I so very much wanted to love Outlander. On the surface, it seems entirely made up of things that I love. Effective and clean prose, propulsive plot, interesting concept, well-drawn characters. Who could ask for more? Adding to that, it ticks the boxes on some of my favorite little things. It’s got a strong yet relatable female protagonist with agency, which is always good to see. It’s also got a “doorway to another world” setting, which is one of my favorite fantasy tropes. Finally, it’s suffused with a generally-heady-yet-not-exploitative eroticism. Those are all things I love. So I was pretty sure going in, and remained sure for the first two hundred pages or so, that Outlander was a really great book. Unfortunately, that was only the first third of the novel. Over the course of the remaining pages, some serious problems cropped up that majorly damaged my opinion of the story.
So, let’s break it down, shall we?
This this woman, right? An English nurse in the year 1948 or something like that. Her name is Claire. She’s on vacation I think in Scotland with her husband, who’s a bit of a limp-wristed fop but nice enough as these things go. She finds a little stonehedge, sees a little ceremony, and then whoosh! off she goes hurtling back in time to the mid 1700’s, and finds herself caught up in the Scottish rebellion. Alright then. That’s all well and good. Things seem to be thrumming along quite nicely. But, if we look closer, we can see the cracks are already there under the surface. Nothing in this part of the story feels very… considered. Claire’s husband just happens to be researching exactly the time period that his wife is about to whisked away to. How convenient! Seriously now, if you’re going to throw time travel at us, you can’t just half-ass it. There isn’t enough set up, it all feels like a rush to get her back and start things off properly, and none of it quite congeals. Back to the Future didn’t strain this much credulity.
You know what though? It’s cool, we’re cool. She goes back in time, fair enough. I can accept it, I can roll with it. So now what happens? First person she runs into happens to be her husband’s great great great grandfather or something, and he happens to look exactly the same. Now that’s just… not right. Like… why would you do that? It just makes everything seem so small and contrived.
The first third of the novel revolves around Claire fumbling her way through Scotland, falling in with rebels and bandits, falling in love with a sexy Scottish fella, being forced by circumstance into marrying said fella, and the two of them screwing like bunnies. All well and good, but now the wheels come off the fucking wagon.
This is where the “romance” genre DNA reveals itself. Everything has been leading up to that first bang, when the guy and the girl get down. It’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s engaging. But then what? Fuck all, that’s what. The plot starts to meander lazily from event to event, and none of it quite seems to connect. Sure, I like the characters and sure the setting is very well realized and sure the writing is quality, but it’s not going anywhere! Claire is accused of being a witch. Claire meets the Loch Ness monster. Claire goes to visit Jamie’s homestead, Claire does this, Claire does that, but its never more than a list of events, there’s no progression, no journey. Right around the halfway point, the book shoots itself in the foot. Claire, after 300+ pages of struggling to get back to the stonehedge so she can return to the twentieth century, makes it there at last. You know what happens? She walks up to it, says “Ah, okay, I can get home anytime. Might as well hang around here a while longer.” And she leaves.
What. The. Fuck.
That’s not how you write a book. It’s certainly not how you tell an epic adventure. It completely deflates all the tension in the novel with hundreds of pages to go! Imagine if, halfway to Mordor, Frodo figured out that he could destroy the ring anytime he wanted, then just shrugged and said he’d keep on going for a bit to see how things panned out.
This is a problem.
Also problematic: the book’s treatment of gay people. There are two gay men in the story. One of them is a molester, the other one is a sadistic rapist. Both of them are horrible. The sadist is especially awful, especially given that the last quarter of the story is given over to a highly detailed account of his exploits. The whole thing left me feeling a bit creeped out.
That said, there was a lot to like here. I’m not going to totally condemn Outlander, but I am more than a little trepidatious about continuing the series. I did read something interesting that the author said, essentially that the books had been written essentially so that she could learn how to write. Taken by that standard, it’s excellent, though it should have gone through a lot more editing before being released. I’m probably not going to buy the next book, but I will get to it at some point. If the narrative is tighter and the plot construction a bit more well thought out, it’ll probably be quite good.