A year or two ago, one of my favorite English professors of all time took a journey to Scotland to visit the set where the Outlander television series is filmed — she was fortunate enough to have a family member involved in the show, and as an avid fan, jumped all over the opportunity. Meanwhile, she’d only hounded me to read the damn books six or seven times previously, promising I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Well, Dr. Duffy, I’m two books in and I can assure you — you weren’t wrong.
It started innocently enough: I purchased the first book in the series, Outlander, and admired it as it sat on my shelf for a year or so. One day, I happened to post a #shelfie on my bookstagram account (yo! check me out –> @littlereaderontheprairie) and two strangers from the other side of the country said, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to read that book but it’s so huge, I’m intimidated!” And so began my second — and most successful — buddy-reading experience. (Read more about how to execute one of your own here.)
Outlander and its companion novels — there are 7 other titles published in the series, with the promise of another coming in 2019 — are penned by Diana Gabaldon, a scholar of various subjects. The novel is often touted as historical fiction, but it’s also apt to describe the book as romance and fantasy and science fiction and adventure. Um, hello — who wouldn’t love to read a 700+ page tome that encapsulates the best of what literature has to offer?!
The first book introduces readers to Claire Randall, wife of Frank Randall and trained nurse living in post-WWII England. The two have been married for eight years — but only spent a fraction of that time together, thanks to the war that ripped a world apart. Once reunited after the fighting is over, the two head to Scotland (to the place they were married) to rekindle their romance (suggestive brow wiggle) on a much-delayed honeymoon. Things are going pretty swimmingly for the two until — surprise! — Claire is sucked through a time-warp and finds herself in 1743 Scotland, soon-to-be victim of all sorts of misadventure.
Full disclosure: This novel is smutty. It’s not philosophical literature, although Gabaldon does prove herself a noteworthy author, capable of deeply complex plot structures and compelling character arcs, all while maintaining a steady level of absolutely blush-inducing romance. I’m not one for the genre, personally — in fact, I think the last “romance” book I read was a middle grades novel by Lurlene McDaniel — so I was surprised to enjoy the romance portion of this novel so much. On a scale of Holy Bible to Fifty Shades of Grey, the Outlander series falls somewhere in the upper middle — as my buddy reading pal, Taylor, so aptly put it: “Ooooh, yeah girl, this book is spicy!” — without treading uncomfortably inappropriate.
While many modern housewives appear to have gone gaga for the series based on its steamy bedroom scenes (in truth, that’s only a portion of the book, y’all) and the curly-haired lad that plays Jamie on the Starz adaptation of the series, I actually enjoyed the first two books primarily for a couple of other reasons:
- the writing is fluid, well-paced, and imaginative; and
- characters, conflict, and setting are utterly engrossing.
Outlander isn’t chock-full of one-dimensional stock characters, and that’s like a breath of fresh air. Gabaldon writes with finesse, so it’s quite easy to envision yourself in the company of several rarely-bathed Scottish Highlanders passing ’round the flask.
That being said, I do want to point out a few gripes.
- Gabaldon’s heroine leaves a bit to be desired, frequently. Claire is perpetually in some sort of life-and-death situation — she’s very much a damsel in distress, though wittier and more feisty — and disappointingly, Gabaldon writes Jamie to the rescue every. single. time. I hope to see more from Claire’s character as the series progresses, because honestly, I can only be so invested in weak female characters for so long.
- Rape happens. A lot. This is one of the series’ most hotly-debated features, and a topic that I go back and forth on. In the first book alone, there are several instances in which Claire is nearly raped — and in which other main characters are molested. Some argue that Gabaldon should not use this as a plot device, and in truth, I can’t help but agree that she overdoes the topic, relying on these encounters to propel the plot where other devices might have sufficed. On the other hand, I think it would be erroneous to pretend that rape wasn’t something that happened frequently in the 1700s; and as my pals and I buddy read the first book, we discussed some especially debated scenes and came to the conclusion that it would be wrong to assess this book with solely a 21st Century-perspective. I’ve seen gripes from readers who complain that such-and-such circumstances glorify sexual and domestic abuse, and honestly, I couldn’t disagree more. (But that’s a discussion for another day . . . ) The point is, readers should be prepared for a sprinkling of graphic scenes throughout the series.
- Certain circumstances in the novel — primarily, Claire’s relationship with Frank — lack in development, leaving readers in moral dilemmas that never quite come around fully. Look, guys, I don’t want to give too much away; but Claire’s relationship with Frank is absolutely bewildering. I had a hard time wrapping my head around their marriage and the subsequent challenges they faced.
Ultimately, there were a few things in the first book that I found lacking, but I was so wrapped up in Claire’s story, it’s taken me a few months to write this review without simply gushing. And that, in and of itself, should tell you just how fantastic Outlander really is. I’ve since read the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, and though it moves more slowly, I found myself greatly appreciative of Gabaldon’s efforts to create a complex and winding narrative, with the loose ends neatly gathered by the last page. In fact, I couldn’t wait to start the third book, but my buddies suggested we hold off for a bit, and I’m begrudgingly complying. 😉
Overall: 4.5 stars.
Bottom line: If you’re interested in a compelling, engrossing adventure series with great character and plot development and not too bothered by the doings of fictional characters, this is a great series to dive into. If you’re deep into analysis and have a proclivity for picking apart anything that might seem to be less-than-feminist in spirit, steer clear.