Sunday, December 11, 2011
"And good evening, Colin."
I haven't managed to do much of note the last week or so. I arrived back from Australia and between trying to get over jetlag, catching up with some fellow local writers, and going back to work a day and a half after getting back into the country...I'm exhausted. Not to mention I've got the most ridiculously fruit-stuffed Christmas cake in the oven this afternoon. I've never made a fruit cake before. I don't even like fruit cake. But as I'm well-known as the sort of madwoman who'll bake anything on a dare (yes, Oreo-stuffed chocolate chip cookies, I'm looking at you) my mother told me to make one for her. So...we'll see how that turns out. Although with that said it's not like I have to eat it.
Otherwise, I spent Saturday most emphatically not writing, which was at least partially because I took a break from Dany and Tyrion and my other favourites to read the book that arrived in Saturday's post. The Scottish Prisoner. I've been dying for this book for months, and...finally. I did learn a lesson about checking release dates, mind you; I knew the UK date was later than the US one (or at least I thought it was) and when in Australia I ordered it from Amazon.com. And when I was at Whitcoulls last week hunting out A Storm of Swords for a laugh I checked the new release section and almost had an apopolexy when I saw that The Scottish Prisoner was there. Cheers, New Zealand. You suck, New Zealand. God, I love you, New Zealand.
Now, I'm a bit of a rabid Lord John Grey fangirl so of course instinct demanded I buy it, but my bank account is unhappy with me after so many weeks of not working, so I actually kept my cool and didn't buy another copy when I knew I had one coming in the post. I also got the next A Song of Ice and Fire to distract myself with anyway, but you know. [slaps hand] I'm a bad fangirl. (Actually, I still haven't read Lord John and the Plague of Zombies yet either, so I am a doubly bad fangirl.) But to make up for it I'm going to have a ramble here now anyway. I hesitate to call it a "review" because it's not like I have a clue what I'm talking about at the best of times, but I want to have a little SQUEE HANDFLAIL WHEEEEEEEE moment, so here we are. It's going to be filled with SPOILERS, so ye have been warned.
Like I said above, I've been waiting for this book for ages. Mostly it's because I love Lord John like the foaming-at-the-mouth idiot woman that I am, but it's also because it promised to give some real insight into John and Jamie's "friendship." Said friendship was utterly in tatters after Brotherhood of the Blade, and although we know from Voyager and beyond that the two of them managed to come to an understanding before John married Isobel, it was obviously not something that could be overcome with mere words. It needed action -- acta non verba, if I may be pretentious enough to pretend I know anything about Latin, ha ha ha (tip o' the hat to Herself there for teaching me the Latin in the first place) -- and fortunately for us, we got an entire book of action. In words. Oh god the irony, it burns. And you know I fucking love it.
I have to say first off that I have a copy of iTunes that is possessed by some sort of music demon. Or possibly a leprechaun. I already knew from having read various generous extracts that Jamie and John would be taking a trip to Ireland, and the moment I opened the book to the first page iTunes -- which was on random -- promptly brought up The Rocky Road To Dublin. Cue hysteria on my part. Incidentally I apologise for the leading photograph of this entry; that's not Ireland, it's the Highlands of Scotland. I've never been to Ireland myself; partly it's because I am a moron, but I also have this funny little thing about Ireland. By descent I'm English and Scottish -- although a Scotsman once told me I was Danish -- but my father has a family tree on his mother's side going back to the sixteenth century that he once told me proved we were Irish. I read it, then flipped out and emailed him back wailing DAAAAAAAAAAD WE MOVED TO ULSTER FROM ENGLAND and...yeah. I'm neither a Paddy nor a Mick, I'm a bloody Pom. Oops. (Although my great-grandmother was actually Scottish; apparently my English grandmother was terrified of her. Er.) So, yes, going to Ireland in books is about as far as I get right now. (And in my head, every Irishman sounds like Dara and Ed. Ha.)
So, to get back to the book. Overall I enjoyed it -- it's not my favourite of the supplementary material, I don't think, but Brotherhood is somehow hard to top for me. (And not just because through said book Lord John saved my life in Mexico. Long story.) But there is definitely a lot to recommend it. My only complaint is that I felt it could be longer, which is hilarious in hindsight because I've felt a few of the Lord John books have been a bit overlong in the tail. It wasn't even so much the story that I felt could be longer, I think I just wanted more detail. It's the richness of Gabaldon's writing that I always keep coming back for, and I didn't get as much of that here as I usually do -- though I might change my mind on a reread, because I was chewing through this thing like the word-glutton I am. I know I took my time over various extracts when they came to light and got far more satisfaction that way, so you know. Take that one with a grain of salt.
The characters, again, are what stood out for me. Naturally I adore Lord John, and even though I am not actually a huge fan of Jamie's, I do like his narrative voice. And yes, you heard that right; I am a full-blooded presumably straight female who wouldn't jump Jamie Fraser's bones at first opportunity. I'm not sure why that is; I find him to be a fascinating character, but he doesn't appeal to me the way I know he does to most other readers. I suspect it's just because my tastes are odd, but there you go. I do, however, love his narrative voice; Voyager is one of my favourite books in the series because we get to hear from Jamie. And considering the way this book deals with Jamie and John's friendship, I thought it was a very good idea for Gabaldon to have it told from both viewpoints rather than just John's. There's a running theme through the book about the two of them meeting as equals, and by sharing the narraitve rather than it being strictly from John's only really gave that a strong resonance. I enjoyed that. It also gave plenty of opportunity for warm fuzzies between Willie and Jamie, which considering the state of their relationship by the end of An Echo In The Bone...ooh, yeah, fluff is handy right now.
So, John and Jamie. Brilliant. But their supporting cast is wonderful -- Tom Byrd, I just want to squishle. And it says something for Diana's writing -- and perhaps my own gross stupidity -- that I fully thought Tom was going to die in Ireland. (I say "gross stupidity" because I've already read an extract of Plague of Zombies that says Tom is alive, and I know that happens after Prisoner.) I was very, very sad. And then very, very happy. I also have a thing for John's brother Hal, who is a stubborn son of bitch with an honourable streak a mile long; Jamie makes a comment towards the end of the book that he envies the brothers their company, and I can see why. Hal and Johnny are just...Hal and Johnny. As someone with two brothers and one sister, I can safely say that there is nothing in this world quite like a sibling who has your back. And though Jamie still has Jenny, it's...different. I love my brothers, but my sister is the one who knows me best. I imagine it to be much the same with men and their brothers and sisters.
Hal's wife, Minnie, is also a revelation in this book -- although I was fond of Minnie anyway. Harry Quarry is a force unto himself -- a very poetic force, albeit one best suited to the saucier imprints of Mills and Boon -- and I had a little snicker when John Hunter turned up again. Oh, that man is a prick and a half; when I was in London earlier this year I went to the Royal College of Surgeons and saw his collection. Tsk, tsk. I've seen "interesting" anatomical collections before, being that I spent so much time wandering in and out of the Lindo-Ferguson Building at Otago, but even I was taken aback by what the man had. (I was particularly revolted by the half-child's head, which says a lot as my previous "worst ever" was the conjoined twins who did not look to me like they'd died at birth; they seemed far too old in my admittedly limited experience.) But it was a nice touch to bring him back for the concluding duel of the story.
As to the story itself...it was actually a good deal easier to follow than some of John's other stories. That may be just because I'm an idiot, but there you go. It flowed like a river, picking up pace and flotsam along the way, and then hit a dam before spilling over into a very nice conclusion. I did have one complaint, but the more I consider it...well. A month or so back I made a smart-ass remark on the compuserve forum that my wilful brain has a happy-ever-after scenario that involves John running away to Germany to live with Stephan von Namtzen where they can raise sausages ever after. Said sausages referring to dackels (dachshunds), naturally, but only on the surface of the matter. Ha ha ha. I have a particular fondness for dachshunds, you see; ever since I was eleven or twelve I've been of a mind to acquire one and name it Colin. Which is entirely the fault of Prince George. ...ironically enough set in the same time period as this novel. Ha. So you can imagine I was overjoyed when Stephan reappeared.
Weirdly enough, I wasn't a hundred percent satisfied with it, but it may be because I am, in the words of Jamie Fraser, something of a "wee pervert" myself. I wasn't quite satisfied with the change in Stephan and John's relationship, and at first I thought I was just being a jerk because of a lack of detail. (I've been rereading the other stories in Red Velvet and Absinthe the last few days, you see; explicitness is the name of the game there!) I then realised that for all John was clearly over Percy, I was not getting the same sense of intimacy between John and Stephan that we were treated to with Percy and John in Brotherhood. And I don't mean in the sense of sex -- the emotional intimacy wasn't the same. And for a bit I couldn't decide if it was because John was pulling back, or if it said something else. From the lovely scene in Brotherhood it's very clear that John and Stephan are emotionally close, and the end of the book sorted it for me. Stephan sent John a dackel, and invited him hunting. And I grinned. Not just because I mentally named the poor creature "Colin," but also because I realised what it was. I love Stephan, and I love him with John, but they strike me as friends more than anything else now. And not in a bad way. Much as I wanted them to be something more, I think they are best as friends. Not that I'd object to being proved wrong, but it's all good. They're friends, but not exactly confidants in the way John was with Percy, or even with Jamie.
The relationship between Jamie and John was particularly lovely to watch develop anew. I was particularly struck by the ending, where Jamie, John and Willie are watching the horses and John opens with the Torremolinos Gambit. It was a wonderful callback to the first time their friendship went balls-to-the-wall in Voyager, and it also put John, Jamie and William together. I've always been fascinated by that triad, particularly as it is one of the things that I believe ties John and Claire together much much later. While John is no-one's "woman," neither is Claire -- they're both partners to Jamie in terms of his two children, and this lovely little scene almost has them as a peculiar little family. Yet they're all unaware of it, which gives it a nice echo we'll see later. I love that sort of thing; I think that's what makes both reading writing prequels and supplementary material so much fun.
Of course, I have the brain of an idiot and I was watching The Venture Bros. earlier yesterday, and for some reason as Jamie and John began to work together I started mentally picturing them as Brock Samson and Rusty Venture. Which is perhaps a bit of a disservice to John, because he's nothing like Rusty. It was just the juxtaposition of the huge guy ostensibly working for the much smaller man and yet the two of them having a laugh together as the relationship's more equal than that...although yes, I do have days when I mentally picture Jamie as a red-headed Brock. ...nice ass, Samson. But that's the heart of it; I absolutely adored how John and Jamie went from John's hilarious "I wouldn't piss on him were he burning in the fires of hell" comment to playing chess again by the end of it. And it was believeable. Though we already knew it was a given, they had to work for it. And they did. That's what I liked so much about this story; as I said above they came together as equals, and that was what allowed them to work through their issues with one another and part as something very much like friends. For being the one to set that up and make it possible, I wish Hal would take me on the hearth rug. Ha.
The particular stand-out moments to me were Jamie rescuing John from the castle, which was a lovely bit of irony considering there was some vague talk of Jack Randall through the whole thing. I've always wondered how much John knew, you see; I couldn't imagine Jamie ever telling him, but John does know something happened in Jamie's past and I can't help but wonder if he'll ever put it together. After all, John's not stupid -- and I liked how he came to realise why Jamie stayed at Helwater. I actually thought it was a bit cruel of Jamie to lead John to think it was for Betty, because while I harbour no belief that Jamie would ever want John the way John wants Jamie, I thought lying about something of that nature was a bit unfair. But John was a lot more magnanimous than I was, and it was a nice way to lead him to realise that Willie was Jamie's son. I also liked how Isobel, Jamie and John became connected through Wilberforce, as it says a lot to me about how John came to wed Isobel and why Jamie was a bit apprehensive about it considering the circumstances. Also, Lord Dunsany arranging for John to become Willie's guardian even before John weds Isobel was nicely done. These people are connected, in so many ways. One of my favourite Stephen King novels, Bag of Bones, talks about how the TR-90 (a "town" of a sort) is filled with people connected by "underground cables" you can't see but you feel, and that's what I got here. Heartstrings, strung out between them all. And even though you already know these people will be connected to one another long into the future, you can see why even now. I read the first book as Cross-Stitch rather than the US title of Outlander, and though I like the latter better for the series as a whole it feels like a callback to the former title to me. It's a tapestry, and the threads move in and out of the weaves of the others. I love that. That's why I read these books.
There are a lot of other things I could say, but my brain is dying this afternoon. And like I said, I need to reread the book anyway. But there's just...a richness to the story that I enjoyed. I must unashamedly admit that John is my favourite character, but I think it was because John finally got to do something with Jamie that was meaningful. Because they were equals. I liked John from the moment I first started reading from his POV in Voyager (I don't recall thinking much of him in Dragonfly In Amber), and I can assure you that I remember very well reading that book in Christchurch. I all but shrieked at him when he made his Torremolinos gambit after the chess game and reached out for Jamie. I knew it was not the time. It put them on an unequal footing that went beyond the standard governer/prisoner thing, and although we knew they worked through it we never knew how. And to finally see it, all these years later...I feel quite privileged, somehow. It's such a vital and strong part of John's character, this constant love for Jamie, and seeing how the two of them can deal with it to the point that they can be friends...
The duel struck me deeply. I loved how it was told through Jamie's eyes but with John's words in his mind; they were principle and second, and almost in a way they were one body in that moment. Considering they can never be one in the way John might wish -- and my heart broke for him when he heard Jamie calling for Claire and ached to be someone who could give him solace -- this did my poor bruised heart right in. There's a lot of things in this book, in terms of the different relationships between people and the reasons for it -- love, honour, duty, filial association, that sort of thing. John gets brotherhood from Hal and a more physical kind of love from Stephan, but from Jamie...it's an understanding. It's not romantic, but it's not platonic either. It's something else entirely. It acts, actually, as a very strong reasoning behind the oddity of John and Claire's consummated marriage, but that's entirely another discussion.
But yes, this is all getting very disjointed. I just loved the little details of this book, too; John's repeated motif of the master couplet said so much for the theme of equality, and I also had a good little snigger at the poem Jamie was reading early on about the woman scorned. I tended to read it as his quiet unease about John; as far back as my reading of Voyager I could see Jamie held a concern about John's intentions towards him for a long long time. And I mean that in the sense Jamie didn't realise for quite a while the nature of John's honour. Fair enough, considering his experience at the hand of Jack Randall; it was no wonder Jamie would believe John's fake impossible "love" (you can't hear my sarcasm in the written word, believe you me) could turn just as easily to resentment and hate. Which is why I loved how Jamie refused to let Quinn kill John. And I also understood the last bit with the names. I loved how John suddenly got annoyed and demanded that Jamie stop calling him "my lord." And the fact that Jamie wanted to but knew it was better not to...it was lovely and sad and made me think of their meeting all those years later in Jamaica. That was where the equality truly began. But it was there earlier, just...it was never quite the time.
So, I am looking forward to In My Own Heart's Blood in a couple of years. I love Jamie and John, and I love them together. Even though my slash fangirl self will always wish John could have what he wanted, I do love them as friends. It's such a rich and fascinating relationship, one once again in tatters, and seeing how it was between them the last time they patched it up...it gives me hope for this time. It also makes me slightly philosophical; much as I wanted Stephan and John together, I think they're better as friends. It's the same with John and Jamie. They have their own paths, but they're just...there are heartstrings, as I said. They stretch out between us and all the people that we love. And I particularly like how a Scot and a Pom had to go to Paddy-Land to become friends. Something about that just amuses me deeply.
In other news, I should probably go and do something like writing myself. I have LOTS OF FEELINGS about writing, mostly something between despair and hope, but that's for another day. In the meantime...just write. As they say.