So I’ve made some good progress in Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, but I still have my share of complaints. First, though, I’ll tell you what I like about the book. The second section of the novel, the one called “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch,” is fast-paced in a totally unrealistic but nevertheless fascinating way. In other words, it’s a page turner. This section takes place in Scotland in 1980 and picks up right where An Echo in the Bone leaves off. Brianna and Roger’s son Jem has not been taken into the past, but Brianna and Roger think he has, so Roger and William Buccleigh MacKenzie go through the stones in a desperate attempt to find him. William Buccleigh MacKenzie, known as “Buck,” is Roger’s ancestor – the illegitimate son of Dougal MacKenzie and Geillis Duncan from way back in Outlander – and also the man who caused Roger to be hung – though not fatally – back in Drums in Autumn. He passed through the stones by accident in An Echo in the Bone and spent most of that novel doing a lot of creepy things. It’s not entirely clear whether Buck can be trusted, but Roger needs help from someone, so why not ask his time-traveling ancestor? Works for me.
A couple of complications arise right away. First, as I mentioned, Jem has not actually been taken into the past. Instead, he has been kidnapped by misogynistic archaeologist Rob Cameron and imprisoned in a tunnel that is part of some kind of hydroelectric plant. We know from An Echo in the Bone that both Brianna and Jem have been in this cave before and have felt the same weird feeling that they feel when they pass through the stones, so presumably this tunnel is a place where one could time travel, but Jem doesn’t.
The second complication is the fact that Roger and Buck overshoot their target year and accidentally arrive in the past about three decades before they intended to. This being a not-very-realistic novel, they immediately run into the younger versions of at least a dozen characters we already know from the earlier novels. I’m making fun here, but this section is actually really compelling. I sort of got chills – the way I did when I watched Star Trek:Generations for the first time and saw Picard and Kirk meet.
Did I just admit that? On the internet??? I have a neverending appetite for stories about time travel and ridiculous coincidences, it seems.
So Roger and Buck do a lot of wandering around. Buck almost dies, and the doctor who arrives to treat him does all kinds of bizarre things that lead Roger to think that he’s a time traveler too, so Roger finds a sly way to ask. I’m holding back a lot of details, because I know that this is the sort of book whose readers really don’t want to stumble upon spoilers, and I’m trying to oblige. But this doctor is really interesting, and he is a time traveler, and I was so happy to see Diana Gabaldon start to advance our understanding of the physics of time travel in this world in the first quarter of the book. These are the sort of discussions she usually saves for the last fifty pages.
Back in 1980, Jem escapes from the tunnel, meets a benevolent security guard, and just barely escapes from an armed assailant who knocks the security guard unconscious. Jem runs back through the tunnel and escapes from the building through some kind of sewer drain, only to run right into his mother and sister Mandy, who has some kind of telepathy that tells her where Jem is (but only sort of) and helped Brianna locate him. So Brianna now has her kids back, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of them are being hunted down by the evil rapist archaeologist and his crack team of scary friends. And then there’s more, and more again, and then Brianna finds a letter from her father (Frank Randall, who raised her in the twentieth century, not Jamie Fraser, who is her biological father) that explains all sorts of things she didn’t already know about herself and her Fraser relatives. I’m not going to go into detail, but there’s a prophecy involved.
All of this is silly, of course, but it’s a wild ride. I had no trouble clicking the little page-turning button on my Kindle all through this section of the novel. But then we were back in Revolutionary Philadelphia and the novel slowed back down to a crawl. Just in case the point hadn’t been driven home in Part One, we are once again informed that William is not happy about the fact that he is a bastard, that Ian might face some difficulties getting his impending marriage to Rachel Hunter approved by her Quaker friends, and that Claire is very happy to have Jamie back from the dead. Jamie has been conscripted into George Washington’s army, and Lord John, under the alias Bert Armstrong, is also pretending to be a Rebel soldier because his only other option is to be executed as a spy. Jamie and Claire have reunited, and some of the second-generation characters (Ian, Rachel, Denzell Hunter, Dottie Grey, etc.) have encountered one another, but overall the characters are still isolated from one another. William is just plain uninteresting except insofar as he creates tension and emotion for Jamie – as far as I’m concerned, he should never be onstage unless Jamie is present as well.
The scenes set during the Revolutionary War should be the best ones in this novel. I love history, and history has been one my favorite parts of this series of long novels – although the best historical scenes, in my opinion, are the ones that have to do with the history of medicine and usually involve Claire’s role as a doctor. It really shouldn’t be this hard to make the Revolutionary War interesting. My friend Kate recently finished this novel, and she promised me that it gets good later on, and I certainly trust her. But at the same time, I think Diana Gabaldon has got to be the most undisciplined writer I have ever read. She seems not even to care that her novels are so uneven in quality and are often dull as dirt for hundreds of pages at a stretch – and part of me wonders if she even realizes how interminably boring some sections of her books are.
I’m definitely going to keep reading, if only on Kate’s word that the plot will pick up, and also because the prophecy Brianna learns about at the end of Part 2 has the potential to move the plot forward in interesting ways. Overall, though, I think this is not one of Gabaldon’s better novels – it’s not quite as bad as The Fiery Cross, but it’s no Voyager or A Breath of Snow and Ashes.