Having just finished this book, I feel as though I’ve come home from a week spent walking the wild, gritty streets of Bordertown. The memories of madness, desperation, beauty, grime, and magic still cling to me, and I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to easily shake them off. Thirteen authors take the reader’s hand in this urban fantasy collection, lead the reader to the city limits and thrust them into a world of street kids, rock and roll, elves, enchantment, dreams and disappointments. The sheer story-telling talent in this book is undeniable, and the same goes for the gleeful imagination in each story. Make no mistake, the Border will change you, but this is a book I highly recommend.
There is a lot in The Essential Bordertown that endeared me to it straight away. Stories by both Ellen Kushner and Steven Brust provided the initial attraction, and additional stories by recognizable names such as Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint and Patrica A. McKillip definitely kept that flame of interest going strong. As I started into the book, the strength of the shared world itself was a huge draw. Without being well read enough in the genre to give a definitive opinion, I can nonetheless say from my small experience that this may be urban fantasy at its best. What Bordertown gives us is a city like any other large industrial city: a mix of uptown well-to-dos, cold, dirty slums, and a rocking, flashy nightlife. Oh, and elves, because what Bordertown has that no other city has is its namesake: the border to Elfland.
Bordertown sits right in between the World (what we would call normal, human habitations) and the True and Only Realm (which is whatever you would call the place where fairies and elves come from). Because of this, the area exhibits some strange confusions from both lands. Both technology and magic, for example, work sporadically at best, and disastrously at worst. Fashion, art, music and culture also mix in some strange ways, creating something unseemly to those living on both sides of the Border. Every street, corner and landmark breathes with its own personality, from the Mad River to Dragontown to Mock Avenue, and the authors of these stories work magic of their own with descriptions and sensory titillations that pull the reader from where they are sitting and place them directly in the streets of Bordertown to live, breathe, taste, smell, and hear every heartbeat of the city. In fact, one of the things that tugged at my heart strings most about this book was the similarity of the setting and the otherworldly characters to those of Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite–gritty, dirty teenagers addicted to sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and freedom, clashing with the beautiful, dangerous world of supernatural beings.
I’m not going to review each story on its own like I usually do with anthologies, because the stories in this book are all fantastic, and without seeking the aid of a thesaurus, I’m going to run out of ways to say, ‘brilliantly written, evocative, spell-binding, and surreal’. I’ll talk briefly about a few of the stories that really captured me, however, though that too is going to be difficult in itself.
First there’s Oak Hill by Patricia A. McKillip. What I loved about this story was its charmingly innocent protagonist and her interactions with the elves she meets upon her arrival. If this is your first introduction to Bordertown, it’s an apt one. The peculiarities of humans and elves, as well as the tensions, mistrusts and racism are showcased here, without letting the story, tone or reader fall into despair.
Midori Snyder’s Dragon Child also had me hooked, with its daring opening and a protagonist who brings pieces of both the human world and the elflands to the story. The beauty of the elf lord cut into the soot of the city makes for some stunning, and shocking juxtaposition.
Exposing the truly tragic conditions of Bordertown’s runaways is Delia Sherman’s Socks. It also addresses another thing I loved about Bordertown: that beauty is idiosyncratic in the extreme. Where a lot of fantasy takes pains to paint their characters as conventionally beautiful, or maybe sporting a single, easily overlooked blemish, Bordertown and Sherman’s Socks shows us that fantasy can be just as brilliant, just as relatable and damnit, just as enjoyable with characters who aren’t slender, fair-skinned and fit.
The story Hot Water: A Bordertown Romance reminded me how important openings are, and just how amazing Ellen Kushner is at writing them:
Thumper first noticed the voice coming out of his teapot and Thumper did not like that, because that was an elf-type thing, and Thumper was not deeply into elves.
Hot Water shows us that love, who we love, and where we can find love are not always in the places we expect, or from the people we most want. Love is a strange, tangled emotion and magic certainly doesn’t help that, especially not Bordertown magic.
I really liked Caroline Stevermer’s Rag, though I think I’d be hard pressed to give a definitive reason why. It may be because the first person perspective of the story is everything that first person ought to be, and yet which is so often lacking. The character dynamics and relationships as well are unique enough that I enjoyed the reading. The pace is slow at first, but builds to a satisfying, if not altogether dangerous climax, and the ending left me with the (by then) familiar Bordertown aftertaste of the freedom and satisfaction in anarchy.
When the Bow Breaks took me by surprise. It wasn’t the sort of story I had expected from Steven Brust, though it nonetheless didn’t fail to entertain. Taking the strange, sometimes accidental interactions of magic in Bordertown and applying them to shipping, Brust not only demonstrates his ability to convincingly write a range of characters and situations, but also the scope of his imagination and cleverness in metaphor turned into reality.
Finally, the anthology ends with How Shannaro Tolkinson Lost and Found His Heart by Felicity Savage. This story as well surprised me with its characters and its ending, and I mean that in a good way. Just as I was starting to groan at the direction of the plot, it picked itself up, danced a country jig and became something different, very different from the rest of the book. To say that Savage writes beautifully is a terrible understatement. This passage, for example, resonated particularly well with me:
I thought I had followed it through Soho, away from the lights, out of earshot of the terrified screaming of guitars, when I arrived at a pier half eaten away by a muscular, rain-dimpled river.
And that isn’t even yet mentioning her characters. Shannaro is a protagonist unlike any of the others in Bordertown. He is a True Blood, but low born, and doesn’t want anything to do with Bordertown, except to find his fiancee and return home. In his innocence, his naivety and his singularity of purpose, Shannaro explores Bordertown in the way perhaps we all wish to–to step in, take a look around, steal a bit of its magic and return home.
The next book on my reading list is As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.