Windling, Terri & Delia Sherman (eds). The Essential Bordertown.

NY: Tor, 1998.

Bordertown is the principle population center of the Borderlands, where the human world and the elvin land of Faerie bump up against each other, where neither technology nor magic functions reliably, and which has become a haven for the young who are running away, either to or from. Think the Hashbury c.1968, but with pointy ears and chancy spells.

There’s a whole city there, with all the usual sort of class-conscious social climbers and political bosses and celebrity wannabes, though much of it was abandoned when Faerie reappeared to complicate things, but it’s the kids who are the focus of every story.

Windling — a very Borderland-sounding name to my ear — is the creator and contributor-wrangler of this myth and since she first thought it up in 1986, five collections of stories and at least three novels have contributed to the shared universe. If you like urban fantasy, you’ll be pleased to discover authors like Emma Bull and Will Shetterley and Patricia McKillip and Steven Brust helping to populate the town with stories and characters.

The framework of this fourth volume in the series purports to provide the basic information new arrivals need to survive — or even to find Bordertown in the first place. (Though if you have a good reason for needing to go there, you’ll find it.) Short sections (by Windling) explain the basic geography, where to crash, how to deal with the gangs, what the food’s like and where to eat it and how to cook it, why you should bring chocolate and coffee beans and recent comic books in your backpack rather than money, essential etiquette in dealing with True Bloods (for humans) and with humans (for elves), and similar topics.

There are eleven stories here and none are less than very good, though some appeal to me personally more than others. The first, “Oak Hill” by McKillip, is a good introduction to what Bordertown is for, actually. It focuses on young Maris, who has come to learn magic and has even brought a special book (and a special quill pen) to write spells in. Most of the kids she meets, though, including those who take her into their squat (there are lots and lots of abandoned buildings in Bordertown), have fled from something they fear. It doesn’t occur to Maris to be afraid of anything, though, and that turns out to be her first step in learning magic.

“Dragon Child,” by Midori Snyder, is a very different sort of coming-to-Bordertown story, about Eli, a halfie (half human, half elvin, looked down upon by both) and also a Dreamer for a High House in the Realm. Wish something and he makes it come true, he can’t help himself. Of course, with that sort of power, even in Faerie, he’s essentially a slave. But Eli has come to find his human mother, and to figure out a way to belong only to himself. “Socks,” by Delia Sherman, is also set in a squat full of damaged adolescents looked after more or less democratically by a couple only slightly older than them. Socks herself is afraid of nearly everything, but still she argues for giving shelter to Perdita, on the run from the Bloods, the main elvin gang. Perdita is a natural storyteller and making use of her talent on the street is how she earns her share of the commune’s upkeep. But a Teller needs a Singer, and that’s Socks. A lovely and rather mythic story.

Bordertown has been there awhile now and there’s a whole generation of young people who were born there and have never lived, or even visited, anywhere else. In Donnard Sturgis’s “Half Life,” Tangie is a native, learning mojo from his West Indian mother and everything else at Mrs. Liverpool’s odd little school. But he’s under pressure to join a gang, because how else are you going to make it in the seedier part of town? Maybe if he could make a spell that would foster a peace treaty among the gangs. . . . But he should have remembered that magic seldom works the way you expect in Bordertown.

Ellen Kushner has two stories here, and while she’s a dependable author, “Hot Water: A Bordertown Romance” just doesn’t quite work for me. Thumper, the striving poet, and CC, the pudgy girlfriend-in-waiting of a particularly toothsome young rock singer, are both well-done character portraits. And Screaming Lord Neville, the flouncing proprietor of the best tea shop in town, and a frequent supporting character through all the Bordertown volumes, is an absolute hoot. But the whole plot about talking teapots is awfully thin. Michael Korolenko’s “Arcadia” features a young documentary filmmaker with Bordertown as her subject, a sort-of private detective who sort-of gives her a hand, and what happens when she starts wandering around, getting in peoples’ faces, and asking intrusive questions. But the disaster you can see building never quite explodes, not the way you expect. Not a bad piece.

Ellen Kushner’s second story, “Changeling,” is about Cam, a halfie kid who gets dragooned into doing SFX for one of the local theater companies and finds she’s not only good at it, she enjoys it. Enter Selkie, a new arrival with an uncle in the better part of town, and sort of on the run from herself. The two girls get together, of course, and the denouement is likely to upset some parents who find their offspring reading this volume.

Charles de Lint has an established reputation for a certain type of fantasy and “May This Be Your Last Sorrow” is a rather short and affecting story. The unnamed narrator has the misfortune to have celebrity parents who are too consumed by their careers to really notice when she runs away. There are all sorts of loneliness. On the other hand, “Rag,” by Caroline Stevermer, is kind of confused in its plot and sappy in its narrative style. Casey is an editorial cartoonist who used to be . . . something. Possibly a revolutionary, it’s hard to tell. He’s separated from his wife and dotes on his kid, and he can’t turn loose of either. Then he’s called out of retirement by his old comrades to help save the neighborhood from gentrification. The ending is so clichéd, it’s embarrassing.

Steven Brust is another well-established author but “When the Bow Breaks” is probably the weakest thing in the book — a rousing sea story (or it tries to be), but set on an armed merchant ship on the Mad River, which delineates much of the border between the elvin and human worlds. Except that it doesn’t fit plausibly within the Borderlands canon, as the other stories do. There are pirates and all, but the plot isn’t very interesting, either.

Ellen Steiber’s “Argentine” is about a young elf exiled from Faerie for thievery, who takes up his trade in Bordertown. But while he makes a good living fencing the ordinary valuables he steals, his real goal is to take from people whatever thing they value and cherish most — their “best beloved.” Then he makes the mistake of stealing a locket a grief-stricken girl has left on the grave of the lover who gave it to her. But Argentine has forgotten that True Bloods can see the ghosts of the dead, and this one now has a bone to pick with him — and skills to rival his own. A very nice piece of work with terrific atmosphere.

“Cover Up My Tracks with Rain,” by Micole Sudberg, is the story of ten-year-old Ondi, another Bordertown native, but from the dreary side of town, down by the docks. Her mother, abandoned by her father, is a handful, and now her brother, Ro, a budding poet whom she idolizes, has disappeared, apparently run off. The only thing to do is to go and look for him, running away from the place most kids run away to. “How Shannaro Tolkinson Lost and Found His Heart,” by Felicity Savage, introduces a young elf not from one of the High Houses but the son of a pig farmer. His fiancée has run off to the Border (“escaped” is probably a better word) and he has to preserve everyone’s honor by hauling her back home. The demon the girl has taken up with is very droll and this one will have you smiling to the end.

So, should you read this one? If you enjoy traditional elves-and-magic fantasy, or real-world fantasy, or gritty fantasy, or whatever label you prefer — then, yes, absolutely. But don’t necessarily start here. Go back to the original volume, Borderland (1986), and start there. The early volumes are hard to find these days and I really wish someone would reprint them, but begin at the beginning – it’s worth the effort. And settle in for the ride.


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