Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Outlander," by Diana Gabaldon

The Chick: Claire Randall. An ordinary nurse living in 1945, her whole world turns upside down when she walks through some magic stones and winds up in 18th century Scotland.
The Rub: Living in a war-torn country without modern amenities is tough - especially since she has no way of proving she's not a spy for the English.
Dream Casting: Amy Adams.

The Dude: James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser - a.k.a. Jamie. God's gift to women, Scotland, and horny incestuous gay army captains everywhere.
The Rub: He worries about being forced to marry a woman with a mysterious past. Could it be possible she might come to love him, despite the fact that he's only six feet tall, gorgeous, chivalrous, landed, educated, creative in bed, and a virgin?
Dream Casting: There's never been, nor will there ever be, a man born of a human woman who can ever even hope to approach the pure and glorious manliness of Jamie Fraser.

The Plot:

Claire: Gee, touring Scotland with my sophisticated and handsome husband is such fun!

Magic Stones of Convenient Plot Development: *ominous humming*

Claire: *poof!* Oh, bugger.

Savage Scots: Save our injured friend!

Claire: Who?

Jamie: *glorious red hair glowing by candlelight, which also conveniently sheens off of his bulging blood-streaked abs* Me.

Choirs of Angels: *ecstatic singing*

Claire: I'm suddenly a lot less afraid of the whole accidental time-travel thing.

Jamie: Sorry we have to marry for convenience, also sorry that I'm totally a laird and also a hot outlaw and also well educated and fluent in many languages and also great with animals and also probably going to be great in the sack - technically, I'm a virgin, but I mean the odds are good that...

Claire: Wait wait wait - you're a virgin? How the HELL did that happen?

Super Gay Duke Who Tried to Bone Jamie: I KNOW, right?!

Super Evil Gay Captain Who Tried to Bone Jamie: You'd think that with all these people trying to bone him, by fair means or foul, that at least one of us would succeed!

Super Bitchy Jamie-Fangirl Laoghire: IT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE.

Claire: All these people want to have sex with you?!

Jamie: *bashful look* *scuffs boot*

Gay Dudes and Women: OMG ISN'T HE JUST THE CUTEST THING?

Claire: Score! This is going to be AWESOME!

Savage Mobs: Wait! We still need to have a WITCH TRIAL! And kidnappings! And barbaric custom and superstition!

Dougal and Colum MacKenzie, Jamie's Uncles: And we need to be all morally ambiguous and mysterious, until we reveal we're in love with Claire.

Claire: ...

Dougal: Well, we canna verra weel be in love with Jamie. That'd be Incest!

Super Evil Gay Captain: Didn't stop me! C'mon, Jamie! I'll let your wife live if you toss my caber, nudgenudgewinkwink.

Jamie: Okay.

Claire: HELL TO THE NO! RELEASE THE COWS!

Obvious Monty Python Reference: Le vache! Le vache!

Super Evil Gay Captain: *trampled by cows*

Claire: HOORAY!

Jamie: .... aaaguughaughguhg.

Claire: Walk it off, Jamie.

Jamie: Okay.

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Hot Highlander

1 Time-Travelling Heroine

1 Dumped Husband

1 Evil Gay Incestuous Rapist Captain Who Happens to Look an Awful Lot Like Dumped Husband

Several Lacklustre Romantic Rivals

2 Ambiguous Uncles

1 Marriage of Convenience

1 Evil Witch

Several Chapters Worth of Backstory

1 Necessary Spanking

1 Really Ugly Pair of Scottish Swim Trunks

The Word: Well, I did it.

I read Outlander. Part of me is tempted to say, "I can't believe I read the whole thing," but the truth is, I didn't. I skimmed about half.

*flinches, as if from the fear of stones being thrown*

Outlander is rather a contentious book in the romance world - some believe it's a romance, others don't, but most readers either desperately adore it, or avoid it like the plague, and both camps informed me in no uncertain terms on Twitter that I would love/hate it, which is part of why I wanted to read it in the first place, to see what everyone was talking about. *eyes the new copy of Dark Lover on her TBR*

Really, though, I neither loved nor hated this book. As unbelievable as it may sound, this book was a m'eh grade. It had good writing, a great heroine, an interesting story - but on the flip side it had terrible pacing, cheap characterization in many places, and Jamie Fraser.

*runs away from stones actually being thrown*

Now, for those of you who, like me, had previously been completely ignorant of Outlander, this is the story in a nutshell:

Jamie Fraser is Awesome and Everyone Wants to Have Sex with Him. For 800 pages.

Some
people will tell you the story is about Claire Randall, a woman living in 1945 Britain who is magically transported through standing stones to 18th century Scotland, where she is more less adopted by a clan of hot, rowdy Scotsmen who eventually force her to marry outlawed highlander Jamie Fraser for various political reasons that take hundreds of pages to explain.

That's not the story. That's the Inciting Incident. The story is Jamie - how awesome he is, how he embodies perfection in every pore, how he's a holy mixture of Rob Roy, Chuck Norris and Harry Potter, how he inspires lust in every woman and jealous fear in every man, etc. etc. Every real piece of action in the story is driven by someone's desire to protect Jamie, possess Jamie, or make Jamie look even more awesome and cool as he whips out his own brand of Redheaded Scottish Justice.

And, just in case our own powers of interpretation can't be trusted, every so often Jamie or one of his friends will take Claire aside to a lovingly and elaborately described Scottish geological landmark and tell her about Jamie's courageous, painful past, in long and tedious blocks of exposition. I like to call these Jamie's Tragic Past Storytime Hours. How he was whipped by the Evil Gay Army Captain. How bravely he survived getting shot at and chopped in the head with an axe (!). How he rescued a litter of kittens from a burning orphanage with one hand while teaching blind children to read with the other - you get the point.

Now put down your pitchforks for a minute. I'll readily admit that Jamie, as a character, is a very nice young man, but I just wasn't crazy for him and I'll tell you why. You all like chocolate, don't you? I love chocolate. But imagine if someone forcibly shoved chocolate down your throat all day, nonstop, all the while screaming "CHOCOLATE! HOOORAAAAAAY FOR CHOCOLATE!" five millimetres from your ear while playing the bagpipes - would that chocolate still taste as good?

You see, Outlander spends so much time and effort and page count telling us how Extra Special Jamie is that it had the opposite effect on me - I thought it was too much, too over the top, and I couldn't buy Jamie's character. Worse, during the novel it obscures those true moments when Gabaldon allows Jamie's actions to show us what a decent man he is.

Yes, Jamie is nice - but he's not enough to base 800 pages on, which is why, after struggling along until page 446 (only about halfway through), I had to give up and skim. The pacing in Outlander is ridiculously slow. Lots of beautifully worded description, to be sure, especially when combined with Claire's witty and wry commentary, but there's little to no unifying action or plot. Claire just wanders around, wondering how to get back to her own time, until Jamie shows up to save her, have sex with her, or both. Reading the book itself up to that point was pleasant, but I wasn't at all emotionally invested in the story and just wanted to get on with it so I could read something else.

It also behooves me to point out how equally badly the book wants to make Black Jack Randall (ancestor of Claire's present-husband Frank and the book's villain) Jamie's polar opposite in every way - by shoehorning in as many flaws, sins, and perversions as possible. No real character development necessary - just make him half-impotent, bisexual, incestuous, and so rape-ariffic he'd screw a fence with a hole in it if it was capable of screaming "No! Stop!" at him. I realize the English were kind of douchey during the whole Scottish occupation thing, but it's not necessary to make Randall the Antichrist.

On the good side, Outlander is well-written and well-researched. The setting is opulently described, not just verbally, but through Claire's interpretation (the story's told from her first-person POV). The romantic aspects of the book were often aww-worthy, although romantic tension is pretty much nonexistent - if you're a character in Outlander who is not an immediate blood-relation of Jamie, falling in love with him is not a possibility, but an inevitability. The secondary characters are pretty interesting and, for all that he's not really worth 800 pages of hero-worship, Jamie is a very nice young man.

So I guess it all depends on what you're looking for. My opinion of Outlander falls squarely down the middle - if you love swoonworthy heroes who never take a step wrong, lots of love scenes and colourful scenery, you might want to check out Outlander. If you're looking for well-developed, realistic characters and gripping action - use this book as a doorstop instead. Did I hate this book? No. Will I want to read the other books in the series? Hell no.
B-

25 comments:

  1. Rofl. OK I haven't read this book. I've been waiting for your review because of all your updates on twitter. Interesting.. I kind of want to read the book MORE now that I know more about it, even if it just got a B-. Maybe I'll borrow it though. I laughed because I was wondering who the dream casting for Jamie would be and I couldn't immediately see an IMDB link. Then I read what it was. HAH!

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  2. Anonymous11:42 PM

    This would also work fairly well, with a few tweakings, for a review of Twilight. ;-) -- willaful

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  3. I never saw Jamie as perfect. For me, he's a fairly typical fantasy hero. Handsome, strong, better at most stuff than most people, and devoted to a code of honor. In short, a hero. But he does have some weaknesses, and he does make some bad choices, although I can't recall after all these years how many of those are in the first book.

    One of my favorite things about this series is that only Clare gets first person POV; everyone else gets third. That makes Clare firmly my anchor when I read the series, even when I think she's making a mistake. Which she does, although her miraculous application of 20th century medicine (a staple of time travel fiction) really bugs some people.

    The third book in this series is my favorite, one of my all-time favorite books, because THAT is a romance. But I know quite a few readers who find these books too long, too full of detail, too something, for them to really get caught up in them. I read very fast, and long fantasy epics are my very favorite form, so I know my taste isn't typical. I'm also a historian, and I'm sure that plays into my appreciation of the detail in these books. When I visited the battlefield at Culloden, I got chills recalling the battle scenes near the end of this book.

    Good luck with the Ward; it's shorter, anyway.

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  4. I'm in the I love it and I love Jamie Fraser camp. I didn't feel his awesomeness was shoved down my throat the way you did - I was caught up in the story almost from the beginning - although I can see how, if one did not feel particularly connected to the story it might seem that way.

    I listened to this (and, indeed most of the series) on audio, as narrated by Davina Porter and it's even more amazing in that format. Davina Porter adds something magical to the experience IMO.

    I do agree with your "dream casting" of Jamie! So true! LOL!

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  5. O.M.G. ROFLMAO! I LOVE the character synopsis. "I KNOW, right?"

    Still haven't tried OUTLANDER, but maybe one day. Like when I have six months off from work and I can dig in.

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  6. Hands down, this is the most hilarious summation of The Outlander I've ever read. I stayed away from the book for years, afraid of the size of it. But I finally tackled that fear and read it. I thought it was good, pretty good in fact; just not as great as so many other readers find it. And I certainly didn't find Jamie the singing "Halleluiah, Jamie's the best hero EVAH" camp. And except for reading the reunion scene in another book (can't remember which one now) I haven't read any of the others in this series.
    I did see Diana Gabaldon speak though as she came to London a couple of years ago and I went with a couple of REAL FANS of this series and was glad I did. She's a very funny speaker.

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  7. Thank you for this summary!

    I read Outlander years ago: okay but not a keeper. In fact, I would have long since forgotten about it but for the ridiculous amount of attention the series gets from romance readers and bloggers who think everyone should bow at Gabaldon's feet as the goddess who created Jamie Fraser. Seriously, I've NEVER gotten the Jamie-love.

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  8. Vorkosigrrl9:27 AM

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! What a great review.

    Not that I've read the book. I've been in the avoid-it camp, but mostly because I read an online discussion concerning that spanking. There are some people who feel VERY STRONGLY that it was quite abusive. Are they oversensitive? You called it "necessary," and I was hoping you'd elaborate in your review.

    By the way, can it ever be "necessary" to hit your spouse? That's what the abusers always seem to say . . . . . "she had it coming . . . "

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  9. I fall squarely in the "meh" camp. As you said, this book is SLLLLLLOOOOOOWWWW. Painfully so. I remember when my sister handed it to me, she was all, "You need to stick with it for at least 50 pages." Um, do what now??

    It's a book I read so that I can say that I read it, and I never need to read it again. Although I hear the audio version of it is stupendous, if really long.

    As usual, a superb review, AJ!

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  10. Maili4:53 PM

    "On the good side, Outlander is well-written and well-researched."

    Wait. Well-researched?

    Bwahaha! The funniest I read today.

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  11. Anonymous1:54 AM

    Could not agree with you more! I'm also down the middle on the love/hate, I also skimmed it, and I am never going to read any other book in the series.

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  12. Always enjoy your reviews but this one made me laugh out loud. Your comment about Outlander being "well-researched" made me cough, though, as I remembered the discussions at AAR (years ago) about Gabaldon's shall we say creative take on Scotland (waves to Maili).

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  13. Yes, yes, yes.

    I am in the middle of reading & reviewing OUTLANDER on my silly blog, which should marry your blog and have 5 snarky kids.

    You are entirely correct. This novel is about 400 pages too damned long.

    My evil review here:
    http://epicblackcar.wordpress.com/2010/10/26/part-three-of-one-man-one-romance-novel-one-bottle-of-bourbon/

    Love your blog. I will be back. PREPARE YOURSELF.

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  14. Ok, coming out of the woodwork to faun over your review. I am more in the "hate it" camp when it comes to Outlander, but laughed out loud at your assessment, review, etc. Thanks for being a true high moment on my day.

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  15. Anonymous7:18 PM

    Thank you !! I too have had it thrust on me by well meaning friends who rave about it. I have had a copy, swapped a copy, had a copy, swapped a copy. Read the first 50 pages or so and put to down unable to get invested enough to plow thru 800 pages.

    It was recently a freebie from Amazon for a Kindle, so now have for when I get stuck somwhere for a year or two - oh wait, my Kindle battery would die, so I still wouldn't have to read it!

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  16. One. Hundred. Percent. Agreement.

    I was totally on board with Outlander for the first... several hundred pages. I thought she had set up the premise (bundle of clichés thought it was - this made it even more delightful when she did it well) cleverly and carefully enough that there were some serious, thought-provoking conflicts.

    But then... the spanking. It was like a whole portion of my sympathetic readerly mind shut down. Because it seemed totally out of character for saintly, angels-fly-around-his-head, devotedly-in-love Jamie (although there was an attempt to ground it in a sort of a homosocial "I have to discipline my wife to maintain my status among warriors and the safety of my people" ethos), and because I felt like the book was trying really hard to persuade me that she deserved it. The brush-off closure of the argument ("Don't ever do it again") only put me off more.

    And then last half of the novel - good for you for finishing it. I just slogged through the rapetastic villain and the queasy sense that the book was increasingly homophobic, not to mention to odd, unsettling religiosity of the end. Eurgh.

    In the end, I think I disliked it more strongly than I otherwise would have (although I don't know that I would have ventured into the realm of "hate," really) because I was SO READY to like it at the beginning. And because I gave it the benefit of the doubt for hundreds and hundreds of pages while it kept irritating and offending and then boring me. (Wait, I kept thinking, she is about to turn this offensive stereotype or ethical breach on its head, and reveal something really interesting about our preconceptions.... Nope.)

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  17. LOL, I love your review of this book. I liked the book, and am in love with Jamie, who isn't? My straight husband who has never read the book is in love with him. :-) I thought reading about sex for 800 pages with the same two people would get tiring, but I loved every scene with him getting naked. Jamie is prefect (even in his imperfections) and will never be seen in reality, and I am ok with that!

    The real great thing about her books is that she adds a ton of history in it and that is fun to read. I loved hearing about the 1700's through Clair's eyes, though at times she can be annoying. I like the parts were she is comparing medicine from the 1700's to "modern" times. Clair was real and human and a great POV.

    Unfortunately, the books become so long and so consuming, I stopped after the third book. I felt sick, because there is too much in these books. As the books go on the less there is a focus on Jamie and Clair, which to me was the reason I cared. So another reason that I am stopping at number three of the series.

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  18. ...I did skim a lot of this book, and it only got worse as the books go on. One thing I noticed with some series, after a while I feel like I get preached at. The authors repeat the same themes over and over, and I am like I have read all of your books, I know the theme by now! Some Examples: Outlander Series, Anita Blake (don't get me started) and BDB by JR Ward. It is not obvious but after awhile I get tired of hearing the author's voice.

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  19. I am afraid to say that even though I loved Outlander, your article is every bit as true as Jamie is perfect...which is unerving because strangely enough I feel like I am betraying him...And he is not even real!
    God! books have such a power over us!^^

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  20. I place this series firmly in my guilty pleasure category. I kinda love it, but am always aware of the melodrama. This said, I'm far more in love with Roger, whom you don't meet until the second book.

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  21. Your gifts in irony are truly outstanding, this is an immensely funny post! I'm planning to start reading Outlander tonight, and in fact I am prepared to love it, fall in love with Jamie, whatever. But no matter what my opinion will be, I will definitely recommend your post to my readers.

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  23. Your review was hilarious!!!

    I love reading with a passion but it’s a rare event when I read a book over 600 pages! I picked up this book by accident and when I read the synopsis I thought it might be interesting and then promptly sat it down and didn’t read it for like 3 months. As fate would have it I suddenly kept seeing this book mentioned all over the web on random “best book lists”. Intrigued I finally picked it up and by page 15 I wanted to put it back down the pace was sooooo slow, but I kept at it and I am extremely glad I did!

    End point: I fell in love with Jamie and all of his awesomeness. I thought the supporting characters were very well thought out, well written and enjoyable. Diana blended history into the plot of the book and it was so well done that it made me interested in the Jacobite movement. Anyway, the ending and the aftermath of what happens to Jamie and how it nearly kills him was something I’d never read in conventional romance novels so it was very shocking and moving to me to watch the alpha male hero go through something so disturbing. I can’t put into words eloquently enough how much I enjoyed and adored this book and the entire series. If you have patience, give it a try. Go in with an open mind!

    Warning the books only get longer :-)

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  24. irishbuddha9:12 PM

    You hit the nail on the head.....how many pages of I love you Sassenach can you read? Plus in this and following books there is too much emphasis on homosexual rape. Long winded. A Scottish saving himself for marriage? That IS science fiction! I read plot summaries in Wiki and really dislike where she went after the first installment. I'll probably stop watching the show. I just think it is a promising storyline she dropped the ball with.

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  25. dirobin769:38 PM

    This review made me laugh. It's spot on. Maybe that's why I'm in the "I hate this book" camp. I couldn't believe in Jaimie and I really took a dislike to Claire for forgetting her husband so quickly. According to the timeline of the book she was only in the past a few weeks when she was marrying another man and a few more weeks after that when she seemed to forget she even had a husband. I couldn't get past that. I also couldn't get past the beating (not spanking, it was a beating and unneeded for the story) and the rapes, attempted rapes, floggings, talk about floggings, building him up to be a saint and thent urning him into an abuser...I could go on. The prose is mediocre. The detail is way too much, therefore making the book boring. And it goes on for way too long. Like 800 pages too long. It could use with a great culling and some rewriting in other parts. Finally, her interpretation on the history of Scotland, how the women were treated in Scotland and so on was grossly misunderstood and researched. It wasn't as "researched" as people thing and was full of a lot of misconceptions, illogical plot line based on assumptions of how women and men lived in those times in Scotland. To me this book is a D-.

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