Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon

A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon, 2005

Diana Gabaldon is unchallenged by any other author when it comes to the things she does well. Her ability to connect readers to her characters, and to create a completely convincing and vivid world, is staggering. There are few pieces of literature as emotionally convincing or as utterly involving as the Outlander saga at its best.

The fifth book, The Fiery Cross, was the first disappointing entry in a series that had previously only topped itself. Book six, the even heftier A Breath of Snow and Ashes, is a return to form for Gabaldon. Cross's main faults--a slow pace, meandering plot lines, repetitive scenes, editorial mistakes--are mostly absent from Breath, which is about as tightly plotted as a 1,000 page romantic/historical/fantasy epic can be.

It's 1772, and the American Revolution is right around the corner. Jamie and Claire Fraser know what's coming and that they have to throw their lot in with the rebels, but the trick is how to do it when the backwoods of North Carolina are seething with violence and political discord, and the smallest move could set off a firestorm. Perhaps most troubling, a newspaper clipping from the future prophesies a violent death by fire for the entire Fraser clan.

Unlike the rather sluggish Cross, Breath seems determined to keep things moving--indeed, it sometimes seems like Gabaldon is intent on dismantling the Frasers' hard-earned sense of security, piece by piece. Over the course of the novel, half of the recurring cast is either killed or scattered to the wind, and the ending--rather abruptly-- features another seismic change in the series' direction.

Like all of the books in the series (but particularly the last few), Breath has many interlocking subplots and rambling dicursions. While this rather unconventional narrative technique sometimes becomes a little bit tedious, it paints a wider and more fully realized universe. Seeing what happens in the little nooks and crannies of Gabaldon's world increases the feeling of intimacy and reality.

Her four main characters are by now so fully developed and multi-faceted. It's pretty damn impressive that we can still find out new and interesting things about Jamie and Claire after so many volumes of emotional upheaval. The hold these characters have on my mind is borderline creepy. We've seen Gabaldon build them with care since the very first book. It's amazing to think about how much they've changed and grown, while still remaining true to who they were in their early twenties.

Roger and Brianna have likewise matured immeasurably. In this volume, Roger struggles with his calling to become a minister, while Brianna--well, Brianna is still the least-featured of the quartet, which isn't particularly fair, since she's as intriguing a character as Roger is. A key action that she takes late in the novel immediately made it onto my list of favorite-ever scenes from the series.

And how amazing is Ian's journey in this book (this entire review could just devolve into gushing about all the characters I love)? His spiritual struggle after returning from the Mohawk's village is vintage Gabaldon; she's always in her element when tormenting her characters in some way. The Tom Christie storyline is another fantastic example of this.

Thank goodness, there are no extended sequences like Cross's Scottish Gathering or Jocasta's wedding. There's also more action, both in terms of adventure and conflict, and in terms of several huge milestones reached in the long journey to the Revolution. As always, Gabaldon pulls back the curtain on a fascinating and little-known period of history. She expertly captures the turmoil and uncertainty of the years leading up to the war. Few authors are capable of immersing their readers in a time and a place like Diana Gabaldon.

The juxtaposition of the actual history and the time-traveling recollections of the future makes for an even more layered, nuanced approach to historical fiction. The time-travelers in the cast (Claire, Roger and Brianna) discuss the morality of war, the difficult situation with the Indians, the possibility that they might change the past. Brianna even tries to give the Ridge running water, and in one moving, funny scene, tries to explain the concept of Disney World to her eighteenth-century father:

"And you'd hear music everywhere, all the time," she said, smiling. "Bands--groups of musicians playing instruments, horns and drums and things-- would march up and down the streets, and play in pavilions. . . ."

"Aye, that happens in amusement parks. Or it did, the once I was in one." She could hear a smile in his voice, as well.

"Mmm-hmm. And there are cartoon characters--I told you about cartoons--walking around. You can go up and shake hands with Mickey Mouse, or--"

"With what?"

"Mickey Mouse." She laughed. "A big mouse, life-size--human-size, I mean. He wears gloves."

"A giant rat?" he said, sounding slightly stunned. "And they take the weans to play with it?"

"Not a rat, a mouse," she corrected him. "And it's really a person dressed up as a mouse."

"Oh, aye?" he said, not sounding terribly reassured.
--- (page 449)

If Gabaldon has a flaw as a writer, it's a tendency to repeat herself and the slightly jumbled order of her novels. She writes individual scenes and then patches them together, and it shows. Two similar chapters might be right in a row, or an important detail may be skipped over entirely. For devoted fans who are used to this quirk, it's little more than a slight irritant.

And believe me, the reward is worth it. The Outlander saga has been tremendously enjoyable since its first page and even after six mammoth books (all of which range from eight hundred to a thousand pages), I haven't tired of the characters or their world. A Breath of Snow and Ashes doesn't feel like set-up for the End. By the end it feels like a new beginning. And if there are six more, I'll be only be too happy to continue being lost in Diana Gabaldon's web of words.

NEXT UP: Suzanne Collins' smash-hit The Hunger Games.

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