Mishell Baker’s 2016 debut novel Borderline is the first in her Arcadia series.
Six months after a failed suicide bid cost her both legs and her film career, embittered auteur and long-term Leishman Psychiatric Center resident Millie Roper receives an unexpected visitor and a more unexpected offer: Caryl Varro wants Millie to work for the Arcadia Project.
Millie does not know Caryl from Adam and she’s never heard of the Arcadia Project. Millie’s doctor has; her reaction is intriguing enough for Millie to venture outside the safe confines of the Institute and back out into the real world.
Perhaps real world isn’t quite the right term.
The Arcadia Project manages a very special clientele: those gifted individuals responsible for the world’s creativity. Not the geniuses, artists, inspired madmen you might be expecting. Arcadia concerns itself with the beings who inspire the geniuses, etc.: the otherworldly Fey.
Millie’s first assignment is a ride-along, accompanying a veteran Arcadia Project member while they track down a locationally-challenged actor/Seelie Court noble. The noble has not returned to the court to top up their supply of magic, something no Fey would deliberately do. Yet this one has.….
Working out why the eldritch visitors do any of the things they do is hard. Fey logic is nothing like human logic, any sort of human logic. Inexperienced in the ways of the Fair Folk, Millie cannot offer much help there. But not only does she understand the film industry, she has a talent even the gifted members of the Project cannot match: she might as well be made from cold iron, given the effect the metal in her pins and prostheses has on fey magic.…
One of world-building details Borderline shares with works like Men in Black (and for that matter Palace of Eternity) is the idea that humans are by themselves incapable of significant creativity, being instead dependent on outside help (We are, however, apparently really good at organization, go us 1.). I don’t care for that aspect of the novel, but at least I could take comfort from the possibility that the claim comes from people who are in no way disinterested observers.
While I am shouting at clouds, I thought the humans made less use of “fey cannot lie” than they should have, although I do see how “fey are functionally incomprehensible” could complicate matters. As well, the Arcadia Project’s recruitment criteria seem surprisingly amateurish given that they’re an important part of the hidden machinery keeping civilization going. I suppose this could be more evidence that Arcadia is not as important as it thinks it is … yet I find it hard to believe that an organization from Hollywood, of all places, would overstate its own importance.
PI mysteries and paranormal romance/urban fantasy live in neighboring literary subdivisions. This might be why PR/UF authors are so very fond of sequels, prequels, trilogies, quartets, quintets, alphabetic series.… Oddly enough, this book manages not only to set up an alternate world and sketch its main character, but also provides a complete story between its two covers. It is just too bad that “this is a complete novel” is a detail worth mentioning.
Borderline takes its title not just from the fact Arcadia works for both human and fay interests but also from the mental condition that defines Millie’s life. She has Borderline Personality Disorder. Being aware of that is of less help to her than you might imagine, because the tools she uses to assess whether her BPD is leading her astray are of course quite capable of being shaped by the BPD she is trying to manage. Is she seeing plots because her BPD pushes her to see plots where none exist, or are there actually underhanded games ongoing? Or is the truth somewhere between? Well, there’s one reliable way to tell: when Millie starts turning over rocks, does someone try to kill her?
I am not sure I would call spending an evening in Millie’s head comforting but it certainly was engaging. I will be picking up more books in the series to see where Baker takes her 2.
Borderline is available from Saga Press.
1: The Fey also picked up the idea of aristocracy and social stratification from us, which as it turns out isn’t working out so well. This is actually a plot point, by the way.
2: Or her colleagues in the project, most of whom have equally interesting quirks.