Review: Borderline, Mishell Baker

What’s that you say? Somebody wrote a book about creepy fairies and mental health treatments? YES THANK YOU, I DON’T MIND IF I DO.

Borderline has been garnering all the accolades this past year in SFF circles, most recently a well-deserved Nebula nomination. It’s about a filmmaker called Millie who has borderline personality disorder (BPD hereafter) and is a double amputee following a suicide attempt the year before. A mysterious woman named Caryl shows up at her mental hospital and offers her a job with the equally mysterious Arcadia Project. Work with us for a year, says Caryl, and at the end of it we’ll get you a job in Hollywood. Figuring it’s the only way she’ll get back into the movie biz, Millie agrees and is instantly put on a missing persons case — or to be more specific, a missing fairy case, because it turns out the Arcadia Project manages human/fairy relations. Delicately.

Borderline

I was nervous to read this book (despite the fab cover and raves from all sides), partly because depictions of mental health in SFF can be hit or miss for me (with a lotttttt of miss), and partly because borderline people are bad at boundaries and I am made up of ~95% boundaries so I was worried that if the book accurately portrayed BPD, it would put my back up and I would have a hard time enjoying it.

Borderline pooh-poohed all my concerns: It portrayed BPD in a way that was absolutely familiar to me from borderline people I have known, and gave me a ton of insight about what it’s like from the inside if you are self-aware and trying to deal with it, and got into the nitty-gritty details of cognitive behavioral therapy work1 that BPD-havers can do to lessen the impact of their symptoms, and showed how BPD both helps and hurts Millie in her work with the Arcadia Project. What a great fucking book.

The world of the fey that Mishell Baker explores here is wonderfully weird and specific. If the explanations Millie gets from her colleagues at the Arcadia Project occasionally feel like visits from the Exposition Fairy, those moments are quick and well worth the reader’s time (especially given that this is the first book in a planned series). The mystery Millie is assigned to investigate throws out an exactly correct number of clues, red herrings, and conspiracy, leaving behind a satisfying solution and some loose ends for the second book to explore. The last time I enjoyed urban fantasy this much was War for the Oaks.2

My one single gripe is that the character of Gloria bummed me out. She’s a blonde Southern bitch whose polite words have barbs behind them:

“Don’t mind Teo,” said a cloying, high-pitched Southern voice. “He’s a Grouchy Gus.” . . . . She giggled, in that cute way Southern women do instead of punching you in the teeth.

Ha ha yeah totally, we are cloying assholes down here.

Whereas with other characters at the Arcadia Project, Baker gives you a sense of what lies behind their behavior toward Millie, Gloria pretty much seems like she’s being a bitch to be a bitch. (She Does Good at points in the story, but in general she’s pointlessly shitty, passive-aggressive, and insincere to Millie.) The fake-nice blonde Southern lady is a stereotype I’d like a break from, given how closely the fakeness and the blondeness seem to be linked. While individual writers who write this type of antagonist for their heroes to clash with probably don’t intend it this way (it’s clear Baker doesn’t), the uncritical reproduction of this stereotype nevertheless reinforces a dichotomy of honest vs. deceptive gender performance that I do not love.

On the other hand, I am a blonde polite Southern woman who has spent a lot of time around people that think that list of adjectives tells them everything they need to know about me, so maybe I’m just annoyed on behalf of my people. You decide!

Overall though, I absolutely loved this book. Couldn’t put it down, talked about it to everyone, will read the sequel in a hot second when it comes out. I already know it’s going to be one of my favorites of 2017. Thanks so much for Sarah over at The Illustrated Page for putting me on to it!

  1. I love cognitive behavioral therapy so much, and it has helped so many people, and I almost never see it depicted in fiction, so that was awesome.
  2. Aha, says the perceptive reader, you must not read very much urban fantasy. Correct, I do not; it does not often tempt me.
  • I think I’m still in the “nervous” camp…

    • Can I ask how come? Let me dissuade you from whatever it is! :p

      • The same things that attracted you: creepy fairies and mental health treatments! LOL

  • Nishita

    Normally I wouldn’t be for this book, but that cover is simply so gorgeous!

  • CoolCurry

    Thanks so much for the shout out! I’m really glad you liked Borderline – it was one of my favorite reads of 2016. I’m also super excited for when the sequel comes out tomorrow.

    • I did not realize until you commented that the sequel was out this week. What lucky timing! I’ll have to stop by my local bookstore this weekend and see if I can get it.

  • I’m still nervous but this sounds interesting! Also… Since I found Urban Fantasy less than two years ago I’ve been READING IT ALL. OK not all but, definitely tempts me. So clearly I need to just try this one 🙂

  • Jeanne

    I don’t know why, exactly, but I think it’s the matter-of-fact way you say the case “turns out” to be a missing fairy case that reminds me of the tone of the Artemis Fowl books, which we all loved when my kids were in elementary/middle school. So I’m tempted by this book, as it seems like it could be, finally, an adult treatment.

    • Oh, I never read Artemis Fowl! (Maybe when the peanut gets older, I’ll circle back to it.) I get the impression those books are fairly light-hearted? This one’s maybe a little more serious in tone — er, so, yes, an adult treatment! Exactly what you said!

  • Soooo would you say this is an urban fantasy? Because tbh I gave up reading UF years ago. It’s just not my jam

    • Yes, I would say it’s an urban fantasy in that it takes place in a city and is fantasy. But it doesn’t have the same noir-y ambience that I encounter in a lot of urban fantasy and don’t enjoy. Basically, I’m not a big UF fan, but I still really loved this book. I recommend it very much.

  • I think you had me at fairies. Throw in the word creepy and I am salivating like Pavlov’s dogs.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    So glad to hear this actually is good! It’s on my library list. I have no idea when I will be able to actually get to read it, but I am glad I have something to look forward to! I used to work as the IT person at a local nonprofit that specialized in women only mental health and chemical health care especially CBT groups. Good stuff that made a huge difference for so many women.

  • Alley

    This sounds super interesting (save for perhaps negative Southern blonde lady stereotype) and the idea of a sci-fi book portraying BPD in a non-terrible way? Yes plz