When Millie Roper is recruited to the Arcadia Project, she is finding her way back from rock-bottom. After losing her legs in an attempted suicide, she has spent the past year picking up whatever pieces of herself she finds worth preserving and making peace with her new reality. And now, her recruiter Caryl tells her, that reality will include fairies. Millie accepts the existence of the Seelie and Unseelie courts as graciously as you’d expect of someone whose life has already been upended a dozen times. After all, in Hollywood, it makes perfect sense that writers and actors would do anything to find a mystical muse, a bit of magic that they can use to make themselves immortal on screen. When a noble fey goes missing, though, sparking talks of war between the human and fairy worlds, Millie finds that she might just be in over her head.
Mishell Baker’s new Arcadia Project series is off to a thrilling and glamorous start with Borderline. That’s only fitting of its Hollywood setting, of course; cinematic in its scope and its style, the novel is every bit as engaging and sharp as a top-tier film (and considerably more diverse).
The novel follows Millie from the confining, comfortable walls of her in-patient therapy center to the vast and seemingly incomprehensible world of fairies and magic. Armed with her diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and all her accompanying coping methods from therapy, Millie is determined to take her second chance by storm. She may have thrown away her filmmaking career, but the Arcadia Project will bring her into contact with big-shots from all over Hollywood. She may have lost all of the people she loved prior to her suicide, but her new colleagues—a moody Latino man that could out-cook any top chef, and a cold young genius whose dragon familiar shows more emotion than her owner—might just be weird enough to be her friends.
Millie learns the rules of the Arcadia Project as she goes; for instance, a fey’s magic starts to fade when they’ve been spending too much time in the human world. Which is exactly why their search for Rivenholt—a missing Seelie nobleman—is so vital. If Rivenholt has fled or been kidnapped, his human counterpart’s inspiration will be sucked dry, and the world will lose the fantastic filmmaking of acclaimed director David Berenbaum. And, of course, there’s the fact that the Seelie court might blame humans for Rivenholt’s disappearance and, at best, cut off relations, and at worst, wage an interdimensional war. Needless to say, Millie’s first job for the Project turns out to be far more than she or her colleagues bargained for. It will take all of the grit and determination that she learned as a filmmaker, and as a survivor, to navigate her fantastic new world.
I at first assumed that the novel’s title—Borderline—referred to the border between this fantastic fey world and the more mundane human one. The revelation that Millie has BPD in the first chapter made me reconsider the notion, but only briefly. The further I read, the more convinced I became of Borderline’s web of meaning, and of Baker’s brilliance in tying her protagonist’s disorder to the very nature of the world she inhabits. Millie often describes herself as divided between an “emotional” brain and a “logic” brain, a phenomenon that is particular (though not exclusive) to people facing a variety of mental illnesses. The world of fey—of inspiration and magic and true, visceral feeling—is similarly divided from the bureaucratic, orderly world of humans. The book wouldn’t be nearly so compelling, of course, if this divide was set in stone. The space between human and fey, emotion and reason, is murky territory, in constant flux and flow, interdependent and sometimes impossible to determine.
Baker isn’t didactic in her muddying of this particular binary. She doesn’t seem to be making any grand statements about how people experiencing BPD should view their minds, and she doesn’t romanticize their (or any non-neurotypical) experiences. In fact, Baker breaks down a spectacular number of tropes surrounding mental illness in a short amount of time. Borderline is free of inspiration porn, of magical cures, and of characters pulling themselves up by their metaphorical bootstraps! Most significant, though, is its treatment of the artistic process.
Creativity is tied inextricably to mental illness in our cultural imagination. From the idea that art drives us to suicide and addiction, to our understanding of inspiration as a kind of madness that sweeps over us—every creative person I know, including myself, has had to grapple with this question in some form or other. Borderline brings all of this to the forefront and makes it literal in one fell swoop: fey have not only inspired human creativity for centuries, fey are inspiration, they are the magic that humans spend their whole lives seeking. Some destroy themselves doing so, and some create great things in the meantime. Millie and the other Arcadia Project members fall into both of these categories, constantly complicating them along the way. Their mental illnesses in some ways give them access to this amazing new world, but striking a balance is necessary for survival.
I don’t want to give the impression that Borderline only has to offer an (incredibly refreshing) perspective on mental illness. Baker has given her audience urban fantasy at its finest—visceral and real in its sense of space, and dancing on the uncanny edges of our vision. Los Angeles is far from the parody of itself that we’ve come to expect; the unflagging ambition and the glistening beauty are all there, but they’re given a human (and sometimes inhuman) guise. The Arcadia Project is filled with characters that would be every bit as interesting as Millie in the role of protagonist. They all have their own stories and their own demons carefully tucked away—some in the form of a condescending smile, and some in the form of a magical dragon familiar.
Despite having some complaints with the narrative as I read (primarily, Millie’s unflagging self-awareness, even in real-time as she makes life-altering missteps), they all seem negligible when I consider the book as a whole. Borderline is dark and creeping and smart as a whip. It is also Baker’s debut novel, and an exceptional one at that. I am beyond excited to read more from her, whether it’s in the the Arcadia Project series or otherwise.
Borderline is available March 1st from Saga Press.
Emily Nordling is a librarian and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.