Recommended Reading (and a Classics Club Checkmark): Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber, by Diana Gabaldon

photo 1 (14)About two hundred pages into Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, it occurred to me that somewhere out there is an HBO executive repeatedly berating himself or herself for not acquiring the TV rights to the seven (soon to be eight)-book-long series. Sex, violence, accents, great costuming possibilities, episodic structure, and a huge built-in audience of (largely female) fans? Good grief. It’s a series just waiting to happen. And it will happen, on Starz, this summer. Someone please offer to get me cable, because Ronald D. Moore is producing, and I think we all know how much I loved his Battlestar Galactica.

Before I get into the Claire & Jamie festivities, a funny story: A couple months ago, my friends (who also happen to be neighbors) were talking books at our consciousness-raising rap group (aka Wine Night), and Elena mentioned Outlander, and gave a rough outline of the plot. This rang a bell. Well, two bells, actually. Outlander had appeared on a best-of-classic sci-fi list, so I’d added it to my in-progress Classics Club list over the summer. But that’s not what came to mind first.

As a teenager, I came across Dragonfly in Amber, the first of Outlander‘s sequels, in the local library. I liked the title, and had no idea it was part of a series, so I just started flipping through. Oddly enough, the book kept falling open at some pretty steamy scenes (I’m looking at you, patrons of the Bertram Woods branch). Despite the fact that my parents never once in my life stopped me from reading a book, nor hovered over me while I read or browsed books, I was too chicken to check it out. So, rebel that I was, I’d pop by the shelf from time to time while I was in the library to read a chapter or two. I was a couple hundred pages in when someone took the book out, and I never found out what happened to Claire and Jamie. In fact, I forgot all about the book until Elena and a glass of pinot noir shook it loose from my uncooperative memory.Dragonfly in Amber

Onto the books. As per usual, I will give you advance warning of spoilers, which in this case appear at the end of the post.

Both Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber are door-stops: 850 and 947 pages, respectively (my editions are the mass-market paperbacks). And they’re tricky to classify by genre; let’s go with 55% historical fiction, 35% romance, and 10% SF-F.

The premise: Claire Beauchamp Randall, a former army nurse, is on holiday with her husband, Frank, in the Scottish Highlands. Frank’s a historian with a particular interest (which Claire doesn’t share) in the Jacobite risings of the eighteenth century, so naturally he finds plenty to occupy his time on their trip. On an outing, Claire, an amateur herbalist/botanist, gets too close to a circle of standing stones, only to find herself transported to 1743 — two years before the disastrous Jacobite Rising of 1745 (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that). Disoriented and confused, it takes her some time to discover when and where she is. As an Englishwoman, she’s an “outlander,” a sassenach, and her position is most precarious.

Which is not to say that 1743 Scotland doesn’t have its perks: adventure, intrigue, professional pride (Claire quickly gains a reputation as a skilled healer), and an extremely good-looking young man named Jamie, who has his own set of problems (price on his head, a sadistic English army captain interested in him, etc.). Needless to say, events conspire to put Jamie and Claire very much in each other’s way as they attempt to navigate through the Highlands’ natural and political terrain. Much danger (and sex) ensues as Claire is forced to choose between her past and her present.

Outlander follows the pair to the end of 1743; Dragonfly in Amber picks up where Outlander leaves off, and includes a long foray into France (happily, Claire and Jamie both speak perfect French.) as they try to stop the Rising before it begins, with the help of Claire’s foreknowledge. But time is tricky stuff, as any good sci-fi fan knows.

Ms. Gabaldon doesn’t write literary fiction, and that’s just fine — because she does write rollicking adventure with excellent pacing. Near the end of Outlander, the tension was so extreme that I had to put the book down and catch my breath. The historical detail is intriguing, especially since the reader makes discoveries alongside Claire. If there’s a woman perfectly suited for dangerous time travel, it’s Claire: she’s quick-thinking, brave, very intelligent, and possessed of numerous practical skills thanks to her training as a nurse. She’s pleasant company as a narrator. Jamie’s a puzzle at first; he has all of the attributes you’d expect (strong, tall, brave, loyal, suitably appreciative of heroine,etc.), but he’s also very young and, for the most part, respectful toward women. Actually, sometimes I thought he seemed too much like a thirty-five year-old man, rather than a twenty-three-year-old; the author’s point that people grew up faster in centuries past is well taken, but sometimes Jamie’s emotional maturity is no verra believable, ye ken?

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Won’t happen again.

Bottom line: these are deliciously entertaining and diverting books, but if you prefer your fiction free of gore and bodice-ripping, look somewhere else.

Spoilers Ensue. Also, TW: sexual violence and child abuse.

Both novels include scenes of rape and attempted rape, and Dragonfly in Amber has a particularly horrifying account of a child being raped. In all cases the rapists (eventually) meet the eighteenth century version of justice, and in all instances rape is not glorified or glamorized, but shown as brutal and causeless. The victims are not blamed.

The villain in Β Outlander is the aforementioned sadistic English captain, Jack Randall (just to complicate matters, he’s Frank’s ancestor.). Randall’s particular interest is the sexual debasement and torture of men (though he’s perfectly happy to beat Claire, and attempt to rape her too) — and he’s got his eye on Jaimie. I’ll get back to that in a second, but first, here’s my major philosophical issue with the books: Jack Randall is described, by Claire in 1968, as a pervert, and it’s not clear to me that what she’s describing is his sadism, rather than his homosexuality (which is referred to more than once). For that matter, why does the only gay character in the two books have to be a pedophile, rapist, and sadist? I realize that homosexuality wasn’t even a term in use in the eighteenth century, and that OutlanderΒ was published in 1991, but c’mon. Of course, I haven’t read the next 5,000 pages of the series, so maybe I’m speaking too soon.

UPDATE: Kay from WhatMeRead tells me that there’s a non-vilified gay character in another of Ms. Gabaldon’s books.

UPDATE 2: I’m happy to be wrong — please scroll down in the comments to read Ms. Gabaldon’s (!) clarification on this point.

Anyway. True to conventional romance tropes, Jamie rescues Claire from attempted rape at least twice in Outlander alone, but at the end of the book, something I’ve never seen in fiction happens. Jamie, condemned to hang, is in prison, and Claire’s first rescue attempt fails. Jack Randall is about to have her raped by one of his minions and then killed, but Jaime trades her life for his acquiescence to Jack Randall’s predilections. Basically, he consents to be raped and tortured to save Claire’s life.

And that’s exactly what happens. There’s no last-minute saving of his “honor.” Claire does manage to organize a rescue, but Jaime suffers for hours first. The last act of the novel is Claire’s struggle to help Jamie heal, physically and psychologically, from his experience (he does). These scenes are excruciating to read, but I was impressed by Ms. Gabaldon’s turning a romance trope on its head.

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66 thoughts on “Recommended Reading (and a Classics Club Checkmark): Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber, by Diana Gabaldon

  1. I’m not sure about your point about homosexuality, since Gabaldon has an entire other series starring a character who comes in later, who is gay.

    I enjoyed this series for quite some time but never finished it. I got tired of it once it moved to colonial America just in time for the revolution.

  2. My mother in law is obsessed with these books and I keep promising her I’ll read them. I only recently convinced her to stop giving me large cardboard boxes of romance novels with titles like “The Magnificent Rogue” so I kind of don’t want to encourage her BUT I think I will give these a try.

    • Yeah, I think we have similar views on romance novels — and there’s definitely an element of romance here, but the action and period detail make it much more interesting than what I assume is the average bodice-ripper.

  3. I’ver not read Gabaldon, but do know of her work. She has quite a following. These sound sweeping, to say the least! I’m impressed that you tackled them. Thanks for giving me some additional insight into her work — and I agree, The Dragonfly in Amber is a great title!
    Cheers!

  4. I have had both of these books sitting on my shelf for a few years now. I picked both of them up at used book sales, but haven’t read them. Your description, though, makes me think they’d be great choices at those times when I want more of an entertaining (what I call fluffy) read. Thanks- I’m not so scared to give them a try now.

  5. Thanks, Carolyn! Much obliged for the good opinion.

    Just wanted to clarify the one thing, though–Jack Randall _isn’t_ gay. He _is_ a sadist, and that _is_ what I mean by “pervert.” If you read carefully and keep track (I admit that most people don’t, given a book of this size ), you’ll see that he’s an equal-opportunity sadist; he attacks both Jenny Fraser and Claire, and we know that he’s driven one prisoner under his care to commit suicide, before he takes on Jamie. Two women, two men.

    The thing is, he takes his victims where he can find them. In the 18th century, most women who weren’t prostitutes (and there wouldn’t be a lot of those in the remote Highlands) lived under the protection (literally) of their men. Women who weren’t whores or crones just didn’t live alone. It wouldn’t be that simple to find one who didn’t have a father, brother, or husband ready either to protect her, avenge her, or at the least raise a huge fuss with the British Army about what Captain Randall was doing.

    On the other hand, the male prisoners under his care are essentially helpless. They can’t get away from him and nobody can help them, so he can take his time with them. Much better fodder for a practicing sadist. And there’s the additional psychological fillip that a man _might_ suffer more–or at least more visibly–from being raped, since it’s not something a man usually thinks of as possibly happening to him, while most women older than twelve or so would be well aware of the possibility (and thus, while still deeply traumatized, perhaps less psychologically destroyed).

    Anyway, should you read the rest of the books, you’ll meet a number of gay men, and should be able to see the differences between them and Jack Randall easily.

    Thanks again!

    • Oh my goodness! Thank you for replying, and for the clarification! I was taking my cue from Alex’s response when he’s asked if he “knows what his brother is” (to paraphrase). It was hard for me to believe that a gentle soul like Alex wouldn’t care if Jack were a sadist; on the other hand, I can imagine Alex not caring if he knew that Jack was attracted to men.

    • That they are — plus, if you read the first one soon, you’ll be ahead of everyone who waits for the TV show! It’s like that meme that went around awhile ago: “Books: Get HBO programming 10 years before everyone else.”

  6. Great synopsis. I enjoyed reading your piece even though I’ve been reading this series for years! Do read the other books, I think you’ll enjoy them. Also, feel free to come and hang out in the Books and Writers forums at CompuServe. We often have great discussions about some of the issues you brought up and Diana is often gracious enough to chime in and tell us we’re right/wrong or further elucidate on character motivations.

  7. OUTLANDER is a phenomenal read. It has everything LIFE can throw at you. Don’t walk to the shelf —- RUN. But be warned — you will become captivated by this book and its series. They are the best books I’ve ever read.

  8. Saw this post via twitter and had to read it and comment. I love these books, particularly the first 5. Claire and Jamie are so romantic but they’re so real. Love them. I can’t wait to see the movie, especially as DG has given everything her thumbs-up. Now I just have to find someone who has Starz network whose tv I can hijack… πŸ™‚

  9. I also found my way here via Twitter. What a wonderful post about Outlander! I, too, am a voracious reader, and am astonished that I only stumbled across these books last year, when Googling “WWII era fiction.”

    I generally avoid anything that could be called a “romance”, but do enjoy very good historical fiction. Diana Gabaldon is a meticulous researcher (having been a longtime research professor helps) and she is a master at bringing a time period to life. Her characters are strong and well-drawn, and I truly cared about what was happening to Claire. By the time things got going with Claire and Jamie, I was completely hooked.

    Fans have loved these books for 20+ years, so I understand the level of excitement surrounding the TV series (along with the fact that the casting seems to be beyond perfect.) The interaction with fans has been strategic and very smart; by the time the series airs, folks will be ready to explode! Read the rest of the books… I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

    • Thanks, Margaret! I should have mentioned in the post Ms. Gabaldon’s very interesting (and varied) background — simply fascinating. I’d be interested to know which other books about the eighteenth century you’ve liked, too! I hope you’ll stop by again — thank you for reading!

  10. Carolyn O., you have been graced today with a taste of what makes Herself’s fans soooooo dedicated and passionate about her and so ready to leap to her defense. Cain’t hardly wait for the series. “Time” is so much more flexible in Diana’s books than it is in ‘real life’; there are no stones for us to go through to avoid the excruciating wait for the Starz TV series (NOT a movie) and Book 8 “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood”, due out on June 10th.

    • I certainly see why Ms. Gabaldon’s fans are so loyal! It was incredibly kind of her to reply to the post, especially since I’m sure she’s so very busy with the series and the new book.

    • I have already planned to take the week off following MOBY’s release; that’s how amazing Diana’s work is. As much as I enjoy her work, her presence for the fans turned me from a reader of her books to a true fan. She is splendid.

      • Wow, that’s true commitment! I really appreciate her response and the response from Outlander fans — pretty overwhelming for a quiet book blogger!

  11. I enjoyed very much reading your post! It isn’t easy to find good books to read or recommendations that are not biased by the “hit of the moment” or the “must reads” that are forgotten when the season ends. It’s very frustrating to read recommended books that leave yours expectations unfulfilled. Diana Gabaldon’s books were my best find in years by far and the reasons for that are mostly those included in your post. From the seven Outlander books I have liked some more than others but my preferences have also changed along the time (yes, various re readings up to now). I’m currently on number six,and keep rediscovering details that I previously missed or weren’t relevant for me at the time but now appear to have new significance. Even though my original attraction to the books was 18th century Scotland, I am now becoming more interested in the American Revolution than I was never before. And it’s good to learn something new and do some little additional research too (I’m not in the US). As I said at the beginning, your post was very enjoyable and to the point. If you keep reading the Outlander series, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. And the Lord John novellas are short and pretty fun too. Again far more entertaining than I originally expected. And I also recommend the audiobooks, read by Davina Porter.

  12. I’m so glad to read a positive & well thought out review. Also pleased that you’ve enjoyed the books. It’s always fun to get a response directly back from Dr. Gabaldon too. I hope you do read the rest of the series as well. πŸ™‚

    • Thank you! I’ll definitely read the rest of the books.

      (And please don’t think I’m insulting DG by using ‘Ms.’ instead of ‘Dr.’ — I use Ms. and Mr. for living writers regardless of degrees conferred, since most of the academics I know don’t use their titles, and many writers are professors, too!)

      • Actually, most people just call me Diana, rather than try to pronounce my last name. The only people who _used_ to call me “Dr. G.” were my students, who couldn’t pronounce “Gabaldon” but couldn’t bring themselves to call me by my first name.

        “Ms.” is perfectly OK, though, if you like that. Not “Mrs.”, though, because “Gabaldon” is my maiden name.

      • Well, I use Ms. and Mr. as a courtesy to living writers, but then again, most living writers don’t comment on my blog! If you don’t mind, I’ll call you Diana on the blog (something tells me I’ll be writing about more of your novels soon) as a nod to the fans. πŸ™‚

  13. Long-time fan, so I’ll try not to gush…as I know we have a tendency to do. Some random thoughts/comments:

    1) DG writes great sex scenes. Sometimes she writes all the details, sometimes she just sets the scene and lets us fill in the blanks with our imagination, sometimes she gets us hot and bothered with nothing more than dialogue and fades to black. There’s often humor; there’s always love.
    2) I’ve read all the books (multiple times) and still consider Dragonfly in Amber to be the most emotionally wrenching.
    3) The subsequent books appeal to me because they’re a glimpse beyond the happily-ever-after. DG reminds us that the ordinary can be extraordinary, and I love reading about a LIFE and not just a courtship.
    4) The historical details and medical scenes are often my favorite parts of the books. (A favorite scene of mine is from the 6th book, in which two characters from different centuries have a philosophical discussion over the inherent hedonism of using PAPER to wipe one’s arse. “Ye wipe your arse with _paper_?” He stared at her, jaw dropped in horror. “Jesus God, [X]!”)
    5) DG plants “plot-seeds” that come to fruition in later books. Even after 20 years, I’m still noticing little bits of “aha!” that completely eluded me the first time around. I’m always blown away by this.
    6) Lord John Grey, who is a significant secondary character within the main series and the main character of his own eponymous off-shot series, is one of my favorites in the series. I love John. (He’s one of the gay guys, by the way.)
    7) The audio books are an amazing way to read this series. They are magnificently read by Davina Porter, who brings to life the humor, characterization, emotion, and beauty of these books.

    • I especially like your point about life after “happily ever after.” I’m really interested in seeing what happens with Jamie and Claire as they reach middle age and old age.

  14. Loved the article and knowing Diana is out there and willing to interact with us! I’ll admit to being frustrated by attempts to pigeonhole the series as a romance. I’ve never read anything like them. Reading the adventures of Jamie and Claire is a truly unique experience.

  15. Wow. Reading through the comments on this has been fun. Diana Gabaldon!! The first time I heard of these books was a couple years ago when I read an interview with Diana in Writers Digest and I put them on my To Read list, but then they kind of disappeared from my radar and I never got around to reading them. After your wonderful review, I think I will definitely start!

  16. Oh, you’ve gotten some great reactions here, and hopefully our friend Diana herself has convinced you to give a good sit down and dive in! I’ve been a reader since I was 3, and a fan of this series of books for 11 years…and can’t WAIT for the series, although until they actually announced that Ron Moore was heading things, I vehemently disagreed with the idea of creating these as movies–thankfully, it will be TV… And I am more than willing to admit my love for both Jamie and for Sam, who is playing him. And a mad girl-crush on Cait, because I’ve LOVED Claire for years…

  17. I love the synopsis and the comments – rich discussion about BJR! Thanks to Diana for pitching in as she is the only one who really knows the motivations of her characters! I have a psych background and have always been fascinated by sociopathy and perversion. No one is ALL bad or all good, and all traits fall on a continuum.
    Isn’t technology great? My first favorite mixed-genre / historical adventure/romance/bit-of-the-occult series is by Dorothy Dunnett (Lymond Chronicles, House of Niccolo), but never got the chance to participate in this sort of discussion beyond my small circle of friends, and certainly never with the author! Amazing!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed reading! And yes, it’s so cool that Diana jumped in (yay for the interwebs!) — she obviously has great respect for her readers, which is lovely.

      Hope you’ll stop by again soon!

  18. I first grabbed Outlander when it was first released while in an airport gift shop because I’d forgotten to bring something to read on a long flight……it was the thickest thing on the rack and really, the back of the book had me at “Scotland”. Happiest impulse buy EVER.

    To say I’ve been addicted for years is putting it mildly. I’ve literally worn out several physical copies of Outlander and have all of the series in hardcover for owning, in paperback for actual reading and now in e-format. While I always talk up the books, I refuse to loan them out! MINE!

    We all want to be Claire and we all want to find a Jamie of our own. The scope of the character development over the series, the intricacy of the historical detail, the living of everyday life in the scope of this massive, far reaching story is lovely. It’s a rich tapestry, so many threads that are beautiful when pulled apart and viewed individually but such a glorious picture when one steps back to admire the whole.

    BJR is the supreme villain, somebody you just love to hate. He’s an utter sadist and completely despicable. Later in the series we encounter Lord John Grey, who is gay and held a similar position of power over inmates under his command, including Jamie, but never abused it. He’s the counterpoint to the BJR evil, a truly noble man of character and conviction.

    Read, read, read them all! And stay tuned for the STARZ show because it looks to be amazing.

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