The Border Keeper, Kerstin Hall (Tor.com Publishing 978-1-25020-941-2, $14.99, 238pp, tp) July 2019.
“She lived where the railway tracks met the saltpan, on the Ahri side of the shadowline.” From this first line of The Border Keeper by Kerstin Hall, the book behaves like a bold, new creature. Its engine is the dazzling imagination of its author, who has assembled a world – really a series of them – with a mammoth scope and an unlimited series of conflicts. However, the author’s reach has exceeded her grasp in terms of conveying her imagination to the reader. Compared to how it must appear in her mind, The Border Keeper has only barely come to the page, and the reader suffers for it.
Vasethe comes to the border keeper’s home in order to ask her for a favor. He wants to travel to Mkalis to retrieve someone, although there’s a feint at first about who it is he wants to find. Mkalis is evidently the world of the dead, which has 999 separate realms. (The book does not explain it this way, but I began to think of Mkalis as a much-expanded Inferno, divided into realms depending on the sins or virtues of the souls residing there.) Eris, the border keeper, seems to have more power than any of the gods of these realms, although her capacities are poorly defined. She protects Vasethe from the dangers of his own foolishness; he often shows empathy, which is usually a mistake, and he repeatedly assumes he’s safe, when he never could be in Mkalis.
Back in Ahri, the world of the living, terrible monsters attack Eris’s house at night. She suspects these monsters have something to do with Vasethe’s arrival, but he seems outwardly blameless. Both beings are keeping secrets from one another, of course, and these secrets propel the narrative. Little is clear about these characters, and yet the language and world-building of The Border Keeper are quite confident, so the book convinces the reader that answers may be found on the next page, or the next. Ultimately, the reader may not be satisfied. Vasethe, too, finds not what he was seeking, but a different resolution, while Eris puts a horrific chapter of her life to rest.
I write vaguely about this book out of a desire not to spoil it. Mysteries appear and are resolved with such frequency that a review with much detail is one big spoiler – and all the mysteries tie together. For instance, Vasethe finds the woman he led Eris to believe he was seeking when he first came to her, even though it wasn’t his real intent. His locating her is really a red herring, but it’s also an important parallel for one of the main mysteries of the book. The effect is dizzying.
Unfortunately, the secrets and answers in this book don’t come across as organically created and resolved. Characters are not always what they seem, but there’s no way to pick up on that and puzzle it out on one’s own – the reader must follow where Hall leads instead of trusting her own interpretations. It’s as if Hall has relied on an invisible codex to make sense of the book and its twists and turns. Here’s a short conversation about a hex that plagues Vasethe:
“The hex has been present from the moment he crossed into Mkalis.”
“Then why does it smell of the High?”
A pause. Eris shook her head. “That’s impossible. I haven’t let a ruler cross the shadowline in centuries.”
Tiba sniffed again. “I’m certain of it. This is god-touched.”
Even though this passage comes halfway through the book, we don’t know what “the High” means, we don’t know how or why Eris would stop a ruler from crossing the shadowline, we don’t know whether a ruler could have evaded her, and we don’t know what “god-touched” means in this context. Much less do we know what’s under the words: what it means that the hex must have been laid by a god but couldn’t have been, how Vasethe could have gotten the hex, and whether it implies something about him, the hexer, or Eris, that this contradiction exists. This level of confusion exists all across the reading experience.
It’s a shame, because the few visible mechanisms in the book are pretty wonderful: that parallel I mentioned earlier, which wraps Eris and Vasethe together in a much more meaningful way than I expected from such a short book; a motif of unintended consequences; mothers who desire too much. There’s even a romance that could be lovely, but doesn’t feel earned, because so much about the characters is opaque.
None of this is the fault of Hall’s world-building, which is quite good, but more the fault of elision – trusting that, as the author, you have said enough for the reader to make sense of your words. In this case that just isn’t true. The Border Keeper is an addictive book, a sensuous and mesmerizing dip into a totally new realm of fantasy, but it’s so confusing that its impressions linger much more effectively than its story or its meaning.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
This review and more like it in the January 2020 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.