Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Wertzone Classics: StarCraft

This year marks the tenth anniversary of two of gamings iconic series: the Half-Life series celebrates ten years since the original release in October, whilst the StarCraft series recently passed its tenth anniversary with significant fanfare. Ten years on, with just under 10 million copies sold, StarCraft is one of the biggest-selling computer games of all time and had a tremendous impact on the multiplayer gaming scene. It became the 'gold standard' for all real-time-strategy games to follow, a position it did not arguably lose until Company of Heroes was released in 2006.

The game is set in a remote corner of the Galaxy known as the Koprulu Sector, starting in the year 2499. Several centuries earlier, a host of undesirabls and visionaries left Earth to settle another star system, but a hyperspace mishap saw them travel instead to the far side of the galactic core, out of easy contact with Earth. Many factions rose and fell before the Confederacy asserted control. A somewhat repressive regime, the Confedracy showed its might by crushing any challenges against its rule with savage force (such as the nuking of Korhal when that world rebelled against its control). That said, the Confederacy's manpower is not enough to maintain total control over its territory, and the outer worlds have a degree of autonomy.

One of the outermost systems comes under attack by a strange race of animal-like creatures who nevertheless seem to move with purpose. In the wake of these 'Zerg' come a much more powerful, terrifying alien race with weapons far beyond human technology, the Protoss. Wherever the Zerg are to be found, the Protoss respond with lethal force, wiping out entire planets to ensure that the infestation is curbed. The initial stages of the game see the player resisting Zerg attacks on under-defended settlements and then frantically trying to evacuate the outer worlds ahead of the Protoss advance, at the same time as a mass-uprising against the Confederacy, years in the planning, finally erupts. As the game advances the player switches to controlling the Zerg, a hive-mind species based on organic technology serving the all-powerful Overmind, whose mission is to find Aiur, the homeworld of the Protoss, and destroy it. Once the invasion is launched, the player switches to controlling the Protoss, as they frantically try to stave off the invasion and destroy the Overmind.

StarCraft's genius at the time was in providing three sides (rather than the traditional two) and giving them each an individual feel and level of technology whilst ensuring that they were balanced against one another. So rather than give the Protoss, Terrans and Zerg all their own tank, for example, the Protoss get a long-range artillery unit that has to constantly build its projectiles, whilst the Zerg get a huge, Starship Troopers-esque rhino-like creature which can absorb punishment and smash through enemy ranks, and the human tank has to deploy in order to fire, limiting its maneuverability. All three are vulnerable to air attacks, so anti-air units must accompany them at all times. And so on. This balancing of the sides was and remains pretty unique (even Blizzard's later RTS, WarCraft III, merely replicated units between sides more often than not). Also, the somewhat stylised gameplay and art style allowed the player to empathise with the characters, arguably for the first time in a strategy game, and allowed the storyline to unfold in a gripping manner. StarCraft's storyline was also fairly dark and cynical, with the final victory coming only at the cost of millions of lives and leaving much of the sector in ruins.

A year on from the game's original release, an expansion named Brood War emerged. Picking up the story a few days after the original game, the Protoss empire is in ruins from the invasion and Aiur is overrun by millions of mindless Zerg. The Protoss are forced to evacuate to the refuge of Shakuras and a temptestuous alliance with the Dark Templar, an offshoot of their civilisation banished centuries ago for heresy but who provided the weapon needed to destroy the Overmind. This reunion is not a smooth one, and is complicated by the arrival of a fleet of warships from Earth. The United Earth Directorate has been keeping tabs on events in this sector for decades, and the lure of advanced Protoss technology and Zerg bio-tech has seen them desptach forces to conquer the region. Obviously, neither the Protoss, the new Terran Dominion which has replaced the Confederacy nor the newly-emerging Zerg factions are happy with this idea and an alliance of convenience is formed to fight the invasion. Brood War is even darker and more nihilistic than the original game, and the twists and turns in the storyline, the brutal betrayals and murders and the vast levels of destruction unleashed against countless worlds is both compelling and somewhat depressing. The emergence of a possible fourth side of the game is also extremely well-done and disturbing. Brood War is also insanely hard, with the final mission being known to send grown men away weeping in frustration.

The StarCraft series has had to wait a long time before its story can continue, but a year ago Blizzard confirmed that StarCraft II is in development and they hope to release it before the end of 2008 (given Blizzard's infamous delays, it may be optimistic to expect them to achieve this). Although it has updated visuals, the emphasis is once again on the story, characters and three balanced sides to allow frantic multiplayer games. With the possible exception of Half-Life 2 before it came out, StarCraft II is the most eagerly-awaited computer game sequel of all time.

StarCraft's influence on multiplayer gaming has been colossal., Blizzard's online multiplayer service, grew by 800% after the game's release, and several million people play the game regularly even today, giving it a serious claim to have the greatest longevity of any game ever released. In South Korea, where the series has shifted 4.5 million copies, it is the multiplayer online game of choice, and televised championship games are a massive audience draw. The most successful StarCraft players are celebrities with half a million or more people in their fan clubs.

Given its age, StarCraft (*****) is easily available at budget price with its expansion pack, Brood War, included. It is available for the PC (UK, USA) and, if you can hunt around for it, the Apple Mac and the N64 as well. Graphically, it's certainly showing its age (argh! Unchangeable resolution!), but the gameplay and story remain as compelling as ever.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

The 17th Century. The birth of the modern age. The monarchies of Europe are being overthrown, starting in England. A new nation is being born across the Atlantic. The old order is beginning its slow, two-hundred-year-long death. Science is revolutionising the world every bit as dramatically as war. In Europe the scientific war is being fought between the two inventors of calculus, Newton and Leibniz, a battle which will end with one being hailed the father of modern physics, the other reduced to a historical footnote. Taking place from 1655 to 1713, Quicksilver is the story of individuals scattered across Europe and the Thirteen Colonies, all being hurled by science, progress and history into the brave new world is dawning, the information age.

Quicksilver is the first in a monumental trilogy and is in itself a dense, multi-layered work featuring hundreds of characters divided into three plot strands, roughly summarised as 1) the friendship of (fictional) Daniel Waterhouse and Isaac Newton, also incorporating the Restoration and the Great Fire of London; 2) the adventures of the Shaftoe brothers and various others in Vienna, Paris, Versailles and the Dutch Republic; and 3) the Glorious Revolution and the continuing adventures of Waterhouse and co. in England. The second plot is action-packed with battles, fights and political intrigue. The other two are more restrained with lots of scene-setting and historical information. The book cannot be described as a fast-paced page-turner by any means, but what it is is a tremendously deep and vivid exploration of an interesting (but underrated) period of history. Stephenson's writing skills are impressive, with an amusing sense of humour and a perhaps a bit too colourful ability to describe the more dubious practices of 17th Century science (dog-lovers may find one chapter in particular to be nearly unreadable).

Quicksilver is an astonishing accomplishment (it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel in 2004), although perhaps a bit long-winded at times. The biggest criticism is that the Shaftoe storyline ends on a major cliffhanger but I supposed that inevitably is to lead into the next book. Some may also find the first part of the book (Waterhouse in England) rather tedious, as Stephenson is building and depicting the world here rather than furthering the plot. However, those with an interest in 18th Century history may find this the high point of the text.

Quicksilver (****) is the first volume of The Baroque Cycle and is followed by The Confusion and The System of the World. It is available from Arrow Books in the UK (with another gorgeous cover) and from Harper Perennial in the USA.

Wertzone Classics: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Sometimes a book comes along that leaves the reader dazed with the author's vision, scope and ambition. Neal Stephenson has done this a few times with his work, but arguably never better than in Cryptonomicon.

The novel follows two stories in parallel. In WWII, a group of cryptologists based at Bletchley Park are struggling to crack the German codes so the British and Americans can more effectively combat the German U-boat threat. In the present, a group of businessmen are attempting to build a data haven in the (fictious) Pacific state of Kinakuta. Both plotlines draw on codes, cryptology, cryptoanalysis and the blurring of the genres of science fiction and historical fiction (a line which is even further muddied by the subsequent Baroque Cycle, which serves as a quasi-prequel series to this novel).

It is difficult to describe the book. It's scope is huge, sprawling across Europe, America, the Phillippines and other parts of the world in two different time periods, incorporating dozens of major characters of note and very effectively educating the reader about the science of codes and puzzles (far more effectively than the amateurish Da Vinci Code) before the two storylines very effectively come together at the end of the book. Stephenson's style is very readable, occasionally dense, but often very funny. There are longeurs and apparently unrelated episodes in the book which are masterfully re-incorporated into the greater narrative to form a cohesive whole. It's a book about secrets, what it costs to hold those secrets, and the consequences when those secrets are revealed. It's a war story and a techno-thriller at the same time. It's an adventure story about the hunt for lost treasure and also a book about the value of information. It is a unique work.

Cryptonomicon won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2000 and unquestionably deserved it. If The Separation was the first truly great SF novel of the 21st Century, than Cryptonomicon is almost certainly the last great SF novel of the 20th, and one of the few works that I would apply the label 'genius' to.

Cryptonomicon (*****) is available from Arrow Books in the UK (with a gorgeous cover painting) and from Avon in the USA.

America Unchained by Dave Gorman

This is a bit of a first: my first non-fiction review on the blog. As I've said before, whilst the blog is dedicated mainly to SF&F on screen, in print and in gaming, if I like something else enough, it's going to go on here as well.

I first encountered the comedian Dave Gorman some years ago thanks to his TV series, The Dave Gorman Collection, in which Gorman recounted how, after a drunken bet with his friend Danny Wallace, he ended up travelling the world searching for other people with the name Dave Gorman. The TV series and the accompanying book were both hilarious, as Gorman's quest to find 52 other Dave Gormans took him on some very odd adventures (including an extremely awkward moment when he had to explain to Israeli airport security why he wanted to visit their country). He followed this up with Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure, in which he tracked down owners of 'Googlewhack' websites, where two words are combined to create a unique website with only one result returned on Google.

This third TV/book pairing opens with Gorman recovering from a particularly soul-crushing four-month tour of the USA, during which he criss-crossed the country several times but didn't see much more of it than the soulless interiors of chain motels. After getting back to the UK Gorman decided he wanted to see the 'real' America, the small towns with local businesses run independently of 'The Man'. And to do this he would cross the country from coast to coast and not once stop at a chain-owned motel or petrol station. Obviously, with local businesses rapidly becoming extinct in the USA, this is not as easy as it sounds.

The plus points first: like his earlier two books, this is a very funny and at times uplifting book. Gorman's writing style is engaging and, despite some parts of his plan being totally bonkers, he pulls you into his story and makes it all seem to make sense, even when a week after setting out from San Diego and having covered a thousand miles he has somehow ended up in Portland and is actually further west than when he started out. The stories of the people he meets along the way, such as the delightful owners of Taylor's Soda Fountain in Independence, Oregon, are also well-told. I suspect the owners of the treehouse resort in Takilma, Oregon and the Giant Beagle Hotel (a hotel in the shape of a huge dog) in Cottonwood, Idaho are going to see an upsurge in business as a result of this book. Gorman is quite honest about his own failings during the journey, such as his near-breakdown upon reaching Moab, Utah. The book also delivered an educational lesson about Mormonism. Prior to this book I hadn't looked at Mormonism at all and simply assumed it was just another Christian denomination (albeit one which had some odd ideas about marriage). Dave's rather disturbing encounter with the religion in Salt Lake City proved to be a bit of an eye-opener, to say the least.

Onto the downside. Whilst Dave's journey is highly enjoyable and informative, there isn't much depth to his mission. He never really analyzes why big chains are taking over from small businesses, even when he champions those small businesses who chase the big chains out of town or survive in the face of fierce competition from them. Also, there is a feeling of repetitiveness throughout the book. Because of the scarcity of independent petrol stations, there is a constant fear of the car running out of petrol, but the number of times that this is brought up borders on the tedious. Similarly, the number of times the car breaks down is as frustrating for the reader as it presumably was for the driver. These occurrences are often told well and usually lead to a great story about the kindness of local strangers or a similar event, but the reader can be forgiven for occasionally being hit by deja vu during the narrative. Slightly odder is the very abrupt end - the final few hundred miles are summarised in just a couple of lines - and some hyperbolic publicity for the book. Contrary to the back cover blurb, Dave is never held at gunpoint by anyone, although someone clearly intending to scare him off does show him his gun. Also, because the book ends the second the journey does, we don't really get to see any conclusions Dave draws from his journey.

The result is a very entertaining book which will hold the attention and is even fairly educational, but it is light on analysis.

America Unchained: A Freewheeling Roadtrip in Search of Non-Corporate USA (***½) is available now from Ebury Press in the UK and the USA.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Author Profile: Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is a Welsh science fiction author. Born in 1966 in Barry, he lived and studied in Wales, Cornwall, Newcastle before graduating with a PhD from St. Andrews in Scotland. He then went to work for the European Space Agency in the Netherlands, leaving in 2004 to pursue writing full-time.

As a teenager he wrote two novel-length stories, A Union World and Dominant Species, which were never published but gave him ideas about writing discipline and what ideas he wished to pursue in his SF. In particular, he vowed not to employ cliches such as faster-than-light travel, magically Earth-like planets or easily-relatable humanoid aliens again. His first short story, Nunivak Snowflakes appeared in Interzone, where much of his short fiction would appear over the years. His second published story, 'Dialation Sleep' (1989, published in 1990, reprinted in the 2006 collection Galactic North), rejected such concepts and is also the earliest work set in his signature Revelation Space universe. Interestingly, despite a steady stream of short fiction sales in the following years, Reynolds did not revisit the setting for seven years, until the short stories 'A Spy in Europa' and 'Galactic North' were developed in parallel to Reynolds' first two novels, Revelation Space and Chasm City.

Having established himself as a reliably entertaining short story writer, Reynolds made the leap to writing full-length novels with the rapid appearance of his first two novels, Revelation Space and Chasm City. Revelation Space established the presence of a threat to humanity, a machine-based intelligence known as the Inhibitors who had rendered many thousands of races extinct for reasons unknown. Curiously, despite ending with several plot threads unresolved, Reynolds' next novel, Chasm City, actually stepped back before the events of Revelation Space and told a different, self-contained story mixing hard SF and thriller elements, with a very minor character from Revelation Space as the main protagonist. Both novels were highly acclaimed and Chasm City in particular warmly received.

Reynolds proceeded with two direct sequels to Revelation Space, named Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap, and two self-contained novellas set in the Revelation Space universe (Diamond Dogs and Turqoise Days, later issued as an omnibus by Gollancz).

The Revelation Space universe is a dark, disturbing and often brutal place. Humanity has spawned numerous factions and sub-races, none of which particularly like one another, where cybernetic militants find themselves opposed by religious fanatics. Faster-than-light travel is impossible, so humanity is restricted to a sphere of stars just a few dozen light-years across, with huge ships known as lighthuggers providing interstellar trade and commerce across journeys of years or decades. Yet even in this restricted area of space, humanity keeps finding the ruins of various alien civilisations that were obliterated by unkown forces centuries or millennia ago. Riven by occasional wars, mankind is then threatened by the outbreak of a biogenic virus known as the Melding Plague which infests numerous worlds and habitats. Yellowstone, one of the richest and most powerful of the colony worlds, is particularly hardly hit, its orbital band of space stations, the Glitter Band, reduced to a dark, impoverished place known as the Rust Belt and its capital, Chasm City, becomes a twisted and grotesque mockery of its former ultratech self. But, whilst the human factions squabble between them, a darker threat emerges in the Delta Pavonis system when a belligerent machine intelligence known as the Inhibitors is inadvertantly made away of mankind's existence, plunging humanity into a desperate war for survival...

Although the Revelation Space universe was very popular, Reynolds had already moved away from it in his contemporary short fiction and followed suit with his next two novels, Century Rain (a hard-bitten noirish detective story partially set in 1950s Paris and partially in the remote future) and Pushing Ice (a gleefully-told 'big dumb object' SF novel), and a short story collection called Zima Blue. Reynolds returned to the RS universe with Galactic North, a short story collection, and The Prefect, a new novel set before the Melding Plague and substantially earlier than any of the prior RS novels in a brighter time long before the emergence of the Inhibitors. Sequels further exploring this period before the dark times of the plague, and perhaps chronicling the arrival of the plague itself, have been promised.

Alastair Reynolds is one of British SF's most reliably entertaining talents. His hard SF ideas are combined with deft characterization and sometimes impressive action sequences and draped in atmosphere, ranging from noir to the gothic to the baroque.

Alastair Reynolds maintains a website here. Myself and Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist interviewed Reynolds here.

The Revelation Space Trilogy
Revelation Space (2000) ****½
Redemption Ark (2002) ****½
Absolution Gap (2003) ****

Other Works in the Revelation Space Universe
Chasm City (2001) *****
Diamond Dogs, Turqoise Days (2003) ***½
Galactic North (2006, collection)
The Prefect (2007) ****

Stand-Alone Books
Century Rain (2004) ***½
Pushing Ice (2005)
Zima Blue (2006, collection)
House of Suns (2008)

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Here's a review from 'the vault', my Word file containing reviews of books that I wrote for my own personal amusement in the days dating back before the blog (although some of these did appear on as well). I note that I'll only be doing this for books I reviewed within a reasonable period of time before the blog started and where my current opinion has not massively changed from my former one. In those cases, a re-read and a re-review would be more appropriate.

That The Lies of Locke Lamora is a debut novel is difficult to believe. That it not only meets but exceeds the hype that has been built up around it is damn-nigh impossible to believe, yet it is so. In the city-state of Camorr the Secret Peace exists between the criminals and the rulers, a decades-long pact between the Capa and the Duke that keeps the merchants and nobles' wares and riches safe. The only problem is that two people are screwing with the Pact, one a smooth conman and his band of helpers, the other a shadowy killer striking from the shadows without warning. The city is about to be plunged into a war in the shadows as these factions collide.

The story is told skillfully and economically. Lynch knows how to show, not tell. The story moves with a rattling, page-turning pace where exposition is kept to a minimum. As the 'current' storyline moves forward, Lynch gives us frequent flashbacks to the formative years of the titular Locke Lamora, showing his rise from an overconfident scoundrel to a skilled conman and demonstrating how the bonds of true friendship are forged between Lamora and his band of knaves, the Gentlemen Bastards. Amongst this he also brings to life his prized creation, the city of Camorr itself, a traditional fantasyscape of guards, merchants and peasents eking a life in hovels under the watchful eye of the aristocracy, but with an element of the strange introduced as all are dwelling in a city forged thousands of years ago by an inscrutable alien race whose disappearance remains troubling. With its many islands and districts, temples and guilds shadowed by towering glass monoliths, Camorr is as much a character as Locke Lamora himself, a city that immediately joins Ankh-Morpork, Lankhamar and Amber as a perfect setting for stories of the fantastical.

Lynch is also a master alchemist of taking his influences and whipping them into something fresh and exciting. He has George RR Martin's skill are creating great characters and then unexpectedly killing them, mixed with early Raymond Feist's sheer gleeful storytelling and occasional eye for detail (the merchant houses sequences seem heavily inspired by the trading house chapters in Feist's Rise of a Merchant Prince). The story shifts tones with ease, moving from its early chapters of setting up cons and marks (feeling oddly reminiscent of the British TV series Hustle) to a much darker place, yet always with a certain enjoyable wit about it. Lynch knows how to make the reader laugh, even if the humour turns from light amusement to midnight-black as the story progresses.

Criticisms? Some characters feel somewhat under-developed, particularly one who is introduced briefly in one scene and then brutally despatched a few pages later, but without any real time for the audience to build up any sympathy, meaning that Locke's grief isn't entirely relatable. And that's about it. The book is surprisingly free of rough edges for a debut work.

This is the opening volume of a seven-novel sequence, yet it is virtually entirely self-contained, with only the closing few pages giving us a sense of where the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, will take the story next.

The Lies of Locke Lamora (****½) is available from Gollancz in the UK and from Bantam in the United States.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Flood by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter has always been the most likely of the modern SF authors to become the true heir to Arthur C. Clarke. Like Clarke, Baxter has always been more interested in science than plot, ideas more than characters, but also like Clarke, this tendency - perhaps to be seen as a failing by some - has never managed to stop his books being highly enjoyable and occasionally - as with The Time Ships - become true modern classics of the SF genre.

opens in 2016 in Barcelona. Four people from different nationalities have been held by ultra-Christian fundamentalist terrorists for five years before they are released, the result of negotiations between their captives and the head of AxysCorp, Nathan Lammockson. They emerge into a world transformed by technology, where the marvels of the London Olympics are already years in the past and a world where rainfall has increased, with little or no warning. They are welcomed back to civilisation through a party in London that coincides with a massive flood which overwhelms the Thames Barrier and devastates the city. Across the world the waters are slowly rising, a metre in less than two years. London and Sydney have to be evacuated, displacing millions of people to higher ground. The old models of climate change cannot even begin to explain what is happening. Low-lying nations disappear off the face of the earth, the mountain peaks become the most prime real estate on the planet and Tibet becomes a warzone as India, Russia and China battle for control of it. And through it all the waters rise and New York and Rome, Beijing and Paris all disappear beneath the waves. By 2020 global sea levels have risen by eighty metres, the worst-case scenario predicted for the effects of global warming after a century. And the inundation is accelerating.

How an this be happening? In the early 2000s the existence of massive underground oceans locked deep in the mantle of the earth was postulated and then proven by the discovery of a subterrenean sea containing more water than the Arctic, located under China and the Yellow Sea. In different parts of the world the ocean floor has shattered, releasing the vast volumes of water located beneath them. As governments teeter and fall, a few far-sighted individuals such as Lammockson attempt to preserve the human race, and the four friends from Barcelona become witnesses to the end of civilisation...and the birth of a new one.

Flood is a tremendously enjoyable novel, for once a modern SF book where the central science doesn't need the reader to have memorised advanced quantum theory beforehand. Whilst the threat Baxter postulates isn't very likely to happen, the fact that it is possible (albeit somewhat less likely than a major asteroid collision in the next century) lends a rather disturbing air to proceedings. Let's face it, we are fascinated by disaster stories, by the idea that our huge and advanced civilisation will be swept away in a short space of time by a quirk of nature, and that humanity will be wiped out or forced to start again. Against such a vast and global story, Baxter is still able to tell smaller, human stories, about the missing daughter of one of the hostages who has been kidnapped by her Saudi father, and about the fate of the downtrodden workers being worked to death to ensure the survival of the rich elite on their floating cities and huge luxury liners. Baxter's skill with characters has improved markedly since the last time I read one of his novels (a good decade or more ago), although they are still somewhat less-developed than might be wished for and tend to info-dump a fair bit.

But complaining about lack of character depth in a disaster novel - and this may be the ultimate disaster novel - is a bit churlish. This is about the story, about the catastrophe and about the tiny fragments of hope to be found near the book's conclusion. Whilst not every last plot thread is tied up - a sequel, Ark, will follow next year - the book is given enough closure to make it stand alone, with a final line that Sir Arthur himself would have been proud of.

Flood (****) is a superbly enjoyable SF novel, although those living close to the sea may feel a bit nervous after reading it. And before anyone asks, yes, it's better than Waterworld.

The book will be published by Gollancz in the UK on 26 June 2008, in both hardcover and trade paperback.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan erupted onto the SF scene six years ago with his blistering debut novel Altered Carbon, a hard-edged thriller set in the 26th Century. Morgan has made his name with intelligent, intrguing ideas about science, technology and sociology, based around unflinchingly violent protagonists and often withering analyses of the human condition. The Steel Remains is his first foray into fantasy, the first book of a trilogy with the unofficial name A Land Fit For Heroes (which I assume is ironic, because this land is very definitely not fit for heroes, although it desperately needs them).

This world is a harsh, dirty and grim place. Some years ago a race of sentient lizards - the Scaled Folk - crossed the western ocean from a dying homeland and attempted to conquer the lands of humanity. The forces of humanity - somewhat reluctantly - banded together under the leadership of the Yhelteth Empire and their Kiriath allies and destroyed the invasion at great cost. After four thousand years amongst humanity, the Kiriath finally abandoned this world, fleeing in their vast fireships back through the subterrenean portals leading to other worlds. Humanity has been left to lick its wounds and rebuild.

Ringil Eskiath is the famed hero of Gallows Gap, who led the heroic defence that finally broke the back of the Scaled Folk's invasion. However, his temper and his sexuality have led to him being outcast from his homeland and he now makes his living as a glorified tourist attraction, showing gawping spectators around the legendary battlefield. However, when his cousin is sold into slavery, he is called home by his mother and asked to rescue her. Ringil's journey leads him back into the shadow of his old life and to the realisation of a devastating new threat that is arising now the one thing it feared, the Kiriath, is gone.

Archeth is a Kiriath half-breed, left behind when her people left. Now she serves the Emperor as his advisor on Kiriath technology, but her presence is anathema to the increasingly fanatical religious leaders and she survives on the Emperor's sufference. The devastation of a coastal town leads Archeth's research to the horrific conclusion that an ancient force, powerful beyond measure, may be poised to return to this world.

Out on the windswept steppes, the barbarian warrior Egar finds life back among the clans unbelievably dull after he fought for the Empire as a mercenary, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ringil at Gallows Gap, where Egar earned the name Dragonbane. When Egar's position in the clan comes under threat, he is rescued by a most unlikely patron and whisked into a battle he barely comprehends, alongside some old allies...

The Steel Remains is a pretty dark, full-on and - to use a cliche, gritty. Those easily offended best stay away, especially if you found GRRM too explicit for your tastes as Morgan goes way, way past anything that GRRM has ever done in a book. The violence is visceral, bloody and painstakingly described. The sex is full-on and explicit. To be honest, the levels of sex and violence are somewhat higher than the plot demands. Whilst Black Man was similarly explicit, at least there it could be said that it was only done when necessary for the plot. The Steel Remains is, at heart, a gratuitous story which I suspect a lot of people will be put-off by.

Those who can stomach those elements will find all of those things that have made Morgan one of the most striking authors of his generation: deft characterisation, increasingly accomplished worldbuilding and a fiendish plot which seems to dance out of reach just as you think you've got a handle on it, replaced by something even more cunning than you previously thought possible. Here Morgan takes on of the biggest cliches in fantasy history and turns it on its head in a manner which is probably not quite as original as he thinks (unless he's read Scott Bakker recently) but nevertheless is deftly executed, leading to a powerful final scene that leaves the reader demanding more.

The Steel Remains (****) is dark, brooding, bloody, visceral and absolutely takes no prisoners. But the story it is telling is compelling, the characters are well-defined and the world throws up some refreshingly new ideas and concepts (some heavily influenced by Morgan's SF background). Some may find it all a bit too much, some may find this world too full of pain and darkness to actually be worth saving, but amidst the gloom Morgan carefully plants a few seeds of hope and optimism which the reader can cling to.

The Steel Remains will be published on 21 August 2008 by Gollancz in the UK. A US release from Del Rey is apparently on the cards, but no date has been set as yet.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Troy: Fall of Kings by David & Stella Gemmell

David Gemmell sadly passed away after completing about 90,000 words of the third and final volume of his Troy Trilogy. Fall of Kings was completed by his wife, Stella (who was his editor and researcher throughout the trilogy), and published at the end of 2007.

We pick up after the events of Shield of Thunder. The Great Green is beset by war. Agamemnon and his allies (including the reluctant Odysseus) have secured most of the west and are now poised to strike directly at Troy itself. Hektor is leading the effort to dislodge their armies to the south, whilst Banokles - very reluctantly - is commanding forces to the north. Helikaon is ordered to sea, to take Kassandra to the island of Thera, but along the way he meets Odysseus and is drawn into a side-adventure to Ithaka.

Fall of Kings is a worthy conclusion to the trilogy. It's very difficult to tell where David Gemmell left off this work and his wife took over, and it's probably for the best to ignore that diversion and just enjoy the story. This book is, predictably, the story of the siege and fall of Troy, and frankly it may now have to be classified as the definitive modern retelling of the myth. The duel between Hektor and Achilles is here, but with a very interesting spin placed on it, whilst the fate of Helen is beautifully depicted. But it's the end of the book, particularly the last stand of the survivors within the palace of Troy, which will probably live longest in the memory.

Fall of Kings (****) is definitely not quite as polished as the prior two books in the series, but finding out the fates of the characters we have grown to know and love over the course of the trilogy more than makes up for any (minor) weaknesses in the prose. This is a fitting end to a monumental story of war, love and honour, and a grand retelling of one of the greatest myths of all time. Thoroughly reccomended.

The book is available from Corgi in the UK and from Ballantaine in the USA.