In Other Lands is delightful. It’s a funny but heartwarming deconstruction of popular fantasy and Magic School stories and tropes, like Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s also bursting with witty banter, social commentary and memorable characters.
Characters like Elliot, our protagonist and viewpoint character, who’s whisked away from his indifferent father and humdrum life in England and introduced to the Other Lands, a parallel fantasy world populated by mythical races. More specifically, he’s taken to a military camp in the ‘Borderlands’ where new recruits from both worlds are trained in the art of war or diplomacy. There he meets Serene-In-The-Heart-Of-Battle a badass warrior elf whom he instantly loves, and Luke, the athletic scion of a notable family, whom he instantly hates. Over their five year ‘magic/boarding school’ experience we get to watch the three of them bond and grow as characters and get into all sorts of hijinks, while the broader politics of the Other Lands shift dramatically.
As I’ve said, In Other Lands has a lot of references and little digs at fantasy conventions. Elliot is very disappointed at the lack of ‘magic’ in this fantasy world. He’s fascinated by the other magical races he encounters, though our expectations are usually subverted in some way. He has a particularly hairy encounter with a slut-shaming unicorn, for example. The Harry Potter effect is also visible. Elliot, an unloved child introduced unexpectedly to an unknown magical world and heritage, is essentially a much less well-adjusted Harry. He forms a trio with Serene and Luke and we follow a roughly similar formula to the Harry Potter books, with each section focusing on a new school year featuring a personal and/or political crisis. Elliot frequently references Narnia and there’s a running joke about the exploding technology he brings over from his own world, similar to the technology neutralizing effects off the Wizarding World. He even gets in a “I don’t like wizard stories” crack. Elliot is also quick to recognize the school’s role in training “child soldiers”, and while he mocks the whole “Chosen One” convention, it is played out, as he, Luke and Serene are usually called upon to save the day. This, incidentally, is another trope of YA and children’s fantasy that is lampshaded and critiqued. Elliot is horrified at the willingness of adults, including parents and teachers, to allow children (even talented children like Luke and Serene) to risk their lives.
Other serious issues are also highlighted. Elliot quickly becomes disillusioned with the racism, sexism and warmongering of the mostly human Border Guard. Sarah Rees Brennan has a lot to say about certain racist and sexist conventions in Western Medieval-style fantasy. The human population of the Other Lands are explicitly presented as colonizers from Elliot’s world who crossed over centuries before and settled the land. The “peacekeeping” of the Border forces are more often than not attempts to grab more land and power from other ‘lesser’ races. An interesting subplot revolves around how the military branch of the Border Guard has gradually undermined the diplomatic one to the point of redundancy. Clearly, maintaining actual peace is not a priority when there’s land to grab and other races to bully. Elliot’s misadventures disrupting that status quo are particularly satisfying to read. Non-humanoid races are also treated as sub-human, even when they are demonstrably sentient. Even elves are mistrusted and looked down on. We’re also introduced to several mixed race characters (a half dwarf and half harpy) trying to “pass” as human in the face of the Border Camp’s hostility to other races. One character, in particular, seems to struggle with body dysmorphia and self-hatred, and if I have one criticism of the book, it’s that I’d have liked to have seen that being explored more deeply, since we only hear about it from Elliot’s point of view.
Sexism is another major theme, given the mostly-male high command of the Border Guard and its resistance to women leaders, like Captain Woodsinger, a no-nonsense Only Sane (Wo)Man, who’s one of my favourite characters. And then there’s Elf culture. One of my absolute favourite things about the book and its worldbuilding is its matriarchal elven culture, which basically flips every chauvinistic gender norm on its head. It’s hilarious how deeply uncomfortable this makes most of the male humans. Granted, it might be a little unimaginative to simply apply toxic masculinity to women, but does it ever make a point. Relentlessly. Nearly everything Serene (or any other elf) says or does references real world sexism in some way. Elf culture has a long way to go in terms of gender equality, but so does the mostly human Border Guard, to be fair. We do eventually meet one elf gentleman trying to buck the trend and Serene herself is a well-meaning “ally”. Double standards and slut-shaming are also discussed; I particularly liked a scene in which Serene discovers the human taboo about topless women. There is also, wonderfully, a school play based on a famous elf romance that allows Elliot to reflect on the shallow representation and objectification of male characters in elf literature, which speaks to my soul.
Speaking of which, I deeply appreciated the book’s exploration of sex and romance, sex-shaming unicorn notwithstanding. Elliot is bisexual, possibly pansexual, since he hits it off with humans elves, mermaids, dwarves and harpies (the dryads love him too for his sweet sweet diplomacy skills). It becomes a bit of a running joke, and I love it, given the usual stereotypes about bookish nerds. Another major character is explicitly gay, possibly demisexual, and Serene frequently references women’s sex drive and sexual pleasure in a positive way.
At the same time, Elliot’s romantic disappointments are treated very seriously. At one point, poor emotionally vulnerable Elliot falls into an unhealthy relationship with a predatory (older) boyfriend. Given how a lot of YA fantasy (and the romance genre in general) can romanticise toxic relationships (looking at you, Twilight), it’s great to see Elliot realizing he’s being treated badly and refusing to stand for it. It’s also relatively rare to see fiction acknowledging emotional vulnerability in male characters, or to see boys being taken advantage of. Elliot is used and put through the wringer, both intentionally and unintentionally, and it is heartbreaking.
Elliot’s a great protagonist, by the way. He’s a prickly character hiding deep insecurity. The obnoxious male anti-hero whose behavior is excused due to their tragic past is, unfortunately, an overused trope. I loved Elliot, though, because he is self-aware enough to try to manage his behaviour, and he does genuinely mean well and care about others. We get to see how his miserable upbringing shaped him as a person and crippled his interpersonal skills. But we also see him try to put others first and be a good friend to Serene and Luke. Yes, he uses his obnoxiousness as a shield, sometimes, but he also genuinely doesn’t recognize or know how to maintain positive relationships. He’s also so desperate to keep the ones he has, he ends up sabotaging them by failing to set boundaries or express his true feelings. His character arc is deeply satisfying as we watch him grow, learn to take care of himself and hold out for a healthy, loving relationship. Still, for such a funny book, In Other Lands can be downright heart-rending.
And it is very funny. Sarah Rees Brennan has excellent comic timing and the snarky dialogue is some of the best I’ve read in ages. Elliot is so over the top and it’s glorious. I was genuinely sad when it was over; the Borderlands camp is one of those book worlds I would love to spend more time in. And I would one hundred percent hang out with Elliot and his squad again. I really hope there’ll be a sequel! I’m also quite surprised In Other Lands is so obscure, seeing how it hits so many high notes for comedy, LGBQT+ representation and fantasy worldbuilding. I only heard about it through a Captain America fanfiction, so thank you Deisderium over at AO3; I will definitely be checking out the other books they recommend! In the meantime, everybody who likes their fantasy with snark and a bit of social commentary should definitely check out this book.
His classmates regarded him with expressions of exhaustion that Elliot found hurtful. They had only known him for a few weeks. People as young as they were should have more stamina.
On both sides of the wall were strangers and weird sights, terrible until you loved them. Our lands were always otherlands to someone else.