Thursday, 30 July 2009

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

A thousand years ago, a hero whose coming was long prophesied set out to save the world from the Deepness, a force of ultimate evil. He went on a quest to the mythical Well of Ascension, the power of which would allow him to save the world from oblivion. He failed. Whilst he banished the Deepness, he was corrupted by his power and became the immortal Lord Ruler. He went on to conquer the world.

The Final Empire now spans most of the world. The majority of the people are slave-workers known as skaa, whilst a privileged few, the nobles (the descendants of the Lord Ruler's allies and cronies who helped him achieve power), rule in indolent luxury. The Lord Ruler's will is enforced by his obligators and the horrifying Steel Inquisitors, and all opposition to his rule is crushed without mercy.

In the Empire's capital, Luthadel, a man named Kelsier and his criminal crew is planning the ultimate heist. The prize is the rule of the Final Empire itself. To put together the operation he requires powerful and skilled allies and hires Vin, a young girl who has just started exhibiting the powers of the Mistborn, someone who can wield all the powers of Allomancy. Allomancers 'burn' metals to release magical powers. Most Allomancers can only control one metal, but Mistborn can wield all ten, and are formidable opponents. Vin's job is to infiltrate the nobility and gather intelligence on the opposition that is waiting for them, but soon gets in over her head.

The Final Empire is the first book in the Mistborn Trilogy. Prior to this series, Sanderson had won some acclaim with his promising debut, the single-volume novel Elantris, but Mistborn saw a marked improvement in his critical reception and led to him being offered the job of finishing the last Wheel of Time book following Robert Jordan's death.

The Final Empire was published in 2006, around the same time as Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora and Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself. Whilst in Europe the book attracted little attention - its first British edition isn't out until the end of this year - in the USA it was compared favourably with those other high-profile debuts. There are some interesting similarities with Lynch, as The Final Empire is also a 'heist' or 'caper' novel with a band of criminals out to pull a con, although in this book the con is a much bigger and more epic in scope. Direct comparisons between the two books beyond that are unfair, as their targets are very different, but broadly speaking The Final Empire is not as funny but is a bit more cohesive and focused on its central plot.

Amongst Sanderson's strengths are a finely-tuned magic system, which is logically and rationally explored. The notion of something eating metals (or, more often, drinking metal-specked liquids) is a bit weird at first, but it works quite well and some of the Mistborn abilities are quite impressive. The laws of ballistics are cleverly invoked to show how a Mistborn can, for example, 'fly' from one place or another by simply repelling or attracting themselves towards metal objects. Character-wise, the book is also strong. Vin is a decent lead protagonist, although her somewhat brooding and paranoid emo-ness at the start of the book is a bit difficult to get used to. Her character evolution over the course of the book and her graduation to the level of Total Badass is perhaps predictable, but nonetheless well-handed. Kelsier and Sazed are also strong protagonists, and the subtle way that Sanderson builds up the character of the Lord Ruler is very clever. However, Elend is a bit of a bland non-entity at this stage, and the other members of Vin and Kelsier's crew tend to blur into a morass of similarly well-meaning-but-decent do-gooders.

The story develops nicely and there's a very nice and clever twist in the ending. In fact, The Final Empire is almost a stand-alone novel, with only a solitary line of dialogue near the end opening the way for the sequels.

The Final Empire (****) is a strong and worthy addition to the ranks of the 'New Fantasy' movement. The writing is fresh and enjoyable and the setting impressively-realised. The novel is available now in the USA and will be published by Gollancz in the UK on 1 October 2009.


Dragonmount has the first review of the twelfth Wheel of Time novel, The Gathering Storm. According to the review, Brandon Sanderson has done a stellar job of continuing the series and has delivered a more focused and intense novel than some other recent ones in the series. In particular, it sounds like it delivers some much-needed attention on the series' central character, Rand al'Thor, who has taken a backseat role in the previous two novels in the sequence.

The novel is published on 5 November 2009 and will almost certainly be the biggest-selling fantasy novel of this year.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

News Round-Up

Guy Gavriel Kay has announced that his new book is called Under Heaven and is his take on 8th Century Chinese history, notably the Tang Dynasty. No word on if it is set in the same world as The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun and the Sarantine Mosaic duology, but it sounds like it. The book is due out next spring.

J.V. Jones has completed Watcher of the Dead, the fourth book of her six-volume Sword of Shadows series (which is celebrating the tenth year since the publication of the first volume this summer). The book will be published next year and is a surprisingly short work for Jones, clocking in at about 400 pages or about half the size of A Cavern of Black Ice, the first book in the series.

The topic of dubious casting in the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie has driven a lot of Internet discussion in the last few months, but the following video nicely and succinctly puts across the major complaints about the movie. Great stuff. On a related note, there are deeply disturbing rumours that an 'Americanised' version of a Battle Royale movie may be in the offering, which I suspect will generate as much anger if it ever gets made * shudders *

Monday, 27 July 2009

News from Comic-Con

Some interesting news coming in from the San Diego Comic-Con over the last few days. Let's see if I can sift through them:

Battlestar Galactica - The Plan & beyond
The final instalment of BSG as we know it, the TV movie The Plan, will be released on DVD at the end of October and will air in the USA on SyFy a few weeks later. No word on UK release or broadcast. Eddie James Olmos claims to have developed a script featuring Tigh and Adama's adventures after the end of the TV series but producer Ronald D. Moore said that's not a story he's really interested in telling, but hasn't ruled out anything. Oddly, there has been little news (that I've been able to find) so far on Caprica, which debuts in January in both the USA and UK.

A Dance with Dragons - George RR Martin
GRRM's editor Anne Groell was asked approximately five thousand times when the book is coming out, according to Suvudu blogger Shawn Speakman on the Terry Brooks forum. The apparent consensus from the information provided is that the book is huge, with well over 1,000 manuscript pages 'locked' with no further editorial work to be done on them, and several hundred more which are a mixture of chapters for ADWD that need some finalising and several more chapters which are being worked on for Book 6, The Winds of Winter (later clarification on by Shawn revealed that how much material has been saved for Book 6 beyond what we already know from GRRM's blog is not clear, and may not be substantial). GRRM's editor's comments seem to be in agreement with GRRM's recent ones, that an October completion for a March 2010 publication (in the USA, the UK could get it in February) is not unreasonable, but once again nothing is set in stone. Another attendee of the Finncon signing has said on Westeros that GRRM mentioned that the book will hopefully come in at around 1,200 manuscript pages.

The Gathering Storm - Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson
Employees at the Tor stand were reportedly 'bigging up' the new Wheel of Time book, some guiltily saying they thought it was better than the last few instalments of the series and reporting that it 'kicks ass'. The book is due for release on 3 November in the UK and USA.

Lost - Season 6
Producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse hosted a major Q&A panel with some 'special guests' dropping in and some new teaser videos being shown. They were tight-lipped on Season 6 (aside from saying some actors who have previously left the show will return), but confirmed Richard Alpert's backstory would be revealed in-depth. Season 6 will have a new twist to the flashback/flash-forward paradigm, but they have not revealed what this will be, save there will be a least one flashback (the aforementioned Richard Alpert story). The new teaser videos were a bit bizarre, one featuring Hurley in his role as MD of Mr. Cluck's fast food chain talking about his 'fantastic luck' since winning the lottery, another being an America's Most Wanted instalment about Kate and a third, extremely eyebrow-raising, video for Oceanic Airways which claims that they have a 'perfect safety record'. Interesting stuff. Lost's final season starts airing in January 2010.

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

The King of Lancre has died of natural causes. As everyone knows, it is very normal and even traditional for a king to die from a stab wound to the back followed by a swift plummet down a steep staircase. As is also traditional, the king's heir and his crown have mysteriously disappeared and it's no doubt only a matter of time before he grows up and returns to reclaim his birthright etc etc. Some things are Traditional. Unfortunately, the new king and his scheming wife aren't hot followers of Tradition and as a reign of terror falls on Lancre, it falls to three local witches (and a psychotic cat called Greebo) to take a hand in events...

Wyrd Sisters sees Pratchett stepping up to the plate a bit more. Whilst the improvements in his writing skills have been clear and steady over the first five Discworld books, it was with this one that he really hit his stride, balancing moments of drama, comedy and even romance (of the awkward, stuttering kind) very nicely. The story is wholly unoriginal, being essentially a Discworld cover version of MacBeth (with a bit of Hamlet thrown in as well, not to mention too many clever references to performers from the Marx Brothers to Charlie Chaplin), but Pratchett doesn't worry about that and instead just revels in the sheer joy of writing here.

The town of Lancre and its somewhat crazy collection of inhabitants is vividly described, and the three witches (Granny Weatherwax, returning from Equal Rites, and newcomers Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick) are among Pratchett's better-written creations, but what makes Wyrd Sisters work is its thematic underpinning. Pratchett had previously toyed with using the Discworld setting to explore various real-life ideas and here addresses the idea of propaganda, the notion that the winners decide what history is and the general power of the written and spoken word, which can sometimes override reality and the truth. Pratchett doesn't harp on about it at tedious length (as he does in some of the weaker books in the series) but uses this theme and idea to inform the action and story, and pulls it off very well, if not quite as well as in the very best books in the series (some of which are coming up quite soon).

Wyrd Sisters (****) is a funny and smart book that sees Pratchett's writing skills stepping up a notch. It is available now in the UK and USA.

I'm taking a break from the Discworld reviews (only another thirty books to go!) to read and review Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy.


Back in 1967 writer/producer/actor Patrick McGoohan befuddled the world with the brilliant, surreal and utterly perplexing 17-episode series, The Prisoner, which saw a secret agent forcibly 'retired' to 'The Village', an enigmatic seaside resort in an unknown location. The agent, only known as 'Number Six', repeatedly tried to escape but to little avail until the brain-meltingly bizarre finale finally revealed...well, maybe the truth, or maybe just a total descent into abject lunacy.

Various attempts have been made ever since to bring the series back, but the completely bonkers nature of the show made resurrecting it a dubious proposition. Finally, someone has succeeded. The American cable channel AMC and the British channel ITV have clubbed together to produce, yup, a new version of The Prisoner. Sensibly, they seem to have opted for a new approach using some of the same names and motifs as the original, but dropping the specific story elements in a manner reminiscent of the new Battlestar Galactica. So there's still a Village, but it's now in the middle of the desert. The new Number Six (James Caviezel) seems to be a different type of character to the original, and there's a permanent Number Two (Ian McKellen), in contrast to the original where there was a new Number Two almost every week. In particular, the new version seems to seriously bump up the idea of everyone in the Village being brainwashed into submission and Number Six's route to freedom may lie in 'freeing' them rather than in just trying to escape himself.

The nine-minute trailer is interesting, hinting that this could be a paranoid and intense thriller with very impressive production values. The whole thing was filmed in the Namibian desert at great expense, especially the recreation of 1960s vehicles, buildings and costumes. Hiring Jesus and Gandalf as your central two characters also doesn't come cheap. The only question is whether the six-part mini-series can live up to the legacy that came before it. Ian McKellan's blog is very positive, but I guess we'll find out for sure in November.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett

There was an eighth son of an eighth son who was, naturally, a wizard. But, for reasons too complicated to get into now, he also had seven sons. And then another one: a source of magic, a sourcerer. The Discworld hasn't seen a sourcerer for thousands of years, since the Mage Wars almost destroyed the world and caused an awful racket which annoyed the gods. Soon enough the re-energised wizards of the Disc are engaged in all-out warfare and the Apocralypse draws nigh (provided the Four Horsemen can get out of the pub in time). It falls to a wizard who doesn't know any spells, a box with lots of little legs, a mighty barbarian warrior of three days' experience, a timeshare genie and a homicidal hairdresser to save the day.

Sourcery sees the return of Rincewind and the Luggage as the Disc faces its greatest threat so far. Whilst previous books seemed to have end-of-the-world plots tacked on, this one embraces the concept to the fullest and is probably as 'epic' as the series ever gets. Fortunately, Pratchett seemed to get the end-of-the-world-is-nigh story out of his system with this book and whilst dire consequences would still abound in later books, things would never quite get as huge as this again.

Still, Pratchett has fun with the concept. Deep in the heart of every fantasy author is the burning desire to unleash a story with magical duels, vast magical towers exploding, evil grand viziers twirling their moustaches and unreconstructed, mighty-thewed barbarian warriors smiting legions of disposable extras with a broadsword so huge that it had to be forged from a gantry. There's some nice typically Pratchett twists on the concept though, and the humour is well-constructed throughout, particularly involving the Librarian who gets one of his biggest starring roles in the series. However, there are only a few new introductions to the Discworld mythos here, most notably Wuffles (an elderly dog).

As entertaining as it is, Sourcery is also a little bit obvious as a story, and as with Equal Rites it does feel that this story should have had much more long-lasting ramifications for the history of the Disc, even moreso given the epic scale of the novel. These problems can be borne for the strong characters, entertaining humour and the unexpectedly sad ending (which remains effective even when you know what happens in later books, particularly Eric).

Sourcery (***½) is a strong comic novel which showcases Pratchett's growing confidence and ability. It is available in the UK and USA right now.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Spaced now on Hulu

Spaced, one of the finest SF-related TV shows ever made, is now available for Americans to view on Hulu, a mere ten years after its first UK broadcast.

Spaced marks the first major collaboration between actor/writers Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes, director Edgar Wright and actor Nick Frost. Most of this team would go on to make Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but for my money Spaced remains one their strongest work, mainly due to its longer running time and its more grounded, funnier central premise: two random strangers (hardcore SF fan Tim and wannabe writer Daisy) bond during their search for a flat and decide to pretend to be a professional couple to secure a very nice property. They and their friends become embroiled in various escapades whilst pursuing several story arcs (such as Daisy's quest to become a journalist and Tim's disillusionment with life after viewing The Phantom Menace) over the series' fourteen episodes. Storylines include Tim's quest to get on Robot Wars leading him to the underground, no-holds barred violence of 'Robot Club' ("No-one talks about Robot Club,") and the kidnapping of Daisy's dog which results in a Star Wars-themed assault on an animal vivisection laboratory ("Your code name is Jabba," "Was Jabba the princess?", "Yes,"). One episode features a debate over the relative merits of Krull and Hawk the Slayer, which frankly should alone have been enough for it to automatically win a BAFTA and Emmy simultaneously.

Anyway, it's now available for those over the pond to view. In the words of Tyres, "You lucky people!"

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Mort by Terry Pratchett

Young Mort is unsuited to follow in his father's footsteps, so is put up to apprentice in another trade. Unexpectedly, Death himself decides to train up Mort as a neophyte Grim Reaper so he can have a few days off. After all, what could go wrong? Well, as it turns out...

Mort was the point that a lot of people started taking more notice of the Discworld series. Smaller in scale than the first three books, Mort features Death as a main character and some thoughts and meditations on the nature of death and what may (or may not) come after. This is Pratchett in a more thoughtful mood, but he doesn't neglect the comedy. There are quite a few funny moments and passages, and we meet some more soon-to-be-iconic Discworld characters like Albert as well. But it's the serious thinking about life and the place of people within it that makes Mort stand out a little bit more than some of the other early books. Pratchett is also quite disciplined here, with a focused and tight plot that doesn't ramble like some of his other novels (which is sometimes entertaining, sometimes not), and this works quite well.

Mort is also interesting as the Discworld book that has been optioned several times as a big-budget Hollywood movie, but Hollywood has so far been unable to make it as they decided they wanted to remove Death from the book as his presence would be too much of a downer for American audiences to handle. Unsurprisingly and possibly thankfully, the film has never been made.

Mort (***½) is a step-up in quality from the first three books, with Pratchett stretching his author's muscles and discovering some new and interesting tools in his writing box. The next phase of the Discworld series, a more solidly entertaining and interesting series of works leading up to the series' first undisputed classics, begins here. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

Millions of years hence, the Sun has grown old, bloated and red and is about to go out. In these dying days humanity, now capable of great feats of magic, shares the much-changed Earth with hostile races such as the deodands and pelgranes. This is the vivid setting of Jack Vance's Dying Earth series, four books (now usually published in one volume, Tales of the Dying Earth) which now stand as one of the cornerstones of modern fantasy.

Songs of the Dying Earth is an all-star 'tribute album' by some of the biggest names in modern SF and Fantasy, featuring twenty-three stories set in the Dying Earth setting. With a lot of ground to cover, let's get straight into it:

'The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale' by Robert Silverberg sees a melancholic wine-drinker confronting a problem. An interesting little story, if a tad predictable.

'Grolion of Almery' by Matthew Hughes is excellent. A man seeks shelter at a house and falls into the complex schemes of the house's caretaker, with destructive results. This story throws together elements of humour and horror. The Dying Earth meets Little Shop of Horrors by way of Cthulu. Funny, clever and a great last-minute twist.

'The Copsy Door' by Terry Dowling is likewise superb, featuring the mage Amberlin the Lesser, cursed by a particularly annoying form of magic, inadvertently getting into a contest of wills with other mages to unexpected results.

'Caulk the Witch-Chaser' by Liz Williams is somewhat unremarkable. A witch-chaser is employed to hunt down some witches in the marshes, but is unhappy with the process by which he was hired. Williams tries to hit the Vancian mode of speech and doesn't quite nail it. That said, the end is nicely dark and twisted.

'Inescapable' by Mike Resnick sees city watchman Pelmundo become bewitched by a woman and end up getting in over his head. This is another strong story and the ending will likely provide long-term readers of the Dying Earth series with a big grin.

'Abrizonde' by Walter Jon Williams is a highlight, featuring the besieged castle of Abrizonde and charting the fortunes of the hapless Vespanus who is trapped within. This is a great story, tense and dramatic with an amusing finale.

'The Traditions of Karzh' by Paula Volsky sees Farnol of Karzh become of age and stand ready to inherit his family home and fortune, but his lack of magical aptitude is a disgrace to the family's honour. His attempt to make amends leads to a dubious encounter with a particularly persistent pelgrane. An extremely good story, with a slice of dark vein and a particularly satisfying conclusion.

'The Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod' by Jeff VanderMeer is the weakest story in the collection. The writing is turgid and does not flow well at all, and the failure of the story is all the more irritating as it attempts to resolve the T'sais/Sarnod story from The Dying Earth itself. Disappointing.

'The Green Bird' by Kage Baker similarly invokes Cugel the Clever, the antihero of the second and third Dying Earth books, but to a far more successful end. Cugel learns of the existence of a bird whom has memorised many key spells and sets out to capture it, with typically disastrous results.

'The Last Golden Thread' by Phyllis Eisenstein is one of the more interesting stories in the book. The author does not attempt to match the Vancian mode of speech, and instead tells a melancholic and quiet story about ambitions and desires at the end of time. Affecting and thought-provoking.

'An Incident at Uskvosk' by Elizabeth Moon is a funny little story about a day at the races which ends up being a lot more complicated than it should be.

'Sylgarmo's Proclamation' by Lucius Shepard sees Thiago Alves and Derwe Coreme join forces to track down the troublesome Cugel, with amusing results. A solid if not outstanding story.

'The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (or The Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee' by Tad Williams is another highlight of the book. Fake wizard Lixal Laqavee, having tired of his life as a conjurer in a circus, decides to learn some real magic, with troublesome results that force him into a highly hazardous alliance with a deodand of dubious reliability and a ravenous hunger for human flesh. Simply put, brilliant.

'Guyal the Curator' by John C. Wright sees Manxolio Quinc, Chief Invigilator of Old Romarth, investigating the arrival of a stranger in the city suffering from amnesia. Their investigation of his origins sees them running afoul of the ill-tempered titan Magnatz. This another successful story, with a startling ending. The only problem with this tale is that the Dying Earth seems to have unexpectedly re-acquired its Moon (which, as previous stories had established, had wandered out of Earth's orbit millions of years earlier).

'The Good Magician' by Glen Cook reacquaints us with Ildefonse the Preceptor, Rhialto the Marvellous and the rest of their ill-assorted circle of allied mages. An amateur wizard, Alfaro, stumbles across a long-held secret which threatens the stability of the Dying Earth. I must admit that whilst the story here is fine, the writing is not very strong and the story is overlong.

'The Return of the Fire Witch' by Elizabeth Hand sees 'good' witch Saloona Morn recruited by her neighbour Paytim Noringal on a mission of wanton slaughter and destruction, to Saloona's distress. This is an oddball story, quite interesting and well-characterised, but one where the author's point seems to have gotten lost in the writing somewhere.

'The Collegeum of Mauge' by Byron Tetrick sees young Dringo joining a magical college to seek out his missing father. The story is quite good, twisting and turning as it goes and with an open-ended conclusion that could be quite interesting to follow up on one day.

'Evillo the Uncunning' by Tanith Lee is another highlight of the collection, as the young orphan Evillo decides to venture into the wilder world and seek his fortune, soon becoming an ally of the sentient snail Khiss along the way. The story is quite bonkers, even by Dying Earth style, complete with a recurring story point highly reminiscent of a recurring storyline in Family Guy (seriously). It's also brilliantly funny.

'The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz' by Dan Simmons is the longest story in the collection, a rich, detailed novella which sees Shrue the Diabolist allying with the redoubtable Derwe Coreme to find the greatest library in all the world, aided by a demonic entity known as KirkriK and involving a lengthy airship chase. Possibly the best story in the book, given room to breathe by its length, Simmons knocks it out of the park with a story that is funny, tender and dramatic by turns.

'Frogskin Cap' by Howard Waldrop is, on the other hand, the shortest story in the collection, a short mood piece with some funny lines and a lack of mortal peril.

'A Night at the Tarn House' by George R.R. Martin sees several folk of mixed repute take shelter at the inn known as the Tarn House (known for its hissing eels) for the night, only for total mayhem to result. GRRM, in only his second non-Song of Ice and Fire-related piece of fiction written in fifteen-odd years, delivers a characteristically sharply-characterised piece laden with very dark humour and a thought-provoking final line.

'An Invocation of Incuriosity' by Neil Gaiman is a coda not just to the collection but to the whole Dying Earth universe. So, what happens when the Sun finally does go out? Gaiman delivers the haunting answer.

Songs of the Dying Earth (****½) is an exceptionally strong collection, a rich and sumptuous banquet of tales from the end of time. The weak links here are not enough to dilute the impact of the best stories in the collection, and the best stories are thought-provoking, memorable and sharply funny. The book is available now from Subterranean Press in the USA and will be published by HarperCollins Voyager in the UK on 1 October 2009.

Monday, 20 July 2009

More official casting news for A Game of Thrones

A lot of news about casting has broken over HBO's A Game of Thrones today, following from the earlier confirmation that Peter Dinklage will be playing Tyrion. So let's get down to it:

Sean Bean in the forthcoming Medieval movie Black Death

Sean Bean has been cast in the lead role of Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and the North. Bean rose to notice playing supporting roles in the late 1980s, but hit the big time in 1992 by playing Sean Miller, the villain in the Harrison Ford movie Patriot Games. The following year he cultivated an image as a sex symbol by appearing as Mellors in a BBC adaptation of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. His rise to stardom really began when he took over the role of Richard Sharpe from Paul McGann, who had broken his leg shortly after beginning the filming of Sharpe's Rifles. Based on the Bernard Cornwell Sharpe series of novels, Bean went on to play the role in a further thirteen two-hour TV movies between 1993 and 1997, taking Sharpe from the initial British intervention in the Peninsular War to Waterloo. He maintained his Hollywood villain credentials during this time by also appearing as the treacherous Agent 006 in the James Bond movie GoldenEye.

His identifiability as Sharpe led to casting offers drying up, and he didn't work for nearly a year after completing Sharpe's Waterloo, although he returned to the big screen in Ronin and didn't look back. His biggest genre role to date came when he played Boromir in Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. He also appeared in a specially-filmed flashback sequence for The Two Towers which was cut, but restored for the DVD special edition of the movie, along with another brief appearance as a hallucination in The Return of the King. He also played Errol in Equilibrium and had a very good role as Odysseus in Troy, an appearance notable for being one in which he didn't either 1) die, or 2) played a villain, or 3) both. More recently he played a villainous serial killer in a very bad remake of The Hitcher and resumed the role of Sharpe for two more TV movies.

Lord Eddard Stark in the godswood of Winterfell

Eddard 'Ned' Stark is arguably the lead character in the novel of A Game of Thrones. He is the Lord of Winterfell and the North, ruling over a vast but lightly-populated area. He is a close friend of King Robert Baratheon, whom he helped win his crown. As a second son, Ned did not expect to inherit the rule of the North, but when the Mad King, Aerys II, murdered his father and elder brother and approved the kidnap of his sister, Ned inherited the title and raised the banners of rebellion. Ned Stark also helped Robert crush the rebellion against his rule led by the Greyjoys, the ruling family of the Iron Islands. Stark is known for his honour, his trustworthiness, his steadfastness and reliability. He has little interest in politics, and is fiercely loyal to his family: his wife Catelyn, sons Robb, Bran and Rickon, and daughters Sansa and Arya. He also has a bastard son, Jon Snow, whose presence in Winterfell causes a constant strain on his marriage. The action of A Game of Thrones begins when Ned is summoned to King's Landing to serve as the King's Hand (a role analogous to a prime minister, overseeing the day-to-day rule of the kingdom) after the death of the previous incumbent.

Mark Addy (left) in A Knight's Tale

Mark Addy has been cast as King Robert Baratheon. Addy rose to fame as Dave in The Full Monty (1997) and had a number of roles, usually comedic, in films such as A Knight's Tale as well as sitcoms such as The Thin Blue Line and Still Standing. He has played more serious roles in Jack Frost, Band of Gold and, most recently, Red Riding. There is an interesting interview with him in Robert Baratheon lookalike mode, about his opera Fram, here.

Robert Baratheon was, in his youth, a mighty warrior who was never happier than when he was fighting, training or partying. He became Lord of Storm's End at a young age (when his parents died in a shipwreck) and was given the responsibility of bringing up his infant brother Renly (although he mostly deferred this to the castle staff). Robert was immensely charasmatic and was known for winning supporters to his cause just through talking to them. As a child, he fostered for a time at the Eyrie, the great mountain castle belonging to Lord Jon Arryn, and there met and befriended Ned Stark, who was also fostering there for a time (a tradition by which children from one noble house would stay with another for a time to strengthen relations between them). The great friendship between them grew when Robert fell in love with and was betrothed to Ned's sister, Lyanna. When Lyanna was kidnapped by Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, the son of the Mad King Aerys, Robert was furious. When Aerys murdered Eddard's father and brother (as well as Jon Arryn's nephew and heir), Robert raised the standard of rebellion alongside both the Arryns and Starks, and helped win the powerful Tully family to their cause as well. Through a blood relation (his grandmother was a Targaryen), Robert claimed the Iron Throne and led the rebellion, winning the great victory at the Battle of the Trident and killing Rhaegar. Unfortunately, Lyanna had died by this time and after winning his crown Robert chose to marry Cersei Lannister, after the Lannisters unexpectedly defected to his cause during the war and captured the capital city in his name.

King Robert and his wife, Cersei of House Lannister

By the time A Game of Thrones starts Robert has become fat and unhappy with the tedium of ruling the kingdom. His marriage is not a happy one and his three children (Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen) are distant from him. He has few true friends at court, only people who want things from him. When his Hand, Jon Arryn, dies, he immediately chooses Ned Stark to replace him.

Harry Lloyd as Will Scarlett in Robin Hood

Harry Lloyd will be familiar to Doctor Who fans from his turn as Jeremy Baines in Family of Blood and Human Nature. He also played Will Scarlett in Robin Hood and was Prince Rupert in The Devil's Whore. Lloyd is playing Viserys Targaryen.

Viserys is the son and legal heir of King Aerys, whom Robert Baratheon supplanted as King of Westeros. Viserys and his young sister Daenerys fled to the continent of Essos and were given sanctuary by a powerful merchant lord. As the series opens Viserys has arranged to sell his teenage sister in marriage to Khal Drogo, the leader of an immense army of Dothraki blood-riders, in return for his help in invading Westeros and reclaiming his crown.

Viserys Targaryen, the Beggar King

Jack Gleeson is a young actor whose only major role to date has been in Batman Begins (as 'Young Boy'). He will be playing Joffrey Baratheon, Robert's eldest son and heir. To strengthen the alliance between the Starks and Baratheons, Eddard agrees that his daughter Sansa should marry Joffrey. Joffrey is vain, arrogant and entirely lacking in martial ability, but likes to boast of his elite swordfighting skills. He is usually accompanied by his bodyguard, the scarred and threatening Sandor Clegane (uncast as yet).

Prince Joffrey Baratheon

Kit Harington

Newcomer Kit Harington has done some theatre work but nothing on television yet. The producers were apparently blown away by his audition tape. Harrington will be playing the key role of Jon Snow, Eddard Stark's bastard son who finds his place at Winterfell increasingly uncomfortable due to the attitude of his step-mother and eventually decides to 'take the black' and join the sworn brotherhood of the Night's Watch. The Watch guards the Wall, a colossal fortification of ice stretching for 300 miles across Westeros' northern border built thousands of years ago to defend against an ancient threat. That threat has long since vanished (cough) but the Watch still has to guard against the wildlings or 'free folk' who live beyond and occasionally seek to cross the Wall and raid the lands beyond.

Jon Snow and his direwolf, Ghost

For my money, these are solid casting choices. Sean Bean is a good choice for the solid and reliable Ned. Mark Addy is a bit more unexpected as Robert, but his casting tape impressed quite a few people (including GRRM), as per Parris' comments in this thread. As for the others, Lloyd is a strong up-and-comer with some solid work behind him. Harrington and Gleeson are more or less total newcomers, although Benioff and Weiss were impressed by the former's audition, which apparently stood out from the rest by some distance.

The only concern I have at this time is that unless Gleeson is a lot older than he appears, Joffrey would seem to be quite a few years younger than Robb or Jon, who in the books are only a year or two older than him. If there are many years between them, this makes the key scene from Book 1 where Robb and Joffrey try to arrange a practice bout somewhat nonsensical. Hopefully that point will be clarified as more news emerges.

Further casting announcements to come, including Jaime and Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Theon Greyjoy, Khal Drogo, Littlefinger, Sansa, Arya, Robb and Catelyn Stark.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Author Profile: Tad Williams

Tad Williams is an American writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Born in 1957 in San Jose, California, Williams has held a huge number of jobs in his time, working in theatre and television production, singing in a band and hosting his own syndicated radio show for a decade among them. In 1985 he published his first novel, Tailchaser's Song, and has been a fixture on the speculative fiction scene ever since, publishing twelve additional novels, numerous short stories and several comic series. He currently has two more novels about to hit the stands and five more books planned.

Tailchaser's Song is an animal fantasy which depicts cats as a race of intelligent beings who consider themselves the dominant species of Earth, with humans a generally untrustworthy nuisance. The book garnered some (generally favourable) comparisons to Watership Down and marked Williams as an author to watch.

For his next project Williams decided to directly tackle the epic fantasy genre with a full-on, Tolkien-esque epic meant to rival (and in some cases redress) The Lord of the Rings. Whilst acknowledging that the earlier work was a substantial masterpiece, Williams felt that Tolkien let some implicit suggestions of racism slide through unchallenged in the earlier work, with its depiction of the purely good elves and the purely evil orcs, not to mention the fact that all of the dark-skinned peoples in the book were allied to Sauron. Tolkien himself had noted these facts and struggled with them in various post-Lord essays trying to explain these issues, but reached no satisfactory conclusion before his death (although The Silmarillion did expose the ancient history of the elves in a somewhat less flattering light).

Williams' answer was to craft the vast fantasy landscape of Osten Ard, centred on the immense castle of the Hayholt, a Gormenghast-esque warren of kitchens and halls from where King John the Presbyter (also called Prester John, in a nod to the legendary figure) rules over the unified races of humanity. Upon his death, his sons quarrel for the crown and the land falls into civil war at the same time an ancient force of destruction, the Storm King, returns.

In comparison to many of the post-Tolkien fantasy potboilers, Williams attempts in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (the names of the three swords at the centre of the story) to create a mythic epic punching at the same weight as Middle-earth. In that he falls short (Osten Ard being the work of a few years, not the decades poured into Middle-earth by Tolkien), but it remains a noble effort. The trilogy is gargantuan - the final book, To Green Angel Tower, is commonly split into two smaller volumes, Siege and Storm - and steeped in rich atmosphere, but to deliver that atmosphere Williams utilises a huge amount of words. The result is a somewhat straightforward narrative which doesn't really need the immense page-count the series spans. The result is a series that divides critics. Those who love it really love it, whilst a lot of other critics are unimpressed with Williams' somewhat needless verbosity. Also, Williams fails at the last hurdle in challenging some of the conceits of the genre. Whilst giving the Storm King and his minions a logical rationale for their actions, the epilogue to the trilogy is somewhat cloying and invokes several of the key cliches of the genre that Williams was supposed to be subverting. As a result, the trilogy leaves the reader feeling somewhat dissatisfied, although sporadically entertained along the way.

But for all its faults, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn did break through the barrier that had hitherto suggested that epic fantasy was solely a kid's genre, completing the work begun by Donaldson's Thomas Covenant a decade earlier. Williams' trilogy can thus be seen as a late but key progenitor of the modern doorstopper fantasy epic, coming as it did just a couple of years ahead of Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World. It also had an inspirational impact on other writers, as George RR Martin, who had previously been sceptical of the genre as a setting for adult stories, but read Williams' books, was fired up, and began writing A Game of Thrones in 1991.

Despite the immense pressures of writing the trilogy (Williams has said the third book in particular demanded vast amounts of sweat, blood and tears), Williams found time to expand his short story, Child of an Ancient City, into a novel with the help of fellow writer Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Whilst different to the trilogy - it's a historical vampire story - it didn't find as large an audience.

In a similar vein was Caliban's Hour. Having just finished a colossal trilogy taking eight years to write, Williams chose to work on a much smaller project next, essentially a companion to The Tempest examining the fate of the 'monster' Caliban. Despite some critical acclaim, the book also failed to shift many copies, to the author's distress and suspicion that some of his fans only wanted huge blockbuster fantasies from him, which he wasn't always prepared to do (a similar problem for many in the genre).

Despite his not-always-pleasant experiences on the trilogy, Williams did come up with an idea for another huge story, this time a science fiction epic called North on the Data Stream which would mix in elements of SF and fantasy with a river-based narrative similar to Heart of Darkness or Huckleberry Finn, or indeed Dan Simmons' Hyperion which was published around the same time he came up with the idea. Eventually coining the catchier title Otherland, Williams set to work after finishing Caliban's Hour, using many of the lessons learned whilst writing the trilogy and generally having a better time.

Otherland was, perhaps more sensibly, planned as four big books in the first place, published between 1996 and 2001, and marked an interesting departure and contrast to the earlier fantasy epic. On the one hand, it is similar: another huge story with hundreds of named characters, dozens of major ones and vast numbers of plots and subplots. Yet the differences are notable: some of the action takes place in the recognisable real world of forty years hence, in South Africa, the USA, South America and elsewhere, whilst the majority takes place in the many virtual worlds of the Otherland computer network.

Like the fantasy trilogy, Otherland has been accused of being too long-winded, but it's a different style of verbosity. Otherland's extra length is mainly due to, as admitted by the author, his treatment of the story as an episodic kitchen-sink novel with tons of ideas thrown into the mix. Some of the episodes in the books are almost self-contained, more like short stories that exist within the novel with their own beginnings, middles and ends before the main narrative resumes. Reading Otherland is an experience akin to watching a TV series with an ongoing storyline which sometimes takes a break for the odd self-contained episode along the way. Some readers hate this, others love it, and accordingly Otherland is Williams' most divisive work. For my money, it is the best thing Williams has written, with interesting, strong characters and the worlds within the Otherland network are well-realised. There is a surprising emotional punch to the finale as well, partially continued by a subsequent novella, The Happiest Dead Boy in the World, that answered a few dangling questions. Otherland was a reasonable success worldwide, but proved to be unexpectedly and particularly big in Germany, where it won some mainstream success and became a national bestseller, with a German software company now working on a particularly ambitious Otherland MMORPG.

Williams' post-Otherland work has proven less popular. The War of the Flowers, published in 2003, was a solid single-volume fantasy tale but a bit of a come-down after the epic SF series. More problematic has been his new work, the Shadowmarch Trilogy. Williams had been suggesting that his next project post-Flowers would be a return to Osten Ard for a series of short stories (presumably following the success of The Burning Man, a novella published in the 1998 collection Legends), but instead he chose to write a new fantasy book that would be released in stages online. The experiment was interesting, but whilst writing the book Williams was inspired to turn it into a full trilogy. Due to the break from his normal writing scheme, this meant writing the outline for the series between Books 1 and 2 rather than before the first one, and the result was a trilogy which simply didn't feel as polished as his former multi-book series. In particular, Shadowplay, the second book, garnered some of the worst reviews Williams has received in his career. The final volume, Shadowrise, is due in about a year's time. He is now embarking on a five-volume children's book series, Ordinary Farm, which he is writing with his wife, Deborah Beale, whilst his next adult project will be a series of 'noir' fantasy thrillers.

Looking at Williams' body of work, the conclusion one reaches is that he is an author with a variety of interests in different genres who has been sucked into the world of the giant fat fantasy epic. It's hard to ignore the impact the two big series have had or that they are both immensely popular, but at the same time Tailchaser's Song, Child of an Ancient City, Caliban's Hour and his often excellent short fiction (The Lamentably Comical Tragedy of Lixal Laqavee is one of the highlights of Songs of the Dying Earth) suggests an author who in his heart of hearts is perhaps more Neil Gaiman than Robert Jordan, and his concentration on huge series has perhaps deprived us of many interesting short stories, comics and single novels that he could have written in the meantime. Yet Otherland is a singularly impressive work and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, if it failed at the final hurdle, is a nevertheless valiant attempt to analyse the problems within commercial epic fantasy, even if it ironically fell prey to many of them in the process. Still, with the huge epics apparently out of the way, for now, I look forward to Williams' future work with renewed interest.


Stand-alone Books
Tailchaser's Song (1985)
Child of an Ancient City (1992, with Nina Kiriki Hoffman)
Caliban's Hour (1994)
The War of the Flowers (2003)
Rite: Short Work (2006, collection)

Memory, Sorrow and Thorn
The Dragonbone Chair (1988)
Stone of Farewell (1990)
To Green Angel Tower (1993)

City of Golden Shadow (1996)
River of Blue Fire (1998)
Mountain of Black Glass (1999)
Sea of Silver Light (2001)

Shadowplay (2007)
Shadowrise (forthcoming in 2010)

Ordinary Farm The Dragons of Ordinary Farm (2009, with Deborah Beale)
A Witch at Ordinary Farm (forthcoming in 2010, with Deborah Beale)

The Bobby D Mysteries
Sleeping Late of Judgement Day (forthcoming)
The Bobby Dollar Books (forthcoming)
My So-Called Afterlife (forthcoming)

Friday, 17 July 2009


Lots of rumours boiling around Sean Bean possibly being cast as Ned Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones. I'll withold a full blog entry until it is 100% confirmed though, which might not be until well into next week if HBO haven't released anything by now. Encouraging news anyway.

Put the Discworld reading on hold to read Songs of the Dying Earth. Normally with collections I review the stories as part of the over-review of the whole book, but this collection is massive, twenty-three stories, some of them pretty long. I might have to break the review into smaller chunks to make it easier to digest. I'll see how I go.

After an extremely long time I finally got back into The Witcher and hope to finish it before the end of the summer (only putting an hour or two into it a day). Nice to be playing a decent-sized RPG for once.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The New York Times on Jack Vance

The New York Times has a feature on Jack Vance, with commentary by authors like Michael Chabon and Dan Simmons. It's meant to coincide with the release of Songs of the Dying Earth (which I'm currently reading), the 'tribute album' by high-profile fantasy writers to Vance's seminal setting. Well worth a read.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth

In 1965 the British government had a shadowy series of contacts with an advanced alien species known only as the '456' (four-five-six), named after the radio frequency they used. The results of that contact were classified, but involved twelve children being handed over to them for purposes unknown. Unbeknown to the government, one of those children escaped and has grown up haunted by his memories of that experience.

In 2010 all the children in the world simultaneously stop and announce, "We are coming." The governments of the world investigate, as do the members of Torchwood, an organisation based in Cardiff designed to investigate alien threats to Earth. However, when Torchwood comes close to exposing the secrets of forty-five years earlier, the government outlaws the group and tries to have them eliminated. Civil servant Mr. Frobisher is put on the front line by the Prime Minister as he has to negotiate with the aliens, who have indeed returned...

When Torchwood launched in 2006, it was billed as Doctor Who's more adult, darker cousin. Broadcast after 9pm on BBC-3, it was supposed to take the Whoniverse in a new and more interesting direction. Unfortunately, it appeared at the time that 'darker' and 'more adult' actually translated as 'some swearing' and 'everyone on the cast is gay (kind of)'. Season 1 of Torchwood is at times borderline unwatchable. Season 2 started moving in the right direction, with some better writing and some blatant-but-amusing fanservice (James 'Spike' Marsters from Buffy and Angel as another time agent who naturally cops off with Captain Jack), but it still wasn't fulfilling its mission statement.

With the third season, the BBC decided to try something different. With Doctor Who off the air for the year (four TV specials aside), they decided to not only promote Torchwood to primetime BBC-1 status, but to turn it into a five-hour mini-series airing across one week. With a level of serialisation unmatched by anything that Doctor Who has done since its return in 2005 and with producer Russell T. Davies able to exert more influence over the project (as his tenure on Who winds down and Steven Moffatt gears up to take over), it was hoped that the series would finally take off. Fans were sceptical, but intriguing trailers and a steady drip-feed of news items from the BBC convinced a lot of people to tune in and give the show the benefit of the doubt.

And, against all the odds, it worked. Torchwood: Children of the Earth, as it has been dubbed, has won more acclaim than anything else related to new Doctor Who since its return four years ago. It moves with a ferocious sense of purpose, more like 24 than anything else, and its long running time allows characters to be explored more thoroughly and the storyline to unfold more logically than in the regular 45-minute episodes. They also got in some experienced scriptwriters from shows like Spooks to help work on the structure and tone of the mini-series. It genuinely is now adult. Ianto and Jack's relationship is portrayed more naturally and in keeping with the story rather than for any sensationalist reasons. Mr Frobisher's arc is stunningly well-handled, with guest star Peter Capaldi (the angel Islington from Neverwhere, among many other fine roles) giving an astonishing and award-worthy performance above and beyond the call of duty.

The mini-series doesn't pull any punches. Whilst the conclusion to the story is a little contrived (featuring RTD's preferred resolution of characters talking technobabble and pounding intently on keyboards until some fancy CGI kicks in), it isn't without cost. This isn't a neat ending at all and leaves quite a few of the characters seriously mentally scarred for life. The tone is pretty bleak, with only a few rays of sunshine allowed to appear at the end.

It isn't all great. The music for new Who and Torchwood has always been jarringly out of place and too loud in the mix, and it's still the same in this series. There's also a lot of shots of the characters running around various corridors and streets which sometimes seem to have been dropped in to make up the running time, but this is actually much reduced from its normal prevalence in the regular episodes. The story also requires the British government (and many of the other world governments) to behave in a snivelling and cowardly manner which led me to ponder if the writers were trying to make some kind of political point. I like to think the human race is better than Children of Earth makes us out to be. But these problems are minor.

Torchwood: Children of Earth (****½) is a shockingly good piece of British SF, easily the best thing to come out of the new Doctor Who since its return in 2005 and maybe the best slice of British TV SF since 1998's Ultraviolet. It is fast-paced, genuinely adult, asks hard questions and doesn't skimp on the answers and features some brilliant writing and acting. Seriously, the new Star Trek movie and Watchmen don't stand a chance: this is what will win the Best Drama (Longform) at the Hugo Awards next year, unless the voters go stark-raving mad.

It is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK and from 28 July on DVD and Blu-Ray in the USA.

The series will also air on BBC America starting on 20 July.

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

The Unseen University, the centre of magical learning on the Discworld, a building whose endless rooftops make Gormenghast look like a toolshed on a railway allotment and whose faculty are the guardians of magic for the whole world. Of course, wizards are renowned for being incredibly intelligent but not very smart, and when Drum Billet realises his time is almost up he decides to pass on his staff to the eighth son of a poor blacksmith, himself an eighth son. Unfortunately, he neglects to check the baby's gender first...

Nine years later, Eskarina is a happy and normal nine-year-old child, happily terrorising her older brothers and learning the ways of the world. Local witch Granny Weatherwax is less happy about the magical staff left to her by the wizard. When Esk's burgeoning magical powers threaten to cause chaos, Granny realises she has to get Esk enrolled at Unseen University, which given that the university specifically prohibits women from joining (on the grounds they'd probably be too good at magic) could be rather problematic.

Equal Rites sees Terry Pratchett setting out his vision of what the Discworld series is going to be. No previous characters from the first two books turn up (with one orange-furred and banana-stained exception), and there isn't even any mention of those events. Instead we have new characters having new adventures. Pratchett also starts to use his creation to address real-world concerns here, in this case feminism. He doesn't go too overboard and the humour remains fairly broad, but you can almost sense the author thinking that maybe the funny planet with the turtle and elephants can be used for something more interesting than just poking fun at Lovecraft and Conan, amusing as that may be. Unfortunately, this idea falters a bit since Esk's story is meant to make Unseen University a co-ed establishment, bringing in female wizards and making it more equal. As later books show, none of this happens, Esk is never mentioned again and UU remains a male-only establishment in the latest novels, twenty-odd years after Esk's time. Given how well Pratchett develops his world, this lack of evolution is disappointing and seems to contradict the book's pro-feminist theme.

It's also the first appearance of Granny Weatherwax, one of his most iconic characters. She's a mere embryonic shadow of her later self here, but already some of the character's more intriguing traits are developing. We also continue to get through the revolving door of Unseen University Archchancellors with Cutangle becoming an interesting character as the story develops. As usual with these earlier books there are some weaknesses, most notably that Pratchett is re-using the idea that the fate of the whole Disc is at stake as creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions attempt to break through the fabric of reality, which he uses rather a lot in these first dozen or so books.

Equal Rites (***) is another funny and fast-paced read, but you can start to see Pratchett developing some more sophisticated ideas of what he can use the Discworld series for. The book suffers from being somewhat slight and insignificant (aside from Granny Weatherwax's first appearance, the events of the book have next to no impact on the wider world and series) but is still moderately entertaining. However, from the next book Pratchett is starting to roll out much bigger and more intriguing guns.

The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Amtrak Wars movie adaptation moving forwards

Obviously I have my finger on the pulse of the moment or something (it wasn't a total coincidence, no sirree), as my recent reviews of the Amtrak Wars series have coincided with development of a series of movies based on the books. Renamed The Talisman Prophecy, the proposed film sequence has been in development for a couple of years and things had gone quiet. Surprisingly, it turns out there have been a fair few developments behind the scenes and the Australian production company working on the project have secured funding for the continued development of the films. In addition, some interesting concept art has surfaced.

More info and artwork can be found here on the project's homepage and on the newly-established Facebook page dedicated to the project.

Whether this amounts to anything or not remains to be seen, but it's certainly interesting news.

Terry Goodkind's biggest fan gives his reaction to the new book

Okay, I was getting bored with this meme as well, but this was quite funny:

(you may need to switch on the subtitles via the button in the bottom-right of the screen)

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

At the Unseen University, the wizards are disturbed by the sudden appearance of a blood-red star in the sky, which is getting slowly bigger. With the people 'concerned', the wizards mount an investigation and learn that all eight of the Great Spells must be united to save the Disc from a flaming death. Unfortunately, one of the spells is lodged in the head of the spectacularly inept wizard Rincewind, who was last seen plummeting to his doom...

The Light Fantastic picks up after the end of The Colour of Magic and is the only direct continuation of a storyline in the entire Discworld series, resolving the cliffhanger from the ending of the first book. The resolution to that cliffhanger is slightly disappointing, to be honest, but given that Pratchett's goal here was to get the story moving again as fast possible, it's not too much of an issue. After that it's pretty much business as usual from the first book, with Rincewind and Twoflower's travelling around the Disc as they meet various eccentric people, almost die, have various misadventures and almost die. You know the drill.

The storyline is a bit more focused this time. Whilst the first book was divided into four smaller chunks, The Light Fantastic is one big story (starting Pratchett's habit of refusing to use chapters) which flows quite well. As with the first book, Pratchett's targets here remain common fantasy tropes, with perhaps a bit more of a focus on taking the mickey out of fairy tales. Again, it lacks the subtlety of the later books and the humour is fairly broad, but again it's fairly entertaining. Pratchett also starts laying the foundation of the Discworld mythology here, with the first appearances of Cohen the Barbarian, the Librarian, Ysabel and the Four Horsemen of the Apocralypse. Events build to one of the most memorable conclusions in the series' history, a widescreen epic of a finale which I suspect Pratchett created just in case the success of the first book was a fluke and the series was not going to continue. Obviously it was a big success, and the rest is history.

The Light Fantastic (***) is a satisfying sequel to The Colour of Magic and remains fast-paced, funny and entertaining. It's still fairly obvious in places, however, and lacks much of the depth the later books bring to the world. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. It was adapted by Sky One along with The Colour of Magic last year, and the TV movie is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-ray (UK).

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

David Gemmell Award audio recording available now

The David Gemmell Award organisers have released an audio recording of the ceremony here. It's worth checking out, if just for James Barclay's dramatic re-enactment of Druss' speech from Legend that kicked off proceedings.

Award winner Andrzej Sapkowski also had this to say about receiving the award:

"I am very happy and proud to be a winner in the contest for The David Gemmell Legend Award, the prize precious to me indeed, as I am a great admirer of the writings of the late David A. Gemmell. I would like to express my gratitude to all the readers who voted for my book. I would also like to thank and congratulate all the other fellow writers in the final poll. Finally, it is fantasy - our genre - that was the ultimate winner."

Monday, 13 July 2009

Aaron Allston needs some fan support

Aaron Allston is the author of several of the popular Star Wars X-Wing books, and has worked on other novels in the series. He also works as a game designer. At a recent signing he suffered a heart attack and after being rushed to hospital required quadruple heart-bypass surgery. Fortunately, he recovered but was landed with immense and crippling hospital bills. A charity has been set up for fans to help him out.

More details can be found here.

GRRM's ADWD update from FinnCon & Estonia

George RR Martin attended FinnCon in Helsinki over the weekend and inevitably discussion turned to A Dance with Dragons, the much-delayed fifth volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series. GRRM did dispatch a positive blog post before departing in which he envisaged completion as not being too far off, and seems to have maintained that optimism during the trip.

According to several interviews and comments at the con, GRRM envisages completion by the end of the year (admittedly something we've heard before), maybe even as soon as October (which we haven't). The October date would actually work out pretty well, as it would coincide with GRRM's visit to Ireland to check up on production of the TV pilot and would allow for UK publication in spring 2010, in the US maybe a month or two later. Whether he makes it or not remains to be seen, as with the book already way over-schedule taking anything for granted would not be a good idea.

More interesting is the fact that GRRM envisages The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring taking three years apiece, which is fairly optimistic. Is this achievable? Well, of the five books in the series only one, A Storm of Swords, has taken less than three years to write, with A Clash of Kings hovering around the three years mark, and the other three as longer. So I have to say that this is not an encouraging batting average. At the same time, as the series draws to a conclusion the number of chapters needed to complete the story dramatically reduces as POV characters converge on the same locations and the story builds to a dramatic finale. Even if the final two books require as many pages as the others to tell, in terms of narrative complexity they should be much more linear and easier to write. Also at the convention, GRRM cited the broad span of the series in A Feast for Crows and ADWD, the fact that the story is at its broadest and most spread-out, as the primary cause of the delay on those books. With the story getting more focused and narrowed down, things should flow more easily.

On external matters, there is also the issue of the HBO series providing a fresh impetus to conclude the series in a timely fashion. If Season 1 airs in early 2011 and Season 2 in late 2012, that means they'll reach Season 5 (the adaption of The Winds of Winter, assuming that Books 4 and 5 are compressed into one season as is possible) in early 2017 and the final book in late 2018. That gives GRRM eight years (or four years apiece) to finish the last two books or risk being overtaken and having the finale to the series appearing on-screen before it does in print, which would be disappointing. The fact that a multi-million-dollar production involving hundreds of people is coming steaming down the track will no doubt provide impetus to ensure the tracks are laid in time ;-)

As is always the case, we will have to wait and see. Whatever else happens, thanks to Warriors at least, we know we will at least be reading some new SoIaF material in 2010.

Meanwhile, on the subject of the TV series, there hasn't been much movement recently. Casting seems to have been delayed by the difficulty's in finding child actors who can pull off roles such as Bran, Arya and Sansa, which are going to be extremely challenging. There have been hints that some of the adult roles have now been cast, but announcements may still be a little while in coming. The date for filming seems to remain set for mid-October this year.

UPDATE: GRRM attended a book-signing and Q&A session in Talinn, Estonia and reiterated his positive stance on ADWD. In particular, he pinned his anticipated completion time for the book down to late September/early October 2009 and said if he can hit that date, the book will be released in February 2010 in the UK and a few months later in the USA. He also said that the other filming location for the TV series other than Northern Ireland will be Tunisia.

UPDATE 2: GRRM also wants it made clear that he's expressing a hope when he'll finish the book, as all previous dates have been. Nothing is set in stone, and the date given is not a hard and fast deadline. The secondary filming location for the TV series apparently is still Morocco as well, the Tunisia thing was a misunderstanding.