Outlander is probably the English language’s best known and most widely read romance novel that doesn’t include a leading man with the incredibly sexy name of “Fitzwilliam.” First published in 1991, this Highland saga features time travel, sex, kilts, violence, sex, betrayal, horses, and sex, making it the perfect subject for premium cable. Starz thinks so too, and season 2 of the Outlander series started over the weekend. Haven’t seen the first season? Don’t panic. I’m here to catch you up on the book that inspired it. And I’ll do it in way less than the 850 pages author Diana Gabaldon took.
Type: Epic historical fantasy. That’s a type I sort of just made up, but it fits.
The couple: Claire Randall is tough, practical, and intelligent. Those traits combine nicely with her experience as a wartime nurse and lifelong companion of historians to make her uniquely suited for time travel and violent adventures in past eras. Her 20th century medical knowledge makes her sort of magical in 1740s Scotland, which actually turns out to be problematic. The fact that she’s English is also a bit of an issue. Luckily, she stumbles upon a ragtag clan of Highlanders that includes Jamie Fraser, a hot young outlaw/soldier, whose nobility and sense of honor know no bounds. Truthfully, this also turns out to be kind of a problem, but Gabaldon couldn’t exactly be expected to fill 850 pages with soft-spoken people who raise sheep and have sex and never have to fight bad guys.
Tropes: The nice thing about having three times as many words and pages as a typical romance is that you don’t need to rely on tropes for the kinds of shortcuts that they often provide. The romance basics are there – the sex is immediately amazing, Claire is often in distress, Jamie is strapping and fills out his kilt quite nicely – but a lot of the story doesn’t fit in the usual romance novel boxes.
The story: We open in 1945, and Claire is in the Scottish Highlands enjoying a post-war second honeymoon with her husband Frank. One day while exploring herbs and stones and whatnot, she stumbles through time and ends up in the 1743 Scottish Highlands. As one does. Unfortunately, in that particular time and place, Highlanders are not on great terms with the English and everyone is immediately pretty sure the “Sassenach” Claire is either a prostitute or a spy. Claire wisely chooses not to explain that she’s actually just a nurse from the future, and as the clan keeps her around so that they can watch her, she builds a friendship with Jaime that eventually turns into “something more.” Which means they have great chemistry and a lot of sex. Anyway, a bunch of stuff also happens related to Jamie’s tenuous relationship with his family and his outlaw status, but since this is a romance novel review, let’s set that aside and circle back to the sex.
How’s the sex? For all of my winking and nudging, in Outlander Gabaldon helped to set the modern standard in the literary world for effectively using sex to add dimension to relationships and stories. A complicated set of circumstances push Claire and Jaime into physical intimacy before they’re entirely comfortable with one another. Sexually, they connect quickly and easily, but it doesn’t suddenly make them more comfortable with each other when they’re out and about with their clothes on. Still, it provides them with a foundation upon which to build the kind of trust and familiarity that makes them an epic romantic pairing. And great sex makes for a way more fun foundation upon which to build relationships, as opposed to stuff like following the same sports team or a shared dedication to veganism.
Is this book for you? I liked Outlander. Mostly. It was certainly different. Like the best fantasy and genre writers, Gabaldon has, without a doubt, created an immersive world. Her knowledge of history and attention to detail create a seemingly accurate picture of the eighteenth century Highlands, but the time travel element makes Outlander a story that hovers just beyond our logical conception of reality. It’s a fine line, though, and for a tale that hinges on one key fantastical element, there is little fantasy throughout. The closet thing to a dragon is the Loch Ness monster, and the closest thing to magic is a woman who knows 20th century medical practices and who quickly gets used to not bathing regularly.
For me, the toughest thing to absorb over in this book and the thing that left me most conflicted was the almost constant violence. There are beatings and whippings and threats of rape, attempts at rape, and, late in the story, completed rape, and it’s all excruciating. But in fairness to the author, the violence and assault are not taken lightly, and the reactions of the characters feel very real. As with her use of sex, Gabaldon uses violence as a story-telling mechanism, but she doesn’t do it in an exploitive way.
Conclusion: Galbaldon’s world is exciting if not entirely comfortable, and it’s worth getting lost in for a while. But if you don’t have awhile – 18 hours, according to my Kindle – you’re still ready for Outlander season 2. Go forth and find a friend with a Starz subscription.