Drums of Autumn by Susan Scribner
(Delacorte, $24.95, PG-13, ISBN 0-385-25585-3
****
If you're a Diana Gabaldon fan, the question is probably not should you buy Drums of Autumn, but when should you do it? Should you rush out to your bookstore and spend the hefty sum for the hardcover? Wait a few weeks or months until you can rent or borrow it? Wait a whole year until the paperback is issued? Then when are you going to make the time to read this almost 900 page epic? Should you read bits and pieces as you can or take a 2-week vacation from Real Life and check into a motel under an alias to devour the thing?

Of course I can't make those decisions for you, but I can give you my humble reviewer's opinion. While I loved the book and will place it with the other "Outlandish" books on my keeper shelf, I didn't think it was the strongest entry in the series -- or at least, not the first 600 pages of it. The last 300 were well worth the price of the book.

Drums of Autumn wisely takes the well-loved characters of Claire Randall Fraser and Jamie Fraser to colonial America, where they have many excellent opportunities to test their strength and courage. The time-traveling Claire has left behind her 20th century life and her daughter Brianna, with sadness but not regret.

The story picks up where Voyager left off, with little if any recapitulation of the plot. After 2 years, I found this a little confusing and wished someone had provided a synopsis for me. If you are unfamiliar with Claire and Jamie's story, I wouldn't recommend starting here; get yourself paperback copies of the first three novels and dig in.

As the novel opens, Jamie and Claire witness the execution of three prisoners, one of whom was in Ardsmuir prison many years ago with Jamie. Another prisoner, convicted of piracy, escapes before his sentence can be carried out. Jamie and Claire later help him flee. This act of generosity has repercussions far beyond what Jamie and Claire can possibly imagine.

Jamie and Claire, along with Jamie's nephew Ian and kinsman Duncan, find their way to North Carolina, where Jamie's Aunt Jocasta rules a plantation. Eventually, they strike out on their own into the mountains, determined to stake a claim on their own land. For the first time since the tragic Battle of Culloden, Jamie hopes to establish himself as a man of property, worthy of his beloved "Sassenach" wife.

Interspersed with Claire and Jamie's story is the 20th century budding romance between Brianna and Roger MacKenzie Wakefield, the minister's son and historian who helped Claire find her way back through time in Voyager. While they tentatively develop a transatlantic relationship, Brianna suddenly discovers something that sends her on a desperate quest into the past to find her parents. Roger follows her, and they are reunited briefly in the eighteenth century. Then an argument separates them, and their new love is tested dramatically.

Gabaldon is a master of her craft who can elicit many emotions from the reader. Drums of Autumn is in turn earthy (Claire cures a man of a hernia problem during a party), funny (a rattlesnake falls into the outhouse), shockingly violent (Claire and Jamie encounter the Indian population and find them to be, at times, the only people on earth more bloodthirsty than the Scots) and tender (Jamie and Brianna's first meeting). I think what I missed, however, was the wonderful romantic tension between Jamie and Claire. Of course they love each other and are willing to lay down their lives for each other, but they are almost an old married couple by now, and some of the spark is gone. Nothing comes close to Jamie giving himself to Jack Randall to save Claire's life in Outlander, or the reunion scene between the lovers in Voyager.

Jamie is still one of my favorite heroes of all time. His attempts to establish a paternal relationship with his modern daughter, who shares her father's looks and strong personality, comprise the most compelling scenes in the novel.

The first 600 pages of the novel are good but almost too episodic, barely moving the storyline forward. However, I read the last 300 pages, when Brianna finds Jamie and loses Roger, in almost one sitting. That spark missing between Jamie and Claire is evident in the relationship between Brianna and Roger, as their sweet innocent love affair endures a trial by fire. If I were in a movie I would have been at the edge of my seat. Roger changes before our eyes from a callow yet endearing hero into a mature man whose courage, strength, honor and faith are all tested almost beyond endurance. I look forward to seeing his character develop further in the remaining novels of the series.

Brianna also finds more than she bargained for in the past, but meets the challenge. In fact, one of my few complaints about the novel is that her transition to the past seems too effortless. No mention is made of any difficulties she has adjusting to her new surroundings -- clothes, customs, food, etc. She's almost too competent.

According to the Diana Gabaldon web site, there are 2 more books planned in the series, and I'm sure I will be in line to buy both of them. While I recommend Drums of Autumn, I don't think it approaches the breathtaking drama of both Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber. But I'm glad to have spent the last two weeks of my reading life with Jamie and Claire, and will miss them until the next installment.

--Susan Scribner


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