A Breath of Snow & Ashes

Drums of Autumn

The Fiery Cross

Lord John & the Private Matter

An Echo in the Bone
by Diana Gabaldon
(Delacorte, $30, PG-13) ISBN 978-0-385-34245-2
It’s been a long four-year wait for fans of Diana Gabaldon’s epic Outlander series, but book number seven has finally arrived. I doubt that anything I can say in a review will stop anyone from reading An Echo in the Bone, but consider yourself warned: there are numerous major threads left hanging at the end of this 800+ page novel. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to locate your own time-traveling mechanism to travel three or four years into the future to the release date of the next installment. 

Echo covers approximately two years during the heart of the Revolutionary War, beginning in July 1776. Brianna and Roger Mackenzie have traveled back through the stones to 1980 to get the health care for their infant daughter that was unavailable in the 18th century. Jamie Fraser and his beloved time-traveling wife Claire, having survived the fire that burned down their home in the hills of North Carolina, are making plans to sail back to Scotland to retrieve Jamie’s printing press so he can fight on the American side with the pen instead of the sword. Meanwhile, rich, powerful but tormented homosexual Lord John Grey finds himself in coastal North Carolina catching up with his adoptive son William Ransom, who is anxiously waiting to prove his worth in the British army.   

Of course nothing goes as planned. Before the Frasers leave Fraser’s Ridge, a shocking death occurs that will haunt their family for years. The trip to Scotland takes a major detour, eventually landing them with the American militia at Fort Ticonderoga in New York State, where the British are heading from Canada with vastly superior forces. Claire knows that eventually the Americans will emerge victorious in this war, but will all of her loved ones still be alive? Jamie’s nephew Ian, who lived for years with the Mohawks, is burdened by guilt and grief, and he plays a dangerous game by attempting to blend in with the Indians who have been recruited by the British. And Jamie fears the outcome if he ever faces William across the battle line – will he be able to avoid shedding his own son’s blood? Even worse, will the striking resemblance between the two tall, red-haired men cause William to realize he is not actually the scion of a noble English family, but the bastard son of a Jacobite traitor?   

Roger and Brianna learn about the Frasers’ exploits across time through a series of letters that Jamie and Claire have left behind. Their daughter Amanda’s heart defect has been repaired, but the 20th century Mackenzies have their own share of problems. Roger struggles to determine a new career path and Brianna strives to find acceptance as an engineer in a male-dominated worksite. But the past isn’t ready to leave them in peace, and the Mackenzies learn that greed is a powerful motivator in any century.   

This brief synopsis barely skims the surface of the numerous adventures that befall Claire and company. Unlike some previous books in the series (cough, The Fiery Cross, cough), there’s no lack of action in the novel, and the Revolutionary War setting provides an opportunity for the characters to cross paths with such notable luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Nathan Hale and Benedict Arnold. The addition of William to the list of major characters allows Gabaldon to demonstrate the atrocities that take place on both sides, on the battlefield and off. 

  And yet despite the drama, it feels as if something is missing. The shared focus among Jamie, Claire, William, Lord John, Ian, Roger and Brianna means that there is a lot of shifting between different settings and centuries, making the book feel somewhat disjointed and choppy. While I see the logic of including Lord John and William in the mix, I’ve never understood Gabaldon’s fascination with Lord John, and William, though brave and noble, is a bit bland. Frankly, there just isn’t enough Jamie and Claire. I’ve been reading these books for 18 years now – since my now college-aged daughter was born – primarily because of the love story between Jamie and Claire. Their bond has survived separation by time and place, and their scenes together make me believe that love can be the most powerful force on earth. While Jamie and Claire are no means secondary characters in this installment, we are torn away from them numerous times to shift to the other less engaging characters. 

Of all of the other characters, young Ian Murray shows all the signs of being a worthy heir to his uncle’s courageous legacy. He’s a fascinating mix of fierce Scot, stoic Indian, and little boy who still misses his mother back in Scotland. Gabaldon finally finds a worthy woman for Ian’s mate, and although their romance is slightly underdeveloped, I look forward to seeing more of the couple in the future… 

…if, as my Jewish mother would say, we can all live and be well for the next several years until Gabaldon releases the next book in the series. I’ve almost half a mind to boycott it, frankly, because the end of Echo leaves the fate of so many characters way up in the air.  While Jamie and Claire aren’t left in different centuries, as they were at the end of Dragonfly in Amber, other characters do face that horrifying reality. In addition, Gabaldon drops several last-minute revelatory bombs, and then abruptly ends the book before their repercussions can be measured.   

I believe there should be a covenant between author and reader that the reader won’t close the book more frustrated than when she opened it. I found myself angry rather than satisfied as I finished the final page, and that’s not how I want to feel after two weeks and 800 pages of intense reading. Gabaldon doesn’t need to resort to newspaper serial cliffhangers to make us come back for more; the long-term appeal of the series is due to her memorable characters and her unique ability to blend adventure, romance, comedy and tragedy. I’m sure her most loyal fans will hang in there patiently until #8 is released, but there may be others, like myself, who will start to wonder if the wait is worth this particular brand of agony.   

--Susan Scribner

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