Monday, September 6, 2010

Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon

Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon, 1997

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series is a scales-breaking saga of time travel, romance and high adventure. One Gabaldon novel has more action and adventure than your average silent-movie serial and more romance than a shelf of Harlequins. Better still, Gabaldon has a wonderful sense of humor, a knack for creating terrific characters and, to top it off, is arguably the best historical writer I've ever read.

The series' mammoth fourth entry revolves around Jamie and Claire Fraser, time-crossed lovers who have finally reunited in eighteenth-century colonial America. As Jamie and Claire begin to build a settlement in the wilderness, their daughter Brianna, who's still in the 1960s, travels through the stones to find her parents, pursued by her own lover.

And that's just the beginning. Gabaldon is informative and witty and she packs the novel with incident and excitement. The woman can mix Indian mysticism and little-known British word games with descriptions of herbal remedies and life on sailing ships.

Gabaldon is a master at portraying the complexity and ambiguity of eighteenth-century life. She doesn't sugarcoat or preach or try to paint incredibly complicated phenomenons with a broad brush. What she does is present her characters (and readers) with difficult situations and choices, and then lets everyone make up their own mind about the consequences.

But all of this is just window dressing. The saga's real main plot is the story of a family separated by time. In the first few volumes, the emphasis was most strongly on Jamie and Claire's romance. With Drums, we get to see Brianna's side of the story, as well as gain some fresh insight into Frank's perspective.

Drums is just as compelling as the rest of the series, but moves at a slightly slower pace, which I personally found refreshing after the breakneck third volume. The cozy scenes at Fraser's Ridge are balanced out by the horror and suffering encountered by Brianna and, particularly, Roger.

Gabaldon keeps developing her main characters as the series progresses, and introduces many new ones over the course of the novel. I particularly like the evolution of Young Ian. He starts the book as a well-meaning, but awkward young man and ends it as a mature, capable adult.

The novel's villains are just as interesting as its heroes. The book's Big Bad is Stephen Bonnet, a highwayman, pirate and rogue-of-all-trades who is a fascinating love-to-hate character that should impact things interestingly in the series' future.

Complaints? Well, the book is an absolute doorstopper and a little trimming wouldn't have hurt (that said, I loved every page). Gabaldon does occasionally fall back on romance-novel cliches, particularly during the sex scenes, which are numerous, graphic and largely unneeded.

The novel's final stretch,, while as entertaining as all-get-out, revolves around a sitcom-like case of mistaken identity that definitely stretches credulity and even becomes a tad farcical.

Still, she brings it all together with a great ending. We have a small twist (a certain letter from Frank), a beautiful call-back to the novel's very beginning and, at long last, the official engagement of Brianna and Roger:

Across the fire, something winked red. I glanced across in time to see Roger lift Brianna's hand to his lips; Jamie's ruby shone dark on her finger, catching the light of moon and fire.

"I see she's chosen then," Jamie said softly.

Brianna smiled, her eyes on Roger's face, and leaned to kiss him. Then she stood up, brushing sand from her skirts and bent to pick up a brand from the campfire. She turned and held it out to him, speaking in a voice loud enough to carry to us where we sat across the fire.

"Go down," she said, "and tell them the MacKenzies are here."
(page 1070)

NEXT UP: I'm reading Julia Spencer-Fleming's fourth novel, To Darkness and to Death.

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