Book review: Romance novelist’s latest time travel opus has more heart than soul

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I have a fascination with time travel. From the ongoing legacy of Doctor Who to the everlasting impact of “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” media have kept me constantly wondering if time travel is possible.

So I was immediately intrigued when I got the opportunity to review a romance time travel novel. Perhaps my curiosity would’ve been better served looking information up on the book’s predecessors.

“Written in My Own Heart’s Blood” is the eighth novel in the popular Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, which was recently picked up by Starz to become a television series. It picks up directly where the last book, “An Echo in the Bone,” concluded and focuses on two narratives.

The main plot takes place in Philadelphia, the year 1778, with time traveler Dr. Claire Randall-Fraser looking for her husband and watching the events of the Revolutionary War unfold around her.

By Diana Gabaldon
Delacorte ($35)

Meanwhile, in 1980s’ Scotland, Claire’s daughter Brianna is also on a quest: a search for her kidnapped son, whom she fears may have been taken back in time. In both plots, the point of view switches among several important characters, with Claire’s being the only one in first-person perspective.

If you are new to the saga, there’s both good news and bad: While a family tree is included, this won’t help much in deciphering the events that came before. There are a few reminders of previous happenings, but the book takes for granted that you know the lore.

Granted, it is fair to assume that those reading the eighth novel in a collection has read the previous installments. What is probably clear to long-standing fans left me scratching my head.

What is obvious is that Ms. Gabaldon has mastered the art of using imagery. Most characters, locations, and objects are described with exquisite detail. One man likens the Loyalists fleeing the city to “driving a herd of swine through the eye of a needle.” Unfortunately, the descriptions are vivid to the point of nausea. Each line used during the scenes where Claire performs an operation could churn the stomachs of trained surgeons.

In all honesty, the details are what really makes this novel interesting. The amount of research that has been done is remarkable, as everything from Quaker plain speech to medical procedures to even the names of George Washington’s slaves match up with historical records online.

The fiction feels as natural and believable as the facts, like the thought-provoking conversations on the repercussions of time travel. Again, this does backfire; several main characters speak with an old Gaelic dialect that can be not only difficult to interpret but also mistaken for typos. But it rewards readers who take the time to scan each sentence, with little in-jokes and references to modern day culture (my favorite being the name of a local satire paper).

Despite the author’s attention to detail, the attention span of the fan base may not be up to task of tackling this installment. There are 814 pages, and I can barely remembers what happens on any of them.

Early on in the first hundred pages, one character is named colonel under George Washington. After a jump into Brianna’s story, I returned to find him in a different uniform, much to my surprise. When such a key plot point is hastily forgotten, it’s a clear sign something is amiss in the story.

It is not that the writing of “WIMOHB” is poor. As I said earlier, the imagery and use of other literary devices is superb. The same cannot be said for the over-arching story. The plot gallops to cringe-inducing intimacy between characters, and the action sequences are about as enjoyable as Chinese water torture.

It definitely feels like a project she started several years ago, then hastily edited to fit the trends of today. If I had to choose between storylines, I would say Claire’s is the stronger of the two, although it’s a fairly close call. The book drags on for too many pages. At about the 500 page mark, there are several points where it could’ve ended on as solid a cliffhanger as the other books in the Outlander series.

“Written In My Own Heart’s Blood” is enjoyable, with aspects that will appeal to history buffs, romantics, science fiction fans and feminists, but this is a novel that is better as part of a whole, rather than standing on its own. Either way, “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood” features plenty of blood and heart but not enough to fully satisfy.

Corinne Taggart is a freelance writer.

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