The stars swirl and wheel above. Plants burst from the earth, green tendrils reaching heavenward, withering and dying in their time. An infant child blinks into the harsh light as an old man’s eyes cloud over. Life: birth, death, the cycles of the world moving in their eternal slow spiral towards the inevitable end. And as I watch this majestic tableau time looses all meaning, my heartbeat slows, I can feel each beat like the resonant rumble of the crumbling earth decaying beneath my feet. I sink deeper and deeper into the mire of the world, and time closes its slow fingers in a cruel fist about my spine. I realize that time itself is nothing but a comical illusion, a paltry glamour designed for the amusement of fools and cowards. It comes to me, as if in a vision: there is no life, no death. There is only Dragonfly in Amber, which feels like it took me a fucking lifetime to slog through holy shit!
Okay okay. Some back story. Dragonfly in Amber, for those of you unaware, is the second in the epic Outlander series of historical time-travel romance novels. I read the first book a couple months ago and talked about it here. As you can see, I had my misgivings, though the experience was a relatively positive one. I concluded the review by saying that I would probably read the next book, with the hopes that Gabadlon would have improved some of her narrative techniques. Alas. What foolish hope! What desperate naivety!
What we see instead with Dragonfly in Amber is Gabadlon doubling down on all the flaws of Outlander, exacerbating all the big problems of that book, and losing touch with many of its strengths. And what were those strengths? Let’s recap, shall we? First: Gabadlon has clearly done her research. The period detail is extensive and convincing, this isn’t some half-baked Scottish romp using kilts and broadswords for mere window dressing. This strength is preserved in Dragonfly, naturally. Second, it must be said that she’s a pretty decent writer. Nothing flashy – showy prose would only have been a distraction here – but Gabadlon knows what she’s doing, her prose and dialog are natural and well-crafted. She knows how to pace out a scene, and how to speak in more than one voice. Compared to hack-work like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this is exquisite stuff.
Now then, for the strengths which did not make it to book two…
For a torrid romance, this is a terribly unsexy book. Outlander didn’t exactly light my fire, but it was, at the very least, occasionally – if somewhat clumsily – hot. Dragonfly, on the other hand, did nothing for me. Jamie and Claire’s relationship seemed an endless cycle of immaturity, petulance and selfishness. The only time they seemed to get it on was when they were having dopey make-up sex. It’s all very bland and overripe, with a lot of flowery bullshit about “the wellspring of my being” and “soaring in the clouds of ecstasy” kind of stuff. Also there was a bunch more rape, and a loathsome scene where Claire is forced by circumstances to offer herself to the King of France (don’t ask) which focuses mainly on how smelly and grotesque is the lecherous monarch. Frankly, I want a little more than this from my romance novels. Couldn’t we get a halfway interesting relationship at least? That wouldn’t be too much to ask, would it?
Doesn’t sound too bad so far, does it? Okay, so it’s not as romantic as Outlander, but it’s still well written and brimming over with sumptuous period detail. So why didn’t I like it, eh? What’s really wrong with it?
Oh ho ho! I’m glad you asked!
Alright, are you sitting down? Are you sure? No history of heart problems in your family? All good? Okay then, here’s a big shocking truth about this book: Diana Gabaldon is utter rubbish at writing this kind of book.
Harsh, I know, but let me make my case. Gabaldon is a fine writer on a scene to scene basis. Her prose is fine, her character work is fine, her world-building is excellent and she does an okay job at the whole romance thing. So here’s the problem: she has no command of plot. She simply lacks the skills to keep an epic of this magnitude going, there are too many plates for her to spin, and she’s let them all crash to the floor. In my review of Outlander I talked about how Gabaldon makes a bunch of weird narrative choices which end up undercutting the tension and drive of her plot. I believe I also said that I hoped these initial kinks might be worked out by the time she wrote the sequel. Sadly, no. Not even close. Gabaldon instead doubles down on her willy-nilly half-baked pseudo-plot, and churns out a thousand page nightmare the likes of which I have never before witnessed.
Alright, so we’re going to get heavily into spoiler territory here, so heads up. Not that it matters, Gabaldon does a fine job of spoiling her own creation without me having to help. So, Outlander ended – of course it did – on a cliff-hanger. Claire has decided to stay in the past, and oops! she’s pregnant. Dragonfly in Amber begins in the “present,” twenty years after Claire returned to her own time. Her daughter is grown, and knows nothing of her true parentage. Claire tells her daughter the truth about her time-travel adventures, and we find out that Jamie died way back in the day. Then we flash back to pick up right were we left off in Outlander. Okay, so that’s weird, but I can roll with it. We know the ending before it happens, but, handled properly, that could give the story the heft and weight of a tragedy. Good call.
Then things go off the rails.
Jamie and Claire immediately head to Paris to try and stop the rebellion from happening, since Claire knows that it’s going to fail. This section of the book takes up about the first half of the narrative, and is totally miserable. It goes on and on and on and it’s shit. We’ve left behind all the interesting characters and settings of the first book and replaced them with boring nonsense that goes nowhere and means nothing. We already know that the rebellion happens! This is established in the start of the book – and in history, but whatever – so we know that they’re going to fail. It’s very difficult to care about any of this. And it’s so long.
And then we notice that Claire is quite pregnant at this point, and we know that she’s got to be heading back to her own time soon, since she got back while she was still carrying the baby. There’s a lot of book to go, how is this going to work out?
Gabaldon then does something totally unforgivable. There are a couple stages to this shitstorm, so let’s walk our way through it, shall we? First off, she brings back Jack Randell, the villain of the first book. He seemed quite dead, so to have him just stroll onto the scene like this is already a major sin. He duels Jamie. Claire witnesses it, and faints. When she wakes up, she’s lost the baby. THIS IS HORRIBLE WRITING FOR SO MANY REASONS! First off, despite a notable steak of female sexual submission (lots of “erotic” spanking, basically) the series has been pretty good about having strong and well-made female characters. To have Claire just flop over like this due to her delicate feminine constitution is pretty fuckin’ lame.
Second, we know that Claire is going to come back carrying Jamie’s baby. So why this weird bait and switch? Is the book really that starved for incident that we need to pile this one on there too? It feels so clumsy and half-formed. Why would Gabaldon chose to write it this way? And that’s when it hit me. She had to write it this way. She was locked in, Claire was pregnant at the end of Outlander, can’t go back and change that. But how do we get Claire to the Scottish uprising before she gives birth? The time-line just won’t work. And that, I can only presume is when Gabaldon hit upon the solution. Just hit the reset button. Claire loses this baby, but she can always have another later on! Then we can see all the exciting revolutionary stuff that she wanted to write about! Claire’s miscarriage is a retcon, necessitated by the author’s totally failure to come up with even the most basic plot structure before beginning her nine book epic.
Speaking as someone who’s gone through the utterly soul-crushing heart-breaking sorrow of a miscarriage, there’s really nothing I can say to Gabaldon at this point except fuck you, you fucking hack! This isn’t just bad and clumsy writing, it’s offensive.
Okay, getting past that.
This second half of the book focuses on the military conflict of the Scottish uprising. Claire, however, is not a soldier. Most of the action, therefore, is either implied or relayed second-hand. Weak. So very weak. There’s this whole sub-plot with Jack Randell – again – which fizzles out pointlessly. There’s a weird little adventure where Claire is kidnapped and rescued. I don’t know, it’s hard to care. Seriously, this book was an incredible slog and I could hardly bring myself to finish it.
Honestly, I shouldn’t have bothered. Claire finally returns to the present, having done nothing and accomplished nothing, and the books keeps going on, resolving a random sub-plot left over from the first book that has no relation to any of the book we’ve struggled through so far! Blah! Oh, and then it ends on another cliff-hanger.
It’s difficult to wrap my head around how horrid an experience this book was.
Please, avoid at all costs. It’s not just bad, it makes Outlander worse retroactively.