In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is a stand-alone portal fantasy in which the reader follows Elliot Schafer—a redheaded bisexual boy with a fantastically bad attitude and sharp tongue—through his adolescence, primarily spent in a magical land on the other side of a mostly-invisible border wall located in rural England. Elliot, at age thirteen, is thoroughly acquainted with the tropes of portal fantasies; this is, in large part, the reason he decides to abandon his damaging home life for the unknown.
However, it turns out that “the unknown” isn’t a world that needs a magical protagonist to save it. Instead, he finds himself in a militant and conflict-ravaged country where alliances are falling apart as councilors are funneled out of war-rooms and bad treaties spring up like mushrooms after a rain. So, naturally, our young protagonist—himself a pacifist—decides to turn his considerable abilities in study and manipulation to improving the world he finds himself in. He also, at the same time, begins forging the relationships that will save his life and the political future of his new country.
The four sections of the novel each follow a year in Elliot’s life, from when he comes to the Borderlands to when he, Serene, and Luke graduate the training camp. The reader follows conflicts both political and personal, watching Elliot grow into himself and his skills as he turns the politics of the world around him on their head one small maneuver at a time. He isn’t, of course, a savior figure; he also isn’t magically gifted. He’s just dedicated, smart, and willing to risk himself to better the world around him. It’s a delightful look at how personal and how influential politics can be: Brennan isn’t saying that one person can change the world, but she’s showing how one person can push it in the right direction if they try hard enough.
The relationships between our characters, too, are a driving point. Brennan turns several tropes inside out to examine their workings, while also offering the reader engaging dynamics and conflicts. Luke Sunborn, the boy who Elliot initially thinks of as a logical protagonist, turns out to be retiring and anxious; Serene, the beautiful elf girl, turns out to be an aggressive warrior prone to cultural sexism and thoughtless of other people’s feelings as a result. However, both of them do come to adore Elliot as much as he adores them—though he has to learn, too, how to be loved. He’s never quite known it, between his deeply neglectful father and absentee mother (whose reappearance and single conversation with Elliot is one of the most perfect and heartbreaking things I’ve read in a long time).
It’s an odd thing to note, perhaps, but one of the other bits I found most realistic and relatable about Elliot’s coming of age is that he has romantic and sexual relationships with a decent number of different people, in different ways. He has a misunderstanding about a relationship with Serene—in which she takes dating to mean friends-with-benefits, and he takes dating to mean dating—and a brief summer fling with an older boy in the human world; he has two one-night-stands for two very different reasons, as well, before he and Luke work things out together.
That’s something I don’t see, almost ever, in young adult fiction: a frank and varied approach to young queer sexuality where sex is actually a regular part of the equation. However, it bears the most resemblance to the lives of a lot of people I’ve known, including myself. Getting into and out of relationships, exploring one’s sexuality, making ill-informed but educational choices about who to be intimate with—I’m glad to see that as part of the narrative for Elliot. As he explains to Luke at the close,
“I don’t think about who I go out with in terms of persuading as many people as possible to have fun with me […] I think about it in terms of—infinite possibilities. I think it’s beautiful that the possibilities are infinite, but it also means you make a choice. Like choosing how to spend your life, where you’re going to live, what your life’s work is going to be. Except in this case, the possibilities are people, and they have to choose you back.”
In Other Lands is thoughtfully invested in relationship dynamics, social contracts, politics, and the unseen work of diplomats. It’s also a queer young adult novel with a bisexual male protagonist who is learning to deal with a lifetime of parental neglect and peer abuse, as well as the trauma of war in his new homeland. Elliot, after all, is the first to point out—loudly and often—that they’re all child soldiers, and he’s right. I appreciate Brennan’s ability to balance a lighthearted approach to her plot that is appropriate to the genre with a constant awareness of the cost of battle, the effect of violence, and the value of different kinds of bravery.
Because, when it comes to bravery, Elliot is confident to the point of brashness while also being an unabashed pacifist. He’s aggressive but in a cerebral and manipulative fashion, as is often emphasized by the ways in which he perceives himself to be taking on feminine roles (according to human gender politics) intentionally as part of his diplomatic efforts. The constant inclusion and awareness of gender as a source of struggle, particularly as Elliot learns how more or less all women must feel in the human world during his dealings with the elves, is a definite bonus. His transformation from know-it-all brat to a strong young man who does not fit the mold of typical masculinity is delightful.
To be honest, I crowed about his dialogue and his development quite often. No one is necessarily actively listening to him, but he’s getting the important work done, and he doesn’t take credit about half of the time. It doesn’t matter to him to show off: he just wants to succeed, and bring peace when he does so. He’s looking for ways around violence as a victim of violence himself. Reading that approach is a breath of fresh air in a genre so frequently obsessed with battles and conflict. Elliot himself notes that, as far as tropes go, he’s worried his friends are the protagonists and he’s some sort of Iago figure—but by the end, we all know he isn’t, and his contributions are immensely valuable to the peace of the land.
In Other Lands is a satisfying, thoughtful, and fun read. Brennan balances politics with relationships; she handles complex ethical and moral arguments with humor and aplomb. Elliot is a fantastic point of view character whose personality and approach are not often represented in the genre but are desperately needed. And, furthermore, it’s wonderful to see his approach to relationships, sex, and friendship develop over the course of the book from something utterly wrongheaded to something soft and complicated and eager to find equitable happiness. That alone would make it worthwhile.
Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.