Review: Dragonfly in Amber

This review is for the second book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and while I’ll try to avoid giving any big spoilers and keep this post interesting to readers at any juncture of the Outlander series, I won’t recap the events of the first book. Check out my previous post for my impressions of the first book here.

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Outlander was great, and intriguing enough that I immediately sought the second book of this series from the library, but it was Dragonfly in Amber that sparked my obsession with Gabaldon’s characters. There were some I couldn’t stand, some I wanted to live forever (even if they possessed only fictional lives), but I wanted to know everything about everyone, and this was the book that made me certain I would have to read the entire series.

About the book: Claire and her daughter, Brianna, journey to Scotland after Frank’s death and seek help with a research project of Claire’s from Roger Wakefield (the son of Frank’s friend the Reverend Wakefield from Outlander). With Frank gone and Brianna grown, Claire’s curiosity about acquaintances left behind in the 1740’s has finally pushed her to seek answers to questions she’s been afraid to ask for many years. Claire also wants to find some way to tell Brianna about the significance of the stones at Craigh na Dun, and her experiences with the past. On an expedition with Roger and Brianna to a graveyard where she encounters two markers that surprise her, Claire stops wondering how to begin and starts telling her story to both of them. She tells of living with Jamie Fraser in France, their attempt to stop the uprising of Charles Stuart from ruining the tradition of clans in Scotland, and their efforts to survive and save their friends when the fighting breaks out. Claire’s present request for Roger is to discover what happened to various acquaintances after the disastrous battle at Culloden during which Jamie sent Claire back to the future to keep her safe. The book ends with a cliffhanger discovery in the research project and an unrelated reveal about Geillis’s involvement with the stones and the past.

This book deals a lot with morals and politics (one of which is very interesting to me and one of which is generally not). There are a lot more mysterious characters in this one compared to Outlander, and more supernatural elements. Overall, it felt very different than the first book, because the challenges the characters face are very different in nature than the more basic struggles for survival in Scotland of Outlander. In all honesty, Dragonfly in Amber is my least favorite of the series of the four I’ve read so far, but Jamie and Claire’s relationship is pleasantly solid here, and and this was the book that inspired my recent Outlander obsession.

“‘If I must endure two hundred years of purgatory, two hundred years without you–then that is my punishment, which I have earned for my crimes. For I have lied, and killed, and stolen; betrayed and broken trust. But there is the one thing that shall lie in the balance. When I shall stand before God, I shall have one thing to say, to weigh against the rest.’ His voice dropped, nearly to a whisper, and his arms tightened around me. ‘Lord, ye gave me a rare woman, and God! I loved her well.'”

Best aspect: Gabaldon is a master of characterization. I attributed my enjoyment of the first book largely to an interest in the fast-moving plot, but with the way that this second book is told from the future, the plot is a little less intense (we know that Claire will live, that she’ll return to the 1900’s, and that she expects from the beginning that Culloden will be disastrous), and therefore I spent more of my time through this second book appreciating all the nuances of character which are possible primarily because of the length of the Outlander books. It was even exciting to read about the return of characters I disliked because I knew that some new facet of personality was about to surface, whether through a new plot thread or a character’s internal reflection. Gabaldon creates characters that make things happen, and I think that’s why I like these books so much, despite…

Least favorite aspect: the predictability of some of the main plot points. Since the characters are so clear and consistent, nearly every moment that I’m forced to stop reading in the middle of one of the Outlander books is spent speculating the choices that they’ll make. By the second book, I knew the characters well enough to have a good idea of what they would do, minus the unforeseen circumstances that always complicate things. But as far as who’s going to time travel, which people will stay together, who can afford to die without killing the series, etc. there aren’t many surprises. Between the foreshadowing, and basic knowledge of the characters, you always know Claire will have a friend to swoop in and save her at the last minute, Jamie is resourceful and has enough disregard for his own safety that he routinely escapes certain death and finds some way to save the people he cares about at any personal cost, the bad guys are notoriously hard to get rid of, and the number of people who set out on a journey will probably not be equal to the number of people who return. So when the reader knows that a character has an important choice, the impending result is clear. That said, the split-second decisions that are explained after-the-fact, and the appearance of new and unknown characters keep things interesting. Therefore, even if you know Claire well enough to predict that she wants to travel back through the stones and has enough determination to get there, the fun is in the misadventures that inevitably befall her along the way.

About the writing: for a story so focused on time, the pace of this series is often confusing and sometimes frustrating. My biggest complaint about this book was the opening, when the narration starts describing Claire’s presence in Scotland and takes its own sweet time describing exactly what she’s looking for, and why. I do think that the story benefited from the picture it gave of Claire, Brianna, and Roger in the 1960’s, but there are a lot of unanswered questions about how we’d gotten from the end of Outlander to the events at the beginning of Dragonfly in Amber that made the first several chapters such a jarring switch that I barely had enough patience to read through it all without skipping ahead. Outlander left us on a hopeful note between Jamie and Claire, and suddenly Jamie was nowhere to be found with no explanation given. The reasons for this technique became apparent (Claire had been trying not to think of Jamie much for years, and we didn’t need to see her deciding to undertake this research project, nor would we have wanted to wait to hear about it in the aftermath of the story she tells about the Uprising), but it felt frustratingly slow all the same. In this book there were also more switches in character focus, giving us closer looks at Roger and Brianna for the first time (such occurrences become more abundant in upcoming books), which also seemed to slow down the narration in places. Overall, I didn’t think Gabaldon supplied much superfluous detail, but I did wish she had worked out some other timing technique in the writing–maybe flashbacks?–so as not to leave the reader in confused suspense for hundreds of pages. This book alternated between sprints of excitement and virtual stand-stills, sometimes without much transition between.

Overall, even though the second book of a series is almost always my least favorite, I’m still so thrilled about this one that I’d rate it above some of my top picks in other series. I’m giving 4 out of 5 stars, but strongly recommended that if you’ve read the first book already, keep going. This is the one that hooked me. Also, the second season of the Outlander tv show comes out in less than two weeks and will probably focus mostly on this book, if you need any more incentive to pick up Dragonfly in Amber.

Further recommendations:

  1. In retrospect, Dragonfly in Amber was not entirely about France, but that’s certainly the setting that stands out most to me. If you like long books about France with shifting character focus, political wars, and lots of emotion, try Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
  2. Check out my other posts on the Outlander series for more!

Coming up next: I’ll continue my Outlander series updates with Voyager, the third book, then take a break from Gabaldon. (Update: click here for the third Outlander book review!)

Happy reading, fellow bibliophiles!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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