This is a really hard book to review, mostly because it gave me a bunch of feelings but part of that was because I was feeling emotionally fragile anyway and thus it’s hard to pin down whether it’s the book’s fault that I started sobbing partway through, given that it wasn’t even that sad.
I went into this fully expecting to love it, because I’m a big fan of Sarah Rees Brennan. I recently reread the whole Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, as well as finishing the Lynburn Legacy trilogy, and I enjoyed the whole process very much. One of the main things I love about her work is the humour: she has a lot of very snarky characters, and I’m a sucker for sarcasm.
The way I’ve phrased the opening of that paragraph makes it sound like this book was a disappointment. It wasn’t — I enjoyed it a lot. But it wasn’t entirely what I expected.
I suppose that’s partly because the other books I’ve read by Sarah Rees Brennan have been more paranormal/urban fantasy, with magic coexisting with the everyday, while this features a whole separate magical land akin to Narnia, and all its customs and inhabitants are different to our world. Well, most of them, anyway. Thus, while there are brief glimpses of the ‘real’ world, it’s not integrated into the story in the same way, and that gave the book quite a different feel.
I really enjoyed the characters. Elliot is a tiny ginger nerd and I love him. He might by cynical, but he actually has a huge heart, and he’s out to make this magical world better — preferably without having to fight anyone, because he’s not about that child soldier life. Okay, so he does eventually get less tiny (and also turns out to be bi, which is fabulous), but we first meet him as a thirteen-year-old and the impression of smallness kind of stuck.
He can be mean, and tends to infodump on people about obscure subjects they don’t care about, and isn’t great at feelings — I’m fairly sure if his dad was less neglectful and if he didn’t now live in a magical land without modern medicine, he’d have been diagnosed as autistic — but he’s loving and loyal and brave, even if he’d be the last to admit to it.
It wasn’t her fault if Elliot had expressed his feelings wrong. He always did that, as if life were a dance where everybody else knew the moves but Elliot was constantly and fatally out of step.
I also love Elliot’s point-blank refusal to use a quill and his determination to smuggle pens into the Borderlands. That’s definitely how Muggleborns at Hogwarts would behave, let’s be real.
“You will never find me in trouble. You will find me in the library. If you can remember where that is.”
Then there are his friends. The main two are Serene (Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle), who is an elf, and Luke, who is part of the renowned Sunborn clan and seems to have it all: looks and skills. They’re both much more active and ready to fight than Elliot, though they do manage to bully him into athleticism sometimes, and they both have their own weirdnesses. Unlike Elliot, they grew up in the Borderlands, so they’re more familiar with its quirks — but unfamiliar with his world’s.
Gender politics come into play because elves are apparently matriarchal, in a very straightforward reversal of outdated human patriarchy: men belong at home doing embroidery, women belong in battle. They even have reversal of stereotypes about emotions and child-rearing. This tend to lead to some sticky situation, as well as forcing the human characters to think twice about some of their prejudices, while also being funny at times. However, I occasionally felt the point was laboured. After a while we got it, and it stopped being quite as amusing.
“What’s your name?”
“Serene?” Elliot asked.
Elliot’s mouth fell open. “That is badass.”
There are a bunch of other characters, many of whom are plenty interesting, but these were the central three and I got very attached to them. I have to admit I got some of the background characters muddled, particularly the authority figures who were known by titles and surnames and thus became vaguely interchangeable in my head, even though they were actually very different characters. But, I was reading it when very fatigued, which probably didn’t help.
I’d say that the central theme of the story is about learning how to love and be loved. That sounds fairly trite, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s about learning how to have friends, and how to accept that your friends actually care about you and won’t abandon you. It’s about navigating the fine line between platonic and romantic feelings. It’s about not letting romance ruin great friendships. It’s about families, and accepting that it’s not always about who you’re related to, and you should take family when you can find it. It’s about being different, and learning to see that as a strength. It’s about letting go of people who don’t care about you and accepting love from the people who do.
“I’m being emotionally supportive the best way I know how,” Elliot said eventually. “By which I mean I’m leaving, and I’m going to the library.”
Of course, there’s more to the story than that, but I feel like that underlies a lot of the character relationships. Also that’s a big factor in the part which made me cry. I think I was just feeling fragile at the time, but yeah, I randomly started crying for like ten minutes and had to put the book down for a while to go and have feelings.
The book also features all sorts of mythical creatures, including mermaids, harpies, unicorns — and of course, a canonically bisexual protagonist, the rarest of them all. Elliot is just SUCH a nerd about magic and I can relate on so many levels. I mean, I’m not nearly as studious as he is, but I loved his passion for just finding stuff about the world and how it worked, and turning that to his advantage, as well as the subversion of colonialist fantasy tropes of chosen peacekeepers from another world solving the problems of mythical races.
“Elliot finished his book in bed and pondered going to get another one. He only had so much time left, and he had so many books to get through.”
The one problem I had with the book was stylistic. And I think that’s probably just me, because I’ve been really fussy about stylistic stuff recently and can never find a book that quite works for me, but the speech patterns and narrative styles never felt quite natural. It worked for those from the Borderlands, but I would’ve expected Elliot to sound more like a normal teenager — although perhaps the time he spent obsessing over books gave me that weirdly formal way of speaking, I’m not sure. The sarcasm, while delightful, occasionally felt over-the-top and self-consciously funny, which in turn robbed it of some of its humour.
Partly I think the style was deliberate, echoing other fantasy novels (such as Narnia) but with a twist, but it made it harder for me to get into the book, as it wasn’t until most of the way through that I stopped noticing / being bothered by it.
All in all, though, this was really enjoyable, and gave me feelings, and I’m already wondering if it’s too soon to reread parts of it.