Phantom Pains Pushes the Boundaries of What Urban Fantasy Can Do

Last year I read Borderline, Mishell Baker’s debut novel, and knew it was a game changer for urban fantasy. And sure enough, the book went on to be nominated for this year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel, the first book in the unjustly maligned subgenre to earn the honor…possibly ever, depending on how rigidly you like to classify your fiction. Now arrives the sequel, Phantom Pains, and it absolutely fulfills the promise of the first book—and then some.

Millie is a disabled woman with a history of mental illness and at least one suicide attempt. She daily deals with the pain and frustration of her two prosthetic legs while keeping herself from succumbing to issues related to her Borderline Personality Disorder. As we discovered in Borderline, all of these conditions make Millie a perfect candidate for The Arcadia Project—a secret organization that controls the comings and goings of the fey between their realm, Arcadia, and the human world. (The more marginalized you are—the less likely you are to believed if you decide to go public with the world-shattering news that magic is real—the better you meet Arcadia’s needs.) Unfortunately, Millie also has a strong personality,a big mouth, and a streak of independence a mile wide, none of which sit well with her superiors in the Project. Even though she manages to save the day, the fact that she does it on her own terms gets her fired.

Fast forward four months: Millie is holding down a job as an assistant to Inaya, an A-list Hollywood actress who has a history with the fae—even if she only got the gig thanks to her familiarity with Arcadia. Her attitude still stinks, but she’s managing to juggle all of the daily problems at work—including petitioning the Arcadia Project to remove a giant, lethal vortex occupying one of the sound stages—when she stumbles across a fey terrorist plot that will rock both the human and faerie worlds, changing them irrevocably.

Like its predecessor, Phantom Pains does not spare us from the day-to-day realities of living with a mental disorder and a major disability. All of Millie’s trials and tribulations are integral to the plot. The metal in her body foils spellwork even as it keeps her from being able to get close to fey beings she’s come to love. Her anxiety and insecurity make it doubly difficult for her to make decisions on her own—something her job requires of her, particularly when it comes to dealing with the highest authorities in the Project and in the realm of Arcadia. It takes strength for her to push forward against magic that is preventing her from believing what she sees, when even in the absence of magical interference, she’s riddled with self-doubt.

Though Millie is our protagonist, the other characters are developed with as much care and compassion. Caryl, her old boss at the Project, is still learning to control her emotions; currently, she’s dealing by locking them away from herself, and into a magical construct. Is that really any kind of permanent solution? She suspects her construct isn’t working the way it should—with possibly lethal consequences. Tjuan, a schizophrenic, finds his ability to ignore the voices inside his head a handy skill when possessed by an entity that wants him to do terrible things.

With a head-on approach to incorporating mental illness and physical disability in its worldbuilding, the Arcadia Project stands out from the urban fantasy crowd—and it’s far from just a hook or a gimmick. Baker tackles these very real issues with finesse, creating realistically flawed characters we care about and plots that drive us forward, yearning for more. They’re must-reads for me for as long as Barker keeps writing them—and keeps showing everything an urban fantasy can be.

Phantom Pains is available now.

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