"The Cause had attracted people of romantic temperament; doomed causes usually did,” Jamie Fraser muses toward the beginning of Diana Gabaldon’s winning new novel. For this Scotsman, who nearly lost his life during the Jacobite rebellion, no cause could be more hopeless or less romantic.
The year is 1760. The bloody Battle of Culloden, the aftermath of which decimated the Scottish Highland clans 14 years earlier, casts a sombre shadow over the narrative. Formerly a Jacobite officer, Jamie is now a paroled prisoner of war working as a groom on an estate in England’s Lake District.
He has an illegitimate son he can’t acknowledge, and only memories remain of his beloved 20th-century wife, Claire, whom he had sent back to her own time for her safety and that of their unborn child. During their time together, she had told him of the Jacobite Rising’s ultimate failure, and he trusts her word implicitly.
The reappearance of two men from his past takes Jamie away from his dreary existence and embroils him in new adventures. Tobias Quinn, an Irishman whose hopes for the Stuart monarchy’s restoration never died, pushes him to sign on anew. Then Lord John Grey, Jamie’s parole officer, shows up with an order that takes them on a voyage to Ireland to bring back a corrupt British major for court-martial, guided by hints in a Gaelic poem that Jamie was asked to translate.
The Scottish Prisoner tells an impressive tale about the complexities of loyalty in a politically fraught era when keeping your word may mean breaking your heart. Yet despite the heavy atmosphere, the tone is enlivened by Gabaldon’s sharply intelligent turns of phrase and wicked humour.
Jamie and Grey have alternating third-person perspectives, both with equal time. The development of their tense relationship plays out during their journey. In an notorious stable scene recapped from an earlier book, Grey had revealed both his homosexuality and his attraction to Jamie, and Jamie was decidedly not interested. While in close company, however, their mutual awkwardness gradually turns into a truce.
For fans of Gabaldon’s Outlander saga, The Scottish Prisoner allows a welcome glimpse into a previously untold part of Jamie’s life. (Chronologically, it takes place during the events of Vol. 3, Voyager.) And for devotees of the Lord John mysteries, she provides additional insight into Grey’s character and his intriguing family.
Gabaldon’s bestselling novels confound readers who enjoy slotting their fiction into tidy categories, and this entry will cause more delicious confusion. Unlike the Outlander books, there is no epic romance or real time travel, and despite the clues left in the mysterious poem, this isn’t a traditional crime novel, either. It crosses over into both series but remains its own distinct entity.
Call it what you will – historical adventure, conspiracy thriller – it’s an engrossing story, masterfully paced, with exciting plot twists, swift reversals and robust characterizations. The settings feel spot-on: Gabaldon captures the brotherly camaraderie at London’s Beefsteak Club, Grey’s favourite hangout, and the ancient otherworldliness of a remote Irish monastery. Best of all, it’s not overlong at 500-plus pages.
With apologies to Jamie, Claire’s on-screen presence isn’t missed, although she plays a key role nonetheless. He remembers her wherever he goes – her medical knowledge, her care of him, the scent of her hair – which makes for a realistic continuation of their love story.
Being a newcomer to an extended series can leave readers feeling as if they had walked in on someone else’s party, but while knowledge of the Outlander cast will help, The Scottish Prisoner works just fine on its own. Gabaldon lays on the necessary background details clearly and with a light touch, and her novel should captivate current fans and ensnare new ones.
Sarah Johnson’s most recent book is Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre . She blogs at readingthepast.com.