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Update-lander: my travails with the ‘Outlander’ series

In my very first article of this school year, I reviewed all the books I read over the summer. Three of these books were the first three novels in the “Outlander” series, written by Diana Gabaldon. Said series is currently nine books long, with a 10th on the way. Now, over the summer, I found that the first book was fantastic, the second one less so but still good overall and the third book, particularly the second half of the third book, was absolutely dreadful. So, I called it a day and decided I would be giving up on the book series.

Oh, past me, you were so hopeful, so resolved in your decision. Alas, in February, I had an international flight, and a long book in a series you already know is ideal for an international flight. You know the characters and the world, therefore it takes minimal effort to immerse yourself in the book. So, I picked up the fourth “Outlander” book, “Drums of Autumn,” and read it. I was pleasantly surprised by the jump in quality from the third book, so I continued on with the series in my spare time. As of now, I have read through six “Outlander” books, through to “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” (yes, a classic “thing of things and things” novel title). I am more than halfway through the series and come to deliver my updated thoughts.

Now, before I get into the books in detail, it’s worth noting that every “Outlander” book is somewhere between 800 and 1200 pages long. I have read approximately 6000 pages of “Outlander” and I am not even done with the series. These are not books for the faint of heart, or for people who want a high number of books read on their end-of-year Goodreads score. I consider myself a fast reader, but it usually took me at least a week, usually at least two weeks, to get through a single “Outlander” book.

For those unfamiliar with the series, there will be spoilers. It follows the story of Claire Beauchamp/Randall/Fraser, a former World War II nurse who inadvertantly time-travels back to 18th century Scotland through a stone circle while on a second post-war honeymoon with her husband Frank Randall. There, she falls in with a group of Highlanders, mostly members of the MacKenzie and Fraser clans, and marries (and ultimately falls in love with) the heir to the Fraser clan, Jamie.

After this, Claire and Jamie have numerous adventures. They defeat the villainous Englishman Jack Randall (who is also Frank’s ancestor). They try, and fail, to prevent the Battle of Culloden and the clearing of the Highlands. After said failure, a now-pregnant Claire travels back through the stones to her own time, while Jamie fights at Culloden. He survives, and for twenty years he is in hiding, imprisoned, undercover and finally ends up running a print shop in Edinburgh. Meanwhile, Claire brings up their daughter Brianna alongside her first husband Frank (yes, it’s weird, just don’t think about it too hard) in Boston. After Frank dies, Brianna works out the truth of her parentage (again, don’t think about it too hard), Claire and Brianna solve the mystery of how time travel works (you know what I’m going to say) and Claire goes back in time to reunite with Jamie. Then, through a wild series of events that are best left undescribed (this is the horrible second half of book three I was talking about), Claire and Jamie wind up in the “New World,” and have to find their way in the American colonies.

Phew.

So, the fourth book, “Drums of Autumn,” picks up with Claire and Jamie moving from Georgia to North Carolina, and setting up shop on an expanse of land that comes to be known as “Fraser’s Ridge.” Book four also establishes a new style for the “Outlander” books. Previously, the books centered around one major historical event, plotline, and/or villain. Yes, there were random side quests along the way, but the books felt fairly contained. Book four to book six start covering much longer periods of time, and do so through a series of smaller stories and vignettes. It feels more like the book is tracing the lives of two characters that we as readers have grown to love and care about, rather than centering around the plot. Instead, the plot comes out of the events happening around our main characters.

In “Drums of Autumn,” we have two storylines running concurrently. The first is Claire and Jamie settling in North Carolina. We have the pair recruiting Scottish immigrants to Fraser’s Ridge, negotiations and uneasy alliances with the Native American tribes in the area, and a visit from Jamie’s son from book three and his adopted father, the gay noble in love with Jamie (don’t ask). The second plotline follows Brianna, who decides that the logical course of action is to abandon her Harvard engineering degree and follow her parents back to the 1770s. Her sort-of boyfriend, Roger Wakefield, follows her, and then everyone is in the past. The second half of the book follows the story of Brianna reuniting with her parents, as well as dealing with the main villain of books four to six, Stephen Bonnet. Let it be known that Stephen Bonnet is the absolute worst.

While “Drums of Autumn” is definitely a bit more all over the place than books one through three, I really enjoyed it. I liked being able to spend more time with characters I love, as well as getting to know newer characters like Brianna and Roger. One of Gabaldon’s major strengths as a writer is being able to craft well-researched and well-realized historical settings. The way she writes about colonial North Carolina is no exception, and it was interesting to read about all the challenges Claire and Jamie had to overcome. “Drums of Autumn” ends without resolving most of its major conflicts, which prompted me to continue on to book five, “The Fiery Cross.”

The title of “The Fiery Cross” is kind of unfortunate. It was a Scottish tradition to burn a Celtic cross, which Jamie does near the beginning of this book as a symbol of the Frasers’ presence on the Ridge. This tradition later was a major influence for KKK cross-burnings. Yes, it’s historically accurate, but it’s not necessary. 

Now, the main weakness of “The Fiery Cross” is how long and rather meandering it is. 100 pages into the book, I was still waiting for something to happen. There’s plenty of drama throughout the book—Jamie and Roger both almost die—but none of it seems to lead to anything or go anywhere. It feels like most of “The Fiery Cross” exists to cover the stretch of time leading up to the Revolutionary War. There’s some more stuff with the hunt for Stephen Bonnet, but that storyline doesn’t conclude. We get to know some new characters, like the Christies and Brianna’s son Jem, who will be important moving forward, but they don’t do much. You need to read “The Fiery Cross” to follow the rest of the series, but to be honest, it reads like 992 pages of set up. Then again, maybe that’s a clever strategy, because after investing so much time into said 992 pages I felt like I had to read book six, “A Breath of Snow and Ashes.”

Now, shoutout to “A Breath of Snow and Ashes,” because stuff happens! So much stuff happens! On the wider historical front, the Revoutionary War is drawing ever closer. Unrest is everywhere, and the Frasers are caught in the middle of it. Claire, Brianna and Roger all know what is going to happen, and there’s plenty of tension because of it. There are also mysteries galore—there’s a disappearance, a theft and a murder. Plus, the Stephen Bonnet plotline finally concludes, and he is finally killed. “Outlander” seems to like to set itself up in groups of three. Books one through three tell their own story, and books four through six tell the next story. “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” is a fitting conclusion to the second story, although it is definitely way too long. It’s a 600 page narrative trapped within a 1100 page book. But there’s a lot to like, and I was certainly never bored as I read it.

So, now that I’m six books into “Outlander,” is it worth reading? Honestly, it’s hard to say. I’m invested now, but the books are so long, and the series is so expansive, that sometimes I regret continuing with it. As a history nerd, “Outlander” is a lot of fun, and I do love our core characters, particularly the series’ central duo of Claire and Jamie. It’s exciting to read about how the two of them escape disaster after disaster, and how they manage to survive against all odds. But it’s a lot of work to read through these books, and at times I would be slogging through a book somewhere around page 500 while wondering if it would be more efficient to just watch the TV series.

Now Gabaldon’s writing is generally very strong, which helps carry me through the books, but she also has some weaknesses. Yes, she’s great at historical fiction, but sometimes her writing is racially insensitive to downright racist. Books four through six feature several discussions and depictions of slavery, some of which are well done, and some of which I wish were handled better. She also tends to use sexual assault as a plot device (as of book six, Jamie, Claire and Brianna have all been violently raped, and these are all graphically depicted on the page), which I really dislike. Yes, it’s true to history, but it starts to feel lazy, especially since the entire plotline in which Claire is raped could have been removed from the story without really impacting the main plot. Finally, Gabaldon’s writing has a tendency to ramble, and in my opinion, every book has been a bit padded out and overly long. I know this isn’t a trend that’s going to change, but if long books aren’t for you, definitely don’t read “Outlander.”

As of where I am now, I would recommend the series to fans of historical fiction, and fans of extremely long fantasy series like “The Wheel of Time” or “A Song of Ice and Fire.” At this point, I feel like I’m in too deep and I might as well finish the series just so I can say I did. Look, as much as I hate to admit it, I’m invested. And I do need to know what happens next. Damn you, “Outlander.”

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