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A new review of Skater in a Strange Land

Picture 1This one is from Mark Lee of the book review site The Masquerade Crew; he gives it the equivalent of 3 stars out of 5, and I appreciate his honesty.

(Image: Screenshot of TMC website. You like book reviews? Visit the site; lots there)

I love that Mark thinks Skater is "unique" and "a nice story underneath the rough exterior." He's less happy about the writing, calling it "sloppy" in places and that "the grammar/punctuation... could have used sprucing up in some places." (Ouch! Would love to hear some specific examples, and how far it goes beyond typos.)

Mark also thinks our hero Sherm should've reacted more strongly to the talking bears. That is a great point and really important for the book. To get into the book, you do have to get over the talking bears-- and the parallel universe, and the fact that no one has heard of Borschland, and...

I think if I were the hero of the book I might have reacted more strongly, but when I try to find a parallel, I go back to my first experience in a foreign country where they didn't speak English-- France. That might have been the most hair-raising experience of my young life (I was twenty at the time). I had studied French, but the reality of hearing it in "real time" was terrifying. Still, I got on the train to Paris and I did what I needed to do. You pretty much have to go with the flow when you're in a foreign country.

The bears, at least, speak perfect English.

Now, Sherm, he's naturally a go-with-the-flow guy-- he doesn't get excited about a whole lot, and I think that's one reason he's able to play a game where there is always a chance of getting your jugular sliced by a stray skate blade.

And anyway, he had nothing to lose, and had been flying for about 20 hours at that point.

But I'm really pleased Mark stuck with the thing and read closely enough to have specific opinions. That's an honor in itself.

Kudos also to the Masquerade retweet crew. Within hours of the review going live, there were bunches of retweets. 

The Borschland national flag

World-building is a huge amount of fun for a fantasy author, and even more fun when others join in.

My son started a Borschland fan-nation on the delightfully loopy site, and you need a flag as part of the profile, so I designed one for him. Here it is:


*Dutch readers may possibly see a similarity between this flag and a flag they have seen in the Netherlands. Let me know if you do.

I have known for a while that Borschland's national colors are gold, white, and black. In The Skater and the Saint (p. 147), a Borschland Navy airship is described as having a "gold and black chevron" on the side of its balloon.

The castle inside the triangle represents the old (17th c.) city of Staff Borsch, which was walled against Loflin and Foxian invaders. Its circuit is now followed by a loop subway line, and in most places it is still extant.

The flower inside the triangle represents a flower from the Bloomentwejg, the national relic of Borschland. The Bloomentwejg, or Flowering Branch, blooms every 300 years with flowers that confer immortality.

The colors of Borschland represent light (gold) and shadow (black), which must co-exist for the world to be stable. Saint Willem van Noos puts it this way in The Skater and the Saint (pp. 33-34):

Borschland, through its history has kept a balance of Shadow Saints and Saints of Light...It's not Darkness and Light. It's that light, when it falls on the world, creates shadow, and there is no light without shadow, and by the same token there is no shadow without light.

The white band between the gold and black represents the phase shift, the periodic phenomenon that takes Borschland and its continent into or out of a parallel universe. Note that white is not considered a color of purity in Borschland, but of void, liminality, purgatory, or limbo. This symbolism follows the native Loflin idea that the place of purification for souls after death is the threshold of the phase shift, a place of undifferentiated ice and fog.

The castle and flower in the "shadow" portion of the flag represents Borschland as a nation that, even when "unseen" or "in shadow" (i.e. phase-shifted to the parallel universe), remains vigilant (castle) and full of hope and integrity (flower).

There are other flags of Borschland. Ask if you want to know more about anything Borschic.

Olympic hockey and Borschland

Those who read the Borschland Hockey Chronicles sometimes ask me how I got the idea to combine a steampunk setting with ice hockey.

You don't have to go farther than Olympic hockey.

Borschland was born when I was a teen in the seventies and played street hockey and table-top hockey with friends, and watched Olympic and international hockey on television.

Then, as now, NHL hockey was a fringe sport, and my local team, the California Golden Seals, were never good and moved away to become the Cleveland Barons when I was fourteen.

Olympic and international hockey-- especially the extraordinary Summit Series between the USSR and Canada in 1972 -- fired my imagination.

I never liked the slow, brawl-heavy NHL with the wild-eyed guys with perpetual black eyes and teeth missing. International hockey, on the other hand, was fast-paced, skill-driven, and played on a big rink that put a premium on skating. That seemed to me to be where the fun was. Instead of brawn and stupidity winning, it was skill and grace-- and the mindset of a cool-headed assassin.

I wrote my first Borschland story in 1980, the year Team USA won the famed Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid: the unprecedented upset of the USSR.

That day, where I lived, the game was played on tape delay. I had spent most of it with my best friend and writing partner at the time, and when we piled in to his mother's living room to turn on the TV set, we told her not to spoil it for us if she already knew the result.

"I do know," she said, like a cool-headed assassin. "They lost."

What possessed her to lie like that, she never explained. We fell all over ourselves in disappointment, but decided to watch anyway.

It was a good game. Team USA held its own, scored some goals, didn't give up. In the third period, there were even ahead near the end of the game. 

When were the Americans going to give up the lead and lose? What was going to be the breakdown?

Well, of course, the breakdown never came, because they won the game, 4-3, over the then-hated evil communist empire of the Soviet Union.

If you are too young to remember those times, it may not register how big an upset it was. In addition to being our foes in the Cold War, a nation that our governmental mythology said was ready to obliterate us with waves of nuclear bombs if they ever thought they could win, the USSR skirted the rules of the Olympic games, which only allowed "amateur" athletes.

"Amateur" meant anyone who wasn't playing their sport for a set salary in an organized situation. The USSR at the time didn't have a "pro" league, because they were Communist and no athlete worked for a salary, or so their governmental mythology went. Because the Soviets said their skaters were amateurs, they were, even though they absolutely weren't.

The USA, on the other hand, couldn't put its best players out there, because they were all playing in the NHL and making money at the game.

So our team was made up of college kids and other guys who for some reason weren't in organized hockey at the time. A bunch of wannabes and scrubs.

And we won.

It's possible I have never been so elated in my life-- and so angry at a friend's mother.

But if it wasn't already, hockey was in my blood forever after.

Over the many years of life that God grants a person, many different and seemingly random things happen. One of those was that my first published novel was about ice hockey. I have written many novels in my life, and there is something goofy about the idea that this obsession of my youth ended up being tied up in one of my most proud professional accomplishments.

Or maybe not.

You know the old saying: Follow Your Passion. It's a dumb thing to have to hear over and over again, but it makes sense. If you follow your passion, you are likely to care enough to follow through and finish.

Kind of like putting a puck in the net.

A lovely, thoughtful review of Skater and the Saint

I respect Richard Abbott's fair-minded, insightful reviews. He has recently published a string of posts on steampunk books, and he's lucidly imparted his thoughts on each one. The Skater and the Saint is (sort of) the next in line, and he gave it 5 stars.

As they say in Borschland, Ergut!

The Borschland Hockey Chronicles are sort of steampunk-y. As Richard says in his review, "[T]he book drifts somewhere out of phase between fantasy, science-fiction and steampunk..." I consider it steampunk lite. Richard goes on to say that the Chronicles demand to be read on their own merits.

This is true. I don't think I have the gene for writing genre fiction, though I respect those who can. My imagination is too all over the place for me to write to a series of expectations. At the same time, I wouldn't call the Chronicles "literary." There's too much goof in them for that. 

My friend Bob Mustin probably got close to the truth when he called the Chronicles "postmodern fantasy."

Postmodernism is sometimes thought of as a movement that tried to argue that everything is meaningless, but in its best form, it takes the conventional and stands it on its head, bringing out new possibilities and meanings.

I see the conventions of genres-- the magic sword in fantasy, the sexy man who can be improved in romance-- and I want to do something original with them, knock them about, change people's expectations.

So in Skater in a Strange Land, the romance is between a nerd hockey player and a nerd poetess. There are no dandelion fairies floating in front of a soft-focus lens. But the hero and heroine do have a waltz together.

In The Skater and the Saint, there's no magic sword. But there's a weird branch-like thing that blooms every 300 years and is shaped like and can be used as a hockey stick.

The third book, still in the planning stages, promises to be more science-fiction-y. Hopefully plausible and well-researched stuff. And full of a kind of goof, too.

Speaking of expectations, I wasn't expecting Richard to like this one better than the first. He liked it because it delved into Borschic culture and religion more deeply than the first; I thought that might be a hindrance to some readers. And it may just be.

But the one wonderful thing I've discovered since publishing these two novels is that every reader comes to every book with a unique set of eyes, and fixes on different things in those books. If a book is packed full enough-- of plot, character, world, turn of phrase-- then each reader can appreciate something different, and like the book regardless of their particular eyes. It sounds trite, but I think it's true.

Anyway, go read the review if you'd like, and check out Richard's newest, Scenes from a Life, a view into the everyday world of ancient Egypt.