An often amusing and sometimes moving subversion of entrenched fantasy tropes
Elliot doesn’t want to fight, keeps saying the wrong thing, and is definitely the grouchiest human in fantasyland.
Sometimes it’s not the kid you expect who falls through to magicland, sometimes it’s… Elliott. He’s grumpy, nerdy, and appalled by both the dearth of technology and the levels of fitness involved in swinging swords around. He’s a little enchanted by the elves and mermaids. Despite his aversion to war, work, and most people (human or otherwise) he finds that two unlikely ideas, friendship and world peace, may actually be possible.
I picked this up for my partner when it was released last summer, and she devoured it (and has since read it multiple times). This past week, we started listening to the audiobook on a drive back to the city, and I really liked what I heard: it was funny, a little gonzo, and I enjoyed the way Brennan played with classic genre tropes (and all that in just the first two hours). When we got home, I immediately started reading the book. It’s been a long time since a novel made me laugh out loud, let alone do so multiple times or consistently. In Other Lands did just that. It is not, however, just a funny book: Brennan has also written a story that often packs an emotional wallop.
In Other Lands is the story of Elliott and his introduction to a magical training facility for border guards. He is… not your typical fantasy protagonist or hero: he’s really annoying, brusk, and unwilling to blindly accept the absurdities of his new home. He is also a pacifist critical of a society that favours violent conflict resolution over debate and conference. He falls in with Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle (as Elliott points out, that is one “badass” name) a female elf warrior; and Luke Sunborn, golden child of one of the most respected and famous families in the Other Lands. Elliott believes he and Luke are in competition for Serene’s affections, but things quickly become more complicated for all involved. The three of them form an interesting unit, frustrating and fascinating to those around them.
The novel has so many great scenes, fantastic and often hilarious jokes and quips, and a fair number of scenes that will (quietly) punch readers in the heart. There were times when it was a little slow, or the pacing felt slightly off or disjointed (a hold-over from the original episodic writing of the story, I assume), but this didn’t bother me as much as it normally would. Brennan does a great job of giving us information and context as the story goes on, growing our picture of the world and the characters to whom we are introduced. Elliott’s insatiable thirst for knowledge is a useful narrative device, as he bulls headlong into situations he does not belong. It was nice to have a protagonist focused far more on diplomacy, rather than on violence.
Elliott grows emotionally and intellectually as the novel progresses (as anyone should between the ages of 13 and 17), but retains his “Drive it like I stole it” conversational style (that’s how he describes it at one point) Each summer, for example, we learn more of Elliott’s heartbreaking life in the real world (absent mother, emotionally shut-down father, no friends, and unexpected prejudice knocking him down at every turn), and as a result gain understanding of why he is so bad at interpersonal relationships. These scenes were expertly handled, and added a fantastic (albeit wrenching) emotional component to the story. It all builds to a satisfying character evolution towards the end.
Serene and Luke also grow over the course of the novel, as do their friendships and relationships with Elliott and others around them. The world is populated by so many great supporting characters, too, all of who provide added depth and richness to the world. The command ranks at the camp, in particular, are great as their exasperation with Elliott is wonderfully presented. (And, let’s be honest: this is how many of the adults should have reacted in the Harry Potter books, among other novels and series that feature improbably-active/-involved youth.)
In Other Lands is at once a coming-of-age story, a romance (of sorts), a fantasy adventure, and a character piece (it’s all told from Elliott’s perspective). It pokes fun not only at fantasy tropes, but also standard gender roles and expectations (the elves are a matriarchal society pretty much the mirror image of our own, with all the attendant prejudices, etc.). It’s all handled brilliantly, and with a rather refreshing matter-of-fact (often funny) manner.
I have resisted the urge to quote from the novel ad infinitum — there are so many excellent jokes, hilarious scenes, and poignant moments. I laughed out loud many times. I have even adopted (ok, wholesale stolen) certain lines to use in real-life. I also don’t want to go into any more of the plot, to avoid spoilers and surprises. The ending suggests there is plenty of space to expand the characters’ stories, and while there isn’t any information about a follow-up, I really hope Brennan revisits this world.
Overall, I really enjoyed this, and think it will bear up to and improve on re-reading. There is so much to like in In Other Lands. If you’re looking for a fantasy novel that subverts many of the most entrenched fantasy tropes, that will make you laugh, and still packs an emotional punch, then I highly recommend Brennan’s latest.