23 February 2007

Book Review: Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

Cross Stitch WW2 over, Claire and Frank Randall are holidaying in the Highlands. She studies botany while he chases down every last scrap of information about his six-times-great grandfather Jonathan, soldier, likely spy, and one of the more illustrious branches of the Randall family tree. A few odd things happen - conflicting symbols in the tea leaves, a possible ghost sighting - but nothing so strange as at Beltane, when Claire steps into a stone circle and steps out into 1743. And the first person she encounters is none other than Captain Jonathan Randall, who turns out to be an officer but not much of a gentleman.

Escaping from him, she’s captured by a marauding band of Mackenzies and taken to Castle Leoch. There she meets Callum, the crippled - and very suspicious - Mackenzie laird and his ambitious brother Dougal. Finally accepting that she is, in fact, in the eighteenth century, Claire - a wartime nurse - bides her time as castle physician until she can escape from Callum’s watchers and return to the circle of standing stones - and Frank. Then an ill-fated visit to the English garrison results in Dougal being ordered to produce her for ‘questioning’ - something he has no intention of doing. Not when he can use her to secure his place in the clan succession, and pave the way for a strategically-positioned property to come under Mackenzie control. Knowing that it’s her only hope for staying out of Randall’s clutches, Claire agrees to marry his nephew Jamie Fraser.

This presents its own complications; guilt at the thought of abandoning him, the jealousy of one of the castle girls which see Claire embroiled in a witch trial, and her growing attachment to him. By the time she returns to the circle of standing stones, she can no longer bear the thought of leaving him. But her happiness is threatened when Jamie is betrayed to the Watch, and Claire must risk liberty and life to rescue him from gaol and get him far beyond the reach of Randall’s vengeance.

I’ve dithered for days over this review, certain that nothing I can write could do it justice. The only thing not to love about it is the fact that it weighs more than everything else in my handbag combined. Claire is a fantastic heroine; her background growing up on archaeological digs and battlefield nursing allow her quickly to find her feet in the eighteenth century (although her propensity for swearing raises a few eyebrows), and the latter provided good practice at ordering around recalcitrant men. Her narration is highly entertaining and holds your interest even when describing nothing more exciting than daily life at the castle. Not that there are many lulls; even when nothing much is happening externally, there’s her various internal dilemmas: how to get back to Frank, whether to go back to Frank, and what - if anything - she should do to try to avert the impending disaster of Culloden.

The amount of historical information here is such that the mind boggles at the amount of research that must have gone into it. All I’ve read about Georgian history has concerned England, so it was good to find out what things were like on the other side of the border. Another advantage to having an outsider as narrator is that the political situation can be shown without any bias one way or another; once she makes her decision to stay in the eighteenth century, her only loyalty is to whatever will best ensure her and Jamie’s survival. The two of them make a wonderful couple; he is simply adorable (though he is, as Dougal said, as stubborn as a rock) and willing to do anything for Claire, as she is for him. Those resolutions will be put very much to the test before the end of the book, which involves one of the more ingenious methods of gaolbreaking I’ve come across. And it’s great to see a left-handed redhead in a starring role (okay, that’s my bias!).

This book has one final distinction: it contains the vilest villain of any book I’ve read. Captain Jonathan Randall is a sadist with a great fondness for handsome young Scotsmen in general and an obsession with Jamie Fraser in particular. He has a soft spot for torture and a very creepy resemblance to his six-times-great grandson. And there’s a hint that his mind is twisted even beyond the obvious. I have got to get my hands on the sequel ... once I’ve found enough free time to get through a book that big!

Hmm ... writing this wasn’t so bad after all. Amazing what watching the clock tick toward midnight will do for a girl’s writing speed!

Rating: A+


Julia said...

I'm a BIG fan of Diana Gabaldon books. I have read all 6th books (yep that included A Breath of Snow and Ashes) and love them all.

If you haven't read the rest of the series, please do it. While the books are thick and very deep detailed writing, it is worth the reading. Don't let it frighten you ;) I will admit though, some books do get bored in some parts in the story but it is worth reading as whole :)

Love your review on this!

Amat Libris said...

I did plan on getting hold of Dragonfly in Amber after I finished Cross Stitch the first time,but evry time I saw it in the library I had too much else to do to borrow a book that big. Then when I did have time, the book wasn't there. But I'm determined now to read it even if I have to go halfway across the city to get it!

And I do love a good door-stopper-sized book; just not when it's dangling from one shoulder! (Makes cornering with a supermarket trolley a bit tricky.)

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