PROS: Wonderfully paced story, intriguing characters, with subtle twisting of expectations. CONS: Ending was a bit too neat and could prove to be divisive.
BOTTOM LINE: The Border is a prime example of a master storyteller/writer returning to the type of novel that made him a master and an excellent addition to the alien invasion flavor of the Apocalyptic Novel canon.
Earth is being torn apart by war, cities have been destroyed and humanity is struggling for survival. Superficially, this is a familiar apocalyptic scenario, but this war, however, is not one contested by human civilizations. Earth happens to be the border (thus the title) for two warring alien civilizations, dubbed by the world as the Cyphers and the Gorgons. Not only are these two alien civilizations carelessly destroying the Earth, but in their wake some of humanity is transformed into zombie-like creatures known as Grey Men. With this first layer of familiarity peeled away to reveal the reason for the ravaged Earth, The Border, Robert McCammon’s return to the grand-scale dark novels that made him famous, begins to take shape. Into this chaos, a young boy named Ethan emerges after waking with grievous injuries and joins one of the struggling bands of humanity and offers something few thought possible: hope.
Ethan has very little memory of his life before the events of the novel, and he struggles to regain some of those memories but he also realizes he is more than just a young, teenage boy. He comes into the commune of a survival group in Colorado who are initially very wary of him; his bruised body looks as if it was beaten or trampled to death, yet the young boy is alive, defying their visual senses as well as their initial sense of logic. There are doubters about the boy’s claims and what he can do, initially, but after a few intense events, the group soon trusts in Ethan. This is a good thing because Ethan tells them they must move on from their decaying settlement to go to “White Mansion Mountain,” a place his dreams tell him he must go and the journey is not something he can undertake alone. After some of the people of Ethan’s group secure a map from a nearby school, the group learns White Mansion Mountain is in Utah.
As Ethan and his group of followers head to White Mansion, they are met by three travelers seeking aid who are more than their surface would appearances would lead many to believe. Ethan’s abilities are growing, including a powerful ability to read people’s thoughts, so it is very difficult to hide anything from him. One of these travelers is Jefferson Jericho, a Televangelist who is far from a Good Samaritan in many ways and initially fits the mold of a hypocritical preacher. However, as Jericho’s journey in the novel evolves, he is shown to be not quite in the mold of the clichéd character he would seem to be. This is where McCammon really shines. He introduces many familiar elements and subtly reworks them into something unexpected or takes that signpost of familiarity and diverges away from the expected path. There’s also some bits of humor interspersed in the novel, especially when the humans interact with one of the aliens (Vope) who doesn’t quite grasp human communication, as well as some of the dialogue between the characters.
It isn’t clear what Ethan’s goals are in the early portion of the novel, and by beginning the story with Ethan’s emergence in the rubble, McCammon very much puts the reader alongside Ethan’s viewpoint. There are some switches in POV throughout the novel, but for the most part, we see the devastation, confusion, chaos, and potential salvation through Ethan’s eyes. We learn about what he is and what his purpose is just as he learns about it. It is a limited view that allows for a story set against global ruin and vast galactic history become all the more personal and intimate.
What Ethan and his followers find in White Mansion may be somewhat expected on a superficial level, but the execution, like much of this novel, is subtly yet plausibly tweaked to provide a stronger and more rewarding story. The conclusion/resolution is one that very likely may be very divisive. Personally, I think it worked well enough even if it is too pat, but for the life of me, I can’t think of a better or logical way to bring the story to conclusion; it was both heart-rending and rewarding.
The Border is McCammon’s heralded return to the type of fiction which brought him so much acclaim (multiple award nominations and wins, most notably the World Fantasy Award and Bram Stoker Award) and sales (over 5 Million copies of his books in print) in the 1980s and 1990s – grand scale horror/speculative fiction. I was a big fan of those books, Swan Song (a seminal post-apocalyptic novel), Stinger (a taught thriller of novel of an alien visitor), The Wolf’s Hour (Werewolf vs. Nazi), so I was very much looking forward to reacquainting with McCammon for this return to these types of stories after some he published some very well received historical mysteries (Matthew Corbet). In The Border, there are strong echoes of both Swan Song and Stinger but echoes only, for The Border is a novel that stands high and well on its own. There’s almost a sense that McCammon was away from genre for so long that he wanted to put everything including the kitchen sink into this novel. While this is being heralded as a Horror novel (mainly, I suspect, because that is what the author is best known for writing), The Border is also very much a Science Fiction novel and Post-Apocalyptic novel considering Earth is nearly destroyed by two alien civilizations. These varying flavors or elements intertwine so well and naturally in an elegant, seamless fashion.
The Border delivers the same type of harrowing, thrilling, speculative and dark tale as McCammon’s best known works, and fits very well on the shelf with those novels as well as those of his contemporaries.