Dr. Diana Gabaldon's fifth novel in the Outlander series is a sprawling mess, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. There are literally hundreds of characters with speaking parts, including a collection of settlers playing various roles toward making Fraser's Ridge livable. There are deaths and near-deaths. There are births and breastfeedings and poopy diapers. There are courtships, marriages, domestic bliss, and broken crockery. There are eccentric character moments featuring beasties wild and domestic (when the story gets slow, bring in a pig to liven things up). There are interactions with Native Americans friendly and not-so-friendly, though none as scary as in Drums of Autumn, and the main protagonist speaking the few words of Cherokee she knows. There are moments when you reach page one thousand and something, and a character last seen on page three hundred and something (or in Drums, one is never sure) reappears, and the reader says aloud, "Now who the hell is that again?"
The paperback edition's length, 1400+ pages, is one of the reasons I haven't been posting on Goodreads for the last couple of months. I haven't had a lot of time to read lately, so it took a couple of months to get through this one.
The other reason is that I've grown to despise Amazon, especially since the Whole Foods acquisition, and thus I try to limit my contact with anything Amazon-related. It was bothersome enough to know that my grocery shopping habits were enriching John Mackie, and then along comes Jeff Borg-zos with more money than even Mackie has ever seen, & BAM! WFM gets assimilated.
End of sidebar. We now return you to your regularly scheduled review, already in progress.
In case you haven't scoped out other reviews, the title does not refer directly to the Ku Klux Klan, but to the Scottish settlers in the southern colonies from whom many Klansmen descended (emphasis on descended). Back in the Scottish Highlands, lighting a big cross was a laird's signal to the neighbors and kin to prepare for battle.
In a book of this size and scope, one may expect a lot to happen, and one is not disappointed. Dr. Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser Randall Fraser and her tribe of mostly Scottish settlers witness such historical happenings as the brief and futile War of Regulation in North Carolina (the colony wherein the entirety of the story takes place). The time travelers in the family—Claire, her grown daughter Brianna, and her son-in-law Roger Mackenzie Wakefield—all wonder aloud, on multiple occasions, why their 20th-century history books never mention this precursor to the American Revolution but focus more on all the New England stuff like the Boston Tea Party (the details whereof the books get horribly wrong).
Interspersed with all the forgotten history are many relatively quiet domestic moments. These scenes provide Gabaldon a chance to show off her fastidious research into the <i>social</i> history of pre-Revolutionary America and put Claire in at least one fabulous dress (well, fabulous by American frontier standards). Brianna Ellen Randall/Fraser Mackenzie appears in many scenes nursing her infant-toddler son Jemmy, conceived and born in Drums , who may be the spawn of either her husband Roger Mackenzie Wakefield or the morally challenged privateer who raped her, Stephen Bonnet.
The first 200 pages or so take place within a single day at a Gathering of the Clans in a wooded area of the Carolinas. While reading that portion, I began to worry that the entire novel would be compressed into that day (eat that, Jimmy Joyce). In the middle, there's another lengthy scene of Scots Behaving Badly at the wedding feast at River Run Plantation (heh, speaking of Joyce) for Jamie Fraser's sightless Aunt Jocasta and one of his mates from Ardsmuir Prison, which wedding was supposed to take place at the Gathering but for the circumstances that prevented it. The weekend of the wedding features intrigue, violence, overconsumption of whisky, and a horribly tragic death, despite which the wedding goes forward because it's bad form to invite 200 friends and shirt-tail relations to your plantation for a wedding without actually, y'know, having the wedding.
One plot element I'm getting tired of is Roger getting dispatched on some kind of solo mission, for which he usually volunteers, and getting grievously wounded along the way. He's a combination of Scotty and every sacrificial crewman in a red tunic from the original Star Trek, although he keeps stopping just short of dying. My ladyfriend, who has read all of Gabaldon's published works multiple times, assures me that in succeeding novels the family figures out at last that perhaps someone should accompany Roger on his treks. Blessedly, there is one incident in Cross wherein Jamie and Roger go on a minor expedition together, and it's Jamie who comes back requiring Claire's medical attention for the umpteenth time rather than Roger.
Quibbles aside, I can at least admire the way Gabaldon's research and writing improved between Outlander/Cross-Stitch and this volume of her ultra-mega-epic series. As I may have pointed out in a previous review, one of the perils of writing sweeping historical fiction like this is getting bogged down in the detail. Some sections of Cross are so detail-heavy that the reader practically feels the texture of whatever fabric the characters are wearing. Even these sections, wherein very little happens, are worth slogging through because the characters are so multi-dimensional and painstakingly drawn.
The main characters in particular evolve in delightfully unexpected ways: e.g., Brianna, introduced in Dragonfly in Amber as a mild-mannered baby-boomer history student, blossoms into a multi-talented badass. Jamie mellows a bit from the bitch he was in Drums. Roger finds his niche in frontier life and never pines for his comfy existence as a 20th-century Oxford scholar.
Travel in the 18th century was generally a risky undertaking, as Gabaldon constantly reminds us. As with previous novels, she fills this one with expeditions that have particular objectives but end up accomplishing something entirely different: Even the twists in the various subplots have sub-twists of their own, and those twists become more imaginative (and sometimes just plain weird) as the series progresses.
On a lit-crit level, all these books make me positively giddy with the way they wear the garb of various genres—romance, historical, mystery, adventure, sci-fi—but transcend all of them. So far, Cross has out-transcended all the previous novels. I'm looking forward to tackling A Breath of Snow and Ashes but I'll wait a few months and focus on some nonfiction I've been dying to devour.
Editor's Note: Somehow, I didn't work any references to the third novel, Voyager, into this review.