Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, is (far) more than just A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court plus Scots and sex. But there’s some truth to the comparison.
Both books are genre mashups: they share historical, fantasy, and science fiction elements while adding satire and comedy (in A Connecticut Yankee) and romance (in Outlander). And like Mark Twain’s protagonist Hank Morgan, Gabaldon’s Claire Randall is suddenly transported back in time to a place she doesn’t belong—in her case, 1743 Scotland. Also like Hank, Claire uses her modern knowledge to make her way in a relatively backwards society.
That’s about as far as the parallels go, though. Because where Hank flaunts his skills and sets himself up as a powerful sorcerer, Claire does her best to fit in, using her nursing background to inconspicuously minister to the sick. And while A Connecticut Yankee is, at its core, a political commentary, Outlander is primarily about a relationship: that between Claire and Jamie Fraser, a young Highlander.
Jamie is tall, strong, passionate, and an outlaw—in other words, the perfect male romantic lead. But his character goes deeper than this, as does Claire’s; as a reader, I quickly came to care about both of them. And in between the duo’s various adventures, Gabaldon crafts small moments that feel real without being boring, mimicking the best bits of everyday life.
I also liked how she set her historical fantasy within what starts as historical fiction—Claire hails from post-World War II England, and the early portion of the novel provides a glimpse of what those first years of recovery were like. Having served as a nurse during the conflict, Claire is used to a certain amount of independence, and carries her twentieth-century sensibilities with her to the eighteenth-century; it’s fun to watch her clash with Jamie’s older constructs. Claire also goes from a time when the English had just fought on the right side of history to an era when they were essentially imperial occupiers.
One thing I didn’t love was that the two non-hetero characters are both predatory. There are plenty of straight would-be rapists as well, but they’re balanced by nobler counterweights (like Jamie). The brief portrayal of a mentally handicapped character isn’t flattering either. In terms of plot, I thought there were one too many capture/rescue beats, and I occasionally wanted a clearer goal for Claire and Jamie to pursue. I also wish the villain’s downfall had been a little more climactic.
But overall, Outlander was a compelling read. And while it, like A Connecticut Yankee, gets dark near the end, Gabaldon’s novel ends on a happier note. Less thought-provoking perhaps, but more enjoyable. I can see why it makes for such a popular TV show.