They’re hard to define – they belong in the literature section at the book store, but many people would classify them as Romance, or Fantasy.
The first book is definitely a Romance novel, and honestly, I wish the first book stood alone, not followed by 6 others. For that reason, I will be focusing this review on the first two books, with only a brief mention of the last 4.
The first novel is the titular Outlander, and the story revolves around Jamie and Claire – two wonderful, fully fleshed out characters. Claire is a nurse from the 1960s in England, celebrating her anniversary with her husband in the highlands of Scotland when she finds herself pulled through some magical stones to Scotland in the 1760s instead. Jamie is a member of a band of highlanders that stumble upon Claire in what looks (to a man in the 1700s) like a scandalous state of undress and distress. She is ‘rescued’ and the story continues from there.
It’s a pretty formulaic setup – hero and damsel in distress. Scottish Highlands, brutish, yet intelligent and sensitive highlander. Pretty, intelligent and stubbourn woman. All fairly standard romance tropes. The time travel is somewhat unique, but not entirely innovative.
The thing that really makes it a good story is how well defined Claire and Jaime and all the other characters are. Gabaldon has really put some thought into them and made them characters worth investing in. They have long, complicated back stories (even the more minor players) that come to light at relevant points and in interesting ways. I enjoyed the complexities she creates and the ways in which the characters are allowed to change their minds and be fluid and real – not stagnant in tropes of good vs. evil.
Gabaldon also does a great job of handling the history. For those not in the know, Claire has gone back to Scotland just before the rebellion against the Crown that attempted to place Bonnie Prince Charlie on the Scottish throne, and which ended in a slaughter at Culloden at the hands of the English army.
Throughout the story, Gabaldon introduces several real historical characters – and she really does a great job of handling them. This is even more true in the second book, which takes place in France, and in which Jamie and Claire spend some time in with the French Court.
Along with the historical accuracy (which I believe takes a significant dip as the books wear on. She incorrectly mentions Buckingham Palace in the last book, which didn’t even exist until the 1800s!) another fun part is the medical information.
Gabaldon is a botanist, and has made the incredibly wise decision to make Claire a nurse. This gives Claire a greater advantage towards surviving the new time she lives in (as she has a useful skill, and can keep herself healthier than the average citizen given her knowledge of the benefits of vegetables and germs). It also gives Gabaldon a chance to write about the different natural plants that can be used as legitimate replacements in times of need. For example, I had no idea that garlic possesses antibiotic properties. This is also a nice way to demonstrate how brutal life was then – from farm life to the life of a soldier. The kinds of accidents and maimings that took place, and the way they were (not) treated left the average human population looking rather limbless, scarred and mutilated compared to the way we look today.
In all, the first two books are teeming with fun historical fiction, interesting medical lore and knowledge, and the characters are a well-defined and fun read.
The plot is interesting. It takes some time to really get into, but once you’re in, you’re in.
Unfortunately, Gabaldon definitely loses it in the remainder of the series. The events become too unrealistic and far-fetched. The history falls to the wayside. Too many new characters are introduced and given prominent voices in the narration and only a few of these characters have the same appeal that Jamie and Claire have, so the overall appeal wears thin.
For those wondering – the sex scenes are decent, but definitely not as graphic or … unnecessary? as your standard bodice-ripper. It’s a Romance in the sense of being about the love between two people, and that love being the primary focus of the narrative.
I’m glad I read them. They’re good fun and a really intelligent look into what life was like back then. They require stamina, but once you get there, I believe anyone can understand how the books become such bestsellers.