This series is so exhausting. Its first four novels (Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, and Drums of Autumn) are relatively consistent in quality, and what I mean by that is that they are generally engaging and entertaining in spite of occasional dull stretches. Then The Fiery Cross is fifteen hundred pages of pure tedium. Then A Breath of Snow and Ashes is really quite good – as good as the first four and maybe even the best of the series except for Voyager. A Breath of Snow and Ashes was the first book in the series that I finished and immediately wanted to begin reading the next book. And then there was An Echo in the Bone – not quite as horrible as The Fiery Cross, but still disappointing and at times just riddled with what seem to me to be rookie storytelling mistakes. Like The Fiery Cross, this novel is dull up until its last hundred pages, at which point it becomes insanely action-packed. I’m so glad to be done with this book and with the series for a while, although I’m sure I’ll read the eighth and final book in the series when it comes out.
One of this novel’s few strengths is the fact that a lot changes in the lives of Jamie and Claire Fraser and their friends and family over its course. Brianna, Roger, and their children left the eighteenth century at the end of A Breath of Snow and Ashes, and portions of this novel concern their new life in the 1980’s. These sections are actually really compelling, and I wish they had made up more of the book. Brianna and Roger move back to Scotland and purchase Lallybroch, Jamie Fraser’s family estate, raising their children not far from the circle of standing stones that first launched Claire into the eighteenth century seven long novels ago. Soon after they move in, they discover a box of letters addressed to them from Jamie and Claire, and they read through these letters slowly, one at a time (as if anyone would ever do that – any real person in this situation would read all of the letters at once, right? Wouldn’t you?) to learn about what happened to their family after they returned to their own time. They deal with the challenges of readjusting to the twentieth century, as Roger reconsiders his call to the ministry and Brianna deals with gender discrimination at her new engineering job and Jem is punished for flaunting his repertoire of Gaelic curse words at his twentieth-century school. There’s more to say about Roger and Brianna’s storyline, which I expect will be featured more prominently in the next book, and I’ll return to them in a bit.
Back in the eighteenth century, the American Revolution is in full swing. Claire, Jamie, and Ian leave Fraser’s Ridge and catch a ship back to Scotland, but they are waylaid by a series of ridiculous incidents aboard a series of ships (I lost track of how many different shipwrecks and shipjackings and whatever the hell else happened during these chapters), and, long story short, they end up at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York just before the battle of Saratoga. However, at least half of the novel doesn’t even deal with the Frasers and the MacKenzies at all, as Lord John Grey and William Ransom, Earl of Ellesmere have been given much more primacy in this novel than in the rest of the series. And here’s the deal: Lord John and William just aren’t very interesting. I very much enjoyed the lengthy backstory in Voyager that dealt with how Jamie Fraser and John Grey became friends, and the fact that Jamie has a secret illegitimate son who also happens to be the earl of Ellesmere and an officer in the British Army during the Revolutionary War is plenty interesting – for what it reveals about Jamie. For himself, though, William is dull as dirt. He is a non-character. He exists only to resemble Jamie and to give Jamie yet one more source of anguish in his life. He has no personality quirks, no excesses, and no vices. He’s a nice guy. At first it seemed as if Gabaldon was going for a comic effect by characterizing him as an inept and bumbling youth (as she did when she first introduced the teenaged Lord John back in Dragonfly in Amber), but she abandoned that strategy by page 200. And the thing is, creating a non-character is bad enough, but if you are going to create a character with absolutely no flaws or vices or quirks of any kind, what you really shouldn’t do is write a fifty-page scene in which that non-character is lost in a swamp and just wanders around for a really long time. But that is what Diana Gabaldon does. And I didn’t like it.
Gabaldon also seems to be developing a new thread concerning Claire’s ancestors, Fergus’ parentage, the French espionage underworld, and Lord John Grey. An individual named Percival Beauchamp appears early in the novel and makes overtures to Lord John, who knew the man by the name of Percy Wainwright in London several decades earlier. Wainwright has married into the Beauchamp family and is on an errand for his brother-in-law, who himself represents the Comte de St. Germain, whom readers might remember from Dragonfly in Amber. We know already that Claire’s maiden name was Beauchamp, and she knows that her ancestry is a mixture of French and English, so she begins to wonder if Beauchamp is an ancestor of hers (we know from Lord John that Beauchamp née Wainwright is a gay man, but Claire doesn’t know that, and the fact that he’s gay doesn’t preclude him from fathering children, of course). This mystery is never solved, and I suspect that it will play a role in the final book. We do learn that Fergus – whom Jamie found living in a whorehouse and working as a pickpocket back in Dragonfly in Amber – is actually the son of the Comte de St. Germain and one of the Beauchamp sisters, who was working as a prostitute when he was born but was actually of noble birth. And some noises are made about how Fergus stands to inherit a rather large chunk of upstate New York – but this plot point was left as well, to be developed further – I presume – in the series’ final installment.
Oh, and Benjamin Franklin is in this novel – naked. Benedict Arnold is in it too, but he has clothes on.
In the past, I’ve complained that Gabaldon wasn’t moving quickly enough in exploring and explaining how time travel works in the world of her novels. Well, in this novel, that complaint is out the window. In this novel, people are time traveling all over the place. First, we learn that Roger MacKenzie’s father likely time-traveled shortly before his death, when the plane he was flying during a World War II training mission was shot down over Northumberland. Then Brianna is inspecting some kind of cave-like thing for her new job as a cave inspector (I don’t think that’s really her title, but all the details of her job – excepting the fact that her co-workers are sexist pigs – are kept rather vague), when she starts to feel the weird feeling that she associates with going through the stones, and she thinks she just barely missed being sucked into another time. Then William Buccleigh MacKenzie – Roger’s ancestor, the one who caused Roger to be hanged back in The Fiery Cross (he survived the hanging, of course, but has a terrible scar and lost his once-beautiful singing voice) – turns up in the twentieth century to harass Brianna and Roger’s children. And then Jem is kidnapped, and his sister Mandy has a dream that he is being sucked into some “scweaming wocks” (here goes Gabaldon again with her appallingly overdone attempts to write the voices of children), and then Jem is held captive in the same cave that Brianna was inspecting, where she felt herself being sucked back in time, and then Brianna discovers that Roger’s study has been ransacked and that some of Claire and Jamie’s letters and other documents pertaining to time travel have been taken or rifled through, and then one of Brianna’s sleazy co-workers shows up and informs her that he has kidnapped Jem so that Jem can take him back in time to steal the gold that various characters have been hiding on various continents at various points in this series.
But for all that development of the time travel motif, not one word is ever said about what was supposedly a “movement” among twentieth-century Native Americans to go back in time and persuade Native Americans to ally themselves with the British rather than with the Americans in hope that the British will thwart the American Revolution and prevent the Americans from being able to exterminate the Native Americans as effectively as they in fact did. Remember Wendigo Donner from A Breath of Snow and Ashes? Remember Otter Tooth, whose skull Claire found back in Drums in Autumn and who appeared to Claire in a dream? Remember the implication, made more than once, that Monsieur Raymonde from Dragonfly in Amber is a time traveler and may have some connection to Otter Tooth and the other Native Americans? Well, none of this is ever mentioned. Gabaldon seems to be taking time travel and running with it in a completely different direction than the one she spent so much time preparing us for.
In spite of the fact that Gabaldon is known for ramping up the action of her books by about a thousand percent in their last thousand pages, most of her novels don’t really end with cliffhangers. This one, on the other hand, ends with about twelve cliffhangers. Nine year-old Jem is kidnapped and locked in a time-travel cave, waiting for his evil gold-hunting kidnapper to come back and take him to the eighteenth century. William Buccleigh MacKenzie is stuck in the twentieth century and may or may not be evil. There are various controversial love affairs popping up among the younger generation: Ian Murray and Rachel Hunter, Denzell Hunter and Dorothea Grey, Henry Grey and Mercy Woodcock, the African-American widow who nursed him after his multiple gunshot wounds (to give you a sense of how far this novel departs from its predecessors, all of these characters except Ian Murray are new in this novel. And we’re supposed to care about them. But we don’t, really).
Oh, and Jamie Fraser has just found out that Claire has had sex with Lord John Grey (WHAT?? you ask. I KNOW.) but has not reacted to it yet. This is the most exciting cliffhanger of all. I mean, considering how he reacted when Claire had sex with the King of France back in Dragonfly in Amber, we should expect some serious Scottish temper tantrums when the series resumes. Be ready.
As I look back over this review, I don’t think I’ve done the greatest job of explaining why this book is boring. It’s true that a lot of things happen (and there are even more plot points that I haven’t mentioned here), but as I’ve said before, the quality of this series seems to me to be directly related to how close the narration stays to Claire and how close the action stays to Claire and Jamie and their nuclear family. I really believe that Claire’s first person voice is the correct voice for this series, and while I suppose Gabaldon has to use the third person sometimes (when she tells us what’s going on with Brianna and Roger in the twentieth century, for example), the chapters upon chapters that focus on William and Lord John and the Hunter siblings and even Ian Murray are just not interesting. Gabaldon is a gifted storyteller, but there is something wrong with her instincts. She seems unable to discern the difference between chapters and scenes that are effective and those that are not – and I guess at this point her series is so popular and she has so many fans that will buy her books no matter what that her editors and publishers feel no need to reign her in. Hey, business is business, and I know that her books do sell well, but I find this narrative sloppiness to be so, so frustrating, because overall this is a series that could be much better than it is. I do feel invested in the characters and the story, and I will certainly read the last book when it’s published (and I have a feeling it’ll be pretty good – at least, it will if she really develops all the plot threads that she left dangling at the end of this book), but I also think I’ll feel pretty grateful that this whole long, meandering, inconsistent journey is over.