Monday, December 6, 2010

The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon

The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, 2005

The Outlander saga clocked in at around 4000 pages by the end of the fourth volume, Drums of Autumn. The series is a truly scale-breaking story, one so complicated and intertwined that even the most faithful fans will need to check Gabaldon's companion volume or website from time to time while reading The Fiery Cross, the massive fifth chapter of the sprawling cycle.

The sheer size of the Outlander books is simultaneously a positive and a negative thing. It's positive because there's so much room to develop the characters that I love, and a negative thing because the sheer scope allows more room for authorial slip-ups.

Unfortunately, The Fiery Cross is the first Outlander novel to feel truly marred by those mistakes and missteps. It's a book that switches constantly from engrossing to dry, from utterly original to disappointingly formulaic. It's a 1000-page mess of a book, really.

When we last left the time-traveling Fraser clan, they were cozily ensconced on their North Carolina homestead in 1771. After more than twenty years of adventure, separation and loss, the family is finally together.

But Claire, Brianna and Roger have brought knowledge with them from the future: knowledge of the impending American Revolution, a bloody conflict whose seeds are being sown even as the Frasers struggle to survive in the hostile wilderness.

This being a Diana Gabaldon novel, there's also a couple of gruesome surgeries, a mystical ghost-bear, a couple of battles, a cache of mysterious treasure, murder, contested paternity, potty-training and many, many sex scenes.

It's hard to imagine how a book with this much story crammed into it could be slow, but Gabaldon manages it. The plot is-- well, there really isn't one. There are many subplots and sub-subplots and a great deal of drama, but the novel really feels more like an eighteenth-century slice of life than anything else.

The previous volumes were all incredibly busy epics in which the overarching story was affected in every chapter. In The Fiery Cross the status remains quo throughout. The Frasers are in more or less the same situation at both the beginning and end of the book.

There are more problems, too. The book definitely seems like it was incompetently edited. Redundant scenes, purple prose, awkward sentences, unnecessary interludes, continuity errors and recycled pieces of prose pop up throughout. Especially annoying are the turns of phrase (such as "comically blank" and "pleasantly muzzy") that are repeated over and over. A firm editorial hand could have fixed many of the book's most egregious errors.

Some segments are downright painful to wade through: the 160+ page beginning, which takes place entirely at a huge gathering of American Scots, is a punishing read. Proceedings move at a snail's pace, killing the book's momentum before it even gets started. It's an outrageously miscalculated opening for the book.

And the sex. There are so many scenes of sex between the two main couples that it seems to be a writing crutch for Gabaldon. It happens far too often and is far too lavishly described. There can be no doubt that Gabaldon is a pretty terrific romance writer, but she should realize that her preoccupation with sexuality sometimes gets in the way of the story.

It may seem like I'm being hard on the novel, but I only criticize it because I love the series and the characters so much. Gabaldon is capable of a special kind of brilliance and it's too bad to see that the overall novel is a bit of disappointment.

There's a great deal to love, though. When she's at her peak, Gabaldon can run rings around lesser writers. She has a fantastic understanding of history, and an even better understanding of human beings.

In Jamie and Claire, she has created two of the finest characters I've ever read about. The longtime reader has an enormous history with them. They're both in their early fifties now, but we've watched them progress since they were in their twenties. Gabaldon continues to deepen them throughout Cross. The chapter in which they share their frustrations over past lovers is a prime example of the kind of character development Gabaldon is capable of:

We closed the barn door and walked back to the house in silence, hand in hand.

"Claire," he said suddenly, sounding like a little shy.


"I dinna mean to excuse myself--not at all. It's only I was wondering. . . do ye ever. . . think of Frank? When we. . ." He stopped and cleared his throat. "Does the shadow of the Englishman perhaps cross my face-- now and then?"

And what on earth could I say to that? I couldn't lie, surely, but how could I say the truth, either, in a way he would understand, that wouldn't hurt him?

I drew a deep breath and let it out, watching the mist of it purl softly away.

"I don't want to make love to a ghost," I said at last, firmly. "And I don't think you do, either. But I suppose every now and then a ghost might have other ideas."

He made a small sound that was mostly a laugh.

"Aye," he said. "I suppose they might. I wonder if Laoghaire would like the Englishman's bed better than mine?"

"Serve her right if she did," I said. "But if you like mine, I suggest you come and get back into it. It's
bloody cold out here."--- (page 877)

Roger also got a lot of attention in The Fiery Cross. Indeed, his narration is threatening to overtake Claire's, while Jamie and Brianna only narrate brief segments.

I do like Roger, who is definitely Gabaldon's favorite punching bag (kidnapped and tortured by Indians in Drums, he gets hung and left for dead in this installment, prompting Claire to perform emergency throat surgery). His developing relationship with Jamie is wonderfully handled by Gabaldon, who draws subtle parallels between Roger's growing attachment to Jamie and the loss of his own father when he was small.

Brianna is still the most one-dimensional of the four main characters, and this volume gives her little room to shine. She's endearing and likable, but not as real to me as Jamie, Claire or Roger. Maybe Book 6 will give her more screen-time and more development.

The book's middle is definitely saggy, but Cross picks up a lot during the final pages, giving the characters a huge amount of new information on time-travel and bringing back Ian, one of my favorite characters in the series.

A few big questions remain unanswered. Why did Ian leave the Mohawk village? Who fondled Claire during the night at River Run? Can the Frasers jump-start the Revolution? What about the newspaper clipping reporting their deaths by fire? Is Jemmy Roger's or Stephen Bonnet's (my prediction: Bonnet)? Gabaldon definitely does a bang-up job of leaving you hungry for more.

Ultimately, The Fiery Cross feels like the first placeholder in the Outlander series and the first time that Gabaldon has really seemed to be struggling a bit.

Does that mean that it's a bad book? Good God, no. It's sometimes infuriating, sometimes disappointing, but it's also a rich immersion in Gabaldon's world, a place that feels real enough to touch, with characters more complex and rounded than just about any you're likely to find. Gabaldon is still capable of fairly staggering feats of writing. I just hope she tightens the plot in her next entry. And finds a new editor.

NEXT UP: Elmore Leonard's LaBrava

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