In Other Lands – Sarah Rees Brennan

Sarcastic Elliot crosses the wall to the Borderlands, but it’s not like the stories he’s heard before. IN OTHER LANDS by Sarah Rees Brennan (5/5)

You don’t even need to read this review, you can stop right now and get your hands on IN OTHER LANDS by Sarah Rees Brennan as soon as possible.

IN OTHER LANDS was published on August 15, 2017 and I read it August 23-24, 2017 after reading a Twitter thread posted by Seanan McGuire that fully convinced me I needed to read this book.

Tell me you wouldn’t be totally curious – and the rest of the thread further justifies my feelings. I bought the book based on the thread and tried to put off reading it until I was done with my library books, but I was too intrigued and I totally disappeared into the book. I stayed up until almost midnight on the 23rd to finish it, and actually got up when my alarm went off on the 24th so I could read for a bit before work. I would have picked reading this book over eating food. Luckily, I could do both at the same time.

From Amazon, another (modified) summary:

Elliot is thirteen years old. He’s smart and just a tiny bit obnoxious. Sometimes more than a tiny bit. When his class goes on a field trip and he can see a wall that no one else can see, he is given the chance to go to school in the Borderlands. 
It turns out that on the other side of the wall, classes involve a lot more weaponry and fitness training and fewer mermaids than he expected. On the other hand, there’s Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, an elven warrior who is more beautiful than anyone Elliot has ever seen, and then there’s her human friend Luke: sunny, blond, and annoyingly likable. There are lots of interesting books. There’s even the chance Elliot might be able to change the world. 

Random things I liked:

-I laughed. A lot. Loudly, awkwardly. I disconcerted people. Elliot is so fantastically sarcastic and snarky, so you definitely laugh with him. However, being inside Elliot’s head you know what he’s not seeing or realizing as he goes through his life that sometimes, you are definitely laughing AT him. IOL also handles the way some portal fantasy ignores technology and the advancement beyond it’s borders to hilarity and explosiveness (literally) – but the native Borderlanders trying to understand Elliot is hilarious. When you get to the scene when Luke tries to describe what computers are, it’s somehow the most incorrect and most accurate description of the internet, possibly ever.

-I pretty much could not stop myself from reacting out loud in general. There was gasping and “oh no!” and some annoyed snorting because in both patriarchal and matriarchal societies, people can be extremely stupid. Xenophobia and cultural difference are the big, obvious themes of this novel right from the beginning. It provides a gentle reminder in the safer context of a fantasy world that it is okay to challenge norms and prejudices, and that it is easier than you think to stand up to them. The kids in this book aren’t just brave because they fight in battle. They are brave because they refuse to let prejudice define their relationships.

-But the relationships and interactions between the teenagers are the most real I’ve ever read, that were tense and emotional without being melodramatic. The tangled webs and impulsive decisions felt so true to high school. Sometimes you kiss someone because you like them. Sometimes you kiss someone because the person you want to kiss does not want to kiss you. Sometimes you kiss people because you know it will hurt someone else. I was simultaneously annoyed with Elliot and also completely sympathetic to some of the decisions he made.

-The world of the Borderlands is big enough to be dangerous, but not so big as to be confusing. And I like that there’s history to the creation of the Border Guard but not a million pages spent trying to explain the existence of the Borderlands. The point of this story is that there is not one Big Bad, one chosen kid who will fix the whole world to exist in peace forever; so ultimately, how the Borderlands were created is irrelevant. The story is about how then got them to NOW, and dealing with the bad things that are happening in the now. I also appreciate the message that peace is delicate, and it takes constant upkeep.

-I was genuinely surprised that someone as verbally brutal as Elliot was a pacifist, but I also think his reasons for being so are clear without him actually explaining how he came to that stance on things. We are given the pieces and can put them together.

-Nothing is perfect. This sometimes gritty world felt more real than some contemporaries I’ve read because even in the best circumstances there are failures, stupid things said, people who don’t care or don’t love, people who do worship violence and do not want peace. People lie and cheat and take things they have not earned. And it questions the most irritating of all occurrences in novels where kids are whisked away to magic school: WHY DOES NO ONE USE PENS?!!?!?! Because honestly, Harry Potter was too damn lazy to be that excited about quills, color-changing ink be damned, and Ron would have adopted that Muggle tool in a hot minute. I defy you that anyone as bookish as Hermione didn’t have a freaking pen and stationery collection. In this instance, Elliot is better than Hermione by a long shot. You heard me.

-This is definitely a book for the people who found themselves agreeing a little bit with Eustace Scrubb. Who found his “WTH?!” reaction perfectly rational. We want to believe we’d be a Lucy, but face it – more of us are Eustaces.

There are so many more things that I liked but I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’ll just say…Sisters, the first Break Up, Being that Person that Is Oblivious to Others Crushing on Them So Often Its Embarrassing.

Anyway, IN OTHER LANDS is absolutely a 5/5 read for me. Get this book, fall in love with it, buy it for everyone you know.

Back to back 5/5 reads for me recently, as I started reading it right after finishing The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. These were excellent books to read back to back as both deal extensively with cultural differences and basically not being a disrespectful boob.


Book Talk – the Making of Gabriel Davenport by Beverley Lee

The Making of Gabriel Davenport by Beverley Lee came out on April 1, 2016 and I read it August 15-16, 2017.

A synopsis, from Amazon:

In a house built on truth something lays hidden. Beth and Stu Davenport moved to the English hillside town of Meadowford Bridge to give their young son, Gabriel, an idyllic, rural childhood. But in a single evening, the Davenports’ dream is shattered by a hidden, ancient darkness– and their lives are forever changed. Years later, Gabriel Davenport, now a capable, curious young man, makes the ill-fated decision to go looking for answers about his mysterious past. As soon as he begins his quest, his life becomes a place of shadows. The people he loves and trusts are acting abnormally. The strange woman who lives upstairs is even more haunted than usual. Even his most trusted friend seems to be hiding something. As one fateful night deepens, and the line blurs between darkness and light, Gabriel must confront the terrible events that destroyed his family all those years ago. He is faced with a choice: continue living the life that was never his to begin with, or give himself over to a terrifying new reality more sinister than anything he’s ever known. The darkness is watching.

This book is part ghost/haunted house, part demonic threat, and part vampire stories. It makes for a satisfying read because if you like the horror genre, a lot of boxes are ticked by this novel. I have still been itching for a good haunted house story and the almost haunted houseness of this book made that itch even worse.

But it brings me to one of my favorite things about this book: the setting. Setting is one of my own biggest weaknesses, so I pay close attention to the people who do it well. Lee does it very well. It starts with the Davenport house, but it’s also capturing the spirit of the village, of the shape of the roads, and the distance between neighbors. The real success is the Manor though; the house is a character in itself as much as it is a setting – the house itself is almost as possessed, as manipulated, and as broken as any of the people who inhabit it during the course of the story. Houses, dwellings, are always safer than we think they are, and the Manor learns that it is not invulnerable, and that secrets rarely stay buried. The Manor is also part of the character of Edward Carver, and the secrets the house reveals are either Carver’s own, or hurt him the most. This is definitely a story about secrets – the real and the supernatural kind – and the consequences for thinking keeping them is the best course of action.

The other thing I loved about this book was the eponymous Gabriel Davenport. He is a perfect depiction of that liminal space between child and young adult – he believes that he is ready to know the truth about what happened when he was a baby and that he can handle it, while simultaneously being terrified that he cannot. He’s also young enough and has lived such a life that he is aware of his emotions, aware of his fear, and sometimes he even finds the strength to overcome it and do the right thing. I enjoyed the chapters that were in his perspective the most because he was the least damaged in traditional ways (the damage we acquire upon growing up, and the loss of innocence) – Gabriel is ultimately still innocent, but has also been carrying an enormous burden and sense of blame his entire life which is a unique kind of damage. It made him easy to care for, and easy to empathize with.

The only character that ultimately frustrated me was Noah Isaacs, but I wonder what will be resolved with him in the next book, A Shining in the Shadows. One of the subtle questions that Making asks is what power faith has – and not just the religious kind, but the faith we place in other people. Noah’s religious faith is tested, even fails, and that effects the faith the other characters have in him. It’s about the faith the Gabriel has in Carver and Noah to “solve the problem” and save him, and when he begins to doubt that they can, he trusts someone that maybe he shouldn’t.

It’s a book with a very unique family unit, and it is both their strength and their vulnerability. It’s hard to see anything coming in this story, and I liked that a lot. I am definitely curious about what happens next.

If you like moody, scary, semi-violent horror novels then the Making of Gabriel Davenport is definitely for you.