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A Breath of Snow and Ashes

January 18th, 2011

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Eagerly anticipated by her legions of fans, this sixth novel in Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling Outlander saga is a masterpiece of historical fiction from one of the most popular authors of our time.Since the initial publication of Outlander fifteen years ago, Diana Gabaldon’s New York Times bestselling saga has won the hearts of readers the world over — and sold more than twelve million books. Now, A Breath of Snow and Ashes continues the extraordinary story of 18th-century Scotsman Jamie Fraser and his 20th-century wife, Claire.The year is 1772, and on the eve of the American Revolution, the long fuse of rebellion has already been lit. Men lie dead in the streets of Boston, and in the backwoods of North Carolina, isolated cabins burn in the forest.With chaos brewing, the governor calls upon Jamie Fraser to unite the backcountry and safeguard the colony for King and Crown. But from his wife Jamie knows that three years hence the shot heard round the world will be fired, and the result will be independence — with those loyal to the King either dead or in exile. And there is also the matter of a tiny clipping from The Wilmington Gazette, dated 1776, which reports Jamie’s death, along with his kin. For once, he hopes, his time-traveling family may be wrong about the future.From the Hardcover edition.


Book Review

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Science Fiction Eagerly anticipated by her legions of fans, this sixth novel in Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling Outlander saga is a masterpiece of historical fiction from one of the most popular authors of our time.Since the initial publication of Outlander fifteen years ago, Diana Gabaldon’s New York Times bestselling saga has won the hearts of readers the world over — and sold more than twelve million books. Now, A Breath of Snow and Ashes continues the extraordinary story of 18th-century Scotsman Jamie Fraser and his 20th-century wife, Claire.The year is 1772, and on the eve of the American Revolution, the long fuse of rebellion has already been lit. Men lie dead in the streets of Boston, and in the backwoods of North Carolina, isolated cabins burn in the forest.With chaos brewing, the governor calls upon Jamie Fraser to unite the backcountry and safeguard the colony for King and Crown. But from his wife Jamie knows that three years hence the shot heard round the world will be fired, and the result will be independence — with those loyal to the King either dead or in exile. And there is also the matter of a tiny clipping from The Wilmington Gazette, dated 1776, which reports Jamie’s death, along with his kin. For once, he hopes, his time-traveling family may be wrong about the future.From the Hardcover edition.
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  1. 30 Book A Month Reader
    January 19th, 2011 at 02:43 | #1

    Rating

    A Breath of Snow and Ashes answers all of the questions that have cropped up and lingered on for the last five books – Where is Steven Bonnet? Is Jemmy Bonnet’s child or Rogers? Does the house really burn down with the Frasers in it? What happens to Willie and Lord John Grey? Does Willie ever find out about his relationship to Jamie? Do Brianna and Roger have more children? What happened to Ian’s Indian wife and child? Does any member of the family return to the 21st century? It is as if Gabaldon decided to maybe – just maybe – end her series with this book. I got the sense that if she writes another it will be because she really wants to rather than she feels she has to.

    As for the book itself, this book reminded me why I loved Outlander and Voyager so very, very much. Although the book was long and at times ponderous, the story was enthralling and the characters were simply wonderful. I have often thought that Outlander series was the closest anyone will ever come to matching Gone with the Wind. This book reinforces that opinion. Brianna and Roger grew in this book in such a way that they no longer were distractions for the story, but instead because a vital part of it. I never cared for the character of Brianna – she was too self-centered and too spoiled – but in this book, I grew to like her very much. Ian plays a larger part in this book also. The relationship between Ian and Jamie becomes more of a partnership, as well as uncle and nephew. I like how Ian “watches his back”, and the decisions he makes. If I have any lingering questions at all concerning the characters, it would be concerning Ian. It just didn’t seem as if his life is wrapped up to my complete satisfaction. As for Claire and Jamie, Claire, oddly enough, plays more of a sideline character in most of the book. Situations seem to happen TO her rather than because of her, but Jamie – Jamie reminds you why you fell in love with him over a decade ago. Although I was happy for all the conflicts to resolve themselves, I was sad to leave Jamie. This book is quite simply a triumph. If Ms. Gabaldon stops writing here, these books will still be read – and republished – a century from now. She has bought her place in immortality.

    Thank you, Ms. Gabaldon.

  2. East Coast Reader
    January 21st, 2011 at 07:29 | #2

    Rating

    So far, none of the last few books at least for me has even come close to matching the first two. This was more of the same – not a lot of tension, and pages and pages of just life at the Ridge. And how many pregnant out of wedlock girls, cheating husbands, and rapes can possibly happen to one group of people?!

    I liked it and read it because I love the characters, but not even close to the fun of the first two books.

  3. Jana L. Perskie
    January 21st, 2011 at 22:42 | #3

    Rating

    Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series is without a doubt my favorite in all fiction. (I consider J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Ring” trilogy to be in a category of its own). I had been hoping for another novel about the fabulous time-traveling Fraser family but thought “The Fiery Cross” would be the last. Needless to say, when I heard that a sixth book was in the works, I reread my already well-worn copies of the first five installments, and pre-ordered “A Breath of Snow and Ashes.” I must say that Ms. Gabaldon is the only author I know of who is able to maintain her storyline, the tension and excitement, through thousands of words, and six novels, over a period of fifteen years. She continually invents new adventures, accurately recreates history, and allows her characters and their relationships to grow to extraordinary depth. I can only say BRAVO(!), as she has yet again come up with a winner.

    As Gabaldon fans know, Claire and James Fraser have weathered more storms than most. They crossed oceans and centuries to make a life together. Readers were first introduced to Jamie and Claire in “Outlander,” right after Claire made the voyage from peaceful 20th century Scotland to 18th century Scotland and total mayhem. We witnessed passion, love and friendship grow between this couple as they began married life, and experienced adventure, adversity and attempted to alter history. They finally settled in North Carolina along with their daughter Brianna, her husband Roger, their son Jemmie, many of their family members and friends from Scotland, including most of Jamies fellow prisoners from Ardsmuir and hundreds of refugees in exile in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion.

    Claire, now a beautiful matron in her 50s, spends much of her time utilizing her physician’s skills and searching for ways to bring 20th century science to her 18th century practice. James is the founder of the Fraser’s Ridge community and acts as an unofficial clan chief to the families who look to him for leadership. Brianna and Roger, and Fergus and Marsali are young couples coping with a heavy daily work load and parenting. This is a period when backbreaking work, from first light to last, is necessary for survival.

    “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” opens in the year 1772 on the eve of the American Revolution. Even in the backwoods colony of Fraser’s Ridge, NC, people are rebelling at the increased taxation by the British, with no government representation for themselves. Word of the Boston Massacre has reached the Frasers and their neighbors, and, in fact, one of the novel’s characters was involved in the event. The American colonies are in turmoil. Tension builds as isolated cabins are burned in the wilderness and families murdered. North Carolina Governor Josiah Martin asks James Fraser to help unite the backcountry population, including the Native Americans, in support of the King. However, Jamie knows about the revolution to come. His wife, Claire, has traveled back in time from the twentieth century, as have his daughter Brianna and her husband. They are well aware that it’s only a matter of a few years before the start of the War of Independence.

    Looming over the Frasers is the threat of a tiny newspaper clipping from The Wilmington Gazette, dated 1776, which Claire discovered before returning to the 18th century. The article reports the destruction of the house on Fraser’s Ridge, and the death by fire of James Fraser and all his family. Claire and James know from experience that it is not possible to change or effect future events, but they are determined to do all in their power to prove the newspaper report wrong.

    While not as good a read as “The Outlander,” (but what is?), this is a fabulous novel and the historical events portrayed are fascinating. I am from the Northeast and when I studied the American Revolution I usually focused on events in Philadelphia and New England. Ms. Gabaldon gives another perspective here, which has motivated me to further explore the history in the southern colonies.

    The author has an imagination for which I will always be grateful, and she is as skilled a writer as there ever was. She develops characters so that they truly come to life and remain with the reader forever – no small accomplishment. Her ability to capture the essence of a loving relationship, whether between lovers, spouses, parents and children, or friends can easily move her readers to tears. The dialogue is excellent and the wonderful Scottish dialect, interspersed with Gaelic, adds much to the novels’ credibility and the readers’ enjoyment.

    I highly recommend “A Breath of Snow and Ashes.” And for those who have not read the other books in the series, do yourselves a huge favor and begin with “Outlander” and read straight through all five sequels. You will be delighted and richly rewarded.

    Just a closing note: I know many men who have read and enjoyed these books. These novels are much more than chick lit!! ENJOY!

    JANA

  4. Snowbrocade
    January 23rd, 2011 at 04:28 | #4

    Rating

    A Breath of Snow and Ashes is the sixth installment in the time travel/historical adventure series by Diane Gabaldan. The central character is Claire Fraser, a 20th century woman who accidentally traveled back in time in the 1940′s and ended up in 18th century Scotland. She returns to her own time pregnant from her true love, and then returns again to find him 20 years later. Now Claire is settled with her 18th century husband and is building a life in the 18th century from 1771-1776.

    Claire, her husband Jamie and her daughter Brianna live on an enormous property in the mountains of North Carolina. The rigors of frontier life from a 20th century perspective are detailed in an interesting and captivating manner. Claire is a trained surgeon and works to provide medical services using 18th century tools.

    The difficulty and danger of 18th century life for both men and women is the theme of this enthralling adventure novel. Strangely enough the first time I picked this book up, I did not read beyond the first few pages, but upon the second try I thoroughly enjoyed it and could not put it down. Gabaldan’s writing continues to develop. She writes beautifully and lucidly both in her description of the natural world, as well as in her intense portrayal of relationships. The main character, Claire, continues to develop as a person and physician in a way that makes the reader feel they have grown along with her. This sixth book of the series is more adventure and historical novel than romance and is the better for it. Highly recommended!

  5. L. Recker
    January 23rd, 2011 at 06:32 | #5

    Rating

    “Snow” is better than FC, but I still have some major complaints about the book:

    1) The recycling of characters/plots from Gabaldon’s previous books:

    Claire ends up in the gaol after trying to save a baby’s life; A man to whom she shows mercy returns not to thank her, but to threaten her life; Claire is betrayed by her only close female friend; Claire is kidnapped and Jamie must track her down; Claire is saved by an unlikely admirer…well, gosh, we’ve read all this before.

    2) Too many tangents

    Gabaldon’s storytelling reminds me of the network coverage of the Olympics. You tune in to watch the men’s gymnastic all-around competition and are quite absorbed and entertained for an hour. Then, suddenly, you’re told to “stay tuned” and the next thing you know you’re sidetracked watching women’s tiddlywinks. You have zero interest in tiddlywinks. Yet you find yourself watching tiddlywinks anyway because it is what you must endure to find out how the men’s all-around gymnastics competition ends.

    That’s how I feel about both FC and ABoSaA. I am reading these books because I was, and am, intrigued by Jamie and Claire’s story. In all honesty, I have very little interest in Roger and Brianna except how they affect Jamie and Claire’s story. I care even LESS about Lizzie’s perverted relationship with the Beardsley twins, whether Manfred infects his prostitute lover with syphillis, whether her brother had incestuous feelings toward Malva, or whether Aunt Jocosta and Duncan are sleeping with their slaves. (By the way, what is it with Gabaldon’s pre-occupation with sexual perversity? What’s next? Ian’s unnatural attraction towards Rollo?) The ONLY reason I continue to read all these distracting side-stories is because it is what I must endure to know how Jamie and Claire’s story ends.

    ::Sigh::

    FYI, this is NOT the last book in the Outlander series. The author herself believes the series will end in 1800 and she simply refers to this book as the “sixth” in the series.: [...]

  6. Rosa
    January 23rd, 2011 at 10:12 | #6

    Rating

    Ever since a friend introduced me to the Outlander series 5 years ago, I have been hooked on Jamie & Claire’s riveting story. I read the first four books within 2 months and The Fiery Cross as soon as it was published. After an agonizing wait I was very excited to finally read ABOS&A.

    While I was glad to once again be amongst ‘friends’ and catch up with what has been going on in Jamie & Claire’s life, I do believe there were quite a few bits that could have been done away with. First of all, how many members of this family must be raped before we can finally put this sub-plot to rest?!?! I also believe some of the wording and back-story was a bit superfluous and could have been eliminated.

    On the other hand, I was very happy to ready more about Roger & Brianna (.. and the ‘vrooms!) and loved that we got to see more of Young Ian, who has always been one of my favourite characters in the series. I was also pleased to see more of Fergus and Marsali.

    All in all, I am glad I read this book – although it is not among my favourites in the series. Still, it has left me longing once again for the next installment. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait so long for this one!!

  7. M. Bauer
    January 24th, 2011 at 01:10 | #7

    Rating

    I have loved all of Diana Gabaldon’s books (even Fiery Cross!) and even purchased several copies of A Breath of Snow and Ashes for Christmas gifts. If I had read the book first, I wouldn’t have bothered. It left me feeling very disappointed. This is the first book in the series that I haven’t wanted to reread. What made the difference? Claire’s rape was just over the top. Now everyone in the family has been raped. Who is next, the grandchildren? The rape was bad enough, but the reactions by the major characters to the rape was shallow and glossed over. Lizzie’s relationship with the Beardsley twins was unbelievable and totally out of character. It makes one wonder if Ms. Gabaldon is reacting to criticism of The Fiery Cross by trying to make A Breath of Snow and Ashes full of action (rapes, kidnapping, murders, etc.) even if the action is not believable and not necessary to moving the story along. The book seems to plod along for hundreds of pages and then is summed up hurriedly as if she had to hurry and wrap things up to get it published by the deadline. She says that she writes in chunks and then puts things together, and it really shows in this book. It seems disjointed. The whole issue with dates, ages, etc. is getting worse in each successive book. These books really cry out for a good editor, especially this last one. After having said all that, I am still a Gabaldon fan and will contiue to buy and read the next installments. I’m not as hooked as I was before, though.

  8. Drugstore Cowgirl
    January 24th, 2011 at 21:48 | #8

    Rating

    It’s as if Ms. Gabaldon fired a shotgun then went about gathering each pellet and writing about that pellet, it’s trajectory, where it landed and how the terrain looks, etc. and with no connecting point or reason to each pellets storyline. Or a lot like having to sit and listen to an extremely garrulous person telling a longwinded story, going off on tangents, forgetting details already spoken about but reciting them in another and different way,eventually picking up the thread of the original story but being distracted by someone passing and having to discuss the whys and wherefores of THAT persons existence. Also sloppy writing AND editing. Did anyone else notice that Jem’s green eyes became dark blue at least twice in this book? (I remember in another book when Claire’s topaz eyes suddenly became grey.) I simply cannot make myself read another book about the “Rape, Torture, Torment and Kidnapping of the Frasers” without feeling like a sadist. I love a good, long, well-told yarn but this has become just a long, boring-but-sometimes-interesting lot of blather. The first three books are treasures and I can’t believe I’m writing a review like this since I have anxiously awaited each book but Ms. Gabaldon needs to be told by someone that every word written by her isn’t golden and interesting. This sort of self-indulgence shouldn’t be encouraged. I made myself read the entire book but I didn’t think that it would EVER end. Good-bye Frasers and may you, and I mean this most sincerely, rest in peace.

  9. Rosamond1
    January 26th, 2011 at 19:46 | #9

    Rating

    Diana Gabaldon is a very talented writer. When she’s “on” her prose has a freshness and intensity that can take your breath away. Her plots can be fascinating and page-turning. At their best, her stories give the reader an exhilarating mix of historical fiction, fantasy and romance. Unfortunately, this sixth installment in her Outlander series, which began 15 years ago with the marvelous book of the same name, is a tedious and disjointed mishmash of a read.

    Some reviewers here have bemoaned the lack of strong editing on this book and I wholeheartedly add my voice to theirs. Gabaldon writes like she’s getting paid by the word. Descriptions go on forever, irrelevant tertiary characters receive way too much attention and time, and too many of the main story lines from the previous books are barely advanced. In addition, Gabaldon recycles plot elements, such as the violent rape of main characters, that are becoming close to preposterous.

    The story of the saga’s hero and heroine–the 18th century Scottish laird Jamie Fraser and his 20th century time-traveling wife Claire–which is the reason Gabaldon’s fans buy these books, is told in only small snippets throughout this 900+ page whale. Pages and pages are spent describing, in minute detail, physician Claire’s medical practices and her daughter Brianna’s attempt to bring plumbing to the family’s frontier home, yet way too little effort is put into showing the reader the emotional landscape and psychological progression of the characters, something Gabaldon excelled at in the earliest of the series’ books.

    The first two books in the Outlander saga, Outlander and Dragonfly In Amber were pure magic. The next two, Voyager and Drums of Autumn, were highly readable for fans of the first books. The Fiery Cross was, I thought at the time, a forgiveable misstep. With the publication of ABOSAA, however, I believe Ms. Gabaldon has seriously lost her way–and that’s a sad development for her legacy as a writer of historical fiction and for her many fans.

    I give this book two stars because there are oasis’ in the book of Gabaldon’s stellar prose. Those respites are few and far between, however. In short: ABOSAA is abysmal.

  10. Diana F. Von Behren
    January 28th, 2011 at 21:23 | #10

    Rating

    With her fine eye for detail and gossipy vignette style, Diana Gabaldon still manages to create two of the best characters in contemporary fiction today in spite of a plot line that continually fizzles with each massive book she publishes.

    And why is this?

    As the Revolutionary War draws closer and Jamie and Claire, now patriarch and matriarch of a growing colonial infrastructure on Fraser’s Ridge, North Carolina, live life on the defense with the heavy knowledge that their predicted demise by fire is near at hand. Beginning where “the Fiery Cross” left off, “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” continues the meandering almost fanzine style prevalent in all of Gabaldon’s more recent installments.

    While Gabaldon’s anecdotal technique adds an-oh-so-nice layer of flesh and bone (especially in Jamie’s case) to the main characters —- Claire’s clear and strident voice bears the stamp of the 20th century despite the constant pop references — Jamie’s manly `hrumphs’ and stubborn Scots’ mindset renders even Mel Gibson as William Wallace just another Gaelic wannabe in a kilt.—- the lack of one master plot line beyond that of dodging the fire bullet translates into just another collection of stories revolving around life on the Ridge. Not only are the non-stop adventures prevalent in “Outlander”, “Dragonfly in Amber” and “Voyager” that kept this fan reading and wanting more, seemingly traded in for the same lengthy commentaries on medical procedures and illness diagnosis that bogged down the plot line in “the Fiery Cross”, but the whole fun and intriguing concept of time travel seems to have been forgotten as a major plot device until the very end, alas, of the tale.

    Albeit Gabaldon does wrap up the loose ends of Bonnet, Jem’s paternity and the predicted fire along with adding a compliment of secondary characters whose primitive behavior raises eyebrows as intended and that she disposes of after almost a thousand pages with the ease of any literary despot. That said the book contains some fine moments between Jamie and Claire that further endears them to the already huge fan base that this series has deservedly acquired. Hopefully the future finale will include all the thrilling aspects that Frasier devotees have come to know and love spun against a much tighter plotline.

    As these books seem to take forever to write and publish, I would have benefited greatly from a who’s who appendix that would have refreshed my mind to the relationship between the many wonderful characters. Less verbiage spent on Brianna and Roger, Frasier’s Ridge and more lavished on the way Jamie and Claire can capitalize personally on the excitement of the times either in America or back in Scotland, would please me to no end. Nevertheless, this book is recommended for all lovers of the Outlander series and reviewed in kind as a fan.

  11. Ers Consulting
    January 30th, 2011 at 01:45 | #11

    Rating

    I was one of those many readers who loved the first four books but was harshly critical of The Fiery Cross, her fifth book. However, this book is terrific. First of all Claire and Jamie are more present in this book with all their love and passion, fierceness and courage, which had been dimly expressed in The Fiery Cross. Brianna and Roger are more believable and loving towards each other – Roger is less of a wimp, Brianna has gotten over her whinny self, and Jemmy is a terrific kid, not just a pooping, nursing machine.

    Ordinarily, I am impatient of a lot of description, do a lot of skimming, and want to get down to the meat and potatoes of the plot. But not in this book. Every vignette, even if not central to the plot, is vivid and fascinating, giving the reader a glimpse into life in those days. I found myself devouring every word, enjoying the journey rather than being in a rush to the destination. Gabaldon is just such an incredible writer; such an imagination – you find it hard to believe she wasn’t actually there. And when Jamie says things like “If I die, dinna follow me. The bairns will need ye. Stay for them. I can wait.” I find myself crying and feeling like an idiot, since this is fiction, but it touches me so.

    Enjoy!

  12. L. Bridges
    January 30th, 2011 at 02:47 | #12

    Rating

    This book has to be my least favorite of the Outlander series. The page turner adventures and the heart-stopping romance isn’t as prevelant as in the earlier books. Remember when Claire lost the baby in Dragonfly in Amber?? You don’t find scenes like that in this book. Also, with Roger becoming a preacher, the religious context is a bit distracting. I honestly thought The Fiery Cross was better. However, this book does have an intersting ending, that combined with my love for Jamie and Claire will prompt to read the next book.

  13. Mel
    February 1st, 2011 at 09:04 | #13

    Rating

    If you’ve been waiting for certain things to be resolved . . . well, you’re in luck. It was with a great deal of satisfaction that I finished this book (at 2:30 this morning), because I finally had answers to a lot of the things I’d been wondering about.

    Unlike Fiery Cross, this book is much faster moving, with no long descriptions of diaper-changing. Brianna and Roger seem to have found their places at Fraser’s Ridge . . . Brianna is much more likeable, much more mature, and a lot less whiny. And, of course, Claire and Jamie are featured very prominently . . . it’s still their series. There’s action, adventure, abduction, illness, war, and of course, sex.

    A book more in the tradition of Voyager and Drums of Autumn . . . I wasn’t disappointed.

  14. miscellany78
    February 2nd, 2011 at 03:06 | #14

    Rating

    A Breath of Snow and Ashes is the sixth book in Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series. It continues to follow the adventures of Claire and Jamie Fraser, an older married couple living in North Carolina on the eve of the American Revolution. The Frasers have led adventurous lives, including war, abduction, and time travel. Their 20-something daughter Brianna, and her husband Roger, also play an important role in the series.

    Again and again, Gabaldon’s books fail to live up to the remarkable high standards of “Outlander,” the first book in this series. But it is impossible to give the books a truly poor rating. Even at her worst, Gabaldon has an incredibly enjoyable style. Her work is always engaging and compelling.

    Having said that, though, ABoSaA desperately needs some editing. It meanders from subplot to subplot for hundreds of pages. Then, when the stories finally begin to be resolved, they are all lumped together in a rush at the end of the book. It’s as though the entire ending was an afterthought.

    Gabaldon’s later books are often repetitive; she’ll get an idea in her head and come back to it a thousand times without saying anything new. This trend was more evident than usual in ABoSaA. Every other adjective she used, for instance, was “homely.” And all of the characters have developed the new habit of running their fingers either under or down their noses every time they were engaged in conversation. The effect is very distracting, and it serves absolutely no purpose.

    This book is packed with action, which is an improvement over the previous book, “The Fiery Cross.” But many of the episodes feel a bit forced. Someone tries to abduct Claire every 15 minutes. Gabaldon is also known to struggle with timelines and consistiency, and this book is no exception.

    Still, for those who seek the comfort and fun of a Claire and Jamie story, ABoSaA is a treat. The main selling points – the passion, the witty banter, the bravery – are all there. Brianna and Roger also come into their own more and more with each book. They still don’t have the magic that Jamie and Claire shared in the first book, but they’re much more interesting than they were when they first appeared.

    I have heard speculation that this book would be the last of the series, but having read it, this seems impossible. Gabaldon leaves far too many loose ends at the novel’s conclusion. But to take Claire and Jamie any further is to have to face that they really are not young anymore, so I am wondering how Gabaldon will resolve this.

  15. Bookreporter.com
    February 2nd, 2011 at 12:06 | #15

    Rating

    Bodice-ripper romance? Check. Historical fiction with oodles of period detail? Double-check. Time-traveling fantasy? You bet. A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES (actually, all six volumes in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series) combines most of the genres I love, which means I couldn’t put it down — and at a hefty 992 pages, that’s saying a lot. While immersed, I felt I was never far from Fraser’s Ridge, the North Carolina homestead where Jamie Fraser, an exiled Scotsman, and his wife Claire, doctor and displaced 20th-century person, make their home. There are two other refugees from the contemporary world in the community: the Frasers’ daughter Brianna (conceived in the 18th century, born in the 20th), and her husband Roger — plus assorted saints, ruffians, eccentrics, rogues, floozies and fanatics.

    Gabaldon’s conceit, for those new to the books, is that certain individuals are able to pass from one century to another by means of ancient circles of standing stones. In OUTLANDER, the first volume, Claire time-travels quite by accident while vacationing in the Highlands; from 1946 she is hurtled back some 200 years, when the Jacobites, Scottish supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie, were fighting to oust the English and reestablish their own king. She meets and marries Jamie, but after the rebels are crushed at Culloden in 1745 and he is condemned to death, she returns to modern life (and her bemused 20th-century husband) to save her unborn child.

    Sounds pretty crazy, but Gabaldon makes it plausible because her research is so meticulous and her characters so sympathetic: heroic, yet attractively flawed. You get to know the central quartet — Jamie, Claire, Brianna and Roger — especially well, since they take turns narrating the book. Okay, I’ll admit that the two couples’ literally timeless devotion and undying ardor (sex scenes galore!) are so idealized that lots of plot action is essential to keep the reader from becoming bored and/or skeptical: Somebody (Claire twice and Brianna once) is always getting abducted by villains and rescued by the clan.

    But A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES, though a close cousin of the historical romance (think a more prolix version of Philippa Gregory), has another dimension, thanks to the sci-fi element. A modern sensibility and vision lurk within the pre-electric interiors and wild, uncharted scenery of Fraser’s Ridge — Brianna dreams of hot running water; Claire struggles with the concept that she is Jamie’s property; Roger, originally an historian, looks ahead to the triumph of the revolution and the bitter fate of the Native Americans. The book reminds us how dangerous it was to be on the “right” side of the Anglo-American conflict, and how hard and labor-intensive it was to accomplish the simplest tasks of everyday life. It shows us Claire and Brianna recreating resources we take for granted, from matches to ether (Claire’s medical adventures, wherein she combines contemporary knowledge with herbal traditions, is my favorite part of the series; in this volume she handles a breech birth, fixes a twisted hand, and treats syphilis with a home-grown form of penicillin). The women characters are not only amazingly strong, but also possess a feminist consciousness that they bring to bear on an impressive number of unwed pregnancies and other local scandals. And always the modern refugees are wondering whether there are other time-travelers like themselves — whether, in fact, every invention is really a reinvention by people from the future.

    The temporal ambiguity of the book also gives it emotional depth. All the characters, time-travelers or political exiles, have a feeling of displacement and a deep longing for the home they’ve parted from. Jamie, contemplating the “glorious, terrifying” emptiness of the land, becomes aware of a “more terrifying emptiness within”: He “had said good-bye to Scotland at the rail of the Artemis, knowing full well it was likely his last sight of the place. And yet the notion that he would never set foot there again had never fully settled on him ’til this moment.”‘ Our stories of pioneers and immigrants have passed into myth, so it is easy to forget how much courage it took to break with the old and familiar and sail off to a whole new continent.

    A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES isn’t great literature. It’s way, way too long; full of breathless prose, cornball archaic language, and Gaelic phrases; easy to make fun of or relegate to the status of guilty pleasure. And yet, there is something so honest, rich and complete about the alternative worlds Gabaldon creates that I think she is a kind of genius. I can’t wait to find out what happens next in the story of the Frasers and their kin (the end is quite a cliffhanger).

    If you’re already addicted to Claire and Jamie, this review probably isn’t even necessary. But for Outlander “virgins,” I have some advice: Pick up a copy of THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION, Gabaldon’s handbook to the series, which includes not only synopses of the first few books but also family trees, character analyses, research minutiae, a Gaelic glossary and grammar, and more — all the insider info a hardcore fan could want and a newcomer could need.

    — Reviewed by Kathy Weissman

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