Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Book Review: A Breath of Snow and Ashes

This is Book 6 in Diana Gabaldon's ongoing series about Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser, a time-traveler from the 20th Century and her 18th Century husband, James (Jamie) Fraser.

What can I say? I've been hooked since Outlander.

980 pages gives Ms. Gabaldon a lot of room to explore the years from 1773 to 1775. Claire and Jamie have settled in the mountains of North Carolina, establishing a community of ex-Jacobite Highlanders and assorted others. But even there they are not safe from war.

Claire, her daughter, Brianna (Jamie's daughter as well, although Brianna was born in the 20th Century), and Roger, Brianna's husband, know what's coming. They know that the rebels will ultimately be victorious. They also know a price will be paid in blood.

But before Rebellion breaks wide open, Jamie must walk a tightrope. Although he lives on the frontier, his land grant is courtesy of the Crown. As a Catholic, Jamie is not entitled to such a grant--and the Governor uses this knowledge as a lever to ensure Jamie's cooperation.

Meanwhile, the Governor cannot guarantee the safety of those in the backwoods, nor does he seem able to protect them from corrupt Sheriffs, Judges, and other officials. Like a pot coming to boil, rebellion seethes just under the surface. The Governor calls upon Jamie to help keep order. Jamie's sympathies are with the rebels, but he can't declare himself--not yet.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Claire, a doctor in her time, must depend on the crude instruments and medicines available in her present. Brianna, who has a knack for engineering, tries to bring some of the conveniences and innovations of the future to her present as well. Roger, trained as a historian, has to learn to be an 18th Century husband and provider--which means hunting and butchering. Marsali, Jamie's stepdaughter, is assaulted and Fergus (Jamie's adopted son) feels particularly humilated because he cannot protect his wife. Their fourth child is born with a handicap, one which is particularly devastating in the 18th Century. Claire finds an apprentice, who is later found murdered in Claire's vegetable patch.

And the French gold intended for Bonnie Prince Charlie, but spirited away to help Jamie's aunt and uncle set up life in the New World is missing.

A Breath of Snow and Ashes is a book to get lost in. Snuggle under a comforter with a cup of tea or chocolate, suspend your disbelief, and fall under the spell of these people. Stay up reading way past your bedtime. Let the housework go. Forget the holiday stress.

One other note: There is considerable discussion about what it means to be a man, particularly an honorable man. Jamie has some very definite ideas about duty, honor, and loyalty. Much is made of his physical strength, but he is morally strong as well. And he appreciates the strength of his wife (in my experience, strong men often choose strong women for their wives). I'm not sure if this exploration of the roles of husbands and wives is more pronounced in this book than in the earlier books or if I noticed it because of discussions in the blogs (check the archives of The Anchoress and Fausta's Blog in particular).

On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks.