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Book Review: The Fiery Cross

The Fiery Cross is the fifth book in 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 fifth season of the television series.

In 1770 North Carolina, the Frasers build a life for themselves and their settlers during the lead-up to, and fall-out after, the Battle of Alamance in the War of the Regulation.

Confession time. I initially read the first four Outlander books years ago, long before the series arrived, and I loved them. Number five, The Fiery Cross, is the one that lost me.

I remember why, of course. The book begins with the Gathering, a meeting of hundreds of Scots in North Carolina, with characters going from tent to tent and campfire to campfire spouting exposition for nearly two hundred pages. It reminded me of the endless quidditch match that made me ditch Harry Potter. I was so turned off that I never finished The Fiery Cross. And I didn't get back to it until I became obsessed with the television series in 2019.

(And then after season four, desperate to know what happened next, I did read it, and I've even re-read it since then. Outlander obsession, what can I say.)

As I've mentioned in most of these book reviews, Diana Gabaldon was once asked if she could sum up the theme of each of her Outlander novels in a single word. For The Fiery Cross, that word is "Community."

And indeed, the best thing about The Fiery Cross is Jamie and Claire Fraser finally experiencing the joy of living with their entire family: daughter Brianna and her husband Roger, adopted son Fergus and stepdaughter Marsali, various small grandchildren, and settlers at Fraser's Ridge, some of whom were imprisoned at Ardsmuir years ago with Jamie.

The Fiery Cross begins in October 1770, the day after the fourth book ends. The drama comes from without, emanating in particular from the despicable Governor William Tryon of North Carolina as the American Revolution approaches. The fact that this novel takes place in a single time period is different for a change but maybe a bit disappointing, as following stories in different time periods is one of the most enjoyable things about Outlander.

As I've undoubtedly said before, Gabaldon has a genuine gift for detail and believable description: what happens at the Battle of Alamance, the results of a certain instance of snakebite, and just the struggles of daily life in the eighteenth century are all realistic and enjoyable to read. Claire's medical challenges in particular are done extremely well, and always feel real to me. One of my favorite plots in The Fiery Cross is Claire's completely believable attempts to create penicillin. It makes sense. What else would a dedicated physician transported two hundred years into the past do to protect her family and friends?

And now I'm going to discuss the novel in more depth, so here is our spoiler kitten. Bail out now if you'd rather not be spoiled for book five and season five.

Jamie Fraser, now unofficially the laird that he should have been, is walking between two fires, a chapter title as well as an episode title. Because he accepted the land from the Governor, Jamie must be loyal to the Crown for now. After a riot in Hillsborough, Governor Tryon orders Jamie to form a militia to deal with the Regulators. Since Jamie knows the Revolution is coming, he asks his friends and neighbors to follow himself, not Tryon or the Crown, so that when the day comes when he'll have to switch sides, they will hopefully go with him.

Claire starts her penicillin experiments in book four, and brings them to fruition here in book five. It is far from easy, and she struggles at first to figure out if she has actually found it (with the aid of Dr. Rawlings' primitive microscope) and then how to create a method to administer it. Her friends at the Ridge think Claire is eccentric, but they also know by now that she is an exceptional healer and they're willing to cut her some slack. Plus she is married to the highly respected and constantly consulted leader of their community, no small thing.

As always with Outlander, what I love best about The Fiery Cross is Jamie and Claire and their unusual marriage. Claire runs a field hospital while Jamie fights at Alamance, and later, she tries everything she can think of to heal Jamie when he is bitten by a snake and nearly dies. Their conflict about amputation is moving and upsetting, as Claire struggles with the possibility of proceeding without Jamie's permission in order to save his life. The theme of community is particularly important here (as well as at Alamance, where brother is fighting brother), as many of the Frasers' friends at the Ridge search for rotten food so that Claire can make new penicillin, and stay and commiserate with Jamie as he waits for Claire to amputate his leg.

Roger's hanging at Alamance is also exceptionally well written. It truly shocked me and kept me on the edge of my seat the first time I read it. Afterward, Jamie and Roger's uncomfortable relationship reaches a turning point when Jamie nearly dies from the snakebite and must depend on Roger to carry out his final wishes. Roger finally becomes a son of Jamie's house, like Fergus.

And like Young Ian, who finally learns that his auntie Claire is not a fairy, but a time traveler. The Fiery Cross ends with Ian's unexpected return from the Mohawk for reasons he won't name, carrying Otter-Tooth's journal, written in ballpoint pen. Otter-Tooth, whose ghost was introduced in book four, was one of five Native Americans who, like our old friend Geillis Duncan, traveled from 1968 into the past in an attempt to change the fate of their people.

What is coolest is that one of those five travelers was named Raymond. Could it be?

Book versus series

There are many differences between book five and season five, more than in previous seasons.

The biggest change is that Murtagh didn't lead the Regulators; he died at Culloden in book three, not at Alamance. Hermon Husband, a real historical personage, leads the Regulators in book five. Jamie never dons a red coat, although he does nearly kill Governor Tryon. Lieutenant Knox is a series creation and isn't in the book at all.

Brianna and Roger marry in a tent at the Gathering instead of the huge ceremony at the Big House. The murder at Jocasta's wedding didn't make it to the television series. Stephen Bonnet was at that wedding to help Lieutenant Wolff steal the French gold, not to use his possible parentage of young Jemmy to take the property. Marsali does not become Claire's medical assistant; another young woman, Malva Christie, does that in book six.

The invasion of grasshoppers is in book six. So is the end of Stephen Bonnet; the chapters about Bonnet in books five and six are basically distilled in season five.

The biggest and most consequential event in book six that moved to season five is Lionel Brown's gang of criminals attacking isolated homesteads, killing some of their victims and human trafficking others. The gang attack Jamie's whisky shed, injure the very pregnant Marsali, and kidnap and assault Claire, hoping to force her to reveal the whereabouts of Jamie's whisky stash. (There is no "Ask Dr. Rawlings".)

In book six, it is Mrs. Bug, not Marsali, who kills Lionel Brown by smothering him with a pillow.

There is material in book five that didn't make it to the series at all. The most hefty is when the local Cherokee come to ask Jamie the "Bear Killer" for help hunting a smart and scary bear that is eating people in the village of Raventown. The bear hunt segment is long and intense, and is combined with Roger's encounter with a group of runaway slaves that includes Frannie Beardsley while he is surveying the compensatory land the Governor gave him.


— Right before his wedding, Roger accidentally slices his own throat while shaving, a bit of foreshadowing. The series translated that into the amusing scene where Jamie shaves Roger.

— The actual fiery cross is the burning cross that Scottish chiefs used to call their men to arms, an uncomfortable callback to the KKK.

— Lord John never visits in book five, but sends amusing and interesting letters and gifts.

— Brianna paints a portrait on commission.

— All of the animals on the Ridge have distinct personalities, as real animals do: the vicious white sow, Gideon the nasty horse that bites everyone, Clarence the loud, good-natured mule. In The Fiery Cross, Jamie finds a gray kitten on the ride home from the Gathering whom he names after his mother's cat, Adso of Milk.

— There are humorous scenes in every book of the series. My favorite in book five is Jamie describing what he is seeing in Claire's microscope. The Yogi Bear jokes that Claire and Brianna couldn't help making during the run-up to the bear hunt are also laugh out loud funny.

So yes, even though I didn't like it at first, I like book five now. What did you guys think?

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

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