Life on the Border is the third installment of the Borderland series created and edited by Terri Windling. My reviews of the two previous volumes in the series are here and here. Life on the Border, like the two volumes before it, is an anthology of short stories by multiple authors set in a shared universe where Elfland has returned to the human world, bringing with it trade, unreliable magic and technology, and the elves. This volume is larger than the previous two and features new authors as well as familiar ones. But Life on the Border felt different from Borderland and Bordertown to me in a couple of important ways, both of which, I think, made it a stronger collection.
First, Life on the Border does a really excellent job capitalizing on the fact that it’s the third book in the series. The authors here dig deeper into the stories of characters who have come before, picking up threads and answering questions the other two volumes left behind. Bellamy Bach’s “Rain and Thunder,” for instance, revisits Gray, a character first introduced in Borderland who we last saw leaving the human world in the form of a cat. Stick and Koga, also introduced in previous volumes of the series, get a strange and unexpected shared backstory in Charles De Lint’s “Berlin.” And Will Shetterly starts Life on the Border with a Wolfboy story. The intertextual connections don’t stop there—Farrel Din alludes to the plot of “Prodigy” in this volume’s “Light and Shadow.” Characters who appear in one story within this volume, such as the curiously magical skateboarder Deki, show up again later. Altogether, this serves to create a sense of a real, living neighborhood. By using the groundwork laid by Borderland and Bordertown, this volume makes the reader feel more like they are coming home than venturing into some unknown place. Three volumes in and Bordertown has become a place where you know everyone’s name.
The other real strength of this volume is that it feels like it’s grown up with the reader. Borderland was published in 1986, and Life on the Border was published 5 years later in 1991. Where Borderland felt distinctively (and I believe intentionally) Young Adult in tone and content, Life on the Border feels much more adult. The first two volumes felt like the runaway’s honeymoon period; this volume feels like when the runaway really learns what town is like. The elves, for instance, have been flighty and tricky in previous volumes, but the elves in this volume especially are dark, mean creatures. Wolfboy runs into a particularly brutal batch of elves in the Nevernever who clearly see him as less than a person. Bordertown is plagued by an elvin monster in “Reynardine,” and it seems implied at the end of “Alison Gross” that Alison herself is an elvin witch since she’s banished across the border in Elfland. There is, again, the punishment meted out to Gray when the elves across the border find out she’s human. The protagonist of Ellen Kushner’s “Lost in the Mail” finds out the hard way that the theft of humans’ individuality is an elvin hobby when she lands in Oberon House—it’s a chilling, vampiric view of the elves that has stuck with me since I first read this volume years ago.
All in all, Life on the Border is the most cohesive volume in the Borderland series so far. Standouts for me in particular were “Nightwail” by Kara Dalkey, “Rain and Thunder” by Bellamy Bach and “Nevernever” by Will Shetterly. On the whole, I think the strengths of this book are lost if you haven’t read and loved the previous two volumes in the series, so I wouldn’t say it’s a stand-alone book or a particularly great introduction to the Borderland series, but it is an excellent extension of that series. I would have liked to see more insight into elvin culture—as I said, I appreciate the darkness of the elves here, but the book’s unrelenting focus on human stories could have been better balanced. It felt, a bit, like the book was written by the Pack—Bordertown’s staunchly human-only gang.