Friday, July 12, 2013

Books I Love: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Let's just get one thing out of the way.

I love books.

So when someone asks me what my favorite book is, I dither.

A lot.

I started reading really young, and I was an only child for a long time (well, not really, but my older sister is quite a bit older than me and didn't live with us), and I kind of disliked a lot of other people in my age group when I was exposed to them, which didn't happen that often.

So I learned to love books.

Some of my best friends are characters in books.

I grew up with Ayla, following her adventures across pre-historic Europe.

Lessa and I shared a secret desire for love, despite being independent and cold at times.

I followed Atreyu on his great quest, and prayed for his strength and friendship with Bastian Balthazar Bux, so that the Childlike Empress could get her name, and, for just a second, we could all believe again.

Harry Potter was a whiny git, but he was my whiny git.

The O'Keefe and Murry families were my neighbors.

The Mayfair witches were my creepy neighbors.

Sookie Stackhouse can be a dummy sometimes, but she's finally gotten her happy ending, and I couldn't be happier for her.

Serendipity, Nitter Pitter, Trafalgar, Raz-ma-taz, Leo, and especially Morgan taught me important lessons, and still teach me that some things connect us to our past better than anything else can.

So yeah. I love books.

One of my favorite books, if I had to answer the question, is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. It's not my favorite book, because that's The Neverending Story. Or Rebecca. Or Princess Daisy. Yeah...

Moving on.

I love this book. And the whole series. But right now I want to focus on the first one, because it really could be (if you were a crazy person who didn't like reading a series of 8, more to come, plus novellas, books that are all easily over 700 pages long, all about a love story and time travel and fun sexy time) a stand alone book.

*from wikipedia. This is the 2001 paperback printing. 

*obviously from amazon. This is the 1992 edition that I have. Cheesy 90's cover FTW!

And they're making it into a TV show.

So, before I really delve into that, let's talk about the book.

The first book was originally published in 1991, but it's remained popular and just had a 20th anniversary edition published. You can read the Wiki page, but here's my brief, hyperbole-laden summary:

Claire (Beauchamp) Randall was a nurse in WWII. She and her husband, Frank Randall, were separated by the war, but the war is over and they're on a "second honeymoon" type of trip before they move to Oxford where Frank is going to be on the history faculty. While in Inverness, Scotland, she goes out exploring, ends up at the stone circle in town, and fall through the stones.

And wakes up in 1743.

Which is not a great time to be in Scotland.

Or a great time to be a woman.

Especially an English woman in Scotland.

Dressed in a shift dress.

She is immediately beset upon by scoundrels (yeah, I just said it), but thinks it's a re-enactment. Until she is almost taken captive by her husband's ancestor, Captain Randall. Who is a bad man.

Luckily for Claire, she is rescued by a band of Scotsmen, one of whom is hurt, and who happens to be very pretty. His name is Jamie Alexander Malcom Mackenzie Fraser.

Or, as I like to call him, Sexy Awesome Jamie.

Who is a good man.

Things go from there, not predictably, but in a linear fashion until the end of the book, when a life-changing event is about to happen.

I can't say too much more about that without giving away the plot, but here are some reasons you should read this book/why I think it is so good.

1. It's about these peoples' lives, but their lives are complicated by two things. Well, more than that, but two over-arching themes. First, Claire traveled through time - should she use her (limited - not everyone is an historian) knowledge of the past to try and change things? Why was she sent back? What does that mean? There's a great conversation with a priest in the last quarter of the book that really illuminates these questions. Second, time is marching on. We all know what happened in 1745. Or, well, if you don't, basically the Stuarts (Charles Edward Stuart, mostly) tried to retake the English throne and many of the Highland Scottish clans, including Jamie's family, rose up as well. And in 1746, at Culloden, the clans were basically crushed and Scotland was put under martial law. So...that's not good for our heroes.

The inevitability and morality of time make this an especially interesting book. And, honestly, Gabaldon has done some amazing historical research. So it's also a good history book.

And there's sexy time.

2. Um, Jamie is super hot.

3. Claire is an absolutely likable woman. Which I don't say about many women.

4. The supporting cast of characters is both believable and worth reading about on their own. Which Gabaldon has done with John Grey, who isn't in the first book, but who plays a bigger role in the others - he has his own series now.

5. The writing. I've only found a couple of books I couldn't read because the writing was so bad (mostly B-fantasy stuff, honestly). I even read Fifty Shades of Grey more than once because, even though the writing isn't great, it's an important book for the evolution of literature and the normalization of erotica in American fiction, and I think it's important to be aware of. And there are some uncomfortable and even questionable scenes in this book. But Gabaldon is a great writer.

Here's an excerpt:

The executioner apparently now decided that the punishment had gone on for the prescribed length of time. He drew back and let fly a massive blow; Jamie staggered and fell to his knees. The two guards hurried forward to pull him to his feet, and as he raised his head, I could see blood welling from his battered mouth. The crowd burst into a hum of relief, and the executioner stepped back, satisfied with the performance of his duty.

One guard held Jamie’s arm, supporting him as he shook his head to clear it. The girl had disappeared. Jamie raised his head and looked directly at the towering executioner. Amazingly, he smiled again, as best he could. The bleeding lips moved.

“Thank you,” he said, with some difficulty, and bowed formally to the bigger man before turning to go. The attention of the crowd shifted back to the MacKenzie and the next case before him.

I saw Jamie leave the hall by the door in the opposite wall. Having more interest in him now than in the proceedings, I took my leave of Mrs. FitzGibbons with a quick word and pushed my way across the hall to follow him.

I found him in a small side courtyard, leaning against a wellhead and dabbing at his mouth with his shirttail.

“Here, use this,” I said, offering a kerchief from my pocket.

“Unh.” He accepted it with a noise that I took for thanks. A pale, watery sun had come out by now, and I looked the young man over carefully by its light. A split lip and badly swollen eye seemed to be the chief injuries, though there were marks along the jaw and neck that would be black bruises soon.

“Is your mouth cut inside, too?”

“Unh-huh.” He bent down and I pulled down his lower jaw, gently turning down the lip to examine the inside. There was a deep gash in the glistening cheek lining, and a couple of small punctures in the pinkness of the inner lip. Blood mixed with saliva welled up and overflowed.

“Water,” he said with some difficulty, blotting the bloody trickle that ran down his chin.

“Right.” Luckily there was a bucket and horn cup on the rim of the well. He rinsed his mouth and spat several times, then splashed water over the rest of his face.

“What did you do that for?” I asked curiously.

“What?” he said, straightening up and wiping his face on his sleeve. He felt the split lip gingerly, wincing slightly.

“Offer to take that girl’s punishment for her. Do you know her?” I felt a certain diffidence about asking, but I really wanted to know what lay behind that quixotic gesture.

“I ken who she is. Havena spoken to her, though.”

“Then why did you do it?”

He shrugged, a movement that also made him wince.

“It would have shamed the lass, to be beaten in Hall. Easier for me.”

“Easier?” I echoed incredulously, looking at his smashed face. He was probing his bruised ribs experimentally with his free hand, but looked up and gave me a one-sided grin.

“Aye. She’s verra young. She would ha’ been shamed before everyone as knows her, and it would take a long time to get over it. I’m sore, but no really damaged; I’ll get over it in a day or two.”

“But why you?” I asked. He looked as though he thought this an odd question.

“Why not me?” he said

She posts excerpts from her books on her Facebook, and the writing is consistently good like this. There are few times when Gabaldon gets a bit wordy, but I could actually believe that an upper-class, British woman born in 1918 would talk like this. Just like a Scottish lord on the lam born in 1721 would talk like Jamie. Yes there are anachronisms in the speech I'm sure, but it's believable. And clear. And descriptive enough that I can see the story happening.

6. The story. It's not just a love story, although that drives the narrative. It's also about how to be a good person, what's important in life, who is important, facing adversity, what to do when loyalty and morality collide.

So I love the books. Outlander is the first in an amazing series, a series beloved by many, and with very clearly defined and loved characters.

Which may be a problem when it comes to the TV series.

I want to love this show.

I actually think that I, personally, will.

I tend to really like most TV adaptations.

And even the bad ones, or bad movie adaptations, I can usually at least see for their own value, separate of the books. Except the movie version of Neverending Story. That was just wrong. And Queen of the Damned was an awful adaptation, but an okay movie. Just don't tell Anne Rice that. She hates it.

But, much like Charlaine Harris has faced with the Sookie Stackhouse books and their TV adaptation, True Blood, I think Gabaldon is going to see some anger because people have certain images of Jamie, Claire, and the Outlander universe in their heads.

For example, many people wanted Chris Hemsworth to be Jamie. I don't think he would have been a good fit, but it's not my show. Or my books. I think he's too famous, and I don't think he would do it anyway. But that doesn't matter.

Since Diana is a consultant on the show, and since she wrote the books, and since Jamie is her character, what really matters is a combination of who she thinks would "be" Jamie, and who the studio wants.

This all comes back to the question of when did it become acceptable for the "public" to feel entitled to getting their way from authors? If you want a story to go the way you want it, exactly the way you think it should, you have two options.

1. Write a fanfic.
2. Write a novel.

If you aren't going to do either of those, you're still of course entitled to dislike a decision an author makes, but you can't bitch. And you certainly can't send death threats to them (like people did to Harris). And, it's just silly not to read their work anymore. Don't be a child.

I am, honestly, delighted with the casting so far. They've only got Jamie, but I think the guy playing him, Sam Heughan (pronounced HEW-an, or, as he said to Gabaldon, it's ""HEW-an is good or if you can, insert the Scottish throat clearing/spitting sound in the middle... HewCH-an. Hard to get right first time without spraying close friends with saliva.") will be really good. I've never seen him in anything before, but he looks like what I imagine Jamie to look like, and, more importantly, how Jamie was written by Gabaldon. 

*this, and the quotes, are from Gabaldon's facebook. Don't sue me. 
*also, yum.

He's actually Scottish, and he's an actor, so he kind of gets paid to become characters. I want to see some of his work, but, as of now, his casting just makes me more excited about the show!

So the show is going to start next year, with an initial run of 16 episodes, on Starz. Most exciting, really, is that Ronald D. Moore is producing it. He was a co-producer on Deep Space Nine, Roswell, and Voyager, and was the executive producer for Battlestar Galactica. I'm not a Battlestar fan - I like it but I'm not a super fan - but I have to say, it's one of the most nuanced as far as production goes that I've ever seen. He was also a writer on Roswell, TNG, Battlestar, Caprica, and directed a couple of episodes of the last two. So I have faith in this guy. He knows how take a story that seems shallow (space! aliens among us!) and make good, subtle, deep television. 

Also, I'm totally digging Starz's IMDB blurb:

"Follows the story of Claire Randall, a married combat nurse from 1945 who is mysteriously swept back in time to 1743, where she is immediately thrown into an unknown world where her life is threatened. When she is forced to marry Jamie Fraser, a chivalrous and romantic young Scottish warrior, a passionate affair is ignited that tears Claire's heart between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives."

That "irreconcilable lives" bit really gives me hope that they really "get" what the series is about. 

So, overall, I'm excited. I'm worried about the backlash Gabaldon will get. For a good part of the series, most of it actually, Jamie is older, but in the first two books, he's 21-22. And Claire is 27. I'm probably most worried about her casting, since she's an incredibly complicated character, and complicated women are rarely cast well, but hopefully Gabaldon will have the same amount of input. Either way, I'll watch it, since I can't just not watch the adaptation of series I love, and have re-read (and will re-read again in anticipation of both the show and the next book) many times, just because I don't know if I like the casting. 

Green Eggs and Ham, man. Green Eggs and Ham. You don't know if you like it until you try it. 

And I'm going to try it. 

Outlander begins filming this fall, in Scotland. 


  1. You are spot on about fan whining. I personally am rather appalled that anyone thinks they have an ACTUAL say in who gets cast or even considered! My idea of Jamie has never been what was described in the books. But I'm not complaining about Sam Heughan at all. If anything, his casting makes me that much more excited for the series!

  2. Hi, saw Diana's positive response to this piece on Twitter and I agree. I'm more than prepared to like the series as well. The great thing about Sam Heughan is that at 33, he can pass for 22 and they can "age" him as the series progresses. So looking forward to this.