No, this is not a new novel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, but a collection of seven stories featuring characters from the series, written over a number of years. The first five have previously appeared in other collections, such as 2013’s A Trail of Fire, or as standalone novellas, but the final two are new ones. I hadn’t really intended to read this book; although I loved the earlier Outlander novels, I’ve been less impressed with the more recent ones, mainly because of the increasing focus on Lord John Grey’s family, and as most of these stories seemed to involve the Lord John characters I wasn’t in any hurry to read them. When I found a copy in the library a few weeks before Christmas, though, I thought I would give it a try in the hope that at least one or two of the stories would interest me – and some of them did, but maybe not the ones I would have expected!
The first story (they are all really novellas rather than ‘short stories’; I don’t think Diana Gabaldon is capable of writing anything that can truly be described as short!) is The Custom of the Army. Lord John gets into trouble at an electric eel party and when he is forced to fight a duel which goes disastrously wrong, he takes the opportunity to escape to Canada to serve as character witness for an officer who is facing a court martial. While he is there he finds himself caught up in the Battle of Quebec of 1759. Despite my general lack of enthusiasm for reading about Lord John, I found the setting interesting and thought this was a good start to the collection.
The next story, The Space Between, is entirely different from the first. It’s set around the time of An Echo in the Bone, I think, and our protagonists this time are Joan MacKimmie (whom readers of the Outlander series will remember as Laoghaire’s daughter) and Michael Murray (one of Jenny and Ian’s sons). Michael is escorting Joan to Paris where she is to become a nun, but on their arrival they become entangled with the sinister Paul Rakoczy, a character who has previously appeared in the series under a different name. I found this story quite enjoyable; it was good to meet some old friends again and also to learn more about the time travel aspects of the series. I think it’s funny that in the first Outlander novel (or Cross Stitch as it used to be called here in the UK), Claire’s ability to time travel seemed to be something unusual, yet by this point in the series almost everyone is doing it!
Now we’re back to Lord John again with Lord John and the Plague of Zombies. This time John is in Jamaica where he has been sent on army business to deal with a slave rebellion in the mountains. When the Governor of Jamaica is found murdered, it seems that a zombie could be responsible for his death…but Lord John knows nothing about zombies so needs to learn quickly. I have to admit, the title of this story was enough to put me off before I’d even read it! These particular ‘zombies’ do have a rational explanation, though, and are only one element of the story. In the overall timeline of the series, this story seems to take place shortly before the events of Voyager, when a certain Mrs Abernathy is still living at Rose Hall…
Next, we have A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows, which answers the question of what happened to Roger’s father, Jerry MacKenzie, a Spitfire pilot whose plane went down over Northumberland during World War II. This fascinating story, another which involves time travel, gives a different perspective on an episode from Written in My Own Heart’s Blood which we have already read from Roger’s point of view. I enjoyed this one as Roger is one of my favourite Outlander characters and I found it interesting to learn more about his parents.
You may be starting to wonder whether Claire and Jamie appear in any of these stories; sadly, we don’t see anything of Claire (although she is mentioned once or twice), but the next novella, Virgins, does feature a young Jamie Fraser. A straightforward prequel to Outlander, it is set during the period following Jamie’s flogging by Black Jack Randall when he joins his friend Ian Murray in France. This was the biggest disappointment in the collection, for me. It didn’t even feel as though it was written by the same author as the other stories, at least at first, although I can’t put my finger on the reason why. It does pick up halfway through, with a subplot involving the marriage of a young Jewish girl, but I still didn’t like it. I think I’m so used now to an older Jamie that I found it disconcerting to meet him as a nineteen-year-old!
Next comes my favourite story in the book: A Fugitive Green. Set in 1744, this is the story of Lord John Grey’s brother Hal, the Duke of Pardloe, and his future wife, Minnie Rennie. The young Minnie makes a wonderful heroine and I loved this tale of spying, blackmail and family secrets which takes us from Paris to London and back again. Both Hal and Minnie have appeared in other Outlander and Lord John novels, but they are not characters who ever interested me before. This story was a real surprise!
Finally, there’s Besieged, a sort of follow-up to Plague of Zombies. Lord John is still in Jamaica, but has received news that his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Pardloe, is in Havana, which is about to become the centre of a battle between Britain and Spain. Heading for Cuba to rescue her, John finds that he is too late to avoid the British invasion and the siege which follows. Like the other Lord John stories, this is set at an interesting moment in history, but the story itself was not very memorable.
So, they are the seven stories – the ‘seven stones’ of the title. They do all stand alone and it’s not completely necessary to have read anything else by Gabaldon first. However, if you’re new to her work I don’t think this would be a good place to start. I would recommend this book more for existing fans of the Outlander books (in particular, the spin-off Lord John series) who are waiting for the next full-length novel to be published.