Sunday, April 12, 2015

Review: The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

I read the first four Outlander books eighteen years ago. That's all there were then, and it's probably a good thing since I completely devoured them in the space of three solid days of reading.  (Yes, I really do mean three days, not three weeks.)  I ignored my infant son and my husband to utterly lose myself in the eighteenth century world that Diana Gabaldon had created. I bought myself a copy of the Outlandish Companion. I was obsessed. And when new books in the series started being released, I bought them too. But I never read them, afraid to have them tarnish the magic of the first four. (And in the interest of full disclosure, the first book is still my favorite--thanks in no small part to the fact that it was my introduction to this world.) But now with Outlander finally making it to the small screen, I decided I should not only revisit the first books again but also pick up where I left off and read the fifth book (and maybe even the sixth, seventh, and eighth eventually too). So I have spent the past week immersed in the world of Jamie and Claire once again and while it was generally enjoyable, The Fiery Cross, did not quite grab me and consume me like the previous four did.

This fifth installment opens with Jamie and Claire and all of the folks from Fraser's Ridge, including Brianna, Roger, and baby Jem, at the largest Gathering of Scots in North Carolina. Brianna and Roger are finally to marry but the cold, foggy, and wet weather on the day of the wedding presages the uncomfortable events that will drive the narrative of the novel forward. First, a regiment of British soldiers arrives with the unwelcome news that a militia will have to be raised to put the agitating Regulators in their place. Jamie, a land holder by grant of the governor, is required to raise men to commit to this cause. As if this wasn't enough to dampen the day, the Catholic priest who was to perform Brianna and Roger's wedding and the wedding of Jamie's aunt Jocasta is arrested for practicing his faith, illegal as it is in North Carolina, and not allowed to perform the ceremonies. Both of these seemingly small incidents, combined with Jamie's continued search for Stephen Bonnet so that he may exact justice for Bonnet's treachery, are the driving forces behind the plot. But they are often overshadowed by the recitation of daily life in the back country of the North Carolina mountains.

Gabaldon has done a prodigious amount of research into anything and everything pre-Revolutionary North Carolina and it shows in the attention to detail in every scene. There's accurate information on everything from primitive eighteenth century medicine, the politics of the time, how daily tasks were accomplished without modern inventions, the clothing worn, animal husbandry, native ceremonies and life, to the local flora and fauna not only in the mountains but along the coast as well. And as Jamie and Claire, and Roger and Brianna go about their daily life, they are also caught up in the stirring currents that will lead to the war that they know must come. They will face the common dangers that faced all settlers of the time but they will face extraordinary dangers as well.  This is nothing different from previous books but unlike in the previous books in the series, this one drags a bit with the main plot threads disappearing for long stretches of pages. The shifting narrative, from Claire's first person narration to a third person limited narration centered mostly on Roger, is disconcerting and often times abrupt. There is a sameness to the story that makes the reader wonder if so much of the monotony of everyday life needed to be recorded when it was no longer novel or curious to the time travelling characters or to the reader either. The book presents a much more settled relationship between Jamie and Claire, one no longer fraught with the constant fear of loss but substitutes for this tension with the shifting uncertainty and unanswered and unanswerable questions between Roger and Brianna. And perhaps that's a part of the difference in this book. Roger and Brianna are not the compelling characters, burning together, that Jamie and Claire have always been so to make their story carry equal weight with Jamie and Claire, makes the novel less engaging over all. Despite the slow moving story and the sometimes over long repetition, this is still a ticket back to Jamie and Claire's world so diehard fans will not want to skip it even as the hope is that the following books will recapture the addictive and completely enthralling feel of the first books.

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