My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I was warned ahead of time that The Fiery Cross, the fifth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, would be a bit of a slog, and indeed it was. All of Gabaldon’s books are long, but this one is a real whopper, coming in at 1,443 pages in the mass-market paperback edition; for all that bulk, however, it feels as if very little actually happens to advance the story of Jamie Fraser, his time-traveling wife Claire, and their increasingly extended family.
Oh, things do happen in the book. Over the two-year span covered by The Fiery Cross, 1770-72, there are a couple weddings; new settlers are welcomed to the fledgling community of Fraser’s Ridge; there’s a murder mystery to solve, and bigger mysteries appear involving a treasure (the so-called “Frenchman’s Gold,” dating back to the failed Jacobite Revolution in Scotland) and an unknown time traveler (recall that Claire, her daughter Briana, and Bree’s husband Roger are all from the 20th century, not the 18th). Jamie and his son-in-law Roger bond through adversity, and Roger’s life and character take a major, traumatic turn. Jamie and Claire encounter a very twisted couple deep in the wilderness who could be characters from an entirely separate, far more Gothic novel. There’s a bear hunt, a near-fatal snake bite, and a hanging. Characters thought lost for good return. And Jamie, as de facto laird of the people living on Fraser’s Ridge, is pressed into forming a militia and marching off to battle against self-styled vigilantes called “the Regulators,” as the first stirrings of the American Revolution make themselves felt. But somehow none of it feels very consequential. It’s almost as if Gabaldon’s fascination with the details of everyday life in this milieu — which had been one of the great strengths of the earlier books — has become a distraction for her. She disappears down rabbit holes and then occasionally thinks, “Oh, I really should throw in some action here.” But my impression is that her heart really wasn’t with the action in this one, and it’s always perfunctory at best. Even the long-awaited confrontation with recurring villain Stephen Bonnet, when it finally arrives, is something of an anti-climax, over and done with quickly so we can get back to domestic matters.
I’ve heard it said that the reason most stories about couples take place either at the beginning or the end of the relationship is because all the stuff in between, when people are just raising kids and building a life together, makes for pretty poor drama. This book is perfect evidence of that, as all the talk of dirty clouts and breastfeeding gets pretty tedious. If I didn’t already have a sizable emotional investment in these characters — if this were my first exposure to the series — I’d be wondering what the hell the big deal is and why these books are so popular. As it is, I’m hanging in there with the series because I do care about Jamie and Claire and Roger and Bree, and because I know the Revolution is coming and things will be getting interesting again. But this book, The Fiery Cross is essentially just filler between points A and B. Recommended for confirmed fans only.