Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #2) by Diana Gabaldon

Trigger warnings for discussions of rape, and child abuse. 

Dragonfly in Amber covers Claire and Jamie's attempt to stop Bonnie Prince Charlie from starting the Jacobite uprising because history tells us that it will end in slaughter for the Highlanders and the destruction of the clan system.  The book begins in the 20th century, told fromthe point of view of Roger Wakefield, a historian who Claire visits to try and discover what happened to the fighting Highlanders that she interacted with in the past.  Claire, now a doctor and widow of Frank Randall, is determined not only to find out what happened but to tell her daughter Brianna, who her true father is and the circumstances of her birth. 

The moment Claire begins recounting her time in France, the POV changes to hers, which is a good thing because much of Roger's commentary obsesses alternately about the beauty and sexual attraction he has towards Brianna and of course, how strong and beautiful he finds Claire to be.

We know almost from the beginning that Claire and Jamie failed to stop the uprising and so essentially, Dragonfly in Amber is the story of their failed political intrigue.  It makes it tedious at times to read because there is a strong sense of how the book is going to end.  To enjoy this novel, as with the first, one must believe in the relationship between Jamie and Claire.

I wish I could call Claire a strong protagonist.  I can clearly see the effort to make her strong with things like having her fight with Jamie over the right to work as a nurse at the hospital during her pregnancy, not content to sit around the house all day while he runs his cousin's shipping business.  There is also her defiant attempt to stop Jamie from killing Johnathon Randall, though the man tortured him and raped him, in order to ensure the possibility of Frank Randall's birth.  Having made her decision to stay with Jamie, Claire is unwilling to give up the possibility of her marriage to Frank.

Unfortunately, this is where Claire's strength ends.  For the most part, she is pretty submissive with Jamie.  At no point does she ever say no to sex, even when Jamie says things like wanting to use her. Am I supposed to find that romantic?   And when Claire has sex with the king of France, in order to free Jamie from jail, his first thought isn't of the sacrifice she made for him, but a desire to kill her for allowing another man to touch his property. 
 “Christ!” he said, and sat up suddenly, turning to face me. “Do ye not know what I…Claire.” He closed his eyes briefly, and took a deep breath. “I rode all the way to Orvieto, seeing it; seeing his hands on the white of your skin, his lips on your neck, his—his cock—I saw it at the lever—I saw the damn filthy, stubby thing sliding up…God, Claire! I sat in prison thinking ye dead, and then I rode to Spain, wishing to Christ ye were!” (pg 467)
Does Claire become enraged by Jamie's over possessiveness?  Does Claire tell Jamie to go to hell in no short order? Of course not.  Claire begs Jamie to punish her for her so-called betrayal.
“I beat you once in justice, Sassenach, and ye threatened to disembowel me with my own dirk. Now you’ll ask me to whip ye wi’ nettles?” He shook his head slowly, wondering, and his hand reached as though by its own volition to cup my cheek. “Is my pride worth so much to you, then?”
“Yes! Yes, it bloody is!” I sat up myself, and grasped him by the shoulders, taking both of us by surprise as I kissed him hard and awkwardly.

I felt his first involuntary start, and then he pulled me to him, arm tight around my back, mouth answering mine. Then he had me pressed flat to the earth, his weight holding me immobile beneath him. His shoulders darkened the bright sky above, and his hands held my arms against my sides, keeping me prisoner.

“All right,” he whispered. His eyes bored into mine, daring me to close them, forcing me to hold his gaze. “All right. And ye wish it, I shall punish you.” He moved his hips against me in imperious command, and I felt my legs open for him, my gates thrown wide to welcome ravishment. (pg 478)
 Both Jamie and Claire use the term "mine" to discuss the other but Jamie's possessive commentary is disturbing, given his beating of Claire in the last book and his threats of violence in this one. Are we really supposed to believe this is a love match. when Claire has to constantly remind Jamie of his promise not to beat her again and seems at times to outright fear him? 
Jamie stood up and unbuckled his swordbelt, narrowing his eyes at me. “Dinna think I don’t know what you’re up to, Sassenach. Changing the subject and flattering me like a courtesan. Did I not tell ye about those alcoves?”

“You said you didn’t mean to beat me,” I reminded him, sitting a bit farther back in my chair, just to be on the safe side.

He snorted again, tossing the swordbelt onto the chest of drawers and dropping his kilt next to the sodden shirt.

“Do I look the sort of man would beat a woman who’s with child?” he demanded.I eyed him doubtfully. Stark naked, with his hair in damp red snarls and the white scars still visible on his body, he looked as though he had just leaped off a Viking ship, rape and pillage on his mind.“Actually, you look capable of just about anything,” I told him.  (pg 167)
The only other strong woman in Dragonfly in Amber is Jenny Fraser but her time in the story is extremely short lived.  Jenny runs Lallybroch, the Fraser homeland inherited from their mother and is not at all shy to tell the men exactly what she will and will not put up with.  Jenny's major role is as a mother to her children and unfortunately, it takes a really gender essentialist tone.  While there are discussions of abortion, it's made clear that not only is this dangerous but there is continuing implication that this is something good women don't do.  The goal is to become pregnant and carry the child.

Dragonfly in Amber is also filled with slut shaming. Prostitute's are sluts though the men visit the brothels. Jamie's presence is even justified by the female characters because Claire is unable to have sex and a man has to have his needs taken care of.  Then there is Dougal's description of Claire as, "A murdering, lying slut, would take a man by the cock and lead him to his doom, we' her claws sunk deep in his balls.  That's the spell that they lay on ye, lad - she and the other witch. Take ye to their beds and stal the soul from you as ye lie sleeping wi' your head on their breasts. Thy take your soul, and eat your manhood Jamie." (page 791). When a man insults a woman in Dragonfly in Amber, it is to invariably call her a slut.

The other women are simply passive side characters.  Mary's only role is to become pregnant, so that Frank's line will exist.  She stammers horribly and has little to no active personality, other than her potential to become pregnant and be a rape victim.  Yes, more rape in this series, which is already overloaded with rape.  Once again, the rape is gratuitous with no real purpose in the story, other than to ensure that one of the antagonist's is understood to be evil.

Speaking of antagonists, there are two:  Johnathon Randall and the Duke of Sandringham.  They also happen to be the only two gay characters in this series to date.  Both Sandringham and Randall are rapists and both are also rather fond of pederasty.  Yes, gay pedophiles. Could it get anymore homophobic?   In Outlander, Gabaldon described Johnathon Randall's rape of Jamie in graphic detail and it continues on in Dragonfly in Amber.
“Yes, of course you have; you were in France, you’ll have seen deserters hanged now and then. A hanged man looses his bowels, doesn’t he? As the rope tightens fast round his neck.” The hand was gripping him, lightly, firmly, rubbing and stroking. He clenched his good hand tight around the edge of the bed and turned his face hard into the scratchy blanket, but the words pursued him.
“That will happen to you, Fraser. Just a few more hours, and you’ll feel the noose.” The voice laughed, pleased with itself. “You’ll go to your death with your arse burning from my pleasure, and when you lose your bowels, it will be my spunk running down your legs and dripping on the ground below the gallows. (pg 150)
Jamie continues to be haunted by his own rape but unfortunately describes it as giving himself to Randall and allowing him "to take his body." For his part, Randall takes great care to taunt Claire about what he did to Jamie.
“I wonder, you know,” he said. “Whether you have had from him as much as I?” He tilted his head to one side, sharp features coming into focus as he moved out of the shadow. The fugitive light caught him momentarily from the side, lighting the pale hazel of his eyes and making them shine, like those of a beast glimpsed hiding in the bushes.
The note of triumph in his voice was faint, but unmistakable.
“I,” he said softly, “I have had him as you could never have him. You are a woman; you cannot understand, even witch as you are. I have held the soul of his manhood, have taken from him what he has taken from me. I know him, as he now knows me. We are bound, he and I, by blood.”
I give ye my Body, that we Two may be One.... (pg 657 - 658)
As a reader, it made we want to scream, "I get it! Yes, Johnathon Randall is bad."  To then have an invocation of the marriage vow, when Randall raped Jamie, is to double down on the horror. Between that and having Sandringham's attempt to have Claire raped and murdered (note: Sandringham's goddaughter Mary, is raped at this time instead of Claire by Sandringham's man), rape and abuse become essential facets of the antagonists personalities.  Gabaldon then finishes with these trope laden characters by having them die.  For Randall, it is foretold that he will die at the battle of Culloden and Sandringham is murdered for his actions by Murtagh, as an act of vengeance and justice. Yes, these horrible characters deserve to die; however, it amounts to the oft occurring gay death, made more problematic by the homophobic characterization of both Sandringham (who apparently has a voice like Mikey Mouse) and Johnathon Randall.

Where Johnathon Randall and Sandringham are evil, Jamie is meant to be read as good and even honourable.  As aforementioned, he threatens Claire repeatedly but that is not the end of his unnecessary violence.  Fergus is a young boy whom Jamie takes under his wing to steal the correspondence of the Bonnie Prince Charlie.  When Claire accepts a ride home from Forez, poor Fergus believes that he has failed in his assigned duty to protect Claire.  Fergus confesses immediately his inability to protect (read: control) Claire and begs Jamie to kill him on the spot. Even though Jamie is well aware that this was beyond Fergus, Jamie beats him in the kitchen, in front of the other servants.
Glancing desperately back and forth between his would-be victim and the proffered instrument of execution, he hesitated for a moment longer, then gave up.

“Oh, bloody fucking hell,” he muttered under his breath in English, grabbing the strop from Magnus. He flexed the broad strap dubiously between his hands; three inches wide and a quarter-inch thick, it was a formidable weapon. Clearly wishing himself anywhere else, he advanced upon the prone body of Fergus.

“All right, then,” he said, glaring ferociously round the room. “Ten strokes, and I don’t wish to hear a fuss about it.” Several of the female servants blanched visibly at this, and clung to each other for support, but there was dead silence in the big room as he raised the strap.

The resultant crack at impact made me jump, and there were small squeaks of alarm from the kitchenmaids, but no sound from Fergus. The small body quivered, and Jamie closed his eyes briefly, then set his lips and proceeded to inflict the remainder of the sentence, strokes evenly spaced. I felt sick, and surreptitiously wiped my damp palms on my skirt. At the same time, I felt an unhinged urge to laugh at the terrible farce of the situation.(pg 246)
Essentially, Jamie beat Fergus in order to save face in front of the servants because he certainly didn't believe that that Fergus had actually committed an offense. And what did Jamie take away from this incident?  That it must have hurt his father to beat him.  There is little acknowledgment of Fergus's fear that he would be forced to leave Jamie's employment and the deprivation that would mean to him as a child of a prostitute. Jamie would actually beat Fergus several times in Dragonfly in Amber, as well as cuff him in the head.  Of course, the rest of the beatings were supposedly justice for Fergus's bad behaviour, as though that somehow makes it more acceptable for a man described as extremely tall, heavy and strong, to beat a fragile child.

When I think of Jamie, I think of a tall, red headed violent man who equates violence with love, his property and his pride.  Nothing about this is at all attractive and I found myself wondering how it is that Claire can love him so.

In terms of marginalized characters, we also had the brief appearance of Collum Mackenzie.  He didn't really have much to do with the story and we were continually reminded of his disability and the pain that it caused him.

This series continues to be problematic from start to finish.  It's female characters are too often submissive and subject to violence.  Claire is meant to be the exception to the rule - the strong one but when it comes to Jamie, she reverts to the essentialist and sexist gender roles of the period far too easily.  The two antagonists are gay, rapist pedophiles. In terms of people of colour, this series continues to be erased, a fact which I am thankful for given the treatment of other marginalized characters to date.

Dragonfly in Amber does introduce the concept of magic to this story, beyond time travel but it feels like an additive and Gabaldon does not expand on it greatly.  It felt like a tease and I most certainly wanted to see more.  Essentially, the Outlander series continues to be a historical romance with small elements of the fantastical thrown in.  As aforementioned, to really get into this story, one must fully embrace the relationship between Claire and Jamie but it is difficult to do so given Jamie's violence and Claire's submission.  I found it difficult to buy into Claire's near photographic recall of historical events of the time period, given the fact that she is not a historian and has repeatedly said that she is bored by history.  Claire's recall quickly became a convenient device employed by Gabaldon to foreshadow events for the reader.

The Outlander series continues to be unoriginal and a typical historical romance.  It is long and at times extremely overwritten.  I see no reason for it to have lasted  860 pages, given that from the very beginning of Dragonfly in Amber, it was already clear that Clair and Jamie had failed to change history and that Claire had returned to her present time.  Dragonfly in Amber could easily have been 300-400 pages shorter without losing a single element of the story.  I simply cannot understand how this novel ended up on the New York Times bestseller list.