December 21, 2014

Review: Outlander

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Starz announced it was making Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series for TV, it inspired me to re-read the books (at least the ones I have—I don't have all of them). I don't have Starz, but I plan on buying the Blu-ray as soon as it comes out. I know the television adaptation will be different than the books; that's to be expected. But this is a book I've re-read several times over, and it's nice to have an excuse to do it again.

From what I understand, this is not only Diana Gabaldon's first published book, it's her first attempt at writing a book. Her inexperience does come across in places (conversations tend to go on for ten pages or longer), but it's not nearly as creaky as you would expect. Her voluminous research definitely shows. I'm not learned enough in Scottish history to know if every detail is true, but it feels true, and that's what matters. For those who aren't familiar with the series, our protagonist, Claire Randall, is a World War II nurse who is visiting Scotland with her husband, Frank, and who is accidentally thrown two hundred years back in time. (There's some handwaving about genetics, and how only certain people can go through the standing stones, but it's not really an explanation, because Gabaldon's focus isn't the science. Her non-explanation is adequate for her purposes; suspend your disbelief and go on.) There she meets, among other people, the ancestor of her husband, “Black Jack” Randall, and a right nasty bugger he is, in more ways than one.

She also meets a young Scottish warrior, Jamie Fraser (he's actually four years younger than Claire), and the two of them develop one of the greatest fictional romances I've ever read. I would put it right up there with Romeo and Juliet.

Even more so than the history, I read the Outlander series for Jamie and Claire. I think everyone does. Gabaldon plumbs the depth of her hero in ways rarely seen, from pain through loss to love and everything in between. The only thing I wish would happen is that Jamie might become a little less of an 18th century Scottish chauvinist due to Claire's influence (as happened to Jennifer Roberson's Sandtiger), but he is very much a man of his time. The somewhat bigger flaw I found on reading the book this time around is his complete inability to respect the word “no” in the bedroom. This is problematic, and I'll cheerfully admit it; there are a couple of scenes in this book I wince through, or skip altogether, but it's not enough to make me stop reading the books.

Claire is a grounded, sensible protagonist, coping as best she can with an incredible situation. Make no mistake, being thrown back to Scotland in 1743 is comparable to landing on an alien world. (To mention just one difference that we in the modern world [or even the World War II world] take for granted—there's no antibiotics. Which means that a simple cut could result in amputation or death.) But Claire falls so hard for Jamie that she eventually chooses to stay there, with him.

The second half of this book turns quite dark, as Jamie is captured and taken to a notorious Scottish prison. There he is discovered by his sworn enemy, Black Jack Randall, and he pledges not to resist Randall's rape to save Claire's life (she snuck into the prison to try and free him). Frankly, I'm surprised that Gabaldon got away with torturing her hero this much. Claire eventually frees him, and after his recovery (which is a gross oversimplification, I know, but you'll have to read the book to find out) they're on their way to France, in a bold attempt to change history by waylaying the Young Pretender, Charles Stuart, and possibly preventing the massacre of the Scottish clans at Culloden in 1746.

This book is unique. It is a romance, but it's so much more—it's history, it's war, it's two marvelous characters in an unforgettable story. I only hope the TV series can live up to its source material.

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