With the release of this recent collection of novellas, Gabaldon seeks to pull together a number of her shorter pieces for the reader’s enjoyment. With some mention of Jamie Fraser, a peppering of Roger, and even the elder Fraser, the vast number of stories have some Lord John Grey connection. When I undertook my Diana Gabaldon binge in the summer of 2015, I sought to read her entire collection in chronological order, which sandwiched Outlander novels with a number of the Lord John pieces. A number of the novella found within this collection were included in this binge. I have chosen to resurrect these reviews for those stories I have already read in this collection, so some of the comments might seem out of place in 2017. The latter two pieces are those I have never read and so their reviews are brand new to me and those who follow my postings. I hope you will enjoy my summaries and encourage anyone with a massive amount of patience to tackle the larger Outlander/Lord John collection.
The Custom of the Army:
It all begins with an electric eel party and a duel that goes horribly wrong. A night of apparent debauchery leads our famed Gabaldon character in a heap of trouble everywhere he turns. In an attempt to hide himself while he is persona non grata, Grey agrees to act as a character witness for a friend facing court martial, in CANADA. With an additional familial matter to handle while he is away, Grey embarks on an adventure to the New World and mixes it up with the British Army (currently at war with France in Quebec), while he hunts down a man keen on abandoning his duties. Gabaldon shows the reader another humorous side of Grey who, without Jamie Fraser around, is quite a civilised gentleman.
Gabaldon does a great job in keeping the LJG series moving forward. With some great storytelling, time appropriate characters and wonderful narration, anyone who is a fan of the Outlander series or the full-length Lord John Grey books will not be disappointed. This book sits nicely as a stand-alone, hence its unofficial non-labelled nature between many of the other pieces of writing in the series.
The Space Between:
In this novella, Gabaldon chooses two lesser characters and send them on a journey mentioned towards the end of An Echo in the Bone. Young Joan MacKimmie, step-daughter of our beloved Jamie Fraser, heads to Paris to answer her calling and train to become a nun. Sent on her way with Jamie’s nephew, Michael, they travel through the streets of Paris in a short and jam-packed story. While Joan seeks to make herself a bride of Christ, she wrestles with voices only she can hear, which offer both advice and glimpses into the future. As she prepares for her entry into the convent, she begins to question everything she has come to believe, which led her to this point. Michael, who may have been sent as a bodyguard, fights his own inner demons on the trip, part related to his growing feelings for this young woman as well as the knowledge his Aunt Claire gave him about the not too distant civil uprising in France, with Paris at its heart. Michael and Joan struggle to balance their responsibilities with what the heart desires, creating a space between logic and emotion. They must also fend off the plans of a sinister man who seeks revenge for Claire Fraser’s antics when last she spent time in Paris. Learning of the connection Joan and Michael possess to La Dame Blanche, they are spun into a web of deceit and potential disaster. With a sprinkling of time travel discussion (of course, no Outlander story can ignore the Stones), Gabaldon moves her major sub-story forward while keeping a little more of the full time movement situation for the final novel. Brilliantly composed with just enough to keep the reader wanting more.
As the number of remaining Outlander stories dwindle, I am left to pay special attention to these tales. Having taken the time to re-read the entire collection, I have taken away so much and learned a great deal, both about the history of the time as well as the intricacies of the characters Gabaldon has set before the reader. As mentioned many times in previous novels, Gabaldon may introduce minor characters throughout, whose importance is only known much later. This novella is a wonderful case in point, where the likes of Joan and Michael receive only passing mention in earlier stories, but now play central roles. One could say the same for Comte St. Germain, who acts as a Stephen Bonnet or Black Jack Randall of sorts. Wonderfully spun in such a way to entertain and intrigue simultaneously.
The Plague of Zombies:
In Gabaldon’s final piece (to date) of Lord John-centred writing, she succeeds in weaving another great tale with her ever-resourceful Lord John Grey at the helm. In Jamaica on official business, Lord John is soon drawn into a phenomena new to him; the emergence of zombies. Waking one night by a visitor whose human form is questionable, Grey wonders if there is more to this myth than strict lore. When the Governor is found murdered, the scene leads many to believe a pack of zombies may be behind the crime. However, Grey is not so sure and mounts clues to turn the investigation in another direction. With many wishing him gone (from office as well as from the earth), the Governor’s demise leaves many suspects for Grey to ponder. That said, the power of zombies appears stronger than even and Grey seeks to learn more about them if for no other reason than to quench his curiosity. Another great novella by Gabaldon to keep the reader on the edge of their seat and with an eye on packs of unknowns lurking the streets at night.
Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series is one of my great guilty pleasures. Her plethora of characters leaves a great opening for many interesting branch-off stories or novellas. That said, her character Lord John Grey, whose role in the Outlander series is minor in the first three novels, is one perfectly suited for a series of novels. An 18th century Sherlock Holmes on one hand and a tyrannical man whose lust for Jamie Fraser fuels a powerful hatred in the main novel series cannot be discounted. Gabaldon has done a masterful job of painting a calmer and more likeable side to Grey in this series, as well as jumping on the ‘zombie’ bandwagon made overly popular by THE WALKING DEAD. A great novella for fans of the series or newbies alike, it makes for a highly entertaining read for the curious reader.
A Leaf of the Wind of All Hallows:
What ever happened to Jerry MacKenzie, father of Roger, whose plane went down during the War effort? As Gabaldon mentions in the story’s preface, discussion of Jerry opened in An Echo in the Bone, where Claire admitted that the story Roger knew was not entirely true. With Roger finally encountering Jerry in 1739, something must have happened related to the Stones, but the story is again not flushed out. Gabaldon chooses this point to offer a real account of events, just in time as Outlander fans are surely tearing their hair out with wonder, as the cliffhanger found no resolution within Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. Spitfire pilot Jerry MacKenzie is approached by MI6 (and Frank Randall no less) to help in the execution of a covert mission behind the Iron Curtain. While out on reconnaissance, Jerry develops engine trouble and crash lands somewhere in Northumbria. As Jerry seeks to get his bearings, he discovers that he’s been propelled into the past, but has no explanation for events. When he comes across a mysterious character, a little is revealed, including how to get back, but no clear understanding of the Stones is made known. Returning to modern times, Jerry comes across his wife, Marjorie, but is not in a position to reach her to discuss his revelations. Filling a few cracks in the Outlander storylines, this short story fits nicely, yet leaves much to the imagination.
VIRGINS, a novella penned by Gabaldon years after she made Jamie Fraser a successful protagonist in the Outlander series, opens the collection nicely. In it, Fraser and his friend, Ian Duncan, embark on the life of young mercenaries, well away from Scotland. It’s 1740 and the boys, aged nineteen and twenty respectfully, find themselves out in the world, experiencing all that it has to offer. While Duncan sees that his friend is holding onto a secret, nothing prepares him when he learns the truth. Captain Jack Randall came to Lallybroch and embarrassed Fraser, along with his entire family, leaving Jamie banished from his own estate. Jamie uses the attack and belittling to fuel his fire to become a man in a hard-knock world. Along the way, Jame and Ian learn about fighting, sex, and what it means to be independent, all while crossing paths with many a clan unlike themselves. These ‘life virgins’ soon learn the ways of the world while vowing to protect one another. The novella opens the door to what is sure to be a wonderful series, at least for Jamie, as he hones his skills and returns to face Randall in the years to come. The awkwardness that he will encounter (as Outlander fans know all too well) should make for an ever-changing flood of sentiment in the man’s brain…but we have many many pages to learn all about that.
A Fugitive Green:
In a story set around 1744, Minerva ‘Minnie’ Rennie is living in Paris with her father. They run a somewhat successful bookselling business, but it is merely a front for some of their more deceptive work: espionage, blackmail, and a little robbery. At seventeen, Minnie is ready to find herself a husband, but has been kept shielded from men by her overprotective father. However, an Englishman is said to make the best husband, so she is sent off to London to find a man and help her father with an especially interesting assignment. Meanwhile, the Duke of Pardloe, Harold (Hal), brother of the popular Lord John Grey, is still mourning the death of his wife and infant. They both perished after the onset of premature labour occurred when Hal engaged in a duel with his wife’s lover, Nathaniel Twelvetrees. The fallout of that duel and the death of his wife has kept Hal trying to justify his actions, though he has no firm proof of the affair. After Minnie arrives in London and is given the task of securing the collection of letters between Esme and Twelvetrees. Sly as she might be, even Minnie is sure to find this task somewhat difficult. Minnie is also left to discover a family secret that will shock her to the core, burning in a nunnery. While Minnie tries to secure copies of the letters, she encounters Hal and is somewhat besotted with him. This chance encounter turns somewhat steamy after she is caught red-handed trying to locate the letters. Returning to Paris, Minnie recounts her story to a curious father, who can see he has a well-trained daughter on his hands. However, when she reveals two secrets, all bets are off. A wonderful story that even allows the beloved Jamie Fraser to make a cameo appearance. Gabaldon is able to tie off a few threads left dangling in past stories as she adds to the Outlander/Lord John Grey chronology.
In the waning days of his military governorship in Jamaica, Lord John Grey is preparing to head to the America Colonies, not yet in full insurrection mode. The year is 1762 and life has been decent for this man of many adventures. He receives his step-father, who passes along a message that Lord John’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Pardloe, is in Havana and may need to be collected. While this seems like a lovely side journey, news that the British Navy is on its way to seize the territory in its ongoing battles with Spain, leaves Lord John a little less at ease. Gathering his retinue, they make their way to Cuba and soon learn that the Dowager has made her way into the rural areas, alongside some other members of Grey’s extended family. Added to the upcoming siege is news of yellow fever, which has been making its way around the region. Choosing to arm himself with a few Spanish-speaking individuals, Lord John ventures far from the beaten path and encounters some less than pleasurable individuals who seek to form their own slave insurrection. What follows will test Lord John to his core and may put a significant flavour to the intended mission. Another great story that shows the softer and more compassionate side of Lord John Grey during his continued missions around the New World.
While not entirely full of new stories, the collection is well worth the time invested by the reader. Gabaldon is not only the master of the genre, but finds new and exciting ways to link passing mentions in some of her larger pieces with novellas that explain or further the already-developed piece. History is, at times, fluid when Gabaldon is at the helm, but it is the intricacies of the narrative that makes this collection a stunning compendium. Many will know of Lord John and Jamie, but it’s these minor characters who are given some centre stage time that enriches the experience for all.
Kudos, Madam Gabaldon for this lovely collection. Please allow me to speak for your entire fan base when I say, ‘we thank you for these short stories… but when can we dive into BOOK NINE?’. There, I said it!