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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.

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.

A couple of weeks ago was the Korean harvest festival called Chuseok – a three-day holiday that, this year, fell on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, thus creating a five-day weekend. In addition, my delayed summer holiday followed on immediately, giving me twelve consecutive days of non-work.

On Wednesday, I held a coffee morning here in Cheonan, which got a pretty good turn-out. I was given a late birthday present of some chocolate cake/pie, which was very tasty. Afterwards, three of us set out on a quest to locate a cat café in Cheonan – in which we eventually succeeded.

The following day, Chuseok Day itself, I headed up to Seoul and met a group of friends for a walk around Gyeongbokgung – the main royal palace. It was busier than I’d expected and pretty warm, but we had a good time looking at the fantastic architecture, posing for photos and browsing the exhibits in the Folk Museum. After that, we had food and drink in a Bukchon café and played card games. I’d told people I wanted to see a film in the evening, but that didn’t pan out; those of us still remaining had dinner at a cheap Korean restaurant in Insadong before heading home.

Gyeongbokgung

Actually, I headed to Zach’s home, as I’d invited another group of friends to a day of gaming in Sinsa on Friday. We only actually played two games. The first was a Burning Wheel one-shot run by Peter – which, somewhat surprisingly, turned out to actually be a one-shot which is to say, we finished it on the day).

Our disparate group of characters were supposed to retrieve an Elixir of Life from a dragon’s hoard to give to a dying princess. Most of us had ulterior motives. The game ended with the prince drinking the elixir himself (thus becoming immortal) and escaping with a magic sword of truth and killing one of the last surviving characters causing the victim to come back as a ghost and haunt him. Our cheer at this happy conclusion caused the coffee shop staff to ask us to be quiet. After dinner we played my game Islands of the Azure Sea, which I’d just updated. I’m starting to think a maximum of eight players is rather too many.

I had a wedding to go to on Saturday, then, on Sunday, I met Natasha – an Englishwoman I and my ex-girlfriend met while volunteering on a farm in Iceland, and who was visiting Korea for a couple of weeks – and Alisha a friend from the Tolkien reading group. We headed back to my place so Natasha could drop off her bag, and they peered at my cat in her hiding place. Then we went up to Sinbu-dong, the city centre area, and spent an hour at the cat café (which is called The Cat) that I’d previously located. Jocelyn joined us while we were there.

The café is divided into two areas, a larger area with the entrance and counter and so on, and then a smaller, but still reasonably big, area partitioned off with a large window running the length of one side and glass sliding doors on another side. Before going in here – which is where the cats hang out – you have to change your footwear for cheap rubber sandals and clean your hands with disinfectant, as well as putting your possessions in a locker.

The Cat Café

When I was there the first time, the owner told me he had eighteen cats. They include a Maine coon, a Scottish fold, an American curl, a sphynx or two, some oriental shorthairs, a couple of munchkins and others. The cats – apart from the munchkins – are all very friendly and seem quite happy. The Maine coon has its back shaved, for some reason, and one or two cats with long fur look like they could do with a bath – I’m not sure if their greasy fur indicates an illness or the fact that they get petted a lot by people with sweaty hands. There was one big cat – an Abyssinian, I think – that gave all of us a hug.

After the cat café, we went to the Arario Gallery – which I’d never been to in my ten months in Cheonan. I got Alisha and Jocelyn to pose next to a couple of Anthony Gormley sculptures. The current exhibition was by a Korean artist called CI Kim and included an interesting range of media, from found art washed up on a beach to big plastic triangles to paintings of children holding emotive signs.

Buddha Statue

We went for coffee downstairs in the Coffee Bean. Jocelyn left us, but Eve joined us, and after a bit we met Mike and Tera and their friend Brandon for a trip to Taejosan, a nearby mountain, home to Gakwonsa, a Buddhist temple with a big Buddha sculpture. After looking around the temple, we had dinner at a vegetarian buffet restaurant. Then we (minus Alisha, who had to return home) headed back to Mike and Tera’s for a game of Cards Against Humanity.

On Monday, Natasha and I started carrying out our plan to head down to Busan and see some of the south coast. We got to the KTX station in Cheonan nice and early and therefore arrived in Busan nice and early. We hadn’t identified anywhere specific to stay, but we decided on Haeundae because there are plenty of hotels, motels and suchlike around there. Our plan was to ask at a few places and see what was reasonable in terms of price. In the event, we checked out a small pension first and at ₩50,000 for a room for the two of us it seemed OK and our search came to an end. We probably could have found some where nicer, but it was par for the course for Korean pensions.

Mermaid Statue

We walked up an down the beach. It was sunny and breezy and a big embankment of sand had been built for the forthcoming Busan International Film Festival festivities. The purpose of this wall, we could only guess at. We had a burger for lunch at a fancy-ish burger place – best burger ever, according to Natasha – then walked around the coast towards Gwangan. We took pictures of the mermaid statue and the fourteenth century (or earlier) Hae Un Dae carving in the rock, walked around the APEC conference building, craned our necks at the blue skyscrapers and tried to find the Busan Museum of Art. When we finally located it, it was closed – it was Monday. We had a coffee at a Twosome Place (no, really – it’s one of the many coffee shop chains in Korea) and played cards.

APEC House and Gwangan Bridge

Then we took the subway and walked to Busan Museum – also closed. So we walked up the hill to the Cultural Centre, finding a friendly cat on the way. Natasha marvelled at the chandeliers in the concert hall lobby and we watched some musicians have their photo taken on the plaza outside. We went back to Gwangalli and had seafood for dinner, watched the lights on the bridge and a lightshow projected on the rain from a jet of water.

Gwangalli Beach

The next morning, we spent an hour on the subway to the Intercity Bus Terminal, an hour on a coach to Gohyeon – the main city, it seems, on Geoje Island – then well over an hour on a bus out to Haegeumgang. Actually, the driver dropped us off at a nearby village – even though the route information said the bus terminated a Haegeumgang – and we had to wait for another bus for another ten minute ride.

As we hadn’t really researched exactly where we wanted to go, I asked a ticket clerk at the bus station in Gohyeon what was a good beach to visit and she recommended Haegeumgang and told us which bus to take. Haegeumgang is a picturesque, rocky island and it has no beach – so I may have used a word that translates more accurately as ‘coast’. We didn’t take a ferry around the island, but, after a lunch of more seafood, we walked up a nearby hill to a view platform with great views in most directions. When I tried to reach the actually summit, I found it to be closed with a padlocked, barbed wire-encircled door.

Haegeumgang

After missing two buses, we took a taxi back to Gohyeon (₩17,000) and a coach back to Busan, then subwayed to the Museum of Art – which was open. The museum was pretty massive, but its spaciousness made it seem like there wasn’t that much stuff in it. We wandered around all the galleries, admiring, in particular, a collection of works about Korean-Japanese relations, such as the painting of two dogs biting each other, a series of woodcuts telling the story of a Japanese-run mine and a huge mural of corpses and Buddha statues based on the Gwangju massacre.

We headed back to the pension for a shower, had dinner at the burger place and met Jessica for an all too brief chat.

The next day, we headed back to the Bus Terminal, with all our bags this time, and caught a coach to Suncheon. Once we’d checked in to a hotel – Hotel BMW, ₩35,000 for a room – we caught a bus out to Suncheon Bay Ecological Park – the site of Korea’s biggest wetland.

Suncheon Bay Ecological Park

We dutifully walked around the museum first, reading and forgetting various bits of information about wetlands, then looked for something to eat in the ‘cafeteria’ and the ‘convenience store’. Rather inconveniently, as we were both hungry, they had nothing more than small pastries and crisps. After eating a packet of crisps each (actually, mine was a dried tofu snack), we started walking through the wetlands on jetty-like walkways, taking pictures of the massive fields of reeds and the occasional heron, crab and bunch of mudskippers.

Suncheon Bay Ecological Park 2

On the far side of the reed fields, we walked up the familiarly named Yongsan, a forested hill with an observation platform looking out over the bay. I took lots of photos of the view, including distant hills and islands and the circular reed beds on the coast. Natasha was particularly taken with the maroon-ish colour of some of the vegetation.

After a convenience store lunch and a brief encounter with a couple of Mormon girls (one Korean, one from Salt Lake City), we headed back into town and then out again to Seonamsa on another pretty long bus ride. We walked around this Buddhist temple at dusk as the monks were performing some sort of ceremony. This began with monks taking turns to perform epic drum solos on a giant drum in the entrance building (on the ground floor of which was a shop, the attendant of which harassed Natasha as she looked around). Then the monks gathered in one of the halls for chanting and praying. It was nice and peaceful; there were a few other tourists around, but not many.

Buddhist Drumming

The following day – Thursday – was our last day together and we decided to check out Yeosu Expo – the site of a world exposition last year. I was a little confused about what was going on there because there was also a garden expo in the area, but that turned out to be in Suncheon. Yeosu is close to Suncheon, but is a separate town. Yeosu Expo is also a terminus of a KTX line, so it seemed like a good place to head back home from.

Yeosu Expo

Unfortunately, there was really nothing going on at Yeosu Expo – there was some sort of ‘character festival’ for kindergarteners and the nearby aquarium seemed to be open for business. Most of the exhibition halls were closed and empty and the whole place seemed a bit sad and dilapidated for something that is only a year old. We had a strange French toast-croque-monsieur thing and a drink in a café on the site and played some cards then caught our train home. It was a regular train rather than KTX – four hours to Cheonan, five to Seoul – as it was at the most convenient time.

It was great to spend time with Natasha and quite satisfying to use my minimal expertise to show her around. It was also good to finally have my summer week off work, even though it was a pretty tiring round of early starts and long bus and train rides. It was also a little weird to consider that Natasha is a link to my ex-girlfriend and that our lives are pretty close, but completely divorced from each other. But it’s only loneliness that makes me dwell on this, I suppose. But Natasha was great company – it was lovely to spend time with someone as good-natured as her; her being British was a bonus, too.

Natasha and Sean

Although there was lots of moving around, this short, concentrated burst of travelling works quite well, I think. Busan is a great place to spend a couple of days on holiday, and there are lots of places on the south coast that would be worth exploring; the little that we saw was very pleasant – even Yeosu Expo had a certain charm. The experience makes me want to explore more of the country – just not necessarily by myself.

Metallica, at last

It happened a while ago, but I am finally getting around to blogging about my trip up to Seoul to attend the second day of the Hyundai City Break Festival. I was pretty excited about this when I heard about it because the love of my life, Metallica, were to headline the second day – and I’d never seen them live before. It seemed like the perfect opportunity. It was a little frustrating that it took a long time for single-day passes to become available (at the price of ₩165,000 – a bit less than £100; two-day passes were ₩250,000), but become available they did, and I bought one. None of my closer friends were attending, but I made plans to hook up with a couple of Englishpersons I’d met once (separately).

Getting a coach up to Nambu Terminal was easy enough. Finding somewhere to stay in the area nearby where there are a lot of motels was a little less straightforward. The first place I went to seemed a bit pricy at ₩50,000 for a night, but I walked around and asked in other places and it turned out to be the cheapest, so that’s where I stayed. I tried to take my room key with me when I left for the festival, but the desk ajumma wouldn’t have it, so I had to go back up to my room and retrieve the gigantic fob that activated the electrics and which I’d removed.

Wearing my Metallica T-shirt, I passed the touts near the entrance to Sports Complex subway station and headed towards one of the stadiums (stadia?). I queued up at one desk to get a little packet of stuff, and then at another for my pass. Well, there weren’t many people, so there wasn’t any actual queuing involved. Then I went in.

I took a look at the main stage (or Super Stage) first. It was in the stadium proper; a very loud, noisy metal band – Apollo 18 – were bashing out some loud, noisy noise. A field next to the stadium hosted the second stage (the Culture Stage); there were also places selling food and drink here. A smaller area closer to the entrance that might have been a car park held the third stage (the Music Stage); there were more food and drink places here. There were hundreds of dragonflies buzzing about anywhere there was grass.

And it was at the Music Stage that I saw one of my favourite bands of the day – not that I’d ever heard of them before – Southway – who are a British-Korean duo who play upbeat electro-rock. The guy and the girl were both very enthusiastic and always smiling – even though there were only a couple of dozen people watching them. It was lunchtime. They had a drummer, and for their finale, they both took to playing their own drums, which were set up next to them.

Southway

Then I met Fip – a friend of a friend down in Daegu. We got some food together (I’d figured out earlier that you couldn’t pay for the food with actual money – you had to use a traffic card, which you could buy and charge up at a couple of places near the food and drink stalls). We chatted and wandered around. Listened to a bit of Spyair – a poppy Japanese rock band – and a bit more of Rocket from the Crypt – an old punky alternative band who have a great song called ‘Hanging on a Rope’.

Rocket from the Crypt

Then it was time to meet Alex – a chap I’d met on a subway train with a bunch of other people who were with another acquaintance. Alex was with a few other people and together we watched Japandroids – a Canadian indie rock duo who looked like a couple of guys who had walked in off the street and decided to play the guitar and drums. Their song-writing skills were at a significantly lower level than that.

I went for a wander round and listened to Kim Chang-wan Band for a bit before heading back to meet the others for Ash. When I got there, Alex and his friends were talking to the two Japandroids; I didn’t interfere. Ash were OK. I don’t like their music at all, mainly because the singer has such weak, bored-sounding voice, but he showed a little more animation here and I warmed to them a tiny bit.

Ash

We had some food and briefly checked out a couple of the other acts – an old Korean funk-rock guitarist with long, white hair, Shin Jung-hyun, and the utterly generic American heavy rock band Rise Against.

Then we started waiting for Metallica.

Alex and his main friend had gone to camp out earlier, so we edged through people seated outside the moshpit area to rendezvous with them. We chatted for a bit and waited and sipped our water and waited as the crowds grew around us.

Metallica were supposed to have been on at nine o’clock. It was closer to nine-thirty when a clip of Eli Wallach wandering through a graveyard in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly started showing on the screens to the sound of Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ – Metallica’s intro music. After a few false starts caused by roadies adjusting things on the set, the crowd was pretty excited and everyone surged forwards a couple of steps. A volley of open and partly full water bottles rose into the air.

Finally, they were on stage and playing ‘Hit the Lights’ – the chorus of which got everyone jumping. There wasn’t too much banter as the show progressed – just song after song. Most of the set was older songs – giving people what they want, I guess. There were only two post-Black Album songs: ‘The Memory Remains’ and ‘Cyanide’ – played back to back. The end of ‘The Memory Remains’ was one of the highlights, actually; the audience took to singing the Marianne Faithful ‘na na-na na …’ part at the end … endlessly. The band stopped playing and just listened to the audience singing for a minute. And then abruptly launched into ‘Cyanide’. I imagine that happens every time they play that song.

Rob Trujillo

Another highlight was at the end of ‘Nothing Else Matters’. Most of the band had left the stage, leaving James Hetfield picking the melancholy E-minor arpeggio/riff. (The band did this a lot, disappearing from the stage while one person played alone, until, almost without transition, they were all back performing.) He fell to his knees facing away from the audience; the big screens zoomed in on his picking hand and he showed one side of his plectrum – it bore a Pushead skull logo – then he turned it around, displaying the classic Metallica logo – to a big cheer from the audience. An even bigger cheer followed when he started playing ‘Enter Sandman’.

James Hetfield

‘Enter Sandman’ was the last song in their main set, but after about ten minutes of the audience shouting for an encore, they came back to do three more songs. During this lull, Fip went home, fearing not being able to catch the subway; we’d lost the others earlier on as we inched forwards through the crowd. After the encore, it was over and I walked half of the way back to Nambu Terminal before realising it was quite a long way; then I caught a taxi.

I was tired, but satisfied: I’d finally seen Metallica live. The concert itself was pretty exhausting for the audience. Fip and I ended up pretty close to the front on the left hand side of the stage (as you looked at it). I’d brought a 500 ml bottle of water with me to the wait; I tried to ration it, but eventually it ran out and I crushed it under foot. Once the concert got going, it was hot and stuffy in the press of bodies. My view wasn’t amazing, but much better than thousands of other people. Some way into the performace, staff started handing out bottles of water, which people took a swig from and passed around (I developed a bit of a cold in the following week, possibly because of that). I saw one girl get lifted awkwardly over the barrier just in front of me.

Metallica gave a very polished performance. Their musicianship was as fantastic as you would expect from a 30-year-old band. There was a sense that this was just another performance for them, a late stop on a long round of touring. Hetfield, in one of his addresses to the audience, made a brief allusion to being late on stage, but no explanation was given. At the end of the concert, they spent a good few minutes walking along the stage, waving to people and throwing out picks (Lars Ulrich threw away some drum sticks). A barrage of big, black balloons was released. I didn’t get any goodies, unfortunately.

Metallica

So, it was a good day and a good Metallica performance. Not exactly life-changing, but I’m too old for that kind of stuff, anyway. I’m glad I did it, but I won’t be rushing to repeat the experience. Several years will pass before I’m likely to have the chance to see Metallica again. Apart from that, it was good to hang out with Fip and Alex and the others, and the early band, Southway, were surprisingly good – and I would consider seeing them again, which is a possibility as they seem to be based in Korea for the time being.

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.

Tedin Water Park

Today, instead of working from two to nine-thirty, I got up early and joined the majority of my students on a trip to a water park near Cheonan. I arrived at the meeting point at a nearby bus stop and found no one there. So I waited a bit and some of the kids walked past, so I followed them to the big red coach that was waiting a few metres away.

The bus was far too big for our needs. It could have seated the better part of fifty passengers, but had about two dozen people including the boss, the Korean teacher and me. The drive took less than half an hour.

Once at Tedin Water Park, we lined up for a bit – well, the kids did; I hung about to one side – and a member of staff gave everyone a device that looked like a young girl’s watch. It was the locker ‘key’. Inside, we deposited our footwear in a small locker, then entered the changing rooms. As there was a gaggle of children – not all of them ours, it seemed – in front of my main locker I decided to just sit and wait.

Eventually, I was changed and had covered myself in sunscreen and was ready to go outside. We were all given life jackets; I didn’t put mine on, but eventually relented and wore it. Many of the kids – and visitors – seemed overdressed. Most people seemed to wear at least a T-shirt in addition to their swimming costume – perhaps a lightweight hoodie, too. There were a few young women who walked around in bikinis only, but their dryness and lack of life jackets indicated that they had no interest in going into the water.

Tedin Waterpark

I felt kind of miserable for the first part of the morning. There were too many people and I felt like a fish out of water, not really knowing what to do. I went off by myself for a bit and found a quiet area to look over the park. Then I decided I should get over it and decided to find some of our children.

I was rescued from my funk by some of the elementary school girls, who grabbed me and pulled me to this feature that consisted of a channel that looped around much of the outer part of the facility. There were hundreds of big inflatable rings being used or floating freely. Close to the entrance, there was a section where huge gush of water thundered into the channel and propelled everyone forwards a few metres.

I wasn’t allowed entry at first because I didn’t have a hat, but one of the girls gave me hers and she put up her hood. Like the life jackets, it seemed like a strange, overly protective measure, but the thousands of people who must pass through every day are probably capable of shedding a fair amount of hair.

Tedin Waterpark 2

It turned out to be quite fun. The girls escorted me to a big wave pool, which wasn’t quite as exciting, but at least afforded a tiny bit more space in which to actually swim a few metres. There was a big ride called the Tsunami, but it seemed to have a really long queue, so no one wanted to go on that (the elementary kids were probably too young, anyway). We did go one slide. The chute was covered so you shot down in complete blackness apart from the start and the end. The joins in the chute bumped my shoulder blades in an almost painful way.

Lunch was bizarrely early at about 11:10. We seemed to have an assigned time as well as assigned seating in a cafeteria that was separate from the food court. The food was a bit prison-ish: a white plastic tray with modest amounts of rice, bulgogi, kimchi and (for some reason) corn, plus a bowl of watery but tasty soup with those beige spongy things that I’m not sure I know the name for. It wasn’t exactly filling, but I suppose swimming on a full stomach is not so pleasant.

At lunch, my boss let me know that she wanted me to make a decision about whether I would sign on for another year or leave in November by Monday.

The afternoon progressed much as the morning had – except that there were twice as many people. I retrieved my own hat from my locker (and reapplied sunblock). As the younger kids couldn’t go into the deeper parts of the wave pool, I kept losing them when I came out. If I’d stuck with them, I might have had more fun, or at least kept busy, but whenever I was on my own I was at a loose end.

Eventually, I decided I’d had enough and went and showered and changed. I noticed in the mirror that I was a little pink where my skin had been exposed to the sun. The backs of my feet and hands and arms had a very mild sting of sunburn, but they seem OK now. I came back out into the water park area wearing my jeans, T-shirt and backpack, but barefoot. I was about in time to meet up with everyone as they got ready to leave.

So the day wasn’t terrible – I had some fun and the kids certainly seemed to enjoy themselves (all but one older boy who told me towards the end that he was angry because he’d been given responsibility for looking after the youngsters). I’d never been to one of these places before. It hadn’t really been a priority. I’m not sure that I’d ever want to return to a water park – not unless it was on a weekday outside of holiday season and I was with someone who would encourage my playful side.

The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the WorldsThis is the third in Robert Rankin’s steampunk trilogy (the fourth and fifth books of which will be published later this year and next year) featuring Darwin, the talking monkey butler – upgraded to eponymity for this volume (although the conflation of apes and monkeys is quite annoying). As with The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age, the detective Cameron Bell is, in truth, the main character.

The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds expands on the universe developed in the other two books. Ernest Rutherford joins Tesla and Babbage as minor characters, but his creation of a time machine has a profound effect on the story (it also turns out that he has created a Large Hadron Collider under London – during the day it is disguised as the Circle Line). The narrative takes Bell to Mars, where he meets Princess Pamela – Victoria’s secret twin sister and spare queen.

Pamela is just one of several strong female characters – one of the best developments in Rankin’s writing in these most recent books. There are two good girls and two bad girls, most of whom have interesting stories, but not much page time as viewpoint characters (if any).

As I tend to expect from Rankin, this book is very entertaining – especially in the first two-thirds; it started to drag a tiny bit towards the end – it’s full of silliness and strange covolutions of plot; it has some heart-warming moments and some tragedy; overall, it’s not too challenging, but it is a lot of fun.