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Thursday, February 9, 2012

'The Scottish Prisoner' by Diana Gabaldon

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:


In this highly-anticipated new novel, Diana Gabaldon brings back one of her most compelling characters: the unforgettable Lord John Grey - soldier, gentleman and no mean hand with a blade. Set in the heart of the eighteenth century, Lord John's world is one of mystery and menace.

Diana Gabaldon brilliantly weaves together the strands of Lord John's secret and public lives. Capturing the lonely, tormented, and courageous career of a man who fights for his crown, his honor and his own secrets, Diana Gabaldon delivers breathtaking human drama, proving once again that she can bring history to life in a way few novelists ever have.

Jamie Fraser was a convicted Jacobite traitor and prisoner of Ardsmuir. Now he is on parole, working as a stable hand on the Helwater estate, for the English aristocratic Dunsany family.

But when an Irish stranger calls in the night, with talk of white roses and a renewed Jacobite uprising, Jamie’s quiet life on parole is turned upside down. . .

Lord John Grey has been tasked by his older brother to discover a plot of corruption and murder against a British officer, Major Gerald Siverly. But the only clue as to Siverly’s whereabouts is a cryptic poem, written in ‘erse’ – the Scottish tongue. And the only Scot John Grey knows is one Jamie Fraser, whom he met while he was Governor of Ardsmuir. But he and Mr Fraser did not part on good terms, and Grey is reluctant to be reacquainted with his old friend, now turned foe.

Grey’s brother, Hal, enlists the help of Jamie Fraser to assist on the hunt for Siverly. But it quickly becomes clear that this Jacobite hunt is mired in Ireland – the poem is not written in Scottish erse, but rather Irish Gaeilge. Even more curious, the poem tells tale of the ‘Wild Hunt’, an Irish folk legend.

Lord John Grey, Jamie Fraser and Grey’s trusty valet, Tom Byrd, set out to Ireland on a wild hunt that will lead them to conspiracy and murder. . .

‘The Scottish Prisoner’ is the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Lord John Grey’ series, which is itself a ‘spin-off’ of her wildly popular ‘Outlander’ series.

Diana Gabaldon’s first ‘Lord John Grey’ spin-off book was released in 2003. The spin-off was born when Ms Gabaldon was invited to contribute to a historical British crime stories anthology. As she explains, she didn’t want to write about any main ‘Outlander’ characters, but decided that Lord John was a suitably significant character in her main series, who was not always a key player. Thus, Lord John’s spin-off was born, and ‘Scottish Prisoner’ marks the fourth instalment, and also the most anticipated.

The three previous Lord John Grey books have not featured Jamie Fraser. The spin-off books have also not matched the timeline of the ‘Outlander’ books (‘The Private Matter’ was released before ‘The Fiery Cross’, while ‘Brotherhood of the Blade’ came out two years after ‘A Breath of Snow and Ashes’. Another reason, I’m sure, Ms Gabaldon didn’t wish to write a spin-off for a main ‘Outlander’ character. . . trying to keep parallel timelines would probably do her head in!). But, it became apparent to fans of ‘Lord John Grey’ and ‘Outlander’ that a significant overlap could occur – in that sad grey period of Jamie and Claire’s lives, between ‘Dragonfly in Amber’ and ‘Voyager’, when they were separated by time.

Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series is tricky and fantastic. Timelines curve and time spans – there are major time lapses in both Jamie and Claire’s lives. Jamie spent seven years hiding in a cave after the disaster of Culloden. Claire spent years studying medicine and raising her and Jamie’s daughter, Brianna. As readers, we were privy to snatches and samples of these times in Jamie and Claire’s lives apart in the third book, ‘Voyager’ (and a bit in the beginning of ‘Dragonfly in Amber’. . . see what I mean about time curving?)

Jamie also spent a good deal of time in Ardsmuir prisoner, where he first met Lord John Grey and formed a friendship that lasted until his parole on Helwater. . . whereupon Lord John, a homosexual (in times when sodomy was illegal) made advances to Jamie, and embarrassed them both. While at Helwater Jamie also had a disastrous liaison with the young mistress, Geneva Dunsany, resulting in the birth of his secretly illegitimate son, William. Eventually Lord John Grey would marry William’s aunt, Isobel, and adopt the boy as his own, partly because he knows what the boy means to Jamie and he vows to care for him (thereby winning Jamie’s loyalty and gratitude back).

Readers of ‘Outlander’ gathered all this information while reading ‘Voyager’, the third book in the ‘Outlander’ series which included Lord John Grey and Jamie Fraser’s impromptu meeting on the high seas (and John Grey meeting Jamie’s supposedly dead wife, Claire, for the first time).

But there was so much we didn’t know, in between. Thanks to Gabaldon’s tricky timelines, multiple plots and intense back-story, there was plenty of blanks in Jamie and Lord John’s history. There are also many blanks in Jamie’s progression from the young twenty-something in ‘Dragonfly’ to the man Claire meets after a long absence in ‘Voyager’.

That’s what ‘The Scottish Prisoner’ is – it’s the back-story and the in between. In this book we read part of Jamie’s progression to the man we have come to know and love, hinting at his transformation to Mac Dubh of the Ridge.

As in all the ‘Lord John Grey’ books, there is a ‘whodunit’ mystery plot, concerning Jacobites in Ireland. This is an interesting plot, and with Jamie and John Grey on the case, you better believe there’s lots of trickery and violence. But this Jacobite plot is most interesting for how it impacts on Jamie. He is in the middle of his Helwater parole and Culloden still haunts him. The last thing he wants is for all of this to resurface. But even more important is the fact that investigating this new Jacobite plot takes him away from Helwater, away from young Willie – his little boy who has just grown old enough to start playing with horses, and interacting with Jamie.

The only reason Jamie even agrees to travel to Ireland (with no intention of escaping) is because he knows he needs to return to Helwater and see out his parole. This is his only chance to be near his secret illegitimate son.

Fans of Diana Gabaldon know that herself writes grand historical adventures. Her books are meticulously researched and she beautifully conjures a sense of time and place with her evocative stories and endearing characters. But readers also know that Gabaldon is a master of romance – Jamie and Claire’s love has spanned seven books and evaded time. For this reason, some fans may be hesitant to read ‘Scottish Prisoner’ – a book with Jamie, but no Claire. And no ‘Outlander’ fan wants to read about Jamie coupling and courting with anyone other than his Sassenach (it was hard enough to read his encounters with Geneva and Mary McNab, no matter how innocent or regretted). Rest assured, Jamie remains true to his wife (despite some unsubtle advances). And even though there’s far less romance in this novel than in any of Gabaldon’s other novels, Claire is a heavy presence throughout the book. Jamie thinks of her, always. At this point of time he prays that Claire and his child (who he’s sure was a boy) went through the rocks safely and were carried back to her own time. Whenever Jamie thinks of her and the child (which is often) he sends out a silent prayer: “That she might be safe. She and the child.”

He hadn’t been able to avoid thinking of them, living in the cave on his own estate at Lallybroch, during the first years after Culloden. There was too little to occupy his mind, and they had crept in, his family, glimmering in the smoke when he sat by his wee fire – when he’d felt safe enough to have one – shining in the heavens, seeing the same stars that they must see, taking comfort in the everlasting light that lay softly on him and his.


Lord John Grey also learns more about Claire in this book. Not so much because Jamie opens up to him about missing his wife (he tells everyone he ‘lost’ her at Culloden), rather John Grey observes how thoughts of Claire weigh on Jamie’s mind. Their investigations into this Irish Jacobite plot conjure some hard memories for Jamie – memories of his time in France with Claire, and of his duel with ‘Black’ Jack Randall. Lord John Grey finds himself stumbling across little tells and hints of Jamie’s love and yearning for Claire, and it makes John green with envy;

He was turning to creep back toward the stairs, when he heard Fraser’s voice.
“Could I but lay my head in your lap, lass,” Fraser’s voice came softly through the door. “Feel your hand on me, and sleep wi’ the scent of you about me.”
Grey’s mouth was dry, his limbs frozen. He should not be hearing this, was suffused with shame to heart it, but dared not move for fear of making a sound.
There came a rustling, as of a large body turning violently in the bed, and then a muffled sound – a gasp, a sob? – and silence. He stood still, listening to his own heart, to the ticking of the longcase clock in the hall below, to the distant sounds of the house, settling for night. A minute, by counted seconds. Two. Three, and he lifted a foot, stepping quietly back. One more step, and then he heard a final murmur, a whisper so strangled that only the acuteness of his attention brought him the words.
“Christ, Sassenach, I need ye.”
He would in that moment have sold his soul to be able to offer comfort. But there was no comfort he could give, and he made his way silently down the stairs, missing the last step in the dark and coming down hard.


This is where Diana Gabaldon really excels – in writing these little tensions and unsaid conversations between her characters. As readers we know all that’s between the lines, and reading Jamie and Lord John dance around one another – around personal and political issues – makes for some truly delicious reading.

Something I especially loved in this book was the backstory to a recurring secondary character. We learn about Lord John Grey’s older brother, Hal, and the story of how he and his wife, Minnie, came to be married. I love, love, loved this backstory! It could be a book (novella? Short story?) unto itself, and I certainly hope that herself decides to write it! Minnie was a spy in France, and Hal met her when she was snooping through his desk . . . his discovery ended in a coupling, on the hearthrug. Delicious! Hal becomes infinitely more exciting with this backstory, and I want more!

I knew I would enjoy ‘The Scottish Prisoner’. Not least of all because the seventh ‘Outlander’ book came out in 2009, and Gabaldon has only recently guessed that the eighth book, ‘Written in my Own Heart’s Blood’, will be finished (hopefully) by the end of 2012, and (tentatively) released by the end of 2013. That’s another long wait between much-anticipated ‘Outlander’ books, so ‘Scottish Prisoner’ is a lovely book to tide fans over in the interim. And the fact that we get a long dose of beloved Jamie Fraser? Even better.

But more than anything, ‘The Scottish Prisoner’ is an important book in understanding the evolution of James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. This book is the ‘in between’ of his life – when he’s no longer a prisoner, but not quite a free man. He is a new father, to Willie, but can never let this fact be known. And he learns the value of friendship and loyalty with the Englishman, Lord John Grey. I loved this book, as I knew I would, and even though there was no Claire, the love Jamie has for her is even more powerful for her absence and his constant yearning for her. A stunning novel from a true master storyteller.

5/5

3 comments:

  1. wonderful cover of this book as wel as the overall book is unique

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  2. Absolutely fantastic. I absolutely love Jamie Fraser and absolutely love John Grey, so to get an entire novel with the two of them was an absolute treat. If you're not an already established Gabaldon fan, don't bother reading my review - but do immediately seek out her novels!

    I won't go into the details of the plot, I'm sure others will, but I will say that this book does show how Jamie and John's relationship evolved into a real friendship, given the differences in their current stations, past differences, and vastly different political positions. The plot also gives us a greater understanding of Jamie's life at Hellwater and his relationship with those there. We also get to see how John's involvement with the guardianship of Willie began. The bulk of the plot revolves around Irish Jacobites, which was interesting, especially as we watch Jamie struggle with his conscience and loyalties regarding whether or not to support them knowing the historic outcome of their efforts. By far, this is the best Lord John Book to date!

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