Tuesday, 31 May 2011


Orbit Books have unveiled the cover art for The Riyria Revelations, a series of six self-published books by indie author Michael J. Sullivan which they are reprinting as a trilogy. The cover art is by the excellent Larry Rostant.

Theft of Swords is due in November 2011, followed by Rise of Empire in December 2011 and Heir of Novron in January 2012. The cover blurb for the first volume:

Royce Melborn, a skilled thief, and his mercenary partner, Hadrian Blackwater, make a profitable living carrying out dangerous assignments for conspiring nobles – until they are hired to steal a famed sword from the palace of the king and find themselves caught up in a conspiracy to overthrow the empire. Sentenced to death, they have only one way out, to get involved in the plots of the nobles and save the kingdom from itself.

Can one thief and his master swordsman of a friend keep their heads above water long enough to survive? Much less solve the mystery that threatens to topple the crown itself?

…and so begins this epic tale of treachery and adventure, sword fighting and magic, myth and legend.

THE HOBBIT movies are named

It has been announced that the two movies based on The Hobbit will have the following subtitles. Part 1, due in cinemas on 14 December 2012, will be An Unexpected Journey and Part 2, due out in 13 December 2013, will be There and Back Again.

Jackson has also recently confirmed that Orlando Bloom will be returning to the role of Legolas. Whether this is for an extended appearance or will just be a cameo is unclear. Additionally, Jackson has also said (in response to questions on his Facebook page) that the two movies will include a subplot about Gandalf and the White Council attacking Dol Guldur, a plot kept firmly off-page in the novel.

Rounding off, Jackson posted a picture of Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) and Ian McKellen (Gandalf) planning the attack in some detail. Ahem.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

RIP Jeff Conaway

Sadly, it was confirmed that today actor Jeff Conaway has passed away at the age of 60. Whilst the general audience would know him best for his roles as Kenickie in the movie version of Grease and as Bobby Wheeler on the American sitcom Taxi, SF fans would recognise him the most for his role as security officer Zack Allen on Babylon 5.

Conaway played the role of Allen for four seasons, making his first appearance in the sixth episode of Season 2, Spider in the Web, apparently as a featured extra. Conaway had watched and enjoyed the first season at home and had asked his agent to try and get him a role on the show. Whilst glad of the work, Conaway was surprised at the low profile nature of the role. However, as the second season continued the role of Zack Allen expanded radically and in the third season he became a major character, featured in the title sequence of the show. He went on to appear in several of the subsequent TV movies.

Post-Babylon 5, Conaway became better-known in the USA for his candid admission of substance abuse problems and repeated efforts to enter rehab, several times on reality TV shows. Unfortunately, despite several clean periods, he had several relapses and his death has been reported as being drug-related.

Conaway is sadly the fourth actor from Babylon 5 to pass away in recent years. Tim Choate (Zathras) was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2004, Richard Biggs (Dr. Stephen Franklin) passed away from heart disease the same year and Andreas Katsulas (G'Kar) passed away in 2006 from lung cancer.

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Walking Dead: Season 1

Rick Grimes, a sheriff in a small Georgia town, is shot during an altercation and ends up in a coma. Waking up weeks later, he finds the hospital abandoned and corpses everywhere. He quickly discovers that the country is overrun by the walking dead. Rick sets out to find his missing wife and son, hoping they made it to the promised 'safe zone' in Atlanta, but finds that the city has fallen. But there are other survivors out there...

Based on Robert Kirkman's comics, The Walking Dead is essentially a zombie movie that 'never ends' (or at least will go on much longer than any zombie movie or even series of zombie movies). Frank Darabont, the much-feted director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, has applied his writing and directing skills to Kirkman's comic to create something quite impressive.

The Walking Dead's opening episode is bleak and cinematic, with Rick's predicament ably transmitted through Darabont's claustrophobic direction and Andrew Lincoln's superb performance as Rick. Lincoln, a Brit best-known for his comedic role in Teachers, plays Rick's frustration, fear and concern for his missing family to perfection. The first episode, with Rick alone against the zombie hordes, is arguably the best, but the remainder of the short first season, which sees Rick link up with a band of survivors outside Atlanta, is only a notch down in quality.

The rest of the first season concerns itself with the survivors arguing over what to do next and explores the dynamics of the group. Rick's old cop partner Shane has been leading the group, but finds himself supplanted by Rick, which leads to some tension. Two of the other members of the group are racist thugs, setting up tension with the black and Hispanic members of the group, whilst another survivor takes out his frustrations and anger with the situation on his wife. It's not a happy group, and the writers and directors do a good job of exploring the characters and their interactions whilst remembering to bring the zombies on every once in a while to cause mayhem.

Production values are extremely high. The zombie effects are great (a couple of them are obviously fake heads over ordinary people's faces, but these are very rare), up there with the best movies, whilst Atlanta (population 5 million, including the surrounding area) looks convincingly abandoned and bleak. There's a couple of ropey CGI explosions, but beyond that, The Walking Dead looks and feels like a big-budget movie.

The story unfolds at a pretty good pace, though there's a couple of divergences in the second half of the season and a few moments of possible wheel-spinning. However, given that one of the appeals of the story (in both comic and TV form) is that it has the time to show such side-plots and explore the fall of America to a zombie horde in greater detail than a film or novel, that's not an invalid thing to do. By the end of the season there's also a renewed sense of purpose, as the survivors realise that the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) HQ is in Atlanta and may have some of the answers they are looking for. This marks the biggest change from the comics, where the CDC is not mentioned, but as Robert Kirkman (who wrote the fourth episode of the series) points out that's only because he didn't know it was there. If he had, the comics would also have gone there. This sets up a number of interesting possible storylines for Season 2.

Season 1 of The Walking Dead (****½) is a terrific, well-paced and well-acted post-apocalypse series. Let down only by a couple of meandering story threads, it's otherwise a great piece of television. The series is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Next SHADOWS OF THE APT book delayed

On his blog Adrian Tchaikovsky has confirmed that the seventh volume of his Shadows of the Apt series will not make its August publication date. Though the novel was handed in a few months ago, the turn-around proved a little tight. The novel will instead be published on 7 October 2011. Since that means that Tchaikovsky still gets two large fantasy novels out in the same year (Book 6, The Sea Watch, only came out a couple of months ago), that's hardly a disaster.

Tchaikovsky is now hard at work on the eighth volume, provisionally titled The Air War, for publication in 2012.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan

A year ago, the famous swordsman Ringil Eskiath, hero of Gallow's Gap, prevented the return of the Dwenda, the ancient rulers of mankind, to the Earth. Ringil and his wartime allies, Egar the barbarian warrior and the half-Kiriath agent Archeth, stand vigilant against any future incursions by this foe.

Now Egar, Archeth and Ringil face separate mysteries. A bar-room brawl and reports of slaves being held in unusual circumstances leads Egar into an ill-advised confrontation with the Empire's dominant religion. A warning from the Helmsmen sends Archeth on a mission into the wastelands to recover a valuable item, an item which comes with a dire warning. And a chance encounter between a runaway slave and Ringil results in blood, mayhem and revelations of a dark kind.

The Cold Commands is the long-awaited sequel to Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains, the author's first foray away from SF and into the arena of secondary world fantasy. The Steel Remains was a blood-soaked, swords and sorcery adventure, black of humour and fairly brimming over with violence and sex (most of it graphic and gay, to the disquiet of some readers). It was solid enough stuff, though perhaps not as good as the billing suggested. Morgan's SF is so good because he writes with anger, flair and passion, and is at its best when he is clearly ticked off about something (in Black Man, particularly the self-destruction of a society which cannot talk to itself, only throw up barriers and tear itself apart). The Steel Remains, though a reasonably solid novel, lacked the vitality of his earlier SF.

The Cold Commands has that energy back, and in spades. Here Morgan confronts the issues of religious fundamentalism and blind dogma as the Citadel attempts to garner more control over the Empire than the young (and notoriously uncompromising) Emperor. Archeth recalls the religious disagreements that almost tore apart her parents' marriage: her Kiriath father's mounting horror as his calm, rational scientific explanations for everything are rejected by his human wife in favour of rote-learned rhetoric. These issues give the book a bit of a philosophical and thematic kick to it that sees Morgan's writing return to the top of its game.

Whilst this issue is present and explored intriguingly, it does not overwhelm the plot. This time around there is a three-pronged storyline with each of the major protagonists having their own story arc to follow. Ringil probably has slightly more action than Archeth and Egar, but the division of responsibility between the three is more equal this time around. This approach contributes to the book's greater length (more than half again the size of The Steel Remains) and also allows Morgan to bring in the noir-like investigative tone of his earlier SF work. We also get a lot more backstory and revelations about the mysteries of the world, which further the hints in The Steel Remains that this is as much a far-future SF story as it is a fantasy epic.

Morgan's skills with characterisation are extremely strong, as usual. Ringil remains an unreliable and flawed protagonist, whose motivations are fascinating and complex, whilst Archeth is conflicted and guilt-driven, unsure of her place in the world now the rest of her people have departed. Even the relatively straightforward Egar has his frustrations and demons that drive him to make some spectacular mistakes which drive the plot onwards. The secondary cast, this time consisting of mostly new faces with only a few returning characters, is also extremely well-drawn, particularly the increasingly punchable young Emperor and the new character of Anasharal, who is amusing and annoying in equal measure.

This is a character-driven and intelligent fantasy novel, but Morgan doesn't forget to bring the mayhem. There's a midnight raid on a temple that Robert E. Howard would have approved of, more swordfights and murders than you can shake a stick at and a few rare but impressive displays of sorcery...though the dividing line between 'sorcery' and 'vastly superior technology' is intriguingly blurry.

In fact, the only thing lets The Cold Commands down is that a major storyline is kicked into gear in the latter part of the novel only to be put on hold for the impressive finale. With this story presumably left to be picked up in the third book, this means that The Cold Commands does not stand alone as nicely as the The Steel Remains, and is not as self-contained. This is a relatively minor issue, but one worth bearing in mind.

The Cold Commands (****½) sees Morgan back on top form and delivering a book as passionate, fast-paced, smart and furious as any of his SF. The novel will be published on 11 October in both the UK and USA.

The Order of the Scales by Stephen Deas

The dragon realms have fallen into open warfare. As armies of dragon-riders do battle in the skies over the nine kingdoms, different factions maneuver and jockey for position during the chaos. The Taiytakei scheme to gain control of dragons themselves, whilst the alchemists fret over their dwindling supplies of the potions that control the dragons. If the supply runs out, a cull must take place. In the middle of it all, Jehal, the Speaker of the Realms, furthers his own ambitions and Snow, a dragon freed from the control of humans, continues her plans to liberate all dragons from the yoke of humanity, forever.

The Order of the Scales brings to a conclusion the Memory of Flames trilogy, following on from The Adamantine Palace and The King of the Crags. The first two novels left the world of the dragon-riders in a precarious state, and The Order of the Flames pushes it over the edge into full-blown warfare. Those who enjoy the idea of vast armies of hundreds of dragons engaging in battle will be well-catered for here. However, Deas maintains the focus on the characters, most notably Jehal and Kemir, and shows their plots and lives unravelling in the face of the chaos they have both set in motion.

As with the first two books, this is a relatively short volume by epic fantasy standards (340 pages in tradeback) and Deas packs a huge amount in. There are moments when a pause for breath might be appreciated, or subtler moments of characterisation might be expanded upon, but the ferocious pace of the series is one of its hallmarks, and Deas packs in enough side-detail to give the world the feeling of depth without resorting to filler. As a result it's a relentless read, though I'd recommend re-reading or at least skimming the first two books to reacquaint yourself with the storyline and characters, as Deas takes no prisoners with characters picking up exactly where The King of the Crags left them and carrying on without a pause for breath.

As the conclusion of the series, the book is extremely ruthless, with a startling number of major character deaths. It's also a somewhat messy finale, with numerous plot strands left dangling for future books. And yes, there will be more books in the same world, with another volume, The Black Mausoleum, already on the way to follow up on the ending of this trilogy. There is enough closure to make this book mostly satisfying, though those looking for happy, neat ending are directed elsewhere.

The Order of the Scales (****) is a fast-paced and violent conclusion to an interesting series, epic in scope but low in bloat and marked out by memorably vicious characters (scaled and unscaled). The novel is available now in the UK and will be published on 9 February 2012 in the USA.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Game of Thrones: Season 1, Episodes 4-6

Game of Thrones continues putting the pieces on the board in preparation for the mayhem to be unleashed towards the end of the season. Like many other HBO series, Thrones isn't really for those providing a quick fix. Instead, following in the footsteps of The Wire and Rome, these early episodes are mainly concerned with establishing character and storylines in readiness for the bigger events to come.

The fourth episode, Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things, is written by the show's 'lorekeeper' and script editor, Bryan Cogman. This change in voice (the first three were written by producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) is noticeable in that we get a lot of exposition-heavy scenes. Viserys tells Doreah about the Targaryen dragons, Tyrion taunts Theon about his people's defeat in a rebellion ten years ago and we learn that King Robert likes to fool around on the side. It's all interesting stuff, but it slows down the action and feels a little clunky. Luckily, there's no such problem at the Wall, where we get a self-contained narrative in which Jon Snow welcomes a new recruit, Samwell Tarly (excellent work by John Bradley-West), and protects him from the bullying of Ser Alliser Thorne (similarly great work by Owen Teale). This results in a terrific scene where Thorne spells out exactly what members of the Watch are expected to do and the conditions they have to live in beyond the Wall, where soft boys like Sam will die like flies when the winter comes.

It's a notable scene because in the books Alliser Thorne is something of an incidental character. Not undeveloped (he has some great material in Book 2) but definitely more background than here. The TV writers have taken a leaf from GRRM's book in making both Thorne and Viserys into more ambiguous figures, still antagonistic but with more understandable motivations and backgrounds.

The fourth episode thus gets points deducted for clunkiness but added for the great material at the Wall and also for the brutal tourney scene, where Conan Stevens is introduced as the imposing Ser Gregor Clegane, before finishing on a terrific high as one of the most memorable scenes in the novel - Catelyn's confrontation and 'arrest' of Tyrion at the Crossroads Inn - leaps straight from the page to the screen. It's a tribute to Peter Dinklage's acting that as much as we sympathise with Tyrion, it's also the case that he's been right about everything so far and been rather smug about it, so seeing the grin wiped off his face here is oddly satisfying.

The fifth episode, The Wolf and the Lion, fires along on all cylinders. The tourney continues to unfold, resulting in a confrontation between Gregor and his brother. We also meet Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones), the Knight of the Flowers, whose arrogance in combat and easy charm with the commoners is ripped straight from the books. What appears to be different is the establishing of him in the TV series as Renly's kingmaker. Whilst not incompatible with the novels, it's something not clearly established, but it's a reasonably effective idea (especially if Mace Tyrell is behind the suggestion, as Loras's dialogue hints). Loras and Renly's relationship, which is low-key and mostly off-page in the novels, is more overtly established here, and is an effective way of establishing Renly's character (which is very different to the books, but his self-doubt and apparent reluctance to seize the throne distinguishes him from Robert and Stannis).

The fifth episode is also effective in dropping the Wall and Vaes Dothrak threads to focus on events in King's Landing and the Eyrie, where Tyrion is dragged before the stark-raving Lysa Arryn and her over-coddled son Robin (changed from the novels, apparently to avoid confusion with Robert and Robb) in one of the more bizarre scenes from the series to date. The Eyrie is established in just two scenes as a great castle that has become a bizarre madhouse under Lysa, which again is somewhat different from the books but is again effective. In fact, the Eyrie itself is radically different from the novels, losing the waycastles, the Gates of the Moon and the memorable ascent of the mountain. Whilst it's still an impressive design, it's one of the first times with the imagery that what we get on-screen falls disappointingly short of the books.

Back in King's Landing we get a number of new scenes, but this time less concerned with establishing backstory than character. So Cersei and Robert get a disarmingly candid conversation about their relationship which is played for all its worth by both actors (Mark Addy in particular has silenced those critical of his casting to make for a memorable Robert, a mixture of bluster, humour, bitterness and frustrated rage), whilst Conleth Hill delivers several excellent performances as Varys in quick succession. Maisie Williams continues to impress the most out of the younger cast, making Arya funny and sympathetic but also admirable and slightly worryingly psychotic. But the best scene of the episode is held for last, as Sean Bean and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau do great work as Eddard and Jaime cross swords. Coster-Waldau plays Jaime to perfection as he enjoys the fight, is slightly surprised to find someone who is almost as good as him, and then gets pissed off when one of his soldiers interferes with the fight. Great stuff.

The sixth episode, A Golden Crown, continues the fine work as Tyrion, after negotiating with a demented jailer, convinces the redoubtable Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to fight on his behalf. Flynn - light-years from his roles as a trooper in Soldier, Soldier or as a chart-topping easy listenin' singer - nails Bronn's greed and total lack of honour in the effectively brutal fight that results and gives us a great line: "You do not fight with honour!" "No, he did."

Back in King's Landing Syrio continues training Arya and gets another brilliant line: "There is only one god and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we can say to Death: 'Not today'." At this point I would happily campaign for a Syrio spin-off series. We also get a great scene where Eddard makes a rash pronouncement in the throne room (with perhaps unnecessary commentary from Littlefinger) and later realises the truth of the secret that Jon Arryn died for.

However, as the title indicates, the most momentous events are held for across the Narrow Sea. Harry Lloyd saves his best for last here as Viserys realises how powerless and unloved he is, pushing him to acts of desperation and foolishness (with more terrific work by Iain Glen as Jorah Mormont) which eventually prove terminal. The final scene is a powerful and effective restaging of a key scene from the novel.

Game of Thrones is starting to really hit its stride. Moments of clunky exposition aside, the show is definitely building momentum and energy as it approaches the point in the books where all hell breaks loose.

104: Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things (***½)
105: The Wolf and the Lion (****½)
106: A Golden Crown (****½)

Forthcoming: You Win or You Die (29/5/11), The Pointy End (5/6/11), Baelor (12/6/11), Fire and Blood (19/6/11).

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

New cover art for Christopher Priest's THE ISLANDERS

Gollancz have sent me a new working image for the cover of Christopher Priest's long-awaited new novel, The Islanders, due out in the autumn:

Intriguing, and retro. Reminds me of those old Pan paperbacks from the 1980s with the crisp white spines and the multi-coloured 3D images that look like they've come off an Archimedes computer. I like the clean lines of it, very cool. Interesting to see how it changes between now and publication.

Friday, 20 May 2011

GRRM gives a final status report on A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

George R.R. Martin has provided a final update and status report on A Dance with Dragons. He confirms that the final editing for the book is completed and all is now set for publication on 12 July as previously planned.

Martin provides some interesting information on the book. A Dance with Dragons consists of 75 chapters, including a prologue or epilogue (second only to ASoS's 82 chapters). The final manuscript count is 1,510 MS pages, compared to A Storm of Swords's 1,521 MS pages (neither counting maps, appendices or acknowledgements pages), thanks to a final editing pass.

Martin also comments on the book's POV character roster. Note that this is where things get spoilery if you haven't been following the POV count so far. Also note that the comments section may also get spoilery.

The POV roster is:

Varamyr Sixskins (prologue)
Daenerys Targaryen
Jon Snow
Tyrion Lannister
Jaime Lannister
Cersei Lannister
Arya Stark
Bran Stark
Davos Seaworth
Melisandre of Asshai
Barristan Selmy
Areo Hotah
Quentyn Martell
Theon Greyjoy
Asha Greyjoy
Victarion Greyjoy
One more unrevealed POV character
An unrevealed epilogue character.

Martin confirms that whilst the POV roster is large - 16 characters, plus the prologue and epilogue - almost half of the chapters in the book are dedicated to Daenerys, Jon and Tyrion, with Theon coming in a little behind them. Some characters will only have a small number of chapters, like Cersei, Jaime, Melisandre and (last we heard) Bran.

GRRM also provides unusually detailed information about the evolution of the novel before signing off by saying that work on The Winds of Winter - the sixth and (hopefully) penultimate novel in the series - has now begun.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The districts are rebelling against the Capitol, united by the symbol of the Mockingjay. Katniss Everdeen, the symbol of the rebellion, is now living in the secretive District 13 where she finds that she is to be used as a figurehead to bring President Snow down. However, Katniss is unhappy with the demands being put on her, and also with the fate of Peeta, now a prisoner of the Capitol. As two sides prepare for a final confrontation, Katniss has to ask if her new allies are no better than the enemy they seek to destroy.

Mockingjay brings the Hunger Games Trilogy to a suitably bloody and epic conclusion. Though it has to be said it's also a somewhat rushed and predictable conclusion.

As mentioned in my review of Catching Fire, Collins wasn't planning for this to be a series, so had to scramble quickly in the second book to lay out a larger and more epic story. Whilst laudable, this effort was flawed because the story wasn't originally set up that way, and so many new characters and concepts had to be introduced in Book 2 that the actual plot of the book, Katniss fighting in a second Hunger Games, was fairly rushed. That problem extends into Book 3. Whilst the possibility of District 13 was first voiced in Book 2, we don't see it until Mockingjay. This means that in the space of a 430-page, large-typeface novel, Collins has to set up a whole new faction with its own cast of characters, ideology and goals, then bring in the existing cast and have them interact, then have them unite for the final assault on the Capitol, and then examine the issues raised by these storylines.

Collins does a credible job, but it's clearly not ideal. If the series had been planned as a trilogy from the start, District 13 and its dubious rulers could have been introduced and established earlier. Katniss's relationship with them and her lack of respect for authority, even an authority trying to achieve her long-term goal of destroying President Snow's regime, makes for a solid storyline, but it is under-explored here. In fact, the book is so packed that lots of elements are under-explored, and characterisation suffers. In particular, Finnick lacks the flair and fire he showed in the previous novel that made an interesting character, whilst Peeta comes across badly. Katniss continues to be a more complex heroine than expected, but most of the other characters suffer (and Coin, the head of District 13, is a bit of a two-dimensional figure at best).

On the plus side, the rapid pace means that the book is certainly action-packed, and Collins has some ingenuity in coming up with more weapons for the Capitol to deploy against the rebels. There's also a nice contrast between the deadly serious final attack on the Capitol and the Hunger Games of the previous two novels. This is also a harsher novel: Collins is pretty ruthless with some characters and it's definitely a bloodier book where Katniss has to do some more morally questionable things that in prior novels, which raises the stakes and the tension in the ramp-up to the finale.

Mockingjay (***½) is a readable conclusion to the series, though the rushed pace hurts some aspects of it. However, the series is brought to a solid-enough conclusion, if a reasonably predictable one. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

First look at THE HUNGER GAMES movie

Staying with the Hunger Games topic for now, Entertainment Weekly's new issue in the USA reveals the first picture from the movie, showing Jennifer Lawrence in costume as Katniss Everdeen:

EW also have an interview with Lawrence about her getting the role on their website.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Having survived the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is back home in Sector 12, not looking forward to her role as a mentor for the next year's games. She is surprised to hear rumours that her defiance of the Capitol and President Snow during the Games has sparked unrest and even discord in other sectors. When she and her co-winner, Peeta, conduct a tour of the districts, Katniss realises that her name and her emblem, the mockingjay, are being taken up as a symbol of rebellion and hope.

Determined to crush Katniss's influence, Snow arranges a special new Hunger Games event for the 75th anniversary of the games. All the living winners of the games must return to the arena for a fresh battle...

Catching Fire is the second volume of The Hunger Games Trilogy, Suzanne Collins' highly successful, post-apocalypse, dystopian YA SF series. Collins never intended to write a trilogy, so Catching Fire has some work to do to set up a bigger storyline that will be resolved in the following novel, namely the move from merely being a story set in a dystopia to a more epic story about the overthrow of the oppressive government.

For these reasons Catching Fire has some issues. We're more than halfway through the novel before the second Hunger Games kick off, and we're not able to spend much time with those games before the conclusion arrives. This is a shame as Collins addresses some of the weaknesses of the first set of games, with many more contestants being identified and much better-characterised than first time around. The arena is also far more ingenious, with many more deadly traps. The games section of the novel and the conclusion are both rushed in an attempt to cover as much ground as possible before the final novel, which hurts the quality of this book.

That said, it's still a fast-paced, readable and enjoyable book. We see more of Panem and get more of a sense what life is like for people living there, which is essential to better-establish the wider backdrop of the series. On the characterisation front, Katniss isn't always a sympathetic protagonist and often makes mistakes, which makes her more relatable and real. Other characters, like Peeta and newcomers like Finnick, are also given some solid scenes and character-building moments. The mutual hatred and anger between Katniss and President Snow is also well-handled. However, the Capitol and its rulers are rather dense in this book. Everything they do seems designed to inflame the situation and further the rebellion, which is weird for people who've been in charge for a century and have used the Hunger Games as a form of propaganda and control for seventy-five years, which requires some savvy knowledge of media and PR. Instead, the plot feels set-up ahead of time and both the reader and the characters are along for the ride.

Catching Fire (***½) is a drop down in quality from The Hunger Games, but still an enjoyable and entertaining novel. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

GAME OF THRONES ratings update

Game of Thrones continues to build slowly in the USA, but its UK performance has become downright unpredictable.

Varys approves of the ratings news, but will not tell the King until it suits his inscrutable purpose.

Last week saw Thrones' UK overnight ratings completely unexpectedly shoot up to 628,000, a 20% increase over the preceding week after a two-week steady drop. Whatever caused that spike clearly wasn't around this week as ratings moved back down to 522,000, comparable to Episode 2 and 3's 531,000 and 506,000. Very curious. In the meantime the 'full week' ratings for Sky Atlantic, taking in online viewings and multiple repeats, continue to trickle in on a two-week delay. After Episode 1's phenomenal 1.852 million, Episode 2 saw a drop to 1.641 million. Episode 3 showed signs of levelling off at 1.584 million. The full ratings for Episode 4 will be interesting to watch, to see if there is a similar spike to the overnights, or if the overnights came at the expense of the repeat viewings and the overall figures remain level.

Overall, Thrones remains the most-watched show on Sky Atlantic. The overnights for its first five episodes are also the five-highest-rated episodes in the channel's history and its performance is strong.

In the USA, Thrones is enjoying a slow and steady build. The overnights for Episodes 1 and 2 were 2.2 million but this has crept up to 2.6 million this week. Consolidated viewings are harder to track, since constant repeats and re-streamings on HBO Go means that the viewing figures for all previously-aired episodes are constantly increasing. However, it appears that total figures for Episode 1 are now exceeding 9 million, whilst Episode 5 this week got up to over 3 million with the same-night repeats. Whilst Thrones isn't setting record books on fire, it's a steady improvement which has made the show the third-most-successful series on HBO's current roster, behind True Blood and Boardwalk Empire. If the steady build continues, HBO will be very happy indeed, though I suspect they'll be a lot happier (and more likely to increase the episode order for Season 2, which a lot of fans and critics are calling for) if there is a sharper increase as we move into the late season period.

The Wheel of Television: Bringing the WHEEL OF TIME to the Screen

In Hollywood success breeds imitation. A decade ago Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy made almost $3 billion at the box office. Over the last four years, a series of Discworld TV mini-series have been very successful in the UK, and last month HBO's Game of Thrones launched to rave reviews and strong ratings, being renewed for a second season almost immediately. It's likely that we will see a whole new eruption of fantasy projects in the next few years as Hollywood tries to cash in on the next big thing.

Almost certainly first on the list for some kind of adaptation is Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series of novels. The Wheel of Time is currently the dominant force in the epic fantasy subgenre. The thirteen novels (fifteen, including the guidebook and prequel) have sold approximately 50 million copies to date in more than two dozen countries, and the series will be attracting a substantial amount of publicity next year when the fourteenth and final novel, A Memory of Light, finally hits the shelves. Given the series' immense sales clout and popularity, some kind of adaptation has been on the cards for a while. About ten years ago, Robert Jordan sold an option to NBC, who were considering making a mini-series of The Eye of the World. Nothing came of this project after those pushing it at NBC departed. A Japanese animation studio contacted Robert Jordan with a proposal to adapt the first three books as a series of movies, but they only wanted to do the first three and change the ending of the third book to the ending of the entire series. Jordan turned down this proposal.

In the mid-2000s, Red Eagle Entertainment bought the rights from Robert Jordan to develop film, computer game and comic adaptations of The Wheel of Time. In August 2008 they entered into a partnership with Universal Pictures to develop a two-hour movie based on The Eye of the World. Three years on, there appears to have been no movement on this project, and it's unclear how much longer Universal's option has left before it expires. Whilst the success of Game of Thrones may inspire Universal to take another look at the project, I think it's more likely that we will see the project re-envisaged for television.

In a series of articles I'm going to be looking at the practicalities of bringing The Wheel of Time to the screen, considering its vast scope, huge cast and immense visual effects requirements. To start with, let's ask the most basic question of all.

Should This Even Be Attempted?

There is a strong opinion amongst a subset of Wheel of Time fans that no adaptation should even be attempted. This is a series of fourteen very large books, totalling 11,000 pages in paperback when all is said and done, featuring a cast of almost 2,000 named characters sprawling across dozens of major and minor storylines. The books are what they are. Why should they be brought to the screen?

The easy answer to this is that it's going to happen. At some point, whether it's next week or twenty years from now, there's going to be an adaptation of The Wheel of Time on screen. The books have sold too many copies and there is too much potential money in a successful adaptation for it to simply be left alone. As a result, it's better (I think) to be taking this as read and considering how it may be best achieved rather than simply hoping it won't happen.

In addition, working out how on earth you'd tackle this project makes for an interesting thought-experiment.

TV or Movie?

This is the next question and one that has driven a great deal of discussion over the years. The question results in a paradox which can be summed up concisely:
The Wheel of Time is too expensive to be a TV series. It needs to be a film.
The Wheel of Time is too long to be a film. It needs to be a TV series.
Basically, the books have too many huge battles, too much magic use, too many sets, too much location work and too many non-human creatures to be viable as a TV series. Only a series of movies capable of assigning hundreds of millions of dollars to two hour-blocks at a time can give the Wheel the visual look it needs.

At the same time, the books are too long with too many characters, too many storylines and too many subplots to be easily adapted as a series of films. To fit a 700-page novel (let alone the 1,000-page ones in the middle of the series) into two hours is impossible, which will result in epic cuts, with major characters and storylines having to be weeded out (great for Crossroads of Twilight, less so for The Eye of the World). Having fourteen films in the first place is also hopelessly unrealistic and impractical, splitting books across multiple films (an option apparently considered by Red Eagle) far moreso.

For me, the equation is a simple one to solve. The practical concerns about effects and budget are serious ones and should not be underestimated. However, the books don't exactly have a major battle sequence every five pages (and not one of the battles in the books so far rivals the battles that Game of Thrones will be depicting soon enough), whilst shows from Legend of the Seeker and Merlin through Heroes, BSG, Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have handled extensive special effects requirements on extremely modest budgets before. In short, the practical concerns can be handled or worked-around on TV. There is no way to address or work-around the cutting of major storylines and characters in a film adaptation.

Of course, some fans and critics would be happy to see a chainsaw taken to immense length and the vast cast of characters of the books, and certainly even a TV adaptation will have to be ruthless with some aspects of the story. But to work as a film or series of films, The Wheel of Time would have to lose major elements: the Seanchan and probably the Shaido would have to go for a start, along with many of the interim obstacles Rand faces on his quest to unite the world for the Last Battle. Most dangerously, the cutting would reduce Rand's story to its bare bones: a humble guy from a bucolic countryside who, with the help of his plucky friends and a wise mentor figure (albeit an attractive woman rather than an old guy) evades black-cloaked creatures and eventually goes to a volcano to confront the bad guy. Yeah, people might think they've seen that story before.

My conclusion is that if an adaptation must proceed, it must attempt to be faithful to at least the spirit (if not the letter) of the storyline set out in the books. Taking this hugely popular story and immediately ditching 90% of it makes no sense, so the movie option has to be dismissed (as Robert Jordan himself said many years ago). So now we can consider a TV show and all the immense impracticalities and challenges of that daunting prospect.

Next time I'll ponder how you shrink 11,000 pages of dense plotting into a workable outline for a TV series without destroying the story or scaring off viewers. This will include questions about the length and structure of the overall series, the length of individual seasons (can we tell the story of The Eye of the World in five or six hours, or does it need ten?) and what impact that will have on what needs to be cut and what can be kept intact.

First TINTIN movie trailer

The first trailer for The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn has been released.

Uh-huh. As a fan of the Tintin books as a kid I was looking forwards to this, but it does look like they've fallen into the Polar Express trap of dead-eyed, uncanny valley characters. A shame as the environments look phenomenal. Maybe they'll turn it around in the next few months before release, but I very much doubt it.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Possible blog downtime

My PC's been experiencing some 'machine check exception' errors recently, a rather nasty form of error which suggests something is screwed up in the power supply, motherboard or memory. My attempts to work out what the issue is haven't been too successful so far (ironically I just experienced an outage and reset halfway through writing this post) and the issues seem to be getting worse. Unfortunately I can't afford to replace the PC or get it serviced, so if the computer stops working altogether I'm pretty much screwed. If this happens my computer time will be limited to when I can borrow time on a friend's machine, which may only be for short bursts at the weekend. Particularly frustrating as I have several reviews backed up at the moment, as well as a new series of blogs on the possibilities of a Wheel of Time TV series.

Hopefully I can get this issue sorted, but if there are no more updates for a few days, that's the explanation :-)

Friday, 13 May 2011

Play the Game of...Monopoly?

io9 have published an amusing 'mod' for Monopoly, which transforms it into a Game of Thrones-themed boardgame. Check it out here.

And yes, it was my idea to make the Waterworks the Drowned God. Though sadly, not making him Cthulu.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

New UK cover art for A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

With just two months to publication (two months tomorrow, in fact) HarperCollins Voyager have decided to change the cover artwork for A Dance with Dragons. They are keeping the same style - the book will still sit comfortably next to your Feast for Crows hardcover - but have switched the image to match the US edition.

That seems okay. The sword image was a bit old now anyway and the detail on the shield is impressive. Not so sure about the cream colour though. I think the two US versions (orange and silver) may be a little bit more interesting, but this works well enough.

Scott Lynch & Andrzej Sapkowski news

People have been wondering where Scott Lynch's Republic of Thieves and the English translations of the remaining books in Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher series have gotten to for a while now. At great personal risk, I have managed to successfully snatch some nuggets of info from the secretive masters of Gollancz.

For The Republic of Thieves, the current plan remains to publish in November 2011, although this is not set in stone and is dependent on the final delivery of the manuscript. Gollancz have been working on parts of the book already and preparing it for production (shades of Voyager and Bantam's treatment of A Dance with Dragons), but a slip to 2012 hasn't been ruled out. Personally, given how heavy 2011 is with long-awaited and eagerly-awaited releases, a slip to 2012 for this book wouldn't entirely be a disaster. Though that said, getting the long-awaited Rothfuss, Martin and Lynch books in one year would be an interesting coincidence (and, combined with Abercrombie, Morgan, Erikson and Sanderson, will make next year's Gemmell Awards a total free-for-all).

For The Witcher books, apparently the hold-up has been to extremely tedious contractual issues which are now moving towards a resolution. Apparently once everything is sorted out, Gollancz (and presumably Orbit in the USA) will issue a statement about how they plan to get the rest of the books out.

So in both cases, no firm information, but definitely signs of movement on both fronts. What is good news is that Morgan's Cold Commands is now submitted and entering production, as is Christopher Priest's The Islanders, and both are on course for publication in the autumn.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Good Old Games drop IP checks; Australia rejoices

For a long time now, Australian gamers have lived under a cloud. Their government's insane game regulation laws means that no game can be released in Australia that would be rated more than a 15 locally, meaning that game companies either have to heavily re-localise games to edit out the more adult content (which is expensive and, given the relative size of Australia's population, not always cost-effective) or Australian gamers have to order in titles especially from overseas.

So, the news that the increasingly impressive Good Old Games website has dropped IP checks from its software will be extremely interesting to Australians or anyone else living in a country with extremely harsh game-censorship laws (Germany also comes to mind, though seem to be chilling out a little recently). GoG have said that they got tired of complaints from gamers travelling overseas who'd have to pay a different price to their home country or would have difficulties downloading legally-purchased games every time they crossed borders, so GoG have simply dropped the thing altogether. The fact that is just before the release of their heavily-trailed new RPG, The Witcher 2, (which had some minor edits for its Australian release) is almost certainly coincidental.

Exactly how this works - if Australians and others can actually buy games straight from the site or have to jump through some hoops - remains to be seen. But it's an interesting move from a company who seem to be making their business to make things as fair as possible for all their customers.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Pre-order DANCE WITH DRAGONS and get PRINCE OF THORNS for free

In the UK, Waterstones are offering a cool deal. Pre-order A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin and get Mark Lawrence's well-received debut novel, Prince of Thorns, for free. The deal is running from now to presumably when ADWD hits the shelves (on July 12th).

An interesting promotion. Prince of Thorns is next up on the review pile after the second Hunger Games novel, so I'll let you all know what I make of it.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Joe Abercrombie interviews George R.R. Martin

Before Game of Thrones began airing in the UK, Joe Abercrombie flew over to LA and sat down to record a television interview George R.R. Martin about the books, the TV series, A Dance with Dragons and more. Part 1 is here and Part 2 here. Grab 'em before Sky gets them taken down.

Saturday, 7 May 2011


In 2007, a photographer in New York City, Nev Schulman, was surprised to receive a parcel in the post containing a painting. It was a painting of a picture of his that had been published in The New York Sun some weeks earlier, and the artist was apparently only eight years old. Intrigued, Schulman began corresponding with Abby, the artist, online under her mother Angela's supervision. His brother Ariel and friend Henry, amateur film-makers, smell a potential good story here and begin filming Nev's interactions with Abby's family by phone and computer. Nev also comes into contact with Abby's family members via Facebook, particularly her 19-year-old sister Megan, whom he starts 'Internet dating'. Since the family live many hundreds of miles away in Michigan, the chances of meeting them soon do not appear to be likely.

Whilst working on a project in Colorado, the trio start to find holes in the story presented to them. Megan, who sings and plays guitar and piano, sends Nev some songs she's recorded, but he finds that they are recordings of songs from YouTube. Googling reveals no mention of Abby's artistic skills in local media. Nev becomes concerned over being scammed, and they decide to detour to Michigan on the way home to learn the truth.

Catfish is an interesting film that was released last year after proving a storm at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It then triggered a significant wave of controversy, though we'll come to that in a moment. It's easy to see why the film has been praised: it's a zeitgeist-capturing movie about people who forge relationships online where the details presented by the parties involved may be exaggerated or indeed fabricated altogether. The final act, exposing what's really going on, subverts audience expectations about the motivations of those involved. As a piece of film-making, Catfish is entertaining, intriguing and builds tension towards the moment of revelation (though it has to be said that this is a quiet, non-flashy film; the trailer suggesting it's a 'thriller' is totally inaccurate).

The film also asks an important question of the audience, one that may or may not have been intended by the film-makers. The film is about people passing themselves and a situation off as something that is rather different to what is presented. So, it is perfectly logical for the viewer to ask, "Okay, but what about you guys? Is this really what happened? Are you manipulating us?" If the film-makers had done this deliberately and perhaps avoided answering the question in promotion, it would be a fascinating and metatextual statement on presentation, perception and motivation in a world where it's all too easy to manipulate these things online for an intended purpose or effect. Unfortunately, the film-makers have spent a fair amount of time saying that everything in the film is 100% the truth and nothing has been changed or manipulated.

This claim is immediately challenged by a scene in which Nev and his compatriots arrive at the address supplied by Megan, intending to surprise her, only to find the house abandoned and uninhabited. Nev opens the postbox (rather dubiously; interfering with the mail in the USA is a federal offence) and finds it stuffed full of the letters and packages he's sent to Megan during the course of their 'relationship'. However, this is clearly a fabricated scene: the post has 'return to sender' already stamped on it, indicating that the post was delivered, not picked up and sent back to Nev in New York. He then appears to have taken the post back to the address and set the scene up to demonstrate to the viewer the deception of Megan providing a false address.

This in turn leads to the viewer questioning the truthfulness of the entire enterprise. Many tens of thousands of words have been dedicated to questioning every aspect of the film by multiple articles, blogs and even news items on US television, so I'll avoid into delving too far into that, except to note that there seems to have been some very clever manipulation of scenes and chronology going on to present the narrative as it unfolds to us.

The film, taken at face-value, is intriguing and raises interesting questions about Internet-based relationships. However, the fact that aspects of it are clearly manipulated and possibly exploitative (one of the participants has since passed away, something that has indeed been verified, but which makes the situation even murkier) leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But at the same time, the fact that after watching the film the viewer can then go online and read up on all the controversy and draw their own conclusions itself adds another level to the experience: layers of deceit, spin, presentation and impersonation. Talking about the film and seeing how different people interpret it is arguably more interesting than the movie itself.

Catfish (score not really applicable) is a bizarre and thought-provoking film about modern media, manipulation and social networking. Whether you believe all of it, none of it or something between, it definitely raises some very interesting questions. The film is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Peadar Ó Guilín's THE DESERTER is now on sale

The Deserter, the sequel to Peadar Ó Guilín's excellent 2007 debut The Inferior and the second in The Bone World Trilogy, is released today in the UK. I haven't had a chance to get round to it yet, but if it's half as good as the first book, it'll likely be one of the highlights of the year, so it should be well worth a look.

The humans are weak and vulnerable. Soon the beasts that share their stone-age world will kill and eat them. To save his tribe, Stopmouth must make his way to the Roof, the mysterious hi-tech world above the surface.

But the Roof has its own problems. The nano technology that controls everything from the environment to the human body is collapsing. A virus has already destroyed the Upstairs, sending millions of refugees to seek shelter below. And now a rebellion against the Commission, organized by the fanatical Religious, is about to break.

Hunted by the Commission’s Elite Agents through the overcrowded, decaying city of the future, Stopmouth must succeed in a hunt of his own: to find the secret power hidden in the Roof’s computerized brain, and return to his people before it is too late.

Peadar Ó Guilín has followed his extraordinary debut The Inferior with an equally original and pulse-racing sequel in which human primitivism collides with futuristic technology.


The trailer for the new Conan movie, starring Jason Momoa (Ronon Dex from Stargate Atlantics and currently Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones) in a movie apparently based more closely on Robert E. Howard's short stories than the existing Schwarzenegger movies:

Hmm. Looks a bit cheesy at this stage, though the apparent R rating means they don't have to hold back on the action and Momoa looks like an effective Conan (from what little glimpses we get, he does indeed look closer to Howard's version than Arnie's). How much he can keep that up remains to be seen.

Chung Kuo Book 2 cover art and synopsis

The cover art and synopsis for Chung Kuo Book 2, Daylight on Iron Mountain, due in November, via Walker of Worlds:

CHANGE IS ON THE AIR: The generals of the Middle Kingdom await the decision of the emperor.The campaign to secure the border from China to Iraq has reached a strange impasse. Two blood enemies - Arabs and Jews - have united against their common cause. But with the lives of thousands at his whim, the exalted Tsao Ch'un, the Son of Heaven, cannot decide. Destroy the Middle East in one blinding flash? Or take another path?

BUT THE WAY IS UNCLEAR: In the court of Tsao Ch’un, men of power have become smiling lackeys, whose graces conceal their fear, or their ambition. A man that can be trusted absolutely is a rare thing. And so, with his family held hostage by the empire, General Jiang Lei finds himself appointed to a special task: the orchestration of the last great war against the West. The total dominion of America.

WAR APPROACHES: But life in the world of levels continues. No hint of war, or want, or discontent can infiltrate the oppressive, ordered society that replaces the world Jake Reed once knew. Since the first airships rolled over the horizon, nothing has been the same. His new life means new thinking, new customs, a new way of behaving, and with his every move scrutinized, Jake can only serve the bureaucracy of new China. But he is not the only citizen who feels discontent with the anodyne new order.
Sounds solid, although the 'Arabs and Israelis unite to face a greater threat' trope always reminds me of that awkward scene in Independence Day where rival pilots eye each other up warily from across the tarmac before joining forces. I'm pretty sure this will be better :-)

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Over a century from now, North America is a land ravaged by floods and war. Out of the ashes a new nation, Panem, has emerged, consisting of the glorious city known as the Capitol and twelve outlying districts which only exist to provide the Capitol with resources (a thirteenth district was destroyed in a rebellion three-quarters of a century ago). To keep the people in line, the government enforces the Hunger Games, a reality TV show where twenty-four teenage boys and girls must fight one another for survival in a game of wits and strength.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her sister when she is selected for the Games. Transported to a hostile wilderness, Katniss must use every bit of her cunning and her training as a hunter to prevail.

The Hunger Games is the first book in the trilogy of the same name. First published in 2008, it has become a hugely successful novel, spawning two sequels and a forthcoming movie adaptation, and has won plaudits from both younger readers and adults alike (Stephen King is a noted fan).

The premise is unoriginal but Collins nevertheless executes it reasonably well. This is a brisk read where Collins develops the plot and delivers action beats with skill, but not at the expense of characterisation (though, with only two characters of note to develop, this isn't as challenging as it could be). Katniss is an intriguing but more interesting is the way that Collins establishes the motivation and character of Peeta, Katniss's sometimes-ally in the games, since we only see him through Katniss's eyes. Characters outside these two are less well-developed, however.

Collins also holds back on exploring the full savagery of the games, perhaps understandably given the target audience. Still, there is the feeling that we more hear about how horrible the games are rather than seeing them in full flow (one tense moment involving mutated dogs aside). In addition, we know very little about the other contestants. A couple get some nice moments in the sun so we feel bad when they die, but generally the focus of the game itself is the mental battle of wills and PR that Katniss and Peeta are playing with the people running the game. This is surprising and considerably more difficult than just showing the contestants offing one another, since this struggle can only by necessity be depicted through one side, since we only have Katniss's POV, so we, like her, can only guess what the people in the Capitol are up to. To Collins' credit she pulls it off, and works in a couple of interesting themes about reality TV, bloodsports, PR and marketing into the bargain.

The book does have a potential problem in that it does come off very much like a Battle Royale-lite. Whilst that's not a problem if you've never read or seen Battle Royale, if you have then the weaknesses of The Hunger Games become slightly more apparent. Most notably, whilst Collins' Games are cruel, they don't match the shocking harshness that Royale achieves by simply having all the contestants be in the same school year, meaning they've known one another for years before having to kill one another. In that sense, Koushan Takami scores higher with some of the things he wants to say about youth and teenager-hood being a Darwinian struggle for survival. At the same time, the two works, whilst stemming from the same basic idea, are aimed in rather different directions and Takami benefits from a much greater word-count and a more adult audience to work with, so comparisons between the two are fair only up to a point.

Moving on from that, The Hunger Games (****) is a fast-paced, enjoyable read with some interesting (if hardly revelatory) things to say about celebrity and PR, not to mention a counter-intuitive approach to the inevitable romance story, but suffers a little from the well-mined premise and patchy characterisation. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Want to wish Gene Wolfe a happy 80th birthday?

Gene Wolfe, the much-feted author of The Book of the New Sun, Peace and The Wizard-Knight, turns 80 this week and is still going strong, producing novels at a regular clip. To celebrate his birthday a blogspot has been set up where people can leave good wishes and birthday messages (you can see that the likes of Neil Gaiman have already left goodwill tidings), if they so wish.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Voting for the David Gemmell Awards 2011 begins

Voting for the final winners of the Gemmell Awards is now open (the previous round was to determine the shortlist).

The nominees in each category are:

Legend Award for Best Novel
The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett
War of the Dwarves by Markus Heitz
Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan
The Alchemist in the Shadows by Pierre Pevel
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

A somewhat weaker final list than the previous two years, and once again it's sad to see Paul Kearney not on here (he'd win this hands-down if he was better known). Particularly difficult is that The Desert Spear, The Alchemist in the Shadows and Towers of Midnight were all slightly weaker than the preceding novels in their respective series, whilst The Way of Kings laid excellent groundwork for potential good work in the future but didn't set the world on fire itself. Nevertheless, I voted for Towers of Midnight as Sanderson did a great job in difficult circumstances of delivering the Wheel of Time series to the edge of its long-awaited conclusion.

Morningstar Award for Best Debut
Spellwright by Blake Charlton
The Warrior Priest by Darius Hinks
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Shadow Prowler by Alexey Pehov
Tymon's Flight by Mary Victoria

This was an easy one. I voted for Spellwright by Blake Charlton as an enjoyable (but as I said in my review, not flawless) opening fantasy novel with a fascinating and original magical system. And, in the interests of disclosure, it's the only one I've read.

Ravenheart Award for Best Cover Art
The Ragged Man
Power and Majesty
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Shadow King
Tymon's Flight

Probably the easiest award to vote for, as you just look at the pics and vote for the one you like best. For me here, this was The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

Voting is open to the end of May and the results will be announced in mid-June.

THRONES ratings report

Still with Thrones, preliminary ratings information for the third episode reveals that there has been both an unexpected rise in the USA and an unexpected hold in the UK.

"Are you sure we can't record this and watch Game of Thrones instead?"
"No, Mr. President."

In the USA, the third episode delivered 2.4 million for the first showing, up 200,000 on the previous two weeks. Combined with the later repeat, that lifts the episode to 3.1 million, a small but notable improvement over the first two weeks. Given the expectation was that Thrones would start well, drop slightly and then recover, holding its ratings for one week and then a minor rise is unexpectedly good news for HBO. In addition, HBO has added in the free-to-air viewers and additional HBO online figures to bring the ratings for Episode 1 up to 8.7 million. It's possible that later repeats will not add as much to the figure as in previous weeks, since news of Osama Bin Laden's elimination broke just after the first airing of the episode, but we may see increased online viewing from HBO's digital outlets.

In the UK, Thrones was expected to continue dropping and then stabilise somewhere around the mid-100-300,000 mark, the norm for Sky Atlantic shows. Instead, the show delivered 506,000 compared to last week's 530,000, a comparatively minor drop.

Full 'unadjusted' figures for Episodes 2 and 3 in both the UK and USA are not available yet, but the adjusted figures for Episode 1 in the UK have now risen to 1.852 million, which is absolutely massive. The real key will be the figure for Episode 2, which will show how many viewers the show has lost and how many have transferred to watching the show on repeats or online.

Game of Thrones: Season 1, Episodes 1-3

Four years after development began, much of it charted in painstaking detail on multiple websites, Game of Thrones has finally arrived on American and British screens. As well as an adaptation of a much-beloved series of books, it's also a chance to reinvigorate the fantasy genre on screen and hopefully pave the way for other interesting adaptations to come.

The first episode, Winter is Coming, has a lot to do right off the bat. They have to introduce a ton of characters, explain who they are and what they're all up to. They have to establish the four primary locations of action in the first season: the Wall, King's Landing, Winterfell and across the Narrow Sea. They have to establish the notion of the Seven Kingdoms, there being several major houses (four of which - Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark and Lannister - are playing a major role in this first season) and seasons which last for years. They also have to set up the Free Cities across the water, the Dothraki, and the notion that the Targaryens are slightly weird and 'special' due to their old relationship with dragons. Oh yeah, and that dragons were once around and now extinct. But there are direwolves which are like normal wolves but much bigger and grow really fast. There's also geography to consider, cultural details (people in the North have a different religion to those in the south) and other factions (the Night's Watch, the maesters of the Citadel, the Kingsguard).

That task would be enough to send other writers running away shrieking, but Dan Weiss and David Benioff step up to the plate. Because so much needs to be crammed in, it's counter-intuitive that they take the step of starting slow, devoting a full quarter of the first episode to the encounter between the Night's Watch and the White Walkers (renamed from the Others in the books) in the Haunted Forest and then the execution of the only survivor from the battle, but it works well, with a haunting, disturbing and bleak atmosphere being established before we move to somewhat warmer, happier moments at Winterfell.

The producers hold back on too much exposition at this stage, though this has drawbacks (who is Theon Greyjoy and why is he hanging out with the Starks?) as well as the significant bonus of allowing the writers to press on with the emotional core of this opening part of the story: Eddard's divided loyalties between his family and his best friend. Sean Bean and Mark Addy have worked together several times before and are great friends in real life, and this really gives their relationship depth and believability. No, you never really buy the fact that physically Mark Addy was once a great and powerful warrior, but his performance is so superb that it doesn't matter: he convinces you anyway. The great performances are continued by Michelle Fairley, who brings a steely core to a Catelyn slightly softened from the books; Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's Jaime Lannister, who is successfully heading for Magnificent Bastard territory despite occasional accent slippages; and Peter Dinklage, who isn't so much great as Tyrion Lannister as he is Tyrion Lannister, the erudite, witty, cynical and hard-drinking beating heart of the story (at least at this stage).

The other emotional side of the story is Eddard's family, which is anchored on his son Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright bringing a maturity way beyond his years to a challenging role), his explorations of the castle and the startling climax to the first episode, although Robb (Richard Madden), Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) have little to do at this stage. Jon Snow (a winning performance by Kit Harington) is also established as a major character at this stage, with his discomfort at Winterfell with half the people there being his friends and half wary of his status as a bastard being evident.

Across the Narrow Sea, the Targaryens are waiting in the wings to return home with their new allies, the Dothraki, at their sides. Harry Lloyd is a great young actor who reigns in what must have been a tremendous urge to overact cheesily as Viserys to instead deliver a quieter, more restrained but also more believable performance than was expected. Emilia Clarke's Daenerys is more of a blank slate, despite her impressive heat-resistant bathing abilities, though we get hints of her kindness and her fundamental desire to just find somewhere to live in peace. Roger Allam's Illyrio is a rare misstep, with the actor not really getting what the character is up to at this stage. He does his best but delivers his lines without much conviction. At the same time, Iain Glen - the go-to guy if you want 'earnest supporting actors with presence' - makes for a splendid Ser Jorah Mormont, coming over as gruff and as doggedly loyal as in the books. Though oddly he doesn't have the same Northern English accent as other Northerners (even his own father in later episodes) on the show.

The sequences across the Narrow Sea are, for all the strengths of casting, a mixed bag. There's some nice work being done by Lloyd as Viserys, but overall the Dothraki come across as a corncheese, simplified caricature of a nomadic Asian people. Given that the only characters of colour of note in the series are Dothraki, this cliched depiction of them as savage rapists is unfortunate although, fortunately, later episodes start giving them more depth.

Overall the first episode trucks along nicely, hits the right marks and gets us to that all-essential cliffhanger ending in good time. The Dothraki sequences aren't well-handled but otherwise the show hits the right notes.

Moving into the second episode, The Kingsroad, the Dothraki sequences continue to be problematic. Whilst Daenerys seeking her handmaiden Doreah's advice in using her sexuality to assert power over her brutish new husband is on one hand an interesting piece of character development, it risks sending a mixed message about abuse victims trying to please their abusers. However, these sequences have provided an impetus for some interesting discussions on various forums about these issues which normally wouldn't be discussed, so on that level they are of value. And of course Glen and Lloyd continue to do excellent work.

Elsewhere, the episode benefits from a structure and theme reflecting movement and change: Eddard and his daughters on the road to King's Landing and Jon and Tyrion on the road to the Wall. Both journeys are learning curves for the characters. Eddard learns that Robert has become cynical, depressed and more ruthless in his seventeen years on the throne, and Robert his friend and Robert the king can be two very different people. Jon realises on his way north that the Night's Watch is not the institution of honour and glory that he imagined, but rather a dumping ground for the realm's criminals and wastrels. Between these moments we see Catelyn nursing her son back to health, and eventually finding evidence incriminating the Lannisters in two attempts on his life.

This is where Catelyn's changed character development in the show brings the producers to grief. Having changed Cat's motivation in the first episode to something softer, having her complain about Eddard's decision to leave for King's Landing rather than pushing him into it as in the novel, the about-face here where Cat decides to leave and chase after him to King's Landing to alert him to the danger really doesn't track very well. Book Cat's decision to leave is the kind of hard-headed political decision we've already seen her making earlier in the novel; on TV the softer, kinder Cat who won't leave her injured son's side for anything and tried to stop her husband leaving abruptly announces she's off on a dangerous mission for several months. Hmm.

As a result, both the ongoing problems with the Dothraki storyline and Cat's rather random decisions make this a disappointing episode, though elsewhere Lena Headey's Cersei (a bit one-note in the first episode but developing more here) has a great new scene which is emotionally powerful until you look at it a bit more, and then wonder if you (and Catelyn in that scene) have been hoodwinked. And of course Dinklage continues to impress.

The third episode, Lord Snow, finally manages to smooth out the bumps. The frantic pace of the first two episodes means they can throttle back here and take their time a bit more with characterisation. There's an interesting scene where Robert, Jaime and Barristan swap war stories which works well (though it's a little disconnected and may only exist to justify paying Mark Addy for his name in the titles this week), and Eddard and Arya get a terrific scene together as well. On the Wall Tyrion gives Jon some good advice and then gets a lesson of his own from Benjen and Maester Aemon when their fervour makes him wonder if there is 'something else' out beyond the Wall after all. In King's Landing we have a truckload of new characters, but Conleth Hill immediately impresses as Varys, opting for a slightly more restrained take on him than the 'mincing eunuch' Varys himself projects in the books.

Generating mixed opinions is Aidan Gillen's take on Littlefinger. A lot of fans were very excited about Gillen's casting, and I'm wondering if people were expecting him to basically be Mayor Carcetti from The Wire all over again. Instead he goes for a slightly seedier, more obviously dodgy take on Littlefinger (Littlefinger in the books owns some brothels but has others run them for him, but here he's more hands-on) but he manages to still bring out some genuine ambiguity in his scenes with Cat and Ned. It's a somewhat different Littlefinger to the one in the books, but one that could work very well.

Most crucially, the scenes in the Dothraki Sea are starting to come together. Daenerys exercises her authority in a more convincing manner, and there's an excellent scene with Ser Jorah Mormont and Rakharo (Elyes Gabel) comparing Westerosi and Dothraki tactics in the same manner two guys from different cultures today might bond over football. There's still some wincing - Dany and Drogo now being totally happy with one another after their bumpy start is a bit unconvincing - but this part of the story is also moving in the right direction.

The episode also ends in an unexpectedly subtle way: we meet Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou, by way of Inigo Montoya*) and he begins training Arya with the sword, but as they fight the wooden clunks of the practice swords suddenly turns in Eddard's mind to the clash of real swords. A terrific moment which ends the episode on a moment of unease in what should be a triumphant scene (where Arya gets her own way).

* Every person who reviews this episode has to raise this comparison by law.

So far, so good then. Onto the next episode.

101: Winter is Coming (****)
102: The Kingsroad (***½)
103: Lord Snow (****½)

Forthcoming: Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things (8/5/11), The Wolf and the Lion (15/5/11), A Golden Crown (22/5/11), You Win or You Die (29/5/11), The Pointy End (5/6/11), Baelor (12/6/11), Fire and Blood (19/6/11).