Review: The Fiery Cross

Welcome to the fifth round of (Literary Elephant) Outlander reviews! Clearly, the obsession continues. This time we’re talking about The Fiery Cross, book five in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Click the titles for my thoughts on the first four books of the series here: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, and Drums of Autumn.

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This was probably one of my least favorites of the series and it took me a little longer to get through than some of the others, but even so I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else once I’d started. The Fiery Cross was the only Outlander book so far that I’ve been a little relieved to reach the end–but, as usual, still a little sad. Especially since this volume has a GREAT ending. It’s a comfort to be reading along, right in the thick of things, and know that there are still hundreds of pages ahead, because these books are the kind you never want to end. Unfortunately, even if the end is far away, it is eventually reachable. The end of this one felt like the end of a marathon, but in the exciting kind of way where as soon as you’ve finished you’re immediately enthused about the next one. Book 5 is the necessary bridge to the fantastic story that is book 6–but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

About The Fiery Cross: Jamie and Claire have settled into Fraser’s Ridge by now, but there’s a new element to the meaning of “home” for them as they help Roger and Brianna establish their lives and family in a place that’s very new to them. The Colonies are in political turmoil, necessitating preparations both mental and physical for the Revolutionary War they’re all wary of, and Jamie is recruited to lead a troop of militia toward a Regulation battle that none of them have any memory of encountering in history books, and which, therefore, could have any outcome. Roger meets trouble when he encounters one of his ancestors, Jamie is inquiring all over the colonies for the whereabouts of one Stephen Bonnet, Claire accompanies Jamie virtually everywhere for fear of being separated from him for more than a few moments, Brianna adapts to motherhood, and they all wonder how Young Ian’s faring with the Mohawk. There’s a life-threatening snake bite, a hanging, an encounter with a pirate, and a strange introduction to the Beardsley family. There’s more drama at River Run, as well, which Jamie always feels obligated to help resolve. And in the end? Expect to be reunited with a character who was supposed to be gone forever. As usual, plenty of danger and excitement all around.

“The bones of his hands popped and a line of liquid heat ran down one arm as a muscle tore. The sword fell, a flash of sunlight from its blade. His buttocks slid back over the horse’s rump, legs trailing helpless, and his weight fell free in an empty-bellied plunge. A wrenching jerk… And he was spinning, choking, fighting for air, and his fingers scrabbled, nails tearing at the rope sunk deep in his flesh. His hands had come loose, but it was too late, he couldn’t feel them, couldn’t manage. His fingers slipped and slid on the twisted strands, futile, numb, and unresponsive as wood. He dangled, kicking, and heard a far-off rumble from the crowd. He kicked and bucked, feet pawing empty air, hands clawing at his throat. Chest strained, back arched, and his sight had gone black, small lightnings flickering in the corners of his eyes. He reached for God and heard no plea for mercy deep within himself but only a shriek of no! that echoed in his bones. And then the stubborn impulse left him and he felt his body stretch and loosen, reaching, reaching for the earth. A cool wind embraced him and he felt the soothing warmth of his body’s voidings. A brilliant light blazed up behind his eyes, and he heard nothing more but the bursting of his heart and the distant cries of an orphaned child.”

This book has some great action scenes, as all Outlander books do, but it’s much more introspective than any of the others so far. The characters are faced with choices and difficult circumstances that leave them questioning how much they can take, and how much they’re willing to stand for the people they love. Everyone’s got something to come to terms with, and they all need to be prepared for the war that’s coming. It was in this book that I realized Jamie and Claire are older than they once were. Obviously, after the explanation of their twenty years apart,  it was plain that they weren’t in their 20’s anymore, but they seem markedly more mature in this book. Not old, but wise, wary, and appreciative of what they have. This is their first opportunity to be parents together, and grandparents, as well as the leaders of Fraser’s Ridge. They start having serious discussions about what would happen if one of them were to die. Jamie and Claire have never been particularly selfish, but in this book it becomes apparent that they’re extremely aware of how their choices affect all of the people around them, and they’re more invested than ever in posterity. Religious differences are more prominent and connect with further questions about whether the past can be changed, and what implications that may hold for the purposes of their lives. Jamie, Claire, and their extended family have never been the sort to take things lightly, but decisions and beliefs are markedly heavier in The Fiery Cross as America tips slowly over the brink into war, dragging the Fraser family from the sanctuary they’ve been building.

So far all of the Outlander books have been relatively self-contained, centered around a main challenge or two from which a thousand little plot threads sprout, but this one seems like the beginning of something bigger. This one opens up the challenge of surviving the Revolutionary War, which will persist throughout the next three books, at least. There are still little skirmishes, both amusing and intense, but the plot is being carefully laid toward an immense convergence as we move forward in the series. There’s a shadow apparent in this book, of something huge looming ahead.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars, with one star missing mostly for the sake of wanting to make my absolute favorites of this series stand out by reluctantly saving the full 5 stars only for those. I finished reading this book with the impression that not much had happened, but that’s not exactly true. I think the reason it felt like that is because before now we’ve seen mostly short-term effects of circumstances almost entirely out of the Frasers’ control. Even decisions that had long repercussions, like Jamie sending Claire back to the 20th century to save her from Culloden, are choices they don’t have much time to prepare for. Trying to thwart the ’45 Rising took a good many months, but during that time Jamie and Claire were still living mostly in the moment, dealing with what they could when they could, and only planning ahead to the next part of their scheme. The Fiery Cross, however, focuses on a war that’ll last much longer than the ’45, and the Frasers must consider how they’ll ensure their own–and their family’s–survival through it, but also where they’ll stand in regards to settling into a comfortable life at its conclusion. The shift into long-term decisions seems to slow things down a bit, but in actuality, the Frasers’ lives are never dull. At no point in this book did I consider that it might be a personal favorite in this series, but I did find it to be a necessary shift between the first half of the series and the second (considering, of course, that the final number of books in the series has not been announced yet and so the term “half” here is used loosely, with more regard to content than volumes).

Further recommendations:

  1. A couple of Sara Gruen’s books come to mind in conjunction with The Fiery Cross–although the time period’s a little different, the senses of danger, adventure, and romance in Water for Elephants would make a great read for those interested in American historical fiction. It’s a book about circus life, but don’t underestimate the prevalence of internal politics, death threats, and general sticky situations that present themselves much in Outlander fashion.
  2. Gruen also has a newer novel, At the Water’s Edge (see my review here), which takes place largely in Scotland and features the same sorts of thrilling and romantic elements, narrated mainly from the perspective of an American woman who travels to Scotland in a time of war and meets a dangerous but dashing Scot.

Coming up next: As long as we’re already talking Outlander, my next review will be focused on the sixth book in the series, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, which is my favorite Gabaldon book so far.

And of course, happy reading!

The Literary Elephant

Now available: my review of the 6th book, A Breath of Snow and Ashes!

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