The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon. It must have been my very first year as a librarian, nearly ten years ago now, when a patron I was talking to put her hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “You have got to read the Outlander series. They are the best books in the world.” Well, I’m too fond of having lots of books to call any one series the best in the world, but for once, I took her advice and started the series. The books are addictive, long and involved, such a tight blend of historical fiction, time travel, and romance that the publishers originally decided to market them as romance mostly because romance had the biggest audience, though at the library, we shelve them in SciFi/Fantasy. Gabaldon now has a spin-off series and has done a graphic novel featuring the story from the first book from the point of view of the other main character. I haven’t kept up with all of these – I have a hard time justifying reading everything in a series as a librarian – but considering the volume of the output, I think that missing just one of the main series (which came out the same time my daughter was born) and one of the spin-offs is doing pretty well. Given all that, I was shocked to realize that I couldn’t find that I’ve ever reviewed a Gabaldon book here. However, there is again no way to review (or read) this book without massive spoilers for the first couple of those books.
This book is somewhere between a spin-off and a main series book. It stars Jamie, the hero of the main series, and Lord John, the hero of the spin-off Lord John mysteries. It takes place during the time covered by the third series book, when our heroine Claire is back in her present day. That makes it a little lighter on romance than most of the other books, though Jamie does spend a lot of time thinking about her. Anyway, as our story begins, Jamie is serving parole at the estate of Helwater for his crimes of being on the wrong side at Culloden (being a Highlander and all). Lord John found him this position, where he’s technically a prisoner, but working as the master of horse under an assumed name. What is a secret even to Lord John is that the current heir to the estate and title, Willie (aged two) is actually Jamie’s son. While the story of his conception and his mother’s death was covered in one of the other big novels, this was the first time to my recollection that we get to see Jamie with his son, as affectionate and protective as he can be within the confines of his role. His peaceful retreat begins to break down when one of the maids sends him a message to meet with someone up in the hills, someone who turns out to be Quinn, an Irishman and Jacobite who previously fought in the war with Jamie. He brings news of a second Rising and begs Jamie to help lead it. Jamie refuses, though he cannot tell Quinn that he refuses because he knows from Claire that the Rising is doomed to failure, and more attempts will only mean more suffering and death. Quinn is quite determined, and follows Jamie even when soldiers come to take him to London. Meanwhile, Lord John has received a last request with a packet of documentation from a recently deceased friend – use the documentation to convict Lord Siverly, a high-ranking military official of some dark and evil deeds. Siverly is currently holed up in Ireland, and John’s brother Hal decides that Jamie, coming closer to speaking Irish than anyone else he knows (I think this is the reason, anyway) is the best person to accompany John on the journey to fetch him back to England where he can be court-martialed.
Got that? There’s two separate strands of twining political intrigue, between the politics of the original crimes and the second rising. There are lots and lots of characters that I wasn’t sure if I’d met before or not, only that it was challenging keeping track of them all. This is par for the course, really. Beyond the tangles, the story is about Jamie and Lord John being forced back together after their friendship exploded back in Ardsmuir prison when, among other dramatic events, Lord John made a romantic advance on Jamie and was rebuffed with horror. Can they find a way to trust each other again? Will their friendship ever recover? And how will Jamie balance his desire to keep Scotland safe from a second Rising with the need to protect those he cares about from implicated in the plotting currently occurring? Even though I felt that rereading the first couple of books might have helped me feel less lost, this is still addictive Gabaldon, with strong characters and immersive plotting. And yeah, if you haven’t read her before, start at the beginning, with Outlander. The audio books are famously well done, too.