Tuesday, 30 December 2008

City of Thieves by David Benioff

"There are cannibals in every building. Welcome to Leningrad."

I was moved to pick up City of Thieves on two counts: first off, David Benioff is one of the writers and producers of HBO's forthcoming adaption of George RR Martin's A Game of Thrones, and I wanted to see how good a writer he was. Secondly, and more importantly, it is a novel set during the Siege of Leningrad, one of the lesser-explored conflicts of World War II but an area I studied several years ago, most notably through Harrison Salisbury's masterpiece of historical investigation, The 900 Days, and I wanted to see if the book could bring that conflict to life.

The first week of January, 1942. The city of Leningrad has been under siege by the German Army Group North and the Finnish Army for over four months. The city is blockaded by land and sea, and the only relief route for supplies is a precarious road built into the frozen surface of Lake Ladoga (interestingly, not mentioned in the novel). By night German and Russian artillery batteries exchange salvos and the city's population works furiously in the factories even as they slowly starve. Yet in the eyes of the world the siege is a sideshow to the furious battle raging outside Moscow which will help decide the outcome of the Second World War.

To the people of Leningrad the siege is dangerously real. Hundreds of thousands of the city's populace are already dead, and those who survive find their rations reduced to a few grams of bread per day. For seventeen-year-old Lev and his friends, working as firefighters during the Luftwaffe's nightly visits to the city, finding extra food is a dream. When a German parachutist, killed by the cold, falls outside their apartment block they loot his corpse mercilessly, hoping he has food on him. Unfortunately, they are discovered by the NKVD. Lev is arrested as a looter and spends the night in a cell with a charismatic deserter, Kolya. Come the morning, they both prepare for the firing squad but are instead given an impossible mission by an unusually gracious NKVD colonel: to find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake and be forgiven for their crimes.

So a desperate search begins, as the young, shy, chess-playing Lev and the carefree, flamboyant and almost suicidally brave Kolya fight off the cold and hunger as their mad quest takes them from the besieged city to the countryside beyond where partisans and German counter-insurgency troops fight a bitter guerrilla war.

City of Thieves is at heart a mismatched buddy story, but one told with wit and charm. The two protagonists (one of whom sadly isn't David Benioff's grandfather, despite what the introduction indicates) are superbly drawn, especially the irrepressible Kolya whose artistic ambitions and insatiable appreciation of female charms combine to make a tremendously amusing character. The hardships and deprivations the people of the city are living under is mostly accurately described, although the general feeling from The 900 Days was that by this point the people of the city were so weak that gallivanting off on 30-kilometre walks into the countryside and taking part in combat with German stormtroopers would probably be beyond the physical capabilities of most inhabitants. Still, even taking this into account Benioff does a good job of portraying the hardships faced by the city, although notably he doesn't dwell on some of the more grisly details (the corpses left on the streets or ill-advisedly dumped in the river because no-one had the energy to bury them).

The story is straightforward, but well-told, and the ending is as close to happy as it can realistically be, with a nasty but predictable twist hidden behind a more unexpected and gut-wrenching one.

City of Thieves (****½) is a splendid, gripping read with a dark sense of gallows humour and some vivid but occasionally disturbing imagery. Well-recommended. It is available in the USA from Viking and in the UK from Sceptre.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Wire: Season 4

The fourth and penultimate season of The Wire sees the show moving into new territory. At the end of Season 3 the Barksdale organisation was finally destroyed for good, McNulty found himself some happiness and Daniels got a promotion. The goals set out in Season 1 had been achieved. So, where next for the Major Crimes Unit and the players of the game?

Season 4 follows several storylines in tandem. The MCU is now chasing down Marlo Stanfield, whose organisation has picked up from where Barksdale left off and now rules over most of the western district of Baltimore. However, their rise to power has apparently been accomplished with virtually no deaths, bemusing Lester Freamon. With the wiretaps also coming up empty, Freamon's attempts to follow the money trail attract the ire of his superiors and pretty soon the MCU is all but shut down and Freamon and Kima end up working in Homicide instead. Elsewhere, McNulty is enjoying the (relatively) easy life as a beat cop, Daniels is heading up his own force and Carver is maturing as an officer, with only Herc apparently resisting any change, at least until he catches the Mayor's eye (in a rather interesting manner) and finds his star rising as a result. But overall the police side of things, at least to start off with, seems pretty quiet.

On the streets Marlo's rise to power has been achieved with the help of his two enforcers, the terrifyingly cold-blooded and ruthless Chris and Snoop, who have come up with a brilliant scheme to hide the resulting bodies from the police. Proposition Joe, who has inherited most of the surviving Barksdale crew, is continuing his efforts to entice Marlo into the cooperative to little avail, so he hatches a scheme to get Marlo on his side by setting up a war between him and the indefatigable Omar. Unfortunately, this leads to a pretty bloody and complicated state of affairs for all concerned.

Elsewhere, Tommy Carcetti is running for the position of mayor, but the race is a difficult three-way contest between him, the incumbent Royce and fellow councilman Tony Gray. Unfortunately, no sooner is the winner in office then they are delivered two massive problems: how to handle the proven incompetence of police commissioner Burrell when they cannot fire him for political reasons, and the discovery that they have a jaw-dropping $54 million budget deficit due to overspending in the schools.

At the same time, Prez, the former MCU member fired from the force in Season 3 after accidentally killing another officer, has started a new life as a maths teacher. His class is noisy, uncooperative, disrespectful and sometimes shockingly violent (one student slashes another's face open with a razor in his first week). However, the primary narrative for Season 4 focuses on four of the students in Prez's class - Randy, Dukie, Namond and Michael. These are all new characters, although with some ties to existing ones: Namond is the son of former Barksdale enforcer Wee-Bey and Michael is a member of Cutty's gym.

The scaling back of the other characters in favour of following these four youngsters around may seem like an odd move, but it pays off brilliantly. Having tackled the police, criminals, politicians, and dockworkers, Season 4 is about teachers, students and the role of education in shaping the lives of the young. Early in the season a divide is identified between those kids who could make something for themselves and the corner kids who don't want to do anything other than stand on the streets and sell drugs to make money, and where the four main characters fall on that divide and how they swap sides and change over the course of the season is fascinating to watch. At first glance Michael seems to be the most positive and promising of the four, but his interest in sports and growing cooperation in class hides a bitter and painful home life that soon leads him into Marlo's circle, whilst happy-go-lucky Randy makes a series of mistakes that prove costly. In fact it's Namond, who is selling drugs from the start and being schooled for a life of crime by his father from behind bars, who undergoes the most interesting and seismic shifts in character, all depicted through the brilliant-as-usual writing and some fine performances from the young actors involved.

Andre Royo as Bubs also has to be singled out for mention, as Bubs hits rock-bottom in this season and Royo's depiction of a man whose already crappy life disintegrates completely is absolutely stunning. At the same time, Dominic West's low availability for the season means that McNulty doesn't appear very much, meaning more screen time for Freamon (Clarke Peters) and Bunk (Wendell Pierce), which is a very welcome move. McNulty does return to prominence in the last two episodes, which set up the direction of the final season pretty well.

The Wire: Season 4 (*****) is as superbly-written, brilliantly funny, expertly-acted and stomach-churningly tragic as ever, except possibly even moreso than the first three seasons. If there is a negative point, it's that Season 4 is the most epic and sprawling season to date, and it takes a while for all the disparate storylines to start pulling together. But when they do, the result is the most powerful and gripping final run of episodes yet. Season 4 of The Wire is available on DVD in the UK and USA and also as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA).

Dawnthief by James Barclay

Dawnthief is the first book in both the Chronicles of the Raven trilogy and the longer seven-volume Raven sequence featuring a band of mercenaries striving to save the 'continent' of Balaia (it's actually about the size of France, from what I can tell) from various threats. It was originally published in 1999 and launched the career of British fantasy author James Barclay, whose most recent work was the Ascendents of Estorea duology (Cry of the Newborn and Shout for the Dead).

The Raven are a band of mercenaries bound together by ties of honour and friendship. During the defence of a beleaguered castle, one of their number is accidentally killed due to the machinations of a wizard named Denser. The Raven don't take too kindly to this, but learn that Denser is on a mission to save the curiously rectangular landmass of Balaia from the return of the evil Wytch Lords, who are being resurrected by the evil Wesmen to spread fear and, erm, evil across the lands of eastern Balaia. The Raven thus join forces with the redoubtable Denser to collect together the pieces of a badass spell called Dawnthief which will defeat the Wytch Lords but could possibly blow up the entire world at the same time.

Dawnthief is not a very successful novel (artistically, although it's been a solid seller, hence the six sequels). From the start it was a tough read, not because of dense prose but because the story was so bland I had a hard time staying focused on it. The characters are all pretty shallow and tend to blur into one another, making following them and their adventures difficult. The prose is workmanlike and the story is told via massive info-dumps with the odd action sequence to break them up in a very mechanical fashion. The writing actually reminded me of David Eddings, except unlike Eddings there are bursts of graphic sex, rape and violence that mean I cannot recommend the book to a YA audience. There is very little in the way of worldbuilding, and no real sense that an exterior world exists beyond the bubble our characters are travelling in. There are nonhuman races such as elves, but aside from having better eyesight there is nothing to distinguish them from the humans. Barclay does kill off some major characters in a possible attempt to make things more interesting and exciting, but then they tend to come back again, which makes the effort rather pointless. There is also little to no tension, as you never doubt for a microsecond that the Raven will fail.

I know from reading Barclay's more recent duology that he does get a lot better as his books continue, but I'm not sure I want to read another six books just to find out when that happens. Still, I may give the second volume, Noonshade, a go at some point in the future.

Dawnthief (*½) is available now in a new paperback edition from Gollancz in the UK. Pyr will start publishing the series in the USA in late 2009. The seventh Raven novel, Ravensoul, has just been published in trade paperback in the UK.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

The David Gemmell Awards 2009

Voting is now open for The David Gemmell Legend Award for Best Heroic Fantasy Novel (although that definition is a bit loose, as the list shows). Almost eighty books are nominated for the award, including Joe Abercrombie's Last Argument of Kings, Andrzej Sapkowski's Blood of Elves, Brent Weeks' The Way of Shadows, Peter Brett's The Painted Man, Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains and Brandon Sanderson's The Hero of Ages. After some debate, my vote went to Paul Kearney's splendid The Ten Thousand.

The voting is open for registered users of the website and newcomers alike.

Friday, 26 December 2008

The Wertzone Awards for Other Stuff in 2008

Best Computer Game

Fallout 3

This may be an indication that I didn't play many games this year. In fact, I can safely say that 2008 was my worst year for staying up to date with new game releases since somewhere around 1991. To some extent this is because I game on PC, and the PC format is being killed off by the publishers for reasons that seem entirely impenetrable. Ludicrous waiting times between the console release of a game and the subsequent PC version, insane and invasive copy-protection schemes that don't actually work and the increasing tendency of publishers to release incomplete games and patch them up six months later have all combined to make PC gaming an increasingly frustrating pastime. I must admit to nearly giving in and getting a 360 earlier in the year, but managed to stave it off.

Anyway, Fallout 3 - for all its issues - is great, an atmospheric and fun RPG with the best combat system seen in the genre for absolutely ages.

My second choice would be Rock Band 2, which completely threw my gaming group's ongoing Deadlands game out the window in favour of using rocking out but is more fun than should be strictly legal.

Best TV Show


Lost's rehabilitation continues with its best season yet, with tons of secrets revealed and the storyline moving forward in leaps and bounds. Admittedly, it's a bit odd that the central conflict of the series is now revealed as being an epic life-and-death struggle between two supporting characters, neither of whom appeared before the end of Season 2, but when the actors involved are Michael Emerson and Alan Dale that's hardly a problem. Some jaw-droppingly unexpected deaths (thing of GRRM-style, out-of-nowhere fatalities) and a huge mind-frak of a season finale combined to give us a really strong show.

Best TV Episode

Battlestar Galactica: Revelations

It was a slightly unhappier year for BSG, which started the year off by trying to repair some of the damage done by the poor second half of Season 3. It succeeded in regaining its former fire, but it took ten episodes to do it. Nevertheless, Revelations was a stunning piece of work with the actors firing on all cylinders, the writers getting back into the groove and the final act and the jaw-dropping final scene being fantastically handled. Hopefully the show can continue at this quality or improve upon it once Season 4.5 begins in less than three weeks.

I'll be doing a big preview of stuff to watch out for in 2009 next week, so watch out for that!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Heroes: Season 3.0 - Villains

Sometimes you have to admit defeat and that it's time to take the poor old dog outside to the yard and put the shotgun to use. If Heroes was a dog it would be one that's become confused and incontinent, not quite capable of operating healthily any more and whose quality of life is doubtful. NBC have started loading the shotgun but aren't quite ready to put the show out of its misery yet. Amidst plummeting ratings and mounting critical scorn, producers have been fired and the main creative force behind the barnstorming first season, Bryan Fueller, has been brought back to see if he can put the show back on track.

Fueller's return won't have any impact until late in the second half of Season 3 and into Season 4, when he will be co-showrunner. In the meantime, Season 3 has been split into two arcs. The first, consisting of thirteen episodes, is subtitled 'Villains' and sees the show's roster of good and bad guys shaken around, with some good guys turning bad and some bad ones at least being teased towards becoming good. The second arc, 'Fugitives', will see most of the heroes on the run as the US government finally learns of the existence of people with powers and sets out to contain them.

The first arc starts off strongly. Picking up the wreckage from the troubled second season, the heroes quickly learn that a formula exists that could grant powers to everyone in the world. However, a future incarnation of Peter Petrelli travels back in time and reveals that doing so will doom the world to destruction. A convoluted opening set of episodes reveals that someone long thought dead has returned to threaten the world and the heroes must act against him, but his agenda tempts some of the good guys to the dark side. At the same time, Sylar finds himself reluctantly joining forces with the Company in order to survive.

The opening half of Heroes' third season is a mess, and no mistake. Character motivations are confused and not tremendously well-defined. Whilst the first couple of episodes succeed in giving us a rapidly-moving storyline and establish a clear threat to the world, the precise nature of that threat rapidly becomes diffuse (the exact, specific cause of the destruction of the world is never defined, unlike the first two seasons) and muddled. The big selling point of the season is characters swapping sides, but the reasons for them doing so are monstrously contrived and don't always make sense, particularly the evolution of Nathan's character. The nerfing of Peter and Hiro's powers, although interesting from a dramatic point of view, likewise feels too much like a set-up. The world-ending threat is also far too repetitive. For the third year running the entire planet is in danger and our heroes have to save the day. There's also the time travel, which now makes no sense at all.

Amidst the dross there are some good ideas. Recasting Ali Larter as a new character (albeit one set up by prior seasons) is a good move and she works better in a supporting role rather than as a major protagonist. Moving characters who have nothing to do off-screen rather than trying to find things for them to do is also a sensible development. Individual character arcs also work well: new character Daphne (Brea Grant) has a good storyline and a fun power which is explored logically throughout, and her activities bring Matt (the always-likable Greg Grunberg) back into the main storyline. The attempt to push a wedge between the Hiro 'n' Ando partnership is clumsy, but the reunion between the two and their adventure in Africa is amusing. Kristen Bell's character, Elle, after being ill-served in Season 2 is given a much greater chance to shine in Season 3 as well.

Unfortunately, the good points about the season only barely manage to keep the show's head above water. The trite dialogue, clumsy exposition, confused motivations and bizarre character twists make watching the show hard work this season, and it has to be said that NBC has shown remarkable confidence in keeping the show on-air for another year to see if Fueller can work his old magic on it once more.

Heroes: Villains (**) has just finished broadcasting in the USA and UK. The next 'volume', 'Fugitives', will begin airing on 2 February 2009, and will frankly have to seriously raise its game to be noticed whilst Lost's penultimate season and Battlestar Galactica's final ten episodes are airing.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The Wertzone Awards for SF&F Novels in 2008

Due to coincidence, I read the same number of books released in 2008 as I did in 2007: fourteen.

Here are my thoughts on the genre books that I read this year:

Best SF&F Novel Released in 2008

1. The Ten Thousand by Paul Kearney
A stand-alone fantasy set in the world of the Macht, chronicling the trials and tribulations of a human mercenary army left deep behind enemy lines after the death of their patron. Kearney's lean prose, focused storytelling and unbeatable skills at describing not only battles but also the ethics and morals of war make this the stand-out fantasy novel of 2008.

2. Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
Joe Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy comes to an earth-shattering close with this novel, which makes the first two look like a David Eddings-penned nursery rhyme. Amidst the carnage, death and destruction, Abercrombie closes the character arcs of his protagonists in an appropriate manner and the mage Bayaz, torturer Glokta and barbarian Logen emerge as three of the most magnificent bastard figures even seen in fantasy. The messy, uncompromising ending makes this the most satisfying end to a fantasy trilogy...well, possibly ever*.

3. The Temporal Void by Peter F. Hamilton
After a disappointing Judas Unchained, Hamilton kick-started his Void Trilogy with the interesting but flawed The Dreaming Void. This middle book of his trilogy is a real return to form, mixing hard SF and inventive, exciting fantasy to superb effect and events build to a stunning climax that leaves the reader eager for the concluding volume in the series.

4. Nation by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett steps off the Discworld to deliver a fascinating story which reflects on life, death, faith and religion in a thoughtful, adult manner. Nation may contain odd bursts off Pratchett's trademark humour, but this is one of his most mature and sobering works, and it succeeds in its aims superbly.

5. The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan
Richard Morgan swaps cyberpunk for swords 'n' sorcery in his tribute to authors like Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber. It's old-school sensibilities are meshed well with its hints of hard SF underpinnings, and its hard-as-nails protagonists are an interesting bunch. Another angry, brutal and fascinating novel from one of the genre's most notable rising stars.

6. The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett
This debut fantasy novel mixes some traditional fantasy trappings with some fascinating new ideas, and its ward-based magic is an interesting new form of sorcery. However, it's the path of the protagonists which veers sharply from the traditional which attracts the most interest, and the final lines hint at a very different type of book for the forthcoming sequel, The Desert Spear.

7. Swiftly by Adam Roberts
A sequel to Gulliver's Travels set over a century later, which sees the little people and the giants as slaves of the British and French empires, helping the two nations fight a devastating war. However, it is the expansion late in the novel of the book to a cosmic scale which most impresses, as is the author's total mastery of the comic potential of fecal matter.

8. Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian Cameron Esslemont
Whilst Steven Erikson seems increasingly preoccupied by the thematic and philosophical ponderings of his Malazan series, to the detriment of its previous sense of fun and featuring of furious action, his co-creator and writing wingman has turned in a book that is much more Malazan old-school. It features vast armies clashing, some brilliant black humour and a focused, relentless pace which comes as a refreshing change after Erikson's recent indolent sprawls. With this book Esslemont more than proves that he has the chops to handle the Malazan universe's expansion, and his next novel is awaited with interest.

9. Shadow Gate by Kate Elliott
Spirit Gate, the first book in what is now the Crossroads Trilogy, was an interesting but flawed read which seemed to delight in withholding vital character and worldbuilding information from the reader. Shadow Gate remedies that by showing the flipside of events from the first book, as well as pushing the storyline on further. The result is a much stronger, more fascinating novel which fleshes out the settings and characters in a vivid manner, and also makes the first book much more cohesive in retrospect. The final volume of the trilogy is due in early 2009.

10. Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson
As the Malazan Book of the Fallen series has continued, it has increasingly abandoned the furious pace of the earlier novels in favour of greater exploration of the ideas at the heart of the series. Whilst this has left some fans cold, others have enjoyed Erikson's increasingly verbose divergences from his core storylines. This reaches its apex in Toll the Hounds, a novel whose connections to the rest of the series seem at times tenuous, but features some of Erikson's best writing. Whether Erikson can ramp up the tension and intensity once more for the final two-volume sequence of the saga remains to be seen.

11. The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass
This novel about religion and science may be a little heavy-handed in places, but Melinda Snodgrass has delivered a fine, enjoyable book. Expect the sequel in 2009.

12. Flood by Stephen Baxter
The science may be shaky, but Flood is a grand disaster novel which sees civilisation destroyed as the world's oceans increase in depth by staggering amounts. The story of how humanity survives is compelling and fun, with a few moments of genuine tragedy and pathos evoked amongst the more cinematic, widescreen scenes of mass destruction. Again, a sequel is due in 2009.

13. The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert VS Redick
Robert Redick's debut novel is a great read, chronicling life on aboard the colossal sailing vessel Chathrand as it sails on a diplomatic mission to avert a devastating war. Only a slightly confusing and unrealistic stalemate-inducing ending prevents it from ranking higher.

14. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
The blogger and Internet commentator creates an enjoyable story about a young man, mistakenly arrested in the wake of a terrorist attack on San Francisco, who uses his Internet skills to expose the illegal activities of the government. It's a bit heavy-handed and in some areas reads like out-and-out propaganda about the perils of a government with too much power, but in others it raises interesting and well-conceived questions.

In the interests of full disclosure, these are the major 2008 releases that I didn't get around to reading in time:

An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham
The Gabble by Neal Asher
Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker
Matter by Iain M. Banks
Ravensoul by James Barclay
City at the End of Time by Greg Bear
Small Favour by Jim Butcher
Princeps' Fury by Jim Butcher
The Lees of Laughter's End by Steven Erikson
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Thunderer by Felix Gilman
Inside Straight by George RR Martin (ed.)
Busted Flush by George RR Martin (ed.)
The Quiet War by Paul J. McAuley
House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
Mistborn: The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
By Schism Rent Asunder by David Weber

*Note: I don't consider Lord of the Rings to technically be a trilogy, before people start having heart attacks and berating me.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3

Every time a Command and Conquer game has appeared, a new iteration of its brighter, shiner, much stupider cousin, the Red Alert series, has rapidly followed. With Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars proving to be a big hit in 2007, the news that Red Alert 3 would be making an appearance in late 2008 wasn't exactly a major surprise.

Red Alert 3 opens towards the end of Red Alert 2, with the Allies about to overrun Moscow. In a last-ditch gambit, the Soviet leadership time-travels back to 1927 and kills Albert Einstein, after he had executed Hitler in the original Red Alert (thus ensuring WW2 never happened, the core premise of the Red Alert series) but before he started developing high-tech weaponry for the Allied cause. Upon returning to their home time, the Soviet leadership discovers that they have proven victorious and driven the Allies from the European mainland. However, they also discover that, rather than joining the Allies as in the original timeline, Japan has become an independent nation, the Empire of the Rising Sun, and forged a vast and powerful war machine which it has now unleashed on both the Allies and Soviets. With no nuclear weapons to hold them at bay, the Empire seems poised to take control of the entire globe.

Red Alert 3 is a throwback to the good old days of the earlier Red Alert games, throwing out the tighter narrative focus and sequential campaigns that Tiberium Wars brought in and reverting to having each of the three campaigns in the game take place in an alternate history to the others. For example, one of the Japanese missions has you racing to defend the Empire's colony at Pearl Harbour from a surprise Allied naval assault (irony!), an event not mentioned or replicated in the Allied or Soviet campaigns, which is a bit odd. However, those used to the prior Red Alert games are used to this by now, so it is not a major issue.

Unfortunately, whilst Tiberium Wars proved to be the best Command and Conquer game to date, with a tight storyline, fast-paced combat and doing a sterling job of updating the geriatric SAGE engine, Red Alert 3 is not as successful. The game engine is looking increasingly ancient these days, especially when compared even to the two-year-old Company of Heroes, and the bright, primary colour scheme of Red Alert 3 doesn't play to it as well as the darker, muted C&C3 aesthetic. The exception is the new water system, which is fantastic but also system-intensive, with even more powerful machines likely to stutter during busy naval battles. There is also disappointment with the unit roster: the Allied and Soviet unit selection is mostly just copied over from Red Alert 2, with a few new units thrown in.

On the plus side of things, the new Japanese faction is innovative, with many units lifted directly from anime, such as the mecha which can transform from a ground robot to a fighter, which seems to directly inspired by the Valkyrie from Macross (aka the Veritech from Robotech). In addition, several of the Japanese cut scenes use music cues which seem to be heavily inspired by Ghost in the Shell's soundtrack. This new faction requires a totally different approach from the Allies and Soviets, and their part of the campaign proves to be the most challenging and interesting.

The campaign itself is delivered through the familiar mix of briefings and FMV. An all-star cast leads the way, with Tim Curry as the Soviet Premier, Jonathan Pryce as the Allied Field Marshal Bingham and George Takei as the Japanese Emperor Yoshiro. The higher quality of acting means the FMV side of things is not quite as ludicrously camp as Red Alert 2, but the story is still extremely daft, filled with plot holes, military impossibilities (how the hell did the Japanese get to Stalingrad?) and, for some reason, an apparent reliance by all three sides on attractive young female military advisers. None of this is exactly new to seasoned Red Alert vets, however. Suffice to say that the tradition of silliness in the spirit of the prior Red Alert games is carried on here.

All in all, Red Alert 3 (***) is fun and fast-paced, but it seems a bit too contrived compared to its forebears. The game isn't quite as intense and furious as C&C3 gets in multiplayer, and the storyline isn't far off from being a comedy, meaning you don't get as much emotional investment in it, the games or the characters. For knockabout entertainment, Red Alert 3 suffices but it won't be dragging RTS fans away from Company of Heroes multiplayer for very long. The game is out now on PC (UK, USA) and X-Box 360 (UK, USA).

A Note on DRM: The PC version of Red Alert 3 is protected by SecuROM, the same digital-rights-management software that previously blighted Spore and Mass Effect. It requires an internet connection for the game to work even in single-player and the game is limited to five 'activations'. EA has not been forthcoming on what constitutes an 'activation' but experiments by players have shown that even simply changing a graphics card can use up an activation. After a chorus of complaints, the latest patch allows the game owner to de-authorize the game prior to carrying out any modifications to their PC, so they don't use up an activation, but it is still a hassle for players. Naturally, all of this proved totally unnecessary as the game was hacked and leaked onto the Internet a week before its official release date.

Friday, 19 December 2008


Released in 2007 and based on Neil Gaiman's 1998 novel, Stardust is an unexpected gem among recent SF and fantasy films, a fairytale with some interesting and modern twists delivered by a cast on fine form.

The movie opens with young Englishman Dunstan Thorn crossing the forbidden wall near his village to investigate the magical kingdom that is said to lie beyond. There he has an amorous encounter with a young woman claiming to be a captive princess. Nine months later, after Dunstan's return home, a baby is deposited outside his house. Dunstan raises Tristan (Charlie Cox) to become a fine and adventurous young man, who becomes besotted with the most beautiful girl in the village, Victoria (Sienna Miller). After they see a shooting star fall beyond the wall one night, Tristan vows to find the fallen star and give it as a gift to Victoria to prove his worthiness.

Unfortunately for Tristan, the shooting star is the result of a scheme by the late King of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole), who has hurled his amulet from his bedchamber and decreed that whoever of his surviving sons who finds the amulet will be worthy to succeed him. The amulet's return to Earth has knocked a star named Yvaine (Claire Danes) out of the sky, forcing her to take human form. Tristan swiftly locates her and decides to fulfil his promise to Victoria, but their return to the wall is strewn with obstacles, not least in the form of the witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) who wishes to find the star and consume it to restore youth and long life to herself and her sisters. The King's squabbling sons are also searching for the star as well. The result is a road movie taking in an airship commanded by a fearsome pirate (Robert De Niro) who harbours a secret, a magically-created inn, a unicorn and lots more as well.

Stardust is a tremendously good movie. The number of fantasy films (excluding Lord of the Rings) that have really worked in the last few years is pretty low, and you arguably have to go back to The Princess Bride to find the last undisputed classic in the genre (although no doubt some would speak up in favour of The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth). Stardust works because it has excellent pacing, fantastic acting, great dialogue and a strong script which shoots down inconsistencies and plot holes whenever they show up. Charlie Cox and especially Claire Danes make for appealing protagonists and De Niro gives his all in a gift of a role with the self-contradictory Captain Shakespeare. Pfeiffer's excellent turn makes you ponder why she doesn't seem to crop up very often in movies any more. Ricky Gervais is less successful in a minor cameo, but luckily (despite his appearance on the DVD cover) he is in the movie for barely two minutes, so that isn't an issue. The story takes some highly unexpected twists and turns before an impressive showdown is reached, and the ending, whilst a happy one, isn't exactly saccharine (the body count needed to get there is quite high).

It's difficult to think of any negatives with this movie. It's light, breezy, fresh and fun but not shallow. A great story with intelligent characters it is laugh-out-loud funny in many places, but with some real moments of pathos and emotional intensity elsewhere. Fantasy movies as good as this don't come along very often these days, so check it out.

Stardust (*****) is available now in DVD in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Majel Barrett-Roddenberry passes away

Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, the widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and known as the 'First Lady' of Star Trek, sadly passed away earlier today.

Her connection to Star Trek goes right back to the original pilot, The Cage, where she played 'Number One', the first officer of the USS Enterprise. At the behest of the studio, the role was eliminated and Leonard Nimoy's popular character of Mr. Spock was made first officer in the ongoing series. Majel Barrett was moved to the role of Nurse Christine Chapel, whom she played several times over the course of the original series and also voiced in the animated series. She revisited the role in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, by which time the character had been promoted to full Doctor. She also provided the voice of the Enterprise computer and voiced several other characters in the animated Star Trek series of the mid-1970s.

In 1988 she reappeared in front of the camera in the role of Lwaxana Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a role she revisited several times throughout both that series and Deep Space Nine. She became involved closely with Star Trek fandom, often appearing at conventions, and championed attempts by writer Peter David to get his Star Trek novel Imzadi adapted as an episode, which came to nothing. She continued to provide the computer voices on The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Episodes set in the future on Star Trek: Enterprise also featured her voice, making her the sole actor to be involved in every different iteration of the Star Trek franchise to date, a feat that looked set to continue when JJ Abrams asked her to repeat her iconic role for his new film, simply entitled Star Trek, due in May 2009. However, Majel Barrett-Roddenberry's passing came just a few days after this announcement, and it is unclear if she had filmed her lines by this time.

In 1995 she played a key conciliatory move by appearing as the Centauri Lady Morella, the widow of the late Emperor, on Babylon 5, having been asked to personally by J. Michael Straczynski. Barrett-Roddenberry confirmed she was a fan of the show and hoped that other Star Trek fans would check out the 'rival' series after her appearance. For his part, Straczynski admits to having been a huge fan of the original Star Trek and gave her some lines about her husband's legacy that some took as a tribute to Gene Roddenberry as well.

Majel Barrett-Roddenberry was 76 and suffering from complications arising from leukemia when she passed.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

A Game of Thrones: Pilot Script Review

The Winter is Coming blog has an interesting review of the Game of Thrones pilot script here.

Some thoughts:
  • Having the map of Westeros in the title sequence is a canny and necessary move, as the viewers will be reminded of the geography every week.
  • The prospect of 'new' (albeit GRRM-approved and possibly tweaked) scenes may be distressing, but as with most of the new 'good' stuff in the Lord of the Rings movies (i.e. not Aragorn getting thrown over a cliff for no reason) these scenes flesh out the story and better establish character rather than be gratuitous additions to the plot. Getting our first glimpse of Tyrion in a brothel establishes facets of the character better than just seeing him arrive in Winterfell's courtyard.
  • At this stage, no flashbacks. Whilst I'd hope we eventually see the Tower of Joy 'in the flesh' as it were (in Ned's dream sequence), the decision to have only dialogue references to the War of the Usurper and Lyanna's death seems reasonable. However, I do really want to see the Rhaegar/Robert fight as it is an iconic image from the novels, often used in artwork. Again, maybe we get to see it later on.
  • The Others' full capabilities are not revealed in as much detail as in the novel, presumably to make later sequences more of a surprise.
  • Condensing Dany's story into larger, but less frequent chunks may be a good idea, similar to how smaller secondary characters are handled in other HBO shows such as The Wire and Rome. Following the book slavishly would only give us 5-minute bursts of Dany every week or so, whilst this scheme means she won't be in every episode, but will have big chunks of time when she does so.
  • Most encouraging is the news that both the Wall and Dany's storylines will be followed faithfully from episode one. There had been much speculation that both may have been marginalised or not even featured in the first season, but clearly the writers are playing for keeps here.
That's about it. Remember to keep an eye on the Winter is Coming blog for further updates!

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

2057. In the depths of the Solar system, large spacecraft routinely intercept and redirect ice asteroids and comets into Earth orbit, where their raw materials can be used to fuel Earth's growing economy and incessant need for raw materials. When Saturn's moon Janus inexplicably leaves its orbit and heads out of the Solar system in the direction of the star Spica, an 'ice-pusher' ship named Rockhopper is the only vessel positioned to intercept it. The plan is for the ship to tail the anomaly for a week before returning to Earth. Naturally, complications ensue and the crew of Rockhopper are forced to make a home on Janus as it accelerates towards lightspeed, which will carry them to Spica in 250 years, although thanks to time dilation only a dozen years will pass for those on board.

Pushing Ice is a hard SF novel in the 'Big Dumb Object' tradition, following in the footsteps of Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, Larry Niven's Ringworld and Greg Bear's Eon. However, unlike a lot of BDO books which tend to put characterisation way behind spectacle and awe, Pushing Ice is centred firmly on the relationship between two female crewmembers of the Rockhopper, Captain Bella Lind and navigator Svetlana Barseghian, two firm friends who suffer a catastrophic falling-out over the Rockhopper's new mission and whose subsequent relations colour much of the novel. This gives the book an emotional centre which helps make it easier to relate to the more traditional, awe-inspiring spectacle stuff that unfolds later on.

Whilst unrelated to any of his other novels, Pushing Ice features Reynolds' trademark use of non-faster-than-light travel and the inevitable closer interrelationship between humanity and its machines, although broadly along more positive lines than his Revelation Space novels. Pushing Ice is also more relatable, as its technology is less exotic and much closer to current day levels, meaning his characters have to work even harder to survive in the hostile environments they find themselves in.

Pushing Ice becomes a multi-generational tale as life on Janus during and after is voyage unfolds and Reynolds' story reaches impressive new levels of invention as we discover more about the alien Spicans and their goals. There is a strong similarity here to Clarke's Rama Cycle, but he makes more interesting and focused points in considerably less time and pages than Clarke's earlier work, and the characters he uses to achieve that goal are considerably more interesting.

Pushing Ice (****½) doesn't quite hit the same high as Reynolds' masterwork Chasm City, but it comes damn close. As a hard SF novel in the Big Dumb Object tradition, Pushing Ice is a triumph, but achieves its success with more emotion and heart than most such books. This novel is thoroughly recommended and is available from Gollancz in the UK and from Ace in the USA.

The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins was an interesting take on an established character and franchise. Batman has always been one of the most morally complex 'superheroes' out there and Nolan used his movie to explore the psyche of Bruce Wayne in a manner that Tim Burton's earlier movies barely touched on. However, it was let down by a relatively unimpressive pair of villains, a weak ending and far too much stuff being shoehorned into the plot, resulting in bloat. For all of that, it was still an impressive film.

The first film ended with the establishing of the alliance between Lt. Jim Gordon of the Gotham City police department and Batman, and the beginning of a crime spree by a shadowy figure known as the Joker. The second movie picks up a few weeks or months later, with the Joker rapidly becoming public enemy number one and Batman's attempts to locate and defeat him being unsuccessful, especially as his crimefighting crusade is becoming complicated by the emergence of ham-fisted copy-cat vigilantes. However, a new district attorney, Harvey Dent, has made it his business to bring down Gotham's criminals and after a series of major successes against important gangs and crime bosses, Bruce Wayne begins to let himself think that maybe he won't have to be Batman forever.

Of course, this is only the beginning of the story. Batman, Dent and Gordon form an unofficial alliance to bring down and defeat the criminals of the city, but the Joker reacts by forming his own alliance of the various criminal elements against them. The result is an escalating series of complex, doublecrossing traps and counter-traps by both sides. The stakes are raised, lives are lost, and Gotham is brought into utter chaos as a result. And two men's souls and morals are caught in the balance.

The Dark Knight is a fiendishly clever film which works on a thematic level that superhero movies have rarely operated at before. For this reason, the movie has already been hailed as the most important superhero movie to date, elevating the genre to a new level of credibility (possibly having the same effect on the genre that 2001 had on science fiction or Lord of the Rings on fantasy films). It's hard to argue entirely against this: The Dark Knight is a movie of impressive ambitions, but whilst from an artistic perspective it may indeed be worthy of the hype bestowed upon it, its role as entertainment accordingly suffers in several key areas.

Much has been made of the late Heath Ledger's remarkable performance as the Joker. Taking on a role that Jack Nicholson had made memorable in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie was a challenge, but one that Ledger rose to by simply making his Joker an insane agent of chaos, an enigma, rather than a loud clown with a detailed (if unoriginal) backstory. The Joker gets no backplot here, nothing to make him sympathetic on a human level. He is a psychopath and a monster, one that Ledger portrays with brilliant intensity and some excellent comedic timing. However, his role in the film appears misleading. The heart of The Dark Knight is the war for the soul of Harvey Dent, and in that story the Joker is a catalyst. The Joker's significant amounts of screentime eat into the more compelling story of Dent (an almost-equally impressive performance from Aaron Eckhart), who is absent from the plot for long periods of time and his inevitable late-film transformation is not really given enough time to be fully convincing.

A more basic problem is that the movie is too long, and several major climactic set-pieces take place some considerable time before the end of the movie. Hollywood CGI whiz and blogger Mojo has advanced a theory that The Dark Knight actually is an amalgamation of two films into one, and if the Joker and Dent strands had been separated (perhaps by having the Joker's antics and his late-movie plot involving two ferries, which come out of nowhere, as one film and the fall of Dent in another) both would have been stronger. As it stands, the latter third of the movie feels considerably less-developed than the rest, and the series of apparently-but-not-quite final moments in the movie begins to challenge Return of the King at times for its frustration.

Performances are universally excellent. Eckhart and Ledger get special nods, but supporting hands from the first movie Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and especially Michael Caine all give excellent performances. Caine in particular impresses, with Alfred's experiences as a soldier giving him a moral authority that he uses to convince Batman to do the hard thing at times, paying off in a spectacular moment when Batman makes precisely the opposite decision to what the audience expects. Similarly, after a relatively minor role in the first movie Oldman steps up as Gordon and makes him a credible threat to the city's criminals. In a busy movie, Freeman's character of Lucius Fox even has time for an amusing subplot in which he discovers a Wayne Enterprises employee who has figured out where a chunk of the company's revenue is going and why. Maggie Gyllenhaall, taking over the Katie Holmes role from the first film (thankfully, as Gyllenhaal is a much better actress), also impresses. Christian Bale does good work as Wayne/Batman, but in a movie of stand-out performances from even the secondary cast, Bale merely settles for being pretty good.

The Dark Knight (****) is an effective, impressive and dark film with stand-out acting and an interesting thematic arc, but occasionally it lacks focus and has some scripting and pacing issues. It is definitely one of the better superhero movies of recent years, but I'd hesitate about calling it the best. What is does do, however, is aim for something much higher than most superhero movies even think about achieving and if it falls short, it remains an impressive ambition. The film is available now on DVD in the UK and USA, and alson on Blu-Ray in the UK and USA.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Woken Furies by Richard Morgan

Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-Envoy now working for his own agenda, has returned to his homeworld of Harlan's World on a personal mission of vengeance. During his task he falls in with a gang of freelance mercs assigned to cleaning out the continent of New Hokkaida, where intelligent robots left behind from an old war are still making the land too unsafe for re-colonisation. A chain of events is set in motion that will transform the face of Harlan's World and bring Kovacs face-to-face with his own past in a very literal way.

Woken Furies is the third and, to date, final book featuring Morgan's protagonist Takeshi Kovacs. This time Kovacs is out for blood on his own terms when he is swept up in a very different and fuzzy chain of events which focuses on his own past. If Altered Carbon was a detective story and Broken Angels was a war story, Woken Furies is more of a political story and offers more of a glimpse into Kovacs' mindset, brought into sharp relief as he encounters old friends and enemies on his home planet. These events also allow Morgan to explore some more of the consequences of his body-swapping, re-sleeving universe, with subtle nods towards its implications for consciousness, sentience and what it precisely means to be human (a slight and barely perceptible nudge compared to Bakker's Neuropath, which yelled it into the reader's face loudly until we got it).

As usual, this is an ultra-violent, bloody, sexually explicit and generally pretty hardcore story of revenge, rebellion and fear, with some exploding robots, surfing and extreme rock-climbing thrown into the mix. Those who've followed Kovacs' adventures before will be at home here, although given that the events of the first two books do impact on the story here I would advise newcomers to start with Altered Carbon first.

Woken Furies (****½) is the last Kovacs novel for the time being, although Morgan has not entirely ruled out a return to him later on. The book is available from Gollancz in the UK and from Del Rey in the USA. Morgan's latest novel, The Steel Remains, is out now in the UK and in February in the USA.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Merlin: Season 1

Merlin is the BBC's latest Saturday dinner-time family drama programme, occupying the same slot as the popular Doctor Who and the somewhat less popular Robin Hood. The idea behind this new series can be seen as being somewhat the same as Robin Hood: taking an old legend and updating it for modern audiences whilst ensuring it is capable of entertaining an entire family.

This makes it sound like that Merlin would be a heavily sanitised, squeaky-clean and inoffensive programme, boring at best and a travesty at worst. To some extent those fears are realised: this isn't the Camelot of Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles, which is bloody, realistic and brutal, or the mystical exotic fantasy of John Boorman's movie Excalibur. Camelot in Merlin is very clean and everyone has great teeth. That said, it isn't quite as bland as it might first appear.

In this revamp of the traditional legend, Merlin and Arthur are both young men. Twenty years ago King Uther Pendragon united the realm under his rule, but in the process fell out with the sorcerers and witches who initially he seems to have been on good terms with. As a result sorcery is now outlawed in Camelot and anyone who uses magic is tried and executed. Uther is fanatical on this point and neither his son and heir, Arthur, nor his ward Morgana can convince him otherwise. The young Merlin, who has innate powers of magic, has left his own village due to his mother's fears that word of his abilities will get out in the small community. Gaius, Camelot's physician and an old family friend, takes Merlin under his wing. After some initially hostile confrontations with the arrogant Prince Arthur, Merlin saves his life and ends up as his manservant. He also discovers a powerful dragon chained under the castle, who informs Merlin that his destiny is to help Arthur grow into a great king and restore magic to the realm. Merlin also befriends the daughter of the castle's blacksmith, Guenivere.

The series adopts a formula that it follows throughout the first half or so of the season: a threat arises to Camelot that mundane means are unable to eliminate and Merlin must secretly use magic to deal with it without exposing himself to Uther's wrath. Often, he must ask the dragon for advice, and Gaius' internal conflict over wanting Merlin to achieve his potential and restore magic to the kingdom but also wanting him to avoid execution is usually brought into play. Whilst this rapidly becomes formulaic, it is not offensively so: the actors are all pretty decent, although not always serviced well by the scripts (Angel Courby as Gwen in particular gets a raw deal throughout) and the effects range from the impressive to the corny. For watchable hokum fun, especially for viewers with children, it's decent enough and Colin Morgan brings tremendous enthusiasm to the role of Merlin, although he does need to work a bit on the more dramatic moments.

Things get more intriguing in the second half of the season. At this point the series' backstory assumes a larger role in proceedings, and we learn more about the 'Great Purge' that saw magic outlawed from the kingdom. Anthony Stewart Head, previously best known for his role as Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had been saddle with a rather unsympathetic role as Uther earlier in the season, but he comes into his own at this point as we learn why the Purge was carried out and the reasons for the death of his wife. These revelations also throw some extra depth on the characters of Gaius (accomplished TV actor Richard Wilson) and the sorceress-priestess Nimueh (former Bionic Woman, and EastEnders star Michelle Ryan) whose previously rather random villainy is now given a convincing rationale. In another interesting move, newcomer Katie McGrath is given the chance to shine as Morgana, who begins to suffer from terrifying visions and she really delivers after having only a minor role in the first few episodes. I suspect McGrath is going to be the 'big find' of the show. Anyway, these events feed into the last few episodes of the season, as various plots by outlawed sorcerers to kill Uther and Nimueh's attempts to bring the kingdom down culminate in a major showdown between her and Merlin. The end of the season also has a clever (if not exactly unforseen) scene which places the relationship between Merlin and his dragon ex machina in a totally different light, and bodes for bad things to come in Season 2.

At its heart, Merlin is a watchable and entertaining programme which has an unfortunate tendency to dodge any moments or storylines that would entail changes to the show's format. As a result, it is hard to take any scenes of jeopardy seriously. This is not to mention the fact that, although the show plays extremely fast and loose with the Arthurian legend, we can probably guess that Arthur, Merlin, Morgana and Gwen are going to survive for some considerable time. The writers do seem to realise this and develop a habit of putting Uther in considerable danger several times, since we know that inevitably he will die at some point, but after the first couple of occasions this happens this also becomes a bit of a cheap storytelling trick.

According to the writers, they have a five-season arc for Merlin that will eventually lead it to more familiar territory, and as such we can hopefully expect the drama to darken and get more interesting next season. For now, Merlin Season 1 (***) remains awash with great potential but doesn't realise that potential in any more than a few episodes. The rest of the time it is watchable but somewhat forgettable.

The show is available on DVD in the UK in two volumes. Season 1 will begin airing on NBC in the USA in early 2009.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

New Battlestar Galactica Webisodes

The new Battlestar Galactica webisodes, meant to bridge the two halves of Season 4, have started appearing on the Sci-Fi Channel website. Happily, the webisodes are available on YouTube for those outside the USA. The link should also lead to a version of the webisode with commentary by writer Jane Espenson.

The webisodes are called The Face of the Enemy and contain MAJOR spoilers for the end of Season 4.0 if you haven't seen it yet, so beware.

The release schedule for the webisodes is a bit unclear, as there are 10 meant to air in the weeks leading up to the first proper episode back on 16 January, so keep checking Galactica Sitrep regularly to see if new ones have been released!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

New Spring by Robert Jordan

Back in 1998, Robert Jordan was asked to contribute a short (ish) story set in his Wheel of Time world to Robert Silverberg's Legends anthology, along with a number of other authors such as Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Ursula K. LeGuin, George RR Martin, Raymond E. Feist and Tad Williams. Jordan decided to write the story of the first meeting of two of his pivotal characters, Moiraine Damodred and Lan Mandragoran, and their first steps on the road that would eventually lead them twenty years later to the Two Rivers and the discovery of the Dragon Reborn.

This was a big test for Jordan, whose narrative skills run (obviously) to massive novels packed with detail. Jordan himself acknowledged it was a challenge, but surprisingly it was one he rose to. In less than 100 pages, New Spring introduced some new characters, featured a major new city we hadn't seen before in the main series (Chachin, the capital of Kandor) and featured some fairly important plot twists that set up events later in the series. It was an economy of storytelling that I suspect most people thought Jordan was incapable of.

However, in 2003 Jordan announced he was taking a break from writing the main Wheel of Time sequence to expand New Spring into a novel, adding several tens of thousands of words of new material. Fan reaction was somewhat bemused, but given the negative reaction to Crossroads of Twilight Jordan taking some time off from the series to refresh his creative batteries seemed like a good idea, and the next main novel, Knife of Dreams was a vast improvement. In the meantime, New Spring: A Novel was released in early 2004 and was greeted with indifference. Its sales were not stellar (it's by far the most common Wheel of Time book to run across in remaindered stores), and the critical reaction was generally muted.

The novel version of the book is three times the length of the short story. The opening sequence is set during the Battle of the Shining Walls and we see what Lan was up to during the battle. We also get to see the much-reported moment when Moiraine and Siuan learn that the Dragon has returned, and then the political machinations in the Tower that follow the battle and Moiraine and Siuan's raising to the rank of full Aes Sedai. The original version of New Spring, expanded with some extra material, makes up the latter third of the novel and remains a rattling good read.

Unfortunately, the new material at the start of the book is almost totally superfluous to requirements. Yes, it's amusing to see how the White Tower initiates handle the almost overnight transition from callow Accepted to wise Aes Sedai, and the test for the shawl is vaguely interesting. Trivia-minded fans may also enjoy spotting all the references to other Aes Sedai from the later books and what they are up to at this point in time. The big problem is that the revelation of the Dragon's Rebirth, as reported in The Great Hunt, was ominous and powerful. Here Moiraine and Siuan's reaction is extremely muted, to say the least, and there is no real tension in their storyline as a result (not helped by the traditional prequel problem of the readers knowing who is going to survive the story). It's not until we reach the novella version of the story that any sense of momentum and tension kicks in.

New Spring (***) is readable enough and has some points of interest for major Wheel of Time fans, but it is also packed with unnecessary padding. Nevertheless, the original novella remains readable and compelling, and despite its short length still raises the overall quality of this book. The book is available from Orbit in the UK and Tor in the USA. However, if you are in the UK you may be able to find copies of the book readily available at a much cheaper price from your local branch of The Works.

Iron Man

Given all the praise and excitement surrounding The Dark Knight, the superhero movie Iron Man released just a few weeks earlier was somewhat overshadowed. However, reviews of Iron Man were almost universally positive at the time, so I was looking forward to sitting down and enjoying the movie.

The resurgent Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, a hyper-rich genius engineer and unstoppable womaniser who builds extremely lethal weapons for the US military. His latest invention is a massive multi-warhead variation on the 'bunker-buster' missile, one that is meant to level entire Afghan mountain ranges. Stark is kidnapped by stereotypical Afghan terrorists during a demonstration of his new weapon and forced to build them some newer and more lethal versions of the same weapon. Stark is aided in his work by a gentle local educated Afghan man who is brought in as a translator but in the space of about ten minutes has convinced Stark that making massive destructive weapons isn't good for his soul and he needs to change. Stark, despite being under constant 24-hour video surveillance, is able to build a massive robot suit armed with flamethrowers and a jetpack instead of the promised missile, and is able to effect an escape, although sadly not to the theme tune from The A-Team.

Having checked that I hadn't made an error and picked up a copy of a comedy movie by accident, I continued watching in mounting disbelief as Stark returns to the USA as a new, more moral man, deeply changed by his horrifying experiences in the Afghan mountains. The newer, more caring Stark decides to build a more uber version of his metal suit so he can personally go off and slaughter the terrorists with rocket launchers and flamethrowers. Of course, hijinks ensue and the story ends in a series of massive explosions. Who would have thought?

Iron Man is a deeply stupid movie with plot holes and logical flaws so vast they render the story almost nonsensical in places. However, the movie remains brainlessly entertaining thanks to the almost single-handed efforts of Robert Downey Jr., who was clearly enjoying himself far too much making this hokum. His portrayal of Stark works excellently, despite the highly dubious writing, and I suspect his best moments were all ad-libbed. Suffice to say, without its star working above and beyond the call of duty, this movie would be a total failure. Gwyneth Paltrow stands around being, well, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges manfully deals with a curious baldness-beard combination. There's also a lot of guff about a new energy source Stark spontaneously created in his Afghan cave that dozens of the finest scientists in the world cannot replicate in their state-of-the-art labs, but none of it really matters.

Iron Man (***) is quite possibly the most sloppily-written film I've seen since Pearl Harbour, but it's also a lot of fun, as long as you strictly remember to put your brain in neutral before watching it. It is now available on DVD in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Fallout 3

In the late 21st Century, China and the United States fought a major war over resources in the Pacific Ocean. After the United States won a great victory in Alaska in 2077, it seemed as if the war might be over. Instead, it went nuclear and civilisation was destroyed. The majority of the human race was wiped out, save a few thousand survivors hidden in immense fall-out vaults, and others who somehow evaded the radiation and eked out an existence in the wastelands.

The inhabitants of Vault 101 have lived a peaceful, if somewhat dull, existence sealed away from the outside world, under strict orders that the airlock to the outside world is never to be opened. However, one day nearly two centuries after the apocalypse, one man - your father - flees into the wilderness and you set out after him to find out where he's going, and why.

Fallout 3 is the follow-up to the successful 1997 roleplaying game, Fallout, and its sequel of a year later. However, it has been developed by a completely different team and the action has been moved from the West Coast to the area immediately surrounding Washington, DC, whilst the timeline has been advanced by twenty years. A few minor references aside, there are no connections between this game and its predecessors, which is handy given that Fallout 3 had outsold the combined lifetime sales of the two earlier games within about 48 hours of going on sale.

Fallout 3 is instead the creation of Bethesda, responsible for the mega-selling 2006 RPG Oblivion, and is based around the same engine. Although initially critically lauded, Oblivion soon became a target for scorn due to a somewhat dissatisfying combat system, a dull main quest and a rather silly levelling system that had the whole world levelling up with you (Fallout 3 does away with this, fortunately). However, many of the side-quests were ingenious and the depiction of a vast, beautiful but somewhat sparse (and given its proximity to the Imperial Capital, surprisingly dangerous) world was first-rate. Oddly enough, Fallout 3 plays to the weaknesses of Oblivion: a somewhat sparse world with a highly dangerous landscape makes far more sense in the context of a post-apocalyptic, vaguely Mad Max-esque world than that of a high fantasy setting. The combat system has been totally revamped and rebuilt into something truly impressive, and the more inventive and imaginative quest structure has been redeployed into the main narrative rather then the side-quests.

The result is a much more fun and enjoyable game than Oblivion, although it starts in a similar manner. Fallout 3 replaces Oblivion's prison escape sequence with a set of scenes as your character is born, grows up, learns basic skills and finally decides to pursue your fleeing father into the wilderness. It is an effective way of introducing the world and some of the characters you'll meet later on in the story. Emerging blinking from Vault 101, the vast, blasted landscape of DC greets you with the battered but still-standing form of the Washington Monument towering in the distance, which is a tremendously atmospheric way of starting the game (and, as with the Citadel in Half-Life 2, eventually your path will lead you to that dominant feature on the horizon). Your path will quickly lead to the town of Megaton, where you can pick up quests, find out more about the world and, if you choose to help defuse the nuclear bomb still stuck in the middle of town, even set up a home and garner a reputation for honesty and honour. Conversely, you can choose to set the bomb to detonate, which earns you the gratitude of a local aristocrat and makes you infamous in the wasteland, with the radio stations pouring scorn on your activities and the noble Brotherhood of Steel gunning for you on sight.

Fallout 3 is nicely focused in this regard, and draws you in to its world thanks to its memorable characters and the way your deeds are picked up on and reported, either on the radio stations or among the citizenry. The dialogue in the game is somewhat ropey, and they still haven't fixed the problem from Oblivion with the NPCs being rather stiff and robot-like in their movements, but there's definitely been some improvement. Best of all is the fact that there are now dozens of voices in the game rather than the four or five in Oblivion, which led to situations where two identical-sounding characters would be having a conversation in the street. There's also better use of the celebrity vocal talent, with Malcolm McDowell and Liam Neeson getting plenty of exposure (compared to Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean's rather brief roles in the earlier game). Ron Perlman also returns from the first two games for the opening and closing narration.

Combat is probably Fallout 3's strongest point. Combat can be performed manually in a FPS-style system, but it's more satisfying to activate VATS mode, which pauses the game and allows you to target specific parts of an enemy's body, such as their head or, if you want to disarm them, their weapon or arm. Once you have queued up your attacks, they are carried out from a cinematic viewpoint in slow motion, which is often spectacular (and insanely gory: decapitation is bemusingly commonplace in Fallout 3's world). The system has its weaknesses - the fact you only take 10% damage whilst in VATS means your character is virtually invulnerable whilst it is activated and there is rarely, if any, reason not to shoot someone in the head - but by and large it is a welcome and effective innovation, and a far more satisfying solution to the FPS/RPG combat problems that have plague the genre for a while (with Mass Effect, for example, putting off hardcore RPGers due to its more action-oriented style of combat). I hope Bethesda include a suitable variation of it in their forthcoming Oblivion sequel.

Character growth is also pretty satisfying, employing a system based on the earlier Fallout games but more streamlined. Oblivion's character growth system was completely counter-intuitive, but here everything is much more straightforward and it is easier to build the type of character you really want to be.

There is a weakness in the game's structure, however. In Oblivion you could completely ignore the main quest if you wished, or get it out of the way (to close the annoying Oblivion Gates ASAP) and carry on with the side-quests. However, completing the main quest in Fallout 3 ends the game and you can't play on, which is annoying (and totally unnecessary: the main quest's ending doesn't actually make much logical sense). The main quest in Fallout 3 is also surprisingly short, perhaps 6-8 hours if you ignored everything else. For this reason, I heavily recommend interspersing the main quest missions in the game with the optional side-quests and also just random exploring. The total number of quests in the game is fairly low (certainly far lower than Oblivion's), so randomly wandering the wastes searching for new locations to explore does play a larger role in the game, as does the search for really good gear. A further problem with this is that the game is capped at Level 20, which isn't that hard to attain, so such random wanderings may be rather short-lived once the reward for them dries up. There's also a rather severe limit on what you can carry, again limiting the prospects for lengthy exploration.

Fallout 3 is an excellent RPG, building on the many strengths of Oblivion and coming up with satisfying solutions to its problems. Wandering the burned-out ruins of one of DC's suburbs, or trying to sneak into the Capitol Building, can be extremely atmospheric and the depiction of a ruined, blasted landscape is second to none. The game employs some terrific influences within its mission design as well, with the movies Them!, Blade Runner, Pleasentville and Battle Royale all being directly referenced or parodied in the game. Character building and combat are both highly satisfying, although some issues with dialogue remain. There's also probably a bit too much mucking around in DC's subway system in the first half of the game as well which can get a bit old.

Fallout 3 (****) is available now on the PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and Playstation 3 (UK, USA). Downloadable missions will start appearing in January, allowing players to visit Alaska, the Pitt and follow up on the main quest as a member of the Brotherhood of Steel.