Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A Betrayal in Winter by Daniel Abraham

Thirteen years after the dramatic events in Saraykeht, both Otah and Maati are keeping their heads down. Unfortunately, events are conspiring to bring them both to Otah's childhood home of Machi, a far northern city of huge towers and intrigue where the Khai's grasp on power is slipping and hungry factions jockey for position.


The second volume in Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet sees the story becoming darker and more personal, as Otah is forced to confront the choices he has made in his past and challenge the traditions of the Khaiem. Again, Abraham does not send the story down a traditional or cliched route here, giving his 'villain' a conscience which is increasingly stricken by the dark and murderous things she must do to gain power, but perversely this only seems to increase her determination to win through.

The characters of Otah and Maati are developed nicely, along with new characters like Cehmai, and the story unfolds nicely, building to a tremendously intense and emotional convergence. The ending may be somewhat predictable, but the route to get there is thankfully not. Again, this is a somewhat slow-paced novel, but one that is needed to set up the fireworks of the next book in the series.

A Betrayal in Winter (****) is an effective and enjoyable second volume in this sequence. It is available now in the USA and as part of the Shadow and Betrayal omnibus in the UK.

I previously reviewed the book in its omnibus format here.

The Twelve Colonies of Humanity

In Battlestar Galactica and Caprica, the human race is depicted as living on twelve worlds in a remote part of the Galaxy. BSG was somewhat cagey over how twelve life-bearing planets can exist in one star system, but could afford to be, since the Colonies were mostly left behind after the opening mini-series (a subplot set on bombed-out Caprica excepted). Caprica, which is set almost sixty years prior to BSG and takes place entirely within the Colonies, is somewhat different and has required that the producers engage in more convincing worldbuilding over the make-up and orbital mechanics of the Twelve Colonies.


This article contains spoilers for the very end of BSG, or for fans of Caprica who have not yet seen BSG at all. Proceed with caution.

Overview
The Colonial star system consists of three stars and one 'outlier', possibly a brown dwarf or supermassive gas giant whose status as a full star is questionable. The twelve worlds circle these stars in various arrangements that allow them to remain habitable (although only borderline so, in several cases).

The Colonies vary greatly in geographic make-up and political, economic and military power. The Colonies, oddly, have only a limited selection of wildlife across the twelve worlds, most or all of it likely imported from Kobol. The combined human population of the Twelve Colonies at the time of the Fall was 50 billion, but was presumably lower (maybe a lot lower, given our population expansion) sixty years earlier at the time of Caprica.


The Twelve Worlds

Aerilon
Capital: Gaoth
Tribal name: Aries

The breadbasket of the Twelve Colonies, consisting of vast agricultural holdings. Relatively poor and uncultured compared to the other Colonies. Aerilon is located on the orbital track of the gas giant Ragnar, located at one of its Lagrange orbital points. Its capital city is Gaoth, destroyed in the Fall (an image of which becomes an iconic representation of the genocide for the survivors, and is touched for luck by combat pilots before going on missions). Gaius Baltar is Aerilon's most famous son, although he has distanced himself from his homeworld and undergone speech therapy to get rid of its distinctive accent.

Aquaria
Capital: None
Government: Democratic republic
Tribal name: Aquarius

Also called Aquarion. A frigid ocean world with very few habitable islands. This is one of the least-populated of the Twelve Colonies and has no capital city, and is barely considered an equal colony by the others. It is located at another one of Ragnar's Lagrange points. This planet is a pure democracy in which all citizens are allowed to vote on every issue. The head of government is a Prime Minister.

Starliner Pyxis flees Canceron during the Fall of the Twelve Colonies

Canceron
Capital: Hades
Tribal name: Cancer

A more Earth-like planet famed for its beaches. Its capital city is Hades, which might be the large coastal metropolis we see being nuked during the Fall in The Plan. Canceron is a balmy resort world, analogous to Hawaii or the Caribbean, although there is also a poverty-stricken underclass.

Caprica City shortly before the Fall

Caprica
Capital: Caprica City
Government: Democratic republic
Tribal name: Capricorn

A large, Earth-like world. Possibly the largest, most populated and certainly the richest and most cultured of the Twelve Colonies (possibly the most decadent as well). Caprica is located in a conjoined orbit with the planet Gemenon, the two of them circling around a common centre of gravity as they orbit their star. Its capital city is Caprica City or Cap City, which was destroyed in the Fall. Delphi appears to be the largest surviving metropolis after the Fall.

Gemenon from orbit

Gemenon
Capital: Oranu
Tribal name: Gemini

An arid, red-surfaced world which looks a bit like Mars from orbit. Gemenon is the twin planet of Caprica, the two circling a gravitational barycentre as they circle their central star. Gemenon's capital city is Oranu and its second city is Illumini, a major centre of religious study and discussion. Illumini has a huge pantheon complex where every deity in the Sacred Scrolls, even the minor ones, are worshipped. Gemenon has a wide variety of religious institutions, cults and denominations, ranging from those who take the Scrolls literally to fringe monotheist groups.

Leonis
Capital: Luminere
Tribal name: Leo

The planet consists of two continents and is famed for its open plains. It is a temperate world where a variety of outdoor pursuits are enjoyed. Its capital city was Luminere. The planet was noted for its alcoholic beverages, most notably Leonis Estates Sparkling Wine and Leonis Red, an energy drink. Leonis is unfortunately xenophobic and isolationist, leading to some problems with relations with other colonies.

Libran
Capital: None
Tribal name: Libra

The centre of legal study in the Twelve Colonies, noted for its legal firms and institutions. The planet has no official capital, but a major city is Themis. The planet has no pyramid team at the time of Caprica.

Picon from orbit

Picon
Capital: Queenstown
Tribal name: Pisces

Another water world, although less dominated by its seas than Aquaria. Picon is seen as a 'mini-Caprica' and stands in for that world in many television shows. The planet is colder than Caprica and is home to a solid snow tourism industry. Its capital city is Queenstown. After the First Cylon War, the planet became the base for the Colonial Fleet Headquarters, and was one of the first planets attacked by the Cylons in the Fall of the Twelve Colonies. Picon is quite blatantly the Canada to Caprica's USA.

Sagitarron
Capital: Tawa
Tribal name: Sagittarius

One of the poorest colonies, beaten down and exploited by the others for centuries. Its people are, as a result, uncooperative and surly towards the other colonies, although some have broken away from their upbringing to become successful. The planet has a different interpretation of the main religion than the other colonies, and distrust modern medicine. Sagitarron also appears to be more resentful of its integration into the federalised government of the Twelve Colonies after the war, and Tom Zarek led a terrorist campaign there designed to free the planet from its control. Its capital city is Tawa. From its economic status, Sagitarron may be one of the other borderline-habitable colonies with a hostile climate.

Scorpia and its fleet shipyards from orbit, shortly before the Fall

Scorpia
Capital: Celeste
Tribal name: Scorpio

A hot world noted for its lush jungles and a mix of trashy resorts and exciting sports, such as paragliding. Its capital city is Celeste and its most noted resort town is Argentum Bay. The planet has a scorpion tail-like half-ring in orbit, although this is not visible in either The Plan or Razor. The Scorpian Fleet Shipyards circle the planet, and are destroyed in the Fall. Scorpia is a major centre of spacecraft construction, and its third-largest settlement is actually a shipyard in orbit (possibly the Fleet Shipyards, or their forerunner).

Tauron under Cylon attack in the closing days of the First Cylon War

Tauron
Capital: Hypatia
Tribal name: Taurus

Tauron is somewhat barren, with no native flower life, although agriculture does exist. The Tauronese are a distinctive, independently-minded people. Their colony was jointly invaded by Virgon and Leonis some 800 years ago and the Tauronese spent a long time driving them out in a guerrilla war. Ever since then Tauron has been plauged by infighting and violence, but sixty years before the Fall is now trying to go straight and build respectable industries and businesses of its own, although the crime families still exert great influence. Tauron is one of the wealthier colonies. There are strong anti-Tauron feelings on Caprica, possibly sparked by a flood of Tauron immigration to that world, which has largely vanished by the time of the Fall. Tauron's capital is Hypatia, although Tauron City is another major habitation. Tauron has a large, ringed moon and does not share its orbit with any other colony. The last land battle of the First Cylon War was fought on Tauron.

Virgon
Capital: Boskirk
Government: Strong consitutional parliament supplanting fading monarchy
Tribal name: Virgo

Virgon is noted for its forests and is considered to be one of the wealthier colonies. The planet is ruled by a parliament which is eroding the power of an older monarchy. The planet's capital is Boskirk. During the Fall, the Colonial military launched a major counter-attack on the Cylons at Virgon which ended with the destruction of the Colonial fleet.


History

The Twelve Colonies were settled by the inhabitants of the planet Kobol. On Kobol the inhabitants had become divided into twelve tribes divided by ideology and religion, although broadly united in the worship of the gods, the Lords of Kobol. The twelve tribes outcast many of their criminals and religious dissidents (particularly monotheists and atheists) to form a thirteenth tribe, which eventually developed technology that allowed them to cheat death by 'downloading' and resurrecting in an artificial organic body. The other twelve tribes, scandalized, drove out the Thirteenth Tribe, which was forced into exile in deep space. Eventually they found and colonized a distant planet called Earth.

The remaining twelve tribes fell into strife and warfare, eventually rendering Kobol partially or completely uninhabitable in a massive conflageration known as the Blaze. The survivors made their way into space and were guided to the Twelve Colonies, which they settled and colonised. The initial period of colonisation, some 2,000 years prior to the beginnning of Caprica, was followed by a 'dark age' in which high technology was lost and the Colonials were reduced to using wooden sailing vessels and gunpowder-based weapons. After a time the Colonies were able to resume space travel.

Eight centuries ago, the colonies of Virgon and Leonis allied together to invade Tauron. The Tauronese liberated themselves through a lengthy guerrilla war, but by the end of this conflict violence and bloodshed had become ingrained in Tauronese culture, where a strong criminal underclass took root. A major civil war ripped Tauron apart forty years prior to the events of Caprica, but this eventually ended and Tauron became a richer, more productive member of the Twelve Colonies, providing richer colonies like Caprica with a strong immigrant workforce, although this also led to ethnic and racial tensions.

A fleet of Cylon basestars surrounds Caprica before bombarding it with nuclear weapons

Fifty-eight years before the events of Battlestar Galactica, highly intelligent robots called 'Cylons' were invented on Caprica and pressed into service in the military and industrial sectors, where they became little more than slaves, despite having a degree of sentience and self-awareness. After several years of mistreatment, the Cylons rebelled and declared war against the Twelve Colonies. In the First Cylon War that followed, the Cylons and humanity fought one another to a standstill over the course of twelve years, before a peace agreement was reached and the Cylons agreed to leave and settle elsewhere. Forty years later, they returned and destroyed the Twelve Colonies in a surprise attack using nuclear weapons. All twelve worlds were devastated and rendered uninhabitable for several millennia to come, until radiation levels drop to a habitable level.

The shipyards on Gemenon under Cylon attack during the Fall

Less than 55,000 people survived the attack on the Colonies. Fleeing into space in a rag-tag, fugitive fleet protected by the battlestar Galactica (and later Pegasus), they eventually found and colonised another world where humanity might take root and survive.

Caprica City after the Cylon attack


Sources

The Caprican, SyFy's website dedicated to Caprica's daily newspaper.
Serge, the Twitter feed of the Graystone robotic butler wher he answers questions about the show.
Battlestar Wiki, where info from the above is collected.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Caprica: Season 1.0

Fifty-eight years before the Fall of the Twelve Colonies, the inhabitants of Caprica live in an exciting and pioneering age. Computer technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate, giving youngsters the opportunity to experience virtual sex, drugs and violence outside the control of their parents. At the centre of this storm of progress is the computer pioneer Daniel Graystone, whose inventions are shaping the lives of billions. His latest project is to create a combat robot for the Caprican military, a Cylon, but after perfecting the prototype he finds replicating it to be a tricky proposition.

"Ah, how refreshing to see a show that focuses on its older, more experienced castmembers as their selling point rather than the attractive, younger female castmembers in suggestive naked poses."

Both Graystone and an acquaintance, lawyer Joseph Adama, lost their daughters in a terrorist bombing incident. Graystone's wife, Amanda, becomes convinced that their daughter Zoe had something to do with the bombing, whilst Joseph Adama struggles to overcome his grief and raise his son William as a single father. Unknown to their fathers, both Zoe and Tamara Graystone survive, after a fashion, as digital avatars, one trapped in the virtual online world and the other inside the mind of the prototype Cylon...

Caprica is the spin-off prequel series of Battlestar Galactica, set many years before the events of that show (of which foreknowledge is not required). The pilot debuted on DVD last year and was received relatively well (compared to the heavily mixed reception for BSG's final season), and has now been followed by the first ten episodes of Season 1 (although the first two episodes are just a recut version of the pilot featuring more special effects and some different scenes). The show has now gone off the air in the USA and UK, but will return in October for the second half of the season.

Caprica is a very different show to BSG, focusing on life on the Twelve Colonies with, so far, no space travel and only very brief glimpses of life on the other planets. One of the things that made early BSG so distinctive and compelling was its laser-sharp focus, with the confines of life in the Fleet meaning that it was straightforward to get most or all of the cast involved in whatever crisis was going on at the time. Caprica, in comparison, sprawls almost languorously in all directions with its numerous story threads and characters being fairly separate to start off with. This results in a somewhat slow pace to the opening episodes of the series, as each episode gives us just a few minutes of development for the Cylon-Zoe's story, then a few more minutes for her friend Lacey getting more involved with the terrorists, then a few more minutes for the Tauran gangster stuff and so on. In effect the viewer is left with the impression that the producers are going for an SF version of The Wire, only with less compelling characters, a less interesting plot and a lack of comparative intelligent social commentary.

"Ahem. But obviously it's okay if done artistically and thematically well. See the apple? See the subtle symbolism? Do you get it? You know, Eve and the forbidden fruit of knowledge? Ah hell, just Wikipedia it."

Taken on its own merits though, Caprica is actually perfectly acceptable SF TV. It's examination of the development of AI is interesting, if not particularly groundbreaking, but it suffers a little from the fact that most of the development of the Cylons from unintelligent robots to sentient homicidal maniacs took place in the pilot alone. As a result, there's an awful lot of wheel-spinning to keep the Cylon-Zoe in place and prevent her from building the Cylon army three episodes into the series, and this looks like it may continue (understandably, as the show would almost be over at that point).

More interesting is the worldbuilding of Caprica, with its old-fashioned clothes and retro-decor sitting side-by-side ultra-advanced architecture and an interplanetary economy. The show is fleshed out by various supporting websites (such as a Twitter account run by the Graystone's robot butler, Serge, and an online newspaper, The Caprican) that reveal more of the worlds of the Twelve Colonies and expands on worldbuilding elements briefly mentioned in the series for the committed fans, an interesting approach which satisfies the hardcore fans of the series without bogging down the episodes in unnecessary exposition.

Generally, the acting is of a high quality from most of the castmembers, although the writing is rather more mixed. In particular, an over-reliance of dreams and hallucinations in the later episodes is worrying, as this crutch was over-used on BSG during its last two seasons and contributed to some of its problems. On the other hand, the introduction of 'New Cap City', a shadowy game hidden in the virtual net, is a masterstroke, giving us a grey-tinged noir steampunk world of airships, shady nightclubs and femme fatales which allows for a startling change of pace and intensity in the storylines.

Gradually, the scattered storylines begin to converge after the halfway point of these initial episodes before things come together in an impressively messy mid-season cliffhanger, with several regular characters left dead, missing or severely compromised. It'll be interesting to see where the show goes when it returns, but something it does need is a bit more of a sense of cohesion and direction. If the writers can achieve that, they may finally produce a worthy heir to BSG at its best (Caprica already far exceeding it at its worst).

Caprica: Season 1.0 has finished airing in the USA and UK and will be released on DVD later in the year in both territories. Season 1.5 will start airing in October.

101-102: Pilot (****)
103: Rebirth (***½)
104: Reins of a Waterfall (***)
105: Gravedancing (***)
106: There is Another Sky (****½)
107: Know Thy Enemy (****)
108: The Imperfections of Memory (***½)
109: Ghosts in the Machine (****)
110: End of Line (****)

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham

Centuries ago the Old Empire fell to an internecine civil war, destroyed by the sorcerers known as poets, wielding the powers of ideas given human form and volition, the andat. Whilst the empire was destroyed, the colony-states across the ocean survived and became the cities of the Khaiem, where the power of the andat continues to hold sway and hold rival nations, such as expansionist Galt, in check. The Khaiem are subtle (relying on a complex courtly language of poses) but also ruthless in trade and in the defence of their riches.


Otah Machi was once a student of the poets, but when given the choice to study for entrance to the order he refused and went on the run, refusing to return to his noble home for fear of what chaos it would wreck in the order of succession. Instead, his path takes him south to the city of Saraykeht, a city whose riches are based on the cotton trade, strengthened as it is by the activities of the poet Heshai and his andat, Seedless. Meanwhile, another student of the poets also arrives in Saraykeht on an important mission. Both men become embroiled in a chilling conspiracy designed to destroy the power of the andat once and for all.

A Shadow in Summer is the first novel in The Long Price Quartet, Daniel Abraham's epic fantasy in which war, love, treachery, intrigue and hubris is studied and examined in-depth. Abraham's series is a noted departure in the subgenre in that his focus is more on the motivations of his protagonists rather that the trappings of the setting. The 'magic system', if the relationship between the poets and the andat can be described as such, is vivid and interestingly depicted, but it's more of a means to an end than an end in itself. In this, Abraham is reminiscent of Guy Gavriel Kay, whilst he also shows the influence of his one-time teacher George R.R. Martin in his multi-faceted characters. But the melancholic and slightly defeated tone of the many of the characters is something more unique to Abraham's writing, in particular his humane treatment of his villains, who are shown to have their reasons (feeble or otherwise) for what they are trying to do.


It's something of a quiet book, particularly for the opening volume of a four-volume epic fantasy series, focusing on emotions and motivations, and some may find it too slow-moving (despite its relatively concise 300-page length). But this is more the opening movement of a grand opera, hinting at and laying the groundwork for the greater and grander themes to come.

A Shadow in Summer (****) is a rich and convincing work of fantasy that strikes a different pose (pun intended) to many of its contemporaries, and is all the better for it. It is available now in the USA and, as part of the Shadow and Betrayal omnibus edition, in the UK.

I previously reviewed the book in its omnibus format here.

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

Miranda Silver is a smart young woman about to start her first year at university. She also suffers from pica, an eating disorder which gives her an appetite for chalk, and has a variable relationship with her father, her twin brother Eliot and her mother Lily. When Lily is killed on a visit to Haiti, Miranda finds herself caught up in unusual events at the family home in Dover.


White is for Witching is an unusual novel, a haunted house story with a difference. The book moves between several different points of view - Eliot, Miranda's best friend Ore and, oddly, the house itself - and an omniscient viewpoint focused on Miranda herself, the shifts sometimes occurring mid-chapter. Each shift in viewpoint is accompanied by a shift in prose and narrative style, moving from Eliot's straightforward narration to Ore's more relaxed and offbeat style to the twisted, surreal viewpoint of the house, whilst the narration surrounding Miranda's sections of the book takes on a dreamy, surreal hue.

The result is a book that should by rights be a mess, but is instead a very accomplished and thought-provoking work. The author alternates between the prose styles and viewpoints according to a certain rhythm, giving the whole book an almost poetic cadence as the story proceeds inexorably around in a large circle, eventually coming back to where it begins (to the point that re-reading the first few chapters immediately after completing the book can be very rewarding). The result is a clever, fascinating work that stands up to repeated readings.


The book has a few flaws. The shifts in narrative style mean that getting a handle on what is going on feels slightly more complex than it should be, whilst the behaviour of some of the secondary characters (Miranda's father, most notably) is a bit odd and possibly unrealistic given the weird events that are going on, and of course the constantly shifting pattern of the story means it's a book that demands some effort and attention from the reader.

White is for Witching (****) is an accomplished, confusing, poetical, melancholy and highly accomplished novel. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

New 2011 ASoIaF Calendar

In the aftermath of the 2009 Song of Ice and Fire calendar debacle (the result of mismanagement by the redoubtable Dabel Bros), George R.R. Martin's main publishers, Bantam, have taken over production of future calendars.


The 2011 calendar had previously been earmarked for the work of well-respected genre artist John Picacio, but as he explains Bantam brought forward the deadlines because they wanted the calendars on sale at the San Diego Comic-Con to capitalise on growing interest in the HBO TV series. As a result, Picacio would not be able to meet the reduced deadlines and it was decided to drop his work back to the 2012 edition.

Luckily, Bantam has a lot of artwork already completed and in for The World of Ice and Fire book due after Dance with Dragon's publication. After some consideration they chose to use the thirteen castle paintings by noted Tolkien artist Ted Nasmith to make up the new calendar instead.

The castle on the front cover is, of course, the Eyrie, the seat of House Arryn, overlords of the Vale. The Eyrie was built in the Age of Heroes by the Andals and sits on a shoulder of the Giant's Lance, one of the tallest mountains in Westeros. The Eyrie features prominently in the first and fourth books of the series, and I'm intrigued to see how HBO handle the castle in the TV series.


The other castles are shown on the back of the calendar. The large image is of course Winterfell, the seat of House Stark, built by Brandon the Builder more than eight millennia before the events of A Game of Thrones begin (well, so tradition holds; the maesters are more dubious about these massive spans of time). From top-left onwards, the other castles are:

Storm's End, the seat of House Baratheon, overlords of the Stormlands.
The Eyrie, as discussed above.
Dragonstone, the dispossessed seat of the exiled House Targaryen.
The Red Keep in the city of King's Landing, the seat of the King on the Iron Throne.
Riverrun, the seat of House Tully of the Riverlands.
Highgarden, the seat of House Tyrell of the Reach.
Sunspear, the seat of House Martell of Dorne.
Casterly Rock, the seat of House Lannister of the Westerlands.
The High Tower in the city of Oldtown, the seat of House Hightower and the tallest building in Westeros.
Harrenhal, the cursed castle on Gods Eye that has been the ruin of many houses.
Castle Black, the headquarters of the Night's Watch who patrol the Wall on the northern edge of Westeros.

The 800-foot-tall, seven-sided High Tower of Oldtown.

A thirteenth castle portrait will appear in the book as a double-page spread. Based on Nasmith's paintings, this will be either of Pyke, the seat of House Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, or the Twins, the seat of House Frey of the Crossing.

Great stuff. The calendar will be available in the US from July and in the UK on import from the same time. No word of a specific UK reprint yet.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Paul Kearney update and cover art

Solaris Books, under the new management of Rebellion Entertainment, are making a big push for Paul Kearney's work at the end of this year.


First up, Kearney's classic Monarchies of God series is being reissued in two volumes. Hawkwood and the Kings will be released on 5 August 2010, followed by Century of the Soldier on 2 September.

This series was originally published as five volumes: Hawkwood's Voyage (1995), The Heretic Kings (1996), The Iron Wars (1999), The Second Empire (2000) and Ships from the West (2002). The storyline sees the Merduks of the east invading the continent of Normannia, where the Ramusian faith holds dominance over the kingdoms known as the Monarchies of God. As the eastern-most kingdom of Torunna fights for its life, the Ramusian church seems more interested in burning heretics than in helping to battle the heathen invaders. In the far western kingdom of Hebrion the young king bristles under the rising power of the church, whilst a sailor named Richard Hawkwood is convinced to embark on a dangerous ocean voyage beyond the setting sun.


The result is a rich and satisfying epic fantasy series, notable for its extreme ruthlessness towards its characters (at times Kearney makes GRRM read like David Eddings), its relative conciseness (the five books combined only just scrape past 1100 pages) and its Renaissance-influenced setting. It's an excellent series, and it's great to see it reaching a new audience this year.


In terms of new material, Kearney's latest novel Corvus will also be published on 28 October 2010. A self-contained follow-up to The Ten Thousand, the new book sees the soldiers of the Macht unified by a charasmatic new leader, Corvus, who seeks out the famous warleader Rictus to aid him in his mission, but Rictus wants nothing more than to retire peacefully.

Great news for fans of Kearney's work.

Update: Paul has confirmed the split between the two books. Hawkwood's Voyage and The Heretic Kings make up the appropriately-titled Hawkwood and the Kings, whilst The Iron Wars, The Second Empire and a somewhat rewritten Ships From the West comprise Century of the Soldier. The books will also feature new maps as well as new cover art.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Three classic game remakes: MONKEY ISLAND 2, FINAL FANTASY 7 & SYNDICATE

There are three classic games currently under development or consideration that may raise a smile for old-time gamers.


Starting with the confirmed title, LucasArts has confirmed that Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge is being re-developed for a Summer 2010 release on PC, X-Box 360 and PS3 (the special edition of Monkey Island 1 is also due on PS3 shortly).

Originally released in 1992, Monkey Island 2 is almost certainly the single greatest adventure game ever made, topping its predecessor with far more gorgeous graphics and some of the greatest music in the medium. The previous Monkey Island remake was a great success, but it remains to be seen if The Curse of Monkey Island (the third game in the series) will also be remade.


Next up is Final Fantasy VII. Whilst the seventh game in the series (although, like all games in the sequence, it is completely stand-alone with no connections to other titles aside from a similar control system), it was the first to be released for the Sony PlayStation console (and PC) and the first to be a massive smash-hit success in the West, thanks to its epic storyline, compelling characters and (for the time) jaw-dropping cut scenes, despite a ropey English translation.

A few years back, Square Enix re-rendered the game's opening cinematic for the PS3 as an 'experiment' that had fans gagging for a full remake. The company has revisited the possibility several times with no firm commitment, until a recent statement by Square's CEO that the company (who have just delivered and released Final Fantasy XIII) is now going to seriously sit down and see if the project is financially viable and technically possible. No guarantees, but this is an interesting move. A FF7 re-release lifted up to the graphical quality of the latest games (Final Fantasy XIV, an online multiplayer game, is already in an advanced stage of development) would no doubt be a massive success. More on this when Square announce their decision.

In the 'heavily rumoured' category, the well-regarded Starbreeze Studios have been jointly developing two projects for Electronic Arts, one being a new Jason Bourne game and the other being a revisiting of a 'beloved franchise', which insiders have apparently leaked is Syndicate. Recently the Bourne game was dropped (apparently for want of a movie to link it to) so the team could concentrate all their energies on the other title. If this is true, it sounds like the Syndicate remake (if that's what it is) could be stepping up into a full development cycle. If so, expect official confirmation in the near future.


Syndicate, released in 1993, was a major success on the PC, Mac and Commodore Amiga. Developed by Peter Molyneux's Bullfrog Games for EA, it was remarkable for its depiction of a series of cities (no less than fifty, some of them huge) the player's team of cyborgs would have to take over in an aggressive corporate war. As more cities joined the player's empire, more funds would pour in, allowing the research and development of more powerful weapons and cybernetic implants. The game was notable for its depiction of 'living cities' featuring civilians going about their daily business and reacting realistically when all hell broke loose (i.e. running away screaming when guys in threatening trenchcoats produced miniguns and let rip at one another), as well as vehicle use and the ability to use public transportation like trains and monorails, all many years before the likes of Grand Theft Auto. A 1996 sequel, Syndicate Wars, was also well-received and rumours have abounded of a new game in the series since then.

Starbreeze, the developers of the excellent Riddick games Escape from Butcher's Bay and Assault on Dark Athena, as well as the stand-alone title The Darkness, have excellent form and could produce an interesting Syndicate game. Even more interestingly, a new Syndicate game would also be a good fit for the cyberpunk author Richard Morgan, who recently started advising EA on three new titles (see previous post). It remains to be seen if this will recreate the original game's overhead, isometric viewpoint or move to a full-3D mode or some mix of the two.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Richard Morgan update

Richard Morgan has let us know on the Westeros.org forum about the current status of The Dark Commands, the follow-up to 2008's The Steel Remains. Bantam US had put the book in their Fall 2010 catalogue despite the UK publishers, Gollancz, pushing the book's release date back to 2011. Morgan clarified the situation for us, explaining that it has taken some time for The Dark Commands to come together as a book and his time to work on it has been reduced by a new gig advising Electronic Arts on some of their forthcoming games.


The good news is that The Dark Commands will be fairly substantial in size (the first book was about 350 pages in hardcover, so at half again in size the follow-up should be in the 500-page margin), but the bad news is that it might not appear for a while.

The cover above is the American one. The UK cover, without title, can be seen here.

Friday, 19 March 2010

GAME OF THRONES on HBO: Catelyn Stark recast

Unexpectedly, news has broken that one of the key roles in Game of Thrones has been recast. Jennifer Ehle had been tapped to play the role of Catelyn Stark, the wife of Lord Eddard Stark and a major protagonist in the series, and played the role in the pilot episode. Following the series being picked up for a ten-episode full season, it has now been confirmed that Irish actress Michelle Fairley will be replacing her.

Michelle Fairley

The news was somewhat unexpected. Ehle, the star of the mid-1990s (and possibly definitive) BBC mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice and a very respected stage actress, was one of the higher-profile castings for the pilot and her casting was considered a coup, along with that of Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage. No official reason has been given for Ehle's withdrawal from the project, but it is apparently more of an issue about clashing schedules rather than any concerns with her performance.

46-year-old Michelle Fairley is much more a veteran of episodic, ongoing television than Ehle, and recently gained positive notices and reviews for her portrayal of footballer George Best's alcoholic mother in a recent and acclaimed BBC TV movie. She is currently filming the role of Hermione's mother for the final two Harry Potter movies. Westeros.org has some more information on her here.

Obviously, disappointing news. I thought Jennifer Ehle was an excellent match for the role of Catelyn. On the other hand, Michelle Fairley handled some very challenging material in Best: His Mother's Son and looks like she could be a good fit for the role.

It is unclear how big an impact on production this recasting will have. Ehle had already filmed her scenes in the first episode, including the big feast scene and the arrival of King Robert and his entourage at Winterfell. Reshooting these scenes could involve major expense. It'll be interesting to see how HBO handle this situation.

BBC schedule their biggest SF shows

The BBC has scheduled the new seasons of its two biggest SF shows in the UK. The third and final season of Ashes to Ashes debuts on Friday 2 April 2010, whilst Season 31 of Doctor Who (the first featuring new Doctor Matt Smith) will start on Saturday 3 April, both on BBC-1.

THE HOBBIT starts production in June

According to Ian McKellen, the two movies based on The Hobbit will begin filming in New Zealand in June 2010. Casting is already underway behind closed doors in LA, London and New York. The first film is currently tentatively scheduled to be released in December 2012, with the second film in the following year.


No word yet on who will be playing Bilbo Baggins, only that McKellen and Andy Serkis as Gollum will be reprising their roles from the trilogy, with Hugo Weaving also expected to return as Elrond.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Good news for UK fans of Brandon Sanderson

I've just been told that Gollancz will publish The Way of Kings in August 2010 to appear alongside the American edition. Excellent news. No sign of the UK cover art just yet.

TV: New BSG TV series, new FIREFLY news, new GAME OF THRONES writer

Some intriguing news items from today's internet:

First off, SyFy are in discussions with Ronald D. Moore and his team about producing a second Battlestar Galactica spin-off. With Caprica's performance slowly improving and the chances of a second season getting stronger, the cable channel is apparently considering broadening the franchise with a new show returning to the original's space opera roots. With rumours indicating that Caprica might experience a time-jump in its second season closer to the start of the First Cylon War, it is unclear what ground this new series would cover. Still, interesting news.

Secondly, after years of constantly being asked about the background of his character Shepherd Book, Ron Glass has convinced Joss Whedon to revisit the Firefly universe. Whedon has written an outline for a new graphic novel, to be written by his brother Zack (a co-writer on Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog), entitled The Shepherd's Tale, which will fully reveal the secrets of Book's past. The comic book, which will be considered canon, will be published in November this year by Dark Horse Comics.

In an odd burst of synchronicity, Battlestar and Firefly (and Buffy, Angel, DS9 and Dollhouse) writer Jane Espenson has joined the writers' roster for Season 1 of Game of Thrones. She will pen the sixth episode of the first season, alongside newcomer Bryan Cogman (who will write the fourth episode) and the writing team of David Benioff and Dan Weiss, who will pen another seven episodes. The remaining episode will be written by George R.R. Martin himself. I suspect Martin's episode won't be until late in the season due to time commitments elsewhere.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

TERMINAL WORLD available now in the UK

Alastair Reynolds' Terminal World, my highest-rated 2010 novel so far, is available now from all good bookshops in the UK, and from Amazon.co.uk and the Book Depository for those of an overseas persuasion. An American edition will follow on 1 June 2010.


In this book Reynolds combines planetary romance, steampunk, hard SF and the New Weird to terrific effect, making for one of his best books to date. Highly recommended.

Brandon Sanderson on THE WAY OF KINGS

Brandon Sanderson has posted an update on The Way of Kings, his new novel and the first in the Stormlight Archive series. In his update he confirms the book is gigantic (currently slightly longer than GRRM's A Storm of Swords, but it will be pared down in the final draft) and is the most ambitious work he has ever attempted. He does sound a note of caution over the hyperbolic press statements and promos being circulated around the novel, noting it would be foolish hubris to expect this to be the next Wheel of Time, Lord of the Rings or Dune.


The novel is due on 17 August 2010, from Tor Books in the USA. Gollancz will be publishing a UK edition at a later date.

Warriors, edited by George RR Martin & Gardner Dozois

Warriors is a multiple-author, genre-swapping anthology. The only thing these twenty stories have in common is that a warrior of some kind - a soldier, a mercenary, a religious fanatic, a cowboy, even a serial killer who considers themselves on an important mission - is involved. The stories move between genres, with SF stories followed by crime thrillers followed by fantasy tales followed by historical fiction, the mainstream and the speculative brought together in a manner I haven't really seen before.


It's an interesting move. As Martin says in his introduction, modern bookstores segregate the genres apart from one another and seem to encourage people - readers and writers alike - to stick to only one genre. He relates his own problems moving from SF to horror and later to fantasy, and how modern publishers are filled with fear whenever a bestselling writer moves from one genre to another, fearing they are about to crash and burn. Of course, what is really important is not so much the genre as if the piece is well-written, if the characters are compelling and if the story is worth reading.

On these points, Warriors is a resounding success. Martin and Dozois' previous editorial collaboration, Songs of the Dying Earth, was extremely strong but a few stories fell short of the high quality elsewhere. Warriors is notable for not featuring any weak links at all. Some stories are stronger than others, but there is no story that I'd suggest skipping or not bothering with.

Things get off to a good start with The King of Norway by Celia Holland, which follows two Viking warriors on an epic raiding mission. A strong, combat-oriented story that moves very quickly. Forever Bound by Joe Haldeman is an SF story featuring a team of scientists learning to fight together by teleoperating cybernetic soldiers, and is another good story with an unusually moving finale. The Triumph by Robin Hobb is set during the Punic Wars, and concentrates on the friendship of two neighbouring Roman farmers, one of whom became a soldier and the other a general. An excellent short story from an author not known for her brevity.

Clean Slate by Lawrence Block is a pretty savage, contemporary thriller featuring a mentally-damaged protagonist engaging in heinous acts to avenge her destroyed childhood. Powerful and at times disturbing stuff. And Ministers of Grace by Tad Williams is a planet-hopping SF story focusing on a badass cybernetic warrior and is pretty ruthless, with Williams unexpectedly channelling Richard Morgan and doing it very well. Solderin' by Joe R. Lansdale is a funny and entertaining Western with two black men joining the 'buffalo soldiers' and getting into a tough battle. Dirae by Peter S. Beagle is one of the best stories in the collection, being written in an original and different way to some of the rest with a lot more going on under the surface of its apparently obvious revenge fantasy.

The Custom of the Army by Diana Gabaldon takes her established protagonist Lord John Grey on a mission to Canada to assist in the capture of Quebec, and is another fast-paced and action-focused story, although perhaps assuming a little too much foreknowledge of the Lord John novels. Seven Years from Home by Naomi Novik is an excellent SF story about a visitor to a planet getting involved in a local war and going native, in a manner that is reminiscent of (but much better than) Avatar. I'm not a huge fan of her Temeraire books, but this short story was a revelation, and one of the best stories in the collection. The Eagle and the Rabbit by Steven Saylor is a sort-of follow-up to Hobb's story, shifting the perspective to a Carthaginian soldier in Roman captivity (the reverse to Hobb's story) and is just as good. The Pit by James Rollins is a tougher proposition, as the main character isn't human but Rollins assigns some fairly human traits to him. If you can buy the premise this is a well-written, dark tale, but I suspect will be divisive. I liked it.

Out of the Dark by David Weber packs an epic story into is 80-odd pages, with Earth falling to an alien invasion and a mixed force of American and Romanian soldiers fighting back in the Balkans. A fast-paced, well-written story up until the last two pages, when it goes completely bonkers with an ending that explodes the corn-o-meter. If you can swallow the premise of the finale, this is a fun story. The Girls from Avenger by Carrie Vaugh is a more restrained and intelligent story about the Women Airforce Service Pilots in WWII and the sexism faced by female pilots from their male colleagues. Ancient Ways by SM Stirling, set in his Emberverse setting, sees a Cossack and a Kalmyk warrior join forces to rescue a princess from the city of Astrakhan. Great fun, with plenty of rousing action and enjoyable banter between the two soldiers.

Ninieslando by Howard Waldrop is very oddball, a story about an English soldier in WWI who finds himself in another world. The premise is intriguing, perhaps a little under-developed, but the story ticks along nicely. Recidivist by Gardner Dozois channels elements of the New Weird and hard SF in a very dark story that is somewhat reminiscent of China Mieville's work, with a memorable ending. My Name is Legion by David Morrell is about the French Foreign Legion fighting in Syria during WWII, and is both entertaining as a solid war story and also informative about the Foreign Legion and its history.

Defenders of the Frontier
by Robert Silverberg is about a group of soldiers holding a remote fortress with no word or reinforcements from HQ for years. At what point should they get up and head home? A clever story with some interesting questions and no easy answers. The Scroll by David Ball is one of the strongest stories in the anthology, featuring a French siege engineer who is captured by a Moroccan king and forced to endure tremendous hardship as the king tries to break him. A brutal, dark and compelling story with a killer final line. The last story is GRRM's The Mystery Knight, his third story of Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire Egg as they get embroiled in intrigue and battle some ninety years before the events of A Game of Thrones.

Overall, this is one of the strongest collections I have read. No duff stories, no weak links and no filler, with each author bringing their A-game. Having read Warriors (*****), I now have a list of new authors I'm going to have to check out at some point.

The book is available now in the USA and in the UK via Amazon and other online sellers, as well as certain branches of Forbidden Planet.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Where to Start? - Peter F. Hamilton

Thanks to the power of the Internet, more and more readers are receiving recommendations about authors they should check out. However, given the prolific nature of some authors and their dabbling in multiple series (complete with multiple starting points, thanks to prequels, first-published novels and so on), finding a good starting point can be tricky.

A case in point is Peter F. Hamilton, who has written multiple novels, some set in different universes, with his individual settings and universes having multiple entry points. So where is the best place to start with his work?


The Greg Mandel Universe


In Hamilton's Greg Mandel Trilogy, mid-21st Century Britain has been ravaged by global warming, an extremist Communist government, a bloody civil war, and, most traumatic of all, the capital of the nation being moved to Peterborough (easily the single most far-fetched concept in the entirety of Hamilton's fiction). In the aftermath of these catastrophes, semi-psychic soldier of fortune Greg Mandel investigates various crimes and corporate politics. It's all rousing stuff.

Fortunately, Hamilton has only ever written three books set in this universe: Mindstar Rising (1993), A Quantum Murder (1994) and The Nanoflower (1995). So if you want to check this series out, start with Mindstar Rising. Simple.


The Night's Dawn Universe


In Hamilton's Night's Dawn setting, humanity has expanded into space and, by the early 27th Century, has colonised some 860 planets and split into two divergent strains, the technology-enhanced Adamists and the genetically-engineered Edenists, and met several alien races. This is big-canvas, epic space opera of the highest order.

There are two viable starting points for this setting. There is the Night's Dawn Trilogy, of which the first book is The Reality Dysfunction (1996), Hamilton's single finest novel. There is also a short story collection spanning 500-odd years leading up to the first novel, entitled A Second Chance at Eden (1998). The collection is shorter and features a greater variety of stories and prose styles, and may make for a more digestible taster of Hamilton's writing skills before embarking on the 3,600 pages of the trilogy.


The Commonwealth Universe


Hamilton's Commonwealth setting follows a different path to Night's Dawn. Whilst still serving as epic space opera, the series features more advanced technology based around wormholes. Wormhole portals link the worlds of the Intersolar Commonwealth together, so people literally take a train ride from one planet to another. There are few spaceships (to start off with) and the setting is slightly more exotic, with humans living for centuries thanks to rejuvenation technology.

There are three entry points to this sequence. Misspent Youth (2002) is, chronologically, the earliest volume in the sequence, set in the 2040s in Britain where the rejuvenation technology has just been invented. Whilst viable, the book is probably Hamilton's weakest single novel and features little in common with the larger events of the later books. There are a couple of Easter egg mentions in the later novels to characters and events in Misspent Youth, but overall I'd put it off until later.

Pandora's Star (2004) is the first book in the Commonwealth Saga duology, set 340 years after Misspent Youth, and makes for the best entry point to this setting. Its direct sequel is Judas Unchained (2005), which is less the second book in the series and more the other half of Pandora's Star.

The Dreaming Void (2007) picks up on events in the Commonwealth setting 1,200 years later, and is the first in the Void Trilogy, followed by The Temporal Void (2008) and The Evolutionary Void (2010). Hamilton is also planning a further trilogy set in this universe. Whilst Hamilton goes to some lengths to make The Dreaming Void stand alone, it does spoil the end of The Commonwealth Saga and reveals which characters from the earlier series survive. At least three major characters from Commonwealth also appear in the Void sequence. For these reasons, whilst it is not impossible to enjoy the Void books on their own, I would heavily recommend starting with Pandora's Star first.


The stand-alones


These are pretty straightforward. Fallen Dragon (2001) and Great North Road (2012, planned) are self-contained novels set in their own universes with no relation to anything else Hamilton has written. For these reasons, they can be read at any point with no problem.


Conclusion

If you want to read a varied sample of Hamilton trying different narrative devices, playing with different prose styles and so on, start with A Second Chance at Eden.
If you want to read a completed, epic SF space opera series, start with The Reality Dysfunction.
If you want to read a near-future, SF detective thriller, start with Mindstar Rising.
If you want a totally stand-alone novel with no sequels, start with Fallen Dragon.
If you want to read a really long (five books and climbing) series, start with Pandora's Star.

Hope that helps!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Actors announced for WARHAMMER 40,000 movie

A Warhammer 40,000 movie is currently in pre-production. Dubbed Ultramarines, the movie will be fully rendered in CGI, using the enormous art resources of the 24-year-old miniatures game and fiction line, and will be independently produced for DVD release. The script is being written by Dan Abnett, the most popular author of Warhammer-related fiction (and one of the biggest-selling SF authors in Britain).


Three major actors have been announced as providing voiceovers for the movie: John Hurt (the first-ever victim of an alien chestburster in Alien), Terence Stamp (Superman II's General Zod) and Sean Pertwee (that guy who dies a lot in movies). In addition, providing solid backup will be Donald Sumpter (recently seen as Kemp in Being Human and soon to be seen as Maester Luwin in HBO's Game of Thrones), Steven Waddington (from The Tudors) and Johnny Harris (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Dorian Gray and the forthcoming Black Death, alongside Sean Bean).

The actors discuss their roles here:



The most entertaining moment is John Hurt - a distinguished, multi-award winning actor - revealing his foreknowledge of the WH40K universe gained through his son being an enormous fan, and Donald Sumpter dryly pointing out the rarity of being asked to play eight-foot-tall armour-plated killing machines at his age.

This project, which previously I had been dubious about due to the straight-to-DVD angle and it being filmed outside the Hollywood system, now appears to have some more weight to it. Abnett is a good writer, and there's no way Hollywood would ever touch the WH40K universe with a bargepole without completely destroying all the stuff that makes it interesting (the lack of any clear-cut good and bad guys, most notably). These actors are also of reasonably impressive stature as well. Interesting to see how this turns out.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

TRON LEGACY trailer

Due for release on 17 December this year, Tron Legacy is the sequel to the influence 1982 movie Tron, notable for its early use of 3D graphics (although a large amount of the supposed 3D imagery was actually traditional rotoscoped animation). Tron Legacy picks up the story thirty years from the original movie and sees Sam Flynn, son of the original movie's main character Kevin, go looking for his father in the mainframe world.

Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner reprise their roles as Kevin Flynn and Alan Bradley in the movie, which also features a soundtrack from French electronic musicians Daft Punk and visuals based on updated versions of the original film's designs (including a new riff on the famous light-cycle sequence).



I remember seeing the original movie and being impressed by its look and atmosphere. The trailer for the sequel seems to promise a similarly atmospheric adventure, with a reassuring lack of explosions or rock music. After Avatar, this might be the next film whose visuals are best appreciated in 3D.

Lostwatch 9: Season 6, Episodes 1-6

Having been displaced in time to the late 1970s, several of the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 and assorted allies have managed to return to the present by detonating a nuclear device on the mysterious Island. Jack Shepherd's original hope was to change history and prevent Flight 815 from ever crashing on the Island in the first place, but this does not seem to have worked. Shepherd and his friends are soon re-apprehended by the Others and taken to their new home, the Temple, whilst on the other side of the Island the person who has taken the identity of John Locke is making his own plans...


Meanwhile, on 22 September 2004, Oceanic Flight 815 makes its scheduled landing at Los Angeles International Airport, despite some minor in-flight turbulence experienced whilst crossing the Pacific. All 324 passengers disembark safely.

Lost's final season opens in a brain-scrambling note. The attempt to use a nuclear device to change history at the end of the fifth season appears to have failed, although it has (somehow; this plot point is papered over a bit) also returned our heroes to the present, where the Others are preparing for a showdown with the so-called 'Man in Black' who has taken the form of the late John Locke. Simultaneously, we get 'flash-sideways' to another reality where the plan apparently worked and Flight 815 did make it to LAX. In lieu of the flashbacks of the first three seasons, the flash-forwards of the fourth and the time shifts of the fifth, we now get scenes from this second timeline interspersed with the existing one.

To some degree, your enjoyment of Lost's final season will depend on how you view the sideways storylines. On the one hand, it is vaguely amusing to see what would have happened if our heroes had never crashed on the Island, but since the point of divergence in the timeline seems to have been in 1977 there are a lot of changes to this timeline as well. Jack has a son, Kate killed a different person, Hurley never had really bad luck, Boone was unable to get Shannon to leave Australia and so on. These changes make it hard to get emotionally involved in the sideways, since they seem to have no direct impact on the 'primary' storyline of what is happening back on the Island.

This is problematic as the 'primary' storyline now seems to be moving into the endgame. The two factions (a now-ghostly Jacob and his so-far nameless enemy) are gathering their forces, some long-standing mystery elements are being explained (we now know what the Monster is, even if we are unsure how it entirely came to be) and some old story elements from prior seasons have been revisited (such as the 'Adam and Eve' skeletons in the caves, as well as the Numbers). To cut away from such elements to find out that in the parallel universe Kate is still a screw-up is frustrating, to say the least, although this does vary by character. Sayid's descent into darkness in the primary storyline whilst we see him in a (somewhat) better light in the flash-sideways is well-played, for example, whilst Jack's sideways episode (surprisingly, for a Jack-centric episode) does not suck. The producers promise that the relevance of the sideways flashes will become clear soon enough, at which point they may bear revisiting.

Elsewhere, the acting remains strong and there is a welcome addition to the cast in the form of Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (notable for almost decapitating Tom Cruise during the filming of The Last Samurai), who plays the enigmatic leader of the Temple guardians, Dogen, although in fine Lost fashion we find out little about him before his apparent exit from the show (this being Lost, I doubt we've seen the last of him). Terry O'Quinn also works gangbusters as he simultaneously portrays Locke (in the sideways flashes) and the unknown adversary who has taken on his form, whilst Jorge Garcia as Hurley continues to provide effective level-headed leadership when required (taking over from Jack as an effective leader figure in one episode, surprisingly) and excellent fourth-wall-breaking observations elsewhere (at on point directly voicing a fan-favourite theory for the origins of the skeletons in the caves). Naveen Andrews also continues to deliver reliable performances, even if his descent to the dark side is a little obvious.

With the exception of the requisite weak Kate-centric episode, the sixth season of Lost has so far effectively mixed effective mystery resolutions with an interesting ongoing storyline on the Island, although the relevance of the flash-sideways storylines remain somewhat obtuse (they may improve once we know their full role). With ten episodes left, it will be interesting to see how well Lost is able to deliver those long-promised answers, but so far things seem promising.

601-602: LA X (****)
603: What Kate Does (**)
604: The Substitute (****)
605: The Lighthouse (****)
606: Sundown (****½)

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

Bruno is a nine-year-old boy living in Berlin who is happy going to school and playing with his friends. When his father gets a new job, their family has to move to a place called 'Out-With', a cold and desolate place in the country, where Bruno and his sister Gretel have to be tutored at home. Ignoring warnings to remain close to the house, Bruno explores the edges of the huge wired-off camp next to their house and meets a boy named Shmuel who lives on the other side of the fence, with whom he becomes friends.


The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an un-researched, wholly unbelievable and rather insulting novel. John Boyne writes his book in an extremely earnest tone, using the horrors and misery of the Holocaust to...I'm not sure what actually. The book is extremely short (210 pages of extremely large type and unusually narrow margins) and appears to be completely bereft of any kind of point. Bruno moves next to Auschwitz (but doesn't know what it is), moans about leaving his friends behind, meets a Jewish boy and they swap some illuminating stories (except they aren't) and there's a few knowing moments when adult readers can work out some nasty things are going on off-page and then it ends on a note so contrived and unbelievable it is borderline comedic.


The book is based around a series of lies. A nine-year-old boy growing up in Berlin in 1943 would be close to the age for entering the Hitler Youth (by this stage compulsory) and would have been educated at school about the 'evils' of Judaism. The notion that a nine-year-old boy in Nazi Germany wouldn't know what a Jew was or that there was even a war on is completely farcical. His twelve-year-old sister definitely would, as she would be a member of the League of German Girls (the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth) and by this point would be pretty heavily indoctrinated in National Socialism. The idea that the daughter of a senior military official and someone personally earmarked for greatness by Hitler himself (who has dinner at the family house at one point in the book) would evade this compulsory service is also inconceivable. The notion that a prisoner of Auschwitz would be able to spend hours on end, day after day, talking to someone through a fence without a single guard or other prisoner noticing is also fundamentally unbelievable.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (*) is a book that the author conceived of and wrote apparently in a deliberate effort to be worthy and artistic, but then did no research for the book (apparently written over a single weekend; it shows, badly) at all, making elementary errors that even the most casual student of WWII, Nazi and Jewish history will pick up on immediately. This is that most pitiful of books, a contrived narrative that makes an attempt to deliberately tug at the heartstrings by employing a real-life horror to make up for the writer's lack of ability. Definitely one to be avoided.