Outlander: Verra, verra dull

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsantasy epic reviews Diana Gabaldon OutlanderOutlander by Diana Gabaldon

When a novel has as much buzz surrounding it as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (New York Times #1 Bestseller! Published in 40 countries!) it’s impossible not to approach it without certain expectations. What’s more, a new TV show based on the book has recently been developed, and is touted to be the next Game of Thrones. All of which had me asking the question: are we talking about the same book here?

Outlander opens in Inverness, 1946, just after World War II. Claire Randall is a British Army nurse and is currently on a second honeymoon in Scotland with her husband Frank. On a walk to collect plants (she’s particularly interested in their medicinal properties) she encounters a circle of huge standing stones – think Stonehenge, but in the Scottish Highlands. The stone circle, it turns out, is some kind of heathen time warp. Claire finds herself transported to 18th century Scotland, and thus ensues her miraculous romp through space and time.

At first look, the premise of the book has potential. Transplanting a British Army nurse into the unstable clan wars of the Scottish Highlands is a really fun idea. There are all sorts of conflicts in culture: Claire is a feisty, outspoken woman of the twentieth century, which does not bode well for the subservient expectations of the Highland women. When she first time travels, she’s wearing a summer dress. The reaction of the Scottish clansmen is actually quite funny: they all think she’s in her underwear.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSo where did it all go wrong? Firstly (and this really crippled my reading experience), Claire seemed totally unfazed by being transported into another century. Sudden time travel through a circle of magical monoliths? Totally casual. Being kidnapped by a historical gang of Scottish clansmen? She’s cool with it. DOES SHE NOT CARE THAT THIS IS NOT NORMAL??? Claire breezes right through. Sometimes she spares a quick thought for her husband, but otherwise her only concern seems to be for the enigmatic Scotsman, Jamie Fraser. It is so utterly unconvincing that I almost gave up there.

But no. I persevered. Claire’s seamless transition into the 18th century really took the fun out of the novel. There could’ve been some fun to be had with the lack of plumbing, the different food and clothes, but Gabaldon glosses over all this in favour of the budding romance between Claire and Jamie. This is meant to be a genre-bending book: elements of fantasy and historical fiction are included, but they pale in comparison to the romance plot. And that is the problem.

If there is an opposite of character development, Claire and Jamie define it. There is no growth, no change in them, no lessons learned. They are cardboard cut-outs, and no amount of clan wars or prison breaks (yes, somehow that’s included) can ignite an interest for these characters.

The prose is stylistically infuriating. I’ve never seen so many adverbs in my life. Does Claire really need to say things softly, beautifully, shockingly, haphazardly, foolishly and outrageously? Reading became laborious. And I was only on page forty… out of eight hundred and fifty.

There’s no denying that Gabaldon spins a good yarn. She has the bestselling credentials to prove it. But something about Outlander was so unengaging that I’m never going to attempt another book to find out.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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  1. Thank you!! For years I have tried to read this and bounced off of it for many of these very reasons. (The prose was a big part of the problem.)

    I did make it all the way through one of her Lord John books, although it had a lot of the same issues. Still, she is highly popular and we can’t keep her books on the shelves in the used bookstore where I work.

  2. I laughed so hard at this. I own these books and friends (not SFF people) have encouraged me to read them and I just keep putting it off. I had a feeling the books were like this and I can tell from your response that I would absolutely have exactly the same response. I’m pretty sure I’d hate them, too.

    This is disappointing because I really wanted these reviewed for the site… and I own them…. oh well….

    • Kat, two words… used bookstore.

      • haha, yeah, but the’re audio editions. :) (online)

        • Seriously, though, you could still check. We take a very few audio books, but she is such a seller that we would take hers.

          • Here’s my favorite story about OUTLANDER, and even though it’s second hand (didn’t happen to me) I swear it’s true.

            Some Scottish-American friends of mine went to Scotland. They are big Gabaldon fans. The daughter (and biggest fan) Julie went for a walk out in the countryside where thy were staying She found a trio of rocks, kind of in a circle (standing stones!) and of course stepped into them. As soon as she did, she heard a strange humming/buzzing sound. She looked around, saw nothing. Stepped out, the sound stopped. Stepped in, heard it again. Baffled, she started back to the place where they were staying… and walked past a neighbor who was running his buzzing weed-eater.

        • I guess that won’t work, will it? :)

  3. Jean Hall /

    So I am not alone…. I have wanted to like them, but just cannot do so. I love time travel & alternative universe stories, but this is just, in my opinion, a shallow romance novel. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

  4. Just your title is hilarious. Great review, Rachel!

  5. I tried reading this book a while ago, and Claire’s lack of amazement at her sudden time-travel is where I lost my interest. I mean, really? If I found myself sent backwards in time, even if it were only a few weeks, I’d panic!

  6. Great review, and good work on getting through the book. We need reviewers to stick it out to properly warn others away. Although now I am tempted to read it just because I want to see for myself, kind of a literary version of Rubber Necking.

  7. Hmm. It’s been very many years since I read this book originally, but I liked it. Either my taste has improved tremendously, or I am much more shallow than all you ladies. I’m going to give it a try again one of these days and see what happens.

    • Well, it’s definitely not the “shallow” thing. It could be that it came along at the right time in your life and you responded to its entertainment value.

  8. I love the books and can’t wait for the new season of Outlander to start. Use your imagination and put yourself there either in Claire or Jamie’s shoes.

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