In November I decided to sign up for Rosie’s Review-a-Book Challenge and I received a copy of The Mermaid and The Bear by Ailish Sinclair. With such a delicious title I looked forward very much to reading this book.
This is a historical romance set in late 16th century Scotland. Isobell, along with her brother Jasper and their friend Ian, have run away from London in order for Isobell to escape marriage to ‘Wicked Richard’, and are to start a new life in rural Aberdeenshire. So begins the ‘fairy tale’ story of the Mermaid and the Bear. I call it a ‘fairy story’ because it contains so many elements of that genre and is charmingly written, although the magical elements are more prosaic than the title might imply.
The book starts with a bold and intriguing statement – “The first time the sea killed me…” a portent that is echoed much later in the book. However, we are soon led from the grime of nausea, retching and an unpleasant sea voyage to the imagery of fairy tales and stories conjured up by Jasper to remind Isobell of their destination. Faced with an arranged marriage to a man whose actions and attitude frighten her, Isobell has arranged to escape to a castle in Scotland where she is to assume the role of kitchen helper; whilst Jasper and Ian are to work at a nearby farm belonging to Ian’s cousin. Brought up in a grand house in London it is difficult to see how she would pull off this transformation, and indeed the housekeeper, Bessie Thom, sees through her straight away. However, as Isobell relates her story, Bessie is swayed to take Isobell under her wing.
We are soon introduced to the other main characters connected to the castle; Agnes the governess who feels resentment at Isobell’s intrusion into the household not least because they have to share a room. Duncan the friendly greeve (steward) of the castle who lives in a charming little house in the woods. Christen Michell, secret Catholic and the stern and forbidding lady of the castle whose deceased daughter Mary had been the Laird’s wife. Wee Thomas the sweet little son of the Laird and Mary, and whom Agnes looks after, although not with any particular skill or affection. And of course, Thomas Manteith the Laird himself, the bear of the title, and whose first glimpse of Isobell brings blushes to her cheeks.
Isobell falls naturally into the rhythm of castle life, and with a few setbacks here and there, progresses from kitchen helper to governess, supplanting Agnes along the way. Christen Michell warms to her when she nurses Wee Thomas and tries to introduce her to the Catholic faith. Isobell meanwhile relishes in the countryside surrounding the castle, the pool that she swims in and the stone circle, and the old ways that she feels connected to.
It is no surprise that romance blooms along the way, and we would be forgiven for thinking that all involved would soon live ‘happily ever after’. However, romantic fiction needs a cruel twist, and Sinclair introduces the element of witchcraft into her fairy story with unhappy conclusions.
As you discover in the historical notes at the end of the book Ailish Sinclair took the names of three real women accused of witchcraft in 1597 – Isobell Manteith, Bessie Thom and Christen Michell, and has woven them a sumptuous story based around some basic facts. A timely reminder of the horrors of the 16th century witch hunts, and one which Sinclair has used well in her story.
If you want to be whisked away into a magical world of 16th century Scotland with beautiful descriptions, delightful characters and an easy to read style, then this book is probably for you.
I enjoyed the book and hesitate to offer any criticism because it fits very well into the genre of historical romance that it is aimed at. I don’t tend to read many books in this genre in general as I find it can be a bit cliched at times. We all know who Isobell will end up with, and her life feels slightly unrealistically charmed at times. I suspect a young girl from a grand house in 16th century London would not have fitted into a rural Scottish castle quite so well in real life and may not have even been able to understand the language spoken. But this isn’t ‘history’ this is ‘romance’ and Sinclair has a lovely way with words that is perfect for escapism (and something we have all needed this past year). The book does take a dark turn and I think Sinclair could have done even more with the witchcraft section of the story as she has obviously done her research.
If you are drawn to historical romances I would highly recommend it, and I am sure you will be delighted with it. I hope Sinclair has more stories within her and continues to charm her readers.