It’s hard to exist in a reader world and not be at least obliquely aware of Outlander, Diana Gabaldon’s epic series – currently 8 books and counting not including the companion novels and novellas. Best I can recollect, I gave serious consideration to embarking on this series around the time of fellow Cannonballers embarking on rereads in preparation for the publication of book 8, and the release of the show based on the books on Starz last spring. I made the decision once I asked for the first book in the series as part of the Cannonball Book Exchange in December of 2014. Thanks to our Junior Cannonballers Bunnybean and Joemyjoe I received Outlander and then promptly forgot to read it (along with Daughter of Smoke and Bone I promise it’s on the to read list for this year!). When I went about setting up the Book Exchange for 2015 I realized that I had the book was still waiting for me, and I packed it with me for my Christmas travels.
The basic plot of Outlander is actually quite difficult to wrap one’s head around. It should be simple: Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the Second World War and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon. She is pulled through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. When she comes to she has travelled back over 200 years, to 1743. Discovered amongst a skirmish between redcoat soldiers and highlanders, Claire is pulled into the intrigues of lairds and spies.
But perhaps unbelievably that is not where the story ends. Because that recap is only the first fifth of the book, over the course of the next 600 pages Claire will be held captive, arrested, attacked at the hands of the ancestor of her husband, must choose a marriage for her safety, is accused of witchcraft, and chooses to live a life on the run with her new husband. All of this while grappling with the choice between trying to get back to her previous life and husband or embracing her current life and marriage.
Gabaldon doesn’t write like your average author. Her books meander through several genres, and her characters don’t behave in predictable ways based on tropes. I had the benefit of having watched the full season of the television series adaptation, so while reading the book I knew what was coming, but during the show I was often surprised by the nooks and crannies of the story as Gabaldon (and the show producers and writers who stayed very loyal to the book) unfolded it.
But that doesn’t mean the story is without flaws. Perhaps they were more apparent to me because I had seen the show first, but there are many asides which help develop the world of Outlander which does nothing to forward the plot. I also have concerns about the only gay characters in the book being the villains, or guilty of villainy. I’m concerned about this typecasting in Gabaldon’s world, and interested to see if she introduces a character who is both gay and good. In the culture of a very Catholic 1743 Scotland the idea that the general populace would assume wickedness of someone who is gay reads, but Gabaldon does nothing to balance out that worldview. It was disappointing, and I remain hopeful based on what I’ve heard of the Lord John Grey books that she does in fact introduce the character that I’m looking for.
My other petty concern is perhaps a bit nitpicky, but here we are. We as the reader are seeing the world through Claire’s eyes, which makes sense in the idea that she is the outsider, the Sassenach, and the eyes most like our own upon encountering 1743. But when I was explaining the series to my friend Ale, I found myself saying that we are following Jamie’s story and the story of Scotland in the years of rebellion. To a lesser degree the story is about Claire’s battle with what time travelling means and making sense of her life once we get past a certain point in the narrative. Gabaldon does cover this ground, but I feel the show is able to handle it more deftly by giving us visual flashbacks to her husband Frank instead of Claire reciting her mental gymnastics on the subject. This in some ways makes the television show a better vessel for the story, in addition to the (hated by some) voiceovers changing to Jamie for the second half of the season. The book doesn’t do that, but once the characters are married Claire’s life is now bound forever to Jamie’s past and future, as is the story. While the book and show share a level of graphicness, and the large quantity of sex, there still felt to be something missing.
What I feel we must discuss is the character of James Fraser. This might be Gabaldon’s biggest achievement in writing – a universally loved male lead who shouldn’t necessarily make us all swoon (but we do, because of the depth of his love and devotion to Claire and the suffering he has endured in his short life). Gabaldon nails his characterization from the moment go. There is no other character in the book like Jamie, and while he may not always behave the way we might want a more modern lead to behave, the fact that Claire falls so irrevocably in love with him is a natural progression of the story, and we the reader do the same.
Ok, now that I’m done rambling, (and I know I’m rambling) I can heartily suggest this book and series to you and I’m SUPER excited that between Christmas gifts and my mom, I already own the series through book five. Prepare yourselves for more Outlander this year.
This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016.