I’m not a great reader of urban fantasy and I’ve been (sort of and unsuccessfully) avoiding new series, so I’d skipped Mishell Baker’s Borderline when it came out last year. I cannot tell you how glad I am that I finally read it. It’s a solid story that ticks off a lot of run-of-the-mill urban fantasy boxes while still being clever and original enough to be interesting. Baker takes a smartly naturalistic approach to describing the setting—I’m not a fan of L.A.-set stories in general, but she does a wonderful job of conveying a sort of warts-and-all love for the city without either romanticizing it or dwelling on ugliness. And Millie Roper is a fucking iconic protagonist with a strong and uniquely relatable (for me) narrative voice.
While I don’t read a ton of urban fantasy, I like it better when the fantastical element is fairies, as opposed to vampires or werewolves, and I especially like the way Baker imagines fairies in this series. The Arcadia Project is a more-or-less government-overseen system that manages the interactions between Earth and Arcadia, which is otherwise a largely straightforward fairyland filled with the usual fairy creatures, high and low fae, and copious magic. It turns out that humanity relies on magic—specifically the inspiration of fairy “Echoes” (think personal muses for artists and thinkers of all kinds)—for most great human endeavors, artistic and otherwise, and the Arcadia Project acts as a sort of ICE for fairies traveling to and from Arcadia. To help maintain the secrecy of the Project, its administrators recruit agents primarily from psychiatric hospitals, with the idea that those who see the world differently may be more open to and accepting of the work, but also with the knowledge that those who are marginalized due to documented mental illness are unlikely to be believed if they do tell others about the Project. Millie, who has borderline personality disorder and is still recovering from a suicide attempt that left her a double amputee, is a perfect candidate for the job.
Millie also has a background in film—she was going to film school at UCLA prior to her suicide attempt—and the film industry features largely in Borderline. Many of the secondary and tertiary characters are in some way involved in the industry, and much of the action takes place in a movie studio. It’s a very specific part of Los Angeles that I’ve seldom read about, mostly because I don’t find it particularly interesting, but Mishell Baker shows real skill in making the L.A. of the Arcadia Project feel real and lived-in. There’s a great sense of place and plenty of specific-feeling details so that even the places that are obviously invented for the book fit right in to the broader aesthetic. I wouldn’t quite say that it rises to the point of the city itself being a character, which is common in urban fantasy, but it’s a vividly immersive setting nonetheless.
It’s Millie herself, however, who truly elevates the book and makes it one of the best and most interesting urban fantasies I’ve read in years. While I’m not sure how much of my own struggles with mental illness (mostly depression and anxiety) overlap with Millie’s, there’s so much about her experience that feels familiar, and I expect that this will resonate deeply with many people who have had similar issues. Many, many people have written and talked about the value of representation in fiction, and all of that is fully applicable here. Millie will be a highly relatable protagonist for many, and for many more she’ll be a character that will, hopefully, help readers gain some new understanding of an experience that isn’t often depicted in genre fiction. Here, too, Mishell Baker takes a naturalistic approach, refusing to sugarcoat the reality of Millie’s mental and physical conditions, and both Millie’s borderline personality disorder and her double amputations have obvious impacts on her ability to function, and sometimes just exist, in the world. Millie’s troubled relationships and fraught interactions with nearly everyone she meets make for compelling drama and add another level of specificity to the story that sets it well apart from other work in a subgenre often plagued by over-reliance on tired tropes and cliché storytelling conventions.
I may have been late to the party on this series, but Mishell Baker is an author to watch, and I can’t wait to find out what Millie gets up to next. Borderline is a superb first novel and a great start to a freshly compelling new series.