Friday, 27 February 2009

Joe Abercrombie Video Interview

You can see a video interview of Joe Abercrombie talking about his new novel Best Served Cold on YouTube right now:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Interesting stuff, with, er, 'enthusiastically dramatic' music to accompany proceedings.

Authors on Writing and Obligations

Whilst sparked by the GRRM furore of a couple of weeks ago, a number of other authors have spoken out about the problems they face with deliveries, promises, false release dates and a lack of understanding over the writing process. Charlie Stross weighs in here (some other authors and Tor uber-editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden appear in the comments), John Scalzi here and here, and, most recently, Patrick Rothfuss here. Tom Lloyd also offers a relative newcomer to the genre's perspective here.

Rothfuss, who has been suffering similar harassment to GRRM, makes some very interesting and good points about the issues he has been suffering on The Wise Man's Fear, but notably doesn't mention several of the big personal problems (which he did blog about last year) that have no doubt contributed to the delay. The idea that people would continue to moan about the book being late after that is pretty stunning.

In the meantime, those fretting over delayed gratification and want to hear about something that has been finished can read the first review of Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold here.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

The Terror by Dan Simmons

In the summer of 1845, the Royal Navy dispatched two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, under the command of Sir John Franklin to the Arctic Ocean. Their orders were to enter the Canadian Arctic Archipelago by means of Lancaster Sound (west of Greenland) and seek out the North-West Passage, which would lead them to the Pacific via the Bering Strait and thus home by way of Russia, China and India. Whilst both the eastern and western edges of the Passage had been explored by this time, no ship had successfully travelled the entire length of the Passage.

Neither ship was heard from again.

Over the following years, concern over the expedition's fate grew and many search and rescue expeditions were launched, some by ship and others by foot, travelling up the rivers from the Canadian interior. A number of relics and remains were found, confusingly scattered across a large area of more than a hundred miles surrounding King William Island, and over time other expeditions have pieced together the facts, upon which the narrative of The Terror is based.

The Terror, like Stephen Donaldson's Gap series and George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, uses a rotating third-person limited point of view system, moving between several characters. The narrative opens in late 1847 with the two ships forced to spend a second winter in a row stuck fast in the ice. Extensive flashbacks and diaries record the earlier stage of the expedition, with optimism over finding the North-West Passage turning to despair as the ships make little progress against the ice. After being snowed in at King William Island, an unidentified predator starts stalking the crews, accounting for many lives including that of Sir John Franklin, leaving Captain Crozier of the Terror in command of the expedition. Discovering that the ships' stores are contaminated by an unknown source (later - in real life - revealed to be lead poisoning from either the inadequately-sealed tinned foods or the water tanks) and they cannot survive another winter, in April 1848 Crozier makes the decision to strike out for the Canadian mainland by foot and attempt to follow the Back River to civilisation.

The Terror is a meticulously researched novel. Simmons has clearly done his homework here, further evidenced by the considerable bibliography. The details of shipboard life are fascinating, and Simmons is painstaking in ensuring that the reader understands at all times the options and problems facing the expedition's leaders, most notably the paralysis that grips them when presented with the option of abandoning ship and continuing overland and over the ice on foot, or hoping that a summer thaw will free their ships. The characters - virtually all of whom are given the names of the real Franklin Expedition crewmen - are vividly drawn, from the flawed but nonetheless charismatic and professional Crozier to the bumbling Franklin to the naive but eventually heroic surgeon Goodsir to the perpetually cheerful Blanky, and the use of them to tell the story is very well done, although there is a pause when Simmons has some of the crew doing some very unpalatable things with no evidence those individuals ever did those things in reality. However, that is often the case with fictionalizing real events. Simmons also nails the biting, freezing atmosphere of the Arctic and imbues the story with some very atmospheric descriptions of the frozen ice landscapes.

The problem with the book is the presence of the 'thing on the ice' (a deliberate nod to the 1951 movie The Thing From Another World), a terrifying monster which shows up at almost regular intervals to kill a few people, sometimes mutilating them (apparently for pleasure), before vanishing. The first time this happens it is effectively shocking. Around the fifth or sixth it starts to get a bit boring, even comical. The monster is also highly reminiscent of the Shrike, Simmons' superb creation from his Hyperion Cantos series of SF novels, and although the monster in The Terror isn't quite as godlike (nor does it have a giant metal tree to impale people on), its abilities will feel very familiar to anyone who has read the earlier work. Eventually an interesting explanation is given for the creature, cleverly based on Inuit mythology, but it literally comes in the final two chapters of a 950-page novel, long after the creature's appearances have stopped raising any genuine feelings of tension or fear. Also, the non-monster sections are as well-written and gripping as the bits where it does appear, making the storyline feel a bit redundant. When the genuine horrors of surviving in the Arctic with poisoned supplies and dwindling hopes are this compelling, why throw in a mutant fourteen-foot-tall polar bear with big sharp pointy teeth on top of that? Whilst thematically interesting, the presence of the monster feels like it cheapens some of the genuine accomplishments of the real Franklin Expedition.

The Terror (****) is often brilliant, but it is overlong and the monster is overused, robbing it of its power. Ignoring that, this is a gripping and fascinating novel of man's desire to survive no matter the odds. The novel is available in the UK from Bantam and the USA from Little, Brown.

David Langford's Top 20 Pre-1990 Genre Novels

I discovered (or rediscovered) this list a while back. It was compiled by multi-Hugo-winning SF&F critic David Langford back in 2002 for an SFX special. Working on the basis that it takes a decade for a book to proves its classic status, he decided to only go up to works published in 1989 to compile the list.

The Top Twenty
20. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
19. Gateway by Frederick Pohl
18. Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
17. Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh
16. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart
15. The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
14. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
13. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
12. The Owl Service by Alan Garner
11. The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
10. Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys
09. Blood Music by Greg Bear
08. Dune by Frank Herbert
07. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
06. Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
05. Pavane by Keith Roberts
04. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
03. The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke
02. Little, Big by John Crowley
01. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Bubbling Under
Helliconia Spring by Brian W. Aldiss
The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner
The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman by Angela Carter
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
A Wreath of Stars by Bob Shaw

Short Story Collections
The Wallet of Kai Lung by Ernet Bramah
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
The Exploits of Engelbrecht by Maurice Richardson
The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard
Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
Neutron Star by Larry Niven
Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R.A. Lafferty
Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison
The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

Ten of the Worst
Ralph 124C41+ by Hugo Gernsback
They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
March of the Robots by Rev. Lionel Fanthorpe (writing as Leo Brett)
The Number of the Beast by Robert Heinlein
Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
O-Zone by Paul Theorux
The Troglodytes by Nal Rafcam
The Eye of Argon by Jim Theis
The Black Star by Lin Carter
Flight by Vanna Bonta

The original link also contains rationales for the choices, explanations for some notable missing books (Langford considers the original Hyperion Cantos to be one long novel, so he seems to have ruled Hyperion ineligible despite just scraping in before the date), some other books he rates between 1990 and 2002 and so on.

I quite like the lists. Giving a work some time before proclaiming it 'the greatest thing ever' makes sense.

For an alternative list, check out Stego's list of his top 100 books here.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Wertzone Classics: The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien

"The dawn is brief and the day full often belies its promise."
In this review I will be discussing a book which features incest, murder, war, torture, the massacre of thousands and acts of heinous betrayal that condemns thousands of innocents to death. Nope, not the new Richard Morgan, this one was written by the same guy who created Tom Bombadil.

The Silmarillion is the most staggering achievement of fantasy created in the 20th Century. Written between 1917 and the author's death in 1973 (with frequent diversions to write what he considered diversionary works, like The Lord of the Rings), it is quite literally the product of a lifetime's work. Tolkien's goal with this book was to create a mythic cycle as complete and complex as anything found in 'real' legends, and to dedicate that mythology to his country, Britain, which he felt had been robbed of its own native mythology by the Norman invasion of 1066.

The Silmarillion opens with the creation of the entire universe by the One God, Eru, and the shaping of the world of Arda by his servants, the Valar (the gods) and the Maiar (the angelic and later demonic spirits). As is traditional, one of the Valar, Morgoth, rebels against the others, turns to evil and causes untold chaos and destruction for the Valar and Eru's lesser creations, the Elves, until he is finally chained in the Valar kingdom of Valinor. The Elves are allowed to settle in Valinor where their master-smith, Feanor, forges the Silmarils, the most beautiful jewels ever created. Morgoth repents his sins and is allowed to go free, but upon seeing the jewels he devises a plan to steal them and flee back over the sea to Middle-earth, where his trusted lieutenant Sauron (note: doesn't possess a giant flaming eye at this point) has been holding down the fort for a few thousand years. For good measure Morgoth also destroys the Trees of Light, plunging the world into infinite darkness. The Elves take umbrage at this and a vast host assembles to pursue Morgoth back across the sea, but the Valar ban them from pursuing, promising to deal with the situation themselves once they have restored light to the world (by creating the Sun). Feanor and his kin, the Noldor, disobey the Valar, damning themselves and all who ally with them, and steal the fleet of one of the other Elven kindreds, the Teleri, unleashing civil war in the process.

So begins the hopeless war of the Noldor against Morgoth. The Valar, furious with the disobedience and kinslaying of the Noldor, refuse to intervene and the War of the Jewels spills out of control, engulfing the races of Dwarves and Men. The lands of Beleriand, where the war is fought, become ravaged as Morgoth summons entire legions of Balrogs and hosts of Dragons to his banner. The scale and savagery of this apocalyptic war makes The Lord of the Rings and the War of the Ring look like a minor family tiff. As the war rages for more than six centuries, the stories of many individual Elves, Men and others unfold.

The Silmarillion is not, in the usual sense of the word, a novel. There is a very strong narrative spine, but it's a history, not a plot, and there are no characters that the book really centers on (although there are plenty of major characters, most of them die in various intriguing and creative fashions over the course of the story). Instead we have the closest epic fantasy has ever come to emulating the Bible, right down to the "In the beginning," opening, a cast of characters that numbers in the thousands and the need to frequently refer to the appendices and maps to keep track of what is going on. But if you can get into The Silmarillion's headspace (and fair enough, a lot of people cannot), you will be utterly blown away by it.

If Tolkien's goal was to create a mythology, he succeeded. This is a story rich in imagery, symbolism and themes. Ask a dozen Tolkien fans their favourite part of the book and you'll likely get a dozen different answers, whether it's Morgoth and Ungoliant (Shelob's considerably bigger and meaner great-great-great-something-grandmother) preparing to shatter the Trees of Light, Feanor burning the fleet at Helcaraxe and betraying his brother, Fingolfin confronting Morgoth in single combat, Hurin's raging defiance whilst being tortured, Turin's slaying of Glaurung, Luthien and Huan kicking the living crap out of Sauron (admittedly not at the height of his powers here) or the epic battle for Gondolin where the Elf-lord Ecthelion slays a Balrog in single combat. In fact, for iconic or memorable moments, The Silmarillion significantly outstrips Lord of the Rings, hard as that is to believe.

The Silmarillion is a very dark work, going far beyond the bittersweetness of Lord of the Rings. No-one really 'wins' and only a few characters manage to survive the Gotterdamerung-like end of the war into the Second Age which follows. The unending tragedy of the book can be hard to swallow, but there are rays of light and moments of hope along the way. It's hard not to map the book onto Tolkien's own experiences, with the bloody and relentless grimness of WWI being succeeded by the flu pandemic and economic stagnation of the 1920s. Of the moments of light, the strongest is probably the tale of Beren and Luthien. Inspired by Tolkien's relationship with his wife Edith, this is a story of tragedy and triumph with a (relatively) positive ending. However, it is succeeded by the tale of Turin. Told in greater detail in The Children of Hurin, Turin's story is a tragedy that even Shakespeare would have probably shied away from writing, and remains exceedingly powerful.

Eventually though, the war ends and the battered survivors, finding themselves in the unknown lands of Eriador, set about building the foundations of the world we see in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This section of the book, The Akallabeth, is the story of the Second Age and the glory and power of Numenor, the mighty human island empire whose kings are the ancestors of Aragorn. From a story point of view it is again a fascinating and powerful story of hubris, pride and monstrous arrogance, perhaps told a little too briefly given its scope, but essential for showing how the nations of Men and the forces of Sauron were set on the road to the War of the Ring.

If The Silmarillion has a weak link, it's the final section, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, which basically recounts the plot of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in the same style as the rest of the book (the War of the Ring is covered about a paragraph). Since it's highly unlikely you'll have read this before those two other works, it's pretty superfluous and only seems present due to a misplaced sense of completeness.

The Silmarillion (*****) is unrelentingly grim, contains very few characters you'll recognise from the other Middle-earth books, has a rather unapproachable opening and doesn't have any Hobbits in it. On the other hand, it is also one of the most epic works of the imagination ever created, featuring moments of real beauty and gut-wrenching horror. If you want to understand Tolkien and what he wanted to achieve with his myth-making and writing, than The Lord of the Rings by itself is not enough. The Silmarillion is other side of the coin.

The book is available in literally dozens of editions, but the most common ones are the British paperback, hardcover and illustrated editions, the latter impressively painted by Ted Nasmith. The most commonly-available American edition is the hardcover.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Escape from City 17: The Movie

It just goes to show what two geeks with $500 (Canadian), a PC rendering farm and an obsession with Half-Life 2 can achieve. This is the first part of an apparently intermittent live-action film series set in the Half-Life universe, made with the blessing of original game developers Valve.

Seriously, this is impressive stuff. The opening shot of City 17 is amazing. The acting is a little cheesy, but as one critic put it, this is already the best game-to-movie translation ever made. The first episode has already been a massive success on YouTube, with 1.5 million viewings in less than a week and it is already the most highly-rated video in the website's history.

A higher-definition version can be seen here. More information can be found here and here.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Retribution Falls is the first novel in The Tales of the Ketty Jay, which promises to be a series of semi-stand-alone novels set in the same world and focusing on the crew of the airship Ketty Jay and its crew of miscreants and scoundrels. If I had to provide a quick soundbite for this it would be Firefly meets Crimson Skies, with a dash of Locke Lamora sprinkled on top.

Darian Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay, a battered old freighter which he keeps running by the skin of his teeth, by accepting jobs on the dubious side of the law and trying not to get into too much trouble. When Frey is offered the chance of a lifetime - an easy theft in return for a massive fortune - he overrides his common sense and accepts the job. When it goes hideously wrong and a lot of people die, Frey realises he has been set up, and must prove his innocence even though he and his crew are now Public Enemy #1. Frey's quest to redeem himself takes him and his crew through multiple aerial dogfights, double-crosses, high society soirees and lowlife gambling dens. At the same time we get to know his crew, from the troubled new navigator harbouring a dark secret to the former aristocrat-turned-demon-summoner to the alcoholic ship's surgeon to the powerful and dangerous metal thing they keep in the hold...

Occasionally a book comes along which takes the concept of fun and turns it up to 11. Retribution Falls is one such book. The story powers along at a relentless, page-turning pace. The characters are a diverse and fascinating bunch and Wooding uses skillful economy in getting into their backstories and motivations quickly and convincingly without bogging the story down in unnecessary detail. The world of Vardia is a fascinating one as well, with its diverse landmasses, the dark, forbidding storms that wrack the planet, and a wide range of cultures and people. There are certainly a tremendous number of concepts introduced in this book that aren't followed up on, leaving open a large number of possibilities for future adventures with this crew.

What makes the book refreshingly different from so many fantasies is the setting and tech-level. Airships are the primary method of transportation and the cavalry charges and duels of traditional epic fantasy are here replaced by frigate broadsides and intense dogfights. The technology of the airships and how they work is depicted convincingly, and the battles are great fun and a nice change of pace for a fantasy novel.

As I said before, the book is 'FUN' but at the same time it is not lightweight. Some of the characters are carrying real demons around with them and Wooding doesn't wimp out of some the bad things they've done or had done to them. There are also some genuinely unsettling moments (one flashback sequence to an arctic location is pretty disturbing, which is all the more impressive since we know the character involved survives), and hints of greater, darker threats out in the world which could come into play in later books.

Retribution Falls (*****) is an accomplished and enjoyable novel, and hopefully the start of many adventures for this crew. The novel will be published on 18 June 2009 in the UK in hardcover and tradeback, and the tradeback will be available in the USA via Amazon after that date as well.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Lostwatch 6: Season 5, Episodes 1-6

Lost's fourth season may have been curtailed by three episodes, but it still packed an enormous amount of plot movement and revelations into its run. It was revealed that the Island is a prize being fought over between Ben Linus, the leader of the Others, and a corporate businessman named Charles Widmore. Widmore dispatched a team of mercenaries on a freighter with orders to take Ben prisoner and kill all potential witnesses. Instead, the mercenaries were defeated and the survivors of Oceanic 815 planned to use the freighter to escape from the Island. The freighter was instead destroyed. In an attempt to protect the Island from further incursions, Ben turned a wheel attached to an ancient mechanism deep below the surface. The Island promptly vanished, leaving six survivors of Oceanic 815 stuck on a helicopter just outside the area of effect.

As seen in Season 4, Jack, Kate, Sun, Hurley, Sayid and Claire's son Aaron all escaped from the Island, along with Desmond (who'd been stranded there for three years) and helicopter pilot Frank Lapidus. Ben also escaped to the outside world, using the mechanism on the Island. Once back in civilisation, the Oceanic Six concocted a cover story to explain how they survived, and claimed that Aaron was actually Kate's son. However, their fears that everyone who remained on the Island had died were relieved when Locke appeared and told them that something 'terrible' had happened and they must return to the Island. At the end of the season it was revealed that Locke was now dead and Jack had accepted the need to return, with Ben offering to aid him in convincing the others.

Season 5 opens with the story proceeding on two parallel paths. Off the Island Jack attempts to convince the other members of the Oceanic Six to return to the Island with him, with varying degrees of success. Meanwhile, back on the Island the survivors, now led by Sawyer, discover that Ben's turning of the mechanism beneath the Orchid station has caused the Island to become 'unstuck' in time and they are now bouncing between different periods of the Island's history. The human body is not designed for such stresses and it becomes clear that the survivors are doomed unless they can find a way to stop the Island's movements.

There are several immediately noticeable things about this season of Lost. First off, the gloves have come off. Lost is now dealing with hardcore SF concepts and in a surprisingly intelligent and considered manner. Secondly, the flashback/flashforward paradigm has been dispensed with (at least temporarily), since every episode is now, effectively, both, with the stories having to cover sets of characters who have been separated by three years in time. Thirdly, we are starting to get some serious answers and explanations for some of Lost's deeper-seated mysteries, some of them going back right to the start of Season 1. The time travel story allows the survivors to visit different parts of the Island's history and see events unfolding that had previously only been alluded to, or events that had not been recounted but which explain some other elements of the mythology. The result is Lost's most demanding season to date - a full series re-watch, or at least a re-watch of Season 4, may be advisable before starting this season - but also possibly its most satisfying (speaking six episodes in, with eleven more to go).

Because You Left sets up the format for the first half-dozen episodes, with events on and off the Island being explored simultaneously. An enormous number of characters are visited and with the concept of the time-skipping also being introduced, the result is an episode that could have been incredibly confusing. Whilst it borders on going over-the-top, it is eventually pulled back down to Earth by simply emphasising the reactions to the situation by Sawyer, who is as lost and confused as the viewer as to what is going on, and Faraday's attempts to explain the situation.

The Lie is a bit calmer than the first episode, again by filtering the confusing mass of storylines by concentrating more on one character, in this case Hurley, off the Island. Hurley's storyline is great and the scene where he tries to explain to his mother the entire storyline of the series to date in about two minutes (and noting that Season 2 with the button and the hatch didn't make as much sense as it should have done) may be the comic highlight of the series to date.

Jughead abandons the Oceanic Six storyline in favour of catching up with what Desmond and Penny have been up to for the last three years. However, Desmond's slightly odd cross-temporal relationship with Faraday (established in Season 4's The Constant) has him receiving hints that the people back on the Island are in distress, and he sets out to help from the outside world. Back on the Island the survivors find they are now in 1954, with the Others attempting to dispose of a nuclear bomb the US Army was planning to test on the Island. This is a great episode with some fantastic humour and also explains some of the more mystical elements of the show's backstory in a very convincing manner.

The Little Prince is more mundane, a busy episode with characters moving from A to B without a centred storyline of its own, but remains entertaining. Sawyer again gets the best lines, but there is a feeling of ennui creeping in as the following of several complicated storylines across multiple timelines begins to get a little wearying. However, things are livened up by the unexpected ending (well, it was expected, just not quite yet), which gives Lost one of its best cliffhangers in some time.

This Place is Death is another very strong episode, with Daniel Dae Kim making a good impression on his return as Jin (last seen on the freighter when it exploded). Jin is thrown in the deep end, as he is totally unaware that he and the other survivors of 815 are moving randomly through time, although he gets an inkling something is wrong when he is rescued by a bunch of French people who say the year is 1988. The episode delivers some nice pathos (meeting Danielle as a nice, happy young pregnant woman is surprisingly affecting, as we know how she will eventually die after a long and painful struggle on the Island) and gives us some more hints about the nature of the Monster (which makes a return appearance after a lengthy absence). The rest of the episode is also good, with the audience learning how Locke gets off the Island and how the Island is saved from the time-jumps. The death of Charlotte, however, comes out of nowhere. Her character had not been significantly developed over the course of her time on the show and her death seems to render much of her arc pointless (shades of Libby from Season 2 here). Still, the death scene was well-played by Rebecca Mader and Jeremy Davies as Faraday.

Spoiler warning: the following episode has not aired in all territories yet.

316 brings us up to date with the first in a trilogy of episodes focusing on one part of the story, which when combined gives us a clearer picture of how the season develops from here onwards. Next week's episode focuses on what happened to Locke after he left the Island, whilst the following week fills in the fate of the survivors on the Island after that event. This episode, however, brings us back to the Oceanic Six and explains how they came to return to the Island. Some major backstory is filled in (how the Island's location was discovered by the DHARMA Initiative), some long-held suspicions (about 'windows' in space/time) are confirmed and it's good to see the story moving forward decisively. If the whole season had been about the Oceanic Six trying to get back to the Island, it would have been deathly dull, and their early return is a bit of a surprise. There are a few loose ends left behind, though, with the fate of several characters left hanging in the balance, several gaps in the narrative hinting at flashbacks to come and another great cliffhanger ending.

Season 5 of Lost has gotten off to a great start with a strong run of episodes which move with a real sense of purpose and some long-running stories and mysteries fitting together like a satisfying jigsaw puzzle. Hopefully the rest of the season can maintain the quality of this opening batch.

501: Because You Left (****)
502: The Lie (****)
503: Jughead (*****)
504: The Little Prince (***)
505: This Place is Death (****½)
506: 316 (***½)

Forthcoming: The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham (25/02/09), LaFleur (04/03/09), Namaste (11/03/09), He's Our You (18/03/09), Whatever Happened Happened (25/03/09), Dead is Dead (01/04/09), Some Like It Hoth (08/04/09), The Variable (15/04/09).

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Without Warning by John Birmingham

14 March 2003. The world watches on as the United States and her allies prepare for the controversial invasion of Iraq. What happens next is totally unexpected: a field of energy materialises over the North American continent, stretching from north-east of Newfoundland to just north of Acapulco, and from just south-east of Seattle to a few miles north of Guantanamo Bay. Virtually the entirety of the continental United States, most of populated Canada and almost all of Mexico and Cuba are affected. Within the 'Wave', as it becomes known, every single living being is instantly incinerated, but the cities are left intact. However, the Wave remains, sealing off the continent to outsiders.

The United States government is annihilated, leaving its military - the overwhelming majority of which is on deployment outside the affected zone - leaderless. Hawaii, Alaska and the tiny surviving portion of Washington State attempt to keep the American flag flying, but the effective loss of the strongest nation on Earth is catastrophic. The world economy goes into meltdown and elements in the Middle-East, proclaiming the Disappearance to be a miracle, prepare for a cataclysmic showdown with Israel, now bereft of its most powerful benefactor and protector. Smoke from the burning American cities turns into a massive plume of toxic smog which encircles the northern hemisphere. As the weeks pass, ethnic tensions begin to tear France and the United Kingdom apart. Iran musters its forces to destroy the US forces in the Gulf. China's threatening moves towards Taiwan are abandoned when its internal economy, dependent on exports to the USA, collapses. Japan and South Korea finds themselves overstretched having to feed Hawaii. Australia and New Zealand are swamped by American refugees. Venezuela makes threatening moves towards the former US possessions in the Caribbean. Saddam Hussein, given a reprieve by fate, musters his forces for a renewed invasion of Kuwait as the coalition pulls out and begins to head home. The world is falling apart and it is up to a few people scattered across half the globe to begin the process of pulling it back together.

Without Warning is the first of a duology. The sequel, After America, will follow next year. This book had the potential to be both a thriller and sociological study, attempting to ask what would be the effects of the USA literally vanishing off the face of the globe. Unfortunately, this approach is undermined by the book's thriller side, which demands subplots involving a US intelligence agent fighting a clandestine extremist organisation in the streets of Paris and a pair of beautiful-and-tough female smugglers in the Pacific engaging in major gun battles and speedboat chases with sinister Mexican maritime warlords. Around the time that Britain seals its borders and begins forcibly deporting third and fourth-generation Muslim immigrants and Israel starts dishing out the nukes like they're going out of fashion, any claim the book had to seriously analyse what would happen to the world in the absence of the United States goes out the window.

What we are left with is a somewhat trashy, although still enjoyable, techno-thriller with a batty premise. It's all fun, but a bit on the forgettable side. This is a shame as the author's previous work, the alternate-history Axis of Time trilogy, was much more successful in exploring its premise (if the military leaders of WWII, particularly the Axis ones, knew in 1942 the future history of the war, what would they do to change the outcome?). Without Warning is entertaining hokum, but fails to answer its questions in any real depth.

Without Warning (***) is a fast-paced read which passes the time, but could have explored its premise a bit more effectively. The book is available now in the USA from Del Rey. A British edition isn't available yet, but imports are readily available on

Monday, 16 February 2009

The Braided Path by Chris Wooding

The Empire of Saramyr is vast, rich and powerful. The Blood-Empress Anais tu Erinima is one of the most powerful and respected rulers in Saramyr's history, and her rule seems secure. However, the nobility learns that Anais' daughter Lucia has magical powers, marking her out as an Aberrant. Amongst the people of Saramyr only the Weavers are allowed to wield magic in the service of the Empire, and Aberrants - especially women - are to be killed on sight. Anais' determination that her daughter will follow her onto the Imperial Throne splits the nobility and incurs the displeasure of the Weavers, and the seeds of civil war are sewn.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Kaiku and her handmaiden Asara are the sole survivors of a devastating attack that leaves her home in flames and her family murdered. Taking refuge in the wilderness, Kaiku learns that she also harbours the powers that mark her as an Aberrant, but as she travels through Saramyr, trying to find the secret her father unearthed that got him and his family killed, she gradually learns that the Aberrants are not the wanton forces for evil the Weavers have presented them as, and that the Empire is facing many threats to its existence from within and without.

The Braided Path Trilogy was originally published between 2003 and 2005, consisting of the novels The Weavers of Saramyr, The Skein of Lament and The Ascendancy Veil. In 2006 the three books were re-released as a thousand-page omnibus simply entitled The Braided Path. It's well worth tracking down the omnibus edition with its plethora of maps and a very handsome cover.

The Braided Path is an epic fantasy and contains all the requisite battles, political intrigue and memorable characters the subgenre demands. It also has some nice twists on the conventions of the genre. The technology level is higher than normal, with rifles and cannons coming into use, and the culture of Saramyr skews towards Asia by way of Renaissance Italy. The Asian feel of the books makes itself known in the types of monsters that appear, the use of spirits and spirit magic and the types of languages that are featured in the book. Given that Asian-influenced fantasies can easily turn into The Lord of the Rings But With Ninjas!, the author avoids that temptation and successfully gives the trilogy a rich atmosphere.

The trilogy is deftly paced, with an enormous number of characters, conspiracies, plots, subplots and factions featured in its relatively modest length (the entire trilogy is shorter than a lot of Steven Erikson's individual Malazan novels, for example). It takes the reader on a wild and enjoyable ride, and it certainly reminded me of how good epic fantasy can be in the right hands. In fact, alongside The First Law Trilogy, The Ten Thousand and The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Braided Path is probably the most outright enjoyable work of epic fantasy I've read in the last few years.

There are a few minor niggles with the book. Occasionally the prose feels a little too modern, and the use of the word 'genetic' at one point feels slightly out of place. Wooding also hints at many other places in the world where stories could be waiting to be told but doesn't expand on them, although it's more of a compliment that he makes the world a living, breathing place that feels like it existed before the story begins and is still there when it ends. American readers may also feel short-changed that the trilogy is not available, at this time, from an American publisher, although copies of both the trilogy and omnibus are available as imports from

The Braided Path (****½), in its omnibus format, is an excellent work of epic fantasy fiction and I heartily recommend it. It is available now in the UK (The Weavers of Saramyr, The Skein of Lament, The Ascendancy Veil, omnibus) and the USA (The Weavers of Saramyr, The Skein of Lament, The Ascendancy Veil, omnibus). The author has a website at this location.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Blog Restoring Post

Blogger is currently suffering from a bug which seems make the front page of blogs vanish until a new post is put up for some reason. Until normal service is restored, I may have to occasionaly sick in these 'test posts' to make the thing work. Hmm.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Galacticawatch 8: Season 4, Eps 11-15

"All of this has happened before and will happen again. And again. And again."
- The First Hybrid, Razor

This catechism is repeated throughout the first three and a half seasons of Battlestar Galactica and is integral to the mythology of the show, yet until this latest batch of episodes we had no idea what it really meant. As the final run of episodes in the series opens, it becomes abundantly clear that the Cycle of Time, first referenced by Leoben in Season 1, is the real key to understanding what it is that the series wants to say, and it is not coincidental that the most decisive change in the attitudes of the two sides came in the Season 4 mid-year cliffhanger, when attitudes were changed and, as two characters said, "All of this has happened before but it doesn't have to happen again."

In the first half of Season 4, the Cylons suffered an irrevocable split down their middle over the issue of their treatment of the mechanical Cylons and the search for the Final Five humanoid models, with the Sixes, Twos and Eights splitting away from the Ones, Fours and Fives (plus Boomer). The rebels were subsequently weakened in battle and forced to seek refuge on a single baseship which made it to the Colonial Fleet. In return for intelligence on the Final Five and assistance in destroying the Cylon Resurrection Hub and retrieving the last remaining Three (who knew the identities of the Final Five), D'Anna, the Fleet granted them temporary succor. After much angst, betrayal and a tense stand-off, the two sides united and were rewarded with what both sides have been seeking for the past four years: the location of Earth.

Unfortunately, Earth turned out to be a blasted atomic wasteland. Episode 411, Sometimes a Great Notion, essentially deals with the fall-out from this discovery. The planet was devastated in a nuclear holocaust more than two thousand years ago. Millions of people were killed. Digging on the beach, Dee finds some children's toys and seems to suffer a mini-breakdown. Back on Galactica Roslin, suffering from shock that her dreams and much-beloved prophecies turned out to be a bunch of crap, withdraws from public view. Despondency grips the Fleet. Suicides take place. Archaeological teams dispatched to the planet uncover even more horrifying evidence: the 13th Tribe weren't humans at all, but an earlier race of humanoid Cylons. The Four suffer flashbacks, Tyrol to his own death (blasted into atoms by a nuclear fireball) and Anders to the song he wrote for the woman he loved. Eventually, faced with the ruin of everything he has fought for these last four years, Adama is forced to step up to the plate (perhaps responding to Lee, who's bouncing back in the face of adversity in this episode is impressive, even whilst contemplating all the friends he's lost in battle for the dream of Earth) and promises the Fleet he can find them a new home. But, on the surface of Earth, Starbuck makes a discovery that rocks her universe and Tigh's own flashback is one with horrifying and stunning implications.

This is a remarkable piece of television, one of the darkest episodes of anything I've seen in a long, long time. It's not every day on television you see a series regular blow their brains out over the wall with absolutely no forewarning whatsoever. The identity of the Final Cylon is indeed revealed, in a manner the audience probably wasn't expecting, but it's among the lesser revelations in this episode. Tragic, dark but still compulsively watchable.

The next three episodes - A Disquiet Follows My Soul, The Oath and Blood on the Scales - form a trilogy. The Fleet has left the environs of Earth and the question, "What now?" is on everyone's lips. In particular, with Earth now discovered and the purpose of the alliance achieved, the value of their new Cylon allies is increasingly being questioned. The Cylons offer to upgrade the jump drives of all the ships in the Fleet, tripling their range, but when Adama and Lee push this decision through over the objections of the ship captains, the result is a full-blown insurrection. Characters take sides, shots are fired and a lot of people die, including some regular and recurring characters who have been around since Season 1. This is an action-packed storyline, with explosions, gun battles and political drama which hearkens back to the early days of the show (particularly Season 2's Valley of Darkness, when Cylons boarded the Galactica and a running battle was fought with them throughout the ship). There are some really hard questions about right and wrong, law and order, political processes versus military ones and so on being asked underneath the action and the show gives some surprisingly pat answers (mainly by making the 'bad guys' do some really bad things, rather than backing up their own sense of justification). Still, after the most depressing story arc the show has ever done, having an action storyline does brighten things up again.

Note: Minor spoilers for UK/Irish viewers, as the following episode does not air until next week on Sky One.

Episode 415, No Exit, is another radical change of style. In episode 411 we learned that the Final Five Cylons had originated on Earth two thousand years ago, but not how they got to the Colonies, where they were for that time and why just the five of them, out of all the teeming millions of Cylons on Earth, survived. No Exit gives the answers. Anyone familiar with Babylon 5 will recall the Season 2 episode In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum, where the main story arc was broken down for the characters, a lot of backstory was revealed and the stakes laid out. No Exit does the same kind of thing, if in a rather clunkier fashion. It's probably no surprise that the Final Cylon is not dead, or that they have been a prisoner of Brother Cavil all this time. Cavil locks horns with them in a ferocious intellectual debate over the course of months, which may sound tedious but the two actors involved do some absolutely brilliant work here. Dean Stockwell has always been cool, superior and condescending as Cavill, always supremely confident whether it's facing off against Adama and Roslin or trying to bring D'Anna to heel. But he meets his match here as his creator rips his justifications apart and shows him how, for all that he wants to be a machine, he is as polluted by feelings and irrationalities as any human. It's fascinating stuff.

At the same time on Galactica, Anders, suffering from a wound sustained in the mutiny, begins suffering extensive flashbacks to his old life, and manages to spill the beans on a lot of subjects about the Final Five, who they were before and how they came to live amongst the Colonials. There's some great dancing around in the writing here as disparate elements going right back to the mini-series are woven into a story that, whilst not exactly cohesive, doesn't embarrass itself too much. The writers even find time to address some classic fanwankery from the Sci-Fi Channel message boards (such as why isn't there a model #7 Cylon). Whilst it's all fantastic food for thought and you'll understand the central conflict of the entire series much better by the end, it's not the most elegant piece of exposition you'll ever see (and doesn't compare too favourably with Lost's altogether more dramatic and exciting method of exposition they've been filling in for the duration of Season 5 so far), but the philosophical and ideological clash between Cavil and the Final Cylon makes for fascinating viewing.

411: Sometimes a Great Notion (*****)
412: A Disquiet Follows My Soul (***)
413: The Oath (*****)
414: Blood on the Scales (****)
415: No Exit (****½)

Forthcoming: Deadlock (20/02/09), Someone to Watch Over Me (27/02/09), Islanded in a Stream of Stars (06/03/09), Daybreak Part 1 (13/03/09), Daybreak Part 2 and Part 3 (20/03/09), The Plan (summer 2009)

Friday, 13 February 2009

A Dance with Dragons: Just the FAQs (SPOILERS)

One of the odder things about the recent stream of articles about this book is that a lot of people have been asking for updates and information about the book that has been readily and freely available, in some cases, for years. I have maintained a collection of information on ADWD over on Westeros for three years which answers these questions, but clearly people haven't been able to find it, so I am reposting it here.

Obviously some SPOILERS are contained within, so read the rest of this article at your peril!

You are now entering a Wertzone Spoiler Area. And no, I'm not going to screw around with my blog's html to put the cut thing in, that's the sort of thing they should put in the edit bar like Livejournal does and Livejournal is like a decade old, but anyway I digress.

"Which POV characters are in the book?"

Daenerys Targaryen
Tyrion Lannister
Jon Snow
Arya Stark
Bran Stark
Davos Seaworth
Asha Greyjoy
Theon Greyjoy
Quentyn Martell
Varamyr Sixskins (prologue-only POV)
A 'new' POV who is probably, but not confirmed, Melisandre of Asshai.

EDIT: I have been informed that in Spain last year, GRRM was saying that he had written a new Areo Hotah chapter. The presence of this character in ADWD was previously unknown.

EDIT2: GRRM had previously said that Sansa was a POV character, with a single chapter. However, this chapter has now been moved into The Winds of Winter, and she no longer appears in ADWD.

"Which characters will have the most chapters, and how many will they have?"

Jon and Dany, 9 and 13 respectively. Note that this was GRRM's plan some time ago, and may have changed in the interim.

"What about Tyrion?"

Originally he had 5 chapters, but GRRM expanded these to 7. This was just after the split, and it is possible additional chapters have been added or subtracted since then.

"Which characters will have the fewest?"

Bran, 3. Same caveat as before. Quentyn also only has 1 confirmed POV chapter (and is a hold-over from the AFFC Martell chapters), but from some of GRRM's comments it sounds like more may have been added.

"Will we find out the fates of Cersei and Brienne?"

Yes, but only if there is room for an epilogue or series of short chapters at the end of the book that can touch base with what the AFFC characters were doing at the end of that book. To be honest, I wouldn't bet money on this happening.

"Will ADwD’s timeline substantially extend the overall series’ beyond AFfC’s?"

It will cover a period several months longer than AFFC.

"Hang on, won't that make re-synching things a bitch in The Winds of Winter?"

Yes. I imagine this is a contributory reason to the many delays on the book as GRRM doesn't have to just 'finish' ADWD, but do so in a way that satisfactorily sets up TWoW as well.

"How long will the novel be?"

The book was originally estimated to have be between 1100 and 1300 manuscript pages, coming in somewhere between the length of A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. GRRM's last official update said that the book is "getting longer," however, so it could be more than that. Note that 1500 MS pages is the length of A Storm of Swords, and represents the upper limit of the book's size.

"Will there be new maps, and if so, of where?"

There will be a new map of the Free Cities. According to some sources, GRRM does have a map of Braavos as well, but it's unknown if this will appear in ADWD or be held back for the World Book. The landscape between the Free Cities and Meereen will also likely appear in the book, but whether it is mapped or not is unknown.

"Will more happen than in AFFC?"

The book is apparently longer, so from that basis yes, 'more' happens than in AFFC.

"Are there more battles?"

Going by the chapters released so far, it's even with AFFC. I assume more happen later in the book, so this is a reasonable bet.

"Hang on! Davos has POV chapters? Isn't he dead?"

Remember that most of ADWD will cover the same time period as AFFC, and we don't hear any news about Davos in AFFC until quite late in the book. Davos' chapters can therefore take place before Cersei receives that news about him, and of course communications in Westeros can be uncertain at the best of times...

"If that is so, how are Arya and Asha in both books?"

Their chapters in ADWD carry on from their last chapters in AFFC, and take place either during the timeframe of AFFC's last few chapters or after them altogether. Note that their chapters were among those written for AFFC and split between the two books by GRRM when he split the books.

"Does Rickon appear?"

I remember way back when that GRRM said no, he doesn't. Again, this may have changed in the interim.

"Do the Others appear?"

Let me put it this way: the prologue of ADWD fits the pattern established by the prologues of the other odd-numbered books.

"Any more info on Jon's parentage?"

Yes. However, the tidbit that is known to appear seems to cloud the issue further rather than make it any clearer. It's possible additional information will appear later in the book.

"Will we see Asshai in ADWD?"

In GRRM's words: "Only in flashback and memory, if at all."

Sources: GRRM's Notablog, the Updates page on his website and the results of many fan questions, interviews, Q&As and convention readings as collected in the SSM collection on

The Reading Pile

I know people who have dozens, or even hundreds of books in their 'to read' pile and for that reason I have tried desperately to keep mine down to something sane, say around twenty. I keep bumping over that, especially at Christmas and in the New Year sales, and also due to my low reading rate of the last two months or so (although it's picked up recently, hence the spate of new reviews).

The pile currently consists of:

Matter, Use of Weapons, Player of Games and The Bridge by Iain M. Banks
The Final Empire and Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
Storm Front and Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber
Gridlinked by Neal Asher
Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker
Gaunt's Ghosts: The Founding by Dan Abnett
Ilium, Olympos and The Terror by Dan Simmons
Without Warning by John Birmingham
Axis by Robert Charles Wilson
The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Ghost Story by Peter Straub
Rome Burning by Sophia McDougall
Legend, Knights of Dark Renown and The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend by David Gemmell

That is, of course, not including the re-read pile, the books I want to read again in the near future (say sometime this year):

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
The Helliconia Trilogy by Brian W. Aldiss

And that's not including any new ARCs that turn up in the near future. Still, onwards and upwards.

Currently reading: The Braided Path (omnibus) by Chris Wooding
Currently watching: Lost Season 5 (TV), Battlestar Galactica Season 4.5 (TV)
Currently playing: Psychonauts

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Romanitas by Sophia McDougall

"Romulus will rule, and build the walls of Mars
And he will give his people his own name:
Romans. On them I lay no limits.
I set them free from distance and from time,
I have given them an Empire without end."
- Aeneid

Two thousand, seven hundred and fifty-seven years after its founding, the city of Rome sits at the heart of an empire that covers more than half of the globe. From the coast of California and the western edge of Hudson Bay to the Himalayas, the Roman Empire rules supreme. It has become technologically advanced, arming its legions with jet aircraft and tanks, but at heart it is still rules through the application of power and capital punishment. Immense mechanical crosses on the banks of the Tiber and the Thames slowly execute those who have defied the will of the people, and the Empire's economy is still based on the toil of slavery. The Empire needs to be strong as its greatest rival, the island-empire of Nionia, expands its power and influence on the Asian mainland and begins to amass troops in its holdings in North America.

When the Emperor's youngest brother and heir Leo dies, a great state funeral is held, but his son Marcus learns that the death was an assassination. Leo's oft-mentioned plans to reform the Empire and abolish slavery were deeply resented by some in Roman society, possibly within the imperial house itself. Marcus vows to fulfil his father's plans, but another assassination attempt soon puts him on the run, and he flees into Gaul. At the same time, two young slaves, Una and Sulien, are forced to escape from London when Sulien is falsely accused of rape. Meeting in Gaul, the three runaways learn of the existence of a secret refuge in Spain, where they can find succor, but Marcus knows he must eventually return home and expose the conspiracy that threatens the Empire.

I'm a sucker for a high concept, and Romanitas' premise is decent. Basically, the Roman Empire never fell. Instead it expanded to cover much of the globe, with only the rise of the Chinese and Japanese empires in Asia managing to successfully stave off its advances. There is a lot wrong with this theory, not least the fact that if Rome never fell the Dark Ages probably wouldn't have happened and human technology could well be four or five centuries ahead of where it is now. Instead McDougall paints the world pretty much as it is now in terms of science and technology, which is rather conservative to say the least. But I'm guessing she wanted to simply have our world with the Roman Empire overlaid on it, so I'm willing to swallow a bit of disbelief to have that work.

The story rattles along pretty well for a debut novel and it covers a fair bit of ground. The writing is a bit stodgy in places, and it's clearly the work of a relatively inexperienced author (it was McDougall's debut novel). For all of that, it's a decent read. Some of the imagery, such as the great mechanical crosses on the banks of the Thames slowly tearing people apart, is incredibly vivid. The use of a modern media society in a Roman context also works quite well: the newspapers are state-controlled, obviously, but the government allows them free reign in gossiping on the imperial family's scandals to distract the people from the more serious matters of government. The unfairness and ruthlessness of slavery is also well-depicted (although, again, sociological development over the intervening centuries would probably have seen slavery abolished at least several centuries earlier, but we can live with that) and the characters are, if not huge compelling, able to carry the story reasonably well.

On the minus side, the writing isn't always as strong or focused as it could be and whilst some elements leap off the page, others don't. The substitution of 'longdictor' and 'longvision' for telephone and television is also quite irritating. Other modern words are used, so why those aren't as well, I don't know. Also annoying is the revelation that several of the main characters are telepaths, which comes out of nowhere. So rather than just being an alternate history, Romanitas also has other SF elements. This would be fine, if there was a solid story reason why telepathy is in the plot. Whilst this may come out in the sequels, in the first volume it feels like it's a plot device solely there to get the characters out of dangerous situations that the author couldn't deal with any other way. It's also a bit of a head-scratcher, as the novel's blurb states that, "This is the Roman Empire. Now." Well, it should read, "This is the Roman Empire. Now. With added psi-powers!" The concept seems a bit out of keeping with the rest of the book.

Romanitas (***) is a solid enough read which never seems to really get to grips with the full possibilities of the premise. As an action-adventure novel, it's enjoyable enough and there's certainly enough about the concept to make me want to read the sequel, Rome Burning, which I hope to get to in the next couple of weeks. The book is available now in the UK from Orion Books and in the USA via Amazon.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

No doubt some people will be thinking, "I've never heard of this!" which is understandable. Odd and the Frost Giants is a very slim (100 illustrated pages of reasonably big type) book that Neil Gaiman wrote for World Book Day last year. A whole bunch of copies turned up in my local Waterstones' YA department and at just £1 I decided it was worth a look.

The book follows the adventures of young Odd, a Viking boy whose father dies when he is young and he is crippled by a falling tree shortly thereafter. When a devastatingly bad winter afflicts his community, Odd takes refuse in his father's woodcutter hut, and meets an eagle, a bear and a fox. Things then take a very unexpected turn and Odd finds he has a problem to sort out with some very large people with a chilly disposition...

Odd and the Frost Giants is a very fast read, but it's still a lot of fun. This is Gaiman at his most playful and approachable, with none of the real darkness of his adult work (although occasional flashes show that Odd's life is not a happy one), but it works well for that. Those who enjoyed his depiction of Norse mythology in both Sandman and American Gods will also be interested in seeing him revisit the concept here in a much briefer form.

There isn't much more to say - this review is an appreciable percentage of the length of Odd itself - other than that this is a fast, entertaining read where Gaiman grabs the reader's attention and spins a fine yarn indeed

Odd and the Frost Giants (****) is no longer in print, but copies can be found and, as well as in many bookshops' backstock, and is well worth a look. Redshift has also recently reviewed the book here.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Eagle Rising by David Devereux

Eagle Rising is the sequel and follow-up to Hunter's Moon. That book established the character of 'Jack', a special forces/wizard fighting the forces of evil on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. Eagle Rising picks up the action a year or two after the first book, again with an unrelated action-packed James Bond-esque prologue before the story proper kicks off.

Jack is given a new mission: his bosses have gotten wind of something occult and dangerous in the offing, apparently linked to a neo-Nazi group operating in London. Jack is assigned to infiltrate the group via one of their money men, who works in a London bank. Jack is successful, but initially finds little evidence of magical involvement amongst the racist thugs and football hooligans whose favourite past-time is to complain at length about Britain being overrun and ruined by immigrants and homosexuals. When this group's tactics turn violent, Jack uncovers a more sinister link to an organisation with a very ambitious plan indeed...

Sadly Eagle Rising features no kinky sex or lesbian bondage witches like its forebear, which will no doubt divide readers on the appeal of the novel. The story otherwise unfolds in a similar manner to the first book, however, with Jack's investigative skills and magical abilities deployed intelligently to investigate a problem and find a resolution. This the author pulls off quite well, resulting in a readable, exciting action-adventure novel with some good thriller elements. The writing shows improvement from the first volume, and characterisation is stronger. Jack's ambiguous feelings towards some of the people in the neo-Nazi movement (some of whom don't seem to really be there but are from peer pressure) are nicely played, and his complex relationship with an MI5 officer from the first book evolves quite well. The story is pretty daft - possibly dafter than the first one if that is possible - but played straight and works due to that.

Eagle Rising (****) is a fast-paced, enjoyable read which improves on the first novel. It's not likely to win any awards or change any lives, but it is certainly entertaining and well thought-out. The book is available in the UK from Gollancz in the USA via Amazon. A third book in the series, Turnabout, is in the planning stages.


"I am Andrew Ryan, and I'm here to ask you a question: Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No, says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No, says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No, says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose...Rapture. A city where the artist would not fear the censor. Where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality. Where the great would not be constrained by the small. And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well."

Originally released at the end of 2007, BioShock is a first-person shooter which borrows some minor elements from roleplaying games. Created by some of the same team-members behind the popular and successful System Shock 2, BioShock was marketed as a 'spiritual successor' to that game. It achieved some critical acclaim after release, garnering extremely high scores from games review magazines.

The game is set in 1960. A passenger aircraft crossing the Atlantic Ocean crashes in the sea 200 miles from Iceland. The sole survivor, a man named Jack, finds a lighthouse standing on an isolated island nearby. To his surprise, the lighthouse is the surface entry to a vast underwater city called Rapture. Built by wealthy industrialist Andrew Ryan a decade and a half earlier, Rapture was designed to be a city independent from any government or religion outside. After arriving in the city, Jack is contacted by a man named Atlas who tells him the city's society has fallen apart, and most of the inhabitants have gone mad and become genetically-mutated 'Splicers' who hunger only for 'ADAM', a material which can grant great powers to the wielders. Atlas convinces Jack to help him rescue his wife and daughter from captivity. Jack is also contacted by a woman named Tenenbaum, who explains that ADAM is produced by genetically-modified young girls named 'Little Sisters', and Jack can absorb ADAM from any Little Sisters he comes across. Tenenbaum urges Jack to spare the Little Sisters and set them free from the ADAM influence, whilst Atlas suggests that Jack kill them to gain a lot more and become more powerful. Jack's decision will determine the course of the rest of the game.

BioShock plays pretty much as a standard first-person shooter. Jack can wield a large number of weapons, many of them with different types of ammunition for different circumstances. He can also use EVE (a weaponized form of ADAM) to power 'plasmids', which give him certain powers, such as the ability to hurl fireballs, shoot lightning out of his hand or levitate objects with his mind. Combat can be greatly enhanced by switching between plasmids and traditional weapons for different circumstances. The game dips its tools in the RPG category by giving out different quests and adopting a 'mission hub' structure for its levels, but without an active inventory system and an inability to talk to people (not to mention that every single person you randomly encounter in the game wants to kill you, with important NPCs only appearing behind bullet-proof windows or screens) this is not pursued much.

BioShock has an interesting storyline and a philosophical streak to it, which asks questions about free will and determination. Whilst intriguing, it's explored in a considerably less compelling fashion than Planescape: Torment, and to anyone who's played that older game BioShock feels a bit lightweight (not to mention predictable: some plot twists are very close to those of that older game and some others as well). Of course, most modern gamers haven't, so kudos to 2K Games for trying something a bit more interesting than just the standard run 'n' gun action. Unfortunately, that action is somewhat lacking. Your character feels very 'heavy' for lack of a better word, and combat is sluggish and unresponsive as a result. For most opponents it isn't a problem, but for the Big Daddies (whom you have to kill to get to the Little Sisters) it can turn into a total nightmare as they can kill you with maybe three hits. It isn't until very late in the game that you get weapons powerful enough to make the task less frustrating. Also, and this is utterly enraging at the start of the game, if you die you have to wait whilst a brief unskippable sequence plays (where your character is revived at a re-lifing chamber, often located inconveniently distant from the place where you died) before you can hit re-load.

BioShock has an offbeat and unusual story, and the art design of the game is different and often gorgeous, channelling the 'Americanapunk' vibe of the earlier Fallout games (and the more recent Fallout 3). The graphics are impressive throughout, with particularly good water and lighting effects. The more colourful palette of the game is also nice change from a lot of other modern 'gritty' FPS, and it's certainly admirable to encounter a game which actually has a purpose or theme to its plot beyond mindless violence. However, the game is nowhere near as revolutionary as it seems to think it is, combat is leaden and somewhat unsatisfying, the save/load system is frustratingly slow, the end-game boss is preposterously easy to defeat and the 'good' ending is corny.

BioShock (***) is an entertaining game that passes the time, but all the magazine writers that gave it 95% were clearly smoking some very strong substances indeed. The game is available now in the UK (PC, 360, PS3) and USA (PC, 360, PS3). A sequel, BioShock 2: Sea of Dreams, will follow at the end of this year or the start of next.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Half-Life 2: Episode One

Half-Life 2: Episode One is the first of three stand-alone expansions to Half-Life 2. It picks up moments after the first game ended - which you may recall was on a massive cliffhanger - and nicely sets up the events of Episode Two.

Before the events of Half-Life 2, the Earth was invaded and subjugated by a ruthless interdimensional alien race known as the Combine. Inhibiting humanity's desire to procreate with suppression fields, draining the oceans and gradually transforming the surviving humans into cybernetic slaves or indoctrinated soldiers, the Combine are clearly not very friendly. However, aided by the alien vortigaunts who used to be slaves of the Combine but were liberated by the actions of your character, Gordon Freeman, at the end of the original Half-Life, humanity has formed a resistance. Freeman's unexpected arrival in City 17, the main Combine base of operations in Eastern Europe, triggered a mass-uprising against the Combine. At the end of Half-Life 2, Gordon and Alyx Vance infiltrated the Citadel and defeated the plans of the Combine and their ally, Dr. Wallace Breen. Unfortunately, although their plan succeeded, the zero-point energy generator at the top of the Citadel exploded, apparently incinerating Alyx, although Gordon was 'rescued' once again by the mysterious G-Man.

Episode One picks up moments later as the G-Man suddenly finds his powers neutralised by a bunch of vortigaunts, who teleport both Alyx and Gordon to freedom. The resistance is evacuated City 17, but as thousands of people flee for safety the defensive shields around the city collapse and dangerous wildlife starts flooding in, causing havoc. Gordon and Alyx's task in Episode One is simple: to re-engage the Citadel's shields to stop the reactor exploding for a few hours longer, and then to get the hell out of the city.

Episode One is impressive for distilling the Half-Life experience down to a few intense hours of fun. The episode isn't as long as any of the other games or expansions in the series, clocking in at around four hours in length, but it does cover a fair amount of ground. New weapons are disappointingly nowhere to be seen, but there are some new enemies and some interesting set pieces. As usual, combat is fast and furious and the physics puzzles aren't quite as blindingly obvious as in HL2 itself. They've also generously increased the battery life of your torch, which given that chunks of the game take place in darkness as you have to fight off zombie and headcrab hordes is a good thing.

Much of the game's enjoyment comes from having Alyx by your side for most of the game. She is easily the most impressive allied NPC to ever appear in an action game, and her reactions in a few situations are surprisingly lifelike. However, Valve definitely missed a trick by not allowing a co-op mode with another player controlling her.

Episode One (****½) is a fun game and an enjoyable addition to the series, if you can stomach yet another cliffhanger ending (although that is eased due to the fact of Episode Two already being available). The game is available in the UK as part of The Orange Box (PC, 360, PS3), and the Half-Life 2 Episode Pack (PC), and in the USA as part of The Orange Box (PC, 360, PS3) and the Half-Life 2 Episode Pack (PC).