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I’ve been taking a break from mystery reading. Instead, I’ve been rereading the six books in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, in anticipation of the new one coming out soon. I’m finding them even more absorbing than on first reading, when I hurried through the pages—and there are a lot of pages in each book—impatient to know what happened next. Gabaldon pulls off a bravura performance every time, and as I read slowly enough to notice what she’s doing, I can see a number of different aspects of mastery of the novel form that I can’t imagine myself ever achieving as a writer.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading Gabaldon, Outlander is the story of Claire Randall, a young married woman fresh from nursing on the battlefields of World War II, who steps into a stone circle on a hill in Scotland in 1945 and unexpectedly finds herself in the Scotland of 1743, two years before the rising of the Highland clans in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the tragic defeat at Culloden that broke the clans forever.
From the second Claire steps through the stones, I was swept away into the 18th century so powerfully that I hated to come back. Claire meets and is forced for her own safety to marry a young Highlander, Jamie Fraser. Jamie is the quintessential romantic hero and high on the list of fictional men that women readers wish they could take to bed. But he’s also a complex and intelligent man, a warrior, a scholar, a farmer, a woodsman, a born leader, and yes, very, very sexy. And Claire makes a fine heroine, with her healing skills (reinforced by a medical school education and twenty years of modern doctoring when she goes back to Jamie the second time), her courage and competence, and her adaptability to the very different life she finds herself in.
So what’s so great about these books?
1. They’re genre-benders: epic historical novels with a touch of magic and a strong dose of romance, which in this case means both Big Love and erotica. Gabaldon didn't invent the time travel romance, but I think she took it to a new level.
2. They’re well researched historically, giving a vivid picture of the times that ranges from battle to domestic life in great detail without being one bit pedantic. The research is not only tightly woven into the plot but transmuted into the fabric of character and action.
3. Extraordinarily well developed characters—they’re so well defined that I have had very little trouble keeping track of the huge cast of secondary characters over six books. They pass the “feels like family” test with flying colors. Jamie and Claire in particular are very lovable, and the secondary characters are variously likable, endearing, exasperating, hateful, or fascinating, just like real people..
4. Plotting. Something is always happening, and everything that happens is filled with tension, conflict, and excitement. And there’s plenty of forward momentum—each scene serves the story. On rereading the first book, I found a wonderful scene near the end that I had missed, believe it or not, on first, second, and third reading, probably because I was so eager to get to the resolution each time. I wonder if other readers noticed that Claire actually wrestles a wolf to death with her bare hands outside the walls of Wentworth Prison. Yes, Claire and Jamie are larger than life. But this reader is delighted to suspend disbelief.
In the fifth book, The Fiery Cross, she’s added three third-person point of view characters to Claire’s first-person narrative, and makes their experiences big and small—from fighting off a rapist to brewing an herbal remedy for migraine—so interesting that the reader is happy to linger and savor every moment. There’s a wedding scene (Jamie’s Aunt Jocasta marries Duncan Innes, one of Jamie’s followers from Ardsmuir Prison) that goes on from page 403 to page 545, and I swear I didn’t get tired of it for a moment.
5. Description, setting, smells, textures. Gabaldon rings endless and beautifully crafted changes on the weather, scenery, and conditions of 18th-century life. Thousands and thousands of them without repeating herself, apart from a fondness for the word “declivity.” Nobody’s perfect.
I don't have my copy of the new book, An Echo in the Bone, yet, but I've read the first scene. It’s every bit as gripping as the first 18th-century scene in Outlander. Jamie is lying wounded on a Revolutionary War battlefield, and Claire has to defend him from an awfully persistent mother-and-son duo of scavengers who want to slit his throat and strip him of his possessions. I can hardly wait to read the rest.