The Night Side
by Melanie Jackson, historical (2009)
LoveSpell, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-505-52804-9


Melanie Jackson has never limited herself to a single niche, as she often takes risks and explores intriguing story lines in her books. However, her last few books hadn't been exactly my favorites, as I, to put it bluntly, found them to be rambling self-indulgent boring books. The Night Side is a strange case in that it is a hybrid product of the author on a good day and the author that had created the last few tedious books.

The book starts out to be a hot mess. It has so many things going at once that I don't know how I am going to summarize this story without providing links to relevant entries on Wikipedia. Let's see, we are in Noltland Castle in the isle of Oarkney, Scotland. Frances Balfour, the sole living heir to the Castle, knows that she has to marry. Her Castle is depleted of able soldiers to defend her land and her people, and with her mourning period for her father coming to an end, she knows that her neighbors will soon be knocking on her doors. Her concern about marrying is due to her cousin, George. She is very close to that young kid, and she knows that, should she marry, her husband could easily view George as expandable and do away with that kid. After all, in Scotland, life can be cheap.

Because both Frances and George share a love of golf, this is where our hero Colin Mortlock comes in. An estranged cousin of the powerful MacLeod clan, he is summoned back home to be given an unusual mission by his cousin: he is to pose as a golf tutor in order to get to know the wealthy heiress of Noltland Castle better. It's a long and complicated story, so let me just say that Alasdair MacLeod wants the heiress, but he can't publicly grab her by the hair and drag her to a chapel, so he decides to send Colin out to play nice and check out things on Alasdair's behalf. Colin thinks that the whole thing is madness, but he is intrigued enough by the plan to go along, especially when he starts having his own ideas about Frances Balfour's place in his life, heh.

The first 70 or so pages of this book are thinly-veiled information dumping and, I have to say, it's quite puzzling how little makes sense to me despite the information dump. The author talks a lot about the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and the subsequent drama in Scotland in the prologue, for example, but she also seems to labor under the belief that I know the fundamental details about these events. I don't. As a result, I get only half the big picture, at best, and spend a while trying to figure out what I had just read. And, best of all, I only realize much later that all that information doesn't truly figure into the story.

The book takes its time, meandering around with the main characters navel gazing and talking about all kinds of things, and by "talking", I mean "telling the reader all kinds of stuff, most of them not really vital to the story line". I find myself wondering whether I should be taking down notes. Meanwhile, the author also loads the characters and the setting with plenty of details, probably too much. Colin, for example, is also a spy, and not only that, he can see the Night Side, the "spectral world between life and death" in addition to being a superb swordsman and a sanguine gentleman who is rarely perturbed by the challenges he faces. Meanwhile, there is a Scottish version of the Hound of the Baskervilles said to be running around. All these paranormal details, however, serve only to overload the story, making the whole thing feel like a dish that has been overly seasoned. This story could have easily been a straight historical romance with only a little adjustment here and there once the paranormal details are stripped away. Therefore, the paranormal details add only clutter to an already overly detailed story.

It is only in the second half of the story that Ms Jackson remembers that she's supposed to be telling a story and not writing some amazing encyclopedia of magical Scotland in the 16th century. The story is quite a familiar one, but here, there is good build-up and better pay off, a mole with believable and even sympathetic motives, and our main characters who finally start coming together to become somewhat two-dimensional. Colin is a bit too amazing to be believable, but on the bright side, Frances can sometimes be too naïve for her own good and she can be even reckless at times, but she can certainly take care of herself when her back is against the wall. And then the party is over when I am only starting to get into the story, sigh.

I wouldn't consider The Night Side a good book as for a long time it is just the author rambling through her characters in a self-indulgent manner. However, I am assured by the second half of the story, where the story actually becomes very readable. It is as if Ms Jackson has finally discovered her muse in the process. Hopefully, this means that the author's next book will see her back in top form. I guess I'd have to wait and see.

Rating: 66


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