In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

Holy shit, this book.

I should probably develop a bit more.

Hoooooly shit, this book.

Ok, let me try to make something semi-coherent out of my raving.

I always had In Other Lands in my radar, but it wasn’t until Lucille (from adragoninspace.wordpress.com) started enthusiastically pushing it on Twitter that I downloaded a sample and decided to give it a try. I bought the book before even finishing the sample.

So, what is it about?

Elliot is sent to a very special school in a very special land, where magical creatures rub shoulders (and more than occasionally, weapons) with humans. He is expected to learn diplomacy – since he categorically refuses to join the more martial class. Alongside Serene, an elf, the love of his young life, and Luke, the golden star of the Borderlands, and the bane of his existence, he tries to understand this strange, warring world.

Elliot is, to put it delicately, a little shit. “Obnoxious” doesn’t even start to cover it. Most of the people he encounters are either confused or offended by him – which is pretty understandable. But the crazy thing about Elliot is that as a character, he’s immensely likeable (or at least, I liked him immensely. Other reviews seem to find him insufferable, I guess it’s one of those Marmite situations). Aside from hilarious one-liners, and a careless daring that makes for entertaining shenanigans, he’s also the only one who seems disturbed by the war-minded Borderlands. He plots and manipulates and bullies, but for a purpose that should be noble: fewer children dead in wars that could be avoided. He’s the perfect embodiment of a chaotic good character.

That’s the thing with In Other Lands: it doesn’t shy away from the heavy stuff. It doesn’t do it in a light, superficial, “oh by the way, DEPTH” manner; it hammers it home. Elliot is not an asshole for the fun of it; there’s a story behind it, a story of neglect and heartbreak. Serene lives in a deeply misandrist society, which is played for laughs at moments, but is clearly fucked up. Luke is storybook-heroic, but he’s just a child who gets blood on his hands and is revered for it.

There’s also the messiness of teenagehood and coming of age in strange, dangerous worlds (the Borderlands, but also the non-magical world). And it’s so well-written. I’m not the most patient of readers when it comes to teenage angst, I must admit, but the characters’ firsts and fuck-ups were pretty amazing to follow. It all felt relatable, or at the very least, understandable. It’s a tangle of feelings and hurts, of miscommunication and missteps – it’s one of those YA books that are written for young adults, and with a keen understanding of the turmoil they can go through during their formative years, magical land or not.

Brennan took the concept of portal fantasy YA and did something completely unique with it. There’s so much more to say about this book, so much to love. It’s coming-of-age fantasy at its best, witty and real, with characters that will break your heart. It’s easily one of the best books I’ve ever read.

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