Review: In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

This is another book I read just after it came out. That was some weeks ago but I’ve been thinking about this book ever since. This review will have spoilers.

The Borderlands aren’t like anywhere else. Don’t try to smuggle a phone or any other piece of technology over the wall that marks the Border ― unless you enjoy a fireworks display in your backpack. (Ballpoint pens are okay.) There are elves, harpies, and ― best of all as far as Elliot is concerned ― mermaids.

[For background: I’m nonbinary, queer, and multi-ethnic.]

Since reading this review, I’ve wanted to write one of my own. It’s a good review, highlighting all of the good points of In Other Lands, and talking about the fun ways in which the book subverts tropes and allows a bi kid to be a bi kid. I liked the book in that regard, but I just couldn’t ignore its deficits. Listen, I don’t expect authors to be perfect humans. There should be room for errors, time for mistakes. But when a story is telling me it has something to say about unity  and diversity and that it wants me to listen, well, I’m listening.

Let’s talk about the dark side of In Other Lands. The side that’s careless and harmful without thinking about it. Let’s talk about how In Other Lands exemplifies the casual racism of white feminism and the white savior narrative while exploiting the teachings of intersectional feminism. Let’s talk about how its discussion of diversity fails on every level.

Elliot is a self-declared pacifist, on a mission to unite all of the Other Lands’ magical groups–harpies, mermaids, trolls, and elves–with the humans. He achieves this with a combination of grift and smarts; he’s sly but self-aware, making for a fun POV character. But while his world includes the fantastical, it seems to lack anyone who isn’t white. This allegory for race excludes, well, anyone of any other race. It’s the epitome of the white savior narrative. Just. Without NBPOC.

Its principle characters are three: one Luke Sunborn, half-human, half-harpy; one Elliot Schaefer, human; and Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle, “Serene”, an elf. None of them have a stated race (other than the fantastical), and as far as I can tell they’re all white: pale-skinned with palette swap hair and eyes for that exotic touch. Side characters include more humans, a half-dwarf girl, harpies, mermaids, more elves. And not one is described in enough detail to tell if they are white or not. Thus, the default, white.

Microaggressions abound for the half-dwarf girl in the course of the story. Her half-dwarven blood makes her suspect (when they are in conflict with the dwarves) to the others who are all human except for Serene. Serene, too, suffers microaggressions largely as a result of culture differences because her society is matriarchal in a pastiche, overblown way–how hilarious. (It’s not as if matriarchal societies ever existed. No way could Brennan have possibly used this as anything but comedic relief.) Life is harder for these two girls because they are girls and from a different culture. And yet there’s no division among the humans about race, at all, ever, no intraracial strife among the fantastical races. To put it lightly, it actually seems as though in the Other Lands, NBPOC just… haven’t been invented yet.

But Elliot doesn’t care about differences. He accepts them! He just wants the world to be a better place for him to live. And it just so happens that that means thrusting peace upon the Other Lands whether they know that it’s good for them or not. Which means he writes treaties and involves himself with other cultures. Gets to know them, them being the mermaids and the harpies and the trolls and the elves, learns their languages and then gives them a firm push toward peace by offering negotiations that are more fair than the short-sighted adults’ treaties. He knows they’re all just blinded by old prejudice, whereas he knows better. And the narrative supports him–he gets his way, and he achieves peace between the magical races. All because of communication and an open mind. Talk about the white savior mentality.

When Luke struggles with being half-harpy, Elliot is there and doesn’t care. He appreciates their differences. Having wings is useful when it’s raining! Right?

Now, Elliot knows he’s insensitive and abrasive. He flagrantly commits microaggressions toward Luke but it’s okay because it’s comedic. It’s all right because harpies aren’t being enslaved or oppressed by the humans, they’re just fighting over old wrongs and cultural differences.

This doesn’t happen in real life. This ignores the context of the world at large entirely.

This is the attitude this entire book has toward diversity: People who are wronged just need to calm down and meet those who oppress them halfway. If only oppressors would strive to learn more about the oppressed, they could come to agreement. And everyone would be happy, the end.

I can’t even begin to unpack this. I’ll let you do that yourself.

I will say this: While In Other Lands has much to say about diversity, all of its words are empty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *