One of my strongest memories of Iceland will without doubt be its smelliness.

Most of Iceland doesn’t smell much at all – or smells of nothing more than moss and water and sea. But the volcanic areas make up for it tenfold. The water in their hot springs has a lot of sulphur in it, and smelled like a mixture of sewerage and rotten eggs. And because the water comes out steaming, the smell is quickly distributed and reaches the nose easily, and spreads well with wind.

For some reason I seemed to be a lot more sensitive to that smell than most visitors. Maybe it’s something that takes a special gene, like smelling asparagus in your urine? Or perhaps it’s just due to the pregnancy. Anyway, I couldn’t go near a sulphurous spring without retching and gagging. So any time we wanted to see a fresh lava field or bubbly mud pools, I was trying to walk upwind of them, walking very fast when we got close, and breathing through a hanky and as lightly as possible.

And what’s worse – the hot water in their taps comes from hot springs! At one of the hotels the hot water stank so strongly that I had to wash myself and brush my teeth with only cold water, which was very cold since it probably came straight from a glacier. I was very relieved to discover that the next hotel had less-smelly water and I could actually wash my hair again!

All of a sudden, over the last week or two, the belly has gone from almost-as-usual to a very noticeable bump. Here’s what it looks like.

Notice the masterpiece of engineering that is surrounding the belly! No seams, and at least 4 different kinds of weave, and they sit as well as anything I’ve ever worn, even though they need to adapt to a rapidly changing form. But they do look rather odd…

The baby is now supposed to be 33cm and weigh 570g.

Many of Iceland’s best-known tourist sites are either waterfalls or otherwise “watery”. The waterfalls are due to the mountainous and craggy terrain, and the numerous glaciers that send their melting waters down towards the coast. In fact it looked like most rivers had a waterfall somewhere along its course.

Strokkur about to erupt

Iceland has what’s claimed to be Europe’s most powerful waterfall – Dettifoss, with 200–400 cubic metres per second, depending on season. It doesn’t have Europe’s highest, a title claimed by several waterfalls ranging from Norway to Switzerland. (Height can be measured in different ways – is it the longest free fall that matters, or do consecutive cascades count as one?)

Not as powerful, but definitely more spectacular was Gullfoss (“Golden falls”). Gullfoss has two stages, and the second one dives straight into the opposing wall, throwing spray and mist high up in the air. That’s why my photo looks foggy, and that’s also what creates the small pools in the foreground. It also explains why the grass there is so much greener than on the other side of the river.

Dettifoss does the same, and because the river is in a deep gorge in an otherwise flat and empty region, you can see the clouds of spray well before the waterfall itself becomes visible.

Hraunfossar (“Lava field falls”) is a completely different set of waterfalls. There is one narrow and flashy waterfall, and adjacent to it is a broad picturesque waterfall that comes seemingly out of nowhere, as water trickles out from a lava field and from under layers of moss. Again the area just around the waterfalls was lush and green (on a relative scale) – even small birch shrub! – whereas just 100m further away there was only moss and brown grass.

Other watery sites include, of course, the world famous geysers. The original Geysir (“Gusher”) is no longer active, but the neighbouring Strokkur (“The Churn”) performs admirably, spouting hot water every 5 minutes or so. Our photos don’t look too impressive, since the grey and foggy pillar of water was barely distinguishable from the grey and foggy sky, unfortunately. If you want to see what it can look like in good weather, look at photos tagged “geysir” at flickr.

Between eruptions, the water level in the pool fluctuates significantly, and the moment before an eruption the surface balloons up into a very distinct mound. It takes a fast camera (or very lucky timing) to catch this. The shutter lag on my camera was way too long, but Eric caught this great picture of it.

Various smaller pools of boiling water are scattered around the same site – just as with waterfalls, you can spot the area from some distance away because of the steam rising from the ground.

Then there is Europe’s largest hot spring at Deildartunguhver, where 180 litres of almost-boiling water well out of the ground. This mostly has a curiosity value, as there isn’t much to see, apart from huge clouds of steam – large and dense enough to hide everything including the path, so finding your way out is a matter of turning back 180 degrees and walking in a straight line until you emerge at the other side of the cloud. Water from this spring is piped 60 km to two neighbouring villages, where it is used for heating.

The pile of read-but-unblogged books is growing precariously high and threatening to topple soon. Time to reduce it – by picking the thickest one.

I bought Eragon for two reasons: it had a beautiful and stylish cover design with an unusually intelligent-looking dragon. And it was everywhere: every bookshop seemed to have it either as a staff pick, or a special offer, and it was always on prominent display in airport bookshops (which is where I got it).

As the covers clearly indicate, it’s a story about “One boy… One dragon… A world full of adventure” – adventure fantasy, that is. Just the right stuff for a long flight to New York, I thought.

The book felt entertaining enough to begin with, but the more I read, the more unsatisfying I found it. The language, above all, felt stiff and clichéd and dull – there was no sparkle, no gratifying turns of phrase of the kind that good writers come up with. Sentences were simple and tended to follow a common template.

The plot felt quite single-threaded, to borrow a term from the software world. Eragon (the boy in question) is in point A and decides to go to point B. He does so, while meeting with adventures on the way. In point B he pauses to find someone, or do something, and then figure out where to go next. The process then repeats from B to C. Each stage appears somewhat cut off from the rest: when a stage is underway, previous and subsequent stages are ignored. Most of what happened between A and B does not have any real repercussions later. It’s as if the author (or the presumed audience) could only think this far ahead, and no further, and just took things a little piece at a time.

None of the events or characters are particularly inventive – it’s a pretty ordinary flow of wandering, interspersed with a few battles. Nothing particularly unconventional happens. There is the usual young hero who has lost his parents, his wise but mysterious teacher, and then a trusted companion. All straight and relatively likeable, but with no particular depth to them. All the components have been done before by other writers, and better.

The world, likewise, is pretty much a standard fantasy world. Some mountains, some forests, some deserts, some villages. Pretty standard monsters and non-human races. Except that the world as a whole didn’t quite add up… Perhaps it is harsh to require realism in a fantasy book, but if a world does not stand up to closer scrutiny, it loses a lot of its spellbinding power. Towns in the middle of a desert with no feasible means of growing food; an “empire” consisting of a few dozen small villages and towns many days’ travel apart – but somehow strongly cohesive and with a strong central power. Distances, geography, population and economy just don’t add up. Sometimes other things don’t, either, such as when Eragon, previously illiterate, learns to read fluently in a week. Yeah, right.

At first I thought that the author had intentionally kept both the story and the language simpler than average to appeal to young readers, and perhaps not put that much work into crafting a coherent world. (The book is generally categorised as “young adult” literature.) What I didn’t know until after I finished it was that the book’s main claim to fame is the age of its author, Christopher Paolini, who apparently began writing Eragon when he was 15. Looking back, that explained everything. His age really shows.

On the whole, I have to say this is a good effort for a teenager, and better than most people (teenagers or not) could achieve. In fact it is probably even better than the average fantasy book, given the amount of template-produced junk out there. It works well enough as light reading on a rainy day, but it’s not enough to qualify as a good book, in any sense. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is far better, and so is Harry Potter, to mention two other books aimed at “young adult” readers. Another 5 or 10 years, perhaps, will let Paolini grow into a more nuanced language, and acquire some more original ideas.

An entertaining critique of the book from an editor’s perspective puts a lot more energy into pointing out shortcomings in both language and plot that a good editor should have spotted and gotten fixed. I couldn’t find any particularly insightful positive reviews, as those mostly seemed to be on the “This book is very good! I enjoyed it a lot!” level.

Iceland’s emptiness is not so strange, really, when you look at what the land itself is like.

Iceland is of volcanic origin. It’s a large blob of magma welling out of the slowly widening rift between the North Atlantic and the European continental plates. And that’s not just history – they have active volcanos right now. The last period of significant activity was in the 1970s-80s; a new island popped up off the coast of Iceland in the 60s as a result of an underwater volcanic eruption. The last major eruption in the 1780s killed 80% of the sheep in the country, and ashes wrecked agriculture all across the land. Famine reduced the population to 38,000 and according to my book, Denmark actually considered evacuating all survivors, effectively abandoning the country. And in between major eruptions, of course, the volcanically active areas are full of bubbling mud pools, springs of boiling sulphurous water, and fumaroles of other noxious gases.

Much of Iceland therefore consists of volcanic rock. The mountains resulting from old, major eruptions look reasonably normal, covered with a thin layer of soil. In other places, lava has flown over the ground more recently and created lava fields, which are about as hospitable as they sound: fields of jagged black porous stone formations.

We saw a number of these (hard to avoid, really) of different ages. Fields created by the activity in the 1970s resemble common descriptions of Hell. The ground is covered with black lava mounds, with steaming cracks here and there. The ground has bright white and yellow patches of sulphurous deposits. Nothing grows there at all. A few hundred years later, vegetation starts taking hold, mostly mosses and lichens. There is still really no soil to speak of. Another few thousand years, and mosses are joined by tufts of grass and even some small and hardy flowering plants.

Even where the ground is covered with some soil and has more plant life, it is a struggle for anything to grow in Iceland. It isn’t as cold as you might think, based on its location just south of the Arctic circle, because the Gulf Stream brings mild and moist air. Nevertheless, summer is short and chilly, and sunlight weak. On mountainsides in the nortwhest, snow extended very far down – to about 600m from sea level, I would guess.

As there are few forests, there is no shelter from wind or rain, and soil erosion is a real problem. Some areas in the northeast get very little rain, which gets captured by the glaciers and mountains to the south and west. The ground, being porous and volcanic, doesn’t hold water very well, either, and volcanic ash is not particularly fertile. At best, there are thigh-high shrubs of arctic birch and willow, mixed with heather and possibly a few bilberry bushes. Much of the countryside is just empty brown moorland of dry grass. And the worst areas are simply dusty stony desert.

The only inhabited areas are the coastal lowlands, which tend to be somewhere between moorland and grassy meadows – barely fertile enough for sheep and horses, and doesn’t really support any farming.

According to our guide book, Iceland had extensive forests when the first Viking settlers turned up in the 9th century. Most were chopped down, either for timber or firewood, or to clear land for fields and pastures. What the settlers didn’t realise was that due to Iceland’s cold and dry climate, trees take a lot longer to grow than in Sweden or Norway. So what would have been a sustainable pace of felling back at home, ended up denuding the whole island.

Iceland now has a reforestation programme, and plantations of birch and pine were frequent. Many farmhouses in the middle of grassy mountains had a tight cluster of trees just around the house – often fenced in to protect the trees from sheep. They have also introduced lupins to control erosion and fertilise the earth. In many places, clumps of blue lupins covered large areas and stood out as the only plants taller than a few centimetres.

Lava field after 300 years – Leirhnjukur
Lava field after 4000 years – Berserkahraun
Sulphur springs – Leirhnjukur
“Normal” landscape

It’s empty in many senses of the word. First and foremost, there are almost no people in Iceland. Of the quarter of a million Icelanders, 170,000 have congregated to Reykjavik and its suburbs, which leaves less than one person per square kilometre in the rest of the country. The second largest town has about 16,000 inhabitants, and everything after that is just villages and single farms.

Since the country is essentially uninhabited, its roads are generally deserted. It is possible to drive a good 10 minutes on the main ring road around the island without seeing any other vehicles. Streets in villages and towns were also surprisingly empty – even during a weekend, during the summer when schools are out, there were almost no children outside, and we rarely saw anybody working outside on the farms either.

Tourist sites were equally empty, even the major ones – most had no more than half a dozen cars parked when we got there. This was quite a pleasant change from most other regions and countries we’ve visited. No crowds, no jostling, nobody disturbing our views.

This scarcity of people led to scarcities of all the things that occur around people. Shops, restaurants, petrol stations… I believe our road map of Iceland shows every single petrol station in the country, except for the ones in Reykjavik, and a few of the larger villages where the map only shows one but reality had two side by side.

The country was also surprisingly empty of things to see and do. Normally, I imagine, one browses a travel guide and picks and chooses between sights. Here, though, we had days when we saw everything that the book mentioned as being on our route, and even made quite long detours to pick up sights that would not have been near the top of our list… if we had had a list to choose from, that is. But when the alternative is to drive for 4 hours straight and not see anything but an empty road, every waterfall becomes valuable.

I do wonder what it would feel like to grow up in rural Iceland. Driving an hour every morning to get to school. (We saw many boarding schools as well.) Having two sports to choose from (swimming and football). No library or cinema to go to. No real chance to have any friends, because you cannot get to them. In some places, no real way to be in touch with the outside world at all – even radio coverage was patchy.

I’m not a particularly gregarious person, and I value my personal space, but I do like to have some contact with the rest of the human race. And I want to have something to do with my time. Based on what I saw, I really wouldn’t want to live in Iceland; it would drive me mad within a few weeks. One week was enough to have me twitching restlessly from lack of activity and stimulation. What do Icelanders do all day? Walk up and down their endless hills? Write lugubrious poetry?

Today has been the year’s hottest day. I’m not sure what the official temperatures are, and in any case they only apply to shade, whereas in reality it feels like there is no shade to be found. We are stewing.

Luckily we’re just about to leave the country for a nice, cool, refreshing week in Iceland. It should be around 10–15 C there, which will be a nice change. And long hours of daylight.

It’s a place that both of us have long wanted to visit, but never gotten around to. I had always had in mind a trip full of walking and climbing, but I guess we might have to limit that a bit. The walking boots are in the pack, in any case.

So this place will be quiet until next Sunday at least.

Had my second ultrasound this Thursday. Was told that Blump was very mobile (I could have told them that myself!) and therefore not easy to take pictures of, but appeared to have all body parts present in the usual numbers and usual places. The only thing they commented on was that the waistline (Blump’s, not mine) or “abdominal circumference” as the technical term goes, was rather large. The doctor didn’t seem to be able to explain what that could indicate, other than a vague mention of diabetes, and all it led to was an appointment for a third ultrasound 6 weeks later.

Otherwise, not much has changed. I grow, Blump grows, and Blump wriggles with great vigour.

On the topic of book reviews, my high school teacher of Swedish (a strict, old-fashioned man who was probably more feared than loved) used to remind us time and time again: “a plot summary is not a review” – “ett referat är inte en recension”. While I found it frustrating as a 15-year-old, now, 10 years later, I think it is a pity that the world’s book reviewers haven’t yet been taught that lesson. Far too many of them start their reviews by giving away far too much of the story.

This is very much the case with Iron Council. So if after reading my review you’re thinking of reading it, I’d recommend you to just get it and dive in without reading too many more reviews.

China Mieville has a distinctive approach to story-telling. He uncovers some parts while keeping others carefully hidden until their time arrives. Indeed, after the first fifty pages of Iron Council I was still completely perplexed about why I was being told about these persons whose background or roles were never explained, as they seemed to be desperately trying to reach or catch up with someone else, in some unknown place of wilderness, for unknown reasons. And then the story switched to a different place and different people, who had no discernible connection to the first set of people. In fact it wasn’t even clear whether the two parts were taking place at the same time, or decades apart.

While it may feel somewhat frustrating at times, this is all done so deliberately that it would feel a shame to side-step the author’s intent. Instead, go with the flow and let things happen in their time. It will all make sense in the end.

Iron Council takes place in the same gothic/Victorian world, and revolves around the same city, as Mieville’s other books. Yet the world is treated the same as the rest of the story, in a way: we are told that which is relevant at each point, and not a bit more. Where other books would find ways to slot in brief lectures – by letting someone explain things to a child, or a foreigner – we are on our own here. There are no maps of the world or the city, which otherwise staple fare in books about complex fantasy worlds (all probably simply following Tolkien). We are not provided with a summary of its history or the city-state’s government, but offered glimpses of it as it touches the characters’ lives. Even the laws and forces of nature remain unexplained, even though it becomes clear early on that they are not the same as in our world. To the end, the world remains a vast, alien, complex and mysterious place, and we have only wandered through a small part of it. So the initial confusion is replaced not by clarity, but by a lingering sense of mild puzzlement.

Even though we are never given a chance to understand this world, Mieville somehow manages to give the impression that he himself knows all about it. It is so richly detailed, so vividly and intricately imagined, that it becomes entirely believable.

This is reinforced by the kinds of characters we follow. They are neither people of power, nor ordinary nobodies. They tend to be from the fringes of society. As with the world, the characters are presented in glimpses. The more ordinary aspects of their lives – those that do not immediately matter for the story – are ignored. Surely inhabitants of this world must buy groceries, have houses, get an education, use their public transport system? It’s all ignored, increasing our sense of alienation.

And as if this wasn’t enough, Mieville’s language compounds the effect. The language is rhythmic yet wild, poetic and naturalistic, as grotesque as the world, occasionally simply overwhelming. So is the vocabulary. There are some made-up words, of course – it’s hard to get by without these when your world has concepts that aren’t present in ours. But even his vocabulary of English words is so large that it becomes difficult to judge which words he’s made up, and which ones I’ve just never seen before. And when I say “large vocabulary”, I mean “you won’t even find these words in an ordinary dictionary”. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of words that look like they probably might be English, and whose meaning can generally be figured out from their context, but I don’t know for sure. But when there’s so much puzzlement already going on, what difference will a few hundred strange words make?

Mieville’s only weakness is in writing endings. His stories build up towards a massive climax, leading us to wonder how he will manage to bring it all to a close. He does well in Perdido Street Station, which deals with smaller-scale actions and forces. As his ambition grows, and his stories deal with changes in entire societies, his ability to bring them to a conclusion doesn’t quite keep up: both in The Scar and in Iron Council the ending is side-stepped with a weakish trick. Something grand is going on, and it has to either succeed or fail grandly, but instead he sort of avoids this choice, and neither happens.

All in all, I would say Iron Council, and Mieville’s other books, are great if you want something completely unique and unclassifiable, uncomparably imaginative, and unforgettable. Oh, of course one can find other good reasons to read this book… Grand themes such as Marxism and fascism, transcontintental exploration and exploitation, are present too, as well as various philosophical questions. But one can find these everywhere, while no one builds a world quite like Mieville does.

If you’d like to read more about the themes and threads of the book, I can recommend J. N. Mohlman’s review at Amazon. Skip the editorial reviews, though, as they’ve got too many spoilers in them. For a completely opposite perspective, from one who found the book frustrating and pretentious, try this review – well-argued, and only very mild spoilers.

Kabuki is a strange phenomenon. In Western terms it could perhaps be described as a combination of silent movies, opera and abstract dance. It is a very Eastern form of art, in its strong adherence to tradition. I can’t think of any Western art where performers are born into their job, and most plays in the repertoire are handed down through centuries with little change.

This evening’s performance consisted of two parts. The first was a lyrical / abstract piece, where a young girl (well, a male actor playing the role of a young girl) danced of love, then heartbreak, quarrel, and making up. The second was a dramatic story blending love and horror.

Kabuki’s popular roots were quite apparent in the story, which was a melodrama worthy of any soap opera: lovers fleeing in the night through pouring rain to commit suicide together, possessions by ghosts, bloody fights, and so on. A lot of traditional Japanese stories seem very dramatic, in fact, and involve lots of ghosts and violent deaths – I’ve noticed the same in Japanese manga and fairy tales as well.

The acting, meanwhile, was at once stylised and extravagant. A lot was communicated through small and subtle gestures that may well be obvious to a more experienced audience, but would have remained completely incomprehensible to us, if it hadn’t been for the audio guides that were available. “Note how she crosses her arms to indicate intimacy” or “the deep drum signifies a heavy downpour of rain”… umm, OK. Other feelings and facts were acted out most expressively – the fights in particular were almost overly obvious, as the fighters froze repeatedly in pre-defined tableaus.

The acting was supported by excellent music – quite discrete and low-key, but expertly performed – as well as beautiful costumes and impressive scene designs. Even the programme was good, and the audio guide added the final touch. A great introduction to kabuki, and a nice break from ordinary theatre fare.