Historical Musings #42: Reading Diana Gabaldon

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. This month I am looking at the work of Diana Gabaldon, an author I first read in the 1990s, when only the first four books in her bestselling Outlander series had been published. Since then I have joined other readers in the long wait for each new book – there are now eight of them, with a ninth on the way, as well as some spin-off novels and collections of novellas and short stories. There’s also a successful TV adaptation, which I’m sure some of you will have seen even if you haven’t read the books.

The novels are a mixture of romance (mainly in the first book), adventure, mystery and a small amount of science fiction and take us across the world from Scotland and France to America and the Caribbean. The first book, Outlander (which I originally knew as Cross Stitch – its UK title), introduces us to Claire Randall, a 1940s nurse who is visiting Scotland when she walks through a stone circle in the Highlands and finds herself transported back in time to the 18th century. The first person Claire meets is Black Jack Randall, an army officer who becomes convinced that she is a spy. It seems that the only way she can escape his clutches is to marry Jamie Fraser, a young Scottish outlaw – the problem is, she already has a husband in the 20th century…

The Outlander novels

The series currently consists of the following eight books:

Outlander/Cross Stitch (1991)
Dragonfly in Amber (1992)
Voyager (1993)
Drums of Autumn (1996)
The Fiery Cross (2001)
A Breath of Snow and Ashes (2005)
An Echo in the Bone (2009)
Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (2014)

The ninth book – which will not be the last one, by the way – will be called Go Tell the Bees That I am Gone but no publication date has been announced yet.

I have read the first four books in the series several times each and although I think Gabaldon’s writing has improved over time, those earlier books are still my favourites, particularly Dragonfly in Amber and Voyager. The later books, in my opinion, have become too complex and ambitious, with too many storylines and characters and written from too many different perspectives. An Echo in the Bone and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood also draw in a lot of characters from the Lord John series (more on that below), which I just couldn’t seem to get interested in, and I feel that the focus on Jamie and Claire has been lost. I am still looking forward to the final books, though – I’ve come too far now to not find out how the series ends!

The Lord John series

Gabaldon has also written a series of historical mystery novels which are spin-offs from the main series. These novels focus on Lord John Grey, who had a small part in Dragonfly in Amber before going on to play an increasingly significant role in the other Outlander novels.

Lord John and the Private Matter (2003)
Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (2007)
The Scottish Prisoner (2011)

I have read the first two books, but not the third as by that point I had decided that, although I like Lord John himself, the secondary characters in the series didn’t interest me and I didn’t really want to read any more about them.

There are also several Lord John novellas – and a few featuring other characters from the main series – and some of these were collected together in Seven Stones to Stand or Fall.

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You can find out more about Gabaldon and her work by visiting her website, DianaGabaldon.com.

I will be looking at more historical fiction authors in future posts, but for now I would like to hear your thoughts on Diana Gabaldon.

Have you read any of her books? Which are your favourites?

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon

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.

Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon

Written in my Own Heart's Blood Diana Gabaldon seems to polarise readers like no other author. It’s rare to find anyone who has read one of her novels and didn’t feel strongly about it one way or the other! I do completely understand the reasons why people would dislike her writing, but I admit that I’ve always loved her Outlander series, at least until the last couple of books. I think I was about eighteen when I read Gabaldon’s first novel – Cross Stitch as it was called here in the UK, and I immediately went on to read the next three books (there were only four in the series then). Since then I’ve read each new book as it was published. The seventh volume, An Echo in the Bone (which happens to be the very first book I reviewed on this blog in 2009), left me feeling a bit disappointed, but sadly this new one has disappointed me even more, especially after a five year wait.

In some respects I think Gabaldon has improved as a writer over the course of the series, but the later books just don’t compare to the earlier ones in any of the other ways that matter to me – in plot, structure, characterisation or emotional impact. I’m not sure whether it’s just that my tastes have changed over the years, but I think the shift in narrative structure from being mainly narrated by one character in the first person to being told from multiple perspectives might also have something to do with it. And then there’s the fact that while the earlier novels are set mostly in Scotland during the 1745 Jacobite Rising and its aftermath, the later ones are set during the American Revolution, a period I’m not as interested in. Whatever the reason, these books are starting to lose their appeal for me. I’ll still be following the series to its end, though – I’ve invested far too much time in it to stop now!

Anyway, on with my thoughts on Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. This review is as spoiler-free as I could make it but as it refers to the eighth book in a series you may prefer not to read any further until you’ve caught up with the first seven books. At this point I should say that if you’re not already familiar with this series, then you really need to start at the beginning or you’ll get hopelessly confused!

If you remember, the previous book, An Echo in the Bone, ended on more than one cliffhanger and thankfully Written in My Own Heart’s Blood picks up immediately where Echo left off. There are two main threads to the novel. First, we follow Jamie, Claire and their assorted friends and family members who are all now based in Philadelphia. The year is 1778 and we are in the middle of the Revolution, with all the dangers and complications that brings. In the novel’s other strand, we return to Lallybroch in Scotland to catch up with Brianna and Roger who are having some exciting adventures of their own.

I really wanted to love this book but unfortunately I experienced a lot of the same problems with this one that I had with Echo. Both books seem to be dominated by characters and storylines from Gabaldon’s spin-off Lord John series – and I gave up on that series after two books. Ideally, I would have preferred the Lord John characters to stay in the Lord John books and the main Outlander series to concentrate on Jamie, Claire and the other characters we already know and love, such as Fergus and Marsali and their children or Ian Murray and Jenny. It seemed strange to me, for example, that we see so little in this book of Jenny interacting with Ian, the son she hasn’t seen for years, yet so much time is devoted to a search for Lord John’s nephew, Ben, a character who I can’t even remember being mentioned in previous books.

I don’t want to sound completely negative, because the good parts of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood are very good, but overall I thought the book lacked focus and because there are so many different storylines all running parallel with each other, it was inevitable that I would struggle to care about them all, particularly the ones dealing with characters I don’t really like. Many of the things that happen in the book feel superfluous and seem to have no real purpose other than to make a very long book even longer: a storyline involving two young girls William takes under his protection, an operation Claire performs on a slave with an unpleasant medical condition, and the death of a character which I found totally unnecessary.

The military aspect of the book was another problem for me, but I’ll admit that my lack of knowledge of this period of American history is probably to blame. I couldn’t keep track of the various Generals and Colonels and which side they were on, and whenever Claire met a presumably famous historical figure of the period I didn’t feel the excitement I was obviously intended to feel. My fault, though, not the author’s.

On the other hand, I thought Roger and Brianna’s parts of the book were fantastic! It was great to meet characters I’d never expected to meet again. These sections were much more compelling than the rest of the book, something I never thought I would say! While I’ve always liked Roger I could never quite warm to Bree and have often been impatient with the amount of time devoted to them in some of the previous books – but not this time. I was disappointed that only two out of the novel’s nine parts follow Roger and Bree and their children…I didn’t want their story to come to an end.

So, I’ve been left with very mixed feelings about this book and am sorry I’ve had to post a less than glowing review of a book by an author I used to consider one of my favourites. I did love the final few pages, though, because what I had been desperately hoping would happen did happen! If I didn’t already know that there’s going to be a book nine I think I would have been happy for this to have been the end of the series, even though there are still some storylines left unresolved. Based on past experience, I suspect we’ll have to wait four or five years to read the ninth, and probably final, book. I’m sure I’ll be reading it, despite my problems with this one, and am hoping for a satisfying conclusion to the series.

Remember These? Books beginning with D and E

Remember These? is a series of posts looking at some of the books I recorded in my old pre-blogging reading diary. The diary spanned my teens to my early twenties, and although I’ve included my original ratings, these ratings do not necessarily reflect what I would feel about the books if I read them again today!

Here are some of the books that appeared on the ‘D’ and ‘E’ pages of my notebook.

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon (5/5)

If there’s any author who really seems to divide opinion, it’s Diana Gabaldon. I personally love her books and have read the whole Outlander/Cross Stitch series several times (there are currently seven books in the series with at least one more to come). Dragonfly in Amber is probably my favourite – I loved the Paris setting and the black magic aspect, and it’s also the most emotional of the seven books, in my opinion.

The Dark Half by Stephen King (5/5)

Between the ages of about fifteen and twenty I read a lot of Stephen King books but haven’t read any since then. I seem to remember this being one of my favourites. It’s about an author, Thad Beaumont, who writes under the name George Stark. But when Thad decides to ‘kill off’ his pseudonym, he discovers that George doesn’t want to die…

Dragonfly by John Farris (4/5)

Synopsis: “Abby Abelard is the hottest-selling romance writer in America. Dr. Joe Bryce, a dedicated physician, has spent the last three years in war-torn Africa. But he has sins on his conscience and a frightening past he can never outrun, even with Abby’s help.”
I have no memories of this book at all, so can’t tell you what it was that I liked about it. Have any of you read it?

Elidor by Alan Garner (3/5)

I first read this at school and later bought my own copy of it. It’s about four children who find themselves drawn into a mystical land called Elidor where evil forces are at work. The book is quite scary in places but I would highly recommend it for older children and young teenagers.

The Dark Cliffs by F.E. Smith (3/5)

This is obviously a very obscure one! I’ve been unable to find any information online at all, although LibraryThing tells me it’s been tagged as gothic suspense. I’d love to hear from anyone who remembers reading this book.

Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock (3/5)

I only came across Michael Moorcock’s books because my dad liked them and passed his collection on to me. I’ve never been very interested in fantasy, but I loved these books. The Elric series (particularly this one, Stormbringer and The Stealer of Souls) were my favourites.

Double Vision by Annie Ross (2/5)

Synopsis: “When an American heiress is murdered, the police charge her British husband with murder. But, when a second murder occurs, there is no solution. UK TV director, Bel Campbell, learns of a third mysterious death, and finds the key to the identity of the murderer.”
Yet another one I don’t have any memories of reading!

The Drowning People by Richard Mason (2/5)

This is a murder mystery with a difference – we are told the identity of the murderer on the first page and the rest of the book attempts to show us why he did it.

Have you read any of these books?

Fiendish Fridays #5: Black Jack Randall

Fiendish Fridays is hosted here at She Reads Novels, profiling some of our favourite literary villains. You can see a complete list of previous Fiends and suggest one of your own here.

There are several Fiends I could have chosen from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. This is one of them…

#5 – Friday 5 March 2010: Jonathan ‘Black Jack’ Randall

Name: Jonathan Wolverton Randall

Appears in: Outlander/Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

Who is he? A captain in the English Army during the 18th century and an ancestor of our heroine Claire Randall’s husband Frank.

What is he like? He looks so much like Frank Randall that even Claire almost mistakes him for her husband, although his hair is longer, and his skin darker from years of exposure to the weather.

What makes him a Friday Fiend? According to Jamie Fraser, Randall’s nickname ‘Black Jack’ refers to the colour of his soul. Randall is cruel and sadistic and abuses his position in the army by flogging, torturing and otherwise badly treating his prisoners. As Jamie’s uncle Dougal MacKenzie says, Randall is unable to earn the respect of his men so earns their fear instead.

Redeeming features: Of all the Outlander villains (Stephen Bonnet, Geilie Duncan, Laoghaire MacKenzie and others) Black Jack Randall is probably the least sympathetic character. He does love his brother, but that’s all.

What do you think about this week’s Fiend? Who is your favourite Outlander villain?

Review: An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon

An Echo in the Bone is the 7th book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (or Cross Stitch as it’s known here in the UK) and takes place during the American Revolution. I’ve been following the adventures of Jamie Fraser and his time-travelling wife Claire for more than 10 years now and although this book won’t be published in the UK until 2010, I ordered it from the US Amazon site as I couldn’t wait to read it.

This review may contain spoilers if you haven’t read the previous 6 books in the series

If you haven’t read (or like me, have read but didn’t enjoy) the spin-off Lord John series, you might struggle with certain sections of this book. I would recommend reading Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade before beginning, as a number of characters from that book feature quite prominently in Echo. In fact, there are so many chapters (mainly in the first half of the book) devoted to Lord John, William Ransom, Percy Wainwright, Hal and Dottie, that at times this felt more like a Lord John book than an Outlander one. I do like both Lord John and William as characters though, and towards the end of the book their storylines begin to tie together with Jamie and Claire’s.

According to Diana Gabaldon, the image on the book cover is a caltrop – a weapon with four spikes each ending in a sharp point. The caltrop represents the four main storylines running simultaneously throughout the book: Jamie and Claire visiting Scotland to collect Jamie’s printing press, following the fire that destroyed their home at Fraser’s Ridge; the adventures of Jamie’s son, William, a Lieutenant in the British army; Young Ian trying to come to terms with the break-up of his marriage to Emily whilst being pursued by a vengeful old man, and Roger and Brianna following Claire and Jamie’s fate via a box of old letters.

Due to all the storylines which were taking place, the story was told from many different viewpoints – Claire, Jamie, Roger, Brianna, Young Ian, William, Lord John, Rachel Hunter (a Quaker girl who falls in love with Ian) and even one or two pages from Fergus and Jemmy’s points of view. This technique gave the book a slightly different feel to the rest of the series, though I personally preferred the style of the earlier books which were told mostly by Claire.

I know this review has so far sounded a bit negative, but there were plenty of things I loved about the book. The story was filled with bizarre coincidences and almost-forgotten characters from previous books reappearing when you least expected them, and although you had to suspend belief at times, I enjoyed this aspect of the book.

I also enjoyed the Roger and Brianna sections, as they began to read Jamie and Claire’s letters one by one in the relative safety of 20th century Lallybroch. Later in the book, though, Roger and Brianna’s story takes a more sinister turn, and they discover that they’re not quite as safe as they thought they were!

I had been looking forward to Jamie, Claire and Young Ian returning to Scotland again and being reunited with Jenny and Ian Murray – however, this didn’t happen until near the end of the book, and when they finally did get to Lallybroch, it certainly wasn’t the happy reunion I was expecting! From this point onwards, the plot suddenly started moving at a whirlwind pace. Apparently this was intentional (this section was even entitled “Reap the Whirlwind”). I think I’ll probably need to read the book again to be able to fully understand everything that was happening.

We were left with a lot of loose ends and cliffhangers, which wouldn’t be a problem if we weren’t going to have to wait another 3 or 4 years for the next book! Still, Diana Gabaldon has given us plenty to think about, as there are now an infinite number of ways in which the various storylines could progress. Although this was not my favourite in the Outlander series, I still enjoyed it and am already looking forward to Book 8!

Recommended

Genre: Historical Fiction/Pages: 820/Year: 2009/Publisher: Delacorte Press/Source: My own copy bought new