Desert Isle Keeper
The Fiery Cross
When The Fiery Cross arrived in the mail, I knew it already had a leg up on the competition. I can’t remember another time when I have been so excited just to open a package and hold a book. I had another book to finish the day it came, so I kept giving it fond, longing looks whenever it caught my eye. A week and 979 pages later, I’m still casting fond glances in its direction, although my fingers have not quite recovered from bearing its massive weight.
If you’re a longstanding Gabaldon fan, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. All her books are huge tomes, and it takes her years to write them, so in between we must wait. As I read The Fiery Cross, I started to think that might not be such a bad thing. The pleasure of reading a wonderful book is sometimes all the greater when the reader spends so much time anticipating its appearance. I discovered Gabaldon shortly after I got online, when she’d only written the first three books. I had no special interest in either time travel or Scottish romances, but people raved about her in reverent tones, so I figured I’d give Outlander a try. About one hundred pages in, I finally put it down – so I could race to the bookstore and buy the next two books. My husband vividly recalls the following weeks, since I spent them with my nose in the books, annoyed when I had to deal with “real life.” With Drums of Autumn and now The Fiery Cross, my attitude was somewhat different, because I knew this fix would have to last me awhile. I enjoyed immersing myself in this book, but I also didn’t mind rejoining real life now and then and stretching out my reading time. I waited five years to read this book; I wanted to take my time and enjoy it.
The Fiery Cross is the first Gabaldon that I read with reviewing in mind, so as I went along I took notice of Gabaldon’s writing, and what it is that sets her apart from the pack. This isn’t really a conventional review in that most of the book cannot be summarized. Not only is it nearly a thousand pages; it’s a thousand pages full of spoilers that Gabaldon fans are better off discovering on their own. It’s also somewhat fruitless to explain who the characters are. If you haven’t read the other books, don’t even think of reading this first; you’ve got to start at the beginning or you’ll never know who everyone is. (I did start at the beginning and I still had trouble remembering everyone I’d met before.)
This book picks up where the last one left off, at the Gathering of the Clans in 1770. The first part is 164 pages long – and to give you an idea of how descriptive and detailed it is, it covers a single day. We arrive to find Briana and Roger about to get married, Claire dealing with eighteenth century medical problems, and Jamie tiptoeing through volatile political situations. As the book progresses, the colonies are getting closer to war with Great Britain, but that conflict isn’t as central as I thought it would be. There is a brief conflict between the regulators (North Carolinians chafing at British rule and the tax burden) and Governor Tryon’s militia (of which Jamie is part). But the crux of this book is interpersonal relationships and survival in the wilderness.o
As Claire and her family go about their daily lives in their tiny wilderness settlement, the personal interactions between them take center stage. Gabaldon explores the intricacies of every aspect of family life. Parenthood, in all its stages, is a major theme. Claire and Jamie are firmly in middle age (our sex lives should all be so good at fifty) and they’re grandparents now. Briana and Roger are the parents of a demanding nursing baby who tends to wake up and get sick at the worst possible moments (in other words, he’s like a real baby). Fergus and Marsali have two children now, and though they fade into the background somewhat in this book, their son provides some nice, comic moments. It’s always funnier when it’s someone else’s child who picks up on profanity.
Roger comes into his own in this book, and Gabaldon deals frankly with the challenges he faces as he lives in Jamie’s shadow. How does one compete with the ultimate alpha male warrior/chieftain, the man who always assumes command and practically walks on water? What’s it like to be his son-in-law? Watching Roger come to terms with his role in the family is one of the highlights of this book. As Roger finds his role in the family and community, and feels out where he stands with Jamie, he and Briana are also figuring out what it means to be married. The depiction of the process struck a chord deep within.
So what makes this book, and all of Gabaldon’s books for that matter, worthy of a place on the desert isle? It’s the writing, the detail, and the characters. Gabaldon is a fine writer, with a gift for capturing just the right turn of phrase. Her ability to capture a Scottish dialect leaves pretty much every other author in the dust. She has never been one to throw in a couple of “Aye, lassies” now and then when she remembers her hero is a highlander. There’s never a moment when anyone’s speech seems silly or inaccurate – be they Scottish, English, Indian, or twentieth century American. Her attention to detail is nearly flawless, and her research is always solid. When you reads her books, you can really believe you are in the eighteenth century. Her intricate plotting compounds the effect, as she skillfully juggles endless plot threads from five books. Incidents and characters that readers have long forgotten often reappear when they are least expected.
All the above qualities would mean little if you didn’t care about the characters. Gabaldon creates the one of a kind characters who are real people, the kind you would never forget or confuse with anyone else. That’s why her fans wait anxiously for each installment. Jamie and Claire are almost like dear friends; when you haven’t heard from your friends for five years, you are eager for every little detail about them, even if it takes 164 pages to tell you about a single day.
In the grand scheme of things, this is not my absolute favorite Gabaldon book. None of them are quite so compelling as Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber, which take place during the heady, dangerous times of the second Jacobite uprising. Both of those books are A+ reads for me. That said, I still found this book thoroughly satisfying, and I liked it better than the last two. Its charms are different; Jamie and Claire are older, and they share the spotlight with Briana and Roger. But its very differences from the first few books are just what makes it so interesting. There may be no comfortable way to read the darn thing, but Gabaldon fans the world over will find it a small price to pay in the name of wonderful literature.