An Extraordinary Hero: A Review of In Other Lands

In Other Lands (2017)
Written by: Sarah Rees Brennan
Genre: YA Fantasy
Pages: 441 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Small Beer Press

Why I Chose It: It’s Sarah Rees Brennan and I’m a fan of her writing, though not of all of her books. My understanding from her blog is that this was a book she wrote and posted on the internet as she went along, much like Ilona Andrews does with their Innkeeper series. I never manage to follow along with those blog books, because I lack follow through, but I always keep my ear to the ground for the (hopefully) inevitable book edition. So when I heard this was coming out as a book, I pre-ordered immediately and didn’t regret it for a moment.

Premise:

Sometimes it’s not the kid you expect who falls through to magic land, sometimes it’s . . . Elliot. 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.

For safety’s sake, let’s consider this a spoilerish review though I intend to try my best to avoid spoilers.

Potential Spoilers below


Discussion: First off, let me preface everything by saying you will either love Sarah Rees Brennan’s writing style or you won’t. It is hyperverbal, chock-full of wittiness, and no one on earth has ever talked like her characters talk. Which I tend to feel is a shame. Bring me the hyperverbal intellectuals who cover their pain with fast-paced chatter. Her characters are genre-savvy and opinionated. So go ahead, read the first chapter — you can sample it here at Tor.com.

If you don’t like that, the rest of the book is like that all the way through. I find it delightful. YMMV.

Secondly, while this is technically a YA fantasy book about a boy having adventures, it’s also one of the most loving interrogation of fantasy tropes I’ve read in years. It dissects the Chosen One storyline from about three different angles — Elliot, the human boy, chosen to travel to a fantasy world; Serene, the rebellious elf-maiden reluctant heroine, trying to forge a new path for herself; and Luke, the favored golden son of the fantasy destined to do Great Things.

It asks why are these fantasy tropes happening and can they be subverted — why is it always time to fight back the forces of “Evil” instead of oh, say, negotiating.

Elliot (and the book) questions everything.

Probably one of my favorite moments in this entire book (and there are many, many, many of them) is when Elliot has been dragged off for a stern talking-to by Captain Woodsinger, who demands to know who his allegiance is to. What he loves. Anticipating the answer being the Borderlands. Because isn’t that the largest fantasy trope of all: you fight for your kingdom, for peace, for righteousness? The big abstract ideals that we’ve been spoon-fed since Camelot and that we’ve regurgitated over and over again. You fight for the side of good because someone has to.

Instead, Elliot begins listing people that he loves, cares for, even tolerates. Because isn’t that the truth of it: you fight for your small, personal world. You fight because you want to protect your friends. Captain Woodsinger wants him to love the country, and Elliot can’t wrap his head around loving an abstract thing the way he loves his friends.

Woodsinger says:

“These are the Borderlands,” said the commander. “This is a land of magic and mystery: this is our charge and our sworn duty to protect. This is a land to be loved and served, because nobody can understand it.”

“Well. Nobody has understood it yet,” said Elliot.

Nobody can understand it, the commander had said, and the challenge echoed in Elliot’s bones, as perhaps the commander had wanted it to. A challenge was more familiar to him than love, and felt close to the same thing, as though one led to the other. He felt his heart beat to the double time of two words.

Not yet. (p.183)

This is the thing which makes Sarah Rees Brennan more than a funny, chatty writer. Her characters are hyperverbal, but they’re that way because it’s their defense mechanism as they try to understand a world full of pain and unfairness. They’re fighting the good fight and they’re doing it with communication.

Elliot’s a game-changer in the Borderlands. He and his friends stage a revolution that the adults don’t really recognize as such, and that’s triumphant: they’re saving the day in a new way! And yet, even as we’re enjoying their success, SRB is pointing out: But these are just kids. Why is it up to them? How has the system broken down this badly that the teenagers are leading the way?

Which makes this YA book very accessible to an adult audience. Because it takes that background sense of unease about reading books about teenagers trained to fight and kill and gives it voice in Elliot.

“Is this a military operation?”

Surfer Dude looked pleased to be asked. “Yes. They train you up, those who can pass through the Border on either side, to be guards and keep the peace between the peoples in this land and those who may come through from the other. You learn how to handle all sorts of weapons, how to form a unit, all this cool stuff.”

“Oh my God,” Elliot said in a hollow voice. “We’re child soldiers?” He considered this and then said: “I need to sit down. I’m going back to the fence.” (p.7)

It’s funny, but it’s also kind of horrible. These children are imported to fight because the fighting has gone on so long that they’re running out of soldiers. Because, as SRB mercilessly shows us, this is a society where fighting is respected but diplomacy is not. These are people who’ve made and wallowed in their own problems because they can’t find their way out.

So there’s all that takedown of Ye Olde Fantasy tropes, which would be enough to make this a fascinating book, but then there’s more. So much more that some of it only gets explored in the back of the reader’s brain as a cold chill. Elliot has a hobby of bringing human things into the Borderlands, even though he’s not supposed to. He’s trying to lead a tech revolution and it’s presented as harmless rebellion on his part. Except toward the end, he gets a wake-up call that pretty much goes unnoticed by the plot or the other characters. But the reader feels the shock: there are rules for reasons and breaking them might have more consequences than you expect. It’s a moment that feels oddly private — a painful learning experience that you share with only Elliot. Because no one else gets it.

Then there are the relationships (romantic and otherwise). Yearning, painful, happy, misunderstood. Surprisingly real and poignant. I love that Elliot has a series of relationships here, some heartfelt, some missteps, some just for fun, and he learns about himself. The relationships fail for multiple reasons, and it feels like watching the character grow up. Elliot’s home life is far from ideal and there’s no pat solution to that. No matter how much Elliot learns to communicate, some people can not be reached.

(I will admit to some general personal discomfort with 16 and 17-year-olds having sex. When I was that age, no biggie, but now, looking back, I have the b-b-b-but you’re babies!!! feeling. Amazing how that happens.)

The book does have flaws:

There are some issues, seemingly unavoidable, that slow the book. Because Elliot is all about diplomacy and less about fighting, there are a lot of big events that he works toward that happen without him or the reader. Because the book is divided by age group and “school year,” there are the inevitable choppy bits. Harry Potter avoided this by having each year be a separate book. If I were reading this all over again, I’d probably take breaks at the age breaks instead of just plowing through in a stupor of delight.

There are a lot of scattered conflicts, some of which build up massive forward momentum and echo through, and some that are sort of one and done and fizzle away.

There’s not a lot of actual magic here, which I kind of missed. There are magical peoples and magical creatures, but spells are just not a thing. It’s all words or weapons.

There’s a constant gender struggle here between the humans, who hold men to be superior fighters, and the elves, who hold the women to be the superior fighters. But it never quite gelled for me as a theme. I did find Serene’s constant worrying about her delicate male companions satisfying though.

There’s no big bad here. No giant overwhelming evil to defeat. Only battles and misunderstandings and interpersonal issues. So to a certain extent, the book feels more like a pivotal segment of Elliot’s biography than the story of an opponent to overcome. Unless you consider the opponent Elliot has to overcome is himself because oh boy, he does not make life easy for himself. I adored Elliot, but man, he could be thoughtlessly cruel, and at times, deliberately so.

In conclusion: That said, this is one of my favorite books of the year. It’ll undoubtedly be on my annual reread pile. It’s the kind of book you carry around and aggressively read sections from to poor defenseless roommates or coworkers, demanding that they appreciate it. If you love fantasy, I feel like this is a book you should read. It’s right up there with Diana Wynne Jones’ Dark Lord of Derkholm for exposing the writerly bones of fantasy, while still giving you one great read. If you like Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children novellas, you might give this a try.

 

6 Comments

  • Shara White November 16, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    This is one I really want to get my hands on! Love that cover, too!

    Reply
    • Lane Robins November 17, 2017 at 5:49 pm

      I think you’ll really love it. It’s a great book for reading, but it’s really a great book for looking at the bones of fantasy.

      Reply
  • Weasel of Doom November 16, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    I love Sarah Rees Brennan. “In Other Lands” is waiting for me on my Kindle, and your review just gave me the nudge I needed to start reading it! I can totally use some “stupor of delight” 🙂

    Reply
    • Lane Robins November 17, 2017 at 5:49 pm

      Just be prepared to read segments aloud to anyone and everyone. 🙂

      Reply
  • woollythinker November 17, 2017 at 3:04 am

    Oh, this is a perfect review. I read the whole thing obsessively online, am now reading it aloud to my partner and aggressively pushing it on everyone I can. I love it *so much*.

    Reply
    • Lane Robins November 17, 2017 at 5:51 pm

      It is so much fun! After reviewing it, I just wanted to start re-reading all over again!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: