Originally published online, Sarah Rees Brennan’s 2017 novel In Other Lands makes an interesting comparison with Simon Ings’ Hot Head, which I reviewed here last week. Both novels are imperfect, baggy, even flawed; both, though, are extremely genre-savvy, deploying the conventions and tropes of, respectively, portal fantasy and cyberpunk strategically to help us see these textual traditions in a new light. For my money, In Other Lands is more straightforwardly of its genre, rather than transcending it as Hot Head does; nevertheless, it’s still an entertaining and intelligent novel that hit me right in the heartstrings.
Our Protagonist is Elliot, a schoolboy who discovers on a dodgy field trip at the age of 13 that he can see the wall between our world and the titular other lands, a generic medieval fantasyland where dwell elves, dwarves and other creatures. Offered a choice between staying with an indifferent parent in England and joining a school on the other side of the wall that’s dedicated to training up young Border Guards – folk who notionally keep the peace along the border between our world and fantasyland – he chooses the option that all portal fantasy protagonists do, indeed must: he chooses the unknown.
Brennan’s key narrative tactic in the novel is one that will be familiar to readers of Terry Pratchett and his imitators: she interrogates the conventions of portal fantasy through the eyes of a psychologically modern protagonist, asking common-sense questions like “isn’t this magical school essentially training child soldiers?” and “why does everyone need to fight when they could have treaties?” Diverting though Elliot’s sardonicism and precocity are, they’re hardly original; it’s Brennan’s play with the nature of his subjectivity as a fantasy protagonist that makes the novel truly stand out. Because one of her masterstrokes is to transfer real-life high-school dynamics into her fantasy setting: she’s interested in how real teens (and adults) would respond to the kind of child who ends up in YA fantasy novels. With his wide vocabulary, his passion for learning everything he can about the Borderlands and the fantastical world beyond them, and his obvious conviction that he knows everything better than any of the actual adults around him, there is a little Eustace Scrubb about him, as Electra Pritchett points out; but also a little Lyra Silvertongue too, a little September Morning Bell. It’s something of a surprise, then, generically speaking, when his classmates and teachers fail to hang on his every word. (Even Harry Potter had his fans at Hogwarts: “Our new – celebrity.”)
This is because Elliot is an asshole, and he’s an asshole kind of without realising it. We sympathise deeply with him because the fact that he is the protagonist gives us privileged access to his history and his subjectivity: we know that neglectful parenting has left him craving love and attention, but his classmates and teachers don’t. All they see is an annoying, manipulative know-it-all. And if they did know: well: pity is generally not a good foundation on which to build a friendship. Elliot, crucially, does not get a pass for being the protagonist. We all experience ourselves as protagonists of our own lives; that doesn’t mean we can treat those around us as sidekicks and secondary characters. One of the ends Elliot’s manipulation is often targeted at is the brokering of peace treaties with the non-human races in the lands patrolled by the Border Guards – although Brennan clearly thinks he is right to oppose what amounts to institutional chauvinism, she’s also clear that this doesn’t give him the right to disregard the agency of his peers and teachers.
So, first and foremost, In Other Lands is the story of Elliot growing up; of becoming a person who is worthy of respect, kindness and love both romantic and platonic. It’s a hard road, and Brennan is unflinching in depicting that emotional reality: as someone who went through a similar journey of learning-to-be-a-person later in life than usual, I felt Elliot’s profound loneliness, his despair and rage, and also his passion for the world, his belief that things can be better than they are. I was in tears more than once.
It’s not a perfect novel. (Frankly, my favourite works rarely are.) In what is presumably a relic of its original publication circumstances, In Other Lands is divided into four chunky sections, each corresponding to a year of schooling in the Borderlands; there are no smaller subdivisions of content (i.e., chapters), which, given the fact that the narrative shape of the novel is somewhat digressionary and episodic, makes the pacing feel a little wacky. The prose, too, is nothing to write home about: here, too, the text’s internet origins are on show in the ironic juxtaposition of fantasy setting and modern idiom demonstrated in passages like:
“Elliot was trying to teach himself trollish via a two-hundred-year-old book by a man who’d had a traumatic break-up with a troll. This meant a lot of commentary along the lines of “This is how trolls say I love you. FOOTNOTE: BUT THEY DON’T MEAN IT!””
Fun, but it’s been done before. All over Tumblr.
Nineteen years ago, gamer Michael Suileabhain-Wilson defined five Geek Social Fallacies: a set of beliefs about the overriding importance of friendship and unconditional inclusion that, ironically, often lead to geeky social groups being hotbeds of interpersonal drama that are hostile to outsiders and overly tolerant of missing stairs. As awareness of the ways that geek spaces work to exclude marginalised people has become mainstream, Suileabhain-Wilson’s post has gained significant currency in internet discourse, aided perhaps most notably by the inimitable Captain Awkward. With its irreverent, easy humour and its deconstruction of the hero complex that many YA fantasy protagonists operate under – in texts that have often influenced the values of the kind of geek groups Suileabhain-Wilson talks about – In Other Lands feels like a continuation of the conversation. I’d put it with Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series and Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books as an example of progressive, modern YA that’s realistic about relationships and the travails of growing up – YA I would have been glad to have on my shelf as a teenager.