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.