Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser has returned to her own time. The year is 1968, and Claire, now a respected physician living in America, has brought her daughter, Brianna, to visit the Scottish Highlands. Claire has kept the truth of Brianna's parentage from her because of a promise that she made to her late husband, Frank. Now that Frank has passed on, Claire is determined to rectify the situation by telling Brianna everything, even at the risk of her not believing a word of it. Claire enlists the help of young history professor, Roger Wakefield, whom she me twenty years earlier when he was just a boy. When Roger's historical research uncovers shocking news for Claire, she slowly reveals all to both him and Brianna, as she weaves the story of her life two hundred years ealier with handsome Highlander, Jamie Fraser.....
After Jamie has fully recovered at his uncle's abbey, he and Claire journey to Paris where they meet up with Jamie's cousin, Jared Fraser. Jamie and Claire's self-proclaimed mission is to avert the coming Jacobite Uprising of 1745. They begin their efforts with Jamie becoming involved in the running of Jared's prosperous shipping business, which gives them the status they need to gain entry into the homes of wealthy Jacobites who are likely to become the primary financial supporters of Charles Stuart, as well as the French court of Louis XV. As Jamie and Claire keep up the outward illusion of supporting Prince Charles, they covertly commit treasonous acts to prevent his return to Scotland which will end in ruin, and in doing so discover just how wide and deep this web of political intrigue has been spun.
While they singlehandedly attempt to alter the course of history, Jamie and Claire also face many difficult personal trials which will test their bonds of love and trust in ways they never imagined. When the demons of the past rear their ugly heads, Jamie makes a fateful decision in a moment of righteous indignation which could lead to the ruination of everything he and Claire have worked for in France, and ultimately, his actions force them to leave the country and return to Jamie's beloved Scottish Highlands. Just as they are getting used to a peaceful life on Jamie's estate of Lallybroch, word reaches them that Bonnie Prince Charlie has landed on Scottish soil and is building his army, leaving Jamie and Claire with no choice but to change their mission from preventing the Uprising to making sure it succeeds. As the couple find themselves inching closer and closer to the fateful battle on Culloden Moor, it seems that all their efforts may have been in vain, and they may need to sacrifice everything they have to give in order to save the lives of the ones they love.
Dragonfly in Amber is no ordinary romance novel. In fact, in spite of its romance and paranormal elements, it is far more of a historical novel than anything else in my opinion. This book basks the reader in lush descriptions of 18th century European history, from the political intrigue in the courts of King Louis XV of France, to the everyday life of a merchant, to the inner workings of hospitals of that time. Then it sweeps the reader along, back to the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and eventually into the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 in which Bonnie Prince Charlie tried unsuccessfully to retake the throne of both Scotland and England. The author made liberal use of real historical personages from King Louis and Prince Charles to their courtiers, advisers and Scottish clan chieftains. Diana Gabaldon constantly amazes me with how she can realistically weave fictional characters into real historical settings and bring it all to life in such a way that it is a joy to read and never a bore. Even everyday things become special in her world. I was especially fascinated with the insights into medical treatment in that era, including the use of plants and herbs for healing. Claire works for a time, at an indigent hospital in Paris where all manner of "healers" volunteer their time and "medical services" to the patients. In many ways, it is amazing to see just how far we've come since then, but I was also intrigued by the use of what appeared to be acupuncture in one scene and the use of a small dog to sniff out infections in another. Of course, both of these are still quite useful in medicine today. There is also a tangled web of ancestral ties that will certainly keep readers on their toes. All in all, Diana Gabaldon simply has a wonderful way with painting word pictures that just swept me up in the story and made me feel like I had indeed been transported back in time.
Just because I think that Dragonfly in Amber is stronger as a historical novel, does not mean that the other elements were in any way lacking. It still has the beautiful romance of Jamie and Claire at its core. These two characters have simply enthralled me in a way that many characters in traditional romance fail to do. Jamie and Claire are absolutely perfect for each other, and in this story have settled into a very comfortable marriage in which it seems like they have been together much longer than they have. To me, this has always been part of the beauty of their relationship, in that they are the best of friends while still being passionate lovers. Even when they talk about the mundane things of life or engage in fun lighthearted bantering it expresses a deep intimacy. Jamie and Claire trust each other implicitly and even when that trust seems to have been compromised, they still find their way back to each other. This is a couple who epitomize the word, soulmate, and who would literally live and die for one another, and theirs is a love that spans both space and time and will never end. In my opinion, this is what true romance is all about, but for anyone seeking hot steamy love scenes, they won't really be found in this book. Most of these parts are fairly non-explicit and don't contain a lot of detail, but that certainly didn't matter to me, as the relationship is always the most important thing for me in any romance. There are even a couple of side romances in the form a heartbreakingly tragic relationship between a couple of Frank Randall's ancestors and a sweet budding connection between Brianna Randall Fraser and Roger Wakefield, who are very important characters in later books.
The other element that was incredibly well-done is the time travel. Diana Gabaldon has written a scholarly article outlining her own theories of time travel, and it certainly is borne out in this book. I found Jamie and Claire's attempts to alter history to be very intellectually engaging. It presents a didactical argument as to whether it would be possible to change history if time travel were a reality, something which I love to ponder. It also asks the question of whether a person could cease to exist if that history was revised. There was also a great little rabbit trail where Claire mulls over the effects of time travel on germs and disease which I found to be a fun thing to speculate about too. The one thing I would not have wanted to do, is hold the fate of so many people in my hands the way Jamie and Claire did, due to their knowledge of the future. Many times over the course of the story they had to make really difficult choices, and even did some things that might be considered somewhat immoral or unethical, and contemplated doing far worse for the sake of the greater good. Of course, they never came to these conclusions lightly, and I love how Ms. Gabaldon brought out all the gut-wrenching emotions that were associated with that decision-making process.
Jamie and Claire are two characters I won't soon forget, and I greatly look forward to reading their further adventures. Jamie is the ultimate hero who is both brave and vulnerable, and a fierce warrior but a gentle lover, a man who Claire calls "the sun." He is selfless and chivalrous, willing to sacrifice himself for those he loves including the men under his command, and his word is his honor, something he would never dream of breaking no matter what. I love that Jamie has a sensitive heart underneath his tough exterior and isn't afraid to cry or show his true feelings. Sometimes he says some of the sweetest, most beautiful things that make me swoon. With his wry, teasing humor, he is also one of the funniest characters I have ever read. Even in the midst of the most dire circumstances, he can often make me laugh. It was absolutely hilarious (although extremely fortuitous) the amount of mileage he got out of his La Dame Blanche story about Claire, as was his confrontational "conversation" with the little dog at the hospital where Claire worked. At the same time, Jamie is still a very tortured hero who is frequently tormented by demons, both real and emotional, as a result of the abuse he suffered at the hands of Jack Randall in the first book, which led to some very intense moments in the narrative. Claire, for her part, is probably the strongest heroine I have ever read. She is an incredibly intelligent woman who always uses her wits to survive and who isn't afraid to stand up to anyone including clan leaders and even royalty. Because of her modern sensibilities, she sometimes bucks the convention of the time, but by maintaining a strong backbone, she also manages to garner the respect of nearly everyone who meets her. Still, since the book is told primarily in first person from Claire's point of view, her vulnerabilities are readily apparent to the reader. There are moments when she is truly afraid and when her emotions even get the best of her, and of course, she wears her undeniable love for Jamie on her sleeve. Claire and Jamie are just so well-matched that I could hardly bear the times that they were apart in the story, and when they came back together it was like electricity shooting off the page. Their final scenes together in Dragonfly in Amber were some of the most beautiful and poignant, but also the most heartbreaking ever to be penned. They literally left me in tears, which is a somewhat rare effect for a book to have on me.
There are just so many things to love about Dragonfly in Amber, I don't think I could possibly name them all, and there are even a few things that were a bit bothersome. On the up side, there was a widely varied and diverse cast of supporting characters from the real-life players who were mentioned earlier to plenty of fictional ones as well. Jamie's sister and brother-in-law, Jenny and Ian, who I love, appeared again along with their family. Even though he rarely has much to say, the dour Murtaugh is always a welcome addition. Jamie also takes in Fergus, a young pickpocket with the heart of a lion, although I have to admit that the historical realities for a child like him left me feeling extremely heartbroken. Jack Randall's younger brother, Alex, and Mary Hawkins, a teenage girl who Claire meets in Paris, also play important roles, as does Master Raymond, a mysterious little man who runs an apothecary shop. In addition to the strong character palette, there is plenty of intrigue that should keep readers guessing, as well as lots of adventure and excitement. On the down side, there is a quite a bit of sometimes rather gruesome violence, including sexual assault, and some vivid depictions of various war injuries which some readers may find cringe-worthy, though certainly nothing that was out of place for the time period. Most of these things did not bother me, but there was one graphic description of hanging, drawing, and quartering which left me with a queasy stomach, so sensitive readers may want to skip that part. The early parts of the book move at a rather languid pace, but there were always little side stories that made it interesting and held my attention. Overall, though there was nothing I could say I truly disliked about the book, and in fact, it was even better the second time around as this was a re-read for me.
Unlike Outlander which can be a satisfying read by itself, there is a cliffhanger ending to Dragonfly in Amber, so new readers of the series will probably want to have a copy of the next book, Voyager, on hand before starting. When I first read books 1-3 over a decade ago, I don't think I could have waited for the sequel to come, so I'm glad I didn't discover the series until the first three books had already been published. Dragonfly in Amber has forever earned a place on my keeper shelf next to its predecessor, Outlander. I can't wait to read the remaining books in the series, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, and A Breath of Snow and Ashes, as well as An Echo in the Bone, the newest Outlander book which is due to hit store shelves this September. With her amazing talent and enthralling writing style, Diana Gabaldon has also earned a place among my favorite authors.
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