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390 pages, Paperback
First published March 1, 2016
“I’m Gloria,” she said.
“I, uh.” My brain felt like a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam.
“You’ve never met a little person before.” She giggled, in that cute way Southern women do instead of punching you in the teeth.
I had a sudden desperate urge to talk to Dr. Davis. This woman, her former patient no less, had torn her mind in half. Her Emotion Mind was perched on my shoulder while her Reason Mind drove the car and told me it didn’t matter. It was fascinating and horrible, and I was deeply, sickeningly envious.
Union Station is the sort of place that looks like it ought to have ghosts. And it does, if you count the dead-eyed people shuffling through the cavernous main terminal or perched in uncomfortable chairs, watching rows of demonic red numbers.
"So we can get inspiration from fey and vice versa. Anybody who's anybody has an Echo."
"All of them? You're saying Martin Scorsese hangs out with fairies?"
"Yup. Not all fey are sunshine and rainbows."
"Kubrick, Eastwood, Coppola?"
"Kubrick's before my time, but probably. Eastwood and Coppola, yeah."
"He doesn't need one; he's a wizard."
I discovered Borderline through some explosive rave reviews when it came out in March, and a lot of those reviews focused on how well Baker portrays mental illness and physical disability. I had never read an SFF book with a disabled protagonist before (I don't suppose Miles Vorkosigan counts? Probably not, though there are plenty of stories around his damaged body and his clone twin Mark's mental trauma).
So let me say first that I wish I had read Borderline much sooner than I did! Because it was an excellent and fun book. Because of its subject matter and character, I had expected the book to be much darker than it really was.
The main character Milly is a former film student and director who attempted suicide and survived. She's now a double amputee with mild brain damage from head trauma and she has Borderline Personality Disorder. She's asked to join The Arcadia Project, which she agrees to without knowing what it is: a group that manages the Fey that come into our world and their human Echoes. A Fey, Viscount Ravenholt, goes missing, and Milly and her new partner Teo have to find him.
It was very interesting to read about an effective character with real agency who has to struggle with her own body and mind. Walking and transportation are difficult. Sometimes she is abruptly confused or forgets what just happened. Her mood can shift dramatically during a conversation; she can become extremely emotional or violent. She has to consciously call up coping mechanisms when she becomes aware of her personality disorder affecting her. And that's something I could actually relate to. A couple of times a week I'm reminded I have anxiety, I need to do some breathing exercises, or I need to calm myself by realistically analyzing my irrational worries. I loved reading about Milly, who is damaged and hurting, but also coping and healing, and who is and has always been a person.
Borderline is also written in a very engaging, fast-paced manner that makes the story fly. I'm not the biggest fan of urban fantasy, so the setting and the plot were quite OK, but the characters and writing were mightily impressive. I'm already excited for the next book!
The nitty-gritty: A delightful blend of fantasy, the modern-day film industry, and quirky characters that will make you smile.
It was midmorning on a Monday when magic walked into my life wearing a beige Ann Taylor suit and sensible flats.
I’ve been salivating over this amazing cover for months now, and I was so excited to be able to read Mishell Baker’s debut. I thought I was going to get one type of story, but ultimately Borderline blew me away with its odd—but somehow workable—combination of elements. First, the setting is Los Angeles, Baker’s hometown, and sunny Tinseltown turns out to be the perfect setting. The story revolves around a famous film director whose “muse” has gone missing. It turns out that every creative person on Earth has a muse from a parallel world called Arcadia, where the Seelie and Unseelie Courts are real, and the fey are not just the stuff of movies.
And then there is Millie. Millie is definitely a new favorite character, and despite her rough edges I dare you not to fall in love with her. Baker has given her a double whammy of disabilities. First, she has borderline personality disorder (which I didn’t know anything about before I read this book) and she’s been institutionalized for the past six months after a suicide attempt, during which she lost both her legs. So not only is she mentally ill, but she’s a double amputee as well. I wasn’t sure how Baker was going to pull that off, but she did it with grace and plenty of surprises as well.
The story is a tangled net of fey magic and intricate plotting, but I’ll give you the basic rundown of the plot. Millie is happily hanging out at the Leishman Psychiatric Center in Silver Lake when she receives a visit from an odd woman named Caryl. Caryl invites her to join something called the Arcadia Project, where she’ll be taken from the psychiatric center and go to live in a large house with other members of the team. Once there, she’ll be tested to see if she can perform certain skills, in the hopes of staying on with the Project. It’s all very vague, and Caryl doesn’t tell her much, but Millie decides why not? and leaves the hospital.
Once they arrive at Millie’s new home, Caryl explains that the Arcadia Project manages and guards the doorways between the human and fey worlds, and that at the moment, their main concern is a missing viscount of the Seelie Court named Rivenholt, who also just happens to be a famous actor. Millie is tasked with joining the investigation (she has a background in the film industry so she’s already got the job qualifications), and she doesn’t waste time tracking down Rivenholt’s muse on Earth, famous director Berenbaum, for an interview. But Berenbaum is shocked that Rivenholt is missing, and the mystery thickens as Millie and Caryn follow thread after thread, each one revealing a horrible plot that could have consequences for those on both sides of the doors.
One of my favorite parts of this story, other than Millie, who is simply a fabulous character (more about her later!) was Baker’s worldbuilding. With so many cool and creative ideas, it's hard to know what to talk about and what to keep under my hat—I don’t want to spoil too much for you—but I will mention a couple of my favorite things. When Millie arrives at the house where she’ll be staying, she’s given a pair of sunglasses that reveal the hidden fey—who wear disguises in the human world. With the glasses, Millie can see traces of magic and the true nature of people who look normal, but are most definitely not. I also loved Caryl’s familiar, a small dragon-like creature named Elliot who can only been seen through the fey lenses, a “construct” that Caryl created to house all her emotions. (The idea being that Caryl wants to keep those emotions in check.)
I particularly loved the LA setting, because it’s always fun reading about the place you live, and Baker, who also lives in the area, gets so many details just right. I loved the juxtaposition of sunny Los Angeles against the mysterious world of Arcadia—which we barely get to see in this first installment, by the way—and Baker uses the LA setting to her advantage by paring famous directors, actors and other creative minds in the film industry together as “human and fey muses” combos. One scene where Millie meets Berenbaum on the Warner Bros. lot was especially fun for me, because Warner Bros. is one of my clients, and I’ve been on that lot before, and it’s just as confusing as Baker describes it!
But despite all these wonderful elements, Borderline wouldn’t be the same without its characters, in particular Millie. You would think a girl who has tried (and failed) to commit suicide, lost both her legs in said suicide attempt, and who has a tricky mental illness would be all kinds of depressed. But no, Millie is quite the trooper, which is one reason I loved her so much. She’s certainly not perfect, and she has plenty of character flaws, but her upbeat attitude and her outrageous sense of humor were quite wonderful, and I applaud the author for going against the grain and creating someone so unexpected. I also appreciated how Baker doesn’t shy away from the details of being a double amputee. She describes Millie’s struggles with wearing prosthetics, and her daily issues with her borderline personality disorder, but doesn’t make them into “issues.” They are simply part of who Millie is.
The rest of the cast is nearly as much fun. Millie stays in a rambling Queen Anne with a slew of quirky characters, who each have issues of their own, but who all have been called into service by Caryl. There’s Teo, who is most certainly not attracted to Millie (as he says more than once), a little person named Gloria with a huge personality, and the house “mother,” a woman named Song who wears her baby in a sling sans diapers (!)
This is the first in a trilogy, and as I mentioned before, most of the action takes place in the human realm. But I fervently hope that when next we meet Millie and her friends, we’ll get the chance to venture into Arcadia. I was intrigued and charmed by the quick glimpses of the fey, and I definitely want more! If you’re looking for a story that’s refreshingly different, full of page-turning action, with wonderfully drawn characters, then Borderline is a must read.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. This review originally appeared on Books, Bones & Buffy