Wednesday, 1 August 2018

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan is a standalone YA portal fantasy book that I picked up because it was shortlisted for the new YA (not a) Hugo award. It hooked me with the first sentence and, even though I originally had other plans, I ended up inhaling it in a day. Since it's not the shortest YA book ever, that did, unfortunately, involve staying up until almost 3 am.

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.

Told from the first person perspective of Elliot, a sarcastic and hyperintelligent teen, In Other Lands is in part a scathing commentary on the moral and ethical ambiguity of a certain class of portal fantasy worlds. Elliot's voice is what makes this book an excellent read and so if sarcasm is not your kind of thing you'd probably best give this a miss. On the other hand, if you enjoy the deconstruction of portal fantasy tropes and don't hate humorous banter, then this is the book for you.

The one flaw I found in this book was the telegraphing hooks at the ends of some of the sections. I did not realise when I started reading, but apparently In Other Lands was originally published serially online, and I can see why tantalising hooks all over the place were conducive to that format. In the book format, however, I found some of these to be irritating semi-spoilers of what was to come in the following section. Even when one hook confirmed something I had guessed plot-wise, I was still annoyed by it. But there weren't that many that stood out for me and over the course of the book this was a relatively minor flaw.

The only thing that annoyed me about Elliot was his fixation with having/getting a romantic partner. However, this certainly fit in with how his character was portrayed from the very beginning and worked within the story, driving it forward in between external events. And it provided a counterbalance to the "Oh my god, we're child soldiers!" and "but don't you want to write a good treaty?" sides of the story. It does mean there's more sex that you might expect in a YA book, but it's all of the fade-to-black variety and certainly fits in with the world building (if you're treating teenagers like adults in the arena of war...). The fact that one of Elliot's best friends is an elf girl and that elven culture is pretty much gender-swapped traditional human culture, magnifies this aspect and also allows for some interesting discussion.

Overall I enjoyed this book a lot — as evidenced by how quickly I read it — and I would definitely read more books in the same style (although I don't expect a sequel for this one). The irreverent format provides and excellent vehicle to question some of the ideas that have been normalised in children's portal fantasy stories and bring others down to earth. I highly recommend it to fans of the genre.

5 / 5 stars

First published: 2017, Small Beer Press
Series: No (but there is a tie-in short story, apparently)
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased on Apple Books

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