Sunday, 19 August 2018

Steven Erikson releases original MALAZAN maps

Over on his Facebook page, Steven Erikson has begun releasing images of his original Malazan maps, including maps created for the novels and for the original roleplaying campaign (beginning in 1982) where the world was created. That map and a cleaned-up version I created are as follows (click for larger versions):

First up is his original world map. This map was created some time before work on the novels began in earnest (so probably late 1980s/early 1990s) and does not reflect some changes made for the books. The major differences are as follows:

  • Quon Tali is much bigger on a east-west axis. This was reduced for the novels.
  • Korel and Stratem were given over to Ian Esslemont to redesign in greater detail, hence why Korel doesn't look much like the map in Stonewielder.
  • Similarly with Assail and Jacuruku, also though they at least kept their general shapes (the cities noted on Erikson's map are not present on the book maps though).
  • Genabackis, especially in the north, was significantly redesigned for the books, and may have already been redrawn by this time (as noted in the errata section on the right).
  • Jacuruku appears to be too close to the east coast of Kolanse, and probably should be more central in the White Spires Ocean.
  • Reacher's Ocean was moved to the stretch of sea between NW Assail, SW Genabackis, NE Korel and eastern Quon Tali (where "Seeker's Deep" is marked now).
  • Seeker's Deep was moved up to between Genabackis and Seven Cities.
  • The Ilbain Ocean was renamed the Dryjna Ocean.
  • The Bager Sea was renamed the Sea of Kaltepe Kadesh.
  • The Cragg Sea was moved north-east to near Falar. The Horn Ocean was introduced in its stead.
  • Drift Avalii in the books is much, much smaller.
  • Lether appears to have been stretched somewhat on an east-west axis. There isn't enough room for the Wastelands and the Glass Desert on this version of the map.
  • Spelling: Shal Morzin became the Shal-Morzinn Empire, Cabil became Cabal, Leathers became Lether and so forth.

New and probably still-canonical information from this map:

  • There is a south polar continent, with a possibly-habitable extension moving up towards Assail.
  • The location and shape of the island kingdoms of Genostel and Umryg.
  • The shape of the far south and west coasts of Seven Cities.
  • The location of Shal-Morzinn, Perish, Nemil and Cabal.

Erikson has also posted the first map he used for a roleplaying campaign involving the Bridgeburners. This campaign took place in north-west Genabackis, in and around Blackdog and Mott Wood.

More maps are to come. It is interesting to note that the world maps D'rek created for the Malazanempire forum (and modified by myself) are very close to the original:

I recently covered the Malazan world in a series of maps over on Atlas of Ice and Fire. I get the sense I'll have to revisit these maps very soon.

Friday, 17 August 2018

HBO greenlights Damon Lindelof's frankly unnecessary WATCHMEN TV series

HBO has greenlit Damon Lindelof's frankly unnecessary Watchmen TV adaptation, having been impressed by an internal pilot filmed earlier this year.


Lindelof's new take on Alan Moore's graphic novel is actually a sequel to the original graphic novel, catching up on the world in the wake of the events of the original story. However, this TV show will not have any relation to Zack Snyder's faithful (possibly too faithful) 2009 feature film version, with new actors taking up the roles from the graphic novel and new characters coming on board.

Although Snyder's film had some merit to it, such as solid casting and some good imagery - it's still easily his best film - it was also slavishly overly faithful to the graphic novel but also revelled in the violence. If anything, a fresh adaptation that was both slightly looser and also had more time to tell the story properly might have some merit.

As it stands, a TV show set thirty years after the events of the original story, presumably with the original characters missing or very old, feels a bit pointless.

It might be that the show has merit: Lindelof, for all the much-deserved criticism he gets for his handling of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies and Prometheus, did write some very good episodes of Lost (even if the last season had some issues) and his recent HBO project, The Leftovers, had an excellent critical and popular response. But it does feel that either an original, deconstructionist take on superheroes could have been attempted, or maybe a superhero property that hasn't had a relatively recent adaptation (such as Wild Cards).

As it stands, the purpose and appeal of this project remains somewhat head-scratching. HBO seem to planning on hitting the ground running on this project though, with the show planned to hit the screens before the end of 2019.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018


Star Trek: Discovery has cast its own version of Mr. Spock, announcing that Ethan Peck will be playing the role in the upcoming second season of the show.

Peck will be the third actor to play the role in a major way, following Leonard Nimoy's 49-year-stint (from The Cage, filmed in 1964, to Star Trek: Into Darkness in 2013) and Zachary Quinto's portrayal in the J.J. Abrams-produced reboot movies starting in 2009. Quinto was expected to reprise the role in the upcoming fourth movie in the reboot series, but pay issues have put the future of that project in some doubt.

It was unlikely that Quinto was going to reprise the role in Discovery, partly because being set in different timelines may confuse audiences if the same actors play the same role, but mainly because the film and TV rights were split between Paramount and CBS over a decade ago and the two companies have been in competition ever since. With Quinto contracted to play the role for Paramount, it was inconceivable that they would release him to work for what they see as potential competition (especially as their movies have struggled financially, whilst CBS All Access has credited Discovery with a large boost in their subscribers, with Netflix also reporting solid international numbers). This was seemingly confirmed when Anson Mount was cast as Captain Pike, a role played by Bruce Greenwood in the reboot movies.

Peck is the grandson of Gregory Peck. His highest-profile role to date was playing Patrick Verona on 10 Things I Hate About You. He has also appeared on Gossip Girl, That '70s Show and Madam Secretary. To win the role of Spock, he had to meet with and win the approval of Leonard Nimoy's family, including his director son Adam (who is also married to former Deep Space Nine actress Terry Farrell).

Star Trek: Discovery's second season will start airing in early 2019.

Cover art for KELLANVED'S REACH, the next MALAZAN novel

Bantam Press have released the cover art for Kellanved's Reach, the next novel in Ian C. Esslemont's Path to Ascendancy series, set in the Malazan universe he co-created with Steven Erikson.

The book is the third in a prequel series, so far consisting of the well-received Dancer's Lament (2016) and Deadhouse Landing (2017). Esslemont and Bantam signed a three-book contract for the series but have indicated it may go longer, especially since the titular Ascendancy doesn't happen until around 100 years after the events of the next book and the series has sold very well.

The cover blurb:

The incessant war between the bickering city states of Quon Tali rages. So engrossed are the warring lords and princes in their own petty feuds that few notice that an upstart mage from Dal Hon has gained control of the southern seas. But some powers are alarmed. And in the meantime, as Purge and Tali indulge in what seems like a their never-ending game of war, a mercenary caught up in the fight between the two states suddenly refuses to play along and causes all sorts of chaos. Simultaneously, a pair of escapees from Castle Gris make their way across this ravaged landscape of flame and butchery. Their intention to seek out the legendary Crimson Guard.
And then there's Kellanved who could not care less about any of this petty politicking or strategy or war. Something other and altogether more mysterious has caught his attention and he - together with a reluctant and decidedly sceptical Dancer - traverse continents and journey through the Realms in pursuit . . . But this ancient mystery that has so captivated Kellanved is neither esoteric nor ephemeral. No, it is of an altogether darker and more dangerous hue. It involves the Elder races themselves, and more specifically - certainly more alarmingly - the semi-mythic, and universally dreaded, Army of Dust and Bone. 
Surely no one in their right mind would be so foolish as to embark on a journey from which none have returned? Well, no one except Kellanved that is . . . 
Returning to the turbulent early history of what would become the Malazan Empire, here is the third awesome chapter in Ian C. Esslemont's new epic fantasy sequence.

Meanwhile, in other Malazan news, Steven Erikson is working on The God is Not Willing, the first novel in The Witness Trilogy, which is set after the main Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence and focuses on what happens when Karsa Orlong finally returns home to northern Genabackis, along with following up events in Darujhistan. I'd wouldn't expect this book much before 2020.

In the meantime, The Second Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach will be released on 20 September (yes, next month). This collects the Malazan novellas Crack'd Pot Trail, The Wurms of Blearmouth and The Fiends of Nightmaria into one handy volume.

Monday, 13 August 2018

RIP Michael Scott Rohan

News has unfortunately broken that Scottish fantasy author Michael Scott Rohan has passed away at the age of 67.

Related image

Rohan was born in Edinburgh in 1951, apparently in the house next door to one where Robert Louis Stevenson resided. He attended Oxford University, where he started reading English but switched to Law, and got involved in an SF group. His first published work of genre interest appeared in the group's SFinx magazine. His first published story was "Fidei Defensor" (1977) in the anthology Andromeda 2 (edited by Peter Weston), which attracted praise from no less a personage than Ursula K. Le Guin ("an absolute knockout!"). A writer with widely varying interests, he co-wrote (with Allan Scott) a nonfiction study of the Viking era, The Hammer and the Cross (1980), and also wrote reviews for Opera Now. He also developed an interest in the home computing scene and wrote an introduction to the field, First Byte (1983), and sang and played guitar in a folk band.

His first novel was Run to the Stars (1983), a hard SF story, which was followed by a switch to fantasy with The Ice King (1986, with Allan Scott). The same year he published The Anvil of Ice (1986), the first in the Winter of the World series, which remains his best-known work. Five additional novels in the sequence followed.

Rohan returned to SF with The Spiral, a four-volume series set in a series of interconnecting parallel worlds, featuring such ideas as computer programs that can be used to empower magical spells.

Possibly Rohan's finest novel is The Lord of Middle Air (1994), a stand-alone which melds the history of 13th Century Borders Scotland with a fictional faerie realm.

Rohan's writing career was abruptly curtailed after the publication of the sixth Winter of the World novel in 2001, after he had been diagnosed with an incurable disease. He decided to dedicate the rest of his life to his family and to travelling, including visiting both Antarctica and the Arctic. Occasionally his publishers hinted that he was writing another fantasy novel, but alas none appeared.

This is sad news. Michael Scott Rohan wrote with skill and a poetical flourish, and showed an enviable proficiency across the fields of criticism, science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction. He will be missed.


Run to the Stars (1982)
The Ice King (1986, with Allan J. Scott)
A Spell of Empire (1992, with Allan J. Scott)
The Lord of Middle Air (1994)

The Winter of the World
The Anvil of Ice (1986)
The Forge in the Forest (1987)
The Hammer of the Sun (1988)
The Castle of the Winds (1998)
The Singer and the Sea (1999)
Shadow of the Seer (2001)

The Spiral
Chase the Morning (1990)
The Gates of Noon (1992)
Cloud Castles (1993)
Maxie's Demon (1997)

The Hammer and the Cross (1980, with Allan J. Scott)
Fantastic People: Magical Races of Myth and Legend (1980)
First Byte (1983)

Saturday, 11 August 2018

New STAR TREK movie in difficulties over pay

The fourth film in the Star Trek reboot movie franchise (which began with J.J. Abams' 2009 film) has hit a major snag in development. Star Chris Pine - who plays Captain James T. Kirk - and guest star Chris Hemsworth - who played Kirk's dad in the first film and is returning in this one, presumably as part of a time travel story - are both claiming that Paramount has reneged on their previously-agreed pay deal and have refused to commit to the project until their previous pay package is honoured.

Chris Pine and Chis Hemsworth are part of the current Chris Movement in American cinema, a period exemplified by a profusion of Chrises in major blockbuster film franchises. Peak Chris began in 2018 when Evans, Hemsworth and Pratt co-starred in The Avengers: Infinity War and will conclude when its sequel is released in May 2019.

To rewind, the reboot Star Trek franchise began with Star Trek in 2009 and continued with Into Darkness in 2013 and then Beyond in 2016. Even before Beyond was released, producer J.J. Abrams (despite being busy working on the Star Wars movies) had apparently pitched and won early approval from Paramount for a fourth film featuring Kirk meeting his father, and early deals for the regular cast and Hemsworth were put in place.

However, a major snag then developed: Star Trek Beyond, despite positive reviews and being widely credited as the best of the reboot movies (and possibly the best Star Trek movie since the release of First Contact in 1996), did not do well at the box office. It returned $343 million against a budget of $185 million, a drop of $120 million compared to Into Darkness (which had an identical budget). It only just scraped into profit via home media sales and streamings.

Paramount's interest in a new film cooled - possibly not helped by Abrams' decamping from the franchise to work on The Force Awakens (2015) - and they began exploring other takes on the series, including possibly an R-rated film directed by Quentin Tarantino, to the bemusement of fans.

However, with Abrams making himself available again after The Force Awakens and Tarantino deciding to fit in another film before the Star Trek project, Paramount decided to push forwards with the fourth Star Trek film earlier this year, possibly buoyed by the success of Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access. Abrams' 2016 pitch was dusted down and put into development with new director S.J. Clarkson on board.

From the news reports, it sounds like Paramount wanted to renegotiate contracts on the basis of Beyond's underperformance. This would help lower the budget and reduce the cost of the movie compared to its forebears. Apparently the rest of the cast, including well-known (and healthily-remunerated) faces such as Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg and Zachary Quinto, had agreed to the adjustment to help get the film made. However, Chris Pine has recently established himself in the Wonder Woman movie franchise and Hemsworth has starred in six of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films as Thor (including this year's $2 billion-grossing Infinity War) since his previous Star Trek appearance, and neither are willing to drop their price tag.

Negotiations are apparently now suspended, although the film's development is continuing, which is usually a sign that the studio expects negotiations to resume and the problems to be overcome. Solutions would include dropping Hemsworth's character from the film altogether and adjust the script, recasting Hemsworth (which may be viable as his character was in the first film for about five minutes), recasting Pine (much less likely) or simply meeting their pay requests, or making a new pay deal somewhere between the two stools, although this may go down badly with other actors who have already agreed to pay reductions.

Whatever the outcome, it is likely the Star Trek movie franchise will continue. In the meantime, CBS All Access has doubled down on the success of Star Trek: Discovery by commissioning a series focusing on Patrick Stewart's character of Jean-Luc Picard at an advanced age.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Henry Cavill expresses interest in playing Geralt of Rivia in Netflix's WITCHER TV series

Henry Cavill, who currently plays Superman in the DC Universe movies, has expressed interest in playing the role of Geralt of Rivia in Netflix's upcoming Witcher TV series.

Fans are already on the case (Source: Bosslogic on Instagram)

Cavill has declared himself a huge fan of the franchise, having played the video games (recently completing a second playthrough of the enormous Witcher 3: Wild Hunt) and read the novels by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Fans have put forward many names for the role of Geralt in the TV series, with suggestions ranging from Black Sails and The 100 star Zach McGowan (who has also expressed an interest in the role) to Mads Mikkelsen, possibly as an older version of the character. Given that Sapkowski is Polish, the mythology of the series is informed by Polish sources and that the show will shoot in Poland, Polish actors have also been put forward, most notably Marcin Dorociński.

With casting reportedly getting underway in the next month or two, Witcher producer Lauren Hissrich may find herself with a bit of a queue of known Hollywood names forming, which is an nice problem to have.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

CBS All Access commissions STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION sequel starring Patrick Stewart

CBS All Access has commissioned a new Star Trek: The Next Generation sequel project starring Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard. This will mark the first time that Stewart has returned to the role since the film Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002.

Patrick Stewart with Star Trek: Discovery star Sonequa Martin-Green.

Although firm plans have not yet been confirmed - such as the name of the series and if it will be an ongoing series or a one-off mini-series - CBS and Stewart himself have confirmed that the project is moving forward. The new series will be set approximately 20 years after the end of Star Trek: Nemesis and will catch up with Picard's situation at that point in time. This will also be the first project to revisit the Next Generation "era" (which also includes spin-off shows Deep Space Nine and Voyager) since Nemesis.

Stewart has indicated that Picard will no longer be a captain, which is quite likely as Stewart is now 78 and, assuming the new series is set exactly 20 years after Nemesis in the year 2399, Picard would be 94 (humans in the Star Trek universe live significantly longer than now). Previous Star Trek novels and TV episodes featuring glimpses of the future have suggested that Picard might have been promoted to Admiral, served in a mentorship or leadership capacity at Starfleet Command and then become a Federation Ambassador, or possibly left Starfleet to pursue his love of archaeology.

It is also unknown if other Next Generation actors may appear in the new series, although Jonathan Frakes (who played Commander Riker) is involved in the new Star Trek projects at CBS All Access as a director, and may return for this new series.

According to Stewart, the writers haven't yet produced a script and they are still at the brainstorming stage. On that basis we may not see this new series air until 2020.

Wertzone Classics: Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson

A dark shadow has fallen across eastern Genabackis: the Pannion Domin, an empire of madness and death whose coming has been heralded by poison and chaos in the warrens of sorcery. The Domin's armies are now marching against the small city-state of Capustan, defended by an army of doubtful skill and the Grey Swords of Elingarth, a religious order of soldiers. Aware of this threat, the outlawed Malazan 5th Army - Onearm's Host - has allied with their former enemies: Caladan Brood's mercenaries, the Rhivi tribes, the Tiste Andii of Moon's Spawn and the city-state of Darujhistan. Their goal is to relieve Capustan and destroy the Pannion Domin. From the south comes another force, the punitive army of the Seguleh (consisting of an unprecedented three of the greatest warriors in the world). But the Pannion Domin is no mere mortal empire and three impossibly ancient, terrifying forces have joined together to spread its evil across the world, an evil which will challenge all that face it.

Memories of Ice is the third novel in Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, returning the action to the continent of Genabackis, the setting of the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon and taking place simultaneously alongside the second, Deadhouse Gates. Memories of Ice is a direct sequel to Gardens of the Moon, so whilst is possible to start reading the Malazan series with Deadhouse Gates, it is not really possible to do so with Memories.

Like Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice consists of four major storylines proceeding in tandem. In the first, Onearm's Host has to ally with its former enemies to march against the Pannion Domin. This storyline follows the awkwardness of the former bitter enemies working alongside one another. In the second storyline, the entity Silverfox (created during the events of Gardens of the Moon) has summoned the undead T'lan Imass legions to undergo the Second Gathering, which will determine the future of the species and their endless (and increasingly pointless) war against the Jaghut, which has now spanned a quarter of a million years. In a third storyline, Toc the Younger and Onos T'oolan (both from Gardens of the Moon) find themselves on the other side of the continent, where they meet and ally with the Seguleh punitive army (all three of them) and the enigmatic sorceress Lady Envy. In the fourth, we join the Grey Swords as they strive to defend Capustan against utterly overwhelming odds. Numerous subplots - such as the fate of the Mhybe, Silverfox's mother whose lifeforce is inadvertently being consumed by her daughter; the journey of a T'lan Imass emissary with news of a desperate war on the distant continent of Assail; the misadventures of two necromancers and their long-suffering servants; and the story of Gruntle, a caravan guard who suddenly becomes something more - abound.

As with Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice is an epic and sprawling novel but which benefits from rotating its storylines on a regular basis to give the novel an impressive sense of momentum, so that it's 1,100 pages fly past at an impressive rate of knots once the story gets underway. That does take a little while, though. Memories opens slow, with the various forces gathering, and there's perhaps a couple too many intense strategy meetings near the start of the book as characters gather and discuss the plot. This is quite refreshing - the primary criticism of Gardens of the Moon is that Erikson fails to explain what's going on, whilst Memories of Ice is lot clearer on the stakes and what's happening - but it does mean that it takes a while for the story to start picking up.

Once it does, things don't let up until the end of the book. The storylines build towards a convergence (to use a favoured term of the author) in the city of Coral and it's fascinating to see the players moving towards this meeting. It's also interesting to see how our protagonists deal with having an unusual preponderance of force on their side, unlike the previous novel where the Chain of Dogs is up against superior odds all the way through the book. The combination of the Tiste Andii, the Bridgeburners, Caladan Brood, the Rhivi, the Barghast and, later, the Seguleh and the T'lan Imass give them an immense advantage over the Pannion Domin. This is later reversed when see what other forces the Seer can bring to the field, not to mention infighting within the alliance that threaten to shatter it, but it's unusual in epic fantasy to see characters realising the overwhelming power they have at their command and the moral responsibility this entails.

The Malazan series has always excelled in sometimes avoiding or inverting epic fantasy tropes and sometimes playing them straight, but always interrogating them. There is a lot of blood-letting, duels, battles and sorcerous enfilades in the series, but the cost of such violence is always laid bare. The core themes of the Malazan series (and one that I think belies its occasionally-claimed status as grimdark) are compassion and the moral cost of whatever conflict is to be fought. Actions result in consequences, some of which can stain the soul, and Memories of Ice is the novel that most directly, painfully and tragically deals with this cost, particularly through the moving story of Itkovian, the soldier who volunteers to carry the guilt and trauma of thousands on his own shoulders. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a tragedy and Memories of Ice is perhaps the novel that most dramatically embodies that, through the awe-inspiring finale (still one of the finest in all of fantasy fiction) at the city of Coral.

There are a few minor issues. In terms of pacing, the book takes a little longer to get going, so in that sense it's not quite as tight a novel as Deadhouse Gates (which is a clear 200 pages shorter as a result). Whilst the central conflict - the battle against the Pannion Domin - is resolved in this novel, the book is also a little more plugged in to the story arcs that will span the rest of the series, most notably the saga of the Crippled God. It's highly arguable - fans have been arguing about it for seventeen years so far - but it's also debatable that a late-novel act of profound treachery was set up a bit too obviously and supposedly intelligent characters should have picked up on that earlier and stopped it, but this feels a little bit too pedantic a complaint and one reliant on hindsight.

Memories of Ice (*****) almost matches the dramatic power and intensity of Deadhouse Gates, perhaps falling a little short in structure and tightness but making up for it with the sheer scope of the tragic (and traumatic) final battle. This is a fantasy novel about compassion, forgiveness, war, peace, sacrifice and everything inbetween, related through a huge cast of interesting and sympathetic characters. (Very) arguably, the Malazan series will never quite reach these heights again, but will often come close. One of the strongest books in the series and one of the very finest fantasy novels published this century. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Cast list for HIS DARK MATERIALS: Season 1 released

Bad Wolf Productions and the BBC have released a cast list for Season 1 of His Dark Materials, which is now shooting in Wales. The cast is as follows:

  • Dafne Keen (Logan) as Lyra Belacqua
  • James McAvoy (X-Men, Split, Shameless) as Lord Asriel
  • Ruth Wilson (Luther) as Ms. Coulter
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) as Lee Scoresby
  • Clarke Peters (The Wire) as the Master of Jordan College (aka Dr. Carne)
  • Georgina Campbell (Black Mirror, Krypton) as Adele Starminster
  • Ariyon Bakare (Rogue One, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) as Lord Boreal
  • Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones) as Librarian-Scholar Charles
  • Will Keen (The Crown) as Father MacPhail
  • Anne-Marie Duff (Shameless) as Ma Costa
  • James Cosmo (Braveheart, Troy, Game of Thrones) as Farder Coram
  • Geoff Bell (Kingsman: The Secret Service) as Jack Verhoeven
  • Lucian Msamati (Game of Thrones) as John Faa
  • Simon Manyonda (Whitechapel, Doctor Who) as Benjamin de Ruyter
  • Matt Fraser (American Horror Story, The Fades) as Raymond Van Gerritt
  • Richard Cunningham (The Royals, Rogue One) as Gustaf
  • Philip Goldacre (The Bill, The Canterbury Tales) as Sub Rector
  • Lewin Lloyd as Roger Parslow
  • Daniel Frogson as Tony Costa
  • Tyler Hewitt as Billy Costa
  • Archie Barnes as Pantalaimon

  • Jack Thorne (The Fades, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) is the writer
  • Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Miserables) is directing Episodes 1-2
  • Dawn Shadforth (The Trust) is directing Episodes 3
  • Otto Bathurst (Robin Hood, Peaky Blinders) is directing Episodes 4-5
  • Directors for Episodes 6-8 have yet to be announced

It should be noted that the voice actors for the armoured bears are not listed. Whether this is because Season 1 won't reach their introduction to the story (with five seasons and forty episodes to adapt three books, the conclusion of Book 1 won't be reached until partway through Season 2) or because, as voiceovers, they will not be cast until post-production remains unclear.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Production of the BBC's HIS DARK MATERIALS series begins

Production is now formally underway on the BBC's His Dark Materials TV series, a planned five-season adaptation of Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy.

The BBC, Bad Wolf Productions and New Line Cinema are collaborating on the series,which will air on the BBC in the UK and on a still-to-be-decided American network (reportedly, Netflix and HBO are both in the running to secure the first-run rights). The plan is to adapt the three novels - Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass in some territories), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass - across five eight-episode seasons. Of course, if the show is a massive hit then we may see interest in also adapting Pullman's in-progress sequel/prequel trilogy, The Book of Dust (consisting of the published La Belle Sauvage, the completed-but-still-unpublished The Secret Commonwealth and a forthcoming third book).

James McAvoy stars as Lord Asriel, with Ruth Wilson as Ms. Coulter, Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby and Clarke Peters as the Master of Jordan College. The series is expected to start airing in late 2019.

Monday, 30 July 2018

WHEEL OF TIME TV series announces second writer

Wheel of Time showrunner Rafe Judkins has announced via Twitter that the second writer to work on the TV show will be Amanda Kate Shuman, who has already written the second episode, Shadow's Waiting (following on from Judkins' first episode, Leavetaking).

Shadow's Waiting is also named after a chapter in The Eye of the World, the first Wheel of Time novel. In this case, Shadow's Waiting is Chapter 19, together with the chapters immediately before and after, depicts our heroes' journey into the ruined city of Shadar Logoth.

Intriguingly, this news suggests that each episode will be adapting around 10-11 chapters of the novel, and theoretically the entire novel could be wrapped up inside six episodes. If, as expected, there is 12-13 episodes in the first season, it might well be that the first season is indeed adapting both The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt. This is both heartening news - trying to adapt one book per season when there are fourteen books in the series was always doomed to failure - but slightly concerning given the sheer mass of material they're trying to squeeze into each episode. Each episode of Game of Thrones' first two seasons, for example, very roughly adapted 80 pages of novel material. By contrast Wheel of Time is trying to fit between 140 and 150 pages into each episode.

The news that the second episode has already been written is also intriguing: officially, the show remains "in development" at Amazon and has not been formally greenlit. However, you would not normally solicit multiple episode scripts for a season before it is greenlit, only the first episode and then an outline for the remainder of the season. It is possible that Amazon are pursuing a course similar to what HBO did for Game of Thrones, by "amberlighting" further development, in essence agreeing privately to proceed with the project but not formally announcing it until later on for tactical or business reasons. In Amazon's case it might because there has also been big news this week about their Lord of the Rings TV project and they may be trying to open up some space before making another formal announcement about Wheel of Time.

Amanda Kate Shuman, like Rafe Judkins, has worked on Chuck as a writer and writing assistant. However, she has also worked on shows like Berlin Station, The Blacklist and The Following. She was also a story editor on The Blacklist and a producer on Berlin Station, so has more production credit than Judkins himself.

The addition of Shuman to the writing roster also reflects what some fans had hoped for, that the TV show would use a mixture of male and female writers to help reflect the male/female duality of the novels, which is a key theme of the story.

Judkins is now promising to make further announcements on "Wheel of Time Wednesdays", so hopefully we may hear more information soon.

New Paul Kearney novel announced

Or rather re-announced with a new title and new cover art. In an (I believe) exclusive scoop, I can reveal that the sequel to the excellent The Wolf in the Attic (2016), formerly known as The Other Side of Things, is now called The Burning Horse. It will be released in autumn 2019 from Solaris Books.

Excellent news for fans of Paul's work.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Age of Mythology: Extended Edition

The cyclops Gargarensis has vowed to shatter the gates to the Underworld and release the Titan Kronos back into the world. To this end he has assembled a vast army and set about this task in Greece. Arkantos, hero of Atlantis, sails to the Greek colonies to lend his aid in the Trojan War. Learning of Gargarensis and his plans, Arkantos forges a coalition with the Egyptians and Norse to stand against him.

Age of Mythology was released in 2002 as a stand-alone spin-off from the successful, mega-selling Age of Empires series. The first game in the series to use a fully 3D engine (albeit one cleverly modelled to resemble the 2D engine of the earlier games), it was a step forward in graphics and UI customisability at the time. Although the game was overshadowed somewhat by the close release of the superficially similar WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos, it was successful and ultimately sold over a million copies, an impressive feat for a real-time strategy at a time when the genre was starting to decline in popularity.

A few years ago the game was dusted down and re-issued as an "Extended Edition". This update touches up the graphics, has much better water effects and also allows for higher graphical resolution and widescreen modes. This version of the game includes the expansion, The Titans (which adds the Atlanteans as a fourth faction), and a five-mission side-campaign known as The Golden Gift, focusing on the dwarves (although they use Norse units and abilities). For a small additional fee, players can also download Tale of the Dragon, a nine-mission new campaign featuring a new, fifth faction, the Chinese. It's an impressive package, totalling 58 missions and taking approximately 40 hours to play through, which is a formidable amount of content for a real-time strategy game and excellent value, given the low cost that the game usually goes for in Steam sales.

The game is pretty standard as far as RTS titles go: you start with a base, in this case a town centre, from where you can train peasants who construct buildings and work as resource-gatherers. There are four primary resources: wood, gold, food and faith. The first three are used to build mundane structures and units (a mix of archers, cavalry, infantry and siege weapons) whilst faith is used to train "myth units" (sphinxes, dragons, cyclopses, hydras, frost giants etc) and one-off "heroes" (like Odysseus or Achilles). Resource-gathering is a surprisingly flexible system, with multiple ways of getting resources. For example, food can be hunted (peasants kill chickens, bears or pheasants and use them for food), farmed or gained from the sea by sending out fishing boats, whilst gold can either be mined directly, gained through trade at a marketplace or setting up a trade network between your town centres using caravans.

As usual, you amass armies which you can take into battle. The composition of these armies is interesting, with a rock-paper-scissors mechanic complicated by the deployment of counter-units (pikemen who are marginally effective in infantry battles but devastating against cavalry), so assembling a well-balanced force is essential. Units have a surprisingly high number of hit points, so making sure you get unit upgrades from an armoury to improve armour, attack and resilience to specific damage types, like bludgeoning or piercing is also important. As each game proceeds, you can upgrade to a different age, which unlocks new units and building types.

This is all standard, but Age of Mythology nails the details very well. This was one of the first RTS games that allowed you to automatically task newly-built units (so right click on a gold mine to make all the villagers built after this point automatically go over and start mining), resulting in a very smooth and intuitive playing experience.

In terms of gameplay, Age of Mythology is hugely enjoyable, but it does focus a lot on attack. Whilst some games give you impressive options for defence and turtling, like StarCraft and its bunkers, photon cannons and siege tanks, Age of Mythology's defensive structures tend to be less effective, with walls and towers coming down very easily to enemy action (disappointingly, as the game's wall-building system may be one of the best in any RTS game ever made, allowing you to built elaborate fortifications very easily). The game is at its best when you are constantly engaging the enemy, reinforcing as needed and keeping them on the back foot. Tactically, a fine balance is needed between known when to keep up an attack and when to fall back for reinforcement.

In terms of story, the game has a very silly but enjoyable narrative which mixes up the Norse, Egyptian, Greek and Atlantean legends and stories in a manner that's contrived but fun. The story can't hope to match WarCraft III's beautiful cut scenes and in-game plot twists, but it does know when to butt out and not interfere with gameplay (a lesson other RTS games could learn from, even now) through endless cut scenes and major reversals you can't do anything about. Age of Mythology remains a pretty fair game in that sense.

On the negative side of things, the game is very easy to, well, game. Some missions can be completed in minutes if you know where the objective is and if it isn't heavily guarded and difficult to get to. The AI could be better, and it's not uncommon for the AI to be so intent on getting its soldiers from A to B that it it sometimes doesn't stop to fight if you engage them and start slaughtering them on the march. The one-shot-and-done god powers means that the god powers are also not very useful in the game, and half the time can be completely ignored. There's also the feeling that some of the differences between the five sides are fairly superficial (only the Norse, who use soldiers to build things rather than peasants and have mobile resource-gathering carts rather than static stores, feel quite distinctive in that sense). Still, for a game that's sixteen years old, Age of Mythology feels quite fresh and modern in most respects. Even the graphics hold up well, only really dating when the camera zooms down for the in-engine cut scenes that open and close most missions.

More disappointing is the quality of the new expansion, Tale of the Dragon. The Chinese faction is far more generic than the original ones and the storytelling is utterly awful (lots of dodgy Chinese accents and amateur voiceovers abound). There are numerous bugs and errors introduced in this expansion not present in the original game (including the ability for your naval units to occasionally just sail off the edge of the map and die) that make playing it a chore. It's a shame as the new maps are wonderfully well-designed and there's a couple of variants on the standard designs which feel fresh (a massive plain allowing you build your perfect city, and another map where you have no buildings, just two enormous armies to go at it).

Still, this fresh repackaging of the original game is very successful and brings back to life an excellent and underrated RTS game. Age of Mythology: Extended Edition (****½) is available now on Steam.

Narcos: Season 1

Colombia, the late 1970s. Pablo Escobar is an already-notorious smuggler and fence, selling stolen electrical goods and keeping one step ahead of the police. A Chilean chemist nicknamed "Cockroach" introduces him to a method for creating cocaine in small, easy-to-hide labs. Escobar starts selling the drug and smuggling it into the United States, most successfully via ship into California and Florida. Soon he is making tens of millions of dollars per month. Alarmed, the US Drug Enforcement Agency sets up an office in Bogotá and sends in agent Steve Murphy with one mission: to bring down Escobar and, helped by the Colombian government, destroy his organisation.

Narcos is an original drama series which, in its first season, covers and the rise and most successful years of Pablo Escobar, one of the most notorious drug traffickers in history. "Don Pablo" made billions of dollars off the back of the trade, so much he couldn't even spend it or even realistically launder it (resulting in him burying vast amounts of it). In a career spanning fifteen years, including the entire 1980s, he became the most famous criminal in the world and occupied staggering resources from multiple governments in an attempt to bring him to justice. At one point he was responsible for 80% of the world's cocaine traffic and is blamed with the explosive rise in the popularity of the drug in the USA in the 1980s, with devastating results for communities and law enforcement.

Escobar was also a man of the people, beloved for the vast amounts of money he spent on social housing, schools and hospitals in Colombia. He even ran for office before his drug convictions caught up with him. Always willing to use violence, assassination and intimidation, in his later years he became far more ruthless and willing to compromise his Robin Hood or "bandit king" image to further his goals and power. In turn, the Colombian government became increasingly willing to use overwhelming police and military force to try to hunt him down.

Narcos is an unusual series because it isn't strictly a drama series but it isn't quite a docudrama either. Like a docudrama it makes use of voiceovers, contemporary footage and news reports to illustrate the story, but it is all framed within the confines of a drama. So there's no talking heads of the real people involved, but there are photographs and news interviews with the actual real people before we cut away to the actors playing those roles. It's all rather odd and shouldn't really work, but after a while it becomes more familiar and starts working better.

At the heart of the series is Escobar, played by Wagner Moura. Moura gives a great performance, reproducing Escobar's mix of ruthlessness and charm with skill (although those with a detailed working knowledge of Spanish may find his Mexican accent somewhat incongruous). Boyd Holbrook is okay as Steve Murphy, but he plays a pretty standard straight-up American guy without much in the way of a personality. His growing addiction to the game of catching Escobar, even to the detriment of his marriage, provides a possibly interesting subplot, but the show never really engages with it. Pedro Pascal (late of Game of Thrones, where he played Oberyn Martell) is more engaging as DEA Agent Javier Peña, whose local connections and knowledge play a key role in helping bring down Escobar. Raúl Méndez also gives a great performance as César Gaviria, the reluctant President of Colombia who ends up leading the political battle against Escobar. Maurice Compte also gives a great, intense performance as Horacio Carrillo, the police chief tasked with taking the war to Escobar and whose position is constantly under threat because of his competence.

Whether you like Narcos or not will depend on if you tune in to how the show is structured and paced. Episodes of the show can span months or even years, with months passing between each episode. Sometimes so much is going on that a voiceover has to cut in to explain what's going on. Major players show up out of nowhere with, again, the voiceover (somewhat apologetically) required to explain who they are and how they fit into the narrative. The story can often feel like it is proceeding in fits and starts, rather than the smooth, slowly-unfolding story of something like The Wire (Narcos also fails to really address the human-level suffering brought about by the drug trade, a couple of shots of coke addicts on the streets of Miami aside). Even more confusingly, Steve Murphy only joined the fight in Colombia towards the end of the 1980s, so the show has to introduce him and then roll back ten years to show Escobar's rise. In the early episodes this can lead to scenes featuring Murphy and the DEA taking on the drug cartel in the late 1980s and us flashing back years to what Escobar was doing back in the day. Escobar's children are also portrayed fairly anachronistically, with the final episode (taking place in 1992) showing his son and daughter as being well under 10, when in fact his son was 15 years old.

If you can adapt to the mindset of the show, however, there is much to enjoy. The performances are excellent and the narrative, if not exactly chronologically accurate, does get across the general story of what happened. More than once this viewer was so surprised by a storyline that I had to look up the real history online to see if these events really happened (and yes, they did). The stop-start nature of the show can be a little bit distracting, but the last couple of episodes unfold over much more focused periods of time, culminating in the infamous police and army siege of Escobar's ostensible prison (but really his prison and stronghold), the Cathedral. The season finale, which unfolds over just one night, is easily the best episode of the season and allows us to get right under the skin of all the players involved in the tense stand-off. It bodes well for Season 2, which spans a period of only 18 months rather than almost 20 years.

The first season of Narcos (****) is a fascinating study of corruption, greed, vainglory and power, although at a remove from the characters which prevents it from resonating in the same way as say The Wire or Breaking Bad. But as a concise summary of the life of one of the 20th Century's most notorious criminals, it is very effective. It is available now, along with a second and third season, on Netflix. A fourth season, which acts as an effective reboot by rewinding to 1970s Mexico, is due for release this autumn.

LORD OF THE RINGS TV show finds its (obscure) showrunners

Amazon has hired producers JD Payne and Patrick McKay to helm their Lord of the Rings prequel TV series.

Payne and McKay wrote the first draft of Star Trek Beyond  (which was later replaced by the shooting script written by Roberto Orci and Simon Pegg) and have also written several unproduced screenplays, including one based on the Micronauts franchise and others under the titles Boilerplate (based on a graphic novel) and Goliath. They are part of the writer's room for the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong.

And that's it. Amazon has hired two guys who've never actually gotten anything in front of a camera before to helm their biggest and highest-profile TV project to date (and already the most expensive TV show in history).

This is interesting but bizarre news. It seems to me that half of Hollywood (not to mention the rest of the world's film and TV industry) should be queuing up to get involved in this project, and the fact they aren't is concerning. There have been multiple reports from Hollywood sources that the project is seen as a bit of a white elephant which could do damage to careers unless very carefully handled, and this seems to be keeping more experienced staff at bay.

Of course, Payne and McKay may deliver an excellent, great TV show when it airs in 2021, but the fact that Amazon had to go with people who've never actually gotten something on screen before is odd. In contrast, Game of Thrones' David Benioff had several novels and multiple screenplays produced before he landed that job, and Peter Jackson had multiple feature films produced in a career spanning more than a decade before landing The Lord of the Rings, and both of them raised eyebrows for the scale of those projects due to a perceived lack of experience. Peter Jackson will at least be tangentially involved in this new project in an advisory capacity.

It'll be interesting to see how this unfolds going forward. With Amazon on a tight time limit to get the show in production before the end of 2019, news on casting, shooting locations and more should emerge in the next few months.

Saturday, 28 July 2018


It's been coming for a while, but now the latest sales figures appear to confirm it's happened: sales of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series have surpassed those of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence, meaning that A Song of Ice and Fire is now the most popular epic fantasy series published since The Lord of the Rings (at least arguably).

Of course, with only five volumes available compared to The Wheel of Time's fourteen, A Song of Ice and Fire has had far more readers than Wheel of Time for some time (roughly 18 million to 6.5 million), but the overtaking in terms of outright sales remains a significant and impressive achievement.

The first Wheel of Time novel, The Eye of the World, was published in 1990 by Tor Books and was a massive hit, shifting 40,000 copies of the first-run hardcover. The later novels did even better, and every book in the series from The Path of Daggers (1998) through A Memory of Light (2013) hit #1 on The New York Times bestseller list in the week of release. As of Robert Jordan's sad passing in 2007, the series had sold 44 million copies in North America and roughly 70 million worldwide. Brandon Sanderson completed the final three books in the series, with global sales of the series surpassing 80 million by 2014 (according to Jordan's French publishers) and increasing further. Current estimates suggest sales of between 85 and 90 million.

A Song of Ice and Fire, in contrast, was a slow but steady grower. The first book in the series, A Game of Thrones (1996), did not sell well on release and only started doing better with the paperback edition (ironically, apparently due to a Robert Jordan cover quote, with George R.R. Martin himself crediting a cross-pollination of fans of both series for helping increase his story's popularity). The second novel in the series, A Clash of Kings (1998), brushed the lower reaches of the bestseller lists but it only started hitting the big time with the third volume, A Storm of Swords (2000), which reached #11 on the New York Times list.

By the time A Feast for Crows was released in 2005, the popularity and profile of the series had boomed and it had sold over 5 million copies. Despite increasing delays between books, the popularity of the series continued to increase. As of the release of A Dance with Dragons in 2011, the series had sold well over 12 million copies worldwide. That same year, the HBO TV series Game of Thrones, based on the books, was launched and this resulted in a titanic explosion of sales. A Song of Ice and Fire sold over 9 million copies in 2011 by itself and sales continued to accelerate dramatically. Overall sales of the series hit 58 million in April 2015 and 70 million in August 2016, on the twentieth anniversary of the first book's publication.

Industry sales figures now show that A Song of Ice and Fire has sold 45 million copies in the United States alone. The publishing rule of thumb is that global sales once a book series has exceeded c. 20 million copies (with a film or TV adaptation available) are more than double that of the US. We can therefore declare with overwhelming confidence that A Song of Ice and Fire has sold more than 90 million copies worldwide, putting Martin just ahead of not just Jordan, but also the late Sir Terry Pratchett, whose 41 Discworld novels have sold more than 85 million copies worldwide since 1983.

Remarkably, A Song of Ice and Fire's success has spread to the spin-off material, with companion volume The World of Ice and Fire reportedly selling more than 1 million copies since its publication in 2014 as well. Sales of The Wheel of Time's first companion volume (1997's World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time) were apparently much more modest and of the second volume (2015's Wheel of Time Companion) very poor in comparison.

This impressive achievement may only be temporary, however. Amazon is developing a Wheel of Time television series and we can expect an impressive boom in sales for that series when that finally hits the air (most likely in 2020 or 2021), whilst sales of A Song of Ice and Fire are likely to start tailing off once the TV series stops airing next year. And of course, although ASoIaF's achievement is noteworthy, it still has a way to go to catch up on J.K. Rowling's 600 million copies of Harry Potter sold.

The scale of A Song of Ice and Fire's achievement should not be underestimated, however, and this will explain the increased eagerness the publishers have to get their hands on The Winds of Winter.

Amazon CONAN THE BARBARIAN TV show will directly adapt the short stories

Whilst there's been lots of news and rumours about Amazon's two big epic fantasy TV series-in-the-planning, a Lord of the Rings prequel show and an adaptation of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, not much has been said about their announced Conan the Barbarian show, leading some to wonder if it had been put on the backburner. Not so, with the project stepping up active development.

Frank Frazetta's artwork depicting the events of The Frost-Giant's Daughter.

Colony co-creator Ryan Condal is working on the project as producer, writer and showrunner. With Colony recently cancelled after three seasons, Condal is now focusing his attention fully on Conan. Encouragingly, he has confirmed that the series will try the unusual tactic of actually adapting Robert E. Howard's short stories rather than simply putting Conan in a new situation, the tactic employed by all three of the feature films released about the character.

The show's pilot episode will adapt The Frost-Giant's Daughter, chronologically the earliest story of Conan's life. In this story, the teenage Conan, not long peacefully departed from his homeland of Cimmeria, is confronted by a spectral creature who lures him into an ambush.

The ambition of the series is to apparently adapt all of the Howard Conan stories, interspersed with new material forming a serial element to better connect the stories together (this will also be necessary as there are only 26 Howard short stories, and presumably the ambition will be for the show to last longer than 26 episodes). The ultimate goal is to cover all of Conan's life up to his reign as King of Aquilonia.

Friday, 27 July 2018

New BUFFY showrunner acknowledges fan concerns

The producer of the new Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, which is in development at 20th Century Fox, has issued a statement confirming she is aware of fan concerns about a planned reboot or remake of the show with a new actress playing the role of Buffy.

However, rather contrary to some media sites which are reaching some very strange conclusions about what the message says, the message fails to confirm that the new show will not be a remake of the original series.

To recap, news broke last week that Monica Owusu-Breen was developing a new version of Buffy with an African-American actress planned to take over the lead role made famous by first Kristy Swanson and then - much more prominently - Sarah Michelle Gellar in the 1990s. Joss Whedon was on board to produce and possibly co-write the first episode, but his commitment to a new HBO project (The Nevers) prevented him from taking on a more prominent role on the project.

The fan reaction was hostile, not to the idea of a black Slayer - no less than six black actresses played different Slayers on the original show - but over the idea of recasting Buffy (who, in both the original 1992 movie and the TV series was meant to be the archetypal California blonde Valley Girl) instead of developing a brand-new character that wasn't riding on the coat-tails of the original.

Owusu-Breen's statement is somewhat ambiguous, saying there can only be one Buffy Summers (ignoring the fact we've had two already), but then adding a "but" before pointing out that twenty years have passed and it's time to meet a new Slayer, which could be taken as either a new character (which seems unlikely as Fox will want to keep the Buffy the Vampire Slayer brand recognition) or a new reinterpretation of the Buffy character or even a Buffy: The Next Generation project which fans seem keen on, but seems unrealistic for practical reasons (notably, original cast availability).

This will likely be clarified in the coming months if Fox decide to move forwards with the project or not.

ALTERED CARBON renewed for a second season

After an unusual delay, Netflix have renewed their epic cyberpunk series Altered Carbon, based on the Takeshi Kovacs novels by Richard Morgan, for a second season. Avengers actor Anthony Mackie (who plays Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) will play the lead role of Takeshi Kovacs, taking over from Joel Kinnaman.

The first season aired in February 2018 to mixed reviews (mostly from critics who'd only seen the first four episodes and fans baffled by apparently pointless and arbitrary plot changes) and apparently disappointing viewing figures, with the show garnering apparently only one-third the viewing figures of the considerably cheaper Lost in Space, released a few weeks later. It's possible that the show has picked up additional streamings after the initial release which have made a second season more attractive, which coupled with the casting of Mackie (with attending strong crossover marketing appeal to MCU fans) made the second season viable. Reviews also improved significantly once the entire series was available to view.

In an additional behind-the-scenes change, Alison Schapker (Alias, Fringe, The Flash, Scandal) will be working as writer and co-showrunner alongside Laeta Kalorgridis. Kalorgridis is also working on Netflix's Sword Art Online series, which explains the new division of labour.

It is unclear if the second season will be based on the second novel in the Kovacs trilogy, Broken Angels, which sees a re-sleeved Kovacs joining a mercenary army fighting on a colony planet. Early reports suggested that Kalorgridis was planning a five-season show which would mix original stories with adaptations of the three novels. More news as it comes in.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

GAME OF THRONES: THE LONG NIGHT pilot moving forwards, all other spin-off series on hold

HBO has confirmed it is moving forwards with the Game of Thrones spin-off pilot they've ordered from writer-producer Jane Goldman. With the rough working title The Long Night, the news series will be many thousands of years before the events of Game of Thrones and will depict the events that led to the founding of House Stark, the Night's Watch and the Wall, including the original rise and invasion of the White Walkers.

The spin-off pilot was expected to shoot in November so HBO execs could assess it in the spring and decide to move forwards; if they do, the first season would shoot later in the year for a spring 2020 debut. However, it now sounds like the pilot might shoot in the spring instead, which could change that timetable significantly.

All of the other spin-off series are currently and officially on hold. A fortnight ago rumours broke that HBO were also considering a second spin-off show, set in the old Valyrian Freehold about a century before the Doom, although HBO have not officially confirmed or denied such a project is in development. If it is, it sounds like HBO have put it on the backburner for now.

HBO also confirmed in the same announcement that Game of Thrones itself will return for its final season in the first half of 2019.

DEADWOOD movie greenlit

HBO has greenlit a spin-off TV movie from its critically-acclaimed dark Western TV series, Deadwood, which aired for three seasons between 2004 and 2006 before being prematurely cancelled.

HBO has been promising a film to wrap up the story almost ever since, but has been stymied by the schedules of the actors of the show, almost all of whom have gone on to be regulars on other successful shows (most notably Timothy Olyphant on Justified and Ian McShane on American Gods). But a gap in the schedules has opened and with creator/writer David Milch and director Daniel Minahan on board, HBO are proceeding forwards with the project, which will shoot in the autumn to premiere in the Spring of 2019.

So far it's not been confirmed precisely which actors will be returning.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Into the Badlands: Season 1

Five hundred years after the old world fell, the Badlands are controlled by six barons. They control the lands between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi; nothing is said to lie beyond their borders except wasteland and death. Sunny, the regent (chief soldier) and most trusted servant of Baron Quinn, is convinced that something does exist beyond the Badlands, a safe home for his lover Veil and their unborn son. His discovery of a young boy with strange powers, MK, catalyses his plan to flee the Badlands, just as full-scale war erupts between Quinn and a rival baron, the Widow, who is also searching for the boy.

Into the Badlands is an American pulp action series airing on the cable channel AMC, very loosely based on the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. The series depicts a post-apocalyptic feudal society that has developed after the collapse of modern society, where a few cars and some electricity have survived but guns have not, forcing everyone to use martial arts and swords in combat. The show has a highly contrived premise (to put it mildly) but it doesn't really matter because the show is so much fun.

The show succeeds thanks to its cast, who play their parts (mostly) to perfection. Chinese-American actor Daniel Wu was cast as Sunny for both his impressive martial arts skills but also his charisma and brooding presence, occasionally tempered by moments of vulnerability (especially where Veil is concerned) and his tortured loyalty to Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas). Orla Brady brings an impressive amount of class and presence to the role of Lydia, Quinn's older wife who is locked in a battle of wills with his new, younger bride Jade (Sarah Bolger, finally allowed to shine after being criminally underused in The Tudors). Aramis Knight is effective as the mysterious MK, but doesn't have a lot to do apart from looking permanently confused. Madeleine Mantock (The Tomorrow People, the forthcoming Charmed reboot) also impresses in a small role as Veil. Emily Beecham proves to be a great antagonist as the Widow, with Ally Ioannides impressing as Tilda, her teenage protege whose loyalties are also tested as the story proceeds. A weak link is Csokas, who's never been particularly great (his Celeborn in the Lord of the Rings movies was arguably the weakest link in an otherwise exceptional cast) and here veers between high camp and scenery-chewing ham with no layers to be found.

The other key element to the show's success is the action. Elaborate fight sequences and impressive stunts abound, with fights that move from clinical, brutal efficiency to epic engagements featuring impressive wirework. More than a touch of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can be found here.

The show's first season also benefits from its low episode count. In just six episodes the show has to set up the world, establish a large cast of characters and let a complex storyline run its course, complete with big action scenes and moments of impressive dramatic action. This focus benefits the season, also the budget does not. Like its network mate, The Walking Dead, Into the Badlands is clearly operating under a very low budget compared to many of the other shows on air at the moment and sometimes struggles to sell larger and more epic moments on screen, relying on pre-existing locations and the impressive stunt team to overcome the clearly limited number of sets.

The first season of Into the Badlands (****) is not high art, but it's pulp fun with a mostly great cast and some very impressive fight scenes which overcome questionable worldbuilding and limited production values. The season is available now in the USA (DVD, Blu-Ray). It is also available to watch for Amazon Prime subscribers in the UK.

First WHEEL OF TIME TV episode named

Rafe Judkins, the producer-writer-showrunner of Amazon's Wheel of Time TV series, has shared a picture of the title screen of his script, confirming that the first episode will be called Leavetaking.

This is interesting, as Leavetaking is the name of the tenth chapter in The Eye of the World, the first novel in the Wheel of Time series, suggesting that this episode may cover all of the events up to the end of this chapter (in which Rand al'Thor and his band of friends depart the village of Emond's Field). This seems a lot to pack into one episode: Hollywood wisdom is that 100 pages of text in a paperback novel equates to one hour of screen time, as exemplified by The Lord of the Rings (1,100 pages in paperback, 11 hours long in the Extended Edition of the trilogy). Leavetaking concludes on page 148 of the paperback edition of the novel.

This is even more challenging when you consider that this episode will also presumably include the opening prologue set at the end of the Age of Legends. When Red Eagle created an amateur pilot episode (albeit one starring Billy Zane) based on this sequence, it ran to 25 minutes by itself.

It is possible that the episodes will not be limited to one hour apiece, and it is also possible that Judkins has made the elementary error fans had been hoping he wouldn't: devoting an entire first season of 10 or 12 episodes to The Eye of the World by itself. Consisting of 14 novels, The Wheel of Time really needs to get two books adapted per season to wrap things up in a reasonable 7 seasons, and starting out with the attitude of, "Well, let's see how it goes," will only cause bigger problems later on. An alternative solution is that Judkins and Amazon envision the first episode as being a double-length affair.

The other curiosity is the title of the episode: Leavetaking is something of a prosaic name. Given the inventiveness of the chapter titles, using them for episode titles is a no-brainer, but in this sequence titles like Dragonmount, Winternight, Strangers or Tellings of the Wheel would be superior choices.

As yet, Amazon has not formally greenlit the Wheel of Time TV series. Assuming they like the pilot script, we might see the show in 2020 or 2021.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Wertzone Classics: Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Madmen, seers and witches proclaim the coming of the Whirlwind, a rebellion of unprecedented ferocity, a scourge that will wipe the subcontinent of Seven Cities clean of the pestilence of the Malazan Empire. The rulers of the Empire pay no heed, denuding the occupied territories of troops to reinforce the faltering campaign in Genabackis. From that continent comes an assassin, a thief and a former plaything of a shadowy god, who are the unwitting harbingers of the prophecy, and from the east comes a broken women and a shattered priest, who will defy it. As the Whirlwind is unleashed, the Malazan Seventh Army is given an impossible mission: to escort thirty thousand civilian refugees from Hissar to Aren, more than a thousand miles, facing constant attack all the way. This is a task that no ordinary human can handle, only a legend.

Deadhouse Gates is the second novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, succeeding (but not a direct sequel to) Gardens of the Moon. Deadhouse Gates relocates the action to the continent of Seven Cities with an almost entirely new cast of characters and a whole new storyline. Although having read Gardens of the Moon will be a help in reading this book, it is not necessary and it is indeed not unknown for readers to be directed to Deadhouse Gates as their first Malazan novel. This unusual recommendation has a solid rationale: Gardens of the Moon is a fine novel, but one that has to overcome a confused and somewhat incoherent opening before it starts to make sense. In contrast, Deadhouse Gates ranks comfortably as one of the single greatest works of epic fantasy ever written.

Indeed, the year 2000 may go down in history as one of the finest for fantasy fiction. That year also saw the publication of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History and George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, three of the defining works of the modern fantasy genre. Deadhouse Gates sits very comfortably in such company.

Compared to the potentially confusing opening to Gardens of the MoonDeadhouse Gates follows four storylines in a much more linear fashion. In one storyline, and the most epic, the Malazan Seventh Army must cross the entire subcontinent, escorting a refugee train to safety. With echoes of Xenophon's Anabasis (itself later fantasised as Paul Kearney's The Ten Thousand), or even Battlestar Galactica, this is a story of epic battles being fought as the innocent are defended in the face of a remorseless enemy and - sometimes - their own hubris. It's here that Erikson establishes some of his most memorable characters, such as the Imperial Historian Duiker, the indefatigable Bult, the warlocks Nil and Nether, and of course, Coltaine of the Crow Clan, High Fist of the Malazan Empire having formerly been a bitter foe of it. Their story - the Chain of Dogs - is a stunning and gripping narrative in its own right, every league of the journey bringing with it new formidable obstacles to be overcome, new enemies to be defeated and new tragedies to endure. The Chain of Dogs is Steven Erikson's Red Wedding, except drawn out to the length of a novel: an emotionally taut and increasingly shocking story of heroism and betrayal on a colossal scale.

Most novelists would have settled for that, but alongside that epic story we have Erikson's most emotionally intense and internalised struggle, that of Felisin Paran (sister of Ganoes Paran, a key protagonist from Gardens of the Moon). Felisin, a pampered and spoiled noble girl, is arrested and sentenced to exile on a distant island, to toil in criminal slavery. She endures horrors that afflict her soul and she becomes brittle, angry and bitter. Eventually the story takes her to a destiny that she was not expecting, and a responsibility she steps into for both vengeance and self-realisation. Felisin's story is hard to read but impressive in its emotional resonance. This is a realistic story, albeit also an incomplete one, with the other half of the story waiting to unfold in House of Chains (the fourth novel in the series; Book 3, Memories of Ice, returns instead to Genabackis and the story of the Bridgeburners).

Next to that we also have two smaller quest narratives: the story of Icarium and Mappo, two wanderers out of the wastelands whom we gradually learn are cursed to live a life of friendship, trust and bitter deception; and the story of some familiar characters from Gardens of the Moon, namely Apsalar, Crokus, Kalam and Fiddler, who are on a journey back to Quon Tali and a confrontation with the treacherous Empress, but who are sucked up instead in the chaos of the Whirlwind.

These four storylines - which ultimately combine to a degree - give the novel a sense of unifying coherence missing from Gardens of the Moon. Instead of the start-stop opening to that book, Deadhouse Gates starts much more slowly and traditionally, the novel gathering a relentless and inexorable pace as it evolves. Erikson's prose is vastly superior to Gardens, the result of the nine year gap that fell between the two books and slightly awkward circumstances that led to its creation: originally Memories of Ice was the second novel, but Erikson lost the manuscript to a hard drive error when he was halfway through writing it; unable to face it, he instead switched to writing what was supposed to be the third book in the series instead, inadvertently giving us the continent-hopping structure of the saga that would become one of its hallmarks. The result is a novel that fairly seethes with intelligence, memorable prose and ambition.

Weaknesses? A first read will occasionally brush against confusion (particularly the introduction of a certain jade statue and the events that spiral out from it), but beyond that there are none. Deadhouse Gates takes all of the strengths of Erikson's writing and loses almost all of the weaknesses.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen is many things. It is a comedy and a drama, but it is also a tragedy - as the title implies - and it is a series about compassion and humanity. Arguably later books in the series suffer to a limited degree from Erikson's increasing introspection at the cost of plot and character, but no such weakness is present here, or in the book that follows it. Deadhouse Gates (*****) is a fantasy novel that does that rare thing and makes you think and feel. It is a good encapsulation of the entire series. It is available now in the UK and USA.