Saturday, 29 November 2008

Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

After the disappointing and critically-mauled Crossroads of Twilight, Robert Jordan seemed to have a serious rethink about his Wheel of Time series was progressing. He stopped writing the series - taking a six-month break to write the extended version of the prequel novel New Spring instead - and when he came back to it he seemed to have recaptured some of his old fire. The resulting eleventh and then-promised-to-be-penultimate book in the series, Knife of Dreams, is a definite step up from the preceding three or four books, although some of the series' latter problems continue to be an issue.

The Last Battle is drawing near. The fabric of reality itself is breaking down as the seals on the Dark One's prison begin to fail. The dead are reappearing, long-lost towns and cities are flashing in and out of existence and the One Power itself seems to becoming unreliable. Yet Rand al'Thor's task of unifying the Westlands against the Shadow is far from complete. The Seanchan invasion force, now massively reinforced, is continuing to absorb more territory in the south-west of the continent. Whilst Rand's forces are large enough to destroy them, it would only be at a terrible cost in blood. With little choice, Rand extends an olive branch to the Seanchan whilst a Domani general launches a massively ambitious gambit to throw back the Seanchan armies encroaching on his kingdom.

Meanwhile, Perrin has made the fateful decision to ally with a Seanchan general to destroy the Shaido Aiel encamped at Malden who hold his wife Faile prisoner. Inside the camp, Faile is making her own escape plans but is relying on some very dubious partners to pull it off. Elsewhere, Mat Cauthon's flight from Ebou Dar with the kidnapped Daughter of the Nine Moons runs into difficulties when he encounters a huge Seanchan army blocking the way into Murandy, and Egwene al'Vere has been captured by the Tower Aes Sedai, whose plans to break her are foiled at every turn. In besieged Caemlyn Elayne Trakand makes one last throw of the dice to win the Lion Throne of Andor, and the Ogier teeter on the brink of a fateful decision that may have ramifications for the Last Battle.

Knife of Dreams is a much busier, far better-paced book than the ones preceding it. Several major storylines in the overall Wheel of Time series, some of them extending back seven or more volumes, are brought to final conclusions, and long-dangling minor plot threads are finally picked up on and expanded. We also get some tantalising clues as to the origins of the Ogier (one of the least of the series' mysteries, but welcome nevertheless) and, at long last, some major combat scenes. Rand, Mat and Perrin each have a major battle to fight and Elayne also has some skirmishing to do to win the throne of Andor. However, the storyline that possibly most impresses is Egwene's captivity in the White Tower. Jordan deftly avoids falling into the trap of making this a contrived story, and Egwene's quiet method of defiance against her captors is genuinely interesting. Also, the fact he packs virtually the whole story into one chapter is a plus as well.

(Not Darrell K. Sweet's finest hour)

However, Knife of Dreams is plagued by some of the same troubles as earlier books in the series. An absolutely vast number of minor characters whose import to the series is questionable continues to expand, and the minutiae of Elayne's pregnancy and arguments between different groups of channellers continues to weigh the series down. About halfway through the book, however, these problematic elements recede and the focus on resolution and conflict becomes more apparent, making the second half of the novel far more enjoyable to read, almost as much as the series at its best.

Reaching the end of Knife of Dreams, it is abundantly clear that there is no way that the series could be resolved in just one more book, and the recent confirmation by Brandon Sanderson that A Memory of Light will almost certainly be two volumes strangely comes as something of a relief: after such a huge journey, wrapping everything up in as short a space as possible for the sheer sake of it would have been dissatisfying.

Knife of Dreams (***½) was the best Wheel of Time novel in a decade when it was published and although the series' flaws were not eliminated by it, Robert Jordan's decision to acknowledge the weaknesses of the previous volume and move to counter them was effective. It certainly leaves the reader anxious to leap into the next book as soon as possible, and hopefully less than a year from now that will be possible. The book is available from Orbit in the UK and, with quite possibly one of the worst fantasy covers in history, from Tor in the USA.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Update

The Wheel of Time re-read has been completed. Expect a review of Knife of Dreams in the next day or two after I have marshaled my thoughts sufficiently.

The re-read/new-read pattern I've been following for the last few weeks has proven surprisingly effective, and I may use it again in the future, certainly for the Song of Ice and Fire re-read I'll be embarking on in the New Year. One of the appeals of the blog was an excuse to revisit some old favourites, and I've been lax on that front in favour of the new ARCs that have been coming my way instead.

For the next few weeks, however, the emphasis will be on new (or newer, at any rate) releases. I'll be reading Terry Pratchett's Nation next, and Gollancz have sent me the entire seven-volume Chronicles of the Raven series by James Barclay. Having enjoyed, with reservations, his Ascendants of Estorea duology last year, I'm looking forward to checking out this series. There's also Iain M. Banks' Matter to check out as well.

On the gaming front, I've been pouring most of my free hours into Fallout 3, which overcomes its problems (an occasionally shaky Oblivion engine and some ripe dialogue) to be the most enjoyable SF RPG I've played in quite some time.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker

The Aspect-Emperor: Ansurimbor Kellhus, proclaimed by the Inrithi faithful as a living god, who sees the truth written in men's hearts, who wields powers of sorcery beyond those of any other mortal, who was hung on the Circumfix and returned to life once more, and who has revealed to the world a terrible truth: that the evil and vile Consult have endured for two thousand years since the First Apocalypse, and now work to bring about the Second.

Twenty years ago, Kellhus seized control of the Holy War against the heathen Fanim and led it to victory at the walls of the holy city of Shimeh. But at his moment of triumph, he was denied to his face by his own teacher, Drusas Achamian, who forsook his school and love and disappeared into the wilderness. Since then, the Aspect-Emperor has worked to unite the Three Seas against the Consult and prepare for the Great Ordeal, the march of the faithful against distant Golgotterath, to tear down the fortress and destroy the Ark of the Heavens before the Consult and their Inchoroi masters can resurrect the No-God and bring about the sealing of the world. Now the man who was once proclaimed the prince of nothing leads a vast host into the Istyuli Plains on the first leg of the epic journey into the Ancient North.

Back home in the capital of Momemn, the Empress Esmenet rules the Empire in her husband's absence, but most of her children are cold and distant, leaving only her twin sons Kelmomas and Samarmas capable of loving her, but Kelmomas harbours his own ambitions and secrets, whilst a popular and widespread sect is beginning to doubt the right of Kellhus' rule. Elsewhere, Drusas Achamian's self-imposed exile is rudely broken by a surprising arrival, encouraging him to set out on a quest he long ago vowed to take. Achamian knows the truth of Kellhus, revealed to him by the warlord Cniaur: that the Aspect-Emperor is no god made flesh, but a man trained to manipulate others and see their desires in their faces, the scion of an ancient and mysterious sect: the Dunyain. Achamian now knows he must find the Dunyain and their ancient fortress, lost somewhere in the wilderness of the Ancient North...

The Judging Eye is the fourth book in R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse series, and the first in The Aspect-Emperor Trilogy, the middle sequence of books making up this huge sequence. Picking up the action a generation on from The Thousandfold Thought, we learn that the world of Earwa has seen many changes since the victory of the Holy War, and that most of the civilised world is now united against the Consult and the return of the No-God. At first this appears to be a good thing, since Earwa's own personal dark lord isn't even up and breathing again yet, whilst his enemies are already on their way to destroy his followers and his dark tower (albeit the dark tower actually appears to be a crashed biotech alien starship, but same principal). But can things really be that simple? Whilst The Judging Eye is merely the opening salvo in this new saga, it laces hints into the narrative that things are about to take a turn for the apocalyptic, and given that Bakker has already said that in scope and resonance The Aspect-Emperor is to The Prince of Nothing what The Lord of the Rings is to The Hobbit, we can assume numerous complications are to come.

The Judging Eye follows three main storylines: the Great Ordeal as it marches into the North, Achamian's journey into the wilderness with a bunch of semi-mercenaries known as the Skin Eaters, and events back in Momemn. A strictly regimented chapter system sees us delivered between these POVs with ruthless efficiency, each chapter detailed to bringing some revelation or character point to light. As a result, The Judging Eye is on the slim side for a huge epic fantasy series (not even 450 pages long) but is packed with incident and moves at a fast pace. Bakker holds back somewhat on the philosophical digressions compared to the earlier trilogy, possibly having gotten a lot of his musings out of his system with his recent SF stand-alone Neuropath, although this is by some margin still the most intellectually-stimulating epic fantasy book since, well, The Thousandfold Thought. That's not to say that those who only read epic fantasy to see people get blown up with magic will be disappointed, but certainly there's a hell of a lot of stuff going on here in subtext that will likely only become fully apparent on re-reads once later books in the series have been released. One thing that is notable is that The Judging Eye is notably more fantastical than the prior series, which held back on the non-human species and (until the end) the truly massive sorcerous conflagrations. The Judging Eye has no such compunctions, and those wishing to know more about the magic of Earwa and various oft-mentioned races will find much to enjoy here.

As a continuation of The Prince of Nothing, The Judging Eye works superbly, although newer readers I think may be left a bit nonplussed by events (and the 'what came before' section is notably light on events from The Prince of Nothing that don't directly impact on this book's storyline). I think everyone who enjoyed the earlier trilogy will be more than satisfied with this offering as well. Those who weren't so keen may not find enough has changed to convince them otherwise, and most notably the biggest weakness in the series remains: that whilst it is imaginative, powerfully-written and at times intense, it is also a somewhat remote and cold work, easy to admire, hard to love. But it is fascinating, and the mystery of what the Consult is actually trying to achieve and what the No-God actually is (despite my glib comment earlier, he/it certainly isn't Sauron Mk. 2) remains deeply compelling.

Another possible issue with The Judging Eye is that it really is the opening of a bigger story, and isn't even as much of a stand-alone as The Darkness That Came Before. There is no climax to the Great Ordeal or Momemn storylines (both of which just stop), but this can be forgiven for how Achamian's story climaxes. I know Scott is paranoid about spoilers, so let's just say that he pays an exceptionally impressive tribute to JRR Tolkien which is clearly a homage and not a rip-off, and ends in a moment of gut-wrenching terror that is almost palpable and will no doubt cause much discussion on numerous fantasy forums for the next few months.

The Judging Eye (****½) has already staked out its claim as the most impressive fantasy novel of 2009. With some very big guns indeed coming out in the next year, it will be interesting to see if it can hold that position, but for now I can say that this book marks a triumphant return for the most philosophical and literate epic fantasy writer around at the moment. The book will be published on 20 January 2009 in the UK, USA and Canada, from Orbit, Overlook and Penguin respectively.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

A Game of Thrones on its way to TV

This news broke last week, but I decided to sit on it for a bit to see if any fresh information would come to light in the meantime, which it has.

HBO have officially commissioned a pilot episode for their adaption of George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones, the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire. The pilot, the script for which has already been written, is now in the pre-production phase and producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are already looking at casting and filming locations. The new information to emerge today is that the most likely filming location is the UK, which is a slight surprise given that HBO were earlier looking at Eastern Europe, New Zealand, Ireland and Spain. I'm going to hazard a guess that HBO were tempted by our excellent pool of acting talent here in the UK and also the declining pound against the dollar, which makes the UK a more viable filming location for American productions. The fact that the BBC is co-producing the series with HBO (as they did for Rome) may have also factored into the decision.

Any final casting decisions are likely a while off, but Weiss and Benioff are asking for ideas to be submitted to the appropriate forum on Westeros.org.

GRRM comments on the news here. The Hollywood Reporter talks about it here and Variety discusses it here. Benioff and Weiss reveal news about shooting location and briefly touch on the thorny issue of the younger characters' ages here. A new subforum has been set up on the Westeros website to discuss the series and casting, which Weiss and Benioff have confirmed they will be keeping an eye on for inspiration and ideas.

As for when we will likely see this on the air, HBO will need to greenlight the full first season beforehand. That is reasonably likely given they want to up their original series quotient and also want to return to the 'good old days' (of only a few years ago) of big, epic productions. That said, only six of the ten ordered pilots will go to series. A Game of Thrones has an excellent chance of making the jump, but it's not in the can just yet. Once that decision is taken, obviously production will be a lengthy and complex process. I would not expect realistically to see this on screen for another two years from now.

EDIT: A new blog established here is covering every piece of news about the series and offering up some interesting speculation and ideas. Well worth a look.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

Wherever epic fantasy writers ply their trade, scribbling scenes of magical convergence or enormous battles between steel-clad knights, there are whispers of a dire warning: "Remember Crossroads of Twilight." This is a book that has gained a certain infamy in fantasy circles, which even the most ardent Wheel of Time fans are hard-pressed to defend, and serves as an object lesson to every writer of a long, complex series of what can happen if the writing discipline slacks and they lose control of the narrative.

Winter's Heart ended with a number of storylines in progress and Crossroads of Twilight picks up on them. Briefly, Mat Cauthon has escaped from Ebou Dar but has inadvertently wound up with Tuon, the Daughter of the Nine Moons, as his prisoner. Perrin's wife Faile is a prisoner of the Shaido Aiel and Perrin and a band of reluctant allies attempt to locate her. The renegade Aes Sedai have Travelled to Tar Valon and besieged the city, but Egwene's reluctance to unleash bloodshed results in a morale-sapping stalemate. Elayne's attempts to secure the Lion Throne continue. Rand al'Thor recovers from the exhaustion caused by the Cleansing of saidin. And that's about it. The only major new storyline is General Rodel Ituralde of Arad Doman organising an offensive against the Seanchan, which is intriguing and is naturally only featured for a few pages and then not mentioned again.

Crossroads of Twilight's structure is not very well thought-out. Jordan's intent was to provide a catch-up following each band of characters from where we last saw them in Winter's Heart to the moment of the Cleansing, a major world-shifting event and arguably the biggest moment in the series to date. And if he had done this say in the first 100 pages, or in the prologue, this would have been a good idea as people's misunderstanding of what that event signifies goes on to play a major role in events in the series. The problem is that he takes far too long to pull this off. We only start moving on beyond the Cleansing in the last 50-100 pages or so of the book, and aside from a mildly startling cliffhanger ending to Egwene's storyline, there is no real climax to the book. It just judders to a rather unsatisfying halt. And the great irony is that the Cleansing itself is largely proven irrelevant: most people, when told what it was, flat-out refuse to believe it, making the whole book feel like an exercise in futility.

So, we have a 700-page novel in which not much happens. Everyone's storyline crawls forward at an insanely slow pace, with entire chapters featuring little beyond descriptions of forests or characters discussing what has happened earlier in the plot for no discernible reason. There are good moments buried amidst the dross, such as Perrin realising the limits of his morality, the true nature of Shaidar Haran being revealed or Egwene's intelligent plan to resolve the siege of Tar Valon, but getting to them is like wading through treacle. There is no momentum to the story, especially as every couple of chapters we rewind to a point before the Cleansing, move a few days forward, and then rewind again with a different bunch of characters. The bulk of the book takes place only across a few days (whilst The Great Hunt, for example, covered about six months) and progress is torturous.

Crossroads of Twilight (*½) is by quite some margin the weakest book in the series and one of the most disappointing fantasy novels ever published, considering how good some of the earlier books were. The few decent moments are drowned amidst literally hundreds of pages of empty, pointless prose and padded minutiae. The book is published by Orbit in the UK and Tor in the USA.

I am taking a brief break from the Wheel of Time series to read Scott Bakker's new book, The Judging Eye, the continuation of his epic Second Apocalypse saga which began with The Prince of Nothing trilogy. I hope to get that review up by the end of the week so I can get back to Knife of Dreams which, fortunately, is a substantial improvement on the preceding few books in the Wheel of Time series.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Winter's Heart by Robert Jordan

After the thoroughly disappointing Path of Daggers, expectations for Winter's Heart were mixed. Maybe Robert Jordan had written the weak book that all series seem obligated to have and he could ramp things up again as the series drew towards its conclusion? At the same time, other, hungrier authors in the epic fantasy field were now clawing at Jordan's heels. Whilst he spent most of the 1990s as the unchallenged master of the subgenre, towards the end of the decade writers such as George RR Martin, JV Jones, Robin Hobb and Paul Kearney had started producing works that matched or exceeded the quality of the later Wheel of Time books, and Winter's Heart in particular suffered from coming out just two months after GRRM's A Storm of Swords and three months ahead of Steven Erikson's Memories of Ice, probably the two most critically-lauded epic fantasy volumes of the last decade. With his position no longer unchallenged and his critics mounting, Jordan had a lot to prove with this book.

The Seanchan Empire's attempt to conquer the Westlands continues apace. Its invasion force has conquered Tarabon, secured most of Amadicia and is sweeping north across Altara, its temporary defeat at the hands of the Dragon Reborn notwithstanding. The invasion force has received massive reinforcements from the Seanchan home continent with the arrival of the full Corenne, a vast fleet consisting of thousands of ships and hundreds of thousands of settlers and soldiers. In occupied Ebou Dar, Mat Cauthon recovers from his wounds and plots an escape, unaware he is about to come face-to-face with the Seanchan noblewoman prophesied to become his wife. In Caemlyn Elayne's claim to the Lion Throne has not gone unchallenged, and the Andoran noble houses scramble for power and influence. The Sun Palace in Cairhien has been partially destroyed by renegade Asha'man out to kill Rand al'Thor, who forces them to come to him in a place where their use of the One Power will count for little. But Rand knows he is losing precious time as more and more of the Asha'man succumb to madness, forcing him to take desperate, and dangerous measures.

Winter's Heart has a lot of storylines to follow and Robert Jordan's skills at juggling multiple, complex plots simultaneously and covering a lot of ground are sorely lacking at this point in the narrative. The book actually rewinds to a point some weeks before the end of Path of Daggers, meaning that Egwene is hardly in the book and the rebel Aes Sedai's storyline does not proceed at all (in a precedent-setting move, completely invalidating the cover blurb). Perrin's wife and several of her companions have been kidnapped by the Shaido Aiel, forcing Perrin into a desperate alliance with the insane Prophet of the Dragon to find her...but this storyline barely crawls forward from where it had been at the end of Path of Daggers, and Jordan's characterisation suffers a loss of credibility when Perrin, having accepted Masema's explanation why he won't use Travelling to move around the continent at speed, seems to forget it instantly at the start of this book.

The book succeeds more in its depiction of life under Seanchan occupation, and Jordan showing the more positive aspects of their society without letting the reader ever forget these are people who still hold slaves and base their power on military force. Tuon is something of a disappointment, however. The Daughter of the Nine Moons has had a bit of a build-up in the books leading up to this one and she is distant and uninvolved in the story. However, Mat's plan to escape from the city makes for fun reading, mainly because he comes up with the plan, overcomes obstacles and executes it within this one novel, a story with a beginning, middle and end contained in one volume, which is something of a rarity this late in the series.

Jordan tries for something similar with Rand, but in Rand's case his story is nonsensical. Far Madding is an interesting city, well-described, but it is simply far too late in the day for the series to be romping off to as-yet unvisited spots on the map simply because they might be cool. Rand wanting to track down the rebel Asha'man is logical, but to do it in this city and to spend weeks on it whilst everything he's spent eight previous books building up is in danger of being toppled and destroyed really doesn't make sense. There is definitely the feeling here that Rand is more or less ready for the Last Battle, but Jordan keeps having to give him stuff to do because he hasn't maneuvered Mat, Perrin, Elayne and the other characters into the positions they need to be in before the Last Battle starts. Why he then doesn't decide to simply keep Rand off-stage as he's done before and even in this book (Egwene barely appears, and only has a few lines of dialogue) in favour of resolving the other characters' storylines is a bit of a mystery.

As usual, Jordan gives us a humongous climax and this one should have been a doozy: a massive, full-on battle between Rand's assembled Asha'man, Sea Folk, Aes Sedai and ex-Seanchan damane allies versus almost all of the surviving Forsaken outside Shadar Logoth, whilst Rand and Nynaeve attempt to undo an act of pure evil that the Dark One itself carried out. However, all we get of this massive conflagration are a few confused scenes and an anticlimactic finale. Disappointing, to say the least.

Winter's Heart (***) is a flawed book, although Mat's storyline is enjoyable and Rand's reveals some new and interesting worldbuilding. Elsewhere, it does appear that Jordan's immense story has gotten out of his control and he is having significant problems wrestling it back into submission. However, Winter's Heart immediately wins half a star purely for having some decent scenes of men and women working effectively together, whilst past books in the series have been rather juvenile in their depictions of male-female relations. Here, there are indications that he may be moving past that. Jordan's writing remains interesting and readable, but there is definitely the feeling that the series is now way past its best. The book is available from Orbit in the UK and Tor in the USA.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

The Path of Daggers was originally published in October 1998 and was released two and a half years after the previous volume (which had ended on a cliffhanger), the longest gap between books in the series at that time. As a result, expectations for this book were high. When the book finally arrived, people were taken aback by its slimness (at least compared to other books in the series) and its failure to address that cliffhanger from the prior volume. Reviews of the book were negative and even today some fans continue to cite this as the weakest book in the series (although the majority agree that that honour goes to the tenth book). For a series that had almost been immune to criticism up to this point, this book marked a serious turning point for the worse.

The book opens in the aftermath of events in A Crown of Swords. Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn, has been proclaimed King of Illian after killing the Forsaken Sammael. His satisfaction is short-lived, however. The Seanchan have returned in great force and in a blitzkrieg campaign lasting several weeks have swept through the south-west of the continent, conquering the kingdom of Tarabon and capturing the cities of Amador and Ebou Dar (the capitals of Amadicia and Altara, respectively) in rapid succession. Already fearing they might march on Illian next, Rand concocts a plan to bottle them up in Ebou Dar, but is unaware that there are those in his own ranks who are preparing to move against him.

Meanwhile, in Ghealdan Perrin makes contact with Queen Alliandre as part of his mission to track down and neutralise the increasingly insane and dangerous 'Prophet of the Dragon', Masema. At the same time, the leaders of the Borderlands have led a vast host southwards for an unknown reason. Nynaeve, Elayne and their loose and fractious alliance of Sea Folk Windfinders, Aes Sedai and Kin have recovered the Bowl of Winds from Ebou Dar and now have to use it to restore normal weather to the world, unaware of the consequences of their actions. And in the White Tower Elaida walks a fine line as she is blackmailed by Alviarin into doing things that will shatter the sisterhood, whilst her secret agents continue their hunt for the Black Ajah.

A plot summary of Path of Daggers sounds exciting, and the news that the book features a significant military showdown between Rand and the Seanchan should be impressive. However, The Path of Daggers is beset by numerous problems that prevent it from being fully enjoyable. First off, the level of filler in this book is much worse than any previous volume. There are several chapters where characters are riding along arguing with one another, or discussing the plot, or making it clear how much they hate one another. These points are slammed home again and again by Robert Jordan for no clear purpose. The battles between Rand and the Seanchan are intriguing and the messy ending to the engagement is an important moment in the series, but it comes far too late in the book. Perrin's story proceeds at an absolute crawl and he barely has any screen-time in the book, whilst Mat has none. Jordan's point that Mat is recovering from his wounds and thus isn't doing anything interesting in the story at this moment is well-taken, but at the same time the ambiguity of Mat's fate in the prior volume was part of what made the book's ending powerful and interesting. It being completely ignored for four and a half years until Book 9 was annoying. However, re-reading the series now this isn't so much of a problem.

Up until The Path of Daggers, the structural and writing problems with the series could to some extent be ignored because the story was still compelling and the reader was encouraged to read on no matter what. However, at this point and through the next two books these problems start to actually interfere with the readability of the books. The pace slows to a crawl and events that would have been covered in a few chapters in previous books now span entire novels. For some reason Jordan ignored the basic writing maxim that as you build up to a series finale you have to increase the pace and intensity of events, and as a result the series becomes somewhat more difficult to read in-depth from this point on.

The Path of Daggers (**½) doesn't suffer from quite so many problems as it did on first release, but it still represents a significant failure in both writing and editing that makes it a shadow of the book it could have been. The book is available in the UK from Orbit and in the USA from Tor.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Red Eagle Entertainment talk about The Wheel of Time movie

Red Eagle Entertainment have spoken to Dragonmount about their plans to adapt The Wheel of Time as a series of big-budget movies, starting with The Eye of the World. The announcement that Universal had bought the rights and would be developing the project alongside REE was generally poorly received by fans, mainly because Robert Jordan had made it clear with one of the final blog entries before his passing that he did not want Red Eagle involved with any further adaptions of his work (following the New Spring comic debacle) and he expressly was not interested in the series being transferred to film. He felt that a television series was the only way to do justice to the story.
I would very much like to see the Wheel of Time made into a miniseries for television, perhaps by someone like HBO. They do very good work, and there would be no commercial interruptions. I don't think I would let one of the books be made into a movie. Such a movie would have to be at least five or six hours long, perhaps longer, just for one book, to maintain the coherence of the story, and movies of that sort aren't being made by anyone I know of. As to who should play Rand, I really don't know. How many good, young actors are there who happen to be six feet five inches tall?

It's a chancy thing. I would not support anyone doing a feature film of, say, The Eye of the World. I do not think it could be compressed into three hours. Certainly not into two. That would make it incomprehensible.
The interview is, to be honest, pretty standard corporate stuff lacking real substance, although REE acknowledges the fan community and their knowledge of the books. However, they don't do themselves any favours when they respond to Robert Jordan's criticisms by saying they don't hold his comments against him, whilst failing to address any of the issues raised.

Given that even Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson recently had to scale back their plans for a trilogy of movies based on Herge's Tintin comic books as a result of worries about the economy, it will be interesting to see if Universal gives this project, which surely would be enormously expensive, the go-ahead.

In other news, Brandon Sanderson recently commented that he thinks A Memory of Light, the final novel in the series, is going to end up being the better part of 700,000 words in length, nearly double the length of any previous single volume. Unsurprisingly, Tor and Orbit are now said to be considering options to split the book into two volumes. Sanderson had previously hoped that if this happened the two books would be published just a few weeks apart in November 2009, but the need for more writing and editing on the second volume indicates that the second book would be held back until about February or March of 2010, although this would coincide with the 20th anniversary of the series.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Company of Heroes

The number of games set during the Second World War borders on the ridiculous. The number of titles which attempt (usually badly) to recreate D-Day or Operation Market Garden is vast, but the overwhelming majority of them fail to capture either the atmosphere or historical feel of the conflict. First-person shooters like the Call of Duty franchise have proven a lot more successful at depicting the conflict than strategy games, with most WWII strategy games being quite boring (such as the Sudden Strike series, which is so anal your soldiers can actually run out of bullets, which is taking pedantry to a new level).

For these reasons, when Company of Heroes was first announced there wasn't a huge amount of excitement about it, especially as the developers, Relic, were responsible for the entertaining-but-lightweight Dawn of War series. When it came out, however, it was an absolute revelation, doing for WWII strategy games what Medal of Honour did for WWII shooters a decade earlier.

Company of Heroes is set purely on the Western Front of the European theatre of WWII, starting on D-Day and proceeding through to the end of Operation Market Garden. The initial game features a single campaign focusing on the US forces and depicts the assault on the beaches, the behind-the-lines movements of special forces which silenced the German's artillery pounding the beaches, the assault on Cherbourg and the battles of St. Lo and Falaise that resulted in the final defeat of German forces on the Cotentin Peninsula. The expansion, Opposing Fronts (which is included with the CoH Gold Edition), features two campaigns. The first centres on the German Panzer Elite as they race to defeat the Allies' assault on Arnhem in Operation Market Garden, and the second (set some months earlier) focuses on the British assault on Caen, a gruelling battle that was supposed to be won in a single day but instead lasted more than a month due to the unexpected presence of elite SS forces in the town. A notable lack in the game is that the fourth side, the 'normal' German Wehrmacht, lacks a single-player campaign, but Relic have surprisingly noticed this and decided to remedy this with a downloadable German campaign, to be released in early 2009, although it will use different mechanics to the rest of the game.

The game is notable for minimising base-building, although it doesn't eliminate it as the Ground Control series did some years earlier. However, resource-gathering has been eliminated in favour of holding territory on the map. This mechanic encourages aggressive play from the start, as he who seizes the most territory in the shortest possible time will find the balance of power swinging in their favour. This leads to an interesting trade-off as players must decide to reinforce earlier in the game with lots of low-level units such as jeeps, mortars and machine gun teams, or instead holding off until more advanced technology such as artillery and tanks becomes available. The variation in these mechanics is what makes the game interesting to play, particularly in the compelling multiplayer modes.

On the single-player front, the game is unfortunately rather cliched. Some of the maps are excellently designed, but the stories are rather traditional WWII stuff featuring good old American boys and stiff-upper-lipped British soldiers facing off against the ruthless-but-with-a-sense-of-honour Germans (as usual for a game, the actual Nazis play no role in events). The storytelling is also weak, as it happens entirely within the cut scenes between missions. The actual characters do not appear in the missions and no storytelling takes place during the missions themselves, which means that after spending an hour on a tough map you've forgotten what is going on in the story, and don't particularly care about what is happening to these cliched characters.

The American and Wehrmacht forces are excellently-designed and balanced against one another, although the higher-level German units (particularly their tanks) are tough to stop once they get rolling. The game engine delivers the chaos of battle particularly well, with massive artillery bombardments, air strikes and ferocious tank duels giving us some of the most convincing WWII action in a game seen to date. However, the newer sides of the British and Panzer Elite are less interesting and, although well-balanced against one another (the British focus on static defence whilst the Panzer Elite are focused on attack) feel a bit off when fighting the established sides. In particular, the American and German ability to lock down and defend territory markers whilst the Brits and Panzer Elite cannot is rather unbalancing.

Where Company of Heroes comes to life is the excellent multiplayer which, after two years, seems to have finally gotten some stable and reliable servers. Cracking a particularly tough co-op skirmish or fighting a challenging battle with human players is tremendously satisfying, and the varied tactics and relatively fast pace of the game make Company of Heroes the most satisfying multiplayer RTS game since the venerable StarCraft.

Company of Heroes (****½) is a compelling and fun game where the single-player experience suffers slightly but the multiplayer and skirmish games more than make up for it. The game is available now in the UK and USA in a 'gold edition' with its expansion, Opposing Fronts, included. A second expansion, Tales of Valour, will be released in the spring of 2009 and Relic are considering a sequel, possibly adding the Russians or being set in North Africa.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

The seventh volume of The Wheel of Time carries us over the halfway point of the series (with the final book now being split into two volumes, bringing the series total to thirteen) in terms of wordcount. However, in terms of the actual story we're much closer to the end. Robert Jordan made a decision in the latter part of the series to reduce forward story momentum in favour of developing subplots and character interactions, a rather controversial choice that has resulted in the series' overall mixed reviews across SF&F fandom. By this seventh volume, we are starting to see the impact of this decision.

The book opens in the aftermath of the massive Battle of Dumai's Wells, when the Dragon Reborn, imprisoned by the Aes Sedai loyal to Elaida, was rescued by his supporters and both sides had to fend off an attack by the Shaido Aiel. During this battle nine of the rebel Aes Sedai swore fealty to Rand to prove their loyalty and the Asha'man, a society of male channellers created by Rand to use in the Last Battle, proved their worth. Resisting the urge to revenge himself upon Elaida, Rand prepares for his much-foreshadowed confrontation with Sammael, whilst at the same time trying to finally win over the Sea Folk and the Cairhienin rebels to his cause. Meanwhile, in Ebou Dar, Mat, Nynaeve, Elayne and several other characters are trying to find the Bowl of Winds, an important artifact that will restore normal weather to the world. In Amador, stronghold of the Children of the Light, a shift in the balance of power puts Morgase's life in danger, and from the south and from the west an even greater threat is emerging to challenge the alliance Rand is hoping to assemble against the Shadow.

There's a lot going on in A Crown of Swords, and the book conveys a feeling of momentum and movement compared to the largely static Lord of Chaos, which makes it a moderately more satisfying read. There's also a widening of the worldbuilding, with the Sea Folk presented in more detail then we have seen before, the introduction of the Kin (a secret society of female channellers) and the revelation of a new form of magic, the True Power, and a convincing reason given why we haven't seen it before (although we have, kind of). We also get to meet a deadly new form of Shadowspawn which presents a real sense of menace, just as we were starting to get bored of Trollocs and Myrddraal. As with the last three books, multiple storylines proceed in tandem and build to a series of large-scale, epic climaxes which shift the balance of power in the world and the story and leave the reader eager to plunge into the next book.

However, several key problems emerge or are solidified in this book. There is a lot of talk and overlong chapters in which very little happens. Forward character development proceeds satisfyingly for several characters, but others (most notably Elayne) seem to be stuck going round in circles to the increasing frustration of the reader. The fact that one of the most interesting and morally complex characters in the entire series dies in this book is also rather irritating (given how reluctant Jordan is to kill off characters in this series). The introduction of the Kin also feels like a redundant step too far. On top of the Aes Sedai, the Aiel Wise Ones and the Sea Folk Windfinders, we really didn't need yet another group of female channellers and their attendant politics. On the other hand, Jordan sometimes gets criticised for his introduction of a whole new bunch of characters among the White Tower Aes Sedai who are assigned to flush out traitors, but he doesn't devote much time to them and they are clearly essential for the resolution of the Aes Sedai civil war storyline.

A Crown of Swords (****) is largely a satisfying continuation of the story despite the increasing longueurs in some of the storylines. Some of the new characters and elements introduced are more successful than others, but broadly there is still the sense the story is going somewhere with continuing hints that we are moving towards a definitive conclusion. Unfortunately, this is the last time for several volumes that this is apparent. The book is available from Orbit in the UK and from Tor in the USA.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Update

I set myself a challenge last month of seeing if I could put up an entry every day. Although I had to fudge it a bit (missing a couple of days so putting up two on another) I managed it. Admittedly, this was because I had a fair few ARCs to work through, plus I was working through a very long series on re-read plus I had a whole bunch of DVDs left over from earlier in the year to get through and, most importantly, I am between jobs at the moment so had the time to devote to them. I suspect November will be somewhat quieter, although with the Wheel of Time re-read ongoing and some cool ARCs headed my way (most notably Bakker's The Judging Eye) things won't be that quiet.

Currently reading: A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan
Currently watching: Merlin Season 1 and Heroes Season 3 on the BBC.
Currently playing: StarCraft (replay), The Witcher Enhanced Edition, Company of Heroes.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Joe Ledger is an all-American hero. Impossibly square-jawed, he is an expert at both unarmed and armed combat, yet is sensitive to the emotional needs of his friends. He also has a cat. In what might be Patient Zero's most accomplished twist, he isn't ex-Special Forces, but merely has a few years in the army and the police force behind him. No, his awesomeness is purely innate. As someone says in the book, you can't train that kind of badassery. If this book had been written twenty years ago, he'd have been played by Steven Seagal in the movie version.

Ledger, being a one-man army, natural leader and patriot, is naturally recruited into the DMS, the Department of Military Services, an ultra-secret organisation created by the US government to combat terrorist threats on levels that go way beyond anything that gets out to the public. Answerable only to the President, the DMS has resources and budgets that even the CIA and FBI can barely dream of. And, for reasons never adequately explained, an attractive British female officer who is ex-SAS and has a stiff upper lip. Now, the DMS is facing a new threat: a group of Middle-Eastern terrorist groups have joined forces with an international pharmaceutical company to unleash a virus upon the United States, a virus that turns everyone it touches...into zombies.

At this point you may be wondering if Patient Zero is a black comedy, or an expertly-written piece of satire. The improbably chiselled hero, the zombies, and their creator (a beautiful-but-deadly female jihadist) all indicate this book is going for laughs, but the often gruesome violence and the dwelling on the psychological damage being done to the DMS team by the horrific situations they find themselves in suggest otherwise. I think Maberry decided to do a traditional action story but mixed in counter-terrorism with the walking dead and then played the whole thing straight.

Like many books with an absurd (but high-concept and possibly Hollywood-baiting) premise, it nevertheless strangely works as long as the author doesn't dwell on the sillier aspects of the story. Maberry is an accomplished writer of horror and is a winner of the Bram Stoker Award, and whilst this is first and foremost an action story, the horror elements are described very well. He has an expert way with pacing and the story is quite a page-turner. The structure is also interesting, with the book moving back and forth in time to show the build-up to the current crisis as well as its resolution. The book also mixes its perspectives, with Joe's chapters relayed in first-person but several other characters described in a standard third-person narrative. This works reasonably well. Finally, there's an interesting if predictable twist when it is revealed that there are really three factions at work here, all with their own agendas, which complicates the end of the book nicely and sets things up for the two sequels. Whilst Patient Zero is a stand-alone novel, Joe Ledger will return in Dragon Factory and The King of Plagues.

Patient Zero (***½) is an accomplished thriller which overcomes its dafter aspects to become an enjoyable novel. However, every time you really start to get lost in the story, a scene or line of staggering corniness smacks you over the head with as much subtlety as a brick. Whilst some may find this off-putting, it does help contribute to the feeling that this is basically the literary equivalent of a cheesy-but-enjoyable action movie. You'll probably have completely forgotten about it in a few months, but you'll have fun along the way. Patient Zero will be published in the UK by Gollancz on 16 April 2009 in hardcover and tradeback, and in the USA by St. Martin's Press on 3 March 2009. The author has a website at this location.