I recall it clearly – I was standing in the musty confines of the SFF section in Zelda Books in Montgomery, Alabama. Many important moments began this way for me, as many a well-travelled book fell into my hands and helped build me into the woman I am today. I would spend every minute my mother let me, running my fingers along the spines of so very many inviting books, pulling those out that caught my fancy. Wolfwalker by Tara K. Harper. The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge. Beldan’s Fire by Midori Snyder.1
Life on the Border, edited by Terri Windling.
Honestly, it was the allusion to borders that caught my eye, along with the mind-expanding moment of being confronted with a collection of stories described right on the cover as “where Elfland meets rock and roll.” I needed borders at that time in my life: borders to cross, borders to run to. A way to escape into a place filled with magic, no matter the cost. I lingered over it, but my mother was calling from the register and I’d already met my quota of allowed books for the day with other choices. I reluctantly left Life on the Border on the shelf, determined to come back for it the next week.
I never found it again, as a kid. Tickets to Bordertown aren’t easy to come by, nor do they hang around if you make the mistake of not running off with them immediately. The collection was gone when I went looking the next week, and I let it fade from memory. I found my way to similar places – Newford under the wing of Charles de Lint, particularly. I found my way to the nexus of Bordertown authors and their kin by discovering The Endicott Studio almost as soon as I first logged onto the Internet, becoming an ardent fan of the site.
Yet it wasn’t until very recently that I found my missing ticket to Bordertown, and claimed the collections I didn’t quite manage to find when I was a perfect candidate for emigration. Funnily enough, my mother was the one who found them for me and sent them to my doorstep: a calling card from years gone by. (Thanks, mom!)
Here’s what you need to know about Bordertown:
It exists on the border between Faerie (or the Realm, as its inhabitants call it) and the World (where the rest of us live our mundane daily lives). It is full of runaways, elves, artists, enchantments, despair, hope, and community. Life is more dangerous there, and possibly more rewarding. It’s definitely expensive, and the costs are personal: there’s no easy way there, no easy life once inside, and transformation is required. If there’s a toll to be paid for living on the Border, it’s this: change or die.
Thirteen years ago, the Way between our world and the Border closed. Of course, in the manner of portals to other dimensions causing temporal dilation (not to mention in the fine tradition of fairy tales), only thirteen days passed for the denizens of Bordertown. Now the Way is open once again, tourists are flooding in, and there’s a new scene on the rise.
This is the scene that gives us Welcome to Bordertown, a wonderfully monstrous book of dangerous dreams and unlooked-for salvation in the streets of that frontier city. With Terri Windling’s blessing, Ellen Kushner and Holly Black brought us back to the mean, inviting streets through stories provided by both original contributors and those who grew up on tales from the Border.
Fittingly enough, the anthology opens with an Introduction provided by Terri Windling, delivering a short history of how the Bordertown series came to be. Her Introduction is followed by a second one, this one by Holly Black and giving us the perspective of someone who was fundamentally shaped as a writer by the Bordertown series. They are interesting and insightful artifacts, perfectly encapsulated by Windling’s closing words:
I only laid the cobbles for the streets of Bordertown; it took all of us, an entire community, to bring the city to life. And that’s as it should be. Community, friendship, art: stirred together, they make a powerful magic. Used wisely, it can save your life. I know that it saved mine.
No volume in the Bordertown series would be complete without some sort of introductory document penned by a character or group from within Bordertown itself: in Welcome to Bordertown, this document is “Bordertown Basics,” a leaflet prepared by the Bordertown branch of the Diggers, helpfully outlining, well, the basics of arriving and living in the city. This document both serves to give you some basic background regarding the world’s mechanics, and sink you feet-first into the Borderlands. Once this leaflet is in your hands, there’s no turning back.
The stories open with “Welcome to Bordertown,” a collaboration between Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling, and it moves like vintage Bordertown. The piece is composed of two perspectives, intertwining but not quite meeting face to face for some time, one following a young girl who ran away from her smalltown life and family before the Way closed, and her suddenly older younger brother who came searching for her thirteen years later when the doors opened once more. “Welcome to Bordertown” is the perfect invocation for this collection, being so manifestly what the anthology is about: the old guard of Bordertown being confronted with the new, all soaked in the pathos of running away from something broken (or to something hopefully whole), tinged with the guilt of abandonment, and rife with the desperation to live freely.
Cory Doctorow’s “Shannon’s Law” stumbles onto the scene next, following the life and times of a technophile who brought the Internet to Bordertown – an impressive feat weirdly and wickedly managed – and his obssession with finding a way to send a data packet across the Border to the Realm, and get confirmation back that it was received. Essentially, to connect directly with the Realm from the World via encoded data. While this story fell flat on an initial reading, I think it’s one that would benefit from another visit once you understand that the point of the story is not Shannon’s quest to make that connection with the Realm. Keep that in mind as you read, and watch his other connections.
“Cruel Sister” by Patricia A. McKillip is the first poem of the anthology, and features both McKillip’s trademark grace and knives cunningly hidden under fairytale opulence. “Cruel Sister” is a poem so rich you can smell loam when you breathe. She plays fascinatingly with mirror images, and the borders between family members that sometimes aren’t enough to make you cleave together but instead cleave you apart.2
This separation when community is craved is a perfect lead-in for Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Voice Like a Hole.” This story hit me hard – it’s both brutal and beautiful, and that’s before the runaway Fig even catches sight of the Borderlands. I appreciate that the horrifying events of loss and being lost took place in our world, a bleak infusion of realism for a kid on the streets, and how a stolen trainride to stay warm bled into Bordertown. Even more, I appreciate that an arrival in Bordertown did not immediately mend what was broken, but really just represented a chance. Valente’s tale hooks you in the gut and, well – it has a voice like a hole. It sucks you in. You can’t help but look inside and come away raw with aching.
Following closely on the heels of “A Voice Like a Hole” is Amal El-Mohtar’s “Stairs in Her Hair.” Through relatively spare verse, El-Mohtar opens a vein (yours or hers, who can say?) with surgical precision and spills coins and stones and keys into your lap. They echo with loneliness, vulnerability, boldness. I’ve had the honor of hearing the poem sung by El-Mohtar herself, and can’t read it any other way now. I’ll always hear the author’s voice echoing in my head, shivering down my spine, leaving me blinking back tears.
“Incunabulum” by Emma Bull is a very valuable piece in that it gives us a perspective from the Trueblood side (i.e. the perspective from a denizen of the Realm beyond the Border). Although the main character has a very solid case of amnesia, his past is not the focus of the tale; instead, we get a very compelling “day in the life of a Bordertown immigrant” portrait, complete with cutting to the heart of who a person really is and what one decides to do with that knowledge.
From one perhaps unexpected perspective, we run to another: Steven Brust’s “Run Back Across the Border” is the second song in the anthology, and is a rather difficult piece steeped in the blood feuds and intolerance of the different Border factions. While being such an aggressively unwelcoming anthem, it still betrays the patchwork collection of people living thickly together in Bordertown through stanzas that bugle out from different factions without pause for overt differentiation.
“Prince of Thirteen Days” by Alaya Dawn Johnson is an absorbing story that uses the weirdness of the Border and what that might do to a lifetime resident to great effect. Peya decides to lose her virginity to a statue, if she can find a way to transmute him. The statue has a sentient and tragic past, and does not want a future. Then there’s Peya’s relationship with a patch of pavement and the graffiti across it, which might just be a small portal to the World and the strangest method of becoming a penpal ever. “Prince of Thirteen Days” actually manages to cover the full period that the Way was closed – in both worlds, amazingly – in a way that leaves you satisfied.
Will Shetterly’s “The Sages of Elsewhere” catches up with Wolfboy, a character thoroughly explored in his stand-alone novels Elsewhere and Nevernever. Although I haven’t yet read those novels, “The Sages of Elsewhere” really does feel like checking in with an old friend. The story immerses you in the trials and tribulations of bookstore ownership in Bordertown, the trouble with ensorcelled rare books, and what is really necessary in life to make a person happy. Wolfboy’s perspective is engaging, and leaves me eager to read more tales from his typing claws.
The Bordertown series is irrevocably tangled up with music: rock and roll is in its soul, and many of the original creators were themselves musicians of one stripe or another. So it’s no surprise to find a third musical piece here in Jane Yolen’s “Soulja Grrrl: A Long Line Rap.” I am nearly incapable of describing this rap otherwise than “awesome Tam Lin awesomeness squared!” In much fewer stanzas than most traditional Tam Lin ballads, Yolen manages to create a wholly memorable character and a wicked spoken word piece.
Following the bold and bared violence of “Soulja Grrrl,” “Crossings” by Janni Lee Simner similarly explores the more dangerous encounters waiting in Bordertown. The story also highlights the idiocy of coming to Bordertown with all your naivete intact – especially naivete fed by the modern romantic preoccupation with monsters (specifically werewolves and vampires). With a deft sensibility, Simner weaves an arrestingly bleak tale as sharp as a vampire’s fang and as irrevocable as a wolfman’s monthly madness.
In the heart of Welcome to Bordertown, we encounter the first Bordertown story told through sequential art: Sara Ryan’s “Fair Trade” (illustrated by Dylan Meconis) is a short comic telling the tale of a girl from the World seeking her mother in Bordertown. As one could guess from the title, the piece plays with the changeling concept and is rather straightforwardly told. Dylan Meconis’ illustrations are enthralling, doing a fine job of catching Bordertown in its multifaceted strangeness.
Jane Yolen has three pieces in the anthology, with the second being “Lullabye: Night Song for a Halfie.” Leading with a translator’s note situating the piece anthropologically and anecdotally, the lullaby unfolds as a “hushabye” piece sung by a Trueblood mother to her offspring. The piece is wonderfully disturbing, and strangely enough a bit of an earworm.
“Our Stars, Our Selves” by Tim Pratt is rock and roll bravado tangled up with the lack of wisdom in most wishes and a subplot more playfully engaging than the main story of Allie Land’s quest to become a star. Allie’s moxie is honestly more than the story can contain, and I’d like to catch up with her further into her Bordertown tenure.
Annette Curtis Klause’s “Elf Blood” delivers quite an interesting narrative, but suffers from the same thing its protagonist does: withdrawal. A young woman beleaguered by vampirism stumbles through life at arm’s reach, both shunned for being something she never claimed, and terrified of what she might have to do to survive. Though I quite enjoyed the story while I was in the midst of it, it turned out to be one of the most forgettable pieces in the volume. “Elf Blood” lacked vibrancy.
“Ours is the Prettiest” by Nalo Hopkinson was truly gorgeous, encompassing a celebration of life and death spoken in a unique voice. Hopkinson infused Bordertown with carnival lavishness and multicultural transcendence, all festooned with fear and loss and love and hate and the thorns that pierce among friends. The back and forth of the flashbacks woven through the ebb and flow of the Jou’vert parade were perfectly balanced, leading the story inevitably toward a crash-and-burn of revelation, catharsis, and loss.
It would seem that any piece which followed Hopkinson’s “Ours is the Prettiest” would be fated to seem faded by comparison, but “The Wall” by Delia Sherman does quite the opposite, shining out as compellingly as the short story it follows. The poem could be called an anthropologist’s brief findings on the perceived appearance of the membrane separating the World and the Realm. It could be called the truth, or all truths, or a facet. Or it can be called enthralling; all would be correct.4
Christopher Barzak’s “We Do Not Come in Peace” takes a sidelong glance at the way bloody revolutions begin through the lens of a man ground down by experience into a bland husk of what he once was. As a tale of a person finding once more something (or someone) they could believe in and rediscovering the drive to create, Barzak nailed the narrative. While I personally find the mob mentality often involved in revolutions an uncomfortable thought and one that slightly put me off the story, that discomfort seems not unintended by Barzak: Marius, his main character, is just as disturbed. Yet there is value in the breakdown.
Jane Yolen returns one last time to finish off her contributions to Welcome to Bordertown with “A Borderland Jump-Rope Rhyme,” an unexpected and clever installment in her collection of Bordertown street music. Once more, there is a fascinating translator’s note situating the piece and then the piece itself: a jump-rope rhyme which is spine-chillingly disturbing.
Holly Black, much as her co-editor Ellen Kushner did, co-authored a story for the anthology: “The Rowan Gentlemen” was written with Cassandra Clare, and is an utterly absorbing cloak-and-dagger piece, told with the verve characteristic of Black’s other works.5 We followed so many individual artists in previous Bordertown stories, that it’s fascinating to become involved with an artistic collective in this tale. “The Rowan Gentlemen,” while being just as dangerous as other Bordertown stories, also manages to be lighter fare that ends on a less complicated note than most other entries in the collection.
Neil Gaiman’s “The Song of the Song” is a brilliant coda to the volume’s poetry, being a poem crafted in a conversational tone culminating in a bone-shivering warning. The piece is a song sung by the song that no one sings anymore, and it understands a few things about the difference between what stories really are and the way they’re told. The song skirls along the borders of thought and existence and fantasy, and it won’t be forgotten.
At the close of Welcome to Bordertown we come to “A Tangle of Green Men” by Charles de Lint. Much like Valente’s “A Voice Like a Hole,” the majority of this story doesn’t actually take place in Bordertown. Instead, we follow a young Native American and erstwhile screw-up by the name of Joey Green as he discovers how to live his life, how to fall in love, how to be happy — and how to continue in the face of profound loss. This story really should have been trite as it followed the trail of a well-known tragedy, but “A Tangle of Green Men” manages to be heartbreakingly wonderful. It is Charles de Lint at his best, and the perfect mythic finish to such an eclectic collection of tales.
Throughout this review, I’ve given you the barest glimpse of what Welcome to Bordertown is. Ellen Kushner and Holly Black assembled a staggering palette of talent, and each story within this anthology is a multilayered tapestry of deft artistry. There are levels of sociological commentary, political rumination, and emotional truth that you’ll simply have to discover for yourselves. Also, while Bordertown is the main character at the heart of this series, you’ll find the city itself most compellingly characterized in the stories told by Doctorow, Bull, Klause, Hopkinson, and Black and Clare.
Welcome to Bordertown is a dizzying collection of the many faces of Bordertown, making it both an excellent introduction to the city for a new generation and, perhaps, a simultaneously confusing one – which is just Bordertown all over. With such a profusion of perspectives, Bordertown adherents both old and new will have no trouble locating themselves somewhere in the pages. Likewise, those stories that I found to be the stand-outs (“A Voice Like a Hole,” “Stairs in Her Hair,” and “Ours is the Prettiest” to name but a few) will not be the ones that others find as compelling, and that is one fantastic aspect of a solid anthology.
Bordertown may have disappeared for thirteen years, but it was never forgotten. Welcome to Bordertown, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner reminds us why. BORDERTOWN LIVES!
1. Yes, I did read Midori Snyder’s The Queen’s Quarter Series in the wrong order. I found Beldan’s Fire first, then Sadar’s Keep, and I still haven’t managed to find New Moon.
2. Thanks to the generosity of Tor, Ellen Kushner, and Holly Black, Cabinet des Fées is honored to feature “Cruel Sister” by Patricia A. McKillip in our blog: you can read it here.
3. More of Rima Staines gorgeous artwork can be seen at her site, Into the Hermitage.
4. Thanks once more to Tor, Ellen Kushner, and Holly Black, Cabinet des Fées is honored to feature “The Wall” by Delia Sherman in our blog: you can read it here.
5. I am unfortunately unfamiliar with Cassandra Clare’s other works, so I am unable to comment effectively on her established style.