Posted by on Wednesday, October 26th, 2005

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. 
I always worry when folks recommend historical fiction to me, particularly if it touches on romance or fantasy.  I get downright nervous when it touches on both.  I read a lot, and still I know I only have time for a limited number of books in my lifetime, so I’m careful about what I read.   But several friends recommended this book to me, and I trust my friends.  Sometimes, however, I think my friends are playing cruel jokes on me.  I’m sure I’m blaspheming against the cult of Gabaldon here, but I’m not impressed.  She may be a lovely person, but this book is a wreck.  I’ll finish it, because I’m almost done, and I’ll engender true righteous indignation only by finishing the blasted thing. 

First the good.  It’s a page turner.  I can tell the author really loves her protagonist and wishes her well.  And I think it’s lovely that the author has an obvious strong academic background in biology–it really adds to the believability of the sections on herbalism and on Claire’s medical work.  And a few of the characters are truly intriguing.  And I love Scotland and lived there for a while when I was in college, so I always appreciate things that help me remember the landscape and the language and the accent.

And then the bad. 

I am cautious of historical fiction because I read a lot of history and archaeology texts, and when I find mistakes in the factual basis of historical fiction, it sets my teeth on edge.  Please, writers, write fantasy if you want to write fantasy.  Tolkein was one of the finest writers in English and he wrote fantasy, as did Shakespeare at times, and the Beowulf poet–embrace such lofty company without shame.  In fantasy, you get to make things up without driving me or people like me batty.  If you want to call something historical fiction, however, do your research carefully and get someone familiar with the period to fact-check for you.  Some errors that made me want to chuck the book across the room:

* The Beaker People did not glaze their pots.  Stop having your main character ponder glaze on pots that aren’t glazed.  Sure, Claire may not be a dig-hound, but her husband is, so she should have been corrected in this huge huge giganto fallacy.  It makes the character–and more importantly author–look dumb.  They had no glaze on their pots.  Glaze is a relatively modern invention.  The Beaker People were ascendant around 2500 BC.  Glazed pots don’t start showing up in the Chinese archaeological record until about 2000 years later, and it took much longer for glaze to become common in Europe–we’re talking about dark ages and early medieval technology, and you sent it to the ancient ancient world.   It wasn’t there!  No glaze, and no watches on the Pharaoh’s wrists, and no television in Camelot, ye ken?

* Laoghaire is a man’s name, and it’s a relatively recent thing, giving boys’ names to girls.  It’s a man’s name!  One of the most famous kings of Ireland, in fact, from more than a millennium before your character would have been born.  And he wasn’t one of the Dalriadan kings, so the likelihood that a middle-class Scottish girl in the 18th century would be named after him is comparable to the likelihood that my Mum would have named me after Swain Forkbeard.  She didn’t, you know.  Not named Swain, me.  Or Aethelred.  Or Snorri Thorlson.  Or even Bortei (now THAT’S a great woman’s name–you should have named her Bortei–the gender would at least have been correct).

* Beltaine’s dates don’t wander around randomly in the year.  Yes, it’s tracked with a lunar calendar, but if Frank knows anything about anything, he’ll know that it’s relatively easy to find in the year.  No mystery, really.  Frank’s supposed to be smart as a whip, right?  Well then, Frank will know when the winter Solstice is, and when the Vernal Equinox is, and he’ll count on his fingers and do the darn math.  Or, he could notice that few if any Scots in the 1940s would have bothered with the lunar dates of the celebration and would have had their fete on May Day, which is what we English speakers call Beltaine after all.  Sheesh–that switch was common throughout Europe hundreds of years before–check Shakespeare.  I’ll not even go into the likelihood of any respectable Scottish Presbyterian minister turning a blind eye to the supposed Pagan worship practices of his parishioners.  Am I the only one around here who knows any Scottish Presbyterian ministers?  Cuz they don’t look too kindly on heathenism now that it’s actually acceptable in some circles–I don’t expect they were very tolerant in the 1940s.  Chickens openly sacrificed in the door yard? Right.  Sure.  Ok.  What year?  Ok.  Just writing "chickens sacrificed in the door yard" makes me worry that someone is going to sneak up behind me and box my ears, and everyone knows I’m a tree-hugging dirt-worshipper (but not a sacrificer of chickens, of course–that would be wrong). 

Right, so that’s just what made me angry in the exposition.  You get the point.  I could go on and on.  Really.  Ask my husband. 

What made me even angrier–and what I think actually makes this a bad book as opposed to a poorly-researched book–was Gabaldon’s apparent obsession with rape and rescue fantasies.  Are you girls ok with that?  Because it churns my stomach.  Rape isn’t exciting or enthralling–it’s terrible and terrifying, and would-be victims are barely ever saved by heroes who swoop in–certainly not time and again within a few months.  And we’re supposed to think it’s ok that her new husband enjoyed beating her, and then threatening and arguably committing marital rape, but that he’s really a good guy deep down and it’s ok?  Thank you, no.  I can’t reconcile the gap between the Jamie we get for 80 percent of the book and the Jamie that beats the crap out of his wife.  Jamie essentially forces a tenant to give up custody of his son because Jamie hates child abuse . . . but Jamie beats his wife and says she’s not allowed to say she doesn’t want to have sex.  Nope–not the same guy.  And the Claire we get for 80 percent of the book wouldn’t have forgiven him.   And then there are the ridiculous plot turns (wolves!  and Gypsies!  and witch-burning!  and poison!  and escape after escape!  and more rape!  But our heroine is always saved from rape just in time!).  Nope.  I didna like it.  I’m agin it, in fact.  Bad book.  Cannot live in my house. 

Ah.  And now, some good to temper the bad.  This is written by a Scottish bard, musician, and poet.  Here, he is giving voice to his vision of part of a Welsh myth, originally transcribed by a Welsh monk living in Strathclyde.  It’s a gorgeous slip of a poem, and it’s the author’s imagining of the spell that turned flowers into a Goddess, who was created to love a God.  Blodeuwedd means "Flower Face."  If you’ve never heard this performed, you’re missing out.  It’s all chanty swirling goodness. 

The Forming of Blodeuwedd
by Robin Williamson

Meadowsweet and maythorn flower
With bliss detain
Chestnut bloom and nettle flower
With blush to sting
Tares of the field and yellow broow
At flesh to cling
Oak bield and the vine’s red bloom
Of kisses feign
Come wanton as the pale primrose
That brings the spring

Filed in Books | 3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Outlander”

  1. Jaymeon 27 Oct 2005 at 9:03 am 1

    I may have to reconsider our friendship on this one. I told you to practically ignore the first 40 pages (which is where most of the issues you have are). And I guess I saw the rest of the book differently. To each his own I guess.


  2. Laneaon 27 Oct 2005 at 10:36 am 2

    Aw Jayme, but I told you I was a snob! It’s not you, and it’s not me. It’s the book. I can’t lie about books–and you don’t want me to lie about books.

  3. minnieon 28 Oct 2005 at 11:36 pm 3

    all i can say is that the things done (except for the names, lol) were typical of the period. women were chattels, to be done with as the man pleased. the fact that claire was a 20th century woman had little to do with it, other than her objections to such treatment, but since she was trying to survive, she had to ACT like a 18th century woman. i’ll leave it at that, and continue to enjoy my books (although, if you remember, jamie promised to never beat her again, and in subsequent books, he never did)

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