Twenty-three years after she vanished through a stone circle into another time, Claire Randall is back in twentieth-century Scotland. With her is her daughter Brianna, who believes her father to be the late historian Frank Randall, and has no idea of the truth: that her mother is a time-traveller, and she herself is the daughter of an eighteenth-century Scottish outlaw. In Inverness Claire seeks out Roger Wakefield, who is happy to carry out a spot of historical detective work on her behalf - especially if it means seeing more of Brianna. But the simple task of discovering which of a group of men survived Culloden becomes more complicated when he notices a few little oddities. Meanwhile Claire prepares to tell her astonishing story, and to show them the one piece of evidence that can prove its truth beyond doubt.
Claire’s narration picks up after Cross Stitch left off: with her and Jamie Fraser in France in 1745, searching for a way to avert Culloden by stopping the rebellion before it starts. It’s a delicate and risky business, getting close to Charles Stuart by pretending to support his cause, while in reality trying to suppress it (incidentally, just as Roger told Brianna, Charles Stuart really did abandon the battlefield in such a hurry as to leave his picnic set behind.) But they’re sure they can succeed; after all, Frank Randall’s ring remains on her finger, even though one of his direct ancestors was prematurely killed, which means that they have already succeeded in changing history - or have they? Then Claire secures the enmity of the Comte St. Germain, rumoured black magician and all-round bad news; a few more branches of Frank’s family tree turn up; and the Duke of Sandringham decides to start meddling. Suddenly the question of whether the past really can be changed, or whether those trying to do so are as helpless as a dragonfly trapped in amber, becomes the least of their concerns. And after being forced back to Scotland, they discover that their only hope of saving the clansmen at Culloden may well be to become Jacobites in truth, and see that the rebellion succeeds. Only one thing is certain: that the love Jamie and Claire have for each other can survive anything - even separation by more than two hundred years.
This book is partly responsible for my still being slightly behind in my blogging: once I picked it up, it was very hard put down, and I certainly couldn’t tear myself away from it for a mere book review. Once I got into it, that is. Cross Stitch was all first-person and finished in the eighteenth century, so when I opened this and found it was third person in the twentieth century, I was a little disoriented and for a moment even wondered if I had the right book. But, no, this was book two, and I soon got used to the idea that the continuation of the eighteenth century would have to wait a while. The process was greatly helped by the mystery of Claire’s reappearance and her request, and by the presence of Roger Wakefield. The little boy who briefly appeared in book one has grown up to be just adorable, and it was fun watching him battle with his late father’s lifetime accumulation of paper and his relentlessly marriage-minded housekeeper. And once Claire resumed her tale, I was glued to the page - all nine-hundred-plus of them. (I’m sure it didn’t seem that long. I guess pages fly when you’re having fun.)
And in spite of the high stakes, the danger, and the certain knowledge that it all ends in failure and separation, there’s a lot of fun. At some points I was laughing out loud, like Jamie’s improvised use of a rock-solid sausage as a weapon - and his thriftily keeping hold of it during his subsequent flight and having it cooked up for dinner. But the greatest attraction was the characters. The cast was large, but I never got muddled; they’re all individuals and most leapt off the page (Brianna didn’t quite spring to life, but maybe in the next book). As well as the enjoyment of meeting all the newcomers, and returning to a few old favourites, there was also a wonderful chance to see the good side of a bad character. After this, I’ve come to the conclusion that the key to a truly memorable villain is not just the vileness, but the degree of normality mixed with it. Best of all, I got to spend more time with Claire and Jamie. He is just as wonderful in this book as the first - and with just as much of a tendency to infuriating stubbornness. Claire has a truly enviable knack for thinking on her feet, and I really wish I shared it. Once again they showed their willingness to do anything for each other; and when there was nothing more that could be done and history forced them apart, I was scrambling for the Kleenex.
The eighteenth century threw up a few twists for the characters from the twentieth. One has me itching to read book three. One took me by surprise and had me rushing for my copy of Cross Stitch to see how the clues had been planted. (Answer: very subtly.) And one I saw coming a mile off, and I couldn’t think why Claire didn’t spot it also. It was a little disappointing that someone usually so observant should miss something that I thought was obvious. But it did at least clear up something I’d been puzzled by since book one. And be warned - it does get gory, and there’s a high body count by the end.