I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on April 25 2017
Genres: Adult, Science fiction
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The nitty-gritty: A strange, dangerous and magical glimpse into a future world, told in stunningly beautiful prose.
Now, too, patterns began to emerge. There were people who seemed to just disappear, and the city had no answer for this except rumors—murmurs of an invisible killer from the tattered remnants of Wick’s contacts and my contact with a handful of fellow scavengers. At first these disappearances had not registered as unique. Already the city lay open like a treasure for the psychopaths.
I received a NetGalley copy of Borne way back when, but even though this book was released in April, I just couldn’t get to it. At the same time, I signed up for a subscription box called Quarterly, and Borne just happened to be the featured book. It was a really cool package than included the author’s annotations scattered throughout the book (on stickie notes!), as well as some other interesting items. So when Sci-Fi Month rolled around, I thought it would be a great reason to go back and read it. And I’m so glad I did. Borne was simply brilliant, in my humble opinion, although I will say this book is NOT going to be for everyone. It’s fairly slow-paced and is one of those stories that unfolds gradually, until you realize you are completely invested in the characters. VanderMeer takes an unfamiliar landscape and populates it with both humans and non-humans who love each other, fight, feel jealousy and anger and sadness. In other words, they seem just like you and me.
Far in the future, what remains of a crumbling City is lorded over by several different factions. A giant bio-engineered flying bear named Mord rules over the Company building and is attended by an army of “Mord proxies,” smaller bears who move so fast that no one ever survives their attacks. A mysterious woman simply called the Magician is out to destroy Mord and take over the City, and along with her acolytes, groups of feral children, she’s well on her way to doing just that. Rachel and Wick have built a fortress for themselves in what they call the Balcony Cliffs, an old apartment building that they have fortified with secret tunnels and nasty traps for anyone stupid enough to invade. In short, this is a harsh world, which Rachel bravely faces in order to salvage whatever she can find: food, water or the raw biotech that Wick needs for his creations.
One day, Rachel discovers something she’s never seen before, tucked into the fur of Mord’s mountainous flank (which turns out to be a great place to find interesting things, as long as you’re careful!). She spies a sea anemone-like creature, rubbery and smooth, and decides to take it back to Wick, who will most certainly be able to use it for something. She names the creature Borne, and is astonished when Borne continues to grow and change shape and one day even starts talking. Wick doesn’t trust Borne and wants to take him apart to learn more about him, but Rachel is drawn to Borne and refuses to give him to Wick.
As Borne and Rachel grow closer, the Balcony Cliffs come under serious threat, and Wick and Rachel wonder if they’ll be able to hold their territory. When the Magician offers Wick a deal, ensuring their protection, Rachel begins to wonder if she can trust anyone, including Wick. And how does Borne fit into all this? Everything that Rachel feels certain about is starting to fall apart, and their chances of surviving attacks from the feral children, the Mord proxies, Mord and even the Magician are slim to none.
Jeff VanderMeer has created one of the strangest worlds I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about, which doesn’t surprise me, having read and loved his Nebula award-winning Annihilation. Borne takes things to an entirely different level, creating a dystopian world with very little that the reader can recognize. From swimming pools full of biotech sludge to poisonous rivers to giant killer bears to worms that live under your skin and assess your health, Borne is full of the weird and the wonderful. In many ways, the City is your familiar dystopian setting, full of crumbling buildings, strange plant and animal life that has evolved due to chemical spills and perhaps global warming, and dangers around every corner. Mord is a wonderful creation, a gigantic bio-engineered bear who has taken on a life of his own after being created by the Company. He has grown so big that he literally blots out the sun, and at some point he’s developed the ability to fly! I love the idea of Mord, even though he wipes out buildings with a single swipe of his paw (sort of a furry Godzilla). In my mind he’s simply getting revenge on the Company for creating him for their own nefarious purposes.
But as much as I loved Mord, I was smitten with Borne. Borne’s shape is ever-changing, so it’s hard to imagine what he looks like, but I thought VanderMeer did a great job describing him:
“…a hybrid of a sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colors that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens.”
Borne and Rachel have a mother/child relationship that was agonizingly accurate. Rachel wants Borne to stay small and dependant on her, and is reluctant to let go when Borne starts to “grow up,” as most children do, wanting to set out on his own. The day that Borne decides to move to another apartment was a heartbreaking one for Rachel, and even though Borne still acts like a child in many ways, Rachel understands she has to let him move on. Borne continually asks Rachel if he is a “person,” and what else could a mother say to her child but “yes”?
This is one of those stories that begs for a prequel. So much has gone on in our character’s lives before the story even starts, and Rachel touches on some of these events, but those quick mentions simply whetted my appetite for more. What really happened to Wick when he worked for the Company? What’s the real story of the dead astronauts that Borne digs out of the ground and takes to his apartment? I want to know more about the foxes and Borne’s origins and Rachel’s early years as a refugee. VanderMeer has already written a short story about the strange bird (which I haven’t even talked about in this review!), and you can bet I’ll be reading it as soon as I have time. This is a fertile world that I want to return to, and I sincerely hope that the author does too.
The last part of the story moves very quickly as Rachel and Wick and Borne are all in mortal danger. I absolutely loved the ending. It was satisfying in many ways, both emotionally and as a resolution to the events that take place. VanderMeer’s imagination and uncannily beautiful prose make this a very special book, and one of my favorites this year.
Big thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy.