Wednesday, February 11, 2009

just read: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon

One day last week, when I was very tired, I downloaded onto my Kindle what I thought would be a quick read: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. Hours later I was still reading. I finished it the next day. As I say, I was tired and so I thought it was just that I was reading slowly. (The Kindle 'location numbers' make it hard to tell how long a book is.) So I checked on my desktop and found the paperback is nearly 900 pages. That's...long. But it really didn't feel that big. It's not boring (or not often). In fact, it's an excellent read--

--if you can stand boy/girl sex every fifteen pages, the kind where both parties are limp and exhausted afterwards, in which they open like flowers and pound like blunt instruments, and occasionally hurl crockery at each other afterwards.

I'm not going to bother with a plot precis--go read online reviews--but if it were a film the logline would read something along the lines of: Sensual, no-nonsense ex-nurse Claire travels back in time from 1948 to the Jacobite-infested Highlands of 1743 (or perhaps 1744) and fights with a perverted English army captain for the body and soul of her clansman husband. Much sex, fighting, and nursing ensue.

This book gallops along. The prose is mostly competent, occasionally awful, and once or twice quite stunning. But this book isn't about limpid prose. It is a storyteller's showcase.

Gabaldon (mostly) knows her stuff. She certainly has done her research when it comes to herbal medicine. (I'll have to reread and take notes for the Hild book.) She also manages to convey Scottishness well. Her dialogue is distinctive without being irritating. Every now and again there's a weird non-British off-note but the rest is so strong it carried me right past the false notes. (No, I can't give you an example. The Kindle is, frankly, crap for skimming through text looking for examples, and I was enjoying the book too much while reading it to stop and take notes or to bookmark stuff.)

Americans (sweeping statement alert) are not very good at Englishness, whether in fiction or doing accents on TV. Of course, English people aren't much better at doing American/s. (Oh, stop it, you know what I'm talking about: portraying, not *doing*. As far as I'm aware, there's no difference between the countrywomen of our fine nations.) I am never fooled by an actor's accent. Except once: Jamie Bamber on Battlestar Galactica. I was truly surprised to hear him talk in his native English for a Making Of special.


The stunning parts come late in the book where (a) Claire literally, physically wrestles for the soul of Jamie, her clansman husband and (b) she asks for god's help. The former is a bravura piece of writing, taken on the volley, and the latter is a carefully honed set piece. At least that, from a fellow writer's perspective, is how they feel to me.

So I was expecting a low-grade piece of time travel romance, perhaps with a few fun moments of whacking-their-heads-off-with-swords, and got something much, much better. Something with women and men who inhabit their gender roles in ways that make them very human (while brilliantly not contravening the cliches and strictures of romantic fiction). I've already started the second book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. I'm having a blast.



  1. Speaking of accents, have you heard Charlie Hunnam do an American accent for his part in Sons of Anarchy? I can usually peg a Brit, but he's really good.

    I'll have to take a look at this series. :)

  2. Just avoid the "Lord John" books she did afterwards. Fan-service more than anything. "Dragonfly in Amber" is the best of her series, in my opinion.

  3. I think that OUTLANDER might be the only historical romance (broadly defined) that I've ever read -- I thought it was great fun, too. But I never got to the sequels. Diana Gabaldon, though, has done a series of podcasts about writing and historical research, and I've listened to a few of them. (Go here: or you can search on iTunes.) They're quite interesting.

  4. So, a cursory scan of the 1-star reviews on Amazon reveal controversy over a certain spanking scene.

    Anyone who's actually read the book care to comment?

  5. ssas, no, I haven't seen Sons of Anarchy. Is it worth it?

    kessa, actually I'm not enjoying DiA half as much as Outlander. She's already beginning to repeat herself, thematically. Sigh.

    malinda, ooh, thanks for that. Process porn!

    stacy, that was an interesting scene. When I saw where the book was going I rolled my eyes and prepared to skip/skim--but she pulled it off. She made it make sense. Mostly. It's one of those gendered plus moments where she takes a cliche and thinks her way through it. It reminded me of how Carey handled some of the scenes in Kushiel's Dart (though without the sexual pleasure in the pain).

  6. I think Sons of Anarchy is a great show. Life inside a motorcycle gang revolving around Hamletesque themes. What's not to love?

  7. Gabaldon has never appealed to me, for whatever reason. However, I did just finish Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke and was blown away. I haven't read through a book that fast (a week) in a very long time. And she uses footnotes. Awesome, awesome.

  8. John-Henri HolmbergFebruary 11, 2009 at 1:16 PM

    How funny. I contracted for the Swedish edition of that novel around when it was first published, and even had lunch with Diana Gabaldon during one of the ABA meets around the same time. The company I was working for then is still publishing her in Swedish, and doing very well with her books. Regarding the book itself, you pinpoint it excellently; it might amuse you, though, that Gabaldon turned out to be a staunch sf reader and fan. (As for the spanking scene, well, given the number of people who seem to read Anne Rice, what's to comment? Not to mention being raped on a heap of coal slag in an underground train depot, and that one's sold 15 million copies.)
    Parenthetically, I assume you've read Mary Renault's ancient Greek historicals? Of course you have. You really must have.

  9. I loved OUTLANDER, even though I was sad that once again there was a gay villain in a romance. I read the next 2 or 3, didn't like them as much.

  10. Thanks to all who answered my question. When 1-star reviews reach that particular level of shrillness, it makes me suspicious.

  11. ssas, it sounds v. cool.

    lynne, I've read the first page of that book twice and never got any further. Even though it's about magic, and Yorkshire (!), it bored me rigid.

    john-henri, I think I've read everything she's ever written. My favourite is Fire From Heave which I've read at least a dozen times.

    victoria, I didn't think of him as a gay villain but as a pervert: he loves to hurt people against their will. Gabaldon does have some issues, though; I'm rapidly tiring of her work. I think she wrote beyond herself with Outlander and then, when it was successful, just kept churning out the same stuff. Sigh.

    stacy, I think a lot of readers get triggered by some kinds of scenes and then find it hard to be rational. The 'beating' scene was interesting to me, on a technical level--watching the writer work within the confines of the genre and push the boundaries to their logical limit while maintaining sympathy for the character. I think she was mostly successful. A very good trick. But it's not anything I would have chosen to write.

  12. I am a big fan of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series and I'm looking forward to the next book. I have enjoyed reading them all but I did feel that the weakest was actually the Fiery Cross. I thought too much emphasis was placed on the political situation of the time rather than concerntrating on the progression of the story.

  13. In my latest novel, I'm mired in the very tricky multi-ethnic politics of early 7th C Britain--Angles and Saxons and Britons, oh my, not to mention Irish, Pictish, Frankish, plus all the flavours of religion. But I'm trying very hard to keep my focus on the people. Not always easy, because the people in my case are royals: they *are* the politics.

  14. In the realm of television, Hugh Laurie is the top dog of pulling off accents. I first knew of him from the British series "Jeeves and Wooster"-- and was astounded at his interpretation of Gregory House on the TV series. Not only is he utterly convincing as an American, but his voice is a distinctly unique American, quite appropriate to his attitue and character-- rather an impressive accomplishment.

  15. I find it hard to tell--because I knew he was English. Jamie Bamber, though, wow, I had no clue and it was a total shock to hear him speak in his own voice.

  16. I have never before experienced so many strong emotions at the same time while reading one book. I went from laughter at Jamie's antics to revulsion and disgust at Randall's sadistic ruthlessness; being charmed by Jamie's shyness to astonishment at the brutal reality of eighteenth-century punishments; and above all, being surprised again and again by the twists and turns of this brilliantly told tale.

    1. She certainly knows how to trigger those mirror neurons...