Book Review: Outlander

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Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Reviewed by Kris Harding

This is my third re-read of one of my favorite books of all time.  Since this genre shattering novel came out in 1991, Gabaldon has written six more books that follow the adventures and exploits of Jamie and Claire, one of the most beloved couples in literary history. The newest book in the Outlander series is An Echo in the Bone.

Gabaldon is the unlikeliest of romance writers. With three degrees in science: a B.S. in Zoology, M.S. in Marine Biology, and a Ph.D. in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology, Dr. Gabaldon spent a dozen years as a university professor with an expertise in scientific computation before beginning to write fiction. She has written scientific articles and textbooks, worked as an editor on the MacMillan Encyclopedia of Computers, and founded the scientific-computation journal Science Software Quarterly.  Despite her scientific bent, Gabaldon is a natural storyteller and when she began posting bits and pieces of her writing online at the CompuServe Literary Forum, people who read them urged her to complete the story and seek publication.

She never intended to write a romance, but that’s where the publisher put this book.  And though it does have a very satisfying love story at its heart, the book completely sets several conventions of the romance on their head. Her heroine is older than her hero and married to boot.  Her hero is a virgin.  They don’t actually meet till more than fifty pages in and the book doesn’t have the HEA (happily ever after) though it is a satisfying and logical conclusion.  Subsequent books in the series fall more into the historical fiction genre since they follow actual historical events, and the continuing love story of Jamie and Claire’s marriage is not the focus. Looking for a time period in which to set her book, Gabaldon picked eighteenth century Scotland after seeing a bonny bit of leg on a character in an old Dr Who episode who wore a kilt, and the thing became a time travel story because her female protagonist was just too smart-mouthed for a lass of that time period. All in all, her historical, paranormal, time travel, romance books work because she’s a great researcher and an even better writer.

The book stands alone very well, so don’t feel you will be obligating yourself to the whole seven book saga if you read it.   But be warned that the interesting characters, the fascinating historical tidbits, and the sheer beauty of Gabaldon’s prose may hook you. And you may fall in love with Jamie and Claire as thousands of others have. If you do succumb, be also warned that the books grow in length as the series progresses, from the 627 pages of the first book to the 979 pages and 820 pages of the last two. I found the combination of first person and third person narrative in the second book rather off-putting at first, but once I got into the story I forgot my quibbles about technique.  The third is my least favorite of the series, and in my opinion volumes three through six could have done with some judicious pruning and been cut by about a hundred pages each.  But I love this series and will continue to read anything from this author (she’s also written several Lord John historical mysteries and has a contemporary mystery in the works.) I’ll probably reread Outlander several times more in the coming years; it’s just that good.

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