Friday, 30 September 2011

New cover art from Daniel Abraham and KJ Parker

The new cover artwork for Daniel Abraham's The King's Blood (the sequel to The Dragon's Path) has been revealed:

As has that for his second collaboration with Ty Franck under the James S.A. Corey pseudonym: Caliban's War (the sequel to Leviathan Wakes).

Both books are currently scheduled for late spring/early summer 2012. Meanwhile, due in July is K.J. Parker's next novel, Sharps, another stand-alone, this time revolving around fencers (apparently unrelated to his/her debut novel, Colours in the Steel, which also focused on fencing).

The covers are not 100% final yet, but looking good so far.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Islanders by Christopher Priest

The Dream Archipelago is a vast string of thousands of islands, wrapping themselves around the world between two great continents. Some of them are deserts, some are home to great cities and others have been riddled with tunnels and turned into gigantic musical instruments. The Islanders is a gazetteer to the islands...and a murder story. It's also a musing on the nature of art and the artists who make it.

The Islanders is Christopher Priest's first novel in almost a decade, a fact which itself makes it one of the most interesting books to be released this year. His previous novel, The Separation, a stimulating and layered book about alternate versions of WWII, was one of the very finest novels of the 2000s. True to expectations, Priest has returned with a fiercely intelligent book that works on multiple different levels and which rewards close, thoughtful reading.

The Islanders initially appears to be a travel gazetteer, a Lonely Planet guide to a place that doesn't exist. Several islands are presented with geographic information, notes on places of interest and thoughts on locations to visit. Then we get entries which are short stories (sometimes only tangentially involving the island the entry is named after), or exchanges of correspondence between people on different islands. One entry is a succession of court and police documents revolving around a murder, followed by an extract from a much-later-published book that exonerates the murderer. Later entries in the book seem to clarify what really happened in this case, but in the process open up more questions than are answered. Oh, a key figure the gazetteer references frequently is revealed to be dead, despite him having produced an introduction to the book (apparently after reading it). Maybe he faked his death. Or this is a newer edition with the old introduction left intact. Or something else has happened.

The Islanders defies easy categorisation. It's not a novel in the traditional sense but it has an over-arcing storyline. It isn't a collection of short stories either, though it does contain several distinct and self-contained narratives. It isn't a companion or guidebook, though readers of Priest's earlier novel The Affirmation or short story collection The Dream Archipelago will find rewards in using it as such. It is hugely metafictional in that themes, tropes and ideas that Priest has been working on for years recur and are explored: doppelgangers, twins, conflicted memories, magicians, performance art and shifting realities feature and are referenced. At several points Priest seems to be commenting about his own works rather than the imaginary ones written by a protagonist...until one of those books turns out to be called The Affirmation, the same title as one of Priest's earlier, best novels. A character's suggestion that a work be split into four sections and then experienced in reverse order may be a clue as to how the novel should be read...but may be a red herring. Several key moments of wry humour (The Islanders is probably Priest's funniest book) suggest that we shouldn't be taking the endeavour seriously. Moments of dark, psychological horror suggest we should.

The novel embraces its gazetteer format. References to another island in an entry may be a clue that a vital piece of information can be found in the corresponding chapter about the other island. Sometimes this is the case, sometimes it isn't. Recurring names (some of them possibly aliases) and references to tunnels and havens provide links that bind the book together. The strangest chapter appears to be divorced from the rest of the book altogether, but subtle clues suggest curious relationships with the rest of the book and indeed with other of Priest's works (though foreknowledge of these is not required). The interlinking tapestry of references, names and events forms a puzzle that the reader is invited to try to piece together, except that the pieces don't always fit together and indeed, some appear to be missing altogether.

The Islanders (*****) is a weird book. It's also funny, warm and smart. It's also cold, alienating and dark. It's certainly self-contradictory. The only thing I can say with certainty about it is that it is about islands and the people who live on them, and if there is a better, more thought-provoking and rewarding novel published this year I will be surprised. The book is available now in the UK and on import in the USA.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

A full-scale Ork invasion of the Imperium forge world of Graia is underway. Millions of greenskins are taking part in the invasion, swamping and overrunning the defending militias and Imperial Guard forces. Graia's role in manufacturing Titans - Imperial war machines of vast size and power - means that the standard cleansing bombardment from orbit is not possible, so the Space Marines are called in. The Second Company of Ultramarines under Captain Titus are deployed to halt the invasion, secure the Titans and destroy the invaders by any means necessary.

Space Marine does pretty much what it says on the box: it puts the player in the feet of a Space Marine, an eight-foot-tall, genetically-engineered super-warrior created for the sole purpose of defending humanity against myriad alien threats and heretical insurgents. The game is a third-person action title blending shooting with melee combat. Engagements typically begin with long-range exchanges of fire before closing down the gap and attacking with close-in weapons (players are advised to hold off and pick off enemy heavy weapons first before closing to melee, as the enemy have no compunction about mowing down their own troops if it kills you as well). In contrast to a lot of recent action games, the game has no cover system as the ethos of the Space Marine is to constantly attack and stay on the attack. Hiding behind a crate and sniping at the enemy for ages is considered both dishonourable and also damaging, as it delays the fulfilment of the Emperor's Will.

To encourage a highly aggressive play style in keeping with the setting, Relic have used several clever systems. One of these is a melee combat system that allows you to build up special attacks and chains of attacks through constantly staying on the offensive. The other is the game's health system, where the only way to regain lost health is to engage in melee combat and carry out special 'finishing' moves on stunned opponents. Thus, gloriously counter-intuitively but in-keeping with the battiness of the Warhammer 40,000 world, if you are low on health the best course of action is to charge straight into the middle of a pack of enemies with chainsword whirring.

This focus on melee and de-emphasis on stand-off firefights means that the Gears of Warhammer comparisons that have been floating around aren't very accurate. The game also makes use of the extremely rich and well-developed setting to give the story more depth and emphasis. The game's depiction of a Forge World at war is brilliantly atmospheric, conveyed by the excellent architectural design and the high quality of the graphics. The writing is surprisingly good for a linear combat game, with an interesting subplot developing about dissent in the Ultramarines' ranks (which builds to the morally ambiguous conclusion to the game). Secondary characters are fleshed-out well, and the game designers are to be commended for avoiding cliche with the game's only female character of note, Lt. Mira. Even the (initial) principal villain, the Ork Warboss, is surprisingly badass and at one stage even (very briefly) sympathetic.

Elsewhere the game is more predictable, especially if you are familiar with the WH40K setting in general and Relic's Dawn of War strategy games in particular. The 'unexpected' arrival of a third faction in the late-game period, the unveiling of a core character as a traitor and other plot twists are signposted well in advance. Still, for a basic action game, the plot and characters are a cut above average.

Combat is satisfyingly chunky, with the Space Marines' arsenal feeling suitably overpowered. There's also a nice burst of originality in doing tiresome 'turret' missions only to find you can rip the weapon off the turret and walk around with it as a normal (but massive) gun until it runs out of ammo. The hordes of attacking Orks are depicted well and the game manages to strike the right balance between being too much of a pushover and too difficult to be enjoyable. Whilst the game rewards you charging straight into the midst of a horde of 20 Orks, it also punishes you if you do so without being fully aware of the situation and eliminating bigger threats first. In particular, keep an eye open for suicide squigs (animals with explosives strapped to them) which have a tendency to charge up to you and explode whilst you are distracted in melee.

The game breaks up the numerous large-scale battle scenes with set-piece events, such as sitting on the back of a train blazing away at an attacking Ork battlewagon (which seems to conflate two Firefly references into one, with this particular Ork ship strongly resembling a Reaver warship). These are surprisingly infrequent, with the game preferring to mix up combat scenes with 'tense' sequences of exploring areas and expecting an ambush. In practice these 'tense' sequences are a little bit too common, making it feel that a good quarter or so of the game is spent running through empty rooms, some of them splendidly suitable for a good firefight, only for nothing to happen. The limited interactiveness of the game - aside from shooting or hitting things or stocking up on ammo, the only thing you can do is listen to some logs lying around the place - makes the between-firefight sections feel a bit pointless and monotonous. Unfortunately, just as I was getting ready to praise the game for the total absence of tiresome Quick-Time Events, the game decided to end on a rather annoying one (albeit one amusingly based on an event in the Lord of the Rings movies), which felt random and out-of-keeping with the rest of the game.

Space Marine's game engine is impressive, handling the numbers of enemy opponents, ludicrous amounts of mayhem and the vast levels with ease. In fact, the engine is impressive enough that I'd love to see Relic doing more with it: adding more interactiveness or maybe even producing a WH40K role-playing game using the same assets would be an interesting move.

Overall, Space Marine (****) is a fun, playable shooter. It's on the short side at six hours, but it also doesn't outstay its welcome, cleverly adjusting the plot twists and turns to keep things as fresh as possible given the limitations of the genre, though the shoot-'n'-slice gameplay does start to feel a bit same-old towards the end. I'd hesitate to recommend it at full price, but on rental or budget, it is a solid and enjoyable slice of entertainment. The game is available now in the UK (PC, 360, PS3) and USA (PC, 360, PS3).

RIP Sara Douglass

Sadly, news has broken that Australian fantasy author Sara Douglass passed away earlier today. She had been battling ovarian cancer for some time, as I reported last year.

Douglass is best-known for her fantasy world of Tencendor, the setting for The Axis Trilogy, The Wayfarer Redemption Trilogy, The Darkglass Mountain Trilogy and the single novels Beyond the Hanging Wall and Threshold. She also wrote the historical fantasy series The Crucible and The Troy Game. She twice won the Aurelius Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

Condolences to her friends and family. Here is a thoughtful post that Ms. Douglass wrote a year and a half ago on the subject of facing mortality.

Monday, 26 September 2011

New cover art for the SHADOWS OF THE APT series

Tor UK are reissuing Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series with new cover art by Alan Brooks. The new covers for the first four books are shown here, though these are not 100% finale yet. This move accompanies Tchaikovsky's promotion to trade paperback status with the latest novel in the series, Heirs of the Blade (the seventh of ten planned volumes). Heirs of the Blade is already out in the UK in tradeback, with the standard paperback to follow in February.

The new covers should appear on the books next year.

GAME OF THRONES Season 2 promo

HBO have released a very early promo for Season 2 of Game of Thrones.

The voice in the promo is apparently that of Stephen Dillane, who is playing Stannis Baratheon.

Season 2 is currently shooting in Northern Ireland and Dubrovnik in Croatia before filming moves to Iceland in November and December. It is expected to start airing in mid-April 2012.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Embassytown by China Mieville

Avice is an immerser, a person who flits between worlds by sailing the immer, the strange sea of time and space that underlines our own. To satisfy his curiosity, she takes her new husband to see her homeworld of Arieka, where the native Hosts communicate in a language unlike any other known to humanity and only specially-trained, genetically-engineered humans can talk to them. But back home in Embassytown she discovers that a new Ambassador has arrived, one with a different way of speaking to the Ariekei that may shatter their way of existence and endanger the human population of the planet.

Embassytown is China Mieville's eighth novel and his first science fiction book. This shouldn't be taken to mean that Mieville has dramatically moved away from his traditional fare: this is very much still in the weird vein he is known for. Arieka is a world of uncanny bio-technology where farms and factories are living creatures, whilst the Hosts are an utterly alien, difficult-to-comprehend species whose thought and speech processes are totally different to that of humanity. Even Mieville's take on hyperspace - the immer - is a place where strange and bizarre things can happen. In Mieville's SF novel the usual SF trappings - spaceships, FTL travel, futuristic weapons - are given his typical weird spin, but it wouldn't be hard to re-set the novel on a remote part of Bas-Lag or in another fantastical milieu.

What does make Embassytown SF is its take on the idea of language. The notion of one species trying to talk to another when their reference frames, histories, backgrounds and ways of life may be completely different is a difficult and challenging one, but also something that SF has usually papered over with a universal translator or the like. Here the difficulties of communication between two different species are studied in depth. The Hosts can only understand language when there is sentient thought motivating it: they cannot understand recordings in their language, nor can they communicate with AIs. They also can only think in terms of the truth: the notion of lying is something so foreign to them that they can only barely grasp how it is done, though a few individual Ariekei boldly try to become liars themselves, giving rise to the vividly-described Festival of Lies that Avice encounters at one point in the book. This discontinuity is a minor weak point in the novel: if the Hosts can lie, even with difficulty, than over the course of millions of years they should have developed the ability to do so more freely. If they can't lie at all, than the climax of the book (which is a tad predictable) is impossible. Them being only able to lie with human intervention does open up some interesting questions about inadvertent colonialism, however, that are almost certainly intentional.

Mieville makes his aliens truly alien, so the only way to communicate with them is to make the human Ambassadors partly alien themselves through genetic engineering. Ambassadors are twins who are raised to think and act as one as a way of duplicating the Hosts' duality-based language. This in turn makes them something different to ordinary humans although, as is revealed several times throughout the narrative, not as different as perhaps first appears. This gives rise to an interesting parallel where humans have to alter themselves to talk to the Ariekei, bu the Ariekei cannot conceive of altering themselves to talk to least not until that decision is made for them, unwittingly, by the arrival of a new Ambassador.

The book is a slow burn, with the opening half focused on exploring Avice's childhood (during which she is chosen by the Ariekei to become a living simile, a walking and talking embodiment of their language) and background before the action focuses on what is going on in Embassytown in the present. Whilst there is a major crisis in the book, one that leads to violence and a loss of life on an epic scale, Embassytown's writing is focused, intelligent and even quiet. The writing style is more like the pared-back City and The City rather than the chaotic Un Lun Dun and Kraken (the former enjoyably so, the latter rather more sloppily), which is a plus for me.

There are big events with major ramifications going on, but Avice is much more of a passive observer of events than an active protagonist, only stepping up to this role quite late on in the novel. This results in a lot of major plot movements happening off-page (several times Avice arrives on the scene of an important, game-changing event just after it's happened) and only being explained later on. This could be slightly frustrating, but in Mieville's hands it's a well-executed inversion of the more traditional (and implausible) format where the narrator is at the centre of every major event in the book. Here Avice is playing just one role in a larger cast, and we don't always get to see what everyone else is up to.

Avice herself is a well-defined but not entirely sympathetic protagonist. She's a bit of a snob, frankly, and invokes her travels to other worlds as an explanation for why she thinks she's better than everyone else. This results in amusing passages where Avice is frustrated because she's not involved at the centre of events. From her POV, she should be, but of course from the POV of the people running Embassytown there's no reason why she should. This frustration becomes more acute when the input of Avice's new husband, a linguistics expert, becomes more valued by the government than Avice's own contribution. It's a solid bit of characterisation that makes Avice more of a plausible protagonist at the risk of making her unlikable, though I think Mieville avoids that pit trap. The other characters in the book are mostly well-defined (especially Avice's robotic best friend and the half-Ambassador Bran), though the limited POV structure means we don't get to know them as well as characters in some of his other books.

Overall, Embassytown (****½) is a formidably intelligent exploration of language, colonialism and communication, not just between humans and invented aliens but between people and people. It raises interesting questions, doesn't give pat answers, and entertains along the way. It's not Mieville at his best, but it's certainly a strong novel and an interesting take on the traditional tropes of science fiction. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday, 23 September 2011

OnLive launches in the UK

Cloud-based gaming service OnLive (already active in the USA) launched yesterday in the UK. For those not in the know, OnLive is a system which allows you to play any game on the service (a lot of the big publishers are with them) on any machine that can access it, regardless of how much memory it has or how good its graphics card. At the moment, any Windows XP or later PC, most modern Apple Macs and even a lot of tablets are compatible with the service.

How it works is that rather play a game on your computer, you play it through the computer, with the actual game itself being hosted on a remote super-PC elsewhere. This means that the game is not limited by the capabilities of your PC. I have a five-year-old, single-core machine which has not been able to effectively run any new game released in the last two years (apart from StarCraft II, and even that chugged a fair bit). With OnLive I can play brand-new releases at a high level of detail with no problem whatsoever.

It has the potential to be enormously revolutionary. Your £200 netbook is suddenly as formidable a gaming machine as a £600 tower from PCWorld. Mac users can play any game on the service without having to faff around with a separate Windows installation or wait and hope that a Mac version is released. Since game saves are held on the service rather than on your PC, you can also access the service from any computer and carry on playing from where you left off at home. You don't need to worry about installing, updating drivers, downloading patches or anything like that either. It took about two minutes to go from clicking on 'Sign Up' to playing Space Marine. Remarkable.

In addition, the service has a highly competitive pricing model. A lot of games have a free trial period on them, allowing you to play for a period (about 30-60 minutes depending on the game) before deciding to buy. If you do buy, the game picks up where you left off on the trial. This effectively means that demos - a dying breed for PC games - are suddenly back in existence, and developers don't need to spend time creating a separate demo for the game, it's just there. This is helpful even for hardcore, ultra-high-def gamers who probably wouldn't use the service for actually playing the full game. In addition, some games come with 'passes' rather than forcing you to spend the full retail price on the game. For example, aware from reviews that Space Marine's single-player campaign is only 6 hours long, I opted to buy a five-day pass for £4, which should be ample to play and complete the game. Newcomers to the service can also, for the next two weeks or so, pick up their first game for £1. I opted for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which I now own for the lifetime of the service. I should get to playing that next week.

This may all sound too good to be true, and of course there is a catch. The service is massively dependent on how good your Internet service is. I have a 10mb service with Virgin Broadband which has virtually never dropped out in two years, my PC is plugged straight into the broadband (no router) and I live very close to the exchange (which massively reduces latency). In five hours of playing, I have experienced no discernible control lag at all. The game is as responsive as if it was running directly off my hard drive. How on Earth OnLive have managed to do this I don't know, but it's a staggering technical achievement, even given my very good broadband connection. However, I should note that other users have reported slowdown on some other fast-paced FPS games even with good connections. This is why the 'try before you buy' part of the service is vital. If you have a poor connection, or a good one which drops out regularly, or if your PC is a long way from the router, the service may not be viable for you (but again, you can test it without spending a penny).

Another issue is that whilst the games run at a reasonably high spec, they are not running at a level that hard-core gamers will find impressive. If you are running games at 1900+ resolution on an 8GB state-of-the-art graphics card which is cooled by liquid nitrogen or something, than the service will likely not blow you away. However, if you are in that position you don't really need the service for the games, but the demos will still be of interest.

A final problem, and one that is harder to overlook, is that since the game does not reside on your hard drive, you can't run or carry out mods on the game. If you want to play the Lord of the Rings or Song of Ice and Fire mods for Medieval II: Total War, you need to buy the boxed game, you can't run them through OnLive (and, though mod support of a kind is apparently a possible future prospect, certainly nothing copyright-worrying will be hosted on the service). To be honest, given how many games are moving away from mod support, this is not as huge a problem as it would have been a few years ago. Obviously the service also requires you to be online at all times; playing a game on a plane or in the middle of the countryside miles from the nearest WiFi zone is impossible. But again, given how many games demand this anyway these days, this is an annoyance PC gamers are used to.

If, on the other hand, you gave up on PC gaming due to the problems of ever-changing and increasingly expensive hardware, or you have a dirt-cheap laptop but still want to try out some of the latest games, than the service is nothing short of stunning. As a keen gamer, having to miss out on most of the major releases of the past few years has been disappointing, but thanks to OnLive I can now play them without having to upgrade my PC.

What will be interesting is to see how the service expands from here. Visual quality can only increase (especially given the government's commitment to upgrading Britain's broadband network) and ultimately I suspect we will start seeing rival services spring up. It's entirely possible that twenty years from now, this is how all games will be played. The prospects are genuinely exciting (unless you're a graphics card manufacturer, of course).

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

REM call it a day

American rock band (or 'alternative rock band' in Americanese) REM announced today that they were splitting up after 31 years of making music. This news was surprising, since it feels like a very old-fashioned thing for a band to do. It's more common now for bands to take half-decades off or simply keep soldiering on like the Rolling Stones. It's also quite brave: announcing that you are splitting up only to get back together a few years later always feels rather lame. Generally speaking, these days bands only split when, for example, one member of the band tries to (allegedly) attack another with a guitar to the face.

But back to REM. My years as a teenager coincided with REM's first eruption as global superstars in the early 1990s (I was 13 when Automatic for the People was released, though I didn't get into the band until a couple of years later), so they were pretty hard to ignore. Their oddball mix of acoustic melancholia and occasionally-satisfying rock-out moments was highly appealing, and I lapped up most of their albums in this period. Automatic and Document are two of my favourite albums of all time, and I highly rate Fables of the Reconstruction, Murmur, Out of Time, Green and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Monster was probably a bit of a misstep (for albums that bring the rock, there are much more impressive mid-90s alternatives, though some tracks are very good) but I found Up to be an interesting experiment with changing their sound and bringing in new elements in the wake of drummer Bill Berry's departure. Reveal was, for me, a storming return to their normal melodic form, but Around the Sun was flat-out terrible, a low point that they recovered from with enthusiasm with the fast-paced Accelerate. Their latest - and now last - album has gotten enough mixed reviews that I haven't tried it yet, though now I think I will give it a go for old time's sake.

Sadly, I only got to see REM play live once, in July 2005 at Hyde Park in London. It was the end of their huge Around the Sun tour and they were clearly tired. But, just a week after the 07/07 bombings in London (and, though of course we didn't know it at the time, a week before a second attempted bombing attack on the city) when people were feeling a bit down, REM did a great job of getting people up and moving. Most surprising was when, instead of plumping for a cheap, sentimental and obvious rendition of 'Everybody Hurts' as a lesser band would have, they turned it up into an angry burst of guitar-driven defiance that was counter-intuitive and worked brilliantly.

So farewell to REM. Good on them for knowing when to quit, and if they decide to reform in ten years' time for another tour I won't hold it against them too much :-)

Here's a live performance of 'Country Feedback' from the Jools Holland Show in 1998 (later included as a B-side to the UK release of 'At My Most Beautiful'), featuring legendary steel pedal guitarist BJ Cole as well as core bandmembers Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck:

Torchwood: Miracle Day

On one perfectly normal day, everyone in the world stops dying. Governments scramble to find an explanation as, with every passing day, the population of the world grows larger, overwhelming limited resources. Also, whilst people are immortal, they still feel pain, and still need food so as not to live in a permanent state of starvation. Wounds don't heal properly, so the demand for painkillers goes through the roof. Society begins to crumble, and finding - and reversing - the 'Miracle' becomes the top priority for CIA Agent Rex Matheson. His only clue is one word: 'Torchwood'.

Torchwood: Miracle Day is, effectively, the fourth season of the Doctor Who spin-off show and also a self-contained ten-episode mini-series in its own right. A co-production between the BBC and American cable network Starz, the series is meant to be accessible to a new audience, but includes some continuity references to earlier episodes for established fans. Given the success of the previous mini-series, Children of Earth, in 2009, it's fair to say that a lot of people were looking forward to Miracle Day with some enthusiasm.

In the event, Miracle Day can best be described as 'stark raving bonkers'. The series has a vein of incoherent insanity raging through it that would shame even the last two seasons of True Blood. Working out what is going on at any given moment is a difficult task, as the series seems rather vague on who the bad guys are and who's working for whom and who's double-crossing whom and what their ultimate goals are. Our characters seem in a permanent state of being betrayed, arrested, deported or rescued by people who may be enemies, or potential allies, or allies who have become enemies through misunderstandings. Compared to the tightly-plotted Children of Earth (but unfortunately more in keeping with much of Russell T. Davies' other work), Miracle Day's story-telling is so diffuse and vague it might as well be vapour.

On the plus side, the series features a pretty good cast. Mekhi Phifer is entertainingly gruff as Matheson, but shines in more dramatic scenes as well. Alexa Havins provides the show with a solid emotional core as Esther Drummond, whose family is caught up in the Miracle crisis in a painful way. John Barrowman and Eva Myles are as solid as ever as Captain Jack and Gwen Cooper, though they are sidelined in earlier episodes in favour of the newcomers. They come back strong by mid-season and there are some good scenes in which their character relationships and motivations are very strongly defined (or redefined). This Torchwood team is likable and entertaining, which is vital. Bill Pullman also does solid work as Oswald Danes, the murderer condemned to death row who escapes his fate thanks to the Miracle. His character arc eventually ends up getting confused, goes nowhere for most of the season and then ends in cliche, but Pullman does the best he can with the material he's given. Arlene Tur is very impressive as Dr. Juraez, who provides an important POV on the medical ramifications of the crisis in its early stages. Lauren Ambrose is also excellent as the PR woman from hell, Jilly Kitzinger, though she is under-used until the last couple of episodes.

Later on, we get guest turns from Star Trek alumni Nana Visitor and John de Lancie, though unfortunately both roles are under-written and under-developed. More impressive is Daniele Favilli, who only gets one episode as Angelo (a former lover of Captain Jack who appears in flashback) but makes the most out of a small role.

The show has some serious cash behind it, which is best-seen in an epic helicopter battle in the first episode. Unfortunately, this generous budget appears to have been stretched thin by the final episode, which features some painfully obvious re-use of the same sets and some frankly atrocious bluescreen work for this day and age. The less said about the 'crack in the world' CGI effect, the better.

One of the most enticing prospects behind the series was that, as an American production, they'd be able to hire a decent composer. However, I can only conclude that Murray Gold has some serious dirt on Russell T. Davies. It's the only explanation for why he keeps hiring him despite Gold's total lack of talent. His music, utterly terrible since the very first episode of the new Doctor Who six years ago, is at its most bombastic, tonally inappropriate and grating here.

The strengths are good enough to keep watching, but the weaknesses are damning. Even more annoying is the fact that just as the problems become apparently insurmountable and the resolve to keep watching wanes, the show will suddenly throw you a curve-ball of unexpected quality. Jack and Gwen's characters develop quite nicely throughout the season, and a flashback episode to Jack's past in New York City and his relationship with Angelo is mostly successful. Perhaps a tad overwrought, but it's a highlight of the season (which bafflingly, goes on to play little to no role in the overall storyline of the season). It's also good to see that Davies hasn't forgotten that victories should be messy and earned painfully, with few characters left standing at the end of the season. However, bafflingly, the series ends on a series of cliffhangers which lead to the conclusion that there will be more Torchwood to come (though the storyline of the Miracle itself is resolved). Yet Davies has said he wants to move on and explore other projects and Starz have said they will only co-fund future series with Davies' involvement. So the open-ended nature of the series is somewhat baffling.

Torchwood: Miracle Day (***) is a massive let-down after the excellent Children of Earth, though quite a few elements do work. The initial exploration of the central premise is well-handled, most of the cast (particularly the two new members of Torchwood) are great and the show handles its new trans-Atlantic format successfully. However, the writing is inconsistent, the production values collapse in the last two episodes to sub-Sarah Jane Adventures levels for no discernible reason and the series is left confusingly open-ended given there may be no more episodes in future. It's watchable and entertaining but, as the series goes on, increasingly only in a wide-eyed, what-the-hell-can-they-possibly-do-now kind of way. The series will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on 14 November 2011. A US release date for the DVD and Blu-Ray has not yet been set.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Dan Abnett on future writing plans

With the thirteenth Gaunt's Ghosts novel out in a matter of weeks, Dan Abnett has been doing the interview rounds and has shed some light on his forthcoming projects.

In this print interview, Abnett confirms that Salvation Reach - due out next month - is the second in the fourth Gaunt's Ghosts arc, 'The Victory'. There will be two more books in this arc, followed by a fifth arc of either two or three books.

In this video interview, Abnett confirms that he is returning to the Inquisition setting of the Eisenhorn and Ravenor books for a third and final trilogy, known as the Bequin series (with the unofficial subtitle 'Eisenhorn vs. Ravenor'). The first of these new books should be out late next year.

Meanwhile, the second Triumff novel, The Double Falsehood, appears to have been delayed until early 2012, though no firm release date has been set yet.

German student creates an illuminated edition of THE SILMARILLION

German art student Benjamin Harff has created an illuminated, medieval-style edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. The project was part of Harff's course at the Academy of Arts in Hennef, Germany.

The Tolkien Library website has an extensive interview with Harff here about the project. At the moment there is only one copy in existence, but Harff has plans to contact HarperCollins and the Tolkien Estate about seeing if there is a commercial application.

Nice. Though I suspect even a mass-produced version would be extremely expensive :-)

Peter Dinklage wins Emmy Award for GAME OF THRONES

Peter Dinklage won the Award for Outstanding Supporting Performance in a Drama Series at the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards last night for his role of Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones.

Dinklage, seen as the outside bet (40/1 odds according to the bookies), overcome strong opposition from John Slattery (Mad Men), Andre Braugher (Men of a Certain Age), Walton Goggins (Justified), Josh Charles (The Good Wife) and Alan Cumming (The Good Wife) to take home the award.

Game of Thrones was also nominated for Best Drama Series, Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series and Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series but didn't win any of the other main awards. It did win an additional technical award for Best Title Sequence, however. The only other SFF show to take home an award was Futurama, which won the Award for Outstanding Animated Program.

Congratulations to Peter and the rest of the Game of Thrones team, as well as the other winners and nominees.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Ten classic DOCTOR WHO stories

Due to the high popularity of the new Doctor Who, it's not uncommon to see people asking online about what stories from the original series they should check out. Here are my recommendations.

Note: whilst I have watched a significant number of Who stories in my time (thanks to the relatively low-priced VHS releases of the series in the 1980s and 1990s), I haven't seen all of them. And before people ask, no I haven't seen The Talons of Weng-Chiang or Pyramids of Mars.

Also note that this list is in chronological order, not any order of merit.

An Unearthly Child (episode 1 only)
23 November 1963, Season 1

Doctor Who's first episode was broadcast on Saturday, 23 November 1963, and was almost completely ignored due to events that had transpired just a day earlier in Dallas, Texas. The episode was subsequently repeated a week later, where it got more attention. This episode revolves around two schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, who become concerned over the behaviour of one of their students, Susan Foreman. They decide to talk to Susan's guardian, her grandfather, only to discover that the address she gave the school is for a junkyard, the only notable feature of which is a police telephone box...

This first episode of Doctor Who is talky and tense, with the Doctor (played with a stern, authoritative air by William Hartnell) shown to be an ambiguous figure as he tries to work out what he's going to do about these two teachers who have stumbled upon the secret of the TARDIS. The rest of the four-part story is dull as dishwater (the Doctor and his companions become involved in a dispute between two opposing tribes of cavemen and inadvertently end up giving them the secret of fire), but this first episode is an effective opener to the series.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth
21 November-26 December 1964, Season 2

Doctor Who's opening story may have not been a great success, but its second turned it into must-see TV. The Daleks introduced the Doctor's most enduring foes and triggered the phenomenon of 'Dalekmania', which swept across the UK for much of 1964-66. This second Dalek serial saw the BBC respond to the success of the series by giving it a ramped-up budget, allowing generous amounts of location shooting in London. The premise is extremely simple: the Doctor and his companions arrive on Earth in the mid-22nd Century to find it under Dalek occupation. The team are split up among several different groups of prisoners, quislings and rebels and undertake separate adventures until their paths cross again for the epic showdown. By the standards of the time, this is a big story, well-paced (unlike most of the contemporary six-episode or longer serials, which are glacial by modern standards) with a large cast and some great set-pieces. The story also introduces some enduring ideas, such as the notion of a black-cased 'Dalek Supreme' and the pain the Doctor experiences when one of his companions departs (here even moreso, as it's his granddaughter Susan who elects to remain behind on post-occupation Earth), ideas that even the new series has continued to mine.

The War Games
19 April-21 June 1969, Season 6

Making a pick for the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, is difficult as his surviving stories tend towards the 'cheesy bollocks' (most notably the so-bad-it's-glorious The Dominators, in which two aliens try to conquer a planet with the help of impractical shoulder pads and some very dumb robot servants). Basically it came down between The War Games and Tomb of the Cybermen, and Tomb has to lose out due to the astonishingly bad acting of quite a few of the supporting cast (though the Cybermen waking from their tombs of ice is still a haunting image).

The War Games is a long, long story, weighing in at 10 episodes, but the four-hour length just about works due to a shift in focus every few episodes. The first few episodes see the Doctor, Jaime and Zoe arriving on Earth during WWI and get involved in various shenanigans on the Western Front. However, it is eventually revealed that they are really on a planet divided into historical timezones where unknowingly-kidnapped soldiers from different periods of Earth history fight it out whilst aliens study them. After exploring a couple of the zones, the story takes an unexpected turn when we discover that the aliens' time travel technology is the creation of the War Chief, an exile from the Doctor's home planet. As the Doctor and the War Chief face off, it becomes clear that the War Chief is a pawn for the leader of the aliens, the War Lord (a formidable performance by British character actor Philip Madoc, who brings 100% deadly earnestness to the role). Where the story succeeds is that it throws the Doctor for a loop every time he thinks he's solved the crisis, with the War Lord shown to be a remorseless foe who may be more than a match for the Doctor. Patrick Troughton, always a strong actor as the Doctor, is tested more than in any other story and rises to the occasion, showing the Second Doctor becoming increasingly frustrated and desperate as the crisis escalates. Eventually, the Doctor's resolve to defeat the War Lord cracks and he calls in his own people, the hitherto enigmatic (and unnamed) Time Lords, to sort it out for him!

This then leads us into the extremely different and hugely revelatory final episode, in which the Time Lords, having dealt with the threat of the War Lord, now bring the Doctor to trial for his crimes of interfering in the affairs of other planets. The Doctor puts on an impassioned defence of his desire to fight evil and injustice wherever it may be found, which doesn't seem to move the emotionless Time Lords...until they read out the verdict, in which it appears that the Doctor's arguments have indeed swayed them, and he is exiled to Earth in the 20th Century. A rather grim final episode with an ending that is rather mixed in its outcome: the Doctor survives, but he loses his companions and (temporarily) the use of the TARDIS, and sets up a very loose story arc that unfolds over the next three seasons. Fans remain divided to this day on the morality of the Time Lords 'killing' the Second Doctor by forcing him to regenerate as well.

Day of the Daleks
1-22 January 1972, Season 9

Day of the Daleks is a clever story as it's one of the vanishingly few times the original series dealt with temporal paradoxes (Steven Moffat has used the temporal paradox story idea more times in his two seasons in charge than in the entirety of the original series, for example). The Doctor (now played as more of an action hero by Jon Pertwee) is highly confused to find that Earth in the 22nd Century is again under the rule of the Daleks (since he defeated them in The Dalek Invasion of Earth) and learns that time-travel has resulted in the creation of an alternate future. Ironically, it's not the Daleks' fault, but rather that of the well-meaning rebels who are trying to stop them. The story is a tense affair as the Doctor tries to repair the timeline in the future, but in the present UNIT are put on alert by the apparently-imminent outbreak of World War III. Aubrey Woods gives the main human villain, the Controller, a sense of depth as he is shown to be ravaged by guilt for his actions as a collaborator of the Daleks, whilst Doctor Who gains a new race of villains with the entertainingly dumb Ogrons (footsoldiers of the Daleks). Crucially, the Daleks are not overused and are kept in the background throughout, Machiavellian masterminds rather than easily-defeated soldiers.

The Sea Devils
26 February-1 April 1972, Season 9

One of the best things about the Pertwee Era was the relationship between the Doctor and his arch-nemesis, the Master, played in this incarnation by Roger Delgado. The Doctor and the Master here are portrayed as the alien equivalent of Sherlock and Moriarty, well-matched opponents who both hate and respect one another. The Sea Devils opens with the Master in prison and the Doctor paying a visit to the apparently reformed villain, but unsurprisingly the Master is soon revealed to be up to his old tricks. This time, he's in cahoots with the Sea Devils, an off-shoot of the Silurians (the original inhabitants of Earth who are in stasis far below the planet's surface, awaiting the chance to return; they most recently appeared with Matt Smith last year), who are planning to conquer the Earth etc. A lot of the story is rather forgettable, to be honest, but it's the game of cat and mouse between the Doctor and the Master which is most fascinating, especially when it escalates to a literal fencing match between the two (here enhanced with lightsabre effects because...erm...why not?).

The Ark in Space
25 January-15 February 1975, Season 12

In 1974 Tom Baker took over the role of the Doctor, bringing an element of demented insanity to the role that, in later seasons, took over the show to its detriment. Early on, however, Baker delivered a series of iconic performances where his humour, intelligence and dramatic skills were kept in balance. The Ark in Space is a perfect example of this, as the Doctor's comic early exasperation with new companion Harry Sullivan gives way to probably his finest speech about why he likes hanging around human beings so much (a speech so iconic even the new series has referenced it) upon viewing the thousands of humans in cryostasis on an immense space station:
"Homo sapiens, what an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds! They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. Now here they are out among the stars waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable."
Later on, things go a bit Alien as parasitical lifeforms attach themselves to the sleeping humans and turn them into ferocious monsters. Ignoring the fact that the alien grubs are clearly covered in green-painted bubble-warp, this was probably the scariest and most horrifying episode of Doctor Who to this time, marking the beginning of a period when Who was frequently criticised for being too disturbing for children to watch. But overall this is a well-written, dramatic and slightly disturbing story.

Genesis of the Daleks
8 March-12 April 1975, Season 12

After another period in which the Daleks had been heavily over-used, the production team decided to rest them for a while. But before they bowed out, Dalek creator Terry Nation decided to write a story exploring the creation and origin of the Daleks. He introduced their creator, the crippled, insane scientist Davros, and had the Doctor face an ethical dilemma as he is ordered by the Time Lords to destroy the Daleks at the moment of their creation (this move was later retconned as the opening salvo in the Time War). The Doctor thus spends the serial agonising over the morality of genocide even as the humanoid Kaleds and Thals slaughter one another with shocking abandon. Nation uses Nazi imagery to further make it clear that Davros and the Kaleds are Not Nice People, though the violent Thals hardly come out of it any better. This is Doctor Who at its most morally murky, but also at its most dramatic and watchable. A terrific story in which, again, the Daleks are purposefully kept off-camera as much as possible to make their appearances more memorable and powerful.

City of Death
29 September-20 October 1979, Season 17

City of Death may be the single most totally-bonkers story in the history of the series. Written by Douglas 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' Adams and filmed partially on location in Paris with a totally random cameo by John Cleese and Tom Baker's comedic skills being fully unleashed, City of Death is an unabashed joy from start to finish. Baker has some golden lines ("What a delightful butler, he's so violent!") and the plot is bananas (an exploding alien spaceship half a billion years ago splits its pilot into several incarnations scattered through Earth's history), but a key element here is Julian Glover (most recently seen as Pycelle in Game of Thrones) giving a steely, well-judged performance as the main villain. Boundlessly inventive and propelled by palpable cast enthusiasm, this is Doctor Who at its funniest and most entertaining.

The Caves of Androzani
8-16 March 1984, Season 21

Peter Davison's sojourn as the Fifth Doctor comes to an end in a remarkably grim and 'different' Doctor Who story. Directed by Graeme Harper (the only director of the original series invited back for the new one) and written by the ever-reliable Robert Holmes (he also wrote The Ark in Space), this story pits the Doctor and Peri against the disfigured and violent Sharaz Jek (a blistering, intense performance by Christopher Gable). However, the situation is complicated by political machinations between Jek's allies and enemies, and frankly none of the characters come out of the situation very well. With its cast of fully-realised characters (each of whom has a fully-fleshed out motivation for what he's doing), this is Doctor Who at its best-written (and, frankly, not a single story since, not even the splendid Blink or The Doctor's Wife, matches it). It also features the best regeneration to date, with Peter Davison's Doctor having to will himself through a difficult rebirth, egged on by visions of his past companions and threatened by images of his greatest enemy, the Master. The final scene, of the new Doctor Colin Baker rather threateningly saying that change has come, "Not a moment too soon," promises more than subsequent stories deliver, however.

Remembrance of the Daleks
5-25 October 1988, Season 25

A tricky choice, since Remembrance does feature some of the weakest guest stars of Sylvester McCoy's admittedly difficult era, but Ben Aaronovitch's script is very strong and it's certainly one of the most ambitious Doctor Who stories. It brings us full circle back to the events of An Unearthly Child, being set just a few days after the Doctor, his granddaughter and two teachers vanished from Earth in late 1963, and we discover exactly why the Doctor was on Earth in the first place: to recover the Hand of Omega, an immensely powerful artifact capable of manipulating stars. No less than two factions of Daleks are also on the trail, and as they get closer to the device this results in some epic battles on the streets of London (the fact that the other three serials of Season 25 look like they had a combined budget of 25p is probably explained by this), most notably when the ludicrously over-powered Special Weapons Dalek is deployed which can take out streets full of enemy Daleks with a single shot.

But beyond the fireworks, it's McCoy's performance as the Doctor as a grand chess-master, orchestrating events from behind the scenes and manipulating others - even his companion Ace - into doing what he wants which really stands out. This is one of the few times in the show's history that the Doctor himself sets in motion the events of the story rather than being reactive to it, and that simple change elevates the story to a new level, as does its raising of normally-ignored issues like racism in 1960s London.

So there we go. Ten stories from the original run of Doctor Who that I think are pretty good stuff (bearing in mind that some dating and aging of things like special effects and filming techniques have taken place).

Conan the Barbarian becomes a university lecturer

Staff at Trinity College Dublin were confused yesterday when they discovered, via the staff listings on the college website, that they had been joined by a new member of staff.

Dr. Barbarian is surprised by the negative reaction to his disemboweling a truculent student with an attitude problem.

The entry was for Dr. Conan T. Barbarian, B.A. (Cimmeria), Ph.D (UCD), F.T.C.D. (Long Room Hub Associate Professor in Hyborian Studies and Tyrant Slaying). According to his profile, he was "ripped from his mother's womb on the corpse-strewn battlefields of his war-torn homeland, Cimmeria, and has been preparing for academic life ever since. A firm believer in the dictum that 'that which does not kill us makes us stronger', he took time out to avenge the murder of his parents following a sojourn pursuing his strong interest in Post-Colonial theory at the Sarbonne."

Apparently, Dr. Barbarian's Ph.D was entitled To Hear the Lamentations of Their Women: Constructions in Masculinity in Contemporary Zamoran Literature and he was appointed to the School of English in 2006 "after successfully decapitating his predecessor during a bloody battle which will long be remembered in story and song." His courses for the 2011/12 academic year will be 'The Relevance of Crom in the Modern World', 'Theories of Literature', 'Vengeance for Beginners', 'Deciphering the Riddle of Steel' and 'D.H. Lawrence'.

Conan T. Barbarian also registers his displeasure with "remaking 1980s films that he feels were perfectly good enough in the first place."

The listing has, sadly, been removed by the college, who said they were taking the incident 'seriously'.

Friday, 16 September 2011

THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES pushed back to 2012

Okay, it was clear a few weeks ago that The Republic of Thieves was not going to be a 2011 release, but Gollancz have confirmed it by giving the book a new date of March 2012 in their online catalogue. Frustratingly (for Scott Lynch and Gollancz as much as the fans), this date is still not final or set in stone.

According to Gollancz the date is:
"Still speculative. But progressively less speculative."
Scott has been blogging more frequently recently and assures us that:
"For the curious: The instant, the microsecond I have an unchanging date for TRoT's release I will Twitter the holy bejeezus out of it."
Getting closer...hopfully! :-)

A reboot of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is in the works

American network The CW is developing a reboot of the late 1980s CBS fantasy drama series Beauty and the Beast (itself a retelling of the traditional story, moving the action to contemporary New York City).

The show, which ran for 3 seasons and 56 episodes in 1987-90, starred Ron Perlman, Linda Hamilton and Roy Dotrice. It was created and run by Ron Koslow, but its highest-profile creative force was (and remains) George R.R. Martin, who worked on the show as writer, script editor and eventually a producer. The show started out with ratings of 20 million, but ratings and critical acclaim collapsed in the third season after Linda Hamilton's character was brutally and unexpectedly killed off, leading to cancellation.

The announcement comes just a week after ABC announced its own 'reimagining' of the original story.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Manhattan in Reverse by Peter F. Hamilton

Best-known for his immense doorstoppers, Peter F. Hamilton is also an experienced writer of SF short stories. Manhattan in Reverse is his second collection of short fiction, collecting together seven stories published over the last eleven years. Unlike his first collection, A Second Chance at Eden, where the stories were all set in the same universe, this time around the fiction is not linked by any theme or setting.

First up is Watching Trees Grow, previously a stand-alone novella published by PS Publishing. The novella is a riff on one of Hamilton's favourite subgenres, the SF mystery thriller, this time set in an alternate history where the pace of technological development was much faster than in real life and there are electric cars on the streets of Oxford in the early 19th Century. A murder takes place and one man becomes obsessed with tracking down the killer...even if it takes centuries. An effective and clever story, riffing on traditional SF tropes about extended lifespans, alternate timelines and technological development.

Footvote is a political satire, in which a politician opens a wormhole to another planet, allowing people to escape from early 21st Century Britain to make a fresh start, but will only allow a narrow definition of people through, resulting in social unrest. One family is torn apart in the resulting chaos. It's an interesting story about escaping responsibility for your actions, but suffers from having some quite dated references already (Gordon Brown as British PM etc). There is a nice line in humour, though, with the constitution for the new planet (which bans traffic wardens from emigrating) apparently designed with Daily Mail readers in mind.

If at First can be seen as a bit of a dry run for a certain storyline in The Evolutionary Void. In this story a police detective finds himself pursuing a criminal and is inadvertently sent back in time to an earlier point in his own timeline. Given the chance to 'start again', he uses his immense knowledge of future events (and future hit pop songs) to build himself a fortune, only to forget his original purpose. It's a funny time travel story with a bleak, but not entirely undeserved, conclusion.

The Forever Kitten feels like Hamilton setting himself an impossible challenge: writing a story in just 1,000 words (or 1/450th the length of The Naked God) for a magazine article. He pulls it off, with a frankly disturbing finale that could bear revisiting in a longer story or novel.

The book is rounded off by three stories set in his Commonwealth setting: Blessed by an Angel is scene-setting stuff for the Void Trilogy, establishing the tensions between the Higher and Advancer cultures and also providing family backstory for a major character from that series. The Demon Trap is the best story in the collection, pitting Paula Myo against an opponent who goes to immense lengths to avoid capture, but who in the end cannot escape responsibility for his actions. Manhattan in Reverse again features Myo, this time investigating an anomalous series of events on a frontier planet flooded with refugees from the Starflyer War. It's effective and entertaining - Myo is rapidly becoming Hamilton's signature character and is one of the better-realised female protagonists of recent SF - but the ending is a little too neat.

Overall, this is an effective and varied collection, with Hamilton revisiting some established themes (longevity, the notion of political responsibility and time travel) and, intriguingly, exploring some ideas that would later come to fruition in the Commonwealth and Void novels. If the collection has a problem, it's that it's way too short: Hamilton has a significant number of pre-2000, non-Confederation short stories that did not appear in A Second Chance at Eden and I was hoping they'd be included here (including - fascinatingly - two collaborations with Graham Joyce and a Greg Mandel novella). Instead we only get seven stories, resulting in a hardcover that is only 260 pages long. Sure, the content is what matters and these seven stories are all at least interesting, but the missing of the opportunity to make the collection more extensive and exhaustive is somewhat frustrating.

But based on what does make it in, Manhattan in Reverse (****) is a solid enough collection of readable, clever and thought-provoking stories from an author who is as comfortable with the short form as he is the half-million-word mega-novel. The collection officially isn't out in the UK until 7 October (though my local bookstore has copies in now) and will be published on 28 February 2012 in the USA (though apparently only as an ebook).

The Symphony of Science

Quantum physics can be a little hard to explain or get your head around, even for hardened SF readers. So here's a helpful music video starring Morgan Freeman, Professor Brian Cox and Richard Feynman (guest vocals by Stephen Hawking) to clarify things:

Mental :-)

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Voyager release new hardcover SONG OF ICE AND FIRE editions

HarperCollins Voyager have responded to the explosion in popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire by reissuing the series in several new formats. New B-class paperback editions of the books are on British bookshelves right now, but more interesting is the news that Voyager are preparing new, high-quality hardcover editions of the novels.

These editions - which are basically much harder-wearing and 'nicer' versions of the original hardcovers rather than 'proper' limited editions like those from SubPress - come with their own slipcases and a simple heraldic device on the cover of each book. A Game of Thrones has the Stark direwolf on the cover, whilst A Clash of Kings features the Baratheon stag, A Storm of Swords is graced by the Lannister lion, A Feast for Crows features the Greyjoy kraken and A Dance with Dragons sports the Targaryen dragon.

These new editions are priced at £40 each and are being rolled out over the next few weeks: A Game of Thrones is already available and will be followed by Kings (on 29 September), Swords (1 November), Crows (8 December) and Dragons (15 March 2012). Notably, the new edition restores A Storm of Swords as a one-volume book (the only British print edition available for the past decade was in two volumes).

UPDATE: Early reactions from people who have bought the new Game of Thrones are not good. These new editions are still glue-bound, rather than sewn, which is insane for an expensive hardcover edition like this (so throw out the 'harder-wearing' comment from above). It also appears that Voyager are continuing their grand tradition of not using the maps correctly. Thrones now has the map of Slaver's Bay from A Storm of Swords included, but not the Free Cities map from A Dance with Dragons, despite Slaver's Bay not appearing in the book at all but several of the Free Cities playing a role. In short, I would hesitate about getting these, certainly at the £40 cover price.

Bethesda turned down the GAME OF THRONES gaming licence

In an intriguing interview, a senior producer at Bethesda (the creators of the Elder Scrolls series and the makers of Fallout 3) has revealed that they were offered the Song of Ice and Fire gaming licence some years ago and were tempted to accept, but ultimately turned it down.

According to Todd Howard, the offer came before they began work on Skyrim, the fifth Elder Scrolls game (due out next month), so presumably whilst they were still working on Fallout 3. George R.R. Martin's agent approached them with the idea and they mulled it over. Many on the team were big fans of the novels. However, ultimately they decided to continue developing games with their own IP.
“We wanted to do our own world. That’s where we wanted to put out time into. Before we were even making Skyrim, there was a conversation with George R.R. Martin’s people. They thought it would be a good match—and so did we, actually—but then we thought about if that was where we wanted to spend our time. It was tempting, though.”
Lost opportunity? Perhaps. Bethesda make solid games, but lack strong writers, so I suspect their take on Westeros wouldn't have perhaps been as well-written as might be wished. However, they are also a massive company who put huge resources into every project they work on, whilst Cyanide (the company who now holds the licence) are not. Certainly it would have been interesting to see what Bethesda could have done, but it may also be that Cyanide, a smaller company looking to make a name and a reputation for themselves, have more to prove and will pull out all the stops for the two games they are working on. Speaking of them, the first, Game of Thrones: Genesis, ships on 28 September and is now available to pre-order on Steam.

The Mountain is recast, plus some new villains for THRONES

Some more casting information for the second season of Game of Thrones.

Ian Whyte.

First up, some unfortunate news. Conan Stevens, who played the role of Ser Gregor Clegane in two episodes of the first season (including the memorable horse-decapitation scene), has left the series. Between seasons Stevens had gotten some additional work, first on the second season of Spartacus as a major, recurring villain, and then on the movie version of The Hobbit, playing an orc chieftain. It appears that scheduling conflicts and transportation problems played a role in his departure. Stevens discusses his departure here. He has been replaced by Ian Whyte, who has already appeared in the first season as a White Walker/Other in the first episode. Whyte, a former professional basketball player with 80 caps for England, is 7 foot 1 inches in height and is best-known for playing the Predator in the two Alien vs. Predator movies and working as a stunt double on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, playing the role of Madame Maxine in scenes where his/her face was not visible.

Andy Beckwith is a British actor, probably still best-known for his role as Errol in the Guy Ritchie movie Snatch. He also played the role of Clanker in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

In Thrones Beckwith is playing the role of Rorge. Rorge is a criminal from the streets of King's Landing, where he ran illegal fighting pits. He was rounded up by the goldcloaks and thrown in the city's jail, from where he was 'recruited' by Yoren for the Night's Watch.

Gerard Jordan is a Northern Irish actor who has recently appeared in the movie Five Minutes of Heaven (alongside James Nesbitt and Liam Neeson).

For the series, Jordan is playing the role of Biter. Biter fought in the illegal fighting pits run by Rorge and joined him in the city jail, as well as also being recruited by Yoren for the Night's Watch. Biter is so-called because he cannot speak, only hiss through pointed teeth. His preferred method of combat is to jump on someone and bite them.

Anthony Morris is an Irish actor with a number of Irish film, TV and stage credits to his name. He is playing the role of the Tickler, a soldier in the employ of Ser Gregor Clegane who acts as an interrogator and torturer. His favourite question is, "Is there gold in the village?"

Fintan McKeown is another Irish actor, noted for his roles on Merlin and Star Trek: Voyager.

He is playing the role of Ser Amory Lorch, a noted knight in the service of House Lannister. After Gregor Clegane, Lorch is noted as Tywin Lannister's most savage and brutal warrior.