I didn’t really know the word ‘bisexual’ until I was 17 years old.
In my defense, I grew up in a Yorkshire village so small and remote that if you wanted to buy milk you’d have to hike across fields to reach the next town over. It’s a bit of a poor excuse, though, given I turned 17 in 2007.
But bisexuality is such a foggy, underrepresented identity. It’s not a social “default”, like being straight; nor is it a clear defiance of that “default”, like being gay. There’s always an underlying assumption, when one is bisexual, that one is choosing to be queer. Just to be difficult.
In Other Lands’ Elliot Schafer is bisexual.
He’s also sarcastic, irreverent, allergic to exercise, and utterly unsuited to the portal fantasy adventure his life has somehow become when he stumbles into the militarised world of the Borderlands. All in all, being bi is the least of his issues.
Here’s why I adore In Other Lands, though: even though it’s not the source of the majority of his problems, or the driver of his adventures, Elliot’s bisexuality suffuses and informs the whole book. And that’s rare.
There are a lot of reasons to love this book. We could start with its condemnation of fantasy’s blithe justification of violence on anyone considered ‘other’: the book’s ‘sun-kissed warrior’ archetype, Luke Sunborn, throws up after killing his first troll, even though that troll was about to murder Elliot, his best friend. Elliot himself spends that page wishing he knew the language of trolls so he could speak, rather than stab. They’re people to him, rather than obstacles.
Then there’s its exceedingly smart and devastating critique of the patriarchy, embodied by the beautiful elf maiden Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle. By creating in the elves a direct gender-flipped reproduction of our patriarchal biases around warfare, child rearing, and general mouthiness, Rees Brennan gets to rub Elliot’s nose in what it means to be considered ‘the softer sex’.
There’s also, of course, its wit. Rees Brennan is a fantastic writer of banter and sarcastic narration, and In Other Lands sparkles on every page. It’s impossible to read this book without laughing.
For me, though, the reason I shout this book to high heavens comes back to how it handles Elliot’s bisexuality. Here we have a character who never saw a challenge he wouldn’t take, never backs down from an argument, and who throws himself wholeheartedly into relationships with very different people across the course of the book. Through Elliot, we see some of the more aggravating pieces of life as a bisexual (“Before you realized you didn’t like girls,” says Elliot’s first boyfriend towards the middle of the book, treating bisexuality as a phase) and we see its joys, in the connections he makes with others. Rees Brennan’s deft hand with character brings us entirely different dynamics in each of Elliot’s many relationships, showing that there is more to a relationship’s balance than the genders of those involved.
Elliot is a character who knows who he is. He never once doubts his sexuality, though it’s questioned and occasionally mocked by those around him. He’s incandescent, chaotic, and exactly the kind of bisexual protagonist I most needed as a teen.
Don’t let this book pass you bi.
You can buy In Other Lands direct from the publisher, or from any of your usual sources of fiction.