Bordertown, an anthology of short stories edited by Terri Windling, has the distinction of being both a sparkling example of a shared-world concept and was a hugely influential excursion into the genre that would become urban fantasy. Written in the 1980s, this collection of short fiction marries high-fantasy constructs (elves, magic, etc) with punk rock sensibilities. The conceit is as follows: a long, long time ago magic was part of our world. For reasons no one now remembers, the Elflands departed and took magic with them. The two worlds existed in parallel until, with no explanation, the Elflands returned. A city—Bordertown—sits on the weird boundary between our world and the world of faery, existing in a liminal stretch where neither human technology or elvin magic works with anything like consistency. Bordertown, like all other fascinating cities before it, attracts runaways from both sides of the border. The collection includes four short stories, each set in a different part of Bordertown and each written by a different author.
I’ve read Bordertown and most of its companion collections several times each.* I read them a few times through as an adolescent who was distinctly an outsider in my home town (you can read a little bit about there here). I read them again in graduate school when I began to write my own fiction in earnest. I am one of the many genre-addicted misfit kids deeply influenced by this collection. Were I reviewing Bordertown on reach or downstream influence alone, five stars would not be adequate. I say all that by way of caveat, because I’m going to review the book, instead, on the text itself.
Bordertown is composed of four stories—“Danceland,” a murder mystery set in a punk night club; “Demon”, a story which explores the intersections of elvin and East Asian forms of magic; “Exile,” a quiet little thing about a very peculiar elvin girl; and “Mockery,” a love story set that reads like a La Boheme homage. Together, the four stories provide distinct snapshots into the lives of the youth of Bordertown. There’s no direct connection between the characters, no overarching plot. It’s a survey of what it’s like to live in Bordertown in a particular moment in time, a survey with a particular focus on the runaways and the kids just scraping by. But, as a glimpse into those people’s lives, it’s strangely romantic. I made a similar critique of Patti Smith’s autobiography, Just Kids; having known kids living these kinds of lives I can say with some certainty than not everyone makes it out in one piece. There are cursory nods to drugs and addiction, most explicitly in “Danceland”, but the most common and terrible outcomes of that kind of life, as well as the reasons substance abuse happens in those circumstances, are brushed neatly under the rug. Bordertown, for the people followed in these four stories, should be a much, much grittier place than it appears on the page. This is highlighted by the fact that a number of the protagonists we follow (with the notable exception of Michelle in “Demon” who inhabits a distinctly gritty and working class life) actually come from intact middle-class families either in the human suburbs on the edges of Bordertown or in the well-to-do elvin neighborhood uptown. These are kids, essentially, playing pauper. That’s a whole different ballgame than actually being a pauper. As such, the book dazzles us with its inherent coolness, a coolness I would like to point out still oozes from the pages, which is somehow not anachronistic in spite of how tied the book is to the decade which spawned it. Bordertown is escapist in nature. It’s exactly, precisely what I wanted to read when I was fifteen. Now I prefer a bit more nuance and realism in my fictional discussions of class in secondary universes, but this is pitch-perfect for the misfit teenager I used to be.
Taken separately, the stories are hit and miss. “Danceland” reads very much as the strong first chapter of a novel and less as a strong short story. And, indeed, the characters in “Danceland” appear down the road as protagonists in a couple of full-length Bordertown novels. “Demon” is an interesting conceit, but the writing left me flat—the author has a noticeable habit of head-hopping, or flitting between POV characters in a hard to follow and distracting way. “Exile”, I think, is the strongest of the bunch—it is the most grounded in simple emotional truths, it does a lot to explain and explore the foreignness of elvin culture through just a little insight into a elf girl cast out from her world, and it reads as a complete story populated by real people. “Mockery” I found overly long and overly romantic, but, my god, it influenced the hell out of me as a kid. Some years ago I wrote a novel which will never see the light of day, and that novel more or less completely ripped this particular story off wholesale. Yeah, my characters were musicians not painters (except one of them, extra oops) but the whole idea of very young and very talented and very wild kids living together and raising hell and changing things goddammit is stolen directly from this story. So, while I was less impressed by it this time around I will say that “Mockery” has a power to it.
Again, the influence of this collection can’t be overstated. Taken just on its own merits, though, I give Bordertown three stars out of five—it’s a book with a lot of heart, a lot of fearless gusto, but a book of short stories that could have used a couple more drafts.
*I own but have not yet read the most recent collection, Welcome to Bordertown. I felt like I should reread the past collections before diving into the new one, hence this reread.