My rating: 3 of 5 stars
After taking a little break from the Outlander-verse, I’ve jumped back in with the fourth book of the series, which I believe is the longest one yet (and that’s saying something with these massive tomes!) Drums picks up a few months after the events of Voyager, the previous volume, with our time-crossed lovers Jamie and Claire, along with Jamie’s nephew Ian and adopted son Fergus, trying to start a new life for themselves in the colony of North Carolina in the years just prior to the American Revolution. They will face many dangers in this new world, including bears, Indians, disease, scheming family members, the ugly institution of slavery, a murderer, and even a ghost, but it is a chance encounter with a pirate named Stephen Bonnet that will have the greatest impact on their future… and that of their daughter, Brianna, who they think is safe and sound up in the 20th century, but has learned something terrible enough to convince her to risk traveling through time herself… for the sake of her mother and the father she’s never met…
By this point, the series has left its bodice-ripping origins far behind — Drums doesn’t even have much sex in it, compared to the earlier books — and settled into something resembling a cross between a cliffhanger serial and a soap opera. Basically, it’s “one damn thing after another” in a historical setting, and the book strongly reminded me of Michael Mann’s 1992 film version of Last of the Mohicans with its epic sweep and romanticized depiction of 18th century America. As ever, I am deeply impressed with the sense of authenticity and verisimilitude Gabaldon brings to her writing. The settings and the mundane details of life in this period are absolutely convincing, and the characters themselves live and breathe and are as real in my mind as my own relatives. Gabaldon even allows her hero Jamie to be somewhat unlikable for a good portion of the book, and even the dastardly Stephen Bonnet, in the end, reveals an unexpected depth.
Also, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a series of books with such a strong female perspective. I don’t mean simply “the female gaze” that objectifies and admires the beauty of Jamie and the other male characters in the way that we’re accustomed to lingering over female beauty, although that’s definitely a noticeable motif in these stories. Rather, I’m talking about the way Gabaldon revels in the earthy, visceral, sometimes unsettling, often mysterious, but always very human flesh-and-blood reality of women’s bodies and women’s lives. I’ve read books by women authors, of course, and about female protagonists, but can’t recall any before that go into the places that Gabaldon deftly journeys. And I have to say, as a man, I wasn’t at all alienated by that perspective, as one might expect; rather, I’m fascinated and at times moved by it. Without making too much out of it, I think these books are giving me a better understanding of what it is to be a woman, and that’s exciting and makes for really damn good reading.
Unfortunately, though, Drums does have a couple of problems. For one thing, it’s difficult to really describe the plot of this one because, frankly, it doesn’t have much of one. Things happen, a lot of things, and the story moves forward, but there’s no clear throughline as in the previous books. It really is just one damn thing after another, and it’s more the reader’s affection for the characters and the world that keep you reading than a tight story. That‘s where I’m getting the soap opera feeling I mentioned.
In addition, Gabaldon allows some of her vivid characters to vanish from the action for long periods. Poor Fergus and his wife Marsali are especially ill treated by Drums; their appearances here are little more than cameos. Of course, Gabaldon’s cast has become sufficiently large that this is probably unavoidable, and one could make the argument that it’s true to life, especially under the primitive conditions of the 1760s when you wouldn’t have frequent contact with friends and relations. But as a modern-day reader who likes these people, it is… frustrating.
Ultimately, though, the story belongs to Jamie and Claire, and it is at its most interesting when the action is centered on them. By the end of Drums, some thirty years have passed since we first met them, and it is to Gabaldon’s great credit that she’s managed to let them age without losing whatever it was that made them seem real and compelling in the first place. Whatever else one may say about this series, it feels like a record of actual lives, and that’s a rare and commendable thing for a writer to have accomplished.