Please Note: This review speaks candidly about all aspects of this novel, including the ending. If you don’t want to read details about the ending, please do not read this review.
I was very happy to finish this novel – partly because I am happy to finish any book, even a great one, but also partly because I wasn’t enjoying this novel very much. Diana Gabaldon’s work is so uneven in quality. When I heard her speak a few weeks ago, she made some remarks along the lines of “I don’t write drafts, and I don’t allow my editor to make changes to my work. I am a professional writer, and I deliver only polished manuscripts to my editor and publisher,” and I just don’t understand how it’s possible to stand on a stage in front of hundreds of people and make these sorts of statements when one’s writing is sometimes so appallingly bad.
In my opinion, here’s how Gabaldon’s Outlander novels rate in terms of quality:
- Voyager (#3 in the series) and A Breath of Snow and Ashes (#6)
- Outlander (#1) and Dragonfly in Amber (#2)
- Drums of Autumn (#4) and An Echo in the Bone (#7)
- The Fiery Cross (#5) and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (#8)
I’ve written several progress reports on this novel, which you can read here, here, and here. This novel is an attempt to bring closure to the many plots and subplots and sources of tension in this series, and for the most part it does so, although plenty of plot lines fizzle out without really being resolved. Here’s a quick summary of the second half of the book:
The Revolutionary War drags on and on and on – as wars are wont to do, I know, but in this case this war slowed the novel down to a crawl. Jamie Fraser is a general for a while, and Ian is a scout in the Continental army, having promised his Quaker wife that he will not be a soldier. Claire goes where Jamie goes, doing her usual brilliant work as a battlefield surgeon. For most of the novel, the primary characters are living in Philadelphia, which is under the Continental Army’s control after the British withdrew early in the book. The military governor of the city is one Benedict Arnold, who appears every now and then to be benevolent and charming and once even serves as Claire’s surgical nurse during an amputation. In the scenes about William and Lord John Grey and the other British officers, Arnold also appears as his alter ego John Andre, but nothing ever comes of his presence in the novel. Almost every time Claire sees him, she spends at least a couple of paragraphs berating herself for not knowing enough about American history to know exactly when and how Arnold will betray the rebels to the British – but this betrayal never happens in the novel. I’m not saying that it necessarily should happen, as Benedict Arnold is definitely a minor character in the novel, but Gabaldon foreshadows his betrayal so often that she has an obligation, I think, to either bring this plot strand to its end or cut it out entirely.
As I said, the war scenes go on forever. Claire gets shot, and she directs Denzell Hunter in how to remove the bullet from her liver while she is under the influence of laudanum. Jamie nurses her back to health, and a lot of parallels are made to the ending of Outlander, when Claire tends Jamie’s physical and psychological wounds. Ian and Rachel and Dottie and Denzell get married, in a Quaker ceremony in a Methodist church, and then of course they all have sex, sex, and more sex. Fergus and Marsali and their children are still living at his print shop. Lord John Grey and his brother the Duke of Pardloe make occasional appearances among the Fraser clan, in spite of the fact that they are, you know, the enemy.
While all of this was going on, all I wanted was a return to the 1730’s, where Roger and William Buccleigh MacKenzie are having a series of fascinating experiences. They meet the ancestors of pretty much all of the major characters in the novel. Geillis Duncan (Buck’s mother and Roger’s many times-great-grandmother) comes back into play and performs some kind of sex act with Buck (the time-traveling version of her as-yet-unconceived son). But Geillis seems to be in the novel only because readers wanted her to return – she doesn’t do anything interesting. Similarly, the time-traveling doctor that has some kind of weird blue light emanating from his hands has no role in the ongoing plot at all. He does heal Roger’s larynx (which was injured in his botched hanging in Drums in Autumn), but then he just fades out of the novel and goes home to have some more sex with Geillis Duncan.
After she recovers from her gunshot wound, Claire asks Jamie to take her back to Fraser’s Ridge, their home in North Carolina. Jamie obliges, but the process of getting there takes a while, and the family spends some time in Savannah, GA before they leave for Fraser’s Ridge. For me, the only real strength of this novel is the fact that Claire is finally starting to feel the effects of the traumas she has sustained in earlier novels. In A Breath of Snow and Ashes, she is raped, and her rapid recovery from this attack has always bothered me. After her gunshot wound, Claire seems to finally be feeling the effects of this rape. When they are close to Fraser’s Ridge, she sees one of the men who raped her in a general store, and she essentially has a panic attack. I found this incident entirely plausible, and I am glad to see Gabaldon portray Claire as something less than completely invincible and imperturbable.
When I was mired in the long war scenes, I texted my friend Kate (who had already finished the book) and said that the only thing that could save the book for me at that point would be if an elderly Roger MacKenzie were to show up on the battlefield at Saratoga looking for Jamie and Claire. Roger spends most of the novel in 1738 looking for his son, Jem, who was kidnapped at the end of An Echo in the Bone. Roger insists that he will never go back to 1980 without Jem, because he can’t know for sure if he will be able to time travel again and leaving might mean abandoning Jem forever. I got excited thinking about Roger living the next forty years in the past (hey – it even works out to forty years. Biblical symbolism, anyone?) and then traveling to America, knowing that he will be able to find Claire and Jamie there. There is one flaw in this plan, which is the fact that Roger believes that it is impossible for two versions of oneself to live at the same time, and Roger was in the past in the early 1770’s and would have had to pass through those years in order to get to 1778. Gabaldon would have had to work some magic to allow Roger to survive these years, but I think for the purpose of the narrative it would have been worth it. One of the benefits of writing about TIME TRAVEL is the fact that the story is absurd from the get-go, so there is nothing stopping the writer from making the absurd seem normal.
What happens at the end of the novel is that Brianna, Roger, Jem, and Mandy show up at Fraser’s Ridge. Jamie and Claire see them coming, recognize them, and start running toward them – and that’s the end. The title of the last chapter is “But you knew that,” which is kind of funny, and I did want the entire Fraser/MacKenzie family to be reunited at Fraser’s Ridge, but I really think Gabaldon missed a lot of opportunities here. There is a logistical problem, first of all. In the 1980 plot line, Brianna takes Jem and Mandy to California for some reason vaguely related to TIME TRAVEL and then goes back to Scotland to make the journey. They meet up with Roger in 1738, and the impression I got was that they were planning to go back to 1980. The next time we see them, they are arriving at Fraser’s Ridge. I would have liked to have seen Roger get stuck in 1738 (maybe he tries to travel through the stones again and cannot?) and then turn up in 1778 as an old man. Then I would like to see Brianna and Jem and Mandy travel back to 1778 – which is when they think Roger time-traveled to – and be reunited with the elderly Roger. I would have liked to have seen this happen halfway through the novel at most, so Gabaldon could explore the possibilities for tension and conflict that would result.
This possibility is not the only narrative thread that Gabaldon leaves unexplored. Percival Beauchamp is still wandering around antagonizing Lord John Grey, but his plot to restore Fergus to his rightful role as King of Canada (I’m exaggerating here, but not much) is never developed. We never learn whether Monsieur Raymonde from Dragonfly in Amber was a time traveler or not. Early in Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, William meets an outdoorsman named Natty Bumppo, and we never learn why he has this name – is he a time traveler, using this name as code to prompt questions from other time travelers? Nothing ever comes of the letter Brianna receives from the late Frank Randall early in this novel, which reveals a Macbeth-like prophesy that suggests that the last of the MacKenzie line (which, presumably, is Jem?) will rule all of Scotland. We also never learn the answer to what I think is one of the most interesting questions raised by the series: why do Geillis Duncan (whose married name is Abernathy in Voyager) and Claire’s friend Joe Abernathy have the same last name?
I’ve already said that Lord John Grey reminds me of Ben Linus, and in some ways this series is like Lost. Both works ambitiously aim to sync past, present, and future. They can be grandiose, offering possible explanations of the mysteries of the universe, while also focusing in on the most minute details of their characters’ personal lives. The tension in both works is heightened by an endless chain of secrets. But at the same time, neither series comes close to answering all of the questions it asks. I don’t mind this problem too much – the inconclusive endings certainly don’t make me regret going along for the ride – but both series would be better if more attention had been paid to resolving the many fascinating subplots in each series.
Gabaldon has said that Written in My Own Heart’s Blood is not the last installment in her series, as had been previously announced. On the one hand, this is a good thing, because she will have another shot at developing and concluding the novel. However, the fact that she plans to move on with the series makes it all the more problematic that she ended this novel the way she did, with the happy reunion of the Frasers and the MacKenzies. This is yet another reason that I like the idea of Roger having aged forty years before he reunites with Brianna – that plot development would have left enormous possibilities for future conflict, comedy, and character development.
This novel is not one of Gabaldon’s best, but there is still something about this series that keeps pulling me in. The characters – well, except for William – are compelling, and Gabaldon can be quite funny. It bothers me that Gabaldon’s enormous fan base makes her feel that she can publish sloppy writing, and I’m sad that so many nuggets of possibility in this novel are left unexplored.