Highland Raven (Book 1 of the Celtic Blood series) by Melanie Karsak is a historical fantasy origin story of the real Lady MacBeth, Gruoch of Scotland. I was instantly intrigued with this premise, as I really didn’t know anything about Gruoch. However, Karsak’s novel is much more magical and fantasy-based rather than straight historical fiction. It’s more like fantasy with historical elements. I definitely got Mists of Avalon and Black Jewels trilogy vibes from the whole thing–two stories I really love, so Highland Raven turned out to be right up my alley.
The novel opens with a sixteen-year-old Gruoch, in the care of her aunt, soon to be given over to a coven for training (a la Morgaine in Mists of Avalon). Gruoch will not have much time to train, however, as she is a key political pawn and bargaining chip for King Malcolm of Scotland. Gruoch’s future marriage will ultimately decide the future of Scotland and its heirs. Gruoch and the coven soon find she is more powerful than they could have imagined; she can take the form of a raven and she has powerful past lives that imbue her with wisdom, knowledge, and power in her present life as Gruoch. Her training at the coven, as well as her forays into traversing the astral plane and entering the realm of the fey felt wonderful and familiar in a good kind of way because I have fond memories of Mists of Avalon and the Black Jewels Trilogy, which are similar coming of magical age stories.
I felt the beginning of Highland Raven relied too much on archetypes and tropes, which made for a lackluster start and I wasn’t sure if the story would get better. Thus, the novel is a bit slow to start, but picks up steam when Gruoch arrives at the coven and is a fast read until the abrupt end. I know this is a series, but the end seemed to come out of nowhere without a climax and denouement. Although Highland Raven was a fast, fun, and entertaining read, the writing style was a bit bland at times. Also, I know this is historical fantasy, but Bouddica’s burial place would not have been in Scotland since the Iceni tribe were from Southern England around Cambridge and Norfolk.
All that said, I think I will at some point read the next book.