Black, Holly & Ellen Kushner (eds). Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands.

NY: Random House, 2011.

Back in 1987, I was introduced to author Emma Bull at a con by another SF writer whom we both knew. Emma had just published her first novel, War for the Oaks, one of the pioneering works of what came to be called “urban fantasy,” and I was an instant fan of her work. She recommended I check out Terri Windling’s Borderland and Bordertown anthologies, published the year before, and I did. Now, four anthologies and three novels by various authors later, Bordertown is still one of my favorite universes.

But that last previous anthology was published thirteen years ago and the world has changed a great deal since then. Kids in the 21st century aren’t the same, either. So the agreed upon conceit here is that the Way to the Border inexplicably shut itself down thirteen years ago, by the reckoning of the human world — but only thirteen days have passed in Bordertown. And when the Way reopens, there’s a rush of new arrivals from the new century, with iPods and laptops, who constantly engage in Googling and thumb-texting, and who call each other “Dude” — all of which the older residents of the Border are having a really hard time coming to terms with. Things Have Changed.

“Welcome to Bordertown,” by Kushner and Windling, harks back to the earlier stories in its depiction of the Border as the quintessential place for out-of-step teens to escape to — and why that often isn’t a realistic decision — but it also deals with the effects of that thirteen-year slip in relative aging as a young boy left behind by his fleeing older sister comes in search of her when Bordertown again becomes accessible, . . only he’s now older than she is. A good story with terrific characters and a good ending. Cory Doctorow, on the other hand, whom I don’t generally associate with urban fantasy, does a good job with “Shannon’s Law,” which is about the attempt to bring the Internet and networking to the Border and, ultimately, to the Realm of Faerie. It’s a very Doctorow kind of story and it’s a lot of fun.

There are a number of authors in this collection I’ve never seen before and Catherynne Valente is one of them. “A Voice Like a Hole” is a rather sad story about a girl named Fig with a voice people can’t ignore and a friend who needs her trying to run away to Bordertown and not making it until the very end. Emma Bull weighs in with “Incunabulum,” which demonstrates that it’s not only kids from the human world who seek refuge on the Border. Alaya Dawn Johnson is another name that’s new to me, but “A Prince of Thirteen Days,” about a living statue (sort of) and a girl and her mother and her grandmother all trying to find love, while nicely enough written, nevertheless seems kind of dry and a bit confusing. I’ve never of Annette Curtis Klause, either, but “Elf Blood” is a good reason to keep her in mind. It’s about a Bordertown girl who looks (to newly-arrived humans) like a “halfie” but is actually a working vampire (thanks to an earlier misadventure), trying to find enough blood to keep going without actually killing anyone (except when necessary), while seeking a way to remove the curse. But maybe the elfin guitarist’s kid brother is just what she’s been looking for — one way or another. One of the best pieces in the book.

Will Shetterly, one of the original Bordertown gang from the old days (and who is married to Emma Bull), offers “The Sages of Elsewhere,” about one of my favorite recurring characters — Wolfboy, human but the victim of a curse that makes him look like a werewolf. He’s running Elsewhere Books these days and he acquires a very valuable volume that originates in the Realm, and communicates by quoting Shakespeare, and which certain other dealers and collectors want very, very much. Should he make like a bookseller and sell the book? Maybe not. It depends on how much luck he needs. And it’s a really good story. “The Rowan Gentlemen” is Holly Black’s own story, written with Cassandra Clare. Partly, it’s about the Magic Lantern, the only movie theater in Bordertown, where the electrical power is so unreliable, a cast of live actors performs the movie in front of the screen so the audience can keep up with the story. (Neat idea.) And partly, it’s about a cloaked and masked hero — twenty of them, actually — who rescue kids in distress. Put it all together, and it’s quite a romp.

I have to confess, Charles de Lint is an author I’ve never really read much of. I know he’s good, and I know he’s won a bunch of awards, and I’ve enjoyed his book reviews in The Magazine of Fantasy of Fantasy & Science Fiction. But somehow, his fiction just isn’t to my taste; too “high fantasy,” perhaps. Anyway, his story in this collection is “A Tangle of Green Men,” the protagonist of which is Joey Green, a Native American teen recently released from juvie detention, who finds work with his uncle in Baltimore, doing set-up for conventions and trade shows — or, in this case, for a fantasy convention. And then he meets a blind girl named Juliana, and his life changes utterly, and for the better. But Juliana doesn’t have long in this world. And when she goes, the devastated Joey feels compelled to follow. This is the longest story in the book and it’s also one of the most poetic and affecting. And you may wonder for the first two-thirds of it where Borderland comes in, but just be patient. (And I’m going to have to re-investigate Charles de Lint.)

“Crossings,” by Janni Lee Simner (yet another new name), is a strange little tale about two adolescent BFFs, one a lover of vampire stories and the other fixated on werewolves, who make it to Bordertown and immediately get in waaaaaaay over their heads. It’s not the first border they’ve crossed but it will be the last, at least for one of them. And while the story starts out funny, it soon becomes not funny at all. Tim Pratt’s “Our Stars, Our Selves” is a very good, very present-day story that simply could not have been written for (or published in) the original anthologies, for a whole variety of reasons — the sexual orientation of the narrator, the minor drug theme, and the full-throttle punkish nature of Allie Land, who fully intends to become a great rock star on the Border. So dare she wish upon a star to get what she most desires? (“Be careful what you wish for,” as they say.)

Nalo Hopkinson, whom one might say is the leading writer of Jamaican fantasy, offers “Ours Is the Prettiest,” set within Bordertown’s annual Jou’vert celebration, which is the Jamaican version of Carnival — a week of costumed parades, continual street dancing, and general cutting loose. Damiana and her best friend and halfling ex-lover, Gladstone, are happily taking part, along with Gladstone’s latest crush, Beti, . . . who isn’t an elf but isn’t human, either. It’s a story of what people do to each other in the name of love. And while it’s pretty good, it would have been better (in my opinion) if she had toned down the dialect just a bit.

“We Do Not Come in Peace,” by Christopher Barzak (whom I’ve heard of, though I’m not really familiar with his work), tells of a young Bordertown musician, now edging into his twenties, whose music seems to have him. Now he runs a shop dealing in “abandoned items” looking for a new home, including used books and bad art. Then, after the Way reopens after the thirteen-year break, he takes in a new arrival called Mouse and shows him the ropes. But after awhile, the story changes, and now it’s jealousy and politics and the sort of change the new century knows so well.

There’s also a graphic short story by Sara Ryan and Dylan Meconis called “Fairy Trade” — but I have the kindle edition of this book and I can’t expand the images large enough to read the small print, dammit. Finally, there are also eight poems in this volume, none of them very long, which I’ll venture no comments about at all. I’ve never found self-consciously “fantasy” verse readable or interesting — and if it post-dates e.e. cummings, I’m probably not interested anyway. But there’s one exception: “The Song of the Song,” by the inimitable Neil Gaiman. It’s a natural filksong. It just begs to be set to music, and to be sung over a large stein of beer at The Dancing Ferret. Anyway, all the prose pieces you’ll find here are consistently above-average or better, and I highly recommend this volume. But to properly appreciate it, I also recommend you go back and read (or perhaps re-read) the earlier Bordertown anthologies and novels. (By the way, Random House, I really resent you publishing this terrific collection in your “Children’s Books” division!)


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