Thursday, October 24, 2013


The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon, 2011

As far as I'm concerned, Diana Gabaldon can basically do no wrong. My list of favorite literary characters essentially begins and ends with Jamie Fraser, and the Outlander series is as near and dear to my heart as any work of literature I've ever experienced. I wasn't absolutely blown away by the first novel in the Lord John spin-off series, but it was still a great read. For a Gabaldon worshipper like me, then, The Scottish Prisoner is a magnificent little gift, like finding an elegantly wrapped box of chocolates in a broom closet. It's not the next Outlander novel – that's An Echo in the Bone, which is still on my shelf waiting to be devoured. No, Prisoner is a hybrid novel, straddling both series, starring both Jamie and Lord John in an all-new adventure.

It's 1760, many years after the end of the Highland Uprising, and Jamie Fraser is still basically a prisoner of the English, working on parole as a groom on a horse farm. Jamie's life is both complicated and enriched by the presence of his illegitimate son, Willie, being raised as the heir to the Dunsany title. Meanwhile, Lord John Grey comes into possession of a packet of documents accusing a senior military officer of corruption and treason. Lord John enlists Jamie's help in translating a mysterious poem that hints at a full-scale Jacobite conspiracy, and the two are soon reluctant traveling companions on a journey to the muddy and dangerous land of Ireland, where murder, treachery, and dark plots await them.

The Scottish Prisoner is interesting in part because it's incredibly inessential. There's no crucial, plot-y reason for it to exist at all. It takes place in a small gap in the Outlander timeline already covered in Voyager, so nothing terribly important occurs, either in the story or in the character development. It's a novel that exists simply because Jamie and Lord John are two incredible characters, and their fans would hungrily read a novel in which they went to the grocery store together. Gabaldon is an absolute genius at piling layers upon layers of development on these two men while still keeping them consistent and recognizable. The Jamie Fraser we see in this novel (angry, bitter, still mourning the loss of his wife) is very different from the man we see in, say, The Fiery Cross, but that's because the progression of these characters is so logical and so painstakingly real. This Jamie is sad and worn down by life, but he's also not without hope, and the way Gabaldon depicts that is a master class in character.

It's the tenuous, burgeoning friendship between Jamie and Lord John that forms the heart of Prisoner, a friendship that's strained by their conflicting national loyalties and polar-opposite personalities, not to mention the fact that Grey is still in love with Jamie. It's a testament to Gabaldon's immense skill that she's able make the relationship even work at all, let alone make it leap off the page the way she does. The way these two men navigate the unimaginable gulfs between them – personal, political, cultural, sexual – and still manage to find mutual respect and affection is incredible. I can't imagine a newcomer to the series would understand their relationship at all; it takes knowledge of both their shared past and their shared future to properly put together the mosaic. It's an unbelievably rich tapestry of storytelling that gains even more dimension when Gabaldon uses the relationship between John and Jamie to explore the turbulent connection between England and Scotland. This is what psychologically compelling historical fiction should look like, people.

The problem with The Scottish Prisoner is that, as a hybrid novel, it's neither a slim historical mystery like the other Lord John books nor a vast, sweeping family saga like the other Outlander books. Prisoner doesn't really have an easy label or a clear structure, and since it clocks in at over five hundred pages, this leads to a somewhat sleepy, erratic pace, full of meandering subplots and lots of beating around the bush. And that's fine! Gabaldon has never been a writer who gets right to the point; it's one of the things I love and adore about her work. The side stories and little discursions are part of the fun. It does make sections of the book a slog, though, and I never managed to work up much sustained interest in the plot.

Short-term plotting has long been a weakness for Gabaldon, as it is here; every time the mystery seems about to go in an interesting direction or a bit of tension is introduced, it's quickly undercut. There's a neat twist late in the novel, and a nifty action scene or two (Gabaldon's depiction of a critical duel is as breathless and sensate a portrayal as you'd expect), but you never get a cathartic moment of "Ah-ha!" and the central conspiracy is dealt with off-screen with a minimum of fuss. Gabaldon's portrait of the desperate, ragged Jacobites hanging all of their hopes on a crazy scheme is haunting and affecting, though, especially when Jamie sides against them with the English. It's just too bad that there isn't a little more suspense to the storytelling, and some tougher editing.

None of this is really all that much of a problem, though, since the plot is just a slender frame on which to hang the real meat of the story, which is the two main characters interacting against a beautifully realized historical backdrop with some dollops of action and a spine-tingling dash of the paranormal. Nobody does that combo better than Gabaldon, and even if The Scottish Prisoner isn't her best work, it's still a totally worthy addition to the ever-growing Outlander cycle.