Bestselling author Diana Gabaldon's An Echo in the Bone is the highly anticipated seventh book of her wildly popular Outlander series. This historical fiction/science fiction novel follows 18th-century Scotsman Jamie Fraser and his 20th-century bride, Claire Randall, as they battle their way through the American Revolution, outrunning soldiers, pirates and even their past, which is always just two steps behind them, threatening their destiny in ways that could have ripple effects throughout time.
Jamie and Claire's adventures are revealed - slowly, over 814 pages, to be exact - through a series of letters to their daughter Brianna, who lives in 20th-century Scotland with her husband, Roger, and their two children - a family with adventures of its own.
This premise is not without its issues, the least of which is how the letters came into the hands of the modern couple. And it seems highly improbable Bree and Roger wouldn't read the letters all at once. Yes, they have family matters to attend to, such as Bree's new job and Roger's spiritual angst, punctuated by sex on the 20th-century kitchen counter; but if you thought your parents were dead and a box of letters mysteriously showed up stating they were alive and well in the 18th century, could you wait to read them? But if they did, we wouldn't need 814 pages.
Gabaldon's previous books in this series once filled five of the top 10 spots on The Globe and Mail's bestsellers list for historical fiction. Echo, which has only been available since the last week of September, has already made that list. And although the publicity material for the series promises that new readers will love these books as much as the faithful fans who have been waiting since 2005 for this latest instalment, that's not likely.
Having not read the six preceding books, I found this story difficult to follow. Except for a vague reference to some ancient stones, the fact that Claire is a time-traveller would have been hard to catch without the benefit of the information on the novel's jacket. And we're not privy to which characters know of Claire's bi-century existence. At the risk of suggesting that this hefty story be even longer, I think there are key pieces of information missing, information one can only presume was explained in one of the equally colossal prequels or in The Outlandish Companion, Gabaldon's 1999 "Cliff Notes" for the century-hopping series.
References to various people and situations are often made without context. In some instances, the explanations follow, but much later. For example, we learn early on that Bobby, a man Jamie and Claire are sharing a home with, has a brand on his cheek. Yet we are only told why 66 pages later. The character of Frank is referred to as Brianna's father at the beginning of the story, even though we are told that Jamie is Bree's father. Frank's identity is not disclosed until much later. If we had read the first book of the series, we would know that Frank was Claire's 20th-century husband.
Gabaldon's strong characters are lost in multiple storylines where we, as readers, are asked to juggle too many minor characters, situations, countries and, yes, centuries. In addition to Jamie and Claire, and Bree and Roger, there are separate plots for cousin Ian; Jamie's illegitimate son, William; the man who raised William as his son, Lord John Grey (who has his own book series); and a multitude of other characters who come and go, including Rollo the dog. The narration switches so often and for such long passages that by the time Gabaldon makes it back to a character, we've long forgotten his or her situation and have to scramble to remind ourselves what's happening and which century we are in.
And not all of the characters are interesting. Not all situations seem to have a purpose. Characters are sometimes introduced and leave us wondering why. Perhaps to provide a segue to a new series? It's like watching a soap opera where you have to suffer through the other, lesser and more boring storylines to get to "super couple," the couple you tune in every day to see. Jamie and Claire are the super couple, and they get much too little screen time.
Gabaldon certainly has imagination, and her previous record-selling books speak for themselves, but An Echo in the Bone does not stand well on its own; for a new reader of the series, confusion reigns. One can appreciate the research that went into a book like this, but even weaving in historical figures like Benjamin Franklin and Benedict Arnold cannot save this book.
Wendy Kitts is a freelance writer based in Moncton.