In Other Lands, Sarah Rees Brennan (Small Beer/Big Mouth House 978-1-6187-312-03, $19.95, 465pp) August 2017. Cover by Carolyn Nowak.
I have rewritten the first paragraph of this review a half-dozen times, trying to find some way to make clear that Sarah Rees Brennan has created a nearly perfect YA fantasy without gushing. I can’t do it. In Other Lands is brilliantly subversive, assuredly smart, and often laugh-out-loud funny. It combines a magic-world school setting with heaps of snark about everything from teen romance to gender roles, educational systems and serious world diplomacy. The protagonist, Elliot, directs his often peevish analysis and jaded perspective on everyone he meets and everything he sees, but his evolution from bratty 13-year-old to soulful 17-year-old is a thing of beauty to witness. Elliot’s transformation, along with his deepening relationships with friends Serene (Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle!) and Luke, are the book’s heartbeat. As you can tell from my gushing, the characters are impossible to resist and, combined with the engaging plot, Brennan has worked a miracle with In Other Lands. Mark my words, folks; this author has written what must be considered one of the best books of the year.
Elliot arrives in “the Other Lands” because he is just special enough. He is able to leave home because his mother left long ago and his father has never gotten over her; to his family he was never special at all. Often suspicious, judgmental, and belligerent, Elliot is not easy to like, but you can’t blame him for being frustrated in a magical land that seems to be lacking a lot of the basic comforts that make life magical. Early on he admits a willingness to sell his soul for a chocolate bar — “how had he wound up here, in a place where all he had was pudding” — and readers will feel his pain. Getting into magic school is supposed to be the golden ticket, right? Well, what if you get there and find out that the magic world lacks pencils and Post-Its and is immersed in endless pointless wars and shifting alliances that no one is interested in ending? What if you find out that actually, a lot of the stuff happening in the magic world is pointless and, to a certain degree, as Elliot realizes:
This magic land was all wrong. In the books, you had to destroy an evil piece of jewelry or defeat an evil-though-sexy witch or wizard. In the books, people did not hide documents and steal land and try to cheat dwarves and dryads.
Some kids might have given up and just gone home (which is an option at the school), but Elliot is annoyed enough to want to change everything and so he hangs in there and little by little, by endless studying (he’s a big fan of the awesome school library), and trusting his friends, he changes the world. That this is accomplished in the midst of everything from battling trolls to facing down a very scary unicorn, makes for a hard-to-put-down novel.
Beyond the engaging plot, Brennan also delves into the complications of friendships and romance in a boarding school environment, but not in the obvious way. While there are crushes and first love (and first heartbreak), she doesn’t dumb down her characters for the sake of the YA label. Instead, Brennan allows a ton of complications to unfold and also delivers what is likely one of the most powerful GBLTQ relationships to hit teen fantasy. That she does all this without losing sight of how much her characters want to learn about themselves, is remarkable. “I’m terrible at feelings,” says Elliot to a classmate at one point, “it’s like they’re knives, I don’t really know what to do with them and I end up throwing them with too much force.” This kind of graphic depiction of personal emotion is something anyone can understand, it’s just rare that readers find it so artfully, and poignantly, depicted on the page.
In Other Lands is full of all kinds of conflicts, some winning and some losing, friendships made, damaged, and reaffirmed, love lost and found, racism challenged, and plenty of gender-based confusions and confrontations. (The elf Serene is the most feminist character in fiction today!) But nothing is forced and nothing is faked; miraculously, Sarah Rees Brennan brings the real deal on every single page. The point here is that truth matters and even though many people try to hide their truths, whether in government, in family, or in friendships, it’s always worth fighting for. With such a strong positive message, In Other Lands could not be more timely. Simply put, it is nothing less than a teen fantasy tour de force and a wonderful, unforgettable read for all those who discover it.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the August 2017 issue of Locus.