Book Review: Borderline by Mishell Baker
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: Book 1 of The Arcadia Project
Publisher: Saga Press (March 1, 2016)
Length: 400 pages
I’m so glad I finally got the chance to read Borderline. I admit I haven’t been trying out a lot of new urban fantasy lately, since after a while so many of the common themes start to run together until I can’t keep the different stories straight in my head anymore. Borderline, though, is special. Very special. It’s completely invigorating and just what I needed to rekindle my excitement for the genre.
The story, which I originally thought would be darker and grimmer in tone due to what I read in the publisher description, actually turned out to be a lot of fun. The book stars Millie Roper, a young woman with borderline personality disorder who is in recovery for a failed suicide attempt a year before. The incident caused her to lose her legs and her promising filmmaking career, but just as Millie has decided to resign herself to her new reality, a strange woman called Caryl Vallo shows up in her room at the psychiatric center, claiming to represent a group called the Arcadia Project.
And what is the Arcadia Project? Now that’s where things get interesting. Imagine something like Men in Black, but replace the aliens with faeries. Arcadia is the name given to the “other” realm, where the Fey and other mythical creatures reside. They frequently come visiting in our mundane world, and some even make it their home. It’s the mission of certain secret branches of the government working with the Arcadia Project to track these Fey visitors and make sure they don’t stir up too much trouble on this side of reality. What that also means is when the Fey break the rules or go off radar, agents have to be sent in to investigate. That’s where the Arcadia Project comes in, and now Caryl is asking Millie to be their newest recruit.
Wow, where do I start? First of all, Millie is an incredible protagonist. Yes, she’s a complex, fully-realized character. And no, she’s not always likeable. Her borderline personality disorder sometimes makes her emotions volatile, and her behavior unpredictable. But paradoxically, I also found her very genuine despite her moods and thoughts constantly swinging in different directions. I find that unreliable narrators are commonly used in stories about characters with mental illness or behavioral disorders, but Millie also somehow breaks that mold, coming across to me as an exceptional and very different kind of protagonist. She can’t help what she feels in the moment, but she will always tell you straight. She has her dark and low moments, but when she’s not experiencing symptoms she can also be a very humorous, energetic and upbeat person. I loved her unique voice and wouldn’t have wanted anyone else at the helm of this wonderful story.
Speaking of story, on the whole Borderline features a rather conventional urban fantasy plot, but the joy of it is in the details. The book takes place in Hollywood, amidst sprawling film studio lots and glitzy celebrities. Millie herself was a former film student and an indie director before her suicide attempt. Both the character’s background and the setting are woven tightly into the story, so we also get to have some quirky twists involving the movie making industry. For example, almost every successful filmmaker and actor or actress in the past century has had some connections to Arcadia. Central to the plot is the really cool concept of Echoes. The idea suggests that every creative genius in our world will have a muse, or Echo, in Arcadia. And when they meet, it’s like the faerie-touched version of finding your soulmate—you just know. Once a person and their Fey Echo are joined, their talents can reach their full potential, unleashing even more creativity into their work and furthering their success. It’s a lovely idea, and I find it works especially well in this world Mishell Baker created.
I really don’t have many complaints. Perhaps the only thing that tripped me up is the way the author sometimes portrayed Millie’s BPD. I used to work in the therapy and rehabilitation field, and spent a great deal of time working with clients with mental illness, personality and behavioral disorders, as well as acquired brain injury. Millie’s “checklist” style of discussing her BPD at times felt exactly the way I’d described—often it felt like she was reading out of a copy of the DSM and ticking off all the major points like “Borderlines do this because” or “I am like that because” it’s what the info on the disorder says she should feel or do. It hasn’t really been like that in my experience; every individual is different and rarely does the full gamut of symptoms come neatly described and packaged together like that with any one person. It didn’t greatly affect my overall enjoyment of the novel though, and I appreciate the fact that Baker is trying to shine a light on mental health issues and the personal struggles of people who live with them.
I really wish I had read Borderline sooner, as it was such an extraordinary, refreshing novel. It’s exactly what I want in an urban fantasy: entertaining, original, and even meaningful. The fantastic cast simply further highlighted this read for me, from protagonist Millie Roper to my personal favorite character Caryl Vallo. Everything about this book was a delight, and I highly recommend it.