‘Outlander’ delivers compelling historical fiction, political intrigue

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Just let me start by saying that I am, in no way, going to do this book or this series justice in my review. “Outlander,” the first book in the “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon is simply too complex with layers of historical fact and fiction, heartbreakingly realistic characters and an expertly crafted storyline to adequately describe in approximately 800 words. But I will try to do my best.

Let’s start out with the author. As noted on the cover of my copy of “Outlander,” Diana Gabaldon holds three different degrees from two different institutions. She received a bachelor’s degree in zoology, a master’s in marine biology and a doctorate in ecology, and yet has written seven books in a series best described as historical fiction with a touch of fantasy, and several other novels besides.

Needless to say, I’m impressed.

To be honest, though, I was a touch skeptical when I first picked up the book, as I am with many. I was afraid that the historical fiction novel with a promise of a love story had been overdone and I’d be stuck with a painfully cheesy, historically inaccurate mess. I was glad to find out that this was not the case.

Shortly after World War II, Claire Randall, a newly-married English woman and army nurse in her late twenties, travels with her husband, Frank Randall, to Scotland. A historian, Frank delves into academic projects with fervor, and in this case, information on Frank’s long-dead ancestor, a certain “Black Jack” Randall.

In the course of the visit, Claire journeys out to the standing stones, a group of monolithic slabs of rock arranged in a circular pattern, not so dissimilar to the well-known Stonehenge. She and Frank learn that pagan rituals are still performed at this site, the home of several interesting specimens of plant life, which Claire, an amateur botanist, wants to collect.

When Claire returns to the standing stones, she ventures close to one of the massive stones, experiences a bone-deep, intensely disorienting buzzing and, upon waking from fainting, has the uncanny feeling that something isn’t quite right. The landscape resembles what she saw a minute ago, but there’s something different.

A man resembling her husband approaches her, but then a group of Scotsmen appear and, well, remove the man, who claims to be Black Jack Randall. Jamie Fraser, one of the Scottish men, is wounded, and Claire attends to his injury using her 20th-century medicinal knowledge. Unbeknownst to Claire, Jamie will become more involved in her life than she could ever imagine.

Traveling with the group to a Scottish castle, Claire rationally sorts through the bits of information available to her, trying to understand what actually happened to her, where she is and when she is. Reaching the castle, at least a few of her suspicions are confirmed upon seeing a letter dated 1743.

A variety of complications ensue; there’s no love lost between the Scottish and the English, so Claire’s British accent makes her an immediate target for suspicion, as well as her knowledge of modern medicine, which many promptly dismiss as witchcraft.

To avoid additional issues with the aggravatingly reappearing Black Jack Randall, Claire marries Jamie, much to the displeasure of 16-year-old Laoghaire MacKenzie, who believes she is in love with Jamie. I’ll just say that this isn’t the last you’ll see of Laoghaire, although you’ll wish it were.

Despite the shotgun nature of their wedding, Claire and Jamie develop a relationship, one that gives Claire some sense of security in a world some 200 years before her own. I don’t want to provide any spoilers, so I’ll refrain from saying whether or not Claire returns to her own time; just remember that time traveling is a tricky thing.

James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser is another complex character nearly impossible to contain in a few descriptive sentences. Due to the childhood death of his brother Willie, Jamie inherits the familial estate of Lallybroch and the responsibility for the various peasant families who work the land. He has also studied in France, is proficient in a variety of languages, is lethally trained in combat and, at well over 6 feet in height with flaming red hair, makes quite the entrance. Unfortunately, many of those characteristics put him in terribly dangerous situations, more than a few of which should have cost him his life.

The historical elements, the political intrigue and a delightfully intertwined plotline combined with these tremendous characters make this novel absolutely impossible to put down. As with the best novels, I found myself emotionally invested in these characters; when something horrible happened, I got upset, when heart-wrenching events unfolded, my eyes watered up despite my best intentions.

I like a book that can irritate me, intrigue me, make me sad and amazed all at the same time because I think that’s the mark of a good writer. When I’m reading a book that plays out in my mind as smoothly as watching a movie, well, what more could a writer or reader ask for? Five out of five stars.

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