October 2009, American Historical (Revolutionary War Period New York and Scotland)
Delacorte, $30.00, 820 pages, Amazon ASIN 0385342454 Part of a series
Have you ever wondered how reviewers balance review-reading and books for fun? Everyone does it differently, but I'm fairly regimented; starting at the beginning of the month, I'll read three books for review (that's our standard reviewer commitment), then my book club book. If I have any month left over (often I don't), I'll read what I want. Usually. Every four years or so, we get the next installment of Jamie and Claire's story, and I will drop everything to read it immediately. Once I hit the half-way point, depression sets in. I know I'm reading it too fast, and I start dreading the inevitable moment when I turn the last page - and then have to wait another four years to hear more.
I know everyone doesn't have that level of interest. When I went to the signing for An Echo in the Bone, I discovered a number of people who loved the books, but got bogged down in the minutiae of the later ones. Several people stall out at The Fiery Cross (quite possibly because it starts with a day that's 164 pages long). In full disclosure, I am just not one of those people; I find the details and digressions fascinating, and I'm aware that not everyone enjoys them as much. There is, for example, a passage where Claire operates on Jamie. The procedure (and preparation for it) is described in excruciating detail. Either you like that sort of thing - or you don't.
But I'm kind of getting ahead of myself. The book picks right up where the last one left off, and if you can't remember precisely where that was, you are not alone. And if you get annoyed with back-story, you won't need to worry about that, because you are expected to remember everything that happened, and the name of every character who has appeared in the previous six books (or more, if you include the Lord John books). I didn't really remember, and I doubt you will either, unless you've just come off a re-reading. I knew vaguely that Jamie and Claire's North Carolina Home had just burned down, and that they'd survived. And that Roger, Briana, and family had just high-tailed it to modern Scotland because Mandy needed an operation. Fortunately, that was enough to go on, and I more or less remembered or figured out the rest as I went along.
The gist of this story is that Jamie and Claire are trying to get to Scotland to retrieve Jamie's printing press. Along the way, they get forestalled and end up participating in some military conflicts (specifically the Battle of Saratoga). Meanwhile, Briana and Roger are acclimating to life in 1980s Scotland, which has its own dangers. Roger is trying to decide whether he still feels an avocation for the ministry. Briana starts working, and the family has to deal with prejudice in a small town.
In addition to these stories, we also hear quite a bit from Lord John Grey and his adopted son William (Jamie's bastard son). William is in the British army, and as a new officer has the opportunity to choose between conventional battle and intelligence work. Part of the motivation for Jamie's journey to Scotland is the feat that he might face his son on opposite sides of the battlefield (indeed, they end up encountering each other rather too many times for coincidence). Lord John is, of course, concerned with William's safety. Much of his time is also consumed with intelligence work as he tries to figure out the role of a mysterious figure from his past.
Jamie's nephew Ian also gets his own POV here. He has issues from his life with the Mohawk that he needs to put to rest, and even (sweetly) a current love interest from a very different background. He too must return to Scotland, mostly so Jamie can fulfill a promise to his sister (Ian's mom) Jenny. I'll add in here that I still think Jenny needs to be hit with something heavy; I hate how she treats Claire, and I'm not convinced that she has any excuse for it.
So, impressions. I loved it, but that's not really surprising. I love Gabaldon's writing, love the historical detail, and love most of the characters (except Jenny and Laoghaire. I hope we are done hearing about Laoghaire). Whether you love will likely depend on your tolerance for Byzantine plot twists, excruciating detail, and Dickensian coincidences. These are all aspects that might drive me crazy in someone else's plot, but didn't annoy me in the slightest here. There was, however, a stretch of time when I thought we were going to be left with the most annoying cliffhanger of all time. We weren't, so I forgave all.
I'm sure you already know whether you plan to read this book. It almost goes without saying that you shouldn't even think of it if you haven't read the others, because even those who have read everything have trouble keeping up. For me it comes down to this: If every living author I loved simultaneously released a book, I'd grab Gabaldon's first. I'd rather read her than anyone. While this isn't my favorite of the series, I enjoyed it enormously, and mourned at the end - simply because it was over.
-- Blythe Barnhill
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