Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldon (continued)

I have now listened to the first three books in this series: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager. These novels don't get any shorter--Gabaldon (pronounced "gabbled-on," ironically enough) packs a lot of pages between her covers. Sadly, they also don't get better.

Outlander was itself an oddity--several hundred pages before we get to anything resembling an actual plot. Claire Beauchamp Randall, a former combat nurse on her second honeymoon in Scotland, stumbles through some standing stones, and finds herself back in 1742. The book wanders through a number of incidents, a cultural tour of 18th century Scottish highlands--clan allegiances, feudal government, hunting, dietary habits, medical knowledge, what Scotsmen wear under their kilts. In the best romance novel tradition, there is a forced marriage for ostensibly "practical" reasons, a villain who threatens the heroine, and some historical events. There is a fair share of unbelievable events--Claire bluffs her way into a heavily fortified prison, finds her imprisoned husband, kills a wolf with her bare hands, storms the prison with a herd of kine and frees her husband and several dozen other prisoners.

Okay, it's not believable, but there is some point where you must say "I can suspend disbelief, but not that much." The second book finds our heroes in France, trying to prevent Bonnie Prince Charlie from attempting to reclaim a Stuart crown and thus avert the devastating Battle of Culloden and the subsequent brutal destruction of the people and crops of the Highlands. Okay, but can I really believe that a Scottish farmer, son of an illegitimate son, an outlaw wanted for murder--can really just land in Paris and personally befriend all the luminaries of that age? Why would Bonnie Prince Charlie make such a man a close personal friend?

And how is it that everybody is forever dying of a single gunshot wound, or a single sword fight, while Our Hero suffers unimaginable injury and is rarely even slowed down? In Outlander, Jamie Fraser is subjected to unimaginable savagery while in prison, and it takes him months to recover, both physically and mentally. As the series goes on, however, he loses this vulnerability and devolves into a less interesting, more "typical" romantic hero. He has many long and involved adventures, at the cost of losing his vulnerability.

I think it is that vulnerability that makes the first book so much more interesting. Jamie is a powerful man, but he is also rather young and unworldly. Claire is older than he, and has the dubious advantage of knowing how history comes out, but she is also completely unfamiliar with how to live as an 18th century highlander. The two of them complement each other, and their weaknesses give one just enough doubt about how well things will turn out. Of course, we know Jamie doesn’t die at the end of Outlander, as there would not be any more books. However the cost to him of what has happened is real and painful.

By Voyager, however, he has become more or less invulnerable, and possessed of a bizarre knowledge of the customs and geography of the Caribbean. I’m not sure what in his Scottish military training taught him all about navigation in the Western Hemisphere, but he is never at a loss about what to do or how get what he wants. Which results in a much less interesting character, and the odd authorial problem of having to separate the two, because as soon as Claire finds Jamie, he solves whatever jam she is in.

Will I continue the series? Well, even in the absence of a story or character arc, the stories are rather beguiling. And frankly, I must admit to being a wee bit addicted to the Scottish brogue being whispered into my ear. So, as a unbeatable audio bargain, measures as words per dollar, I will probably download some others of this series.

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