on March 27, 2011
This is a very long review for a number of reasons not the least of which is that I have been a devoted fan of these books for the last 15 years and I feel that if I am going to skewer this book and its author, I should be specific and thoughtful. I also hope prospective readers and other fans find it helpful, and be forewarned that in talking about this book, I have given away some information.
If you are looking for a novel that is a good read, this is not it. What it is, however, is the latest disappointing installment in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, her fans having waited four years since A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the previous installment where the author's vision, pacing and characterization also, albeit to a lesser extent, seriously faltered. An Echo in the Bone is at best a transitional work which is thin on plot, devoid of character development, filled with blatant inconsistencies, omissions, and wrong choices, and no ending except for a farcical scene that is a sham, all of which should be an embarrassment to a writer of Gabaldon's experience.
If you are wondering whether or not to invest your time and money in the Outlander series, this is how I would rate the seven books in this series: Outlander - 5; Dragonfly in Amber - 5; Voyager - 3; Drums of Autumn - 4; The Fiery Cross - 3; A Breath of Snow and Ashes - 2; An Echo in the Bone - 0. The rating of 2 is an average for the entire series lowered by one star to reflect the author's clear lack of investment and care in writing this book.
Previous books have had something solid to offer fans of Jamie and Claire Fraser's story (although you could skip the last half of Voyager). Their story begins to devolve, however, in A Breath of Snow and Ashes which, while not completely lacking merit, plods along filled with a sinister overlay almost totally lacking in suspense until a rushed ending and surprise announcement so seemingly out of character and wrong, given the main characters' emotional investment for their homestead developed in the preceding two books, it leaves one cold. Add to that, a cheesy and nonsensical second epilogue - a cheap attempt at creating "suspense" in case [please] the ending wasn't enough. It wasn't. And, if you do start the series, you may find yourself, like many, stranded at the end of seven books feeling cheated with no satisfactory conclusion in sight. So a word of caution - caveat emptor.
The biggest failing of An Echo in the Bone, in my opinion, is the overall structure of the story itself, where Gabaldon mostly ignores the accepted tenets of what constitutes a well-written and compelling novel; that is, a focal character, plot, conflict, denouement, etc. Criticized for her lack of character development in the past, it has never been more deserved than in this book as she focuses on four groups of characters previously depicted in the Outlander series in descending emphasis, rather than one focal character: William Ransome, Earl of Ellesmere and Lord John Grey; Brianna and Roger MacKenzie and their son, Jemmy; Ian Murray; and Jamie and Claire Fraser. Diehard Jamie and Claire fans are sure to be disappointed at their secondary status in this story, and while it seemed inevitable after thirty-plus years and six books, the transition to the next focal character could have been seamless had Gabaldon exercised more care and some imagination.
William, Earl of Ellesmere and Lord John Grey. I have never understood Gabaldon's fascination with Lord John Grey. He is a likable character, and while I admire him for what he's done on Jamie's behalf, I have no interest in learning any more about him outside of the Outlander context. Considering the lack of the Lord John Grey books' popularity, you would think Gabaldon would let it go and get back to her bread and butter, but apparently not. Here she insists on bringing the Lord John storyline into the Outlander series which adds nothing relevant, severely miring the story, and confusing readers not familiar with the Lord John series. If she wanted to leverage the Outlander series for additional writing, a better choice in my opinion would have been to write a series of prequels leading up to the original Outlander story which I think would have been of greater interest to Outlander fans.
William, Earl of Ellesmere, on the other hand is a source of curiosity, but not so much as to warrant leading off the 7th book of the Outlander series with him at its center. First, he's appeared only briefly in previous books as first, an infant, and then, as a small boy and a twelve year old. Simply put, William hasn't earned the right to be the focal character of this book, the 7th book in a series, although it was inevitable that he would eventually make an appearance in one of the books. One could take the position, however, that this was a bold move on Gabaldon's part given that the sole test in front of William, a child of privilege protected by a well-connected adoptive father, was the discovery of his true parentage, and that the title of the book, An Echo in the Bone, refers to it.
Gabaldon has been criticized in the past for rehashing scenarios in her books, but this would have been the one time to do so. The use of parallels to the past and the use of irony would have been powerful (as long as she didn't actually dredge up past villains or their progeny), particularly at this time of history, and would have firmly anchored the story by exploring the similarities between William and his biological father. In that case, William's story should have been on the order of an Outlander reboot where throughout the book William is faced with intrigue (intelligencing) and challenges of great intensity and where to his peril, he is forced to make choices like his father before him, all the while showing us through his actions the man he has become - ending, of course, with a gut wrenching scene involving the discovery of his true origins, and a moral, or life or death dilemma. Absolutely none of this, however, is evident in the book.
What we do learn is that William secretly carries something with him from childhood, but Gabaldon chooses to let William remain silent on its meaning to him or his view on how he acquired it. A lost opportunity to learn something about his psyche and his past. Instead, the only fact about his past that is shared in the space of a paragraph is that he inexplicably shares a trait with his half-sister. As the book progresses, we follow him through ordinary military assignments, mired in historical facts, neither of which adds to his development as a character, nor provides the suspense necessary in a great page turner. The only close calls relate to meeting his real father, and by the end of the book the only real similarities we have seen between them are a predisposition to seasickness, a propensity for foreign languages, a close physical resemblance and a bad temper, the latter two already well established before the start of this book.
Roger MacKenzie seemed a likely choice as a focal character trying to deal with 18th century violence by becoming a preacher, but in the violent times ahead, how would he remained on the sidelines if his family were threatened? Instead, Gabaldon removes Roger and his family back to the 20th century and their story becomes squarely centered in the mundane, as both Roger and Brianna struggle with adjusting to present time. Their story centers around reading Jamie and Claire's newly-discovered 18th century letters, Roger's preference for now writing by candlelight and Brianna eschewing panties, indicators of their longing for their recent past. It falls flat even when Roger mistakingly mixes up a primer with some other papers and his past nemesis appears - these plot devices are so contrived that they, well, border on, forgive me, the outlandish.
The one bright spot is Jemmy, who I would swear - if he hadn't been born in the 18th century - was a reincarnation of Jamie Fraser himself, notwithstanding the inexplicable psychic link between them. He is darling. The cliff hanger and red herring in this story segment are absolutely awful - can we really believe that something in a letter from 200 years ago on another continent would be sought by someone in Scotland in the present day and that someone could still now find it, especially considering there is another viable villain at hand with a solid motive, means and opportunity? - It is a blatant and desperate attempt at keeping readers' interest which actually made me angry. That any author who considers themselves a professional writer would stoop to something so low as to expect her readers to wait years for a resolution is unconscionable.
Ian Murray also seems a perfect choice for the next protagonist. An affable lad at the beginning of Voyager, by An Echo in the Bone he has now undergone a radical transformation and in many ways is as deadly as his uncle. Another possibility in terms of the title's meaning. While Roger McKenzie is Jamie's "son of his house"- albeit Ian wasn't around when that happened - it's Ian who most often unfailingly stands with his uncle. In ABoS&A when Jamie announces "It is myself...", Ian quickly stands with him and says "And I." His struggles, however, are more internal as he tries to fit in with civilized society, and put the past - his time away from Fraser's Ridge - behind him.
It's no surprise that Gabaldon never explains the dichotomy and one inconsistency in Ian's character which is his lack of certainty in meeting the threat made against him at the beginning of the book. By all evidence, he's never been bested and when we do hear from him in first person, what we hear about is that fear rather than the true nature of his struggle - and the fact that he apparently is a voyeur as he watches his aunt and uncle across a campfire as they make love. Apparently, not the first time either, telling us that he can guess what his aunt is doing to elicit his uncle's response as he muses about numerous women, including his cousin Brianna, as a mean to relieve himself of his own urges. It is a lost opportunity, and cheapens the character.
There is a major development in Ian's love life in this story, but Gabaldon all but ignores it, except for three short scenes in the book, another lost opportunity to engage readers - instead trying to lead readers astray and create tension unsuccessfully through the girl's contact with William. Ian's story in terms of what kind of man he truly is - is worth telling - but Gabaldon chooses not to, except circumspectly when he returns to Scotland. What he does prior to and at a funeral (the wrong one, I might add, if one were to choose properly) are both really interesting, but we are left to guess the reasons for it. A major and glaring omission. Greater still is the lack of reaction on the part of his family to it when he returns home. Not a word. A brief conversation about headstones with his mother; a truncated, perfunctory and one-sided final conversation with his father. Both are the types of shortcomings with which Gabaldon's writing are rife in this book while she describes in great and agonizing detail events and people which do not move the story forward - always a criticism of her writing. In this instance though, it shows a lack of interest and investment on the part of the writer.
At the end of the book, what Ian tells Rachel about himself and about what she is to him is a powerful summation of his character's journey and belies the immature characterization of him in the rest of the book. One might presume that it was Gabaldon's intent that Ian was the focal character as he appears on the book's last page, and this book should have and could have taken us on his journey to manhood, but the reality is that his story was not prominent, and was told in the worst half-hearted way.
Jamie and Claire Fraser. These two characters have been the heart and soul of Gabaldon's story since the beginning.
In An Echo in the Bone, the two major complaints related to these characters are: 1) that they play a secondary role in this story, and 2) their characterization is unrecognizable. That they would move to secondary status over time is inevitable, but it needn't have been as stark as it is, and in fact, they occupy more of the story than I expected based on the reviews here. As to characterization, in fairness to Gabaldon, it is always a challenge to portray characters over a thirty-plus year period convincingly. Characters age, and age and experience - as in the case of Claire in ABoS&A - elicits change. I am willing to concede the point - but characters tend to become real to readers and take on a life of their own. If an author has done a good job in creating them, and shared them with a multitude of people, there comes a point where the characters no longer are the authors to do with as they wish. Not and get away with it. And such is the case in this story.
In my opinion, in order to understand the problem with the characterization of Jamie in An Echo in the Bone, you have to look at the books before it. By the end of The Fiery Cross, Jamie is the de facto laird of Fraser's Ridge, surrounded by his men from Ardsmuir, and others who he's rescued from a life of hardship and penury. It's no surprise that life is good for everyone, even if there are some threats ahead, and if some people aren't quite sure what to make of the lady of the Ridge. What ensues in ABoS&A is nothing short of a complete breakdown of the community from a series of events on the Ridge and a nearby settlement as well as external forces, all of which seem to catch Jamie Fraser off guard. From everything we know of him, beginning in Outlander, it would have never happened. In the face of attacks on other homesteads, Jamie takes no steps to protect the Ridge and its inhabitants from the very real threat. Unlikely. When Claire is abducted, the men rally to find and avenge her without question. When an internal threat presents itself, Jamie's men abandon him, and he chooses not to use his considerable powers of persuasion and his longstanding relationship with his Ardsmuir men, including Tom Christie, to reach some resolution. Jamie Fraser may have never had gold in his pockets, but he was born with a silver tongue in his mouth and the vision to see a threat far off in the distance. Moreover, while the Frasers were no slouches at intrigue in their own right, he not only learned at the knees of the masters - Colum and Dougal MacKenzie, but was able to outwit them at their own game. Barring that, anyone on the Ridge who didn't believe him would have left or been made to - we are taking about Highlanders after all.
It seems clear, in my opinion, that Gabaldon in ABoS&A committed the cardinal sin of writing; that is, faced with the daunting task of coming up with what to do next, she sacrificed her central character for the sake of the story. She would have us believe that the majority of his men would believe him capable of dishonor after all they had endured with him, knowing what they do about his character, Culloden, their time together in Ardsmuir, and his lineage, magnanimity, and history solely for the sake of moving the story forward. ABoS&A ends with Jamie Fraser in semi-disgrace freely skulking away, albeit temporarily, from everything he had built over the last decade without so much as a fight or backward glance, leaving the untested Bobby Higgins, branded as a murderer, in charge as factor for the Ridge instead of a trusted Ardsmuir man. No calling of the men together. None of the men asking Mac Dubh for his side of the story? It's not possible. Not by any stretch of the imagination. By the end of ABoS&A, we see a very different Jamie Fraser, a man who seems to have lost his footing, and it is this counterfeit portrayal of him that is carried forward into An Echo in the Bone, and throughout the book, one is left with the feeling that Jamie never quite regains his game. He does nothing to chide Arch for his suggestion to Ian as if anything could compensate him for Murdina, or to talk to him about the accident, about how they feel about the loss - one more example of how off Jamie's characterization had become. One wonders if this entire scenario was concocted to move Jamie and Claire off the Ridge, when the arrival of a letter with an urgent and emotional demand and the reminder of a promise not kept would have more simply accomplished the same end.
The disintegration of his character is complete when at end of An Echo in the Bone Jamie appears in Philadelphia without explanation (another rushed ending) pursued by the British hot on his heels, he seemingly fails to understand or make mention of the inappropriate domestic setting in which he finds his wife and Lord John. Faced with a critical moment of revelation, eloquence fails him and what he says to his son borders on cruelly mocking him. Both reactions are totally out of character. Jamie's responses and direction to Lord John as they quit Philadelphia are shockingly unrecognizable as the dialogue is clearly Jamie not himself, but more like a two bit highwayman - the worst sort of parody.
Perhaps in the end, the best argument and prima facie evidence that the criticizers of this book have about Gabaldon's portrayal of Jamie Fraser in An Echo in the Bone is that other characters who know him well are equally stunned by his reactions or lack of them, a perfect example his response to Lord John's confession, "Oh, why?" and Lord John's surprise. Why indeed.
Notwithstanding her improbable swashbuckling behavior, Claire for her part delves into what she knows best throughout most of the book: medicine - although one gets the feeling that she, too, is ill at ease in the face of her husband's changes while she is trying to support him. When she asks Jamie whether he is mad, you get the idea she's asking about more than the one incident that provoked it. Her interaction with Jenny Murray falls flat on both sides - this is a woman who will explain medicine to anyone will listen, and she chooses to say nothing about why she cannot do what Jenny asks, having already shared the truth of her history. It would have been a simple matter to do so and it's another example of Gabaldon betraying a characterization for the sake of false drama - and writing dialogue whether dramatic or comedic disproportionate to what's immediately preceded it - a common occurrence in her writing. The lack of genuineness diminishes the validity of the exchange and disrupts the flow of the story. Moreover, that Claire would accede to the appeal of Laoghaire and remove young Ian from his family at a moment of crisis so soon after his return when the wait would, by Claire's own admission be short-lived, - or that Ian's mother, provincial in every other respect and whose relationship with Claire is strained would encourage Ian to depart with her, was amateurish on Gabaldon's part. One wonders whether there could have been some other device used to bring us to the end of the story Gabaldon planned, however shoddy that end turned out to be.
It may come as a surprise to some that I concede that what happened between Lord John and Claire may have been possible, but it could have been far better written - opting for clearly drunk-induced mindlessness instead of a declaration by one of the parties, and frankly, it should have ended in the same room where it began - another example of inattention to detail - and been followed by some level mortification the morning after rather than conversation. Moreover, that Lord John might have found something heretofore absent in his life and so intriguing that he might have wished to explore further <forgive me> a reprise of any sort, in my opinion, would never have been possible. Never. Ever. That Claire offered what she did, and he accepted it was nothing short of ridiculous and an insult to both characters. Claire's immediate reaction to seeing Jamie upon his return rang false unless, of course, she planned that a good offense would be a good defense. The Claire Fraser I know and love would have had a decidedly "uh oh" moment before approaching her Highlander husband.
As for inconsistencies, they are inevitable in a series this long and generally are small factoids that appear several books apart which have no real impact on the story - the size of the cabin, Jamie remembering kissing Brianna behind her ear , Brianna knowing that Roger read her dream book, the amount of gold left to hide, Willie's age when Jamie left Helwater - and most can be explained away. This is the first time, however, I have ever seen such a glaring error within the same book about such a key fact in a story. It's hard to believe that it went unnoticed. The book OPENS with Jamie observing Brianna and William together in Wilmington (p.12- on two separate occasions if you count ABoS&A, p.947). Several hundred pages later on page 531 in rescuing Denny Hunter there is "He hadn't seen the boy since he was twelve, but he had memorized every moment..." Unbelievable.
There are several instances in the book where the movement of the characters defy logic and Gabaldon fails to explain the character's motivation for them, instead expecting reader to accept them solely as a matter of faith - something no experienced writer would do. One example is the Dismal Swamp episode between William and Ian. William has taken pains to get from North Carolina to the North where the action is, but Gabaldon would have us believe that there is a compelling reason for him to head four hundred miles south from New York for intelligencing - not to Williamsburg, or any other place in Virginia where the architects of the Revolution reside, but to the Dismal Swamp. Ian in Fort Ticonderoga leaves without explanation on June 12th, and has apparently made the 954 mile trek in nine short days to the Dismal Swamp to meet up with his Indian confederates, some of them Mohawk who would have been far afield of their territory, for reasons unknown. Why? Is there no fog or deserted wilderness between Ticonderoga and New York City? And how did Ian manage 900 miles in 9 days? Another form of time travel? <forgive me> One might suppose to meet the Hunters, but couldn't one presume that they might have been in Pennsylvania which was after all a Quaker colony? Having invested pages in this encounter, the very next time William and Ian meet, despite their earlier meeting and history from the Ridge, it's as if (from William's perspective) they are total strangers. It begs the question whether the author or the character had a bout of amnesia.
Finally, there are instances where what is presented in the story just doesn't add up. On example centers on the Bugs and their seventy-two months spent on the Ridge. Setting aside that at some point Arch Bug's enmity for the Fraser clan surely would have softened in the face of Lovat's - albeit recognized - bastard grandson's unwavering trust in him as factor, and Jamie's affection and respect for Arch's wife as the undisputed head of the daily household - yes, setting aside six years of that as totally worthless - if you believe what Arch Bug tells Jamie, the math doesn't work, not without a stretch. If you accept that Mrs. Bug was able to carry the gold ingot in her bag¸ that approximately half of the ten thousand pounds was in Hector Cameron's mausoleum, and that Arch took one ingot each time, but not every time he went to Cross Creek on Ridge business and was able to conceal it on his person or in a manner that would be undetected over 72 months, how would he have managed it? there would have to be 50 100lb. ingots; 100-50lb. ingots ;200-25lb. ingots - is it possible? - Questionable at best.
There are other instances which weigh the story down unnecessarily like the repeated physical descriptions, references to throat clearings, repeated appearances of past villains and their offspring (Hodgepiles, Randalls), red herrings that seem to lead nowhere except to muddy the water and weigh down the story with so much overwritten prose that if there are clues they are so obscured as to be unrecognizable. As for other omissions, who would have not liked to have heard exactly what Brianna told Lord John about her history and what was to come, considering it was the week that the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia? Had Brianna recited parts of it to him before any of it was publicly known, how could he have not believed her?
I wasn't looking forward to the end of this series, because I have always had an unwavering decades-long affection for these characters and didn't know how I would feel when I finally had to say good bye to them. Sad to say, I never envisioned that that day would come before their story was fully told, but it has.
Set against the backdrop of one of the most riveting periods of our history, this easily could have been a magnificent story. That it is not is tragic. What this shows in my opinion more than anything is a lack of effort on the part of a heretofore talented writer and disrespect for not only her readers, but also her characters. As an aside, I also found it interesting that for the first time in seven books, Gabaldon found it necessary to to add author's notes as if she felt something needed further explanation. Forsooth. I would like to see Diana Gabaldon reacquaint herself with the principles of good writing and once again get serious about her craft. Her readers and characters deserve no less. If by some miracle she is able to undo the damage done by this book to an otherwise wonderful saga, that will be a major accomplishment, but after 15 years, I will not be around to see it.