Book Review: LIFE ON THE BORDER

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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.

4/5 stars

Book Review: BORDERLAND

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Borderland is the very first installation in the series of the same name—a corpus of shared-world short stories and novels which collectively serves as a foundational text for the urban fantasy genre. Written in the 1980s, the books meld punk sensibilities and old-world high-fantasy glamour.

Borderland (this volume) is an anthology of four pieces of short fiction by Steven R. Boyet, Terri Windling writing as Bellamy Bach, Charles De Lint and Ellen Kushner. As with Bordertown, which I read and reviewed out of order, each of the stories serves as a conceptually self-contained aspect of the shared world. The stories are unified by setting—Bordertown, the city nestled between the Elflands and the human World. Three of the four stories as further connected through the youth of their protagonists and their occurrence in Bordertown’s history. The first of the set, “Prodigy”, bucks the trend: its protagonist, a formerly famous musician named Scooter, is notably older than many of the other POV characters scattered amongst the stories, and the story itself is set in the early years of Bordertown, likely some ten or fifteen years at least before the following entries.

As with any multi-author anthology, the mix of voices and approaches means your mileage will vary. The nature of shared-world creations means that inevitably a reader will find installments somewhat uneven. Taken as a whole, I think the stories in this collection are more polished than those in Bordertown—these stories have greater clarity, more concision in their language, and better consistency of perspective.

This volume spends more time than Bordertown exploring the fuzzy borders of magic, embodied and otherwise. In “Prodigy,” a man’s musical talent becomes a literal form of magic which rages through Bordertown. “Gray” tells the story of a runaway girl with strange magical abilities who trades her human street gang for the friendship of a well-meaning if vapid elf girl. While Gray toys with the problematic position of halfies in Bordertown, Gray is revealed to be fully human (though still in possession of magic). “Stick” confronts the precarious lives of halfies more directly—when Stick, Bordertown’s resident martial artist/vigilante, saves a halfie girl from a gang bet down, she ends up saving him in turn with the help of Farrel Din (an elvish wizard) and the Horn Dance (a rock band). “Charis” takes us up the Hill, to where the dignitaries and wealthy live. Here we get a glimpse of interworld politics when Charis, the naive daughter of two human politicians, gets dragged into a complicated elfin plot.

I especially liked “Gray” and “Charis” in this volume. The two stories pair well together, actually, working as sort of mirror images of what elf-looking human teenage girls in this world might do and deal with. “Stick” is a bit…optimistic for my particular taste, I think. And “Prodigy” fell quite flat with me. In both “Stick” and “Prodigy” the characterization could have been stronger. “Prodigy” also felt overly long for the story it told. But all in all, this book serves as a very strong introduction to Bordertown.

4/5 stars