Review: Lord John Grey series

Hello, fellow Diana Gabaldon readers! This post is going to be a little different than my usual reviews, in that I’m going to tell a little about each part of an entire series, in one go. Most of the installments in Lord John’s spin-off series are short, at least compared to the average Outlander book page count, so I wanted to review them all in one place. Also, I hope that having a single ordered list will be an advantage to aspiring John Grey readers in keeping track of the chronology, which can be a little confusing with these stories.

Some general info: If you’re familiar with the Outlander series, you know there’s a time gap in the third book, Voyager, in which Jamie is apart from Claire, and fewer details are provided about events in that time. We have the general gist of where our main characters are at, and the most significant events of that time, but there’s a lot of room there for elaboration. In this gap, Jamie meets John Grey in Ardsmuir prison, who he remembers having an encounter with at Prestonpans. The two become cautious friends, and are further linked by the existence of William, Lord Ellesmere, and his unique upbringing. The Lord John series begins soon after Ardsmuir prison has been repurposed–while Jamie is employed as a groom in the Lake District of England on the Dunsany estate, and John visits him there periodically between trips abroad with his army regiment and several personal investigations of an often supernatural bent. These adventures are the stories that make up the Lord John series. Technically you can read them any time, but they make the most sense after reading Voyager, with the context of that time gap. There are a few references in the Outlander series of events in the John Grey books, but the John Grey books are not a necessary part of the Outlander series, just a fun addition. It isn’t strictly necessary to read the Lord John series in order, either, but past events are referenced as the series continues so I chose to read them in their published order to understand these references as they arose. I was also glad that I read the Lord John books in the middle of the Outlander series, so that I had a good grasp of John’s character and history by the time he became a much more significant character there. He does make appearances throughout the series, but he’s fairly minor until An Echo in the Bone, the 7th Outlander book. However you choose to read them, here are the pieces of the Lord John series, in the order in which they were published:

“Lord John and the Hellfire Club” (a short story in Lord John and the Hand of Devils)

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This book is a collection of 3 short stories about Lord John, which were not the first three Lord John stories published. The first story in this book, however, is where to begin, chronologically. There are a few brief references to Jamie, but he’s not actually present in the story.

He is, however, present in John’s mind. In fact, the story opens with Lord John doing a bit of a double take when he sees someone who looks a bit like Jamie. Set in 1756 London, a new acquaintance of John’s is mysteriously murdered in connection with a Hellfire Club. An old acquaintance (and lover) of John’s invites him to an exclusive meeting of this club, and John’s sense of duty leads him into danger–both for his life, and for discovery of his homosexuality, which could lead both to death and the ruination of his good name–as he investigates the murder.

The reader is introduced to John’s good friend Harry Quarry in this story, who helps the Greys in their endeavors when he can, and acts as sounding board even when he can’t. Some background information about John’s family is provided, and his army career, but there is little detail provided that doesn’t pertain directly to this story. As the first and shortest of the Lord John Grey pieces, this story is very self-contained, and has absolutely nothing to do with Outlander beyond a brief reminder that Jamie exists in John’s life.

My reaction: 3 of 5 stars. I began this story with the hope that I would learn more about John’s character, to carry over to my mental Outlander database and add depth to his involvement in that series. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of that from “Lord John and the Hellfire Club.” John doesn’t really do much here. Things happen to him instead of by him so it’s difficult to see much of his personality. The murder happens right in front of him, he’s pushed into the investigation rather than seeking it himself, and he participates in the Hellfire Club largely because he doesn’t really have any choice about it. The solving of the mystery comes from John being forced into proximity with the murderer and coaxing him into confessing almost accidentally, as a stalling technique while John tries to preserve his own life. That said, this piece does give this series a good jumping-off point for its supernatural tendencies, as well as solidifying in the reader’s mind the difficulties that accompany John’s sexual preferences, both of which come into play over and over throughout the Lord John series and factor into the Outlander series. This story was probably my least favorite of the entire series, but it’s so short that it can hardly be considered a waste of reading time, and it does give some context for what comes next. And don’t worry, it gets better in:

Lord John and the Private Matter

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This second story of the Lord John Grey spin-off is the first novel of the series, and is not published in Lord John and the Hand of Devils. It is the shortest novel of the series though, and compared to the Outlander books, still feels a lot like a short story.

Again, Jamie Fraser–with the addition of his love for Claire–is mentioned briefly, but not physically present in the story. Tom Byrd, John’s favorite valet, comes into the series here, though, while John helps search for his brother in connection with a missing army spy and another mysterious murder. We are also introduced to Captain von Namtzen, who will make future appearances as John’s friend, and a young man at Lavender House (an establishment for homosexual men) who goes unnamed in this novel but becomes important later in both this series and the Outlander books. Set in 1757 London, a few things have changed in John’s life since the end of the last story, most noticeably his cousin’s engagement and John’s accidental discovery of her fiance’s condition–he has the pox, which, in this time period, is usually a death sentence. Clearly, John can’t allow him to marry his cousin and pass his disease along to her, but neither can he break off her engagement without inciting the kind of gossip that could ruin her reputation. Thus John finds his time divided between a secret military matter and a personal one, and finds that the two may be strangely connected. And, of course, he also manages to connect his thoughts to Jamie.

“He realized with a lurch of the heart that Trevelyan reminded him in some small way of Jamie Fraser. But no: Fraser was ruthless and quick, and might be equally passionate in his feelings–but above all, he was a man of honor. By contrast, he could now see the deep selfishness that underlay Trevelyan’s character. Jamie Fraser would not have abandoned those who depended on him, not even for the sake of a woman who–Grey was forced to admit–he clearly loved beyond life itself. As for the notion of his stealing another man’s wife, it was inconceivable.”

My reaction: 4 of 5 stars. This story delved more deeply into John’s personal life, which made it much more interesting to me than the last one, and a set of recurring characters becomes better established here, which helps the reader feel more invested in the events and acquaintances of John’s life. There’s also a reference back to the first story, which made me glad I’d read that one. However, despite the additional length in this story, the details provided are still very focused on only the matter at hand–there’s still a lot more to John than we can see here.

“Lord John and the Succubus” (a novella in Lord John and the Hand of Devils)

For this story, officially considered a novella, we return to Lord John and the Hand of Devils–“Succubus” is the second short piece therein.

Set in 1758 Prussia, John is away from London on a military matter that leads to his involvement in the widespread fear of a succubus who may or may not be killing men both local and military. Although John is skeptical about the succubus, he can’t deny that there are two mysteriously dead men, and once again is recruited to investigate strange deaths. Tom Byrd the helpful valet reappears in this story, but so does von Namtzen, which complicates matters when the widowed princess of the castle the two men are staying at makes her interest in John clear, and John is left to wonder whether von Namtzen is jealous on the princess’ behalf, or on John’s. There’s also an attempted kidnapping, a supposed witch sighting, and a jaunt through a cemetery at night, to add a bit of creepiness to the proceedings.

My reaction: 4 of 5 stars. The supernatural themes in the John Grey stories are intriguing, even when John doesn’t put much stock in them himself, and that aspect seems particularly prevalent in this piece. Still no Jamie Fraser present, as he’s not in Prussia with John, but he’s referenced in John’s thoughts. I had thought I’d be uncomfortable with that, on Claire’s account, but John is good about it. By this point in the series there are also more allusions to events of past Lord John stories, which are just as fun to encounter and more abundant.

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade

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Part four of the Lord John Grey series is the second novel, and again, comes between pieces in Lord John and the Hand of Devils but is not included in that volume.

” ‘Fall back!’ he gasped, and lowered the hissing match to the touchhole. There was an instant of breathless expectancy, and then the world disappeared in a blast of fire and darkness.”

In 1759, the long-passed but unforgotten scandal surrounding the controversial death of John’s (and his older brother Hal’s) father, the Duke of Pardloe, is brought to new light. The members of a possible conspiracy pose a threat to the Greys, which sets John on a hunt for the truth that directly defies his brother’s orders to leave the past behind them. John finds unexpected companionship in his soon-to-be step-brother (John’s mother is engaged to remarry), whom John has met as a previously unnamed character in this series at Lavender House, a gathering place for homosexual men; the brother,Percy Wainwright, is very interested in establishing a relationship with John, which proves to be both blessing and curse in turn. John finds a confidant in Percy, but there’s only one person John can confide in about the uncomfortable request Percy makes of him, and that’s Jamie Fraser. John and Jamie have an unusual friendship that both allows and prohibits certain sorts of honesty and leaves them both at each other’s mercy in different ways. When John’s investigations into his father’s past lead back to the Jacobites, when he must voice his confusion over his unwanted control of Percy’s fate, and when trouble arises for the Dunsany family (which employs Jamie as a groom in their stables as part of his punishment for treason against the English crown) involving a sad death and mysterious birth, John talks to Jamie in ways he can’t speak to anyone else. Jamie, still John’s prisoner, has no choice but to listen, although he finds that he can react in ways that will ensure John’s silence on certain topics in the future. Suddenly John finds himself more alone than ever, and struggles to clear his father’s name when it seems that everyone is against him.

” ‘Why you.’ Grey sighed, and sitting down on a stool, indicated that Fraser should do the same. ‘Because, Mr. Fraser, you are an honest man, and I trust that you will give me an honest opinion. And because, God damn it, you are the only person in this world to whom I can speak frankly.’ “

My reaction: 5 of 5 stars. This was the first story of this spin-off series that really thrilled me to read. It’s definitely different than Outlander, and there’s more connection to that here because Jamie Fraser finally makes a few appearances in the flesh, conversing with John–but this volume increased my interest in John as a character in his own right rather than just how he would relate to the Frasers later on in the Outlander series. It’s not that I don’t think Gabaldon can write a short story well, but after having read a few of the Outlander books, there was a noticeable lack of the great level of character detail in the shorter pieces of this series that  I enjoyed so much in Outlander–and which finally reappeared here. If you’re interested in Lord John but don’t want to read this sub-series in its entirety, this is the piece I would recommend.

“Lord John and the Haunted Soldier” (novella in Lord John and the Hand of Devils)

This story is the final section in Lord John and the Hand of Devils. It is not the last short story in this series, but it is the last one in this book.

Picking up after Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade drops off, this story relates closely to an incident in that novel that leaves John seriously injured. When he is accused in 1759 by someone with a personal grudge of misusing an army cannon and thus causing its destruction, John must find the true culprit to prove his innocence. This leads to the inclusion of several new characters, including one of John’s half-brothers, and more than one man with a mask. Still a little under the weather from his physical ailments, John persists in following this new mystery involving treason, explosions, and a ghost.

“Grey’s heart gave a sudden bump, pain stabbed him, and he stiffened. He felt as though his chest were transfixed by an iron rod, holding him immobile. Tried to breathe, but was stopped by the pain. Christ, was he going to die in public, in a pleasure garden, in the company of a sodomite spy dressed like a rooster? He could only hope that Tom was nearby, and would remove his body before anybody noticed.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was my favorite piece from Lord John and the Hand of Devils, but it wasn’t quite as exciting as Brotherhood. Jamie is absent from this story, as well, though some of our other established characters in this series reappear. I liked the appearance of the haunted soldier in this novella, but I wished he held more significance in the mystery. I also enjoyed the sense of continuity between Brotherhood and “Haunted Soldier”: they seemed appropriately divided into two pieces, but unlike the breaks between other stories in this series, didn’t leave me feeling like I’d missed a lot of time between the ending of one and the beginning of the next.

“Lord John and the Custom of the Army” (novella in Warriors)

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The next part of the Lord John series is found in an anthology of collected fantasy short stories edited by George R. R. Martin and entitled Warriors. I believe it is also available as an eBook, but I like a hard copy so I found it in this anthology.

Due to an incident involving an electric eel and a subsequent duel, Lord John takes his brother’s suggestion to leave London in 1759 and help resolve a military matter in Canada. Across the Atlantic, John becomes acquanited with an Indian named Manoke, confronts his cousin Olivia’s husband, and receives a strange packet of accusations against a man named Siverly by an old friend. This terminally ill friend is facing charges for failing to prevent a mutiny against Siverly, but Grey’s investigations into the matter are hindered by the request of his aid in the regiment’s attempt to capture Quebec and by Carruthers’ fate.

My reaction: 3 of 5 stars. John’s temporary relocation to a foreign country means fewer returning characters. More significantly, I realized when I started the next novel that this one seemed more like a prologue to The Scottish Prisoner than it’s own piece. It’s an interesting story, but it isn’t quite tied together the way Gabaldon’s stories usually are by the end–it took until the end of the following story for the plot threads that appeared in this novella to fully resolve themselves, which is a pretty unique tactic for a short piece in the middle of a series, and left this one feeling a bit incomplete and abruptly ended. In any case, I was glad I read the next novel immediately following this story for continuity’s sake, and would recommend reading the two pieces fairly close together for that reason.

The Scottish Prisoner

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Next up is the third and newest novel of the series, which was also the easiest for me to find.

“He was the fuse that would detonate this particular bomb. And he was all too familiar with what happened to fuses, once lit.”

“Perhaps it was freedom, the exhilaration of their escape. Perhaps the excitement of a hunt by night, adventure and danger before them. Or the knowledge that he was an outlaw–with pursuit and danger certainly behind him.”

John returns to London in 1760 and, though clearing Carruthers’ name will not help his friend, feels bound by duty to the army to look into the matter with Siverly further. John’s brother Hal, taking the lead on the investigation launched by Carruthers’ packet of information, orders John to retrieve Siverly from Ireland so that he can be tried by a court-martial for his crimes. However, there is an interesting piece of poetry included in the packet that the Grey brothers need Jamie Frasers’ help to decipher. John’s fight with Jamie (in Brotherhood) leaves him unwilling to travel to Helwater and request Jamie’s help, but Hal uses his military power to not only involve Jamie, but to bring him to London and from there send him on to Ireland with John. Jamie meets a number of old acquaintances, and finds himself stuck between fear for the lost Jacobite Cause that the poem involves and dislike not only for the English generally but the Grey family specifically. He wants to help his old friends, but he realizes that may mean turning them in to the English to prevent another bloodbath like Culloden. John, Jamie, and Tom Byrd seek Siverly and try to solve the puzzle involving new attempts at Jacobite treason, murder, an ancient Druid cup, the Irish Brigade, a tithe to Hell, and a deadly duel.

“He lay for some time, his throat aching, listening to the dark, hearing the voices of his dead pass by in the wind. His thoughts grew vague and his grief eased, comforted by the knowledge of love, still alive in the world…He touched the rough crucifix that lay against his chest and whispered to the moving air, ‘Lord, that she might be safe, she and my children.’ Then turned his cheek to her reaching hand and touched her through the veils of time.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I was immediately excited by the prospect that this novel not only includes James Fraser, but frequently uses his perspective to aid in telling the story. Although this novel is technically part of the Lord John series, this book features Jamie as much as John. If you’re thinking about reading these spin-off stories for a further connection to Outlander, this is the story you’ll want to check out. Gabaldon switches from one perspective to another throughout this book to highlight multiple characters’ experiences, which makes this a particularly rich read.

“Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” (novella in Down These Strange Streets)

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The current final piece of the Lord John series is another anthologized novella. This one is found in a newer set of fantasy stories also edited by George R. R. Martin, titled Down These Strange Streets. Again, I believe the story is also available on its own as an eBook.

Set in 1761, this story takes Lord John to Jamaica, where he has been sent with large quantities of English troops to keep the citizens safe from a surge of Zombies and a series of attacks made on the plantations. Despite general concern about a band of escaped slaves, John doesn’t think the “maroons” of the island are behind the threat to the governor’s life. He encounters poison, lies, revenge, murder, and more than enough snakes in his attempts to restore order. John ventures deep into the jungle to rescue his own missing men, risking his own life again for the sake of duty and truth, and coming face to face with the supernatural.

“It was [the man]. But then again–it wasn’t. The glowing skin had gone pale and muddy, almost waxen. The firm, soft mouth hung loose, and the eyes–oh, God, the eyes! They were sunken, glassy, and showed no comprehension, no movement, not the least sense of awareness. They were a dead man’s eyes. And yet…he walked. This was the worst of all…This creature moved stiffly, shambling, feet dragging, almost lurching from foot to foot…The putrefaction reached Grey’s nostrils, and he gagged.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This was my favorite short story of the set. Often the supernatural elements of this series either seem just a little too unrealistic for my taste or turn out to be no more than a mix of exaggerated rumors with a perfectly rational explanation for John to unearth; but the zombies of this tale walk the middle line, not quite explainable but not quite unbelievable. This story has a little love, a little tragedy, and a perfect pace to tie it all together. It’s not the shortest novella of this series, but it was the quickest read for me. There’s only a brief mention of Jamie Fraser, but there are other connections to the Outlander series–like Mrs. Abernathy–and the premise relates closely to details in Voyager. I was glad I stuck with this series long enough to read this one.

Overall thoughts:

In all honesty, the Lord John spin-off series has been touch-and-go for me from the beginning; John Grey is certainly an interesting character, but he wasn’t as easy for me to grow attached to as some of the other Outlander characters. A few pieces, though, I’m really glad I read, and all three of the longer novels are among those. I think Gabaldon does a wonderful job with the longer books; her writing style seems more suited to that medium. The shorter stories are nice bite-sized pieces, but in some cases they feel like chunks of a larger story that’s been shortened or divided, and I think we lose a bit of the richness that Gabaldon’s longer pieces are filled with–all the tiny details that color her fictional world and tie everything together. We still have detail and myriads of plot threads in the shorter pieces, but it’s not the careful recording of years upon years of the character’s lives but rather a glimpse of a single fleeting moment with mystery before it and mystery after–referring to the year’s gap between many of these stories.

I was worried about two things when I started reading this series: that I would be bored reading about Lord John while Claire was completely absent and Jamie could only make occasional appearances, and that I would be uncomfortable reading about John’s love life. First, it was a little sad to have such a close connection to the Frasers without their constant presence, but I did grow to appreciate Lord John, and I think Gabaldon handled the lack of Frasers well; there were many references to Jamie even when he wasn’t actually part of the story, and even Claire received her share of honorable mentions when Jamie or even John would think about her. In that sense, this did feel like what I would have expected of a sub-series: it has it’s own subjects, but it also has plenty of ties back to the main set. As for the second point, I found that John’s love life wasn’t difficult to read about, either. Any physical details provided were not too graphic, and it was easy to focus on John’s emotions and feel relieved or betrayed or surprised right along with him instead of dwelling on aspects I would have been uncomfortable with. I’m not against John or his sexual preferences, but I was afraid that I wouldn’t want to read it in quite so much detail; I was pleased to find that John’s relationships were described so tactfully that I didn’t have to resort to skimming, and was happy when John found someone he could trust, even just for a little while. With so much at stake in the case of discovery by the wrong persons, John’s love life is not only interesting, but increases the tension of many of the plots when love and secrets factor in at high levels. I didn’t love the Lord John series as much as Outlander, but some parts of it I did enjoy greatly and I’m glad I took the chance to read it.

My recommendations: If you’re seriously interested in Outlander or Gabaldon’s writing more generally, there are some great aspects to be gleaned from these stories, and the plots are similarly dramatic if you just can’t get enough of her writing style–go ahead and read the entire Lord John series, in that case. If you’re only interested in reading what little more you can get your hands on about Jamie, stick to The Scottish Prisoner because it’s the only piece of this series that reveals more substantial insight into his character and narrates through his perspective. And if you’re somewhere in the middle, primarily interested in furthering your knowledge of the Outlander world, curious about John, but not sure you want to invest your time in reading this entire series, pick up the three novels; those give the deepest insights into John’s life and personality and have the greatest connections to Jamie.

Further recommendations:

  1. If, for some reason, you haven’t begun the Outlander series yet, I definitely recommend that in connection with this series. You can find my reviews for each of those books, starting with the first one, here.
  2. John spends a good deal of time in London, and even more solving mysteries. If you like those elements, try Robert Galbraith’s (aka J. K. Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike series, which begins with The Cuckoo’s Calling. You can find my reviews for each of those books, starting with the first one, here.

Coming up next: I’ll be reviewing e. lockhart’s We Were Liars next, which is a perfect summer YA read, featuring a private island, a difficult love, an unforgettable tragedy, and the most unreliable narrator.

Happy reading,

The Literary Elephant

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