Historical Highlands’ Legends.

Book Review for “Sisters of Castle Leod” by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard.

Summary: Lady Sibell Mackenzie is a spiritualist, a believer in reincarnation, and a popular author of mystical romances. Petite and proper, she values tradition and duty. Her younger sister Lady Constance, swimming champion and big game hunter, is a statuesque beauty who scandalizes British society with her public displays of Greek-style barefoot dancing. The differences between the sisters escalate into conflict after Sibell inherits their late father’s vast estates and the title 3rd Countess of Cromartie. But it is the birth of Sibell’s daughter that sets in motion a series of bizarre and tragic events, pitting sister against sister and propelling Sibell on a desperate mission to challenge the power of fate.”

Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Era/s: Historical – late 19th-early 20th centuries; Location/s: United Kingdom – Scotland – Castle Leod; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical, Paranormal.

Sisters of Castle Leod

According to Goodreads: “Millions are fans of Diana Gabaldon’s popular OUTLANDER books and television series, but few know that Gabaldon’s fictional Castle Leoch was inspired by a real Scottish castle, Castle Leod. The two sisters who lived there at the turn of the twentieth century were among the most fascinating and talked-about women of their era.” Well, I’ve never read Gabaldon’s books, nor seen the TV series, and don’t intend to do either, to be honest. My regular readers know that I prefer more reality-based, literary novels. However, after enjoying Bernard’s novel “Temptation Rag” she asked me if I’d like to read and review this one as well. I agreed, not knowing about the paranormal stuff in this book, but rather because I knew I liked Bernard’s writing style. Mind you, I have read ghost stories by other authors that have written literary works, but these fantastical elements do tend to rub me a bit the wrong way, and I’m afraid this will be reflected in my rating.

Thankfully, it isn’t like the whole book is filled with scenes about the occult and reincarnation. In fact, while this gets some nods early in the book, and then gets really going at one point, it also tapers off at a certain point, but not totally forgotten. Bernard distinguishes between the sisters in that Sibell believes in the supernatural, but Constance fully disavows it all as superstitious. So, when the story includes more about the rebellious Constance, there are fewer connections to spiritual world, and more about the down-to-earth irregularities of Constance’s behavior. Mind you, Sibell does attribute some events as having magical effects caused by some of Constance’s actions. Personally, I just call that coincidental, even when Sibell is almost certain that Constance is somehow dabbling in the dark arts. Obviously, this leads to some rifts between the sisters which aren’t easy to smooth over. Essentially, together with the biographical aspects of this book, what we have here is a study of a sibling dynamic that sometimes borders on the toxic.

Since these two women actually existed, and because the information about them seems pretty sparse, this enabled Bernard to invent a few fables surrounding the two of them. On the one hand, we have Sibell who was a countess in her own right (not something that women inherited at the time), as well as a well-known spiritualist and an author of several fantasy/romance stories and novels, which gained her both acclaim and some wealth (no, I won’t be looking to read any of them). Mind you, Sibell’s inheritance was also carefully curated by herself and her advisors in order to keep from losing financial stability, which happened to many owners of such large estates in the early parts of the 20th century. This makes her admirable on many levels, even if I doubt that she really saw ghosts, believed in curses, or could remember a past life as a Phoenician!

On the other hand, Bernard shows Constance to be fairly irresponsible, and even mentally unstable, which may have contributed to her increasing financial problems, despite having received a substantive inheritance herself. In fact, looking over all of Constance’s antics, one might tend to believe that she might have been bi-polar, or suffering from some type of mental instability, or even some kind of unknown addiction. Of course, Bernard also posits that some of the problems with Constance was her jealousy and anger regarding Sibell’s being named their father’s sole heir, combined with Sibell’s envy of Constance’s own beauty and talents.

As you can see, this is certainly a recipe for a truly fascinating story, and Bernard’s lyrical prose enhances this, tapping into as much as possible from these very divergent sisters, and then filling in the blanks with her own imagination. Yes, I still dislike novels that ask us to accept the paranormal as fact, and I honestly don’t think Bernard is asking us to do this here. Actually, I found many reasonable, and logical explanations for most, if not all of Sibell’s unearthly events. This is probably why I continued reading this book despite some of the more bizarre scenes, and why I’m recommending it – particularly for those readers who don’t mind, or perhaps enjoy these elements in their novels – with a very solid four stars out of five. (Yes, it might have gotten 5/5 from me if Bernard had fully debunked all those elements.)

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fc16c-netgalleytinyBlack Rose Writing released “Sisters of Castle Leod” by Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard on January 19, 2023. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Blackwell‘s, Foyles, The Book Depository UK and Book Depository US (both with free worldwide delivery), Waterstones, WHSmith, Wordery UK and Wordery US, Kobo US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, Booksamillion.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.

This novel qualifies for the following reading challenges: New Release Challenge (#3), Historical Fiction Reading Challenge (#3), What’s In A Name (#2 – Category: Chess Piece – another name for a rook is a castle).

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