Drums of Autumn

The Fiery Cross

Lord John & the Private Matter

 
A Breath of Snow and Ashes
by Diana Gabaldon
(Delacorte, $28, PG-13) ISBN 0-385-33689-6
*****
In November 2001 I danced in glee when I received my advance copy of Diana Gabaldonís fifth Outlander book, The Fiery Cross. But four years later, when The Romance Reader editor Dede Anderson offered me A Breath of Snow and Ashes to review, my emotions were decidedly cooler. Perhaps it was because Fiery Cross was somewhat disappointing or because after four years I felt my reading tastes had gone in a different direction; ultimately, I couldnít summon up the same level of enthusiasm. †

Foolish me. After ten days of an extremely emotional reading experience, I offer my humblest apologies to Gabaldon for ever doubting her. A Breath of Snow and Ashes brings back the glory days of the Outlander series, highlighting the authorís unique ability to elicit laughter, tears, horror, surprise and wonder. †

Weighing in at almost 1,000 pages, Snow and Ashes spans the years 1772 through 1776 in the lives of the Frasers of Fraserís Ridge, North Carolina. Time travelers Claire Fraser, her daughter Brianna and son-in-law Roger MacKenzie are holding their figurative breaths, waiting for the American Revolution to begin. Claireís beloved husband Jamie views the rumblings of rebellion with trepidation, wondering when he can switch his public allegiance from the Loyalists to the cause of liberty without jeopardizing his property or his life.

Meanwhile there are other pressing concerns. Jamieís nephew Ian has returned from several years of living with the Mohawk Indians but wonít speak of the wife or child he left behind. With the power of the royal government waning, criminal activity is on the rise, and a series of brutal murders are causing fear and unease among the inhabitants of the Ridge. And the Frasers canít forget the newspaper clipping that Roger and Brianna brought back from the future, reporting the deaths of Jamie and Claire Fraser in a fire in January 1776. Can they prevent their own untimely demise, or is their fate already sealed? †

Like its predecessors, A Breath of Snow and Ashes is rich in historical detail, and at times it can be episodic, but the plot has much more forward momentum than The Fiery Cross, with sections of canít-put-it-down action that span hundreds of pages at a time. There are births, deaths, abductions, deadly illness, and a unique wedding. Gabaldon seems to revel in the gruesome Ė I learned more than I wanted to know about 18th century hemorrhoid surgery Ė and she has a sense of the surreal in several incidents that are almost Tarantino-esque in their ability to elicit shock and laughter at the same time. No other author I know of could take a simple premise Ė Claire Fraser discovers that her young grandson Jemmy has lice Ė and develop it into a remarkable scene that features humor, action, grotesqueness (of course) and, above all else, poignancy. †

Gabaldon has now utilized six books (and almost 6,000 pages!) to develop her characters into some of the most memorable ones in recent fiction. Itís interesting to compare her very different yet all admirable heroes: of course there is Jamie Fraser, the quintessential alpha (and the only fictional character who could make me leave my husband of 18 years), but thereís also Roger MacKenzie, the gentle beta hero who struggles to find his place in rugged Colonial America, yet is ready to defend Brianna with his life if necessary. Meanwhile young Ian Murray has grown into a fine hero who now straddles three worlds Ė Scottish, American and Indian Ė and bears many literal and figurative scars. I look forward to seeing more of him in future Outlander novels and hope Gabaldon finds him a suitable mate. †

In some ways, A Breath of Snow and Ashes ties back to earlier books in the series. There are many references to events that took place in Scotland when Claire first met Jamie, and some long-unanswered issues are resolved. But the book looks forward too, as the American Revolution gains steam. Itís intriguing to read about the early conflicts in North Carolina and the Civil War-like dynamics among its citizens; our history books would have us believe that everything of importance took place in New England, and we tend to think of the plucky American rebels united against the big, bad British. Gabaldon makes you feel intensely Jamie Fraserís dilemma and provides rational reasons for why many of his fellow Scots were reluctant to become involved in another war only a few decades after the slaughter of the rebels at Culloden. She also captures the exact moment when Jamieís decision to side with the revolutionaries ceases to be practical and becomes intensely personal. †

More than anything else, of course, the novel continues the amazing love story between Jamie and Claire. Seeing the two of them together, still willing to risk everything for each other, makes me believe in a true love that transcends time, a powerful force that can withstand any obstacles, including death. I donít have a clue how Gabaldon will wrap up this series (or if she ever will do so!) but I know that the last scene will come down to Jamie, Claire, and their love. †

A Breath of Snow and Ashes passed several of my five-heart tests Ė I started reading more slowly as I neared its conclusion because I hated for it to end, and I immediately started re-reading it once I finished. There are few books equal to this series in scope, drama or power. I promise the next time Iím offered an Outlander novel I will be properly grateful. †

--Susan Scribner


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