Time travel for the genetically predisposed: Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series


In fairness, while time travel is a pivotal plot point in the Outlander series, in that without it the story line wouldn’t exist, it’s not a large component of the events taking place in the books. The short version of the first three books’ plot can be summed up as a historical romance set in Scotland during the Jacobite uprisings of the mid-eighteenth century, with a twist: the heroine is a nurse who served during World War II. The series is up to seven now, with the promise of at least one more; subsequent books are, however, set in what will soon become the United States during the years leading up to the American Revolution so the series has always struck me more as a trilogy and a [insert number descriptor for the number of books Gabaldon ends up writing], using the same characters and same time frame as the first three but a different location.

There’s a long description over in Wikipedia, but for the link-averse, the first book starts with Our Heroine reunited with her twentieth century husband after they served in the military in World War II for a much delayed honeymoon in Scotland. She is pulled through a henge, Craig na Dun, into a skirmish between redcoats and kilt-clad Highlanders, which she at first believes is an on location filming of a period piece movie, but which turns out to be the real thing. The remaining several hundred pages1 consist of Clare trying to figure out what’s happened, where she is and how to get back to her own time while attempting to convince the locals that she is, in fact, one of them. It’s a fun book to read, with a mix of chicklit romance and Manly Fighting, although as with many books involving time travel, I have to struggle a bit with willing suspension of disbelief. For example, everyone comments on her inappropriate clothing (much too little by their standards) but no one mentions the fact that she’s speaking oddly. Surely accents changed over the intervening 200 years? I can understand that the Scots might not pick up that difference, merely assuming that she was from a part of England they weren’t familiar with, but why not the English?

As with many series, I find the first book in the Outlander series to be the best, for a couple of reasons. I think often the first books are written when the author is unsure whether there will be interest in subsequent books, and thus they have to be sufficient unto themselves with a minimum of dangling ends. Certainly, this was the case with Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, although the Harry Potter books did strike me as having a plausible ‘hook’ built in to continue (and to end!) the series–Harry’s schooling at Hogwarts. In the case of books with a twist, such as Outlander, once the reveal has been made, subsequent books may lack the tension which attracted me to the first book. In the case of this particular series, as with Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, a bit of judicious editing/shortening may have improved the series. The best example I have to show what I’m talking about is that, while I did read them in the correct order as they came out, a few years later I picked up a copy of Voyager (the third book) as airplane reading2…and didn’t realize that it was the third book in the series, not the second, until I got home and checked the publication order. I just assumed my mild confusion about some plot points was due to the fact that I’d forgotten details in the intervening years.

As for an explanation of the title of my blog post? We find out in later books that there is a genetic component to time travel; Clare and her daughter and grandchildren can travel, as can her daughter’s husband (and his mother, but that’s a story thread I’m not going to give away!) but not either of Clare’s husbands. There is an element of being in the right place at the right time–sacred henges at one of the Wiccan holidays such as Beltane–and jewels play a part as well, but even with all the other elements in place, not everyone can travel thus. Fortunately.

1how many pages exactly depends on which edition of the book you’re reading, but it’s a lot
2I’m the sort of avid reader who needs a carryon bag for my clothes and a suitcase for my books when I travel; a 700-900 page book lasts me from Chicago to Seattle and partway back

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