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Book Review: Voyager

Voyager is the third book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. This review includes:

1. A relatively spoiler-free piece about the book in general;
2. After an adorable spoiler kitten, some discussion of the book in depth, and
3. The major differences between the book and the third season of the television series.

Voyager is an odd beast, something of an aberration compared to the rest of the book series. I'm personally quite fond of this part of the Outlander story, but I completely understand some of the less-than-positive criticism.

The second book, Dragonfly in Amber, ended in 1968 with Claire discovering that Jamie Fraser had survived Culloden. Voyager begins right there in the aftermath of that battle in 1746, and follows Jamie through that day and the difficult years afterward. As we see what happens from Jamie's perspective, we shift back and forth to 1968 as Claire, Brianna and Roger Wakefield track Jamie through the historical record. Claire also flashes back to critical bits of her life in Boston married to Frank Randall, raising her daughter Brianna, and balancing family life with her new and demanding medical career.

As I mentioned in my previous review, Diana Gabaldon was once asked in an interview if she could sum up the theme of each of her Outlander novels in a single word. For Voyager, that word is "identity." Indeed, the first half of Voyager is about Jamie and Claire searching for their core identity as individuals.

Who is Claire Randall without Jamie Fraser? A compassionate and gifted physician, a devoted mother, a unhappy wife with an unfaithful husband. Who is Jamie Fraser without Claire Randall? An outcast in society, a prisoner who is also a leader of men, a political activist who has lost nearly everything that ever mattered to him.

The entire second half of Voyager veers in a completely unanticipated direction – a long sea voyage followed by strange happenings in the West Indies, pirates, voodoo, shipwrecks. I can't really discuss the second part without spoilers, so if you haven't read the book or watched the series and you plan to do so, bail out now!

More below under the adorable spoiler kitten.



I tend to think of the whole of Outlander as two distinct stories – before the twenty year separation, and after. Voyager is the transition novel. It's about the journey Jamie and Claire take while they're apart, and the difficulties they encounter after they come back together.

The first part of the book really drives home everything that Jamie has lost. Lallybroch was supposed to be his, but no more. Sadly, Jenny and Ian have stopped treating Jamie with love, even though he is living a spartan life of crime and sending them all his money. Jamie makes a critical but understandable mistake when he marries Laoghaire, trying and failing to recreate the family he has lost.

Everything changes when Claire returns after twenty years in the future. Why twenty years? Honestly, for fans of this series, separating two people who love each other so much for so long is practically unbearable. The first time I read it, I found it infuriating that Jamie and Claire had lost so much time together.

But from a dramatic standpoint, the separation works. It adds this enormous poignancy and depth of feeling to their reunion. Two decades apart made them into different people – it had to. And now they are essentially new lovers again, with a tantalizing mutual past as well as an enormous maturity that has been forged by tragedy and loss. At a certain point after their reunion, Claire realizes that she was expecting too much of Jamie when she came back and she fully commits to him again. To Jamie's credit, he commits the moment she walks in the door of the printshop. (Unsurprisingly, the printshop reunion is most Outlander fans' favorite bit in the entire book series. The corresponding television episode is a top favorite, too.)

The unexpected, spontaneous trip to the West Indies may have been an attempt by author Gabaldon to give Jamie and Claire a new and exciting backdrop, like Paris in book two. The complete change in tone doesn't quite work as well this time, though. Although clearly well researched and rich in detail, often sexy and occasionally hilarious, the second half of Voyager doesn't feel like it belongs in the Outlander story. The plague on the HMS Porpoise and the horrors of slavery in the Indies in particular are jarring. The return of Geillis and the voodoo shenanigans are fun, but they don't work that well.

But there's still a lot to love about Voyager. Jamie compensates for the loss of all three of his natural children by parenting the orphaned Fergus, his nephew Young Ian, and his stepdaughters Marsali and Joan. In prison, Jamie is revered by his cellmates and chosen as their leader, and he acquires a life-long friend in John Grey, the prison warden who falls in love with him. Oddly, his best years apart from Claire are at Helwater and with Grey, who gives Jamie his life back and later commits to raising Jamie's son William when Jamie cannot.

There are many little things I really enjoyed, too. While separated, Jamie and Claire often pray for each other. Jamie retains his health in prison by eating wild-growing greens, something Claire told him to do. There's a fun parallel of Jamie reading a dirty book for the first time while in his loft at Helwater, while Claire bonds with Joe Abernathy over a lurid romance novel called The Impetuous Pirate.



Book Versus Series

The television series writers had to pick and choose what to dramatize because there was enough book material for two seasons. They chose to devote eight episodes to the first half of Voyager and only five to the more action-heavy second half. Given only thirteen episodes I might have made the same decision, but there's no question that the later episodes feel rushed and they weakened the season. Would one more episode have helped, made the material more solid? Or was the whole West Indies pirate-palooza always going to be a problem, no matter how they dramatized it?

— In the book, there is a serial killer of women who drops bodies in Edinburgh and Jamaica. (The killer is the distasteful Archibald Campbell, who is also a misogynist minister in the book. It's interesting that a lot of the murder mysteries in Gabaldon's novels haven't made it to the series. Yet.)

— In the book, John Grey is on the HMS Porpoise on his way to take on the governorship of Jamaica, and he and Claire have a significant scene while unaware of their Jamie connection. During the storm at the end of the book, the HMS Porpoise sinks while pursuing our heroes, losing all hands. Sad, especially considering how much effort Claire put into saving their lives.

— Frank goes on a racist rampage about Claire's friendship with Joe Abernathy. I totally get why they left that one out.

— The portrayal of Yi Tien Cho, a.k.a. Mr. Willoughby, is full of uncomfortable stereotypes. Gabaldon has said that she created Yi Tien Cho for one specific reason: to get chronically seasick Jamie across the Atlantic Ocean (acupuncture).

— Claire didn't accidentally kill the excise man; Yi Tien Cho did. No brain surgery. And there was no romance between Yi Tien Cho and Margaret Campbell.

— In the book, Claire learns of William's existence from Lord John while in Jamaica, not during the printshop reunion.

— There were three relatively prominent characters in the book that didn't make it to the series: 1. A Jewish naturalist named Lawrence Stern, a character I liked a lot; 2. An interesting slave named Ishmael who was an ancestor of Joe Abernathy's (note that Geillis' surname is also Abernathy – Ishmael was her slave); and 3. Duncan Innes, a friend of Jamie's from Ardsmuir, who doesn't arrive in the television series until season five.

— No batsuit! Claire goes back in time wearing a fake eighteenth century dress that is almost immediately irreparably damaged. Throughout the second half of the novel, as she and Jamie rebuild their marriage, Claire keeps ruining or losing her clothing. It is such a fun metaphor for Claire's vulnerability as well as finding herself once again in a place and time where she doesn't belong.

I love the book series and I love Voyager too, even though the second half isn't quite as successful as the first. Three out of four ruined eighteenth century dresses,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

3 comments:

lisam said...

I assume the reason for the twenty year wait is Diana Gabaldon wanted Brianna to be an adult by the time Claire went back in time again.

Billie Doux said...

lisam, that's true, it's in the preface to Dragonfly in Amber. Doesn't make it easier to take, though. :)

Mariah Jackson said...

Very creaative post