Borderline, by Mishell Baker
Just finished reading Borderline [Amazon | B&N | IndieBound], by Mishell Baker. This is a Nebula award finalist, and having raced through the book, can see why. Here’s the official description:
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.
That description sells the book short, in that it ignores a huge part of the book. Those “inner demons” are a reference to the fact that Millie has borderline personality disorder. In fact, everyone who works for the Arcadia Project has some form of mental illness, for reasons that are gradually explained and explored throughout the book.
I don’t know enough about BPD to judge how true Baker’s portrayal is, but it’s clear she’s done her research. Some of Millie’s comments about therapy and the techniques she’s learned to manage it ring very true to techniques my wife (a mental health therapist) has talked about. It feels respectfully written, which shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve read some of Baker’s posts and essays about mental health.
The central idea of fey serving as muses for big Hollywood names, and the effects and consequences of that magic, sets up a good story. But it’s the characters that really elevate the story. (I think Caryl was my favorite by the end.) They’re all portrayed with a sense of honesty and respect. BPD affects a lot of how Millie processes and reacts to things, for example, and sometimes that goes pretty badly. The story doesn’t try to justify or excuse Millie’s actions in those cases, nor does it condemn her as a horrible person. It’s presented as part of who she is, and we see her awareness and her struggles to manage being borderline.
The same holds true with Millie’s physical disability. Baker clearly did a lot of research about Millie’s prosthetics and the other effects of her disastrous attempted suicide. The metal in Millie’s body disrupts fey magic, but it isn’t played as just a clever way of giving her an advantage over the fey. I don’t have first-hand experience here, but it’s handled and written in a way that feels true to me.
The ending felt a little bit rushed, and got a little darker than I’d expected, but it worked well both to wrap up the story and lay some groundwork for the sequel, Phantom Pains, which just came out a few weeks ago. I’ve already added it to my reading list.
You can read an excerpt on Baker’s website.
For those of you who’ve read it, what did you think?
April 10, 2017 @ 5:57 pm
Sadly, I bounced off this one pretty hard. I’m not sure what it was, other than a lack of attachment to a character, but I gave it 100 pages and decided it was going back to the library.
It may have come down to having burned out on urban fantasy in the 90s, or not being interested in Hollywood glam, or just not wanting to spend time with characters that were exactly where I was with a mental illness in my 20s. It may, in fact, have been a bit *too* true-to-life to be an enjoyable read (though BPD is not my particular demon).
For all that, it didn’t seem badly written at all, and I wasn’t left with a question about how it had received multiple nominations. Just that it wasn’t at all for me.
Jim C. Hines
April 10, 2017 @ 6:05 pm
Colleen – That makes sense. And no book works for everyone…
April 10, 2017 @ 7:59 pm
We just read this for my bookclub and discussed it last weekend. I liked it for a lot of the reasons Jim mentioned, such as it felt realistic to what I know about having to think about ones own thought and emotional processes in order to try and manage your own behavior, and it gave a realistic but not maudlin portrayal of the impacts of physical disability on everyday activities. While I actually liked how the fae and fantasy aspects were almost secondary to Millie’s story, many in my discussion were annoyed by that. In the end, I think the next book will be on my TBR list.
April 11, 2017 @ 3:59 am
It was one of my favourite books last year. I would love to see more of the urban fantasy genre (which I love) move in this direction. I adored all of the characters – including our very flawed protagonist. When people talk about wanting strong female characters – this is what they mean – at least that is what I mean! Both her mental and physical disability is treated like just another aspect of her, neither makes her magical or gives her “special” powers. She is brave, assertive and have leadership skills, when she is not spiraling or panicking. But even when having an episode, she is still her, she is never just her diagnosis. Millie is always sympathetic, even when she is being totally unreasonable and mean to the people around her, because I as a reader understood and sympathised with her. I have to say that but especially in movies/comics this can often be the case for characters who are neuroatypical. She also have a distinct personality that has nothing to do with her disorder. In other words, she is a deep character – or as the lit theory people would say, a strong character. The other characters in the organization are also great – all of them feel like real people and so does the antagonist. Which is a big part of why I liked this story so much.