Hey, witches! We're excited to welcome author Dewi Hargreaves to Coffee, Book, & Candle for a guest book review of The Border Keeper. You might remember Dewi from an author interview we did awhile back, and today he's kicking off our guest post series. Be sure to check back for more guest posts!
The Border Keeper is a pacey fantasy novella by South African author Kerstin Hall. Weird and twisty, we follow the mysterious Vasethe as he asks a favour of Eris, the border keeper—a magical being tasked with guarding the fence between the ‘living’ world of Ahri and the underworld of Mkalis. Their journey takes them deep into Mkalis, where they encounter demonic scheming, cutthroat politics, and unearthly terrors.
The opening chapters are incredibly easy to read. Don’t be fooled into thinking the whole book will be this way, though. It grows in complication, and you will need to pay attention to the smaller details to get the emotional payoff.
A travelogue of a bizarre and unsettling universe, main character Vasethe is a good anchor for it all—at once distant and comfortable, a guy we love to follow even as we begin to wonder what his true motives are. A protagonist with a hidden dark past, each vignette gives us some deeper insight into him, a chain linking what could have felt like fairly disparate and unconnected scenes.
The distant protagonist is an interesting experiment—and a novella is the perfect ground for experimentation. This read like a very long short story. For me, it worked well. It leaves parts of the book feeling especially alien and unsettling. The reader cannot even trust the main eyes they see the world through, which we don’t experience in modern fiction very often (possibly because it is so divisive amongst readers). We’re watching Vasethe and Eris from the outside. But the events ‘on screen’ are entertaining enough—their chemistry is strong enough—that we forget that.
Hall’s background in short storytelling shines through in her extremely economical use of words—her ability to deliver lots of information and vibrant imagery in a small space is wonderful to witness from a purely craft-oriented point of view. The worldbuilding was sublime. Not a word spared—lean, as it has to be when confronting a complex world with such strange elements. Be prepared for poignant, unsettling imagery with occasional dashes of horror.
The Border Keeper rewards careful reading. Attention to the subtle mentions will make the final fifty or so pages satisfying as the puzzle pieces slot together. But the important was woven in amidst the trivial throughout the book, and in first reading it is hard to discern between the two. Zone out for the wrong paragraph and you’ll struggle to follow the intricate falling into place of the final set pieces, but reading closely as we’re taken through so many complex worlds with so many relationships can be exhausting.
This book requires patience, and that won’t suit everyone—some readers will legitimately feel frustrated by the top-heavy shape of the plot, where most of the story makes sense only after reading the final few chapters.
It is a great introductory book for people seeking to understand new weird, which as a genre is hard to define. I know it when I see it, and The Border Keeper is definitely it. My favourite definition is that new weird is essentially a blurring of science fiction, fantasy and horror to create settings and scenarios that disturb rather than console. By that criterion, The Border Keeper gets full marks.
WHO'S IT FOR?
If you enjoy intricate storytelling where the details matter, a refreshingly unique world, tales about love, loss, and loyalty, and a narrative that feels strangely haunted from the first word, this is your book.
If you’re a fan of new weird, you’ll love it. If you’re wanting to explore new weird, this is a good place to start. If you don’t mind a little bit of narrative distance from the protagonist, pick it up.
Dewi Hargreaves is a freelance illustrator, author of The Shield Road and Eyes on the Blue Star, and an editor with Lost Boys Press. You can find out more about Dewi and follow his stuff through his linktree!