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.
“Oh no,” Elliot moaned, and sat down heavily on his bunk bed. “This is magic Sparta.”
In Other Lands is genuinely one of the sweetest, most entertaining novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Sarah Rees Brennan has created an intricate world full of drama, humour, fantasy and queer romance that I can’t recommend enough.
By far the best thing about this novel is it’s protagonist, Elliot Schafer, a bisexual, Jewish boy. When In Other Lands begins, Eliot is 13 years old and it follows him through five years of magic school, concluding when he’s seventeen. We get to read as Elliot grows up, watching him as he begins to understand his sexuality, making friends, and go through incredible character development. Elliot is the definition of a little shit: he’s doesn’t listen to authority figures, he constantly thinks he knows best, and he’s stubborn as hell. He’s also very intelligent, bossy, and rude, which makes him off-putting to some people in the novel, and he’s a pacifist … which is pretty difficult when you go to a magical school that trains children to become warriors. So he uses his brains to find solutions to the wars and skirmishes the Borderlands have, which tends to piss off a lot of adults in charge. But Elliot is so very loveable — you can’t help but adore him as you realise he’s just a kid trying to make his way in a world he doesn’t understand yet.
What I love most about Elliot is that he’s bisexual, and I cried over how bisexuality is represented in the novel. In Other Lands has the most positive representation of bisexuality I’ve ever read in my life. I can barely put my thoughts in order, but I’ll try. Elliot figures out he’s bi from a pretty young age — 14 or 15 — and he has crushes, relationships and sex with girls and boys. It’s such a healthy representation of teens discovering their sexuality and sex, which is what many teens do. I love how much Elliot falls for someone as well: wholeheartedly and completely. The best description I have of Elliot is this: my beautiful, disaster bisexual son. I love him.
“If you must know, she is the one soul destined for my own, and we are going to be together forever,” he declared loftily.
“That’s weird,” Luke told him. “We’re thirteen.”
I think it’s safe to say that the novel doesn’t have much of a plot: it simply follows Elliot through five years of magic school and how he and his friends prevent wars along the way. But it’s also safe to say that Elliot’s friendship is the heart of the novel’s plot — his amazing friendships with Serene, a female elf, and Luke, a human boy who comes from a powerful warrior family. The friends go through the normal issues teenagers do, a very realistic portrayal of life-long friendship, and I adored all three of them. When the novel starts, Elliot has a massive crush on Serene — he believes they’re going to be together for the rest of their lives — and as he grows, his feelings for her develop and change. And I adore his friendship with Luke: he starts off really hating Luke, believing the boy to be just a dumb jock and a bit of a bully, but resigns himself to being friends with him for Serene’s sake … until his feelings for Luke start changing too.
One of the best parts of In Other Lands is undoubtedly the representation of the elf society. The elf society is a matriarchal one and showcases “reverse sexism”: it’s a society where the males stay at home, care for children, and must be virgins by the time marriage come around, while the female elves are warriors, protectors and encouraged to engage in sexual relations before marriage … and even during. While at the beginning of the book, this kind of reverse sexism is quite funny, but as the novel develops, you begin to see Brennan’s reasons for including this society: pointing out how ridiculous a sexist society is, which makes you think about our own patriarchal world. Brennan shows how gender roles and stereotypes are not only horrible, but ridiculous too – and she does so in a clever, humorous way that will get you thinking. But, more importantly as this novel is catered to teens, it will get teenagers thinking.
“I am not winning any arguments because I know how to hurt someone. How does that prove that you’re right? How does being stronger or more vicious prove anything, except that all this talk about honor is stupid? Where’s the honor in being better at hurting somebody? Telling me I have to do this is insulting, as if I can’t win any other way. As if I can’t win in a better way.”
In Other Lands is the best book I’ve read all of 2018 (and I’ve read 94 books!). The plot was fun and entertaining, but as Elliot grows up, it becomes darker as he moves towards adulthood. Sarah Rees Brennan’s writing perfectly complemented the tone of the book, and Elliot as the MC. I will reread this book again and again, and I highly recommend you do too!
Here’s a collection of my favourite quotes from In Other Lands:
“Elliot was trying to teach himself trollish via a two-hundred-year-old book by a man who’d had a traumatic break-up with a troll. This meant a lot of commentary along the lines of “This is how trolls say I love you. FOOTNOTE: BUT THEY DON’T MEAN IT!”
“One of the boringly human pair of boys, the obvious leader [Luke], was tall and broad-shouldered, with golden hair, as if Nature had said, ‘No worries, buddy, I gotcha, no nasty tiring thinking will ever be necessary, also have a crown.’”
“’Do not have a catfight, boys, even if it is that time of the month,’ said Serene, and when she saw them staring at her, she explained: ‘You know—women shed their dark feelings with their menses every month? But men, robbed of that outlet, have strange moodswings and become hysterical at a certain phase of the moon?’
“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.”
“Elliot was left to trail behind. As he did, he thought about Luke talking about literary tropes—the fearless hero, the valiant heroine, and where did it all leave him? Sidekick: a horrible indignity, Elliot refused to accept it. And the other idea was some sort of lurking, jealous figure: an Iago, a pathetic pseudo-villain waiting in the wings to plot and bring the hero down. He wasn’t going to plot against Luke, who had dumb daffodil hair and said ‘tropez,’ for God’s sake.”
“So far magic school was total rubbish.”
“’What’s your name?’
‘Serene?’ Elliot asked.
Elliot’s mouth fell open. ‘That is badass.’”
“Elliot finished his book in bed and pondered going to get another one. He only had so much time left, and he had so many books to get through.” — ok, but why is this me?!?
“’Hello,’ said the beautiful elven maid. ‘I was just thinking, and I mean no offence, but—how can any fighting force crowded with the softer sex hope to prevail in battle?’
‘Huh?’ said Elliot, brilliantly. ‘The softer what?’
‘I refer to men,’ said the elf girl. ‘Naturally I was aware the Border guard admitted men, and I support men in their endeavor to prove they are equal to women, but their natures are not warlike, are they?’
“‘Why is language in the Borderlands so weird? Some of it’s modern, and some of it’s medieval, and I guess that makes sense with the influx of a certain amount of new blood to the training camp every year, but how do some words and phrases transfer, while others don’t? Why do you know the word ‘jerk’ and not the word ‘bisexual’?’
‘I guess people say the first word more,’ said Luke.”
“And he did not want to be loved as a second choice, as a surrender. 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…He had never been chosen, so he has never had a chance to know this about himself before now: he wanted to be chosen first.”