The unreliable narrator is a favorite device of speculative fiction authors. Mishell Baker turns that concept on its head with the narrator of Borderline, creating a protagonist who is entirely aware of her own mind’s distortions and doing her very best to keep in touch with reality. Yes, she’s unreliable, but through her own narration of her disconnected moments, she convinces the reader that she can be trusted, at least as far as she trusts herself.
The title refers both to the border between the human world and the world of magical creatures who are referred to as the fey, and to the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) that Millie Roper drags around like a lead weight, wields like a weapon, and ponders like a puzzle. When the book opens, Millie’s frittering away her inheritance from her father on a berth in an institution where she reluctantly acquires tools for managing her BPD, suicidal depression, and trauma from the suicide attempt that left her with scars and necessitated the amputation of both her legs. The promise of a job in the film industry—Hollywood’s holy grail, especially for those who are too ill or damaged to acquire work through conventional means—is enough to lure her away from that safe space and into the Arcadia Project, which employs people with mental illnesses to police the fey who visit our world and inspire the greatest filmmakers.
It turns out that if you’re already a little shaky on the concept of real, you’re much less likely to balk at the concept of magic. And Millie’s coping mechanisms for the symptoms of BPD are just as effective (which is to say, mostly but not completely) for helping her deal with the charming evasions of a famous director, the mystery of a missing fey lord, and the predations of a literally vampiric agent. This isn’t a strong urban fantasy novel that just happens to have a lot of characters with disabilities, nor is it a portrait of disability that just happens to have some magical elements. Like the Arcadia Project, Borderline puts its disabled characters to work, making their limitations and their talents both absolutely integral to the story.
Portrayals of disability are rare in fantasy and SF, and where they exist, they’re often handled badly: the disability is the entirety of the characterization, balanced out by extraordinary abilities, or used as window-dressing, a sign of evil, or a punch line. In this context, the portrayals of Millie and her Arcadia Project colleagues are a breath of fresh air. They don’t get compensatory superpowers. (Millie’s surgical steel implants and metal prostheses do allow her to inhibit the magic of the iron-averse fey, but Baker takes care to make that as much of a liability as a benefit.) Instead, they get opportunities to apply the skills, perception, and self-knowledge that they’ve developed through years of hard work. This approach, and Baker’s consistent, caring integration of the realities of disability into the narrative, makes Borderline one of the most purely respectful portrayals of people with disabilities that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, and that in turn makes it an excellent launch to a very promising urban fantasy series.