In Other Lands
Author: Sarah Rees Brennan
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Big Mouth House
Review by CL Vitek
Sometimes it’s not the kid you expect who falls through to magicland, sometimes it’s . . . Elliot. He’s grumpy, nerdy, and appalled by both the dearth of technology and the levels of fitness involved in swinging swords around. He’s a little enchanted by the elves and mermaids. Despite his aversion to war, work, and most people (human or otherwise), he finds that two unlikely ideas, friendship and world peace, may actually be possible.
When Elliot Schafer discovers the boundary between the mundane world and the magical Borderlands, he doesn’t particularly want to slay dragons or fulfill any grand prophecies. He would, however, really like to meet mermaids, learn magical languages, and get to know a certain pretty elf warrior a little bit better. If he has to go to a magic school to make that happen, then he’ll do it. Fortunately for the reader, he does manage those goals. Unfortunately for him, very little of it turns out as he expects. That’s what makes this book so much fun.
In Other Lands is half magical-school narrative and half coming-of-age story. Both aspects are laugh-aloud funny and heartbreaking in turns, which make the book entirely wonderful. Brennan takes a standard portal fantasy and immediately throws out conventions. There are no damsels in distress or magical swords. There’s no prophecy waiting for Elliot on the other side of the portal. Our hero isn’t a prodigy in much of anything other than snark and considerable stubbornness.
“Oh no,” Elliot moaned, and sat down heavily on his bunk bed. “This is magic Sparta.”
The story follows Elliot, bisexual redhead with a big mouth and a lot of attitude, through four years of magical school. Unlike similar books, Elliot is not the Chosen One. He’s not really even a hero in the strictest sense of the word. When the book begins, he’s a defensive, lonely boy struggling to connect with the people around him without much success. It doesn’t help that he can be an obnoxious and insufferable know-it-all. Elliot doesn’t like most people and the feeling is largely mutual. In any other book, he would be the sidekick or antagonist for the hero. But In Other Lands is his story.
Elliot doesn’t want to learn swordplay at thirteen or become a soldier in a war that seems increasingly inevitable. A staunch and insistently loud pacifist, the thought of battle makes him a little queasy. He chooses to stay in the Borderlands for an education–not because he’s seeking adventure, but because it’s the most interesting option available. His path from abrasive teen to insightful young adult makes him more than just another misanthropic, misunderstood loner. It makes him a character worth the journey.
With a backdrop of harpies, battlefields, and one very memorable encounter with a unicorn, the book’s main draw is the relationship between Elliot and his friends. Almost immediately, Elliot finds two unexpected and unlikely allies: Serene-Heart-In-The-Chaos-Of-Battle, the first elven warrior to attend the school, and legacy student Luke Sunborn, whose family has been protecting the Borderlands for generations. These characters could easily fall into the realm of predictable fantasy stereotypes. But, they don’t.
Luke is athletic, popular, and the obvious hero. Instead of being cocky or stupid, he’s genuinely good-natured and well-intentioned. It isn’t until later that his shy nature and social anxiety become obvious. On the other hand, Serene is brave, beautiful and, misunderstood, being the only one of her kind at the school. She also comes from a matriarchal society where gender roles are flipped to humorous (and pointed) effect. Her upbringing and culture can lead to an unintentional thoughtlessness and misunderstandings that hurt those she cares about. The three of them are the heart of this book, navigating friendships, crushes, and very real external threats to the Borderlands.
Because even the Borderlands isn’t perfect. Elliot soon begins to realize there’s still plenty of prejudice and conflict in his new world. Faced with the inevitability of war, Elliot doesn’t lose his principles. He uses his strengths to look for a better answer. He also does it to keep those around him safe.
“If you must know, she is the one soul destined for my own, and we are going to be together forever,” he declared loftily.
“That’s weird,” Luke told him. “We’re thirteen.”
When it comes to romance, this book is definitely a slow burn. Elliot learns about himself through a series of relationships. This is one of the most realistic parts of the book. Teenagers date. They sometimes date a lot. It’s a normal part of growing up. But in the end? The payoff for all this is worth it. Though they do feature in the plot, the book isn’t necessarily about romantic relationships. It’s about Elliot’s inner drive to be loved and, most importantly, to be chosen for who he is. It’s a distinction that is often hard to reveal to readers without being too heavy handed. It’s also a very human desire that plays out even in a fantasy world.
The story itself isn’t new. Boy falls into magicland. He learns life lessons. He finds himself. It’s a common story in the fantasy genre. Here it’s saved from retreading common ground by the sly social commentary and unexpected characters. This book is incredibly self-aware of what it is. Brennan takes a number of risks with changing the script and it never falls flat.
Verdict: Read it.
In Other Lands is a quirky, unexpected journey through fantasy land. It’s also a poignant exploration of friendship, family, and relationships.
I can’t recommend this book enough. In the genre of queer young adult fantasy, this ranks as one of my absolute favorites. It’s a standard magical school fantasy story with a series of clever twists that subvert expectations and offer a great ride. The story is enjoyable and the characters really make this book. It’s lighthearted while managing to touch on deeper subjects in a way that doesn’t feel too heavy or repetitive. Moreover, Elliot is one of my favorite characters in YA. He’s abrasive, difficult, and relatable for anyone who’s ever felt left behind or forgotten. He’s also a voice in contrast to the warriors around him, wondering if diplomacy won’t build bridges when conflict burns them.
Maybe he can’t save the whole world, but Elliot is just stubborn enough to try.