Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Breath of Snow and Ashes - series or just long story?

I finished A Breath of Snow and Ashes last night. The book is the sixth in Diana Gabaldon's set of Outlander novels. Most people describe these books as being a series, but unlike most series, which in my mind are self-contained stories that do not depend on each other for a continuous narrative though the main character might grow and develop, these books are really volumes in a very long story. Not that it really matters...

This is among my favorites, partly because it has actual time travel, although 99.9% of the book is set solidly in the Carolina colonies of 1773-1776. Books 4 and 5, Drums of Autumn and The Fiery Cross, tell the story of the characters, those from the 20th century and those from the 18th, as they live their lives in the 18th century. I'm hoping that book 7, Echo in the Bone, will have more of the characters who return to the 20th century. One of my favorite aspects of the books is the displacement--how does a modern person deal with the past when it is staring them in the face daily.

I'm finding this review difficult to write without spoilers so I'm abandoning coyness and if you don't want spoilers, abandon ship.

I absolutely love how Claire adapts her doctoring to the realities of the 18th century frontier. She has a mid-1960's approach to health and medicine but doesn't have the medicines, facilities, or cultural acceptance to practice the way she wants to. I found the discussion of illnesses, injuries, etc. to be fascinating.

I also loved how Brianna took to fabricating what she wanted and needed--again, based on a mid-20th century view of what makes life comfortable and how to approach achieving it given the materials and tools on hand. I loved how she figured out plumbing and matches in particular. I still fantasize about what the world would be like if we collectively lost the recipe for producing things like matches, and this was one author's insights into how we might cope.

I thought the side story of Claire's medical assistant, Malva, interesting...especially when it turned out that she didn't turn against Claire in the end.

I thought Gabaldon finally gave Roger a break and was thrilled that he found his calling and was able to refind his voice in the process.

I loved how Gabaldon resolved the fact that the family "knew" when Claire and Jamie were supposed to die and how. That truly made me laugh out loud at the end of the book. So many books falter towards their ends, as if their authors get impatient to be done with the thing. Gabaldon, knowing that she is not yet at the end of her story, just of a volume of it, doesn't fall into that trap of rushing to conclusion and botching the ending.

Gabaldon's isn't the most gifted writing around, but she is a first rate storyteller. I don't earmark passages of piercing insight when I read her books, but I do find myself thinking about her characters, the family life that they build across geographies, time and space, and the warmth and energy they bring to their lives and those around them.

I am definitely looking forward to reading Echo in the Bone this winter, but first I will read The Exile, a graphic story of Outlander (volume one of the Outlander set) as told from Jamie's perspective. It arrived from Amazon earlier this week, and I can hardly wait.

Here's a page from The Exile. My feeling is that Gabaldon has finally given up hope on seeing her story brought to film/video in an appropriate way, so she went the graphic route...


  1. I was just considering the graphic novel.

  2. Great review! I also love Gabaldon's storytelling ability. I love the characters and really feel swept up into the novel whenever I read one of her books. I really need to find The Exile!