Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Bit of a Cross to Bear

The Fiery Cross

by Diana Gabaldon

Published by Delacorte Press

3 Out of 5 Stars

When I finished this, my knee-jerk reaction was to give it a 4 star. However, after some consideration, I have to be honest with myself and say it was really just a 3 star read. The Fiery Cross is the 5th book in the Outlander series, a fantasy/romance/historical/time travel/everything-but-the-kitchen-sink series which began when Claire Randall, on a second honeymoon in Scotland, is thrown back in time from 1946 to Scotland during the Jacobite uprising that ended tragically at the battle of Culloden. While stuck in the past, she of course falls in love with a Highland warrior named Jamie Fraser. Through four long-ass novels, they've been separated and reunited and managed to get themselves right smackdab in the center of any significant historical event taking place in the 18th century, Jamie's natural ability to lead heightened by Claire's knowledge of what the future holds. In The Fiery Cross, Jamie and Claire are now living in America with their daughter, Brianna, and her husband, Roger. Jamie finds himself in the role of "laird" to a group of Scottish immigrants who populate his land grant known as Fraser's Ridge.

I freakin' love these novels and that's why it pains me to say that I'm suffering from PTDGD (Post-Traumatic Diana Gabaldon Disorder) at the moment. Gabaldon has always written massive tomes stuffed full of historical detail and it's clear that this woman does her research, which sets her novels apart from the typical offerings of historical romance. This isn't just costume drama. However, I don't think I've ever read a novel in which so much happens and, yet, nothing really happens. The novel is so focused on the minutiae of day-to-day life (pigpens are built, militias are gathered and disbanded, fields are plowed, laundry is done, buffalo are hunted) that any narrative momentum is nil. It just doesn't go anywhere. There are rumblings of the American Revolution in the distance, but no real battles (other than a brief interlude in which Jamie gathers together a militia to help the governor put down the Regulators) and the one driving narrative thread--the hunt for Stephen Bonnet, who raped Brianna in an earlier novel--fizzles with no real resolution (clearly to be picked up in the next novel). Admittedly, all of the mundane tasks of daily life are vividly brought to life and readable because the characters are so likable, but Gabaldon can certainly beat a dead horse. As evidence, I offer the following:

1) She repeatedly overuses some words/phrases (sardonic, gimlet eye, wry smile, and everyone's mouth twitches at the corner with suppressed amusement at some point in the novel). Everyone's eye color is commented upon in every other paragraph. Details that diehard fans should be aware of by now are tediously repeated.

2) I read more about breastfeeding than I ever wanted to--Brianna's breasts spend so much time hardening between feedings of her offspring, Jemmy, they should be given their own novel. And I won't even comment upon the milk-sodden love scene. Let's just say it gave a whole new meaning to "Got Milk?" Blech.

3) Why does Roger MacKenzie still listen to Jamie? Sure, I know Jamie is his father-in-law and Roger wants to impress him, but Jamie is constantly sending Roger out on dangerous solo errands to give Roger (who is from the future) a chance to prove his manliness in a time when men are defenders, providers, apparently tireless lovers, etc. However, Roger always almost dies during his undertaking of these tasks. He is hung, nearly burnt to a cinder, beaten to within an inch of his life--how much more must Roger endure? Just let him stay home for a couple of chapters. Sheesh.

4) The alternating point of view is vexing to me. Some chapters are told in 1st person from Claire's point of view (and these are definitely the more interesting chapters, especially since you are reading about historical events from the perspective of someone who is conflicted about what knowledge she brings from the future and the dangers of revealing too much; it's easy to forget that there's a time travel element when Claire isn't narrating), but others are told in third person from other characters' perspectives. Most of these are told from Roger's point of view. Strangely, we never really get anything substantial from Jamie or Brianna's point of view.

5) Some chapters seem shoehorned in just because they were too darn cute to leave out. In particular, these chapters serve to show how clever someone is or how adorable little baby Jemmy is. Don't care. Don't give a shit. Move on.

And then there's James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser himself (or Himself, as he's often called in the novel, denoting his social position of laird). God, is there anything this man cannot do? As much as I love the character of Jamie, it's becoming increasingly obvious to me that he's female catnip (although he does not sparkle; he's the anti-Edward Cullen and yet they both share a similiar function--to make women long for men that do not exist and would probably be endlessly exasperating if they did). First off, he's the physical embodiment of masculine perfection: tall, well-muscled, blazing red hair, piercing blue eyes, fills out a kilt quite nicely (if you know what I mean--and if you don't, read the book. Gabaldon will make it quite apparent). He's a fierce warrior and yet a well-educated intellectual who is just at home in the courts and palaces of Europe as he is on a battlefield. He's multilingual and can read Latin, Greek, French, etc. and quote from high literature at a moment's notice. He can be a brutal or tender lover (depending on whatever Claire's in the mood for). He can be a man's man and then inexplicably lapse into shy boy-like behavior and whisper sweet nothings. Men of the world, give up. Compared with Jamie Fraser, you fail.

Despite all of this, I still enjoyed the novel. The relationship between Jamie and Claire has somewhat mellowed, although not in a bad way. There's still plenty of ridiculously hot sex between the two, but the relationship isn't marked by the fear of Claire going back to her own time through the stones. I also enjoy the good-natured vulgarity that runs throughout the characters' speech and the humor with which Gabaldon writes. And for all of my bellyaching about all of the details of 18th century life, I will concede that if anyone can make it interesting, it's Gabaldon. I will be reading A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the 6th book in the series, but I'm definitely going to need a lengthy respite between the two.

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