I haven’t loved Sarah Rees Brennan’s work before, finding it just a little too predictable, but In Other Lands won me over completely. I love Elliot in all his porcupiney glory; I love Luke, because he secretly reads books (how else does he know words like “epitome” but not how to pronounce them?) and he supports Elliot and Serene and protects people; I love Serene, because even though she subscribes to a whole bundle of stereotypes about men, yet there she is caring about Elliot and Luke and supporting them throughout.
I can understand people who don’t love the characters. Elliot, for example, comes across as a bully, particularly when Luke explains how things have felt from his point of view. And it’s true that sometimes Elliot is just not that nice. But there’s also a reason for all his behaviour that made me hurt for him: the way his mother left, the fact that he’s been bullied so mercilessly… Yes, he’s nasty to people almost on principle, but I can tell you from experience that it’s easier to assume that everyone has bad intentions rather than trust them and get hurt, after a remarkably short period of being bullied. It’s no wonder he reflexively lashes out — and if you read the whole thing, you see that he does try. He does know what he’s like, and he does try.
It does make me wonder why Luke sticks by him, though Elliot is always supportive of Serene, so that does make some sense. And it is worth noting that while Elliot might not be the most pleasant character, he spends a lot of time trying to avoid people getting killed.
(And while Luke is nearly always nice, it’s important to remember that hey, he kills people without question, beats people up for looking sideways at Elliot, etc. He’s not exactly perfect either.)
And of course I can get why people don’t like Serene; particularly if you don’t read through to the end, her character (and the elven society) comes across as “reverse sexism”. It’s kind of powerful in the way it exposes some of the ridiculous stereotypes about the way women behave, but if that was all there was to Serene, she’d be just as unlikeable as a male character who looks down on women. That isn’t all there is, though, once she forms a relationship with Golden; although it’s basically just flipping sexism round, and there’s a lot of humour in that, Serene as an individual turns out not to be just about reverse sexism. I particularly liked some of the interactions between her and Elliot, as they realise their relationship means different things to both of them.
That’s all about the characters. What about the world? It’s relatively generic, but spiced up by the odd comments Elliot makes about how things go in stories about other worlds, giving us a little bit of meta.
In the end, I found it very enjoyable, and if there’s an aspect of it being “like fanfiction” in terms of willing the couple to get together, the wish fulfillment, etc — well, I’ve read some damn good fanfiction in my time, and this captured some of the delight of the best fanfiction. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.