The debut novella The Border Keeper is being compared to a lot of the great male New Weird Fiction, already, and it’s apt. But what is surprising is how the many contributions of women New Weird Authors, some of the great defining voices of the genre, are not being mentioned. There is arguably more influence of Kathe Koja or K. J. Bishop in this heady novella than the overwhelming exoticism of an author of very long, distinctive novels like China Mieville or refined feats of Literary Weird like M. John Harrison and Jeff VanderMeer. There is something distinctly grumpy and feminine about the book: It’s focus on a curmudgeonly old woman of incredible power feels unique in a genre that is often ruled by unknowable experiences that defy characterization and the people that brush up against them. There is a central, relatable person in this strangeness that anchors us in ways that more Lovecraftian edges of the sub genre do not generally embrace. I hate to begin a review of an excellent book by mentioning other reviewers and other authors, but I find the short memory disturbing when some of our greatest recent women authors of speculative fiction were and are major pillars of a sub genre and our authorial reference shorthand for the sub genre is now nearly entirely male.
Let us not allow ourselves to forget, because we risk also forgetting Kerstin Hall when the brief season of the book’s marketing passes. The Border Keeper, whatever her name may be in this incarnation, deserves better than to be forgotten.
The book begins in a desert near a long and otherwordly fence that keeps one world separated from another.separated from many others. In these other worlds, demons and gods hold dominion over realms complex and beautiful. There was a war, once, and the border between the land of these living and those dead was tarnished, and violence spread. The Border Keeper lives on that border, now, an immortal being with two souls anchoring her in two realms. She holds the border to keep out the demons and gods and other otherworldly creatures from crossing over. She is more than just a gatekeeper. She is also a guide for those who have lost. From time to time, people come to her to seek out their loves and families from over on the other side. She can be convinced, sometimes, in rare circumstances, to carry over the living and seek out the dead.
Naturally, this is exactly what occurs when Vasethe comes to seek this elderly guardian. He seeks someone he has lost, but even he doesn’t know exactly why he must do this. He is a marked man, a wanderer with exceptional knowledge of Eris and her dangerous borders. He is able to convince her to lead him to the other worlds, into a labyrinth of mystery and darkness and the demon laws that hold kingdoms in order.
Now, I deride the comparison to some members of the New Weird movement for good reason. In works of the more Lovecraftian-inspired realms of the strange, answers are never given; reasons don’t exist for things beyond reason. Much of the New Weird genre takes inspiration from the concept of inhuman intelligences making marks and taking steps that we can’t even begin to understand. Kerstin Hall has provided a world where there is nothing but reason, and the demons that dazzle as they walk also move with the certainty and simplistic motivations of base creatures. Revenge, power, love, etc. The world moves in such a human and knowable fashion. And, all the mysteries come home to roost, at last, when the plans of demons and dead gods unravel at the edge of the world. So, yes, it is clearly and beautifully New Weird, but the many comparisons to the authors of that genre that thrive on providing no answers, no sense of human reason or order to the cosmos at large, are not apt. This is a new New Weird, where the genre can bend into the uncanny strangeness of a more human order of things. In the case of this book, it makes for a satisfying ending despite resolving all the great mysteries.