Vonne’s Shelf: Borderline by Mishell Baker


By Mishell Baker

This novel is on the shortlist for the Nebula Award this year, and rounds out my reading for that Award. When I first heard about it, I read the words “urban fantasy” and groaned until it turned into a yawn. Then I read the words “borderline personality disorder” and nodded until it turned into grunting with – well, maybe not approval, but – Why not give it a go? Could be interesting! (Spoiler: it WAS!)

Let’s begin with parental guidance, as usual; then a spoiler-lite synopsis; my useless opinion; and finally what I think of its award chances at the Nebula.

Parental Guidance

Profanity: Yes! I wouldn’t call the f*bomb pervasive, but at least common. Then the dreaded c**nuclear bomb went off around page 300. That can get you thrown off my website. I’m a little mollified that the utterer of the utterly unutterable immediately goes into a 2/3 page apology for their behavior and speech and recommends such language not be used in real life. “Little” mollified because the utterer is a fictional character made up by the author who could have just refrained from having someone utter it in the first place, but more about manipulation later!

Violence: Some at the very end. This is an action fantasy procedural private eye deal that keeps things swinging without actually hurting anyone until the protagonist has to save the day; then an evil person gets it but good!

Sex: No. Some talk, flirting, etc. But nothing showed on page. There’s a little nudity, but never described in detail and usually not in a sexual context anyway.

Spiritism/Occult: Kinda sorta maybe no-yeah? Please see synopsis to follow.

So, for parents, just because of the language, give this a read first, then do what you wish for your youngins. Remember that very few of the works I review are actually intended for YA audiences. So, the author of an adult fantasy is not obligated to keep it clean for an audience they aren’t writing for anyway. And now it’s time to make you wonder why that last sentence should even exist! Woot!

Spoiler-lite Synopsis

The protagonist of this has borderline personality disorder, however they are pretty far along in therapy and, at least, can identify the symptoms and start engaging in coping skills immediately. Her past mental health issues ultimately drove her to risky behavior followed by a serious attempt at suicide. That attempt left her with lots of scarring, a missing leg, and missing the other foot. Getting around is tough. She has prostheses and a wheel chair, but that doesn’t make an action adventure any simpler.

Borderline also describes the borderline between our reality and an alternative place called Arcadia, wherein all the inhabitants are “fey,” or fantastical in nature. No werewolves or vampires, but sprites, faeries, fauns, etc. These beatific creatures are usually reserved for children’s fantasies, and that’s why stating this is not aimed at that audience is a bit disingenuous. However, there is no rule forbidding an author to use children’s artifices for adult purposes, so do what I did: roll with it.

Our protagonist will be conscripted to search for a missing “fey” in our side of that borderline. She ultimately finds several more missing “fey” and will expose a terrifying plot to subvert the magic-folk for greedy purposes in our reality.

By the way, this all takes place surrounding Hollywood, so the magic is aptly placed! There gets to be some confusion between movie magic, fey magic, and human personality disorders that is quite engaging.

That’s all you’re going to get from me, so let’s get to . . .

My Useless Opinion

FANTASTIC! Go read this book! I know, I know, the sordid language is daunting, but . . . follow your conscience. This is a blast. It took very little time to read because the writing is so smooth and the pace is relentless and complicated.

There are only two nits I have. One is based on personal experience, and the other is just baffling.

I have a friend who’s been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She completely rejects the diagnosis and acts like it’s just foolishness. Everyone comes to me boasting about how wondrous and amazing she is – and I nod knowingly, waiting for – and regaling me with the things they are on their way to do for her – and I nod knowingly, diagnosis confirmed. And when she does something truly awful to herself and ends up in a mental hospital, they all rush to get her out and take her home because she is so wonderful and just misunderstood. I hang my head and weep for her. They are not helping.

So, I kept looking for that kind of surreal behavior from the protagonist, and just didn’t see it because she is so well developed in her coping skills that it’s obscured. Until the end. Then her BPD comes in real handy when the options are death or death. I waited to the end to see clear indications of her illness (and yes, that page 300 thing was the first real sign).

Second nit: On page 184 of my Saga Press edition, the characters attribute the Sistine Chapel to Leonardo da Vinci. Now, I LOVE Leonardo da Vinci (NO, eejit, not Leonardo de Caprio!) And I would love it if Leo da-V had actually painted the Sistine Chapel. I just don’t think Michelangelo would appreciate the mis-accreditation for his own really nice work on that Chapel. M-angelo is the better sculptor, but Leo is the better painter and all around genius, but M-angelo actually painted the Sistine Chapel. How did this odd goof happen? I kept waiting for the author to pull a fast one on me and show me how we were already in an alternate universe where Leo really DID do it, but . . . no. No further mention of it. A goof, I guess.

Nebula Winner?

I would love to say “Yeah!” because I really loved this book. It is great fun, and the protagonist has a sense of humor that is often sublime. But I don’t think it’s strong enough to overcome Jemisin. So, no from me, but who cares because I don’t vote anyway!

Really: read this book. It cooks. It rocks. It makes your heart, then breaks your heart, then almost makes it all up again.

I wonder if Ms. Baker plans a number of stories in this universe.


15 March 2017


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