Friends have been recommending the OUTLANDER series to me for years, but I kept putting it off because the books are most often described as romance, a genre I'm not fond of.
I recently acquired the first book as a gift (the unabridged audio version read by Davina Porter), so I've finally lost my Gabaldon virginity. OUTLANDER was originally published in 1991, and now I understand why the series is still popular. These books are beautifully written, and they have all the earmarks of classics that will stand the test of time. They might be categorized as romantic fiction, but they would just as easily fit under historical supernatural fiction, or fantasy adventure. There are elements of horror as well. In fact, the torture scenes were enough to make me squirm, dark enough to compete with the darkest scenes written by George R.R. Martin or Anne Rice. When I think of romantic fiction, I often think of formulaic plotting. OUTLANDER had me turning pages the whole way through, with an intricate, fast-paced, and satisfyingly unpredictable plot.
This is smart writing. The main characters--both good and bad--are intelligent, and will earn your admiration. The books are thick, but every scene is well-placed and serves a purpose. Some of the scenes made me laugh out loud, and others had me tearing up. I was astonished to learn that the author was born after WWII, since her main character is a WWII field hospital nurse, and she made me believe it. And I'm astounded that she lives in the U.S. southwest, since she paints such vivid portrayals of the Scottish Highlands. I can't imagine how much time she must have spent researching Scottish lingo from the mid-1700s, not to mention Gaelic phrases, and the details of life during the era of colonization. She brought a historical era to life in a way I've never read before.
These books don't read like a history lesson. The characters and plot are wonderfully memorable, and famous personages show up only as necessary to the plot. They're treated with the same brush of humanity as the other characters, so they seem a genuine part of the story, rather than larger-than-life.
For me, an S&M element in the first novel, OUTLANDER, diminished what would otherwise be a staggering work of genius. I'm critical of one scene involving domestic abuse treated as erotica. However, I'm so impressed and blown away by these books, I was able to dismiss the weirdness as a preference for an alternative lifestyle. If these books had dwindled into BDSM erotica, I would have put them aside without finishing. But there's only one scene in the first book that stands out as "too much" to me, and I'm glad it wasn't repeated in any way.
These books appeal to me in part because Gabaldon isn't shy. No subject is taboo to her, and she throws as much sex, torture, and very uncomfortable dinner conversations as she can into each book. It makes for great entertainment. Men get their genitals hacked off, women get burned at the stake for witchcraft, boys get raped, girls die in childbirth . . . you name it, and she went there. She's not afraid to explore the way people struggled to survive during that era. On the flip side, she sinks you into the wonder of Scottish romanticism, and Paris during the era of powdered wigs and waltzes. It's a world ruled by religion, loyalty towards monarchs, and firearms, but completely lacking in our modern notions of law or medicine.
The OUTLANDER books also explore deep themes of love and loss, destiny and choice, honor and duty, and so forth, through the lens of modern life versus what we now think of the distant past. I have never seen such a poignant portrayal of marriage in any other book. These characters have strong personalities. They're people whom you'll remember.
Before I read OUTLANDER, I'd wondered why the protagonist vanished from 1945 instead of the year the book was written. After all, the more modern conveniences she loses, the greater the contrast. Now I understand: The horrors of WWII prepared the protagonist for the brutality of 1743. She needed that preparation, or she probably wouldn't have survived her first week in the past. And I imagine that the general sense of loss would be much harder for someone from today's world than someone who's never heard of television or the internet. As it was, I felt her loss of cars, electricity, recorded music, modern medicine, and indoor plumbing.
I'm addicted now, and I'm churning through the fifth book in the series. I'm sure I'll finish them all in short order. Gabaldon is such a capable writer, I'll probably buy whatever she writes next. I'm just amazed.
Here's a link to the Outlander wiki.