Music is magic – and magic runs wild!
Between the mysterious Elflands and the magicless world are a wild Borderland and the ancient city of Bordertown. Here Elfin magic and human technology work only sporadically. Here elves and humans mingle in an uneasy truce, vying for control of the city in the Council Chambers of Dragon’s Tooth Hill, in the marketplace called Trader’s Heaven – but most of all in the old, abandoned parts of the city where runaways gather, rock-and-roll clubs glitter, and kids and bands clash in musical, magical revelry.
Welcome to the Borderlands, but watch your step. Magic runs wild in the streets here. Beware.
Borderland is where the cult classic shared-world, recently resurrected by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner in Welcome to Bordertown, began, with two editors, four writers and four stories…
The first, ‘Prodigy’, by Steven R. Boyett, is the longest in the collection, and the earliest chronologically, setting up all the later events. Set recently after the events that brought Elfland and the World (back?) into contact, it is focused on one man, Scooter, but across the course of the story explains the development of the meshed cultures of Borderland, Elfland and the World. ‘Prodigy’ could have ended up terribly solipsistic or white-man-centred, and does at times fall into the trap of being all about the manpain of Scooter, but it also does some very fascinating things with worldbuilding. The story centres on Scooter having to come to terms with his emotions and with responsibility, and in that sense it feels like a standard Literary bildungsroman; but the way it’s treated here is rather different, involving magic, rock-and-roll, and a certain amount of questing. This story is also notable for its approach to music; one of the effects of magic, in some places, is to allow some people who play music to actualise it in a manner rather similar to some forms of synaesthesia. Boyett’s passages around this are really effective and beautiful, and he utilises incredibly evocative but abstract description to show the reader his intent; these bits really are of the highest caliber.
Bellamy Bach’s ‘Gray’, on the other hand, is set many years later, in Bordertown itself, starring Gray, at the bottom of society, and Wicker, a rockstar at the top of the outcasts. Here we see a lot more colour; that is, whereas ‘Prodigy’ is almost rural in its landscapes, ‘Gray’ is set in the urbanscapes, in the slums, in the middle class district, in the punk and rock clubs of the town. This is also the first story to be set when Elfland and the World have mingled somewhat, so it’s the first to introduce us to some of the politics of that; the race-based gangs, the effect on the music and clubbing scene, and the exchange of cultural elements – not artefacts so much as ideas – between the two, along with the development of a whole new subculture. It’s a good story, although most of its twists are telegraphed; and the emotional core at the heart of it, and at the hearts of both Wicker and Gray, ring true and are very effectively done.
‘Stick’, though, is probably the strongest story in the collection. Charles de Lint, luminary of urban fantasy and fairytale, and widely feted, combined Morris Dancing and biker gangs to get this story, and it works much, much better than might be expected. A story about isolation, loneliness, companionship and chosen families, it’s a complex, beautiful story; ‘Stick’ manages to showcase a number of different things, including different kinds of strength (Stick himself has one, Bramble another, and Manda yet another still), different approaches to the world and different forms of fellowship. It also opens up questions about the history of Bordertown and the way it was established. de Lint also fascinatingly highlights the racial tensions between humans, elves and the “halflings”, hated by all and accepted by none except other outcasts; not, clearly, a direct parallel to race relations in 1980s America, but certainly commentary on it. And, of course, it includes a Morris-dancing biker gang!
Unfortunately, the collection ends on its weakest story, Ellen Kushner’s ‘Charis’. Focused on the most privileged members of society, it deals in broken hearts and teenaged angst without really getting into anything interesting; as far as character goes, “whiny and annoying” rather sums the titular Charis up. Furthermore, none of the rest of the cast are any more interesting; while providing something of a contrast with the children with bad backgrounds, ‘Charis’ showcases privilege at its most rank, almost. The whole thing feels contrived and shallow in a way the rest of the collection doesn’t, and adds very little except a glimpse into the high society of Bordertown – but an immature, simple one at that.
Borderland is where the Bordertown shared world began, and there’s a reason it has become a cult classic in the following two decades; this is, for the most part, a really strong collection of stories, so congratulations to Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold on an astounding creation and excellent curation!