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  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 Outlander 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.