Half Sick of Shadows (spoilerish)

HalfsickofshadowsIt is really impossible to say anything about Half Sick of Shadows, Richard Abbott’s newest and most creative book, without giving the whole thing away.

So instead of reading this review first, go out and buy the book and read it— I promise, it’s very inexpensive— and then come back and read this.

If you have already read the book and want to know what someone else thinks about it, go ahead and keep scrolling.

Otherwise, I’ll see you in… however long it takes for you to read and come back.

In fact, if you read the book and hate it, I will treat you to another book of the same or lesser value as an apology for making you read Half Sick of Shadows.

Now that we have established I am biased towards this book, and now that everyone is gone except those who have read the book already, the way is clear to say a few spoilerish things. Spoilerish because I know there are a few lingering readers who haven’t gone away and gotten the book, and believe me, you will be disappointed.

(Shoo! Shoo!)


First, you don’t need to know that Half Sick of Shadows is taken loosely from the British legend of the Lady of Shalott best known to poetry readers in its version by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It’s a fun curiosity to map Half Sick of Shadows on to the legend-- especially the weaving and mirror parts-- but the story stands on its own.

You also don’t need to know what genre the book is in order to enjoy it. The author says it is Historical Fantasy. I would say it’s Speculative Science Fiction. But it really is its own thing.

Now, for the spoilerish stuff: lately there was a flurry of activity on the internet about alien intelligences and whether we would want them to contact us when it is somewhat more or less likely (how does one decide these things?) that they would be hostile to us.

Stephen Hawking has famously said for years, for example, that if intelligent life outside our solar system tries to contact us, we should act as if we’re not there.

"Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well,” he is recently quoted as saying.

Also, there's a new short film by a director I admire, Neil Blomkamp from South Africa, about a yuckfest alien invasion that is our worst nightmare. (I loved the film and I don't like yuckfests, by the way.)

But with all due respect to Stephen Hawking and rousing good stories, I think the proposition absurd that aliens advanced enough to travel through space for light years are as callous, cruel, and greedy as Christopher Columbus and the Europeans who followed him.

I find it much more likely that truly advanced aliens would have no need of exploiting worlds they found, but in fact would be more benevolent than we are, having come to the conclusion that survival depends on creating abundance rather than hoarding scarcity. 

So far in history, all human cultures that pile up resources at others’ expense have fallen hard after no more than a thousand or so years (the Byzantines did a great job for a long time, but that made the Turks really, really jealous).

But to live through the long haul— long enough to develop viable light-year space flight technology— I think you’d need to find a way to make resources abundant enough that people don’t need to fight over them and kill each other off. 

And thus, aliens traveling to earth would know to leave well enough alone.

Unless, of course, they found a way to hang around us without destroying us.

And this is a roundabout way of saying that I think Richard Abbot has that question of alien intelligence absolutely spot on. Half Sick of Shadows is an intricate, delicate story about a Lady who grows through time into something new, both physically and mentally, and how interaction with those she encounters affects that process. But it’s also a wonderfully imaginative take on how we might be-- or have been-- in touch with others outside our ken.

Now is Half Sick of Shadows as fun as Neil Blomkamp's yuckfest with the Texas flag whipping from armored trucks and people exploding and lizard men and squirty goo and methane manufacturing towers?

Yes. Make a movie of it now.

Well, maybe not.

But so few books have that quality of an engaging story that also makes you think. Half Sick of Shadows is one of those few, and it deserves widespread attention.

How Borschland got its name

BorschlandmapcoloredHow do authors name things?

J.R.R. Tolkien created an entire mythos as a companion to his renowned Middle Earth series of novels. The names Legolas, Boromir, and Frodo all had linguistic reasons for being what they were, since Tolkien was himself a professional linguist.

Conversely, Christopher Paolini, the bestselling author of the "Eragon" fantasy series, spent much less sweat and ingenuity thinking about the names in his book.

"Eragon," Paolini once admitted, is simply "Dragon" with an "E" instead of a "D."

And what about Borschland, the setting for a story about an ordinary American ice hockey player who becomes, against all odds, a national sensation in his adopted home?

As the progenitor of that name, I guess I'm more in Paolini's corner than Tolkien's, though the story is a bit more involved than the swap of an E for a D.

I was something like twelve or thirteen when Borschland was born. In those days I was prone to create three worlds in a single afternoon. Most of my creations came in the form of maps, and stayed that way. I was a forgetful god, and the inhabitants of those forgotten places would have justly railed at me for not taking care of what I had started.

Borschland was different. It also started out as a map-- the medium of which was markers on butcher paper-- but it soon took on a life of its own.

Borschland's inspiration was the last name of a friend of mine whose father was the dean of an Episcopal seminary in my hometown. My friend lived with his father, mother, and twin younger brothers in an impossible wonder of a house, an on-campus stone-and-brick edifice with soaring ceilings, endless bedrooms, enormous kitchen, and backyard basketball court. It had apparently once been a dormitory.

It was the perfect place for all manner of early adolescent diversion. We played every sport known to man either there or in the quad of the seminary across the street. To play baseball, we used a yellow plastic ball my friend dubbed a "grapefruit." I once whacked that sphere on a rising arc across the quad, smashing a window in the building that acted as the right-field fence.

We also started our own soccer team, and when we could not find a coach willing to train us, my friend's father, the seminary dean, consented to shepherd us until he found a willing divinity student.

That student was the first man I ever knew besides a pirate who sported a gold earring. He was a prince among men to put up with my fourteen year-old diva self.

My friend's mother, the Platonic ideal of mothers, presided over the kitchen, doling out bowls of yogurt and cottage cheese for afternoon snacks, and ferrying us around in the family's white station wagon. Later in life, I had a nightmare that involved being pursued by Satan in a desert wasteland. Presently my friend's mom appeared in the station wagon to rescue me, as ever an angel of mercy.

Since my friend had spent time in Chicago, he had the equipment for street hockey-- goals, sticks, rubber balls used for pucks-- and we played glorious games in the backyard basketball court.

My friend also had a table-top hockey game which I borrowed and played on my own, keeping careful statistics of all goals, assists, and penalties.

With such enrapturing memories stoking the fires of my nostalgia, it was in a way a foregone conclusion that Borschland, which is truly what my friend's idyllic household could be called, would take on a life of its own.

In college I maintained a Borschland Hockey League with teams from all the cities I had created on the map.

Like Tolkien, I became interested in language, and modified the city names to have more uniformity and logic. Borschland's language became an odd combination of Dutch, German, and French, with certain native elements of a land I had named after our seventh-grade science teacher.

Borschland also became the location for a bad short story I wrote about a young man whose mysterious landlady had the odd last name of "Enoon" (hint:  enoon is "no one" spelled backwards), and whose climax took place at an ice hockey game.

Thus, fiction entered into Borschland.

Much later in life, I introduced the fantasy ice hockey league to my son, who created a blog around it, and I contributed posts in the voice of a Borschic ice hockey journalist named Kadmus Greningen.

A story thread grew up around the blog posts involving an American ice hockey player named Sherm Reinhardt. You can still read those original posts today.

Eventually, the Borschland Hockey Chronicles, two novels and an anthology of short stories (plus another novel in progress), were born.

Now I have learned of the passing of my friend's father. The generous, genial man who was our interim soccer coach went on to be a revered bishop in the Episcopal Church.

In his obituary, I learned he wrote twenty books, among them two novels.

Much of what survives from an author's imagination seems to be random. Why Borschland? Why ice hockey? What necessitated the birth of that particular story?

But, as the Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon has written, as Christians we must take what seems to be random and act as if it is, instead, full of intended grace.

Which is why I will always be grateful to the Borsch family for their hospitality, generosity, and for the greatest gift of all: the name of an imaginary world.

Borschland colonizes Amazon

Talesofborschlandcover_promotionalBig news about the Borschland Hockey Chronicles for all fans and future fans of Sherm Reinhardt.

For those familiar with Sherm's ice hockey exploits, Breakfast with Pandora Books has just released a new Tales of Borschland anthology, Sherm Reinhardt and the Black Rose, including the first story involving Sherm Reinhardt since The Skater and the Saint

Sherm journeys to Zimroth, one of Borschland's neighboring nations, to scout a new goalie for his Te Staff hockey team, but he soon finds out why, as one Borscher puts it, "Going to Zimroth is like going back in time."

There are six other tales in the anthology, each one opening up the world of Borschland in various ways: you'll learn about the Borschic way of romance and Borschic spirituality.

There's also the origin story of the Flowering Branch which is the centerpiece of The Skater and the Saint.

And there are chilling tales as well, one about the Loflins, native people of Borschland, and about why there are no movies in Borschland.

But wait, there's more.

In celebration of the new release, for a limited time the entirety of the Borschland Hockey Chronicles (Skater in a Strange Land, The Skater and the Saint, and the Tales of Borschland anthology) will be available to read for free in the Kindle Unlimited lending library.

And here's an offer for you: anyone who reads one of these three selections and leaves a review somewhere online (e.g. Amazon, Goodreads, your blog) will be among the first to receive, absolutely free, an e-copy of the third and last installment of the Borschland Hockey Chronicles, The Last Phase Shift, which with any luck will be available to give as a Christmas gift this year.

Utter fabulousness.

And if you've read this far, then you deserve further insider information, which is that the cover of the Tales of Borschland anthology shown here is actually a beta cover, and if you yourself want to or know someone who would want to design a better cover, please let us know in the comments or email us at teenage underscore heroes at yahoo dot com.

Here's to Shelley, Myst, and H.L. Burke

12557822_1148142651892799_1635258862_oA spotlight for H.L. Burke, who is, for my money, one of the coming author-personalities in indie publishing today. She writes good books, but she's also an engaging person who's fun to follow on social media, especially if you like dragons and cats.

Burke's latest is an attractive YA steampunk novella called Nyssa Glass and the House of Mirrors. The title protagonist is (according to Burke) "a reformed cat burglar turned electrician's apprentice, settled into a life repairing videophones and radio-sets. However, when her past comes calling, she finds herself framed for murder and forced into one last job."

Nyssa Glass has a lot of things going for her, as does the book itself. She's smart, tech-savvy, and tender at the proper times, and Burke has presented for her in this first book of the series a worthy set piece in the elaborately wired and booby-trapped mansion where mirrors are used in an innovative way. 

I got attracted to Nyssa Glass because of my Steampunkish series, the Borschland Hockey Chronicles, which is not what you'd call classic steampunk. In fact, I never intended it to be Steampunk, but it sort of fits in the genre.

Burke's take on the genre is similar. She told me in a recent email that she came to Steampunk in high school through the computer game Myst, which has "a definite steampunk aesthetic (gears, levers, goggles)... I'd keep detailed notebooks as I struggled to solve the complex problems and gather clues. I read the 'Myst Reader' which involved a young girl finding an advanced society living under the earth. A society with geothermal power and massive tunneling machines … I really wanted to live there. Well, not necessarily under the ground in D'ni, but in one of the ages Atrus wrote and settled."

Burke says she's read and likes three Steampunk novels that differ amongst themselves quite a bit, first "Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders ...[which] has a lot of Steampunk trappings, but the world is post apocalyptic and added in aliens … so not completely traditional.

"Then I read Dream Eater's Carnival, because I knew the author mainly. It had some wonderful Steampunk flair, with a circus of rogues and freaks, a heroine who had amber embedded in her arm she could use to do magic, and a carnival performer who may very well be stealing the life force of those around him...

"Finally I picked up Lady of Devices. This was by far the most traditional Steampunk I'd read yet. It had Victorian social issues and a feisty heroine who rises above social mores while still managing to be very proper. 

"So between all that, I never had a real guideline for what the genre ought to be, which probably works out for the best. You give me rules and guidelines, the urge to break, bend, and twist them becomes pathological. I tend to write my books first, then find a genre box I can sort of stuff them into rather than write to the conventions of any one particular genre."

I agree.

For Nyssa Glass, Burke makes several bends in the whatever might be considered the classic Steampunk structure:

"My characters use mostly modern speech. While I appreciate an author who can hold up 'old timey' dialogue for long periods of time, my characters tend to speak to me in whatever voice they darn well want, and I just let them.

"I cheat and use electricity … my characters have computer technology that is way too advanced for your average Steampunk setting. A lot of the story-line features strongly around a character who is a computer, in fact." 

That probably would be one of my few objections to this book as Steampunk-- that there is twenty-first century tech in it without being explained by steam and gears.

But there are a lot of stories with improbable technology that people swallow whole, including original gothic works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Not coincidentally, Burke considers Nyssa "Shelley meets Verne meets Wells, but there's also a taste of the adventure games (such as Myst) that I love so very very much. I hope people can lose themselves in it, the way teenage me longed to visit the Ages of Myst. That's my goal in this series."

I'd say that is the distinctive characteristic of Nyssa, putting the story front and center without a lot of background fuss about worlds and tech. Check out all her other books as well on her website. Dragons abound.

Some other links for the inimitable Mrs. Burke:




Facebook Author Page

Amazon Author Page 


The Flame Before Us: ambitious but not grand

FlamebeforeusThe Flame Before Us is Richard Abbott's third and most ambitious historical novel concerning the Bronze Age Near East.

Previously he treated Canaan (In a Milk and Honeyed Land), then Egypt (Scenes from a Life), to which culture he has a particular sensitivity. The Flame Before Us concerns a wider swath of country and peoples, including Egypt, Canaan, west Syria, and Greece.

The time is 1200 BC, and the situation is dire for the established civilizations on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. A large group of marauders invades from the west, destroying Ugarit, the west Syrian metropolis, and threatening the Nile Delta itself, as well as Egyptian vassals in Canaan, including the cities of Gedjet (Gaza) and Shalem (Jerusalem).

These invaders are dubbed the "Sea Peoples" because of their preference for using ships as a means of transportation. Scholars have been divided as to where they come from, but Abbott settles on the hypothesis that they are Greeks. He goes one step farther as well and takes them for the Greeks who attacked and destroyed the legendary city of Troy, along with wagonloads of their dependents.

So, ambitious this book is, but in characteristic fashion, Abbott focuses less on sea captains with wind whipping their hair than on what we have come to know after Iraq as "collateral damage:" the ordinary people affected by these events.

To be sure, Abbott can't resist a scholar's interest in the Sea Peoples' ability to defeat conventional chariot-centered warfare. But there are actually zero eye-witness descriptions of large battles. Instead, the on-stage violence, so to speak, is always personal and jarring.

Several threads of characters, two from the sacked city of Ugarit, two from Egypt, two from Canaan, one from Greece, and one of the Ibryhim (Hebrews) form the material for Abbott's tapestry; there are so many characters, in fact, and the historical situation is so complex, that Abbott helpfully includes extensive explanatory notes at the end of the book.

But despite their number and diversity, each set of personages is distinct and vivid in its own way, and helps to create a full picture of what life must have been like in the uncertain times at the end of the Bronze Age. A surprising tenderness in the face of grief, loss, and displacement is the emotion that underpins the action.

I found myself most drawn to Hekanefer, an Egyptian scribe who is attached to a brigade of the Pharoah's provincial peacekeepers. Through vivid, often humorous letters home to his family, he confesses his thoughts about his less-than-desirable fiancée, his deployment to Canaan, and the ability of the army to deal with the invaders. Later, we see him in person, acting as a diplomat to the king of Shalem. He comes off much less the conquering colonial than a rank-and-file (if proud) Egyptian who is trying to make his way in difficult circumstances. Egypt, in Abbott's view, was never the hard-hearted place that the Israelites fled with God's help, but a civilized, tolerant country trying to head off others' political immaturity. 

Abbott's treatment of the Greek side of things is less convincing for me. His explanation that a single, charismatic war leader (named Akamunas, Agamemnon for the Iliad fans out there) was able to unite Greece and not only go after Troy, but continue on east along with large wagon trains of women and children seems unlikely to me. Even less plausible is the idea that certain of these wagon trains would "go rogue," so to speak, and take up with the conquered of Ugarit, as one of these does in this book.

Abbott anticipates this objection and gives his rationale in the notes, including ingenious interpretation of archeological finds. My own study of local peoples suggests to me that local peoples stay where they are unless some catastrophic event forces them to do so. Abbott is content to let Akamunas be the motivation.

But regardless of the true situation, history tells us that the strange and unpredictable routinely happens, and the interplay between the clan of "Sherden" Sea People wagon drivers and a brother and sister fleeing Ugarit makes for an absorbing read. Fiction explores where history might dare not to venture. 

One last thing about this excellent effort (pristinely published as an e-book, by the way), which Abbott may take as a suggestion for the future: spend more time on material culture. 

It is always a historical novelist's dilemma to figure out the level of detail at which food, clothing, tools, and the rest is described. Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, the movie version of which I reviewed here, is a Civil War novel that goes whole hog: every little tiny piece of anything is named and (sometimes) described. This practice creates a genuine feeling of alienation in the reader-- a distance that says, "You are seeing this story through a telescope."

Abbott's practice is to go light on technical vocabulary, not to examine too closely the kind of chair someone sits in, or the cold meat he or she consumes. This might be because Abbott is interested in keeping the narrative moving. But in a novel like this one, where the scope is necessarily large, the reader will tolerate, and I think, welcome more detail where possible. Abbott's next is rumored to be a sea-faring story-- a perfect opportunity to describe ancient gunwales and forestays, if there were such things back then.

In other words, Richard Abbott, more, more! Your public clamors for it.

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 NationStates.net, 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.

A few words about Bearland

AndmomNote: this post is in a series of occasional reprints of articles from Rejsgaang Oot, the magazine of the Borschland National Tourist Board.

The adventurer tourist who has decided on a stay in Borschland may find himself with time on his hands if there is a phase shift that outlasts the traveler's visa. 

No problem. The Borschland Foreign Ministry is happy to extend visas in case of unexpected phase shifts.

But what to do until the Continent shifts back to our earth?

If you have had your fill of Borschland, you may wish to visit Bearland.

Image: Else Holmelund Minarik's "Little Bear" strongly approximates the joyful character of the bears of Bearland.

Bearland is one of the most unusual nations on earth. It is the only democratic nation administered by sentient creatures other than humans. Some three million bears of all species make up this truly beautiful and scenic land, and it is well worth the shock to see them and it.

Borschland is home for some bears, especially those who work for Bearland's embassy in Staff Borsch. Having a bear address one with a Gut Emorgenweck ("Good morning!") in one of the city's many open squares and markets is practically an everyday occurrence.

But being in a place where most of the inhabitants are large, furry, and equipped with big teeth can be unsettling for some.

Don't be shy. Bears are among the most civilized creatures on the continent. They have benefited from the influence of English suzerainty (1888-1914) and are still an associate member of the UK Commonwealth of Nations. Though the official language of Bearland is Bnoa, a hybrid of several native bear dialects, English is taught and spoken universally, with only the most rustic of bears having no knowledge of the language. A Royal Air Force base is still maintained by the UK in proximity to Bearland's largest city, Waterbrownbear, with a community of some 750 RAF officers, airmen, dependents, and contract personnel.

The bears of Bearland are proud of their advanced civilization. Most bears wear clothing by choice, although naturism is not outlawed. They maintain a modern network of railroads and highways, and are the only nation on the Continent that uses motorcars as a private means of transportation. Bear Air is the official airline for tourists traveling to and from the Continent.

The climate of Bearland is various. It is the northernmost nation on the continent, which is to say, the closest to the equator, and the weather in Waterbrownbear is similar to that of Auckland, New Zealand. The beaches of Bearland are justly celebrated and visited by hundreds of thousands of bears and humans every year.

Farther to the south, the capitol of Brownbakikio is more continental, and the southernmost city, in the mountains near the Fox Territories, Brownbearking, is surrounded by tall mountains and host to fabulous winter sports. 

The "people" of Bearland are among the most hospitable you will see anywhere. They call themselves the "Upright Bears" both because they have evolved as majority bipedal creatures, and because their Bearish Christian Anglican religion calls upon them always to do the right thing in the right situation. The traditional Cathedral of All Souls in Brownbakikio is an awe-inspiring sight with twin Bnoogothic towers reaching to 375 feet and adorned with the unique and glowering bear gargoyles. 02794_0010027659

For guests, the Bearish motto translates to loading them down with the national delicacy, honey.

Honey is an ingredient in almost everything eaten and drunk in Bearland, and it is not uncommon to see honeybees flying about in even the most urban of areas. Bears are avid beekeepers and are proud to show visitors their prized hives. Be sure to ask if proper protective gear is available. Most bears do not mind a sting or two, but human hides are more tender.

Bearland is a sport fisherman's paradise. Bears lovingly maintain wild salmon fisheries, and each year the spawning of salmon is host to many salmon swiping festivals. In smaller streams, bears don the traditional waders and fly fish to their heart's content.

Hibernation is a custom now considered archaic among bears, and tourists will find year-round fun and attractions in Bearland, though the winter months tend to be a quieter time of reflection and relaxation for all but the most ambitious of bears.

Sports in Bearland are a great passion. The national game is Sockey, a combination of field hockey and soccer where players score goals both by hitting the small leather ball with a stick-- or by kicking it. Red Dot is Bearland's answer to Australian Rules Football, and is the most rough-and-ready of the native games. Bears also play soccer, rugby, ice hockey, and other more traditional sports. 

All in all, there is much more than one phase shift's worth of things to do and see in Bearland. As the bears say, "Bearland: a honey of a place where you'll want to 'stick' around."

The Mill and the Cross, Borschic?

Road-to-calvary-bruegel-sm1This summer I've taken much time with the second book in my Borschland Hockey Chronicles series, and after a while, everything seems to come up Borschic.

But "The Mill and the Cross," a Netflix streamer we saw at a local museum recently, engaged me both because of its Borsch-ness and its attitude towards faith.

First, about the film.

The movie is about Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting, "The Way to Calvary," an oversized canvas that shows the procession of the cross on Good Friday to the hill where Jesus was crucified.

It's one of those European paintings where the artist visualizes the event that happened in Israel centuries ago as occurring in his native land in contemporary times. Which is to say, the landscape looks like Bruegel's native Flanders (northern Belgium and southwest Netherlands today) and the people in it are dressed like 16th century people.

The filmmaker, Lech Wajewski, creates the world of the film by having the painting come to life: that is, the initial shots meld live action with the painting itself, and the painting fades in and out in the same way throughout.

There is no plot per se; the film follows the artist (Rutger Hauer) as he explains his vision for the painting with his patron, Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York). The other characters in the film (except for one-- more soon on her) have little or no dialogue. There are a lot of static shots of people staring into the middle distance, and with those shots a lot of quoting of paintings that I have probably seen but don't remember.

The action revolves around the idea that Jesus' death at the hands of the Romans parallels the deaths of Flemish heretics at the hands of the Spanish who had conquered the Netherlands in those days. There is an ingenious melding of the pathos of contemporary people who die for their beliefs, and of Jesus' undeserved suffering and death.

This trailer gives a good idea of what happens in the film, which is not for kids. It's not rated, but it's an R for general earthiness, frankness, and uncomfortableness that is best handled by grown-ups.

How does this relate to Borschland? Among the first settlers in Borschland in the 17th century were followers of a sect called the Familia Caritatis; the beliefs of that sect influence the nature of the Borschic church today. In the film, Nicholas Jonghelinck mentions that he is a member of this sect, which was presumably persecuted by the Spanish, and according to this entry, Bruegel seems to have been a sympathizer of the sect as well.

The patron also says something about the painting, "So, this could be a group of saints returning from the past to mourn the present state of Flanders." He means characters like the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, the Apostle John, and so on, who are depicted in the contemporary landscape of the painting.

I thought about the second Borschland book, which also has "saints" (not Biblical but Borschic) coming back into Borschland, not to mourn, but to try to save the country.

BorschlandmapcoloredMy Borschland books are meant to be fun-- recently it came to me that the adventures are in the spirit of Tintin books, beloved Belgian comic books that I read to my son when he was young.

But the nature of Borschland as a place of moral imagination lies just beneath the surface, and it's something I want to continue to explore. 

"The Mill & the Cross" spurs that exploration.

The painter explains in the movie that faith is an elusive thing. It takes work to maintain. People spend so much time just living their lives. The idea of something unseen but yet important is both part of our very natures and yet foreign to us.

So the movie spends a lot of time on showing ordinary people doing ordinary things. And yet, woven into all those shots of kids playing and fighting, women scrubbing doorsills, millers checking the quality of the meal they're making, there is a continuing monologue of the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling) who is contemplating what the death of her son means.

Mary is shown as the archetype of the human being who wrestles with her faith amidst the ordinariness of all the ordinary things of life.

In Borschland, the church has evolved into a place that is quiet and off to the side. Deacons are the practitioners of the faith, praying and giving counsel. People of Borschland do not attend church as a rule, but keep up with the lay traditions of the faith and respect the deacons. There is a sense that the people have made a deal with the deacons: if the deacons will maintain the relationship with God and the saints, then the people will feed, clothe and house them.

So there's a sense that the ordinary has won in Borschland, and yet the presence of the church is always there.

I'm not saying it's an ideal fantasy world for a Christian; I wrestle with my faith daily and I believe God wants that so. But it's a depiction of a situation that I think is true for many people of many religions.

One day it's possible I'll write a book about a spiritual awakening in Borschland. It is a place apart and asleep in many ways. It is a place that comes from that part of me that prefers predictability and resists change.

Yet it is also a place of deep hope and spiritual strength. I'll continue to write in hopes that that comes across in the books.