Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The brilliant but unambitious Quentin Coldwater is uncertain what to do with his life when he is offered a highly unusual opportunity: to study real, honest-to-gosh magic at Brakebills, a college devoted to the magical arts. He seizes the opportunity with both hands, and finds himself thrust into a strange new life that is by turns rewarding and terrifying...

The Magicians has picked up a fair amount of applause from various bloggers, reviewers and authors this year, and has been cited as an 'antidote' to Harry Potter. The comparison is apt, since it features a young man going to a magical school, but at the same time also misleading. Quentin is 17 when the story begins, so the story is more adult-oriented and features more late-teenage angst than the Potter books (which may be saying something, considering the last couple of books in the series). In addition, although Grossman tips his hat with a direct reference to Potter at one point, he seems to much more be influenced by C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series. A large chunk of the storyline focuses on Quentin's boyhood love of a fictional series of novels called the 'Fillory and Further' books, which are clearly derived from the Narnia books.

It's an interesting novel which packs quite a lot into its length. In fact, Quentin's four-and-a-half years at Brakebills pass in a brisk 220 pages, although with plenty of pauses for character development and some good writing, and he still has time for a big storyline after that as well involving interdimensional travel and a traditional climatic battle.

Grossman's constant challenging of the comfort-reading status of crossover fantasies such as Narnia or Harry Potter is intriguing, although in some cases sends out a mixed message. Looking at some other reviews, a lot of readers came away from the book with the impression that Quentin's problems stem from reading a lot of fantasy fiction, which I'm pretty sure was not what Grossman was aiming for. There is also a problem in that Quentin is someone who has decent (if distant) parents, an okay upbringing, a fantastic schooling opportunity and a rich and interesting future, but spends the whole time moping about how crap his life is. True to life for a teenage character? Maybe. But it gets pretty old, especially later on in the book when Quentin is in his early twenties and should really be getting a grip by that point. Sympathising with such an arrogant character is difficult and as we are on Quentin's shoulder for the whole book (it's written in limited-perspective third-person, bizarrely except for one single sentence where we swap to another character for a few seconds), this is a constant issue.

Grossman employs a straightforward prose style with some nice flourishes, but he has an issue with getting information across clearly. Sometimes characters vanish from scenes for paragraphs at a time until you think they're not there any more (or indeed, in one case a major character's presence at an event is not mentioned at all, despite them referencing it later) only for them to suddenly start talking. This is welded to a number of what appear to be 'orphaned' storylines. At least twice events take place that seem to be hooks into further plot developments (Quentin discovers a new form of magic shooting out of his fingers and later has a problem with a childhood friend who discovers the real nature of his school) but in both cases they are simply dropped and never referred to again, making their original inclusion apparently pointless. Very strange.

The Magicians also has a problem that by its very nature it is going to be compared to Harry Potter, which by virtue of its immense length is able to explore its storylines in much greater depth than Grossman can manage here, and to Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, which is simply more coherent and better-written (although Kvothe and Quentin share some weaknesses as protagonists). This isn't to say The Magicians is not a worthwhile read, but it is one that is treading in some very familiar ground.

The Magicians (***½) is broadly well-written and interesting, with some good ideas. However, it feels like it needed a couple more editing passes and the unrelenting grimness of the second half is wearying after a while. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

True Blood: Season 2

Picking up events three weeks after the end of Season 1, the second season of True Blood opens with people trying to get back to normal life in Bon Temps, Louisiana, following the resolution of the serial killer problem. For the staff and regulars at Merlotte's this is complicated by the disappearance of their cook, Lafayette, under strange circumstances. Meanwhile, Jason Stackhouse has found religion and is being drawn into the orbit of the Fellowship of the Sun, an anti-vampire fundamentalist group, whilst Sookie and Bill's relationship continues to develop. The disappearance of Godric, the vampire sherrif of Texas, has Eric calling on Sookie and Bill's aid to help find him, meaning they are out of town when newcomer Maryann begins to have a very odd influence on the people of the town. Oh yes, and Bill also has a freshly-risen vampire protege, Jessica, to deal with.

True Blood's second season hits the ground running with a number of complex storylines in progress or just getting underway. As a result the second season has less of an introductory feel than the first, and cuts to the chase much more quickly. There's less of Sookie changing her mind every five minutes about whether she wants to be with Bill or not and more focus on more dynamic storylines, which is what the series needed after the first season, which got bogged down a few times.

The fact that Sookie and Bill are now together and that's pretty much it (despite a couple of curveballs sent towards the relationship late in the season) results in Anna Paquin raising her game notably. Whilst always decent in the role of Sookie, the character's frequent changes in attitude in Season 1 gave the impression of leaving her unsure about how to play the character. In Season 2 she is visibly more confident about the character and that comes through in a stronger, more interesting performance. Stephen Moyer also has an ability to relax and add a bit more humour to the character of Bill, which mostly comes out in his interactions with Jessica and Eric.

Deborah Ann Woll first appeared at the end of Season 1 as Jessica, but she's a regular in Season 2 and delivers a great performance as the stroppy teenage vampire who isn't initially particularly happy about her lot, but then finds vampirism an excellent way to rebel against her strict Christian upbringing. Her interactions with Moyer and also with Jim Parrack as her love interest Hoyt are very well-written and performed.

Alexander Skarsgard also gives an increasingly excellent performance as Eric. He hits impressive heights towards the end of the season when his carefully-cultivated sense of unflappable stoicism is shattered. We also get to see his life as a human in flashback, adding additional layers to his character.

Most of the rest of the cast are great, particularly Michelle Forbes as Maryann, a seeming hedonist who just wants people to have a good time. The unveiling of her true motives is well-done and Forbes seems to have a ball playing a more overt villain than some of her other roles (such as the much greyer Admiral Caine in BSG).

The season's structure works quite well, with Sookie and Bill's adventures in Texas, Jason's storyline at the nearby Fellowship of the Sun church and events back in Bon Temps unfolding in tandem, allowing the story to skip around to another location whenever one storyline starts running out of steam. However, whilst the Texas storyline is well-developed and resolved fairly quickly (in eight episodes), arguably the Fellowship storyline remains pretty predictable and its depiction as a bunch of fundamentalist whackjobs is too simplistic, given the moral complexities of the story explored elsewhere. Events in Bon Temps also unfold far more quickly than is necessary, meaning that the latter half of the season seems to be almost entirely taken up by disturbing magic-driven orgy rituals and Sam running around with various people chasing him, waiting for Sookie and Bill to get back from their storyline to help resolve things.

Still, the show remains well-written and entertaining, and even if it does lack the depth of a lot of other HBO shows it is also a lot funnier (even if that humour is as black as midnight) than some of them. The final episode also does a good job of setting up Season 3, with the introduction of Evan Rachel Wood as the Vampire Queen of Louisiana (a great performance based on 1950s starlets) and several plot elements that look set to be more thoroughly explored next year.

True Blood's second season (****) will be released in the USA (DVD, Blu-Ray) and UK (DVD, no Blu-Ray listing yet) in 2010.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

News on Paul Kearney

The ongoing saga of Paul Kearney's publishing woes - which at this point would make a pretty good story by itself - has reached a (hopefully) happy conclusion: the author has just signed a new two-book deal with Solaris for two books set in the same world as his excellent The Ten Thousand. The Monarchies of God omnibuses remain contracted to Solaris and will hopefully surface next year, although Paul hasn't commented on the situation so far since Solaris got its new owners (Rebellion, the guys who handle the comic 2000AD and associated media).

The new books had previously been unveiled and titled as Corvus and Kings of Morning, but negotiations were put on hold whilst Solaris underwent its change of management. With that transition completed, we can hopefully look forward to additional news from Solaris about new books in the near future.

Jonathan Oliver, the commissioning editor for Solaris Books since it was acquired by Rebellion has confirmed a two book deal with Paul Kearney. The novels, entitled Corvus and Kings of Morning, are due for delivery in 2010 and early 2011 respectively and are set in the same universe as Paul's successful The Ten Thousand, previously published by Solaris.

Paul's agent, John Jarrold, was quoted as saying "The immediacy of Paul’s prose and characterisation always puts me in mind of David Gemmell, who I was lucky enough to publish in the mid-1990s...With The Ten Thousand he has created a world ripe for re-visiting. Can’t wait to read these books! And I’m very pleased to have concluded my first deal with Jon Oliver and the 'new' Solaris."

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Wertzone Classics: Ground Control

In the 25th Century, huge corporations exploit the resources of distant worlds. One such world is Krig-7B, where the Crayven Corporation finds itself opposed by an army of religious fanatics, the Order of the New Dawn. As the two sides battle for control of the planet, the discovery of ancient 'xenofacts' puts a new spin on the conflict, and the discovery by the battlefield commanders of both forces that some in their ranks are engaged in their own agendas makes the war even more complex and multi-layered than first believed.

Ground Control was released in 2000 and is a relatively rare breed, a 'real-time tactics' game rather than a real-time strategy. The difference between the two is that in an RTS the player has control of resources and unit production (or reinforcements) whilst in an RTT the player has to make deal with what they have and cannot construct new units in-theatre. Some games, such as the Total War series, appeal to both by having a turn-based campaign map mode where units are constructed and assembled into armies and then a real-time battle mode where the battle is fought with the units that have been brought to the field, with no prospect of reinforcements arriving mid-battle (with some exceptions if there are other armies nearby when the battle starts).

Ground Control doesn't have that, although you do have some larger choices about the mission before it starts. You can customise your attack force and decide which units to take into the battle before dropping into the fray. The game is pretty hardcore though, as Massive Productions were unhappy with players simply quick-saving their way through battles in other games instead of deploying proper tactics so they simply dropped the ability to save mid-mission from the game. And considering some of the later maps can take up to an hour to finish, that's a pretty ballsy decision. To be honest, it works. Playing Ground Control is much like playing a Total War game, with intelligent decisions and tactical planning (but retaining flexibility to deal with changing circumstances on the battlefield) required rather than simply sending your army off willy-nilly and reloading if they happen to get wiped out.

The biggest surprise on playing this nine-year-old game is that visually it still looks pretty smart. Its 3D units are low-textured compared to modern games, sure, but are detailed enough to remain impressive (down to the individual soldiers' guns ejecting shell casings as they fire, and the tracked vehicles leaving churned-up trails across the battlefield). The game looked astonishing in 2000 and remains more than attractive enough to get the job done today. And, as with many of the older games I've recently reviewed on the blog, it's so old that even the more humble modern laptops should be able to run it with everything turned up to the maximum without breaking a sweat. In addition, I encountered zero problems on running it with XP on modern graphics cards, but I cannot speak to its compatibility with Vista.

As mentioned previously, the game is pretty hardcore and unforgiving of mistakes. The more powerful units, particularly the heavy artillery, are fully capable of wiping out your entire attack force in a few minutes if you blunder into an enemy position, chokepoint or crossfire area. As a result, careful deployment of recon or stealth units to map out your path is required. Later in the game the addition of aerial forces and high-speed scout aircraft makes this a lot easier (although additional precautions have to be taken: aircraft are highly vulnerable to ground AA fire and, unlike ground vehicles, cannot be repaired). Positioning and deployment of your forces is also critical, and in fact it is interesting to realise that you're putting your heavy armour at the front, lighter, faster forces on the flanks and heavy artillery and the command vehicle in the middle, almost as if this was a high-tech version of the Napoleonic Wars (albeit one with bombers capable of dropping small nuclear bombs roaring overhead).

The missions are challenging, although the learning curve is decent enough, and keep forcing you to re-evaluate tactics. For example, once you get artillery it initially appears that the game is essentially over, as you can sit a mile outside the enemy base and pound it to rubble. However, the deployment of enemy counter-battery units, fast intercept aircraft which can bomb your defenceless artillery (unless you have AA units) and so on keep you on your toes. Enemy AI is excellent, and does a good job of keeping you busy, especially on the harder difficulty settings.

Ground Control's mobile artillery are the best artillery units ever seen in a game.

The storyline, although unlikely to win awards, is well-told and enjoyable to watch unfold. The music is excellent and the graphics engine is fantastic. Ground Control wasn't the first real-time combat game to use a fully-3D engine, but it was certainly the first one where you didn't spend half your time battling the camera controls as well as the enemy. In fact, Ground Control and its successor engines (the ones used in Ground Control II and World in Conflict) remain the finest 3D battlefield engines yet seen in the genre, and certainly put the much newer ones in the likes of Company of Heroes, Dawn of War, Command and Conquer III and so forth to shame. It also has the best user-interface of any RTS or RTT game I've encountered. The minimalist UI which allows the graphics to take up the bulk of the view is fantastic.

On the minus side of things, the primary problem is the lack of in-mission saving (although the game naturally does save after and before every mission). Whilst it does make you play the game in a much more logical manner, it isn't very forgiving if you suddenly realise you're about to miss a dentist's appointment 20 minutes into a long mission, forcing you to restart later from scratch. However, that hardcore element is part of the game's lasting appeal, and with the in-game saving it would be a far easier and more simplistic game. Another slight criticism is that aircraft are of dubious value (since you can't use them until your ground units have destroyed all AA forces in an area, and by that time you've pretty much won anyway) and that the two sides are pretty much just reskins of one another, with only a couple of unique units.

Ground Control also comes packaged with its expansion, Dark Conspiracy. Dark Conspiracy furthers the story of the war and its characters in an consistently interesting and entertaining manner. The expansion also takes the war off Krig-7B to other worlds and introduces a new faction, the Phoenix Mercenaries, who have very different vehicles, weapons and tactics to the existing two sides. There are also some interesting and original new maps, such as airless moons and other planetary environments. However, the expansion isn't quite as well paced as the original game and its later levels are astonishingly rock hard, to the point of frustration which the original game just about avoids.

Still, Ground Control (*****) is an excellent tactical game that rewards careful consideration of the battlefield and due attention to military tactics and unit capabilities. It is perhaps not as tolerant of casual players as some other real-time strategy/tactics games, but making the battles more challenging is part of its appeal. It is available now (for £4!) in the UK and (for the truly ridiculous price of $40: what the heck?) in the USA. Far more preferably, the game is actually available for legal, free download from here, although I have no idea if it works any more. If not try here, where it is available for $6 with the expansion, which notably is not included in the free download pack.

Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock

In the 1950s, young Tallis Keeton forms an unusual bond with the woodland that lies beyond her house, Ryhope Wood. But she cannot enter the wood until she learns the true name of the meadow that separates it from her home. As she struggles to achieve this, she realises her brother Harry is lost in the woodland, and to find him she must seek out the realm of ice and fire in the heart of the wood, the realm known as Lavondyss...

Lavondyss is a stand-alone companion novel to Robert Holdstock's earlier Mythago Wood. Although set after the earlier novel and exploring (tangentially) the fate of one of its characters, the book does not require foreknowledge of the first novel. Instead, it focuses on 13-year-old Tallis and her quest to find a way into the forest using rituals, masks and the power of myth and story.

Lavondyss is a brain-melting, complex novel that juggles a huge number of ideas and themes. Mythago Wood is an exemplary exploration of the ideas of mythology and where those images that resonate so strongly with us come from, but it's very much a high school diploma compared to Lavondyss' Ph.D in metamorphic imagery. Despite only being about 450 pages long, it took me weeks to read this book as I had to analyse and re-read almost every single paragraph to make sure I was grasping what the author was saying. Getting to the end and consulting the book's entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, I'm still not entirely sure I did 'get' it in the end, but looking at other online reviews it appears that this reaction is not uncommon. Lavondyss is an astonishingly dense and layered novel that I suspect will require multiple re-reads before a true comprehension emerges. In this regard, it is reminiscent of the Book of the New Sun, complete with its own not entirely reliable narrator (a 13-year-old girl's understanding of the world and what is going on not being entirely reliable).

The book is rich in images and ideas, but it also works as an exploration of character, through Tallis, her father and Wynn-Jones (a character mentioned briefly in the first novel, but here fleshed out), and the nature of obsession also plays a role. Holdstock's powers of description remain impressive, and although there's less exploration of the actual woodland (we're nearly halfway through the book before a visit to the wood's interior takes place), Holdstock's formidable abilities to create a woodland environment and make it so real you can almost smell it remains intact.

Lavondyss is darker than its forebear, digging even deeper into the real roots of mythology, Celtic and otherwise, into the blood and earth and sacrifice that our ancient ancestors indulged in. It is not an easy or always a pleasant read, but it is always a fascinating and thought-provoking one.

Lavondyss (****½) is a rich, mind-bogglingly complex and dense novel that sucks you into its tangled branches. It is a hell of a difficult read, but is ultimately highly rewarding. It is available now in the UK (either by itself or as part of an omnibus with Mythago Wood) and in the USA.

Saturday, 26 September 2009


A man named Paxton Fettel has seized control of Armacham Technology Corporation headquarters, using a platoon of telepathically-controlled soldiers. A government agency dedicated to battling paranormal threats named F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) sends in its new 'point man' with a squad to stop Fettel. Instead, it's only the beginning of a night of murders, conspiracies, intrigue, mayhem and repeated, disturbing encounters with the image of a young girl in a red coat...

F.E.A.R. was released in 2005, during a mini-craze at the time for Japanese and Korean horror movies (and their American remakes), and the game shamelessly invokes some of the same imagery and ideas throughout its length. Effectively, F.E.A.R. is a first-person shooter with strong horror overtones. It doesn't entirely work successfully, although it has a fair old bash at the idea.

The thing about effective horror is that it preys on the fears of the audience, and to do that usually features a helpless or trapped protagonist. For example, the protagonist is usually an innocent, sometimes a child, rather than a fully-trained killing machine armed with railguns and automatic shotguns. Giving your main character an arsenal substantial enough to wipe out a small city and the ability to go into bullet time at will does tend to engender a feeling of invulnerability in the player, especially since the hallucinations and horrific imagery you encounters tend to be incorporeal, and after the first few 'shocking' horror sequences you suddenly realise that the game is never going to inflict serious damage on you during these sequences, and then they tend to become a little bit boring.

That's not to say that F.E.A.R. is unsatisfying or not worth playing. Combat is satisfyingly chunky and robust, the level design is interesting and clever in places (with some hub-like levels breaking up the linearity of the corridor shooter sections, although the latter does make up the majority of the games) and the weapons do their job well (oddly weak missiles excepted). Enemy AI is fairly robust, leading to some interesting and balletic shoot-outs, especially when combined with bullet-time. There's even a melee combat mode which is surprisingly effective, although you can go the whole game without ever using it. There's a distinct lack of variety in the enemies though. I counted about five types maximum, including the large mech-like boss things, and over the course of an eight-hour game, that does become a little repetitive and dull.

The plot is pretty good, and unfolds via telephone answer machine messages and laptops you find scattered throughout the game, as well as a couple of sequences where you meet NPCs. If the in-game 'psychologically disturbing' sequences lose their appeal early on and become predictable, the horror aspects of the actual story and the situation (which, as one character helpfully points out, is "Totally fucked up,") are altogether more satisfying.

The best thing about F.E.A.R. is the ending. Because the bulk of the game is a little bit on the predictable side (especially compared to some other shooters reviewed here, such as Far Cry or Half-Life 2), the ending when it comes is even more effective because everything goes haywire and most of the rules you've been playing the game under go out the window. Whilst some aspects of the end sequence are extremely annoying (hint: keep a shotgun fully-loaded for the end of the game), the sheer insanity of events is quite enjoyable, building to a series of final moments which are highly memorable (including something that, rather annoyingly, Call of Duty 4 got a lot of kudos for doing first, although F.E.A.R. did it three years earlier and in a much more impressive manner). And I defy anyone not to jump out of their chair in the game's final moments. It takes a while to get there, but F.E.A.R. does, at least, deliver a solid horror ending.

One criticism that has to be voiced is that between its office, building site and tenement environments, the slow-motion action and psychological horror aspects, the game does seem to be treading the same ground as Max Payne and Max Payne 2, and to be honest those two games were much better and more original (not to mention more darkly humorous) than F.E.A.R., which does make F.E.A.R. look a little weaker in comparison.

F.E.A.R. (***½) is a solid corridor shooter which invokes the horror genre to interesting effect, but arguably the bulk of the game doesn't live up to either the premise or the superb ending. It is decent enough and, thanks to its age, can probably be picked up quite cheaply these days. The game has two expansions, Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate, although these were 'de-canonised' by the original developers, who more recently delivered an official sequel named F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin. F.E.A.R. is available now on the PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA).

Friday, 25 September 2009

The Gollancz Party 2009

For the third year running, I attended the Gollancz Autumn Party in London last night. Whilst the party is arranged by Gollancz, they tend to have a fair number of other publishers and authors along as well, and it's a great opportunity to meet people and authors and get the latest gossip.

James from Speculative Horizons, me and Graeme from his Fantasy Book Review.

Of course, the nature of these things is that a lot of stuff is said 'off the record', so there are some limits on what I can report. I met Peter F. Hamilton for the first time, and he reported that The Evolutionary Void will hopefully be finished by Christmas and released next year, and is already looking at the projects to follow on from that. He is very happy that the new American editions of the Night's Dawn Trilogy are in three volumes rather than six, as apparently convincing booksellers to keep six books on the shelf simultaneously is much harder than a trilogy. He was a good guy to talk to as well.

I also grabbed a chat with Rob Grant, author of the extremely funny Colony, Incompitence and Fat and co-creator of Red Dwarf. He's working on a new novel and is apparently in talks to have Incompitence turned into a stage play (in Switzerland, if I recall correctly), which is quite ambitious as anyone's who read the book will agree.

I also spoke to Robert Holdstock, appropriate having just read Mythago Wood and ploughing through the dense-but-rewarding semi-sequel Lavondyss at the moment. I hadn't realised before a few days ago that Robert was also the author of The Dark Wheel, the novella that accompanied the original release of the all-time classic computer game Elite, released in 1984, so we had a good chat about that. His next book will be a follow-up to his recently-released Avilion. I also got a chance to meet legendary SF critic David Langford for the first time, who was a great guy and very funny.

Chris Wooding, James and myself in a London holstery.

I also touched base with some other authors I'd met before: Joe Abercrombie, Alex Bell, Tom Lloyd, Adam Roberts (basking in the afterglow of not being nominated for the Booker Prize) and Chris Wooding, plus some of the reviewers and editorial teams from DeathRay and SFX magazines.

There was a bit of a blogger's mini-convention going on, with MinDonner from Sandstorm Reviews, James from Speculative Horizons, Graeme from Graeme's Fantasy Book Review, Gav from NextRead and Liz and Mark from My Favourite Books all in attendance.

All in all, a good time was had, much alcohol was drunk, and 2010 looks like being a great year for SF&F releases from Gollancz and the other British genre publishers.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

True Blood: Season 1

Two years ago vampires 'came out of the closet' and joined mainstream society, freed from their thirst for human blood by a synthetic substitute called Tru Blood. The USA and the rest of the world are gripped by debates and dissent between those opposed to vampires having equal rights and people championing a new civil rights movement. The residents of Bon Temps, Louisiana have to make their own minds up when a vampire named Bill Compton moves into town and immediately strikes up a curious friendship with local waitress Sookie Stackhouse.

But shortly after his arrival, people who associate with vampires start being murdered. It appears a serial killer is on the loose and Sookie is on his list of targets...

True Blood is the latest hit show from HBO, and their biggest success since the heyday of The Sopranos. Based on the Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries by Charlaine Harris and developed for television by Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under, the show initially appears to be a trashy adult answer to the current craze for vampire books and films: the NC-17 version of Twilight, as it were. However, this is a simplistic analysis of the show, which is actually tackling a number of more interesting ideas and themes underneath its slightly sleazy veneer.

The show starts off a little slow, and it has to be said that the dancing around of the will they-won't they relationship between Sookie and Bill is a little tedious after the first couple of episodes. Luckily, the writers clearly aren't interested in keeping that going for the lifetime of the series, so they let the characters get together and see what happens next. This relationship is the core of the show and Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer (who amusingly first played a vampire in the brilliant Ultraviolet mini-series a decade ago) sell it very well (and they got into a real-life relationship shortly after starting the show as well). Moyer as Bill in particular has some nice moments as he is very much a Southern courtly gentleman from the Civil War era making an effort to go 'mainstream', but he also doesn't have any problems with killing people who have wronged him or tasting human blood as long as he doesn't kill them. This somewhat hypocritical attitude is played well, but he isn't entirely called on it before the end of the season, so it's unclear if it's deliberate or not. Paquin has a much harder role to play, and there are moments where the actress seems to struggle with what's going on in her character's head, but at other times she does an excellent job.

Amongst the other cast members, Chris Bauer (Frank Sobotka from The Wire) and William Sanderson (the toymaker from Blade Runner) are superb as the town's ineffectual policemen. Ryan Kwanten has a really tough role as Sookie's quite spectacularly stupid brother, who dodges disaster by the skin of his teeth only to get into an even more spectacular mess later on. He just about manages to retain the viewer's sympathy even as the character's life becomes yet another car crash, which is a tribute to the actor. Rutina Wesley plays Sookie's best friend Tara and is rather tiresome to start off with, coming across a bit too much as a hard-assed, don't-need-no-man, all-attitude character but she rapidly becomes one of the show's strongest assets. The scenes where Tara has to confront her mother's alcoholism are superbly well-acted by both parties. Alexander Skarsgard steals every scene he is in as Louisiana's vampire 'sherrif', Eric, especially when paired with Kristin Bauer as his second-in-command, Pam. Lizzy Caplan also needs a nod as psychopathic hippy Amy, who has to combine two very different sides of her character to make a convincing whole and pulls it off. Nelsan Ellis is also excellent as Tara's highly dubious but charismatic cousin Lafayette (who impressively combines the roles of cook, road-digger, drug-dealer and webcam sex actor).

In addition to these characters, there's a vast number of secondary, recurring and guest actors and characters, from Heroes' Željko Ivanek as a vampire judge to TNG and BSG actress Michelle Forbes as a very curious new character who appears at the end of the season, and pretty much all of them are great in their roles.

The question of what True Blood is actually about is a difficult one to answer. On the surface, it's a simple murder mystery with vampires, a lot of sex and some quite spectacular gore (especially towards the end of the season). Of course, it's Alan Ball and it's HBO, so it can't be as simple as that. The show initially seems to be contrasting vampires and their struggle for acceptance with gay and black people, which is an interesting idea, if a bit superficial. However, our brief glimpses into the vampire society reveals that the vampires' bigotry and dislike of humans is far more ingrained in them than dislike of vampires is in human society, so the comparison seems to shift of one of a clash of completely incompatible cultures. If even Bill, the 'poster boy for mainstreaming', still does reprehensible and disturbing things, that suggests that the vampires may simply not be that interested in joining real human society. If that is true, that raises the question of what actually is their goal in coming out into the open? It'll be intriguing to see if this is a genuine plot point or simply a background premise that you have to go with and ignore the inconsistencies in order to enjoy the show.

Other issues are also dealt with in a rather puzzling manner, such as Tara's mother's alcoholism. The character blames her alcoholism on a 'demon' living in her soul and, since this is a show about vampires after all, the viewer is unsure whether to dismiss this as an excuse from a woman living in denial of her own failures or if there really is a supernatural element involved. It takes a surprisingly long time for the truth of this plot point to come out into the open, although it's quite clever when it does emerge. Similarly, the odd behaviour of certain characters is highlighted throughout the series, presumably to make us ponder if they could be the serial killer, so that when it is revealed they are not, the 'real' reasons for their odd behaviour don't seem to entirely explain their odd quirks.

On the other hand, the show doesn't seem to entirely take itself too seriously. It also seems to be well aware of the minefield of possible ways it has to offend the viewers, with quite a few black, gay and/or religious characters, and seems to get around the issues by lots of what TV Tropes calls lampshade-hanging (i.e. drawing attention to the issue and almost revelling in it rather than ignoring it). The show also takes what appears to be an overtly anti-Twilight agenda by refusing to have Sookie be rescued out of her predicaments by the various men-folk in her life (probably best-handled in the season finale) and turning her into a proactive character rather than a damsel in distress all the time, which is vital if we are to retain any respect and sympathy for the character.

True Blood's first season (****) is solid, enjoyable fun with some deeper ideas and themes running through it than it first appears. It's slightly trashy and sleazy (although never quite fulfilling the promise of its borderline-sordid title sequence) and on that level won't appeal to all viewers, but it's consistently well-written and superbly-acted, and is well worth a look. It is available now in the USA (DVD, Blu-Ray) and next month in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray). Season 2 just finished airing in the USA and a third season will follow next summer.

The Hound is Cast

Scottish actor Rory McCann has been cast as Sandor Clegane, aka 'The Hound', in HBO's Game of Thrones. His casting was first rumoured some weeks ago, but HBO only confirmed it today after BSC Review got in touch to find out the score.

McCann is an experienced actor who won early attention for his appearance in a porridge commercial suffering from a kilt malfunction. He later won acclaim for his role as a disabled book-lover in The Book Group and had a brief but important role as a policeman in the excellent State of Play. More recently, he has played Craterus in Alexander and 'Lurch', the evil Timothy Dalton's muscle, in the excellent 2007 comedy Hot Fuzz (he was the guy whose sole line was "Yarp?").

McCann will be playing Sandor Clegane, the sworn shield of Prince Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson). Sandor is a skilled warrior, but he is not a knight as he holds knighthood and chivalry in disdain. He is the younger brother of the abnormally huge Ser Gregor Clegane, the most feared man in the Seven Kingdoms, but Sandor is a pretty big and tough guy himself. His face was burned in an incident in his childhood, which adds to his constant feelings of alienation and anger. His story is, to put it mildly, not a happy one.

I think this is another strong casting choice. McCann is a decent actor with a wider range than has perhaps been seen in some of his other projects. I think he will do well in this role.


From Winter is Coming: the sets are going up, apparently consisting of 'awesome' castle interiors on a wrap-around greenscreen (to be used for special effects shots and backplates). Rumours that the direwolves have been cast with four Norwegian wolves, although they could be for another production altogether so I'd take that one with a pinch of salt for now.

Of greater interest, George RR Martin will be in Belfast for a book signing on 3 November and is hoping some of the cast and crew from the TV series may also be able to attend. He will also be doing another signing two days later in Dublin.

Currently reading: Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock
Currently watching: Merlin Season 2, True Blood Season 1

Monday, 21 September 2009


Kim Stanley Robinson is in Britain doing a signing tour for his novel Galileo's Dream and has been commenting on a number of issues facing British SF. Today he derided the Booker Prize's continuing failure to recognise modern British speculative fiction, and in his full commentary he also points out the sterling state of British SF at the moment (making the strong contrast to the moribund American SF market all the more notable). Some interesting thoughts there.

Peadar O'Guilin has done an excellent interview with Strange Horizons here. Well worth a read.

The American Emmy Awards were on last night, complete with an unexpected interruption from Doctor Horrible (and Captain Hammer). On the genre side of things Michael Emerson deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor award for his work as Ben Linus on Lost. Meanwhile, the excellent Irish actor Brendan Gleeson was a surprise winner for the Best Actor in a Mini-series Award for his portrayal of Churchill in Into the Storm. Elsewhere, Cherry Jones won the Best Supporting Actress for her role as the President in the borderline-SF 24 and Kristin Chenoweth for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for the cancelled Pushing Daisies.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Jade Empire: Special Edition

The mighty Jade Empire spans a vast amount of territory, protected by the Wall and ruled over by the Emperor, who commands a huge army, an elite cadre of warriors known as the Lotus Assassins and a fleet of heavily-armed aircraft. In a sleepy village called Two Rivers, Master Li runs a school teaching students in the ways of martial arts. Two of his students show high promise. When the school is attacked and Master Li is captured by the Lotus Assassins, his students have to make their way to the Imperial City and learn what is going on.

Jade Empire is a relatively minor entry to the BioWare canon, although still a very good one. It was their first attempt to make an original game not reliant on any existing franchise (their earlier games were set in the Forgotten Realms or Star Wars settings). It was also a direct attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Whilst still definitely an RPG, the more stat-heavy elements and inventory management were reduced in favour of action. In fact, the game is more of a contextualised beat 'em up rather than an RPG, although still featuring all the moral choices, excellent characterisation and twisting storyline that we have come to expect from BioWare over the years.

The Eastern setting, in stark contrast to the traditional Western fantasy of the earlier Baldur's Gate games, is interesting, original and vivid. The art design in Jade Empire is fantastic, with lots of colourful backdrops and interesting architecture. Character models are also highly detailed. The Special Edition, which is exclusive to the PC, made use of an extra two years of development to radically enhance the graphics, AI and controls far beyond the original X-Box settings, resulting in a considerably stronger and far more attractive game. This turned out to be a good move, as on its release in early 2007 the PC version of Jade Empire's visuals were immediately compared to the fantastic-looking Oblivion and withstood the comparison very well.

The story is pretty good, although BioWare do dip into some of their traditional archetypes and character twists from previous games. They spin them enough to come up with something that is still quite compelling, but veterans of BioWare's previous games may find some twists and characters more than a little familiar. The characters are similarly very strong, from the huge grizzled warrior to the little girl (willingly) possessed by a friendly demon to the princess trying to restore honour to the land. As with previous BioWare games, chatting to your companions regularly will open up further conversations, reveal more secrets and may trigger entire side-missions you'd otherwise miss. Dialogue is consistently well-written and sometimes flat-out hilarious.

Combat is pretty impressive, although they fact that you directly control your actions and blows means that hardcore RPGers who prefer to just click once and leave their characters to it may not find it to their liking. Combat involves employing a number of different martial art styles, switching between them on the fly to confound the enemy. It's a very well-thought-out system that rewards experimentation and innovation.

So we've got a great story with great characters with great controls and great combat told through great graphics. So surely this should be a five starrer?

Well, it almost is, but a few problems do blight it. The RPG-lite approach works quite well and even seasoned roleplayers are likely to enjoy the story and combat system. However, the result is that you accumulate a vast amount of money through the game and have absolutely nothing to spend it on, aside from the odd stat-enhancing power-up. There is no armour to buy, only the occasional weapon (as you can only have one melee weapon with you at any time, and will rarely use it since unarmed combat is usually faster and does more damage) or stat-enhancing gems, but you find so many of them through the game anyway that it's unnecessary to buy any more. A more well-thought-out economic system or maybe just dropping the whole concept would have added more depth to the game.

In addition, the game feels truncated. At 20 hours or so, it's BioWare's shortest game (aside from Mass Effect, although you can expand that out a fair bit longer by doing repetitive and pointless side-missions). It's divided into seven chapters, but whilst you'll spend quite a long time on Chapters 3 and 4 (hub regions with lots of quests to do), you'll breeze through the last three in about two hours. Due to the game's short length (by BioWare standards, it's still longer than 90% of modern games), it's also much more difficult to get the most out of it: there isn't really enough time to talk to all your companions, use different ones on different missions and get all their side-quests. BioWare try to make this a virtue by allowing you to start over the game with your levelled-up character once you've finished it, making for a much tougher challenge, but it's a bit half-hearted.

The biggest problem, however, is that you only get to wander around with one companion at a time (as opposed to two in Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, and five of them in Baldur's Gate) and they are next to useless in combat. In the time that you take to kill nine bad guys, for example, your companion will have chipped about 20% off the health bar of one of them, leaving them for you to finish off. Your allies are better employed in 'support' mode, where they boost your own abilities in combat. The cumulative effect of this is that Jade Empire is a game where you have ten or so companions involved in the story with you, but you might as well be playing alone for the duration for all the difference they make.

Still, given these problems and limitations Jade Empire (****½) remains a cracking, fun game to play. The Special Edition is available now on PC (UK, USA) whilst the standard version remains available on the X-Box (UK, USA).

Saturday, 19 September 2009

WHEEL OF TIME Book 13 title (for real, this time)

Brandon Sanderson has confirmed that Book 13 of The Wheel of Time - the one that comes out in October 2010, not the one out in a few weeks which is The Gathering Storm - will be called Towers of Midnight.

I approve of this title, as it's an already-existing Robert Jordan name, a reference to the thirteen-towered fortress-castle in the city of Imfaral in Seanchan, Luthair Paendrag's headquarters during the initial invasion of the Seanchan continent. A nice bit of detail there.

Friday, 18 September 2009

WHEEL OF TIME Book 13 cover (not)

After breaking the news about the Book 12 cover earlier this year, I can exclusively confirm that the following will not be the cover for Book 13. But it should be.

The Dark One takes on human form. And he's fancy!

There are subtle clues you can pick up that reveal this is not a genuine Wheel of Time cover, most notably that the art is way, way too good to be convincing (it's actually the work of 'Claireduckey' from the Dragonmount forum).

In related news, the prologue to The Gathering Storm has gone on sale, if you have more money than sense ($3 for what should be a free sample? Again?), and Brandon Sanderson should be announcing the newly-decided-on title for Book 13 in the near future.

Wertzone Classics: Far Cry

Deep in the Pacific Ocean lies a chain of isolated islands which the reclusive Dr. Krieger has taken over in order to pursue his enigmatic 'research' into genetic engineering. Ex-special forces agent-turned-boat-captain Jack Carver is chartered to take an unusual young lady to the islands, but his boat promptly gets blown up by a bazooka. Before he knows what is going on, Jack's been drafted by the CIA and finds himself having to fight his way through multiple islands packed with heavy weaponry-wielding mercenaries and bizarre genetic mutants as well.

Far Cry was released in April 2004, with newbie developers CryTek getting their first game out ahead of that year's eagerly-anticipated Doom 3 and Half-Life 2. With the help of a demo tactically timed to come out two months before the game, the title blindsided many players who hadn't even heard of it before, but with its (for the time) awe-inspiring graphics and unusual amount of freedom for a first-person shooter, it quickly won over many fans. Although enjoyable, Doom 3 didn't really bring anything new to the table and its graphical thunder had definitely been stolen by Far Cry, and whilst Half-Life 2 did become a major success thanks to its tense, dramatic storyline and memorable characters, its extreme linearity did limit replayability.

Far Cry, despite a generic, corny story and a meathead protagonist, works so well because the game basically just sticks you on a boat or on the beach of an island with an objective, a gun, a hearty clap on the back and then lets you get on with it. There are multiple paths to each objective, some employing stealth, some allowing for a running-in-with-all-guns-blazing approach, sometimes with vehicles available for use, sometimes not.

This allows Far Cry to tap into the primeval appeal of the first-person shooter genre: running around with a gun shooting bad guys. All too often this very basic component of the genre is overlooked in favour of gimmicks like bullet-time or physics puzzles, but Far Cry puts it front-and-centre. Running around in the jungle outflanking squads of mercenaries, making use of cover, or shimmying up to a treehouse and deploying a sniper rifle to pick enemies off from 3km away is tremendously satisfying, as is executing a well-planned attack on a fortified enemy position after a careful and painstaking reconnaissance of the enemy position. You can use binoculars to 'mark' enemy troops on your radar which makes absolutely no sense in a literal context but gives you a feeling that recon missions are actually worthwhile. You also have a remote mike you can use to eavesdrop on enemy soldiers' conversations, which sometimes results in plot-advancing information or a random comic exchange, which adds to the game's atmosphere.

The game being five years old, it is now possible for most modern PCs to run the game with settings rammed up to the maximum. With the 1.4 version patch installed with new particle, smoke, haze and HD lighting effects, the game still looks jaw-droppingly good. Not as face-meltingly brilliant as Crysis with everything turned up to eleven, of course, but still pretty awesome. The sheer sense of scale is also incredible. These islands are vast and if you can see a location, you can probably travel there, whether it's by boat, car, hang-glider or on foot. In short, heavy weapons-driven ultraviolence has rarely looked so good or been so much fun.

There are several downers. Almost immediately noticeable is the total absence of a quick-save system in favour of a checkpoint system. Most of the time this is fine and it actually achieves its goal of making you genuinely think hard about your decisions, knowing that getting killed aimlessly will result in a 5-minute trek to get back to where you are right now. However, there are a few times when the checkpoints are way too far apart with several intense firefights and no health kits in between, and getting past those bits without ripping your monitor from its mount and hurling it through the window in rage can be quite difficult.

Rather more famous is the fact that whilst the mercenary enemies are clever, intelligent and satisfying opponents, the mutant enemies are a complete pain in the backside. Even the lowliest mutant grunts can jump about thirty feet through the air and kill you with one hit, and by the time the invisible ones armed with machine guns show up, the joke is starting to wear a little thin. That said, the mutants aren't actually the game-destroying factor they are sometimes represented as: unlike Crysis (where the human enemies vanish quite soon after the even more annoying aliens show up), the mutants and human enemies remain interspersed throughout the whole game, and the mutants actually disappear for quite long stretches of the later levels, but they are fairly irritating. Vehicle handling is also a bit on the oversensitive side and in some parts of the game walking is actually quicker than driving slowly so as not to wrap your jeep around the side of a tree.

As I mentioned earlier, the story is quite corny and your main character is a pretty unlikable dunderhead, but oddly this works in a sort of retro-1990s FPS flashback kind of way. Carver is cut from the same cloth as Duke Nuke'em (not quite so ludicrous though) and the fantastically-named John Blade from SiN, and his macho antics are almost endearing in an age of dark and tortured game heroes like that guy from FEAR and whatshisface from Splinter Cell.

But Far Cry is all about the gameplay, and the gameplay is superb. I played the game through from start to finish for about the fifth time for this review, and I was still finding new routes, new tactics and new combinations of weapons and vehicles to beat each map. Far Cry has greater replayability than almost any other FPS I can think of (discounting pseudo-RPGs like STALKER), even more than its quasi-successor Crysis. It is simply, an excellent and slightly underrated game.

A couple of words of clarification: there were several semi-spin-offs released on consoles with names such as Far Cry Instincts, which used a cut-down version of the main game engine and were not developed by CryTek. There is also an 'official' sequel called Far Cry 2 which has absolutely nothing to do with Far Cry at all and has had a very mixed reception.

Far Cry (*****) is available on the PC in the UK and USA. I'd steer clear of the X-Box conversions which are really not that great.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

New Douglas Adams and Kim Stanley Robinson covers

To celebrate both the 30th anniversary of the original novel and the release of the new Hitch-Hiker's book, And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer, Pan Macmillan have re-released the original five Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy novels in new covers. Most notable about this release is that The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy itself has a blank cover: you yourself can create the cover using a provided assortment of stickers. So if the cover sucks, it's your own fault!

The new editions also come with fresh new introductions by other writers, such as Russell T. Davies (outgoing producer of the new Doctor Who), Monty Pythoner Terry Jones and Neil Gaiman, and a host of rarely-seen publicity photos and press releases from the time of each book's release.

Tying in with the release of Kim Stanley Robinson's very fine Galileo's Dream, HarperCollins Voyager meanwhile are reissuing his classic Mars Trilogy in very nice new covers. Unfortunately, they are also in the larger 'B-format' paperbacks which I know many readers aren't too keen on. However, the books are so great to look at, it's worth the extra inconvenience of their bulky size.

Both sets of book are available in the UK right now.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Convalescing in France after WWII, Steve Huxley hears of the death of his father, who for many years has been obsessed by the woodland bordering their home. Returning home, Steve finds that his brother Christian has now also been 'infected' by their father's obsession, developing a tendency to roam Ryhope Wood for days or even weeks at a time, searching for...something. As Steve delves into his father's research, he learns the secrets of the woodland and what affect his own desires are having on it.

Mythago Wood, the first book in the Mythago Wood Cycle, was first published twenty-five years ago (when it promptly won the World Fantasy Award) and has become a highly-regarded work over the intervening period. It's not an epic fantasy, but neither is it the kind of twee and fairy-riddled work the synopsis or its reputation as a 'woodland fantasy' suggests. Instead, it's a powerful and effecting look at mythology and language, invoking the origins of pagan rituals and the development of history into myth. It's also a very human story of a father whose all-consuming obsession destroyed his marriage and damaged the relationship with his sons, whilst the two brothers' relationship forms the core of the novel.

Holdstock's Ryhope Wood is vividly described. You can almost feel the twigs snapping under your feet as the story proceeds deeper into the heartwoods, and the sense of dislocated time is conveyed very well. Holdstock also manages an impressive balancing act by having the odd properties of Ryhope Wood described in almost scientific terms, but the central sense of magical mystery remains intact and compelling.

Another interesting side of the story is that whilst Holdstock mentions the traditional English mythological figures of Robin Hood and Arthur, he also makes use of a great deal of Celtic and Welsh imagery which are less familiar, but equally fascinating, to the casual reader.

If the book has a weakness, it's the near-total lack of scepticism on the part of any of the human characters about what is going on. Whilst it's refreshing not to have to deal with a corny, "But this can't be happening!" spiel every five pages, the total lack of surprise on the part of the central character to much of what occurs does feel a little odd. In addition, a major character abruptly bows out of the narrative just before the end, in a move that feels like it was meant to establish groundwork for the semi-sequel, Lavondyss, rather than entirely make sense within the confines of this novel.

These are extremely minor concerns. Mythago Wood (****½) is a rich and textured novel about myth which is thought-provoking and densely atmosphere. The novel is available in the UK in a new anniversary edition and also as part of an omnibus. It is also available now in the USA.

An interview

The Ubiquitous Absence blog has done an interview with me here, the first one I've ever been part of. I don't think I said anything too controversial. I'll try to do better next time :-)

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Tim Powers' ON STRANGER TIDES will be the new PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie

Tim Powers' 1988 novel On Stranger Tides, featuring piracy and adventure on the high seas, has been an influential novel. A young Lucasfilm Games designer called Ron Gilbert read the novel, loved it, and used parts of it as inspiration for his classic Secret of Monkey Island computer game, along with Disney's 'Pirates of the Caribbean' adventure ride. In 2003 Disney released the Pirates of the Caribbean movie, a fine adventure yarn featuring a superb turn from Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. It's storyline was also eyebrow-raisingly close to that of The Secret of Monkey Island (ghost pirates, unproven 'new' pirate hero, rescuing the governor/governor's daughter from the ghost pirate leader etc).

The movie was a huge success and two sequels followed. With the original movie working due to it being a fast-paced romp, the sequels naturally were slow-paced, grim-faced and overlong films which pretty much only worked through the sheer acting abilities of Depp (rejoined by Geoffrey Rush as able support in the third movie). The third film seemed to definitively close the story, but the fact that it became only the third film in history to take more than $1 billion at the box office meant further movies were inevitable.

The fourth film was announced today as being named Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and (according to a report in the comments) that the fourth film will be a loose adaptation of Tim Powers' novel into the existing movie universe. Quite a lot of the book will have to be changed to reflect this (including the major characters), but Powers was amenable to the changes after getting a promise from Disney that Johnny Depp would have dinner with Powers and his wife and give them cameos in the film.*

An interesting choice. I wonder if this was a deliberate move and tip of the hat by the writers, or whether Disney was developing ideas that were close to the novel so they decided to snap up the rights to safeguard themselves? Either way, it should lead to multi-thousand percent increases in sales of the novel when the film comes out, which is a great result. And without Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, hopefully the new movie will be worth watching as well.

* Apprently this was a joke. What a missed opportunity!

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Naked God by Peter F. Hamilton

The threat to the Confederation from the 'reality dysfunction' is growing. Anxious to show that the pervasive threat can be neutralised, the Kulu Kingdom have joined forces with their oldest rivals, the Edenists, to liberate the peninsular of Mortonridge on Ombey from the enemy. However, the conditions they encounter mean warfare the likes of which humanity has not experienced for seven centuries.

Meanwhile, the nefarious 'Organization' has proven extremely effective in spreading the contamination to other worlds, keeping the Confederation Navy on the back foot. The habitat Valisk has vanished from the universe, but the survivors on board are soon to discover that their hoped-for sanctuary is anything but benign.

Quinn Dexter has penetrated Earth's defences and is now trying to destroy the great arcologies, forcing Govcentral's intelligence service into desperate measures to contain his threat, including making use Louise Kavanagh to draw him out. Meanwhile, Joshua Calvert and Syrinx are convinced to join forces to take their starships on a mission to the far side of the Orion Nebula, to the long-deserted Tyrathca homeworld, where they hope to find records leading them to an artifact the Tyrathca believe can resolve the crisis once and for all...

As well as being the final novel in the colossal Night's Dawn Trilogy, The Naked God is probably the single largest science fiction novel ever written (excluding Atlas Shrugged, depending on if you want to argue that as SF or not), coming in at an eye-watering 1,150 pages in length. In hardcover. That's 200 pages longer even than its two huge forebears, and it has to be said the flagging pace of the book probably owes a lot to that fact.

That said, The Naked God carries on the storylines left hanging at the end of The Neutronium Alchemist without interruption and, to use a rather lazy reviewing phrase, if you enjoyed the first two books I suspect you'll also enjoy the third. Numerous plot threads are in motion, and Hamilton deftly moves us between New California, Ombey, Valisk, Norfolk, Tranquillity, Earth, Trafalgar and other worlds with confidence and ease. However, he also has to time all his story threads to converge at the same point, which results in a number of middling problems contributing to the book's great length. Most notably, there's a discernible amount of filler in this book. Whilst it's great to finally get a detailed look at the ecologically devastated Earth with its population squeezed into immense domed cities, seeing Louise check into a hotel and get some neural nanonics does slow down the story at the exact moment it should really be gearing up for a thunderous climax. Instead, the story jumps around haphazardly, with an inordinate amount of chapters for the Valisk story given that very little happens in it but not much coverage at all of Joshua and Syrinx's mission, which should really be the dominant plot thread of the novel. Also, whilst an effective antagonist in the first two novels, Quinn Dexter's over-the-top villainy in this third volume does reduce him to a bit of a cartoon figure whom it is hard to take seriously. Hamilton should really not have given him the superpowers he did at the end of Book 2 (including virtual indestructibility), as they make his chapters somewhat tiresome. Indestructible characters, good or bad, make for dull reading.

Elsewhere, the book is as well-written as the rest of the trilogy has been, with a welcome strong return for the horror elements present in Book 1 but largely missing from the second book. There are also more big battles in space and on land, and a strong philosophical streak running through the book about the morality and application of warfare. Hamilton definitely seems to be having fun tweaking the noses of his American space opera counterparts, who all too readily resort to solving their problems with lasers and nukes, whilst he gets his characters to think their way out of their problems instead (although sometimes with the odd maser barrage as well, just to keep things colourful). There's also some nice ideas about consequences and choices and responsibility, although given the number of people moaning that the book and the ultimate solution to the reality dysfunction crisis doesn't involve a fusillade of antimatter explosions, perhaps this doesn't get across to the reader entirely successfully. Most notably, Hamilton has said the trilogy should have been called Joshua's Progress, as it is his (well-handled) character evolution and development which brings him to the point where a solution to the crisis can be found. Unfortunately, in The Naked God Joshua actually takes a bit of a back-seat to proceedings and is merely one among many, many POV characters, meaning his sudden importance to the plot in the final chapter is rather jarring.

There's some excellent characterisation in the book. As well as Joshua, characters like beleaguered General Ralph Hiltch and Louise also develop in interesting and unforeseen ways. As with the previous book it does feel like Dariat and the Valisk story are somewhat superfluous, with their actual contributions to the overall plot (the hellhawks in Book 2 and the melange - not the Dune kind - in Book 3) not really justifying the immense length of their narrative.

That brings us to the ending, which on one level is epic, cosmic and genuinely impressive. It is also rather too neat, and Hamilton is probably a little bit too exacting in detailing 'what happened next' to the characters, right down to a minor car thief arrested at the start of Book 2 (although that bit is quite funny). It isn't a totally perfect ending, and he does leave one huge 'plot bomb' waiting to explode which could be followed up on in future books, but in this age where slightly more ambiguous endings are all the rage Night's Dawn does feel like it dots all the 'i's and crosses all the 't's a little too pedantically. Also, whilst the ending isn't a deus ex machina at all, it is certainly brought about by a plot device, which some readers have found anti-climatic. I found it worked quite well.

The Naked God (****) is the weakest book in The Night's Dawn Trilogy, as conclusions often are, but it is still mostly well-written and characterised, with fun action sequences and an impressively thoughtful air to proceedings that will hopefully get the reader to think about some of the issues raised. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Currently Reading: Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
Currently Playing: Far Cry (replay)

Thursday, 10 September 2009

British government issues apology to Alan Turing

The British government has issued a posthumous apology to Alan Turing, the WWII cryptanalyst who broke the German Enigma codes. The machines he used to do so are generally regarded as the earliest direct predecessors to modern computing. He also developed the 'Turing tests' which are still the basis for determining how well a computer can emulate human thought (and SF novels frequently use the term 'Turing scale' to determine if an AI has become sentient or self-aware).

Despite his absolutely vital work, which led to massive boosts in gaining intelligence for the Allies, Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency in 1952 after admitting to being in a homosexual relationship (the same charges which had been brought against Oscar Wilde). He was given a hormonal drug, a so-called 'chemical castration', which resulted in him, among other things, developing breasts, something which deeply humiliated him. His security clearance was revoked and he was unable to continue his studies into computing. He committed suicide two years later.

Gordon Brown issued the apology today, acknowledging that the British government let down a man they owed a tremendous debt to.

It could have come sooner, a lot sooner, but with the 70th anniversary of WWII now underway, I suppose it's a good time to issue this apology and draw more attention to one of our more under-sung heroes of the Second World War.

In a more direct SF&F-related role, he also has a cameo appearance in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

THE HOBBIT movie gets the all-clear

Following the news that the Tolkien Trust (representing the Tolkien estate) were suing New Line over failure to pay royalties on The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and also threatening to derail the movie version of The Hobbit, it was announced today that the Tolkien family and New Line have settled out-of-court. The Tolkien estate are happy with the financial settlement, and New Line and their partners MGM can continue their work on the new films, which are currently in pre-production in New Zealand with director Guillermo del Toro, with filming anticipated to start in the New Year.

Friday, 4 September 2009

The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F. Hamilton

The 'reality dysfunction' has escaped from Lalonde, overrunning several other Confederation worlds and asteroid settlements, subverting people to its will. On the Kulu Kingdom principality world of Ombey, Ralph Hiltch, a veteran of Lalonde, organises a desperate battle against the enemy. Pastoral Norfolk is easy pickings for the menace, but, with help from an unexpected ally, Louise Kavanagh manages to stay one step ahead of it. Ultra-advanced New California comes under siege, whilst the decadent Valisk habitat becomes a raging battleground between the subverted and the habitat's insane controlling personality.

As the Confederation goes to a war footing and unleashes its resources against the new threat, another problem arises. Dr. Alkad Mzu has escaped from Tranquillity and is now on the run, seeking to complete a thirty-year vendetta to annihilate an entire star system. Joshua Calvert reluctantly agrees to pursue her, although half the intelligence agencies in the Confederation are also on the case. Meanwhile, Syrinx recovers from her own considerable physical wounds but finds her mental recovery to be much harder. At the urging of the Edenist government, she travels to the Kiint homeworld to find out how they defeated their own brush with the dysfunction thousands of years ago...

The second volume of The Night's Dawn Trilogy is the direct continuation of The Reality Dysfunction, pretty much picking up the story immediately. The book has a slightly different focus - Lalonde has been left behind and a couple of superfluous characters like Kelven Solanki have been rather abruptly jettisoned from the story - but it's generally a continuation of the same writing style as the first book. Simply put, if you liked the first book, you'll like this one too.

It improves on the first book in a few key areas as well. Hamilton reigns in the info-dumping, apparently partially a conscious choice and partially because after the first book set up the Confederation setting so well it's no longer necessary. In addition, the slow start to Book 1 is missing. Book 2 hits the ground running and, if anything, the pace increases and the tension ramps up throughout this immensely thick volume (it's actually several dozen pages longer than the first book). The sex scenes, which I know put some people off the first volume, have been radically reduced in quantity as well. After all, with the extinction of the human race looming and the Galaxy at war, getting laid is not the highest priority any more ;-)

Unfortunately, the book does have a couple of niggling issues which detract from it. Hamilton develops this very peculiar obsession in the second volume of his broad-canvas space operas to have an extremely tedious car chase taking up a chunk of the book. It's not as bad as Judas Unchained (where such a chase takes up about half the book, intercut with other stories), but The Neutronium Alchemist does feature such a sequence which takes up several dozen pages. In addition, the Valisk storyline is simply not as compelling as many of the other plots in the trilogy, and the pages devoted to it do feel like they could have been better spent on events elsewhere. Once you've completed the trilogy and realise how little this plot thread adds to the overall story of all three books, it's inclusion feels even more pointless, despite some good lines from Rubra.

Readers' reactions also vary immensely to what happens on New California. I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt it was a logical extension of the premise, and if you can swallow the premise of the reality dysfunction itself than what happens next shouldn't pose any problems. But I do know people who thought it a step too far and stopped reading. A shame, because it actually works very well, and sets up the absolutely brilliant ending.

The Neutronium Alchemist (****½) is a very fine continuation of the story begun in The Reality Dysfunction. The story is meaty enough to support its immense length, and Hamilton's prose skills have improved somewhat from the first book. That said, the absence of some characters from the first volume and the amount of time spent on less-compelling plot-threads does leave it as a slightly less-accomplished novel. Still, as readable, epic space operas go, this is one of the very best out there, and it ends on an absolutely killer cliffhanger which at the time of publication was jaw-dropping (although now you can just go out and buy the third book straight away). The book is available now in the UK and, at long last, in one volume in the USA.