An Echo in the Bone

At the time that I write this review, An Echo in the Bone is the most recently published volume in the adventures of Jamie and Claire, Diana Gabaldon's creations that have spawned an epic series of novels, the popularity of which is based solely on the devoted love between these two souls, no matter the difference of time and culture. Fans of the series must be delighted to have another installment and indeed, I read the whole of this book with a warm enough feeling simply because I enjoy the characters, no matter much for what they're up to. That said, as far as storyline and execution are concerned, An Echo in the Bone is probably my least favorite installment to date. While I found a few particular plot points to be quite delightful and in keeping with Gabaldon's sense of comedy and drama, mostly I thought that some spark was missing and things were a bit rushed, resulting in an inability to linger and enjoy people and places.

First, a plot summary. It's 1776 and the American Revolution is under way (finally, right?) -- but Jamie Fraser has decided to return to Scotland and retrieve his printing press so he might have the use of it in his fight against the English. He's not getting any younger and while he's clearly still capable of fighting on the battlefield, he believes he might do more damage with the written word. Claire, naturally, intends to accompany him, as she could never be dislodged from his side for long... particularly now that Brianna and Roger have taken their children and gone through a stone circle to the modern time. Without their daughter and her family to keep them at Frasers Ridge, Jamie and Claire feel they can make the trip out to Scotland and back, finally fulfilling a promise to bring Ian back to his parents after years of separation (which all started with his being kidnapped at the age of fifteen). Of course, no one should be surprised that this plan doesn't go smoothly -- after Ian and Jamie are nearly pressed into service on an English ship shortly after leaving America, they have to return to the rebelling colonies and eventually end up at Fort Ticonderoga where Jamie and Ian have to fulfill a short contract of service in the Continental army. They live to see the fort fall into the hands of the British and eventually they make it to Scotland and back, but not without considerable drama along the way.

Elsewhere in the eighteenth century, William Ransom (aka the Duke of Ellesmere, aka Jamie's secret biological son and Lord John's adoptive son) has taken a commission in the British army and is doing a bit of intelligence work... which mostly seems to result in getting robbed or losing documents... and then losing his way and nearly dying. Unsurprisingly, this intelligence-collecting and eagerness to see battle eventually leads to his path crossing with that of his unknown father (to whom he bears a very striking resemblance). Part of Jamie's reason for wanting to be in Scotland was so that he might avoid meeting his son on the battlefield... which we all know is going to happen sooner or later, no matter what he does. William's presence at least means that we get to see a great deal of Lord John Grey, who is trying to do a bit of intelligence work himself, though mostly of the informal variety. Via letters, William also seems intent on convincing his father that he's in love with his cousin, Dottie, but John's a bit suspicious on this count and he wonders what these kids are hiding. Before returning to the colonies to locate his injured nephew (William's cousin and Dottie's injured brother) and supposedly deliver Dottie into the arms of her betrothed, William, John pops over to Europe to do some work and even there, he can't seem to escape Jamie Fraser, whose name pops up more than once. (It does make one wonder how the fellow isn't more prominently featured in the history books if he winds up having a finger in every pie.) As far as the rest of the Fraser family is concerned, Fergus is potentially being tracked by an English/French fellow going by the name of Beauchamp (and Claire is curious if she's found an ancestor of her own) who might have information about his parentage (remember that Fergus was born and raised in a brothel in Paris). Ian Murray (and perhaps William, too) has fallen for a Quaker girl named Rachel, whose religion forbids violence and therefore probably wouldn't look kindly on a potential union with a Catholic turned Mohawk warrior. Meanwhile, we also have the "modern" time to deal with -- Roger and Brianna went back to the modern world so that they might save the life of their daughter, Amanda, who required an operation that Claire could never have managed in eighteenth century conditions. They spent a year in Boston for Amanda's surgery/recovery and then moved back to Scotland, purchasing Jamie's ancestral home of Lallybroch. At the end of the last novel, the two discovered an old case that was preserved in Roger's uncle's effects... which has instructions that it should only be passed down and opened by a Jeremiah MacKenzie, aka little Jemmy. It turns out to be letters from Claire and Jamie, which Brianna and Roger decide to open very slowly rather than devour all at once... because once they've finished reading them, then the idea of her parents being dead and gone will be too real. Their own lives are starting to gain traction: Brianna has just gotten a job, Roger's started teaching classes and is writing a time-traveler guidebook for the kids, and the family is starting to settle in to a nice existence... so you know that it all has to go wrong pretty quickly, right?

Now, normally so much happens within a Gabaldon novel that the reader is quite carried away by events; in An Echo in the Bone, I was surprised that things didn't seem to move with the same amount of speed, save for choice incidents that then felt incredibly awkward and rushed before being cut off. Action would occur in a burst of speed, often requiring me to re-read a passage as I was left with the impression that something had been left out. And indeed, Gabaldon did leave quite a lot out, opting to cut off an action sequence somewhere in the middle and then skip ahead, leaving us to infer the results of the action or have the holes filled in slowly by off-hand details later on. I found myself feeling annoyed several times as a result of this and I wonder if someone wasn't begging her to pick up the pace and stop explaining things... but if so, she went too far and really should have taken a bit more time. Perhaps this is a result of the incredibly fractured nature of this novel... we're dealing with a very large cast of characters, spread across time and space, so we have to keep jumping around... though it didn't feel like this was happening more in this book as opposed to others... just that it didn't seem as fluid. It's also possible that Gabaldon felt that similar scenes had been depicted previously in her novels and so why risk repeating herself? Just the same, I would have preferred more detail to bridge the gap between near-action and results of action... otherwise, we just feel like we're being hurried along.

I'm also not terribly sure that I like the most recent coupling to take place -- aka Ian and Rachel. All the Quaker "thee"s and "thou"s irritate me a little, though I don't mind Rachel and her brother, Denzell, as characters... I just don't quite feel like Ian and Rachel's relationship is founded on much beside attraction. It all happened too fast... first Rachel liked William and then all of a sudden it's Ian or nothing? Other relationships in this novel at least have time to simmer and develop... or they aren't quite so prominent that one can assume the development has taken place in the background. There seemed to be more interaction between Rachel and William for goodness' sake that might form the basis of a more substantial connection. Of course, I'm glad that Rachel opts for Ian over William. William has a long way to go before he can properly hold a reader's attention on his own merit. Clearly he's being groomed for more direct focus and this is his first real chance, but even if he looks like his dad, he's no Jamie Fraser.

As for the modern time, I'm a bit annoyed. For most of the book, I found this storyline to be rather pleasant if not terribly action-filled... and then all of a sudden, Gabaldon decides to just go crazy with complication. You could see her laying the foundation all along, but it seemed to just become a big dramatic thing all of a sudden. Not only does she come up with a real whack-job to suggest that the modern time is just as dangerous as the eighteenth century, but she brings an eighteenth century character through the stones into modern time (which you knew had to happen sooner or later). That doesn't bother me so much as the fact that, for this honor, she selected a character that I haven't liked from the get-go... namely, Roger's multiple-great-grandfather that was responsible for nearly getting him killed. I suppose I just don't find the modern story as compelling as the eighteenth century one... or maybe I just didn't appreciate the build up to sudden suspense and drama that we leave hanging to be dealt with in book eight. There's also hints that another of Frank's ancestors is running around the colonies, too -- namely, the child misattributed to Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall on Frank's family tree, but who's really the son of his brother... all grown up and potentially placed here specifically to mess with Jamie's son, William.

All that said, I still enjoyed the novel. You might think this sounds crazy, but I'm too far in to the series now to have any other real reaction... unless of course things were to go terribly, terribly wrong. (And by terribly, terribly wrong, I mean like Gabaldon separates Jamie and Claire for the duration of the novel, kills Lord John and Rollo, gives most of the narrative control to William, and only writes chaste Ian/Rachel "sex" scenes where they kiss and Rachel whispers, "I love thee" while we fade to black.) As long as Jamie and Claire are there (and together), I'm pretty good. And Lord John. I have a fondness for that particularly complicated character, so his substantial presence here was nice. Clearly, Gabaldon was trying to mix things up a bit, worried that there would be too much repetition if all we did was stay in America. She's certainly right to try and avoid that, but it seems like there just wasn't a really great idea to seize upon -- until the end, that is. My favorite twist of the novel happens quite towards the end (definite spoiler alert) -- when Claire believes that Jamie is dead (she seemed a bit too accepting of this, though) and Lord John learns that Claire might be arrested as a spy... so John insists on marrying her so that he can protect both Claire and her family, a final thing that he can do for his departed love, Jamie. The first bit is annoying, but the second bit is great. Even if Gabaldon had tried to lure us into the idea that Jamie really was dead, we wouldn't have bought it (which begs the question, why does Claire?), so I was pleased she openly let us in on this, even as John and Claire spend a night comforting each other. It was some of the best character interaction in the book -- and certainly suggests that Gabaldon has been spending a lot of time developing Lord John in her series of mysteries that focus on him. The Claire-Jamie-John triangle is pretty fascinating and I'm glad that this means we'll have the opportunity to play with it a bit, given that now Lord John has had carnal knowledge of Jamie Fraser's wife yet not of Jamie Fraser, the man he's loved for years. You could see the John-Claire marriage coming from a mile away as soon as Claire thinks Jamie might be dead, but it's still fun... and the fun gets overshadowed with William's realization as to who Jamie is in relation to him and giant hissy fit, but ah well.

Despite what I saw as a bit of a decline in the storyline quality, if the eighth book were available, I'd have already started reading it before I even started writing this review. I'll content myself with devouring the three short Lord John novels and then scour the internet for any clue about book eight and its potential release.

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