Review: Drums of Autumn

I’ve been binging on Outlander books lately, so today I have a review of the fourth book in the series by Diana Gabaldon,titled Drums of Autumn. As usual with a series, I’ll refrain from spoilers beyond giving a general sense of what the book’s about, but I won’t recap previous books, either. Follow these links for my thoughts on Outlander (book 1), Dragonfly in Amber (book 2), and Voyager (book 3).

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About this book: Jamie and Claire begin the long process of establishing a new home of their own in America, accompanied by their nephew, Ian. The biggest plot points of this volume, however, center around Brianna and Roger. Brianna tries to acclimate to the idea of her parents living two hundred years in the past, one of whom she misses dearly and one she’s never met, despite growing curiosity. She and Roger can’t help learning more about the Frasers’ lives, and are soon faced with life-or-death choices that affect everyone they love most. Jamie and Claire may be in danger, Brianna walks right into danger and must deal with the aftermath, Roger has danger thrust upon him and must choose whether to keep fighting or retreat to safety, if he’s able, and Ian is so hell-bent about adventure that he doesn’t give danger a second thought. Everyone is struggling to find their place in a new place, and then of course there’s the upcoming revolution to worry about. There’s hardly time to worry about politics, however, between the appearances of crafty pirates and unpredictable native tribes. Everyone must stand for what they believe in, and they can’t stand alone. But can they stand together?

“The humming noise disturbed him. It wasn’t in his ears but in his body–under his skin, in his bones. It made the long bones of his arms and legs thrum like plucked strings, and itched in his blood, making him want constantly to scratch. Fiona couldn’t hear it; he’d asked, to be sure she was safe before letting her help him. He hoped to God he was right; that only those who heard the stones could pass through them. He’d never forgive himself is anything happened to Fiona–though she’d been in this circle any number of times of the fire feasts, with no ill effect…He stamped both feet and shook himself like a horse with flies, trying to rid himself of the humming. God, it was like being eaten by ants! Was Fiona’s chanting making it worse, or was it only his imagination?”

One thing I’ve really enjoyed about this series is that each of the first four books takes place somewhere new. They’re distinctly Scottish throughout, but Gabaldon shows her readers a lot more of the 18th century than the Scotland town of Inverness where Outlander began. And then each book, while linked in so many ways to everything that’s already happened, is it’s own distinct adventure.

Which brings us to another point that I particularly love about Gabaldon’s writing: it may be long, but the continuity is remarkable. There are so many specific references to people and events from the characters’ pasts that nothing seems superfluous–on the contrary, you want to hold onto every possible detail you can keep together in your memory at once, because every thread of the plot is beautifully connected, not just between the covers of each volume but throughout the entire series. For example, I’d been waiting from the first book for Claire to tell Jamie that it was Laoghaire who mixed Claire up in the witch trial with Geilis, which they finally discuss in the fifth book. This is such a small detail that has very little bearing on the plot once the “trial” in the first book has been escaped, but it’s a notable example of how Gabaldon doesn’t let any plot points go, instead connecting them carefully at the most opportune moments. I’m only mentioning this detail from later in the series now because the fourth book lays the groundwork for much of the rest of the series. I’m in the middle of the sixth book now, and while the adventures continue, the Frasers travel less, and therefore the people and plots of Drums of Autumn keep coming up as far ahead as I’ve read now. This is the point at which I’d recommend paying a little closer attention to the details Gabaldon includes. Everything is important.

And now I want to talk about Roger. He’s not new, but newly important as he’s forced to decide over and over again with life-altering consequences how much he really loves Brianna. I didn’t think much of Roger in earlier books. He was there, but he didn’t really stand out to me as a good guy or a bad guy or even a distinctly important guy. Even now that I’m into the sixth book I’m not sure what to think of him. I can’t decide whether he has the worst luck in the world, or whether he’s making regrettable choices.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars for this one. There were some great surprises (meaning captivating, not always good for the characters) plot twists in this one that made Drums of Autumn hard to put down. But this book, like the others, seemed to start slowly. It’s not that the beginning isn’t relevant or interesting, but there always seems to be a gap between the end of one volume and the beginning of the next in which the characters move to a different emotional plane than where we left them, and we’re not quite sure why for a few chapters. Beyond that, Roger becomes a major character in his own right in this book, but there are very few times I’m really invested in him. It’s not that I want things to be difficult for him, or even that I don’t appreciate his presence in the story, but there seems to be less…fire about him. I suppose it’s a sense that his fellow characters would be less devastated by his loss than by any of the other main characters’. Regardless, this book is just the whirlwind I was expecting, and certainly worth the read if you’ve made it this far.

Further recommendations:

  1. Reading about pre-America really put me in the mood for more American historical fiction. Although it takes place later than Drums of Autumn, every mention of slaves in this book made me want to reread Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. If you’re interested in historical fiction about America, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a must, and I think it would be interesting to time it with a break in the Outlander series sometime between books 3 and 5, when slaves are mentioned more frequently.
  2. I’ve made a dent in the Lord John sub-series now, and my favorite so far has been Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade, the second novel. If you’re less interested in Lord John but still want to experience a little of his story, try Brotherhood of the Blade. Each piece of this series refers to previous events, but they stand alone a lot better than the Outlander books would. You could plausibly read only this one, the fourth story, which is a sizeable representation compared to some of the shorter pieces but still much shorter than any Outlander book. I’ll probably have a more formal review of the sub-series coming in the next few weeks if you’re interested in hearing more about each individual piece.

What’s next: I’ll have a review for the fifth book of this series, The Fiery Cross, coming soon for my fellow Outlander fans, as well some info and thoughts about the Lord John sub-series, but in the meantime I’m planning to share a different sort of book that I read recently, Caroline Kepnes’ novel, You, which is probably one of the creepiest but most intriguing books I’ve ever read.

Recommendations for me? Specific requests? Comments or questions about what I’ve read or written? Don’t hesitate to share!

Until next time, happy reading!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: Follow this link to read my next Outlader review about book 5, The Fiery Cross!

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