Monday, November 23, 2015

Book Review: The Border by Robert R. McCammon

The Border by Robert R. McCammon

Hardcover, 441 pages

Published May 2015 by Subterranean Press

There are few authors who I think are as consistently solid storytellers as McCammon. Considered one of the greats of the 80's horror explosion he has won the Bram Stoker Award and the World Fantasy Award for classics like Swan Song, Gone South and Boy's Life. I think it is fair to say RRM is one of the best genre authors. Transcending the genre in the last few years his output has been mostly in historical mysteries.

The Border was generally believed to be RRM returning to the style of novel that made him a bestselling, award winning powerhouse. Certainly he has produced excellent works in recent years. His first return to the modern setting was in 2011 was with the fantastic novel "The Five." This was a big deal I mean Stephen King said it was the best novel of the year and McCammon's best. I reviewed it at the time saying "The Five is a novel about the tapestry of Rock and roll, the universe of live music, what it all means. The Five works on many, many levels. It's a masterpiece written by a man who has a few of those." The novel is a thriller but not quite horror, RRM did however return to the genre once before The Border in the 2013 horror western novella I Travel by Night.

None the less it is true that The Border reads and feels like a McCammon novel from the 80's. That my friends is a super wonderful thing. In tone and story this book feels like a perfect blend of two of his classics Swan Song and Stinger. It is absolutely a horror novel set against the end of the world. Stinger was unique in the RRM Catalog because it was the most science fiction of all his works. Until the The Border that is.

The Border is a Science Fiction end of the world horror novel that will appeal to fans of McCammon and kinda feels like putting on a great classic album or movie. I went into the novel as blind as possible reading nothing but the title before diving into it. That made for a interesting choice since we are dropped into the novel mid-action with no info-dumps and it is hard at first to get your footing. I mean what the hell is going on?

This was intentional as we meet a boy on the run from two different alien races in battle over the skies of Colorado. He doesn't know who or where he is so it is appropriate POV that we are confused. Once he is saved by a group of humans surviving in an apartment building he takes the name Ethan. The survivors are concerned that he is alien, certainly he has no business being alive. We learn that earth has become the center of a battle between two species that two years after they arrived no one even knows. Humans call the aliens Gorgons and Cyphers. No one is sure why they are at war with each other, but the entire human civilization is on edge of death. Ethan is not sure who he is, he picks the name at random but he quickly shows powers that are nothing short of magical. He believes he can save the human race but he has to follow visions on a journey across the wasteland.

An amazing thing happened when I was reading this book. I was 200 or so pages into it at the time. Before I left for work I got into a online debate with people here in San Diego that were disturbed by the idea that we as community might be taking in 300 Syrian refugees. I tried very hard to explain that the people were caught in the middle of civil war, their lives destroyed. I tried get these people to understand what that would feel like. To feel empathy.

An hour later sitting on the bus heading to work I opened The Border to read and it hit me. Intentionally or not that is what McCammon was expressing. In this novel humans caught in between forces of a war and have lost their civilization itself. In post America people who once enjoyed privileges of this society were struggling to survive. They could use some of that empathy. While this novel seems to be going back to a style that McCammon used in the 80's his growth as a writer is super clear. Both The Five and The Border present excellent stories, but also a subtle political messages that was not there in the older novels. All done without a preachy tone.

I also get the feeling had McCammon written this book in the 80's it might have been twice the length, in that sense we get a more tightly told tale. McCammon breaks rules, but he gets away with it. He shifts POV sometimes without a break from one paragraph to the next. This sometimes confuses me. It is something he has always done. That is one tiny nitpick with the man's style. This novel is excellent with RRM's trademark pacing a strong characterization. The Border is a must read for fans or Robert R. McCommon, and anyone who enjoys a good end of the world epic.

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