Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, A Breath of Snow and Ashes & An Echo in The Bone by Diana Gabaldon

This review concludes my frantic devouring of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. How frantic? When I started this review, it was of books 2 and 3, but now includes the rest of the published series as noted below. I covered book one in a previous effort. The 8th volume, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, will be released in 2013.

1. Outlander
2. Dragonfly in Amber
3. Voyager
4. Drums of Autumn
5. The Fiery Cross
6. A Breath of Snow and Ashes
7. An Echo in the Bone
8. Written in My Own Heart’s Blood

Theoretically, each Outlander book stands alone, but, really, it’s just one very, very long story. Once a reader is drawn into the series (there is quite a subculture out there), I imagine they are in it for the long haul and not just randomly picking up the books out of order. I also believe that if they do, they will want to go back and find out what they missed. Gabaldon incorporates call backs to situations, conversations, and characters with such aplomb that she must have them planned out several books in advance. Events and references lie dormant for thousands of pages and may be only incidental to the story, but recognizing when these elements are reincorporated brings my reading experience a little extra joy.

In Outlander, Claire Randall was on a second honeymoon with her husband, Frank, in the Scottish Highlands, after a six year separation during World War II. She visited a local henge and through the magic of fiction walked between two standing stones and ended up in the same place, but in 1743 where/when she was taken in by the MacKenzie clan. As an outsider, she was viewed with suspicion and forced into a protective marriage with the chief’s nephew, Jamie Fraser. What started as a marriage of convenience quickly developed into a profound bond between the two. It is a time of growing political unrest in Scotland leading inexorably to the Jacobite rising of 1745 which ended with the infamous Battle of Culloden. The ensuing books continue to trace their lives and relationships over time.

The historical elements of the books, specifically the day-to-day details, are of particular interest to me. The political elements play out largely as forces beyond the characters’ control, and elaborate machinations interest me neither in fiction, nor in real life. With the time travel element, of immediate import is how a modern person comes to live in the past and must cope with the challenges it presents culturally and practically. Having present day events and traveling with a “modern” character back in time gives the reader an anchor in the historical immersion process. It’s a tougher and more restricted world from which none of the inhabitants come away unscathed. Gabaldon’s willingness to subject her characters to the ugliness and strife of the 18th century, as well as its pleasures, holds the books together for me.

If you are here looking for book recommendations: Read these books. Are they Great Works of Literature? No, but they are engrossing, well-written, and highly entertaining. “Begin at the beginning,” The King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: Then stop.”, and wait for the next book to be published. I bought all SEVEN Outlander books in one impetuous and financially guilt-racked gesture while reading volume 3. The large paperback versions. Though they seem perfect for a Kindle given their weight, I needed to have them to hold onto, and it’s a great forearm workout. All my e-reader ever gave me was a numb hand and a serious case of Kindle Klaw™. I’m going to present the books in a kind of review summary/cluster with self-indulgent maundering about them. If you find my company as delightful as I do yours, and laugh in the face of extremely vague spoilers, please follow me …

ARE YOU JUST JOINING ME FROM THE CANNONBALL READ SITE? PLEASE START HERE:

Dragonfly in Amber , book 2, takes place in two timelines. We’re still not at Culloden, but we are coming to the precipice. Opening in the new present,1968, Claire and her daughter, Bree, are visiting Scotland on a historical hunting expedition. After the brief introductory chapters, the book mercifully moves back in time to the 1740s with all due haste. Not too much haste mind you, just enough non-haste to leave me writhing in anticipation of Jamie Fraser’s first appearance. Here, the story picks almost exactly where the last book ended and follows Claire and Jamie’s lives in the Paris Jacobite expat community as history wends its way inexorably to the infamous battle. Gabaldon wisely expands her narrative perspective to include an omniscient narrator. It would be hard to imagine a book of this scope without one, and it is crucial to expanding the character roster and plot development.

This is where any plot revelations get a soupcon spoiler-y :

The third book, Voyager, continues Claire’s historical search for Jamie as we learn his fate in an extended flashback. I can’t reveal the crux of the book, so I’ll just say this for the initiated: The wait nearly killed me. The anticipation, resolution, and aftermath were delicious. This book has up to three story lines going at once with present day events, quick flashbacks for background details and extended past/present story lines. It sounds complicated, but it isn’t really. It also takes the show on the road, as it were, and the Frasers are flung farther afield, sometimes literally. The book is harrowing, often in an overly episodic way, but somehow it all works because, despite the tendency towards frequent cliffhangers, the character interactions are so compellingly written that other sins can be forgiven.

It was during Voyager that I realised my willing suspension of disbelief has been comprised by my atheism. I told Mr. Julien these books made me wish that I still believed in God because then I could believe in magic, and that would add another level of enjoyment to the story. I’m not bothered by the time travel framing device, since I have enough cursory knowledge of physics to recognize that time is a construct and theoretically malleable, it’s some of the other elements that are too much for me, specifically the occasional indulgences in esoteric spirituality.

The timelines meld and go forward as one with Drums of Autumn . The action has moved, seemingly permanently, to a new location and provides a prolonged view of everyday life in another time. Claire and Jamie are mature characters now and it lends a weight to their interactions. The highlight of every book is the time these two share as a couple; their marriage is familiar and comfortable, as are their personalities. They still have fire, but the supporting characters start to take up some of the weight of the reckless passion they once shared. My only complaint about this book comes from my reading experience: It was hot, so hot, Abu Dhabi hot, that weekend, and the story was taking place in a similar climate, thus leaving me feeling even warmer and praying for the onset of narrative winter. Mercifully, the next volume starts on a cold November day.

I slowed down, relatively speaking, when I got to The Fiery Cross to help dispel the fog of a story that is thousands of pages long. Gabaldon, bless her, does a good job of bringing readers up-to-date on things that happened somewhere in the preceding thousands of pages, but while reading them in a burst helps one keep track, there were times in The Fiery Cross when I couldn’t remember what the hell she was talking about. It seems minimizing to say this book was “more of the same”, but it was and that sameness was what I was reading it for. Still, there were two notable elements in The Fiery Cross, first, that the opening 200 pages or so take place over the course of a single day. (You know a book is long when you say “the first 200 pages”). Gabaldon is writing such a sprawling work that I can appreciate the desire to try something like this, and it works well to lay the foundation of past events, the current book, and the rest of the series. The second stand out item was the rare and welcome inclusion of Jamie’s full perspective and thoughts. It was startling to realise that virtually his entire character arc had been related by Claire, or in the third person, but without revealing his inner monologue. The reader met him as a young soldier and outlaw, and watches him mature through seemingly unendurable trials. In many ways, his character arc is more complex than Claire’s, and it is fascinating to follow through the years.

That sameness I mentioned, the lovely sameness, of this epic disappeared with A Breath of Snow and Ashes . Diana Gabaldon seemed to get her second (22nd?) wind and I again found myself vibrating in my begreyed cubicle waiting for chances to read. I thought I had read enough to know, basically, where the story will and will not go. At the very least, history was pointing very strongly in one direction. There would be enough surprises in the personal relationships to keep me interested. I wanted to stay with the Frasers, and their extended family, to see where it all ended up and how it gets there; however, this book hunkers down with Jamie and Claire and mostly stays there. It’s a smart choice and a captivating one. I suspect it is also a product of Gabaldon’s maturity as a writer. The characters’ lives are just as fraught as ever, but she is so at ease in her storytelling by this point that any rough edges have been smoothed and she is willing to take the time she has given herself to let things development more organically.

Replete with enjoyment of A Breath of Snow and Ashes , I actually delayed starting An Echo in the Bone as it would be the last new volume for a while (and to combat my obsessing). Now, I started reading these books on June 10th and it’s only 5 weeks later, so “delayed” is an extremely relative term and in this case means “one week”. The main plot is built around a war and Gabaldon has included major characters on both sides. It’s the luxury of writing such a long work, if you plan it well, and aren’t afraid of convenient coincidences, everyone and everything can come around again. The drawback is that the reader might not be equally interested in all of the characters and that was certainly true for me; however, the book gained steam over the last 150 pages and crescendos in a trio of cliffhangers that set up the next book and ties up one storyline with a bow to give the reader a sense of completion.

A 6500 page story has time to explore ideas, to develop characters, and, yes, to fill. Amazingly, most episodes when I started thinking “Get on with it, Gabaldon!” the story took a turn, or the character interaction got particularly interesting, and my impatience was lost. Occasionally, it could feel like the Perils of Pauline with multiple Paulines, and I’d ask, “Really? You have this major crisis PLUS these 3 other things happen just to ratchet things up a bit? You need an editor my friend, with a red pen and the will to wield it!”. There are also a lot of coincidences and a tendency towards deus ex machina in times of crisis, but I read every single word anyway. “Really,” you ask, “every single word? You didn’t skim at all?” Okay, I skimmed a little. A very little, mostly while muttering, “Okay, peril, peril, politics, peril, there we go back on track. Where’s Jamie? “ because he is the soul of the books, and their heart is his relationship with Claire.

The Outlander series is a grand adventure, but don’t be fooled by the time travel, the politics, or the panoply of characters. Trust me, in many ways this is the biggest, baddest romance novel of all time, an expansive story played out over time and against a backdrop of politics and tremendous upheaval; however, like all the best books of any supposedly-limited genre, it transcends itself and inevitably moves into a territory with far broader and more satisfying range.

Links to my other reviews can be found on my complete reading list of books sorted by author or Author Commentary & The Tallies Shameful.

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