This series was recommended by so many people on Twitter and in my inbox, I grabbed it immediately and skipped it to the top of my TBR spreadsheet. This was a good decision on my part.
Cathal MacAlasdair is running his family’s castle in remote Scotland, though he’s much better suited to running around doing soldiery things. He’s also a dragon shifter, something the people who live in his castle know about, but not a lot of people really discuss openly. Sophia Metzger is an alchemist who is traveling to the keep with a best friend and companion (and sequel bait) because she would really like to have, if Cathal doesn’t mind, some dragon scales for her experiments.
I really liked a number of things about this book, so I’ll start with those. I liked very much how Sophia is candid and honest about her purpose in making a very long, difficult, and very cold journey. She was much less hesitant about revealing her goal than she was about revealing that she’s Jewish. Said Jewishness could get her killed easily, and no one would care or protest much, so when she tells Cathal, she’s putting her life in his hands, and it takes him a second to remember that. He can’t immediately think of a reason why he should care, but that type of perspective is naturally born out of being a few hundred years old.
There are a number of minor ways in which Sophia’s faith and observance affect her residency at the keep, including one where Cathal kills a deer and asks if she’ll be able to eat it. It was touching because Cathal is trying to provide for everyone in his care, including Sophia, but he doesn’t expect her to compromise or change her practices to make his life easier.
Cathal and Sophia’s interactions in the first 3/4ths of the book were SO MUCH CATNIP. Cathal is not a natural at running a community, caring for people, and managing an estate and all the moving pieces (and people) within it. He misses his life as a soldier, and he’s got major concerns in his house – which he barters with Sophia to help solve (more on that in a minute). He’s also the youngest child in his family, and that role influences his worldview as well. He takes his responsibilities seriously, but he really, really doesn’t enjoy them or find them a natural fit to his personality or temperament.
Meanwhile, Sophia is really good at alchemy. She’s into research and experiments, lining up planetary and herbal influences to create potions to aid in the care and health of people around her. She’s like a non-magical, historical, proto-STEM heroine in a lot of ways. Her scientific rigor, research, curiosity, and brilliance with natural and alchemical puzzles was fascinating.
When she asks Cathal if she could maybe, you know, have some of his scales if he didn’t mind and all, he agrees – if she agrees to try to help his friend and fellow soldier, who was attacked by a sorcerer and is now visibly fading and dissolving before their eyes. There’s a mix of fantasy and magic in this story, and while some part of it worked brilliantly, other elements (hur hur) did not.
Cathal’s identity as a dragon, and as part of a magical family of extraordinary creatures was beautifully integrated into the world of the story, just as much as Sophia’s Jewishness – though the latter is not treated as some sort of mystical identity, so don’t worry. Cathal has rituals and spells that assist him in caring for the people in his castle and in the village beyond, and can switch between forms as needed without too much fanfare. But he’s also secretive about it, and is worried that seeing him change will cause Sophia to run in terror. To her credit, she is a little scared but way too curious intellectually to allow fear to limit her opportunity to study a dragon up close.
I loved the contrast between Cathal’s struggle with large-scale homemaking, and Sophia’s dedication to science and experiments, some of which are dangerous to her personally. I also really liked the way that languages were obstacles to communicating and understanding each other. Sophia and her friend speak Hebrew, French and English, and Cathal is constantly switching to French from Gaelic to make sure Sophia understands what’s being said. (There’s one scene where he has to translate between Sophia and another woman who have no language in common between them, and the degree to which he does not understand what they’re talking about, and his determination to get everything right, were adorable.)
Most of all, I really liked the historical competence porn of running a castle when you know there’s a blizzard coming, and managing travelers and guests, dealing with residents and nonresidents, caring for the villagers, and figuring out where to put this alchemist who might blow things up. The parts where Sophia is doing experiments and Cathal is still trying to figure out how to effectively manage his family’s castle were my favorite parts.
Then there were the very fantastical, dreamscape elements, and I was not as enamored of those. There is a Big Bad in this story, the sorcerer who harmed Cathal’s friend Fergus, the one who is dissolving. Said Sorcerer (who has taken on a pretentious name, which Sophia makes fun of when she learns about him, which was hilarious) has demanded Cathal join him, or Fergus will fully dissolve and die. Sophia is determined to cure Fergus, and maybe defeat this sorcerer or at least detach his hold on Fergus permanently. As the story progresses, the sorcerer attacks Sophia through her dreams, which leads to several extended scenes that were very, very weird.
The rules of the mortal world could easily accommodate Cathal’s dragon-ness, and Sophia’s alchemical skills and abilities. But the fantasy world or dreamscape world or whatever it was, felt so detached and nebulous, it bored the hell out of me. Sophia figured out how to navigate things way too quickly, and took actions that saved her own life over and over that didn’t seem possible. She was the Mary Sue of the sorcerer’s dreamscape world, which pissed off the pretentious sorcerer and bored me silly. Sophia figuring out how to develop potions, having them work partially or maybe explode? I totally buy that. Sophia navigating a world of demons, trees, and shoes that transform into bridges? Didn’t work for me. The fantasyland quest was the least interesting part of the story for me, and because the climax of a lot of the action happens in that fantasyland to resolve the issue of the Big Bad Pretentious Sorcerer, I was pretty unsatisfied.
What about the romance? It’s slowly built, which I liked, though there’s a long middle where Cathal has lusty thoughts which distract him from Running the Castle, which he doesn’t appreciate. Then he realizes that Sophia, her presence and his very brief conversations with her, are making the drudgery and insecurity of his inexperience with household management bearable. He looks forward to seeing her, and she grows from being a bright spot on the periphery of his day to being one of the key elements in his life. Sophia is overwhelmed by Cathal and is pretty sure there’s no way for them to be together given their widely different social and biological status (he’s a dragon, after all, and very long lived). The solutions to those issues were very quickly introduced and accepted, which made the resolution much less satisfying considering the duration and dimension of the build up.
The ending to the romance was also frustrating for me, and I am not sure how to explain without spoiling the details, so please pardon the spoiler:
So much of the story takes place at the castle or in the dreamland that knowing they were leaving into an unknown world to travel at the end was unsatisfying. For one thing, I knew Sophia was likely to be much less safe on a daily basis while traveling from place to place, and I knew Cathal had just gained all this castle management experience. I knew the world of the castle, and I knew a little about the world beyond it from both Cathal and Sophia, not much of it positive. So knowing they were going to go travel around for awhile left me feeling as if the ending was too abrupt and incomplete, and overall too uncertain.
All that aside, I had a really good time reading this book. I loved the detail, the integration of fantasy and chemistry and history and alchemy into the world of a Scottish castle in the 1300s, and I really liked Sophia and Cathal. While I wasn’t as enthused about the dreamscape journey or the ending, I’m definitely going to read the next book in this series, Highland Dragon Rebel. There’s mention of the “otherworld” in the cover copy (darn it) but the heroine is Cathal’s sister, and she’s also a dragon shifter. I’m totally here for that.