In Other Lands
by Sarah Rees Brennan
“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.”
Published August 2017 by Big Mouth House
Genre: YA portal fantasy
Date finished: Dec. 1, 2019
Content warnings: bullying, parental neglect, war
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.
My thoughts (spoiler free)
Hello, I’d like to introduce you to one of my new favorite books of all time.
You already know the basic premise: kid finds his way into a magical world filled with mythological creatures, ends up at a training school of some sort, and gets caught up in that world’s conflicts in a way they never imagined. You might think you know the story already. But you haven’t met Elliot Schafer yet.
This book is a masterpiece for so many different reasons, but one of the top reasons is its narrator and protagonist, Elliot. We meet Elliot when he’s thirteen years old, stepping into the otherlands for the first time, and follow him all the way to age seventeen. During that time, he is involved in wars, falls in love (multiple times), and grows more than I would have thought possible starting out.
Basically, Elliot’s time in the otherlands could be summed up as:
I loved Elliot practically from the first moment he opened his mouth. Not because he’s particularly lovable – in fact, starting out, he’s an obnoxious, judgmental know-it-all with no filter whatsoever. But I knew at once that he was going to reveal so much depth and grow a ton. And I was right!
If I loved Elliot starting out, it was nothing compared to how much I loved him with each subsequent page. If the sound of a snarky, genre-savvy, pacifist, bisexual (while constantly shutting down biphobia), book nerd protagonist sounds interesting to you, then you just might feel the same. Even his glaring flaws made me love him. I guess I have a weak spot for characters who believe they’re unlovable and drive away everyone that they care about and therefore pretend not to care about anyone?
“He had spent his whole life not being loved at all, and he had thought being loved enough would satisfy him. It would not. He did not want to be loved enough. He wanted to be loved overwhelmingly.”
Elliot is only part one of the main trio, which has become one of my favorite fictional found families. The relationship between him, Serene, and Luke is beautiful and complex and ever-changing, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that it made me tear up several times. I just love fictional friendships, okay???
Serene, or rather Serene-Heart-In-The-Chaos-Of-Battle, is an elf who comes from a matriarchal society in which men are second class. A lot of the time, this is used for hilarious cultural misunderstandings, but other times it makes genuine critiques about the patriarchal society that we live in and makes the male characters take a step back and reevaluate something that they’d taken for granted.
Anyway, Serene is an absolute gem: heroic and chivalrous and terrible with emotions. (Honestly, that’s a theme with all of these main characters.) The way she cares about her boys makes my heart melt. Plus, she had some of the funniest lines in the book, and that’s saying something.
“Oh dear, a child,” said Serene, moving backward with more alacrity than elven grace. “Could someone fetch a man to see to it?”
And then, of course, there’s Luke Sunborn, the golden child of my heart. At first, Luke comes off as a bit of a dumb jock, but we quickly learn that there’s a lot more to him. He comes from a family of famous warriors and has had expectation placed on him from day one, and even though he lives up to that expectation and more, he still struggles with it.
The dynamic between Elliot and Luke was one of my favorite aspects of this book, since they love each other even though much of the time they can’t stand each other. Both of them learning how to understand and listen to each other is a HUGE part of each of their character growth. I love Luke so much and would do anything to protect him, even though he definitely doesn’t need me to.
“Really, Sunborn? No, really. All right then. Tell me about computers.”
“Well . . .” Luke said, and looked shifty about the eyes. “They’re boxes . . . but you can write things in them. And read things in them. And there are cats in them who are funny for some reason. They’re like—boxes of infinity. And! You keep the wikipedia in them!”
As you can probably already tell, this book is hilarious. Elliot has a distinctive voice through which he narrates this whole book, and I laughed out loud more than almost any book I’ve ever read. But the story still had a lot of depth, which mean I was on a constant emotional rollercoaster between laughing and crying and back again.
Not only that, but this book is fully aware of all the other similar books that came before it, and it plays with tropes in a genius way. You might think you know exactly where this book is going from the beginning, but Sarah Rees Brennan knows what you expect and twists things around unexpectedly and hilariously.
(Still, a magic land with every type of mythological creature EXCEPT dragons?? Sounds kinda lame.) (I’M KIDDING. I’m not going to be picky about any magical lands I can get.)
So many topics that aren’t usually addressed in this type of story are brought up, such as the impact of war on young people, examining literary tropes like the hero and the sidekick and the love triangle, family acceptance, and gender roles. I could probably write a 5,000 word essay on how this book deals with sexuality alone. Am I allowed to do that??
Anyway, I loved this book more than I can possibly put into words. I went in expecting a silly, genre-twisting adventure, and came out with so much more than that: a story about love and family, both the kind you’re born with and the kind you choose. This is a book that I’m never going to forget, and I can’t wait to read it over and over again! If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and pick this one up at once.
“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. Elliot knew no way, being who he was, to deserve that.”