Monday, 19 November 2018

Happy 20th Anniversary to HALF-LIFE

"Good morning and welcome to the Black Mesa transit system."

On 19 November 1998, the course of video game history shifted. Half-Life, the first game by a brand new developer called Valve, was released to not just critical acclaim, but blanket critical awe. It changed the conversation over what players could expect from first-person video games in terms of immersion, narration, storytelling and AI. Almost every first-person shooter made in the last twenty years can trace its DNA back to the game.

Rewinding a bit, Valve was founded by Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, former developers at Microsoft who'd cashed out with large bonuses in the mid-1990s and decided to create their own video game development studio. Impressed by games like Doom and the in-development Quake, they believed that 3D, first-person games were future and set about creating their own, assembling a disparate collection of coders, artists and level designers. They drew on the Doom modding scene, recruiting people who'd done great work in level design for the more primitive game engine.

They licenced the Quake engine from id Software and heavily modified it into GoldSrc, a considerably more sophisticated piece of software. Ideas for the actual content of the game fluctuated, and at several points the new team considered making two separate games: Quiver, a fast-paced action game where the player fought monsters; and Prospero, a moody, literate and story-focused game. With insufficient manpower to do both, Prospero was canned and the work folded into the Quiver game design, bringing on board more atmosphere and a stronger focused on narrative into the game. At this point the game was also renamed Half-Life.

When was first publicly shown at game fairs in 1997, gamers and publishers alike were astonished by the game's ambition, graphics and action, but the developers were dissatisfied, feeling they could do better. Astonishingly, at a time when games were frequently still designed, produced and shipped in a year, Valve decided to give the game an additional full twelve months of development time.

It was well worth it. On release, Half-Life was an instant smash hit, receiving critical acclaim and huge sales. Two well-received expansions followed, Opposing Force (1999) and Blue Shift (2001), along with a PlayStation 2 port of the game. Fans hungrily used the game's editor to create their own mods, including Team Fortress Classic, Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Gunman Chronicles (all good enough to be released as their own stand-alone products). And, of course, Valve took the lessons and profits from Half-Life to work on two more projects: the video game delivery system Steam, which launched in 2003 (and has been credited with arguably saving PC gaming altogether), and Half-Life 2 (2004), which garnered as much, if not more, critical acclaim as its forebear.

Going back to Half-Life, it's astonishing to remember that it came out only a few years after Doom, with its blocky graphics and awkward controls to look around. Half-Life was slick, intuitive and minimalist. It was a game that knew when to throw down a massive set-piece battle involving tons of aliens and soldiers, and when to isolate the player in a remote part of the Black Mesa facility with limited ammo and health, and absolutely no warning when aliens would attack. The game dished out its storyline and lore with skilful economy, avoiding infodumps and non-interactive cut scenes. By not giving the player-character, Gordon Freeman, a voice, they allowed the player full immersion in the game, able to project whatever personality they wanted onto the character.

The game was also long, taking a good 15 hours or so for a single play-through. Given that the game was really one massive super-level (divided into discrete chapters), it felt longer. You played the whole game in real-time, so when you staggered in the alien Nihilanth's lair, exhausted and determined to finish off the threat, it felt like a tremendously well-earned victory.

The DNA of Half-Life continues through the Call of Duty and Halo franchises, and more directly through the constantly-updated online games Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2. However, it has to be said that the linear, long, story-driven first-person shooter is not in a good place. Bethesda's Wolfenstein series is keeping the flag flying, but it's more the open world, first-person RPG franchises like Deus Ex and Fallout, and semi-open world games like Dishonored and Prey, which seem to be keeping the spirit of Half-Life alive.

As for the Half-Life universe itself, there's been no fresh entry in the core series since Half-Life 2: Episode Two (and its enormous cliffhanger ending) in 2007 and spin-off game Portal 2 in 2011. Valve occasionally pipe up to say the series will continue, but no-one really believes them any more.

A pity, but it should not detract from the fact that Half-Life was a terrific work of art and a blisteringly good game which is surprisingly still playable today (particularly via its remake, Black Mesa). Good job, Mr. Freeman.

ETA: As a special bonus, the Black Mesa team have released a trailer for Xen, the second part of their remake of the original Half-Life. It looks spectacular.

WayWord Sisters: A New Board Game Cafe for Dublin

My good friends Lada and Veronika are opening a new board game cafe in Dublin, Ireland, to be called WayWord Sisters. They are running a crowdfunding campaign via as well as taking out traditional funding.

I've known Lada and Veronika for over three years. They are hardworking entrepreneurs with a lot of experience in hospitality, customer service and board games. They're also geeks of the highest order, and members of the online Song of Ice and Fire community. They once made an epic House Stark-themed sandcastle with Syrio Forel (well, Miltos Yerolemou who played Syrio on HBO's Game of Thrones), which is the kind of geek cred you can't overstate.

Please check out their crowdfunding page, the Facebook community and their Twitter feed, and if you're in Dublin once it's open, remember to swing by and look them up!

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson

The expansionist Kingdom of Lether has subdued most of the rival kingdoms and tribes on its continent, establishing a hegemony built on notions of debt and service in the name of the king. Its eye now turns to the northern frontier, where the six tribes of the Tiste Edur have recently been united by the Warlock King of the Hiroth. A delegation sets forth to discuss peace and trade, but the true motives of the kingdom are baser. The Warlock King, aware of the growing threat, sends forth the Sengar brothers on a mission to recover a powerful item for him. When the wrong person finds the item, a sorcerous sword of alien origin, it changes the fate of a continent...and the world.

Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy sequence is one that continuously delights in wrong-footing the reader. All of the tropes of established fantasy are here, with powerful empires, great battles, impressive magic and monstrous creatures in spades, but there's also intelligent musings on human nature, philosophical asides on the weirdness of existence and thematic explorations of ideas ranging from colonisation to capitalism and family.

The first four books in the series explored the Malazan Empire and its conquests on the continents of Seven Cities and Genabackis. Although each of the four novels had its own focus and conflicts, common threads regarding the fate of the Empire and the gods ran through each book. Midnight Tides, the fifth book, completely upends this structure altogether. We're now not only on the remote continent of Lether (located far to the south-east of Genabackis or south-west of Seven Cities and Quon Tali), but we're also back in time, with the events of this novel taking place some time before the events of Gardens of the Moon. In fact, you could read Midnight Tides as a stand-alone fantasy novel, as its connections to the rest of the series are, at this point anyway, slight.

Midnight Tides is more traditional, in some respects, than the earlier books in the series. We have two factions, the Tiste Edur and the Kingdom of Lether, with protagonists and antagonists in both camps. Our main POV character is Trull Sengar, a Tiste Edur warrior with a conscience who becomes increasingly concerned over what is happening to his people. Trull is also a link to the rest of the series, as we met Trull at a much later place in his life in House of Chains (and the conceit of the series is that the Tiste Edur storyline of Midnight Tides is being told by Trull to his companion Onrack, although this is not particularly clear - or important - in this novel itself). Other major characters include Udinaas, a Letherii slave who wins the favour of the Tiste Edur ruler; Tehol Beddict, apparently a whimsical madman living in the Letherii capital who is far more than he seems; his brother Brys, the King's Champion; Seren Padac, a traveller, scout and trade factor; and Bugg, Tehol's manservant. It's probably Erikson's most vivid cast assembled so far (which is really saying something) and perhaps his most relatable: with one exception (not made clear until the end of the book) these aren't demigods or Ascendants, but relatively ordinary people dealing in extraordinary circumstances.

Midnight Tides is an enormous book (over 900 pages in paperback) and one that is trying to do a hell of a lot. The primary storyline revolves around the clash between the Tiste Edur and Letherii, a clash of ideologies and beliefs as well as military force. The Letherii have been seen - perhaps too simplistically - as a stand-in for the United States or capitalism in general, a self-described "civilised" nation which destroys the environment, eradicates indigenous cultures and makes everyone subservient to the rule of money, where wealth is the only symbol of worth. The Tiste Edur are not shown as being inherently better (Erikson, an anthropologist and archaeologist, thankfully avoids the "noble savage" trope with some skill), particularly their tendency to take slaves and engage in ritual combat at merest hint of disrespect, but there is something to be said for their much more straightforward honesty compared to the two-faced cynicism of the Letherii. Standing outside this is the Crippled God (another link to the rest of the series), who decides to barge in and get involved to manipulate events for his own benefit.

The result is a busy and (relatively) fast-paced book. Some of Erikson's more characteristic tics, such as characters stopping in the middle of a major battle to exchange philosophical one-liners, are present and correct, but there isn't really enough time for these to bog down the narrative, as is occasionally threatened in other volumes. Instead the book keeps building the tension and narrative layer by layer, chapter by chapter, as we rotate between the Tiste Edur frontier, events in Letheras and elsewhere.

Midnight Tides is also a bizarrely funny book. Of Erikson's numerous fantasy cities, Letheras is probably the closest to Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork, with its subsidence problems and slightly preposterous murder rate. The comic elements come to the fore in the story of Tehol and Bugg, as Tehol realises the only way to really destroy Lether is from inside its banking system, and the (apparently) hapless Bugg helps him to this end. Cue lots of financial skulduggery, plans-within-plans, political intrigue and the increasingly unpleasant details of Tehol's diet and wardrobe emerge. Given the story can get quite grim elsewhere, the laughs in this storyline come as a welcome relief. That's not to say that Tehol's story is disposable - very far from it - but it allows for some well-handled tonal variance.

The book does falter with a slightly redundant storyline in which one of the female characters suffers a sexual assault during a battle. Erikson already covered this story in Deadhouse Gates and did a sterling job of it, presenting the ramifications of physical and sexual abuse on a character in a realistic manner that was well-explored and informed the story without it feeling exploitative. Here the story point is handled very briefly, written off quite quickly (with magic used to take away the psychological damage) and feels almost entirely redundant to both the story and character. Erikson is one of the egalitarian of fantasy authors with well-realised male and female characters, so this feels like a (fortunately) rare misstep on this score (the last in the series until Dust of Dreams) rather than a major problem, but it's still a regrettable move.

Beyond that, the book's biggest weakness might be its awkward placement in the series: Midnight Tides sets up the events of The Bonehunters (where the events of this novel come into conflict with the wider Malazan world) and, most especially, Reaper's Gale, and several of its story threads continue into those books. For that reason, I'd hesitate to recommend reading Midnight Tides by itself (as the sequels won't make any sense unless you've read the first four books as well, and if you read this book you'd then have to double-back and read the other books before being able to press on with the sequels) despite it's stand-alone feel.

Midnight Tides (****½) isn't quite up to the standards of the best volumes in the series, Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice, but it isn't far off. It's an epic fantasy novel with heart and brains, an intelligent deconstruction of capitalist ideology but also an action-packed war story with philosophical musings. It is available now in the UK and USA.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The world is reeling under the advent of a new Fifth Season, one that threatens to destroy civilisation altogether. Essun and her daughter Nassun are both aware that the return of the long-lost Moon may help resolve the crisis, but their goals are diametrically opposed. With Essun's community recovering from a brutal military confrontation and Nassun's mentor critically ill, both will have to overcome great obstacles to reach their goal...and each other.

Concluding a trilogy when the first two volumes have been acclaimed as the finest fantasy novels of the decade, won a multitude of awards and been optioned for television is a bit of an undertaking, but one that N.K. Jemisin has pulled off with an aplomb. The Stone Sky concludes the Broken Earth trilogy, a post-apocalyptic fantasy of the "Dying Earth" school, set in the far future when the world has become a stranger place where the lines between sorcery, magic and science have become blurred by tens of thousands of years of progress.

The previous volume in the series, The Obelisk Gate, left our characters in difficult predicaments. The Stone Sky soon sets them on their way to a final confrontation where the fate of the world will be decided. So far, so standard. But The Stone Sky isn't your standard fantasy novel. The final confrontation is a clash of ideas and perspectives informed by the well-developed characters and their experiences, not a rote clash of armies (which arguably we got in The Obelisk Gate anyway).

Instead, The Stone Sky is a surprisingly quiet novel. The principle action unfolds through conversations between the characters and through lengthy flashback sequences revealing how the Earth lost the Moon in the first place and how the highly advanced civilisation which caused the Shattering fell from grace. Woven through this is a theme of intolerance: the orogenes of the present-day story being outcast and persecuted for being Other, but also used for their power. This is echoed by events in the flashback story, where entire races are enslaved and persecuted out of fear, but then used for their power.

The Stone Sky, as with the rest of the trilogy, explores powerful themes of disempowerment, slavery and fear of the unknown, but also wraps an interesting and gripping narrative, all built on some very accomplished worldbuilding. This mix of atmosphere, character, theme and story is excellently-handled and recalls the best work of Ursula K. Le Guin: a book where all of the individual pieces that went into making it complement one another and deliver a novel that is far more than the some of its parts.

The novel is not quite perfect. Like The Obelisk Gate, the pace sags on occasion and this is made more noticeable by the lengthy flashbacks to the Shattering. These flashbacks are interesting and beautifully-written, but only reveal a moderate amount of new information not previously given in dialogue. The book isn't quite the equal of The Fifth Season in its pacing and story structure, although the difference is not too egregious.

Overall, The Stone Sky (****½) ends one of the finest fantasy series of recent years in final form, wrong-footing expectations and building on the accomplishments of the first two books in the series. It is available now in the UK and USA.

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 7: The Trolloc Wars

A map of the major engagements of the Trolloc Wars. Please click for a larger version.

The Trolloc Wars
Around 1000 AB, reports came from the far north of increasing Trolloc raids through the Mountains of Dhoom. The Ogier-built city of Barsine in Jaramide was besieged and destroyed by a vast horde of Shadowspawn, the first sign that what was happening was more than normal raiding and skirmishing.

Vast Trolloc hordes erupted from the Great Blight, invading through the narrow mountain passes and the wider pass of Tarwin's Gap, between the Spine of the World and the Mountains of Dhoom. Jaramide stood fast and drove back the assaults in the west, but Aramaelle suffered a massive invasion in the east. Despite heavy fighting, the capital city of Mafal Dadaranell came under attack and fell, the Shadowspawn burning the city to the ground and leaving no trace of it behind.

The Ten Nations rallied. Distant nations raised fresh armies and sent them into the fray, but the response was initially piecemeal and unfocused. The Shadowspawn were also accompanied by Dreadlords, Darkfriends who could channel the One Power. They could only be checked by Aes Sedai, and the Aes Sedai were not numerous enough or trained in combat (outside of the Green Ajah) to meet every threat.

Early fighting was centred in Aramaelle, as the Shadow poured fresh troops through Tarwin's Gap. The capital had fallen and its other cities came under heavy attack, but the nation was vast and help was arriving from other nations. Tar Valon was also close by, allowing the Aes Sedai to deploy channellers to act against the Shadow. Despite this, the Shadow's superior numbers won out. After some years into the conflict, Aramaelle collapsed and soon the Shadows armies were surging into Almoren in the south and Coremanda and Aridhol in the south-west. Tar Valon itself was directly attacked and had to pull its forces back to the island. It is likely that the first (of an eventual four) major offensives against Tar Valon was launched at this time but was defeated. Jaramide also came under concerted attack, but managed to stand fast.

Despite the sieges of Tar Valon and the fall of Aramaelle, the nations held their ground. Every city, town or village lost was only at a high cost in Trolloc blood, far higher than those of the defenders, whom the Trollocs frequently outnumbered by as much as twenty or thirty to one. But the Trollocs bred as fast as they died, and the Trollocs rallied under the sudden appearance of a new commander, a dark and evil figure they called "Heart of the Dark", Ba’alzamon in the Old Tongue. It was later confirmed that Ba’alzamon was in reality the Forsaken Ishamael. It seems that the precautions Ishamael took against being imprisoned in Shayol Ghul along with the rest of the Forsaken were working only sporadically, on a timescale of centuries or millennia. Ishamael seems to have managed to free himself from Shayol Ghul for a period of about forty years before being pulled back and imprisoned again, but during that time his leadership proved of critical assistance to the Shadowspawn armies.

By now, the surviving nations had refined their military arts. Rather than face Trolloc armies head-on, as had been done previously, they now used skirmish techniques, luring the Trollocs into an area where cavalry and archers could attack from the flanks or the rear. Immense traps were laid, and Aes Sedai wielding the One Power inflicted great damage upon the enemy.

The Fall of Aridhol
But despite this the Trollocs moved on. By 1150 AB their armies had crossed the River Haevin and were making inroads into Aridhol. The Aridholian army was doing its best to keep them at bay, but was too badly outnumbered for even the new tactics to have much effect. It was during this time that the beleaguered King Balwen Mayel accepted the advice of a new counsellor, Mordeth. Mordeth suggested using the tactics of the Shadow against it, destroying them with hatred. As a result Aridhol became hard and unyielding, cold and uncaring for its allies. By now all of the nations had learned that using mercy against Shadowspawn was useless, but Aridhol took its ruthlessness to new extremes, slaughtering everyone who surrendered to them. Harsh capital punishment was meted out in the cities for even the smallest infractions, making the people bitter and resentful.

King Thorin of Manetheren sent his son Prince Caar to win Aridhol back to the Light, but Mordeth whispered poison in King Balwen’s ear, and Caar and his men were arrested as Darkfriends and sentenced to death. They managed to escape, but all were killed except Caar, who lost a hand in the battle. He fled upriver and eventually came to Jaramide, where he met a woman named Rhea (it is not clear if she was a commoner or a lady or princess of that nation). They fell in love and wed, and had a son, Aemon.

In the meantime, believing his son dead, King Thorin led the army of Manetheren to destroy Aridhol in vengeance, but when they arrived they found the city dark and empty. The evil that Mordeth had unleashed in Aridhol had become manifest and consumed every living soul in the city. How he accomplished this, by an angreal or otherwise, is unclear (although some believe Mordeth may have visited the enigmatic Tower of Ghenjei, which lay within Aridhol's borders, and bartered with the mysterious denizens of the tower for power). What is known is that a dark, forbidding mist swirled through the ruins for over two thousand years, consuming all who come near it. This mist was called Mashadar. The Manetheren army departed and Aridhol became known as Shadar Logoth, "Where the Shadow Waits". When he returned home Thorin learned that Caar still lived, but he was content to live with Rhea in the town of Aleth-loriel, which later fell to the Trollocs, with Caar and Rhea both dying under mysterious circumstances, forming the basis for a great tragedy still told by gleemen and court bards today. His son, Aemon, came to Manetheren and his grandfather raised him as his heir.

The Fall of Manetheren
Several decades later, Prince Caar’s son Aemon became King of Manetheren. His wife was Eldrene ay Ellan ay Carlan, an Aes Sedai of exceptional strength and skill. They led their nation as a formidable team, Aemon as a general and soldier of renown and Eldrene as a statesman and ruler of the home front. The strategic position at this time (c. 1200 AB) was increasingly desperate: Aramaelle, Aridhol and possibly Almoren had fallen; Jaramide and Coremanda were under concerted attack; and Tar Valon had already faced several sieges. Despite this, news of a large Shadowspawn army moving south with its flank exposed to Manetheren was something Aemon could not ignore. He took the bulk of Manetheren’s army and destroyed the Shadowspawn force at the Battle of the Field of Bekkar, the Field of Blood.

But this battle was a feint. Word came from the north of a vast Shadowspawn horde, one of the largest seen in the war, moving south through fallen Aridhol towards Manetheren itself. King Aemon force-marched his army back home. He was unable to gain the Arinelle before the leading elements of the Shadow forces had already crossed the river and secured a bridgehead, so he fell back on the next defensive line: the River Tarendrelle. Two large bridges crossed the Tarendrelle and Aemon resolved to form a new defensive line there.

Word had been sent for aid, to Safer, Aelgar, Eharon and beyond, and even to Tar Valon where Eldrene’s girlhood acquaintance Tetsuan now ruled as Amyrlin Seat. Several of these kingdoms were close enough to send troops by land, and possibly even small forces and Aes Sedai reinforcements by the Ways (the “tunnels” through reality linking the Ogier Waygates together). But Tetsuan harboured a grudge against Eldrene for their childhood together in the White Tower. Eldrene had been accounted more beautiful and stronger in the Power. If she had remained in the Tower, she would probably have been elected Amyrlin instead of Tetsuan. Burning with jealousy, Tetsuan refused to send aid and encouraged several of Manetheren’s allies to also withhold their strength, warning the attack was a ruse designed to weaken their own borders.

Thus, Manetheren’s army faced the Shadow alone. The Battle of the Tarendrelle was a gruelling nine-day engagement where the Manetherenese threw back wave after wave of Shadowspawn as they tried to cross the river, until it ran red with their blood. Initially Manetheren held the east bank, which allowed them to directly fight the Shadow at full strength for nine days. They then fell back to the west bank, firing the bridges behind them, and used missile fire to slaughter Shadowspawn before they could cross. However, the nine-day action on the east bank, although logical given the expected reinforcements, proved to be a mistake. Too many troops had been lost to effectively hold the west bank despite the defensive benefits of the river.

The action gave time for the city of Manetheren to be evacuated. Civilians were sent south and west in great floods, to seek safety in the southern cities of Jara’copan and Shanaine and, when it became clear they would not hold, then Aelgar, Eharon, Safer and other parts of the Ten Nations.

On the eleventh day of combat, the Shadow gained the southern bank of the Tarendrelle. With reinforcements pouring across, King Aemon gave the order to retreat. A running battle lasted for several days, until his surviving forces reached a crossroads to the east of the city of Manetheren. There he made his final stand, holding the Shadow at bay through another full day of battle before he was finally overwhelmed and slain in what became known as the Battle of Aemon’s Field.

At the moment of his death, his wife Eldrene channelled far more of the One Power than was safe or advisable. The torrent of Power obliterated the Shadowspawn army that stood victorious on Aemon’s Field, killing the Dreadlords and Myrddraal accompanying it. The torrent of Power went on and on, consuming not just the Shadowspawn but also the entire city of Manetheren. Eldrene herself was destroyed by the force she had unleashed, but leaving behind no trace of Shadowspawn south of the Tarendrelle. It would be many, many years before the Shadow dared to venture south again, to begin the invasion of Eharon.

For her part in delaying the relief of Manetheren and for sacrificing hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of lives to her own vanity, Tetsuan was deposed from the Amyrlin Seat. She was stilled and put to work as a scullery maid. She died three years later.

So fell Manetheren, most valiant of the Ten Nations. Yet its destruction was not in vain, for the entire civilian population of the city and most of the villages and towns had escaped alive. Later they crept back, finding only scorched ruins where Manetheren City had once lain. On the site of the great battle they founded a new settlement, which they named Aemon’s Field, but Manetheren had been depopulated by the battle and the war, and it never became more than a large village or small town.

The Invasion of Eharon
By the end of the second century of the war Manetheren, Aridhol, Coremanda, Aramaelle and Almoren had all fallen to the Shadow. Tar Valon had been besieged twice and Trolloc armies were rampaging from the Mountains of Mist to the Spine of the World. Yet the new tactics that had been developed slowly began to take effect. Ba'alzamon's disappearance had deprived the Shadow of superior leadership, but many Dreadlords and all the Shadowspawn remained, and it was enough to cause chaos and misery for some time yet.

With Manetheren and Coremanda fallen, the Trolloc hordes could now press south into Eharon, located on the south coast of the continent. The Shadow armies planned to reach the coast of the Sea of the Storms and thus split the continent in two, allowing their armies to isolate and destroy the remaining kingdoms. The offensive was highly successful, with at first the capital as Londaren Cor falling and then Barashta, the kingdom's major port at the mouth of the Eldar, being razed. But, remarkably, Eharon survived. Its leaders managed to evacuate to Dorelle Caromon, the great city at the mouth of the Manetherendrelle, and continue the fight.

The Shadow armies had also overextended themselves in their mad dash southwards, allowing them to be outflanked by other armies and then driven back from Eharon with heavy losses. By this time, the Ten Nation's tactics for dealing with Shadowspawn had become quite efficient and allowed them to defeat Trolloc armies many times their own size.

The Soldier Amyrlin
The Trollocs were thrown back from Eharon and Essenia, and from the fallen lands they had taken, but then a stalemate developed which lasted until around 1251 AB. In this year Rashima Kerenmosa was raised to the Amyrlin Seat from the Green Ajah. Often referred to as the "Soldier Amyrlin", Rashima was extraordinarily strong in the One Power and also possessed a gifted military mind. She personally led the Tower armies into battle, her charisma and charm winning over the surviving nations, which had begun to despair of ever fully defeating the Shadow. Under her leadership the Nations slowly pushed the Trolloc armies back, out of Almoren and Coremanda and further north. It took forty years for the Trollocs to be pushed as far north as Tar Valon, but eventually it was done. In 1290 AB the Trollocs mounted their fourth attack on Tar Valon, bringing almost their entire remaining strength against the island city. Tar Valon very nearly fell, betrayed from within as well as attacked from without, with fierce fighting even within the Tower itself.

As mentioned earlier, renegade Aes Sedai had joined the Shadow to become its new Dreadlords. But it also seems that many Darkfriend Aes Sedai remained secretly hidden within the White Tower, spying and passing their knowledge to the Shadow. This secret sect was referred to as "the Black Ajah" and few Aes Sedai believed in its existence. During the Trolloc attack they emerged to plunge the Tower into chaos, assassinating numerous Aes Sedai and opening one of the gates to the city. The Trollocs poured into the city, burning and looting their way to the White Tower itself. They were delayed by pre-planned defences that turned many of the streets into killing zones, whilst the civilians were able to shelter in fortified basements. Taking the lead, Rashima Kerenmosa slew some of the Black Ajah in combat and rallied the Aes Sedai, unleashing the One Power in vast quantities, bolstered by angreal and sa’angreal from the Tower stores. The Trollocs eventually broke and ran, fearful of being trapped in the city by the advancing armies of the five surviving nations. But the steps of the White Tower ran red with Trolloc, Myrddraal, Aes Sedai and Warder blood, the Tower Library was partially gutted and thousands of civilians lay dead.

Rashima again took to the saddle, leading the forces of the Light northwards. The Trollocs were defeated time and time again, at Kaisin Pass, the Sorelle Step, Larapelle and Tel Norwin, before they came to the field at Maighande.

The histories are in disagreement on the precise location of Maighande, whether it was just a field or a ruined city. It is known that it was the site of the largest battle fought since the War of the Shadow. All of the surviving armies of both the Light and the Shadow gathered at Maighande in 1301 AB. Both sides suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties but, at last, the Trollocs fled, defeated and dejected. Searching the ruins afterwards, a group of Aes Sedai found Rashima Kerenmosa’s body, surrounded by the bodies of her five Warders, a vast wall of Trolloc and Myrddraal bodies and no less than nine Dreadlord corpses.

The Battle of Maighande certainly did not destroy the Trolloc hordes, but it reduced them in number significantly. More importantly, the battle seems to have wiped out almost all of the surviving Dreadlords; certainly the term is never used again after the battle to refer to Shadow forces. Without channelling support, the Shadowspawn became easier prey for any enemy force that attacked with Aes Sedai assistance, greatly simplifying the task of destroying them.

A False Dragon
Perhaps the war would have ended there, had not a new distraction come from the south. Once again, even as the armies massed for battle, the standard of the Dragon Reborn had been raised. Yurian Stonebow was this claimant’s name and, like Raolin Darksbane a millennia earlier, he lay siege to the Stone of Tear in Essenia. Armies rallied and drove Stonebow from the region. Military forces were diverted and sent to capture or kill him.

It took eight years to finally capture Yurian Stonebow. His armies were defeated early on, but he managed to flee. Sometimes he lay low, hiding in barnlofts and haystacks whilst Aes Sedai searched the countryside around him, whilst other times he managed to raise small forces from local towns and farms. He was eventually taken when he attacked a group of Aes Sedai passing through the town he was hiding in, killing three and taking three prisoner. When he was gentled, it seemed he had already started to go mad.

The End of the Ten Nations
This distraction came at a hard price. The Trollocs rallied, though they were so decimated they couldn’t do much more than raid. The war degenerated into a hard slog of guerrilla warfare, removing Shadowspawn and Darkfriends from the countryside one band at a time.

The Trolloc Wars finally ended in 1350 AB. The Ten Nations were exhausted and broken, their armies smashed and their resolve weakened. Some were even unsure what year it was. Cities and towns, no longer defended by their own government, broke away to form smaller kingdoms so they might protect themselves better. The rulers of the surviving countries of Jaramide, Safer, Aelgar, Eharon and Essenia could do nothing to stop them. The war had been won by the Light, but at a very steep price.

The glory of the Ten Nations was lost, soon to become a fading memory. New kingdoms would arise, but they would not be bound as closely as those that came before them. Border wars and larger conflicts would become more frequent. The chances of reaching the heights of the Age of Legends again would fade.

Please note that Parts 8-10 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.

Friday, 16 November 2018

RIP William Goldman

The acclaimed novelist and screenwriter William Goldman has passed away at the age of 87.

Born in Chicago in 1931, Goldman joined the army after graduation and worked as a clerk in the Pentagon until 1954. He wrote short stories as a young man but was constantly rejected. He experienced doubts over his writing ability until he spent time living and working with his brother James, a playwright, and their composer friend John Kander. His confidence restored, Goldman wrote his first novel, The Temple of Gold, in less then three weeks. It was published in 1957.

Goldman began working in Hollywood in 1964, when he was asked to adapt Daniel Keyes' classic science fiction novel Flowers for Algernon into a movie. The film was eventually made as Charly (1968), although Goldman's script was ultimately rejected and replaced. In the meantime Goldman wrote the film Harper (1966), starring Paul Newman, which was a big hit and made his reputation.

Goldman had been fascinated by the true-life story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for years, but had resisted turning the story into a novel, feeling it would take a huge amount of research. He wrote the screenplay for a film version instead, selling it in 1968 for $400,000, a then record-breaking amount of money. The resulting film, released in 1969 starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, was both a critical and commercial smash.

Goldman continued to work in both novels and film. Arguably his best-known novel, the gently comic fantasy The Princess Bride, was published in 1973. He followed this up with the thrillers Marathon Man (1974) and Magic (1976). Marathon Man and Magic were made into films with Goldman penning the screenplays, released in 1976 and 1978 respectively. He also wrote the scripts for The Stepford Wives (1975) and A Bridge Too Far (1977).

In 1974 Goldman was asked by Robert Redford to write a movie script based on the Watergate scandal, drawing on the book All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Goldman agreed, but ran into problems with the real-life journalists involved: Woodward enjoyed helping him research the project, but Bernstein was uninterested in the project and was unhelpful. Once the script was completed, Woodward decided it wasn't good enough and even tried writing his own material (ironically, after complaining about the artifice of dramatising the real events, the only Woodward material that made it into the movie was a scene the journalist completely made up). Goldman wrote further drafts which were eventually filmed, but loathed the experience and later said he'd have happily never taken on the project if he'd known how torturous it was, despite the movie's blanket critical and commercial acclaim on its release in 1976.

Goldman cooled slightly on Hollywood, focusing on novels and non-fiction. His 1983 Hollywood memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade, included his most famous quote about making movies: "Nobody knows anything." After writing several more novels, he was drawn back to Hollywood. His script for The Princess Bride (1987) was well-received, with the movie becoming a beloved classic. Director Rob Reiner asked Goldman to write the script for Misery (1990), an adaptation of a Stephen King short story which was a huge success as well.

In his later career, Goldman worked as a writer and co-writer on movies such as Chaplin (1992), Maverick (1994), Absolute Power (1997), The General's Daughter (1999), Hearts in Atlantis (2001) and Dreamcatcher (2003).

Goldman continued to write non-fiction and speak widely about his career and life, as well as attending games for his beloved New York Knicks (holding a season ticket for all their games for over forty years) until recently. His passing was down to complications from colon cancer and pneumonia.

Goldman's career was remarkable, taking in both accomplished novels and screenplays in a wide variety of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, historical, thrillers, war stories and political dramas. His hit rate was astonishingly high: All the President's Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride and Misery are simply among the greatest Hollywood movies ever made, and Chaplin, The Stepford Wives, Marathon Man and A Bridge Too Far are also all excellent. The quality and consistency of his work may stand unmatched by any other Hollywood scriptwriter. His insights into writing and his constantly self-deprecating whit (describing his Butch & Sundance script and Princess Bride manuscript are being the only two things he'd ever written that didn't make him cringe with embarrassment) also made him an useful guide to the insanity of Hollywood film-making. He will be missed.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Hulu option WILD CARDS for television, put two series into active development

Streaming service Hulu have optioned the rights to George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards superhero universe and are developing two potential TV series based on the setting.

Image result for wild cards

Martin created the Wild Cards setting in the early 1980s, using the roleplaying game Superworld to develop the world and premise. Martin and his initial group of players, many of whom were drawn from his local Santa Fe and Albuquerque writers' groups, created the basic setting and many of the characters were their player-characters from the game. Following the failure of his 1983 novel The Armageddon Rag, Martin moved away from novel writing to focus on a burgeoning Hollywood scripting career but hit on the idea of turning the roleplaying game into a series of short stories and anthologies, a "shared world" as it was then termed.

The first book in the series, Wild Cards, was released in 1987 and promptly sold over 100,000 copies, making it a wild success. Martin and co-editor Melinda Snodgrass (Star Trek: The Next Generation) continued working on the series, bringing in new writers and soliciting new stories from older ones, throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Martin credits the series and its high sales with keeping his name in the eye of publishers, restoring his commercial reputation after The Armageddon Rag and helped pave the way for the publication of A Game of Thrones in 1996. There was a brief pause in the series in the late 1990s and another in the early 2000s as various publishers cycled through the series (which started with Bantam and moved to Baen and then iBooks). Tor Books picked up the series in 2008 with Inside Straight, the first in a "new generation" of books, and more have followed. As of November 2018, 27 books have been published in the series to date with sales in the low millions.

The premise of the series is that, in an alternative 1946, an alien virus is released over New York City. 90% of these infected by the virus die instantly ("Drawing the Black Queen"). 9% are transformed into deformed freaks ("Jokers"). 1% gain amazing superpowers ("Aces"). Smaller outbreaks spread the virus all over the globe. The bulk of the series takes place contemporary to publication date and explores the ramifications of a world where both superpowers and alien races are known to exist.

SyFy (who are launching their own GRRM adaptation, Nightflyers, next month) optioned the series almost a decade ago. Their parent company Universal re-optioned the rights with a view to both film and TV applications, and have now placed the project with Universal Cable Productions and Hulu. Andrew Miller (The Secret Circle) is to act as showrunner and executive producer, with Snodgrass and Martin to act as executive producers.

Martin has an exclusivity deal with HBO, which will be airing the final season of Game of Thrones in April 2019, so his role on the Wild Cards series will be hands-off, with Snodgrass expected to take more of an active oversight role.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018


Pedro Pascal has been cast in the lead role of the first-ever Star Wars live-action TV series, The Mandalorian.

Pascal is a Chilean-American actor who first debuted on American TV in 1999 (most notably playing a vampire in a fourth season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). He hit the big time in 2014 when he was cast as Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper of Dorne, in HBO's Game of Thrones. Off the back of that role he was cast as police detective Javier Pena in Netflix's Narcos. He played the role in the first three seasons of the series, attracting critical acclaim.

Pascal is set to play a Mandalorian warrior in the new TV series, which is set seven years after the events of Return of the Jedi and twenty-three years before the events of The Force Awakens. Not much else is known about the series, although early set photographs suggest that the action will partially take place on a desert planet with architecture highly reminiscent of Tatooine.

Reportedly Pascal has not yet started shooting, although publicity images have already been released showing a Mandalorian warrior on set. Presumably this was done with a stand-in either for early shooting or expressly for publicity purposes.

Iron Man director Jon Favreau is writing and producing the first season with The Clone Wars and Rebels writer-producer Dave Filoni lending a hand (and directing the first episode).

The Mandalorian will debut on the new streaming service Disney+, probably in the latter part of 2019. Lucasfilm are also planning a prequel mini-series to the film Rogue One, with Diego Luna set to reprise his role of Cassian Andor from that film.

Monday, 12 November 2018

RIP Stan Lee

Stan Lee, the creative powerhouse behind Marvel Comics and the creator or co-creator of most of its most iconic characters, has died at the age of 95.

Born Stanley Lieber in New York City in 1922 and raised in the Bronx, he started working for Timely Comics in 1939, at the age of just 16. He initially worked as a runner and general office dogsbody, whose first responsibility was making sure the artists' inkwells did not run dry. He made his writing debut with the text-filler story "Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge" in Captain America #3 (1941). He harboured ambitions of writing the Great American Novel, so decided to use a pseudonym for comics: Stan Lee. Lee moved up to writing actual comic strips shortly thereafter, but his comics career was put on hold when he entered the US Army in 1942, serving in the Signal Corps.

After the conclusion of WWII, Lee returned to Timely as interim editor and worked at the publisher throughout the 1950s. However, in the late 1950s Lee had become disillusioned with the form and considered switching careers. He was saved when DC Comics, who were undergoing a creative dip, abruptly switched gears and revived the superhero genre with titles such as The Flash and Justice League. Lee's boss at Atlas Comics, as Timely had become known, asked Lee to come up with a superhero team to compete. Lee was dubious but his wife Joan urged him to "take a risk" since he was planning to quit anyway. Lee responded immediately, co-creating (with artist Jack Kirby) The Fantastic Four, whose first issue debuted in November 1961, just after Atlas Comics was rebranded as Marvel. This was rapidly followed by The Incredible Hulk (May 1962), Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963), the X-Men (September 1963), Galactus and the Silver Surfer (March 1966) and Black Panther (July 1966). Working with artist Steve Ditko, Lee created Doctor Strange (July 1963) and, with Bill Everett, Daredevil (April 1964). Lee also successfully resurrected characters from Timely's heyday, including Sub-Mariner and Captain America. In September 1963 Lee teamed up several of his characters as a supergroup called The Avengers.

In the midst of this period, Lee and Ditko created what would be their most popular and enduring character: in August 1962 they debuted Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15. The character was so popular and immediately iconic that he quickly got his own title, and was soon as well-known and famous as Batman and Superman. Lee's approach was to give his characters relatable lives, with them getting into trouble at school, having problems with their parents and having relationship problems, which young people could relate to, unlike the remote and less-relatable Batman and Superman. Marvel Comics also cultivated a rock and roll underground image, making them far "cooler" than stuffy DC. Marvel also had a friendlier, more informal image, encouraging fans to write to "Stan" rather than "the Editor" and sharing stories from the office to make fans feel part of the creative process. By the start of the 1970s, Marvel had overtaken DC and become an impressive creative powerhouse for both Lee's characters and those of other writers.

Lee's fecund imagination outstripped the time available to actually write the comic scripts, so he collaborated closely with the artists, who often came up with important characteristics of the characters and made important storytelling decisions through the art, with Lee coming in after the artwork was complete to add dialogue. Lee innovated by introducing detailed credit panels, making sure that the writer, editor, artist, inker and letterer for each story was clearly identified.

Lee took on the Comics Code Authority in 1971, a regular for comics which Marvel had run afoul of several times for its content. The story that caused the situation to blow up was a Spider-Man narrative in which a friend of Peter Parker's becomes addicted to pills. The story had a strong anti-drugs message, but the CCA refused to approve the story. Lee published anyway. The resulting strong sales made the CCA all but irrelevant, paving the way for the darker, edgier and more adult comics of the 1980s.

Lee's last major creations for Marvel, alongside Gene Colan, were Captain Marvel (December 1967) and Falcon (September 1969), the first African-American superhero. Following the comics code kerfuffle, Lee retired from active comics writing to focus on publisher and also on moving Marvel into film, although he did occasionally return to pen the odd issue.

Lee stopped working on the comics side of Marvel altogether in the 1990s, following Hollywood projects which had resulted in a solid Incredible Hulk series but disappointing versions of Captain America, Thor and Spider-Man. The TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) was the first time that Lee appeared in a cameo role in a Marvel movie or TV show. In 1995 he had a significant role playing himself in Kevin Smith's movie Mallrats, using superhero stories to help advise on the protagonists' terrible love lives. It was in the first X-Men movie (2000) that the tradition of giving Lee a cameo in every Marvel-related project began, with Lee going on to appear in almost every Marvel movie and TV show put onto film.

It may have taken a while, but Marvel Comics finally hit the big time at the cinema with Blade (1998), followed by X-Men (2000) and then Spider-Man (2002), each film launching a successful movie series. Fantastic Four (2005) was less successful, but it was the arrival of Iron Man (2008) that had the biggest impact, kick-starting the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To date, the MCU has produced twenty movies collectively grossing more than $17.5 billion at the box office and more in video game and television spin-offs.

Lee's life was not without controversy. Jack Kirby disputed Lee's role in the creation of some of their most iconic characters and bristled at the tendency for Lee to hog the limelight and drown out the contributions of the artists. Lee was also engaged in multiple lawsuits over character copyrights and attributions, although most of these were eventually resolved.

Stan Lee was, arguably, one of the most influential and impactful writers of the second half of the 20th Century, challenged for that mantle only by George Lucas, J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen King (and, depending on how you count it, J.K. Rowling). His incredible decade-long creative explosion at Marvel Comics resulted in the creation of dozens and dozens of the most iconic characters ever seen in the field of graphic novels, who have more recently switched to cinema and television, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe being the most successful and dominant movie franchise of the early 21st Century. Lee, alongside a collaborative group of exceptional artists, shifted the perception of comics as an art form and paved the way for writers from Neil Gaiman to George R.R. Martin to Alan Moore.

A titan of the field of comics, with a body of work that is impossible to ignore, Stan Lee will be missed.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 6: After the Breaking

A map of the Ten Nations which endured between the Breaking of the World and the Trolloc Wars. Please click for a larger version.

After the Breaking
As the Breaking of the World entered its period of greatest intensity, many people living in the port cities fled on boats, planning to ride out the cataclysm entirely. Given the excellent construction and huge sizes of boats in the Age of Legends, and their relative lack of use in the War of the Shadow, they achieved this goal. Huge flotillas of ships gathered in the seas off the coasts, watching as the lands crumbled or new islands reared up from below. As the Breaking lessened and the storm clouds cleared, these people made landfall on the new islands that had appeared further south, on the equator. But, though they built cities here, their hearts had been lost to the sea, and it was to the sea that they returned. The great ships of the Age of Legends gradually fell apart, the secrets of their construction lost, and all eventually sank to the bottom of the ocean, but these island-dwellers built others made of wood, though smaller.

Thus began the civilisation of the Atha’an Miere, "The People of the Sea", more commonly called the Sea Folk. Theirs is the oldest civilisation in the whole world, forged during the Breaking itself. From their distant islands they spread to the ones nearer the continents, to the islands today called Qaim, Cindaking, Tremalking and the Aile Somera, Aile Jafar and Aile Dashar (though it seems that the Aile Dashar, lying to the west of the Blighted Lands, were later abandoned). The Sea Folk returned to the sea, trading with the mainland cities and exploring distant oceans, but some chose to remain on the islands, becoming known as the Amayar. A distinct race (usually shorter and fairer than the Sea Folk), the Amayar followed a semi-pacifistic code of honour known as the Water Way and came to believe that life was an illusion, a gateway to a higher plane. Despite their odd beliefs (to the Sea Folk), the Amayar also proved to be gifted craftspeople and made superb works of art out of porcelain, which they gave to the Sea Folk to trade.

On the mainland, the city of Tear grew in size and from it settlers emerged to found new towns and cities. Near the new west coast of the continent another great city was founded, Mainelle (now called Tanchico), which grew around three great peninsulas extending into the ocean.

As new cities and towns arose, the Da’shain Aiel made their way slowly eastwards. Within the first few decades After the Breaking (AB) they had reached a towering mountain range which the locals called the Spine of the World, or the Dragonwall. The locals gave the Aiel food, water and shelter, the first people in a long time not to curse them or spit on their name. The Aiel remembered their kindness, and vowed one day to repay it. The locals told them they planned to move further west, to the banks of a great river, and there found a city. This they did a few years later, forging the city of Al’cair’rahienallen. The Aiel, meanwhile, became divided as they crossed the mountains. One group, tired of the wandering, broke off and headed back into the new lands to the west. They remembered the One Song they had sung in the Age of Legends, and vowed to find it again. The other Da’shain disavowed them for breaking their oath to serve the Aes Sedai, and afterwards called them "The Lost". The exiles wandered back across the land, remaining true to the Way of the Leaf no matter what provocation was thrown at them. After a while they gained a new name, the Tuatha’an or "Travelling People". They travelled in multicoloured wagons and made a living fixing pots and pans for the villagers they visited. For this they gained the nickname "Tinkers".

As they travelled the Aiel began to become divided. Some forsook the Way of the Leaf and took up the spear to defend their people. To the east of the Dragonwall lay a vast, scorched land of burning heat and no rain. To survive in such a hard land, the Aiel had to become hard themselves. The Way of the Leaf had no purpose here. Soon those willing to wield the spear outnumbered those who remained faithful to the Way of the Leaf. These last remaining faithful Aiel became known as the Jenn Aiel, the True Aiel. The Aes Sedai travelling with them, the last Aes Sedai, it seems, alive from before the Breaking, despaired, but at last they reached what they judged to be a worthy location: a valley under a great mountain, which they called Chaendaer. In this valley they began building a huge city, Rhuidean, and within its walls they stored the ter’angreal they had brought with them from Paaran Disen, centuries ago. They also planted one of their chora cuttings, and the first chora tree since before the Breaking grew. They called it Avendesora, "The Tree of Life". In the Age of Legends chora trees lined every major avenue and street in every city in the world. Now only one was left, though many more seeds endured.

But the journey had been too tiring. One by one the Aes Sedai dwindled and died. Soon only two were left. Whilst the Jenn laboured on their city, the other Aiel had spread out, forming septs and then clans. These clans fought one another even as they fought outlanders, people who came across the Dragonwall to explore, or to trade. Then the last Aes Sedai summoned the Aiel leaders to them. They told them that within Rhuidean they had prepared special ter’angreal which contained the complete history of the Aiel race, from before the drilling of the Bore to the present day. Aiel warriors wishing to become clan chiefs, or Aiel women wishing to wield to become Wise Ones (both Aiel channellers and women of wisdom), would go into Rhuidean and enter that ter’angreal. Only when they had faced the truth and survived it could they take up their assigned roles. Before they died, the Aes Sedai left a prophecy behind them. One day a man would come from Rhuidean with the dawn at his back. He would be the Car’a’carn, the Chief of Chiefs. He would take the Aiel back across the Dragonwall, where he would forge them anew into one people, the strongest nation in the world. But he would then destroy them, shattering them on the bedrock of history forever. Yet, only under his rule would a remnant of a remnant of the Aiel survive to see the dawn of a new Age. The Aiel would know the Car’a’carn when he came marked with two dragon-serpents on his arms.

The Aes Sedai perished and, within a few generations, so did the Jenn. Rhuidean was never completed and never occupied, becoming a testament to the history of the Jenn and the Da'shain Aiel. The Aiel splintered into twelve clans which battled amongst themselves, but always they sent clan chiefs and Wise Ones to Rhuidean, so the true history of the Aiel race would remain with them, and they would never forget the oaths they had broken (though only the Wise Ones and clan chiefs knew this history; they did not share it with their fellows).

Meanwhile, in the lands to the west of the Dragonwall things were settling down. Separated by the Breaking, those women able to channel the One Power came together again in a great conference to decide on their fate. Around sixteen major factions of these "Aes Sedai" had formed and countless dozens of smaller groups as well. This conference took place in 47 AB (the earliest known definitive date we have access to). By the end of the conference these factions had melded together to become the ancestors of the modern Aes Sedai. The founding factions maintained their individuality by forming ajah, groups dedicated to one particular ideal or purpose. In the Age of Legends ajah were temporary voting blocs, but these ajah quickly became rigid and unflinching in their outlook on life. The first vote they took was the decision to build a new base of operations. By now they knew that Dragonmount marked the last resting place of the Dragon and, to remind themselves that one day he would be Reborn, they decided to build their new city in sight of the mountain. They quickly found an ideal spot, a two-mile wide, eight-mile-long island in the midst of a great river, the Erinin. They sent representatives to distant parts of the subcontinent, seeking stonemasons and builders of great skill to forge their city for them.

During the Breaking most, if not all, of the Ogier fled their stedding as the chaos and destruction grew. The longer they stayed away from the stedding, the more they felt a desire to return. Eventually this desire, the Longing, as they called it, began to kill them if not satisfied. In the end, they did rediscover the stedding before too many died, but now the Longing came upon them again if they left for too long, killing them if they did not return. After the Breaking the Ogier discovered they could carve stone almost as well as they could sing seeds or transform wood with their voices alone. Thus, when the Aes Sedai looked for builders for their city, they looked for the Ogier.

Half a century passed between the unification of the Aes Sedai and the beginning of the construction of their new base. During this period they tracked down other, smaller groups claiming to be Aes Sedai and joined forces with them, forcibly at times. On a few unfortunate occasions the false Aes Sedai resisted, and some were killed or stilled. By 98 AB the Aes Sedai were whole. Also by this time the sixteen original ajah had coalesced into the seven Ajah of the present day, the Blue, Green, Yellow, Brown, Grey, White and the Red. Respectively these Ajah were concerned with politics and causes, battling Shadowspawn, recovering Healing and other lost Talents, seeking out knowledge and wisdom, mediating disputes, dealing with problems using pure logic and actively tracking down men who could channel and gentling them.

By around 90 AB the Aes Sedai organisation was taking shape. Elisane Tishar had been selected as the Aes Sedai supreme leader, the Amyrlin Seat. She had a council of seven advising her, one from each Ajah, and this council was called the Hall of the Tower, since it had already been decided that the actual centre of Aes Sedai power would be a huge tower at the heart of the city, which they had decided to call Tar Valon. As more and more women joined the Aes Sedai, so the Hall of the Tower expanded, eventually reaching its present size of twenty-one, with three Sitters from each of the Ajahs.

Construction of Tar Valon began in 98 AB, with the first buildings erected meant to house the Aes Sedai and the girls they were recruiting for training. Whilst the Ogier built most of the city, they could not do everything by themselves and normal human workers were brought in to build two immense harbours at the opposite ends of the island, Northharbour and Southharbour. Using the One Power, the Aes Sedai aided the Ogier in constructing the White Tower, their planned headquarters. The White Tower is the largest building on our continent, if not the world (although the Seanchan boast of larger buildings in Seandar), stretching some 600 feet into the sky and being more than 300 feet wide at the base, tapering to the 200-foot-wide top. Two additional wings were constructed to serve as additional living quarters, whilst a separate library was built at the rear, soon becoming the greatest repository of knowledge and wisdom in the known world. The Ajahs were based in the top half of the Tower, whilst the Amyrlin Seat’s offices lay about the midsection. The lower floors served as teaching rooms, kitchens and meeting places.

The White Tower was completed by around 195 AB and Tar Valon itself was finished in 202 AB. Though not the first city to be raised after the Breaking - Tear and maybe Mainelle (Tanchico) predate it - it was certainly the most glorious. No city would arise to challenge Tar Valon’s beauty until Londaren Cor was built (reportedly by the same Ogier stonemasons) some decades later and even that is heavily disputed (most impartial judges still cite Tar Valon as the more impressive). But no one city has ever gained the sheer prestige and power of being the home of the Aes Sedai.

A map of the White Tower in Tar Valon. Please click for a larger version.

The Founding of the Ten Nations
Whilst towns and villages had emerged even before the Breaking had fully subsided, and cities within a few decades after that, nations and countries did not begin appearing until a full century later. The Breaking depopulated the entire world, of course, and it would have been some time before population growth and expansion meant that it was necessary to create new kingdoms. But, by 209 AB at least, ten countries had emerged on the new continent.

This new land, born out of the Breaking, was - and still is - bordered by the Aryth Ocean to the west, the Sea of Storms to the south and the Spine of the World mountains to the east. More ominously, to the north lay a poisonous waste called the Great Blight. This was the successor to the Blighted Lands, the corrupted wastelands that formed around Shayol Ghul during the Age of Legends. Shayol Ghul itself had remained standing throughout the Breaking and now stood alone and threatening, several hundred miles north of the jagged peaks of the Mountains of Dhoom. Myrddraal, Darkhounds, Trollocs, Draghkar and even jumara (now called Worms and, fortunately, incapable of transforming out of the pupae stage) had survived the Breaking and dwelt in the Blight, sometimes launching raids into the lands immediately to the south. However, the Shadowspawn had suffered just as badly as humans and Ogier in the Breaking and lay quiet, only a minor threat, for many centuries.

Off the west coast lay three island chains belonging to the Sea Folk, the Aile Dashar, the Aile Somera and the Aile Jafar. At some point the Sea Folk abandoned the Aile Dashar, presumably due to its proximity to the Great Blight. Off the south-western coast lay the huge island of Tremalking, the largest isle belonging to the Sea Folk (but not their capital, as it is often mistakenly called). To the east of this island lay two others, Qaim and Cindaking. Beyond the Dragonwall lay a vast, inhospitable wasteland inhabited by a strange warrior-folk called the Aiel. Thus, it became known as the Aiel Waste. The Aiel were quite efficient in killing all outlanders who entered the Waste (apart from Tinkers, gleemen and merchants), so it was unclear what lay beyond it. Eventually the Sea Folk admitted the existence of another land, larger than the Westlands (as the people of the east refer to our subcontinent), variously called Kigali, Co’dansin, Shibouya and Shamara, among others. The most common name was and remains Shara. Shara had apparently been quite efficiently unified into one nation shortly after the end of the Breaking, but had no interest in conquering the Aiel Waste or our land. The Sea Folk undertook trade with them and, eventually, the Aiel agreed to let peddlers and small caravans cross the Waste to trade with the Sharans as well. The Sharans limited their "exposure" to our influences, insisting that the Sea Folk only call at five specially-built ports along their southern coast and the Aiel and westerners trade at six custom-built trade towns along the tops of the towering Cliffs of the Dawn.

What lay beyond the Aryth Ocean and the Sea of Storms? Only the Sea Folk in their great ships could traverse these huge seas, and many were lost. Eventually Sea Folk explorers returned home with reports of a land far to the south where primitive savages slaughtered one another with the One Power and with blades. These people were hostile, maddened and, it seems, completely uninterested in trade or even peaceful contact. Only recently have the Sea Folk revealed the existence of this continent to mainlanders. The Sea Folk dubbed this land "The Land of the Madmen" and refused to return there. A few ships which returned from the west claimed that only the "Isles of the Dead" lay there, lands of darkness and war where hideous monsters roamed and fought one another and the few humans who lived there.

So, within our land it came to pass that ten great nations arose. These nations were: Jaramide and Aramaelle in the north, along the Great Blight; Safer and Aelgar, on the Aryth Ocean; Eharonand Essenia in the south, on the Sea of Storms; Almoren in the east, along the Spine of the World; Manetheren and Aridhol, to the east of the Mountains of Mist; and Coremanda in the centre of the subcontinent.

All of these nations grew from city-states. Sometimes the cities allied for mutual benefit, other times they conquered one another and grew stronger, eventually becoming countries. Eventually their borders met those of the other nations. A few small wars broke out (the most brutal between Safer and Manetheren), but the rapidly-growing Aes Sedai mediated such disputes and settled their conflicts.

In 209 AB all of the rulers of these nations travelled to Tar Valon for a conference hosted by the Aes Sedai. With the world finally free of the Breaking, the Aes Sedai suggested that humankind should attempt to recover the lost glories of the Age of Legends. This they could do only by working together and living in peace (under the guidance, if not leadership, of the Aes Sedai, naturally). Thus was signed the Covenant of the Ten Nations, also called the Compact and the Second Covenant. This bound the Ten Nations together in peaceful alliance and mutual trade.

The Covenant of the Ten Nations lasted approximately 1,150 years and enriched all ten of the nations. Borders were open and taxes were light. Social graces and the arts flourished without the near-constant threat of the Breaking of the World and the War of the Shadow before it. Under these peaceful circumstances the Aes Sedai made significant strides in recovering many lost Talents and forms of the Power from before the Breaking. It was during this period that the Aes Sedai started bonding Warders, that is using the One Power to bond themselves to warriors who would serve as bodyguards. The rulers of the Ten Nations had initially been unsure how they could trust the Aes Sedai; in response the Aes Sedai swore the Three Oaths, using a ter’angreal known as the Oath Rod. The Three Oaths were bound into their souls and could not be broken any more than they could stop breathing. The Three Oaths were (and still are): to speak no word that is not true, to make no weapon with which one man may kill another, and not to use the One Power to do violence except against Shadowspawn, in the defence of one’s life, the life of a Warder or that of another Aes Sedai.

Relations between the nations and Tar Valon were excellent. All rulers had several Aes Sedai advisors and on several occasions Aes Sedai actually ruled nations. Queen Mabriam en Shareed of Aramaelle, who signed the Covenant for her country and was apparently instrumental in convincing the other rulers to sign, was Aes Sedai of the Green Ajah. Several other Aes Sedai also ruled countries between the signing and the end of the Covenant. Other kings married their Aes Sedai advisors. Yet Tar Valon was careful not to be seen treating these women with any favouritism, or manipulating them in any way.

Due to the Tower’s friendly relations with all the nations, they saw that all were made aware of the Prophecies of the Dragon. These prophecies, collected in a book known as The Karaethon Cycle, foretold the return of the Dark One and the Rebirth of the Dragon to fight against it. These prophecies were taken mainly from Aes Sedai Foretellings, but some also came from Dreamings, from Aes Sedai who could walk in Tel’aran’rhiod, the World of Dreams, and see hints of the future. All rulers were made aware - sometimes forcibly - of these prophecies. Many nations, fearful of panic should this news leak out, banned or proscribed the book, but all rulers had to read it and be aware of the signs of the Dragon Reborn’s coming. These signs included the fall of the Stone of Tear to him and "The People of the Dragon," his seizure of a crown made of swords, his branding with the signs of two herons and two dragons, and his mending of "the forgotten sign." Most of these prophecies were vague and could be interpreted in many ways, but one thing was clear. Without the Dragon Reborn, the world would fall into Shadow. With him, it would be destroyed again in a new Breaking, but a few at least would survive.

Despite this unease, these centuries were mostly peaceful, but exceptions occurred. The northern nations of Aramaelle and Jaramide often fought skirmishes and suffered raids from Shadowspawn erupting out of the Great Blight, whilst on occasion the eastern nations of Aramaelle, Almoren and Essenia found themselves exchanging raids and counter-raids with the Aiel clans whose lands bordered the Spine of the World. But the first major conflict did not take place until 335 AB. In this year a man named Raolin Darksbane discovered he could channel the One Power. Unable to accept the fact that he was doomed to go mad and die pointlessly, he proclaimed himself the Dragon Reborn and won many followers to his side. He led an army to Essenia, planning to seize the Stone of Tear, but despite a lengthy siege he never did. The Aes Sedai realised he was an impostor and denounced him as a false Dragon. The Ten Nations rallied against him and he was captured, taken to Tar Valon and gentled. His followers attacked the White Tower itself in an attempt to free him, but failed.

Sometime during this period the first legends of the Horn of Valere appeared. The Horn of Valere baffles both Aes Sedai and historians. It is clearly closely tied to the Wheel of Time and possibly Tel’aran’rhiod as well, but it is not, as far as can be determined, an angreal of any sort. The Horn also does not appear in any records of the Age of Legends, suggesting it was made during the Breaking of the World or not long after. The Horn, it is said, can summon the dead heroes of the Ages back to the corporeal world for a while, to fight or to talk to the living. The Prophecies of the Dragon state that the Horn of Valere will be used at the Last Battle against the Dark One, though it is unclear whether the Dragon Reborn will be the one to sound it. The Horn loomed large in the legends of the city of Dorelle Caromon (which is now Illian). Rulers of the city, in Eharon and later Safer and now Illian, would periodically call "Great Hunts" to search for the Horn. These hunts would result in many legends and adventures taking place, but the Horn was never found. The last Great Hunt took place circa 600 NE.

The nations were at peace with themselves and one another and, for a while at least, it seemed that the glory and peace of the Age of Legends might be reclaimed. Alas, it was not to be.

Please note that Parts 7-8 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.

Microsoft (also) buys inXile Entertainment

Hot on the heels of the news that Microsoft has bought CRPG masterminds Obsidian Entertainment, it has also been confirmed that Microsoft has acquired fellow RPG studio inXile. Unlike Obsidian's acquisition, which was widely anticipated, inXile's is a surprise.

inXile Entertainment was founded in 2002 by Bryan Fargo shortly after he quit the company he founded back in the early 1980s, Interplay, after it fell into financial mismanagement involving outside investors. The company survived its first decade by making 3D console ports and then games for mobile devices.

In 2012 the company launched a crowdfunding campaign via Kickstarter for a new RPG, Wasteland 2 (a sequel to the classic Electronic Arts RPG Wasteland, which in turn had inspired the original Fallout). Released in 2014, Wasteland 2 was a significant sales and critical success. The company followed this up with Torment: Tides of Numenera (2017), a "spiritual successor" to the classic Interplay CRPG Planescape: Torment. Despite strong reviews, Torment sold poorly.

inXile's most recent game, The Bard's Tale IV (2018), attracted mixed critical notices and has also apparently not sold well. This pattern of low sales for their games and the reduced income from crowdfunding - although it should be noted that both Obsidian and inXile moving from the very-well-known Kickstarter platform to the obscure Fig system would not have helped - has likely made it necessary to consider selling the company.

inXile have almost completed work on Wasteland 3, which is due for release in 2019 and will now presumably be a Microsoft-branded game.

Intriguingly, both Obsidian and inXile started as Interplay and unusually (given the passage of 20 years) many of the same people work at both companies, raising the interesting prospect of them perhaps being merged to work on future projects, effectively recreating the "good old days" of Interplay in the 1990s.

Microsoft buy Obsidian Entertainment

Microsoft have bought Obsidian Entertainment, the veteran video game roleplaying game company. This comes a few weeks after the news was leaked into the media.

Obsidian Entertainment was founded in 2003 by senior staff working at Black Isle, the CRPG division of Interplay. Many of the founders had worked on Black Isle’s classic RPGs, including Fallout, Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale II, as well as providing publishing support and assistance to BioWare on their Baldur’s Gate series.

Interplay was in serious financial trouble and the company was winding down. Various investors had been brought in to help right the ship, but their creative interference caused friction with the developers. Feargus Urquhart, Chris Parker, Darren Monahan, Chris Jones and Chris Avellone quit the company before it collapsed and established Obsidian Entertainment. Initially working out of Feargus’s attic, they scored a lucky early contract when LucasArts contracted them to make the sequel to BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, a Star Wars RPG. Despite a buggy release, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords reviewed well and sold extremely well.

Obsidian then worked on a Dungeons and Dragons video game, Neverwinter Nights 2 (also a sequel to a BioWare game) before they teamed up with Sega for two projects: an original spy RPG, Alpha Protocol (2010), which was highly promising but released in a very buggy state, and an Aliens RPG that was cancelled.

Bethesda Studios then asked Obsidian to develop a follow-up to their hugely successful CRPG Fallout 3, noting that several of the creators of the Fallout series were still working at Obsidian. The result was Fallout: New Vegas (2010), an immensely successful and critically-acclaimed game. They followed this up with Dungeon Siege III (2011).

The company was then – ironically given today’s news – contracted by Microsoft to develop a launch RPG for the X-Box One, Stormlands. Obsidian spent a significant amount of money developing a demo for the game, which would be their first AAA, high-budget title. However, Microsoft grew frustrated that they couldn’t implement their Kinect control system into the game and cancelled it in 2012, which nearly drove Obsidian out of business, with half the studio’s manpower fired in one go.

They were saved by the decision to go to Kickstarter to crowdfund an old-skool CRPG. Project Eternity raised $4.1 million. The game was finally released in 2015 under the title Pillars of Eternity and was a critical and sales success.

In the meantime, the company also developed South Park: The Stick of Truth (2014), Pathfinder Adventures (2016), Tyranny (2016) and Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (2018). They are currently working on a new CRPG with Fallout creator Tim Cain in charge. The nature and current status of the game is unclear.

The sale of the company to Microsoft is on the one hand unsurprising: having existed hand-to-mouth for 15 years and nearly going bust once already, it’s clear the studio heads wanted greater financial security going forwards. However, it does seem to betray the ethos of the company as an independent studio, one of the few left in the business, and particularly seems to be at odds with its recent image as studio-of-the-people, funded by fans to make proper, old-skool CRPGs. Despite assurances, it is unlikely that Microsoft will allow them to keep making niche games for small audiences, especially after Pillars of Eternity II bombed in sales on release earlier this year.

More concerning is that Microsoft does not have a good history with its treatment of studios it buys, frequently mismanaging projects, giving conflicting information, lowering and raising budgets without warning and finally shuttering the studio in confusion (a fate most notably shared by Lionhead). Recently the company has vowed to do better and bought up a large number of studios, promising minimal interference. In this context, Obsidian makes a good fit for their model: a proven studio capable of working on both large-scale and small-scale games, and arguably have yet to prove themselves with the resources of making a proper, AAA, big budget RPG.

Unfortunately, this means it is now unlikely we will ever see a New Vegas II or Knights of the Old Republic III, but it does raise the intriguing idea of Obsidian developing a new Fable game or even a Halo RPG. Whether this happens or they’ll perhaps be allowed to make Pillars of Eternity III as a 3D extravaganza capable of going toe-to-toe with The Witcher 3 and the Dragon Age series remains to be seen.