Welcome to Bordertown: Thirteen Years Later, the Triumphant Return
There are surprisingly few true shared-world series, which is a real shame. The concept, that multiple authors write stories all set in the same setting, allowing for different facets and corners of the world to be exposed as the canon expands, is a truly fascinating possibility, and some of the few examples of the concept are simultaneously immersive and eternally intriguing.
The Bordertown series is a particularly well-known and successful shared-world series, created back in the late 1980s by Terri Windling and Mark Arnold. The titular Bordertown is a city on the border between the World of humanity and the Realm of the elves of mythology (although they prefer to call themselves “Truebloods”). Bordertown is where the rejects, outcasts, and runaways of both worlds (plus the half-elven children of human/elven relations) turn up and make a new life for themselves: a city where magic and technology each only work about half the time (and often not how they’re supposed to), where the local economy is based on barter, and human, elven, and Halfblood gangs make certain neighborhoods very unsafe to travel through.
The last Bordertown book, the short story collection “The Essential Bordertown,” came out 13 years ago, and it was assumed that it would end there. However, in mid-2011, a new book, “Welcome to Bordertown,” came out, allowing a new generation to experience the wonder and magic of Bordertown, a wonderous thing as many of the earlier Bordertown books are incredibly rare and hard to find.
The editors of "Welcome To Bordertown" have included its 13 year delay into the frame story of the anthology in a rather clever way, which I appreciated as a nice touch. 13 years ago in the Bordertown frame story, the way to Bordertown from the human World closed mysteriously. However, as many of the stories in this collection start, the way has opened again, revealing that in Bordertown, only 13 days have passed. As a new crop of humans (who refer to themselves as “noobs”) enter Bordertown, the city changes in a multitude of ways, both good and ill.
Overall, almost all of the stories are very strong. Particularly good are the titular story by Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling, “Shannon’s Law” by Cory Doctorow, “A Voice Like A Hole” by Catherynne M. Valente, “Incanbulum” by Emma Bull, “The Sages of Elsewhere” by Will Shetterly, “The Rowan Gentleman” by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, and “A Tangle of Green Men” by Charles de Lint. As well as eight short stories, there is a short comic, “Fair Trade,” as well as several poems by the likes of Jane Yolen, Delia Sherman and Neil Gaiman.
“Welcome to Bordertown” is a solid story to both get old timers back into the Bordertown spirit and catch newcomers up to speed. It revolves around teenaged runaway Trish, who ran to Bordertown to escape the mundanity of her life, her younger (now, because of the time skip, older) brother Jimmy, who comes to Bordertown after the way opens again to find his sister, and grad student Anush Gupta, whose attempt to learn about Trueblood mating habits have gotten him into quite a bit of magical trouble. It’s a classic tale of missed connections, as Trish begins to realize that Bordertown may not be the goal she was hoping it would be, and the practical-minded Jimmy discovers that he fits into the crazy and magical world of B-Town much more than he realized. It’s brilliantly paced, and it serves as a great immersion into the complex and complicated world of Bordertown, as new characters characters encounter classic characters and locations from previous collections.
Cory Doctorow’s “Shannon’s Law” is probably the most audacious of all of the stories in the book, by daring to give Bordertown that most modern of Worldly inventions, the Internet—although this is an internet which sometimes has to be transmitted via carrier pigeon, magic spell, and heliograph. The brainchild of a noob teenage genius named Shannon Klod, this internet—known as BINGO—transmits information all over B-town and occasionally even from B-town to the World. Shannon’s dream, however, is to figure out how to transmit information across the Border to the Realm—a place that humans are forbidden to see, and elves are forbidden to talk about. To do this he enlists a halfie wizkid named Jetfuel and her highborn (e.g. Trueblood) sister Synack to smuggle data in its most beautiful form (as the Realm runs on how poetic or beautiful something is) across the impassible border. Although the ending of this story is irritatingly vague and inconclusive, Doctorow’s clever and passionate writing (combined with his tech-geek outlook) are unmissable.
“A Voice Like a Hole” and “A Tangle of Green Men” are both more about the journey to Bordertown rather than what happens once their characters get there. These two stories, coincidentally, are easily the most emotionally devastating, plunging the reader deep into the depths of their respective main characters’ desperations. Both stories have characters searching for something greater than can be found in the World, something that Bordertown might possibly provide. Both Valente and De Lint have more than enough talent to put the reader right by the side of teenage runaway and singer Fig and Native American whittler Joey Green as they search for that something greater. With a lot of the stories in this volume I hoped that they’ll write follow-up stories, but for these two especially I want to know what happens next with the protagonists of these stories. If I wasn’t already a fanatical fan of both De Lint and Valente, these two stories would be enough on their own to convince me.
“Incanbulum” features a Trueblood who loses his memory when he goes from the Realm to Bordertown. Blundering through Bordertown society, he tries to figure out who he is, why he has no shoes, and why his shirt is soaked in someone else’s blood, all before his own stubborn arrogance gets him killed or worse. But his loss of memory might be an opportunity to start his life over as much as it is a puzzle for him to solve. This is a neat little story, and I liked watching the character of Page (as he decides to call himself) change slowly but surely over the story, as he begins to realize what kind of person he is, and what kind of person he can be.
Will Shetterly’s “The Sages of Elsewhere” is perhaps the least friendly to new readers, following as it does the saga of Shetterly’s pet character, werewolf/bookstore owner Wolfboy, as he gains possession of a tome of elven magic that a rather unscrupulous rival wants to get his hands on. Not only is it a fun little tale, but I liked how it showed the danger and power of racial conflicts in Bordertown, as Wolfboy’s competitor (a Trueblood) tries to label Wolfboy prejudiced against Truebloods in order to force Wolfboy to turn the book over to him. The character of Wolfboy was so interesting that this story inspired me to buy the two novels Shetterly wrote about Wolfboy. I have high hopes for them, as here Shetterly is a talented writer, balancing a humorous tone with the very real danger of what could happen if the spellbook fell into the wrong hands.
Finally, “The Rowan Gentleman” is an interesting tale of a young actress named Ashley who is thrust into an intrigue involving the lazy and feckless elf who owns the theater she works at, a dead halfie girl, a human gangster named Nigel Barrow, and the titular mysterious urban legend vigilante. It’s very fast-paced, and I really liked how things don't necessarily go how you might expect.
As for the other stories and the poems, they were all at least decent, and I only had problems with a few. Nalo Hopkinson’s “Ours Is the Prettiest” was certainly interesting, with its depiction of gay and lesbian characters from Caribbean cultures in Bordertown, as well as hinting that there may be other cultures in the Realm besides the somewhat Celtic Truebloods we’ve seen so far, but as the main character has no idea what’s going on, the reader is similarly confused by the events of the story. Christopher Barzak’s “We Do Not Come In Peace” has a somewhat troubling (and possibly unintentional) message to it, and Tim Pratt’s “Our Stars, Our Selves” just seems somewhat dull. The poems are all right, although some of them didn’t seem particularly “Bordertown-y,” seeming instead to be pastiches of “Thomas the Rhymer”-style faerie rhymes. Jane Yolen’s several contributions, supposedly halfblood songs, have a nice anthropological feel to them, which is nice, but I would have preferred if she and Neil Gaiman had written actual stories. And the comic is too short.
All that said, all in all this is an excellent collection of stories. The knowledge barrier is not insurmountably high, and I hope this book introduces Bordertown to a new audience. Here’s to hope for another collection like this soon!