REPOST--In Praise of Sassenach Wenches and Highland Warriors

by Kathi Alexandra Malcontent MacKenzie Fraser and Merit MacFraser

When I picked up Outlander a few months ago, based on a glowing report by Wench Merit MacFraser, which went something like “OMGIjustfoundthemostincrediblebookIcan’tputitdown!!!”, I didn’t realize I’d just kissed my carefully choreographed reading plan for the rest of the year a fond farewell!!! The months go by, the books I’d planned to read gather dust, and here I am, still blissfully enthralled, unable to tear myself away from Diana Gabaldon’s masterpiece.

I’ve learned to trust Merit’s judgment on these things! She and I have been talking a lot lately about why Outlander is our favorite book series, and we wanted to share a little of our obsession with you and the rest of the Wenches. 

It's verra romantic, verra excitin', an' a wee bit fantastical

Outlander is the first book in a series that generally goes by the same name. The Outlander books are a little different than the paranormal and urban fantasy novels we usually share in our reading group, and only a few of the Saucy Wenches have read them  yet. (Donna was the first Wench to discover these gems, and the rest of us were sadly deprived for far too long.) They are genre benders, generously endowed with bits of almost everything: history, fantasy, action, sex, mystery, treason, torture, smuggling, kidnapping, revenge, smoldering passions, homoerotic desires, heroism, humor, and above all romance “with a Mobius twist,” as Gabaldon likes to say.* Here is her attempt to sum it all up on a promotional cover several years ago: 

Despite all that, it was first marketed as romance, and no matter how deftly it weaves its many themes, the majority of our body parts cast their votes, so to speak, for the romance label.

But Outlander is like no romance weve encountered before. We impatiently cruise Gabaldon’s blog and Outlander fan sites, waiting while our friends get around to reading it, or finish reading it, so we can gush with them. Because Outlander requires a bit of a commitment, and a lot of potential addicts fans find the number and length of the books somewhat daunting. We sometimes suggest they start with just the first two books and see what they think, to make it seem easier, failing to mention that we have never personally met anyone who could stop at that point.

Outlander is the saga of a lifetime shared deeply and passionately, by lovers from different centuries thrown together under extraordinary circumstance, set against a vast, richly drawn tapestry of turbulent 18th-century drama and intrigue. A small dragonfly encased in amber given to the lovers, Claire and Jamie, serves as a metaphor for their relationship, in the words of Gabaldon, “as a means of preserving something of great beauty that exists out of its proper time.”

“Outlander”, or “Sassenach” (pronounced SAHSS-en-ach, with a guttural sound at the end) in Gaelic, is a derogatory term the Scottish Highland clans use to describe someone who isn’t one of them, and the title refers to Claire. In the United Kingdom, the book Outlander is published under the name Cross Stitch

Gabaldon says she didn’t set out to show how two people fall in love, though the tempestuous early stages of Claire and Jamies relationship are great fun to read and beautifully, often heartbreakingly rendered. She examines the essential spark of love, and what makes it continue to burn strong and true throughout the years. And by the time we closed the final pages of the last book (so far!), Merit and I both felt like we knew this couple better than any other book characters weve ever met. Weve delved so deeply into their psyche and shared their experiences on such a personal level, to the point where to us they are completely real. We have screamed out loud, thrown breakable objects across the room, and sobbed our eyes out with them through triumphs and tragedies. More happens in these books than we could describe in a dozen posts, and through every scene we were riveted.

For a mildly spoilery summary of the first book (but no more than you’ll find on a book cover), click here [show more/less]
Claire Randall is an English nurse who in 1945 (or 1946, depending on the version), while visiting the Scottish Highlands with her husband after a long separation during WWII, inadvertently steps through a time portal in a standing stone formation and finds herself stranded in 1743. She is soon swept up in the events leading to the Jacobite Uprising of the Scottish clans against the British monarchy and must navigate complex political rivalries as she attempts to find her way back to the stones. Along the way, she is forced to marry a tall, fierce, and utterly delectable Highland outlaw named Jamie Fraser. By the end of the first book, Claire must decide which vow to betray and which man she can’t live without, and then wage a desperate battle to save his life and his soul. Sounds like dramatic overstatement, we know, but trust us, it isn’t.

A motlier procession of participants ye wilna be findin'

Gabaldon’s characters make a lasting impression, whether they pop in for one chapter or hang around through all the books. They are a lively assortment, richly varied and vividly described. She is particularly adept at the smarmy villains  we’ve lost count of how many times one of those wretched cretins we thought was long gone rears his ugly head again, wreaking havoc. One of Jamies friends who sometimes appears at pivotal moments in the Outlander books, Lord John Grey, has his own book series by Gabaldon, which occurs in parallel and occasionally intersects with Outlander. As for Claire and Jamie, they are a bit like we expected to find in a romance, but also a delightful surprise.

The compassionate, kick-ass healer

Claire does not fit the standard mold of the kick-ass heroines the Wenches are so fond of. For starters, she’s completely human. And so is Jamie. There are no supernatural creatures in the Outlander books, and if not for the wee issue of time travel, we wouldnt consider it a fantasy. Claire doesn’t throw silver spinning stars, wield swords, read minds, or fly. But on certain days of the year she can pass through time portals, and we don’t fully understand why.

As a mere mortal, Claire survives by her wits, intellect, and integrity; her spunk; her professional detachment; her ability to bore straight to the heart of a matter; her courage to demand the difficult answers; and her insistence on speaking her 20th-century mind, loudly and often.

Gabaldon did not intend to write a time-travel story, but when it came time to introduce Claire, “she refused to shut up and talk like an 18th-century woman,” so Gabaldon allowed her to take over the story and begin “telling it herself, making smart-ass modern remarks about everything.” She figured Claire would eventually explain how she got to 1743 and then Gabaldon could explain it to her readers.

Claire commits deeply, fights fearlessly, is devoted in her loyalty, and never turns away those in need. Oddly enough, these very qualities made it harder for me to identify with her at first, as did her detachment, which I don’t have an ounce of. I grew impatient with her inability to hurry up and make the decision I wanted her to make, but I knew that would be too easy. A great ethical dilemma like hers demands weighty deliberation, for it is both a betrayal and a commitment, and as she struggled she forced me to hear in my minds ear the wrenching sounds of her heart slowly breaking apart and piecing itself back together around the empty spaces. 

The hunky Highland hero

Since weve already mentioned Jamie, weve unfortunately spoiled the fun of seeing how long it takes for you to identify the romantic lead. Gabaldon toys with her readers’ expectations by making Jamie younger and less experienced sexually than Claire. Merit and I already knew there would be a romance when we picked up this book, so we were looking for the one in every guy Claire met, rejecting each (especially one!) after a few pages (or less!), and completely disregarding Jamie. Until it began to dawn on us that his deceptively humble demeanor masked a character with great heroic potential, and we wouldnt mind a peek under his kilt, either. As I reread the book, it seems so obvious it had to be Jamie, but he still caught me by surprise the first time, and Im guessing thats exactly what Gabaldon intended. 

Jamie is a charismatic, natural leader with an unfailing sense of honor and justice; brash yet ruthlessly disciplined; ingenious on and off the battlefield; and destined by duty, he believes, to live apart. It didnt take me long to anoint this man as the new addition to my top-five book-boyfriends list, along with Jericho Z Barrons, Crispin “Bones” Russell, Eric “My Lover Northman, and Ethan “Shit or Get Off the Pot” Sullivan. Gabaldon lets us get to know Jamie as Claire does, with glimpses of courage, strength, warrior skills, classically educated sensibilities, keen political savvy, and calm caginess. He eases his way into our hearts right along with hers. And did we mention his 6'4" lean, muscled body, broad shoulders, piercing blue eyes, and flowing auburn mane? Because those did not hurt his chances one bit! (*wink*) 

We. Could. Not. Resist. His fierce protectiveness and compassion, his lopsided grin and ready sense of humor, and his tender, persistent courtship of Claire. He might be younger, but from the start he understands Claire’s true nature, and what is important between a husband and wife, better than she does. And he is completely devoted to her, above all else, with a depth of loyalty that Claire has never experienced. For the first couple of books he really needs to work on his negotiating skills and stop volunteering to get himself killed so often, but I was fairly certain time would take care of that. Which it did, but you’ll have to be patient and take our word that he turns out quite nicely! For a finer man than James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser becomes through the years I have never met in any other book.

I got into the habit of squealing while I was reading Outlander for the first time, because I thought everything Jamie said was the sweetest, most romantic thing Id ever heard. And I still find myself squealing a lot during my reread, because Jamie can be quite fervent, eloquent, and persevering in expressing his ardor, no matter how much Claire tries to deny hers.

“Ye werena the first lass I kissed.... But I swear youll be the last.” ~Outlander
I am your master...and youre mine. Seems I canna possess your soul without losing my own.” ~Outlander
“Blood of my blood…and bone of my bone. You carry me within ye, Claire, and ye canna leave me now, no matter what happens. You are mine, always, if ye will it or no, if ye want me or nay. Mine, and I wilna let ye go.” ~Dragonfly in Amber  

Jamie picture from Captivated2 at deviantART:

It's a "totally sweeping, engrossing, sensual experience" **

Plain and simple, Gabaldon is a master storyteller. Between these pages lies a sweeping saga with a cast of (seemingly) thousands that criss-crosses stormy seas, cultures, and centuries. It is rich in accurate and often obscure historical detail, some laugh-out-loud hilarious and some grab-the-barf-bag gross (especially if you’re squeamish about medical cases and bodily functions). Some readers find all that detail annoying. One of my friends recently commented that the detail makes Outlander one of those series [only] for people who really like to read.” But the detail is one of our favorite things about the books, because it’s always interesting and marvelously constructed, and we are learning what it was really like to live in these times and places! The particulars that she uses to flesh out every scene — the myriad sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, suffocating layers of clothing, sadistically designed women’s undergarments, foods we would not dream of eating, medical implements we’d run from, vexations of making Scotch whisky, indignities of personal hygiene before the advent of toothpaste and toilets, and routine chores for life in castles, farms, mansions, prisons, ships, forts, caves, and various other situations of necessity — make us feel like we are smack in the midst of living, breathing history. And always at the heart of this diverse, grandly crafted world, anchoring its far-flung corners and cohabitants, are Claire and Jamie.

If you’re looking for a quick, light read, or a bit of fluff to polish off during a weekend getaway, this isn’t it. Be sure to save Outlander for a time when you can properly savor it, when you’re in the mood for rich detail and long-term story lines. Because as soon as you turn that last page, you’ll be looking for the next book in the series. (And you might be verra surprised where it starts. I was completely mystified.) 

There are seven books in the series (so far!):

  • Outlander
  • Dragonfly in Amber
  • Voyager
  • Drums of Autumn
  • The Fiery Cross
  • A Breath of Fire and Ashes
  • An Echo in the Bone

Gabaldon is working now on the 8th book, Written in my Own Hearts Blood, and hopes to release it in fall, 2013. She recently promised another book after that, which fills us with both joy and dread. We never want this story to end, but we have no idea how well bear the long wait for the last books.

And in the end, the love ye take, is equal to the love ye make ***

When I finished the last book (so far!), I could not wait to reread the whole series from the beginning. It was a little strange to see Claire and Jamie start from scratch again after all they had been through. But I can linger over the prose this time around instead of racing through to see how things turn out. It is the most remarkable experience to watch Claire and Jamie fall in love, and I can’t decide whether I liked it better the first time around or the second. Their feelings grow tenuously amid chaos and war, slowly creating a refuge from and fortress against the perils around them, becoming more precious than either thought possible. Much like the lotus flower of Eastern legends, often used as a symbol of faithfulness and inspiration in the face of great difficulties, from the murky depths blossoms a beautiful light. 

On their wedding night, Jamie and Claire pledge to always speak honestly to each other, which provides a framework of trust within which they slowly reveal themselves. Gabaldon gives us many touching scenes of affection and discovery. Jamie’s gentle patience as he woos Claire, and the slow crumbling of her heart’s barriers. Jamie trying valiantly (often vainly) to comprehend the differences in acceptable opinions and behavior that a couple of hundred years can make. Like spanking, for example, and we’re not talking about Fifty Shades of Grey spanking here, with the mink whips and handcuffs. Poor, earnest Jamie trying to explain his duty as a husband, and indignant, bristling Claire giving him a scathing piece of her 20th-century mind about that, were the turning points in the book for me. The make-up scenes were where both characters finally won me over completely and I fully surrendered my heart to the book. 

Patiently talking (or yelling or laughing or emitting incomprehensible Scottish utterances) through every difference of opinion, culture, or historical perspective, never stopping until the other understands (not necessarily agrees), Claire and Jamie become deeply, intimately attuned to each other. Sex becomes for them a powerful source of expression and communion through which they are grounded and recharged. The hardships they endure forge an indissoluble bond. Each sacrifices deeply to protect the other. In a brutal climax, Claire risks everything in an act of desperation that is downright painful to read. We will not sugarcoat this, these scenes were gut wrenching. I can’t remember the last book that made me cry, but I cried so hard I couldn’t get through the scenes, either time I read them, without stopping over and over to calm down enough that I could see the words on the page again. But it’s worth all the pain, every single bit. And we’re back to the legend of the lotus, translated to a stark and ancient isle: from the soul’s darkest depths blooms love as enduring as Highland stone  timeless, steadfast, immutable. 

Claire and Jamie’s Great Love reminds me what true intimacy is. Gabaldon peels away the layers in which we encase our hearts, and in doing so transforms my own understanding of love. Outlander makes me want to talk to my husband again. I mean really talk, staring only into each other’s eyes, stroking each other’s bodies, memorizing each other’s faces, laughing and crying and making out the way we did when we were dating. Claire and Jamie elevate my aspirations and show me that love never has to fade with time. 

With each other they can entrust every secret, heal every scar, absolve every sin. They can face absolutely anything except life without each other. Because in each other they have found a sanctuary in which they can be completely at home and at peace.

Picture available for purchase from Captivated2 at deviantART:

“Don't be afraid. There's two of us now.” ~Outlander
“For where all love is, the speaking is unnecessary. It is all, it is undying, and it is enough.” ~Outlander
“When the day shall come, that we do part…if my last words are not ‘I love you’  — ye’ll ken it was because I didna have time.” ~The Fiery Cross

So we hope you’ll let us know below, are you a fan of the Outlander books? Or does the word count put you off? Have you read them all? How many times? Which book is your favorite? What’s your favorite story line? Who are your favorite characters, well, other than Claire and Jamie, of course? Have you read any of Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey books? And if youre anxiously awaiting Written in My Own Hearts Blood, what are you doing to keep your mind off the long wait? We look forward to hearing from you!

*      Diana Gabaldon quotes are taken from her CompuServe forum, her blog, and The Outlandish Companion, (c) 1999 by Diana Gabaldon. 
**    Merit MacFraser's attempt to distill the books down to a few words.
***  Shout-out to The Beatles.


  1. I have been a sucker for a Scottish warrior since I read KMM's Highlanders series. These sound so amazing, I know I will love them. I will make sure I have my schedule totally clear when I start them. Beautiful review!

    1. Thank you, Amanda. Highlander had that same effect on me. I’ve been thinking of Highlander lately, because it has so many similarities to Outlander (clans and warriors, standing stones, time travel, modern heroines) and yet tells such different stories. I was planning to reread Highlander and Fever before Dani’s book comes out next month, if I can tear myself away from Claire and Jamie. But I look forward now to comparing the Highlander lore and characters!

  2. So well done Kathi and Merit. I read the first book some years ago and could really get into it, but after reading your post it has encouraged me to give them another try.

    1. Thanks! I know a couple of friends who weren't smitten right away, but picked the books back up when they had a little more time and became big fans. Since you encouraged me to give A Song of Ice and Fire a try, I know the cast of characters and number of books won’t scare you away! I hope you like these as much as I like those.

      I've talked to people who think Jamie is too young at first, because Gabaldon is very clever with the way she turns the typical romance upside down, and they don’t stick around long enough to realize he is a whole lot smarter and stronger and sexier than they realized, plus he’s a very fast learner!

    2. Thanks Kathi. Definitely on my to read list. It was a while ago I tried them and no the scope of them doesn't bother me. I will bump it up my to read list.

  3. Terrific review, Kathi and Merit!

    I loved the Highlander books, so I think I'd really enjoy this series. I'll definitely be putting them on my list. :-)

    1. Thanks! I hope you enjoy them! What is it about kilts, Highland warriors of yore, a little time travel, and modern sassy wenches?!?

  4. This was an amazing review Kathi and Merit, I am definitely going to check them out!

  5. I love this review...put my thoughts exactly into words. Have read and loved them all...and re-reading series, almost finished with The Fiery Cross (again)

    I also love our sweet wee Roger. I also love Lord John, especially after seeing his relationship with Brianna in Drums of Autumn.

    1. Thank you so much! I'm so glad you enjoyed the review! (And I'm sorry that I just now saw your comment. Things have been a wee bit busy lately.)

      I was trying to remember when Jamie stopped referring to Roger as "wee Roger," though that always made me chuckle. I will have to notice that when I reread the book again.

      And Lord John is growing on me. Especially with the way things ended up at the end of An Echo in the Bone. I paused my reread in the midst of Voyager so I can read The Scottish Prisoner before proceeding. That will serve as my first peek into the Lord John Grey books to see how I like having that additional perspective for his character.


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