J. Ardian Lee,
Outlaw Sword
(Ace, 2002)

There's a tendency in historical romances to gloss over the problems of the past. The dirt and disease and desperate political battles are quietly ignored, while the castles and interesting clothing are put on display. Sometimes it's a result of poor research, sometimes the author understandably just wants to focus on the characters and the plot. But these faded slivers of the past feel about as real and dangerous as a Renaissance festival, and the story inevitably suffers.

J. Ardian Lee isn't afraid to show a little dirt. Dylan, the time-transplanted hero of Outlaw Sword, is transported from modern America. Now stuck in 18th-century Scotland, he can hardly turn a corner without being reminded of the massive drop in his standard of living. Muck fills the streets, 50 years old is regarded as ancient, and even the best toilets have no sort of paper. Dylan is the only man he knows with any sort of refined sugar, and that's limited to some hard candies smuggled from the modern age.

The responsibility for his anachronistic life goes to a Scottish faerie named Sinnan. A fan of the Highlander cause, Sinnan has picked a hero from the future according to bloodlines. Dylan's first stay in scenic Scotland was bloody, hungry and near fatal, but he also met the love of his life. After being sent back to modern days and modern surgeons, Dylan chooses to return to the violent past for the sake of his wife and new son. He manages to take some items with him from his own time, though his choices seem trivial for someone on a rescue mission -- candy and aspirin, but no antibiotic cream or toothbrushes? Or modern weapons?

These odd failings in charcters' intelligence weaken the story throughout. Sinnan hates the English, works for the Highland cause and has the power to move people through time, yet she never transports any sort of soldier or weapon. One of Dylan's sworn enemies catches him and has him defeated, but lets him go to marry Cait and live with her clan because he wants Dylan "where I can keep my eye on you." Dylan lives with the Highland clans, knows the history of Scotland, but throughout 90 percent of the book shows no real interest in doing anything to help change its path. Some of these inconsistencies might be explained earlier in the series, but since Outlaw Sword otherwise stands well on its own it makes such sequel-type behavior even more confusing.

But if the characters sometimes behave oddly, history still marches in its established path. Lee has done some serious research, and shows it off to good advantage. While her insistence on conversational Gaelic is often annoying to a reader who doesn't know how the words should be pronounced, it serves well to separate friend and foe. The good guys speak Gaelic. Dylan's search for his wife, his struggle to save her from a forced marriage and build a family life, all are woven unobtrusively into the larger backdrop of Scottish history. The pressures and attitudes of 18th-century life sing through loud and clear, and inform much of the characters' more lucid behavior. Uncomfortable but historically accurate side stories, like Dylan's experience at the dentist, pull the reader into the story in an immediate and visceral way archaic language and elaborate castles just can't match.

Lee may not have created a classic for the ages. But Outlaw Sword shows a respect for its times that redeems its sometimes weak characters. It's historical romance that embraces its historical side, and that sets it above much of its competition.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 25 January 2003

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