26 October, 2021

LitStack Recs: Passage to Ararat & Borderline

Borderline, by Mishell Baker

How to write a kick-ass novel:

1) Create a main character that is flawed but grudgingly admirable; maybe have her be a double amputee due to a botched suicide attempt that puts her in a psychiatric center. Give her a borderline personality disorder (BPD) and a sarcastic, razor sharp yet vulnerable mind. Don’t shy away from any of it. Be real, even when it’s not tragic, noble, or pretty.

2) Throw in magic. And fairies. And Hollywood.

Don’t think you could pull it off? Don’t worry – Mishell Baker has you covered.

The first book in a series, Borderline introduces us to Millie Roper, a film student who directed a few indie films, netting her a Best New Director award from the Seattle Film Festival. But her BPD, coupled with an unhealthy affair with one of her professors, led to her jumping off the roof of a campus building, not only crushing her body but also any chance she had of “making it” in the film business.

Enter the Arcadia Project – a non-profit that provides certain mentally ill adults with housing and meaningful employment, mostly through part-time or freelance positions in the entertainment industry.  Millie is offered a probationary spot with the Project; her first job, along with her assigned partner, Teo, is to track down an errant actor whose visa has expired and urge him back onto the straight and narrow.

What she doesn’t learn until later is the actor is actually a nobleman from the Seelie Court (fairies, or “the fey” as they prefer to be known). Turns out, the Arcadia Project is actually an under-the-radar organization that “polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myths and fairy tales.” Millie is skeptical at first, but it doesn’t take long for experience to overcome her disbelief – and that’s when the fun begins.

There are a lot of good magical realism/modern fantasy books out there, employing by necessity a hefty willing suspension of disbelief. Borderline, however, flows so effortlessly, and Mollie keeps the reader so realistically grounded, that you don’t even notice when you cross the line (see what I did there?) from “real life” to fantasy. So what about the threat of a fey invasion when you’re trying to deal with a serious mental disorder where your emotions can suddenly flare out of whack, beyond your ability to cope in the moment? Add to that a debilitating set of injuries that you did to yourself, and it’s pretty easy to see why Mollie is able to take the sudden appearance of the supernatural in stride.

Yet this is no “woe is me” tale, nor a book where the gravitas is insight into an affliction; there are plenty of “understand this” moments in the narrative, but very few teach-y moments and no preachy ones. Instead, the emotional and physical turmoil Mollie faces are melded directly into the effects they have on her relationships. The emotional impact of her struggles, appropriate or not, hits home. Additionally, Mollie’s droll sense of humor is not just quick, sharp and biting, but often hilarious. That sardonic wit also keeps the sense of “this can’t be happening” at bay – when you know how to cut through both the genius and pandering of Hollywood, how hard is it to apply that same sense of wonder and distain to magical beings in your midst?

The writing is fast paced; the action is logical with no leaps of faith necessary in the human elements of the tale. The magical parts are not all, well, magical – some of them are downright ugly. The exposition necessary to follow along – for instance, the differences between an enchantment, a charm and a ward – are given to us as Mollie is brought up to speed by other others at the Project. Since they are given in the moment of need, they are far more acute than if we were merely absorbing some kind of thinly veiled literary lecture.

And in case you haven’t guessed it, with talk of mental disorders, suicide, amputations, demons and magic, this ain’t no candy-ass tale. People die. Ugly things happen. The guy doesn’t necessarily get the girl and not everyone who deserves it lives happily ever after.

Just like life, warts and pain and stupidity and redemption and all. And maybe that’s why I loved Borderline so much. I have nothing in common with virtually anything in this book – but it felt real.

Absolutely, definitely kick-ass. And highly recommended.

— Sharon Browning

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