CONVERSATION: Time Travel, Part II — Thoughts on Outlander and Book Recommendations
Our conversation on time travel continues with a question from Sirius about Outlander and our list of book recommendations and books to avoid. -Janine
Sirius: Outlander (because I had to ask) – what are your takes on it and do you like how time travel was implemented in the story? (I read first book, liked it well enough but had no particular desire to read any others.)
Jennie: I’d read romance here and there when I read Outlander, but it was definitely the book that got me started in the genre in a big way. You can argue that it’s not romance (or at least, Diana Gabaldon can argue that), but it is absolutely epic-romance-adjacent, and I loved it so much that I immediately started trying to chase that feeling again (with fitful success).
I have been reading Go Tell the Bees that I Am Gone since January, and still have a ways to go. I don’t mind stretching it out since who knows when the next book will come. The series has definitely changed through the books and some parts of each story are better than others. I marvel at how tight Outlander is compared to the sprawling, multi-character, multi-perspective style of the later books.
Layla: I have contradictory feelings about Outlander, I loved it when I first read it, and it was the first time I read a book with both time travel and romance. I bought the first book and devoured it during my first week in Morocco. I didn’t have a TV or cellphone, and in my down time I would sit in this beautiful room in silence and I was sucked into the story and the world. I ended up donating all three of the books to a cute little bookshop in the old city.
Ironically, the book I like the most in the series is the one with Lord John, Lord John and the Private Matter. I tried to watch the Outlander series and just couldn’t get into it. Now when I think of the series, I think that the relationship between Claire and Jamie was too much ‘fated mates’ for me. I liked the rich historical detail and the time travel aspect but the epic scale of the series was also too much for me. It’s hard to sustain that level of intensity and also make us care about the characters.
Janine: I am a non-fan of Outlander. I read the first 700 pages of book one and was a hundred pages from the end when I misplaced the book and realized I didn’t care if I found it or if it stayed lost. Nothing has made me change my mind. Mostly I just didn’t like the characters–Jamie was a Marty Stu character and Claire was right too many times in her impressions of other people, almost like an omniscient narrator despite her first person narration. Her lack of blind spots about the other characters made her unconvincing. I was also never convinced she was from the 1940s or that she was British; she read very much like a 1990s American.
Jennie: I totally agree that Claire doesn’t read as British – the “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” expletive that she supposedly learned from American GIs in WWII continues to irritate me even in the present book.
I do think Gabaldon was clever to give Claire a somewhat unusual background – raised by an archaeologist (I think?) uncle, used to traveling to different remote places without the conveniences you’d expect in her 20th century lifetime. It helped explain her adjustment to 18th century Scotland a bit better.
Jamie is idealized but as the books go on, he’s also a well-developed character (one would hope, after however many thousands of pages!), so I accept him as sort of a really heroic hero. I don’t like to read about those all the time, but I don’t mind them occasionally.
Janine: I thought it was ridiculous that as a nurse Claire didn’t mind staying in the 1700s without antibiotics. Even more, I hated how quickly she got over her husband Frank and moved on with Jamie. Ugh.
Audrey Niffenegger is working on a sequel to The Time Traveler’s Wife (about protagonists Henry and Clare’s time traveler daughter) called The Second Husband that I can’t wait for because based on the excerpt I believe it will be everything Outlander wasn’t in the “two husbands” regard, with an ongoing emotional conflict and genuine guilt and remorse on the part of the heroine.
Jayne: Outlander – read and enjoyed the first book. Got two-thirds through the second and suddenly totally lost all interest in the story. Who (Jennie?) used the phrase about the stones – the standing stones are almost like a turnstile?
Janine: A department store turnstile. Yes, that was Jennie. It cracked me up.
Jayne: When I read Outlander I recall when Claire first saw proof that another person had traveled back (it was a character’s smallpox vaccination scar) and I thought “Whoa! There are other time travelers?!” Then after I stopped reading the books, reviews of the later books mentioned how many people were going back and forth and back and forth…
Jennie: I still have trouble keeping all the time travelers in the Outlander series straight. But I have a lot of trouble keeping characters straight in general at this point. Reading the current book means spending a fair amount of time on the Wiki and hoping I don’t accidentally read spoilers for this book.
Kaetrin: I have listened or read to all the Outlander books so far (it’s well documented that I question why I do this to myself). I don’t mind the standing stones as the vehicle but the amount of folks who can travel is beyond ridiculous at this point. Jennie’s analogy is *chef’s kiss*.
Recommendations and Books to Avoid
Janine: Within the romance genre, A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux is a classic (it was a huge bestseller in 1989) that I feel is a much better book than Outlander, though I know the ending is controversial now. It was an ending that worked beautifully in the 1980s and surprised me so much. Even though I understand why today’s readers want something that is more of a fairy tale, I still have a lot of fondness for the book.
Jayne: I forgot about A Knight in Shining Armor. I liked the ending, too.
Janine: I really like romances where a character comes from the past into our own time and has to learn to deal with modern technology (i.e. avoid getting run over by a car), as happens in A Knight in Shining Armor, or (even more rare) a heroine from the future arrives at our own time. Off the top of my head, Linda Howard’s romantic suspense novel Killing Time (possibly my favorite of her books, the hero is a nice guy for a change) is the only example of the latter I can think of. I would love to read more books like it.
Kaetrin: I think the best examples within romance come from Susanna Kearsley for me, particularly Mariana and The Rose Garden.
Sirius: As I previously mentioned I do enjoy seeing time travel in the books and movies, but I actually think that I prefer time travel stay in SFF, rather than be part of romance. I won’t hate romance just because it has a time travel and I certainly read a couple that I liked, but I suppose that when I see a time travel in romance I start worrying about happy ending because to me in order to achieve such happy ending a) the time traveler should be remaining in the time where they don’t belong to OR the other person somehow time traveling permanently to the future from their time and how they would survive there is also a massive question of believability for me.
But some authors of course pull it off for me. As some of you know Tamara Allen is probably THE favorite writer of m/m romances for me. Her book Downtime deals with time travel and I really appreciated the chance to look at the past through the eyes of the modern person. I actually did not mind Morgan accepting the fact that time travel actually was possible so fast, to me it meant that he was willing to face the facts (that he was in the past and it was real). The book I believe was her first published one, so it definitely had some pacing issues and probably other issues, so check out the reviews if you decide to give it a try, but time travel worked for me quite well there.
Jayne: A hilarious, fun to read example of TT gone wrong is One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Transcendence by Shay Savage had a heroine who drove me batty.
One book that did sorta cover what I mentioned on Friday, the traveler blending and there being good reasons why they manage this, is Da Vinci’s Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. In Sundial by Carrie Lofty, people are trapped in TT and desperately trying to find their way out. The two books Egyptian Nights and Egyptian Days by Jennifer Mueller use an interesting TT via soul transference and neatly work out a lot of my issues with TT. Thebes of the Hundred Gates by Robert Silverberg has TT done deliberately – these people are trained to do it – but our time traveler finds more going on than he bargained for. And two of my favorite TT books are by Lisa Cach, The Dragon, the Virgin, and George (originally titled George and the Virgin) and The Changeling Bride.
Jennie: I don’t consider myself an aficionado of time travel novels; I’m not a big fantasy reader in general. That said, Outlander and The Time Traveler’s Wife are two of my favorite books in the world.
I read The Time-Traveler’s Wife much later than Outlander, and it’s definitely the most intricately plotted TT book I’ve read. Of course, the conceit is totally different in that Henry does not travel to a specific time and stay there; rather he “dislocates” without any control over where or when he’s sent. It reads as a deeply human, relatable sci-fi novel to me. I feel like as years have passed some readers have mentioned being squicked out by young Clare/grown-up Henry, and I get why, but I don’t recall feeling that way when I read it. I was so enthralled by the story.
Janine: I agree with Jennie’s characterization of The Time Traveler’s Wife—it’s the most intricately plotted time travel novel I’ve ever read as well. It’s also fresh and inventive, and the characters and their predicament are intensely compelling. I don’t know how I would feel about the age difference issue now but I loved the book when it came out in 2003.
Kaetrin: Some other cool takes on time travel come from outside the romance genre altogether (but my favourites have a romance within them because of course). To Say Nothing of the Dog: Or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last by Connie Willis and The Chronicles of St. Mary’s series by Jodi Taylor which begins with Just One Damned Thing After Another are wonderful (and very funny, also excellent on audio). They’re about time travelers who use science and all their misadventures so the time travel is the point.
Jennie: I really like To Say Nothing of the Dog. It’s interesting to me that the three I’ve thought of – Outlander, The Time-Traveler’s Wife and To Say Nothing of the Dog all have very different mechanisms, but each work for me. In To Say Nothing of the Dog, the mechanism is time-travel machines built by future scientists.
Sirius: To Say Nothing of the Dog has been on my kindle for a bit, must move up.
Janine: In Part I of our post I mentioned the science fiction thriller The Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch. That book was taut and well-executed. I recommend it to readers who like books filled with existential dread and suspense, creative worldbuilding, and a determined main character.
Another science fiction book I want to give a shout out to is Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s short novel This is How You Lose the Time War. The book deals with a relationship that develops (or does it?) via correspondence between two female agents on different sides of a time war. Whether or not there will be a HEA is the primary question that drives the book so I can’t spoil it, but I really enjoyed this one. I love epistolary novels anyhow, and both premise and execution were so creative.
Sirius: I really enjoyed this one too! I thought it was very romantic, as you said creative and I was very pleasantly surprised by the resolution.
Kaetrin: More recently I’ve tried a couple of time travel books by Kelley Armstrong (A Twist of Fate/A Stitch in Time) but they’ve been less successful for me unfortunately, more so with the second book where I struggled with things which were left out or glossed over that related to time travel and how she survived in a very different world.
Layla: I have read and enjoyed the Kelley Armstrong A Stitch in Time series. I liked the premise of fish out of water–and I like that the heroine was first mistaken for and made to work as a servant. I didn’t like it when she immediately was vaulted into aristocracy and then the series became too predictable so I stopped after the second book. I also thought the hero was too instalove with the heroine.
I would love more recommendations of time travel romances!
What about you, readers? What are your thoughts on Outlander and what are your favorite, least favorite, and recommendations for time travel books?
Okay, a question for “Outlander” book fans. Just how many people are gone through the Scottish Stone Time Travel Turnstiles back and forth over the course of the saga?
I’m going to take a side step and recommend a light-hearted mystery time travel book which last week’s post brought to mind. In Kasey Michaels’ Maggie Needs an Alibi, author Maggie’s fictional hero, Alexandre Blake, Viscount St. Just (along with his sidekick Sterling), pops up in her living room. I think the author did a fun job of showing how new and strange everything in Maggie’s world is to St. Just and Sterling.
I’ve been toying with the idea of reading To Say Nothing of the Dog, it sounds like a good story. When I pick up an HR and know by page 4 that so-and-so introduced on page 3 (laboring in the garden) is going to be the long-lost childhood friend and eventual hero, well, it might be time to spend more time with different genres.
Perhaps one of you who loved and one who hated Time Traveler’s Wife will post a joint review when and if a sequel appears.
@LML: I’m sure Jennie and I will both review it (probably together) because we both loved it and even interviewed Audrey Niffenegger for Dear Author once (https://dearauthor.com/features/interviews/interview-with-audrey-niffenegger/). I’m not sure anyone who hated the first book would want to join us, though. We almost always pick only stuff we want to read for review.
Another good time travel book Jennie and I recently reviewed together is Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility. We both gave it a B+ and you can count it as another recommendation from us:
The ending is:
Hopeful if that’s a concern for any of you.
END OF SPOILERS
This discussion has gotten me excited for Emma Straub’s book next month, This Time Tomorrow. The main character travels back in time to high school.
I find myself liking literary and SF time travels more than romance simply because I don’t have to worry about the HEA. Last year I liked Recursion and Dark Matter (Blake Crouch) a lot. I also read and enjoyed The Gone World although, as a Christian, some of the religious imagery was disturbing.
@Jenreads: that’s my thing too ! I am nervous about HEA in time travel romances usually . Not to say it doesn’t happen but to me too much can go awry and since I like the idea I would rather read non romance with this especially SFF unless I am assured of happy ending
I read and enjoyed the first few Outlander books when they came out (curiously, I’d have guessed the first came out before 1991!) and then lost interest somewhere along the way. I read The Time Traveler’s Wife but haven’t felt compelled to reread it. I’ve tried half a dozen times to read To Say Nothing of the Dog because I’ve heard so many positive reviews, but (sadly) I never make too much progress.
@Jenreads: I should have mentioned Recursion. That was good (at least a B-/B for me).
Janine, Recursion was the first of the three I read, so it’s my favorite and probably an A-. Both The Gone World and Dark Matter are B/ B-.
Some time travel stories I’ve enjoyed (besides those I mentioned in the prior post) ~
An old favorite is Replay by Ken Grimwood in which the main character returns to his younger body with all the memories of the life he just lived. It’s sort of time travel adjacent.
Paradox Lost by Libby Drew
Jackie North’s Heroes for Ghosts: A Love Across Time Story.
When Are You? by Addison Albright which is a romance with a time travel element.
Fifty in Reverse: A Novel by Bill Flanagan
Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer
All Our Wrong Todays: A Novel by Elan Mastai
People who traveled through various stone circles over the course of the Outlander series:
Claire, Gillian/Geillis, Roger, Brianna, Jem, Mandy, William Buccleigh MacKenzie, Jerry MacKenzie, at least two of the Montauk Five, presumably Master Raymond. I think there were others in the later books but I wasn’t paying attention by then. I was less bothered by the Grand Central Stone Circles and more by the many coincidental meetings and links between the characters.
I’m not particularly interested in time travel novels/romances, though I did like The Time Traveler’s Wife back in the day.
And as a result of the first discussion, over the weekend I enjoyed rereading Transcendence by Shay Savage along with the associated novella, Luffs.
@Suzanna, in the prior post, you asked for recommendations with a character moving forward in time. Here are a few:
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (f/f)
Time Waits by C.B. Lewis (m/m)
Heroes for Ghosts by Jackie North (m/m)
@Kareni: I tried to read The Doomsday Book (in the same series as To Say Nothing of the Dog, and many consider it the best of Connie Willis’s books) and was bored to tears. Had to give up before I reached the halfway mark.
@Jenreads: Perhaps I would have felt that way if I’d read them in the same order as you instead of the reverse. I liked Recursion but thought it was too slick and written too much like a blockbuster movie. I hear you on the Christian imagery in The Gone World, it was freaky even to me and I’m not Christian. The stuff with the white supremacists was really disturbing too.
@Kareni – it is worth reading/rereading ‘Three Men in a Boat’ first, just to get you in the mood for ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’ . It is a total favourite of mine, but I think the first time I read it, that was a big part of enjoying it. Whichever one I’m rereading, it tends to lead to a rereading of the other.
I read Outlander twice, the second time to confirm to myself I hadn’t misjudged it, because so many people love it. Like Layla I liked Lord John and the Private Matter – which, IIRC, she meant to be a novella – so it might be just that she’s too lengthy for me.
I almost like Jodi Taylor’s ‘Chronicles of St Mary’s’/’Time Police’ series except for the – inexplicable to me, given the light-hearted tone of the books – occasional moments of really upsetting graphic violence. I’ve had to give them up, but I did enjoy all the shennanigans.
@Rose: Thanks for the list. Wow. That’s just …. way too many.
Okay I’ve read more TT books than I thought – since I recognized a fair number in today’s post and comments on top of the ones I in the first post and comments. I’ve never been able to finish Outlander, and so never picked up any other books. I’m not sure why. Outlander came out when TT romances were super popular and I was reading them back then. And I actually appreciated that Gabaldon had done at least researched and thought about what would be useful skills that Claire should need for the 18th-century – so many of the historical romance TT just treated going back into past as being equivalent to visiting Williamsburg or a Renaissance fair.
Some other romance TT novels not mentioned yet: Nora Roberts Time Was/Time Again – these were originally category romances; Harlequin I think has since repackaged and republished them as one volume. In the first one, Time Was, the hero, Caleb, who is from the 23rd century, accidently ends up in the 1980s and meets the heroine Libby. He ends up staying in the 1980s with her. In Time Again, Caleb’s brother, Jacob, arrives from 23rd century looking for his brother. He meets Libby’s sister, Sunny, and they end up together, but they decide to go live in the 23rd century. So the two books together are a TT exchange program. I read these when they first came out, so not sure if they would hold up today. Karen Marie Moning did a Scottish Highlander TT series. I think they mostly were about the heroines travelling back in time. There might have been fairies and magical curses as well. The ones I read were published in late 90’s, early 00’s.
Some more SFF that I liked with TT: Jasper Fforde’s Eyre Affair, Julien May’s The Many-Colored Land, Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch and Thief of Time.
@Janine – do you think that The Vanished Birds is a TT novel? I’ve just started it and think I would say it is one.
@MMcA: Thank you for the suggestion. I did try Three Men in a Boat years ago; perhaps I’ll give it another go.
If the reader liked Outlander has anyone else recommended Beautiful Wreck by Larissa Brown? The time frame is Viking but I remember it had some pretty gritty parts as well as emotional ones. Lots of times these things seem more like “time travel lite” but this one didn’t pull any punches and I have a pretty good grade for it in Calibre.
@JudyW: I don’t think anyone has recommended it and I remember hearing good things.
This is fun! Time travel books are back on my radar.
I’ve read at least 3 recentl time travel books featuring lesbians or queer women – This is How You Lose the Time War and One Last Stop have both been mentioned and I highly recommend them.
Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield is about a swashbuckling queer woman in Georgian England who gets caught up in a desperate plan to end a time war started centuries in the future. I don’t recommend reading it right after This is How You Lose the Time War (as I did) because it’s good but more conventional and not as amazing. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger and I thought the sequel wasn’t as satisfying as the first book. It’s not a romance but there might be a low key ff romance, iirc.
I feel like I read a number of time travel romances when they were popular in the 90s but don’t remember many titles or details. I read at least 3 by Jude Devereaux, including A Knight in Shining Armor.
I also loved The Time Traveler’s Wife, although I’m not sure how it would hold up for me now.
I loved Connie Willis’s first two time travel books (already mentioned) but gave up on Black Out, which is set in the same future world but they go to WWII Britain – there was so much detail and the pacing was so slow that I DNF’d it.
Perhaps the silliest time travel that I’ve read is the erotic short story Initiation by Mia West – about a time-traveling art thief who time travels when she orgasms with a partner. I got it for free from the author’s newsletter – I thought it was fun but wasn’t interested enough to read the whole series.
@cleo: That Mia West story sounds absurd. I will take a look at Alice Payne Arrives.
@MMcA: I have “To Say nothing of the Dog” and have had for a while, and will read it soon I think, but maybe because I liked “The Three Men in the Boat’ so much I am afraid to read it.