Hugo reading 2018: In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan

I actually read some of In Other Lands when Sarah Rees Brennan was first writing it on her blog.  I bought it when it turned into a book, and so this is effectively my second-and-a-half time through.  I’ve been enjoying it more on each reread.

Elliott, a bright, abrasive child with an absent mother and a neglectful father, is offered the opportunity to cross the wall into a magical land, where humans dwell alongside elves, dwarves, trolls, harpies, mermaids and more.  Unfortunately for Elliott, this opportunity comes with enrolment into a military school for those who will be protecting the Borderland.  Elliott is not into physical things and is appalled at the glorification of war.  He is also incapable of keeping his mouth shut, ever, and rapidly makes himself as unpopular on the magical side of the border as he was on his own side.

His saving social grace is his instant love for Serene-Heart-In-The-Chaos-Of-Battle, a beautiful elf maiden who has joined the school in order to study both the military and Council tracks.  Elliott may not see much point in the military side, but he respects her intelligence, and also he is in love, so he is willing to put up with Luke Sunborn, a blond, heroic warrior from a family of warriors, and Serene’s ‘sword sister’.

On a surface level, this novel is one long running joke about sexism and gender-based assumptions.  Serene is very much embedded in elf culture, which carries with it, shall we say, a certain level of toxic femininity.  She likes boys, and has an egalitarian friendship with Luke, but her attitude to men in general is both protective and dismissive.  She is concerned for the virtue of the young gentleman in the school, is uncomfortable with emotion and children (gentlemen are so much better at that sort of thing – they are naturally warmer and more caring), and is sympathetic to the fact that men are just more emotional than women, because “women shed their dark feelings with their menses every month… But men, robbed of that outlet, have strange moodswings and become hysterical at a certain phase of the moon”.

That one made me cackle out loud.  And I have to say, I strongly suspect that Brennan sat down with a checklist of sexist tropes and did not rest until she had reversed every one of them, which was a lot of fun.

Of course, human culture, even across the border, has the usual gender biases, so Serene experiences a certain amount of culture clash.

The story does go a bit deeper than this (not that an exploration of gender norms is not worthwhile in its own right), and I really enjoyed Elliott’s relationships with Serene and with Luke, particularly the latter.  Elliott… is not great at emotion.  Or being a human, really.  His father never really spoke to him at all, his mother left when he was a baby, and he had no friends at school.  He has never learned tact, or even seen the need for it prior to this book, and he doesn’t respect anyone who isn’t as smart as he is.  Which, in his view, is basically everyone he meets.  He does – sort of – like Luke, but he expresses this largely by insulting Luke and stealing his pudding.  Luke, while ridiculously nice, does have a snarky side, and the reader can see that he is quite fond of Elliott.  Elliott is naturally blind to this.

The novel is divided into five sections, one for each year that Elliott is in the Borderlands.  He goes home every summer, and it’s… a bit jarring every time.  This is a coming of age story, and an important part of Elliott’s coming of age is deciding which side of the border he will stay on, and why.  He doesn’t want to live in a world without decent plumbing and technology, and one where war seems to be a constant.  On the other hand… he does have friends there, and there seems to be very little for him on the normal side of the border.

This is a long novel – 800 pages on my Kobo, which makes it about twice as long as the average paperback (for Bujold fans, the Cordelia’s Honour duo comes to 1100 pages), and while it doesn’t drag, exactly, it feels long.  I suspect there are places where it could be tighter – the inevitable flaw of a book that started off as a serialised story, and where the author wanted to be sure not to miss a single joke.  (Having said that… they are good jokes.)

I don’t think it has the magic of Hardinge’s novel – there was a lovely depth to that one, like a well which might or might not have poison at the bottom – but it’s clever and funny and more serious than it first appears to be.  It’s a fun, enjoyable read, with some good payoffs, but it is also a novel that it is possible to walk away from.

I’m going to put it second on my ballot, above Summer in Orcus, but behind A Skinful of Shadows.  Akata Warrior will be fourth, and The Art of Starving fifth.

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