I Found My Thrill On Dragon’s Tooth Hill: Elsewhere

A review of Elsewhere (Borderlands #1) by Will Shetterly

Harcourt, 1991

By REBECCA, Friday, March 23

           

characters

Just Ron: Newly arrived in Bordertown, Ron has some growing up to do, but a good heart

Mooner: Half-elf and ersatz leader of Castle Pup, he’s charisma + recklessness + pride

Wiseguy: Mooner’s twin, she’s a badass and a fierce defender of Castle Pup

Florida: Mysterious little girl who just showed up one day . . .

Mickey: Human owner of Elsewhere bookstore, she ushers Ron into life in Bordertown

Goldy: Co-worker at Elsewhere and crusader for love through books

A Few of the Crew at Castle Pup . . .

Leda: Dreamy elf addicted to peca, the Dragon’s Milk, she also has a royal pedigree

King O’Beer: Will’s roommate, he and Sparks (their third roommate) are both in love with Mooner

Strider: Beautiful, regal elf, he seems like he’d be a dick but he totally isn’t

Sai: Resident mature, non-idiot, she is also Bordertown’s middleweight boxing champ

hook

When you arrive in Bordertown, the city that stands between The World and Faerie, where spellboxes power motorcycles and gingerbread cookies beg not to be eaten, it isn’t very wise to piss off anybody.

worldview

image: humanoddity.blogspot.com (Annette Kurtis Clause)

When Ron Starbuck runs away to Bordertown in search of his older brother, Tony, the first things he does are get kicked off a moving train, call a pair of half-elven twin bikers “pointy-eared dinks,” and chuck a rock at them. Not a good first impression. But Mooner  takes pity on Ron and soon he is zooming through the streets of Bordertown on the back of Mooner’s motorcycle, past “a ruined church that twisted around itself as if magic had brought it to life and someone had barely managed to kill it before it could slither away,” and along the Mad River that smelled “thick and soporific, sweet and fetid like sweat or blood or the beach after a storm,” (15) into Soho, where “something drifting from across the Border reminded [Ron] of waffles and orange blossoms,” and, finally, to Castle Pup, collective house extraordinaire (16).

Everything in Bordertown is cobbled together, carved out and layered atop of what used to be “any damn city in the World”—“Its soul changed, not its shape” (14). Thus, Elsewhere is a delightful romp through an urban landscape repurposed by teenagers and unpredictable, motley magic. Will Shetterly is a master at world-building through description; he’s also one of a fabled few who can use physical description well—in a way that shows how a combination of a character’s born physicality and choices of presentation can give some (limited) insight into her personality.

Wiseguy:

“wore a black leather jacked draped with chains, a gray Danceland T-shirt, and dirty purple chinos tucked into low blood-red boots. When she came near, I saw that her skin was as pitted as Mooner’s. His made him look dangerous. Hers made her look vulnerable as well, which made her look even more dangerous” (20).

Strider:

“wore torn blue jeans, black cavalier boots, and a ruffled white silk shirt open almost to his waist. His white hair was tied at the back of his head like a samurai’s. His features were elvishly perfect: high cheekbones, flaring eyebrows, lips that seemed ready to laugh, eyes the color of smoke.

I didn’t hate him immediately. I pitied him. There are three desirable things that a guy can have: height, looks, and brains. The odds of getting all three are so slim that he probably needed help tying his shoes” (21-2).

Shetterly’s descriptions of Bordertown are Elsewhere’s worldview, too. In a city where places and possessions are hodgepodge and magic lives in the cracks of worldly pavement, things are not what they seem. Except when they’re exactly what they seem. Every scene of this novel is packed with delicious atmosphere, funny and smart dialogue, action, and, of course, magic.

what was this book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

I first read this book when I was around twelve or thirteen, and it’s absolutely one of my favorites. Each character—even those who appear for only a page or two, and there are many of these—is an individual, and we can read backstory in those brief sketches. This makes the place of Bordertown feel incredibly alive. The cast of central characters, too, is extremely well-drawn, each carrying the mark of her life in every action.

Characters make bad choices and do wonderful things; they are infuriating and lovely. There is not only magic, but also hair-cutting, cooking, dancing, and lots and lots of love, requited and un-. Shetterly shows the mundanities of life in a magical place, and he clearly shows Bordertown’s problems as well as its pleasures. This is one of the novel’s biggest successes, for me: gangs of elves war with humans and halfies; Castle Pup is threatened with a choice between folding from a lack of access to funds and turning itself into a business to stay afloat; King O’Beer and his boyfriend run into Elsewhere to escape a group of gay bashers; throughout the city, kids are addicted to peca and the water of the Mad River; magic backfires and harms people; magic intentionally harms people. The problems of any city run throughout Elsewhere, and Shetterly shows what permutations they might take in a place like Borderland.

Elsewhere is an original novel, but it inhabits the world of Bordertown that was originally created by Terri Windling in the anthologies Borderland (1986), Bordertown (1986), and Life on the Border (1991). Shetterly and Emma Bull (they’re married) contributed the story “Danceland” to Bordertown, and Elsewhere grew out of that story (as did Emma Bull’s 1994 Bordertown novel, Finder). You can read it here.

As Terri Windling explains here, in the late 1980s she was commissioned to create a “shared world” anthology for young adults—a world, that is, that could be built and then opened up so that other authors, like Will Shetterly, could write stories in that world. The setting she proposed, of course, was Bordertown, which she describes as “a modern city at the edge of a mysterious, magical realm—a border city where runaway children gather to create new lives for themselves . . . sometimes successfully, sometimes disastrously (reminiscent of Real Life teen meccas such as Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s).” The books gained a cult following in the 1980s and early 1990s, spawning, among other things, Borderland parties and raves. Count. Me. In.

Elsewhere is a wonderful read: great characters, awesome writing and—I saved this one—a little mystery that twines slowly through the book like a bike with a semi-busted spellbox. And, at the end, when Ron’s smart mouth pisses off the wrong person, magic turns him into something he could never have imagined. Check out Shetterly’s sequel, Nevernever, to find out what happens to Ron, and whether he can reverse the curse.

Note: in 2011, a new anthology set in Bordertown was published, edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner and featuring stories by such YA delights as Cory Doctorow, Jane Yolen, Will Shetterly, Annette Curtis Klause, Cassandra Clare, Terri Windling, and Neil Gaiman.

You can read Cory Doctorow’s story, “Shannon’s Law,” here.

And, hey, want to write some fanfiction or make some art in the world of Bordertown? Here are the guidelines.

personal disclosure

The reason I picked this book up at a library book sale in Ann Arbor many moons ago is that I adore the cover. I guess I can see why someone might think it was ugly, but I challenge that person to a boogie-off at Danceland.

readalikes

   

Ecstasia by Francesca Lia Block (1993). In this prequel to Primavera (1994), members of a popular band live in a magical world where youth and fun are the most valuable commodities; one by one they are driven underground or out of the city, some for love, and others by addiction.

The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar (1992). If Elsewhere is punk with elves, then this is elfpunk—well, fairypunk.

The Modern Faerie Tales by Holly Black (Tithe, 2002; Valiant, 2005; Ironside, 2007). Black’s trilogy also delves into the grittiness inherent in the seeming beauty of fey mythos.

        

And, of course, if you just like the world, anything in the Bordertown oeuvre.

procured from: a library book sale long, long ago (best $1.50 I’ve spent, not counting that one coffee that one time)

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5 Comments

  1. you do find the best things in library sales. I love that motorcycle elf cover.

    Reply
  2. Margalit

     /  March 23, 2012

    I loved learning about Windling’s original commission. Borderlands sounds like a pretty amazing place; I will definitely pay a visit!

    Reply
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