This is a book review for the first 2 books in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, available here:
Like many others, I found the books after watching the TV series. While away on holiday I thought I’d see what the fuss was about and embarked, unsuspecting, on a journey that has become something of an obsession over the last two weeks, watching 2 episodes a night. I watched as far as the episode before the wedding and that brilliant conversation between Claire and Jamie:
“Doesn’t it bother you that I’m not a virgin?”
“No, as long as it doesnae bother ye that I am?”
And as soon as I’d stopped squeaking and flailing at the television and my outrageously lustful crush on our Jamie had been reduced to manageable proportions, I knew I had to download the books. After mixed reports from my friends, I downloaded just the first one in case I didn’t enjoy it as much as the series. About 70% of the way through, I downloaded books 2 and 3 so that I knew I could read straight on.
I can see why the books don’t appeal to some people. They’re very long and very heavy on the detail. The language is often fussy and intellectual and the time period flits about all over the place. It took me a few chapters to get into them, but once I did…I have been wholeheartedly absorbed in the stories and unable to put them down for any great length of time. I’ll be very sad when I have finished the series.
It’s hard to give just a brief overview of the story so far because it encompasses such an epic sweep of history, a tumultuous period of change of such magnitude that it shaped the future of the UK for centuries to come.
**WARNING** – the next few paragraphs contain spoilers; the end of the spoilers is marked – **WARNING**
Our main character, from whose perspective much of the story is told, is Claire Randall, nee Beauchamp. We meet her as a nurse after the second world war in 1948. She and her husband Frank have embarked on a second honeymoon in Inverness where they got married, having only spent 10 days together in the intervening 5 years. Claire steps through a stone circle in 1948 and wakes up in the same stone circle in 1743, where she is very quickly thrown into a stramash between the occupying English redcoats and the highlanders of Clan Mackenzie. Captured by the highlanders, she’s taken north to Castle Leoch where she begins to eke out an existence as the castle healer. Watched closely, for fear that she’s an English or French spy, she’s unable to escape.
A series of unfortunate events occur whereby, to avoid being given over to the brutal treatment of Black Jack Randall, captain of the redcoat dragoons at Fort William and also her husband Frank’s ancestor, Claire ends up marrying one Jamie Fraser. Jamie, as it turns out, is the nephew of the Mackenzie clan chief and also a laird in his own right, his father being from the Fraser clan. He’s also an outlaw with a significant price on his head and a history of bad blood with no other than Black Jack Randall. I know it’s confusing. Bear with me! Claire and Jamie end up falling in love with each other and eventually she is forced to tell him where she came from. When he is persuaded to believe that she comes from 200 years in the future, she tells him all about the return of Bonny Prince Charlie and the horrors of Culloden and the years that follow.
After a further series of events where Jamie is then arrested and thrown into the grim and deadly Wentworth prison, he is tortured and abused in the worst ways by, yep, you guessed it, Black Jack Randall. Claire is forced to rescue him, with the unexpected help of a guy she meet in the woods and a herd of cattle. With Jamie broken and on the verge of death, they flee to a monastery in France where the Abbot is a kinsman of the Mackenzie clan.
Knowing that they cannot return to Scotland but that they have to do something to prevent the coming war, they turn to Paris where Bonny Prince Charlie is awaiting the pleasure of King Louis and being frustrated at every turn. Determined that Culloden will not happen, Claire and Jamie immerse themselves in the Parisian court and set about trying to prevent Charlie’s return to Scotland.
They fail and, through an unfortunate assumption by the young prince, find themselves declared publicly for the Jacobite rebellion. Officially traitors to the Hanover throne, they have to do a complete about turn and now do everything in their power to ensure that either Culloden doesn’t happen or, if it does, that the Scots win; if they fail, they risk being hung, drawn and quartered and all their assets and possessions seized and forfeited to the crown.
Sadly the young prince is headstrong, foolish and unwilling to listen to sense. As a result they fail to prevent the catastrophic disaster and, on the eve of the battle of Culloden, Jamie persuades Claire, who is pregnant with his child, to return to the future so that she is safe.
Honestly, that was as briefly as I could summarise it. It’s a story on a grand scale!
I don’t even know where to start with dissecting it. I should probably begin with the admission that part of the magic of these books for me is that they are set around the area where I live. Inverness is the city where I work. Beauly, the seat of Lord Lovat, clan chief of the Fraser clan and grandfather of Jamie Fraser, is my home town, some 12 miles north of Inverness. I’ve travelled up and down the Great Glen and around Loch Ness many a time. I’ve also lived near Culloden battlefield and the Clava Cairns, which are only about half an hour drive from where I live now. Reading the stories of it brings it all to life with a vibrancy and poignancy that I hadn’t experienced or even considered before. I can see that I’ll be looking at things in a different light from now on. I’m also tempted to start looking into my family history – although a Sassenach, same as Claire, I’m descended from Scots on my mother’s side. Reading about Clan Cameron makes me wonder who my ancestors were that lived in that time and maybe died on Culloden field.
All of the Scots’ speech is written in dialect and I have to give Gabaldon credit for getting it almost spot on. There are a few misses here and there, but on the whole it’s very well done. I’m not sure why the TV series has given them all west coast accents, but it’s still pretty to listen to. Love that burr 🙂 Far nicer than the accent of Inverness and surrounding areas anyway. It may be that 250 years ago they did all speak that way. Not being a scholar, I wouldn’t know.
As I mentioned before, the writing is rich and heavily interwoven with detail. There are turns of phrase that are breathtakingly beautiful, like catching shimmering glimpses of gold and silver in a brilliantly detailed tapestry.
Not unexpectedly, given the time the book is set in, the details of the plot are sometimes dark, brutal, gruesome and unpleasant. Even the relationship between Jamie and Claire is harsh at times. Gabaldon doesn’t ever shy away from this, letting the story unfurl into the shadows in a way that’s as natural as it is horrifying. The black and twisted soul of Jack Randall is a recurrent refrain in the books, the dark base thread that weaves through the plot, and at times I found his proclivities hard to stomach. I think the unflinching grit and honesty of what the times were like is yet another accolade for Gabaldon. Many authors would have tried to rose tint it, but she doesn’t. It brings the adventures to life in a way that is vivid and realistic.
The characters are…well, I can’t lie. I’m in love with Jamie. I get that he’s fictional and can sometimes be a stubborn and bull-headed idiot, but yes…be still my beating heart. He’s the highlander hero to end all other highlander heroes. Claire is a brilliant lead character. She’s smart, sassy, strong-willed and yet also vulnerable at times. The way she adapts to her shifting reality is relatable and, at times, emotional. She has a very real struggle with her own heart, trying to make sense of the burgeoning love she has for Jamie while being crushed with guilt over a husband that won’t be born for another 200 years. I liked her very much and suspect that if she were real, we’d get along famously. The cast of supporting characters is vast and I can’t run through them all now, but it is safe to say that they are all lifelike enough for the reader to feel like they could leap off the page and walk among us.
All in all, this is an epic tale that covers everything from politics to hate, to sacrifice, to redemption, to magic, to superstition, to war, to family and to the most basic and yet most complex of all things – love.
I’ve you haven’t figured it out by now, I gave both books 5* and I’m halfway through reading the third as I type this.