Disability in Fantasy is not a very popular topic - Not many authors, least of all debut ones, would choose to portray their main protagonist as one with any form of disability. Mishell Baker is a crow left of the murder, as she goes on to break several stereotypes with her smart and sensitive portrayal of her leading protagonist in her debut, Borderline from Saga Press, the opening book in the Arcadia Project series. As someone who suffers from borderline psychotic disorder and has lost both her legs in a failed suicide attempt, I thought Millie Roper, the leading character in Mishell’s book was going down the path of darkness and maybe, this one was going to be a grim, dark read. Yeah, well, this whip-smart urban fantasy proved me wrong. Borderline is slickly plotted and filled with such wondrous characters that I found myself drawn right into this grim but gloriously realized magic-filled world straddling the 'border' between humanity and the faeries. ( In fact after I got halfway through the book, I realized the name of the book wasn’t just about Millie’s psychological disorder but more about this line separating the two worlds.)
It's smart, sharp and engaging urban fantasy, redefining a genre I typically do not read much. But as written by Mishell Baker, Arcadia Project has become one of the shining stars of this genre and I will definitely be picking up anything she writes next.
So what is Arcadia Project? Without giving too much away, suffice to know that it refers to this supernatural division that controls the Gates between the two different worlds. Every human in this world has his/her Echo in the Fey world – while the fey world is about creativity and glorious innovations, the human world represents the greyer more disciplined versions of what the mind is capable of.
Millie Roper is a breath of fresh air. Seriously, with her BPD that Millie uses as a shield from the world, unpredictability and smarminess are wielded like a club against anyone who hurts her (inadvertently) she makes for a very colorful first person narrative. Her snarky comments are sharp enough to flay the skin off your back and yet her wild swings of the mood, make you feel bad enough for her. Unflagging sense of self-awareness and untiringly result-oriented, gutsy and gritty Millie sure won my heart. An incredibly flawed and realistic protagonist who doesn’t know when to let things lie and doesn’t let her list of disabilities (and a long one at that!) come in her way of achieving her goals. There are dark moments, when she breaks down and searches for herself in dark spaces inside her mind but overall, the tone is fun, light and not didactic at all. We are not treated to any inspirational cures for Millie’s own disabilities.
But apart from this wholly realistic and fresh portrayal of the BPD, Borderline is an engrossing urban fantasy set in the glitzy corridors of the moviedom. Los Angeles is present in all its made-up façade, bright studios, larger than life movie-sets, the unflattering ambition barely cloaked that runs through its streets ( There’s this scene where a die-hard fan scriptwriter chases a very famous director down the pacific highway just to get him to read his script! Happens only here!) So story-wise, it starts off as a missing person hunt that soon turns on its head as magic and evil seeps in through that murky border between our world and the Arcadia. Millie’s friends in this investigation, part of the Arcadia project in LA, are all well realized fantastic characters, each of them with their own inner demons and a fascinating backstory to tell. I loved Teo, the latino boy who loves cooking and is Millie’s partner. Their constant bickering and banter makes for some really sparkling dialogues in the plot. And Caryl, damn – where do I start about her. A cold young genius whose Reasonable mind is separated from her Emotional mind, locked up as a dragon ‘familiar’.
I loved the ideas explored in the book, as in the creativity genius that is set off because of ‘Fey’ interaction. Mishell cheekily throws in references, like Walt Disney who probably brought the best in him as he would have joined up with his Echo from Arcadia. For the refreshing ideas, the bold portrayal of a central character with BPD, the snappy dialogues and the amazing set of well-realized characters, Borderline is a thoroughly entertaining, original work of fiction that is a must-read. I absolutely loved it and cannot wait to get back into the corridors of Hollywood with this firecracker of a character, called Millie Roper.