Borderline – Mishell Baker

25692886And the last of the Nebulas, admittedly somewhat late. Especially given that I now know who won. I got somewhat bogged down in reading The Dark Forest, and so managed to get about a month behind. But I’ve been looking forward to reading Borderline pretty much since the beginning of the whole award nominee reading thing, so it was fantastic to finally get to it, however late.

And, I’m glad to say, I enjoyed it.

In many ways, it’s a good book. It does things I think need doing, and it does them with a decent pace and real characters, in an urban fantasy setting that isn’t London. Which, I mean, come on. That being said, it’s not an amazing book, and the writing can’t quite keep up with the ideas. It’s not bad enough that it stopped me enjoying it in any way, but it wasn’t quite good enough that I’d have wanted it as a contender for the top spot. It sort of occupies the same zone as Uprooted did last year, in that I enjoyed it a lot, but it’s an enjoyment of something that’s fun and easy-reading… not trash, because it’s still actually pretty good, but not quite “I want this to win all the awards”.

But hey, it didn’t win. And I still enjoyed it, so I’m going to focus on that.

The story is about fairies in LA, told from the viewpoint of an ex-director with BPD and some physical disabilities, and fully acknowledging the difficulties that arise from those, and weaving them into the story and how she interacts with the magical world she soon discovers.

If we left out the BPD and physical disabilities, it would still be a cool book. I like fairies, I like fairies-but-with-the-real-world-and-also-modern, and it does that pretty damn well. It’s not quite Mike Shevdon, but we’re getting there. But then you add in the other stuff, and it becomes a much more special thing. Especially because the author also suffers from BPD, so we get not just the inside-the-head view of the character on all of this, but knowing that we can fully trust the author to represent it faithfully. And that was fantastic. It’s rare to see mental health (or physical) represented in SFF, and rarer like this, so sympathetically. Yes, it affects how she functions. Yes, sometimes things go badly. But it’s part of her and we see how she thinks about it and how she works with and around it, and it’s brilliant.

Less nicely, but just as valuably, we see how others treat her, and how unreasonable the world’s expectations of her can be under her circumstances, and the balance she has to strike between her (entirely reasonable) anger and the responses that she needs to give to get by. Other characters in the book don’t accommodate her wheelchair, they don’t accept that she needs pain medication, they don’t allow that some issues are difficult to discuss… and her navigation of this, always honest, sometimes painful, sometimes vindicating, is something I think we really need to see more of in fiction.

Whether or not the rest of the writing is fantastic, the thing that Baker really excels at here is her writing of a sympathetic, plausible character inside whose head we can live. Millie feels very very real, and the way she almost tries to cast herself as an unreliable narrator (even as we double down on trusting her) is a wonderful bit of self-deprecation. No, she doesn’t believe in herself. She has so many doubts. And they’re real doubts, grounded in real problems, and a thorough sense of self-awareness. It’s not the sort of airy doubts one often has in the young aspiring hero, where… well, they make sense, because it’s a story, but it’s a doubt of “can I really save the world?” not “is it really possible that I won’t fuck up these work relationships?”.

I suppose that’s what urban fantasy does that other genres don’t. It adds realism not just to the setting, but the way people think and behave. They’re not as credulous, not as confident, not as stereotyped, clichéd and grand. They have real, trivial problems and don’t always shower when they should. And that’s charming, in its way. It’s why I like the genre, certainly. Yes, I am the sort of person who goes “but what if they needed to go to the loo?” in long, dramatic scenes in traditional fantasy. And urban fantasy caters to that particular shade of pedantry. And then this book goes one step further, and it’s brilliant.

Because, minor spoilers, one of the major points in the book is that the protagonist has a lot of steel inside her, after reconstructive surgery. And because iron/steel + fairy magic = uh oh… well, it turns out quite interestingly.

So Baker is taking what urban fantasy does – remembering the bits of reality that seem to slip outside of the rest of fantasy – and committing to it, and then combining that with a wonderful viewpoint character, who is definitely flawed and who nonetheless gets our complete sympathy pretty damn quickly, and hangs onto it even when she messes up.

It’s a story where lots goes wrong, and there isn’t a happy ending, but it’s a story that’s full of reality sitting comfortably alongside magic, and combining in odd but fully satisfying ways. And it’s a story that makes you want to keep reading, not put the book down until you finish, and then pick up the next one. Which I will be buying ASAP. It got 4 stars on Goodreads without a pause for thought, and it was a beautiful antidote to the crappy SF of the Hugos.

And this is me done with the award season this year!

Final Nebula table:

1. All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders
2. Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee
3. Borderline – Mishell Baker
3. Everfair – Nisi Shawl
4. The Obelisk Gate N. K. Jemisin

As it happens, All the Birds in the Sky won, so I feel quite smug about this. And very pleased, because it totally deserved that win.

All in all, I’m still glad I’ve been doing the award reading, but by god the Hugos were a chore. The Nebulas were much more fun, and I think if I ever cut down to one award, I’ll be sticking with panel-judged over public-voted (possibly considering the British Fantasy Awards).

But this does mean I can go back to reading whatever the heck I like, so it’s The Vorrh by Brian Catling next. I’m really looking forward to it.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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