I’ve always liked books that transport me far away from today’s world. It’s rare that I’ll read a contemporary novel — give me an epic fantasy in another realm, a science fiction adventure on an other planet, or a historical romance set in another time.
Lately, the Outlander series of novels by Diana Gabaldon have been the perfect escape from my personal stresses. Set in 18th century Scotland, they involve an Englishwoman from the 1940’s who accidentally travels back in time, ends up marrying a Scotsman, and then gets swept up in adventures that take her from the Highlands to Paris and beyond.
The first book I actually read twice — once as part of a romance book club, and the second time this year, after becoming mildly obsessed with the Starz TV show based on the books. It sets the scene well, as protagonist Claire travels back in time and weds Jamie Fraser in an arranged marriage, designed for her safety from an evil British officer. The twist here is that this officer, Jack Randall, is a direct ancestor of Claire’s first husband, who’s still living in the 1940’s right where she left him.
Still, I struggled with the book both times I read it. That’s mainly because it’s extremely long. I don’t mind a thick book, but in the case of Outlander, that also equates to scenes that just feel too long. Surprisingly, it isn’t the descriptions that got to me — I love sinking into the setting, and feeling like I’m really in 18th century Scotland. (Maybe it’s the history major in me.) Instead, the tedious sections of the book involve stories within stories, and winding conversations that take entire chapters to wrap up. I’ll admit that as much as I love Claire and Jamie’s romance, there were times when I just didn’t think I could stand Jamie telling Claire another cute story about his youth.
These past couple months, I read the second book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. And this one far surpassed my expectations after reading the first book. It has the same amazing characters, but it whisks you from Scotland to Paris, where Claire and Jamie try to stop the Scottish Uprising of the 1740s, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. (Again, that totally appeals to the history major in me.)
What really makes it stand out is the pacing. Unlike the first novel, which takes its time giving you a sense of where you are and who you’re with in this series, Dragonfly in Amber snaps you up with one action-packed scene after another. Sometimes it’s dramatic — as when Claire is accosted on the street by a group of Parisian thugs, or when she’s poisoned — while other times, it’s much subtler. Yet even the smallest moments of drama feel important and ring true, because they are so character-driven.
A perfect example is when Jamie stands off against Jack Randall, who at the end of Outlander beat and raped him. Claire makes Jamie promise not to kill Randall for a year, so that she can be sure he’ll have his child — keeping the lineage alive so that her husband of the future will be born. Jamie, though furious, agrees. Yet Claire later learns that Jamie has challenged Randall to a duel. He broke his promise.
Because duels are illegal, Jamie is arrested right after the duel, before Claire can even speak with him. Meanwhile, Claire, pregnant at the time, loses her baby and recovers in the local hospital for a spell.
All this time, the reader is left wondering why Jamie did what he did. Because we are only in Claire’s head, the first-person perspective keeps the mystery going for awhile. It seems out of character for Jamie to break a promise to Claire, even though readers can understand his reason for hating Jack Randall.
A rumor starts to circulate, which eventually gets to Claire: Jamie challenged Randall to the duel in a whorehouse, as if over one of the ladies’ reputation. Yet Claire and Jamie have already been through an argument about a prostitute, where Claire’s jealousy reared its head and, in the subsequent argument, Jamie’s loyalty and love was proven. Now, the idea that Jamie would duel over another woman feels even more out of character than him dueling in the first place.
And so this question lingers for several scenes, as Claire and Jamie are separated. Claire’s focus is grieving for her lost child, and recovering her health.
When the couple is finally reunited, they confess everything to each other — hesitantly, of course. They’re still trying to learn to trust each other again.
It turns out that Jamie challenged Randall to a duel only after he caught Randall raping the young boy he and Claire have taken under their wing. It’s this perfect storm for him — wanting to protect his ward, while at the same time being reminded of his personal history of abuse at Randall’s hands. And so it finally makes sense, why he would break a promise to Claire. This was too important for him.
As I read Dragonfly in Amber, I found myself admiring the perfect interweaving of these different story threads. The book dives into all kinds of things: political scheming, sabotage, Parisian dinner parties and balls at the palace, Claire’s pregnancy, marital jealousy, and the intrigue of what will happen to the future if they change the present. (And that’s just what I can remember.) One thing affects another, and everything feels very grounded in the characters’ various personalities and incentives.
The marriage of Claire and Jamie is always at the forefront. They argue over things like Claire wanting to work in a hospital while pregnant, then come together over other things, like their schemes to stop the rebellion and their excitement to start a family together. I actually enjoyed getting to know them both more in this book. While Outlander includes a lot of Jamie telling stories about his past, this one is more cemented in Claire’s personal experience as a time traveler, a wife, and a mother who loses her child before she even gets to know her. Because it was so centered in the present, I really enjoyed getting to know both Claire and Jamie better in this novel.
Overall, this is a fast-paced historical novel that made re-reading Outlander well-worth the effort. If you’re interested in historical fiction — especially with a romantic element — I recommend the Outlander series. Don’t be put off by the length of the books. It’s why they’re so engrossing. You forget where you are, and settle into another time. Just keep in mind that if the first book starts feeling slow, Dragonfly in Amber is waiting, and it has so much more story to tell.