At home in the 18th century

I’m not the reader for whom Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade (Random House, 2007) was intended.

“Almost all of the people reading Blade would have read the entire Outlander series,” the author admits, referencing her wildly popular six-book bevy that follows the adventures of 18th-century Scotsman Jamie Fraser and his 20th-century time-traveling wife, Claire.

“This is not a separate collection,” she says of Blade, the latest installment of the offshoot novels following Lord John Grey, who appears as a minor character in the Outlander series. “It’s hard to explain exactly what it is. People say it’s a separate new series; it’s not at all.”

In fact, Gabaldon often finds herself hard-pressed to explain her writing. Neither tidy works of historical fiction (there’s time travel, after all) nor strictly sci-fi, the Outlander books seemed like a difficult match for an audience. The author claims she was “astonished” that her first book was picked up for publication at all.

“My own editor has always said these are word-of-mouth books because they’re too weird to describe to anyone,” she jokes.

But genre-defying books (and authors) have found fan bases. Ursula K. Le Guin’s postapocalyptic Always Coming Home, for example, created a futuristic primitive society, fully realized with its own language and maps. Gabaldon’s characters, however, are based on actual history.

“The Lord John books could more or less be described as historical mysteries, but there’s any amount of other stuff going on in them, as well,” she tells Xpress. “They’re novels of people’s lives, essentially.”

I haven’t read the Jamie and Claire Fraser books. Instead, I leaped into the Lord John novel (Blade is actually the second such book, following 2005’s Lord John and the Private Matter). But, even without a proper tutorial to the densely detailed book, I found myself immediately hooked.

The thing is, Lord John Grey is as inexplicable as any of Gabaldon’s characters or plots. An 18th-century British soldier, he hides a rather dark family history as well as his own homosexuality. At a time when being gay was not an option, Lord John navigates England’s seedy underbelly unraveling mysteries while exploring covert relationships. Gripping stuff, such as this tantalizing passage from when Lord John meets his step-brother-to-be:

“Percy Wainwright had given him his name—and his hand—upon that occasion, too. But Grey had been an anonymous stranger then, and the encounter had been necessarily brief.”
It turns out the fodder for Gabaldon’s scintillating collection was downright pedestrian. She had decided to write a practice novel, one never intended for the light of day. The author, who holds a doctorate in ecology, felt at home in a library and decided on a historical novel, one dependent upon research instead of imagined details.

“I was looking for a useful and congenial period of history and in this malleable frame of mind I happen to see a rerun of Dr. Who on public television,” she recalls. In that particular episode, the time-traveling doctor picked up a teenage, kilt-wearing Scotsman from the year 1745.

“I said to myself, well, that’s kind of fetching,” Gabaldon laughs. It was inspiration enough to jump-start her initial novel, Outlander.

The Lord John books came from equally humble beginnings. A request from a friend for a short story inspired the author to expand John, a minor but colorful character, from her main series.

For fans who can’t get enough of the saucy soldier, a third book is due out this fall. Lord John and the Hand of Devils is an anthology of a short story and two novellas, continuing the tale.

“There’s certainly another of the Lord John books,” Gabaldon reveals. That novel, to be called Lord John and the Scottish Prisoner, delves into John’s unrequited passion for Outlander star Jamie Fraser. That book isn’t due out for a while, which gives those of us new to Gabaldon’s epic work a chance to play catch-up.

Diana Gabaldon discusses her newest work at Malaprop’s on Tuesday, Sept. 4. The event is ticketed; a complementary ticket comes with each purchase of Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade. 254-6734.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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