REVIEW: An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon
Dear Ms. Gabaldon,
Though the classification of your first book, Outlander, as a romance has apparently been a bone of contention for you, I have to say that it was Outlander that started me on romance reading 15 years ago. I had joined a mail-order book club, one of those where you get nine books for a penny and then have to commit to buying a certain number of books over a certain period of time. Leafing through their catalog one day, I came upon an offer for the first three books in your Outlander series: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber and Voyager at a special price. I don’t remember what hooked me – the description of the plot or the possibility of knocking three books off of my commitment at once. In any case, I ordered them, and my life as a reader changed.
I was hooked on Outlander from page 1; I cried buckets at the end of Dragonfly in Amber when Jamie and Claire parted, and was incredibly grateful that I had Voyager at the ready to start immediately after finishing the second book. In fact, I had to flip to Jamie and Claire’s reunion in Voyager, and then go back and read the first 300 or so pages; yes, I knew I was “ruining” it for myself but I would not have been able to function otherwise.
These books got me started on romance; I began to try to recreate the incredible reading experience I had with them. Easier said than done, I soon found, but I did end up, through much trial and error (The Flame and the Flower…shudder) finding other books in the genre that I loved. So even if Outlander is not a romance, I have it to thank for that.
Meanwhile, after finishing Voyager, I had three long years to wait for Drums of Autumn to come out (and I remember the day I bought that book; strange, when I can’t remember what happened last week!), and another four years for each successive book in the series. Which brings me to 2009, and the release of An Echo in the Bone.
My experience of this series has changed as the series itself has evolved – I no longer devour each book the minute it comes out. The books have gotten longer, and the storylines more complex. I bought An Echo in the Bone within a week of its release, but it took me until January 1 to finish (it’s a bit over 800 pages). This wasn’t a reflection on the quality of the book; some of it was merely logistical (the book was too heavy to tote everywhere, especially after I broke my wrist at the end of November). I think there’s also often a psychological factor related to how long it takes me to finish long, complex books; when I want to read in bed for 10 minutes before turning the light out, picking up a tome like An Echo in the Bone and trying to get back into the complicated story and (seeming) cast of thousands just feels like too much work.
A word about that complicated story and huge cast of characters: I have very little memory retention for what I read any more. I used to have an excellent memory, but that all changed around age 30, and I’m 10 years past that now. I have trouble remembering the plots of books I read and loved in 2009. So it goes without saying that there are huge holes in my memory where important plot points of previous books in this series should be. Since it took me so long to read, I actually forgot plot points from earlier in An Echo in the Bone by the time I was halfway through reading it. It’s sad, I know. I would actually love to find decent synopses of the entire series somewhere. I should check out The Outlandish Companion to see which books it synopsizes. It’s actually the later books I have more of a problem with; I remember the first two pretty well.
Okay, to end this digression and get back to An Echo in the Bone – I liked it a lot. I wasn’t sure I would, because honestly, the previous two books in the series, The Fiery Cross and A Breath of Snow and Ashes were uneven for me. I particularly recall A Breath of Snow and Ashes as feeling like it was comprised of bits of thrilling action interspersed with hundreds of pages of boring minutiae about colonial rural life. I still gave the book a B+, but it’s my least favorite of the series, so I did approach An Echo in the Bone with some apprehension.
I needn’t have worried – the quotient of thrilling action in this book is quite high. I’m very impressed with that; it seems like quite a feat to write 800 pages and not have, in my opinion, any notable stretches where the story lags. I think it helps enormously that the story follows quite a few different characters. Outlander was told in the first person from Claire’s point of view; I want to say that all the subsequent books have added other perspectives, but my sense (I’d have to look back at the books themselves to be sure) is that each book has had a wider scope in terms of the number of characters that are given voice and the time spent in their POVs (although only Claire’s is first-person; the others are third-person). In An Echo in the Bone, in addition to Claire, we get inside the heads of Jamie, Brianna, Roger, Jamie’s nephew Ian, Lord John Grey, his stepson (and Jamie’s secret illegitimate son) William, a young Quaker named Rachel Hunter, and perhaps a few others I’m forgetting.
I appreciate this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that after seven books, I have a bit of Claire-fatigue. I don’t dislike Claire, exactly…but I don’t like her a lot either, at this point. She’s hard for me to warm up to as a reader, because she doesn’t show very much vulnerability and at times she seems a little too pleased with herself. I feel bad saying this, in part because it feels vaguely anti-feminist (I think to some degree I am indicting her for not being feminine enough, for being so darn capable and in charge) and in part because it just feels wrong to say that I don’t really like the heroine of what is one of my favorite series of all time. But there you have it.
(For what it’s worth, Brianna has the same effect on me; she’s definitely her mother’s daughter.)
So, the plot. The modern part of An Echo in the Bone takes place Scotland in 1980; Roger and Brianna have returned from the past, a return necessitated by their daughter’s heart condition. Amanda is fine now, having had surgery in Boston, and the family settles into Lallybroch, the ancient family homestead that was Jamie Fraser’s childhood home. The children, Mandy and Jem, adjust to modern life well, but Brianna misses her parents, and Roger feels at loose ends back in the 20th century. Their lives are eventually disrupted by a very unexpected visitor, and their family is threatened by an enemy whose motives remain unclear even by the end of the book.
The 18th century part (which cover from about 1776 to 1778) chiefly follows Jamie and Claire as they leave their home at Fraser’s Ridge, preparing to travel back to Scotland to deal with unfinished business, both personal and professional (Jamie wants to retrieve a printing press he has in Edinburgh; he intends to use it to print seditious pamphlets back in America). The trip is delayed and beset by so many of the usual sorts of calamities that Jamie and Claire regularly seem to confront in these books (their ship is fired upon and then commandeered, for one), I began to think they wouldn’t reach Scotland at all in this book (eventually, they do).
Lord John Grey’s stepson William, who is of course Jamie’s secret illegitimate son, is featured extensively for the first time, and he’s a very appealing character. He’s young and raw, but he has the strong sense of honor that both Jamie and John share, and a strong desire to acquit himself well in the British military as the conflict in America deepens. He’s attracted to Rachel Hunter, a young Quaker whom he encounters when injured. He reminded me of a younger (English) Jamie crossed with a younger (straight) John, and that’s a good thing.
Ian, Jamie’s nephew, continues to mature in this book; he’s involved in an unavoidable tragedy early in the book that haunts him for the rest of the story. He also becomes enamored of Rachel (as is typical in this series, Rachel, Ian and William’s paths cross so often you’d swear they were confined to small village they shared with only a couple of dozen other people, rather than roaming all over the colonies peopled by a couple of million). But Ian also has to reconcile his feelings for his first wife, an Mohawk Indian whom he encounters along with her new husband. I’ve had a soft spot for young Ian since he first appeared in Voyager, and really want to see him happy – he’s been put through the wringer over the past few books.
We also get to visit familiar and well-loved characters such as Jamie’s adopted son Fergus and his wife Marsali (who herself is Jamie’s stepdaughter from his marriage to Laoghaire); a subplot involving a medical emergency for Fergus and Marsali’s son Henri-Christian, who suffers from a form of dwarfism, is pretty engrossing. (I do like the medical facts you include in these books; they are generally described in layman’s terms so I feel like I’m learning something while being just lurid enough to entertain.)
As I mentioned above, I had trouble keeping track of some of events in the book simply because the story is so long and byzantine. There were some characters whose purpose in the story was unclear to me, even at book’s end. These characters were chiefly related to an espionage (I guess?) subplot which I assume will play out in future books. But their appearances were so few and far between and the scenes involving them were so murky, the existence of the subplot felt pointless, at least for me. I won’t remember any of this in the next book because I hardly understood it in this one. (This is causing me to muse that you aren’t much given to the sort of awkward info-dump exposition that some other authors who write series indulge in. I’m mostly quite glad about that, because awkward info-dumps are well, awkward and break up the flow of the narrative. On the other hand, a few more reminders in the text refreshing my memory about characters and events long forgotten wouldn’t be amiss.)
I mentioned the characters running into each other; that and other improbable coincidences are hallmarks of your books, and I can see why some readers might roll their eyes occasionally at them. On the other hand, there is, of course, a pretty strong paranormal element that forms the bedrock of this series; somehow that makes story elements that aren’t exactly realistic more palatable to me as a reader. I rather enjoy all the opportunities various characters have to exclaim, “You!” in surprise when encountering each other unexpectedly in the course of the story.
My chief criticism of An Echo in the Bone has to do with a development late in the book that I thoroughly disapproved of. I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that it did not feel true to the characters, and instead felt as if it were a cheap manipulation of those characters for the purpose of creating conflict. Though it did not change my opinion of the book that much over all, I kind of dread having to deal with the consequences of this development in the next book.
Still and all, An Echo in the Bone is an excellent addition to the series. My grade is an A-.