A Breath Of Snow And Ashes by Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series no:6)

a breath of snow and ashes

Book: A Breath Of Snow and Ashes.

Author: Diana Gabaldon.

Rating: 9/10

Oh my, what a read, what a book, what an author. One cannot even begin to match Diana Gabaldon’s genius when it comes to the historical fiction genre and this particular novel in the ‘Outlander’ series is heavily laden with a wide variety of historical events particularly pertaining to the eve of the American Revolution. What makes Diana Gabaldon such a marvelous author, is her abilty to draw the reader in from the first page of her novels and also her ability to allow the reader to feel as if he/she are bearing witness to the extraordinary events that take place in the story. It may have taken me three weeks to read this novel ‘A Breath of Snow and Ashes’ (as an avid reader, this is a huge amount of time spent reading) but my lord, was it worth it. Was it a perfect book? No it wasn’t. However, I think this again is what makes Ms. Gabaldon such an exceptional author, despite the books flaws, I still found myself unable to put the book down. Was it my favourite book in the series? No it wasn’t, although it was streets ahead of it’s predecessor ‘The Fiery Cross’. So without further ado I shall begin my review of the sixth instalment to the ‘Outlander’ series.

PLEASE NOTE: DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK! LOTS OF SPOILERS!

‘A Breath of Snow and Ashes’ basically begins where ‘The Fiery Cross’ ended, in terms of Jamie Fraser once more being asked to gather a militia to fight for England against the ever growing wave of rebellion brewing in North Carolina. However his wife Claire, daughter Brianna and son in-law Roger (time travellers from the future) have warned him of the impending war of independence. Therefore Jamie now has to thread carefully, for if he remains loyal to the crown, his future and that of his family will be in danger. For those who fight for the crown might face exile or certain death. This is the issue that is at the backbone of the plot of this novel. However woven into this plot are many other twists and turns. Another traveller like Claire, Brianna and Roger has turned up on Fraser’s ridge. Random murders also begin to occur in isolated areas surrounding the Ridge with whole families left dead and homes burned to the ground. Extreme politics seems to rule with so called ‘Committees of Safety’ made up of men of questionable morals, who have taken it upon themselves to keep all in line. Issues of rape, violence and paranoia are rampant in this story. New settlers also arrive to the Ridge, and since they are Presbyterian, their distrust of the original settlers of the Ridge, is quite apparent. Jamie and Claire certainly battle a lot of demons in this novel, and these demons are quite close to home.

Brianna, Roger and Jem have now fully settled into life into the late 1770s, with Roger also deciding to take on the role of Minister and begin the process of ordination. Brianna herself has become the ‘inventor’ of the Ridge, tackling issues such as piping hot water into houses, making matches, shovels, medical equipment (is there anything this woman cannot do). Claire continues her medical discoveries (there are a variety of disgusting medical moments, which are described in such detail in the story, that the reader might find themselves often nauseous) with the most important discovery of ether to allow her to put her patients to sleep and therefore avoid the pain. Claire also takes on a protégé in this novel in the form of Malva Christie, whose role and that of her family in the story becomes quite prominent. Fergus and Marsali have rather large roles in this novel also, with Fergus battling depression and Marsali being inundated with chores and taking care of her children, without any help from Fergus. Unfortunately this is not the story arc I was hoping for Fergus in my opinion, but I shall explain this in more detail further down.

The return of young Ian Murray has certainly provided an intriguing storyline but alas he is not the Ian of old and the boyish charm to which entertained the reader in previous novels, has disappeared and in its place stands a young aloof man, who, it seems, carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. The mystery surrounding Ian’s departure from the Indian tribe he belonged to, remains unanswered for the majority of the book, with only a few snippets of explanation throughout. Jocasta and Duncan Innes provide us with a massively engrossing storyline surrounding the gold at River Run, as tales of adultery and betrayal haunt this intriguing twosome. The re-emergence of Stephen Bonnet, the maybe father of Jem, who had raped Brianna in the fourth novel, is a brilliant subject to read about and really provided the suspense to this novel as he lurks in the background until finally making a move to capture Brianna once more. The supernatural element to this story was to the fore throughout the novel, through the traveller storyline and also the issue of ghosts and Jamie’s dreams that almost are prophecies. The ultimate twist with the Bugg family and their role in the disappearence of the River Run gold was excellent and truly brought an effective end to this roller coaster of a novel.

Although I loved this novel and sought for as much free time as possible over the Christmas celebrations to try to get a moment to read it without interruption, I found myself having many issues with it’s story-lines. Let me begin with the issue of never ending trauma and tragedy. Dear Lord, the amount of times I wanted to fling the book at the wall, due to yet ANOTHER horrible tragedy befalling my favourite characters. Did Claire really have to be abducted, beaten and raped? Have Claire and Jamie not been through enough? For me personally, I felt that the never-ending drama surrounding these two beloved characters, in this particular novel, was totally over the top. I understand that a story must have drama in order for it to be a success. However this novel was already laden with murders, traumatic pregnancies, abductions and deaths that I felt this rape storyline with Claire was uncalled for. I really feel quite strongly about this issue, and it occurring so early into the story when there was enough suspense with the random house fires and murders ALREADY, there was really no need for it. Further on in the novel then, another traumatic event occurs to Claire yet again, her nearly dying of an illness caused by Malva Christie putting some virus into her food and drink. Claire suffers terribly during this chapter and is almost unrecognisable when she finally does recover, due to the sheer amount of weight she lost during the illness. If this wasn’t enough, further on in the novel she is arrested on the charge of murder of Malva Christie and is imprisoned. She suffers a wide range of terrible events from her own people on Fraser’s Ridge turning against her, to getting stones thrown at her and being imprisoned. I could not keep up with the extent to which the author made this character suffer. I regularly found myself yelling at the book ‘ENOUGH!!!’ and ‘LEAVE CLAIRE ALONE’. This however didn’t end the suffering unfortunately.

Then onto the issue of Fergus. I have longed for the author to unveil a larger storyline for this wonderful character. Since ‘Dragonfly in Amber’ I have awaited a good hearty tale full of Fergus’ charm, humour and daredevil behaviour that he has exhibited since being a child in the second novel. However following ‘Dragonfly in Amber’ there has been little mentioned of Fergus and time and time again I have been disappointed with the lack of storyline he has been getting. In this book I was excited to see Fergus being mentioned quite a lot for once BUT not in the way I had imagined or wanted for that matter. In this novel, Fergus is no longer the charming, French, suave character that we have all grown to love, instead in his place we have a self hating, useless, wife beating man who regularly abandons his wife and children to go off and ‘find himself’. Do not misinterpret me here, I am not condemning depression, it is a horrible illness and I understand how debilitating it is. However I just don’t think this storyline suited Fergus in general, it came out of nowhere. Fergus has had only one hand for years and suddenly now all of sudden, when Marsali has become pregnant with their fourth child, it is suddenly an issue and he feels like he cannot contribute anything to his family. Sigh. Also the wife beating is totally uncalled for, this from a man whose love of women has been apparent throughout the books. Once again this over the top drama does not fit in to where the characters are in the timeline of their lives. I don’t know perhaps I am the only one that feels this way, but I cannot deny that it bothers me. It bothers me quite a lot that after waiting all the time for a bigger insight into Fergus and Marsali, this is the tale that has been given to the reader. Quite frankly I shall try to imagine I never read this part of the story and move on to the next book with a fresh and open mind.

Another issue I had was regarding wee Ian Murray. His reappearance into the series in the last book ‘The Fiery Cross’ was hugely welcomed by myself. I love his character, I honestly think he is my favourite character, after Claire and Jamie of course 😉 I was so excited when I began this book, to see what exactly had befallen Ian when living amongst his Indian clan and why he has suddenly turned up out of the blue with Rollo in tow, when the last we had heard of him, was that he was married with a baby on the way. However within the first few chapters of the novel, the reader still does not have any explanation. Confused and frustrated I continued reading in hope of discovering more but alas the only snippet of information gleaned about half way into the book, is a small conversation Ian has with Marsali, admitting he did have a child. There is no explanation as to what happened to said child or wife. It isn’t until three quarters of the way through the book we finally get the whole story when Ian confesses to Brianna, a lovely scene to be fair. However even then the story is somewhat lacking. The reader discovers that Ian’s wife is continually miscarrying his children. A terrible, terrible thing to occur to be sure, but as regards to why he’s left the tribe, the reader discovers is due to one of the elder women in the tribe telling him to leave so basically Ian’s wife Emily can move on with someone else. Sigh. Now why on earth would someone allow themselves to be basically bullied out of a marriage and abandon his wife. I realise that their marriage had been through the ringer, and I understand that Emily was beginning to turn away from Ian due to the loss of all their babies. What I do not understand is how easily Ian was able to abandon his wife and tribe. Surely anyone else would have put up a fight and at least tried to make it work first. Nonetheless my love for Ian’s character outweighs this issue, in fact I’m purely just nit picking here as the only thing that truly bothered me about his story, was how it was unveiled in the most stagnated manner and not all at once earlier on in the novel.

I do also have a small issue with how easily Claire allows Jamie to get away with things. I think I have mentioned this before in previous reviews about this series of books. Claire is a hot headed, stubborn woman, who fails to act according to how society dictates in the late 1700s. I always look forward to her fiery manner when confronting meek individuals who dare to tell her to keep in line with other women and to act as any normal woman would during this era. However I find that Claire quite often drops this powerful persona of hers when dealing with wrongdoings of Jamie. Instead she lets him get away with everything without so much as a hint of anger/jealousy etc. The scene in which I’m talking about is when Jamie goes to visit the Indian tribe to parlé with it’s leader. The leader of the tribe sends naked women into Jamie’s tent at night to please him. Jamie obviously shocked, tells the women to leave and then when they refuse he simply lies down with them and goes to sleep. On finally admitting this occurs to Claire, not straight away too I would like to note, Claire’s reaction is to laugh about it as if it is some joke??? Now I may not speak for every red blooded female out there, but I find it hard to understand that a wife could find it funny that her husband has basically slept in a bed with two naked women?? I’m at a loss. Perhaps it is just me who found this strange, but if there are other readers who felt the same, please let me know I’m not the only one! Once more in another scene, Claire practically shoves Jamie into a brothel and does not care if rumours begin as to why he’s there. Again I understand she is a modern woman in an old fashioned world and this can probably explain her open mind in these situations but I am at a loss as to how she would be comfortable with this situation. Perhaps yet again I may be the only reader feeling this way, so ignore my tirade if you do not feel the same, I just find it all exceptionally odd.

Then there is the matter of sweet little Lizzie Wemyss. Always portrayed to us as a naive, sweet, loving, generous young woman since ‘Voyager’. Lizzie has become quite the hussy. I don’t think anyone could have predicted her ending up married and shacked up not with one Beardsley brother, but the two of them. The mind boggles. I had always assumed that one day Ian Murray would wake up and notice Lizzie and the two would get married and live happily ever after. Boy was I wrong. Once again, this storyline did not sit well with me. We have gone from knowing Lizzie as this innocent little girl to now having to accept her as a woman with two husbands who are brothers, who share Lizzie! I nearly fell off my chair upon reading this chapter, I even had to explain it to my alarmed boyfriend as to why I was in such shock. What? Why? Why the Beardsleys, who I always thought would become mass psychopathic murderers with their strange behaviour to which even Brianna questioned on one occasion as being not quite right in the head. Poor Mr. Wemyss also, his whole world has completely been shattered by the unveiling of his new daughter, who not only married quite below her rank and status, but also deprived him of his new found family, the McGillivrays.

I feel as though I have spent too long discussing the many issues I had with the story when there are so many brilliant aspects of the novel that made it an excellent read. First I shall start with Diana Gabaldon’s genius in regards to historical research. The amount of times whilst reading the novel, that I was amazed and awed at information regarding the era that I had never known before. The author is the ultimate historian, you can feel the richness and level of research she has done throughout the novel. From the illnesses people suffered at the time to the food and drink people had, to the tools they used, to the chores, hobbies and careers, there is no end to this woman’s skill with research. I honestly can say that while reading this novel, I was transported back through time and was actually living amongst these poeple,that is how realistic Diana Gabaldon’s writing is, and therefore I must congratulate her on her extraordinary skill. Not only was there historical research done, but also medical research. Literally from chapter one, the medical skills of Claire Fraser allow us to gain knowledge on the illnesses and ailments people during this era had. Now I will say the reader is subjected to some of the most graphic descriptions of surgeries and procedures that I for one definitely did not need to know about, but at the same time I am in awe at the new knowledge gained from these scenarios. We see Claire struggling to cure people of diseases to which she is lacking the proper medicine. We not only see Claire as a doctor, but also a scientist as she creates ether to allow the patients to be put under while she can perform surgery. We see her as a microbiologist, looking at DNA and blood samples. We see her inventing medical instruments. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. What a woman! 

On the same note I would like to also point out how the character of Brianna has become so much more interesting. Although probably one of the characters I least like in the novels (don’t hate me readers!) Brianna has kind of done a U-turn for me. As her mother is an inventor, this skill has passed down to Brianna and been multiplied tenfold! The reader can now see Brianna as an engineer and architect. Instead of sitting around moaning as she had done in previous novels, Brianna has now taken to life in the 1770s quite effectively. She now makes medical instruments, shovels, and tackles the heating of water to bring into the houses on Fraser’s Ridge. Also she is no longer breast feeding! Hallelujah! We no longer have to witness graphic descriptions of her lactating breasts any more. This is probably what’s lead to an improvement of character for her in my mind. Brianna now has a purpose and by God has she taken on the persona of Alpha female. I also loved how the Brianna/Stephen Bonnet storyline plods along effectively in the background of this book and finally comes to an end in the final chapters of the novel. I found myself oddly fascinated at the rapport between her and Bonnet. Here is a man that has raped her, abducted her, and in this novel has tried to sell her as a kept woman, and when first having the chance to kill Bonnet, she can’t. I found it frustrating but oddly entertaining that Bonnet has this hold over Brianna, she is an alpha female through and through and yet around Bonnet she completely changes personality. Something about him both intrigues her and disgusts her at the same time. For example the scene in which she comforts him after he has had a nightmare, she just can’t help herself. I don’t really know how to feel about this matter. Even towards the end, she decides to show him mercy through a mercy killing then be subjected to a public drowning. The man has caused her no end of worry and fear and yet she seems to still respect him.

I rather enjoyed Roger’s role in this story. He also isn’t as annoying or frustrating as he was in previous novels. I really feel Brianna, Roger and Jem have really come together as a family, of course the discovery of Jem actually being Roger’s son has somewhat helped in this matter. However I must say it was a genius idea to make Roger a minister. He just exudes that calm and caring persona that Fraser’s Ridge needs to settle its issues. Roger acts as the olive branch between the Catholics and Presbyterians and so garners much more respect from Jamie. In fact the friendship between Jamie and Roger is one I loved reading about. Roger really has become Jamie’s right hand man and it warms any reader’s heart to see this. Now I will admit that his absence is felt a lot in the story, particularly when he goes to get ordained but also while doing ministerial duties of looking out for neighbours etc he is missing a lot from his own home. I therefore felt for Brianna quite a lot, and understood her jealousy in having to share Roger with everyone else. Oh and the ending of the book where they must leave and go back to the future so as to save Amanda their new baby who is suffering from a heart defect, is absolutely devastating. I may have issues with Brianna as a character, but she has become an important part of Claire and Jamie’s story. Her relationship with Jamie is a beautiful one to read about, and my heart really broke for Jamie as Brianna disappeared back to the future. The words he echoes after this scene will forever haunt me:

“For your sake, I will continue-though for mine alone…I would not”

(boxes of Kleenex were emptied during this scene believe me) 

I simply loved the way in which background characters were given larger role in this novel. The Christies provided the most intriguing plot to the story. Tom Christie grew on me as a character. I loved his rapport with Claire and how her stubborn nature won him over in the end. I detested Malva from the beginning, I’m not sure why as she originally hadn’t done anything wrong but as soon as she was mentioned in the story, I knew she was trouble. However I really enjoyed the suspense surrounding her pregnancy and her accusations that Jamie was the father provided the perfect gasp worthy moment in the book. It also allowed Jamie and Claire to come to the most heart wrenching moment in the book, where for a moment she doesn’t know what to believe but realises that Jamie would never cheat on her and ruin what they have:

We are here, all of us, and we’re here because I love you, more than the life that was mine. Because I believed you loved me the same way….will you tell me that’s not true?”

No!..No, I willna tell ye that. NOT EVER, Claire” (swoon worthy or what!)

Readers will definitely not be disappointed with the amount of love scenes between Claire and Jamie. There all encompassing love really is the backbone of this series and I honestly don’t know what I did before I was introduced to these two wonderful characters. Through their story, the meaning of love really echoes through to the reader. For all their faults, they will always have each other and protect each other through thick and thin. And that dear readers, is the ultimate love to which we should all aspire to have (if we can all be that lucky life would be amazing 🙂

In regard to other background characters, I was thoroughly glued to the book when reading about the missing gold in River Run and finally finding out the truth about Jocasta Cameron Innes, who quite frankly is quite the witch! I say that happily as her story provided me with riveting moments without causing any tragedy to Claire or Jamie. The discovery that Jocasta and her butler Ulysses have been having a love affair for quite some time was brilliantly done and tied up her story nicely. Jocasta is a character I really can’t decide if I like or not, she is so generous to the Fraser’s that it is hard not to like her, and her feeble appearance certainly makes the reader want to have some kind of concern for her, but then on the other hand she can be very cruel and calculating and if she wants something she will do anything to get her way. I will say I did feel sorry for her character toward the end of the story as she now has lost her home, her wealth, her status and also her lover. I suppose what goes around always comes back around is the moral to her story. In regards to the Buggs, I would never have predicted that it was quiet old Arch Bugg who was behind the disappearance of Charles’ Stuart’s Gold. His cold demeanour towards Jamie at the end was mind blowing and to discover the actual reason why Mrs. Bugg killed the Brown character brought an excellent end to the novel.

Another aspect which made this novel excellent was its return to the supernatural element of time travel. Through the new character of Donner, the reader is given a more in-depth knowledge of what the time travelling entailed. Although Donner himself was a horrible character in terms of ethics, he nevertheless provided the reader with a look at time travel outside the Fraser family. His story presented the dangers of what time travel can do to those that are not properly fortified with gems and jewels and death can occur quite easily. The supernatural side of things was not limited to time travel alone. Jamie’s dreams are becoming visions of the future world it seems. When he is recounting his dream about Brianna and Roger in the last scene in their story, I had goosebumps when he described the telephone and how Jem wanted to call him. Spooky without a doubt. Ghosts are also regularly mentioned by Claire and Jamie throughout the novel. One would think this would be a silly addition to the novels, but it is quite the opposite case. I feel the ghosts added to the feeling behind this novel. Particularly the scene where Jamie feels Murtagh’s presence with him at the battle, is very effective and fit in well with the scene and emotions felt by the characters.

We also see the return of much loved characters and new characters to boot. Lord John Grey finally turns up in the last few chapters of the book. Although he had sent many letters to the Fraser’s throughout the novel where we can witness some of his charming stories, it is the last scene,where his fear that Brianna will tell William, his son that Jamie is his father and she is his sister, that I finally feel some kind of connection with his character that I’d never felt before. I felt empathetic towards his plight. I will say originally I had thought the idea of Lord John adopting William quite odd considering his strong feeling towards Jamie, however in this scene I finally saw that Lord John actually loves this young man as a son and fears he will lose him if the truth comes out. Which it probably will eventually knowing how these books work. I also loved the addition of Bobby Higgins to the cast, he is an interesting character and I look forward to reading more about him now that he has moved permanently to Fraser’s Ridge. 

So having written all the above I can safely say this is a novel one will not forget in a hurry. Yes it had a lot of issues that were really not necessary,but that does not mean I did not enjoy it any less. I think that’s an important thing to remember when reading the ‘Outlander’ series. The books are not perfect, nonetheless the stories within them are so emotionally charged and powerful that they resonate with any reader. Honestly this was probably my favourite book in the series after the first book and ‘Dragonfly in Amber’.Although I say this reluctantly only due to the sheer amount of tragedy that occurs to the characters within this story, horrible, beyond imaginable things occur to the characters that it would be quite wrong of me not to be honest and say that whilst I did enjoy the book, it was perhaps one of the hardest books to read in my whole history of reading. I understand why others would choose this to be their favourite instalment of the ‘Outlander’ series however I personally don’t think any book will ever touch the original first novel. I hope you all have enjoyed this review, and I hope my ‘Outlander’ family will understand the issues I had with the novel. I look forward to any thoughts/opinions all you avid readers out there would like to contribute.

As always, feel free to comment either here on my blog or on my twitter page.

The Avid Reader 🙂

Twitter: http://twitter.com/theavidreaders

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