Title: In Other Lands
Author: Sarah Rees Brennan
Genre: YA, Portal Fantasy, LGBTQIA+
Release Date: August 15th, 2017
Publisher: Big Mouth House
The Borderlands aren’t like anywhere else. Don’t try to smuggle a phone or any other piece of technology over the wall that marks the Border—unless you enjoy a fireworks display in your backpack. (Ballpoint pens are okay.) There are elves, harpies, and—best of all as far as Elliot is concerned—mermaids.
Elliot? Who’s Elliot? Elliot is thirteen years old. He’s smart and just a tiny bit obnoxious. Sometimes more than a tiny bit. When his class goes on a field trip and he can see a wall that no one else can see, he is given the chance to go to school in the Borderlands.
It turns out that on the other side of the wall, classes involve a lot more weaponry and fitness training and fewer mermaids than he expected. On the other hand, there’s Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, an elven warrior who is more beautiful than anyone Elliot has ever seen, and then there’s her human friend Luke: sunny, blond, and annoyingly likeable. There are lots of interesting books. There’s even the chance Elliot might be able to change the world.
This is a book made for those of us that grew up loving portal fantasy, but it is not quite like any other portal fantasy book I’ve read.
To begin with, the protagonist, Elliot, is not the chosen one. There is no world to save, no looming threat, no Evil Lord who must be overthrown. Instead, you get to see Elliot grow up and deal with many of the corresponding conflicts (and magical creatures of course). In that sense, it’s a more quite sort of book, very character-driven—though there is a lot of action—, but all the more satisfying.
The whole book challenges and plays around with tropes. Elves, for example, have matriarchal society where men are treated as women are in ours. It’s such a simple flip that leads to many hilarious situations. Yet, it also makes you question why in so many fantasy novels just go for the default of making things terrible for their female characters just for being female and never dare do the same to the male one. Honestly, this book is the polar opposite of grimdark fantasy, which don’t get me wrong I like a lot, and so utterly refreshing.
The characters are my new found children and I’m proud of them. Elliot starts off as a jerk, though this is one of the few times that the jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold is done well, mostly because he learns. He never stops being witty and sarcastic though, also the most stubborn and irreverent (take a drink every time he sneaks somewhere he shouldn’t be). Luke, aka “the intense gay kid”, is the golden boy whom everyone admires, yet he is shy and awkward and just such a pure soul. Finally Serene, our “murderous, man-hating elf girl”, is such a loyal friend, and very often saves Elliot from whatever problem he got himself into this time.
At the core of this book is the friendship that forms between Elliot, Serene, and Luke. They are all outsiders (making up “the weirdo table” of the school) for different reasons and complement each other beautifully. Another things is that their relationships change and develop throughout the book, and Brennan handles it masterfully. The banter between them is precious, but there are also heavy-hitting moments just as friendships in real life. What is so great about these relationships is that you truly get to see how they care for the others, in their own ways.
Now, there is romance. It never completely overtakes the book, but as the characters mature it makes sense that they would explore that too. That said, love is never presented as an end-all. You won’t find instalove, the relationships are flawed, and sometime they don’t work out, because, you know, the characters are in their mid teens. Also Elliot is bisexual, which is hinted from the beginning and later outright said (in a fantasy book!) and you get to see him date girls and boys. The bi rep was handled beautifully: whenever someone did make the occasional biphobic comment they got called out either by Elliot or the narrative, often both. There is also gay representation! If you like slow burn, then this book is for you.
Another thing I loved about this book were the messages (often feminist!). I can only describe them as wise. Brennan depicts such realistic situations and people within her fantasy stories that I’m always in awe; it’s like realizing what you’ve always been missing. The characters screw up many times in love and in friendship, but they learn! For example, after Elliot realizes that a girl he is been pursuing sees him as a friend, he comes to see that “the only possible response to someone telling you that to be friends, or that you were a great friend, was gratitude.” That’s the book equivalent of a mic drop.
This story was originally written and published serially, so the pacing is… different to that of other YA fantasy books. I wouldn’t call it wonky, but it takes time getting used to the rhythm. There are few recurring sort of antagonist, but they are never very prominent or overarching; the true ones are the characters’ flaws. Battle sequences and the process of putting on play are more or less given the same importance because of the effects both have on the characters. So if you’re looking for an action-packed, quick read, I wouldn’t recommend that you pick this up right. Wait till you’re in a mood to laugh at witty jokes and appreciate dynamic characters! Trust me, this book is worth it.
Minor details I adored and deserve a shout out!!!
- Elliot’s undying hatred toward exercising.
- The minor characters have lives too! You also get to see them grow up along the main one!
- The voice of the novel is also super witty, so typical Brennan.
- Serene’s comments about men. They never got old! #bless
- Actual use of the word “bisexual” in a fantasy novel. Like… why can’t they all be like this? Double points for acknowledging how dumb it is not to mention it.
- The play!
- Elliot always stowing away.
- Captain Woodsinger!
- “They’re like—boxes of infinity. And! You keep the wikipedia in them!” Oh Luke you cinnamon roll.
- Obviously everything about the main romance was precious and so well earned!