I’m changing things up this week with a little Outlander action, which moves my love of historical romance from the Regency and Victorian era to Revolutionary War era America. To call A Breath of Snow and Ashes a romance is a generous statement, as you’ll quickly learn from this review, but given it’s inclusion in the Outlander series, which I consider to be one giant, multi-book romance saga, I think the classification is justified. Joining me for this review and jaunt down heartache lane is my favorite JAMFF fangirl and book sister, Heather DLG of True Stories & Make Believe. We’re running simultaneous reviews on our respective blogs, and I’d encourage you to check out her reviews! If you’re interested in a wonderfully eclectic array of book recommendations (who isn’t?!?) True Stories & Make Believe is a perfect fit for you.
Now, on to our review of A Breath of Snow and Ashes, which Heather has very appropriately referred to in legalese as Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. Let’s start with our general impressions of this one, shall we?
Ronnie: In librarianship there’s something called “bibliotherapy,” which refers to “the use of books selected on the basis of content in a planned reading program designed to facilitate the recovery of patients suffering from mental illness or emotional disturbance” (ALA, Bibliotherapy). “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” would never, ever, in a million years be on any librarian’s or mental health professional’s list of recommended bibliotherapy reading lists. In fact, this book caused the kind of emotional scarring and tumult that would in turn require some healing. So, yeah, I am now in need of some serious bibliotherapy to help me get over the emotional gut-punch that was the act of reading “Breath.” ‘Nuff said.
Heather: From the outset you could feel something coming; something not at all good. The little hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, my stomach churned, and I regressed to nail-biting–one of my nervous ticks. I’ve never been literally punched in the face but while reading “Breath” I felt as if Herself kept pounding me with knock-out punches. I never expected anything close to what happens to our beloved characters in this sixth installment. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did, over and over and over again. Basically for most of the novel I was either pissed off or heartbreakingly sad. And so it goes with Outlander. If I ever get the chance to talk with Ms. Gabaldon in person, all I’m going to do is ask her about “Breath.” This is not a set-piece novel but a “let’s completely upend the entire lives of our beloved characters novel” as we move to the final three books of Claire and Jamie’s epic saga.
Fair warning: Spoilers ABOUND in this review, folks. DO NOT read on unless you’ve read Breath or would care to have major Outlander plot points made known to you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Heather: Hi Ronnie! So here we are again and as we just previewed for our readers, this novel overflowed with tragedy and bleakness-which I know from our book club discussion you had very strong opinions about and a strong opinion about this novel in general (as do I). Since so many things happened, let’s start with the major plot points, the first being Claire’s completely unexpected abduction and sexual assault. This hit me like a ton of bricks and I think you felt the same, so here, now, you can unleash your rage and dismay.
Ronnie: Oof. How to begin? I don’t what it is about Herself and rape, but now we have all three members of the Fraser family as survivors of sexual assault. It’s completely unreal to me! I understand her desire to introduce Wendigo, the Native American traveler, but I think she could have contrived a less traumatic event in which he and Claire meet. The only other purpose Claire’s abduction, physical assault, and rape serve is to have Jamie, Ian, and Roger kill, kill, kill. Maybe she was trying to highlight the precariousness of their living situation in the North Carolina wilderness? Or perhaps she wanted to remind us that the Fraser men are all deeply situated in their respective times, with this kind of brutal vengeance killing being a particularly difficult thing for Roger to reconcile? Maybe this terrible event, taken together with all of the other awful things that happen in this book are meant to de-romanticize our notion of the past? After my initial shock at the overwhelming violence that accompanies Claire’s rescue, I was surprised to find myself pleased with the murder of the entire kidnapping party. What does that say about myself, or about human nature in general that Jamie, Ian, Roger and co. killing Claire’s abductors and rapists seemed honorable and just?
I just don’t know. What I do know is that this start to the novel was unexpected, unwelcome, and totally over the top…or at least I thought it was until other things happened to top it.
Heather, was this event as tough for you to get through as it was for me? Were there other moments in Breath that just made you want to crawl under a blanket and hide from the world for a bit?
Heather: Yes, Claire’s abduction really made me angry. While her life precariously hung in the balance, I kept thinking of the silver lining; she hasn’t been raped and it doesn’t look like she will be-and Jamie will save her (cause you know two more books to go and all). And then, Knock-out punch number one. What’s worse is that I felt lured into a false sense of security for Claire, as she did outwit the first rape attempt only for it all to be undone by that horrible man. The only thing I can think of is that this man might have some role to play in the future…but God in heaven I cannot fathom what that could possibly be. I cannot understand Herself’s reasoning here, especially when she decided to follow with Malva Christie going all single white female/fatal attraction on Jamie and Claire.
Yeah the Christie storyline made me want to hide under a blanket. I don’t use the words, “I told you so” too often but…I told you guys! I knew those Christies were going to bring trouble-you just felt it back in The Fiery Cross. Credit to you, my friend, who felt the bad mojo radiating off Malva Christie from a mile away. It was one thing for her to accuse Jamie of adultery, but then she’s murdered in the Fraser’s garden and Claire is made to live with the death of Malva’s child. Knock-out punch number two. I don’t even know what to say about this, I mean how do I go about analyzing such events? Then she follows it up with Claire being arrested by those murderous Browns. Take all of that and put it together with the fact that we previously had to read through Claire’s life-threatening illness, Claire’s abduction, and all those dead families in the surrounding communities… “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” I feel sick again just writing about it. I haven’t been able to sort through how I should feel about Malva given her father and brother’s revelations. I don’t really feel empathy or understanding like I sometimes do for Frank Randall.
Oh and lest we forget there was also the bane of Brianna’s existence, Stephen Bonnet, who we learn early on survived his gunshot to the balls. His presence on the periphery of the novel kept my face in a constant state of furrowed brow. But didn’t you smile so big when we definitively learn that Roger is Jemmy’s biological father? That whole head-shaving-to-get-rid-of-lice scene warmed my little reading heart. Still, “Mortal Peril” should have been the title of this book.
What did you think of Malva Christie, Ronnie? Did Allan’s confession to Claire and Mr. Christie’s explanation make a difference for you? Once the Malva storyline went on its merry way we were hit again with the Fraser-Bonnet final confrontation. Mercifully Herself ended the novel with some light at the end of the tunnel. What did you think of the novel’s final act?
Ronnie: Lerd. Reading your thoughts just now reminded me of the barrel of the awful that rolled its way through this novel. Although your spidey-senses totally picked up on the fact that the Christies were going to be trouble way back in Drums, all of my unease was entirely focused on the attractive Malva. I knew she was going to be trouble, but I only suspected basic adultery. Maybe Roger or Jamie would get drunk and wind up in bed with Malva. Never did I think the Christies’ lives would become so entwined with the Frasers and lead to so much pain and suffering.
It’s not as though Claire and Jamie’s lives have been without trauma, so why hurl so much shit at them? I thought the revelation of Tom Christie’s love for Claire was heartbreakingly beautiful, but again, the violence of the situation that set-up this confession unbearable. In some ways I do understand Tom’s tragic demise. There really was no where left for his character to go given the loss of his children. Speaking of which, no, Allan’s confession did not exonerate Malva or help alleviate the emotional trauma of this plot line. Like Claire, I too felt as though it just made everything so much sadder and more painful. While we’re on the topic of painful, can I also say that I found this book to be beyond triggering. There was so much loss of life, and specifically death of children and infants, which I found unbelievably troubling. In other novels loss of life, in particular young life is a central event, one critical to the plot of a story; but in Breath it was just background noise. Ugh.
The fact that we both found the final Bonnett-Fraser standoff to be a much-needed emotional respite is proof enough that this novel put our emotions through the ringer. Spoilerest of spoilers: I thought Herself set up Bonnett’s death nicely. To have Brianna be the one to do it was fitting, and to have it be an act of mercy rather than revenge was particularly satisfying. I am so thankful that his story came to an end.
Heather: I echo your sentiments with respect to Bonnet. I am thoroughly satisfied with Herself’s tidying up of this singularly villainous character. But despite ALL of this tragedy and inexplicable violence this book contains one of my most favorite Outlander events to date; the moment Brianna sets her eyes upon William. When this happened, I kid you not I felt as if my heart would burst out of my chest. Herself’s description and narration of Brianna’s realization that she has come to face-to-face with none other than her little brother…I mean…I think I put both of my arms straight into the air. It made me so happy that Brianna has finally learned the truth. The scene in which Jamie and Lord John Grey watch from a window as Brianna and Roger introduce William to Jemmy and Mandy. Saaawwwooonnn. One of the best scenes I’ve ever read to date.
But of course my happiness didn’t last when it became apparent that Brianna, Roger and the children were forced to have to travel back through the stones to save Mandy’s life. I cried my eyes out when they left. Of course this is all to set up the storylines of the final trilogy, still the separation is heartbreaking. So we come to our end, with the MacKenzie’s safe in the future and Jamie, Claire and Ian set to head back to Scotland. Will Claire and Jamie ever see Brianna ever again? What awaits the Fraser’s in Scotland? How will the American Revolution affect our beloved characters? We’ll find out in the An Echo to the Bone.
Other Thoughts & Observations
- R: With all that went on in Breath I felt as though Ian’s character-arc got lost, which was a shame because it was a heart-wrenching, beautiful story. Although there will always be an aura of “the boy” about Ian, I thought it made me see him as a man for the first time since he was introduced in the Outlander-verse. H: Yes the chapter with Brianna and Ian upon which we finally learn why Ian returned to his family proved a powerful one. Admittedly I fell in love with Ian in this novel adding it to my love for Jamie and Roger.
- R: I am loving how well-rooted in history Herself has made these later Outlander novels. As a history buff I am digging the air of revolutionary unrest that undercuts the Frasers’ story and makes the impending war all the more real. I thought her description of the slave ship was horrifying, and in general I find her descriptions of slavery and the slave trade (in both this and earlier novels) to be some of the best, most realistic writing on the topic around.
- H: Okay let’s talk briefly about the Beardsleys. Back in our Fiery Cross post I stated that I couldn’t wait to see what Herself had in store for these two. And then she hit us with this, well, interesting romantic entanglement between Josiah, Kezzie and Lizzie. I never saw this coming. Consequently it elicited uncomfortable but necessary laughter from me. R: Yeah, that backwoods polyamory totally caught me off-guard, but I found it strangely endearing. What’s wrong with wanting to live with the two men you love…even if they’re brothers…twins, really…ok, yeah, it’s messed up (but in a loving way)!
- H: Speaking of laughter I thought one of the funniest scenes in this novel occurred with the snake threatening to disrupt Roger’s first sermon as a minister-in-training. Maybe because everything up until then had been so sad, this was a welcome comedic respite in between punches. It’s the small mercies, ya ken. R: Favorite snake scene #2: After the fire eats up the big house we learn that Jamie has saved the little wooden snake his older brother Willie carved for him as a boy. MY HEART JUST MELTED. I love that little toy as a symbol of Jamie’s undying fidelity to his loved ones.
Until next time, Outlander fans! Heather and I are taking a break from the Outlander series to recover with the Lord John Grey series, so expect our reviews on those novels and short stories in the next few weeks.