TW: suicide, mental illness
Borderline by Mishell Baker
Saga Press, 2016, 400 pages
A twenty-something Los Angeles filmmaker, Millie doesn’t have a lot going for her in the first of the Arcadia Project series, Borderline. Recovering from a severe suicidal episode that cost her her legs, Millie suffers from borderline personality disorder and has, for quite some time, lived in a facility in which she has access to healthcare professionals. But when a mysterious woman shows up and offers her independence in the form of employment, Millie jumps at the chance. She soon discovers her work will include plenty of detective work as she works to hunt down a missing fey person and work out how his connections are involved with the help of her partner and the rest of those working for the Arcadia Project.
I came into this novel after asking the folks at Book Riot for a recommendation based on the elements of my all-time favorite book, War for the Oaks. I requested something in the urban fantasy vein that had a great female lead, faeries, grittiness, a little urban feel, a stark feeling of realism within the fantasy, and music. Based on those qualifications, Borderline had a pretty strong start. The female lead was interesting and by no means nice, Baker had her own take on faeries, Millie’s reality as a double-amputee and someone with a serious mental health diagnosis was certainly gritty, there was a reasonably strong sense of realism, and, while there was no music, there was a heavy presence of art in the form of movies. After a quarter to a half of the novel, most of those things had fallen away in one way or another from their strong start.
Millie, though originally with a refreshing, biting personality that is often reserved for men in procedural dramas (think Gregory House of House, MD) — to include hypersexuality driven by symptoms of her borderline personality disorder — became a bore after not too long. While it was fun to watch a woman inhabit this character for a while, Millie’s existence as a woman dissolves and the reader might as well be reading about a man. Because her gender felt so specific in the opening, the lack of its influence in the rest of the novel doesn’t fit well. Additionally, while Millie doesn’t need to be likable to be interesting — and I’ll again state that I don’t feel protagonists need to be likable to be worth reading about, nor do they need to be redeemed for a novel to be of value — there’s a strange disconnect in which Millie is often quite socially aware and politically correct, excepting for a few moments, one of which features her having an unkind, racially-charged thought to the detriment of an Asian American character. Her generally harsh personality combined with this propensity to be social-justice conscious seems at odds, and is never quite explained or developed enough to make sense, unless readers suppose it’s some feature of her personal experience with mental illness and stigma.
Grittiness remains throughout with Millie’s challenges as a double-amputee and someone with BPD, but the industrial grittiness I admittedly looked for in comparison to War for the Oaks was mostly absent in the shiny land of Los Angeles. And, I think the form of art featured (again, instead of the cool and dirty rock ‘n’ roll of Oaks) took away from any potential grittiness, especially as film is used as a sort of metaphor for illusions and glamor (a faerie concept, if you’re familiar with the genre, meaning magical visual illusions, primarily). So these things ultimately let me down.
Also frustrating for my tastes was that Borderline sits more comfortably as a detective or mystery novel, much like a procedural show like CSI might. It seems that Borderline is one of these, first, before it is a fantasy novel. This is partly evidenced in that, aside from the heavy procedural and detective influences on the plot, Baker seems to know more about her fantasy world than she lets on. This is somewhat natural, given Millie is new to it and she is the reader’s eyes for the purposes of this story. But the fact remains that Borderline doesn’t quite feel as advertised. Plus, Baker has a new take on faerie lore — fine, maybe, for others, but not for me.
Borderline has a sequel, but it’s not something I feel compelled to read. Though the novel might not be bad, it simply wasn’t what I was looking for and felt miscategorized and poorly marketed based on the dust jacket description and cover image. Baker’s world needed more explanation and less of a detective lean for my tastes.
❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤