Shaking up the Genre: A Review of Mishell Baker’s Borderline

Borderline (2016)
Written by: Mishell Baker
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Pages: 400 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Saga Press

Why I Chose It: We’re reading the Nebula Awards here at Speculative Chic! Out of the nominees for best novel that I had not already read, Borderline is the one that intrigued me the most.

The premise:

A year ago, Millie lost her legs and her filmmaking career in a failed suicide attempt. Just when she’s sure the credits have rolled on her life story, she gets a second chance with the Arcadia Project: a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales.

For her first assignment, Millie is tasked with tracking down a missing movie star who also happens to be a nobleman of the Seelie Court. To find him, she’ll have to smooth-talk Hollywood power players and uncover the surreal and sometimes terrifying truth behind the glamour of Tinseltown. But stronger forces than just her inner demons are sabotaging her progress, and if she fails to unravel the conspiracy behind the noble’s disappearance, not only will she be out on the streets, but the shattering of a centuries-old peace could spark an all-out war between worlds.

No pressure.

There are no spoilers for Borderline in this review.


Discussion: A few years ago, I found myself disillusioned with the urban fantasy genre as a whole. Despite being one of my gateway drugs into speculative fiction (through the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer), after years of books, TV shows, and (mostly terrible) movies, I found myself bored with sexy vampires, dominance-obsessed werewolves, power-creeping spellcasters, and the fay and their combating courts. Every new series I picked up just felt like a rehash of another, better work, and with the wide variety books available in a post-Twilight world, I found myself desiring more from my paranormal books then just the presence of werewolves or faeries.

Fortunately, I found a few titles that brought me back into the genre, the big ones being Rachel Aaron’s Heartstriker books, and Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid series. These books took the things that I loved about urban fantasy (swift pacing, supernatural elements, engaging character voice, and mystery and romantic subplots), but didn’t just recycle what had been done before. Instead, each author made sure to add in their own unique spice. This is something that Mishell Baker’s Borderline, the first book in The Arcadia Project, does wonderfully.

The heroine of Borderline is a welcome addition to urban fantasy. In a genre dominated by able-bodied protagonists, Millie stands out as a double amputee struggling with Borderline Personality Disorder. The level of detail provided on both of these aspects of Millie’s life is quite impressive. Baker has clearly done her homework here, and is skillful enough of a writer to deliver this information in a manner which never feels text book-y, or overly pitying. I also found the fact that Millie is such a flawed character to be quite refreshing. In a genre where most leads (the female ones especially), must achieve an acceptable status of “likableness,” Millie is a character who frequently makes some poor choices and must suffer the consequences. Under a lesser writer, this might leave the reader feeling frustrated and dissatisfied, but Baker does such a great job of getting inside of Millie’s head and explaining her mindset, so this never was a problem for me.

Interestingly, the majority of Borderline‘s side characters also suffer from some sort of mental illness or trauma (there is a plot reason for this, and it does not feel contrived at all). This adds an interesting layer of tension between the characters. At first, I found myself feeling frustrated at the secondary characters. From the start, they are pretty unpleasant to Millie, and are completely insensitive to her physical handicap, which seemed pretty dickish to me. But the more I got to know these characters, and understand what made them tick, the more they grew on me.

Beyond characterization, Borderline also succeeds in the worldbuilding department. Yes, we’re once again dealing with faerie courts, but it’s the relationship the fay share with humanity that’s the most interesting. The concept of an “echo” is a unique, twist on soulmates that I hope to see further explored in future books. I also really enjoyed the Hollywood setting, and the role that the fay came to play in our world of movie making. Borderline also contains some satisfying mystery elements. Whether it’s in handling the missing person case, or raising questions about the shadowy Arcadia Project, Borderline does a great job of keeping the readers guessing and wondering what’s going to happen next.

In Conclusion: Borderline is a strong start to a new series that has so many of the things I love about the urban fantasy genre, but isn’t afraid to shake things up a bit. I love the way that Millie’s physical disability and mental illness was explored, and the fact that she was such a flawed protagonist.  I enjoyed the greater cast of characters, the worldbuilding, and mystery-filled plotline. I flew through this 400-page book, and I can’t wait to see where Baker takes Millie and company next. The follow up, Phantom Pains, just came out this week, and I will be picking it up at some point. Having not read all of the Nebula nominees for best novel, I can’t honestly say if it deserves to be recognized above them all, but there’s no denying that I really enjoyed reading it, and will definitely be back for more.

1 Comment

  • Shara White March 23, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    I really enjoyed the heck out of this book, particularly the non-traditional heroine. I don’t know why I haven’t picked up the sequel yet, but I need to rectify that immediately.

    Reply

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