Review: Written in My Own Heart’s Blood

Ah, the bittersweet (temporary) end to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. This is the 8th Outlander book, and currently the most recently published volume. There will be (barring unpredictable acts of God, such as the world ending or running out of paper) a 9th book eventually, but as yet no date has been set for its release. It was an immense relief to discover that the end of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood was not a major cliffhanger. There’s definitely room for more coming, but it leaves the reader with a manageable amount of anticipation, rather than right in the thick of things (ahem, An Echo in the Bone). If you haven’t read my reviews for the earlier books in this series, you can check them out here: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, and An Echo in the Bone.

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I think it might literally have killed me not to begin this book immediately after An Echo in the Bone, so naturally I started this one within seconds of finishing book 7. Since there is no time gap between the end of 7 and the beginning of 8, I’d recommend reading them close together, although the conversation at the beginning of this book seems well-designed to catch up readers who may have forgotten where exactly they left off.

“I’d been numb, and John had ripped off the dressing of denial, the wrappings of the small daily necessities that kept me upright and functioning, his physical presence had torn away the bandages of grief and showed what lay below: myself, bloody and unhealed.”

About the book: Jamie has returned from Scotland, and thus apparently from death. War reaches the Frasers again, just as Jamie and Claire begin to sort out the bump in their relationship that John’s marriage caused. Ian devotes himself to Rachel, William is upset that he can’t win Rachel’s attentions but is also wrangled into helping a criminal whore with whom he has an odd sort of relationship. Almost everyone is injured when battle breaks out, one of them finds himself on the wrong side of the fighting, and everything is complete chaos. New(ish) characters become much more important in this book–like John’s niece (Dottie), her beloved (Denzell), and John’s brother (Hal)–but we also have an old favorite character returning–Jenny Murray!–as well as the return of Fergus’ family as prominent characters while Jamie and Claire are living near them for the duration of this book. Expect to find death where you never would’ve suspected, life where it seems impossible, and nonstop drama. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all involves Roger and his ancestor William Buccleigh, who have gone back in time to rescue Jem and find themselves somewhere (or somewhen) completely unexpected. All of the MacKenzies, in fact, are fighting just as hard for their lives and their sanity in the face of adversity as the characters involved in the war for independence. Also, do you remember that prophecy mentioned in Voyager? Well, it’s finally back. Every piece of the past is lining up together.

“It’s nay her fault. I know that. It’s nay her fault. They’d thought him dead. He knew what that abyss looked like; he’d lived there for a long while. And he understood what desperation and strong drink could do. But the vision–or lack of one…How did it happen? Where? Knowing it had happened was bad enough; not knowing the how and the why of it from her was almost unbearable…He needed to see Claire before he did anything else. Just now he had no idea what he would say–or do–when he saw her, but he needed to see her, with the same sort of need that a man might feel who’d been cast away at sea, marooned without food or water for weeks on end.”

My favorite aspect: we’ve seen Gabaldon use multiple perspectives in this series before; Claire’s sections are the only ones that use the first person narrative voice, but the sections that focus on other chearacters seem to give the reader just as much information about the characters’ actions and thoughts as with Claire. In this book, though, we don’t have one main voice with others used to highlight certain aspects that Claire is less privy to (though Claire’s sections are still the only ones narrated in first person)–we have eight main characters whose separate stories are braided together magnificently. This book is like a collision between both the Outlander and Lord John series: major characters from both are given…well, maybe not quite equal attention, but close. For the last three books, the timing of the switches between characters and times has been steadily improving so that the excitement and the tension of the book keeps building steadily instead of stopping and starting, and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood is a masterpiece of character and time. All of the pieces fit perfectly together and share an appropriate amount of information with the reader. There are some big surprises in this book–especially on Roger’s end of things–and they’re all handled with the perfect amount of explaining and cliffhanging (between sections) to keep the reader turning the pages as fast possible without leaving her/him feeling bereft and forced to slog through a section that’s important but less exciting. Everything in the whole series, for all of the characters involved, seems to have come to a head in this story and everything is happening at once, but the alternating perspectives keep the chaos controlled and manageable without dampening the energy.

Another great feature: despite how many years it’s been since Claire first fell through the stones at Craigh na Dune, there hasn’t been a lot of emphasis on the time traveling itself. The travelers worry about it when they’re planning to make another attempt, and Roger has been trying to record what they know so far, but really not a lot is known about the stones or the travelers they’ve encountered along the way. In this book, Roger learns a few things about his own and Brianna’s families through the workings of the stones, so we’re getting a few more details about the how and why of it all. There are still a lot of questions, and even more raised when the prophecy falls into Brianna’s hands, but there are also some answers, some decisions made, and the sense that great knowledge looms for our favorite time travelers in the future. The alternating of perspectives and centuries in the narration of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood gives the reader not only a good sense of all the characters, but a glimpse into each moving piece of the machine that is time; we see what’s happening in each year that our characters are present, can keep up with their relationships and pressing circumstances, but we also have an overall view of how it all fits together so that we begin to see not only what is happening to each of them, but how, and why, as far as “why?” is ever an answerable question.

” ‘I am not a state at war, and you are not my army!’ I said. He began to speak, then stopped short, searching my face, his eyes intent. ‘Am I not?’ he said quietly. I opened my mouth to reply but found I couldn’t…’You are,’ I said reluctantly, and, standing up, wrapped my arms around him. He was warm from his work, and the scars on his back were fine as threads under my fingers. ‘I wish you didn’t have to be.’…’Ye lost your parents young, mo nighean donn, and wandered about the world, rootless. Ye loved Frank,’–his mouth compressed for an instant, but I thought he was unconscious of it–‘and of course ye love Brianna and Roger Mac and the weans…but, Sassenach–I am the true home of your heart, and I know that.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. (Can I give this one 6?) When I started this series, I knew I was hooked but I thought that Outlander wouldn’t be a long-lasting favorite for me. Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, though, is going to stay with me for a long time. I know that I’ve been nitpicking little details about the writing of this series through my reviews of each book; Gabaldon’s writing, with it’s multi-perspective narration, wide range of characters, manipulation of time, and inclusion of secondary mediums like letters and journal entries is so much like what I want to do with my own writing that I’ve been paying so much attention to her writing tactics and what I would or wouldn’t want to do differently in my own works; but I love this series as a whole, and I think there is no one better suited to writing it. Here, in book 8, the plot and writing style have finally melded perfectly so that I have absolutely no complaints and have found a new all-time favorite to swap into my exclusive top-25 list. Almost every book in the Outlander series has seemed even better than the last, but it’s difficult to imagine it can possibly get better from here–obviously, I’m beyond excited to see what book 9 will bring.

Further recommendations:

  1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchel. A different war, but American historical fiction all the same. It’s a long book with a wide array of characters–one thing I particularly like about both Gone with the Wind and the Outlander series is that the characters are imperfect and believable. There’s a lot of gray area between good and bad, and as far as characterization goes, both of these stories do a great job of creating characters that feel real, and incorporating them into a time fraught with war.
  2. Ann Brashares’ My Name is Memory is a great YA romance that deals with moving through time–not time travel, exactly, but awareness of reincarnation, which I find just as interesting and maybe more plausible in the realm of sci-fi/fantasty themes. Either way, it’s another great love story that moves through history with a plot that keeps the reader turning pages.
  3. Can’t get enough Oultander? If you’re not averse to spoilers, you can read excerpts of the next book in progress on Diana Gabaldon’s website, here, and stay connected to the world of the Frasers by exploring more fun elements of her page.
  4. You can also watch the Outlander TV show, which is concluding its second season via Starz and has officially signed on for another two seasons. So far it’s following the books closely enough that major events remain intact, but there are some interesting detail changes that keep the episodes interesting and a little unpredictable even if you’ve read the books. Definitely worth the watch.
  5. While we’re waiting for more episodes, let me reiterate my recommendation to read the Lord John Grey series, a spin-off of the Outlander series also written by Diana Gabaldon. Stay tuned for more info on the series in an upcoming post!
  6. For more good books to read, see what I’ve recommended in connection with each book of the series, in my earlier reviews (links above).

What’s next: I’m waiting for the last novella of the Lord John series to arrive, and as soon as it does I’ll be wrapping up and posting my thoughts on that entire series. I have a brief description of each story, and my recommendations for which pieces to read, which I’ll share with you as soon as I get my hands on the final story. In the meantime, I’ll start writing about another book I read recently, Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You. Whichever of these I finish first will be posted next, and the other shortly after.

Until next time,

The Literary Elephant

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