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The QuarryThe Quarry is Iain Banks’s last ever novel. He died shortly before it was published in June 2013. The book is about Kit, the narrator, a young man whose father, Guy, is dying of cancer. Banks apparently didn’t know that he, too, was dying of cancer until he’d nearly finished the first draft.

“If I’d known it was going to be my last book, I’d have been quite disappointed that I’m going out with a relatively minor piece.”

And yet how apposite a final book The Quarry is, despite it being neither really finished nor one of his best.

Kit and Guy live in an old house that is pretty much literally falling apart – like Guy’s body – and which is located very near the edge of a quarry, whose expansion is due to cause the demolition of the house – like Guy’s cancer. A bunch of Guy’s university friends – apparently the only friends Guy ever made – come to the house for a long weekend, to have a kind of living wake for Guy and to look for a certain tape.

The tape is a video tape – the friends were all film students and they made their own amateur productions – that none of them want to see the light of day. The plot – inasmuch as the book has a plot – concerns the search for this, as well as the slow revelation of old tensions and jealousies.

Guy is an embittered, prematurely aged, grumpy old man. He affects an attitude of despite towards everything. The unfairness, pain and grottiness of a slow death by cancer is never far from the page. One of the most moving parts of the book is towards the beginning when Kit is helping his father wipe himself in the bathroom.

‘Is there blood?’

‘There is a little blood.’

‘Well, what does that mean? What does “a little” mean?’

‘It means there is a little blood.’

‘Don’t be fucking smart, Kit; just tell me how much blood there is. And what colour? Red? Brown? Black?’

‘Are you sure you can’t turn around and take a look?’

‘Not without going out into the fucking hall, waddling, with my trousers round my ankles and my cock hanging out, so, no.’

‘If I had a smartphone I could take a photo and show you.’

‘I’m not buying you a fucking smarthpone. Will you shut up about the fucking smartphone? You don’t need one. And you’ll just post the photos on Facebook. Or find a way to sell them in your stupid game.’

‘Course I wouldn’t,’ I tell him. ‘Though you could have Faecesbook, I suppose,’ I add. Well, you have to try to lighten the mood.

‘Oh, Christ.’

‘There’s only a smear,’ I tell him. ‘And it’s red.’

‘Good, fine. Look, just, just, you know, wipe me off and … Christ, this is … Just, would you? Okay?’

This doesn’t happen all the time but, sometimes, I have to wipe my dad clean after he’s moved his bowels. He can’t stretch round or underneath any more to do it himself; even on the opiates the pain is too much now that the cancer has moved into his spine. Often Mrs Gunn will do this. She is paid to be a carer now, though I’m not sure this whole arse-cleaning thing is really within her remit. Guy cried following the first time she performed this service for him. He doesn’t know that I know this; I heard him through his bedroom door, afterwards.

The book doesn’t really go very far after this gut punch. The friends hang out, drink, take drugs, look for the McGuffin and argue. It feels like a first draft. The arguments are repetitive and nothing really different from what Banks had done before. Apart from Guy and Kit, the characters are rather two-dimensional; Haze, for instance, is a cardboard cut-out middle-aged stoner without an ounce of self-discipline or common sense; his main function in the story is to shoot party poppers out of his nose – and maybe to exemplify an extreme of the fucked-upness that afflicts all the older characters.

Kit is supposed to be a high-functioning autism sufferer, and this makes him suitably dry, analytical and naïve as a narrator – but it doesn’t really ring true. Kit is more of a surrogate Banks – as is Guy, actually, with all his verbal abuse against religion and capitalism and popular culture. Kit is far too knowing, too similar to the other characters, too unphased by their middle-aged licentiousness. He even makes a pass at one of them in quite an accomplished and briefly, initially successful way – even though he’s supposedly never so much as kissed a girl.

The book’s conclusion is deliberately bathetic. The search for and discovery of the tape is underwhelming – in much the same way that Guy’s life has been underwhelming – in much the same way that all our lives are underwhelming. All the characters are disappointments to themselves – apart from Kit, who spends half his time (when he’s not putting up with his father and surrogate aunts and uncles) playing an MMORPG. Kit seems to have the best life, is the only one is solvent, hasn’t sold out and has no skeletons in his closet; and yet he’s partly disengaged from reality and doesn’t know how to cope with it. Will he end up being a forty-year-old-fuck-up like the others?

Use of WeaponsI’ve been reading Iain Banks’s books since the early nineties (at a guess); I own all his novels and the whiskey/travel book he wrote. The first one I read was Use of Weapons, which I picked up from the library because I liked the cover. It’s one of his best books and the ending forced me to do an immediate re-read of the novel – the only time I’ve ever done that. I’d been holding off on reading The Quarry – for no good reason, really; well, reading Le Morte d’Arthur recently took a lot of time and willpower. The Quarry is a good enough book – as eminently readable as anything he wrote, but not really classic Banks.

And there will be no more Banks novels – no more Culture books (except, I’ve just discovered, a volume of his poetry will be published next year). It’s hard to say how I feel about this. It seems like his fiction novels as a group and his science fiction novels as a group didn’t really go anywhere much. If you’d read one of either group, you would have had a strong idea of what the others were like (apart from a couple of oddballs like The Bridge and A Song of Stone). I’m very sorry he’s dead (let’s not mess around with namby-pamby euphemisms – he wouldn’t), but I don’t have a sense of work unfinished like in the case of Robert Jordan.

But there are still nearly thirty novels ripe for re-reading. Sometime.

Iain Banks

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Fortress of EaglesI read the first book in this series a few years ago – I picked up my copy of Fortress in the Eye of Time at a street-side secondhand bookshop in Bombay (or Mumbai, if you prefer) and enjoyed it a lot. Although I think I knew there were successor books to it, I don’t think I thought of them as direct sequels. It was only fairly recently that I got Fortress of Eagles from What the Book? in Seoul.

The story follows on directly from what happens in the first volume – and as it’s a while since I read it, and my memory for story details isn’t that good anyway, so I was a little bit lost at first. In Fortress in the Eye of Time, Tristen is called into being – Shaped – by an old wizard called Mauryl. He apparently has lots of knowledge, and even memories of a previous life, locked away inside him, but he is pretty much a naïve tabula rasa. He befriends the crown prince, Cefwyn; there’s a big fight with a dark wizard called Hasufin Haltain; Mauryl dies (apparently), and Cefwyn becomes king.

Fortress of Eagles concerns the aftermath of these events. There’s lots of contemplation of intrigue; the courtiers of Ylesuin have varying levels of support for Cefwyn’s choices – his betrothed, Ninévrisë, is due to become the ruler of the neighbouring enemy nation, and Tristen is widely seen as an abomination, a product of sorcery who doesn’t follow the established religion.

The book is very contemplative and very talky. Until the last third or quarter, it moves at a very sedate pace with not much happening. This is a flaw, but it was a also a nice change of pace. It was never boring to read, as the two viewpoint characters – Tristen and Cefwyn – are both well realised and engaging, Tristen especially. Tristen has lots on his mind, not least of which is the nature of his own existence, and there were plenty of clues that much more would be revealed about this in future installments of the story. Cefwyn has a fractious court to balance, which is interesting enough, and one of the best characters is his adviser and military chief, Idrys (whom, naturally, I kept visualising as Idris Elba), but Tristen was always the more interesting.

Cherryh’s writing is very readable and she can write very good dialogue – which is good, because the characters have long conversations full of long paragraphs. It’s not necessarily realistic dialogue – the characters talk about things that are going on in the world and that are relevant to the story in a way that is basically infodump, but feels pretty natural – it’s the kind of thing a king would talk about, for instance.

She has also developed a particular style of writing and dialogue that somewhat mimics pre-modern writing without being heavy-handed or unreadably dense. Take this bit of banter between Ninévrisë (speaking first) and Cefwyn at a ball:

“Am I the prey tonight or is it Tristen? Policy must attend this festive mood. You are stalking someone.”

“Good lady!” He laid a hand on his breast, above the Marhanen Dragon, worked in gold. “I am suspect?”

“Today since dawn you have held close converse with the captain of your guard, the Patriarch of the Quinalt.” One finger and the next marked the tally. “Your brother the duke of Guelessar, and your brother’s priest, besides a converse again with Idrys, with Captain Gwywyn, and with Captain Kerdin – I discount your tailor -”

“Your spies are everywhere!”

“You ensconce me in this nest of women all with ambitions, all wishing to persuade me to confide in them, and wonder that I know exactly the object of your inquiry, who was riding to Drysham today -”

“Cressitbrook. You don’t know everything.”

“- with his guard. It is he, is it not? Has Tristen done something amiss?”

“Tonight,” he said with a glance at the women in the distance, and with his voice lowered.

“I hear it all, you know. The Warden of Ynefel [Tristen] is out spying on the land. He converses with the horses, quite dire and lengthy discourses, and likely with the sheep. His birds fly over the land and bring him news from every quarter …”

The writing style may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think this is almost exactly how fantasy novels should be written. There is absolutely no reason for characters in a fantasy world based on Earth cultures of centuries past to talk like people from the 21st century, still less for characters in a fantasy world based on Earth cultures from before the colonisation of the Americas to talk like 21st century Americans.

C J CherryhIn the last section of the book, a lot happens – and although it’s very clear how this fits into the overall scheme of things in Ylesuin, it also comes as a bit of a surprise, given the slow pacing of the earlier part of the story. For 450 pages, I did feel that more could have happened; as a result the book feels very much like an episode rather than a self-contained story. You get the feeling that the arc story is just getting started.

Despite this, Fortress of Eagles was a great pleasure to read, and I hope it won’t be long before I secure a copy of Fortress of Owls.

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Le Morte d'Arthur, Volume 1It took me about six months to read this book. I’m not happy about that fact – but I was also reading it during quite a stressful time in my life when I was feeling distinctly under-energied. But that’s all done with now. I also haven’t written anything for my blog in a long time; hopefully this might be the start of a re-ignition of my interest in it, but I also have lots of things on the go. Anyway; the book.

The version I read is based on a 1485 edition – but, thankfully, with modern spellings of words. My Penguin edition comes in two volumes, each of about 450 – 500 pages (I picked them up a few years ago at a secondhand English language bookshop in the little underground shopping precinct near Seoul City Hall). The novel is presented in 21 books, each book consisting of anything from six to 86 chapters, each chapter being generally only two to four pages long. Each chapter begins with a short synopsis; the books don’t – which is quite annoying when you want to find out which characters feature in which books.

One of the first things I noticed about Le Morte d’Arthur is that, on a word by word or sentence by sentence basis, it’s actually not that difficult to read. There is quite a number of archaic words employed, most of which are footnoted when they first crop up in addition to being listed in a glossary, and sometimes the syntax can be tricky to figure out, but it’s nowhere near as dense or complex as Shakespeare, for instance.

NOW leave we there [the matter of the previous chapter] and speak of Sir Launcelot that rode a great while in a deep forest, where he saw a black brachet [hound], seeking in manner as it had been in the feute [track] of an hurt deer. And therewith he rode after the brachet, and he saw lie on the ground a large feute of blood. And then Sir Launcelot rode after. And ever the brachet looked behind her, and so she went through a great marsh, and ever Sir Launcelot followed.

Compare this paragraph (there were no paragraphs, originally) from Book VI with the original:

Now leue we there & ſpeke of ſyr Launcelot that rode a grete whyle in a depe foreſt where he ſaw a black brachet / ſekyng in maner as it had ben in the feaute of an hurt dere / And ther with he rode after the brachet and he ſawe lye on the ground a large feaute of blood / And thenne ſyre launcelot rode after / And euer the Brachet loked behynd her / and ſoo ſhe wente thorou a grete mareyſe / and euer ſyre launcelot folowed /

That would not be fun to read.

Mind you, the updated version was also not that much fun – and yet it was still strangely fascinating. For a modern reader like me, there were several things that got in the way of enjoying the stories presented in Le Morte. It’s quite repetitive in places – especially when it comes to fighting, of which there is a fair amount. Battles are generally a series of knights or kings getting knocked off their horses and being re-horsed. Contests between knights almost always have them jousting with their spears (the word ‘lance’ is not used once in the book), one or both of them getting unhorsed and then fighting with swords; the two basic variations are the number of hours the fight takes and how much blood is shed on the ground.

Then they hurtled together as two wild bulls, rashing [rushing] and lashing with their shields and swords that sometimes they fell both over their noses. Thus they fought still two hours and more, and never would have rest, and Sir Turquine gave Sir Launcelot many wounds that all the ground there as they fought was all bespeckled with blood.

The text is also strangely pedantic – often every single king and knight taking part in a war or tourney will be listed individually, like so:

Then there swore King Lot, a passing [exceptionally] good knight, and Sir Gawain’s father, that he would bring five thousand men of arms on horseback. Also there swore King Uriens, that was Sir Uwain’s father, of the land of Gore, and he would bring six thousand men of arms on horseback. Also there swore King Idres of Cornwall, that he would bring five thousand men of arms on horseback. Also there swore King Cradelment to bring five thousand men on horseback.

That’s about a quarter of the swearing.

Le Morte d'Arthur, Volume 2Another problem – which was exacerbated for me by the length of time it took me to read the thing – was the number of characters and stories contained within the whole book. The presence of Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot (Launcelot, in my text), Gawain, Gallahad, Mordred and others was a given, but you also have the whole story of Tristan (Tristram, according to my edition) which takes up two long books right in the middle and feels very shoehorned in (which it was). There are also a range of much lesser known knights like Lamorak and Palomides (who, along with Lancelot and Tristan, comprise the top four knights in Britain (and therefore the world; actually, Sir Palomides is an unchristened Saracen and one of the more interesting characters)) and the cowardly Breunis Saunce Pité. King Arthur is barely in the most of the stories – excepting the very first and last books.

Sometimes the text treats characters in a bizarre way – Sir Lamorak and Sir Tristan both die off-page, for instance, despite being major characters. To be fair, many of the other protagonists refer back to Lamorak’s treacherous murder by Mordred and his brothers, as this simmering conflict contributes to Arthur’s ultimate downfall. But Tristan’s demise is greeted with little more than, ‘Oh, right – that guy.’ Merlin – having been instrumental in hiding the young Arthur’s identity and then revealing his identity as heir and telling the young king exactly what to do in the early days – gets imprisoned by Nimue at the start of the fourth book and therefore takes no part in the remaining seventeen books.

Time passes strangely in the course of Le Morte d’Arthur. As it’s really a collection of stories about different characters, sometimes an older version of a knight will appear earlier in someone else’s story, before his younger days are recounted later in the book. I didn’t really notice that happening too much, as I tended to forget a lot of those details. There’s an episode, though, where Lancelot has been tricked in to believing the maiden Elaine of Corbenic (not to be confused with Elaine of Astolat, who also falls in love with Lancelot, but who doesn’t have such sorcerously helpful relatives) is Guinevere and he begets a child on her – Galahad. In the morning, when he realises what he’s done, Lancelot jumps out of a window and runs off to spend two years roaming the wilderness. When he comes back, Galahad is a strapping young man of fifteen years old.

Despite its many quirks and flaws, I still enjoyed reading Le Morte – despite the fact that it was a huge slog. You get used to the idiosyncracies of the writing, learn a slew of new (ie, very old) words and get a fuller picture of the Matter of Britain than is presented in modern portrayals. There is quite a lot of good, or at least entertaining, characterisation – like the fact that many knights turn a blind eye to Lancelot’s affair with Queen Guinevere and support him against the psychotically angry Gawain; or like the Dame Lynet’s continual verbal abuse of Gareth as he defeats a series of colourful knights.

So it was certainly worth the read and I don’t regret it, but it wasn’t easy and I regret the fact that it took me so long to trudge through it. Now I’m interested in reading more up to date interpretations of the story of king Arthur and his knights – probably also in writing something inspired by it (but when I’ll find the time the time for that, I don’t know).

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The Fellowship of the RingI’ve been pretty lazy when it comes to my blog lately, so it’s been a while since I finished reading this – and an even longer while since I started reading it (which is a logical necessity, when you think about it). We read The Lord of the Rings in my friend Steve’s Tolkien and the Inklings group in Seoul; it was the culmination of a year of Tolkien reading. In fact, it was most of the Tolkien reading as we read it one book at a time for our monthly meetings and the novel is divided into six books (but often published in three volumes). So this review is pretty much a year in the making – and, as I don’t have the books with me right now, it will probably end up being rather vague.

I read The Lord of the Rings first when I was a teenager, I believe – during that period of my life when I often visited Shopping City Library. I don’t have any particular memory of it though – so I actually may not have read it then at all. I did read it (again – or possibly for the first time) when I was at university in my mid-twenties. This was the time when Peter Jackson’s films were coming out; I picked up a nice boxed set with the whole thing divided into seven volumes – one for each of the books and one for the appendices. I remember being impressed by the invented world and history and the rather post-modern structure, and less than impressed by the writing style.

In particular, I remember reading the very end of the story in a gazebo next to one of the ponds at Bath Spa University and pretty much breaking down in tears at the sadness of the conclusion.

All throughout the months of reading it this time around, I wondered if it would affect me quite as much. It didn’t.

The Return of the KingOne of the great attractions and flaws of The Lord of the Rings is its simplicity. The writing is quite naïve; none of the descriptive writing is especially literary or challenging by mondern standards. The characters are generally quite two-dimensional – with the exceptions, perhaps, of Boromir and Frodo (one of whom dies a third of the way through, the other is not present on page for large portions of the rest of the novel). This makes the story seem a little less like the struggle of individual characters than a dance of paper dolls.

But, of course, Tolkien wasn’t trying to make something comparable to modern literature – he was writing a fairy tale, a myth. I remember thinking, when I read the story in the 2000s, that the childlike simplicity of the text allowed it to somehow slip through the reader’s critical defences, to operate on a more primitive level. I didn’t necessarily feel that this time – I found it more of a constant distraction.

Probably one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings is so popular is because it is not at all challenging, literarily or morally. It’s a bit like a warm, unconditional hug from a parental figure. Nature and rural life is unconditionally good and meet and beautiful; the good guys are always ultimately good – even if sometimes troubled or tempted – and all their actions turn out for the best; evil will always be defeated.

The Two TowersThe Lord of the Rings is too important and influential a book – personally and globally – for me to dismiss it. There is much that is genuinely beautiful about it. In particular, the sense of a world changing, becoming less than it once was, personified exceptionally in the age-long melancholy of the elves and their eventual passage to the West … and less exceptionally in the industrialisation of the Shire. Gandalf is a wonderful character – a wise and benevolent, yet reluctant leader, who, despite his utter trustworthiness, still has his secrets and is not a stranger to losing his temper (‘Fool of a Took!’).

The narrative structure is one of the most interesting features of the novel. The first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring is the most conventional part, but thereafter it alternates, book by book, between focussing on Frodo and Sam on the one hand and the rest of the characters on the other. This works very well for building suspense about what is happening to Sam and Frodo – especially as Aragorn, Merry, Pippin et al have no idea how their friends’ unlikely quest is proceeding. There are a couple of parts where first Merry and Pippin’s adventures and later Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli’s are glossed over in flashback (the sacking of Isengard by the Ents and the ghost army’s routing of the southern corsairs) somewhat unsatisfactorily – but that may just be because we’ve already seen these things in the films.

J R R Tolkien

There is more that could be said – and we discussed a lot of these issues and more in our book group over the months we were reading The Lord of the Rings – but I would rather this review stayed reasonably concise. In short, many of the core elements of the story are archetypally powerful and it’s a masterpiece within its own terms. In the contexts of twentieth century literature and contemporary fantasy, it’s a little lacking. I couldn’t help thinking many times what it might be like if the same story were written by a more ‘grown-up’ writer like Stephen R Donaldson, George R R Martin or R Scott Bakker (fantasy writers having an ‘R’ initial in their name is a old charter or a tradition or something). Nevertheless, I’m sure this is far from the last time I will read The Lord of the Rings.

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The Prague CemeteryI’ve read a few books by Eco, now – The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and now this. While I didn’t think The Prague Cemetery was as good as the first two novels in that list, it was much, much better than the third.

The premise of this book is quite daring – on several levels. Using a wide array of historically accurate sources, Eco creates a fictional character who almost single-handedly, it seems, creates the vitriolic anti-Semitism of fin de siècle Europe, which culminates in the Russian creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which then, of course, leads to the terrible events of the 1930s and 40s.

Daring, because the subject matter is so sensitive; and because Eco’s narrative pretty attributes it all to one man; and because, except for the main character, it’s all – apparently – historically accurate: all the other characters (with a couple of minor exceptions and conflations) are real historical personages, all the events really happened. Daring also, because the main character develops two personalities, whose diaries and notes form letters to each other.

(Fictional) Simone Simonini, inspired by his (real) grandfather’s anti-Semitism as expressed in a (real) letter to (the real) Abbé Barruel, embarks on a career as a dishonest notary; he becomes a cunning forger first in his native Italy (Piedmont, actually, as there was no Italy as we know it in the mid-nineteenth century) and later in his adoptive France. He gets caught up in various historical events – Garibaldi’s battles in Sicily, the Fourth French Revolution, sensational exposés of Masonic rituals – and all the while develops his plans to discredit the Jewish people by concocting a fanciful story of a group of rabbis meeting in the Prague cemetery to discuss their plans to take over the world by such dastardly means as infiltrating governments and banks, introducing freedom of speech and social reforms and promoting republicanism.

Many long stretches of the book are fascinating reconstructions of historical intrigues. The sub-plot regarding a false persona that was created through psychological trauma is very promising at the beginning, but quickly becomes little more than a foil for Simonini’s amnesiac search for his own history. The depth of his hatred for Judaism – and for Jesuits, women, Germans, the French, Italians – in fact everyone except himself – is also quite entertaining. The various guises and ploys, plots and actions that Simonini is involved with make him a very appealing anti-hero. The milieu of late nineteenth century history-making and hysteria is expertly recreated.

And when I was old enough to understand, [my grandfather] reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmuck, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust – the result of circumcision, which makes them more erectile, with a monstrous disproportion between their dwarfish build and the thickness of their semi-mutilated protuberance.

I dreamt about Jews every night for years and years.

A few facts make the narrative drag. The join-the-dots approach to constructing a plot means that the whole thing is rather meandering and it ends very suddenly. The double-narrative (actually, it’s a triple-narrative, as there is a Narrator-with-a-capital-N, too) doesn’t quite work; the mystery as to whether the secondary personality is a figment or a real person isn’t that mysterious. And lists – throughout his work, Eco cannot resist a good list, and they do start to seem like he’s showing off his impressive erudition.

We decided that the Grand Master of the Supreme Council of Charleston bore the titles of Brother General, Sovereign Commander, Master Adept of the Grand Symbolic Lodge, Secret Master, Perfect Master, Intimate Secretary, Provost and Judge, Master Elect of the Nine, Illustrious Elect of the Fifteen, Sublime Knight Elect, Chief of the Twelve Tribes, Grand Master Architect, Scottish Grand Elect of the Sacred Visage, Perfect and Sublime Mason, Knight of the East or of the Sword, Prince of Jerusalem, Knight of the East and West, Sovereign Prince of the Rose Croix, Grand Pontiff, Venerable Master ad vitam of all Symbolic Lodges, Noachite of Prussian Knight, Grand Master of the Key, Prince of Libanus and of the Tabernacle, Knight of the Brazen Serpent, Knight Commander of the Temple, Knight of the Sun, Prince Adept, Scottish Knight of Saint Andrew, Grand Elect Knight Kadosh, Perfect Initiate, Grand Inspector Inquisitor, Clear and Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret, Thirty-Three, Most Powerful Sovereign Commander General Grand Master Conservator of the Sacred Palladium, Sovereign Pontiff of Universal Freemasonry.

Umberto Eco

This was an entertaining and fascinating read, but it felt a little hampered by being tied to a range of historical events – albeit important and interesting historical events. So while this wasn’t my favourite Eco novel, it has restored my faith in him after the navel-gazing-fest of Queen Loana. I’m ready to read one of his other books, now – maybe Baudolino.

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Notes from a Small IslandI got this book from an American guy I used to work with in Nowon in Seoul, back in 2009. I’ve noticed from one of the Facebook groups that he now also lives in Cheonan. It’s a small almost-island, I suppose.

In this book, Bill Bryson travels around Great Britain over seven weeks, using public transport (or his own feet), staying in modest hotels and wandering around the towns and cities he visits. It starts in Dover, where he recreates the moment a couple of decades earlier when he first arrived in England from France and ended up staying, marrying and having a family. The whole premise of the book was trigger by his imminent (at the time of writing – Notes from a Small Island is nearly twenty years old) move back to the States.

It’s a very entertaining book. Not only does it function as a travelogue, describing the various places and sights as well as his various modes of transport, but it has elements of memoir and polemic. Bryson talks about his first job in the UK, where he met his future wife; when he reaches Yorkshire he even takes a break from travelling to spend a night or two at home. He also rages against the various ugly buildings that have been inflicted on Britain’s High Streets and against the difficulties of journeying on bus and train networks that refuse to provide logical transfer options.

Highlights of his tour include, walking between seaside towns on the south coast, taking mountain train rides in Wales (or was it the Pennines?), visiting a wonderfully preserved Roman mosaic in a forest, only to be told by a reader (this later edition informs us) that it was a Victorian reconstruction, driving to John o’ Groats, watching one of the first IMAX films at what was then the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television and is now the National Media Museum.

And there’s plenty of observations about the British character, from the strange mix of the ancient, the old and the modern, the insular mentality – the bureaucratic to the individual – to endless debates about the best way to drive somewhere, being called ‘love’ or ‘mate’ by everyone, politeness and our genius for queuing.

CPRE Bill Bryson - Hamsphire-  South Downs - 3.jpg

Along the way, Bryson reveals his own occasional lack of politeness. He shouts at a hotel manager who’d locked him out one night and retired; the next morning, Bryson offers a miserable apology and the manager receives it with phlegmatic cheer. One particular low-point – where Bryson loses a few points in the Good Human Being stakes – is when he has a go at a McDonalds worker for asking if he wanted an apple pie with his McBreakfast – and continues to lay into him despite the lad calmly repeating that it’s just part of his McJob.

But this lapse doesn’t really detract from the fact that Notes from a Small Island is an engaging book full of laugh-out-loud moments and interesting musings on Britain and Britishness.

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A Memory of LightThis book – the final volume in The Wheel of Time – came out in January this year. It took me a few months to get round to ordering it; and then it took me a couple of months to get round to reading it. I was dreading it, to a degree, as the previous book had not been that great – in fact, everything after Lord of Chaos (book six) has been something of a disappointment (but LoC is my favourite in the series). In fact, let me give you a rundown of what I can remember from the other books in the series (some of which might be incorrect, given the nature of memory).

And, by the way, this has turned out to be an epic review, not just of AMoL, but of the entire WoT.

New Spring (comic)New Spring
This book, published well into the 2000s, was one of three planned prequel novels – and the only one that will ever be written now. It describes how Moiraine and Lan met and is amazingly only about 300 pages long.

The Eye of the WorldThe Eye of the World
The first book in the series. Having also just re-read The Fellowship of the Ring I was reminded of the many similarities between the two stories – or at least their beginnings. Like The Lord of the Rings the main characters from The Wheel of Time come from a modest, idyllic, largely unregarded village. They are persuaded to leave their rural lives behind and follow a magic user on a journey that involves the fate of the world. The main character is destined to be the world’s saviour. Standard fantasy fare, really, but Jordan introduces far more complexity – a world full of nations, factions, magic-users, magical objects and moral ambiguity. And women. Take Moiraine – the Gandalf analogue – like Gandalf, she doesn’t always explain herself, but it’s not always clear that she has Rand’s best interests at heart; indeed, her intentions to control Rand are quite misguided. By the end of the book, it’s clear to the reader that Rand is a messianic figure and is fated to go mad (because that’s what happens to male magic-users).

The Great HuntThe Great Hunt
The adventure continues apace in the the second volume. Indeed, various important elements of the story are introduced, that – way back when I was reading the books for the first time – seemed strangely like latecomers to the story: Faile and the Seanchan invasion of the west of Randland (not a term that’s used in the books). The book concludes with the calling of a small army of historical heroes from beyond the grave to assist in fighting off the Seanchan. From a strictly logical point of view, this is quite a troubling phenomenon. Jordan put a lot of detail into how magic works – it’s never called magic, but channelling; certain sensitive people are able to manipulates threads of the five elements of the One Power – Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Spirit – into spells called weaves. The Horn of Valere, which summons the heroes, is a man-made object, but the effect is definitely far beyond what humans have ever been capable of. In the first three books, there are plenty of things like this – good old-fashioned fantasy ideas that just have to be accepted as part of the world; later everything was meticulously worked out as effects of One Power or of the tapestry of reality.

The Dragon Reborn (French - part one)The Dragon Reborn
In this book, Rand goes on the run from his destiny and the Aiel invade Tear. In the book’s climax, Rand fights someone he believes to be Shai’tan, the Dark One, the world’s evil god, in the Heart of the Stone – but who just turns out to be one of the Forsaken. Well, not just one of them, but Ishamael – their leader. Luckily, Rand fails to kill him with balefire, which would have removed him from reality, but merely kills him with a magical sword, allowing the Dark One to resurrect him in a new body – Ishamael thus becoming Moridin. By the end of the book, Rand accepts that he is the reincarnation of Lews Therin Telamon, the previous Dragon (curiously, except as images and this title, dragons don’t exist in the world of The Wheel of Time).

The Shadow RisingThe Shadow Rising
The fourth volume sees a marked change in style for the series. Previously, the story was quite sharply focused on Rand, Mat and Perrin and some of the other major characters, and progressed at an entertaining pace – the characters, with the help of the Ways, were able to visit virtually all four corners of Randland. In the fourth book, the longest book in the series, the action slows down, becomes more focused on the intricacies of channelling, on intrigue, on history, on secondary characters, on styles of dresses, Tairen swearing, and mannerisms. Rand travels to the Aiel Waste, which, despite being a desert, sustains a huge population of Fremen-like desert warriors, and becomes their Chief of Chiefs.

The Fires of Heaven (Dutch)The Fires of Heaven
In this book, several important characters get killed. But then Rand kills their killer with balefire – his thread having thus been removed from the tapestry, the other characters’ deaths un-happen. I don’t remember much else about this book.

Lord of ChaosLord of Chaos
The one where Rand gets captured by Aes Sedai (rhymes with Jedi), is shielded from the True Source (which is subtly different from the One Power and very different from the True Power (which in WoT discussion is abbreviated as TP – which I’ve subsequently learnt is an American expression for toilet paper)) and he’s kept in a box for a large chunk of the story. The book’s climax is the brutal Battle of Dumai’s Well, where Rand is, unprecedentedly, able to break his shield, stilling (ie, removing the ability to channel from) at least one Aes Sedai in the process, and escape. The history of the world changes when Mazrim Taim, another male channeller and erstwhile False Dragon, says to the Aes Sedai at the battle’s conclusion, ‘Kneel. Kneel before the Lord Dragon, or you will be knelt.’ Over fifty viewpoint characters and many people’s favourite book in the series – I think I would number myself among them.

A Crown of SwordsA Crown of Swords
Something to do with Moridin, Shadar Logoth and Illian (the ruler of which nation (or is it Ebou Dar?) wears a crown of swords).

The Path of Daggers (Japanese - part four)The Path of Daggers
Something to do with the Seanchan and the Black Tower. Elayne and Aviendha use the Bowl of the Winds to fix the unnaturally long summer that the Dark One has inflicted upon the world.

Winter's Heart (Finnish - part two)Winter’s Heart
A key book in the series, culminating as it does with an epic fight between various good and bad guys at Shadar Logoth and with Rand and Nynaeve using the world’s hugest pair of sa’angreal to filter saidin through the non-Shai’tan-style evil of Shadar Logoth, destroying the dead city and cleansing the Dark One’s taint from the male half of the One Power. Also, the long summer has been replaced with a harsh winter. Also also, the artwork, by the widely – and mostly justifiedly – disliked Darrel K Sweet, took a turn for the worse: in the original cover picture, the characters are ugly to the point of being malformed, and, even though they’re clearly on the march, they appear static and posed – as with many of Sweet’s covers.

Crossroads of Twilight (German - part one)Crossroads of Twilight
The book in which nothing happens. Perrin chases after the Shaido Aiel who have captured his wife and some other characters – but doesn’t get round to rescuing them. Half of this volume takes place before the end of the previous book. Egwene, having been made the Amyrlin by the nice half of the split White Tower, gets captured by the nasty half for no particular reason. In the UK, Sweet’s cover artwork was abandoned in favour of a stylish, plain-ish wheel-and-serpent design.

Kinfe of Dreams (Italian)Knife of Dreams
Better than Crossroads of Twilight. The good guys capture Moghedien (or is it Semirhage?), but she escapes. Rand has his hand blown off, joining a long and noble list of one- or half-handed heroes: Thomas Covenant, Luke Skywalker, Ash (from Evil Dead 2, Jaime Lannister, Tyr, even Frodo gets his finger bitten off by Gollum.

Robert Jordan (one of various pen names of James Oliver Rigney, Jr) died in 2007 of amyloidosis. Harriet McDougal, Jordan’s wife and editor, later hired young fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson to complete The Wheel of Time based on the drafts and notes Jordan left behind (which included the story’s final scenes).

Harriet McDougal

Review of The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon SandersonThe Gathering Storm
After an understandably long hiatus, the story continued in this first posthumous book. Jordan’s original plan was for the twelfth book to be the last in the series (well, I remember reading that the real original plan was for The Wheel of Time to be a trilogy; that then became six books, which became twelve), but the planned volume, A Memory of Light would have been gigantic. Sanderson and McDougal decided to make it a three-volume book, but then just went for three separate books. I enjoyed TGS, mostly – it was better than the previous couple of books, inasmuch as lots of stuff actually happened. Although it had been a while since I’d read any of the preceding books, it seemed like the characters had suddenly adopted many more neologisms and Americanisms in their speech. Plot-wise, the Seanchan attacked the White Tower, allowing Egwene to kick arse and paving the way for the Tower’s reunification under her rule. Rand’s series-long angst came to a head with some weird soul-searching event on top of Dragonmount. Confusingly, many of the characters’ timelines were out of joint, leading me to think for a while that Tam al’Thor must have been a Darkfriend.

Towers of Midnight (UK paperback)Towers of Midnight
Not as good as The Gathering Storm. The main event is the rescue of Moiraine from Aelfinn or Eelfinn by Mat, Thom and Noal, an event which I – and many other WoT readers – had expected for so long that it was actually something of an anti-climax when it happened.

A Memory of Light (US)A Memory of Light
In many respects, the final volume in the series is one of the best. It is fast-paced, exciting, often brutal and occasionally heart-breaking, and it ties up pretty much all of the loose threads of the story. It is also, of course, not perfect.

Having been inching towards this point for two years in story time – over twenty years in the real world – Tarmon Gai’Don – the Last Battle – finally begins in earnest. The book is the story of this war on its various battle fronts. It starts of with a big meeting of almost all of Randland’s leaders (the exception being the Seanchan), where they choose their generals and overall commander – conventiently, this time period boasts five Great Captains – one of whom is dead – so the powers that be decide on four battlefronts – and the forces of Shadow seem happy with that. Everything goes pretty well for the first half or so of the book, making you think that it’s too easy, but then complications set in.

Almost all of the battle scenes are very well done – they’re tense and exciting and plenty of minor characters get mown down. There are a lot of them, though, so they get a bit repetitive. In a book that is all about an epic conflict between good and evil, there is something quite satisfying about all the fighting, though. Especially when it comes to a late chapter entitled ‘The Last Battle’. A Memory of Light is 900 pages long and contains 49 chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue; ‘The Last Battle’ is 200 pages long.

This chapter – which isn’t technically about the final battle in the war; the conflict at Shayol Ghul continues until almost the very end of the book – is perhaps the crowning achievement of this volume and of Sanderson’s involvement with the series. Not only does it contain the deaths of some important secondary characters, but one main character also dies. It wasn’t one of my favourites, but I still found it very moving. In hindsight, I think more characters could have bitten the dust in this chapter; two appear to die, but then you learn that they survived their injuries and were mysteriously not slaughtered while helpless by their enemies. Actually, all of those who did die were couples; I suppose Sanderson didn’t want anyone mourning the loss of a spouse after the end of the book.

Brandon Sanderson

The quid pro quo of all that fighting is that there is not much time for other stuff. Mat and Tuon’s relationship is given a fair amount of page time, as is Perrin’s ongoing struggle with Slayer, and the intrigue at the Black Tower is finally resolved. However, we don’t get a lot of time inside the heads of the bad guys – it would have been nice to have seen a bit more of Graendal up to her old tricks. Now that Moiraine is back, she seemed underused, and Padan Fain and Mashadar make a return but are dealt with in an eyeblink. Some of the more notable tertiary characters get a single viewpoint section – if they’re lucky.

The confrontation between Rand and the Dark One was a bit of a weird experience, consisting of back and forth visions of what might be. Because of time dilation effects, while Rand spends an hour or two fighting Shai’tan, days – even weeks – past in the south; this allows Sanderson to eke out this showdown throughout the latter part of the book. Which makes sense – it would have been weird for Rand to just disappear for a huge section of the story. Ultimately, this confrontation was a little disappointing; I feel that more could have been risked and lost by Rand as he did psychic battle with an evil god. The conclusion of the struggle made a lot of sense, though, and was satisfyingly clever.

The writing is pretty good. The jarring neologisms are still there, but there are not too many. Most of all, it’s very active – what with all the battling – with not much time for introspection. Viewpoint sections are pretty short, however, so you only generally spend four or five pages with one character before Sanderson whisks you away to another protagonist on another front. This generally works well, but there could have been a bit more variation. And there could have been a lot more detail. And more danger from excessive channelling – the cracks caused by balefire use were disappointingly little more than cosmetic. But then we’d have ended up with fifteen books … not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose.

And so one of modern fantasy’s major series ends – and ends well (certainly a hell of a lot better than The Malazan Book of the Fallen from a couple of years ago; I’m hoping for good things from the final Thomas Covenant book later this year). It’s had its ups and downs, but I feel happy that I’ve stuck with it all these years – and a little bit embarrassed that it took me so long to get around to reading this final instalment.

I started reading the books in my late teens, borrowing the early books from Shopping City Library (I got into them during a phase of reading the biggest books on the shelf). In a few years, I started buying up the paperbacks, and, in 2000, splashed out on my first hardback in the series – Winter’s Heart. I started university in 2002, and thus still had enough free time to re-read the whole series when a new book came out (which I’m pretty sure I did for the immensely disappointing Crossroads of Twilight in 2003). I haven’t re-read any of the book since then; I will read the whole series again someday.

Besides the initial attraction of a chunky book with a nice cover, what is the attraction of The Wheel of Time? I think in some respects, it’s that it’s a perfect example of what (to a young man) fantasy should be: naïve young heroes leaving the safety of their modest village to explore the world – to be the conduits for the reader’s vicarious exploration of that world – and coming to terms with strange people and beings, ancient powers, legends, prophecies, rubbing shoulders with monarchs and magic-users, soldiers, criminals and antagonists great and small, visiting distant lands – even other planes of existence – and growing, learning, stumbling, but ultimately triumphing.

The level of detail that went into the world is one of the series’s great selling points. Each nation has its own history and customs and its people their own characteristics and, yes, styles of dress and idiosyncrasies of speech. The weaving of fragments of real-world legends into the fabric of the fantasy world lends the story authenticity because those fragments resonate with the readers imagination and they also reinforce the notion that the world of the books is both the future and the past of our own world (hence The Wheel of Time).

The Wheel of Time Map

The magic system in the books was always one of my favourite aspects. Magic is partly a science and partly an art – and it takes years of careful training to perfect it. Misuse can be deadly. The idea of a magical education in a story has been rather devalued by the Harry Potter books, but the White Tower was incredibly well realised – part university, part all-women Vatican – full of oppressed novices, cutting edge but generally frowned-upon research and vicious inter- and intra-Ajah politics. And I always loved the Five Powers – how all magical effects could be achieved by the interweaving of various strands of Air, Water, Fire, Earth and Spirit.

In some ways, the meandering, intrigue-laden plot really added to the sense of a fully formed world surrounding the characters. Way back when, too, I was a fan of the WOTFAQ, a set of online documents detailing various theories about the mysteries of the storyline – the most famous of which was who killed Asmodean (and which Sanderson demystified in a bloody glossary entry in Towers of Midnight – although, to be fair, Jordan never regarded the mystery as a big deal, more something to annoy fans). Reading these enriched my understanding of what Jordan was crafting – but later, when many of the various prophecies came to be fulfilled, I also felt a certain deadening to the presumably intended surprise.

Another great thing about The Wheel of Time is the presentation – the typeface, the maps and especially the chapter icons. These stylised designs give the reader a clue as to the coming chapter’s content. Sometimes, there might be a Shadow-related icon for a chapter that doesn’t, on the face of it, contain an evil character – leading one to suspect a secret Darkfriend. I was a little disappointed at first with AMoL because there didn’t appear to be any new maps – and then one turned up later on (a map of the Field of Merrilor; there perhaps should have been one of Shayol Ghul, as well).

A Memory of Light Chapter 17

I’ve always maintained that Robert Jordan wasn’t too great a writer – especially given his loss of control of the plot towards the end of his life – but he really wasn’t that bad, either. As a writer from an older generation, I think his work has a lot more thought and gravitas than any of the younger generation of writers (such as the rather pedestrian and mistake-laden Joe Abercrombie, or the anachronistic expletive-laden Scott Lynch, or the just plain awful Patrick Rothfuss). His writing is not necessarily a thing of beauty, but he was a solid craftsmen (at least, up until CoT). Sanderson is also one of those younger, less able writers and I’m really in two minds as to whether I should read one of his own works.

Robert Jordan

I’ve read some of Brandon Sanderson’s comments on the future of the series and it apparently doesn’t have one. Jordan had been planning two more prequel novels and potentially sequel stories about the world after Tarmon Gai’Don. Sanderson won’t be writing any of these, he says – and that’s almost certainly a good thing. New Spring was pretty much surplus to requirements. However, there are some excised sections from AMoL about one of the Forsaken in a distant land that will be published in an anthology called Unfettered – I’d like to get hold of that. And then there’s a forthcoming encyclopedia of The Wheel of Time, so maybe we’re not quite done with the series yet.

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