Book Review: Highland Sanctuary by Jennifer Hudson Taylor

Highland Sanctuary by Jennifer Hudson Taylor

Pub. Date: October 1, 2011
Publisher: Abingdon Press Fiction
Format: egalley, 336pp
Age Range: Adult
Series: Highland #2

ISBN-13: 9781426714214 (for paperback edition)
Source: NetGalley

Synopsis from Amazon.com:
Gavin MacKenzie, a chieftain heir who is hired to restore the ancient Castle of Braigh, discovers a hidden village of outcasts who have created their own private sanctuary from the world. Among them is Serena Boyd, a mysterious and comely lass, who captures Gavin’s heart in spite of harboring a deadly past that could destroy her future.

The villagers happen to be keeping an intriguing secret as well, and when a fierce enemy launches an attack against them, greed leads to bitter betrayal. Then, as Gavin prepares a defense, the villagers unite in a bold act of faith, showing how God’s love is more powerful than any human force on earth.

My Review:

Where to start? I was intrigued at the idea of reading a historical novel set in the medieval Scottish highlands. I began with high hopes. In the early going, the novel had promise — reading was gentle and easy, and there was a fairytale-like quality to the book. The setting and characters seemed almost enchanted. To her credit, Taylor created a village nestled into the highlands seemingly hidden from the world and all its evils. Its inhabitants were different, but kind and warm. This felt like a good place to live and, for the reader, a good place to visit.
We get a glimpse of Serena as a baby in a prelude to the story. This creates mystery and narrative tension. However, the manner in which her villainous father returns to the story is a little disappointing. Despite this shortcoming in the narrative, Serena is a sympathetic heroine and we want her to be happy. Her mother and the other secondary characters who love her are all well-drawn and endearing.
Serena is at the center of a love triangle. I quickly decided that I favored one suitor over the other, and Serena’s heart chooses fairly quickly as well. However, this brings to mind another flaw in the novel — one of the suitors vanishes from the book near the end. It’s hard to believe that a man would promise marriage and so readily disappear without trying to win his desired bride.
I liked the hero, Gavin, very much. He is compassionate, chivalrous, and kind to the village of “misfits”. I had emotional investment in the outcome of the novel for him. I was sorry to see that he was not given enough opportunity to be heroic. Usually the hero rescues the damsel-in-distress and saves the day, right? Not so here. He was rendered impotent by the choices the author made.
While I enjoyed the novel, it never blossomed into the book I had hoped it would be. The fairytale-like quality remained, but in a different sense. To some degree the book always felt like a tale rather than events happening to real people. There was never enough sense of immediacy or depth of emotion. One could find parallels between Highland Sanctuary and The Scarlet Letter. Each novel has a character who is judged by a “religious” and supposedly “pious” authority/culture. However, while the latter is thick with psychological and emotional tension, the former has little. Highland Sanctuary suffers for being a little too neat. Real life is messy, and the happenings of this book, messy as they were, could have been depicted with more depth and nuance.
All of the quibbles mentioned above don’t hurt the overall reading experience much. For some time, this was en route to being a four-star book. As I said, it started off nicely and I hoped it would continue to build interest. It did for a time. The plot built slowly and at a certain point began to pick up speed and scope like a tumbling stone. In the end, though, the novel’s end was its demise. The author, while not having made anything more than casual Christian references to God, prayer, and faith, suddenly presented a sermonette in the form of a letter from one of the characters. There was a comparison made connecting a sacrifice (which I felt was empty and unnecessary) to Christ’s crucifixion. The connection felt heavy-handed, and the letter unauthentic and disconnected from the character’s voice.
To sum up, what started with charm and grace lost its sparkle and hiccuped a bit coming to a close. Overall, though, the book was entertaining. Though it is part of a series, Highland Sanctuary stands alone and can easily be enjoyed without having read the first book in the series, Highland Blessings. The messages of this tale have merit: Love conquers all, home is where your loved ones are, and true sanctuary is only found in Christ. In short, while the ideas are good, the execution could have been improved.
Recommended with reluctance.

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