Thoughts on “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK OUTLANDER AHEAD.

Strap in, folks, this is gonna be a long review. Then again this was a long book, so what do you expect?

What I liked: 

The great characters. I didn’t always like Claire, but she always felt like a person and not just a vassal through which the author could carry out the story. Everyone had an interesting backstory and their own distinct personality, which really helped me get into the spirit of the novel. The dialogue was very personalized as well and I was impressed at how each character was able to give lengthy exposition without it sounding too unnatural. I also found that, despite the Game of Thrones level number of characters, it was easy enough to remember who each one of them were because of how unique Gabaldon made them.

The immersive environment. It’s very easy for a reader to lose themselves in this book. The way Gabaldon is able to describe the lay of the land is impressive and I never had any difficulty wondering where exactly these people were or what the environment looked like. What I can appreciate is the environment isn’t just a backdrop, it’s engrained into the story itself.

Sexy times for all. While the romance between Jamie and Claire may have been a bit rushed, what with Claire still having a husband back home, I believe the chemistry between these two is strong. The fact that they’re both well-developed characters helps me care more about their relationship and I think Gabaldon writes sex pretty well. She doesn’t explain so little that you can’t tell what’s happening, but she also doesn’t explain so much that it comes across as mechanical and weird.

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The historical accuracy. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into this novel and as someone who has tried to write historical fiction with mixed results, I can really appreciate her efforts. The details she put into this really help the story come alive, especially when she writes about the environment and costumes people wear. She also doesn’t shy away from describing the abominable odors that persist in these types of places back in the 18th century. I was doubly impressed when she went into details about which herbs to use for healing and how to describe how someone would properly attend a wounded man back in those days.

What I didn’t like: 

The focus was all over the place. I don’t think I would be out of line for saying that this book is by and large plotless. While there are many obstacles that the lead characters run into, there is no centralized conflict. For the most part, the structure of the story is “this happened, and then that happened, and then this happened.” It didn’t ever seem to be leading up to anything. On the one hand it left me guessing as to what would be the final outcome of the story, but on the other hand it made me wonder just what the point of all of this was. This is a shame because there were so many points of interest such as Claire missing the modern world, Jamie’s outlaw status and, I think most importantly, the inevitable doom that is to befall the Highlanders.

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Claire’s unrealistic reactions to killing. The book makes it clear on several occasions that Claire is accustomed to seeing people dying because of her position as a nurse during the War. However, I’d like to point out that there is a huge difference between watching someone dying and actively participating in their murder. In my humble opinion, Claire’s reaction to having murdered someone is disturbingly understated. Granted the person she murdered was trying to sexually assault her, taking a life is an unnatural act and a psychologically stable person would be horrified at having to do so. Especially one who swore an oath to always preserve life in any way she can. I thought they would explore this more after she was forced to murder a 16 year-old in order to save Jamie, but even then she doesn’t seem to feel that guilty about it. What makes this even more difficult for me to swallow is that this boy really didn’t do anything wrong. He was just a young lad who was trying to do his job to the best of his ability. He just happened to be on the wrong side.

It went on for too long. I think much of this can be attributed to the fact that this book lacked a plot so the author just went along with the story until she felt like stopping. While I enjoyed this book, most of this story didn’t actually need to happen in the grand scheme of things and I’m actually shocked at what they left out. For instance, the final battle to collect Jamie from the infamous Scottish prison….happens off screen…….

We spent pages and pages talking about Claire fighting a wolf (a conflict that I don’t believe even needed to exist since it doesn’t contribute anything to the plot), but when it comes to the climax, the great escape, the novel’s main villain dying….it happens off screen…….

There was no reason to cut that part out. There were so many other pointless scenes that could have been scrapped. They did not need to cut the one part that needed to be in there.

I admit, I’ve gone into this fandom totally blind so perhaps Black Jack comes back with a cyborg eye and there will be a real show-down. I don’t know. I’m just judging this book by its own merits.

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What the hell is up with Chapter 39? So the scene where Claire tries to save Jamie’s life after his torture at the hands of Randall while they’re at the monastery….Can anyone tell me what happened in that scene? I think she was trying to rekindle his will to live but…that should not have worked. Mind you, I only have a passing knowledge of psychology when it comes to PTSD related events, but I’m pretty sure forcing a patient to relive a traumatic event literally days after it happened in an uncontrolled environment would not result in a sudden miraculous turn-around in their mental behavior. Particularly when they are at death’s door to begin with. In fact, I’m reasonably sure that should have made him keel over.

Jamie’s torture. I’m gonna be honest, I thought it was overkill. The extent of his injuries and psychological torture should have left him a completely unresponsive husk of a man or dead. At least if this had stayed as true to life as it had been before. One of the most interesting aspects of his torture was left, for the most part, unexplored. While recounting the horror he faced while against Randall, he lets slip that the sight of Claire makes him ill because Randall basically conditioned him so every time he thought about Claire he would either be beaten or worse. In one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the whole book, he tearfully explains that he doesn’t want to see her again because just her being there reawakens all of these awful memories.

Me:

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Wow. That is dark. More than dark, that’s completely and utterly heart-wrenching.

Aaaaaaand after Claire’s Most Awful Idea Ever, he’s totally fixed and ready for some bairn-making.

Ummm……

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There’s no reason why this should have worked. You can’t just undo classical conditioning.

Mrs. Gabaldon, you seem like a smart lady and all, but I don’t think you understand how psychology works. Sadly, once a mind is screwed up that badly, the damage is usually permanent. If not, it takes a looooong time for an individual to overcome it.

I think that Jamie’s aversion to Claire would have made an excellent jumping off point for the next novel and would justify a book of equal length, especially if she found out during this debacle that she was pregnant with his child. Not only would Claire have to deal with the impending slaughter of the Highlanders and the Dragoons looking for Jamie, she would also have to confront the possibility of raising a child in a foreign country in the past alone. That’s more than enough conflict for a book, in my opinion. But instead we get a miraculous recovery from Jamie and they all live happily ever after. At least for now.

Overall opinion: 

I enjoyed reading this novel and I’m more than a little interested in reading the next installment. However, I also believe this book could have been so much better if some things were cut and if the story had been given more focus. It was interesting just watching them go about their daily lives, but I think actually giving it a plot would have raised the stakes a considerable amount.

Ode to the Worst Poet in the World

Over the years, I’ve been forced to read many a poem, and, while I can appreciate the effort it takes to compose one, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the art form.

However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a favorite poet.

During my trip to Scotland last year, I came across a plaque dedicated to the supposed worst poet in the world, William Topaz McGonagall. Prior to my visit, I’d never heard of this man and so decided to conduct a more thorough investigation of him once I returned to the states.

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The person from whom Professor McGonagall gets her name. Fanficton prompt: McGonagall tries to write poetry in her off-hours, but HP’s shenanigans keep getting in the way.

McGonagall was a weaver whom, at the age of 52, was suddenly struck by the idea that he should quit his job and make poetry his life’s vocation.

He was very prolific and composed around 215 poems over the course of several years, all of which covered a wide range of topics from the military, to famous people, to current events.

Apparently his poetry was so awful that it was a common practice for the city folk to throw rotten vegetables at him and jeer during his recitals.

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Example of his work:

Welcome! thrice welcome! to the year 1893,
For it is the year I intend to leave Dundee,
Owing to the treatment I receive,
Which does my heart sadly grieve.
Every morning when I go out
The ignorant rabble they do shout
‘There goes Mad McGonagall’
In derisive shouts as loud as they can bawl,
And lifts stones and snowballs, throws them at me;
And such actions are shameful to be heard in the city of Dundee.
And I’m ashamed, kind Christians, to confess
That from the Magistrates I can get no redress.
Therefore I have made up my mind in the year of 1893
To leave the ancient City of Dundee,
Because the citizens and me cannot agree.
The reason why? — because they disrespect me,
Which makes me feel rather discontent.
Therefore to leave them I am bent;
And I will make my arrangements without delay,
And leave Dundee some early day.

McGonagall was so convinced that he was a misunderstood genius that he walked 50 miles to gain the patronage of Queen Victoria, only to be told when he arrived to leave and never come back.

Knowing all of this, I think it’s difficult not to love the guy. Not only did he quit his job to do what he loved at a time when this most assuredly meant starvation, he would not let anyone convince him he shouldn’t write.

Was he an egotist? Oh yeah. In fact he seemed to be so oblivious to how bad of a writer he was that some historians are convinced it was all an act. Me, I’m not so sure.

McGonagall may have died a virtually penniless laughingstock, but there’s a bit of poetic irony to this story.

In spite of all the backlash his poetry received, every single one of McGonagall’s poems has been published. More to the point, his name and his legacy have endured centuries while other more talented poets have died forgotten.

As much as the cliché of following your dreams gets thrown around, it seems to have benefitted McGonagall. He didn’t let anyone persuade him to retire his quill and as a result he has earned himself a place in history.

It’s at the back of the bus with no air conditioning and a five year-old continuously kicking the headrest, but it’s a place nonetheless.

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If someone like McGonagall can make his dreams come true, than by God so can we.

The Hunt For Voldemort’s Grave in Greyfriars Cemetary

According to the tour guide for the Edinburgh Ghost Tunnel Tour, J.K. Rowling came up with Voldemort’s real name after visiting the Greyfriars Graveyard.

So, naturally, a friend and I raced to Greyfriars Kirk on a quest to find the gentleman who would become a legend over a hundred years after his death.

Unfortunately, finding The Dark Lord’s gravestone proved to be more difficult than we were hoping for.

We tagged along on a Harry Potter tour that we probably should have payed for but didn’t *shrugs* to see if the tour guide would give us a hint as to where the tombstone was. However, he seemed more interested in showing us awkward ring tricks than assisting us on our quest, so we decided to venture out on our own.

This must be said: European cemeteries are infinitely cooler than American ones.

It’s unfair to compare them, really.

For one thing, Europe is impossibly old compared to America. Therefore, you will find gravestones and monuments that date back to the 1500s or even the 1300s.

Here are a few that we stumbled across:

And then, finally, we found the man of the hour:

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Turns out his father’s name was Thomas Riddell also.

Even while taking pictures of this, I imagined what this man would think if he knew his name was used for one of the most powerful villains in literary history.

My head cannon is that when J.K. Rowling dies (hopefully at a very old age) she will arrive in Heaven to find a very cheesed-off Scotsman wearing a regiment coat with his arms folded and his foot angrily tapping.

“Who are you?” Rowling will ask.

“You-Know-Who,” he’ll hiss.

Yes, it’s bad enough this man died at such a young age (26), but it would seem that some drunk idiots found it appropriate to tag his plaque.

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Not only did this person think it was acceptable to graffiti a dead man’s plaque, they couldn’t even be bothered to spell Voldemort correctly.

Fortunately, some kind soul left a bouquet of flowers at the foot of the plaque. I did not have any flowers on me, nor did I know of a nearby florist to buy some from, so I picked a wild flower that was growing a few feet away and dropped it on top of the bundle.

So, Mr. Riddell, I’m sorry you’ll forever be known as The Dark Lord.

However, as a writer, I don’t think I would have been able to pass up on such a unique name either. Riddell (or Riddle, as it was in the novels) implies mystery and intrigue. Romance even.

At least you may take solace in the fact that some woman from the 20th century took a look at your name and thought “Huh. Cool.”

May you rest in peace.

Unless you were a dick.

In which case, this scenario would become infinitely more funny.