Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner
Reviewed by Hannah Strom-Martin
12 September 2011
Eighties nostalgia and the specter of Now haunt Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands. Terri Windling (who has passed her editorial duties over to Holly Black and Ellen Kushner for this installment) published the first Borderlands anthology in 1986 and there have been three more since then, their interconnected stories informed by the leather-and-lace egalitarianism espoused by rock icons like Stevie Nicks at her "Edge of Seventeen" best. The stories and novels describe a realm in between our world (The World) and Faerie (The Realm) where runaway humans, half-elves, high elves, and other edgy personalities mingle in a magically charged artist's utopia—think New York's Soho or San Francisco's Haight Ashbury—whose streets echo "with people shouting, motorcycles revving, singers belting out their songs."
On one corner, a pale skinned boy with feathered Luke Skywalker hair sang a long slow ballad about a human stolen away by the queen of the Realm. The boy was decked out in so much leather it looked like the eighties had stolen him away. (p. 255)
This passage occurs in Janni Lee Simner's "Crossings," a tale about two immigrant girls who have previously crossed another border: between Mexico and Arizona. Yet, while thirteen years have passed since the last Borderlands installment was published, Welcome's handy introduction informs us that only thirteen days have passed for Bordertown regulars. It shows. As the Border re-opens for a new generation of artists, misfits, and explorers, we expect all the baggage of Now to collide with the Me Generation's Then. But while the anthology is indeed riddled with the anxieties of our economic meltdown age, it is more like to comfort than clash. At a time when a Borderlands reader has as good a chance as a Borderlands resident of experiencing these fantastic exploits by candlelight while crouching in the belly of their foreclosed home, this is a surprisingly hopeful set of stories, the darker tales relegated to a series of poems by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Patricia McKillip, and Jane Yolen which, while affecting (and how could they not be in such hands?) flicker past without causing any serious doubts that Bordertown's formula of bartered coffee, rockin' elf bands, and far-out friends will get you through the worst of times.
Perhaps this is what we need. Certainly a group of stories by such master authors as Catherynne M. Valente, Nalo Hopkinson, and Charles de Lint is to be welcomed—and all these authors are in fine form here. The theme of characters in transition, balanced precariously upon the border between childhood and adulthood, rebellion and responsibility, empathy and antipathy, life and death, is strongly drawn in Valente's "A Voice Like a Hole," about a homeless teenage chanteuse making her way to Bordertown via Sacramento's lightrail system, de Lint's "A Tangle of Green Men," in which a Native American teenager is well-tempered by the tragedies of the World long before he arrives in B-town, and Hopkinson's "Ours is the Prettiest," which explores the emotional dynamics between a triangle of lesbian lovers. Of all the authors here Hopkinson comes closest to unsettling us. Her take on the Wild Hunt—rearing suddenly in the midst of an evocative festival setting—is eerie and emotionally charged, and then the real juju begins.
It's also refreshing to have a few moments of danger because, by and large, true edginess is what’s lacking in this collection of life on the edge. Characters often stop to warn us that "the city's always followed its own rules" (p. 498) or "It can fill up your spirit and it can break your heart" (p. 502) yet most of the heartbreak seems to take place on the other side of the Border—or to transform into redemption within city limits. Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling's wonderful title story (in which a main character memorably transforms into Lloyd Alexander's Pyrdain Chronicle's character Gurgi) sets the precedent, ending with everyone realizing their true path. Cory Doctorow's amusing "Shannon's Law" follows the trend, seeing its jaded Zuckerberg-esque hero finding love with elf-tech babe Jetfuel. Emma Bull's lovely "Incunabulum" is a eucatastrophic tale of a bad elf gone good. All are stupendously written, but given those previously mentioned warnings, and the wrenching issues of race and class that permeate so many stories in the anthology, the level of optimism is a bit of a surprise. De Lint's hero tells us that "there's a real hierarchy here, starting with highborn and lowborn elves, then Halflings, with humans at the bottom. Which would make a guy with my skin color at the bottom of the bottom" (p. 507). Many authors (Annette Curtis Klause in "Elf Blood," Christopher Barzak in the excellent "We Do Not Come in Peace") seem ready to say something dangerous or devastating about race relations, but their tales too end in comfort, the focus turning from desperation and anarchy back to personal revelation.
One, of course, need not resort to anarchy to work out their alienation—but often people do. Even one tale that followed through on the darker promises of Bordertown would have given the place some bite. Instead, we're left to rely on those eerie song snippets (Gaiman's "The Song of the Song" is as brilliant a tidbit as he’s ever doled out but one wonders what he might have got up to given a few mismatched protagonists and ten pages of edgy urbania) and on the inherent tension of life in a city where diverse populations mix and clash. There are some dangers—Simner's take on Stephanie Meyers's vampires (whom her lonely immigrant heroines go seeking in "Crossings") is one of the few stories that end in anything like ruin, and de Lint's piece is quietly devastating as its hero faces down everything from alcoholism to elven hate crimes—but we're far more apt to run into musical epiphanies than angry mobs (to his credit, Barzak's tale has both).
Despite this tendency to under-employ the dark potential of its culture clash setup, Welcome to Bordertown is still as good a collection of urban fantasy stories as we're like to find this side of the Border. Tim Pratt rocks the hell out of "Our Stars, Our Selves," wherein Allie Land, lesbian lead singer of the outfit "Allison Wonderland" is hilariously pursued by a poser elf-lord. As Allie arrives in B-Town Pratt's prose sizzles:
"So the whole city pulled a Rip Van Winkle? I wish I'd known. I would've brought more stuff to barter—flash drives full of Internet porn, comeback albums by geezer bands, anti-retrovirals, the last few Stephen King novels, the rest of the Harry Potter books, designer drugs." She had, in fact, brought some of the latter. . . . From the stories, B-town was all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and while she wasn't interested in selling sex, she figured she could make a good living off the last two. (p. 299)
Ditto relative newcomer Alaya Dawn Johnson, whose "A Prince of Thirteen Days" (about a forgotten statue slowly turning human) sparkles with originality and magic. In this passage, a preteen witch tries to turn our statue friend into flesh and blood:
she scrunches her eyebrows, drops to her knees, and gives him her words.
He doesn’t want them. The pain is unbearable. She has decanted his past: years of sadness stream from his eyes, his nose, his ears and mouth. He chokes on it, and he feels the sensation deep in an impossible plaster throat. He strains against himself, he contradicts himself, he will crumble to chalk and die and be grateful for it. (p. 209)
Not perhaps, as grateful as we are. In a strong anthology Johnson's story may be the strongest. In a unique collection, the most unique. Her frozen hero "strain[ing] against himself" is a perfect metaphor for the sort of soul-searching odysseys contained herein. And while the largely cathartic tales of Welcome to Bordertown may be far more lacey than leathery, Johnson is proof that the anthology still delivers on its main promise: in the midst of the Depression 2.0, an honestly magical escape.