Have you ever finished a book and felt compelled to give a copy to everyone you know? That’s the experience I had reading In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan, a young adult portal fantasy bursting with amazing characters, queerness, love, and compassion in a fantastical world. It’s the coming-of-age book I wish I’d had when growing up.
The narrative follows Elliot Schafer from age 13 to 17 as his teacher takes a select few students on a highly suspect field trip, where it turns out Elliot can see the wall leading to Borderlands. He is given a choice: he can stay and become part of the Border Guard, or return to his regular old Earth life—a life in which no one understands him, appreciates him, or seems to care about him at all.
Unsurprisingly, Elliot opts to stay, and we follow along as he traverses Border Guard training. There are two possible training tracks: a warrior path (the more popular choice) or a councilor path (with a focus on treaties and diplomacy). The story progresses through Elliot’s four years of Border Guard training, in a similar format to Earth-side high school (add in javelin and archery training, and a few Elvish and Dwarf classmates), and focuses on the relationships he forms with those around him.
The Borderlands are inhabited by elves, trolls, harpies, mermaids, and more, and the Border Guard works to keep the peace between the various factions and monitor the border between the fantasy world and Earth. Elliot quickly realizes the reliance on war and battles to settle disputes has become the standard operating procedure, but as an adamant pacifist, he is determined to change that. Unfortunately, his two closest friends—elven warrior Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle and human Borderland-born Luke Sunborn—are both in the warrior course, and don’t always agree with such a measured stance.
Elliot is a fabulous character to spend time with, an obnoxious, sarcastic, bisexual, bookworm. I utterly adore him. Abandoned by his mother when he was a baby, left with a distant, barely aware father, Elliot learned early on that being vocal was the best way to win a little human interaction, even if often times unpleasant (he was popular with the Earth bullies). He is committed to keeping people at a distance while simultaneously wanting them closer.
Brennan is a consummate storyteller. I can’t recall the last time I laughed so much while reading, or fell so utterly in love with an entire cast of characters. Elliot, Serene, and Luke are all battling family baggage and undue expectations while trying to forge their own paths. Their stumbling attempts at friendship and love are painfully beautiful in their honesty and vulnerability. It speaks volumes to Brennan’s skill that readers of any age will find themselves identifying with these teenage characters.
This is a story about seeking love, building friendships, hoping for acceptance, and the strength and power of using your words, and the bravery it takes to stand up for any of those. Yes, it is about young teenagers growing up, but it there are life lessons here many adults would do well to learn. Elliot’s banter— and lack of a filter—is refreshing, though most of the adults spend a lot of time shushing him, afraid to face his words head-on. Still, Elliot plows on, calling out hypocrisies and pointing out the failings of adult logic.
In Other Lands is overflowing with heart. If we had more books like it, the world would be a truly better place.