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The Scottish Prisoner

Diana Gabaldon
(Orion, $32.99)

Diana Gabaldon, renowned writer of historical novels, knows how to grab the attention of her readers. Take her introductory sentence here: ''It was so cold out, he thought his c--- might break off in his hand - if he could find it.''

Jamie Fraser is a rough-and-ready young man with genital issues. It's 1760 and Fraser is a paroled prisoner of war in the Lake District, one of just a few Jacobite rebels to have survived the slaughter at the hands of the British at Culloden.

Fraser is managing to establish a relationship with an illegitimate son that he cannot claim as his own when his life starts to go awry. First, he keeps having disturbing dreams of his lost wife; second, he is confronted by Tobias Quinn, a comrade from the uprising who remains committed to Bonnie Prince Charlie's cause of reclaiming the crown.

Quinn claims to have knowledge of a relic that will rally the Jacobites once again and appears undeterred by the deaths of the almost 2000 men slaughtered in the highlands.

Our rough-hewn hero and killer with a heart of gold is having nothing to do with further attacks on the English, however, preferring to keep his head down and eschew politics, fighting and war.


That is, however, until the enigmatic Lord John Grey, aristocrat, soldier, sometime spy and enthusiastic homosexual, reappears in his life and takes him away from his comfortable existence.

Grey, one of Gabaldon's long-running characters, finds himself in possession of documents that outline cases of corruption against British officer Major Gerald Siverly and hint at a renewal of the Stuart cause.

Soon the two unlikely allies are on the road to Ireland; land of bloody rivalries and Byzantine plots.

Gabaldon's plots are necessarily complex and it is probably best to read her novels in historical order to best enjoy their intricacies.

That said, this is a compelling enough read and a fascinating glimpse back 250 or more years to a time when men's frailties were every much as evident as they are today.

Take Gabaldon's description of 1760s London: ''It was rowdy, churning like an anthill, and gave off a sense of pushing, as though the energy of the place would burst its bonds and spill out over the countryside, spill out into the world at large.''

This is a violent, bawdy trip through the past. It's a tale that demands concentration - but also rewards it.