Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Amtrak Wars to resume?

Now here's a blast from the past. When I was a teenager I loved The Amtrak Wars series by Patrick Tilley. Six books long, this series was a seriously enjoyable mix of a Western, a high-tech SF post-apocalyptic scenario and Shogun. Set in the 30th Century, nine centuries after the world was devastated in a nuclear exchange, it saw the North American continent become the battleground for three very different factions: the primitive, Native American-like Plainfolk, the high-tech underground Amtrak Federation (based in and under Texas) and the nation of Ne-Issan (a Shogunate-era Japanese-derived culture dominating the Eastern Seaboard). Whilst not exactly great literature, it was a tremendously fun series with interesting worldbuilding, intricate political maneuvering and an action-driven pace. Its setting was vivid and compared to some other works of SF or epic fantasy (the series is heavily derived from both) it had some originality going for it. It was also quite brutal and ruthless, killing off major characters at a rate that would even put GRRM to shame.

Unfortunately, after the publication of the sixth volume in 1990, the author apparently abandoned the series. He published one more novel, a middling SF comedy called Star Waltz, in 1995 and nothing since then. Tilley later revealed that the series was supposed to be a twelve-book series divided into two natural stages: the setting-up of the Talisman Prophecy and its later fulfilment. Apparently he had started writing Book 7, Ghost Rider, and had been hoping to publish it before the end of the century but he lost faith in the project after being turned off writing violent stories by real-life events (specifically the Balkan wars).

Last year, The Amtrak Wars was optioned by an Australian development company to be turned into a series of feature films, although at Tilley's request the series was renamed The Talisman Prophecy. It's unclear if, as with some reprints of the original series, the Amtrak Federation will be renamed. The scriptwriter set up a Facebook group to reveal progress on the project. Apparently emboldened by this development, Tilley claims to have restarted work on the latter books, but has shortened them to a trilogy. Since he just turned 80 years old, he decided to hedge his bets and finish the series as succintly as possible.

Whilst these developments are encouraging, they may come to nothing in the end, but if this interesting and 'different' SF/fantasy crossbreed series can be brought to a more definitive conclusion it would certainly be worth taking a look. I remember reccing this series to friends with the tag-line, "Lord of the Rings with flamethrowers and samurai," and even my more cynical, older self has to admit that's still pretty cool.

The original series seems to be out of print, but I've rarely found a second-hand bookshop that didn't have at least a few of the volumes in stock (it was a huge seller back in the 1980s) and Amazon seems to have second-hand copies readily available. Intrigued by this news, I'll be re-reading the series in the near future and hoping it lives up to my fond memories of it.

The Amtrak Wars by Patrick Tilley
1: Cloud Warrior (1983)
2: First Family (1985)
3: Iron Master (1987)
4: Blood River (1988)
5: Death-Bringer (1989)
6: Earth-Thunder (1990)

Dark Visions: An Illustrated Guide to the Amtrak Wars (1988)

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 1

Season 1 of the new BSG picks up where the mini-series left off: the Twelve Colonies have been destroyed in a surprise nuclear attack launched by their former creations, the Cylons. A ragtag fleet of about 80-90 ships has assembled under the protection and leadership of the last surviving battlestar, the Galactica, and have fled into deep space. Commander Adama and President Roslin have promised to guide the people to the long-lost thirteenth colony, Earth. However, contrary to public belief, they have no idea where it is. As the search for Earth unfolds, the crew of Galactica are also relying on Dr. Gaius Baltar's project to build a device to smoke out the Cylon infiltrators among the fleet. There is a great deal of dramatic tension to be mined by the fact that, as a result of the mini-series, the audience knows who one of the Cylon infiltrators is, but neither the crew nor the character know.

An ongoing subplot takes us back to Caprica, now devastated by nuclear explosions and radioactive fall-out, where Lt. Karl Agathon, callsign 'Helo', is trying to find a way off the planet after being stranded there in the mini-series. However, the Cylons have their own plans for Helo...

Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica is its most concise: 13 episodes compared to Season 2-4's 20 apiece. It's also its most consistent in quality, with no longeurs or unwatchably bad episodes. The pace of events is relentless, with the constant Cylon pursuit of the fleet and their hounding of Helo's attempts to flee from Caprica driving the narrative forwards. The emphasis here is less on the mystical elements that come to dominate the later seasons and more on the cold, hard realities of survival: finding or growing the vast amounts of supplies that 50,000 people need to survive on, finding water and fuel, and putting in place an administrative structure to govern the people more effectively. The clash between the military and political perspectives (espoused by Adama and Roslin) provides an underlying thematic structure to the season culminating in the events of the startling finale. Numerous subplots are established and expanded upon with confidence and verve.

For the individual episodes, the award-winning 33 is an astonishing piece of work. The ticking clock element and the constant Cylon attacks on the fleet turning the crew into strung-out wrecks is handled superbly. Water deals with the supply problem effectively whilst increasing the paranoia quotient. Bastille Day introduces the recurring character of Tom Zarek (excellently portrayed by the original series' Richard Hatch) and a number of political subplots that culminate at the end of Season 2. Act of Contrition and You Can't Go Home Again mix together the problem of recruiting new soldiers and pilots from a very limited pool of recruits with a more dynamic storyline involving Starbuck crashed on an inhospitable planet. Litmus addresses the some of the apparent plot-holes of earlier episodes by having someone investigate the security lapses on board the ship. Six Degrees of Separation puts Baltar on the spot when he is accused of treason, with James Callis delivering a stand-out performance. Flesh and Bone is another excellent piece of work, with Starbuck having to torture a Cylon prisoner for information but ends up having her own soul stripped bare. Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down is the first season's only misfire, an attempt at a 'comedy episode' that doesn't work too well, although it does introduce the magnificent, Lady MacBeth-esque character of Ellen Tigh. The Hand of God is a simple balls-to-the-wall action show, with Galactica and her Viper squadrons having to launch a massive assault on a Cylon base. The CGI is astonishingly good and the tactical nuances of the planned attack are portrayed well. Colonial Day is another political episode, showing how the fleet's new administration is going to work. The assassin subplot is muddled and confused, and the resolution to the episode hints at a subplot that is never again addressed. Nevertheless, it's entertaining enough. Events culminate in the two-part Kobol's Last Gleaming, which mixes together the storylines from the entire season and delivers a succession of plot revelations and intriguing ideas culminating in a shocking cliffhanger twist ending that leaves the viewer eager to watch Season 2 immediately.

Battlestar Galactica: Season 1 (****½) is an excellent piece of work, establishing the characters and storylines superbly. It is available on DVD in the UK and packaged with the mini-series in the USA.

101: 33 (*****)
102: Water (****)
103: Bastille Day (****)
104: Act of Contrition (****)
105: You Can't Go Home Again (****)
106: Litmus (***)
107: Six Degrees of Separation (****)
108: Flesh and Bone (*****)
109: Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down (**½)
110: The Hand of God (****)
111: Colonial Day (***½)
112: Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part 1 (****½)
113: Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part 2 (*****)

Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series

When writer/producer Ronald D. Moore won a 2006 award in Los Angeles for his work on the 'reimagined' Battlestar Galactica, host and noted science fiction critic Harlan Ellison congratulated him for taking the 'worst SF TV show' of all time and turning it into the best. Perhaps hyperbolic - there's far worse shows out there than the 1978 iteration of Battlestar Galactica - but an increasingly common sentiment that has seen publications such as Time Magazine, Rolling Stone and the New Yorker declare the new BSG to be the best thing on television, in any genre.

Most of these comments stem from the excellent first and second seasons. Rolling back to the mini-series, it is a surprise to see how fully-formed this show leapt onto the screen. Ususally there is a long 'breaking-in' period that has to elapse before writers and actors really start to feel comfortable on their show. Here, however, the characters appear fully fleshed-out from the start, with Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell turning in sterling performances from the start, with James Callis also particularly worthy of mention. The plot is straightforward: the Twelve Colonies of Mankind are destroyed in a nuclear holocaust unleashed by the Cylons, killing machines humanity created fifty years earlier which rebelled and disappeared into deep space. 50,000 survivors flee to reach the safety offered by the last major warship to survive the attack, the battlestar Galactica, along the way generating plenty of conflict between the democratic, civilian viewpoint (espoused by McDonnell's President Roslin) and the military, pragmatic one (personified by Olmos' Commander Adama). A feeling of paranoia creeps in once it is confirmed that some Cylons now resemble humans and have infiltrated the colonists for their own ends.

At three hours long, the pacing in the mini-series is well-handled, although a couple of scenes near the end feel a bit superfluous. There is a lot of story to handle here and a lot of characters to introduce, however, and this fills the time admirably. The 'naturalistic' shooting is a success and the effects are superb, rivalling or exceeding most of their big-screen counterparts, although the jumpy camera work takes a while to adjust to.

There is little wrong with the mini-series. Perhaps some scenes are not explained well (a brutal murder near the start of the story is supposedly self-justified as a mercy killing by a Cylon agent aware of the imminent nuclear holocaust, but this excuse, feeble though it is, is never even voiced in the episode) and there are a few wince-inducing lines, but the uniformly good acting and writing more than make up for this. The semi-cliffhanger ending also leaves you eager to pick up the Season 1 DVD box set. Overall, an impressive and enjoyable work.

The Battlestar Galactica mini-series (****) is available on DVD very cheaply in the UK. In the USA, it is included on the Season 1 DVD box set.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

The Legends of Dune Trilogy by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson

Way back in 1994, early in the lifespan of its line of Star Wars tie-in novels. Bantam published The Jedi Academy Trilogy by the then-unheard of Kevin J. Anderson. A fanbase invigorated by Timothy Zahn's enjoyable, excellently-paced trilogy featuring Grand Admiral Thraw eagerly seized on any new Star Wars fiction that was being produced (explaining why the so-so Truce at Bakura and the awful Courtship of Princess Leia became instant bestsellers). In the case of this trilogy, this proved to be unwise. Featuring morally corrupt would-be Jedi who kill billions and then get forgiven by Luke Skywalker because they felt bad about it, and a superweapon that makes the Death Star look pitiful (a ship called the Sun Crusher which can destroy star systems and is indestructible), The Jedi Academy Trilogy appeared to be the ultimate work of deluded fan fiction. Naturally, it sold huge amounts of copies.

Soon enough, Anderson was everywhere. He was writing X-Files novels. His own creations, utterly unremarkable with the exception of the mildly diverting Climbing Olympus, were soon spreading insidiously over bookshelves everywhere. Could he not be stopped? And then the final ignomy: he convinced Brian Herbert to help him co-write the books that would continue Herbert's father's Dune series.


Readers braced themselves for something horrifying, but unexpectedly the Prelude to Dune Trilogy (House Atreides, House Harkonnen and House Corrino) turned out to be okay. Not great, obviously, but readable. Naturally, the books contradicted established Dune canon all over the shop and the characters only really worked because Frank Herbert had already established them, but compared to other cash-in books out there these were definitely nowhere near as bad as they could have been.

Alas, the same cannot be said for the Legends of Dune Trilogy. Set ten thousand years before the events of Dune, roughly the same amount of time into our future, the trilogy chronicles how humankind freed itself from slavery at the hands of the 'thinking machines' and embarked on a bloody war that after a century saw the machines vanquished and the great Imperium founded. As with the earlier trilogy, Anderson and Herbert almost immediately started deviating from established Dune canon: the Butlerian Jihad is depicted in the original novels as a much more equal war, with the humans deciding to destroy the machines after a cult of humans worshipping the AIs as gods is uncovered (hence the whole, "You shall not build a machine in the likeness of a human mind," stuff). This is also the version of the struggle Frank Herbert depicted in the 1984 Dune Encyclopedia and formed the basis of the notes for his own planned prequel novel (which he was apparently planning to write following the seventh Dune novel). For reasons that are not entirely clear, Herbert and Anderson decided that was lame and went with their own, original creation.

It is difficult to describe how inept this series is. The Dune universe is one that is rich in fantastic and original concepts, worlds and characters. To make it appear to be bland and silly actually takes some skill, skills which the authors clearly brought to this project with enthusiasm. The characters are, at best, two-dimensional cyphers. The AIs are incredibly stupid and do not operate with anything approaching logic. The preponderence of force on the AIs' side is so ridiculous the human rebels should not even have the slightest chance of victory (hence why in Frank Herbert's original vision the two sides were equal to start off with), let alone the freedom to spend decades developing their Holtzman shields, las-guns, spacefolding technology and so forth. Also, we are led to believe that not just the Imperium and the Houses, but also the Bene Gesserit, the Suk School, the Spacing Guild, the Fremen, the swordmasters of Ginaz, the Mentats, the face-dancers and just about every single other concept in the Dune series was established simultaneously (in Herbert's original plan the Bene Gesserit had already existed for centuries, albeit with a different agenda) in an awe-inspiring display of pure fanwank.

Does this series bring any positive qualities to the table? No. The plotting is so mechanical it feels like it was procedurally generated by a computer algorithm. The characters are cyphers at best, who do not operate in accordance with generally-accepted principles of logic or intelligence. Vast reams of the three books are taken up by tedious info-dumping and exposition. This is a cold, cynical exercise in making money from fans starved of new material for too long by two authors who have lost whatever credibility they once had in the genre.

The Prelude to Dune Trilogy (*) is a work that can only justly be described in terms not appropriate for polite blogging. Whilst it is true that the original Dune novels by Frank Herbert themselves went off the boil in later years, even the worst of them is preferable to this drivel. Avoid.

A more concise review is given by the webcomic Penny Arcade at this location.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

I think in recent years there's been a tendency to take Terry Pratchett for granted. He has consistently churned out, on average, two high-quality novels a year for the better part of a quarter of a century. His Discworld is one of the most fleshed-out secondary worlds in existence. Ankh-Morpork is routinely voted 'greatest fantasy city' ever. Out of 36 Discworld and a dozen non-Discworld novels, there are very few which can be said to be sub-par. There seemed to be this assumption that this was going to carry on for some considerable time to come. With the announcement of his illness last year that seems to have changed, and each new Pratchett novel is likely to garner more coverage and more interest than ever before.

Making Money is the 36th Discworld novel and its paperback release comes in the year that the flat world carried through space on the back of a giant turtle celebrates its 25th anniversary; The Colour of Magic, the first book in the series, was published in 1983. The book is also the sequel to an earlier Discworld novel, Going Postal. In that book, conman Moist von Lipwig was rescued from the gallows by the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, Lord Vetinari, and set to work restoring the Post Office to its former glory. He succeeded handsomely.

Making Money opens a year later. The Post Office is a roaring success, but Moist is feeling a little bored, and has taken to breaking into his own bedroom to keep his skills fresh. The Patrician seems to have concluded that Moist would make an excellent troubleshooter to sort out Ankh-Morpork's other failing public services and tasks him with getting the Ankh-Morpork Bank back on its feet after the former chairwoman passed away, leaving her dog, Mr. Fusspot, to inherit the role of chairman. Moist is initially reluctant, but soon relishes the new challenge. Unfortunately, a family who own a share in the bank, the Lavishes, are not so keen on Moist's appointment and are soon digging into his dirty past to find something to use against him. Thrown into the mix are lots of golems (including a gender-confused one), an undead necromancer with an eye for the ladies, a very dedicated bank clerk and a lot of clockwork items of an intimate nature.

As usual, the book is an effortless read. Pratchett's prose sparkles and flows as easily as ever, although careful reading is required to catch every observation and piece of satire as it flies past. Pratchett's typical approach of standing back, putting a mirror in front of something we take for granted (banking, in this case) and saying, "Look, this is a really daft system on quite a few levels," is again quite successful here. As with the other later Discworld novels, the broad out-and-out humour takes a back seat to more wry observations, although a comical interlude involving a dog becoming attached to a new 'rubber chew toy' that in this case has fallen out of a cupboard of erotica, and then playing with it in polite company, shows that Pratchett still has time for a good old-fashioned piece of outrageous farce. That said, as with a number of other Pratchett novels the ending is somewhat contrived and the characters get out of the various fixes they're in with some fast-talk, handwaving and a nod from the Patrician, which is a resolution that has perhaps been used a few too many times in this series.

Whilst it's not up there with the series at its best, and the tendency for characters who are intelligent and forthright in their own books to come across a bit as bumbling fools when appearing in cameos outside them (in this case various members of the City Watch) is a bit wearying, Making Money is a solid addition to the series and adds a lot to the evolution of Discworld and Ankh-Morpork (which is now starting to get its own underground rail network, the Undertaking). Somewhat unusually for the series, the ending also sets up a third Moist von Lipwig adventure, Raising Taxes, which is likely to be another two or three Discworld books down the road.

Making Money (****) is available now in the UK from Corgi Books and in hardcover in the USA from Haper Books. The US mass-market paperback is due out on 30 September 2008. Terry Pratchett's new, non-Discworld novel Nation will be released on 11 September 2008. He currently has three more Discworld novels on the go: Unseen Academicals, about the Unseen University's football team; I Shall Wear Midnight, the next Tiffany Aching novel for younger readers; and Raising Taxes, a sequel to Making Money. Expect to see them over the next year or two.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Richard Morgan Update

Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains is now on general release in the UK and is well worth a look, as per my review.

The author will also be signing copies of the book at Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue in London on Thursday, 7 August at 6-7pm.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book III: Fire

The second season of Avatar ended on a downer: the city of Ba Sing Se has fallen to the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom is under enemy occupation and organised resistance to the Fire Nation has been reduced to a few guerrilla bands. However, the Avatar, Aang, and his companions are still at large and in possession of vital information: in a few short weeks there will be a solar eclipse, during which time the Fire Nation will be vulnerable to attack. A few weeks after that, Sozin's Comet will return, and the powers of the firebenders will be at their height. The Avatar must face and defeat Fire Lord Ozai during the eclipse if the world is to be saved.

The board is set for a grand showdown, but our heroes still need to prepare for the final confrontation. The early part of Season 3 has our heroes infiltrating the Fire Nation, having arranged a meeting place with some of their allies. One of the benefits of Ba Sing Se's isolationism during the war was that many of its armies were left to operate autonomously, and they have enough military force left to help with an assault on the Fire Nation's capital. However, the early part of Season 3 is surprisingly focused on stand-alone episodes as it treads water waiting for the eclipse. Luckily, few arc-heavy shows do stand-alones as well as Avatar, and episodes centering on Sokka's desire to find a mentor of his own or Katara trying to save a village from pollution caused by a Fire Nation factory are more effective than they might sound, with each adding an element of character growth or humour to the series' tapestry.

After a few stand-aloneish episodes, the arc reasserts itself. We learn vital backstory about the relationship between Sozin and Roku, the previous Avatar, and Katara discovers a powerful but deadly new form of waterbending. There is still time for the show's humour, however, as with the episode where Aang cannot rest before the invasion and starts having bizarre hallucinations (such as one where Momu and Appa gain the power of speech and fight a deadly sword duel whilst being cheered on by sheep). The invasion finally comes, but obviously the fact it takes place ten episodes before the end of the series is a sign that things are not going to turn out well. From this point, the former dynamics of the show reassert themselves, with Azula and her compatriots hunting down the Avatar and Zuko's torn loyalties again leading him down a different path. The second half of the season is more tense and more urgent, as the 'good guys' are reduced to little more than just our heroes and the imminent arrival of the comet inspires the Fire Lord to embark on a plan of mass destruction and genocide beyond anything we've seen before in this show. Events culminate in a massive showdown, unexpected (but cleverly foreshadowed) allies emerge and old mysteries are solved as the story reaches its epic conclusion.

The third and final season of Avatar draws the storyline to an action-packed conclusion which is extremely satisfying, with enough twists and turns to avoid being predictable. As usual, the character development is exemplery, the writing entertaining and the voice acting accomplished. Criticisms? Well, there is an element of deus ex machina in the finale, although closer examination reveals it was set up earlier (a fairly obscure reference in Season 2's The Library, though), and there are a few loose ends, with some characters' fates left murky or unresolved. With the promised Avatar spin-off series apparently going to be set in a different time period focusing on a different incarnation of the Avatar, it's unclear if these questions will be answered. But if not, they at least give the fans something to debate and argue over in the future.

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book III: Fire (****½) will be released on DVD in the USA on 16 September 2008 (individual volumes are available now), although once again no word of an official UK release, although a Region 1 import will be available.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Wertzone Classics: Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Published in 1986-87 as a 12-issue mini-series, Watchmen is the most critically-applauded graphic novel of all time. The comic industry's answer to Citizen Kane, this is a complex, literate story that belies its premise and makes maximum use of its medium to deliver a story that couldn't be told any other way (although the forthcoming movie adaption promises to have a damn good try). As well as its impact on comics, Watchmen is one of the defining modern works of science fiction (winning a Hugo Award in 1988), and was rated as one of the one hundred most important novels of the 20th Century by Time Magazine.

The book opens in 1985 with the murder of Edward Blake, a government-sponsored crimefighter who worked under the alias 'The Comedian'. A masked vigilante known as Rorschach investigates. Rorschach, the Comedian and a number of other 'superheroes' fought crime together until the 1977 Keene Act outlawed heroes unless they worked directly for the US government. Most of the heroes retired, but Rorschach turned vigilante. Apart from the Comedian, the only hero left in government employ is Dr. Manhattan. Unlike the other heroes, who are simply well-meaning ordinary people, albeit with superior mental or physical training, Dr. Manhattan is the real deal. In 1959 an experiment with intrinsic field theory went catastrophically wrong, disintegrating Dr. Jon Osterman and transforming him into a being with total mastery over matter.

Rorschach continues to investigate the crime, but tensions are rising between the United States, led by President Nixon (serving a fifth term of office after the mysterious deaths of two Washington Post investigative reporters in 1971), and the Soviet Union. With the nuclear doomsday clock ticking ever closer to zero and other retired crimfighters either being killed or attacked, it falls to a select group of people to try and discover who or what is driving the world towards destruction.

It's a classic set-up, but you might argue not a revolutionary one. The trick is in the details. The world of Watchmen, which is on one hand close to that of the 'real' 1985 and on the other totally different, is meticulously constructed with every logical ramification of the existence of a genuine superhero pursued to its end. Thanks to Dr. Manhattan's scientific genius, the world is largely pollution-free, thanks to cheap electric cars and clean airships that provide international transport. Unfortunately, Manhattan's role as a nuclear deterrent and his assistance in helping the USA win the Vietnam War in just three months has also encouraged American imperialism and belligerence, slowly pushing Russia into a diplomatic corner from where it may feel it has no choice but to lash out. The other 'superheroes' are just ordinary people who like to dress up and fight crime, but largely they come to realise that their efforts are for nothing, since they cannot fight the underlying social and economic conditions that are the breeding ground for petty criminals.

As well as the characters involved in the story itself, the narrative spins backwards in time to investigate the prior generation of heroes and what role they are playing in events, and also encompasses a number of ordinary people on the streets of New York City who are witnesses to events: a newsstand vendor and his most regular customer, a young man obsessed with a pirate comic called Tales of the Black Freighter (which acts as a commentary and reflection on the main narrative, whose author plays a minor role in the story); a criminal psychiatrist driven to despair by his patients; and a homicide detective whose investigation of the Comedian's murder threatens his own career. It's a vast, dizzying web of storytelling with each storyline interconnected with many of the others in surprising and revelatory ways, and a commentary on superheroes and their psychology, capitalism, world politics and the morality of war.

As well as Moore's astonishing script, Dave Gibbons delivers excellent, detail-filled, rich artwork which captures the nuances of the story perfectly. Rereading the book, the reader discovers more details, more clues to the story that they missed on a first reading.

Watchmen (*****) is, twenty years after it was first published, still as astonishing, readable, entertaining and thought-provoking as ever, and still stands at the very apex of its approach to storytelling. The graphic novel is available from DC Comics in the UK and USA. A special edition of the comic book, Absolute Watchmen, featuring production notes and a new, clearer reprinting of the artwork, is also available in the UK. A movie adaption, directed by 300's Zack Snyder, is currently in post-production and will be released in March 2009. A trailer (set appropriately to the Smashing Pumpkins' 'The Beginning is the End is the Beginning') can be found here.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling is the debut novel by American author Kristin Cashore. It is a stand-alone secondary world fantasy, although I'd hesitate to call it an epic fantasy. The writer is planning at least two more books set in the same world (the next one will be a prequel, called Fire), but Graceling is a single work mercifully lacking a cliffhanger ending. Interestingly, the American publishers are marketing it as a YA novel, although the British ones aren't.

Seven kingdoms sit uneasily alongside one another, constantly raiding and counter-raiding one another. A secretive organisation known as the Council is helping the common people of the lands survive in these harsh times. Meanwhile, certain people in the world are born with extraordinary abilities called Graces. Someone with the Grace of swimming can hold their breath for huge amounts of time underwater and swim like a fish, whilst someone with the Grace of swordsmanship is a brilliantly talented warrior, able to predict an enemy's moves with stunning speed.

Katsa, neice to King Randa of the Middluns, has the Grace of killing. She is the King's assassin, his enforcer and, when necessary, his torturer. She hates the role and yearns for a less violent existence. When her role in the Council leads her into a conspiracy over the kidnapping of the King of Lienid's father, she is forced into an uneasy alliance with Po, the Prince of Lienid, a Graced warrior of exemplery skill. The path they follow leads to startling discoveries over their own abilities, and their confrontation with someone whose Grace makes them almost unstoppable.

For a debut novel, Graceling is well-written, nicely-structured and easy to read. The characters are well-drawn and the storyline intriguing enough to draw the reader along at a good speed. The notion of Graces, although not hugely original, is nonetheless explored in-depth throughout the book with some nice, logical extrapolations of the abilities on show.

However, there are some issues. The names of the characters and kingdoms are all somewhat whimsical and occasionally distract from the seriousness of the tale. This wasn't a huge problem for me, but given that I know that some people pointblank refused to read The Red Wolf Conspiracy because of it, I know it will put some people off. Also, the ending feels a little bit too neat. True, the author throws a wrench into the final couple of chapters that was genuinely unexpected and means the ending is hardly all happiness and light, but still, all the storylines are tied off nicely. The only big unanswered question, the background and motivations of the main villain, will be explored in the next book.

Balanced against these issues is a well-drawn tale featuring interesting protganosits in a decently-realised setting. Whilst Graceling won't be generating Rothfuss or Lynch levels of excitement for a debut novel, it's certainly enjoyable and well worth a read.

Graceling (***½) will first be released by Gollancz in the UK as an export edition on 20 November 2008, followed by standard tradeback and hardcover releases on 22 January 2009 (by coincidence, my 30th birthday). The US edition will be published by Harcourt Books on 1 October 2008. The author maintains a blog at this location.

Update

I've revamped the blog list after the recent round-up of websites, and also added a list of all the author blogs I thought readers might be interested in. I daresay I'll find a few more to add in the near future.

I've spent a fair amount of time considering adding advertisements to the blog, but after learning that Pat (of the Fantasy Hotlist) makes about $50 a year max from his much vaster number of page-views, I decided it probably wasn't worth irritating my readers to introduce them. I am thinking about doing something about the look of the blog. I think it's too late to change the name, but certainly giving the blog a bit of a more distinctive look could be a good idea. It's been set at blogger's default scheme since I created the thing.

Currently reading: Graceling by Kristin Cashore (ARC).
Currently watching: Avatar Season 3, The Wire Season 1, Babylon 5 Season 5 (rewatch).
Currently playing: Company of Heroes, Ground Control (replay).

Friday, 18 July 2008

The Hedge Knight by George R.R. Martin

The Hedge Knight first saw light as a 1998 prose short story, published in Robert Silverberg's Legends anthology (but now available in the Dreamsongs collection from Gollancz, specifically the second volume of the paperback editions). This is the graphic novel version, superbly illustrated throughout by Mike S. Miller, whilst Silverberg contributes a foreword and a section on heraldry at the end is provided by Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson of the Westeros.org website. As a bonus there is also a short excerpt from the sequel, The Sworn Sword, in the second edition of the graphic novel.

The story opens 89 years before the events of A Game of Thrones. Lord Ashford has called a great tourney and noble warriors and knights from all the Seven Kingdoms have arrived to take part and display their prowess on the field. Among them is Ser Duncan the Tall, a hedge knight seeking his fortune. He finds himself joined by an irritating boy determined to become a squire, Egg, and eventually, reluctantly agrees to take him on. Dunk's plans to make his mark in the lists are dealt a serious blow when he provokes the wrath of Prince Aerion Targaryen, and the story - and the history of Westeros - is wrenched onto a different path.

The story is superb. George RR Martin is an acknowledged master of the SF&F short story and that is evident in The Hedge Knight, which is concise but so tightly and meticulously plotted it's difficult not to just gawp at it in admiration. GRRM employs his usual historical fidelity, showing the tremendous risks that young, poor knights took by fighting in tourneys (a single loss can result in total financial ruin and destitution), whilst colouring it with the pomp and pageantry of the Seven Kingdoms. Miller's artwork is excellent throughout, capturing the characters well and the landscape and heraldry in vivid detail. The detail in the story is also excellent, setting up plot points in the main novels almost undetectably. Ever wonder why the Fossoways are divided into a 'green' and 'red' branch? The answer is provided here. We also see the start of the unlikely chain of events that led to Prince Aerys (not even born at this point) taking the throne as the Mad King and thus kick the entire storyline of the novels into gear. As is often the case with GRRM, re-reading the story, particularly the very start, reveals other things going on under the surface which are very intriguing indeed, and cast the whole story in a very different light.

This is a superb story, one of George RR Martin's finest works of whatever genre and medium, and excellently presented.

The Hedge Knight (*****) is available now in the UK and USA from Marvel (Amazon.com seems to be down at the moment but I'll put in the link as soon as I can). The Sworn Sword is also available now.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass

Melinda Snodgrass is another of the excellent coterie of SF&F authors hailing from New Mexico, along with the likes of Daniel Abraham, George RR Martin and Walter Jon Williams. Snodgrass' background credentials are solid: she wrote a number of notable Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in the first few seasons (most notably the early classic, The Measure of a Man) and was co-editor and a contributor to the Wild Cards series for many years. Although she has written many short stories over the years, The Edge of Reason is her first novel in over fifteen years.

The story opens in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Officer Richard Oort finds two strange creatures attacking a young woman and intervenes. This is the start of a path that leads him to a secretive organisation known as the Lumina. The Lumina represent the forces of progress, science and technology, opposed to the Old Ones, creatures from other universes who have broken into this one and, through the creation and manipulation of magic and religion, feed off the fear and doubts of humankind. This is the ultimate war of science versus faith, made manifest and fighting for very high stakes.

The novel opens in a faltering manner. Whilst the writing is good, the age-old problem of how the protagonist reacts when told reality as he knows it is a lie and magic and demons and other supernatural forces are real rears its head. The reaction of Oort and several other characters when faced with the truth is somewhat underplayed: after a few minutes of the traditional, "But that's impossible!" reaction (although Oort doesn't even get that) they're ready to sign up and fight the 'bad guys'. This is preferable to the Thomas Covenant extreme of going the other way, and once you get past it the book picks up the pace tremendously, weaving Oort's mysterious past and his troubled family life into the narrative with some skill. One point that I thought was a weakness - the character of Rhiana, the young woman who leads Oort into the story in the first place, fades into the background for the middle third of the novel - turns out to be an important plot point as well.

The story twists and turns entertainingly towards the end, although I don't think anyone who's read Neil Gaiman's American Gods or the works of Stephen King are going to be too shocked by the way events unfold. But it's all done in an engrossing manner, the characters are sympathetic and well-defined and the last fifty pages or so roar past at a furious pace. Given that this was marketed as a single novel, the sequel-baiting ending is slightly disappointing, but at the same time I would welcome a return to this setting and characters.

The Edge of Reason (***½) is an enjoyable and at times thought-provoking novel which, after a slightly faltering start, gets going and is fun to read. Recommended.

The book is available in the UK and USA from Tor Books.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Temeraire by Naomi Novik

Temeraire is an epic fantasy/alternate history crossbreed novel by Naomi Novik, first published in 2006. Confusingly, it is also the first novel of the Temeraire series, an open-ended series which now encompasses five volumes with several more on the way. In the USA, possibly more sensibly, it is called His Majesty's Dragon.

The Napoleonic Wars are raging across Europe, but this is not the history we are familiar with. Dragons exist in this world and most nations have harnessed them to be used as weapons of war. Captain Will Laurence of the Royal Navy wins a great coup for Britain when he captures a French vessel transporting a rare Chinese dragon egg to Napoleon. The egg hatches and the newborn dragon immediately bonds with Will, to his consternation. Once a dragon has chosen its rider, the bond cannot be severed and Will has to give up his career in the navy to train as a dragon-rider.

The rest of the novel follows Will as he learns the basics of serving in Britain's aerial corps and bonds with the young Temeraire, who rapidly grows to maturity, before taking part in a series of engagements with Napoleon's forces culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar and a French aerial assault on the British coast.

Temeraire is a fun read. It's light but enjoyable. Novik paints her characters with a light touch, and after numerous recent dark and gritty fantasies it's something of a relief to read something that is enjoyable and amusing without being drenched in blood every five pages. Conversely, this makes the book something of a popcorn read: a somewhat disposable product. There's some fairly broad characterisation going on there and some of the background doesn't make sense (it's still unclear to me why aviators are considered the scum of the earth compared to soldiers and naval crew), not to mention some fairly wince-inducing, Eddings-esque dialogue between the aviators and their dragons. However, that tends to get forgotten when the muskets start blazing and French and British warships are pounding away at one another with giant lizards battling one another far above, which is all splendidly exciting and well-realised. Given Novik's background in computer programming, it's appropriate to describe the Temeraire concept as an obvious 'killer app', and it's no surprise it was rapidly snapped up for a movie adaption by Peter Jackson (it would be interesting if Smaug in the upcoming Hobbit movie adaption turns out to be a prototype for the dragons in the Temeraire move to follow).

Temeraire (***) may be fluff, but it's fun and easy to read, and I really need to get around to reading the sequels, but as I said with so many other, meatier books around it's easy to forget about this series. The novel is published by Voyager in the UK and by Del Rey in the USA (under the title His Majesty's Dragon). The sequels are Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory and Victory of Eagles, with more volumes forthcoming.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Online Round-Up Part 2

Forums
Ah, forums. In the grand tradition of the classical civilisation concept that gave them their name, SF&F forums are enlightened places of civilised discussion and debate, where everyone's opinions are respected and the partipiants enjoy partaking in a mutual exchange of ideas for their mutual enrichment.

Okay, maybe not, but relatively SF&F forums are, believe it or not sometimes, among the best out there. Venture into a computer game or TV-based forum, and it won't be long before you're decrying the state of the education system amd the rise of functional illiteracy, whilst pondering if you should be hiring a bodyguard given the reaction you provoked when you very gently suggested that maybe, just maybe, the new Doctor Who isn't quite the single most fantastic thing since sliced bread.

My forum of choice is Westeros. Technically, this is supposed to be the forum dedicated to George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. However, since new novels in the series come out at rather irregular intervals, the fanbase on the forum spends enormous amounts of time discussing other books and authors, as well as TV shows, games, politics etc. You know a forum has 'made it' when increasingly more people are joining up to take part in the discussion who have never read the author the site is supposedly supporting. With nearly ten thousand members, Westeros is also one of the biggest forums out there. The quality of discussion is usually high, and you can find me hanging out there most days, whilst authors such as Peadar O'Guilin, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Pat Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, Brian Ruckley and Richard Morgan have been known to stop by from time to time.

My oldest forum is Wotmania, specifically the 'Other Fantasy' subforum. I first visited this forum ten years ago, not long after it was established, and lurked there for many years. The quality of discussion is likewise high, and unusually for an epic fantasy board discussion of other types of genre is quite frequent. Few people would probably credit a Robert Jordan board for hosting so much discussion of Hal Duncan, M. John Harrison and Jeff VanderMeer. Interestingly and conveniently, the Other Fantasy subforum lumps TV, films and books together, making navigation a breeze compared to some other forums. On the other hand, the forum software is ancient, and the site has an extremely old-fashioned look to it these days.

Malazanempire is of note for Steven Erikson fans who haven't got a clue what is going on in the books. The posters there are extremely knowledgeable of the series and if you poke around you'll find my map of the entire Malazan world, as approved by Erikson himself (although it's not canon and I had to guess at a lot of the stuff, it's apparently pretty close).

SFX is the forum of the British SFX Magazine and is notable for its heavy British bias towards SF&F. Whilst I can't recommend the book discussion section too much (it's often dead for weeks at a time, aside from the 'what are you reading now?' threads), the TV discussion is pretty interesting and it's one of the few forums I've come across with a dedicated anime discussion subforum.

SFFWorld is one of the bigger multi-topic forums out there. Not dedicated to any particular author or subgenre, the breadth of discussion is impressive and the mods and admins know their stuff. There are two criticisms. First off, there sheer mass and number of subforums (14 of them) is a bit off-putting when first confronted. I can't help but feel that other forums have handled having a large breadth of discussion topics somewhat more elegantly. The split between the SF and Fantasy subforums, one of the few boards to do this, also means slightly more work for the casual browser as he has to move between both forums. There are also technical issues. Possibly down to the sheer volume of topics out there, the board is sometimes slow to load and posting a reply can take a long time (often you can hit 'Post Reply', go off to make a cup of tea and come back to find it still hasn't gone through). Despite these minor issues, the quality of discussion on the board is high and there quite a few authors who participate in discussions there, including the likes of Gary Wassner, James Barclay and Scott Bakker.

In terms of membership (although it should be remembered that the membership of any board can be misleading, as old, inactive accounts and alts belonging to the same person are usually counted alongside current accounts), Chronicles Network is allegedly the biggest SF forum out there. However, it's clunkily designed with the number of subforums verging on the insane. Whilst they do keep SF and Fantasy together (but separate Horror from both), they have separated out reviews, a curious decision given that reviews are a primary driver of discussion. Again, however, there is a lot of great discussion to be had there.

Other authors such as Paul Kearney and Brandon Sanderson also run their own forums where interesting, decent discussion can be found. Scott Bakker's forum, Three-Seas, has recently made a bit of a comeback from a long period of quiet and has had a bit of smart makeover. Good to see this board gearing up after the three-year-drought of new material from the author. The new-ish board dedicated to Peter F. Hamilton's works, The Unisphere, is also a good read for those looking for more info on Hamilton's works.

Okay, so that wraps that up. I may continue to update the list as time goes by as other, interesting forums are pointed out.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Wertzone Classics: Ultraviolet

A brief note here: the Ultraviolet of which I speak is a mini-series that aired on Channel 4 in the UK and is absolutely no relation to the godawful Mila Jovovich move of the same name, and should not be confused with it.

Ultraviolet ran for six episodes at the tail end of 1998 and rapidly picked up enormous critical acclaim. Unfortunately, various factors combined to mean that a planned sequel series never went into production. The series was the brainchild of Joe Ahearne, who wrote and directed all the episodes (the exhaustion brought about by which, and C4's request he do the same for the second season, is apparently the key reason why it never happened). Ahearne had formally worked on the acclaimed BBC-2 series This Life and more recently has directed several episodes of the new Doctor Who.

Ultraviolet is a modern take on the vampire myth. As it was airing at the same time as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the writer clearly wanted to take a different approach (borrowing a fair bit from The X-Files as well). Ultraviolet is more realistic than Buffy, delving more into science of how vampires might work and showing in some cases greater fidelity to the myth (for example, vampires do not appear on camera as mirrors are part of the camera's focusing mechanism, whilst in Buffy they do) and taking it to new levels: these vampires cannot appear in any form of electronic recording, and cannot use phones either. Also, to avoid certain connotations of the word they never once use the term 'vampire' in the whole series, instead using the phrase 'Code 5' (which is rendered as 'Code V') or the nickname 'leech'. Ultraviolet does have a wry sense of humour, however, especially in the use of carbon bullets and ultraviolet-emitting detection gear (which replicates the effects of sunlight) to replicate more traditional vampire-killing weapons.

The story follows Detective Sergeant Michael Colefield of the London Metropolitan Police Force (played by Jack Davenport, better-known these days for his turn as Captain/Commodore Norrington in the Pirates of the Carribbean trilogy). When his best friend and fellow policeman vanishes without a trace on the eve of his wedding, Colefield discovers his friend was leading a shady double-life that was being investigated by a organisation that the government refuses to acknowledge exists. This organisation is soon, almost reluctantly, forced to recruit Colefield into their ranks once he uncovers evidence of the existence of the 'leeches'. He is integrated into a team led by Father Pearse Harman (the Catholic Church co-funds the war against the leeches alongside national governments; played by Philip Quast), Dr. Angela March (Susannah Harker) and Vaughn Rice (Idris Elba, best-known for his role as Stringer Bell in The Wire), but intriguingly he doesn't fully trust his new team-members and they remain wary of him until quite late in the series. This is mostly because Colefield has a hopeless crush on his friend's jilted fiancee, Kirsty and continues to have contact with her, which the rest of the team suspects is a weakness the leeches will employ against him. However, when it is discovered that Harman has cancer, the leeches also find that they have a temptation they can use against him...

Even though there was supposed to be a sequel, as a mini-series Ultraviolet works extremely well, with events starting at one point and coming full circle as the series proceeds. The notion of science versus faith is explored intelligently in the series: crucifixes and other symbols of faith are treated as placebos and only have an impact on those vampires who themselves are superstitious. The vampires themselves employ technology for their own ends, able to drive around with with use of UV-resistant glass and use vocoders to make phone calls, whilst the longer-lived specimens are able to manipulate the stock market over decades to make immense fortunes. The central theme of the series is also compelling: the vampires and those opposed to them have endured an uneasy truce over the centuries because the vampires want to protect their food supply and enjoy being the elite; they have no wish to turn the whole human race into vampires, for example. The truce is now over because humanity is getting perilously close to the point where it will destroy itself, and the vampires need to save us from ourselves...but whilst this may sound great the suggestion is that their preferred mode of existence for 'normals' is in immense battery farms. At the same time, the world governments are scared of going public for fear of causing a panic and the creation of a state of intolerance, surveillence and fear. As one character says, they walk the line between living on a Bernard Matthews farm or in Iran-writ-large. These themes, even more timely now than when the show was first transmitted, are explored intelligently and in-depth.

This is a great series and no mistake, well-written, excellently acted (Davenport's finest hour by far; Quast is just fantastic as the multi-layered Harman) with moments of moral doubt, character drama and occasional moments of bad-ass action (Vaughn gets two of the most spectacular vampire kills in screen history), whilst the revelation of the vampire's final plan for humanity in the last episode is spine-chilling.

Criticisms? Frankly, no, not really. When the episode aired with the paedophile case I was a bit bemused and pondered if the show was just trying to be 'edgy' for the sake of it. However, it ended with an absolutely monumental and somewhat disturbing twist that was just brilliant and exceedingly logical given the parameters of the show. Of course, the biggest criticism is that we never got a second season, but that may be for the best. The conclusion to the series would seem to make any further continuation of the story a bit too black-and-white, whilst it's the moral ambiguity of the two sides that makes Ultraviolet so interesting.

Ultraviolet (*****) is available on DVD in the UK and the USA and is absolutely 100% recommended as being probably the finest exploration and use of the vampire in modern fiction I have come across.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Online Round-Up Part 1

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the other blogs that are on the go out there and see what they bring to the table.

Newsletters
The only SF&F-related newsletter I make a point of reading every month is David Langford's Ansible. Langford is a consistently funny, offbeat look at the genre and is an excellent resource for rounding up all the news in the genre in any one month. He's won nearly thirty Hugo Awards for it and his other projects over the years, and it's certainly worth taking a look every month.

Blogs
The biggest blog out there is Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, which recently passed its 1 millionth page-view milestone. The Hotlist remains a valuable resource for reviews, interviews and competitions on the web, even if Pat's scoring system is so complex that it has confounded expert mathmaticians.

Blood of the Muse is a newer blog that has emerged in recent months featuring good book reviews and author interviews and picks up on the defunct Hope I Didn't Give Away the Ending's tradition of showing author's signatures to aid collectors. A good read.

The Bodhisattva is a long-running blog run by Jay Tomio, who knows of what he speaks. Jay gives good quote, does good reviews and expands beyond the standard literary reviews to take in comics as well.

The Book Swede is a solid review blog which also delves into the murky realm of television on occasion. Well worth a look.

Dark Wolf is a newer blogger who has come along in the last few months with a fine site and some good reviews on there.

The Deckled Edge is another solid blog, and carries on a fine tradition of summing up each new week's releases and bestsellers.

Aidan Moher's A Dribble of Ink has become a more impressive blog as time has gone on, adding excellent interviews and keeping abreast of the latest debates and discussions rocking the SF&F blogosphere, as well as doing a good line in those articles about various facets of the genre I occasionally think of doing and then don't because, well, people like Aidan do them better then me. Worth checking out.

In a similar manner, Fantasy Book Critic has become a more intriguing blog of late, with the team of writers expanding to ensure more regular updates and a greater range of subjects covered.

Fantasy Debut has been around for a year now, but missed my attention for quite some time. This blog concentrates on new authors to the genre and on their debut novels. It's a slightly different approach and emphasis which is distinctive, and the blog is quite interesting as a result. You may pick up the first hints of the 'next big thing' here.

Another (relatively) long-term blogger is Ken, whose Nethspace continues to offer worthwhile commentary on the genre (most recently with a scathing attack on the Locus Awards controversy) and is always worth a look.

Fellow 'lemming of discord' (long story) MinDonner runs her blog Sandstorm Reviews at this location, and is well worth a look for her great reviews as well as the colleting of various, merciless parodies of the works of Terry Goodkind.

Larry, aka 'Dylanfanatic', brings a slightly different sensibility to his appreciation of the genre over at OF Blog of the Fallen, which is always interesting.

Graeme's Fantasy Book Review has become one of my most commonly-visited blogs and features good round-ups and review of everying book-related. And I just realised I haven't got this in my links bar. Whoops, sorry Graeme!

Similar apologies must also go to James, whose Speculative Horizons is another excellent blog that's similar gone un-linked by me up to now.

Gabe Chouinard, always one for an interesting debate or review, has his blog Mysterious Outposts here. I will point out that this entry has always been here and was absolutely not added after the fact in the spirit of Soviet revisionism because he commented on the entry. Of course not. Ahem.

Unfortunately, some of my other favoured sites and blogs have gone on hiatus in the last few months:

Darren 'Ariel' Turpin has sadly recently mothballed his excellent UK SF Book News website and reduced his online presence via his blog, The Genre Files, due to a heavy workload in his new job working for Orbit. Best of luck to Darren in his new endeavour, but I hope we continue to hear from him in the future.

My fellow BwBer Race has likewise reduced his blogging frequency over at The Human Race, but hopes he might make a bit of a comeback soon, which would be most welcome.

For various reasons, some of them I believe outside his control, William 'Stego' Lexner's blog, Hope I Didn't Give Away the Ending, continues to be on hiatus. No-one does a good rant like William, but few are as strident in their passion for the genre, and we can but hope for his eventual return to the blogosphere.

Author Blogs
Frankly too many to mention, although I'm sure most people already have Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin's blogs on tap (although in the latter case the constant flamewarring over the release of his new novel is getting a little tiresome). Joe Abercrombie's blog is also becoming an enjoyable blog to read, with occasional TV and movie reviews interspersed with shamelessly outrageous self-promotion. I can also recommend the blogs of Alastair Reynolds, Adam Roberts, Melinda Snodgrass (whose latest novel, The Edge of Reason, I've just started reading and is a bit of a stormer), Kate Elliott, Daniel Abraham, Brandon Sanderson, David Deveraux, Tom Lloyd (whose books I really need to read), Lisa Tuttle, Peter F. Hamilton and in particular Peadar O'Guilin, whose blog is quite amusing to read.

Also, not quite an author blog, but I've found the blog of Mojo, a CGI artist who has worked on many major SF TV shows including Babylon 5, Star Trek: Voyager and Battlestar Galactica, to be thoroughly enjoyable and extremely funny.

This is getting a bit long, so I'll leave off here. Next time, I'll be taking a look at the myriad SF&F fan forums out there.

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition: Player's Handbook

Reviewing is something of a solitary habit, so it's good when an opportunity arises to test something with five friends over an extended period of time. In this case, it was the new, fourth iteration of the Dungeons and Dragons pen-and-paper roleplaying game (actually it's the seventh, but we won't dwell on that). I got into playing D&D back in school with 2nd Edition about fourteen years ago and we got used to changing rules systems every few years: we took on board a lot of changes from the '2.5' rules set (the Player's Option/DM's Option books), gratefully changed over to 3rd Edition and incorporated some, but not all, of the 3.5 edition rules as well. Along the way we have played many other RPGs, running from the World of Darkness games through the splendid Deadlands, the old-school Robotech, Cyberpunk, Star Wars (West End rules, obviously) and a number of the D20 games, including Wheel of Time, Judge Dredd and Babylon 5.

Let there be no mistake, D&D 4th Edition has been the most controversial new edition in the game's history. The flamewars on various Internet sites have been something to behold, with the fans of 4E accused of being simplistic morons who want to turn the game into World of WarCraft and the antis accused of being terrified of change. The change-over from 2nd to 3rd Edition, which was pretty controversial at the time, had absolutely nothing on this. I'm trying to take a balanced view in my approach and sum up what I find to be good and bad with the game.

First off, even the most ardent fans of 3rd Edition had to admit there were substantial flaws with the game. Preperation time for DMs was quite high, characters ascended levels very quickly unless you constantly gave them weak opponents to fight or changed the XP tables, and although the core classes and prestige classes were nicely balanced, some of the prestige classes in the add-on books were broken. In addition, multiclassing, although a vast improvement on the abomination of 2nd Edition, still didn't work as well as it should have done. The changes for 3.5 fixed some of these issues but a lot of the core problems remained.

4th Edition does successfully answer some of these issues. Level advancement is now very slow. After four sessions and killing dozens of enemies between us and achieving several major story and campaign goals, we still hadn't hit 2nd Level. Making a campaign last a decent, long time with 4E isn't an issue, which is good. We didn't get a chance to test multiclassing in the game, but the way it works does seem to be reasonable, giving you some major abilities from another class without totally destroying your levelling rate in your primary class, leaving you underpowered compared to the rest of the party. Preperation time for DMs is also much reduced. In fact, 4E seems to be a lot easier for DMs to prepare campaigns for all-round, thanks to the completely different track that monsters and NPCs work under, and that is a good thing as well. Unfortunately, character generation, which was supposed to be streamlined for this edition, still takes about as long as 3E. Although 3E's confusing morass of skills has been streamlined (a good idea, although some extremely useful skills were lost in the process) and the feats have been toned down, the new class powers have replaced them.

Some sacred cows have been killed along the way, which although admirably bold does lead one to ponder if the resulting game can be called D&D any more. The Vancian magic system is out. Given it was one of the cornerstones of the game, it's a pretty radical change. Some people hated it as being illogical, but the variation on it they brought in for 3E worked pretty well in my opinion, and many iconic spells are now gone. In fact, spells don't exist any more. They're either wizard or cleric powers they can use at will, once per combat or once per day, or they're 'rituals'. It's a very interesting idea that more or less works, but it does feed into the overwhelming 'balance' problem of the game, which I'll come to momentarily. Other big changes including the temporary removal of some core classes and races, but it's okay as they'll be back in another book you can pay more money for, the permanant removal of others (the new system doesn't really allow for sorcerers, for example) and the new way healing is approached. Fed up with the cleric being treated as the party medpack, the creators have changed things so that every character can heal 25% of their hit-points at will, several times a day or once per combat. Clerics and paladins can do a bit more healing than that, but essentially PCs are going to stay on their feet a lot longer than in 3E.

Then there is the 'balance' issue. Balancing is important in a game. No-one wants to have a character who's special skills only come into play once a day and they spend the rest of the time bored whilst everyone else takes care of business. The problem is that D&D was never that sort of game. I've read horror stories of 2E and 3E games where the wizard would simply fire off their one magic missile a day or whatever and take no further part in the game, and the player would end up feeling bored. All I can say is that any DM who ran a game like that should be shot. Keeping your players engaged in the game is vital, and I've lost track of the number of times my 1st Level party was about to be obliterated only for the wizard to save the day with a sleep spell or a fine piece of negotiation aided by a charm spell. Unfortunately, WotC's quest for balance has been too successful with 4th Edition. There is now zero difference between one class and another. A wizard hangs back and pelts the enemy with limitless magic missiles for similar damage that a ranger does with his bow or a warrior does with his sword. Mechanically, everyone is identical, they just approach the problems from different angles. Lots of people really like this, but I find it against the spirit of the game. One character being able to do something the others cannot is the whole point of assembling a party of different adventurers in the first place. That now feels redundant.

4th Edition is a good game. In fact, I look forward to the inevitable martial arts expansion for the game, as it could be the most successful depiction of martial arts in an RPG to date. The rules really lend themselves well to it. However, it's not really in the spirit of how our group plays D&D. We veer towards realism (including realistic use of shields, borrowed from the excellent Game of Thrones RPG, and the correct, damage-reducing application of armour) and 4th Edition veers towards cinematic exuberence. The DM said he enjoyed the fact that the game lent itself well to a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style of flamboyence. That's great, but our group doesn't particularly like to do that (maybe a result of several people in the group with a solid grasp of medieval history and weapons) in D&D. For us, 4th Edition felt like either a solid optional ruleset like the old 2nd Edition Player's Option books, or a completely different game. It is also inherently a high-magic game (even non-magical classes have magical or supernatural abilities) that will clash badly with people running a low-magic setting. Plus you cannot transfer characters from 3E to 4E. If you want to start a new campaign which is very heavy on combat in a high-magic setting and uses miniatures, then 4E is for you. If you don't, than the new system will likely be of no use whatsoever.

It's annoying because there is a lot of good stuff in 4E, but overall it doesn't feel like the next logical step forward in the rules, as the progression was from 1E to 3.5E. There's definitely some interesting ideas in there, but overall nothing that really warrants our group to permanantly switch from 3.5E. Obviously, each D&D group plays the game slightly differently, and 4E will no doubt appeal to other groups more than 3E and beginners will probably find it a lot of fun, but it didn't quite do the job for us. Fortunately, with several of the 3E designers now working on the Pathfinder D20 game, those hankering for new rules and material for 3E can still get it, so no longer is it a choice of "stick with old books for a dead system or get with the new rules," which is all to the good.

Some notes on the book itself: the font is quite large and the borders are huge, leading to a lot of wasted space compared to the busy 3E books or the crisp and efficient 2.5E ones. The art direction feels rather conservative compared to 3E, but the illustrations are good. The layout is horrendous, however, and the index is laughably bad. I was quite shocked at how difficult it was to find information in a hurry, as this is something previous editions of the game going back to the 2.5E revised rulebooks in 1995 had fully delivered. I also had a chance to look at the Monstrous Manual and was really surprised at how bad it was: stat-blocks, a picture and maybe a single paragraph of text and that was it, easily the worst iteration of the book to date (including that loose-leaf foldered 2E thing).

I'm not going to give a score to 4E D&D because it's a very subjective game. The things I outlined as being weaknesses for our group may very well be huge strengths for yours. I can only say that I was disappointed that the game didn't offer more to our group, but it is impossible for one game to appeal to everyone. The Dungeon and Dragons 4th Edition Player's Handbook is available now in the UK and USA from Wizards of the Coast.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal by Vern

Vern is the guy who used to write reviews of action movies for Ain't It Cool News, mostly low-budget, direct-to-video/DVD stuff that most people wouldn't touch with a bargepole. Whilst writing these reviews he'd engender a lot of debate, arguments and flamewars with one exception: the movies of Steven Seagal. It turned out that there are many fans of the Seagal out there, people who watch his movies religiously, drink cans of Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt (his own energy drink) and listen to his two albums of blues music whilst analysing the themes and motifs of his work. And some of them weren't being all cool and ironic. Fascinated, Vern set out on a mission to watch and review all of Seagal's movies. This proved difficult, as Seagal was entering his most prolific period to date, churning out ten movies during the book's production. However, with his next couple of pictures delayed, Vern was finally able to catch up and write a book about his experiences. This book.

The first thing that hits you about Seagalogy is that the title is grammatically dubious. However, it turns out that there is a website called Seagalology which just takes the mickey out of Seagal on a boring surface level, and Vern wanted to avoid any association with them, so that's fair enough. The second is that this is a very good book. It's genuinely funny, interesting and, in its own way, incredibly barmy. Vern isn't writing serious film criticism here but he's also not taking the piss either. He obviously respects Seagal (and given how many people he's thrown through windows over the years this is probably a good thing) and is genuinely interested in what makes his films tick.

An early discovery is that Seagal is a left-wing action star, which immediately puts him in a different boat to Schwarznegger, Stallone etc. His films usually don't portray America in the best light, and the most common theme between them is how corrupt the CIA can be and how the US' own developments in areas like chemical and nuclear weapons are not really helping make the world a safer place. In fact, by analysing the motifs that repeat themselves in every single movie, Vern draws some interesting conclusions. You might say that one film about a lone wolf agent trying to redeem himself from a corrupt CIA past by opening a martial arts dojo is a typically cheesy action movie plot, but fifteen involving dodgy government shenanigans is probably an indication that there's some message trying to be gotten over here.

Most of the book is taken up by a film-by-film analysis of his works. There are 27 movies here, ranging from the very-well-known action flick Under Siege to the direct-to-DVD debacle that is Submerged (a movie that would have had Seagal fighting aliens for the first time, but it was changed in post to fighting strange people driven mad by drugs; only 13 minutes of the film is spent on a submarine, submerged). Vern clearly loves the early movies the most, when Seagal is younger, in his prime, does all his own stunts and the plots are pretty straightforward, generally a variation on the "Bad guy killed his partner/girlfriend/wife or kidnapped his dog/daughter/pen-pal and he has to sort it out," set-up. The first movie or two are generic action flicks enlivened by Seagal's slightly unorthodox fighting abilities (he uses aikido, which is not usually featured in martial arts movies as it favours defence over offensive attacks), but very quickly we start seeing some of Seagal's iconic touches coming in as he becomes more powerful and able to exert influence on the movie's direction. He starts wearing some truly rididculous outfits, gets a ponytail, and delivers some message about karma. Vern points to On Deadly Ground as being a vital point in Seagal's movie development, namely the legendary bar fight scene where, having defeated his goons, Seagal suddenly neutralises the bad guy (a lackey of, almost unbelievably, Michael Caine) by playing a weird game with him and then engaging him in a debate about if it is possible to change the essence of a man whilst stirring, epic music plays in the background.

From then on, it's batshit insanity all the way as Seagal stops some villains from blowing up a petrol station with a stick of dynamite by shooting the burning fuse off the dynamite whilst it's tumbling in mid-air (Fire Down Below), saves the USA from a horrific nerve agent by spraying the countryside with flowers from an Apache (The Patriot) and travels across the planet to save his 13-year-old pen-pal after he's sold into white slavery (Out of Reach), even though he hasn't actually been told this and just guesses randomly that something is up. Along the way, he plays cops, ex-CIA agents, ex-Navy SEAL chefs, and a respected expert in Chinese archaeology serving at Yale (but who actually turns out to be the male, retired version of Lara Croft). He fights the mafia, yakuza, corrupt government agents, drug-dealers and bent cops with guns, martial arts, swords, a snooker ball wrapped in a handkerchief and, on one bizarre occasion, a credit card (The Glimmer Man). He throws dozens of people through windows and narrowly avoids enormous explosions on countless occasions. On one occasion (Executive Decision) he even dies, which is rather jarring. As the films become stranger, Vern continues to analyse what makes these movies work or, in the case of the later DTV films, what makes them fall apart.

You also find out more information than you ever needed to know about the formulation of energy drinks and Steven Seagal's musical career. I must admit I found the revelation of his musical background to be pretty cringe-inducing, but a quick trip to YouTube reveals that Seagal is a surprisingly accomplished guitarist, although his vocal range is limited. He even has a few decent reggae, funk and blues songs up there. I mean, Jimmy Cliff doesn't need to start worrying about the competition, but it's light-years beyond most actor-turned-musician projects (Dogstar comes immediately to mind).

Vern's central thesis, that Seagal is an auteur film-maker who imprints all his movies, even the ones not written specifically for him, with his own interests and unique sensibility in a way that Chuck Norris or Jean-Claude Van Damme do not, is hard to refute. This is partially what makes the book a success. The other part is that it is absolutely hilarious. Whenever Vern seems to be getting a bit too serious about his ideological analysis of the politics of the films or something, he'll drop in a casual comment or train of thought that will leave you giggling like a fool (after a lengthy musing on the plot of one film, he returns to the point with, "Meanwhile, Seagal continues to escalate his war on testicles," for example). By the time you reach the end of the book you can't help but agree with Vern that there is something interesting going on with some of these movies beyond a surface reading. And even when there isn't most of the films are unintentionally very funny.

Complaints? Well, if reading a book makes you want to go and watch Attack Force or Submerged, it's probably not an entirely good thing. Also, the later DTV movies tend to blur into one and it's rather hard at times to care enough about some random awful film you're never going to watch to read a ten-page analysis of it, but Vern ususally drops in enough interesting analysis or comedy to make it all worthwhile.

Seagology: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Segal (****) is available now in the UK and USA from Titan Books. Vern is interviewed here about the book, and his own website is here.