I’m re-reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series in preparation for the release of the fifth, The Fiery Cross. These are, I think, some of the rare books that don’t fit in any category. They’re big fat historical time-travel fantasy adventure mystery romance—novels, for lack of a more precise term. They’re also hugely engrossing and seriously addicting.
Outlander, the first in the series, was originally shelved in the romance section, apparently for lack of a better place to put it. While this was probably a good marketing decision (romance readers are more tolerant than one might think of history, time-travel, fantasy, adventure, and mystery), they’re no more genre romances than anything else. (This is not an “Eww, girl cooties” response. Regular readers of this book log know perfectly well that I like good genre romances.)
[The existing volumes have been repackaged as mainstream fiction in trade paperback; unfortunately, the new covers are so plain that they look more like pre-publication proof copies than anything else. I liked the old covers, particularly the one for Drums of Autumn.]
Claire Randall is a nurse who has recently been reunited with her husband, Frank, after World War II. They are in the Scottish Highlands for a sort of second honeymoon, Frank digging into his family tree and Claire learning botany, when Claire stumbles into a stone circle and finds herself in 1743, smack in the middle of a minor skirmish between English soldiers and Scottish raiders. She has a very unpleasant run-in with Frank’s ancestor, Jack Randall (who, let me assure you, only gets more unpleasant upon further acquaintance), is rescued by the MacKenzies, and gets taken along because she can treat things like musket ball wounds and dislocated shoulders. And also, of course, because she’s damned odd and they think she might be an English spy. Claire eventually ends up marrying, and then falling in love with, Jamie Fraser, a relative of the MacKenzie clan. Jamie is presently an outlaw, which is only part of the unfinished business he has with Randall, who in turn is only part of the complications that will greet Claire & Jamie.
The difference from genre romances isn’t that Claire and Jamie are three-dimensional, stubborn, outspoken, complicated people; contrary to public perception, that’s not unusual. What is different is that Claire is not only married when they meet, but is in love with her husband; that Jamie’s younger than she is and a virgin; and that the story doesn’t end when they eventually declare their love for each other. (Of course, the story hasn’t ended yet, period; there’s to be six of these in all.) And then there’s the historical bits, and the worries about time-travel and affecting history and if Claire can (and whether she should) go back, and the families, and the sword-play and dramatic rescues and politicking, and the Loch Ness monster, and . . .
Like I said, hard to classify. But also fabulously entertaining. I forced myself to only read pre-determined chunks of chapters at a time, lest I stay up all night (which I’ve done before). The plot tends to be a bit episodic, but all of the characters and dialogue are so vivid that you’re pulled along regardless.
It’s true that Outlander is Gabaldon’s first novel, and it shows. For instance, Claire has a tendency to think at the end of chapters, “I went away, and it only occurred to me after to wonder why . . .”; once I noticed this, it was one of those minor irritants that kept standing out. Also, a few scenes strike me as a bit much, particularly some of the sex scenes (okay, they’re newlyweds, but still . . . ). But it’s a book and a series far rich enough to overcome these minor defects.
[Claire is at Loch Ness.]
A great flat head broke the surface not ten feet away. . . . Oddly enough, I was not really afraid. I felt some faint kinship with it, a creature further from its own time than I, the flat eyes old as its ancient Eocene seas, eyes grown dim in the murky depths of its shrunken refuge. . . .
A man was standing at the top of the slope. I was startled at first, then recognized him as one of the drovers from our party. . . . “It’s all right,” I said, as I came up to him. “It’s gone.”
Instead of finding this statement reassuring, it seemed occasion for fresh alarm. He dropped the bucket, fell to his knees before me and crossed himself.
“Ha-have mercy, lady,” he stammered. To my extreme embarrassment, he then flung himself flat on his face and clutched at the hem of my dress.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said with some asperity. “Get up.” I prodded him gently with my toe, but he only quivered and stayed pressed to the ground like a flattened fungus. “Get up,” I repeated. “Stupid man, it’s only a . . .” I paused, trying to think. Telling him its Latin name was unlikely to help.
“It’s only a wee monster,” I said at last, and grabbing his hand, tugged him to his feet.