In early 1773, the rebellion that eventually leads to the American Revolution is just getting underway. Word of what's happening in Boston has reached the backcountry of North Carolina, but the inhabitants of Fraser's Ridge are still largely out of harm's way. Except that cabins in the mountains are being burned and settlers are being murdered, yet no one really knows who is doing it or why. The leftover remnants of the Regulators, along with the rising voices of the Whigs, and the vigilantes working under the guise of Committees of Safety are all problems that bear close watching.
Into this climate, the governor sends an envoy to Jamie Fraser, wanting him to first become an Indian agent to smooth over relations between the settlers and the Indians, while persuading the Indians to ally with the British cause. Later he asks Jamie to command a militia of Scottish troops to fight on behalf of British interests. However, armed with the knowledge of the future given to him by his time-traveling wife, Claire, as well as their daughter and son-in-law, Jamie knows that to do so would be putting his life and the lives of those he loves on the line for a doomed cause. He must walk a fine political tightrope to do just enough to keep the Loyalists happy, while biding his time revealing his true allegiance. And over all the dangers of the oncoming war, looms the spectre of a newspaper article dated January 1776 that reports the destruction by fire of their home on Fraser's Ridge along with the deaths of Jamie and his entire family. He genuinely hopes that this is one event that he can change, but only time will tell if it's possible.
A Breath of Snow and Ashes is the sixth volume of the Outlander saga featuring time-traveler, Claire, and her Scottish Highlander hubby and love of her life, Jamie Fraser. This book, like all the rest in the series, is a very lengthy tome of nearly a thousand pages, and because I'm such a slow reader, it's taken me more than three weeks to finish it. However, despite the size of the book and the length of time it took me to read it, it never felt that long, and I was still sorry to see it come to an end. There is so much happening within its pages that there's never a dull moment. We have at least two different kidnappings, rape, two murder mysteries, other mysteries surrounding a missing slave, missing gold, and the identity of who fathered a young woman's baby, as well as political intrigue as the War for Independence gets under way. Then we have new-comers, visitors, and various goings-on around Fraser's Ridge, lots of interesting medical cases for Claire, Jamie becoming an Indian agent, revelations about Ian's past, Roger having an epiphany about what he wants to do with his life, Brianna finally getting closure on the pain of her own past, more time traveling, and oh so much more. Whew! And none of that includes all the romance. I felt this book focused more on the various romantic relationships than perhaps the last two books of the series did and there are a lot of them, not just for our main characters but also for supporting characters as well. Not to mention, A Breath of Snow and Ashes covers the three years leading up to the newspaper report regarding Jamie and Claire's house on Fraser's Ridge burning down and their entire family being killed. It was the thing that spurred Brianna and Roger to travel back in time way back in Drums of Autumn, and we finally get to see the outcome of that. There was just so much going on in this book that I was never bored for even a moment, and I loved every minute (despite it being quite a lot of minutes:-)) that I spent reading it.
This far along in the series, Jamie and Claire are no longer the sole focus of the stories, but they are still the glue that holds it all together. They are constantly looking out for others, whether it's Claire's doctoring or Jamie's walking a fine political tightrope to make the best decisions he can for his entire family. They always put their children and grandchildren first even when they must say painful farewells for their well-being. At this point, they've been together so long and been through so much that nothing and no one is going to tear them apart. Even though Jamie wonders if Claire might ever want to go back to her own time and leaves that door open for her, she's pledged to remain with him, for better or worse, until death they do part. Mostly their lives are quiet and content in their home on Fraser's Ridge surrounded by many family members and friends, but as with all long-time married couples, they do have to deal with some difficulties along the way in this book. Claire is abducted and much-abused by a group of outlaws before Jamie is able to ride to the rescue. Then Jamie is wrongly accused of something he didn't do which earns him censure from the other residents of the Ridge and momentarily shakes Claire's confidence in him. Claire is also similarly accused, although in her case, she faces something far more dangerous than reproach, but the two of them present a united front to deal with the repercussions together. Throughout all of this, many residents of the Ridge gradually turn against them for one thing or another, while they discover perfidy on the part of others, leaving it feeling not quite like the home it once was. But no matter what they have to deal with, Jamie and Claire are each other's rock through all the storms in their lives.
Jamie and Claire's daughter, Brianna, along with the love of her life, Roger, share roughly half of the story and POV scenes with them. Much like her parents, they're living fairly content lives on the Ridge, but that doesn't mean they don't have issues, too. The spectre of Stephen Bonnet still hangs over them, and although Roger loves Jem as his son, no matter whether he's the boy's biological father or not, he does still wonder sometimes, especially when Bree seems to be having trouble getting pregnant again. Roger also struggles with wanting to feel like he's doing something worthwhile with his life. When he's called upon as one of the few Protestants on the Ridge to welcome a group of Scottish Presbyterians, he finds fulfillment in helping them and finally discovers his life's calling, but it unfortunately takes him away from Bree and Jem for a short while. Bree, for her part, is playing the industrious scientist/engineer, trying to make life easier on the Ridge by using ancient methods to produce more modern inventions, while finding fulfillment in motherhood and the occasional artistic endeavor. Eventually she, too, is abducted and comes face-to-face with her rapist, finally getting closure on that chapter of her life.
In addition to these two main couples, there are lots of other romantic relationships that either blossom or progress from where we last left them. Fergus and Marsali hit a rough patch, when Fergus becomes deeply depressed about his inability to provide for his growing family with only one hand. Marsali is carrying most of the heavy load of farming and caring for her family, while Fergus is struggling to find work that he can do. The addition of a new baby, which should have brought them joy, only results in more heartache for Fergus, but Jamie eventually helps his adopted son find a sense of purpose again. Jamie and Claire's young servant girl, Lizzie, has a very interesting storyline that I loved, with a number of young men vying for her attention. I'll just say that she doesn't end up with who you might think and where she does find love is by turns sweet, shocking, hilarious, utterly romantic, and totally scandalous, but completely perfect. Lizzie's father shows that romance isn't just for the young when he strikes up one of his own with a kind German widow. While not exactly romantic, we finally learn about Ian's marriage with his Indian wife and what happened between them that brought him back to his family. Lizzie's betrothed, Manfred, has some romantic misadventures that leads to a shocking revelation, but I was glad to see him finally get a happy ending. We also learn of many past relationships that while not particularly surprising in hindsight, were most definitely scandalous for the time. These are all the ones I can recall for now. I might be forgetting some, although not intentionally, but let me say that all the relationship building was most appreciated. For me, this was the most romantic Outlander book since Voyager.
Diana Gabaldon never fails to astound me with her attention to detail and that, IMHO, is part of what makes her books so darn good. The history is extremely well done, making me feel like I'm a part of whatever major events are happening at that time, as well as a part of the setting. Although I admit that some of Claire's medical procedures can get a bit gory, I still find them absolutely fascinating, as well as how she tries to bring elements of modern medicine into a historical era, such as penicillin and anesthesia. No matter what, she's always working to make her patients more comfortable and to save more lives. In that same vein, there's also a lot of science, not only from a medical perspective but an engineering perspective as well with Brianna trying to make their lives a bit easier with her knowledge of modern inventions and her technical mind. And it's not just all of the extensive research that I know these books require to make them authentic, it's also the way in which Ms. Gabaldon weaves so much detail into her plot points. A character might drop off the canvas early on, leaving the reader thinking that they won't be back, but usually they always do pop up again later, playing some integral part in the story. Or the author might temporarily seem to be abandoning a particular sub-plot only to deftly twine it back in later on. I would expect no less from an author as smart and accomplished as Ms. Gabaldon is, but at the same time, it still pleasantly surprises me each and every time I sit down with one of her books. These are some of the most intelligently written stories I've ever read, and the reader must definitely stay on their toes while consuming them or risk missing out on some important detail.
Every time I write a review for one of these books, I feel like I'm not doing it justice, because they're just that good. There are so many things that stood out to me about A Breath of Snow and Ashes that I'm probably going to forget something, but know that I loved all of it anyway. I think because of Claire's, Brianna's, and Roger's modern sensibilities, they drawn Jamie in, too, and all of them exhibit a certain acceptance of everyone, no matter their race, religious preferences, sexual orientation, etc. that really warms my heart while still remaining true to the time in which they're living. There's perhaps more of a religious element in this book, because of the addition of several Protestant characters mingled among what has been, up to this point, a largely Catholic cast. As a person of faith, I appreciated all of this for several reasons. One of the biggest of these was that I felt Roger's wrestling with moral issues versus the necessity of the times, and sometimes with the tenets of his own faith, was particularly realistic, as were the ways in which the Protestant and Catholic beliefs both overlap and are in conflict. The other reason being the more personal fact that I now belong to a Christian denomination that is an offshoot of Scottish Presbyterianism, so learning more of the history of this denomination was fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed all the numerous romantic entanglements and relationship building that takes place. All of the mystery elements are woven seamlessly into the narrative, with each one having unexpected effects on other parts of the story. There are lots of little story threads, some of which have been hanging loose for a couple of books, that are finally wrapped up neatly as well. Like I said before, there's a great deal that happens and it was all thoroughly engaging. However, many changes occur for our main characters by the end of the book, some of which are very bittersweet, so I'm definitely eager to see what's in store for all of them in the coming volumes, while hoping that everything turns out well for everyone in the long run.
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