Old Friends, New Friends: A Review of Welcome to Bordertown, eds. Holly Black & Ellen Kushner

The new Borderlands anthology, Welcome to Bordertown, begins with a series of introductions. One is from Terri Windling, talking about the shared-world series she began in the eighties as a young editor, and the energy behind it, the developing possibilities of then-new urban fantasy, and what the stories meant to her—what it was to be the editor of the Borderlands anthologies, and now what it’s like to watch that world pass over into the hands of a new generation of readers and writers. It’s a pretty great introduction, and so are the other two, giving a new reader an eye into some of the history.

This world, and this anthology, is one with a big history, but it’s also a stepping-in point for a set of readers who haven’t travelled to the Borderlands already. It’s a book for young adults in the sense that it’s a book about runaways and growing up and what it means to belong, but it’s also a book for the readers who’ve been with Borderlands since the beginning. It can be different things to different people.

I’ve looked forward to the release of this collection for months, and I’m pleased to say that it was everything I’d hoped it would be. There are songs, poems, a comic, and many stories, each from a different angle though several share common themes—things like self-discovery, coming of age, the price of freedom, and the price of happiness. It’s too long of a book to review story-by-story, unfortunately. But, on the other hand, it’s the best kind of long read: lots of stories, lots of pages, and enough difference between them all that it’s easy to read in long gulps. Additionally, it’s a deliciously diverse anthology in content and writers, which is something I would expect from editors like Holly Black and Ellen Kushner. (And, from the Borderlands series as a whole.)

The poems are more or less all spot-on perfect, as are the songs; they’re all worth reading aloud and luxuriating in. I love anthologies that include poetry, I really do. The graphic story is short, but gorgeous, and appropriately strange, delving into the art world of Bordertown ever so briefly. As for the short fiction—

One of the best stories in the book is Nalo Hopkinson’s “Ours is the Prettiest,” a tale full of queer women of color which delighted and enthralled me to the very end. As always, Hopkinson’s prose is phenomenal and her representation of dialect is a flowing, masterful thing; the story’s just plain great. It adds a dimension to the Borderlands world, also, in positing other realms besides the one the elves come from.

Another gorgeous and painful story was Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Voice Like a Hole.” It’s wrenching, in the best possible way. Valente’s swift and lyrical narration lends itself to the tale as if it in itself is one of the lead character’s ripped-out-of-her songs. The thematic implications, too, are particularly hair-raising—it’s one of those stories that doesn’t try to make the teenage runaway bit glamorous in the slightest, just barely survivable.

Cory Doctorow’s “Shannon’s Law” is fun and strange and very Doctorow, introducing the possibilities of the Internet to B-town and exploring the physics of the Realm. Not a lot technically happens in the story, but honestly it’s hard to care, because it’s so damned enjoyable. The exploration of the Realm’s physics and dimensions made me exceedingly happy, and somehow the fact that they never receive an answer and find out whether their attempt to pass data between the Realm and the World actually worked makes it perfect.

The story that I found the most touching is possibly “A Prince of Thirteen Days” by Alaya Dawn Johnson, exploring love through three generations of women. It has the most heart-breaking of the Gap stories—the narrator’s father remarried and died in the thirteen years that passed, and never came for her mother, who loved him the whole time. Ouch. The arrival of the young man who’s been drawing for those thirteen years, though, gives things another chance, and the statue’s chance to die and be with his beloved is moving, too. It’s an emotionally complex story handled very well, and I was a little misty-eyed as it ended.

To be honest, I could talk at length about each of the stories in this book. It wouldn’t be difficult. Suffice to say that those which I don’t mention directly—”A Tangle of Green Men,” for instance—are also great tales, engaging and lushly written. Beautiful prose is not in short supply in Welcome to Bordertown; never fear.

However, there were also two stories which, while not bad in any sense of the word and not a chore to read, also left me with a middling “eh” feeling. To my surprise, that included the Holly Black/Cassandra Clare contribution, “The Rowan Gentleman,” which did very little for me as a reader; a teensy predictable and overwrought, things I’m rarely used to ascribing to Black’s work. Sometimes, I suppose, dual-authorship works that way—it had nothing of what generally draws me to Black’s stories, and instead plenty of what doesn’t draw me to Clare’s. The other was the Klause, “Elf Blood,” which was, again, a bit too predictable and overwrought—too far down the teenage romance end of the scale, not far enough up the interesting-characters side.

As a whole, I found Welcome to Bordertown to be a wonderful read—a visit back to the Borderlands, closed for so long to us, also, but with newer writers who I’ve grown to love as much as the old. It’s a great contribution to the urban fantasy genre, and a taste of what the genre can be for newer, younger readers. I have hopes that it’ll draw plenty of curious folks to the old books, after they’ve enjoyed the new. I was genuinely pleased when I closed the book, with that warm, happy glow that comes from a truly enjoyable read. Thumbs up for the new editors of the Borderlands stories; I think that in their story-choices they captured exactly the tone and possibilities of the world.

The prose is stunning, the stories are fun and engaging, and the world is, as always, a fascinating place to visit—because every pair of eyes sees it differently, and the stories here show that better than anything. Welcome to Bordertown, indeed.

Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.


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