I have a vague memory of discovering Terri Windling’s Borderland series as a kid. I was an extremely sheltered (read: homeschooled in near-total isolation) child who had never really heard rock music or spent much time around other children (outside of the largely non-social settings of youth orchestra and choir practices, where I was shunned by my supposed peers for being too alien to accept). These wild tales of runaway human and elvin youth squatting in abandoned buildings in a crumbling city where the border of the mundane world met the edge of the elflands were exotic to me as much for their portrayals of friendship and camaraderie as for the magical components of their plots.
At the time, the musical content of these stories was far less striking to me than the found families coming together on the mean Bordertown streets to conquer the demons of loneliness and disconnection. A couple of decades later, I find myself dipping back into the world of Bordertown after being reminded by some fellow speculative fiction writers that these books exist. My life is very different than it was when I was a desperately lonely kid—I have friends now, a found family of my own—and this time around what really strikes me about these stories is the powerful allure of the music they portray as magical.
Borderland: Where Magic Meets Rock & Roll is the first of the eight books in the series of Bordertown anthologies and novels. This volume contains four novellas, written by Stephen R. Boyett, Bellamy Bach (a pseudonym of series editor and Bordertown creator Terri Windling), Charles de Lint (whose numerous books about the musicians and artists of another made-up magical city helped my survive my ever-more alienated teens), and Ellen Kushner.
The first story, Boyett’s “Prodigy,” centres around Scooter, a retired rock star whose desire to do nothing but sit around noodling on his guitar all day and play the occasional low-paying bar gig causes tension with his girlfriend, Roxanne. Roxanne does all the work of running their day-to-day life and ensuring their survival in the resource-scarce world of Bordertown shortly after the collision of the human world and the newly-returned Elflands half destroys the city and creates an environment where neither magic nor human technology reliably function. When Scooter’s lack of willingness to get a job or otherwise pull his weight causes a worn-out Roxanne to leave him, in his anger and pain at feeling abandoned, he plays up a magical storm on his electric guitar and spell-powered amp and creates a terrible being that wants to devour everything in its path—especially Roxanne. While this story is mostly about the need for a person to take responsibility for their actions and not allow uncontrolled emotion to make them ruin other people’s lives, it is also a story about how powerful music can be as an expression of that emotion.
The second story, Bach/Windling’s “Gray,” is split between the perspectives of Wicker, an elvin rock singer recently ditched by both her boyfriend and her band, and Gray, a human runaway with a strange and magical secret. This is a softer story than “Prodigy,” with a focus on the value of leaving behind relationships that aren’t doing one much good anymore in favour of forging new connections with people who are ready to share the path one needs to walk next. The music crucial to the formation of Wicker and Gray’s friendship consists of old ballads known to both humans and elves—though the themes and plot points of those ballads vary depending on whether one knows the human or elvin versions. As Wicker and Gray’s friendship deepens—and as Wicker picks up her electric harp and forms a new folk-rock band to play the human-inflected ballads she learns from Gray—they learn to let go of people who have hurt them and prejudices instilled by their pasts, instead focusing their energy on learning from each other how to find new ways to heal.
My personal favourite of the stories in this book, Charles de Lint’s “Stick,” also splits its perspective between multiple characters. The titular Stick is an irresistibly cool quarterstaff-wielding Black man who patrols the streets of Bordertown alongside his adorable dancing ferret, protecting half-elf runaways and other innocents from the brutality of gangs with his superheroic martial arts skills. Manda, one of the half-elf strays he saves, is just trying to survive and figure out how to replace her stolen spell-powered amp so she can play guitar in her sister Maggie’s new band. Bramble, a multi-instrumentalist who belongs to the rock band slash biker gang Horn Dance, a group of motorcycle-riding, Morris-dancing, good-hearted weirdos who perform ritual concerts all around Bordertown to bring luck and wellbeing to the city and its citizens, sees something in Manda that makes her want to both ensure the girl’s safety and secure her as the Horn Dance’s new guitar player. All three characters battle against bigotry and cruelty in their own ways, culminating in joining their forces in a wizard-enhanced musical showdown against an elvin gang led by a zealot who wants to destroy all half-elves like Manda and take down the vigilante, Stick, who keeps getting in their way. This is a really delightful story about people who keep choosing to do the right thing even when it is hard and dangerous, and, like most of de Lint’s best work, it thrums with the powerful harmony of good music played in excellent company.
The anthology’s final story, Ellen Kushner’s “Charis,” centres around a dance-off stemming from a truly unpleasant act of elvin trickery. Music features in this story mainly as a backdrop to the dancing—though I did appreciate the musical links to the other stories, in the form of bands from the first three novellas soundtracking the dancing in this finally novella—and as such I have the least to say about it here.
These stories did hit a few sour notes, for me, now and again. The anthology was first published in 1986, and, although it’s clear that the authors and editors cared very much about being progressive, it was a time when queerness was not as accepted in speculative fiction (or anywhere else in Western society) as it is now. In more than one of the stories, characters felt the need to explicitly declare that their powerful interest in other characters was just friendly, or just the natural consequence of humans being dazzled by elvin splendour—and most definitely not a gay thing. It’s impossible to know if this was due to some tendency on the authors’ part to reject the possibility of readers interpreting their characters as queer, or if it was more to protect the book from incurring some sort of wrath from a publisher that might not have wanted to be seen as printing gay books—but either way, it feels dated and, to a queer reader in the year 2024, offputting (and, remembering back to the sheer confusion and pain of being a closeted small-town queer kid in the 1990s, it would have been really nice for me to read books back then that didn’t reject queerness as a possibility).
Overall, though, I’ve very much enjoyed reading this anthology. It’s been a lovely bit of escapism during a few days of being laid up in bed with a (thankfully, relatively mild) case of COVID-19. I’m looking forward to finding the rest of the Borderland books and revisiting their liminal spaces soundtracked by folk that rocks and rock that shakes the world’s foundations.