Review: An Echo in the Bone

Obsessed with Outlander? Just looking for a great read? Either way, you’ve come to the right place. This is a review of Diana Gabaldon’s penultimate (for now) book in my favorite Scottish time travel series, An Echo in the Bone. If you’ve stumbled across this post without prior knowledge of the first six books in the series, read about my thoughts on Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Crossand A Breath of Snow and Ashes with these links. To learn more about the seventh book, read on!

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After the phenomenal sixth book, I couldn’t take my customary break between Outlander books to pick up another novel, but launched straight into An Echo in the Bone. I don’t think this one will ever be in the running for my personal favorite in this series, but this is not a book to be skipped–the seventh and eighth books read like part 1/part 2 segments in Claire and Jamie’s wild ride through life in the eighteenth century. Unlike previous novels in this series, book 8 picks up immediately after 7 leaves off, and you don’t want to be missing anything for that. Although An Echo in the Bone as a whole was a little less exciting for me, there are definitely some great things happening between the covers. Let’s take a look:

” ‘We are alive,’ Brianna MacKenzie repeated, her voice tremulous. She looked up at Roger, the paper pressed to her chest with both hands. Her face streamed with tears, but  glorious light glowed in her blue eyes. ‘Alive!’

‘Let me see.’ His heart was hammering so hard in his chest that he could barely hear his own words. He reached out a hand, and reluctantly she surrendered the paper to him, coming at once to press herself against him, clinging to his arm as he read, unable to take his eyes off the bit of ancient paper. It was pleasantly rough under his fingers, handmade paper with the ghosts of leaves and flowers pressed into its fibers. Yellowed with age, but still tough and surprisingly flexible. Bree had made it herself–more than two hundred years before.”

About this book: Roger and Brianna have returned to the 20th century with their children, and so this book is divided between their (mis)adventures in the future and Claire’s and Jamie’s endeavors in the past. At the end of book 6, Jamie declared his intent to return to Scotland to retrieve his printing press, and much of their story in An Echo in the Bone concerns their attempt to complete that trip successfully. In the meantime, someone they love hovers at death’s door, the health of one of their grandchildren is severely threatened, and Jamie and Claire are separated by circumstance, which has particularly heart-rending and troublesome effects in this case. One of the Frasers receives the worst news they ever could’ve imagined and acts in desperation and self-preservation. The end of this book is a definite game-changer for fans of Jamie and Claire’s relationship.

Young Ian finds himself at a few significant crossroads in this book, as well. He finally sees a way toward a happy ending he thought he’d lost. Arch Bug, however, is determined to leave Ian miserable, and he’s not the only obstacle to Ian pursuing his heart’s desire. In order to win even the chance of happiness, he must leave someone very dear to him behind, forever.

But, much to my surprise after hundreds of pages of relative indifference to Roger’s and Bree’s presence in this series, much of the excitement of An Echo in the Bone lies with the MacKenzies. As Roger and Brianna settle into Lallybroch with their children, they make some new acquaintances and revive some old ones, but they’re not all friendly. The letters they’ve been reading from Brianna’s parents leave Jem in unexpected danger when they fall into the wrong hands. A fellow time traveler appears and offers his help to the MacKenzies, but they’re uncertain about his trustworthiness. Roger and Brianna are forced to take extreme measures to keep their family whole against the odds.

An interesting tactic: An Echo in the Bone features letters from the past that Roger and Brianna peruse. These present an intriguing link between the Frasers’ and MacKenzies’ stories despite the centuries dividing them. It’s a neat aspect of the book, to have Claire and Jamie’s story told partially through the inclusion of these letters in a unique sort of retrospect. It is, however, also a little confusing. The reader has been led to believe that one of the rules of time travel in this series is that the traveler emerges–however many years different–at the same time of year. If someone goes through the stones in May, they’ll arrive in May of a different year. At least, that’s how I’ve understood the timeline. These letters, however, are being read out of that timeline, and it gets a bit difficult to keep track of how much time is passing in each of the main plotlines of this book when we’re skipping around not only between centuries, but months as well, so that we seem to cover a much larger span of time with Jamie’s/Claire’s story than Roger’s/Bree’s. It was also a little disappointing to me that when the MacKenzies’ leisurely reading of the letters is interrupted, we never see another one of the missives, though we’re told that they’d been read in search of pertinent information. Personally, I loved the potential of these letters, but I wished their use had been explored a little more in this book to provide additional perspective on the Frasers’ lives instead of being used only as long as they worked as a convenient bridge between plot points. Still, though, it’s exciting that a line of (at least one way) communication has been opened between the centuries.

On another note, one writing tactic that I think worked really well in this particular volume is the back-and-forth story arcs between the centuries. We’ve seen this before, in Dragonfly in Amber when Claire narrates her experience with the Rising, and in the next two books as well after Claire has left her daughter behind in the 20th century. We’ve also seen, almost constantly since about the fourth book, the switching of character perspectives in the same time, but the dynamic here is different. Two separate stories are being told simultaneously and thus merged into one, with only their histories and sometimes physical objects connecting the two. Gabaldon’s use of timing has frustrated me before–especially in the second book,  when we were given the outcome before the story–but it’s great in An Echo in the Bone. The use of alternating stories was handled very well, and kept the momentum of the book moving in a pleasant and nonconfusing way instead of jarringly, like the switches have seemed to me at other points in this series. Gabaldon has done a remarkable job here of keeping the reader informed of all the important goings-on with our main characters even though they’re divided by time and space. The writing itself, behind the plot of this series, has been a constant point of interest to me, and I feel that it has become particularly strong in these last two books (6 and 7), and that it all comes perfectly together in book 8–so keep reading!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s difficult to give this one less than a perfect score, but even though I consider this book an important part of the Outlander series, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as book 6, which was phenomenal. In that regard, I think the lower rating here is partially due to the fact that A Breath of Snow and Ashes was an incredibly hard act to follow; that said, An Echo in the Bone follows it well and sets the stage for my other all-time favorite in this series, book 8.

Further recommendations:

  1. Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief would be a great read if you like An Echo in the Bone. Jamie is a lover of books and culture, and a determined fighter for just causes. The Book Thief focuses on a different war–World War II–but I think Jamie would get along well with Liesel. Also, sometimes it’s inspiring to read about people who love reading, and Zusak handles that aspect superbly.

What’s next: I have two more Outlander reviews for you, and then I’ll finally be moving on to some other exciting literary discoveries I’ve been making. I do tend to forget plot fairly quickly, though, so I want to wrap up with this particularly plotty series while it’s fresh in my mind. My next post will feature the final (for now) Outlander book, entitled Written in my Own Heart’s Blood, which I think is the highlight of the entire set. I’ll also be giving a brief outline of the related Lord John Grey series and describing each of the stories that comprise it.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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