Looking for the next completely original book/movie/game? Well, tough. There’s no such thing as originality. But, at least authors can create worlds so beautiful that the thread of inspiration becomes blissfully lost. Kerstin Hall’s The Border Keeper easily wins out as the most original fantasy story I’ve read in years. This fantasy story spun from whole cloth concerns a mysterious stranger who convinces a witch, the title character, to take him on a byzantine journey through the underworld, where demons stake dubious claims to rule petty kingdoms and take them by force.
The world building is beautiful and the exposition is seamless. Much more like a well-crafted short story than Granddad’s Shannara novels, the snappy immersion into the underworld provided here leaves lots of room for characterization. Vasethe, a strangely skilled traveler, coerces the border keeper by naming her Eris and soon they’re off on a journey across the bizarre realms to rescue Vasethe’s dead girlfriend. Eris provides the muscle on this buddy cop trip as Vasethe unknowingly leads her into a revenge-fuelled trap. This also summons a horrible pack of ghosts from Eris’s past to chase down Eris while she’s helping out Vasethe.
If it sounds like the logic to the realms of the underworld reveals itself piecemeal, that’s because it does. Most of this story does that. The world splays out pretty much out as the plot goes along, and while it can seem organic, at other times it seems completely random. It doesn’t matter which fantasy realm these demons rule, they stick to an underlying set of laws woven into the background. Unfortunately, the same economy of words applies to backstory as to exposition. Vasethe’s multitude of interesting skills show up whenever it would be useful for him to help out. Tyn and he have a great relationship, too, but the story doesn’t take time to explore the beautiful characters it sets up.
The Border Keeper presents an exotic world full of powerful characters and adventure. The simple plot allows for the underworld to kaleidoscope into action sequences and pure, bold weirdness. The characters have rich stories behind them, but demand further characterization. The Border Keeper’s strangeness will readers chewing it over and over again even after they’ve finished reading it.
Three out of five stars
Favorite quote: “Every part of Vasethe sang with adrenaline: the world alight with brighter colours, the sound of the mount’s hooves magnified in his ears, a second heartbeat.”