Tuesday, January 05, 2010

When I mentioned to a friend recently that I'm re-reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series in preparation for reading Echo in the Bone, she grinned and said (I paraphrase), "I'm Claire, you know."

I grinned back and said, "Of course you are. So am I."

And there, in two sentences, is the magic of the series. Diana Gabaldon has created a heroine we all can identify with -- her foibles and passions, her talents and desires -- but most of all, her incredible love for Jamie Fraser. Claire is who we all want to be. An independent woman, intelligent and educated, who has a love so deep it withstands the travails of time itself.

The Fiery Cross is the fifth book in the Outlander series. In it we follow Jaime and Claire Randall as they build a life together in the wildnerness of North Carolina. The year is 1771 and the task is no small feat. There's a forest to tame, a community to build and a war looming on the horizon. Our hero and heroine are assisted in these endeavors by their daughter, Brianna, and her husband Roger as well as a host of minor characters who keep the action moving.

Hmmm, on the surface, that doesn't sound like much, does it? What keeps this from being a mundane historical read is the twist Diana Gabaldon brings: Clare, Brianna and Roger were all born in the 20th Century and have travelled back in time. They're often torn between acting on the knowledge they've brought back with them or letting events unfold as history will have it. This sets up some wonderful internal conflicts in the characters that adds depth to their lives and brings them into focus.

That said, I found this book to be, in places, skimmable. The first four books I read every word, slowing down as I got towards the end because I didn't want to finish too quickly. Those books balanced plot action with character development so each got their fair share.

But with The Fiery Cross, there were sections I found that were over-long and my eyes skipped over the page looking for the next bit of action or character development. Most of those sections had to do with the description of the scenery. While I appreciate a beautiful sunrise or scenic view, to have entire sections of chapters dedicated solely to description of the scene made my eyes wander along the page till I found the action again.

To be honest, description has always been something I've skimmed. Taylor Caldwell was one of my favorite authors when I was in my teens, yet I found her pages and pages of description unnessary for my imagination. I painted in the picture as I saw it...give me the broad brush strokes and I was ready to go. The same with JRR Tolkien. I love The Lord of the Rings and appreciate the descriptions of the Shire and of Ithelien, but tend to skip over them from time to time.

Which is probably why I tend to use such broad strokes of description in my own writing. I don't really want to know every detail of the dungeon, or the car, or the house, or the hero and heroine for that matter. I want general shapes and that way my imagination can paint in the details the way I want them to be. Don't confine me with your vision -- let me have my own. And so, I skim over the descriptions when I find them going on too long as I did in The Fiery Cross.

I'd consider this the weakest of the five so far based solely on that drawback. The characters of Claire and Jaime are fun to watch as they move into middle age; Roger and Brianna take center stage several times and acquit themselves admirably. All in all, a good read rather than a great one.

NOTE to publisher (that would be Dell): consider including "Who's Who" appendix. There were several characters who made a reappearance in this book (Sergeant Murchison comes to mind) that made me stop and have to think, "Now who is that again?" A listing in the back with a one or two-line description would be most helpful!

Feel free to comment whether you've read the book or no! Oh dear -- now I'm sounding Scottish!


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