Drums of Autumn

The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon
(Delacorte, $27.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-385-31527-9
After four years of waiting, I was so happy to receive my advance copy of The Fiery Cross in the mail that I danced around the house in glee. Two weeks later, however, upon finishing the 979 page epic my emotions were mixed. The novel was memorable, but in some ways it was disappointing. It will definitely take its place on my keeper shelf, but I donít think I will re-read it as many times as its predecessors.

Of course, if youíre a fan of the Outlander series, nothing short of an anthrax scare at Borders is going to keep you from buying the fifth book in this well-written, historically detailed saga of time traveler Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, her larger-than-life husband Jamie, her daughter Brianna and her new son-in-law, Roger MacKenzie. The Fiery Cross begins in 1770, as a Scottish Gathering takes place in North Carolina. At the Gathering, Brianna and Roger plan to finally marry, after being ďhandfastĒ for more than a year. Jamieís wealthy Aunt Jocasta is also planning to wed, for the fourth time, to Jamieís kinsman Duncan. But a few specters haunt the happy occasion. Brianna doesnít know if her son, Jemmy, is Rogerís child or the product of her rape by smuggler Stephen Bonnet, and Roger seems reluctant to bond with the infant, despite his vow to claim him as his own. The first rumblings of discontent against the British have been felt in North Carolina, and Jamie is ordered by the Governor to recruit a militia to suppress any possible rebellion. The three time travelers know that in just a few short years, the American Revolution will be in full force, and they attempt to use that knowledge to prepare for the difficult times ahead, even as Jamie wonders how and when his loyalties will change - and at what cost to his family.

At almost 1,000 pages, there is a lot to appreciate about The Fiery Cross. First and foremost, the love between Claire and Jamie still burns brightly. Jamie turns 50 during the book, but he and Claire can still light up the pages with their passion. When Jamie tells Claire that she is his life, you believe it - and swoon. And the last line in the book (no peeking!) is probably the single most romantic sentence Iíve ever read. Brave, stubborn, loyal, tender, fierce, intelligent, contemplative, quick-tempered - all of these adjectives describe the man who is indisputably the best hero Iíve encountered in 35 years of reading.

Claire, five years older than her husband, is pre-menopausal, and itís both entertaining and daunting to see how this 20th century woman deals with the stresses of hot flashes and PMS in the 18th century. Her work as a doctor continues to flourish, and she uses her knowledge to make scientific advances that are definitely ahead of the times - inventions and discoveries that she needs when those closest to her lie ill or wounded.

Newlyweds Brianna and Roger find that marriage is a challenge - true in any century, but especially as two modern people plunged into the past. Roger struggles to earn the respect of his powerful new father-in-law, despite the fact that heís more comfortable with his musical instruments than swords or guns. Brianna also finds challenges in the traditional female tasks of the time such as laundry and cleaning, and wonders how she can limit her fertility and maintain her health. I liked Brianna a great deal more in TFC than in Drums of Autumn. She is more vulnerable and generous as wife and mother than the self-centered woman we first met. And although I thought Roger was a cad for his initial behavior towards baby Jemmy, the trials he endures and the courage he displays despite his insecurities won me over in the end.

The problem I had with the novel was its pacing. Frankly, there were too many times when it was easy to put down (well, maybe not literally - I still have a backache from carrying the thick tome around for 2 weeks). Surprisingly, given its hefty volume, there are many long stretches in which very little happens. The entire first section, 164 pages, encompasses only one 24-hour period. Itís wonderful to spend time with the characters Iíve come to love, but I missed the breathtaking, heart-stopping drama of the earlier books.

Perhaps the pacing falters because there is no actual time traveling going on in this installment. Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber dealt with Claireís first journey to the past. Voyager contained the marvelous reunion scene between Claire and Jamie, 20 years after Culloden, and Drums of Autumn found Brianna reunited with her mother, and Roger following the woman he loved into the past. But now all four characters are together, and although itís unclear whether Brianna, Roger and their son will remain in the 18th century, there are no journeys to make in this volume. Without that angle, the focus is on the historical setting. Gabaldon draws a historically accurate, decidedly unglamorous picture of Colonial America, but the novel occasionally becomes bogged down in the details.

When Gabaldon ratchets up the pace, and the challenges and crises mount, TFC becomes a page-turner, but most of the first half of the book lacked momentum. And frankly, I was surprised and disappointed, after waiting for four years, to discover that the book never moves past 1772. The characters are still three years away from the Revolution, and now Iíll have to wait years to read about it as well - and to find the answers to several questions left unanswered after 979 pages.

At times poignant, earthy, thrilling and humorous, the voluminous novel has a little bit of everything, but not enough to be thoroughly satisfying. Reading The Fiery Cross was like a long-overdue visit from my favorite, garrulous aunt. I was happy to see her, wished she would get to the point when she told one of her rambling stories, and was sorry to see her go. Iíll miss her and hope she doesnít take another four years for a return visit.

--Susan Scribner

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