Drums of Autumn

Drums of Autumn is the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. By this point, I wonder if there's a reason to write a true review of the fourth book in a series of thousand-page books. After all, no one's glancing at reviews to say, "I suppose I'll just dive in here and not read the first three, shall I?" People who make it through thousand-page books of historical fiction don't tend to jump around in a series, right? If you do, then stop it this instant.

What I mean is that I feel like I'm not trying to sell anyone on these books by this time. You're either hooked or you're not, so a review becomes unnecessary... unless it's something intended to whet the appetites of expectant readers prior to the book's release? Or sway someone who once liked the books and then was disappointed? Well, rather than write a real review, I'm opting for a plot summary and then something that's more of a discussion of certain points. My assumption is that if you're reading this review, you've already read the book and might simply want to chat about it with someone. Or you're a friend who feels obliged to read my reviews because you love me or at least find me amusing from time to time... in which case, I apologize for the fact that this is the fourth book in this series that I've read about Scottish Highlanders, time travel, adventure and romance. This'll teach you for saying you always read my reviews.

In Voyager, Claire and Jamie Fraser were reunited after twenty years (or two hundred years, depends how you look at it) of separation and now they're together for good (most likely). While rescuing Jamie's nephew Ian from pirates, they crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean Islands and not only found Ian, but Claire ended up killing fellow time-traveler/accused witch, Gellis Duncan. Now Jamie and Claire (and everyone else they have in tow) are in the American colonies, trying to figure out just what to do with themselves. Settle down? Continue to travel? Return to Scotland? Claire's a bit terrified about that gravestone in Scotland with Jamie's name on it, but perhaps that's not the best indicator as to where their fate may lie.

Rather than simply stay with Claire and Jamie in the eighteenth century, this book dips back to also pick up the "modern" time. Brianna (Jamie and Claire's daughter) and Roger (descendant of Jamie's uncle Dougal and the witch Gellis) might be mad for each other, but Roger is fairly insistent that if Brianna wants him, it has to be for life... and that means marriage. Brianna was a bit concerned about promising such a thing when they have years of obligations between them (her school, his work) and puts things off, thus keeping them on separate continents. So when Roger realizes that Brianna has gone missing (apparently leaving for Scotland without telling him), he no longer has any idea if Brianna wants him or not, as she's clearly gone into the stones to find her mother. Roger had failed to tell Brianna about a notice he found in a Colonial paper that announced the deaths of Jamie and Claire in 1776, so he knows that Brianna will eventually be headed to the Colonies once she finds out where they've gone. Thus, Roger dives into the stones to find Brianna, uncertain if she wants to be found and uncertain if they'll be able to make it back.

So from this point on, I'll be bringing up some discussion points... which means there are spoilers. Just FYI.

I suppose I see why it had to be America, given the time period, but I will, indeed, miss Scotland. After internal debate and external discussion, Jamie and Claire decide to take the governor up on his offer and settle in the Carolinas, attempting to build up a home for themselves and the opportunity for others to settle. It is, indeed, as though Jamie is creating his own lairdship here in the Americas, except he's insistent that it's not the same. There may not be generations backing up his claim, but Jamie is enough of a leader to command the same amount of allegiance. I suppose if need the drama, then at least we have the same structure we're used to... and we're not creating an isolated settlement where it's just a handful of people. (Of course, the pessimist in me believes that we're simply building up a good amount of characters so we can kill them off soon enough once we hit the Revolutionary War). In this book, there was the tempting offer of Jamie taking up the management of River Run, his aunt Jocasta's plantation, but here I appreciated the fact that Gabaldon knows her characters well (I suppose she ought to by now). Jocasta is quite a strong-willed character and Jamie would have to do things her way... and he's not one to take orders. Better to have him establish something that's his own... and allow us the historical glimpse into everything it takes to set up a settlement.

One thing that I found to be a trifle irritating in this particular book is a trick that Gabaldon uses more often in this volume than in any other (aside from the fact that this was the whole structure of book two) -- she takes us right up to a scene that should be quite important... and then skips forward in time, only to return to this scene much later. I understand there's a desire to spread out the tension and her story structure rested on the need for us to not know the truth of things until it was necessary, but the repeated use of this was the really annoying bit. The two big examples of this are when Bree gets raped by Bonnet and when Jamie potentially kills Roger. (Side note: I'm nearly done with book five by the time I write this review and I have to say that poor Rogers gets the short end of the stick for quite a while to come.) By not coming out with information at the get-go, confusion is caused, and that's important for Gabaldon's storytelling structure. We need to not know if Bree slept with Bonnet, yet know that Lizzie suspects Roger of raping Bree. We need to not know if Jamie has killed Roger. We need the miscommunication (or lack of communication) for her story to do what she wants it to do... it's just that it gets to be a bit wearisome when everything in a thousand page book is based on this story structure. And it also tends to suggest that if Gabaldon can't jump between two centuries, then I suppose we can hardly stop her when she feels the itch to jump between a matter of days or months.

By virtue of shifting the stories to focus a bit more on the drama between Roger and Bree (young and at the start of their romance), we do move away from Jamie and Claire, but only a bit. We have to give way a little, I suppose, or else the book would be even longer, but at least Gabaldon doesn't feel the need to focus on them entirely. After all, Jamie and Claire already have our hearts. Roger and Bree are good enough, but don't quite have the pull of Jamie and Claire. Perhaps it's to do with the fact that their romance doesn't have the same epic feel to it. Perhaps it's that neither one of them are as charismatic as Jamie or Claire. I often find myself frustrated on their behalves, for neither of them were born to the eighteenth century and so they both seem to be fish out of water, whereas at least Claire has Jamie... and her own practical focus that allows her to settle into this world without much fuss. There's also a sense of the tragic with them by the end of the book -- Bree pregnant and uncertain as to who could be the father; Roger bought back from the Indians at the expense of sacrificing young Ian; both Bree and Roger now stuck in the eighteenth century, for Bree won't leave Jemmy and Roger won't leave Bree.

When it comes to villains, I suppose no one should have worried about a lack of them in the New World. Gabaldon does have a tendency to come up with some truly depraved folks. First it was Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall, who might be Frank Randall's ancestor and yet was a truly wicked sadist, consumed by his obsession for dominating Jamie. Then we had Gellie Duncan, who seemed to rise from the dead so that she might debauch and kill young boys in her witchy attempts to return to her own time. Now we have Stephen Bonnet, an Irish smuggler who repaid the Frasers kindness with robbery and then raped their daughter, potentially impregnating her. Of course, all of Gabaldon's villains seem to have another side to them (certainly Randall seemed all but forgiven in his grief-stricken descent) and the same is true of Bonnet, though not quite to the same degree -- yet. Bonnet actually does drag John Grey's body to safety from the fire that his associates set (even if it's at Bree's insistence)... and gives Bree the black diamond for the child's keeping. Of course, this can only end badly, as this all but assured that Bonnet will try to return for the child, who he believes to be his son. He'll have to end up dead in the end if Bree, Roger, and Jemmy are to remain an intact family.

In the meantime, even if I wasn't always delighted with this novel, I'm well aware that I've fallen under Gabaldon's spell and will continue to devour her novels. I might need a break soon, though, and I'm a bit surprised I haven't overdosed already. That's testament to an excellent storyteller, I suppose.

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