Because the opening lines of Diana Gabaldon's historical adventure novel "The Scottish Prisoner" describe her Highland hero, Jamie Fraser, taking his ... em ... matters into his own hand, they can't be quoted here. So let me simply suggest that this raunchy beginning is the stuff out of which the entire novel is formed. It's a spirited tale about lust, love and loyalty, all part of a "wild hunt" to uncover a dangerous Jacobite conspiracy in Ireland.

Set in 1760, 15 years after the massacre of Bonnie Prince Charlie's supporters at Culloden, this is the third book with Lord John Grey, an English aristocrat and spy. According to Gabaldon, the Grey stories focus on "Lord John's life when he's not 'ontstage'" with Jamie in the lead.

Told in third person, "The Scottish Prisoner" splits the narrative between Lord John's point of view and Jamie's (the prisoner of the title). Lord John's brother, the Duke of Pardloe, negotiates Jamie's release from a Lake District estate where he's been enslaved as a stable groom since his parole from prison. The duke blackmails Jamie into supporting Lord John on a treacherous mission to bring a traitor to justice. The result is an "odd half-friendship ... forged from necessity" between two appealing romantic heroes.

Over the years I've become a wee bit more of a fan of Lord John than Jamie. Despite the almost equal time given to each character in this book, I'm still leaning toward the Englishman. In part because Jamie's secrets -- with the exception of his time-traveling 20th-century wife in the Outlander series -- are typical of his time. For example, he has an illegitimate son and his machismo often drives his personal and political choices (as it would).

Lord John's secrets, on the other hand, are more dangerous and complicated, and to me more interesting. He's a nobleman, a soldier, and gay. To complicate matters even more, Lord John is attracted to Jamie, a passion both unrequited and unspoken (mostly).

Gabaldon's knowledge of the 18th-century world of rebellions, revolutions and "doomed causes" is exhaustive. With psychological verisimilitude and sexual candor, Gabaldon imagines what it might have been like to be gay in the 18th century, not a typical stance in mainstream historical romance fiction. As a result, Lord John Grey is one of Gabaldon's finest achievements.

With disarming heroes bounding from one exploit to the next, this book brings to mind the racy picaresque novels of Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding. If you hold similar literary passions, you may want to get your own hands on "The Scottish Prisoner" this holiday season.

Carole E. Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee and blogs at