Terri Windling’s Bordertown – ‘the finest of all shared worlds’, according to Locus – makes its hardcover debut in this anthology. Guidebook chapters, frequently works of art in themselves, alternate with short stories by big-name fantasy writers, as well as those who are not (yet) famous.
Bordertown is where science and magic, the World and the (Faerie) Realm, meet: once an ordinary American city, it was transformed by the return of Faerie on the hills beyond the suburbs. Now Bordertown is a frontier town, populated by the rejects of both societies, subject to UN sanctions on faerie trade, and running a flourishing ‘underground, under-thirty’ economy.
Neither science nor magic can quite be trusted in Bordertown. In ‘Arcadia’, by Michael Korolenko, Jill’s disappointment with the city is transmuted as she tries to film a documentary, and finds that her spell-powered camcorder records something quite different to what she sees. Steven Brust’s masterful ‘When the Bow Breaks’ is the tale of a ship’s captain who learns another lesson of magic: treat anything as alive for long enough, or personify it, and you’ve worked a spell. If the Mad River acts like a drug on humans, what might it do to the ships that sail its blood-red waters?
In many modern fantasies, elven themes go hand-in-hand with Celtic myth and magic. Bordertown, true to its multi-cultural manifesto, has room for more: Donnard Sturgis does wonders with voodoo and a gumbo recipe in ‘Half-Life’. ‘Argentine’, by Ellen Steiber, pits an elven thief, stealing whatever someone most loves, against the ghost of another thief whom she encounters in a cemetery on the Day of the Dead. This is one of the most accomplished and atmospheric tales in the book: Steiber’s first fantasy novel is forthcoming from Tor, and if ‘Argentine’ is a true gauge of her style, it should be worth the wait.
The original Bordertown anthologies (none published in the UK, and all out of print in the US) dealt primarily with adolescent themes and obsessions. While this anthology embraces several of the usual rites of passage, there is a sense of emerging maturity. Caroline Stevermer’s ‘Rag’, in particular, is a thoughtful exploration of the idea that ‘hearts of fire grow cold’; that growing up means that you stop caring about the things that used to matter. ‘Socks’, by Delia Sherman, describes the conflicts of adults through the eyes of a sick, amnesiac twelve-year-old girl, subtly and with remarkable effect.
I’ve mentioned only a handful of the stories in the anthology, and they are not necessarily the best. There isn’t a weak story in the book: if anyone still thinks that fantasy is an excuse for poor prose, let them read here and think again.