers theme. But, as I said, there's a very dark element underlying all the discord, a terrible reason why Brenna feels betrayed, abandoned, and isolated after Michael left nine years ago. That reason is woven into the tenants'/villagers' distrust of her, and the way Angus keeps his boot on the throat of the tenants. At some point in the last nine years, Brenna and Angus have divided up Michael's estate. She runs the castle while Angus lives in the dower house and manages/supervises the land. While no one is exactly thriving at the castle proper, the lands are failing miserably. Due to Angus's iron fist in dealing with rents, more and more tenants left over the years, forced to move to the city or emigrate to America, making way for more and more sheep.
Michael Brodie does a wonderful job of winning Brenna's trust and love back, one patient step at a time. He takes the time to get to know her again and allows her to do the same, and more importantly Michael is not afraid to apologize. When he finds out his tenants and the villagers dislike her because they believe she stole their money from farming/sheep industry, he vehemently defends her and sets into motion an investigation. An investigation, I might add that should have been done many years ago. No one, not even her brothers, put forth the effort to find out who may have robbed her and profited by her disgrace. I loved Michael's loyalty to and solid belief in Brenna and her honor before he even knew exactly what happened. The romance between these two is slow-building and tender as well as passionate.
The Laird has a slow-building, tender, passionate, beautifully written romance, but it is also a difficult book to read because of the pedophilia. I think Ms. Burrowes handled this aspect in a sensitive manner while still giving me, the reader, an honest, if heart wrenching, account of the effects of child abuse on its victims and surviving such a nightmare. One of the most heart wrenching scenes in the book is the image of the toy soldiers laying scattered outside a brothel in Abderdeen.
Between two cheery pots of geraniums, a half-dozen tin soldiers lay scattered on the stones, their skirmish ended by whatever heinous responsibilities some boy had been called to within that house. (p. 255)
I get choked up with both tears and anger every time I read that one sentence. In one sentence all of the emotional turmoil of a child in peril is brought screaming to the foreground. There are other revelations equally as devastating later in The Laird, but this one, I think, perfectly encapsulates all that is stolen from children who are abused, the way childhood innocence is excised in the most horrendous manner, as well as the accompanying damaging effects of enforced solitude, feelings of betrayal and shame felt by the child at the hands of the abuser.
Silence is the abuser's best friend. Silence allows him/her to continue the abuse without fear of retribution, but keeping the silence kills something precious inside the one who is abused. There is a scene in The Laird in which Michael makes an awful discovery and instead of talking about it (which I came to understand later on), he shuts Brenna out. She tries everything to get him to talk to her, but she cannot get him to say what's bothering him.
'What is wrong, Michael? I am your wife, and I will endure much if you ask it of me. Your silence cuts me.'
'Some silences are meant to be kind. You understand that. You probably understand that far better than most.' A spate of sentences. Brenna drew encouragement for his loquaciousness and possessed herself of her husband's hand.'
'Most silences need to be broken.' (p. 331)
Yes, indeed. Brenna and Michael have so many layers and the pacing of this book is exactly right. Things are revealed just as they need to be and at just the right time. Secondary characters like Neil MacLogan and Maeve added yet another layer to their story as well as to the overarching theme of survival. The romance is masterfully developed and wonderfully told. As I've mentioned in reviews of the previous two books of this series, Ms. Burrowes writes with poise, elegance, and intelligence. Grace Burrowes' The Laird is an unforgettable book.