From the BLURB:
Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall were torn apart by the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and it took them twenty years to find each other again. Now the American Revolution threatens to do the same.
It is 1779 and Claire and Jamie are at last reunited with their daughter, Brianna, her husband, Roger, and their children on Fraser's Ridge. Having the family together is a dream the Frasers had thought impossible.
Yet even in the North Carolina backcountry, the effects of war are being felt. Tensions in the Colonies are great and local feelings run hot enough to boil Hell's tea-kettle. Jamie knows loyalties among his own tenants are split and the war is on his doorstep. It's only a matter of time before the shooting starts.
Not so far away, young William Ransom is still coming to terms with the discovery of his true father's identity - and thus his own. Lord John Grey also has reconciliations to make and dangers to meet . . . on his son's behalf, and his own.
Meanwhile, the Southern Colonies blaze, and the Revolution creeps ever closer to Fraser's Ridge. And Claire, the physician, wonders how much of the blood to be spilt will belong to those she loves.
‘Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone’ is the 2021 and ninth book in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ epic series – of romance, time-travelling, historic novels that have moved us from the Jacobite uprising in Scotland, to the American Revolutionary War unfolding … the last time we joined these characters was in ‘Written in My Own Heart's Blood’ from 2013, so it’s been very welcome indeed to finally be back with the Fraser’s, Murray’s, Grey’s and assorted others after eight odd years absence.
However; at 902-pages I was quite intimidated (and too weak-wristed, literally sitting up in bed with this thing! … and yes, I know audiobook and ebook exist but I started this series as a 19-year-old uni student in paperback and I intend to finish that way darn it!) to jump into this book when it released in November 2021. I did start out strong and flew through a good 200-pages, but then I flagged and set it aside and only got back into a rhythm to finish it in August 2022 (despite being very keen and excited to know what was happening to some of my favourite characters in a favourite series of mine, that I’ve been reading since I was 19!)
But finished I have! And I did make notes and collected my thoughts as I read, which I shall now present to you in sub-headers because otherwise I don’t quite know how to articulate my feelings about this sprawling EPIC.
And, look, because this is the ninth book in a series that began in 1991 … expect that there are spoilers ahead (especially as I post this in August 2022 for a book that came out in November 2021!) I’m going to be delving into where these characters have come from and are going, so if you’re unfamiliar with the series (or, on the flipside, if you don’t want speculations on what might be coming!) this is probably not the review for you;
I am in two minds about this. ‘Bees’ begins in 1779, and ends in 1781. The American Revolutionary War ends in 1783. A big part of me just wants everyone to stay safe on Fraser’s Ridge and not move until the war is over. And at times reading this evoked the same feelings as watching a horror movie where you just want to scream WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! STAY TOGETHER! NO – NO! DO NOT GO UP THE STAIRS ALONE! Because of course, in a 902-page novel, nobody is staying put and nobody is playing it safe in the lead-up to war because *of course not* this is fiction and it needs tension and drama.
That being said – I do think Gabaldon found good character motivations for everyone to, at times, get off the Ridge and venture out into the great (and much more dangerous!) unknown. I think of all the motivations however, Young Ian Murray had the best – when he gets word from Indian friends that his ex-wife Emily was involved in a massacre and her husband killed but they don’t know of her whereabouts or health, nor those of her three children (one of whom is likely Ian’s own son). Given that Ian’s Quaker wife Rachel has just given birth (to placeholder-named ‘Oggy’) and she’s not thrilled with the idea of him traipsing off to check on his ex and the child they had together (benevolent as she is as a Quaker, she has her limits), so she insists on going with him. And since Jamie Fraser’s sister Jenny has come to the Americas and is living with Ian and Rachel and she doesn’t intend to see her grandson go off without her – she’ll tag along too. That’s a good motivation, I can definitely see Ian being compelled to check on his kin and people (no matter that Emily ‘put him out,’ and left him) and it’s a nice full-circle moment for him.
Brianna, Roger and their children Jem and Manda also have pretty decent impetus in the form of a painting commission that Lord John Grey orchestrates for Brianna … which will conveniently take her to Savannah where Lord John Grey and his adopted son (Brianna’s half-brother, Jamie’s illegitimate son) William is also stationed. John Grey and William (though he recently handed in his officer’s commission) are part of the British army, Jamie and Claire knowing what’s coming think it’s a good idea for Brianna to see her brother before the war escalates … and if she can do some surreptitious gun-running and fund-raising while in Savannah, the better! Also if Roger can finally be officially ordained as a minister – it becomes a right old family affair!
These are all good motivations, I still just wanted to tie everyone up in cotton-wool but, alas!, it’s a book and that will not do.
The Hubris of Time Travellers
Partly why we believe these people are willing to take risks throughout the novel – even knowing what’s coming on the horizon of history! – is indeed that (false?) sense of security the time-travellers amongst them have, and have given. Brianna in particular is the daughter of a historian, married another, was raised with an American education recounting the war of independence and she assures herself that she knows the big players and moments in time. So when she goes to Savannah just as it’s about to be under siege, she constantly comforts everyone around her that she knows it will not fall. It will hold.
Gabaldon makes a very clever couple of villains much clearer in this novel especially; one of them being everyone’s hubris, which is delightfully manifested also in the form of a history book written by Claire’s late first husband, and Brianna’s adoptive father, Frank Randall that Roger and Bri smuggled back with them through the stones. Frank (rather knowingly) made a name for himself studying the history of Scots in America, and particularly during the Revolutionary War.
Jamie Fraser is convinced that this novel Frank wrote about exactly that, is talking to him specifically. He thinks Frank knew that Jamie lived, and that Bri and Claire would go back to him, so he made it his mission to study the history they’d be stepping into … ah. But; will Frank tell them the truth? Or is he hurt and bitter at the thought of his wife and adopted child returning to the man who – seemingly – took everything from Frank?
OR; can history be altered? Is it set in stone?
The True Villain is Time … or is it?
I also think the reappearance of Frank has been cleverly done, where he looms like a spectre in the form of a history book he wrote and which Jamie is certain was written for him. Ah, we’re back to; “is Frank Randall friend or foe?” And I always think it’s worthwhile remembering that a big theme of the whole series is ~Legacy~ it creeps into everything (even the POV chapters we read — it’s Jamie and Claire’s blood-relations. ‘Blood of my blood.’) Even Frank; we first meet him when he’s tracking down his ancestors who fought for Queen & Country after he himself did the same in the Second World War. But we also know that Frank can’t father children. The line ends with him. How does he feel that Jamie has more left an imprint on history - world and family? - than Frank ever will? Is he bitter? Vengeful? How much of the Randall has been passed down … blood of my blood?
These are great, wispy, conceptual villains pottered throughout the novel. As a history nerd myself, I loved them and I loved wondering how I would be in the past … cocky and cock-sure of my place in time and ability to manipulate and read those tea-leaves? Would that be my downfall? Who knows? But I love how the Battle of Culloden playing out exactly as history remembered it, is now giving everyone a false sense of security about history always being stagnate and fixed.
Gabaldon keeps great time in this book (I say, with one eyebrow raised at the behemoth 902-pages of it all!) but truly … I think it’s been very well done — time — Gabaldon has the Fraser’s in particular reminding us of the ticking timer (“two years until Yorktown,” as well as Jem and Germain’s ages - as though that will save them from the frontlines) it’s a very subtle and clever device to remind us where the goal-posts and finish line are right now. Especially guessing as we all have been, that Herself (Gabaldon) probably intends to wrap this series up with the next and tenth book. We’re all waiting for that moment that will surely signal the end – Jamie’s ghost below Claire’s window. When will it come, and what will it mean – who knows?
I also appreciated that since the last book came out, ‘Hamilton’ the Musical has given me a mini-history lesson and every time I saw ‘Yorktown’ written down, I heard the line ‘battle of Yorktown …’ in the back of my mind.
William Ransom is the secret illegitimate son of Geneva Dunsany and Jamie Fraser. And just as he’s pretty much been from the jump … he remains a bit of a wet-blanket. Definitely the weak-link in the series. And in more ways than one does William really miss out here.
His chapters are such a bore - something about being tasked with finding his cousins’ body after he’s reportedly dead? I barely paid attention. He’s the descendant I care the least about and I only worry that I think his purpose is to set him on a collision course with Jamie during this war … I was partly looking forward to reading William get a love-interest (after loving his little triangle with Ian and Rachel Hunter) and feeling majorly bummed that he fell for prostitute Jane who sadly took her own life in the last book (bummed because she dies, not because she’s a prostitute – to be clear!)
William kinda gets a love-interest in ‘Bees’. The bad news is; it also sucks. Her name is Amaranthus (thanks, I hate it) I wish he got to be more dashing and suave and have an epic love story like everyone else got, but … I guess William is a walking, talking case-study in Nature vs. Nurture?
Lord John Grey and his brother Hal also take up a lot of William’s chapters and I literally only cared when he and Brianna’s stories converged. BUT – there’s a glimmer of hope in the cliff-hanger ending for William.
The MVPs, The Murray’s!
Rachel Hunter and Ian remain my faves (that aren’t Jamie and Claire!). I just love them; Young Ian is one of my favourite characters in any book of all time EVER and I continue to crave as much of him and Rachel Hunter as possible! We got a fairly good chunk here, *however* I was frustrated that the storyline of Ian taking his family to go and find Emily (and his son) really had Rachel questioning a few things about them and their relationship (which she believes in, of course she does!) but I wanted some outward declarations from Ian and I reckon he’s more perceptive and attuned to Rachel than he is here, where he left a lot unsaid. And I wanted more sexy times for them.
I also felt like the focus on their story ended rather abruptly, probably because it’ll be revisited in the next book – but I really felt like in the last quarter they were barely mentioned, after having a fairly exciting and exhilarating journey that carried a lot of the middle of ‘Bees’.
But, look, I recognise that because they’re my faves I will always want more, more, more.
Totally random; but I did not think I’d get such a laugh out of a prolapsed uterus and hand-crafted pessary scene. Which … hats-off to you, Gabaldon. That was gold.
I’ve glanced at a few YouTube reviews of ‘Bees’ where I can see people’s biggest complaint is that it is rather ‘boring’ and not a lot happens. And, look, yeah. Like I said – Gabaldon is keeping time in this book and wanting to give us that impending joy (or doom?) that the war is nearly at its end. Two years. Two years. Two years. But in the interim we have – this. A book in which she moves all the players where they need to be on the board, but we get very much a sense that the game hasn’t yet started in earnest. And that feeling permeates ‘Bees,’ … I wonder if Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War have conditioned all of us to brace for the worst in the one *before* The End, that I think we went into ‘Bees’ expecting more heightened stakes and drama to carry us through to the likely finale tenth instalment? But we really don’t get that here. We get a lot of … moving around on that chess-board. We get a lot of set-up and it is somewhat toothless. Case-in-point is the literal last 50-pages or so is a Hail Mary! reminder of threats from previous books who are now coming home to roost. But I feel like my memory was not sufficiently jogged for them and I got whiplash from being forced to see them as high-stakes danger.
Look, I think a lot of ‘Bees’ hinges on how the next book is looking … I think the more conceptual ‘villains’ of this book being time (and Frank Randall’s documenting of it?) are going to be the tricky aspects that upon re-reading when the series is properly concluded, will most impress readers for the groundwork Herself was laying. But for now; it is a somewhat placid instalment in one of my (still) favourite series.
I am still sorry that I was so long to get around to reading, but – therein lies the rub! – I’ve changed a lot since ‘Written in my Own Heart’s Blood’ came out and even more since I was that uni student reading a second-hand copy of ‘Outlander’ for the first time. When ‘Own Heart’s Blood’ came out I wasn’t yet a published author or even working as a literary agent. Now, I am. My time is more finite … I wish I could have spent a fortnight lounging around in a Melbourne summer to read this behemoth book when it first came out, the way I used to, but – the passage of time is a funny thing, I feel like I don’t have as much of it anymore.
But it is nice to know that when I do find my reading-groove with this series (and a comfortable reading position!) I can fall into this story and these characters so easily. Like I’ve never been away, and they’ve always been right there – waiting for me to return.