A Breath of Snow and Ashes is the sixth novel in Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and if you don’t know much about the series, you might want to read my reviews of Drums of Autumn and The Fiery Cross. In particular, the review of Drums of Autumn contains a lot of background information about the series and a quick summary of the first three novels.
This book is SO much better than The Fiery Cross. I enjoy this series (ridiculous and sleazy as it sometimes – no, often – is) and feel invested in it, but when I was reading The Fiery Cross I really lamented that something bad had happened to Gabaldon’s narrative judgment. That book was just unspeakably dull – and it was over a thousand pages long. I was so relieved to find Gabaldon back to her old self in A Breath of Snow and Ashes.
The central tension in this novel is the approach of January 21, 1775. When Claire Fraser was in the twentieth century at the beginning of Voyager (the third novel in this series), she did some research on her eighteenth-century husband Jamie Fraser’s past with the help of historian Roger MacKenzie, who later becomes her son-in-law, and Roger unearths a newspaper article stating that Jamie Fraser and his wife were killed in a house fire on January 21, 1775 and that they left no surviving children. When Claire returns to the eighteenth century, she shares this information with Jamie. They both fear this approach of this date – not only for themselves but for their daughter Brianna and her husband and son, since the article suggests that Brianna will die before this date – but Jamie, as always, remains confident that he can protect Claire and avert this fate.
This novel is full of fire. At its outset, bands of marauders are roaming North Carolina burning down houses. The reasons for these attacks aren’t always clear, but the people of the colony are certainly becoming more and more politically divided as the Revolutionary War approaches, and in some cases the fires seem politically motivated. In addition, Claire and Brianna are becoming more and more adventurous about trying to bring twentieth-century technology to Fraser’s Ridge, and every so often they get a shipment of raw phosphorous or oil of vitriol or some other ingredient for Claire’s homemade ether or Brianna’s homemade matches, and of course these items are flammable, and there’s a constant tension in this novel that the whole place (Claire and Jamie’s house, Brianna and Roger’s house, all of Fraser’s Ridge, all of North Carolina…) will soon go up in flames. I won’t tell you exactly what happens on the twenty-first of January; all I’ll say is that the predicted (or reported – the lines between journalism and prophecy are blurred thanks to all the time travel in these novels) fire both happens and doesn’t happen, and of course Claire and Jamie don’t die, silly, because there are still two more novels to go in the series. Brianna and Roger don’t die either. But you knew that.
One of the reasons I was so frustrated with The Fiery Cross was that it did so little to advance our understanding of how time travel works in Gabaldon’s world. This novel does a lot to rectify that problem. Over the course of the last two novels, Claire has become vaguely aware that at some point a Native American man from the twentieth century (called “Otter Tooth” for the fillings in his teeth) traveled to the eighteenth century and died there. Well, in this novel we meet one of Otter Tooth’s friends, Wendigo Donner. The moment at which Claire meets Donner and learns that he is from the twentieth century reflects Gabaldon at her best: this moment is dramatic, outlandish (no pun intended) and one hundred percent surprising. Here’s how it happens: Claire is in the middle of being gang raped (Gabaldon writes very flippantly about rape in many of these novels – ho hum, yes, there’s more rape going on – so I might as well do the same in my review, although I don’t mind telling you that I feel fairly strange about it), and after one of her assailants leaves, the next arrives, and he leans in as if he is about to begin raping her, but instead he whispers in her ear, “Does the name Ringo Starr mean anything to you?”
I mean, that’s great, right? Trashy as hell, but great – at least insofar as the word “great” can be used to describe a situation that involves gang rape. This moment is as electrifying as the moment in Outlander when Jamie is carrying Claire away from the scaffold where she was about to be burned as a witch and she looks back at her friend Geillis Duncan and sees that she bears a smallpox vaccination scar. It’s been a while – certainly not since Voyager – since Gabaldon surprised me in this way.
The more we learn about the mechanics of time travel, the clearer it is becoming that Gabaldon wants us to consider themes of predestination and fate. Predestination is part of this novel’s subject matter in part because Roger MacKenzie spends part of this novel preparing for his ordination as a Presbyterian minister, and he is expected to pledge his belief in the doctrine of predestination. This theme is important as Jamie and Claire prepare for the expected fire on January 21 as well – does the presence of the newspaper article in the twentieth century mean there is no way that they can prevent the fire from taking place? If the house catches on fire, can they at least save themselves? In Dragonfly in Amber, Claire and Jamie try to interfere with the actions of Prince Charles Stuart in order to prevent or at least mitigate the effects of the battle of Culloden and are totally ineffective – the battle is just as catastrophic as it was when Claire heard about it in the twentieth century. It does seem, though, as if there are small changes that Claire and her family can make from their vantage point as time travelers, and Gabaldon keeps this preoccupation with predestination at the forefront of Claire’s mind throughout the novel.
This novel is more contemplative than others in the series. The point of view sticks much closer to Claire than either of the last three novels, and I think this is a very good move on Gabaldon’s part. Jamie, Brianna, and Roger are still important characters, of course, and some chapters are told in the third person from their point of view, but these diversions are kept at a minimum. As she moves toward what might be the day of her death, Claire spends a lot of time looking back, and she contemplates many of the events of the earlier novels both in her thoughts and in her discussions with Jamie. I can’t tell you exactly why I enjoy this series and why I keep returning to it even after disappointments like The Fiery Cross, but I do think that both Claire and Jamie are fascinating characters and that their relationship – implausible and fantastical as it is, of course – is extremely well drawn. Jamie is both supremely competent at just about every task required of an eighteenth-century male and also inwardly wounded and vulnerable; Claire is smart, intuitive, assertive, and confident, but she also possesses the arrogance of the twentieth-century surgeon that she is: she thinks she should be able to solve every problem and manage every catastrophe, and she needs the eighteenth century to teach her that she too can be defeated. These characters complement and uplift and comfort each other beautifully, and their relationship is, in my opinion, Diana Gabaldon’s great gift to the world of escapist fiction.
Of course there is plenty of silliness in this novel too. The kidnapping and gang rape of Claire is impossible to take seriously; even though such an event would have been horrific if it had happened in real life, I mostly just snorted my way through it. The last hundred pages or so are devoted to the further adventures of Stephen Bonnet, who carries his amputated and bullet-holed testicle around with him in a glass jar and talks openly about his penis (named LeRoi) as if it were the first mate on his pirate ship. The Frasers’ servant Lizzie finds time between bouts of malarial fever to marry both Beardsley twins and bear a child by one or the other of them – no one involved knows which twin is truly the father – and set up house in this comfortable though bizarre threesome. Gabaldon continues her awkward attempts to write the voices of children, and I was just as happy when Fergus, Marsali, and their brood packed themselves off to the city to run a newspaper and the antics of lascivious six-year-old Germain became someone else’s problem. And then of course there are elderly Jocasta Cameron and Duncan Innes and their supposedly chaste marriage – which is chaste because both spouses are having hot and heavy affairs with the slaves.
But whatever. I hardly ever read books that are this silly, but I enjoyed this novel. I am both looking forward to the remaining two novels in the series and also sort of sad that the end of the series is in sight. This novel was just what I needed during a stressful couple of weeks in my life. I needed a book that could provide a true escape, and I most certainly found one.