Book Reviews

Book Review – “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

Wow! It’s been waaay too long since I have posted here. I didn’t realize it had been so long.

I hope everyone had a Happy Thanksgiving! It was so funny to see Christmas decorations up on Thanksgiving Day. Now that Christmas is creeping closer to us, I’m feeling more comfortable with all the wreaths, Santas, etc. flooding the shopping areas.

Just yesterday I watched the most recent episode of The 100, a somewhat cheesy, suspenseful YA TV series in which 100 delinquent kids from space are put on earth to see if it’s still inhabitable, and start a war with earth’s residents. Even The 100 managed to make a tribute to the holiday season, in an eerie scene that has a group of space kids stuck in an underground, abandoned garage with enemies. Then one of the military-type guys “guarding” them presses a machine inside a car that plays a Christmas song…only to have it lead his enemy straight to him! He meets his death by a “Reaper”, an earth-resident cannibal. Oooops!

Anyway, holiday season is making me feel excited to go up to the snow sometime later this month. Enough of that, though! There is blogging to do.

Today I am going to do a scrambled-together, sloppy but fun book review for:

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Yes, Outlander! Maybe you have heard of it, maybe not. It was published in 1991, more than 26 million copies worldwide. Starz has just made it into a TV series (which we have to wait 6 months to see Season 2 of! Tragedy!). It is a romance/adventure/time travel story of grand makings…

Take a 1945 nurse who is on a Scottish holiday with her handsome husband whom she hasn’t seen in six years. Put her in an ancient circle of stones, and make her walk between two – bam! She’s back in 1700s Scotland, being called a whore and a spy at turns, being accused of witchcraft, having her husband’s ancestor attack her, and falling in love with a young Scotsman who has a bounty on his head…a lilting accent, red-golden curls, a beautiful smile…and…the list goes on! =)

Claire Beauchamp/Randall and Jamie Fraser, from the Starz TV show of Outlander

This book is mostly one that appeals to women. I love it for the romance, the witty banter, and the conflict Claire has between her two romances, but…that’s not all this book has to offer. It gives us details about historical Scotland, particularly the conflicts between Scotland and England, and all with a very personal touch. Gabaldon knows how to make history interesting.

One of the things that struck me as I started reading this work was how Gabaldon brought out the facts that we needed to know about the time period (1945, at first), while not filling up pages with junk that we’d skip over (one is reminded of the two-page tree descriptions of Tolkien’s The Two Towers when Merry and Pippin are in Fangorn Forest…not to blaspheme, but…they are dull, and I was twelve when I first read Lord of the Rings).

Gabaldon intertwines all the historical facts with emotional engagement with her characters. She does it so well that there is never a moment when I want to skip over the historical details.

For instance, when Claire arrives, she is thought a whore due to her dress being above-the-knees…later on, during her stay at Clan Mackenzie’s Castle Leoch, she is being watched closely because the Clan leader Colum Mackenzie and his brother Dougal think she is an English spy.

Another point that I’d like to make in this review is that Gabaldon’s book, while romantic and told from a woman’s point of view, does appeal to men. I take my partner as an example. He started reading this book after I convinced him to watch the first couple episodes of the TV show with me, and almost his first reaction was laughter – good laughter. “Wow,” he said, “She is really good at writing from the male perspective. She is so spot on!”

He really loved Gabaldon’s showing of the male character through Claire’s Scottish male lead, Jamie Fraser. He said that there wasn’t anything he felt Gabaldon wrote about men that was “off”. She got it right, from the dirty jokes to the over-done bragging, but not only that, he said, she got into the mens’ heads – the why of what they do.

The men of Clan Mackenzie of Castle Leoch, where Claire is hosted in 1700s Scotland

Gabaldon also has an excellent villain, I should say, before you all think the only conflict in this story is romantic in nature. No! Gabaldon makes Claire’s 1945 husband a historical scholar who is very interested in his ancestors, particular one Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, who did work for the English crown against the rebelling Jacobites who wanted to keep their clans (and tartans and kilts!) intact.

As we discover in 1700s Scotland with Claire, Black Jack Randall’s reputation from 1945 is anything but true. He was not noble, or good, nor did he do great things for the English. Rather, he was vain, proud, a rapist, and just overall a horrible specimen of a human being. (Little does Claire’s admiring husband, Frank, know – a good example of how history can tell things wrong!) Randall ends up being the main villain of the story, as it goes on and we find out that he is after Claire and Jamie for various reasons.

Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, the story’s villain

Not only is Randall a force to deal with, but also, of course, are Claire’s feelings. I feel that Gabaldon doesn’t do as good a job of showing this conflict in the earlier part of Outlander. She shows us a lot of her historical Scotland setting, and develops the romance between Claire and Jamie, but…in my opinion, there is not enough longing on Claire’s part for her husband, Frank, or for her world of 1945. Later on, and in book 2, Gabaldon gets better at getting into Claire’s head on this inner conflict.

That brings me to characters. The character of Claire is well done. She feels real, at times brave, funny, or scared. She has a knack for medicines, having been a nurse in 1945, which gets her in trouble in 1700s Scotland, because she knows too much. She struggles with her growing pull towards Jamie, her curiosity about inter-clan politics with her Mackenzie hosts, and hiding her identity as a time-traveler-by-accident. Claire is outspoken, which gets her in loads of trouble time after time. She is also attractive, which means men are giving her the eyeball left and right. Nowadays we have guns and pepper spray to help us out with the threat of rape, but in 1700s Scotland? Claire has to learn how to dig a tiny knife, hidden in her voluminous Scottish gowns, up between a man’s ribs to his heart. Yeowch!

That’s one of the best things about reading historical fiction. You get to see the great juxtaposition between life “then” and life “now”, whenever they are. Gabaldon makes this continuously intriguing in her book, for hundreds of pages, without it ever getting old, so I would say she’s an expert on it.

It’s really funny, since she wrote the book having never written other novels, “to see what it took to write a novel, and if I wanted to do it”, she says on her website.

I love this kind of story, while also being somewhat envious. Such a stellar novel, and she never wrote one before? Wow! I think that is impressive. Writing is hard.

Anyway, this post has become far too long, and like I said, it’s a mess. Perhaps in another post I will write more, since I do love Jamie Fraser (*wink* to all the understanding ladies out there!) and I am in the midst of reading book 2. I apologize for not writing a more concise, organized review. Please take a look at the book!

If my review wasn’t enough to entice you, here’s a description of the book in Gabaldon’s own words:

In essence, these novels are Big, Fat, Historical Fiction, à la James Clavell and James Michener.  However, owing to the fact that I wrote the first book for practice, didn’t intend to show it to anyone, and therefore saw no reason to limit myself, they  include…

history, warfare, medicine, sex, violence, spirituality, honor, betrayal, vengeance, hope and despair, relationships, the building and destruction of families and societies, time travel, moral ambiguity, swords, herbs, horses, gambling (with cards, dice, and lives), voyages of daring, journeys of both body and soul…

I’ll leave you with that to chew on!

Happy winter,

Chaitanya

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