In Other Lands: A bisexual character comes of age in a paper-thin fantasy world

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

Thirteen-year-old Elliot is pulled from his geography class one day, packed into a van with three other students, and driven to a random field in Devon, England, where he watches his French teacher exchanges money with a woman standing next to a high wall.

The woman in odd clothing “tested” him by asking him if he could see a wall standing in the middle of a field. When he told her, “Obviously, because it’s a wall. Walls tend to be obvious,” she had pointed out the other kids blithely walking through the wall as if it was not there, and told him that he was one of the chosen few with the sight.

When the woman asks Elliot to come with her to the magical land on the other side of the wall, he promptly tells her no one will miss him (Elliot’s problematic home life is explored later in the book) and heads over the wall with her. There he finds, somewhat to his disappointment, that he’ll be attending school to be trained as either a warrior or councilor. Elliot, more inclined to using sarcastic words than his fists for fighting, quickly opts for the council course. He equally quickly begins to mock Luke, the handsome blond guy who seems inclined to act as the leader of the group of new students at the Border, and Luke’s smiling sidekick Dale, mentally dubbing them Blondie and Surfer Dude. And Elliot immediately falls in love with an “elvish maiden” warrior who introduces herself as Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle.

So begins Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands (2017), which has been nominated for the 2018 World Science Fiction Society award for best Young Adult book ― a new category for the WSFS, which administers the Hugo awards. It’s a magical school set in a magical land peopled with the usual suspects: pointy-eared elves, short dwarves with beards and hammers, unicorns, mermaids. The fantasy worldbuilding is paper-thin; Brennan’s real attention here is focused on teenage relationships and growing pains. We follow Elliot and his friends and classmates over the next four years as they learn to navigate magic school, friendships and romances. There’s lots of sleeping around, and Elliot’s emerging bisexuality is one of the things he explores through several sexual relationships with both sexes. Gay, bi and straight relationships and sexual exploration are all accepted in this magical world with equanimity.

Elliot is a deeply insecure protagonist who gets along by being relentlessly antagonistic, hurling sarcastic insults at others at every opportunity. Many readers may enjoy his constant snark; it got old for me fast because there was so much anger and meanness underlying it. It takes Elliot years, not to mention way too many pages of this book, to grow up emotionally. Elliot’s dedication to obnoxiousness, combined with the superficial, chatty writing style Brennan uses in this book and the lack of any originality or depth in the fantasy aspects of In Other Lands, were enough to make me abandon the book. I wasn’t ever able to lose myself in the story.

In Other Lands wasn’t my type of YA book, but if bisexual characters, gender-bent societies (the elves have a firmly matriarchal society where the women are the warriors and the men keep house), and a primary focus on teen relationships are particularly interesting to you, give it a shot.

Published in 2017. Sometimes it’s not the kid you expect who falls through to magicland, sometimes it’s . . . Elliott. 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.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  1. It probably does seem just like high school to a certain age group, and they’ll probably enjoy it.

    • I’ve seen a lot of enthusiastic reviews from other readers, so I think it will appeal to the right age group, especially readers who are into current social issues.

      My gut feeling is that the most enthusiastic reviewers of this book tend not to be regular fantasy readers and so aren’t as irritated as I was by the superficiality and lack of originality in the fantasy worldbuilding, but I may be overgeneralizing.

      • You do realize it’s satire right? If “In Other Lands” seems unoriginal it’s because it’s poking fun at common troupes, as well as filling in some of their blatant plot-holes. Besides, I’ve read quite a bit of fantasy and I found the world-building quite impressive. I especially liked how Mers communicate by sign and how trolls are inherently peaceful and eat stone. The Mer thing not only contrasts with mermaids being commonly known for their songs, but also makes logical sense; sound is a lot different underwater. The troll thing contrasts with how trolls are commonly portrayed as violent beasts, and their eating rocks is especially ironic if you are familiar with the lore of trolls turning to stone in daylight. Also, the way different cultures interact and clash is both realistic and intriguing. Basically, if you think the world-building in “In Other Lands” is superficial, that’s just because you aren’t looking hard enough.

        • I wouldn’t call it satire, really, but I agree that Brennan is taking the standard YA fantasy tropes, playing with them and turning them inside out. The fact remains that it just wasn’t my cuppa tea; too many things about it irritated me. It happens. Doesn’t mean my opinion is wrong, just that it wasn’t my type of book.

          I’m happy you enjoyed it. It’s always nice to see different opinions shared politely.

  2. A lot of newer fantasy readers’ views are shaped by TV and movies, so they haven’t read enough to desire depth and originality to their worlds, at least not yet.

  3. Hmmm, what an interesting reading of this book! I myself have been a fan of Sarah Rees Brennan’s for a long time, so I am definitely biased. But that’s what this article and any review is about–biases and opinions.

    I was raised on fantasy and am definitely not the target age of “In Other Lands,” and I’ve always felt that fantasy fiction falls on a spectrum: with either a focus on world-building OR character. Fantasy fan favorites like David Eddings, for instance, call heavily upon well-trod tropes and stereotypes of his “races,” for instance the burly macho sea-faring viking-like Chereks, in a fairly obvious fantasy world. But what makes him, and I posit Sarah Rees Brennan, amazing fantasy writers is that their worlds with basic but still magic and mythical creatures still feel real because of the character interactions. Instead of writing bricks of environmental information and scholarly world lore and linguistically accurate languages ala Tolkien (who was a genius but a bit of a snob and not ashamed of it), fantasy authors like David Eddings and Sarah Rees Brennan prefer the fantasy world more as an aid to telling a story about characters and society. That doesn’t make it bad fantasy–they just focus on something different than other authors do. George R. Martin seems to focus on character interactions and political interplay more than any fantastic and innovative world building, but no one seems to be denying his place in fantasy or think his worlds are too thin. Sarah Rees Brennan and George R. Martin focus on character and societal analysis via their fantasy worlds, but despite these similarities and completly due to my own bias, Sarah Rees Brennan’s light and irreverent writing is far more palatable than grimdark political shenanigans and murder and rape. To me, “In Other Worlds,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Pawn of Prophecy”…all of these are fantasy in a wonderful spectrum that means everyone can find something they like in the genre.

    After all, a lot of people think fantasy, sci-fi, “trash fiction” is fluff and nonsense. Why focus on a fantasy world when our reality is already so interesting and complex and full of issues we should be focusing our efforts on? Who cares about pointy-eared people and magic, innovative and dense or not, when there are real life wars going on? That negative bias against fantasy’s depth and abilities to shape minds and comment on society is a bit how I feel the negative bias against YA sounds like.

    Particularly as a teacher and former librarian, I have a great respect for authors that “get” young people and make them enjoy reading for fun and reflection in a time when the distractions of the internet and memes and cellphones makes reading books so much less appealing than before. Brennan’s style may seem fluffy and empty to some, but some of that might be a consequence of the negative view many adults have on young people in general. “It sounds like a teenager”=”Not serious, fluff”. …Which I definitely find problematic and dismissive of people full of enthusiasm, creativity, and incredible drive.

    Long-winded essay aside, I understand and respect your viewpoint and opinion. Many people prefer intricate lore and world building with a serious tone, and others, those who probably enjoyed “In Other Lands” the best, prefer character and current cultural analysis and a more conversational tone. Neither style of writing is better than the other, and they’re all deserving of being called “Fantasy”. Every book its reader. This wasn’t yours, but I enjoyed seeing a different perspective! Thank you and apologies for the winding wall of text.

    • Thanks for your very thoughtful review and analysis! I respect your viewpoint as well, and I’m glad to have different viewpoints on this book here for our readers to consider.

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