Working as I do, among books, is to always feel some awareness of what's coming out next. I try to keep up with every season's anticipated books, to find the ones that I'll most want to review -- not least because if I don't review them, I likely won't get to read them when everyone else does.
But I'd never heard of Sarah Rees Brennan's IN OTHER LANDS, which both delights and disturbs me.
Let's start with delight. My dear friend Karen was delighted to find that I'd not heard of the book, made me promise not to seek it or anything about it, so that she could give it to me for my birthday. I've had its pretty cover glinting at me from my living room coffee table for three and a half months, because that's roughly how long it took for my reading schedule to be clear enough to pick it up.
My own delight in it's been legion. First, I love diving into a book without knowing a thing about it. In this heavily media-saturated world of film and television trailers, of book excerpts, of cover reveals, it feels precious and magical not to know anything about a book before cracking it open. There's a thrill of trust in the expectation of wonder, like opening your eyes under water for that play of light through the current.
Second, the book is incredible. I've spent most of today reading it, alternating between barking laughter, biting my lips, actually literally screaming in frustration and sending all-caps messages to Karen and the rest of the internet about how thoroughly the book was savaging my feelings.
The plot: Elliot Schafer is a sharp-mouthed thirteen year old boy from present-day England who goes over an invisible wall into the Borderlands, a place where mermaids, elves, dwarves, trolls and harpies live adjacent to humans, in more or less perpetual war with them. Elliot's inducted into a human school where the only options are to train for war or counsel--and favouring the latter is strongly discouraged.
There, he meets Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, an elf knight on whom he immediately crushes, and Luke Sunborn, a human boy he immediately hates. But over the course of the book -- and their teenagehood -- the three form deep, complex bonds while figuring out the worlds in which they live, their differences and similarities, and themselves.
Everything about the book is wonderful. Elliot is THE WORST, except that he is also the best, and I love him: caustic and vicious, he's also passionate and (selectively) caring, suffers no fools, and evinces a generous curiosity about everything in the new world he finds himself in. Serene is fabulous, from a society that tidily flips our gender binary: the women are the hard, strong, lusty ones, while the men are delicate, nurturing, chaste. Luke is the memetic cinnamon roll, too good, too pure for any world -- while also being the best fighter, the best at sports, universally beloved, the best of the Sunborns who are celebrated as the best of the Borderlands humans.
All this, as I say, delighted me, and more: the contrast between Elliot's verbal violence and the strength of his ethics; the deep dives into gender dynamics from a text that refuses to play anything exclusively for laughs, and makes sure we examine why something's funny to us, and whether it should be; the equally deep dives into consent, communication, and all the varieties of desire.
So, given all that -- which is very much the iceberg's tip of everything this book did brilliantly -- why hadn't I, who try to read so widely, heard of it? I even follow the author on Twitter!
What disturbs me, then, is this: I wonder if it's in part because it's also romance.
I worry that romance -- and the genres in which it's popular, like YA -- gets silo'd away from my awareness. Romance is so often seen as a necessary component to a well-rounded story, but only so long as it's subordinated to the rest, like a bay leaf in soup. Relationships, in and of themselves, are not _serious_. Feelings aren't _serious_. And things that aren't serious aren't important.
But for IN OTHER LANDS, everything that is serious and important is made of relationships. The very serious war into which Elliot is conscripted is a set of dysfunctional relationships that can be put right with empathy, curiosity, and good communication. Gender binaries can be bridged, and once bridged, crossed. Consent is as key to interpersonal relationships as it is to interspecies treaty-making. The question of who is a person, and who is an object -- to be claimed, to be rejected, to be conquered -- is at the centre of all the book's concerns. This is a book that strives, with enormous success, for fairness in both love and war.
A weird synchronicity hovers around my reading the book when I did. Seanan McGuire just wrote an excellent sequence of tweets about fan fiction, which I nodded along with before realizing they were prompted by Sarah Rees Brennan -- author of IN OTHER LANDS, which, as it turns out, began as a short story (100K words long!) she was posting to her blog that some people have (accurately) described as "everything you love about fan fiction". For me, those things are, in no particular order
- Intense feelings
- Long, Thoughtful Conversations
- Obvious Misunderstandings That Build Towards Gushing Confession Especially Where Queer Desire Is Involved
These are all staples of romance writing, and should be celebrated instead of apologised for, disguised, or treated as so-called guilty pleasures.
I want to write something else, later, that's explicitly about romance -- about romantic comedies, I think, my husband's love of them and my historic (and misbegotten) disdain of them, and how deeply I adore Netflix' LOVESICK. For now, let me leave you with this thread of ridiculous live-tweets, and my fervent desire for you to seek this book out and read it.