Book Review: A Trail of Fire by Diana Gabaldon
If you happened to read my blog post earlier in the week, then you’ll know that I was doing imaginary cartwheels and handsprings over the arrival of A Trail of Fire. Needless to say, I read it and I loved it. Perhaps that should be the entirety of my review right there.
A Trail of Fire is essential reading for fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and its related spin-off novels and novellas. I have a hard time imagining that someone who had never read any of Ms. Gabaldon’s works would enjoy this collection, as they’d have no familiarity with the main characters and their associated backstories. So if you’ve read this much of my review, and haven’t read Outlander — well, what are you waiting for? It’s an outstanding work of historical fiction, and your life will be better for having read it. So go! Get thee to a bookstore!
A Trail of Fire is a compilation of “four Outlander tales”, as it says on the cover. Of the four, three have been published previously as part of anthologies, and one is brand new. Here’s the catch: A Trail of Fire has not been published in the US, and my understanding is that it won’t be, at least not for some time to come. Bear with me if my understanding of copyrights leaves a bit to be desired, but the gist of the matter is that the three anthologized stories belong, in essence, to those anthologies, and therefore can’t be republished (at least not yet) in some other format. The new story will be published in the US in March 2013 as part of yet another anthology, but readers in the US who are chomping at the bit and just can’t wait another moment will have to get their fix by ordering from an overseas supplier (such as Amazon UK — which is what I did — or The Book Depository, to name but two potential resources) or from Diana Gabaldon’s hometown bookstore, The Poisoned Pen in Phoenix, Arizona, which has a supply of signed editions available for shipment.
Back to the review! The contents of A Trail of Fire are:
1) A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows: Previously published in the Songs of Love and Death anthology, this tale tells the story of Roger McKenzie’s parents, Jerry and Dolly. From the Outlander series, we know that Roger was orphaned during WWII and then raised by his uncle, the Reverend Wakefield. Roger tells Claire that his father was a Spitfire pilot, shot down over the English Channel, and that his mother died during the London Blitz. That’s all we know, and all that Roger knows as well. This lovely story fills in the blanks, and it’s both tragic and achingly romantic. Jerry and Dolly’s love story is incredibly moving and terribly sad, and it’s a tribute to Diana Gabaldon’s mastery of her art that we come to care so deeply about these previously unknown characters in such a short tale. (Short, by the way, is relative — most Gabaldon novels tend to the 1,000 page length, so a story of under 50 pages is practically miniscule by comparison). Because “Leaf” has woven into it some plot points from the seventh book in the Outlander series, Echo in the Bone, it should only be read after that novel. Hands down, this is my favorite piece in A Trail of Fire.
2) The Custom of the Army: This story originally appeared in the Warriors anthology, and fittingly, has a very military theme. “Custom” is a Lord John story, focusing on Lord John Grey, who plays a supporting yet important role throughout the Outlander series and is the star of his own spin-off series as well. The Lord John books and novellas tend to be historical mysteries in which Lord John’s aristocracy and military position come into play, and “Custom” fits right in. Set in London and Quebec in 1959, “Custom” is an enthralling look at the inner workings of the British army and a dramatic battlefield adventure as well. Lord John himself, as always, is a charming and honorable protagonist.
3) Lord John and the Plague of Zombies: This story first appeared in the anthology Down These Strange Streets, and is another historical mystery featuring our beloved Lord John. “Plague of Zombies” is set in Jamaica in 1761, and features Lord John taking command of a battalion tasked with controlling a slave rebellion, until events take a turn toward the unexplained, creepy, and supernatural. This story in particular ties in nicely with the main Outlander series, bringing in settings and characters also encountered in the third book, Voyager.
4) The Space Between: The new one! This is the story responsible for all those overseas orders from the rabid fans who just can’t wait… and a nice addition to the canon it is indeed. The Space Between takes place after events in Echo in the Bone. The storyline follows two family members we’ve not spent much time with before, new widower Michael Murray and nun-to-be Joan McKimmie, as they return from Scotland to Paris to embark on new chapters in their lives. Familiar characters from earlier in the Outlander series pop up as well, including Mother Hildegarde, the mysterious Master Raymond, and the presumed dead Comte St. Germain. The Space Between provides more theories and new tidbits on the rituals and necessities of time travel (which is quite important in the series), and adds many new clues for fans to mull over while waiting for the next big novel — expected by the end of 2013, or so we all hope.
As I think I’ve made clear, a reader who is unfamiliar with the Outlander series will most likely be completed befuddled by A Trail of Fire. But for the Outlander devotees, it just shouldn’t be missed. I gave in to temptation and bought A Trail of Fire instead of waiting for The Space Between to become available in the new anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide To World Domination. Did I need to? Not really… but it is nice to have the stories collected in one volume.