Outcasts, Artists, and Dreamers: They All End Up In Bordertown

Illustration for article titled Outcasts, Artists, and Dreamers: They All End Up In Bordertown

Bordertown disappeared thirteen years ago and some people have since stopped believing it was ever there at all. They make up stories and act as if The World and the Elflands have never touched. They pretend that the gritty bohemia of Bordertown, or B-Town, never existed, was only ever rumors and gossip. There were never motorcycles powered by spellboxes and engines both, drag queen run coffee shopss, Trueblood (elf is an insult) gangs in red leather, halfie children finding their way, and dancing ferrets all sharing a cramped unpredictable town and just trying to live. This haven for runaways from the World, a haven that would just as soon devour them whole as provide them shelter, has been shoved into legend.

But magic is a tricky thing and time runs funny on the border. So while it may have been thirteen years for us, it's only been thirteen days for Bordertown, and B-Town is finally back.

This framing premise for the anthology Welcome to Bordertown explains the absence of the series from the literary world since 1998, providing an explanation for long time fans and an entrance for new readers into the complex world. Bordertown was one of the originators of modern urban fantasy and fans of it will be happy to know that the series loses none of its edge because of the break between books.


Authors who've appeared in previous volumes of the series reemerge on the Bordertown landscape to spin tales just as powerful as their classic ones. The eponymous first story by Terri Windling, the creator of the series, and Ellen Kushner starts off with a bang, giving us a tale of siblings - one of whom managed to slip into B-Town just before the split and the originally younger but now older brother who has just arrived to find his sister. Though it has been thirteen years from his perspective since his fantasy-obsessed sister disappeared, from her point of view she's only been gone a few days. As the siblings crisscross B-Town and keep missing each other much of the setting is (re)introduced to the reader in all its glory, both actual glory and the false gold glory that tends to tempt and ensnare B-Town newbies. Through these two siblings and their paths one of Bordertown's essential truths is revealed: what you expect is never what you get.

One of the biggest delights for me throughout the book was the way authors were able to twist their personal styles to fit the Bordertown aesthetic without altering who they were as writers. There are names that older fans might expect to find in a Bordertown anthology, who've written stories in B-Town before: Emma Bull, Ellen Kushner, Charles DeLint, Terri Windling and they are all present for this volume. There are some other authors in the volume whom I approached with some trepidation.

When I saw the list of contributors to the anthology I was both delighted and nervous to see many authors that I list among my favorites such as Catherynne M. Valente were present. I count Valente among one of my favorite speculative storytellers working today. Her writing style may not be everyone's cup of tea but with her sensual descriptions and poetic turn of phrase it's hard to argue that she has a unique voice. My worry with her and Cory Doctorow, another talented writer with a very recognizable style, was how their way with prose would marry to the feel of Bordertown whose folk/punk bohemia aesthetic can be fairly hard to grasp and obtain some comfort with.

I shouldn't have worried because both Valente and Doctorow are able to present beautifully detailed stories that are seamless in their depiction of B-Town without any loss of personal voice. Valente's "A Voice Like A Hole", unlike most of the other stories in the collection, takes place almost entirely outside of B-Town. It's a story about the hope for something better, the ways in which we protect ourselves and connecting to our fellow human beings even in the bleakest of times. Or just a couple of runaways on a train depending on how you look at it.


Poetry peppers the volume, much of it very well written in terms of rhythm and content. Some use more traditional forms, while others verge on free verse so there's bit for everyone. Jane Yolen has 3 poems included and while all of them are excellent it is "Soulja Grrrl: A Long Line Rap" that sticks out. A hilarious modern retelling of Tam Lin with a smart and savvy heroine who's not afraid of anything, a more traditional rhyme scheme and a hip-hop cadence. One line involving mace had me laughing out loud and repeating it incessantly to various friends.

New writers in the Bordertown mythos are represented well in the volume. Janni Lee Simner uses the parallels between borders in our world and the borders between the World and Bordertown to bring a story of friendship and hope to life in "Crossings". Miranda is an immigrant who nearly died crossing from Mexico to the U.S. as an infant and has now been ordered to leave the only country she's ever known. Instead of obeying the court mandate as her parents intend to do she and her best friend have run to B-Town in search of romance and family. Inspired by a popular series about sparkling vampires, one dreams of marrying a vampire and the other a werewolf. The adventure that this wish for romance takes them on is by turns darkly humorous and horrifying.


Another new author in Bordertown, Alaya Dawn Johnson, also focuses on the search for love in her story "A Prince Of Thirteen Days", but with an interesting twist. After being told by her younger aunt Rabbit that she will lose her virginity and fall in love in 13 days Peya knows exactly who she wants the one to be. The only problem is he happens to be a statue in the park. As the story switches between the point of views of both Peya and her hoped for love interest the tale that emerges picks at our expectations around love and sex. Expectations are shaken and the dangers, consequences and yes even the joys of one-sided love are strongly drawn and Johnson gives us a nuanced glimpse at a familial history of love addicts.

Something I've always appreciated about Bordertown is the diversity of the world. Without any push or protest B-Town has always contained women, people of color, people of varying class backgrounds, queer people and more simply by virtue of telling stories of alienated youth. Young adult fiction likes to focus on the protagonist who doesn't quite fit in, who feels alone and out of place. In general when talking about youth who feel isolated and alone it's impossible in my mind to leave out tales of queer youth, youth of color, working class youth, immigrant youth. homeless youth and other marginalized groups while staying relevant and believable. Frequently it is these sections of society that end up the feeling the most alienated and disenfranchised. However these groups often are left out entirely or if they are present in the narrative they exist solely as vehicles for their identity with no problems or personality beyond that.


"Ours Is The Prettiest" by Nalo Hopkinson is about the limited time we have to enjoy life, the ways in which we can misunderstand people and the electricity of first/new love. Damiana is doing her best to keep Beti out of Gladstone's way out of fear of Gladstone's legendary temper when it comes to a perceived infidelity. As they wander the streets of B-Town, which are in a uproar for the festival of Jou'vert, always one step ahead of Gladstone the history of the incident comes slowly clear as does the more far-reaching and personal history of friendship between Damiana and Gladstone. A beautifully crafted story about love and trust and friendship where the characters just happen to be queer women of color.

Christopher Barzak tells a tale of the loss of art and the disruption of revolution in "We Do Not Come In Peace". Marius, a long time resident of B-Town, finds he can no longer really feel the music he plays. His lover, a newcomer to Bordertown, becomes obsessed with the inequalities that exist between the Truebloods and the other residents of B-town and is determined to do something about it. The conflict between someone who is used to the status quo and someone new to the environment who wants to disrupt the power structure caught in a relationship provides great tension and an emotional and odd insider/outsider point of view on a revolution. The fact that both the characters happen to be male has little to do with the core of the story at all.


It would have been easy for me to write a paragraph about most of the stories in this collection. If I'm completely honest there is a piece or two that feels dated, as if they could have appeared in one of the previous anthologies but overall Welcome to Bordertown is a well stitched together collection of stories not only for readers already in love with this world but also as an introduction for a (hopefully) legion of new followers. Urban fantasy has long been struggling as a genre, trying to gain respect not only in the literary world as a whole but within the sf field itself and distinguish itself from paranormal romance (where admittedly the borders can me more than a bit hazy). During this moment in the genres path it's good to see one of the originators of modern urban fantasy return after thirteen long years to reorient itself on the landscape (one can hope) become a sign of where urban fantasy can go and what it can do. Let's hope it's not another decade before the next volume.

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David Barr Kirtley

For more on this book, check out our interview with editor Ellen Kushner in Episode 37 of io9's Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which was just posted: