'Borderline' Is Urban Fantasy With A Cinematic Punch
Paperback, 390 pages |purchase
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Chances are, if you don't have firsthand acquaintance with neurodiversity, disability or mental illness, your ideas of what they can look like come from films or books that get made into films. This is certainly true of me: I first learned about autism and schizophrenia from films that grossly misrepresented them, and had never heard of sociopathy or borderline personality disorder before watching Girl, Interrupted in my midteens.
These representations are mostly as dominant as they are misleading, which is all the more pernicious because of how often mental illness is a plot point or focus of the story, instead of something real people deal with on a day to day basis without being inspirational or cautionary to everyone else.
That is why I particularly loved that Borderline's Millicent Roper — bisexual, in her mid-20s, living with BPD and prosthetic legs after a failed suicide attempt — is a filmmaker.
Millie has been in a psychiatric center outside Los Angeles for six months, ever since she leapt off her prestigious film school's roof and ended a promising career. While there she's approached by an organization called The Arcadia Project, which is supposedly in the business of enabling creative people living with mental illness to find employment in film and television.
It seems too good to be true — and is, as in truth The Arcadia Project manages the presence of fairies in our world, facilitating their relationships with humans and policing their comings and goings according to complicated protocols. When a highly regarded fairy nobleman goes missing, Millie quickly gets in over her head, trying to manage her physical and mental conditions while serving as an amateur detective and not blowing her shot at working in Hollywood.
I adored Millie. Brash, angry, incisively self-aware, she's the kind of furiously intelligent protagonist I love to read. Her first-person narration walks an amazing line between conveying her personality and explaining the way BPD interacts with it, while never actually making it or her disability the focus of the plot or giving the book an After-School Special feel. In fact, in stark contrast to the troubling tendency in fantasy to represent mental illness as magical, Millie is anathema to fairies: As a consequence of her suicide attempt, her body is full of steel, such that she can disrupt most magic with a touch.
Millie is, first and foremost, a filmmaker — someone who examines, curates and constructs narratives, and there's a constantly engaging satisfaction to watching her do that with her own life. Even while she's lashing out and tearing that life apart, her narration is framing the shot and building up the story.
This is a novel in which people are frequently horrible to each other, and I was a bit spellbound by how well it was done. The supporting cast is delightfully unlikable; Millie's housemates in Residence Four are all unapologetically dealing with their own problems and unwilling to allow Millie's to take center stage. Mishell Baker's dexterity with Millie's voice manages the difficult trick of making everyone simultaneously sympathetic and hostile: Millie understands and empathizes with why, for instance, a little person might take "I didn't see you there" as a dig instead of an honest statement, but her awareness doesn't undo the damage or mitigate her own prickliness at being misunderstood.
I also very much enjoyed the fairies. I'm confident that fans of the old Changeling: The Dreaming role-playing game will love this book, and I mean that as a compliment; the fairy court divisions, class politics and magic systems all felt very familiar to me as a longtime lover of that game system and the fantasy novels of the late '80s that inspired it. It's a feature rather than a bug; Baker's doing so much innovative work with voice and character that some stock urban fantasy bones are a welcome anchor.
Borderline is Mishell Baker's first novel, and I want the next one. It's a remarkably smooth and assured launch for her Arcadia Project series — a fast-paced story of high costs laced with humor that goes from light-hearted to scathing with the flip of a coin. It navigates the borderlands of friendship and enmity, trust and betrayal, with shrewd and unrelenting grace.
Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month and the editor of Goblin Fruit, an online poetry magazine.