If you're anything like me, even in today's age of online shopping, you still spend a good deal of time lurking in the fiction section of bookstores, idly scanning the spines of books to find titles to add to your growing list of things to read. As a result, you might have noticed an ever-expanding space of shelf in the Gs for Diana Gabaldon. The covers of her books are a solid background color with only the author name, the book title, and an image of a crown or a thistle or something. Having seen these for years, I figured they were some historical epic that spawned countless sequels. I was right. But I'd also, apparently, been missing out on the fact that these rather simple covers encapsulate a romantic storyline that sweeps over the Scottish highlands of the 1700s, yet does so from the perspective of a twentieth century woman. How? Well, there's this magic stone circle...

Um, yeah, let me start over. Outlander opens on Claire Randall and her husband, Frank, who have gone to the Scottish highlands for a second honeymoon. The year is 1945 and the second world war has just ended. Claire and Frank married quite quickly before the war and found themselves separated for years while they both served their country. Claire was a nurse in a field hospital and Frank was sent off to officers' training and then to MI6. They decided that what they need is a bit of time to get reacquainted... hence, the second honeymoon. Frank has his own historical interests, largely wrapped up in his genealogy, and Claire is an amateur botanist, so they both have things to keep them occupied while they stay near Inverness. Things seem to be going well for them, aside from this brief moment where Frank rather cautiously broaches the subject as to whether or not Claire might have some love affair during their long separation, which he insists he would completely understand. Claire vehemently protests that she never did any such thing and only later does it occur to her that perhaps Frank was the one who had done such a thing. One morning, after being tipped off that a Druid Beltane ritual might take place at a particular stone circle nearby, they hide and silently watch women of the town perform an ancient ceremony. The next day, Claire returns to the place to take some plant samples... and by touching one of the stones, she tumbles headfirst into a different time.

Of course, it takes a little while for her to accept this fact, even after nearly being captured by her husband's ancestor Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall and then actually being captured by a band of kilted Scotsmen brandishing weaponry. At first, she tries to convince herself that this is simply some renegade Scottish clan in a particularly uncivilized patch of the country, but no... she's in the 1740s and her life depends on being able to not seem like a crazy woman, babbling about how she's come through some portal from a time 200 years in the future. It's bad enough that she's English and the Scots aren't too wild about the English or solitary women wandering about in what appears to be a very skimpy shift (as opposed to the pretty floral dress it would have been identified as in the 1940s). Indeed, this is the time right before the Jacobite Rebellion/Rising of 1745 and the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Suspected as a spy, Claire saves her own skin by being able to bandage up the wounds of a handsome young Scot named Jamie... and further assists when she tips off the group about a particular marker that she had recently learned (while listening to a history of the country back in 1945) was a favorite location of the English to ambush the Scots.

Claire is taken to Castle Leoch, where the laird, Colum MacKenzie, is to decide her fate. His brother, Dougal, was the man who captured her and while Claire doesn't quite trust the fellows, Dougal does recommend Claire's healing skills to Colum. He asks her to stay on in the castle to do what she can as a healer for the people there while he supposedly tries to find a way to get her to France. (Claire had worked up a story about being a widow, ambushed on the road as she started a journey to relatives in France.) She sticks to the story, but the MacKenzie brothers aren't quite satisfied here and Claire is basically watched every moment. Despite befriending a few people, Claire is still a "sassenach," or "outlander," and she's desperate to see if there's any possible way for her to return to her own time via the stone circle. Things get even more complicated when Claire finds herself in the awkward position of having to marry the young Scot, Jamie, in order to protect herself from Black Jack Randall (who looks far too disconcertingly like her husband, Frank, and yet is filled with cruelty).

I have a feeling that I would have really loved this book back when I was twelve, eager to read historical novels that weren't YA. I still enjoyed it now in its mass market context of a fun, romantic novel. It's packed with quite a few sex scenes that illustrate the passionate charge between Claire and Jamie which leads to Claire being completely torn about the idea of returning to her actual time because of this handsome young Scot. Their fights are pretty impressive, too; Gabaldon seems to believe that with that much passion between them, they'd spend as much time fighting as they would making up... well, maybe a little more time making up. Jamie rescues Claire repeatedly from danger and she manages to do the same for him (though usually with a little less panache). There is, however, a great amount of historical detail that goes into the book, so it's not all romance novel-y. It's chock full of scenes to evoke the time period that involve Scottish politics, witch trials, attempted rapes, battles, and rudimentary medical practice. There's also a surprising amount of references to sodomy, though never really positive. I suppose there's this blunt Scottish attitude that makes things both funny and a bit shocking at times.

Claire is a very warm and likable heroine (I particularly enjoyed her very modern swearing that repeatedly requires explanations, like "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ") and Jamie is a charming hunk of a hero. I initially thought that Gabaldon's choice to write in Scottish dialect was annoying, but it certainly keeps the Scottish burr in your mind, and when it's coming from big, strong Jamie, that's hardly a bad thing. Their growing love is the main appeal of the novel, but the historical detail is great, particularly when we understand that Claire means to change the future and save Scottish clansmen from the slaughter at Culloden that marks the final battle of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. Whether or not she can will certainly be the subject of a future novel, because what Claire needs to decide first is in what time she truly belongs. Gabaldon has created a thrilling store of highland romance and I finally see what all the fuss was about. Outlander is not great literature by any means, but Claire and Jamie are pleasant companions on a rainy day when the Scottish highlands seem like they aren't quite so far away from one's imagination.

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