Hello, rapacious and reluctant readers alike! Today I’m sharing my take on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. I’ll talk a little about my take on the series in general, but I’ll mostly be focusing on the first book for this review.
Although this is not a new series, it recently experienced a resurgence in popularity, and I first heard about it this winter through another interested friend. After having read the synopsis (I usually prefer not to even read the back covers of books before I read them so that I start with as few preconceptions as possible), my first impression of Outlander (and it’s sequel, Dragonfly in Amber) was that it was slow about getting started. However, I also knew before reading that people commonly have difficulty categorizing this book, which was an anomaly I had to experience for myself, so I stuck with it and I’m glad I did.
About this book: I must admit, it is practically impossible to categorize, as far as genre goes. It could fit under thriller, science fiction, romance, historical fiction (and probably more, but those would be my top choices), but the book wouldn’t be accurately represented by any single genre. Why?
Outlander opens in Scotland in 1945, just after the end of the war. The main character, Claire, worked as a field nurse on the front lines, and is visiting Scotland with her husband, Frank, on a second honeymoon/vacation to get reacquainted with a man she’s hardly seen in years. While she’s there, she visits a circle of standing stones where she is pulled through time. (Slight pet peeve: the time gap is frequently referred to as a 200 year difference, but it’s actually 202 years that Claire goes back, landing in 1743. Since the years are historically important, the rounding of those 202 years was a bit confusing at first.) Claire immediately wanders away from the stones because she doesn’t realize what’s happened, and then makes a whole slew of new friends and enemies as she fights for survival and concocts various schemes to get back to 1945, and Frank.
“In truth, [Roger] had no idea whether Claire Randall w0uld ever be all right. She was alive, at least, and that was all he could vouch for. They had found her, senseless in the grass near the edge of the circle, white as the rising moon above, with nothing but the slow, dark seep of blood from her abraded palms to testify that her heart still beat. Of the hellish journey down the path to the car, her dead weight slung across his shoulder, bumping awkwardly as stones rolled under his feet and twigs snatched at his clothing, he preferred to remember nothing.”
This quote is actually from book 2 in this series, but I think it sums up the emotions of time travel in this series perfectly.
Notes on the layout: The main reason I thought Outlander started slowly was because the premise of the book is time travel, but Claire spends a good bit of time with Frank in 1945 before the sci-fi elements of the book come into play. Later on, when Claire is struggling back to Frank, it’s nice to have some context of their lives to understand her motivation, and I didn’t really have any complaint about the pages dedicated to 1945 once I understood their significance. Another technical aspect of this book that stood out to me was the constantly shifting plot. Every hundred pages or so (there are almost 700 in the first book, and as the series goes on the books grow) seemed to have an entirely different focus than the last hundred pages. This is part of what makes the book so difficult to classify, and also why it makes such a great TV series; for those wondering, the episodes of the Outlander show follow the book very closely, and are rated R for good reason. Both the book and the TV show feature some pretty gruesome details of injury and torture in the 1700s, as well as a plethora of sexual scenes. Both of these aspects surprised me, but they ended up fitting into the novel rather well, and they were definitely easier to read about than watch on screen.
Further miscellaneous thoughts: Outlander reads like a soap opera. Old characters come back to pop up at the most convenient/inconvenient times, every time one problem is solved another one arises that takes the whole story in a new direction, and each situation is more intense than the last. Death is a constant threat in the 1700’s, but Claire uses her medical training to keep her friends alive and keep herself occupied while she’s stuck in old-time Scotland. It sounds like a beautiful and wonderful place, no matter what time you visit; that said, there’s very little leisure time for the characters to enjoy their surroundings. Claire and her companions are always doing something extreme, whether it’s running for their lives, falling in love, fighting to the death, or outsmarting ill-meaning leaders. I have to admit that as crazy as Claire’s journey seems at times, I loved and hated the good and evil characters (respectively) of this series more strongly than I have cared about any other characters in a while. It’s also interesting that an ancestor Frank was researching during their vacation turns up repeatedly in Claire’s adventures through the past, and although he looks identical to Claire’s husband, his personality is subpar, to put it mildly.
Is it a favorite? I’m currently in the third book of the series, and Outlander did take a spot on my list of top books for the last year, but I suspect the obsession will be short lived. By the time I create my list of favorites next year, Outlander will probably be out of my system. Although I am very attached to a few of the characters, I wasn’t overly impressed with the writing itself. There are some great one-or-two-line quotes throughout, but I know my reading preferences well enough to see that it’s the intense plot and love story that’s holding my attention, and once the mystery of what happens next is gone, my excitement for this series will probably have been exhausted. However, I am giving 4 out of 5 stars, and pointing out that I’m determined to making it through this series even though each book I’ve picked up so far has been around 700 pages. That’s no small commitment, and even though I’m not sure this book is a forever love for me, it’s definitely a series I can’t get enough of right now and am eager to suggest.
- I was strongly reminded of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones while reading Outlander, and I would definitely recommend these two series together. If you like sword fights, political power struggles, and a big cast of characters you never know whether to trust, both of these hit the mark.
- Time travel and romance make Audrey Niffinegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife an obvious comparison here. There’s not much of a historical aspect to Niffenegger’s book, so don’t expect any sword fights, but if it’s Claire’s epic romance you enjoy most about Outlander, you’ll probably enjoy the other Claire’s love story in The Time Traveler’s Wife as well.
- If you’re looking for something a little more YA, you might want to check out Kami Garcia’s and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures series.There’re more fantasy elements and less focus on time travel, but if you’re looking for something a little more PG, I think there are some similarities between genres and themes here that make these a good fit if you’re not so thrilled about the sex and violence of Outlander.
What’s next: I’ll be reviewing Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels, a novel about the convergence of seemingly unrelated lives when a beloved member of a Coney Island carnival/sideshow goes missing after a tragic fire.
Questions or comments? Feel free to let me know what you think about my Outlander impressions, and include any recommendations you may have for me!
The Literary Elephant
P.S. click here for a review of the next book in this series, Dragonfly in Amber.