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Book Review: Dragonfly in Amber

Dragonfly in Amber is the second book of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. This review includes:

1. A relatively spoiler-free piece about the book in general.

2. After an adorable spoiler kitten, some discussion of the book in depth, and

3. The major differences between the book and the second season of the television series.

Dragonfly in Amber is my favorite book in the series. While Outlander book one essentially set up Claire and Jamie as a couple, Dragonfly turned it into something much more than a love story.

I had trouble deciding what to say in this supposedly "spoiler-free" section of this review because Diana Gabaldon starts Dragonfly with a huge spoiler that frames the entire book. So – quite seriously – if you're planning to watch the series at some point and haven't begun yet, you may want to go do that first.

That said, let's dive in to our relatively non-spoiler part of this review.

Dragonfly in Amber begins in 1968 Inverness with young historian Roger Wakefield opening his front door to Claire Randall and her grown daughter, Brianna. Claire has stopped by out of the blue to ask Roger for an unusual favor: she wants him to research what happened to a group of men who fought at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Roger takes over the twentieth century part of the story (in third person). He finds Claire mysterious and fascinating, and is strongly attracted to nineteen-year-old Brianna. As he does the research Claire requested, and he and Brianna sightsee around Inverness and become better acquainted, Claire's secrets are slowly revealed – to Roger, but more importantly, to Brianna.

The majority of the book then flashes back to the eighteenth century, picking up in 1744 where Outlander left off with Claire and Jamie, expecting their first child, settling into their new life in Paris. They throw themselves into trying to change the future and stop the Rising. First step: Jamie infiltrates Bonnie Prince Charlie's inner clique while Claire, excluded because she is a woman, volunteers at a charity hospital.

The Paris of Louis XV is a new and different setting for Outlander. Especially intriguing is how Claire is essentially caught between two sorcerers – the Comte St. Germain, who hates her, and apothecary MaĆ®tre Raymond, whom she befriends. And of course, characters from book one show up unexpectedly and wreak havoc. The story then shifts to Scotland 1745 and the Rising, as its devastating climax at the Battle of Culloden approaches. The book ends back in 1968 when Claire, Brianna and Roger are confronted with new information about the past.

The consequences of time travel and and the confusion of paradox are explored in depth. But what I find the most intriguing about Dragonfly is Jamie and Claire's relationship. Since we spend the entire novel knowing from the outset that they will ultimately be separated, the progression of their emotional and physical intimacy as they weather devastating turns in the plot is especially poignant.

And here is where I post an adorable spoiler kitten and talk about Dragonfly in more depth.

While set in two countries and two time periods (there's that Outlander duality again), Dragonfly has a unifying theme: that fate is cruel and history cannot be changed.

Jamie and Claire are young, clever, determined people. They try their best to change what will happen during the Rising, but we know from the first page that they won't succeed. They're uneasy with deception, even considering the stakes; spying doesn't suit them. Or, mostly, it doesn't suit Jamie, even though he is a master at both actual and metaphorical chess. Jamie does the work anyway, even though it costs him.

The ramifications of time travel are a big part of Dragonfly. Jamie and Claire have a long conversation during a carriage ride about the morality of Claire choosing Jamie, and what the two of them owe or don't owe to Frank. But does Frank still exist? At that point, Claire and Jamie believe that Jack Randall died at Wentworth Prison, of course making him incapable of fathering Frank's ancestor. Claire keeps expecting Frank's wedding ring, still on her finger, to vanish, but it does not. (That ring is a wonderful literary device – a constant reminder of Frank and the twentieth century, and that Claire doesn't really belong where she is.)

When Jack Randall inevitably shows up in Paris, it initially resolves but then extends the paradox. Understandably, Jamie desperately needs to challenge Jack Randall, to take revenge for the horrors Jack inflicted on him at Wentworth – but he doesn't, for Claire's sake, another monumental sacrifice on Jamie's part. When Jamie finally breaks and challenges Jack Randall, it is because someone else has been victimized: Jamie's adopted Parisian son, Fergus. This action blows everything apart. Jamie is imprisoned, Claire loses their baby, and all of their efforts to change the Rebellion in Paris come to naught.

Is what happens to Faith a metaphysical punishment for trying to change the fate of an entire country? Are there exchanges? Are certain things meant to be? I even wondered at one point if Faith died because Jamie adopted Fergus. 


In the second volume of her Outlandish Companion, Diana Gabaldon recounts how she was once asked in an interview if she could sum up the theme of each of her Outlander novels in a single word. Here they are:

1. Outlander: Love
2. Dragonfly in Amber: Marriage
3. Voyager: Identity
4. Drums of Autumn: Family
5. The Fiery Cross: Community
6. A Breath of Snow and Ashes: Loyalty
7. An Echo in the Bone: Nexus
8. Written in My Own Heart's Blood: Forgiveness

I daresay anyone can write about sex, but what I like most about Dragonfly is the way Gabaldon writes about emotional intimacy.

What happens in Dragonfly could have easily destroyed their marriage. They lose their first child because Jamie challenges Randall, and it separates them for an extended period. I particularly loved that at their reconciliation scene at Fontainebleu, they find an isolated spot and sunbathe naked (geez, no symbolism there) while Claire tells Jamie the truth about what happened with the King.

In the third section of the book that takes place in 1745-1746, Claire and Jamie return to Scotland and are swept up into the Rising that will culminate in the Battle of Culloden, thousands of deaths, and the end of Highland culture. Jamie, a close advisor of Prince Charles, fights in the rebellion and keeps attempting to change history, while Claire camp-follows and runs field hospitals. The loss of Faith (geez, no symbolism in that name, either) strengthens their love for each other – that, and the deprivation, risk and loss of the Rising.

Jamie and Claire are such different people, and not just because they were born in different centuries. Because of her time travel secret and witch-like advanced medical knowledge, the only person Claire can be herself with is Jamie. Her love for him is in everything she says to him and about him, and vice versa. It's never gushy; they don't idolize each other, or try to change each other. They converse with total frankness when alone, and in experienced marital shorthand when others are present.

There are numerous scenes in Dragonfly, especially during the Rising, that illustrate the depth of their intimacy. After Prestonpans, they are both filthy and at the utter extreme of exhaustion, but still feel a deep need to sleep somewhere alone together, so they find a spot under a tree. And as I said in my review of the corresponding television episode, I've read my share of romance novels and can't think of any in which the heroine demands that the hero give her a urine sample. There's also the thing about the lice, and maybe I should just stop there.

All through Dragonfly, fate is closing in on Claire and Jamie. We know they are going to be separated for twenty years, and it's difficult to bear – especially when Claire obeys Jamie and returns to her own time for the sake of their second child, even though she wants desperately to stay and die with him at Culloden.

Book Versus Series

— The book begins in 1968, which is so jarring that Gabaldon added a preface telling readers that this is indeed book two and they haven't picked up the wrong volume. Season two of the series begins instead with Claire's arrival in 1948; all of 1968 scenes are in the season finale.

— The Paris section of the series is faithful to the major events in the book, but for some reason, it feels very different. That might be because the book is more focused on what Claire is thinking and feeling than on where she is. There are also several changes in location and order of events.

— Book Jamie never tells Murtagh the truth about Claire. Book Claire doesn't grow close to Murtagh the way that the series Claire does. I'm with the series when it comes to Murtagh, by the way.

— When book Jamie meets Fergus for the first time, Fergus helps Jamie survive an assassination attempt by the Duke of Sandringham's minions.

— Book Claire takes to her bed when she realizes her pregnancy is in danger. In the 1968 section of the book, Claire says that her second pregnancy was also difficult and she probably would have lost Brianna if she had stayed in the past.

— Book Jamie visits his grandfather Lord Lovat and asks for troops and support after Prestonpans. There's a really wonderful scene at the dinner table where Lovat challenges Claire to diagnose his current illness, and Claire tells him, using her fingers as a visual aid, that he has an enlarged prostate and how he can treat it. Very funny, especially Jamie's reaction.

— In the series, the sections at Lallybroch are shortened but in the books, this one in particular, they're much longer and they're lovely. Jenny and Ian are living the lives that Jamie and Claire want desperately but can never have.

This is undoubtedly the Outlander book that got to me the most, and I think it's the strongest of the series. So far, anyway. Four out of four stars,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

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