Review: Lord John and the Hand of Devils by Diana Gabaldon

 

Review by Alex Beecroft

This is not a novel at all, but a collection of three long short stories.  (Or perhaps a short story and two novellas).  The three are ‘The Hellfire Club’, ‘The Succubus’, and ‘The Haunted Soldier’.  The Hellfire Club is set before ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’ and sees John investigating the murder of a young relative of Harry Quarry’s.  This leads him to the infamous Hellfire Club, a botched initiation ritual, a rescue by Harry and a final scene in which the villain explains all.

The Succubus is set after ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’, but before ‘Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade’.  Lord John is in Prussia, acting as liaison between the English and German forces, when two soldiers are murdered in circumstances which make it seem that there is a supernatural female demon abroad, sexually preying on men.  Naturally this makes the armed forces rather nervous.  Evading the marital clutches of a local princess, John investigates and eventually all is revealed in the final scene when the villainess explains all.

The Haunted Soldier is set after ‘Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade’.  John, haunted by the explosion of the cannon he was working in ‘Brotherhood’, finds himself in front of a court martial who seem to think the explosion was no accident.  Is John’s half-brother, dim Edgar, really a saboteur, producing unstable gunpowder for government use?  Is something dodgy going on at the cannon foundry?  Can John discover the whereabouts of the young woman who eloped with the lieutenant who was killed in the explosion before she is utterly ruined?  If not, can he at least restore her child to its grandparents?  Fortunately, despite the complexity of the plot, everything is revealed in the final scene where the villain explains it all.

As you can see from the short summaries, Lord John is still consistently solving his cases by conveniently having the villain reveal all at the end.  However, it’s to Gabaldon’s credit that this device doesn’t get so tedious that it undoes the enjoyment of the stories.  And there are many things to enjoy in each story.  For a start, I appreciated the way the stories fitted into the time-scheme of the books, filling out the characterization of each.  It was particularly nice in the last to have John restored to health, since ‘Brotherhood’ left him so battered.

Given the notoriety and fascination of the real-life Hellfire Club, I found the first story a little short.  By Lord John standards it was very skimpy on details and rather simplistic.  Which is not to say that it wasn’t good to read.  Gabaldon is very good at drawing beautiful young men (and then killing them off) and the victim of this story is no exception.

The Succubus, I found an amusing romp through some dark superstition, and the love triangle between John, Stefan and the princess provided some wonderful irony.  I felt a little cheated at the ending but I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it.

The Haunted Soldier was most like a short Lord John novel; complicated, beautifully detailed, full of interesting people and everything you wanted to know about gunpowder manufacture in the 18th Century.  It was also very satisfying to watch John recover from his shell-shocked depression at the end of ‘Brotherhood’ back to his normal self. 

The poor man is still fancying just about everything male that breathes, and having a complete lack of success at getting into anyone’s breeches.  And I admit that his complete celibacy throughout was a little tedious.  Surely it’s about time he had a love interest who didn’t despise or betray him?  His continual lack of romantic success is getting me down.

Apparently the next book in the series is called ‘Lord John and the Scottish Prisoner’, so I hope fervently that that will be the book in which John finally puts the whole Jamie Fraser thing behind him.  He has outgrown his status of being a minor offshoot character of the Outlander series, in my opinion.  Until that happens, Fraser continues to cast a certain blight over the stories.  His presence, and the obligingness of John’s villains, are the reason why I’ve marked this as a 4½ rather than a 5. 

But still, there’s no way I won’t be reading the next one.

Buy: Amazon UK  Amazon USA

6 Responses

  1. What a coincidence, Alex, that you and I reviewed the same book on the same day! I find it so refreshing that you and I agree that it’s more than time for Lord John to get over Jamie Fraser! I mean, c’mon already! I wonder if we’re the only readers in the world who feel this way. Thanks for a good and thoughtful review. All the best, Val Kovalin

  2. Thanks Val! Oh yes, having read your review, I can see we’re very much on the same page there :) I confess that it makes me think worse of Lord John that he continues to be obsessed with Fraser, who is a homophobic git. It’s very much against his usual good judgment. I also worry that, what with Fraser, and then the debacle with Percy, whether or not she means to, Gabaldon is perpetuating the message that John’s sex life is bad for him. Fraser (who Gabaldon seems to love immoderately) is openly contemptuous of John’s homosexuality, and Percy turns out to be a lying promiscuous git and… I don’t know. Kudos to her for having a major character be gay, and perhaps it’s historically inaccurate for him to be able to get something positive out of it, but I still worry.

    And maybe she’s only doing it because she’s already set John up as being in love with Fraser, and she doesn’t want to show him as fickle. Maybe she wants Fraser in there because lots of people like him, and a mention of him boosts sales? Who knows? But it annoys me, and I know it annoys at least a couple of my friends too. Just not enough to stop reading :)

  3. Alex, you make a very good point: the whole Percy thing bothered me too and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until you articulated it. It does seem a subtle slur against gay relationships. As if poor John doesn’t deserve to be happy! And as for John’s obsession with Fraser … aside from that one part in Hand of Devils that plucked on my sentimental heart-strings, I find myself just absolutely twitching in impatience whenever Fraser shows up. Especially the whole thing with John visiting him every year at Helwater/The Lake District – that can’t be good! And the whole overwrought exchange between Fraser and John on pp. 447-451 of Brotherhood of the Blade was so jaw-droppingly over-the-top that I just couldn’t believe it! :) I think you’re right: the author has a self-indulgent fascination with Fraser and can’t see that her story would be so much better off without him. I can only hope you’re right and The Scottish Prisoner will exorcise Fraser once and for all! (I’ll be reading this next book in the series, too.) :)

  4. the whole overwrought exchange between Fraser and John on pp. 447-451 of Brotherhood of the Blade was so jaw-droppingly over-the-top that I just couldn’t believe it! :)

    LOL! I described that as being so full-blooded that it was likely to give you a nosebleed :) It was well over the top and very much more the sort of thing that belonged in an Outlander book rather than a Lord John book. The Lord John books are, in general, calmer and more rational, and I prefer them for that.

    I think I wouldn’t have such a problem with John’s love for Fraser if I could only see what was so great about Fraser. I had to stop reading the Outlander series because I disliked Clare and especially Fraser so much, and I disliked the overwrought emo-ness of it all. I also disliked the way that *everyone* in the books falls in love with Fraser.

    If I loved the Outlander books, and loved Fraser, I guess it would seem like a good thing for the Lord John books to carry on having that close relationship with the other series and its hero. But I read ‘Lord John and the Private Matter’ first out of all Gabaldon’s books, and fell in love with John for his own sake. Then I read the Outlander books entirely in order to find more about Lord John – so I guess I’m coming at it from entirely the wrong direction :)

  5. Hey, Alex, how funny! I did that, too: first LJ and the Private Matter, and then the first book in the Outlander series. I didn’t make it past that first book (well, a little ways into the second). You should see some of the lady-reviewers who come on Amazon with their knives all sharpened for the Lord John books! You can tell by the tone of their reviews that they’re hugely infatuated with Fraser, and they’re already holding a grudge against the Lord John books because there isn’t enough Fraser. Whereas you and I would prefer no Fraser at all! LOL!

  6. Who wants, can write slashfic – lord John/Jamiei. But I think, it will be strong OOC – Jamie is very much against homosexuality for the several reasons at once. John/OMP is better ;))

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