Welcome to Bordertown, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner

Bordertown - New and important things usually start at the edges, the borders, the intersections and interfaces. It's not through some central committee that revolutionary ideas are spawned, it's not in the limelight of the famous stages new musical expressions are tried. Things start in the gutters, in hidden corners, through the clashes between old and new, near and far.

That is the attraction of places like Bordertown.

Welcome to Bordertown is my first encounter with Bordertown. I was initally attracted by the lineup of really interesting author names in this anthology (Charles de Lint, Catherynne Valente, Nalo Hopkinson, Emma Bull, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman...), but then the setting also resonates with my imagination.

Bordertown is a place right on the border between our world and The Realm, or Faerie if you like. This is a place where elves can enter into our world, and where magic works -- sort of, sometimes. The elves are not those of fairytales for little children, but more similar to those unpredictable beings of folklore. Except in Bordertown they play rock music. They don't appreciate being called elves or fairies, but call themselves Truebloods ("which, I've got to admit, sounds a bit too white supremacist for my taste" says Joey in Charles de Lint's story).

Welcome to Bordertown Kushner, Ellen (ed.) , Black, Holly (ed. Welcome to Bordertown Kushner, Ellen (ed.) , Black, Holly (ed.

Bordertown is also a place for the odd, the strange, and those who don't really belong anywhere: typically runaway kids. You can get there if your intention is right and if you work on it, but it's not easy. Actually, noone has been able to find the way for thirteen years when it suddenly reappears. In Bordertown only thirteen days has passed. In this newly rediscovered Bordertown, the thirteen stories, seven poems and one graphic story of this book take place.

Bordertown is a shared world, where people write their stories in the same setting. It was created in the 1980's, when urban fantasy was just being invented, and is talked about as very influential on a lot of authors. There are four earlier anthologies and three novels in this world, but the thirteen years of isolation corresponds to a time where no new Bordertown stories have been published.

Being new to the setting is no problem. Welcome to Bordertown starts with two introduction texts and a short guide text of Bordertown basics, giving you most of the background you might want. There is only one story ("We Do Not Come In Peace" by Christopher Barzak) where I feel that perhaps a little more background would have been good to understand the significance of what's going on. Perhaps I just need to reread the story.

In the beginning, through the first couple of stories, I get a feeling of Bordertown as an eternal rock festival and art happening. After finishing the book I have a thorough sense of the backside of it also. Bordertown might be wonderful, but it's also shabby and dangerous.

There are gangs. There is drug trade. And there is the notorious unpredictability of magic and technology (the shifts in the magic are described as juju weather in the Nalo Hopkinson story). Noone said it was comfortable in Bordertown. You might live in a squat with only sometimes electricity and cold water, and perhaps you live just day to day for long periods. On the other hand there is music and art and all sorts of creative things going on all around.

"Bordertown is shabbier than I expected, run-down and wearing at the edges, but it's also got that makeshift cool that you'll always find in a certain part of any city. The place where the oddball stores, restaurants and clubs are all just a little hipper." ("A Tangle of Green Men" by Charles de Lint)

Here is also all of the complexity and ambiguity of life: who is good and who is evil? Who might help you, and who will make things worse? At least three of the stories in this book are centered around people who are in Bordertown with the special intention to help others, those unfortunate that get themselves too deeply into trouble.

As a whole, this is a strong collection. There are no stories that feel boring or pointless, and only three that I'm likely to forget soon. I'm going to tell you that the contribution by Neil Gaiman is a two page poem, but that Charles de Lint has written a long story. Those who buy the book for just one name might get more or less for their money -- but they will probably like much of the rest of the anthology as well.

Stories on a border push at boundaries. "Shannon's Law" by Cory Doctorow, for example, is what happens when a science fictional mind collides with the impenetrable border to a country which seems to obey different laws of nature than the World we know. Can you peer through the veil, send information through to learn more about the Perilous Realm? "Our Stars, Our Selves" by Tim Pratt features an astronomer who (much to her own frustration) turns into an astrologer because of the strange features of the night sky visible in the Nevernever surrounding Bordertown. Nalo Hopkinson's story "Ours is the Prettiest" hints at different lands beyond The Realm, with other even stranger magic and beings. "A Tangle of Green Men" by Charles de Lint looks also in the other direction, and explores (among other things) what kind of subculture might arise in our World if it were in contact with Faerie.

Since Bordertown was invented before urban fantasy was an established as a subgenre, it was well established before it was taken over by vampires and werewolves and teenage love. The story "Crossings" by Janni Lee Simner is a revenge on the vampire romance story. It's also a devastating take on what happens when young dreamers collide with harsh reality. A vampire is a monster, and true love might not be what you think.

There is also a strong theme of finding community or a place to belong, which is especially explicit in "Welcome to Bordertown" by Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling and "A Voice Like a Hole" by Catherynne M. Valente.

These are just a few examples of the stories, I'm not going to talk in detail about them individually because I think you should discover them for yourself. One message I see throughout the book is that you cannot hide in stories to get away from the difficult things in life, but you can use the stories to be able to face your problems.

It didn't really occur to me until I put the book down that this is intended as young adult fiction -- or intended to be marketable as YA. I felt a bit stupid, since Terri Windlings introduction says so explicitly. Anyway, it just confirms what many have been saying: that a lot of interesting genre stuff nowadays is happening in YA. Also, in youth almost everyone passes through a period of feeling odd and uncomfortable, not really belonging. The search for somewhere to feel at home is really universal, and one of the things that give stories with young protagonists an appeal for many readers.

Perhaps also this experience is the point where those of us who are relatively privileged in this world can connect with people who are really standing on the outside for specific reasons. The general Bordertown feeling is that a wide variety of outcasts and lost people are visible and may belong. The stories deal with various backgrounds and experiences: skin colours, social backgrounds, sexualities, physical abilities. They are not glossing over the problems of getting along, so of course there is a lot of tension. Still, noone is expecting people to be all similar in Bordertown and all of the variety is there in plain view. I think that is very hopeful, because learning to live together starts with seeing eachother instead of hiding in our isolated corners.

Given this diversity, and the fairly distinct flavours of the different stories, I start to wonder about the dynamics of a shared world. How do you go about making it feel like one and the same place? I wonder how you tend a shared world, and how you create a book like this. The authors have to get a fairly strict framework to work within. I'm curious, I'll have to find something to read about that.

The stories are clearly arranged to be read in the order they stand. They cleverly plant details or people that you encounter again in a later story by another author, or a poem might echo as lyrics of a busker's song. I like the effect.

Still, in the end I wonder about the overall feeling I get, that the book gets darker and my view of Bordertown bleaker as I come closer to the end. In my mind it becomes less of a place of creative magic, and more of a glorified shanty town with a few shining points of hope. Was this really the intention? The introductin gave me the impression that Bordertown was intended as a place you would want to find, not a place to be afraid of.

The danger of reviewing a book directly after reading it is that I haven't yet digested the impressions. I'm not sure which view of Bordertown will remain in my mind, but I'm fairly sure that I will revisit this town some day. There are stories in this anthology that I will remember and very possibly want to reread.