[Review] In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

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.

Genre(s): YA, Fantasy, Coming-of-Age
Publisher:
Big Mouth House
Release date:
August 15, 2017
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Representation: (click to show)

bisexual non-practicing-Jewish MC, gay best friend & love interest, MLM secondary characters, M/M relationships, F/(bisexual) M relationships

Content warnings: (click to show)

alcoholic parent, sexual harassment, non-graphic sexual content, body dysmorphia

Of my top three new reads of 2019, In Other Lands surprised me most. (The other two were The Starless Sea and Call Down the Hawk.)

I didn’t know I needed this trope-skewering, unapologetically queer standalone YA fantasy, but it made itself right at home in my heart. This is one of those reads that gave me a bit of a book hangover, that was so perfect in so many ways that I don’t know that I can gather my thoughts into a convincing and/or coherent review to convince all of you to give it a chance.

But here we go anyway.

I don’t need you to explain to me the concept of a magical land filled with fantastic creatures that only certain special children can enter. I am acquainted with the last several centuries of popular culture. There are books. And cartoons, for the illiterate.

I’ve mentioned to some of my friends that I really, really wish I’d had this book in my early teens or even preteens, when I was having a particularly difficult time figuring out how to get along with other people and with myself. A large part of this is because I related perhaps too much to Elliot, considering he’s incredibly awkward and often straight-up mean to his friends. And everyone else, really.

Even when he makes an effort to be nice(r), sometimes he still says the exact wrong thing, because change is hard and effort doesn’t guarantee success. His is far from a neat-and-tidy character arc, and I love how realistic it is.

Also, he’s nonchalantly bisexual! Of course there’s nothing wrong with narratives centered on the protagonists’ sexuality, but Elliot’s easy acceptance of his own crushes on and relationships with both male and female characters is a lot closer to what I’ve experienced, so it only made me relate to him even more. (He does encounter biphobia and bi erasure, even from those closest to him, even from well-meaning peers, but he’s never shy about speaking his mind and challenging their prejudices.)

Without getting into spoilers, I wasn’t sure I had guessed the correct endgame pairing until we were almost there; the way it ultimately plays out is immensely satisfying. More importantly, though, the non-endgame relationships were portrayed with due respect and acknowledgment, journeys in themselves rather than pit stops on the road to True Love. The ties between family and friends are given equal weight, and individual growth is too. Romance matters, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

Though Elliot’s interest in relationships is rivaled by his interest in mermaids. 

“He who is tired of mermaids is tired of life.”

“He who is tired of mermaids has been hearing about them every day for almost four years.”

The fantasy setting is really interesting, combining homage and gentle mockery of other well-known fantasy settings. (Among others, there’s an allusion to Narnia.) Of course there’s nature to admire, but more excitingly, the heroes-in-training find themselves in the thick of inter-species tensions: feuds and truces spanning generations.

Some of it is commentary on our sociopolitical situations and attitudes — such as the elves’ sexism against men, which flips the script on the misogynistic language we’re so used to hearing — but Brennan manages to keep it pointed, even funny, without becoming overtly preachy.

One theme that really stuck with me was the overlaps and intersections between the two worlds: the everyday and the magical. Just as Harry Potter returns to the Dursleys’ each summer, Elliot periodically goes back to his dad’s house which leads him to wonder which world he really belongs in, if he belongs at all. A figurative foot in each world, and pressure to choose just one.

Because magic doesn’t solve everything.

Even if you found yourself in a magical story, there were no guarantees that you were the hero, or that you would get the things you dreamed of.

It’s easy to classify this as coming-of-age just because it spans several formative years of the protagonists’ lives — from age thirteen to seventeen — but Elliot, Serene, and Luke really do grow and change throughout the chapters. They confront internal and external biases, personal flaws, bullies, the delicacies of romance, and so much more.

As I’ve already mentioned, at times they regress or make lateral developments rather than improvements. There are setbacks and disappointments, poor decisions, unforeseen catastrophes, and of course times when they do the wrong thing for the right reason, or the right thing for the wrong reason. Yet it’s not drama for the sake of drama, nor is it a series of transparent Learning Experiences.

What seals the deal for me, I think, is that they are genuinely good people who just sometimes don’t know what to do with themselves. While that doesn’t excuse the hurt they inflict on each other, their guilt and regret and attempts to do better seem genuine. They’re not perfect — but they are doing their best.

.

You might be getting the impression that a lot happens in this book, and this is true. But every scene fits clearly into at least one larger arc; the pacing hits that sweet balance between exciting action and thoughtful development. Every character has a distinct personality and set of motives, and they really come alive in their interactions with each other.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Basically, this book does a lot of things and does them really well, and therefore you should read it. 

5 stars

Conversion: 14.2 / 15 = 5 stars

Prose: 10 / 10
Characters & Relationships: 10 / 10
Emotional Impact: 9 / 10
Development/Flow: 8 / 10
Setting: 10 / 10

Diversity & Social Themes: 5 / 5
Intellectual Engagement: 4 / 5
Originality/Trope Execution: 5 / 5
Rereadability: 5 / 5
Memorability: 5 / 5

12 thoughts on “[Review] In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

  1. I had been eying this because of the cover, needless to say, it was pretty and caught my attention but I hadn’t known anyone who read it or hadn’t noticed if they had as it’s been out a little while. I’m so glad you wrote this review, it sounds like a great story and I’ll be adding it to my tbr!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am not surprised that you loved this, and your reasons for doing so are so positive and make me so excited to try it myself too. It’s already on my tbr because I have heard so many shining things about it. The LGBT+ rep sounds really good and I love how character driven it is, and that the characters are so good hearted 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! I buddy read this in 2018 with my sister. I was also surprised at how much I enjoyed it. You’re spot on with your comments about the pacing and thoughtful development. I usually like my fantasy to be straight up high fantasy but this was so well-written, especially the character relationships, that it’s hard not to love.

    Liked by 1 person

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