“Jamie Fraser is an eighteenth-century Highlander, an ex-Jacobite traitor, and a reluctant rebel in the American Revolution. His wife, Claire Randall Fraser, is a surgeon—from the twentieth century. What she knows of the future compels him to fight. What she doesn’t know may kill them both.”
Thus reads the back cover copy of An Echo in the Bone, a sequel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. As the explanation would suggest, it is a time-travelling historical epic, with a bit of fantasy, romance, and family saga thrown in. I call it mainstream historical fantasy. “Mainstream” because it doesn’t fit neatly in a genre category, is a bestseller, and yet isn’t quite literary fiction. And “historical fantasy” because of its subject matter.
A compelling combination, no matter what genre it is, and even if I did enter the series in media res.
Yes, I admit it. I recieved Echo for Christmas, but it was a book in the middle of the series and I had not read the first one. And now I’m reviewing it. Which demands a question to be asked of me right off the top: why do so, if I have imperfect knowledge of the series as a whole? What gives me the right?
It may indeed speak of arrogance, on my part. However, reading the series in media res placed me at an interesting perspective. I read to see if the series could grab me, a fresh reader, in the middle—a dangerous part of any book series. So often, the middle novels of a series lag into repetition. While I have no other novel of Gabaldon’s to which to compare Echo and check for repetitions, I can still observe the inherent quality of her book, as it stands.
Actually, reading her novel in media res was an interesting experience. Experts will tell authors to begin their stories in the middle of the action, so the reader can catch up on backstory on the run. While I was disoriented at the opening of the novel, within a few chapters, I gained an idea of who the main characters were and I managed to reconstruct past histories. This improved as I poured through her 1,000+ pages.
It was time enough to get up to speed, I think. You read that many pages and you’re immersed in a series, no matter what anyone says.
In Echo, Claire and Jamie are surviving a cold winter on Fraser’s Ridge after their home, which contained almost all of Claire’s medical equipment, was burned to the ground in the previous novel. Recovering their gold from the wreckage, Ian Murray incurs the vengeance of a bitter man after he kills his wife. Eventually, Jamie, who once was a printer by trade, sets out on a goal to find a ship to bring him back to Scotland to recover his old printing press.
Their adventures will force them to become pirates, follow and flee the Continental and British armies, and meet illustrious historical figures such as Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin (one disturbing image of whom I am still trying to wash from my brain).
Meanwhile, a second storyline involving William Ransom, a lieutennant in the British army and his father Lord John Grey unravels. Willie, returning from an intelligencing operation, is sent on a mission northward to Quebec and recieves his first taste of battle. Meanwhile, John Grey’s brother becomes fatally ill after being wounded. Only one woman—Claire Fraser—can save him.
A third storyline follows Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna and her husband Roger. Having just arrived in twentieth-century Scotland from the eighteenth century, Brianna and Roger follow up on Claire and Jamie’s adventures via a set of letters sent through time. Leaving her letters at Lollybroch, a safe farmhouse that has been in the family for generations, Claire is able to keep her daughter informed of their adventures, reassuring her that she is still alive and well. The irony, of course, is that presumably, Claire has been dead two hundred years by the time Brianna reads the letters. Brianna and Roger read them one at a time, which forms a neat segway into Claire’s scenes, which are told in the first person point of view (the other timelines are in third person).
While Brianna gets a job at a hydroelectric company, Roger attempts to overcome an injury done to his singing voice—his throat was damaged by a hangman’s rope in another century—by teaching a choir. He also begins to teach Gaelic in school, as his son Jem readjusts to twentieth century life in which there are cars and speaking Gaelic is considered passé.
The three storylines operate on three different timelines: the 1980s, the 1770s, and Lord Grey and William’s adventures generally occur a few months or weeks earlier than Jamie and Claire’s. The interweaving of the storylines is intricate. As I kept wondering how the characters were connected (being out of the loop), I was consistently astounded—even flabbergasted—when I learned the intricate relations between the characters. There were so many hidden secrets in the past that I could hardly keep up, although that might not be true for one who is more familiar with the series.
What enables this interweaving is the fantasy aspect of Gabaldon’s mainstream historical fantasy novel. Instead of a “time-machine” Outlander uses the fantasy trope of mysterious stone circles that send you through time and space. These power centers are connected by ley lines. This and other pseudo-scientific phenomena produce portals that are especially volatile when the sun is an a certain position, such as on Halloween or May Day, which also happen to be Celtic pagan festivals. The portals may go off without warning, but I gathered that if you brought a gem to one of the
stones, you could travel back intentionally, though there is always risk attached. Once, long ago, the price of crossing was blood, a detail that the book leaves you off with during its cliffhanger ending.
When I finished the novel, I was connected with these characters. They were each well-written, each point of view having a distinctive voice, from Claire’s spunky attitude and fiercely practical relation of field doctor medical procedures, to Jamie and Ian’s Scots drawl, to Lord Grey’s formal, gentlemanly diction. Gabaldon created plenty of mystery and unpredictability, a perfect combination to keep me hooked. Furthermore, the sheer mountain of research that must have gone into these novels is astounding: not just the historical details, but the medical details as well. It made me wonder whether Gabaldon was a nurse once.
All of this combines to make a compelling middle novel. But one must not forget that it is in the middle.
Certain adventures in Echo begin at the start of the book, are forgotten over the middle, and come to a conclusion at the end, lending a sense of completion. However, other adventures begin in the middle only to be concluded (presumably) in the next book.
The effect of this is that not all your questions are answered at the end of the novel and, while you read, characters presumably introduced from previous books keep popping up. If you love Gabaldon’s minor characters, you can probabaly bet on them making second and even third appearances in later books.
I suppose this is how Gabaldon draws her readers into buying the next book in her series. Ironically, her strategy now makes me want to buy her earlier books.