Monday, November 9, 2015

Random Reads: The Borderlands / Bordertown Series

All right... the time has come. I am officially getting ready to delete the content from Really Rather Random Guy (dot blogspot dot com) and in preparing for that, I wanted to import a bunch of the content that I know will then be lost forever, by bringing the posts over here to Goodwill Hunting 4 Geeks (dot blogspot dot com). So, with that in mind, I thought I would preface these entries with the fact that they are indeed OLD blog posts from an OLD now (or soon to be, depending on when you're reading this) DEFUNCT blog, and cross my fingers and hope that folks will still want to read them.

This post was originally published online back in February 2nd, 2014. 

Today I want to take a post and talk about what is potentially one of my absolute favorite book series of all times. It has a convoluted, tangled history, and honestly, it's kind of hard to figure out all of the books that are even IN the series without a guide-map of some sort. Sounds AWESOME so far, right? 

Well, what I'm talking about is the Borderland/Bordertown Series that was created by Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold back in 1986. It started out as a series of anthology books with contributors like Charles De Lint and Ellen Cushner. It expanded into a handful of novels by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull, and then a revival of the series happened in 2011 when a new anthology was put out with contributors like Neil Gaiman and  Holly Black.

The series was all based around the idea that there exists a place where our mundane, technology-driven Earth and the magic-based Elfland touch and merge, creating a border between the two worlds. In this borderland there is Bordertown, where humans and Elves mingle. Magic and technology can function in varying degrees, sporadically, unpredictably, and in unexpected ways. The town has a structure somewhat similar to most urban cities... with the haves and the have-nots divvied up into their respective neigborhoods. But what makes Bordertown special is how it draws runaways from both sides of the Border like the Pied Piper. These kids and other lost souls usually end up in the SoHo district. Because of the huge variance in the folks who live in Bordertown, the possibilities for the types of characters that can be introduced, and therefore the types of stories that can be told, are virtually limitless. The elves we're talking about are not the Keebler or Santa's variety, or cutesy winged little pixies. These are snooty, high-born elves that cannot be characterized as frail by any measure of the word. There are various different attitudes on both the human and elven sides of the coin, from heated gang warfare to lovers-not-fighters who just want everyone to get along. 

You'd never know what kinds of stories are inside this book based on the cover art.
While I love it, I can't help but feel like the Mad Max vibe of this and the next cover image
are a bit wasted on these anthologies. I think if I were looking for the kind of stories
this cover seems to advertise... I might be a bit disappointed when I finally read Borderland.

I discovered the Bordertown series for the first time at Goodwill, but only two of them, and the rest I had to track down online later on. For the purposes of this post I'm showing them in order, but I read these things ALL out of order the first time, and honestly it worked pretty well anyway. There are recurring characters that show up throughout the stories, as the various different authors build on each others stories and borrow each other's characters. Bordertown is a community with a handful of very prominent residents, so this only makes sense. The true first book in the series is the one pictured above, Borderland. It contains 4 novellas that introduce some of Bordertown's MOST famous, including a hero named Stick, a thief named Gray, and a handful of others. It also pretty well sets the tone for the Bordertown books, which is to say urban fantasy, stories of runaways experiencing the world, and stories heavily drenched in rock and roll. There's a real feel of post-apocalyptic story-telling to the books as well, that have left many fans wondering what the state of the world outside of Bordertown actually is... or if the nature of Bordertown itself is what makes life so rough there. The first two books were put out around 1985 and 1986, and they have that distinct feel of 80's youth culture to them.

These two book covers are straight out of my childhood, by the way.
When I had discovered the Bordertown books as an adult and was looking for more of them
I found pictures of the cover art online and realized I DISTINCTLY remembered
seeing the covers to these books in my grammar school Library when I was a kid.
They were nothing that interested me back then... or so I thought. 

There are many stories centered on the homeless kids of Bordertown living and surviving together. Some stories are inspiring while others are gut-wrenching. The first couple of books really seem to focus on the fantasy elements and sort of skim over some of the uglier aspects. Books later in the series take the opportunity to really focus on what life for homeless kids, both human and elfin, might entail. The fact that these stories take place in a town where magic can literally happen around every corner seems to make them even more poignant. The Elves of Bordertown are sometimes friendly, but many of them have been banished there and hate humans with a passion. Elves are not the only magical beings hanging around, but they are the most common. In the first two books alone we meet a were-cat and a demon-possessed young woman, but believe it or not, they pale in comparison to some of the sheer weirdness that transpires between human and elven characters just living their day-to-day lives. 

This artwork is still a bit misleading. Honestly, looking at it I'm inclined to think this is
more a futuristic Blade Runner or Fifth Element style adventure tale...
Of which it is definitely neither.

Life on the Border is the first book in the series to have more than just 4 stories in it, and is also the first book published in the 90's. The anthology juices really get flowing as the new storytellers start to join in and build on the Bordertown canon and mythos. We get a glimpse of the skater culture in Bordertown and more elements like mythological figures and movie characters who've literally stepped off the silver screen come to play in Bordertown. They play with the narrative a bit here as well, having a framing story around all the other tales that gives us the first-hand experiences of a girl who is exploring Bordertown for the first time. There is rust and grime and heart-ache and comradery and enchantment woven into every story in one way or another. These books really get addictive.  

NOT in love with this cover art... in fact, it almost prevented me from buying it.
But the endorsement from Lloyd Alexander actually did encourage me to look past
and not judge this book by... well you know.

Now. THIS was the first book I read from this series. I found both of Will Shetterly's books at Goodwill for a couple of bucks apiece, and I have NO IDEA what drew me to them. It was just one of those impulse buys, that when you look back at it in retrospect, doesn't feel like it was random or impulse at all. Elsewhere is quite possibly one of my top 10 favorite reads of all time, and it (along with its sequel, below) made me completely RAVENOUS for all things Bordertown. I think I would STILL recommend reading this book first to anyone wanting to know what this series is all about. It tells the story of how a young man named Ron comes to Bordertown, and the community he finds there and the life he carves out for himself. The world is so perfectly realized in this book that you feel like you can effortlessly visualize every detail. The people, the local customs, the harsh reality of Ron's new living arrangements, they all feel like you're experiencing them in person. And because Ron's desires and motivations are all ones we can empathize with easily, it makes the story seem all that more plausible, even when there are elves lounging around. 

Not much else to say about this one, still not a huge fan of the art style here,
possibly even less so than the Elsewhere cover art. These are not the original covers
to these books though. Originally published back in 1991, these are reprints from 2004.
NeverNever is the sequel to Elsewhere and I can't talk too much about it without giving away the pretty shocking ending to the preceding book. Suffice it to say that Ron returns for another story, and he goes on to become a prominent, and recognizable character in the Bordertown stories after this. The one thing that genuinely irritates me about the series is that Shetterly literally takes stories he wrote in the earlier books and writes them directly into these two novels. The problem is that when he does so he actually contradicts things that happened in the earlier stories, such as omitting characters and in general mucking up the history, timeline, and continuity of the series. These are pretty minor, ignorable problems to be honest, and are not terribly harmful to the overall experience... but still... it niggles at me. 

Even though this book came out in '94
the cover design just screams 80's.
The title is printed in a metallic silver and was
a nightmare to photograph so you could actually read it
Emma Bull's Finder is another full-length novel, and shares many of the characters from the Will Shetterly stories, which is not surprising, since Emma Bull is Will Shetterly's wife. This book focuses on a guy named Orient, who has a sort of pseudo-psychic ability that allows him to "find" things. He is drawn into a murder investigation (Bordertown does have its own version of Police and Detectives, though they are much less structured than out in the World) and his entire world is turned upside down. We get a pretty great noir crime story here in an urban fantasy environment, which I find very refreshing. I love the bittersweet but perfect ending of this one. 

Interesting that they went so sort of abstract with the cover this time around.
No figures, no punks, no elves or guns or motorcycles.
Just a dreamy, almost Arabian-Nights looking city.
Next and nearly last we have The Essential Bordertown which was the last Terri Windling edited anthology, put out in 1998. Some of the usual suspects showed back up to contribute, including Charles De Lint and Ellen Cushner. It's a good collection of stories, none of them terribly memorable in comparison to some of the earlier stuff, but still pretty solid. I know the absolute most disgusting story in all of the Bordertown stories appears in this book, in "Socks" which is a story about a girl with cursed feet... and I will leave it at that. So this was pretty much the dying of the light for the Bordertown series until just a couple of years ago when this came out:

Ahhh... here we go. A motorcycle trapped in vines! That's more like it. 
This new collection was put out 13 years later, near the end of 2011 and was the last book I bought at our local bookstore, Mr. Paperback, before it finally closed its doors in 2012. This time around, all the usual suspects from anthologies pas showed up to contribute, along with some newer faces to the series, like Neil Gaiman and Jane Yolen. Turns out they account for the time gap by saying that time moves differently in Bordertown and that while the way to Bordertown has been completely closed off for the last 13 years in our world, time has only passed about a week in Bordertown. It's one of those convenient plot devices that actually kind of makes sense and works eerily well when dealing with stories that take place so close to elfland. So now we have a Bordertown that is just learning about wikipedia for the first time, and is dealing with the fact that the world outside of Bordertown has progressed 13 years while they haven't changed at all. It's pretty great. It's a beautiful continuation of the series, and has me hoping we'll see more in the future at some point.

So... that's all I got in me for today. I applaud your determination if you read this entire post, and I applaud you even more if you actually took anything useful away from it. I genuinely cannot think of a book series I am more excited to recommend to people than this one. It is criminally under-read, and more people should know about it. That's pretty much all I need to say about it.

I'll be back with more random awesomeness soon enough, so keep your peepers peeled here!


  1. Wow, that's a lotta books! Can't believe I wasn't aware of these in high school, would have been right up my alley.

    1. As much as I love this series having discovered it only a couple of years ago, I can't help but wonder how much of a game-changer these would have been for me when I was even younger. They are a very mature young adult, and full of the kind of longing that dreamy teenagers feel for something more meaningful in their lives. What that says about me as an adult I don't know.

  2. Never heard of this series i might recommend it to my wife she is a big time reader and might enjoy these stories.

    1. Like I said above have her start with Elsewhere and NeverNever by Will Shetterly (these may only be available as eBooks though). The only other books actually available in print to buy through Amazon are the last two anthologies. The others you'll have to track down through used booksellers or eBay. They are surprisingly difficult to track down at times, and I can't tell you how lucky I was to find my copies relatively cheap. Most go for 20 plus dollars online, for a teeny little paperback, and most of the series is not in eBook format yet.

  3. Wow, great overview of the series, I hadn't heard of this either, will have to keep my eyes open for it, any idea if this was inspiration at all for the game series or are they seperate entities with similar titles?

    1. Thanks! And there are no connections between this book series and the Borderlands FPS game series or the (literally) 5 different movies with "Bordertown" as the title.

  4. Never was crazy about these movies.


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