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.