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A Breath of Snow and Ashes


A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Bodice-ripper romance? Check. Historical fiction with oodles of
period detail? Double-check. Time-traveling fantasy? You bet. A
BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES (actually, all six volumes in Diana
Gabaldon's Outlander series) combines most of the genres I love,
which means I couldn't put it down --- and at a hefty 992 pages,
that's saying a lot. While immersed, I felt I was never far from
Fraser's Ridge, the North Carolina homestead where Jamie Fraser, an
exiled Scotsman, and his wife Claire, doctor and displaced
20th-century person, make their home. There are two other refugees
from the contemporary world in the community: the Frasers' daughter
Brianna (conceived in the 18th century, born in the 20th), and her
husband Roger --- plus assorted saints, ruffians, eccentrics,
rogues, floozies and fanatics.

Gabaldon's conceit, for those new to the books, is that certain
individuals are able to pass from one century to another by means
of ancient circles of standing stones. In OUTLANDER, the first
volume, Claire time-travels quite by accident while vacationing in
the Highlands; from 1946 she is hurtled back some 200 years, when
the Jacobites, Scottish supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie, were
fighting to oust the English and reestablish their own king. She
meets and marries Jamie, but after the rebels are crushed at
Culloden in 1745 and he is condemned to death, she returns to
modern life (and her bemused 20th-century husband) to save her
unborn child.

Sounds pretty crazy, but Gabaldon makes it plausible because her
research is so meticulous and her characters so sympathetic:
heroic, yet attractively flawed. You get to know the central
quartet --- Jamie, Claire, Brianna and Roger --- especially well,
since they take turns narrating the book. Okay, I'll admit that the
two couples' literally timeless devotion and undying ardor (sex
scenes galore!) are so idealized that lots of plot action is
essential to keep the reader from becoming bored and/or skeptical:
Somebody (Claire twice and Brianna once) is always getting abducted
by villains and rescued by the clan.

But A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES, though a close cousin of the
historical romance (think a more prolix version of Philippa
Gregory), has another dimension, thanks to the sci-fi element. A
modern sensibility and vision lurk within the pre-electric
interiors and wild, uncharted scenery of Fraser's Ridge --- Brianna
dreams of hot running water; Claire struggles with the concept that
she is Jamie's property; Roger, originally an historian, looks
ahead to the triumph of the revolution and the bitter fate of the
Native Americans. The book reminds us how dangerous it was to be on
the "right" side of the Anglo-American conflict, and how hard and
labor-intensive it was to accomplish the simplest tasks of everyday
life. It shows us Claire and Brianna recreating resources we take
for granted, from matches to ether (Claire's medical adventures,
wherein she combines contemporary knowledge with herbal traditions,
is my favorite part of the series; in this volume she handles a
breech birth, fixes a twisted hand, and treats syphilis with a
home-grown form of penicillin). The women characters are not only
amazingly strong, but also possess a feminist consciousness that
they bring to bear on an impressive number of unwed pregnancies and
other local scandals. And always the modern refugees are wondering
whether there are other time-travelers like themselves --- whether,
in fact, every invention is really a reinvention by people
from the future.

The temporal ambiguity of the book also gives it emotional depth.
All the characters, time-travelers or political exiles, have a
feeling of displacement and a deep longing for the home they've
parted from. Jamie, contemplating the "glorious, terrifying"
emptiness of the land, becomes aware of a "more terrifying
emptiness within": He "had said good-bye to Scotland at the rail of
the Artemis, knowing full well it was likely his last sight
of the place. And yet the notion that he would never set foot there
again had never fully settled on him 'til this moment."' Our
stories of pioneers and immigrants have passed into myth, so it is
easy to forget how much courage it took to break with the old and
familiar and sail off to a whole new continent.

A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES isn't great literature. It's way, way
too long; full of breathless prose, cornball archaic language, and
Gaelic phrases; easy to make fun of or relegate to the status of
guilty pleasure. And yet, there is something so honest, rich and
complete about the alternative worlds Gabaldon creates that I think
she is a kind of genius. I can't wait to find out what happens next
in the story of the Frasers and their kin (the end is quite a

If you're already addicted to Claire and Jamie, this review
probably isn't even necessary. But for Outlander "virgins," I have
some advice: Pick up a copy of THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION, Gabaldon's
handbook to the series, which includes not only synopses of the
first few books but also family trees, character analyses, research
minutiae, a Gaelic glossary and grammar, and more --- all the
insider info a hardcore fan could want and a newcomer could


Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on December 23, 2010

A Breath of Snow and Ashes
by Diana Gabaldon

  • Publication Date: September 27, 2005
  • Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 1157 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press
  • ISBN-10: 0385324162
  • ISBN-13: 9780385324168