A cynical, disabled film director with borderline personality disorder gets recruited to join a secret organization that oversees relations between Hollywood and Fairyland in this Nebula Award–nominated and Tiptree Award Honor Book that’s the first novel in a new urban fantasy series from debut author Mishell Baker.
A year ago, Millie lost her legs and her filmmaking career in a failed suicide attempt. Just when she’s sure the credits have rolled on her life story, she gets a second chance with the Arcadia Project: a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales.
For her first assignment, Millie is tasked with tracking down a missing movie star who also happens to be a nobleman of the Seelie Court. To find him, she’ll have to smooth-talk Hollywood power players and uncover the surreal and sometimes terrifying truth behind the glamour of Tinseltown. But stronger forces than just her inner demons are sabotaging her progress, and if she fails to unravel the conspiracy behind the noble’s disappearance, not only will she be out on the streets, but the shattering of a centuries-old peace could spark an all-out war between worlds.
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It was midmorning on a Monday when magic walked into my life wearing a beige Ann Taylor suit and sensible flats. At the time I had more money than sense, and so I had been languishing at the Leishman Psychiatric Center in Silver Lake for just over six months.
The Center had a rigid routine, and there was a perverse comfort in knowing what misery of boredom to expect and when. Breakfast: grayish sausage, carbohydrate mush, and the kind of eggs that are poured from a carton, all eaten with plastic utensils. Physical therapy: a rotating assortment of blue-shirted people who urgently pressured me to feel happy about accomplishing things a three-year-old could do. Patio break: a chain-link enclosed concrete yard where everyone else flocked to light up coffin nails and trade confessions. Knowing they’d all be gone in three to fourteen days and wouldn’t stay in touch, I elected to sit in the fluorescent-lit common room and run reel after reel of movies in my head.
When a well-dressed woman stopped with purpose beside my chair that Monday, I assumed she was one of the Center’s bureaucracy. She was of average height and build, with a conservative suit and ethnically ambiguous features. Her face was drab and powdered matte; her hair and eyes were a muddle of colors that defied category. If she had drawn a revolver, shot me in the kneecap, and walked out, I’d have had a hell of a time describing her to security.
Although her appearance put her in the ballpark of my age, she addressed me in a flat, husky alto that had forty years of smoke and whiskey in it. “Millicent Roper,” she said.
“Yeah?” I was hesitant because when people in the movies say a name in that tone, the next line is usually, “You’re under arrest.” Instead she extended a gloved hand.
People do not wear gloves in Los Angeles. These weren’t cold-weather gloves either, but light dress gloves the same shell pink as her blouse, their cuffs disappearing beneath the sleeves of her jacket.
“I’m Caryl Vallo with the Arcadia Project,” she said.
“I don’t know what that is,” I said, leaving my hands in my lap.
She withdrew the gesture with no change of expression. “We are a nonprofit organization partially funded by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. I would be pleased to tell you more if we can speak confidentially. Could we retire briefly to another area?”
Her formality nudged my brain into a rusty gear that I eventually recognized as curiosity. “Fine,” I said. “We can go back to my room.”
I grabbed the wheels of my chair and rolled myself down the hall with practiced economy. The chair was a squeaky piece of crap, and I found myself embarrassed by it.
“I was under the impression that you used prosthetics for walking,” Caryl said.
“Only when I have somewhere to go. The AK socket starts to dig into my ass if I’m just sitting around.”
“Are your prosthetics in your room?”
“Will you put them on for me?”
Before you ask why I was so docile about an invasive request from a complete stranger, keep in mind that I’d spent the past year of my life following the orders of a procession of doctors, therapists, and other random concerned people whose names I sometimes didn’t even bother to learn.
I was paying extra for privacy, so there was a desk in my room where a second twin bed would have been. When we arrived, Caryl seated herself at it, pushing back the chair.
“Are you happy here?” she asked me, looking around. She seemed an extension of the bland decor.
“If I were happy,” I grunted, wheeling myself over to the locked chest containing my prosthetics, “I wouldn’t be here.”
Caryl, declining to comment, skimmed gloved fingertips over her tightly bound hair. I tried not to think about my own cowlicked mess, a few inches long all over except for a mostly hidden seam on the left side where hair didn’t grow at all.
“Forgive my poor choice of words,” she said. “Do you feel this is the best living situation for you at this time?”
“With my job and credit history,” I said as I braked my chair, “I think my only other option is a refrigerator box.” I took the key from around my neck, leaned over to unlock the chest, and pulled out my bottle of Dry-Lite, applying a generous amount to the stump of my right shin. I glanced at Caryl and found her watching me with the politely attentive expression of someone in the front row of a lecture hall.
“So,” I said, lifting my BK prosthesis out of the trunk. “You were about to tell me about the Arcadia Project.” I aligned the suction suspension and slid my shin into it. Once the carbon foot was solidly on the floor, I pushed myself to a stand with both hands, balancing one-legged and forcing the rest of the air out of the valve with a moist, embarrassing sound.
“The Arcadia Project,” said Caryl, “is funded partially by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and partially by private donations from members of the entertainment industry. We seek mentally ill adults who meet certain qualifications and provide them with meaningful employment, housing, and ongoing—”
“What sort of employment?” I interrupted as I pivoted to sit down on the edge of my bed.
“Employment opportunities vary depending upon the qualifications of the individual, but the majority are part-time or freelance creative positions in the film and television industry.”
I blinked at her a few times, an assortment of sarcastic replies clotting together in my brain like cars on the 405. I tried to remember my former Hollywood manners, then remembered that as a mental patient I had a license to say whatever the hell I wanted.
“Let me be sure I understand,” I said, reaching into the chest for the silicone suspension liner of my AK prosthetic and starting to powder the inside of it. “I flipped burgers for five years putting myself through community college, got fifteen grand into debt making a bunch of pretentious indie films about people trapped in rooms together, then bullshitted my way into what’s arguably the most prestigious film school in the world, when all I really needed to do to break into the industry was jump off a building?”
Caryl looked at me with the kind of aplomb that comes from dealing with the mentally ill on a daily basis. “No,” she said flatly. “You needed to do all that and then jump off a building.” There was nothing in her demeanor to suggest that she was making a joke, or even knew what one was.
I snorted at her, hiking up the leg of my shorts. I slipped the powdered liner onto the stump of my thigh as far as it would go.
“You used lotion to make the first seal and powder to make the second,” Caryl observed. “Why?”
I stopped and looked at her, but her face held only the same detached curiosity. “You just learn to do whatever works,” I said with a shrug. “Every amputation is different.”
I reached into the chest for the AK. AK stands for above-knee, but I liked that it sounded like an assault rifle. The silicone-only suspension fit like flesh, and with a twist of a knob the hydraulic knee gave the right resistance at anything from a stroll to a sprint. There are some occasions when a girl just has to splurge a little.
“So you think I fit some kind of qualifications?” I said, shoving my thigh and its silicone sheath into the socket of the prosthesis. “Now there’s a list I’d love to see.”
“Most of the list is confidential, but I can tell you some of it. I am looking for people with management potential, and your success as an independent filmmaker points to leadership skill and creative thinking. Then there is your diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and your willingness to accept and manage that condition, as well as your noted aversion to psychoactive drugs, legal or otherwise.”
“Drugs don’t work on BPD,” I said defensively, squirming my way more firmly into the socket and wondering how the hell she knew I’d never tried recreational drugs. “It’s not a chemical imbalance.”
“Nonetheless, many Borderlines choose to medicate comorbid conditions such as anxiety or depression. Our project only accepts those who can function, at least minimally, without the use of controlled substances.”
I paused to sweep a hand pointedly around the room. “Is there something that makes you think I can function?”
“The twenty-five years of your life that elapsed before you did something colossally stupid.”
Indignation flared, and my thighs responded by trying to push me to a stand. But that’s exactly the sort of thing a prosthetic knee cannot do, and my weight was centered over both legs. So I just ended up lurching a few crooked inches off the seat and crashing right back down.
“Be careful,” said Caryl mildly.
One of the fun bits about BPD is a phenomenon shrinks like to call “splitting.” When under stress, Borderlines forget the existence of gray. Life is a beautiful miracle, or a cesspool of despair. The film you’re making is a Best Picture candidate, or it’s garbage. People are either saints, or they’re scheming to destroy you.
Caryl Vallo, thanks to the shards of pain jangling through my pelvis, had just found her way onto the latter list. But she was dangling a hell of a prize, so I pushed aside my sudden surge of paranoid hatred and tried to keep my voice as calm as hers.
“There has to be a catch,” I said. “Otherwise every starving wannabe in Los Angeles would be faking BPD to get this gig. So why aren’t they?”
“Because they do not know about it.”
She gave the words no more gravity than anything else she had said, but some intuition made the hairs rise on the back of my neck. I considered her stony face and her trimly tailored jacket. Aside from wardrobe color, she fit the Man in Black profile perfectly, and I didn’t have much to lose by sounding crazy.
“Does this job involve aliens in any way?”
“Not in the way you mean,” she said without asking what I meant. “There are, however, some aspects of the job that strain credulity, and they are better demonstrated than explained. Would you meet me tomorrow for an interview?”
“Sure, why not.”
“You can find me at the corner of Fourth Street and Hollister, in Santa Monica. There is a small park there.”
I felt a cold rush of fear that I quickly paved over with irritation. “I’m supposed to take a cab all the way from Silver Lake to Santa Monica?”
Caryl ignored my tone. “Tomorrow at noon. Pack and proceed as though you will not be returning to the hospital.”
“I beg your pardon?” I gaped at her. “How am I supposed to get a suitcase, a wheelchair, crutches, and a cane in and out of a taxi on my own?”
“The choice is yours. The terms are mine. If you do not attend the meeting, I will move to the next candidate on my list. You are welcome to refuse the opportunity, but you will be the first to do so in the ten years I have been with the Project.”
Ten years. She was definitely older than she looked. “What if you decide you don’t want to hire me?”
“Then you may return to the hospital, or not, as you like. But if I weren’t confident of your character, I would not have gone to the trouble to reach you.”
“How much trouble is it, exactly, to call the—”
Wait a second. No one had introduced her. And shouldn’t she have been wearing a name tag or something?
Carefully I pushed myself to a stand. Caryl remained seated, making no move to stop me. I forced the remaining air out of my AK suspension, then slowly walked to the door.
I called down the hallway toward the nurses’ station, and then glanced back over my shoulder into the room, half expecting to find myself staring down the barrel of a gun. But not even my hyperbolic filmmaker’s imagination could prepare me for what I saw.
Nothing. The woman I had been talking to was gone.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Some books make you stand up and take notice. They grab you and don’t let go. Borderline is an unforgettable piece of urban fantasy, distinct and innovative. As leads go Millie is far from the norm. She is a paraplegic who lost her legs in a failed suicide attempt. She contends daily with her borderline personality disorder. Millie is cynical and damaged, but she is also a survivor. When she is recruited by the Agency, she learns of the fae and their presence in the world. Her first assignment seems simple, see why a nobleman of the Seelie court has not returned to Arcadia. But what at first looks simple is far from it, and much more than her new position with the Agency is on the line. Part of what makes this book so intriguing is that the Agency recruits the mentally ill, individuals whose challenges normally make them undervalued, marginalized, and ignored. Millie’s BPD makes it difficult for her to interact with people, but it also allows her to approach problems in a unique way. All too often, heroes are beautiful, powerful, perfect, but here, in Baker’s LA, it is truly the damaged who shine, the unusual, the outcasts. Millie’s halcyon cry is unforgettable. She is a person. She is not to be ignored. She is not to be marginalized. Glamour and beauty can hide all sorts of ugliness underneath, and rarely do people wish to believe ill of beauty. In spite of, or perhaps because of Borderline being a fantasy novel, Baker’s message comes through strongly. Appearances can be deceptive. Everyone has value. Sometimes the unlikely heroes are the best ones of all. I was profoundly affected by this novel and commend Mishell Baker for her writing and her candor. 5/5 Borderline is available for preorder and will be released March 1, 2016. I received a copy of Borderline from the publisher and netgalley.com in exchange for an honest review. —Crittermom
Amazing read with such a unique heroine. While the book and it's heroine tackle many uncomfortable topics, you do not have time to notice because it throws you into the story. The characters are developed with just the right balance of background and mystery and the author does a beautiful job of turning vulnerability into power. For urban fantasy fans (reminds me of aspects of Bledsoe, McGuire, Butcher, and Briggs to name a few authors) this is must read, balancing the humor, story, and characters.
Borderline, Mishell Baker Review from Jeannie Zelos book reviews Genre: Sci-fi and Fantasy Well, Wow. Another debut book that’s been a terrific read. I was intrigued for many reasons, Millie... as an AKA I identify with her and wondered if the author would have done proper research. I’ve read far too many reads where that’s not the case, and authors have amputees doing things that just aren’t physically possible. I’ve only 4 ins of bone left in my left leg, so fitting a socket isn’t easy, and the skin care, pain etc Millie suffers is very real. I guess Millie’s got a bit more as she’s able to do more with her leg than I can and I know from limb specialists that depends on the length of limb left. Also things like the knee not locking so falls happen, the effort expended in walking, and the same in pushing a wheelchair – it was all very very realistic. I’ve little knowledge of mental issues, especially Millie’s BPD but given the accuracy of the prosthetics, and the problems Millie faced I’m happy that's accurate too. Then there’s Fey in it, not Disney sweet pretty Fey, but ones found in Patricia Briggs novels, ones that mirror the Grimm's brothers type. fey that are selfish, most who care little for anything or anyone but themselves, and live in a kind of parallel world to humans where the Higher Fey interact with and pose as humans. We meet Millie in the home she’s been staying at, a kind of private place for recuperation where she’s learned a lot about how to cope with not just her physical restraints but her mental issues too. I liked the way Mishell explains everything, not in a “telling” way but by way of Millie recalling what she’s been taught when she needs it. Of course it doesn't always work! Then Caryl comes along, and offers her a job, but its fringed with mystery. Still, its that or burger flipping once her money runs out. I enjoyed too how as she’s on probation she doesn’t get told the Rules, and yet poor girl seems able to find them out easily by breaking them....oops. I love Millie’s cynical approach to life, she’s harsh and abrasive and times, not a comfortable person to be with but we can see how much what’s happened to her has changed her outlook, how the psychiatric help has taught her things she needed to know before she took a seven storey jump. She’s a tough cookie, but she’s the right person for the job that needs doing, and in a strange way fits in well with the others she’s working with, they’re an odd bunch and all with difficult backgrounds and issues. Its a fascinating read, full of rich characters, imaginative plots, and Mishell isn’t afraid to kill off people, even though I felt really upset by that :-( I hate those I like/respect dying, and yet that makes everything so much more real, so much more edge of seat action and suspense knowing that no-one is “protected” and anything could and will happen. I hadn’t guessed the plot, what was going to develop, it came as a complete surprise and I love that. For a debut book its an incredible one, original plots, great characters full of interest and full of rich language too – words I had to look up. I’ve a good command of English and US version of English ( there is not such thing as US English despite MS Windows always telling me that – it’s a US version of English!) but I still had to look up a few terms. Its a novel that ends properly, wrapping up the mystery and yet leaves the way open for more from Millie and the Arcadia Project – I see in ano
Moden fairy and psychology. A good read!