Alan McLennan is a clan laird, driven by revenge against the man who had his family taken away or killed in front of him. He orders the construction of a castle with a dungeon and then spends three years travelling in China as a hired mercenary to take him away from it all. In China, he buys a little girl, Peony, from her family to have as a slave to look after him.

As they travel together, the two become closer but without Alan ever realising it; the kindness he once had is hidden deeply by the emotional scars of his family’s murder. Eventually they return to Scotland, where the castle is ready, and McLennan calls his men to attack the McInnes stronghold, an ill-executed plan which has tragic consequences.

This story has just the right amount of pace in an essentially character-driven story. It’s made clear to us early on that Alan is a good man who’s had all his goodness swept away or buried deep by the act that took his family from him. Throughout the entire story, he is consumed by revenge, but when the moment of revenge finally arrives, and the truth comes out between the two lairds, he finds himself empty.

Peony is about eight years old when McLennan buys her and about twelve when the book finishes. There’s no suggestion of anything improper in the attentions of the Chinese and Scottish fighting men with whom she lives; rather, the men do their best to give her comfort especially when her own master ignores her, treating her as bought goods. One older Chinese man in particular teaches her from the wisdom of his Buddhist philosophy.

This is not a book with a happy ending. It is a tragedy in any sense of the word. McLennan’s thirst for revenge blinds him to many other things, and especially to those around him. Without really meaning to, he uses the Chinese soldiers he stays with, his own people in Scotland, and Peony. Only occasionally does his former kinder self shine through, and then he denies or rejects it. Although he does take good care of Peony after his own fashion, he always disguises the fact to himself as taking good care of property rather than of a person. Right to the end, he sees her more as a good-luck charm, although this attitude clearly does not represent the true man he could be, merely the driven man he’s allowed himself to become in his quest for revenge.

Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of goodtoread.org.