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Brendan Detzner reviews "Borderland" by William Calabrese

As “Borderlands” opens, Phil Sarone, a second shift computer technician, is taking the train home after a long day at work. Fighting off sleep by contemplating the graffiti sprawled on the side of the tunnel, he realizes that he’s missed his stop. He immediately gets out of the car, intending to switch trains. As he does this, however, something strange happens. He finds his way to the platform he’s looking for, but it appears old and abandoned. Not only does the platform itself seem wrong somehow, but so does the area around the platform. The world seems run down, off kilter, wrong.

The reason for this, of course, is that the world Sarone has entered isn’t the one he’s familiar with. He finds his way back home shortly, but not before a brief encounter with a beautiful woman named Janice Atkins and a group of bizarre gray humanoids. After he escapes, part of him wants to forget that the strange encounter ever took place, but try as he might he just can’t forget Janice or stop worrying about what might have happened to her. With help from a slightly bent but knowledgeable co-worker, he begins to investigate.

Anyone looking for anything dramatically new in “Borderlands” will be disappointed. Men in Black, Grays, alternate dimensions, an evil corporation, body snatching- as a character in the book itself points out, it’s nothing you haven’t seen a million times on the X-Files. But because of the way that the fantastic aspects of the story are handled, the fact that you’ve seen them before helps rather then hurts. Calabrese substitutes shock value for familiarity.

Due to the fact that the supernatural elements aren’t really set up as the hook, “Borderlands” depends on it’s small cast of characters for impact, and it’s here that it succeeds and fails. The villains of the piece are quite literally faceless, so the only players worth mentioning are the protagonist, his friend from work, and the woman he spends the book trying to rescue. Phil Sarone, the programmer hero, narrates the entire story himself (with one brief exception), and his voice is the best thing about the story. For the first half of the novel, we manage to learn a great deal about his personality almost without noticing. This is very helpful when it comes to smoothing out some of the stranger events- maybe we wouldn’t be normally inclined to believe in the presence of a gray man with a tube coming out of his forehead, but if Phil says it was there, it must have been. Later in the novel, however, Sarone’s consistency is compromised both by an unnecessary revelation into his past and by an ending that forces him to turn into an action hero a bit more quickly then can be believed.

Phil’s friend John Milton, on the other hand, starts out strong and stays that way. Simultaneously skeptical and open-minded about everything, his presence injects a strong dose of humor and life into every scene he’s in. It’s a shame that the plot requires him to be out of the spotlight for half of the book- it would have been nice if he had had a larger role.

Finally, we have Janice, the love interest of our hero, and the most lifeless character in the book. When she’s just a mysterious face for Phil to chase after, this doesn’t cause problems, but when he finally catches up with her lack of character becomes glaringly apparent. Her only distinguishing characteristics are her ability to give out important plot information when necessary and fall into Phil’s arms once he’s been a good enough a person to earn it.

If we choose to ignore that particular flaw, however, we still have an entertaining story here. Fans of the genres that it takes it’s cues from will be sure enjoy it’s knack for giving them what they want without letting them know what’s going to happen next. Readers who aren’t especially interested in these genres will at least be able to enjoy the style and humor that carries most of the book. When viewed alongside it’s competitors, “Borderlands” clearly pulls ahead of the pack.

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