Review: Outlander

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

According to TVTropes (kiss your productivity good-bye!), Diana Gabaldon has mentioned that she can promote Outlander as a romance, historical fiction, science fiction, or military fiction—she seems to be quite proud of the broad appeal of her books. I have to disagree, and it’s not because of Gabaldon’s infamous issues with fanfiction (despite openly admitting her male lead being inspired by a one Jamie McCrimmon from Doctor Who). While Outlander is much better than I expected, it is solidly a romance—anyone expecting anything else is going to be sorely disappointed.

Outlander opens in 1945, after World War II. Claire and Frank Randall are taking their second honeymoon in Inverness, Scotland, where Frank, a historian, hopes to learn more about an ancestor, “Black” Jack Randall. Meanwhile, Claire, a nurse, is content to explore her love of botany with the help of the locals. One night, Claire and Frank witness a Beltane ceremony at an ancient circle of standing stones. When Claire returns to check out a certain plant, she touches a stone and suddenly finds herself in 1743, in the middle of a skirmish between British soldiers—led by Jack Randall himself—and Scottish clansmen. Randall tries to force himself on Claire, but she’s rescued by the Scottish clansmen, who take her to Castle Leoch, the seat of Clan MacKenzie. An Englishwoman with no past in a hotly contested area, Claire poses a peculiar problem to the MacKenzies. Despite her growing friendship with the young Jamie, Claire just wants to get back to the stones and go home to her husband—but the sudden necessity of marrying Jamie and the attention of the British complicate things in ways Claire never expected.

I’m not sure what I was expecting out of Outlander, but it pleasantly surpassed my expectations. It’s well-written and well-researched; the first half of the book focuses on Claire coming to grips with her situation and the politics of Clan MacKenzie, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Claire is a fully realized human being, a stubborn woman with a wandering eye who still misses her husband. She uses her expertise as a modern nurse to help her rescuers even as she plots her escape to the twentieth century. However, she’s still idealized—sometimes it feels like the entire male cast lusts after her and Gabaldon goes out of her way to let us know how much Claire weighs. Her relationship with Jamie starts out as a friendship and develops into more only after she has no choice but to marry him. Gabaldon really thought everything through, from the setting to the characters; however, I really wish we’d learned more about the mysterious Geilie Duncan. (Although that’s a compliment in its own way, really.) It’s a believable and organic novel… mostly.

I don’t want to call the sex in Outlander gratuitous. It’s a romance novel through and through; when I read a romance, I want to see the main characters together as much as possible. But it’s certainly fatiguing and just gets weird towards the end of the novel. After they commit themselves to the idea of it, they have sex all the time—when they’re happy, when they’re sleepy, after Claire has killed two people. (I’m not going to touch the scene where Jamie’s sister, Jenny, gets everybody—including her brother—hot and bothered with a very sexualized description of pregnancy. I’m just going to let it drop like a lead balloon.) And I’m not quite sure what to do with the depiction of male-attracted men here; the Duke of Sandringham’s attraction to Jamie and other young strapping men is played for bawdy laughs and Randall is a piece of work, a sadistic rapist that imagines his victims as his brother, Alex. However, I know that Lord John Grey, a sympathetic character who pops up later in the series and stars in his own spin-off series, is gay, so it’s not too problematic for me.

Outlander also has pacing problems when it comes to Claire’s motivation. Otherwise, it’s paced leisurely; rumor has it this is a popular series for those deployed overseas, because of the sheer detail involved. For most of the book, she wants to go back home—Jamie, naturally, complicates this. But this, the main conflict of the book, is resolved much too quickly about three-quarters of the way into the novel, leaving the rest of the novel to meander along, watching Claire and Jamie recover from an assault by Randall and (you guessed it!) have lots and lots of sex. I think I would have been fine with the last quarter of the novel had the resolution to Claire’s main conflict been given the weight it deserved; it felt rushed and Claire’s joke response to Jamie made it feel too light and flippant.

Bottom line: Outlander is well-researched and well-written, with organic characters thought through thoroughly—but it’s a romance novel through and through; the lavish descriptions of every time the main couple has sex (which is all the time) can get fatiguing and, occasionally, weird. It also has pacing problems stemming from the heroine’s main motivation, which is resolved quickly three-quarters of the way through, leaving the novel to meander along in a voyeuristic fashion until the last page.

I downloaded this digital book for free from Amazon.

5 thoughts on “Review: Outlander

  1. This is one of those books I love to hate. All the things you mention here as flaws bothered me a lot. I got so bored with the sex scenes that I ended up skimming through them in the last third, which make the book go pretty quickly, LOL.

    I think I really was expecting it to be more of a historical fiction/science fiction novel with a bit of romance, rather than a full-on romance novel. I’m glad it was a pleasant surprise for you :).

  2. I loved this book, and the rest of the series, but you’re right that this one is well and full in the romance genre. The rest of the books in the series are a lot more squarely in the historical fiction category – Jamie and Clare are still having plenty of sex, but it’s not ALL THE TIME, nor is it so extensively described.

  3. It has taken me years to finish this book. I first picked it up at the urging of a friends as our young children gathered at the library for story time. After much prodding from my child (who is now 22), I got past the first couple of chapters and finished it at last. What was the problem originally? I’m not a fan of the ‘ripped bodices and heaving breasts’ genre and was ready to shave Claire’s head just to get rid of the ‘damp, unruly curls’ that were, for some reason, important to every scene. From a story standpoint, it is an outstanding romance! I liked it even more when I discovered Gabaldon wrote it just to see if she could actually produce a novel. Considering that I still have strands of ideas lying around my desk that I’ve done nothing with at this point, my hat is off to her for actually WRITING it. As for the sex – well – writing sex scenes is fun so I rather enjoyed how well she managed them without repeating clichés that in other books (not hers) have me rolling on the floor in gales of laughter. All in all, I like her tremendously and will read more.

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