In Other Lands (Book Review)

in other landsSarah Rees Brennan is an author that I very firmly thought I’d read until I Googled her books and realized… I haven’t read any of them. I’d somehow sorted her into a category of writers who I like but don’t read regularly. Of course, she does also collaborate with Cassandra Clare on the Shadowhunters short story collections, most of which I have read, but there’s a difference between a short story based in someone else’s universe and featuring their characters and a full original novel. I read In Other Lands specifically because one of my coworkers had put it on a display because of its attractive cover. She had read Brennan’s other work, and recommended her strongly. When I read the inside cover, I was definitely intrigued; there’s nothing in it that states specifically that In Other Lands challenges the status quo, but I could just tell, and that’s the kind of fantasy I love best.

Report Card: A/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

What’s it about?

Elliot Schafer is that annoying unpopular kid that no one likes, so when he finds out that he has the ability to see into the Borderlands, he jumps at the chance to leave his old life behind and go somewhere magical. But the magical border camp is not what Elliot expected. It’s dirty and violent and not all what it’s cracked up to be. The only thing that is as good as advertised is Serene, a beautiful elf with whom Elliot immediately falls in love. Together, Elliot and Serene—and Luke, who Elliot does not like, but with whom he has a truce somewhat resembling friendship—move through their schooling, encountering dangerous skirmishes and fledgling romances and political coups along the way.

What’d I think?

The first sign that In Other Lands was going to be great were the blurbs. Any book that can get both Leigh Bardugo and Holly Black to sing its praises has to be excellent.

Tangent TimeThe best way to find a new book is to pay attention to the blurbs. I’ve never been disappointed by anything that Leigh Bardugo or Adam Silvera has hyped. Find a few writers whose opinions you trust and then read anything with their stamp of approval. This is different than a comp. Comps are occasionally good, but sometimes they’re a baldfaced attempt to jump on a bandwagon. I’ve seen some books I hate compared to my absolute favorites, so I’m generally skeptical of them. In short: trust blurbs, but be skeptical of comps.

Right after that rant about comparison titles, I’m going to offer one: Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On. Aside from a few obvious comparisons—magic school, a bisexual male lead, etc.—both books engage with fantasy tropes. While Carry On acts as the final book to a long-running series that doesn’t exist, In Other Lands condenses what might have been a whole series into a single novel. It is split into five segments, each detailing one year at the border camp. Each new year comes with its own challenges. The Borderlands are always at the brink of at least one war, because the society values warriors above all else. The primary thoroughfare from section to section—aside from Elliot’s character development and growing relationships with Serene and Luke—is Elliot’s uphill battle to get his superiors to acknowledge the importance of diplomacy or, really, anything that isn’t the ability to kill people.

This might not sound funny, but it actually is. In Other Lands lovingly parodies both the real world and fantasy ones. Everything is taken up to a ridiculous level, but it works brilliantly. As a society, we’re too prone to believe that might is right. In novels the people who are the most physically beautiful and accomplished—like Luke or Serene—are immediately valued over others who don’t or can’t make their points with a show of physical or military prowess. The Border camp is essentially a military academy, and at one point early on in the book, Elliot objects to the whole structure by accusing the camp of training child soldiers because they’re all thirteen. He protests again when Luke is given command of an army on a few years later, and when it’s spoken out loud it sounds perfectly insane… but how many fantasy novels have you read where a teenager turns the tide of a war and it’s portrayed as nothing all that unusual? Yeah. A lot.

Possibly the best satire, though, is the flipped script on sexism. Elliot and most of the characters are human, but Serene is an elf and elves have a very different idea of how the sexes relate to each other. That is to say, it’s exactly the same, but reversed. This, of course, causes some interesting interactions between the elves and the humans. The elves see Luke as a blushing maiden and Elliot as a wanton hussy while Serene is the powerful warrior who isn’t expected to control her baser impulses. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the ridiculous reversals. I wished that Brennan has put more thought into the way elvish sexism works and made an entirely new culture, and then I realized that the whole point was to voice the exact same bigotry in a different way to express how idiotic it is. Our world has always been deeply sexist, so whether we want to or not we’ve become somewhat numb to hearing things like “oh, she’s a woman, so of course she’s overly emotional” or “that’s just boys being boys.” When you hear that women can’t control their lust or that men are too naturally nurturing for battle it sounds weird because it’s unusual, and then when you think about it you realize… nope, essentializing like this is always ludicrous, but we’ve just gotten used to it.

Serene, by virtue of not having been systematically oppressed, is pretty badass. She is also, by vice of being continually told that she’s intrinsically far better than men, prone to spouting grandiose sexism. When she’s amongst humans, as she is for most of the book, she comes across extremely well, because she is a woman who refuses to take any crap. It’s a less flattering look amongst elves, and it makes for a biting satire overall.

Even if you put aside the meta and satire, In Other Lands really works. The central romance is precious. I dare anyone to read this and not ship the heck out of it. The trio is also precious. The dynamic between them is fun and fresh, and the way Brennan approaches Elliot’s relationships is very nuanced. Elliot comes from an emotionally abusive home (his mother abandoned him, and his father never bothered to lie to Elliot about his being loved), and the way that he interacts with his friends is entirely informed by that. Even after it’s abundantly clear that they love him—or even are in love with him—Elliot doesn’t get it. He spent his whole life being told in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t loved and moreover that he wasn’t lovable, and he internalized it. He doesn’t understand why Serene would want to be around him. He believes that Luke only hangs around because of the truce they made to benefit Serene. Watching Elliot slowly grow to understand his worth and the truth in his relationships over the course of five years is a really beautiful thing.

And I would be remiss not to give Carolyn Nowak—the illustrator—a round of applause. There is one illustration for each section, all of which are simple black and white drawings of Elliot, Serene, and Luke and all of which are unbelievably cute. Like, cute enough that I flipped through the book to show every single illustration to my mom and sister—both artists—because I decided that they needed to see them. They’re great illustrations on their own, but they also work for perfectly for the novel because they are, just like the novel, the exact right balance of sweet and silly.

in other lands illustrations carolyn nowak

What’s the verdict?

I love this book so much. It works on the surface level as a sweet romance set in a creative fantasy world, but it’s also a really effective satire that lampoons sexism and over-militarization, among other things. This is the sort of book that I would love to recommend to everyone because it checks all of my boxes—it’s diverse and progressive in addition to having great characters and development, an emphasis on platonic relationships, a sense of humor, and a satirical edge—but it’s a tough sell to a general public because some of the things that appeal most to me (meta humor! a bisexual protagonist!) don’t always go over well with other people.

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