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Scotland, 1906. A mysterious object discovered inside an ancient castle calls Maximilian Haywood, the new Duke of Olympia, and his fellow researcher Emmeline Truelove north to the remote Orkney Islands. No stranger to the study of anachronisms in archeological digs, Haywood is nevertheless puzzled by the artifact: a suit of clothing that, according to family legend, once belonged to a selkie who rose from the sea and married the castle’s first laird.
But Haywood and Truelove soon realize they’re not the only ones interested in the selkie’s strange hide. When their mutual friend Lord Silverton vanishes in the night from an Edinburgh street, their quest takes a dangerous turn through time, which puts Haywood’s extraordinary talents—and Truelove’s courage—to their most breathtaking test yet.
When I read A Most Extraordinary Pursuit, the first of Juliana Gray’s historical mystery series featuring the intrepid Emmeline Truelove, I wasn’t – at first – quite sure what to think. There’s a mystery, yes, and a bit of romance… but I wasn’t expecting the time travel element or the fact that the heroine has regular conversations with both her deceased father and the late Queen Victoria! In the end, however, I enjoyed the story, which is quite unlike anything I’ve read before – or since, really – and in which the author does a great job of interweaving the various plot elements – mystery, romance, time-travel and oddness! – with a caper-type adventure and a hefty dose of Greek mythology. The somewhat starchy Truelove and the gorgeously dashing Lord Silverton made a wonderfully odd couple as they struck sparks off each other throughout their travels and I was sorry to leave them at the end while also looking forward to the next book and hoping for answers to some of the many questions raised.
Before I go on, I should point out that there are likely to be spoilers for A Most Extraordinary Pursuit in this review, so if you haven’t yet read that book, proceed with caution. And I’ll add that while it might be possible to read A Strange Scottish Shore on its own, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Maximillian Haywood – who became the Duke of Olympia upon the death of his formidable great uncle – has made a name for himself as an archaeologist, and specifically as one with expertise in historical anachronisms; in analysing objects discovered in strata at a time and place they shouldn’t have existed. In the previous book, Max had gone missing – had been kidnapped, in fact – which is what led to Silverton and Truelove’s expedition to Greece to find him, and eventually to the discovery that Max is possessed of an incredible power which somehow enables him to reach through time and bring people through to the present or send them back to the past. A Strange Scottish Shore picks up a few months after Truelove and Silverton parted on the Greek island of Skyros, having located the duke and gone their separate ways.
Truelove is no longer working as the Duke of Olympia’s secretary and instead heads up The Haywood Institute for the Study of Time which Max set up following his return from Greece. He has sent for her to join him at a hunting party being held in the north of Scotland by Lord Thurso, where he has come across an object that doesn’t belong – but as she is boarding the train in London, Truelove catches sight of a familiar face, one of the men she, Silverton and Max had encountered on the Greek island of Naxos months earlier. She knows he is likely following her to Scotland to get to Max and to get hold of the documents she is carrying to him – but before she can think more on the matter, she is joined in her first class compartment by none other than the Marquess of Silverton, looking as cheerfully handsome and nonchalant as ever as he informs her he’s received a telegram from Max and is also on the way to join the hunting party.
The sudden appearance of the red-haired man she had glimpsed in London sees Silverton haring off in pursuit, but following a scuffle, the man jumps from the train, and the ensuing delay while the matter is investigated leaves Silverton and Truelove unable to continue to their destination that day and forced to stay in Edinburgh overnight. Worried that perhaps the man is still following them, Silverton announces his intention to stay the night in her room, on the sofa of course – but when she wakes, he – and her document portfolio – are gone.
Truelove continues her journey and is met at Thurso station by Max, whom, she is troubled to discover, has no notion of what could have happened to their friend. Once arrived at the castle, Max is able to show Truelove exactly what he has found that has so intrigued him. Hidden away at the bottom of an old wooden chest is a suit made of a cool, slippery, unknown material that appears to have been fashioned for a tall, adult female. The chest was found during the refurbishment being undertaken at one of the family’s properties in the Orkney Islands – an old, dilapidated castle which the present owner, Mr. Magnusson – the illegitimate son of Lord Thurso – intends to remodel into an exclusive hotel and resort. Neither Max nor Truelove has any idea what the suit is made of or its purpose, when Magnusson tells them it’s a selkie suit and then of the old family legend that tells of their ancestor – a fisherman – who fell in love with a beautiful maiden who came from the sea. Having fallen instantly in love with her, the fisherman found her sealskin suit and hid it so she could never swim away and leave him – she stayed for seven years and bore him two children, but then found her suit and disappeared back into the sea.
Shortly after this discovery, Truelove and Max come face to face one more with their red-headed nemesis – who introduces himself as Hunter – and who seems to want something from them that they do not have. He also has knowledge of the future, telling Max that he will write a book in 1921 about his experiences with time travel and says that he himself was born in 1985; but before he can explain further or harm either of them, Magnusson intervenes and Hunter escapes by diving out the window into the sea below.
When, the next day, Truelove receives a telegram from the duchess asking for information about Silverton’s whereabouts, she is forced to confront the heart-breaking truth; that he really is missing and she has no idea how to find him or even where to look for him. Until something happens that makes her think that perhaps asking where to look is the wrong question…
A Strange Scottish Shore is an incredibly creative and entertaining story that kept me eagerly turning the pages as I wondered what had happened to Silverton, how – and if – Truelove was ever going to find him, exactly what Max’s power entails and how all of it related to the legend of the selkie, which is very cleverly woven throughout the novel with excerpts from it prefacing each chapter. (The author points out in her note at the end that while this legend is her own invention, such stories are frequently to be found in Scottish folklore). The characterisation of both leads is excellent and Truelove’s distinctive narrative voice is as strong as ever. She is intelligent and perceptive, but wary of falling for Silverton, while he is a thoroughly charming rogue who, as her father tells her, should not be judged by the mask he wears. Their relationship continues along the same lines as in the first book until his disappearance, when Truelove is forced to confront the truth of her feelings, and by her willingness to make a potentially life-changing sacrifice in order to find him, to admit that her attempts to resist him were useless.
The mix of romance, mystery and the supernatural is just about right for someone like me, who likes there to be an emphasis on the romance in mystery and adventure stories – and saying that is probably a bit of a spoiler, so I’m not going to say any more about the plot, which is complex without being impenetrable (but you do need to concentrate!) and superbly constructed. Ms. Gray does answer some of the questions I had at the end of book one, but then proceeds to pose more and the book ends… if not quite on a cliffhanger, then certainly at a point at which it is clear that there is more to come.
A Strange Scottish Shore has cemented my commitment to this series, and I am eagerly looking forward to more. I’d definitely recommend both books to anyone who enjoys romantic historical mysteries and is on the lookout for something a little out of the ordinary.