Review: A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Let’s talk about the 6th book in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, A Breath of Snow and Ashes. For info on the rest of this series, check out my reviews of Gabaldon’s Outlander, Dragonfly in Ashes, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, and The Fiery Cross.

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This one is currently battling #8 for the top spot as my all-time favorite of this series. The first book was fantastic too, and I always love going back to re-experience the beginning after everything else, but my immense hatred for Jack Randall turned me against claiming Outlander as my fave. There are some truly despicable people throughout this series, but no one’s topped Randall for me yet–which is good, because I don’t think I could take it getting any worse than him. And so, here’s A Breath of Snow and Ashes tied for first place.

About this book: The Revolutionary War is still brewing in the background, but most of the dramatics in this book are of a more personal nature for the Frasers; between one thing and the next, they barely have time to draw breath as their world begins to tumble down around them. With the date of the deadly house fire fast approaching, there are two choices of belief: certainty that the past can’t be changed, and thus the Frasers certainly can’t die before that date and likely won’t live past it, or conviction that the past can be changed, that the newspaper notice isn’t necessarily a death sentence, but they could die at any other time. Where the reader stands on this matter determines in part how the book will be read–far more intense if you take the second option. There is, of course, also the promise of further books in the series (which at least don’t make the fates of the Frasers quite as obvious as J. K. Rowling’s famous series where the next book is entitled Harry Potter and the…), but Gabaldon does allow a beloved character to die every now and then, to keep readers guessing. Don’t get too comfortable assuming everyone will live. Especially since we know at this point that sometimes life is won at horrible costs (Jamie still has nightmares about Randall, for example, and Roger is dealing with the loss of one of his most prized possessions–his voice). These are the factors that keep the reading interesting, even when you think you know key details for certain, like when a character will die. There are certainly brushes with death in this book, but arguably the worst aspect for Jamie and Claire is that their home and tenants are being poisoned against them. An accusation regarding the parentage of a baby, followed shortly by an accusation of murder, leave Claire and Jamie in ill-favor with many of their tenants and short of help when help is most needed. Claire is victimized over and over again, by heartless, greedy bandits, sickness cast by more than an act of God, and an arrest by someone who wants to end her life more than to exact legal justice. Jamie fights to save her, of course, but some battles are too great for one man, and she’s not the only one who needs to be pulled back from the brink of death. A surprising suicide attempt changes the fate of one family on the Ridge. Stephen Bonnet makes an abrupt return, as well, as he is conveniently hired to ruin Brianna’s life. And through it all, political unrest magnifies every small disagreement and threatens the end of well-being for everyone.

One aspect that made this book stand out for me in the series is how seamlessly Roger and Brianna fit into the narrative. Since their introduction in book two, they’ve felt a bit superfluous to me–like pawns in the larger game that is Claire’s and Jamie’s relationship, rather than interesting for themselves. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments here and there when the reader is fully drawn into their stories, but in A Breath of Snow and Ashes they really come together as part of the Ridge community, but separate from Claire and Jamie. Brianna becomes significant as a young woman making her own choices, rather than only the daughter whose presence makes the Frasers’ lives more interesting, and Roger starts to find his niche in the past, rather than only the convenient historian who’s needed to aid other major characters. The MacKenzies really distinguish themselves in this book as they endeavor to flourish in the time in which they’ve chosen to make their home and raise their son.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this book was that Claire is the one in peril again. This is not at all to condone any of the awful things that happen to her in this book, but to say that she spends so much of her time mending everyone else’s ailments that there’s an instant change in dynamic and tension when she’s the one who needs fixing. If it’s a rescue by brute force that’s required, we know Jamie will be there to take care of it, but what happens when Claire needs doctoring? We’ve seen so much of this series from Claire’s perspective, and it really is helpful to have a central point of focus, but at this point in the series the narration has expanded considerably to give us more advantageous views of significant events that Claire doesn’t always have a front row seat for. Having Claire in danger strengthens the voices of our other narrators, and seeing their reactions to her gives us a better view both of the other characters, and of Claire herself. Claire’s life is so unconventional that the way she’s perceived by those around her becomes especially important not only to her emotions, but to her survival. Seeing others’ concern for her shows how completely she’s been incorporated into this place and time, and raises the stakes. We see constantly from Claire’s perspective how she loves Jamie, but when Claire’s life is on the line, we get a chance to see how beloved she is, as well. And, let’s face it, love is what this story thrives on.

“His arms came round me, slowly and gently. I didn’t startle or jerk away, and he pressed my head against him, smoothing my damp, tangled hair, his fingers catching in the mass of it. “Christ, ye are a brave wee thing,” he murmured.

Also, with this book, I think we finally get started on a good foot. Although we do receive some important information at the beginning of each of Gabaldon’s novels that ties together all the plot threads of each book, they always seem to me to start slowly. This was the first book of the series that felt instantly intriguing, and didn’t spend hundreds of pages easing into the important details that are necessary but not immediately gratifying–in A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the tension starts quickly, and once it’s there, it’s never really gone. Throughout the series, I have admired Gabaldon’s use of multitudinous and unusual writing tactics, like alternating perspectives and time periods, the use of flashbacks, and the incorporation of text like letters, journal entries, etc. but there were definitely times–especially in the second book–that it didn’t all feel like it quite fit together right. I love the story line, and I think Gabaldon has made some great writing choices, but it took 6 books for me to feel that it was finally all flowing together in a way that made perfect sense. The writing of this book is great, the plot is fantastic– especially after the slower pace of book 5–and there is absolutely nothing I would change here.

“I had lived long enough to have a fairly cynical view of human nature–and lived long enough in this time to know how directly public opinion expressed itself. And yet I was still shocked, when the first stone hit me in the thigh…One struck my mare on the shoulder and she shied violently. I kept my seat narrowly, but was off-balance; another hit me in the thigh, and another high in the chest, knocking the breath from me, and when one more bounced painfully off my head, I lost my grip on the reins, and as the horse, panicked, curvetted and spun, I flew off, landing on the ground with a bone-shaking thud…A big rock struck my shoulder with a numbing blow and I was knocked sideways by the impact…I whirled on my knees, and looked straight into the eyes of a young man, his face intent and blazing with excitement, rock at the ready. It hit me in the cheekbone and I swayed, my vision gone blurry. Then something very large hit me from behind, and I found myself flat on my face, pressed into the ground,the weight of a body on top of mine. It was Jamie; I could tell by the breathless “Holy Mother.” His body jerked as the stones hit him; I could hear the horrifying thud of them into his flesh.”

My reaction: 5 of 5 stars. The whole Outlander series is a fantastic journey through time, but even in the midst of a great set of books, this one stands out. It is, however, not for the faint of heart. Expect it to hit every single emotion you have, and then come back for more.

Further recommendations:

  1. Jodi Picoult’s Second Glance may be a good choice for Outlander fans around this time in the series. It has the supernatural element, the romance, the twist of time, and the historical ties, as its cast of characters works to preserve what may be an Abenaki Indian burial ground.
  2. I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned it before now, but the first time I was this crazy about a series, I was 12 and it was Hawksong, by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. I honestly can’t even say it’s particularly similar to Outlander in any way, but I felt the same about it, and I’m trusting my instincts with this recommendation. Hawksong is a short fantasy book about shape-shifters in an ancient time. There is a war, and a marriage proposed for safety and politics above love, and plenty of fantasy elements. It is a YA book, but I reread it occasionally and it stands age. If you like a little fantasy, constant danger, and unexpected love, give Hawksong a try.

Up next: Since I’ve just finished reading the final books of this series, I’ll review the last two before I move on to other books. Next is the 7th book, An Echo in the Bone. I’m also currently finishing up the Lord John Grey spin-off series, and working on a big review for all of the stories therein, which I’ll post as soon as I reach the end.

Wishing you incredible fictional travels,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can now view my post on the 7th book, An Echo in the Bone!

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