LitStack Review: Borderline by Mishell Baker
Release Date: March 1, 2016
How to write a kick ass novel:
1) Create a main character that is flawed but grudgingly admirable; maybe have her be a double amputee due to a botched suicide attempt that puts her in a psychiatric center. Give her a diagnosed borderline personality disorder (BPD) and a sarcastic, razor sharp yet vulnerable mind. Don’t shy away from any of it. Be real, even when it’s not tragic, noble, or pretty.
2) Throw in magic. And fairies. And Hollywood.
Don’t think you could pull it off? Don’t worry – Mishell Baker has you covered.
The first book in a series (yay!), Borderline introduces us to Millie Roper, a former UCLA film student who had directed a few indie films and gotten some attention for winning the Best New Director award from the Seattle Film Festival. But her BPD, coupled with an unhealthy affair with one of her professors, led her to jumping off the roof of a campus building, not only crushing her body but also any chance she had of “making it” in the film business.
Enter Caryl Vallo, with the Arcadia Project: a non-profit that provides certain mentally ill adults with housing and meaningful employment, mostly through part-time or freelance positions in the entertainment industry. Caryl offers Millie a probationary spot with the Project; despite a cautionary warning from her doctor, Millie agrees. Her first job, along with her assigned partner, Teo, is to track down an errant actor whose visa has expired and gently urge him back onto the straight and narrow.
What she doesn’t learn until later is the actor is actually a nobleman from the Seelie Court (fairies, or “the fey” as they prefer to be known). Turns out, the Arcadia Project is actually an under-the-radar organization that “polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myths and fairy tales.” Millie is skeptical at first, but it doesn’t take long for experience to overcome her disbelief – and that’s when the fun begins. Well, that is, if fun is living with a group of misfits within the depravity and shallowness of Tinseltown while chasing after creatures of great power that are not what they seem, all the time wrestling with demons both personal and oh, so real, without being able to tell anyone outside the Project anything about the Project all while operating under a strict set of rules regarding behavior and resources even as you are butting up against refracted reality. For us readers, it’s fun. For Millie, not so much, not so often. But it’s also well nigh irresistible.
Borderline is honestly the best modern magical realism novel I have read thus far. There are a lot of good magical realism/modern fantasy books out there, but every one of them (in my experience) employs a hefty measure of that “willing suspension of disbelief”. Borderline flows so effortlessly, and Mollie keeps the reader so realistically grounded, that you don’t even notice when you cross the line (see what I did there?) from “real life” to fantasy. I mean, so what about the threat of a fey invasion when you’re trying to deal with a serious mental disorder where your emotions can suddenly flare way out of whack, beyond your ability to cope in the moment? Add to that a debilitating set of injuries that you did to yourself, and it’s pretty easy to see why Mollie is able to take the sudden appearance of the supernatural in stride.
Yet this is no “woe is me” tale, nor a book where the gravitas is insight into an affliction (although the reader does gain insight); there are plenty of “understand this” moments in the narrative, but very few teachable moments and no preachy ones. Instead, the emotional and physical turmoil Mollie faces are melded directly into the effects they have on her relationships – the people she merely comes in contact with, and the ones she truly cares about. The emotional impact of her struggles, appropriate or not, hits home. Additionally, Mollie’s droll sense of humor is quick, sharp, biting, and often out and out hilarious. That sardonic wit also kept the sense of “this can’t be happening” at bay – when you know how to cut through both the genius and pandering of Hollywood, how hard is it to apply that same sense of wonder and distain to truly magical beings in your midst?
The writing is fast paced; the action is logical with no leaps of faith necessary in the human elements of the tale. The magical parts are not all, well, magical – some of them are downright ugly (and I’m not just talking about Unseelie physiques, but some of the more downright crass attitudes of the fey themselves). The exposition necessary to follow along – for instance, the differences between an enchantment, a charm and a ward – are given to us as Mollie is brought up to speed by other others at the Project. Since they are given in the moment of need, they are far more acute than if we were merely absorbing some kind of thinly veiled literary lecture.
And in case you haven’t guessed it, with talk of mental disorders, suicide, amputations, demons and magic, this ain’t no candy ass tale. People die. Ugly things happen. The guy doesn’t necessarily get the girl and not everyone who deserves it lives happily ever after.
Just like life. Dang, it’s so easy to think that this book is – for all its magical components and otherworldly strictures and human frailties – just like life, warts and pain and stupidity and redemption and all. And maybe that’s why I loved it so much. I have nothing in common with virtually anything in this book – but it felt real.
Kudos, Ms. Baker. That’s one kick ass book you’ve written. Can’t wait for the next one to fly.
~ Sharon Browning