Book Review: ‘An Echo in the Bone’

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An Echo in the Bone (Outlander, #7) An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Like many fans of the “Outlander” series, I “met” author Diana Gabaldon on an online literary forum in the days of yore when CompuServe was the Internet service provider. At the time, Diana was posting what she referred to as “chunks” of her work-in-progress and garnering very enthusiastic comments and a fair amount of interesting discussion. The excerpts were so fluid and natural, I fair thought we might all end up speaking either Highland English or Gàidhlig before the manuscript was complete. In 1991, the writing chunks became “Outlander.”

In the years that followed, we traveled with Sassenach (English people and Lowlanders) Claire Beauchamp Randall through multiple countries in time lines beginning in 1945 and 1743. In 1945, she’s married to Frank Randall. In 1743, she’s in love with Highlander James Fraser.

As “Outlander” led to a sequel and then another sequel, I thought it rather presumptuous to review any of the installments of a series (heading toward 17 million copies sold in 21 languages and 24 countries) written by the very gracious mentor for the writers on the CompuServe Literary (now Books & Authors) Forum.

But 19 years and seven books have passed since I read the opening line “It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least not at first glance” as former combat nurse Claire Randall surveyed a 1945 Inverness bed and breakfast with “fading floral wallpaper” where she was celebrating a second honeymoon with Frank. Surely Diana would say “dinna fash” if I told her I was mustering up the grit to say a wee word or two.

Were I to distill this wordy review down to basics and say only a wee word or two, it would be this. “An Echo in the Bone” is the best book in the series since the first one.

Some readers have criticized the novel’s episodic presentation and multiple story lines. On the contrary, I view this approach as one of the novel’s many strengths, others being the evolving characterizations of individuals series readers have known for years, the exceptional detail and historical accuracy, and the author’s clear focus on the tension, danger and humor that make a darned fine story.

With “An Echo in the Bone,” we have regained the tension and tight plotting that we lost to come extent in “The Fiery Cross” and and “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” which spent too much time with everyday affairs at the expense of the stories’ primary thrusts. Well after “Outlander,” it was almost as though the uniqueness of a modern and highly skilled medical practitioner living two centuries before her own time was being asked to carry too much of the books’ weight.

“An Echo in the Bone,” however, is exceptionally strong. Multiple characters grow in multiple times and places, and the episodic approach strengthens the drama of the strong doses of harm’s way in each lifeline we’re following. Drama is not contained by linear time, a fact Diana has proven many times over, and this time out, she has honed her writer’s scalpel to a fine edge indeed.

The use Fort Ticonderoga and the September and October 1777 Battles of Saratoga as a major focal point anchors the novel in historic time and provides a memorable counterpane for compelling action sequences and character development without losing the series hallmark (often earthy and humorous) interactions between a feisty Sassenach and a volatile Highlander.

No one need try to read “An Echo in the Bone” as a standalone novel, for the characters have too much history for that and there’s no way to catch up with it short of, say, adding some distracting and/or helpful footnotes. And then there’s the cliffhanger ending, or–more accurately–the multiple cliffhanger endings. Some readers are saying (basically), “Diana, how can you do this to us?”

My last wee world or two is: How can she not, for storytelling doesn’t get better than this.

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Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell

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“The Sun Singer,” an adventure novel that also bends time, is set in Glacier National Park’s Swiftcurrent Valley.

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