The Fiery Cross

Without his glasses, my significant other saw this book on my bedside table and mistook it for a box. It is 1443 pages long (which in my mind is a number that signifies a year, not a page count) and its spine is practically the same size as my palm... yet one can read it with surprising speed. The Fiery Cross is Diana Gabaldon's fifth installment in her Outlander series, following the characters we've come to know and love... through a surprisingly small scope of location and time. It feels a bit odd, really, to not be jumping about time and space -- everything occurs within two years and all of it is within the boundaries of the colony of South Carolina. We've got a few years before the official start of the American Revolution and while most colonists might be aware of some discontent that's brewing over taxes, only our small knot of characters know for sure that it's all about to come to a head... mostly because three out of four of them lived in the 1900s and therefore read about all of this in their history books.

The book opens right where we left off -- at the end of the Scottish clan Gathering that's drawn Scots from across this particular swath of the colonies. We had just kicked off this Gathering at the end of the fourth book, but now we're wrapping it up with two very important weddings... though only one actually takes place and the other is postponed. Gabaldon must enjoy weddings, because there are two in this book and the events of both days seem to take forever. Granted, all kinds of things are happening and the services themselves are quite quick, but I suppose she certainly takes advantage of the fact that several people are gathered in one place. At this first one, Jamie manages to get his grandchildren (broadly inclusive of Fergus's kids along with Brianna's) baptized by a priest (even though the priest has been arrested) and then Roger and Brianna finally manage to officially tie the knot (though this one's not sanctioned by a Catholic priest, much to Jamie's dismay). The wedding of Duncan and Jocasta is postponed and so instead, we move straight from wedding to war. Well, perhaps "war" is a bit much, but certainly the preparation for battle. Jamie has been commissioned to recruit and head up a militia of men from his area and report to the governor to help in the quelling of some Regulators. He's well aware that his wife and daughter have informed him of the outcome of this impending war. As a Scotsman, there's no love lost between him and the English crown, so it's not like he feels he must be loyal to a king that killed a great number of his countrymen, but Jamie is smart enough to realize that it's too soon to start arguing and it's better to endure for a little while. The first mustering of troops ends without a fight, but by the middle of the book, we find ourselves in a battle with huge implications for the Fraser/MacKenzie clan if not for the larger colonial conflicts. Other storylines at play in this particular volume include the ongoing search to find and kill Stephen Bonnet, the smuggler who raped Brianna and possibly fathered her child (even if Roger accepts Jemmy as his own son); continued relations with the nearby Indians who look upon Jamie as a great bear hunter; the question of whether the goods of River Run are the only wealth to be guarded or if there's another golden treasure within its bounds; and Claire's attempts to introduce twentieth century medical practices into the eighteenth century (or at least not get caught performing an autopsy and produce a penicillin specimen that the housekeeper doesn't toss into the garbage).

If you're unwilling to have anything spoiled, I suggest you stop reading now, even if I only pick out a few key points to discuss.

Perhaps the most shocking moment of the book takes place after the battle of Alamance when Roger is executed by the Governor. Roger, having gone to the Regulators in an attempt to get them to stand down, does a completely stupid thing when he spots his his many-times great-grandmother on the Regulator's side of things; he tells her to get her family out while she can... and then he kisses her in farewell, thus provoking the wrath of his many-times over great-grandfather. William MacKenzie is a right terrible bastard who beats Roger senseless and then hands him over to be hanged as a Regulator ringleader (and Roger is not quite conscious enough to realize what's going on). The surprising thing is not this twist (because Gabaldon certainly knows how to create drama), but that the execution actually goes through! Instead of dying at the end of the hangman's rope, though, Roger somehow survives -- when Jamie and Brianna make to cut him down, they hear him moan and Claire springs into action. As a result of the hanging, his throat is crushed... making it impossible for him to ever sing with the beauty he once did, and indeed, it's feared that he may never even speak again (though he does, with considerable effort). Terrible and heartbreaking as the loss of his beautiful singing voice might be (and indeed, for a while Roger's spirit appears to have been crushed along with his larynx), the whole surviving a hanging thing seems a bit much, eh? He had been hanging there for nearly an hour! And survived! Surely Gabaldon found some instance of this miracle in reality (the detail about the new rope not having any give is too specific a detail for it to not be true) and so brought it to play here, but I hope you understand me when I say that even though this is a novel, this miracle seems a bit too fantastic a thing to happen in a fiction if said fiction wants to be taken "seriously." I write this and then realize that this series is based on the premise that time travel is possible within stone circles, but in fairness, Gabaldon is very dedicated to the historical reality of her settings. She goes to great lengths to impress upon us just how dangerous a time it is, serendipitous events aside (because really, it's a novel, and we all come to accept the moments where a hero arrives just in time or the bullet is stopped by something in a character's pocket). I thought that Gabaldon was pushing it in book three when Jamie was shot in the head and yet the bullet simply went under his scalp because his skull is so thick. But hanging by the neck for an hour and surviving? It's ridiculous! I'm not saying that I want Roger dead, but we've seen a moment like this with Roger before now (two if you count his botched attempt at time travel through the stones), when Jamie nearly killed him in book three. Jamie stopped himself from killing him, but this time, Roger is simply cheating death and if Gabaldon does one more thing to Roger like this and lets him survive, then I'll lose respect in her storytelling skills. Three strikes and you're out, sir. Even if it was tragic that he loses that gift of singing, I would have been impressed with Gabaldon for actually going through with the death of a main character. I often wonder if she isn't simply populating Fraser's Ridge with people who will soon be casualties of war so that our main characters might survive and yet there will be sufficient depictions of carnage.

All that said, I realize my particular ire is brought about by the fact that it's Roger who's been cheating death. When Jamie survives near-misses, I'm not nearly as surprised. But then, this is Jamie's time and place. He's a soldier who's made a life of surviving and is capable of dealing with any number of attacks. He's a much more physical being than Roger, the former Oxford University history professor who has poor vision and approximately zero hunting and shooting skills. At least Bree knows how to ride a horse and shoot a gun (which was a very interesting point, if indeed Frank taught his daughter those things because he knew she would go back). I rather think that at this point, even Roger's surprised that he's still alive. The only thing keeping him alive is luck and, well, the grace of Gabaldon. Clearly he has a larger destiny to fulfill in this epic story.

This book more than any other carries a significant number of small details that I really enjoyed. Roger spying on Claire and Jamie, intent on learning how one maintained a marriage with such a level of passion and love. Brianna writing down dreams in a journal. Claire's foolish pleasure at knowing that men beyond her husband can find her attractive, even if it causes a bit of trouble. Jamie's jealousy over an unknown man bedding a wife he's divorced. One of the particular details that I liked in this book was the acknowledgment of the impulse to speak about things that are not part of the eighteenth century, and yet Brianna and Roger still have those memories of them. The wind in one's hair while driving, the cool taste of Coke, the urge to sing a Beatles song. The last, in particular, would surely get me in trouble, particularly when it comes to singing a child to sleep. They might get by with "Darlin' Clementine," but the songs that I'd feel the need to croon would all carry questions and implications of another time. (And a life without the ability to make pasta? Who am I kidding, I'd be dead quicker than Roger.) A detail I did not like: there was a horrid moment where she started writing in dispatches or diary entries from the governor and they were terribly dry and annoying. Thankfully, even she must have grown tired of them. And speaking of things we're getting tired of, sooner or later, we'll have to figure out if Jemmy is the biological son of Bonnet or Roger. It's a lovely sentiment that Roger doesn't care because Jemmy is his son no matter what, but we all know that sooner or later, blood will out. At least we can content ourselves with Brianna exacting a bit of revenge on Bonnet. It really would be nice if she was the one to dispose of him in the end, rather than the menfolk.

Once again, Gabaldon has created an incredibly compelling book and while things necessarily get convoluted with an ever-growing cast of characters, if you've been a fan so far, you'll continue to enjoy it. Even if Jamie and Claire have to give way to the concerns of Brianna and Roger, they still are firmly settled at the core of the novel. (Indeed, the closing sentiment of Jamie's actually made me tear up a bit as the rest of the book had not done.) If only all couples could age and grow with such wonderful assurance that their life and home was rooted in the other person. So on to book six, where we're sure to further entangle ourselves in the impending war... and there's that newspaper clipping that Roger found that announces Jamie and Claire's deaths. I certainly hope we get to part of it at least, because I'm not sure I can take much more of the lead-up without actually sinking our teeth into it. I'm stubbornly refusing to read the summaries of the books at this point; I know I'll keep reading so I'd rather be swept along and surprised. I'm not sure I would have said this somewhere around book three, when I was annoyed that the series had not yet wrapped up, but Ms. Gabaldon, please keep them coming!

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