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Book Review: A Breath of Snow and Ashes

A Breath of Snow and Ashes
is the sixth book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.

What I usually write is a two-part review, and then I compare the book to the corresponding season of the series. Since season six is still in production (it is now July 2021), I'm going to shake things up a bit with:

1. A relatively spoiler-free review of the book in general, and
2. Under an adorable spoiler kitten with plenty of warning, a complete synopsis of what happens in book six.

Here's the relatively spoiler-free review part.

One of the things I like most about Diana Gabaldon is also one of her flaws – so much story! Clocking in at nearly a thousand pages, A Breath of Snow and Ashes (abbreviated ABOSAA) is a lengthy, rambling and enjoyable read, much like moving in with the Frasers for awhile. Of course, their lives are a lot more exciting than, say, spending the summer with my Aunt Frannie.

The largest thread is the lead-up to a murder and the repercussions afterward. Gabaldon has included murder mysteries in several of her Outlander books – most notably in Voyager (book three) with a serial killer that dropped bodies from Edinburgh to Jamaica, and The Fiery Cross (book five) with the murder of Phaedre's mother Betty at Jocasta's wedding. These murders and their resolution were adjacent to the main storylines, though, and considering the wealth of plot to choose from, it isn't surprising that the series producers left them out entirely.

But not this time. I'm relatively certain that ABOSAA's murder plot will be central to season six. And that's a good thing because it is absolutely the most fascinating and complex of Gabaldon's murder plots to date, and in the interest of not spoiling you guys, I will stop there.

ABOSAA begins in March 1773 and ends in December 1776. Jamie Fraser's balancing act between the loyalists and revolutionaries finally comes to an end when he is forced to declare himself. There is much personal development in the lives of Brianna and Roger, Fergus and Marsali. The lack of law enforcement in the wilderness is a theme as a so-called "Committee of Safety" becomes a genuine threat. Best of all, a time travel dilemma and Claire's continuing medical experiments combine in a surprising and unexpected way.

Gabaldon always includes amusing scenes in her stories; ABOSAA has several that are exceptional. One in particular, the resolution of the obituary mystery that initially led Brianna to the eighteenth century, is one of the funniest chapters of any book I have ever read. I assume that balancing the heaviness of extremely violent plots with funnier bits was deliberate on Gabaldon's part, and it works for me.

Below the adorable spoiler kitten is a complete synopsis including many spoilers of A Breath of Snow and Ashes. I wrote this synopsis because two of my friends watch the series but haven't read the books and have asked me what's coming. I can only assume that if two of my friends are curious, others are as well.

A Breath of Snow and Ashes begins and ends with fire.

Law and order, or the lack of same: As the American Revolution approaches, loyalists and revolutionaries in nearby towns come to blows as well as tar and feathers. Lionel Brown's Committee of Safety burns out, robs and kills isolated settlers at Fraser's Ridge. They abduct Claire in order to force her to reveal where Jamie's whiskey stores are hidden, but plans go awry. Jamie and the men of the Ridge pursue and kill Brown's gang, but not before Claire is beaten and raped. (This major book six event was moved to the season five episode, "Never My Love.")

Jamie keeps the injured Lionel Brown alive to get information out of him, but the Frasers' housekeeper Mrs. Bug suffocates Brown with a pillow for reasons of her own. During the abduction, one of Brown's gang, Wendigo Donner, reveals to Claire that he is also a time traveler. ("Does the name Ringo Starr mean anything to you?") Claire warns Donner that her husband will kill him, and Donner leaves before Jamie and the men of the Ridge arrive to rescue Claire.

Political bits: Celebrity loyalist Flora MacDonald visits River Run. Jamie finally breaks off his friendship with John Grey by letter, declaring himself a friend of Liberty. At the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge in February 1776, Jamie on the revolutionary side fights against a loyalist Highland charge and is haunted by Murtagh's ghost.

My favorite revolutionary plot bit is Brianna reciting to Roger all that she can remember of Longfellow's poem Paul Revere's Ride on the night before it actually happens, April 18, 1775.

The Christies: New settler Tom Christie arrives in Fraser's Ridge with his adult son and daughter, Allan and Malva. Tom Christie was imprisoned with Jamie at Ardsmuir after Culloden, but they were never friends; Tom, a puritanical Protestant, was always jealous of how people admired and followed Jamie.

The Christies are compelling characters. After much resistance and fear of witchcraft, Tom reluctantly allows Claire to surgically repair his hand. Despite Tom's objections, clever, competent Malva Christie shows a strong interest in medicine and becomes Claire's medical assistant and close friend. When a serious illness sweeps the Ridge and many die, Claire and Tom Christie are the last to get sick. In an attempt to cure Claire's high fever, Malva and Mrs. Bug cut off all of Claire's hair. Claire is ill for weeks and nearly dies before finally recovering.

Later, the three Christies come to the Big House because Malva is pregnant and unmarried and will only name the father in front of Jamie – and Malva says the father is Jamie, and he must acknowledge the child and provide for it. Claire doesn't believe her but nearly everyone on the Ridge does. Near the end of Malva's pregnancy, Claire finds Malva dead, her throat cut, in the Big House's garden. The unborn baby is moving and when Claire tries unsuccessfully to save it, she is discovered at the worst possible moment.

Siege and imprisonment: Lionel Brown's brother Richard and the remainder of the Committee of Safety come to supposedly take Claire to justice, but their actual intention is to take revenge for Lionel's death and hang her themselves. Jamie and Claire refuse to surrender and there is a siege on the Big House, stopped by Tom Christie who insists on going with the Committee wherever they take Claire for trial. Jamie, of course, goes with Claire. After much traveling, Claire takes a strange sideways journey of sorts alone, from the jail in New Bern, to midwife for Governor Martin's wife, to clerk for the Governor while she remains imprisoned. Young Ian rescues Jamie from Richard Brown.

Claire is finally released when Tom Christie confesses to the Governor that he killed Malva, which he did not. He confesses to save Claire because he loves her. (Jamie was also planning to do the same thing if Claire was condemned.)

Murderer revealed: (This paragraph is in white just in case anyone reading this still wants to be surprised; highlight to read.) Near the end of the novel, after Jamie and Claire return to the Ridge, Claire finds a suicidal Allan Christie at Malva's grave. Allan confesses he was the baby's father and that he killed Malva because she was coming to the Big House to tell Claire the truth. Ian, overhearing everything, kills Allan before he can hurt Claire.

So where are Brianna, Roger, Fergus and Marsali while all this is happening?

Fergus and Marsali: Marsali gives birth to their fourth child, a boy that they name Henri-Christian, who has dwarfism. The locals are freaked by Henri-Christian, and kids attempt to drown him. Fergus, already depressed by his difficulties providing for his family with only one hand, is also haunted by the exploitation of dwarfs he witnessed in the Paris brothel when he was a child, and sees no future for his new son. Fergus tries to commit suicide and is saved by Jamie, who eventually buys Fergus a printshop. The entire family moves to New Bern.

Brianna and Roger: Brianna goes through a creative period, making matches from phosphorus, digging a kiln and firing clay pipe for plumbing, making paper, and painting portraits on commission. Roger finds his calling and takes steps to become a Presbyterian minister. During one memorable incident, he gives a service for the dead where the corpse actually wakes up. Their son Jemmy's parentage is revealed because of a birthmark under his hair; Roger is Jemmy's biological father, not Stephen Bonnet.

Brianna is kidnapped by Bonnet, who plans to sell her to a sea captain. Bonnet doesn't touch Brianna because she is pregnant again, and he is afraid to touch pregnant women. Jamie, Claire, Roger and Ian rescue Brianna. In July 1776, Bonnet is executed by drowning in Wilmington, and Brianna shoots and kills him before he goes under the water. (The series producers moved this plotline to the season five episode, "Mercy Shall Follow Me.")

Brianna and Roger's daughter Amanda is born in April 1776 with a heart valve problem that is easily repairable in the twentieth century but too dangerous for Claire to repair in the eighteenth.

Departure: Before going through the stones at Okracoke (and right before Bonnet's execution in Wilmington), Brianna and Roger run into Lord John and his stepson William Ransom, who is eighteen and a new soldier in the British Army. In the books, both of Jamie's living children look a great deal like him; this is obviously harder to accomplish with actors. So Brianna and Roger realize immediately that William is Jamie's son. Brianna doesn't tell William, although she confronts both Jamie and Lord John.

Finally back home in the twentieth century with Amanda's heart valve repaired, Brianna and Roger buy the dilapidated Lallybroch and restore it. In the stored boxes that belonged to Reverend Wakefield, Roger finds a box of letters from Jamie and Claire addressed to them.

The Night the House Burns Down: In book four, the obituary that sent Brianna back in time was dated January 21, 1776, and that day finally arrives. The chapter about it is absolutely hilarious, and the house does not burn down. On December 21, 1776, Wendigo Donner arrives at the Big House with henchmen, desperate for information on how to return to the twentieth century. There is a huge fight, and the "Chekhov's gun" combination of Brianna's phosphorus and Claire's ether goes boom to finally fulfill the erroneously dated obituary and burn the house down. The Frasers survive, but Donner does not.

These are the highlights of book six, but there is much more. Claire saving a boy's life by performing an appendectomy with her newly created ether. Lizzie's romantic adventures turning into a menage à trois. Ian telling Brianna what happened with his Mohawk wife. (Ian is present and participating throughout the book but doesn't have a significant plot thread of his own.) There are new characters with substantial stories I haven't mentioned, plus the grasshopper apocalypse, the white sow, the French gold, Adso's obsession with Major MacDonald's wig, and Jamie's adventures as an Indian agent for the Crown. And in an adorable scene, Brianna describes Disneyland and Mickey Mouse to Jamie.

This is one of my favorite books in the series. Four out of four jars of phosphorus,

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

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