2017’s In Other Lands is a standalone young adult novel by Sarah Rees Brennan.
Abandoned by his birth mother, raised by his emotionally detached dad, and subjected to incessant bullying at school, thirteen-year-old Elliott does not have much to tie him to the mundane world. When he is offered a spot at school in the until-now-unknown-to-Elliott magical realm known as the Borderlands, he has no reason to say no.
Elliott may expect Hogwarts. What he gets is a place where modern conveniences do not work and nobody is taught interesting spells. This school is a boot camp designed to transform the naïve youths of today into the Border Guard of tomorrow. One consolation: Elliott now has ample excuse to display his skills at bitter sarcasm and complaint.
Elliott’s Hermione and Ron are elf-maiden Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle (or Serene for short) and aristocrat Luke Sunborn. Serene is the first of her kind to join the guard, while Luke is but the latest in a long line of Sunborns to embrace their duty to the Borderland. Immediately smitten with Serene, Elliott grudgingly tolerates her friendship with Luke, who in return puts up with Elliott’s endless stream of snide criticism. The three become inseparable.
His desire to escape mundane reality does not mean Elliott wants to be a soldier. Fortunately the guard has a use for nerds, the so-called council-training program. Someone has to keep track of paperwork and such and it’s not going to be heroes-in-training like Luke. Serene insists on training both as a scholar and as a soldier and so the two boys have one more thing to bring them together: making sure Serene passes her tests without collapsing from overwork.
Despite his heroic efforts to avoid self-reflection and social engagement, Elliott is drawn into the heady world of teenage dating. He faces the normal challenges any teen from the mundane world faces — the most daunting of which is that attraction is not necessarily commutative. He must also deal with cultural barriers and the additional complication that he and his friends are finding that sexual orientation can be fluid.
Elliott’s habit has been to stand on the sidelines while making unhelpful, cruel observations. But he slowly, reluctantly awakens to a sobering fact: the Borderland’s incessant brushfire skirmishes put his schoolmates and his friends at risk. If his friends are to survive, someone will have to find a way to peace. It seems that the only person interested in such a project is Elliott himself.
For someone who is utterly convinced he’s unloved and unlikable, Elliott has a surprising number of romantic relationships. More than that, the ratio of attempted romantic connections to successful relationships is pretty high1. Not 1:1, though,
This reads weirdly like fan-fic. Did it get its start online? There is a supporting character, a mean girl, I could swear is based on Santana from the TV series Glee.
It’s probably best not to examine the ontological underpinning of the Borderland too closely. Just accept that there’s a magical(ish) realm accessible from our world by a lucky few, a realm where many forms of high technology (including, very luckily for the Borderland, firearms) do not work2, and where stock fantasy races like elves and harpies and trolls co-exist with humans.
Elliot is a recognizable type, the bright kid who has learned to protect himself with pre-emptive verbal attacks on anyone who might present a threat (which would be everyone). This is an entirely understandable reaction on his part; although in reality, a sock full of ball-bearings will often carry one through stressful social encounters with greater success than will snide insults. Much of the plot involves Elliott learning that people are not just potential threats but potential threats with feelings. Such empathy, of course, leads to the punji-filled pit-trap of compassion.
Although it takes Elliott a while to twig to this, he’s quite lucky that he is surrounded by people with vast reserves of forbearance. None of his targets ever respond to his witticisms by stabbing him with a training sword; his superior officers are remarkably patient with his insubordination and schemes. In the hands of a grimdark author, this novel would have ended with Elliott bleeding out in a ditch or dangling from a gallows.
Because this is (the occasional student death aside) a generally light-hearted novel about the Kid Who Learned Better Despite Himself, the Borderland is carefully designed by its author so as to be different enough from our world that Elliott is forced to pay attention and learn some sense. Serene, for example, comes from a matriarchal society that is a mirror image of stock patriarchy; this teaches Elliott the evils of sexism. The Border Guard is curiously modern in its view on same-sex relationships, which makes figuring out sexual orientation not at all perilous. Elliott’s exploration of his sexuality results in some missteps (most due to predatory adults3), but he learns from them, rather than being traumatized by them, or stoned to death for them. If you’re looking for something comparatively light-hearted, with only a little death in, this might do.
1: Bear in mind these are teenagers. “Successful” doesn’t mean “found their one true love and lived happily ever after.” It means “did not end in a double-suicide like Romeo and Juliet.” There are bruised feelings when people discover they’re on different pages, but at least there are learning experiences too.
2: As far as Elliott can tell, nobody has ever systematically explored the restrictions on technology that constrain Borderlands societies. Perhaps because the societies are pre-scientific, and the young teens from our world haven’t been scientifically inclined. Elliott may be the first recruit who can bring the scientific method to the Borderland. It is a sign of his maturation over the course of the book that he does not blindly do this without considering the possible consequences.
3: The narrative seems a bit more judgmental towards the twenty-year-old who hooks up with fourteen-year-old Elliott and then dumps him for not being malleable than it is towards the older elf-woman who decides Elliott is a slut whom it might be useful to cultivate. But then, the people for whom this book is intended are a hell of a lot more likely to run into predatory human adults than elves of any description and it’s useful to underline the warning once or twice.