Holly Black and Ellen Kushner: Welcome To Bordertown

A generation ago, Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold introduced us to Bordertown, an abandoned American city sitting on the Border between the “real world” (The World) and Faerie (The Realm). A place where science and magic both worked, if equally unpredictably, it became a haven and a destination for runaways and outcasts of both worlds, a place where humans the Fae (aka Truebloods) could mingle, do business, eke out a living, and find themselves. It was a place where anything could happen.

Bordertown was urban fantasy before urban fantasy really had an identity. It was leather and lace, elves and rock n’ roll, magic and independence and love and adventure and loss and that wild period where anything was possible. It was glorious, and as a series, it lasted for twelve years, spanning four anthologies and three spin-off novels from 1986 to 1998. It featured some of the movers and shakers of the time, the architects of the subgenre, and boy, did they have fun. Everyone from Charles de Lint to Ellen Kushner, Midori Snyder to Emma Bull and Will Shetterly, Kara Dalkey to Patricia McKillip came out to play.

And then, like anything really awesome, it stopped. Poof. Finito. Turn out the lights, stack the chairs, lock the doors, Bordertown was gone. The band broke up and everyone went on to solo careers, leaving behind nothing but fond memories, trashed hotel rooms, and possibly a few illegitimate kids. That was that.

Until now. Thirteen years later, a new kind of Bordertown has appeared, much like one of those illegitimate kids growing up and coming to find their mysterious rock star daddy for the first time. And these kids have inherited a whole mess of the awesome gene from their wayward parents.

Welcome To Bordertown is the next generation of the series, while simultaneously acting as the direct continuation of what has gone before. How’s that? Simple. The Gates and Ways between Bordertown and the World closed. On the World side, it was a full thirteen years, just like it was for the readers. But for Bordertown and its residents, it was a mere thirteen days. A generation (or so) in the blink of an eye. The coming and going of a decade. The rise of iPods, the Internet, LOLcats, smartphones. An entire segment of the populace for whom Bordertown was just a fading myth, one of those things which may or may not have happened.

And then the Ways opened, and everything changed. With traffic once again flowing between the worlds, with a whole new crop of runaways and fortuneseekers and opportunists and lost souls flooding into Bordertown looking for adventure and answers, and all the old hands forced to cope with years’ worth of progress. But you know what? On the Border, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thirteen stories, eight poems, and one graphic story combine to paint a new picture of the Border, as original contributors and newcomers share their visions. I’ll be focusing mostly on the stories because, I must confess, poetry’s not my strength.

Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling kick off the party with their collaborative effort, “Welcome To Bordertown.” Thirteen years ago, Trish left home to seek her destiny on the Border. Now that Bordertown is back, her little brother Jimbo, all grown up, is ready to find out just what happened to his beloved sister, and bring her home at last. But for Trish, it’s only been a matter of weeks since she arrived. So what happened to her in Bordertown? Why did she abandon her college plans to run away? And how does her story tie into that of a Harvard scholar who’s way too interested in the sex lives of the Trueblood? For these three individuals, their fates will be decided, and not everyone is going home. This makes for a great opener to the set, an appropriate welcome back for old fans and an introduction to the Border for new fans. It’s the mood setter as we see just what it means for the worlds to have been separated, and how it affects people on both sides. It’s like coming home. Kushner and Windling, who pretty much defined Bordertown back in the day, are in fine form as they hit the basics. For me, it’s a comfortable, familiar, and all-too-welcome beginning.

Cory Doctorow, who’s made a name for himself as one of the cutting-edge new blood thinkers of the Internet, shows us what happens when you introduce the technology of 2010 to a Bordertown still stuck in 1998. In “Shannon’s Law,” the titular Shannon Klod makes his way to Bordertown determined to bridge the worlds with his own kludged version of the Internet, built from science and magic and uniquely Border in nature. Because where there’s a will, there’s a way, and someone’s gotta do it. But then he sets his sights on penetrating the impossible information barrier between Bordertown and the Realm, intent on being the first to transmit information into and out of Faerie. But is he smart enough, and resourceful enough, to make it happen? Or will magic trump rational thought? As usual, Doctorow sometimes seems like the smartest, or at least the most esoterically intelligent, kid in the room, which really does make him perfect for figuring out how the Internet might work with somewhere as unpredictable and strange as the Border. It’s a clever story, and the warmth at its heart makes it an enjoyable read.

Catherynne M. Valente, another newcomer who’s taken the field by storm over the past handful of years, tells the tale of a fifteen-year-old runaway in “A Voice Like A Hole.” This is less a Bordertown story, and more a tale of the journey -to- Bordertown. Sometimes, it’s not the destination which matters so much as what you experience along the way. It’s a pretty story, a heartbreaking story, and one which ends too soon. I really do want to know what happens next with Fig and Maria, and whether Bordertown is right for them after all.

Emma Bull’s “Incunabulum” is an odd piece. The protagonist is an amnesiac Trueblood, cast adrift in the Borderlands without so much as a name for his troubles, and absolutely no concept of How Things Should Be. His awkward fumblings as he tries to make a new life for himself, set against the possibility that he won’t like who he used to be, make this an intriguing story of starting over, of redefining oneself, of finding an identity which fits. Again, it would be nice to find out what happens next.

Alaya Dawn Johnson, one of those authors who pretty much grew up with the original series, gives us her version of how old and new interact in “A Prince Of Thirteen Days.” There’s a girl looking for love, a statue willing to give it, a prophecy that stands to fulfill itself in two weeks, and a graffiti artist of dubious talents. It’s not the story you think it is. Told in a gently swooping sort of prose, this story has a unique “feel” to it, like a dance of words.

Will Shetterly continues the story of Wolfboy, one of Bordertown’s old regulars (who carried two spin-offs in his own right, Elsewhere and NeverNever) in “The Sages of Elsewhere.” What happens when the lupine bookstore owner comes in possession of a magical tome that’s very much in demand? Hijinks, industrial espionage between bookstores, elf-vs.-human racial tension, and all manner of complications leading to what might be a lifestyle change, or at least a change in vocation. This is another one of those stories which feels meeting up with an old friend after years apart. It’s been a while, but it’s nice to see Wolfboy’s still doing well and leading an interesting life.

Janni Lee Simner’s “Crossings” is one of those stories which compares and contrasts the Bordertown of 1998 with the expectations of 2010, as a pair of friends set out to the Border with every intention of finding their true loves. The problem: Analise wants a vampire lover, Miranda wants a werewolf, two things which are actually in short supply on the Border. What they do find will surprise them … and prove to be a turning point in more ways than one. It’s a testimony to the power of friendship, and a pointed look at the folly of seeking out impossible relationships. One can certainly read a lot into Simner’s story and how certain stories have grown in popularity in recent years.

Sara Ryan, best known for her powerful tales of growing up and self-discovery, is joined by artist Dylan Meconis to tell the story of a young woman seeking her lost mother, in “Fair Trade.” While the story itself is strong, with Ryan hitting the high points in as few words as possible, it’s also disappointingly short. Meconis’ art is strong and bold, conveying emotion and action with understated passion and subtle quirks. The layouts are clever and vibrant, portraying the mutable, energetic nature of Bordertown with precise accuracy. And the whole thing is over way too soon. Frankly, in a just world, there’d be a monthly Bordertown comic book, and these two talents would be able to cut loose.

Tim Pratt doesn’t hold back in “Our Stars, Our Selves,” which is another story of a modern teen (a noob) seeking her fortune in Bordertown. Allie Land’s determined to make it big as a rock star on the Border, before taking whatever cachet and fame it garners her back to the World, where she can be an even bigger star. The first thing she finds, however, is a Trueblood determined to make her fall in love with him. Allie, a diehard lesbian, is entirely uninterested in her would-be suitor, thus setting the stage for a hilariously frustrating one-sided pursuit that leads to unexpected revelations and consequences. Mixed up in all of this as well as an astronomer turned astrologist, who informs Allie that, due to being born under a certain star, she has a wish coming to her. What will Allie wish for? Pratt’s story mixes humor with deeper emotions, as he explores the nature of desire and ambition, and looks at just what a person will do (or not do) to achieve their goals. Though new to the setting, his contribution is a perfect Bordertown entry.

“Elf Blood,” by Annette Curtis Klause, is an interestingly disconcerting story. It focuses upon one of Bordertown’s many halfbloods, those who straddle the line between human and elf, not quite accepted by either race. The thing is, Lizzie’s got some secrets regarding her true origins and her true nature, and if you know Bordertown like you will after getting this far in the collection, you’ll see why she’s just a little … unusual. Enough so for someone to perhaps cry foul, until the story progresses and explains what’s going on. It all makes sense, in the end. Again, this is a story where the underlying emotional development and character relationships are the true attraction, and it ends just when you get attached to the people involved.

I’ll be honest, here. Nalo Hopkinson’s “Ours Is The Prettiest” is one of the extremely rare misfires for me in this volume. She has a unique writing style, and her characters speak with a rhythmic, unconventional patois that may throw the casual reader for a loop. She introduces some elements into the Bordertown mythos that may just lay seeds for future exploration of a larger world, but the story itself didn’t hold me as well as it could have. I can admire the technique and manner, and I was honestly interested in this tale of star-crossed relationships and authentic characters, but in the end, it didn’t work for me.

Christopher Barzak’s “We Do Not Come In Peace” explores the racial and social tension between humans and Truebloods and halfbloods in the Bordertown environment. Marius may have a store to run, and he may have found a friend in newcomer Alek, but they want very different things out of life, and Alek’s not content to let the status quo remain as such. Marius may just compromise his principles to get what he wants, and Alek may just start a social revolution because he won’t compromise his. How will this affect their friendship? In Bordertown, you often learn who you are … or who you want to be. It’s a thought-provoking story, with an interesting message.

Holly Black and Cassandra Clare team up with another story of social justice and instability, with “The Rowan Gentleman.” It seems that Bordertown has its own resident masked hero, a Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro in nature, who works at stemming the tide of Bordertown’s darker impulses and excesses. A murder investigation, a magic movie theatre, a strange new drug, and some swashbuckling derring-do all come together in this start to a new legend. Where there are villains, there are heroes, and this is another nifty new toy added to the Bordertown toy box.

The last story in the collection is Charles de Lint’s “A Tangle of Green Men” and it’s … an interesting choice. It’s classic de Lint, which means the magic and the mundane interact in equal amounts of mystery, while the protagonist slowly comes to see the world through new eyes. It’s about life and love and loss and redemption and striving to be a better person. It’s a magical romance, and a great deal of the story is a slow-burning buildup that doesn’t even take place in Bordertown. Again, the Border is the destination, while the tale is the journey. This doesn’t so much feel like a Bordertown story, as it does a typical de Lint story using the Bordertown mythos as an end result. It’s a great setup for another tale, or a nice way to introduce a new character into the mix, but it stands out for spending so much time in the real World. But it’s a beautiful, haunting, excellent story, and it feels right to have de Lint participating in this revival, since he was part of the old crew.

Poetry selections are by Patricia A. McKillip, Steven Brust, Amal El-Mohtar, Jane Yolen, Delia Sherman, and Neil Gaiman. It’s good stuff, but I know my limitations, and yield to someone far more savvy in the ways of verse.

Let it also be pointed out that this anthology, which is targeted at existing fans of the series while also trying to attract an audience not as familiar with the material, manages to fulfill both functions with admirable excellence. For those coming back after a length hiatus, there’s a healthy does of the familiar. For the newcomers, it’s easy to pick up the setting and its themes and relate to the characters. There’s a handy orientation guide in the front, along with several lovely introductions from creator Terri Windling and editor Holly Black.  There’s no reason why anyone couldn’t pick this up and enjoy it, either as a continuation of the series or as their introduction to the Border. Furthermore, it’s great that there’s no shortage of characters of color, or gay and lesbian characters making their mark on Bordertown. This really is a setting where anything goes, and everyone is welcome. What’s not to love?

So there you have it. The old and the new. Not only have all of the main members of the old band gotten back together, they’ve brought their protégés and literary offspring along as well to create an all-new superband determined to carry Bordertown into the future. This isn’t a rehashing of the old days, this is a love-fueled rock n’ roll continuation and updating where a new generation meets the old gang. And it is awesome. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a train to the Border to catch.

The official website is here.

(Random House, 2011)

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