Wednesday, 17 October 2018

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

In a remote future, the Earth's landmasses have been fused together into a supercontinent called the Stillness. The geological catastrophe which caused this event still haunts the planet, with frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions causing devastation across thousands of miles in titanic disasters known as Fifth Seasons. Many civilisations have risen and fallen, with the world currently dominated by the Sanze Empire from its grand capital of Yumenes.

A new Fifth Season has arrived, heralded by the opening of a vast volcanic rift below Yumenes. Chaos grips the Stillness as thousands takes to the roads to flee the devastation. Among them is Essun, an orogene, one who can use the powers of the earth to her own ends. Her son has been murdered by her husband, who has fled with their daughter. Essun sets out to find them, as all around her the world begins to end.

There is a long and honourable tradition of genre fiction set at the end of the world, when confused humans try to live their lives in the shadow of earlier, more ancient and glorious civilisations. Jack Vance arguably became its first champion, with his 1950 novel The Dying Earth and three sequels. This accomplished, erudite, witty yet melancholy series gave the subgenre of fiction its name and directly inspired arguably its most famous work: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, sometimes cited as the greatest work of science fiction or fantasy ever written. More recently the Dying Earth subgenre has gained increased fame from Monte Cook's excellent Numenera RPG setting (and its video game spin off, Torment: Tides of Numenera).

N.K. Jemisin's sixth novel fits nicely into this genre: it is, at the very least, tens of thousands of years in the future (possibly millions). Strange obelisks float in the sky for unknown purposes. The ruins of ancient, baffling civilisations lie everywhere. Recurring geological catastrophes seek to destroy humanity, but powerful humans known as orogenes seek to defy them. But the same orogenes who can stop the quakes can make them vastly worse, so other humans - "Guardians" - are appointed to guard them and, if necessary, kill them if it looks like they are going to be come a danger themselves. It's a world of terrible inequality, where people are born into castes and forced to stay there for their entire lives. Selective breeding experiments are commonplace, and orogenes are treated like animals by those who fear their power.

The Fifth Season is thus a novel about many things: humanity and bigotry, history and myth, life and death, and the unquenchable desire of human beings to survive and seek happiness. It's a book that's received a lot of critical acclaim, with the trilogy it opens winning no less than three Hugo Awards and a score of other awards. This acclaim and the book's literary qualities have, paradoxically, put off a lot of readers who prefer their fantasy more straightforward and predictable.

Which is a shame because The Fifth Season is also a rollicking good epic fantasy novel. There's massive and awe-inspiring displays of apparently-magical power. The "magic system" is given consistent rules and treated with as much respect and seriousness as in any Brandon Sanderson book. The worldbuilding is vigorous, original and well-thought-out. There's even pirates, and some nice action scenes on the high seas. There's moments of strange alienation at the discovery of awe-inspiring remnants of earlier ages, and moments of horror at some of the creatures and powers unleashed by the same.

The book's structure is also innovative: the narrative is split into three strands, and we follow each strand with a different character at the centre of it. Each strand is set in a different time period, and as the book continues the characters and time periods converge until the book's ending results in a moment of catharsis: less of a twist ending and more one of simple revelation that makes what you've been reading make sense. Each strand is also told in a different writing style (moving from second-person/present-tense to third-person/past-tense to third-person/present-tense) which I expected to dislike, but instead it worked extremely well. The different writing style acts as a consistent reminder of what part of the story and the timeframe you are reading at any given moment, and transitions did not jar at all.

It helps that Jemisin is one of the stronger prose-writers in modern SFF, consistently nailing great moments of dialogue and deploying formidable powers of description. The book's themes are big ones, taking in ecological and environmental issues, gender relations, sexuality (especially interesting when some of the far-future humans are evolved in some unexpected manners) and inequality, but the book never remotely becomes preachy or bogged down in some semantic political argument. Everything services the world and the story that Jemisin has created.

The book also has pace. This book is 450 pages of relatively big type, and the sequel is even shorter. This modest page count helps move the story along at a brisk clip, with the narrative rotating between its three POV characters like a well-oiled machine, until the book brings its various strands together in a satisfying manner that sets the scene perfectly for the sequel, The Obelisk Gate.

The Fifth Season (*****) is one of the best opening volumes to a science fiction or fantasy trilogy of the past few years, and is strongly recommended. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Fool's Fate by Robin Hobb

FitzChivalry Farseer has, reluctantly, re-entered the corridors of power in the Six Duchies. Posing as guardsman Tom Badgerlock, he has been assigned to journey with Prince Dutiful to the Outislands, where the Prince seeks to win the hand in marriage of the Outislander Narcheska, ending all enmity between the two nations. But there are other agendas at work. To win a lasting peace, Fitz must help his prince slay a dragon…and take a stand against his greatest and best friend.

The concluding novel in Robin Hobb’s Tawny Many Trilogy is something I was bracing myself for. Previously, Hobb’s form has been to write an exciting, busy opening volume in a trilogy and then have a slow middle volume which leaves the final book with a lot of heavy lifting to do to end the story, usually resulting in a third book which wraps up the story but with serious issues with structure and pacing. Ship of Destiny deal with the problem somewhat well, but Assassins' Quest really suffered from it. The relatively slow pace of The Golden Fool was also not a good sign.

Fool’s Fate, fortunately, rejects this issue. Whilst you could never call any Hobb novel fast-paced and action-packed, this enormous book (or rather the first two-thirds of this book) comes as close as she gets.

The book consists of a long sea voyage, an exploration of Outisland culture and then an expedition to the island of Aslevjal, where a dragon is said to sleep in the ice. These sequences of explorations on a glacier and survival in freezing temperatures with unknown dangers lurking in the dark are atmospheric and effective, with occasional scares reminiscent of Dan Simmons’ The Terror.

There is then an epic showdown and an appropriately grand finale…which takes place 200 pages before the book ends. The rest of the book is an extended epilogue in which everyone’s fate is revealed and – dare we say it – a couple of characters are even allowed to have happy endings. There is, however, enough material left dangling for both the Rain Wild Chronicles quartet and the Fitz and the Fool trilogy.

As with most of Hobb’s work, and this trilogy in particular, the book is deliberately paced and introspective, with Fitz ruminating on his mistakes a lot. Fortunately, he is also allowed to develop more as a character and even – gasp! – to actually make amends for past mistakes and move forward with his life rather than just moaning about his lot in life. The ending to Fool’s Fate is suspiciously uplifting, in fact, to the point I’m suspicious Hobb is just keeping her powder dry to make things even worse in later books.

There is also a sense of completeness to this book. It addresses outstanding elements from the Liveship Traders books and even finishes off a whole host of storylines left unresolved from the original Farseer Trilogy. The result is a book that works as a finale to one trilogy and an effective epilogue to two others, and is one of Hobb's strongest books to date.

As usual for Hobb, the characterisation is rich, the emotional storyline is impressive and, less usually, even the worldbuilding is impressive. It also brings enough closure to the story to make the trilogy stand alone. Fool's Fate (****½) is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 2: The Age of Legends

Exactly how long the Age of Legends lasted is unknown, but it was certainly many thousands of years. Whatever the figure, it was certainly an exceptionally long and prosperous period in world history.

Under the guidance of the Aes Sedai the peoples of the world came together in common interests. Before the discovery of the One Power a debating forum used by most of the nations had been in existence, but under the guidance of the Aes Sedai this became something greater, a single planetary government referred to as the World Parliament. Only one Aes Sedai representative, their spokesman, actually sat on the World Parliament and then only in an advisory position (although some national leaders were also Aes Sedai, but put loyalties to the Aes Sedai behind that to their homeland). Each of the world’s nations had a seat and a vote on the parliament. However, as time passed it seems that the notion of individual nations or states dwindled and passed, with the world becoming one single community.

The One Power was used to improve the standard of living and quality of life for the entirety of the human race. Droughts ended, natural disasters became rare and the human lifespan increased as the Aes Sedai researched both new medicines and ways of Healing injuries with the One Power. Exact figures vary, but some claim that as much as 3% of the total population could channel the One Power. The world population was reduced in the Age of Legends to a manageable level (by reliable birth control methods), but still this would indicate that the number of Aes Sedai at the height of the Age could be counted in the millions, if not tens of millions.

The nations of the First Age gradually disappeared, with the world becoming divided into townships or city communities. Each city, town and even village was largely independent, with locally elected councils dealing with local affairs. Local councils could call upon the World Parliament for greater resources if needed, and if a large area was affected by a particular event, say a new valley created by damming a river, then several councils would unite and work for the good of all their people, or call upon Aes Sedai assistance.

Pollution was unknown in this Age. Technology had developed to the point where anti-gravity devices could be constructed. Using opposing magnetic fields to suspend themselves in the air, jumpers and hoverflies were quick and reliable means of transport, moving along well-ordered highways. Other vehicles, jo-cars, could travel off the major roads to reach remote areas, whilst huge aircraft known as sho-wings could travel safely and quickly between the continents at will.

Power was provided by several means. The Sun itself generated a large amount of power, by a means unknown, whilst the energies buried far below the surface of the Earth were also harnessed. Coastal areas used the powers of the tide, and mountain districts placed huge windmill-like objects on the peaks, generating power by the very air that people breathed. Energy was disseminated through a worldwide grid through mechanisms no longer understood.

The weather was predictable and comforting, since it was controlled by the Aes Sedai. Ter’angreal - devices harnessing the One Power for one particular purpose - were built that could regulate weather patterns. Though it took dozens of such devices to affect even just one of the smaller continents, it was enough to do the job at hand. Rain could be made to fall on huge farms covering hundreds of square miles, providing enough crops to feed thousands of people. Additional food could be grown in greenhouses in the very heart of the cities, or deep underground in research establishments.

Most people in this Age lived in townships and villages; greatly improved communications meant that most people worked from home and thus had no need to travel or live in the great cities. It seems that by means of this communications technology a three-dimensional image could be sent straight into people’s homes even from the other side of the world. This technology was also used for entertainment, with plays being transmitted into homes for the amusement of the public at large.

Houses and indeed all buildings were self-regulating. Heat-exchangers maintained a constant, comfortable temperature inside regardless of the weather. Glowbulbs provided light and never needed to be changed or recharged. An unknown mechanism monitored the health of everyone inside the building and could even summon trained medical personnel should someone fall ill or have an accident. Clothing was adaptable to its owner, even altering shape and size to fit the wearer. Many materials were used, but only two remain known to us today. One, streith, changed its colour and texture to match the mood of its wearer. The other, fancloth, could blend in with its surroundings almost completely, providing a camouflage affect (this was considered fashionable at parties, where games such ‘search-and-find’ were apparently popular even amongst the adults). Fancloth is used for another, more practical, purpose today.

Medical technology was highly advanced, but in most cases was completely unnecessary. Aes Sedai specialised in the Talent of Healing – Restoring as they called it then – could cure any illness or injury bar death itself. Only extremely complicated neurological disorders could not be Restored and the few to suffer from such diseases were treated with compassion and generosity from birth to death.

Lifespans in this Age were greatly increased due to the elimination of poverty, disease and most forms of stress. Normal humans lived between 150 and 200 years. Aes Sedai, whose ageing was greatly slowed by regular use of the One Power, lived between 650 and 700 years. The death of an Aes Sedai from old age was mourned greatly in the region where he or her lived, whilst the death of an Aes Sedai in an accident was an event that caused considerable shock at all levels of society.

Whilst most people lived in smaller settlements, major cities did exist. The largest and most legendary of these cities was Paaran Disen. Paaran Disen was the location of the World Parliament Building and also the Hall of the Servants, the base of operations for the Aes Sedai. The Hall of the Servants was famed for its tall columns and was made of a material called elstone, which made the whole building shimmer in the light. The city itself was made up of tall spired buildings, some of which were seemingly made out of crystal. A great park lay at the heart of the city, filled with sparkling lakes and also with chora trees. Chora trees radiated peace and harmony which induced contentment in any who came near to them. Groves of these trees could be found in every city and most large towns in the world.

Outside of Paaran Disen other great cities endured. These cities, in descending order of importance and size, were M’Jinn, Comelle, Adanza, Mar Ruois, V’saine, Jalanda, Emar Dal, Paral, Halidar, Kemali, Tsomo Nasalle, Devaille and Tzora. Comelle was a great port clinging to the side of a mountain. Adanza was reportedly a wild carnival town many people went on holiday to, and then needed holidays to recover from.

V’saine was a university city. The university, the Collam Daan, was accepted as the premier seat of learning in the whole world. As a celebration of its great feats of the knowledge, the students and teachers at the university had a huge silver sphere known as the Sharom created and suspended above the university. A thousand feet in diameter and floating by means of gravitational and magnetic fields, the Sharom was used as a research centre for advanced studies of the One Power itself. Through the Sharom, great strides were made in researching the Power and the Wheel of Time.

Fast and reliable transport had made the world a very small place indeed. The legends claim that because of this, mankind had expanded beyond this world. One legend - surely a fanciful story - says that a great explorer named Lem travelled to the Moon in an eagle of fire in the First Age, and that by the Second there were people living on the Moon, and beyond as well. The same legend claims that even the distant stars could be travelled to by use of the Power, though at this point the extract ends, the rest lost to the ravages of time. It is unclear if people lived on worlds around these stars as well, or what their fate was later.

What is known is that the Aes Sedai had begun conducting experiments on objects known as Portal Stones. Portal Stones had been created in the First Age after the first channellers had appeared, but before the end of the Age. Why exactly so many of these devices were created – the remnants of dozens can be found in the Westlands alone – is unknown, but their purpose remains clear. Through the use of these Stones Aes Sedai could travel to what were called “parallel universes,” realities different to our own but also less substantial. Aes Sedai scientists concluded that Portal Stone worlds were “shadow dimensions”, weavings of the future begun by the Wheel of Time but then discarded. Despite their less-substantial nature, objects and even living beings from within these worlds could be brought back to our own with no ill effect.

It is possible that the Ogier came from one of these worlds. The Ogier were, and still are, a non-human race different to us but also resembling us. Ogier are around ten feet tall with large, tufted ears and wide, almost snout-like noses. They are a quiet, peaceful race, patient but also hungry for knowledge. They lived in special areas called stedding, large forested areas of peace and tranquillity. It is not clear if a normal area could be converted into stedding or if the Ogier somehow brought stedding with them from their enigmatic homeland. One of the stedding’s more unusual features was that within one the One Power could not be used at all. Despite millennia of Aes Sedai study, the cause of this remained unknown. Whatever the secret, it was clearly lost even to the Ogier themselves by the end of the Age.

The discovery of the Ogier led the Aes Sedai into experimenting with creating nonhuman races of their own. It seems that many Aes Sedai were wary of such experiments and after only one success they abandoned research in this department (publicly at least; we now know that research continued in secret by more amoral scientists). This success was the Nym. Nym were huge humanoid beings, fifteen to twenty feet tall, seemingly entirely composed of living matter. Most seemed to be made of grass and flowers, with insects actually living inside them, but they did not seem to mind. Despite their fragile appearance, Nym were monstrously strong, far stronger than even the Ogier. Nym, and to a lesser extent Ogier, were in harmony with nature and could manipulate the forces of nature around them.

To be able to channel the One Power was a great responsibility, but unlike today the Aes Sedai never gave up on teaching someone in the ways of the Power. If you could channel you were Aes Sedai and to be trained as such. Even if you never went to the Hall of the Servants or even ever wielded the One Power again, you were still Aes Sedai. This was purely for reasons of preservation: then, as now, three out of four women and half of all men with inborn ability to channel (as opposed to those who could learn) died horribly without training. Given that most settlements, from cities down to villages and even tiny hamlets, had a trained Aes Sedai resident, the vast majority of those able to channel were found and dispatched to training centres quite quickly. The Aes Sedai also encouraged people to periodically call at their local Aes Sedai to be tested for the ability. Tests were also carried out in schools and colleges. Girls manifested the ability to channel between the ages of twelve and twenty-one (again, as today) and as such were almost all identified whilst still in education. Men were more difficult to locate, since they manifested the power between sixteen and twenty-eight or thereabouts. Most difficult of all to locate were those who could be taught how to wield the One Power, since they did not display ‘symptoms’ as those with the inborn ability did.

Once identified, those able to channel were either apprenticed to their local Aes Sedai, sent to a training school in one of the major cities or, for the most powerful and those with the greatest potential, to the Hall of the Servants itself. It is not clear how long such training took place, but discipline was relatively relaxed, with a lot of the skill in using the Power developing from first-hand experience rather than in classes. Certainly, training never took more than a few years, a far cry from the one or two decades spent today in attaining the rank of Aes Sedai.

The organisation of the Aes Sedai was certainly less formal than it is today. This was because, unlike today, most Aes Sedai did not engage in internal politics. The Hall of the Servants was not the home of all Aes Sedai (as the White Tower is today), merely a meeting place and forum for debate. Likewise, the First Among Equals was more of a chairman than a unilateral leader (as the Amyrlin Seat is today). The First Among Equals, according to some records, sat on the High Seat, summoned the Nine Rods of Dominion and wore the Ring of Tamyrlin. The Nine Rods were regional governors, rulers of parts of the world who sought Aes Sedai advice frequently. A ruling council led the Aes Sedai, of which the First was the chairman, and the First also represented Aes Sedai concerns at the World Parliament. The Hall of the Servants’ primary job was to assemble teams of Aes Sedai to work on construction or mining projects, to train those able to channel as Aes Sedai and also to work out the rules and regulations for, say, hiring an Aes Sedai for a job. On rare occasions the Aes Sedai would become divided over an issue and committees would form to defend or criticise the matter at hand. Such factions were called ajah and were temporary organisations lasting only for a few months or years.

For those relatively uninterested in becoming deeply involved in the Aes Sedai hierarchy, it was in fact possible to only visit the Hall of the Servants once in an entire lifetime (when formally inducted into the ranks of the Aes Sedai). Indeed, the vast majority of the Aes Sedai pursued careers unrelated to the Power. A few jobs were forbidden to them, since their abilities would give them an unfair advantage over their colleagues (not even thousands of years of peace could totally change human nature), but most avenues of employment were still open. Aes Sedai could be writers, philosophers, bankers, clerks or shopkeepers without any problem whatsoever. With the cultural pressure to serve others, most gravitated to tasks they were most suitable for, namely as Restorers or using the One Power in construction projects or mining efforts. A large number of Aes Sedai also worked as researchers, using the One Power to augment a certain area of scientific or technological research. Some volunteered for the somewhat dangerous job of exploring the Power itself, developing new Talents and discovering exactly what could and could not be done with it. Sometimes accidents happened and people were ‘severed’, that is losing the ability to channel (gentling or stilling it is called today) after being overwhelmed by the Power. Some even died. Yet it seems by a few thousand years into the Age the limits of the One Power had been pretty firmly set and understood. The one thing the Power was not used for was as a weapon against other people.

The Age was totally peaceful, with even the word “war” becoming unknown to all but a few historians. Most petty crime was eliminated by cheap goods, high wages and an excellent standard of living. Those without work were supported by a generous allowance scheme which was low enough to encourage work, but high enough to ensure a fair standard of living at the same time. Occasional crimes of passion or jealousy took place, but these were few and far between. Psychoses leading to violence were identified at a young age and eliminated by a method of the Power known as Compelling, which eliminated certain negative urges. Very rarely such an individual might slip through the net and become violent in later life. Such individuals were thoroughly Compelled never to commit such crimes again. Tactical games, such as chess, were still played and fencing was taken up as an athletic hobby, but was never used for actual combat. The only time when it was necessary to fight was if someone was attacked by a wild animal, and in most cases tranquilliser weapons could be used to stun or knock out the creature rather than kill it.

Modern historians and philosophers have raised the question that the utopian nature of the Age of Legends may have only been possible because of Compulsion, that the entire human race had peace and goodwill imposed upon it forcefully by the Aes Sedai, at the cost of true free will and thus a denial of human nature. The fact that the Aes Sedai today ban the use of Compulsion outright suggest there may be some truth to this, but the point remains contentious.

Arguments that flared into fistfights still took place and violence was not totally removed from the world, but some particularly pious people believed that even this was too much and dedicated themselves to a life of complete and total pacifism. The exact origins of this movement are unclear, but it seems to have developed from a First Age religion that preached tolerance of all others and also seems to have been the first to believe in reincarnation. This religion also taught martial arts for self-defence and exercise, but this new movement exercised all such factors. The new movement called itself the Da’shain Aiel (“People to Peace Dedicated”). The Da’shain Aiel followed a philosophy they called the Way of the Leaf. It preached unbending pacifism, even in the face of certain death. Their faith afforded them a respect second only to that of the Aes Sedai. It became traditional – though the origins of the tradition have been long forgotten – for the Da’shain to serve the Aes Sedai. The exact nature of this service is unclear, but seems to have been in the form of assistants or helpers, perhaps even housekeepers though most homes were self-cleaning. Since there were fewer Da’shain than Aes Sedai, most Aes Sedai did without (and indeed did not need any), whilst very busy Aes Sedai, mostly researchers and scientists, often had two or three Da’shain to help them.

The Da’shain’s extreme pacifism somehow opened their awareness to the world around them. Some of them exhibited unusual traits. Some could speak with wolves. Others could see auras surrounding people that revealed their futures (these abilities may also have manifested in the general population). The most common ability was the one that allowed them to walk in Tel’aran’rhiod, the World of Dreams, and use it for their own ends. These abilities were unrelated to the One Power (i.e. most of those who possessed them could not channel).

A large number of the Da’shain Aiel could also manipulate nature. By a method called "Seed Singing" teams of Da’shain Aiel, Nym and Ogier would encourage growth in fields, increasing the productivity of a farm by five or six times. The Da’shain Aiel were very close to the Nym and Ogier and learned their ways as well as those of the rest of the world. A key difference between the Da’shain and the normal population was a general lack of ambition. The Da’shain were content to serve where they were, whilst most people were keen to rise to the top of their field of study, from where they could serve more effectively (and with more prestige).

Those who did reach the height of their field were granted a third name to identify them. Many people attempted to gain the prestigious third name, but most failed, held back by one factor or another. Many Aes Sedai, though certainly not all, gained the third name through their works.

This, then, was the Age of Legends, an Age of peace, harmony and contentment. An Age born out of the fires of chaos and war, and an Age doomed to die in it as well.

Please note that Parts 3-5 of this series are also available to read now on my Patreon page and my other blog, Atlas of Ice and Fire, is currently running a Wheel of Time Atlas series.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The History of The Wheel of Time, SF&F Questions and The Cities of Fantasy series are debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read them there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

IRON FIST cancelled by Netflix

Netflix have confirmed that they will not be proceeding with a third season of Marvel drama Iron Fist.

Netflix have six drama series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders and The Punisher - and this is the first time they have cancelled one of the shows in progress. Iron Fist's first season aired to lukewarm reviews but got a very impressive number of streams. The second season has received much stronger reviews, but Netflix have not released any viewing figures for it.

Netflix and Disney/Marvel's deal allows for Netflix to continue airing five original drama series (with occasional Defenders team-ups), with The Punisher commissioned later as a separate spin-off of Daredevil. The Hollywood Reporter suggests that Netflix and Disney were unable to extend this deal indefinitely so decided to revert to the five-show original order. With The Punisher performing much better than Iron Fist, it was decided to continue with that show. In effect, The Punisher may have killed Iron Fist.

It is possible that this may also mark the start of the winding-up of the Netflix arm of the MCU: in late 2019 Disney launch their own streaming service and it is unlikely that they will want to continue making shows (the Netflix MCU shows are produced directly by Disney for Netflix, via ABC) for a rival service. Although it hasn't been formally cancelled, Netflix have also not yet formally greenlit a third season of Luke Cage either, although this apparently is now more likely.

A third season of Daredevil drops this coming Friday and a third season of Jessica Jones and a second of The Punisher are already in the can for release in early 2019. Some fans have called called for Luke Cage and Iron Fist to be replaced by new shows based on the Heroes for Hire (teaming up Luke Cage and Iron Fist) and Daughters of the Dragon (teaming up Misty Knight and Colleen Wing) comics instead, but it sounds like the Marvel/Netflix deal will not allow this to formally happen. An informal team-up in a future season of one of the other MCU shows sounds more likely.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

New trailer for SQUADRON 42 released

Roberts Space Industries have dropped a new trailer for Squadron 42, a new space combat game from the creators of the Wing Commander franchise.

Squadron 42 is one of two related games the company is developing, the other being Star Citizen, a massive multiplayer online space trading, exploration and combat game. Squadron 42 is a single-player focused version of the game using the same tech, with an in-depth, long story and a greater focus on narrative and characters. The story focuses on the United Empire of Earth and its attempts to retain control of a star system against the encroaching threat of hostile aliens and pirates.

As well as space combat, the game will feature sequences where you leave your spacecraft and engage in zero-gee combat, as well as first-person fighting on space stations and on planetary surfaces. The game will tell its story through elaborate cut scenes featuring motion-captured acting performances from some very big names: Gillian Anderson, Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill, John Rhys-Davis, Liam Cunningham, Henry Cavill and Mark Strong, among others. Hamill and Rhys-Davis previously worked with the same team on the Wing Commander and Freelancer games.

Star Citizen and Squadron 42 are crowdfunded projects. Over 2,100,000 backers have pledged more than $195 million to the development of the two games. Work on the games began in 2011, with the initial crowdfunding taking place in 2012. The lengthy development of the two games has attracted criticism; Star Citizen won WIRED magazine's "Vaporware" award in 2016 and some backers have sought refunds. However, the developers have continued to release sections of the game for early play and bug-testing to backers, and have released several lengthy gameplay videos showing what the game looks like in motion.

No release date is set for the first part of Squadron 42 (the game will be released in several episodes), but a firm release roadmap will apparently be announced in the near future. Star Citizen will follow some time afterwards.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The Witcher Chronology

With The Witcher now headed to the small screen, it might be useful to put together a brief timeline of events in that setting. The following timeline draws on the short stories, books and video games.

The Witcher TV series is expected to draw on and adapt the short stories and novels, but will not cover the events of the video games (or at least it is not expected to do so at this time).

The Witcher Franchise Familiariser may also be of use here.

                                     A spectacular fan map of the entire explored Continent from DwarfChieftain on DeviantArt.

c. 2700 BR (Before the Resurrection)
Dwarves arrive on the Continent.

c. 2230 BR
Aen Seidhe elves arrive on the Continent in their white ships.

c. 230 BR: The Conjunction of the Spheres
Humans arrive on the Continent via portals from another world. Apparently the human homeworld was dying or had been destroyed before they were able to find a way of shifting to another world or universe. Shortly after their arrival, humans start conquering lands inhabited by the elves and dwarves.

1: The Resurrection
An unknown and mysterious event (only referenced in Season of Storms).

c. 760
The Nordlings arrive in the north of the Continent and begin carving out the Northern Kingdoms.

c. 830
Creation of the Conclave of Mages.

Regis, later a key ally of Geralt of Rivia, is born.

c. 950
The first witchers (drug-enhanced monster-hunters) are created by Alzur and Cosimo Malaspina.

By this year, the witcher Vesemir is noted as being active in the world at large.

c. 1140
The mage Cregennan takes the elf Lara Dorren as his lover and they have a daughter, Riannon. Cregennan is murdered for this act and Lara dies in childbirth. Racial tensions between humans and elves rise abruptly. Riannon is adopted by the Queen of Redania.

c. 1150
The Falka Rebellion.

Birth of Yennefer of Vengerberg.

Queen Calanthe of Cintra marries Roegner of Ebbing.

NOTE: Events past this point are likely to be adapted in the TV series and may constitute spoilers for the series.

Netflix announces more castmembers for THE WITCHER

Netflix have confirmed some additional casting choices for its adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski's The Witcher.

Anya Chalotra has been cast in the key role of Yennefer, a powerful sorceress who becomes a key ally of Geralt early in the story. Yennefer is in her nineties but has used to magic to appear substantially younger than her true age. Yennefer plays a major role in both the Witcher novels and the video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Chaltora is a relative newcomer, having established a name for herself on stage as well as a recurring role in the TV series Wanderlust.

17-year old Freya Allan has been cast in the role of Ciri. Ciri is Princess of Cintra, one of the Northern Kingdoms. The Witcher Geralt is involved in the surprising events surrounding her conception and becomes pledged to defend her and even train her in the ways of becoming a witcher to help her defend herself from enemies. Allan is another newcomer, but has already scored notable roles in Into the Badlands and the upcoming period version of The War of the Worlds.

Jodhi May (Last of the Mohicans) will play Queen Calanthe of Cintra, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson (Fortitude) will play Calanthe's husband Eist and Adam Levy (Knightfall) will play the Skellige druid Mousesack. MyAnna Buring (Kill List), Mimi Ndiweni (Black Earth Rising) and Therica Wilson-Read (Profile) will player sorceresses Tissaia, Fringilla and Sabrina. Millie Brady (The Last Kingom) will play Princess Renfri (a sort-of psychotic version of Snow White).

The characters cast seem to confirm early reports that the first season will adapt various storylines from the first two Witcher books, the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. This also explains the absence of Triss Merigold, who does not appear until Blood of Elves and thus probably won't be cast until Season 2 at the earliest (it should also be noted that Triss is a minor character in the books, and is not as prominent as she is in the video games).

The most notable character still not cast at the moment is Jaskier (aka Dandelion), Geralt's closest friend and advisor. Given that he appears early in The Last Wish and is a fairly major character, it's unlikely he'll be left out of the adaptation.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

World War II and Epic Fantasy

Epic fantasy is, arguably, a form of storytelling highly influenced by the Second World War. World War II remains unusual in military history for being a conflict which can clearly be divided between the “bad guys” (Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan) and the “good guys” (the plucky Brits, the brave French Resistance and the heroic-if-a-bit-tardy United States of America) with a minimum of moral uncertainty. Popular narratives of the Second World War show the heroic, democracy-loving Brits and Yanks storming the beaches of Normandy to save Europe from the diabolical and evil rule of the brutal Third Reich.

Christopher Lee as Saruman in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Lee fought in the British special forces in WWII, in operations that he refused to discuss even decades afterwards.

This is of course monstrously simplistic, and ignores the morally murkier elements of the conflict, such as the Allied mass bombing campaign that was designed to slaughter as many German civilians as possible, and of course the involvement of the Soviet Union in the war. The USSR committed many atrocities of its own (including being complicit in Germany’s invasion of Poland which started the war in the first place) and was willing to accept staggering military and civilian losses to finally defeat the Germans and capture Berlin (a fact glossed over in western accounts of the conflict, which tend to suggest that the US and UK were the primary architects of Hitler’s downfall rather than relative bystanders). Still, the sometimes almost cartoonishly evil nature of the Nazi regime (“Are we the bad guys? If not, why do our uniforms have skulls on them?”) allows it to be presented as an irredeemable foe who must be destroyed at all costs with a minimum of moral qualms, very useful for propaganda, morale and rousing novels, films and video games.

Epic fantasy written in the post-war era feels like it is influenced by this conflict. People writing fantasy in this period either fought in the war directly, were children during it or were born in the aftermath of the conflict and grew up with stories of it from their parents and grandparents.

The fantasy saga sometimes said to have been most influenced by the war is The Lord of the Rings, although J.R.R. Tolkien was scornful of this. He started writing the book in late 1937, two years before the conflict even began, and the story and themes of the book developed out of The Hobbit, mostly written in 1930-32 or thereabouts. The titular One Ring itself is sometimes compared to a nuclear bomb (in its ability to end the War of the Ring in a single stroke rather than actual destructive power) and much is made of the Scouring of the Shire and its similarity to the military occupation of a formerly peaceful territory. However, the Ring was created for The Hobbit and its powers established long before the outbreak of the conflict. Tolkien himself was furious with the idea of the book being an allegory (noting he detested allegory wherever it was found), but did acknowledge the idea of “applicability,” and the disturbing feeling that real events were conforming (somewhat) to those in the book rather than vice versa. Tolkien did acknowledge a much greater influence on the book by his own experiences in World War I, particularly the several months he spent on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme. The Frodo-Sam relationship is reminiscent of that between a gentleman soldier and his batman, and the Dead Marshes with their hordes of corpses (and semi-undead) lying face-up in the flooded marshlands being an image that stuck with Tolkien from the aftermath of bloody engagements.

Skipping ahead a few generations, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles feels like a revamp of the Second World War. The forces of evil gain a series of military advantages from the return of the dark goddess Takhisis and the ability to control evil dragons in battle. This allows them to overrun half the continent of Ansalon and push the remaining nations and our heroes to the brink of defeat. However, our heroes gain the favour of the god Paladine, the allegiance of the good dragons and then the ability to use the fabled dragonlances in battle. This turns the tide and routs the enemy. This can be seen as a reflection of the military technology in WWII: the Germans’ early innovation and technical ingenuity gave them a keen early edge that allowed them to defeat everyone they faced in battle, but later in the conflict the Allies first matched and then exceeded their technological advantage, which the Germans could not sustain and ultimately lost.

Many epic fantasies feature narratives not dissimilar to this. The Wheel of Time shows a growing threat from a powerful opponent who is allowed to go unchecked because the nations that should be unifying against them can’t stop their squabbles with one another, even when the threat becomes blatant. This is an echo of the way Hitler expertly exploited inter-war rivalries between nations such as Russia and Poland to stop opponents joining forces against him (and, indeed, struck an unlikely alliance himself with Russia which prevented them from joining France and Britain in the war). The decision of the forces of “Light” in the books to join forces with the morally highly dubious Seanchan to fight the Dark One can be seen as a reflection of the reluctance with which nations like Britain (whose leader, Churchill, held a deep and abiding hatred of Communism) allied with Russia to fight the greater threat, and the repeated warning that this alliance could sow the seeds of a greater conflict later on (as it very nearly did, with the Cold War almost going nuclear-hot on several occasions, and various visions in The Wheel of Time showing a future where the Seanchan and the other nations resume their conflict).

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is rather different, however. The conflict between the Great Houses is of course most strongly influenced by the Wars of the Roses, but there is also a strong influence from World War I: the Houses go to war against one another in a manner reflecting their inter-war alliances and fuelled by grievances (just and unjust) extending back generations, with Jon Arryn’s death and then Tyrion Lannister’s arrest setting in motion a series of falling dominoes leading to conflict as much as Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in August 1914.

The most notable fantasy novel series directly based on World War II is Harry Turtledove’s Darkness series, a six-volume series set on a continent resembling Eurasia which is riven by war. Technological developments are replaced by discoveries in the field of sorcery but every nation has its real-world analogue (albeit often inverted; the war in the desert in Africa is replaced by a war on a southern polar continent) and the conflict unfolds in a very similar manner. Turtledove of course likes to revisit WWII in his alternate history fiction, with his splendidly readable, pulp Worldwar series being set during a WWII interrupted by the arrival of an alien invasion fleet, and his darker Southern Victory series in which the Confederacy survives the Civil War as an independent state and becomes embroiled in further conflicts leading to the establishing of a North American theatre in WWII (which, due to a German victory in WWI and no rising of the Nazi Party, unfolds very differently).

A recent fantasy which directly echoes the war is the video game series Valkyria Chronicles. Set on the continent of Europa, the story charts the outbreak of war between the East Europan Imperial Alliance (a blending of Nazi Germany in ideology and Soviet Russia in size and manpower) and the Atlantic Federation (a mixture of western European nations such as Britain and France, and NATO of the Cold War period, albeit with an American analogue which is very reluctant to get involved in the fight). The war opens with the Empire invading the Federation and the small neutral nation of Gallia (based loosely on the Netherlands and Belgium), the latter both to seize its deposits of ragnite (a valuable ore which powers advanced technology) and to allow it to invade the Federation on a second front. Unlike the real war, where the Low Countries were overrun quickly, in the game the much smaller Gallian army is able to rally around the nation’s complex geography (particularly its rivers and canals) and prevent the numerically superior Imperial army from seizing the country. The Empire’s insistence on deploying increasingly insane and impractical tanks on the battlefield and its constant hunt for superweapons is an echo of Hitler’s insistence on deploying increasingly unreliable new technology during WWII rather than refining existing designs, not to mention his increasingly desperate search for “doomsday weapons” that could end the war quickly. Even the Mamota, an insane “land battleship” which the Empire uses at the end of the game, is based on a real idea, the Landkreuzer P.1000 Ratte, a 1,000-ton tank Hitler heartily endorsed but whose development was cancelled by Albert Speer on the reasonable grounds it was ridiculous.

Valkyria Chronicles (2008) is unusual in combining both direct WWII elements – guns, artillery, grenades, tanks, propaganda and pogroms against a scapegoated minority (the Darcsens replacing the Jews) – and traditional fantasy tropes. There is an ancient magical race, the Valkyrur, whose power lingers into the modern age and at key moments both protagonists and antagonists gain access to their power. There are magical items and hopeless struggles by a plucky band of up-against-the-odds heroes against monstrous enemies (although some of them are shown to have a code of individual honour at odds with the atrocities their forces commit). Surprisingly cynically, the Federation, which becomes prominent in Valkyria Chronicles 4 (2018), is shown to sometimes be brutal and cold as well, willing to sacrifice vast numbers of civilian lives and infringe the borders of sovereign nations in order to get an upper hand against the Empire and is secretly developing a weapon of mass destruction behind the scenes. The oddest element of the Valkyria universe, given how closely it parallels WWII, is the near-total absence of aircraft from the conflict, with the few aircraft mentioned or appearing being WWI-style biplanes.

Of course, the straightforward (if not exactly accurate) good vs. evil nature of WWII gave rise afterwards to much more morally murky conflicts where the notions of good, evil, justice and injustice became far more fluid: Suez, Vietnam, Bosnia, the Iraq War and clashes of religious fundamentalists. This can be seen in the type of fantasy fiction that has followed: the Black Company (by Vietnam vet Glen Cook) and Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen (inspired by a lot of war fiction, and indeed The Black Company) are much less clear-cut tales where good and evil are less of an issue. Joe Abercrombie explores some of the same issues of morally flexible real politik in his First Law world. Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse series (including the Prince of Nothing and Aspect-Emperor sub-series) delves deep into religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series presents the world with a monstrously damaged human being who commits atrocities but who, ultimately, may end up saving the world. The moral relativism of post-WWII conflicts has been well matched and explored by fantasy fiction, perhaps too much for some as we’ve also seen a re-emergence of throwback fantasy, more concerned with more straightforward tales of good vs. evil (such as Michael Sullivan’s Ririya series and Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere works).

WWII will remain a rich source of inspiration for fantasy fiction, although it is refreshing (if perhaps a tad depressing) to see other, less clear-cut conflicts being mined for different kinds of stories.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The History of The Wheel of Time, SF&F Questions and The Cities of Fantasy series are debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read them there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Monday, 8 October 2018

THE EXPANSE leaves Netflix

If you were planning to watch The Expanse on Netflix outside of the USA, you are now officially out of luck. Netflix removed the first two seasons of The Expanse from their streaming service last week.

This was expected as Netflix's big rivals Amazon have picked up the streaming rights to The Expanse worldwide, along with the rights to make more seasons after SyFy dropped the show. Production of Season 4 of The Expanse has just started, in fact.

Unfortunately, we don't have a date for The Expanse joining Amazon Video. We assume when it does, it will include Season 3 (which hasn't aired outside of the US and Canada yet) and of course Season 4 when it launches next year.

More news when we get it.

Iron Fist: Season 2

In the wake of the defeat of the Hand and the apparent death of Daredevil, Danny Rand – the Iron Fist – has appointed himself the defender of New York. His job is complicated by the growing tension between triad gangs which threatens to spill over into open war. But when a former ally turned jealous rival launches a campaign against Danny to steal the power of the Iron Fist, Rand finds himself having to consider the consequences of his own power.

The first season of Iron Fist was slated on release in 2017, in a somewhat over-the-top fashion. Although certainly not a great season of television, the kicking it got in the press (as the worst seasons of television of the year, presumably by people who’ve never watched The Magicians or The Shannara Chronicles) was wildly at variance with its actual quality level, which was mediocre with flashes of promise. It wasn’t even the weakest Marvel Netflix season, an honour achieved by the first season of Luke Cage – an excellent first half followed by a jaw-dropping total collapse in pacing, acting quality and writing – and then outdone by the second (which had four episodes of actual content – which is being wildly generous – spread over thirteen).

Still, it wasn’t a gripping show. The martial arts were poor, unforgivable in a show all about martial arts, and trotting out the Hand as villains again (after a feeble showing in the second season of Daredevil) was boring and redundant.

Iron Fist Season 2, thankfully, is a vast improvement over the first season. The Hand is gone and the villain is a character we met (as an ally, kind of) in Season 1, allowing a greater and more impressive amount of character development. The first season also depicted Danny as arrogant, entitled and privileged, not to mention a bit whiny. This was developed further in The Defenders and then Luke Cage Season 2, and this season brings that analysis of his character in greater detail. Danny’s journey to work out if he is worthy of the Iron Fist, and its conclusion, sounds introspective and dull, but is actually well-handled and leads to a surprising conclusion that actually leaves you interested to see where they take the character next.

Iron Fist still leans more heavily on its guest and supporting cast than on its star, however. There’s no Claire this season, and may not be in the future as actress Rosario Dawson has chosen not to spend so much time in New York (where the Netflix wing of the MCU is filmed). Instead, Misty Knight steps up and transfers over from Luke Cage to play a larger role, mostly fighting alongside Colleen Wing (and again fuelling hopes that a Daughters of the Dragon spin-off series may be in the cards) and acting as a liaison between Iron Fist and the police. The police accepting the powered vigilantes as allies and working alongside them rather than tiresomely (and futilely) trying to arrest them has been a nice development over the last couple of Netflix shows, and that continues here. Colleen has a bigger role this season as well, to the point of being pretty much co-lead, and Jessica Henwick knocks it out of the park. The Meachum siblings also continue having a strong role and the actors do good work (Tom Pelphrey particularly improving over the first season). The most notable newcomer of the season is Alice Eve, playing Mary Walker, a complex and rather challenging role that she handles extremely well (and hopefully will be back in later seasons).

In other areas, the martial arts have improved dramatically. The fight scenes aren’t as good as Daredevil’s, but are at least convincing with one really memorable, cool fight (where Colleen and Misty take on a trio of randomly-skilled tattoo artists). As with the first season, the second improves as it goes along, with the last few episodes being particularly good. Fantastically, Netflix have finally realised that not every season needs to be 13 hours long and this season comes in at a much more restrained 10 episodes, which allows for far better pacing and story structure.

Certainly the second season isn’t perfect. The main villain is a little one-note and weak, despite being better-established than any previous villain in the setting. The problem of Iron Fist being the least interesting thing in Iron Fist also continues (despite him being a more interesting character in Season 1). There’s also a deficit of humour in the season, alleviated somewhat by Misty’s analysis of events and then by Mary turning out to have a splendid deadpan streak. Towards the end of the season, when the heaviness of events lifts a little and the characters are allowed to have some fun (Danny and Ward end on what could be a spectacular road trip for Season 3), the show becomes much more enjoyable.

Iron Fist Season 2 (***½) is the first Marvel Netflix series to show a dramatic and marked improvement in its sophomore season, with much better writing, acting and action. It’s still not the most compelling series they've made, but at least it is moving in the right direction and – surprisingly – leaves the viewer intrigued at where the story goes next. The season is available on Netflix right now.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

DRAGON PRINCE renewed for Season 2

Netflix have confirmed that they have renewed animated fantasy series The Dragon Prince for a second season.

The first season aired to some acclaim a few weeks ago, apart from the criticism that the season (at 9 25-minute episodes) was too short. The second season will arrive in 2019, but Netflix have not confirmed for how many episodes.

The Dragon Prince is part of a marked shift by Netflix into the epic fantasy genre. Their live-action version of The Witcher books starts shooting this month, whilst they have also greenlit a live-action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender with the original showrunners in charge. They have also optioned The Chronicles of Narnia for a series of films and TV mini-series.

Brandon Sanderson suggests he'd give CD Projekt the rights to make a MISTBORN game for free

On a recent Reddit thread, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has suggested he'd consider giving the rights to his Mistborn novel series to Polish developers CD Projekt Red for free.

CD Projekt Red (CDPR) have achieved tremendous success in adapting the Witcher novels and short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski into a trilogy of best-selling and critically-acclaimed video games. CDPR are now working on Cyberpunk 2077, an adaptation of Mike Pondsmith's popular pen-and-paper science fiction roleplaying game.

Sanderson has so far written six Mistborn novels with a seventh due in the next couple of years, with two further trilogies in the same world to follow. The Mistborn series is part of Sanderson's wider Cosmere multiverse of different worlds and stories with some interlinking elements.

So far, CDPR have not responded to the offer, and with their hands full with Cyberpunk 2077 it's not something that's going to happen any time soon.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 1: Introduction and the First Age


Between 1990 and 2013 Tor Books published one of the most popular epic fantasy series ever created. Across fourteen novels, a prequel and two companion volumes, The Wheel of Time has sold over 85 million copies worldwide, including 56 million sales in the United States and 5 million in the United Kingdom. It was the biggest-selling epic fantasy series after The Lord of the Rings until 2018, when it was overtaken by sales of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.

The Wheel of Time has expanded to secondary media, with a video game, soundtrack album, comic book and a pen-and-paper roleplaying game all being released for it (along with T-shirts and replica swords). Now it is set to become a major TV series for Amazon, with Rafe Judkins and his team at Sony TV set to produce an apparently faithful adaptation of the books.

Like all of the biggest fantasy series, The Wheel of Time is built on a bedrock of a deep and well-realised backstory, or "lore" as common parlance has it these days. This history is extensive and continuously expanded upon through the books and the spin-off material. Published in 1997, The World of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time by Teresa Patterson attempted to tell this history, but numerous additions to the backstory followed in the subsequent seven novels in the series, along with more information provided by Robert Jordan in the form of fan Q&As, notes given to the makers of the roleplaying game, and his own worldbuilding notes, some of which were mined for the later Wheel of Time Companion (2015).

This, then, is an attempt to update the deep history of the Wheel of Time world, drawing on all of the available canonical sources.

A Note on Calendar Systems
Since the Breaking there have been three calendar systems used widely in all the lands between the Aryth Ocean and the Spine of the World (that subcontinent known, with a disappointing lack of originality, as "the Westlands"). The first, the Toman Calendar (developed by Toma dur Ahmid), recorded the years as After the Breaking (AB) and came into widespread use two centuries after the death of the last male Aes Sedai. This calendar was used until the end of the Trolloc Wars, by which time some nations had lost track of what year it was. A new calendar was created by Tiam of Gazar which recorded the years as Free Years (FY) and celebrated the world’s freedom from the Trolloc threat. The Gazaran Calendar came into use within twenty years after the end of the Trolloc Wars (which are estimated to have ended around 1350 AB). The chaos and destruction of the War of the Hundred Years again disrupted this calendar, so that within eighteen years of the war’s end (in c. FY 1117) a new system had to be instigated. This new system, the Farede Calendar, was devised by Uren din Jubai Soaring Gull, a Sea Folk scholar, and popularised by Farede, the first Panarch of Tarabon. This system counted the years as being part of the New Era (NE) and remains in use today, some 998 years later.

No calendar has survived from the Age of Legends, though we do have dates on various documents. Without context, these dates are meaningless. No calendar was in use during the Breaking of the World, since people had more important things to worry about.

As such, it is not entirely clear how much time has passed since the end of the Age of Legends. The AB and FY periods lasted roughly 1,350 and 1,135 years respectively, and the New Era has just entered its 998th year, but the length of the Breaking is difficult to determine (estimates range from 239 to 344 years). As such the length of time that has passed since the end of the Age of Legends may be anything between 3,724 years and 3,829 years.

Lands beyond our own, such as Shara and Seanchan, use different calendars. The Seanchan may use one of three different calendars: the Gazaran Calendar, the little-used Founding Calendar (dating from the founding of Artur Hawkwing’s empire in FY 963) and their own calendar dating from the end of the first phase of the Conquest (around 700 years ago). The Sharans, as with so much else, have refused to comment on their own calendar systems.

Historical Sources
This history attempts to cover a period in detail from around 110 years before the Breaking of the World to the present day, a period approaching 4,000 years. There are, as you may imagine, many sources available for this period, but their accuracy in many areas is open to question.

No sources have directly survived since before the Breaking of the World. All the knowledge we have about the Age of Legends comes from histories written in the early part of the AB era, presumably when the writers had access to more direct sources. The oldest such source we have dates from the first few decades AB and is nothing less than a history describing the entire period between the drilling of the Bore into the Dark One’s prison and the end of the War of the Shadow. Such a history would be huge, but only 212 pages have survived and the largest number of consecutive pages is a mere six. These fragments, recently unearthed in a dusty room in Chachin, have been carefully analysed by historians and, it is said, an Aes Sedai sister of the Brown Ajah, and their authenticity confirmed. These pages describe something of life in the Age of Legends, before and during the Collapse, and also describe the War of the Shadow. Most importantly, the six surviving consecutive pages describe the attack on Shayol Ghul by Lews Therin Telamon and the Hundred Companions, possibly the most significant event in world history (aside from the drilling of the Bore itself).

Most records of the AB era – the period between the Breaking and the Trolloc Wars – were lost during the chaos of the wars, but several key history books of the period - complete and undamaged - survive in the library of the White Tower in Tar Valon. It is also believed one similar volume resides in the Great Library of Cairhien.

Records of the Free Years should be more common than records for the prior era, since they are up to a thousand years more recent, yet only a few more history texts have survived. It is believed that for a time during the War of the Hundred Years all books which even mentioned the High King, Artur Hawkwing, were burned, even books which had nothing to do with him but were merely published during the reign of the Empire. For a similar reason sources on the Hawkwing Empire itself are relatively scarce, though a few have survived in the libraries of Tear, Cairhien, Tar Valon, Tanchico, Ebou Dar and Caemlyn (the major cities of both the imperial and modern eras).

Histories and records for the New Era are the most common of all, naturally, and only for this period do we have strong, reliable records.

The reader should, however, bear in mind that all records and sources are prone to similar problems: the writer’s opinion, copyists’ errors, propaganda, bias and even plain guesswork corrupting the truth. For that reason, this history uses, wherever possible, only sources verifiable by other sources. However, for some matters, especially the oldest parts of the history, we have had to do some speculation and guesswork. The reader is fully entitled to disagree with our interpretation of events and offer alternatives of their own.

Before the Age of Legends
The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go. According to myth there are seven spokes to the Wheel of Time, and each spoke represents one of the Seven Ages. Our Age is called the Third Age by some, the Age of Prophecy by others. But long ago, before the Breaking of the World, a time of peace and harmony existed. This period was called the Second Age of the Wheel of Time, the Age of Legends.

The origins of the Age of Legends are lost forever in the mists of time. According to the most ancient legends the First Age, an age of mysteries, was a time of conflict and pain, when technology meant that death could be rained down upon innocents from thousands of miles away and the entire world was forever in danger of tipping into chaos and oblivion. During this Age the One Power and the True Source were unknown. People simply could not channel. Then, near the end of the Age, they could. The histories and legends are massively unreliable, with speculation and rumour mixed in with more reliable data, but it may be that the ability to channel was introduced (or reintroduced, from the previous turning of the Wheel) artificially, by people using machines and science to change the genetic nature of test subjects.

It is unknown how this was done, or how many people died before they first channeller was successfully created. According to legend, this person was named “Tamyrlin.” This person and their fellow surviving test subjects suddenly found themselves able to move objects without physically touching them, spontaneously create or douse flames and perform many other seemingly impossible tasks. The ability to wield the One Power had been granted to humanity.

At this time the world was made up of hundreds of nations, all competing with one another in complex webs of alliances. Suddenly, the nations were battling one another to create channellers of their own. Thousands died, but hundreds appeared able to wield the One Power. They were used as weapons or spies. Wars erupted over who could control them. When it was revealed that the genetic link was passed on through bloodlines, with often the children of the channellers also able to channel, some of the more callous countries developed breeding programmes dedicated to creating as many channellers as possible.

Eventually, after a few decades of this treatment, the channellers themselves rebelled. Now numbering in the hundreds of thousands, they refused to be used as weapons anymore and demanded their lives back. They banded together to stop the chaos and restore peace to a fractious world. Their “masters” proved unable to stop them. In time the channellers ended the wars and restored peace to the world. With the One Power, they realised, they could end pain and hardship forever. They could alter weather patterns to bring rain to areas afflicted by drought. They could make farms more productive. They could use the One Power to locate valuable stores of minerals far below the ground, or oil underneath the ocean floor. As time passed they even discovered how to travel from any one point in the world to any other point in an instant. Aided by the One Power, they could forge new technologies and undertake scientific research to a far greater level than ever before. Above all, the reasons for poverty and unhappiness could forever be removed.

The channellers dedicated themselves to caring for mankind and protecting the world from itself, if necessary. They named themselves “The Servants of All,” or Aes Sedai in the Old Tongue.

Note: much of the preceding is highly speculative and may be regarded as a best guess on how the First Age gave way to the Second, but in no way should it be taken as fact.

Please note that Parts 2-4 of this series are also available to read now on my Patreon page and my other blog, Atlas of Ice and Fire, is currently running a Wheel of Time Atlas series.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The History of The Wheel of Time, SF&F Questions and The Cities of Fantasy series are debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read them there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Live-action STAR WARS TV series gets a name

Showrunner Jon Favreau has confirmed that the first-ever live-action Star Wars television series will be called The Mandalorian.

Set seven years after the events of Return of the Jedi, The Mandalorian follows the adventures of a "lone gunfighter" who is following in the footsteps of Jango and Boba Fett, who wore iconic Mandalorian battle armour in the movies. The Mandalorians were also a key part of both the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series.

Shooting on The Mandalorian begins in the next few weeks, with sets being erected that look suspiciously Tatooine-like. The show is expected to launch in late 2019 or early 2020 on Disney's new streaming service, which they hope will go head-to-head with Netflix and Amazon Video.

Will The Wheel of Time TV series be the next Game of Thrones?

Much excitement has greeted the news that Amazon Studios and Sony Television have greenlit a TV series based on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novel series. There have been at least three major attempts to get a TV series or film based on the books made in the last eighteen years (with NBC, an unnamed Japanese animation company and Universal Pictures respectively) which have come to nothing, so it’s finally a relief that something is happening in this area. 

Amazon’s motive in making this series is clear: they want their own Game of Thrones, a zeitgeist-defining show that can run for years and dominate the cultural conversation. Amazon Studios’ mandate was to move away from their small, quirky and award-winning early shows more towards big, brash and expensive projects, many of them in the science fiction and fantasy genres. They have already spent $250 million acquiring the rights to make a Lord of the Rings prequel TV series and are planning to spend between $150 and $200 million per season on the project. They have also optioned the rights to series based on Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, Larry Niven’s Ringworld series and Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash, and picked up The Expanse (based on James S.A. Corey’s novels) after it was dropped by SyFy after three seasons.

However, The Wheel of Time is the most direct and blatant statement that they want to take on Game of Thrones on its home turf. The Wheel of Time was, historically, the biggest-selling epic fantasy series since The Lord of the Rings, its sales dominating the genre through overwhelming sheer strength. The series has sold approximately twice the copies of Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, for example, and more than three times that of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth or Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar series (and about one-sixth the sales of the Harry Potter series, which is actually quite impressive). As well as its massive sales in the United States, Wheel of Time has also sold over 5 million copies in Commonwealth territories and been translated into dozens of languages. A Song of Ice and Fire (the novel series on which Game of Thrones is based) was considerably more obscure before the HBO TV series, with only 12 million copies sold as of early 2011. The success of the TV series has since increased these sales to well over 85 million (overtaking – possibly only briefly – The Wheel of Time earlier this year). With The Wheel of Time starting from a much larger base, however, the pre-production hype and profile of the series is considerably higher.

There are of course big differences between the two book series, some of which may increase The Wheel of Time’s appeal as a different kind of story. Blatant, graphic sex and violence is far less prevalent in Wheel of Time (although it does occasionally take place) and the story is, at least initially, focused on more quest-like narratives. The series does eventually turn to deal with politics, military movements and intrigue, as Game of Thrones does, but not until about a third of the way into the series and this is always at a somewhat lesser degree of importance. Wheel of Time is, for better and worse, a more traditional and a more familiar fantasy story than A Song of Ice and Fire. Those looking for the gritty, complex politics and earthier, deeper characterisation of the latter may be disappointed by Wheel of Time’s more adventurous tone and its more archetypal characters.

That said, Wheel of Time does have several advantages going for it. The series is extremely long (fourteen novels and over 4 million words), but it is complete and the ending is very decent. The writers have a colossal amount of material to draw on without ever needing to resort to dubious filler ideas when the source material runs out (as has blighted the last three seasons of Game of Thrones and left many fans wary for the upcoming finale). Indeed, the books themselves are often criticised for filler material and wheel-spinning storylines which the TV series will be able to drop and edit it into something more compelling.

Another advantage is that, whilst Game of Thrones had to sneak its more fantastical elements (dragons, sorcery, zombies) into the story slowly and carefully over the course of many episodes, Wheel of Time is coming out to a much more genre-savvy audience and can be much more upfront with its magic (multiple main characters can wield the One Power, a form of sorcery rooted in scientific-like rules), non-human creatures and mystical visions.

A final interesting difference is that Wheel of Time has a much, much larger and more prevalent female cast of characters. A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones had important, well-defined female characters from early on but these characters are repeatedly shown as existing in a sexist world and having to overcome the limitations of that world through individual strength, intelligence and achievement (to the point where latter books and seasons arguably have more and more important female characters than male). Wheel of Time, right off the bat, is set in a world where only women can use sorcery safely, resulting in a much more gender-balanced (or possibly even imbalanced, in the favour of women) world complete with female rulers, merchants, craftspeople and soldiers. The Wheel of Time world, set in the aftermath of a series of vast wars and geological cataclysms that threw together all the peoples of the world, is also notably much more ethnically and culturally diverse than ASoIaF/GoT, allowing for more varied casting. Homosexuality in the Wheel of Time world, although not a dominant theme, is also much less controversial than in GoT’s world.

Of course, none of these things mean that the show is guaranteed to be a big hit. The global television landscape has massively changed since Game of Thrones launched in 2011. In that time the number of television series on the air has more than doubled, with 520 distinct, original, scripted series airing from American studios and streaming services this year. The Wheel of Time may risk getting lost in the noise of so many other shows clamouring for attention. Game of Thrones also turned heads for being the only serious, well-made adult fantasy show on the air at launch; The Wheel of Time, by comparison, will launch against numerous genre competitors, including Game of Thrones’ own spin-off prequel show The Long Night, Netflix’s The Witcher, the BBC’s His Dark Materials and possibly Showtime’s Kingkiller Chronicle prequel series.

There’s also the fact that Amazon has so far not managed to launch a global mega-hit. Shows like Transparent and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel have won awards and garnered critical acclaim, but have not yet broken through to a widespread, mainstream audience. The Tick and The Man in the High Castle have had wider appeal and likewise been acclaimed, but nothing to the audience level of Thrones or Netflix’s Stranger Things. Growing dissent with Amazon’s business and employment practices seems to be making at least part of the audience less keen to spend money on the company (although this is, of course, dramatically outweighed by its enormous customer base who disagree or don’t care).

Still, The Wheel of Time will no doubt have an impressive budget, its writers are fans of the books, the source material is good (once you extract several long-winded subplots that kind of went nowhere and condense about three of the books into one) and it has every chance of being a success. I guess we will find out in around about 2020.

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