Europe travel · Travel

London travel- British Museum and Parliament


Two grand British institutions are the British Museum and Parliament at Westminster. The former has been home to artifacts and works of arts since the mid-18th century, the latter has been the site of parliamentary governance since the 13th century.

Whenever I visit major cities, whether it be Cape Town or Hanoi or Xian or Tokyo, history museums are always near the top of my list of places to visit. Obviously in London, the British Museum was a must-visit and it didn’t disappoint. The only thing I regret was not being able to spend more time. There are splendid displays of ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Greek artifacts, as well as sub-Saharan African collection. The huge, central atrium or Great Court features a circular reading room (closed to the public) in the middle, several statues including a giant lion from the 2nd century BC, and a nice, overhead ceiling with an interlacing or tessellated design. The exterior of the museum is a grand but somewhat dowdy gray facade with multiple columns.

Besides the sheer quantity of the collections, it was impressive to be able to view giant pieces such as ancient Egyptian pharaonic statues and tombs and Assyrian lion statues up close. The Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens, were in an entire hall. In the African section, there were entire walls of weapons, colorful cloths and the fascinating Benin Bronzes. These were produced by the kingdom of Benin which was situated in Nigeria (the country of Benin is named after this kingdom but was not where it was located).

I managed to see some of the most famous pieces like the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, as well as Benin bronzes, from Nigeria. Incidentally all of these are claimed by their country of origin, which raises the point that many of the items in the museum, such as many Greek and Egyptian artifacts, were taken or bought from other countries, sometimes through surreptitious means. The Louvre in Paris is similar, with many of its famous exhibits hailing from other places.
Meanwhile, the British exhibits were alright, but not particularly memorable other than some Roman-era artifacts. I had hoped there might have been exhibits from the British Empire from the Commonwealth countries such as India and Pakistan, but then that is probably unrealistic because it would be like glorifying the empire.

Ideally many of the items should be returned to their countries if they had been illegally bought or taken. On the other hand, there is no certainty that they would be displayed and maintained in such secure and pristine environments in their home countries as those at the British Museum. Also, the best archaeological techniques and knowledge of the day, when these artifacts were obtained, belonged Western explorers and archaeologists, though of course, they honed this from roaming around the world and obtaining other cultures’ artifacts. While a bit self-serving, the availability of these pieces all in one place in the British Museum allows visitors to enjoy and appreciate the history and past civilizations of almost the whole world.

Short of returning all their exhibits, which would be unrealistic, institutions like the British Museum and their governments should provide more funding to countries from where they got the exhibits from, to help them with their local museums, historical research and archaeological efforts and so on.



Lying on the north bank of the Thames River, the British Parliamentary building or Palace Of Westminster houses both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It is easily recognized, with its gray Gothic features, multitude of windows and spires and the Big Ben clock atop Elizabeth Tower on its flank, though its tallest point is Victoria Tower at its southwestern corner. Alongside the building is an impressive black statue of Richard I, the Lionheart, atop a horse with sword in the air. There is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, who helped defeat royalist forces in the 17th century and then ruled England as Lord Protector. There were armed policemen on the grounds, befitting the site of the nation’s parliament, though unfortunately this didn’t prevent a terrorist from running over dozens and killing several people, including a policeman, there earlier this year.

But Westminster Palace isn’t the only attraction in the area. Around it are several impressive old buildings such as Westminster Abbey, where the coronations of British monarchs have been held since 1066, St Margaret’s church, the Sanctuary, and Methodist Central Hall. Meanwhile, to get a good view of the Westminster Palace from the river, we walked down along the riverbank to a park and then onto Lambeth Bridge. For some reason, there was even a small rally opposite the parliament building on Myanmar’s upcoming election urging people to vote NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi and which ended up winning over 80% of contested seats in that election.



Westminster Abbey

The Sanctuary, located next to Westminster Abbey
  

More British Museum photos
  
The Rosetta Stone, from Egypt
     
Close-up of the Benin Bronzes

Books

NW- book review

A woman in apparent distress desperately knocks on the doors of homes in a northwestern London neighborhood. Leah Cooper opens the door, then thinks nothing of helping the wretched woman by letting her in, hearing her out, and then giving her 30 pounds so she can take a cab to the hospital to see her sick mother. Afterwards, it turns out the woman is a liar and Leah has been scammed. And with this dramatic and bewildering episode, NW begins, taking us into the lives of several northwest Londoners.

Leah is an NGO staffer with an outspoken Irish mother and a African-French husband; her best friend Natalie, formerly Keisha, is an ambitious lawyer; and then Felix is a former addict who has been through some tough times but is trying to put that behind him. Connecting them all is their origin from the same working-class NW London neighborhood in a rough part of London, where public housing estates of blocks have walkways and “lifts that were to be avoided almost as soon as they were built.” Not surprisingly, they have all tried to escape their working-class roots with Natalie/Keisha being the most successful at first glance. Married to a charming but vain Trinidadian-Italian banker with two children with a nice house and a successful career, she has it all or at least it seems so.

NW is divided into several sections, each written in a different style and focusing on a different character. It is confusing and I wasn’t too comfortable with the obvious inconsistencies and disjointed effect when you go from one part to another. One entire section consists of 185 (not a typo) numbered segments, each one a bit of Natalie/Keisha’s past and which lead up to a surprising finale. Meanwhile, the most interesting section has a tragic conclusion that is linked to another section in something that, to me, is not very clear.

The book’s complexity and inconsistent tone mirrors real life, while providing a stirring reminder that even supposedly ordinary lives are interesting if one dives into the details and background. Things do not always work out as you would hope, the past is not always easily put behind oneself, and sometimes life is unfair. These aren’t exactly mysteries but NW puts a human face on them. Race, class and where one grows up all matter, and Smith portrays these in an intimate and pained manner through the characters’ struggles and clashes. But, I don’t think I can agree with the underlying notion that people cannot escape their past regardless of how hard they try. If that is indeed true, then society is even more bleak than what we . At the same time, the book is entirely set in London so some of the circumstances are inevitably unique to London and English society and not applicable to everywhere.

It may not be to everyone’s liking but NW is certainly a memorable novel.

Europe travel · Travel

England travel- London calling

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The first country I went to on my first trip to Europe last year was the UK and the first city, London. This was by choice, because the UK is a country I greatly admire and have always lived under, despite never having been there before. I was born in Hong Kong when it was a British colony, grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, an English-speaking Caribbean nation and a former British colony, and I went to university in another former British colony. There were several aspects of British culture like the language, Premier League football, cricket, and literature that I was familiar with.

Flying into London via Dubai from Taipei, my mother and I had an uneventful entry at Heathrow and took the subway or Tube straight to our hotel. While that sounds convenient, the journey traveled through over 15 stations though it was a nice way to ease into London, seeing houses with gardens and overpass walls marked with graffiti, both sights that are unusual in East Asia.

The next day, we started with Sky Garden, which is not a garden but a free observatory hall located at the top of a tower in the financial district. From the hall, you can walk around and enjoy a 360-degree view of London and see famous landmarks like the Gherkin, Tower and London bridges across the Thames below. The hall is huge and over two stories high, with bars and restaurants. The large front glass panel is covered with steel bars which does interfere with the view, while you walk up the stairs at the side to look at the rear windows. It was raining slightly, typical stereotypical British weather, which marred the view but since it was free, there was no harm.
The building has an unremarkable official name – 20 Fenchurch Street – but it is nicknamed the Walkie Talkie and for good reason. From below, the tower curves gently outward at the front and back as it gets higher and has a rounded roof.
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The next stop was the famous Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, where so much history, much of it unsavory such as executions and imprisonments, occurred. Unfortunately we did not actually view this history because we were in a rush and in a frugal mood. We walked across the Thames on the famous bridge, which is sometimes confused for London Bridge but is more attractive, to the other end and strolled along the riverbank where further ahead the World War II cruiser HMS Belfast, which serves as a floating museum, was moored. The view across the Thames was a fine combination of the old Tower of London fortress with the gleaming Sky Garden and Gherkin towers looming in the back. To be honest, while these are ultramodern buildings, their modest height and weird appearances (the Gherkin in particular has an obscene resemblance if you know what I mean) make the London skyline seem underwhelming, especially compared to East Asian cities. But otherwise, that was the only real complaint I had about what seemed to me a fascinating old city, having existed since Roman rule, which seemed to preserve its many historic structures and illustrious past with modern times so well.
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The Shard on the left, and the “Walkie Talkie,” or Sky Garden tower, at right, look onto the Thames.

From there, it was on to another of London’s countless famous attractions, St Paul’s Cathedral. Again we didn’t go inside, but just walking around the massive church, the first of several grand cathedrals I’d see during the trip, was enough to appreciate its grandeur and size, topped by a giant dome. More memorable than the cathedral was getting lunch at a French bakery inside a courtyard at the side, where the French cashier misunderstood the amount I gave him when I paid (to get exact change) and sniffed audibly. Incredibly, that would be the only rudeness I experienced from a French service person during the entire trip, which included 8 days in France itself.
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The next place was Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. The square, named after the famous 19th century naval victory over a French fleet, is a vast open space that features the National Gallery on one side, two fountains, and the 51-m tall Nelson’s Column, atop which is perched a statue of the famous admiral who won the Battle of Trafalgar but paid with his life. Across the street are the embassies of several Commonwealth countries like South Africa, Jamaica, Malaysia and Canada, though not Trinidad. The square was lively, with hordes of visitors and street performers including a bagpiper playing the Game of Thrones soundtrack.

The National Gallery was impressive, more so given it was free. Though I would see even better art galleries later on during my trip but at that moment, I enjoyed the National Gallery’s works of art from English and European masters, including Vincent van Gogh, and as someone who wasn’t exactly an arts enthusiast, it helped me appreciate paintings a lot more.

After leaving the gallery, we walked a few streets north to Chinatown, passing by the theatre district. As Chinatowns go, it isn’t too big and had several pedestrian lanes filled with typical Chinese restaurants and a few bars. It did have a large Chinese arched “paifang” gate on one street. We had dinner at a well-known restaurant and that was that for the first full day in London.
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The Tower of London fortress
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Old and the new
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Looking down at the HMS Belfast, a floating military museum, from the Sky Garden
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It was drizzling when we were in the Sky Garden, then the skies cleared up when we walked along the Thames.
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This guys seem to be levitating though it’s more likely the pipe structure provides some kind of support.
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Two of the many masterpieces inside the National Gallery – the rape of the Sabine women by the Romans, above, a historical event when the Romans invited a neighboring tribe, the Sabine, to a feast and then proceeded to kidnap their women, and, below, one of several Venice paintings that I really liked

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Books · Travel

You are awful (but I like you)- book review

Judging from just the title, You Are Awful (But I Like You) might sound like a twisted love story, but it is actually a travel book about the author’s native Britain. One could say the title is an example of dry British wit, but actually there is nothing ironic about it because the author Tim Moore really decided to take his patriotism to the limit by visiting the most depressing, rundown and unloved places in his country. The book’s subtitle is Travels through Unloved Britain which clears things up more. It’s a travel book, not about magnificent cities, beautiful scenery and cheerful people, but the complete opposite.

This book itself is full of dry, sardonic humor, with almost every paragraph dripping with it. It was kind of tough to get through in the beginning, but after a while I started getting used to it. Mind you, there is very little genuine joy in the places Moore goes to, which include the likes of Hull, Skegness and Barrow. If anything, a lot of them don’t exactly repudiate their reputation, which Moore gleamed from online “most boring” lists and articles. As if going to rundown cities and decaying beach resorts weren’t enough, Moore compounds this by staying at the dingiest and shabbiest hotels and inns, which he deliberately finds by trawling Tripadvisor and similar sites. Moore picks apart the cities and towns, both for their general decline and for the ugly town center structures and car park monstrosities that were put up during the seventies. And he visited all of them while driving an Austin Maestro, an early 80s British car which he describes as “a very British tale of delusion, sloth, incompetence and on-the-cheap botch-jobbery.”

Rather than be depressing, somehow the book becomes interesting and a few of these cities, despite their utter lack of anything remotely attractive, as Moore points out at every opportunity, still manage to seem decent to read about, if not visit. It’s not all ridicule and snark, as Moore does provide some history about these places, some of whom like Middlesbrough, were actually important and booming cities that played important roles during the Industrial Revolution. Modernization, such as the replacement of coal by oil as the main means of powering ships, and the decline of fishing, steel and shipbuilding industries, hastened by the Thatcher years, also played a part. In the end, Moore laments the shoddiness of these fallen cities, not just for their grim fates, but for their testament to a different Britain that was proud and full of confidence, even if it meant building crap town centers.

The book is a weird combination of a travelogue, albeit the most depressing one ever published, and a history book about the decline of a nation*, comes out better than it sounds.

* Don’t get me wrong, I think the UK is still a pretty good country, those are the author’s own views.

Books

Kingdom- book review

I’m a big fan of historical novels and of Robyn Young, one of the top writers in this genre who wrote a great trilogy about the Templars and the Crusades. Kingdom is the final book in Young’s trilogy about Scottish nobleman Robert Bruce and his fight to become the king and win independence from the English.

While Robert Bruce is famous not just for his victories and ascension to Scotland’s throne, he is also well-known for his many failures against the English. In Kingdom, newly-crowned Bruce has embarked on another uprising against the English but suffers defeat after defeat, forcing him to retreat to the isles off Western Scotland and putting him into a precarious position. Meanwhile, the fearsome but ailing elderly English king Edward I, or Longshanks, having seen off William Wallace (the hero in the 1995 epic movie Braveheart) by capturing, hanging and quartering him, mounts one final campaign to eradicate Bruce and bring Scotland into England’s grasp once and for all. The English are beset by bickering nobles and a gay scandal involving the prince (people will have also seen this played out in Braveheart). The story concludes with the Battle of Bannockburn where Robert Bruce fulfills his destiny.

The novel does not include the popular legend attributed to Bruce of how after suffering his seventh defeat, he was in a cave and saw a spider trying to spin a web, only to fail again and again until it succeeded on its eight try, which then inspired Bruce to mount one final battle against the English which he won. Instead, Young replaces this with the inclusion of a female wizard and her “web of destiny” for Bruce. In addition, there is also a fictional plot about the English king Edward I exploiting the legend of King Arthur and a prophecy to try to “unite” Britain, including creating his own version of the Knights of the Round Table to induce elite British knights to carry out Edward’s vision.

Despite being full of battles and sieges, the novel relies less on action than on recreating the historical drama, intrigue and urgency of Bruce’s desperate campaign, whilst including a strong element of myths like the wizard and the prophecy. Bruce encounters so many setbacks and defeats, including the destruction of his army in an ambush and the capture of his brothers and family by the English, whilst continuously being pursued by superior forces that at times it seems that he will never win. The doggedness of Bruce in attempting to achieve victory is almost as big a part of the story as the fighting.

As this is the third novel of the trilogy, Young uses lengthy recollections by the characters to bring newer readers up to date on events, which proves very useful and not distracting.

Kingdom proves to be a stirring story that blends history, drama and action to create a deeply satisfying read and a fitting conclusion.

Travel

Overview of a first-time Europe trip

For many years, I often had to say to people when talking about travelling, “I’ve never been to Europe.” Well, I no longer need to say that because I finally did go to Europe.

Specifically, I went to the UK, France, Italy, and Germany in October. My destinations were mostly cities – London, Paris, Rome, Milan, Berlin – since those are among the most famous places in Europe, plus I like cities, not to mention my lack of familiarity with Europe and my wonky foot meant I couldn’t really do any hiking. I stayed a few full days each in most of the cities so it was not one of those whirlwind, 10-day, 8-city kind of trip. Actually the trip was a little over 3 weeks but it did feel too short. Originally I was planning a shorter and less ambitious trip but then my mother asked to come along (we went to London and Paris, then she went back first) so I extended it and decided to go to Italy.

It was a real eye-opener and I left with a positive impression, that Europe, or at least those countries I went to, despite all the news about struggling economies and old societies, is still very much a beautiful, modern and advanced continent. It was easy to see and feel the history all around, especially in cities like Paris and Rome, which was integrated with modernity in a way that was charming and different from cities in China or Taiwan. The sights were beautiful, the food was great, people were courteous in general, the service was good, despite expectations about supposed French haughtiness which were proven wrong. On the other hand, what was not so charming was the lack of toilets in places like the Louvre or the old subway in Rome. I also had strong concerns about pickpocketers and scammers, which I read a lot of worrying accounts about. I had a few encounters with the latter, but luckily I was unscathed. I should also say it was good to have gone to Paris before the terrorist attack last week, as some things may never be the same security-wise in the short term, with even other countries like Belgium affected.

In short, I found Paris to be the most beautiful city, Rome the most historic and impressive, and London the most modern. Germany was good though I was a little disappointed by certain aspects of society (surly service staff, people walking into you etc). However, I liked each country I went to, and could have easily spent more time in each of them.

I may have missed out on Spain, and Northern and Eastern Europe, but hopefully I will get there another time.

The itinerary
I started off in London, where we stayed for a few days and did a daytrip to Cambridge. Then I took the Eurostar to Paris, stayed for a few days, then moved on to Chambery, a town near the Alps in southern France, by train, stayed one full day, and crossed into Italy by train. I stayed in Milan for two full days, then went to Rome, again by train. After three full days, I flew from Rome to Berlin, stayed for two days, which I admit is too short for that city, then took the train to Frankfurt, stayed one full day, then flew back to Asia.

The highlights

England
London
-I’ve been to a few good museums but the British Museum was pretty impressive, the first of many great museums I’d visit in Europe. It features famous objects like the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles taken from Greece, and a Egyptian gallery, plus it’s got a cool African section.
-Tower Bridge was attractive, with the Tower of London on one side, while crossing the bridge provides nice views of the river Thames, HMS Belfast, moored lower down the Thames, and London’s weird towers like the Shard and Skygarden.
-Westminster Parliament with neighboring Westminster Abbey were both large, grand buildings
-Trafalgar Square was much livelier than I expected, and the National Art Gallery, which is at the square, was full of nice paintings.
-I’m an Arsenal fan so Emirates Stadium was a great place to visit. As a bonus, it is near one of the oldest and most attractive subway stations I’ve ever seen – red-brick Holloway Road station.
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France
Paris
-The Louvre was great (I only saw about one-third of the exhibits).
-St. Chapelle doesn’t look like much from the outside but inside, it has the most beautiful stained glass windows I’ve ever seen.
-Looking down across Paris from the Montparnasse Tower (it’s much less busier and actually lets you see the Eiffel Tower)
-The Champs-Élysées by itself is not so spectacular but walking on it to reach the Arc de Triomphe was really cool, especially as the avenue becomes more busier the nearer you get to the Arc.
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Italy

Rome
-The Colosseum is magnificent, but the neighboring Forum ruins are more interesting and the neighboring (all three are right next to each other) Palatine Hill lets you have a good view of the Forum.
-The Piazza Navone is a large, beautiful square surrounded by attractive buildings, restaurants and a large church. It is in the middle of a historic district with the Pantheon just east of it.
-The Castel Sant’Angelo (St. Angel’s Castle) is a round Roman imperial fortress that overlooks the river Tiber and the Vatican.
-Vatican Museums feature so much great art that it was almost too much for me to take in. There were impressive sculptures of Roman emperors, huge masterpieces and fantastic painted ceilings, such as the Sistine Chapel’s painted by the great Michelangelo.
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Milan
-Milan’s main attraction, the massive Duomo cathedral, is an impressive sight both inside and outside and on top. The cathedral is next to the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II, an open-air luxury mall which is strikingly beautiful.
-Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle) is a formidable 15th century castle that serves as a museum. It’s actually a collection of mini-museums ranging from art to furniture and also features Michelangelo’s last project, an unfinished sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus.
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Germany

Berlin
-German historical museum is only two floors but is full of interesting exhibits and paintings that range from the Middle Ages to German reunification. It also has World War II items such as Nazi posters and newspapers about the Allied victory.
-Gendermenmarkt is a square flanked by the three awesome old buildings – the Konzerthaus (Concert Hall) and the French and German churches.
-Berlin Cathedral is one of the most attractive cathedrals I’ve ever seen. Its green dome-shaped roofs make it different from all the tall, stern, rectangular cathedrals you see all over Europe.
-East Side Gallery is an over 1km-long stretch of the Berlin Wall that is covered with crazy and beautiful graffiti “masterpieces.”
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Frankfurt
-Romer is a historic square that features distinctive picturesque traditional wooden buildings.
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Books

Alex Ferguson biography – book review

I picked up a bunch of books to read recently and the first one I finished was Alex Ferguson’s biography. Imaginatively titled “My Biography,” the bio details the life and career of Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary longtime manager of English football club Manchester United. Now while I’m an Arsenal fan, that doesn’t stop me from admiring Ferguson who won 13 league titles as well as 2 European Champions Cups with United. He also won three league titles and an European Cup with Aberdeen in the Scottish top division in the late 1980s.

The book is quite interesting and straightforward though there aren’t any major revelations or controversies. Ferguson was never shy to speak his mind with his players or tangle with the press but he keeps an even, diplomatic tone in the book. The only exception would be a few things like his description of his former United captain Roy Keane’s beady black eyes during an argument which filled Ferguson, a man from Glasgow who was no stranger to tough characters, with terror and his negative assessments of ex-Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez. Instead of being arranged in chronological order, each chapter of the book focuses on a particular player (Beckham, Ronaldo, Keane etc), season, or rival club which does make it more interesting. The chapter on Ferguson’s early days in his hometown Glasgow is one of the more amusing and interesting ones, touching on the days when he was a bar owner (he ran two bars) whilst managing smaller clubs.

Even if you’re not a football or Manchester United fan, the book has a few useful insights in management. Respect tradition, keep your grouses with players in house, power is about control, never let a player usurp your authority or think he’s bigger than the club, be confident when happening before the press, etc. The man spent 27 years at the top (and he was a World Cup and a Scottish title-winning manager even before that) and with one club which is amazing.

Books

Renegade- book review

Given that Scotland will be voting over independence in two days, it’s fitting that I’ve just finished Robyn Young’s Renegade, the second novel in a trilogy about Robert Bruce. Bruce is possibly Scotland’s most famous King who famously won the Battle of Bannockburn over the English in the 14th century. He was also in Braveheart, as the Scottish noble who supported William Wallace, then betrayed him and got him captured by the English, this last part being fabricated.

The novel starts off in Ireland, where Bruce is searching for a holy staff, Ireland’s main Biblical artifact that the English King Edward I is desperate for in a bid to hold all four holy artifacts of Britain to uphold his right to rule the entire land. As I didn’t read the first novel, I missed much of how he got there, but suffice it to say things are not looking good for him or the Scots. The English have the upper hand on the Scots, who are struggling but still resisting led by William Wallace and Robert Comyn. Eventually Bruce finds the staff, but is captured and eventually returned to Scotland, where he ends up back in England as one of Edward I’s knights.

Bruce, you see, served Edward when he was younger before turning “traitor” and going back to fight for Scotland. But this return is part of an intricate scheme concocted by Bruce to regain the trust of Edward, while secretly trying to expose Edward’s false claims relating to the holy artifacts and lead an uprising. Edward has by this time crushed the Scottish resistance and even captures Wallace, who is then executed brutally, being hung, drawn (having his insides carved up while alive) and quartered (having his corpse be cut into four pieces). Of course, the holy artifact claim is probably artistic license taken by the author, though the artifacts and much of the events including Wallace’s death are real.

The writing is fine, while the action and history are described in elegant but not overly complicated or  prose. Many of the characters are a bit weak, though Edward I is indeed menacing and formidable as he was in reality. Wallace and Comyn are portrayed well though, and it is interesting to see the squabbling and interfighting that plagues the Scots. It seems there are too many characters, especially minor Scottish nobles and knights, and Bruce’s brothers are not given major roles.

I enjoy historical novels a lot, especially about ancient military figures and warfare, and Robyn Young is possibly the best historical novelist I’ve ever read. I know Young from reading her Templar trilogy, which started off in the Middle East where European Crusaders are battling the Muslims and continues in Europe after the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin.
In reality, I don’t have anything but respect for the United Kingdom and Scotland. Whether the Scots vote for independence or to remain in the UK, I’ll be glad for them. The Scots deserve a chance to gain independence, and the UK is admirable for allowing the Scots to vote in the referendum. I hope whatever the outcome, there’ll be peace and order.