“He went striding through the long green grass of the meadows that led home. It was an easy walk, though it had seemed farther when he was a child. With every step, he was gladder to be back.”
There was time to become whoever he chose. There was still time.”
“‘What’s your name?’
‘Serena?’ Elliot asked.
‘Serene,’ said Serene. ‘My full name is Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle.’
Elliot’s mouth fell open. ‘That is badass.’
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.”
In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is a fantasy novel unlike any other. It follows Elliot Schafer, a nerdy and upfront and intelligent boy, from the ages of thirteen through seventeen as he navigates magic school in the Borderlands. The Border camp is found behind the wall that divides the “real world,” where Elliot is from, and the “other lands.” Elliot, along with his best friends Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle and Luke Sunborn, experiences conflicts, relationships, friendships, interactions with other species, and the usual adolescent highs and lows in their time in the Borderlands.
This book is completely unique to anything else I’ve read. There’s something different about the tone and pacing, first and foremost—many of the sentences are short and clipped, especially at the outset of the novel, and there’s heavy free indirect discourse throughout. (This may be due in part to the fact that Sarah Rees Brennan originally started writing In Other Lands as a short story on her blog).
It all seems deceptively simple.
I say deceptively because this book really just rips off all the masks that hide the motives behind people and the ways we act; in heartbreakingly frank words, Brennan cuts to the soul. And as such, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that’s made me laugh half as loud while simultaneously making me cry as hard as I did.
Brennan has such a capacity to make well-rounded and lovable characters. All I want to do is wrap my arms around Elliot, Serene, and Luke, and protect them at all costs. Elliot, my pacifist boy, who deserves all the love and doesn’t think he does; Serene, my strong and intelligent elf; and of course Luke, who’s so pure and shy and humble and doesn’t know how to tell Elliot that he’s 110% in love with him.
My favorite thing about this book is the way Brennan slowly unravels the plot—and even more so, a character’s background and storyline. It’s difficult to even explain what this book is about without spoiling it, because the very core of each character is developed throughout the novel with both subtle and overt truth bombs, as well as actions.
At first introduction, Elliot just seems like an obnoxious and pretentious kid, but then you slowly learn that his demeanor is just a defense mechanism to protect himself from the hurt of bullying, neglect, and abandonment. It was heartbreaking to see so clearly his worth as a person who stands firm in his ideals and wants to create change and cares so much about the people around him, yet watch him feel that he is unworthy of care and affection. It was heartbreaking to see that he so firmly believes in his inherent unlikability, and to witness the hurt he experiences time and time again. And it was frustrating to see others around him, either unknowingly or intentionally, cast him off.
“Elliot wasn’t sure, sometimes, if he was like his father: the patient, desperate ghost who had waited until all hope was worn out. He couldn’t imagine his father going to school and antagonizing everyone in sight, being too short, too smart, too awkward, too unguarded, too wildly unused to company, until it was easier eventually to antagonize people on purpose.
His mother had stayed with his dad for ages. She’d left pretty soon after Elliot had arrived. Elliot could do the maths.
He supposed it didn’t matter if someone left because you weren’t good enough or left because you actually drove them away. The result was the same.”
I liked how Brennan takes her time to develop plotlines: it takes awhile until we explicitly learn about Luke’s sexuality, and even more so to arrive at Luke and Elliot’s romantic relationship. We don’t learn about Elliot’s mother until nearly the very end of the book. I feel that this pacing allows for Brennan to adequately explore the different topics and themes focused on in this novel without being rushed.
The explorations of subjects such as sexism, racism/prejudice, and LGBTQ+ experiences are brilliant, and contribute to the unique quality of this book as a fantasy novel. There’s some great world-building in the story for sure, but what Brennan focuses most on is building social structures. She cleverly flips the gender roles of our society in the elven one, making women the “stronger sex” and men the “softer sex.” With this structure, Brennan is able to humorously highlight the ridiculous gender norms, restrictions, discrimination, and overall sexism that exist in the real world. On the other side of the coin, she also explores sexism through more serious scenes where Serene and other female characters face the double standards that women experience in real life, such as when Serene is humiliated and punished for taking her top off to go into the lake.
“‘You can’t say she was in a scandalous state of undress and punish her for it when she was in the exact same state of undress as more than half the people there,’ Elliot shouted….
But these people were meant to guide them and teach them, were meant to be fair and not show obvious double standards because it was easier to do that than to question what they were thinking and change how they behaved.”
And with the revelation of Luke being half harpy, Brennan is able to build on top of the themes of prejudice that she develops throughout the novel with the other species of the Borderlands and how they are taken advantage of and discriminated against by the humans.
“‘You wanted Luke more than me, until you found out Luke was half harpy, which meant he was stained, flawed, and beneath your notice. Then I became preferable to Luke, for the sexy reason that I am entirely human.'”
I thought it was great that Brennan created multiple LGBTQ+ characters, not just Elliot and Luke, and that she explores the nuances of their different sexualities. I also appreciated how, in keeping with the direct manner of the whole novel, she’s very casual about inserting Elliot’s bisexuality, showing that someone’s sexual orientation is simply a part of who they are.
“Elliot had always known he liked both, had strongly suspected that his teacher talking about him confusing hero worship with something else was idiocy. Elliot was rarely confused about anything.”
I really appreciated as well how sex-positive this novel was. In a candid and completely non-judgemental way, Brennan depicts Elliot exploring different relationships, many casual. The portrayal of Elliot and Serene’s relationship is great, too—they aren’t on the same page about how serious the relationship is, and while it’s sad to witness Elliot being hurt, he doesn’t pressure her to be part of a serious relationship that she doesn’t want to be in. And finally, Brennan also depicts completely positively the choice to not engage in sex or have a lot of romantic relationships. Luke, although described as a character that pretty much everyone is attracted to, is perfectly justified in not wanting to kiss Adara in the play.
There are so many heart-shattering moments throughout the novel (aka pretty much every part where Elliot is with his father, and when he confronts his mother and she wants nothing to do with him). But there’s so many happy and heartwarming scenes as well. I love the found family aspect of the novel, and how Elliot is able to have golden, light-hearted moments with the Sunborns.
“Elliot laughed and laughed, and spun her when she let him up, and then they both shimmied at each other, circling each other with their palms up before they linked hands. Sunshine painted them all in warm strokes, the song told them that fantasy could never be so giving, and Elliot sang along. Luke and Serene were leaning and tapping time against the kitchen counters.”
The fierce bond between Elliot, Serene, and Luke is beautiful. The banter and flirting and cute moments between Elliot and Luke make me swoon (“‘HEY, LOSER!’ said Elliot”). Elliot’s wit and Brennan’s writing is absolutely hilarious. Elliot’s diplomatic victories are heartening. But Elliot realizing that people care for him: Serene, Luke, Peter, Myra, Commander Woodsinger—
“‘It’s okay,’ said Elliot. ‘You don’t have to tell me that you like me.’…
She didn’t have to tell him, because he could tell. That was what it meant, when people came to find you, when they cared enough to sacrifice for you, when they supported you, when they came back.”
—realizing that he is worthy of that care—
“…but Rachel’s letter to Elliot had been sweet to him as she ever was, and finished with the hope that he would come and stay with them on the break before they began their posting, that he should think of the Sunborns’ place as home, that he was always welcome. Elliot believed her.”
—that is the absolute triumph of this book.
“There was peace in the Borderlands for a time, peace in the freshly turned blue skies where harpies flew, peace over the fields where humans and trolls dug, peace in the forest where dryads sang, and peace in the lakes and rivers where mermaids swam. There had been no sign of unrest and no sign of humans coming across the Border again. Not yet.
They had to take advantage of this opportunity. They could go wherever they wanted, if they could only decide where that was.”
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