Sunday, 9 December 2018

Happy 15th Anniversary to BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2.0)

On 8 December 2003, the Sci-Fi Channel aired a two-part TV movie based on Glen A. Larson's 1978 space opera, Battlestar Galactica. This new show had been preceded by very low expectations: none of the cast or crew of the original show was involved, and two previous reboot pitches which had been direct sequels to the original show had been cancelled in favour of a total remake. Redesigns of iconic ships and vehicles had annoyed the original fanbase, as had the "gender-swapping" of established characters like Starbuck and Boomer. However, early critical reviews were positive and some of the casting for the show, such as Edward James Olmos as the new version of Commander Adama (in the role played by Lorne Green in the original) and Mary McDonnell as the new President of the Colonies, seemed promising.

A promotional image for Battlestar Galactica's third season (2006-07).

The road to relaunching Battlestar Galactica had been a long one. ABC had commissioned Glen A. Larson to create the original show back in 1977, keen to launch on the bandwagon of space opera and impressive visual effects generated by the release of the original Star Wars movie. They even brought in John Dykstra, who had created Star Wars's special effects, to work on the show. Borrowing heavily from Egyptian mythology and Mormon theology, the show told the story of the annihilation of the Twelve Colonies of Man at the hands of a hostile alien race, the Cylons, consisting of cyborg leaders and fully-robotic soldiers. The last surviving human warship, the battlestar Galactica, leads a "ragtag fugitive fleet" in search of the mythical Thirteenth Colony, also known as Earth. Despite schmaltzy acting, the presence of cute kid and animal actors (including the still-bizarre decision to have a chimp playing a robot dog) and whiplash-inducing shifts in tone, the show built up a strong following for its impressive effects and its emphasis on family.

The show launched to enormous ratings, but these fell drastically over the course of the first season. Combined with the show's eye-watering cost, ABC decided to cancel it and resurrect it two years later as Galactica 1980, a much lower-budged show meant more to appeal to kids. Galactica 1980 holds a strong claim to be the worst TV show ever made (with the solitary exception of a flashback episode set during the original series) and was quickly put out of its misery.

The original Battlestar Galactica had spectacular visual effects for 1978 but less impressive scripts.

Larson moved on to other projects, but always felt there was more mileage in the Battlestar concept. Richard Hatch, who'd played Captain Apollo on the original series, agreed, and with Larson's blessing undertook various attempts to relaunch the show. Successful novel and comic series followed through the 1980s and 1990s and in 1998 Hatch produced a proof-of-concept video dubbed Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming. Ignoring Galactica 1980, this would have been a "next generation" concept picking up on the story twenty years later with the Galactica crew still searching for Earth with a whole new generation growing up in the fleet. Despite being popular at fan conventions, the idea did not find fertile ground with a studio. A year later Glen A. Larson started developing a movie concept which would have followed up on the fate of the battlestar Pegasus from the original series, but again this didn't get very far.

A much more serious attempt followed in 2000. Producers Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto were the hot flavour of the month in Hollywood for the success of their movie X-Men and Singer, a huge fan of the original Battlestar Galactica, was determined to get the show launched again. His concept was similar to Hatch's and would have been a next generation reboot. Fox TV signed on, but were somewhat sceptical that BSG's relatively small fanbase could help propel the show to a larger audience, especially as it was a continuation. Nevertheless, the project moved to within a few weeks production starting (including some early set construction and lots of concept art being produced) when Fox put all new projects on hold in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Fox were slow to get the show moving again, so when Singer and DeSanto left the project to focus on the next X-Men movie, Fox let the idea lapse.

Promotional artwork for Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto's planned Battlestar reboot (2001).

Universal Pictures, who held the rights to the original BSG, decided to push forwards with a new version of the show themselves. Whilst 9/11 had disrupted Fox's plans, Universal saw it as an opportunity to tell a very different kind of story. Critics of the original BSG - and even some fans - had felt that the original series had massively undersold the darkness and trauma that would have resulted from the destruction of twelve planets and billions of human beings on the survivors. Universal asked producer David Eick to work on ideas for the new series, but the first directive was that this was going to be a page one rewrite and remake set in a new continuity. Eick decided he needed to bring on board someone who really understood science fiction and in particular space opera and brought on board a writer named Ronald D. Moore.

Moore had cut his teeth as a very young writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which he'd joined in 1989 in its third season. He was just about the only staff writer to survive the chaotic third season into the fourth, and became a key creative lead on the show in its latter five seasons. When the show wrapped, he co-wrote the movies Generations and First Contact as well as moving over to Deep Space Nine for its third season, again playing a key creative role on that show. When Deep Space Nine wrapped in 1999, he moved over to Star Trek: Voyager but immediately found a much more restrictive creative environment. Moore was in particular frustrated by the fact that the starship Voyager was still clean and pristine despite being trapped on the other side of the galaxy with very limited chances for resupply. His feeling was that the show should have been darker, more challenging and engaged in more morally murky discussions about the morality of the Federation when a ship was put in a difficult position. The producers disagreed, feeling that cookie-cutter philosophising and constantly hitting a big red reset button at the end of every episode was the way forwards instead. Moore duly quit, going to work first on Roswell at the WB and then Carnivale at HBO.

Executive producer and showrunner Ronald D. Moore on the hanger set of Battlestar Galactica.

He was still working on Carnivale when Eick called. Moore had watched Battlestar when it first aired and seen great promise in it, but had also disliked the campy and sillier elements of the show (such as the cute kids, robots and the "casino planet" in the pilot). He rewatched the pilot movie and realised there was a lot of strength in the basic premise and agreed that it could be reworked in a post-9/11 environment for greater emotional impact. He agreed to write a new pilot for Universal's subsidiary, the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy). This ballooned into a (relatively) high-budget three-hour mini-series which could also work as a backdoor pilot for a full series.

Moore penned the pilot and oversaw some elements of production, including exercising his desire for a slightly darker aesthetic than Star Trek and to have a completely new (for SF) way of shooting the action with handheld cameras, even the space scenes. Director Michael Rymer immediately locked into what Moore was thinking of and his directorial style immediately became a hallmark of the show. Moore also wanted a more understated and less symphonic way of doing music for a space series and lucked out when Richard Gibbs also picked up that idea and ran with it. A young composer named Bear McCreary also assisted Gibbs on the pilot.

Edward James Olmos as Commander William Adama and Mary McDonnell as President Laura Roslin.

Casting proved interesting but controversial. Moore wanted distinct actors with gravitas and experience, but was aware that it was very unusual for producers to get their first choices. In this case, he wanted Edward James Olmos for Adama and Mary McDonnell for Roslin and was flabbergasted when both said yes, sold on the quality of the scripts. The casting department also scored a steady series of successes when they found a lot of fresh young talent for the series, from Jamie Bamber for Apollo to James Callis for Baltar and, most iconically, Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck and former model Tricia Helfer as Caprica Six. Established fans of the show were furious to learn that both Starbuck and Boomer (to be played by Grace Park) had been changed from male characters to a female one for the show and some of the original castmembers agreed with them: Dirk Benedict (who played Starbuck in the original show) scathingly referred to the new character as "Stardoe".

For visual effects, the team at Zoic were called in to produce the huge amount of CGI needed for the mini-series. Zoic had just come off the back of Joss Whedon's newly-cancelled Firefly so the commission was good news for them. The CG team included many veterans of both Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, who relished on rendering effects on a new, more powerful hardware and having the ability to design lots of new ships, although honouring the designs laid down in the original show.

The Battlestar Galactica mini-series was critically acclaimed on its release. The reviews were excellent across the board, with a lot praise for the actors, direction and acting, and the ratings were very high, setting new records for SyFy. It was an easy choice to commission a full first season, especially once Ron Moore confirmed he would drop Carnivale (which was being torn apart by corporate politics and would be cancelled after its second season) to move over as full-time showrunner. When the first season proper debuted a year later, with 33 (the episode that won the show a Hugo Award), it was even better.

Of course, the show could not quite sustain that early acclaim and eventually went off the rails, but that's another story. Battlestar Galactica did for space-set science fiction what Game of Thrones later did for epic fantasy, making it grittier, more real and more resonant with a wider audience previously dismissive of the art form. It's a shame we haven't seen more shows come along in its wake, but finally, with shows like The Expanse, it seems that promise has come good. Battlestar Galactica remains, despite its declining quality later on, one of the strongest SF TV shows ever made, and essential viewing for any fan of the genre.

Get COMPANY OF HEROES 2 free until tomorrow

Relic are giving away their 2013 real-time strategy game Company of Heroes 2 free for the rest of the weekend.

Set in World War II, Company of Heroes 2 focuses on the confrontation between Germany and the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Although not quite as accomplished as the original Company of Heroes (2006), Company of Heroes 2 features superior graphics and new gameplay features such as simulating freezing cold weather and the impact of that on troops and vehicles.

Relic have also bundled Company of Heroes 2's numerous expansions and DLC into a single bundle for less than £5, including the very large, game-sized Ardennes Assault expanson which adds a persistent campaign map mode.

You can get Company of Heroes 2 here and the DLC here.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Art & Arcana: A Visual History of Dungeons and Dragons by Michael Witwer

In 1974 Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created a different type of tabletop game. Dungeons and Dragons became the world's first and most popular roleplaying game. For thirty-four years it ruled supreme and unchallenged, until a problematic fourth edition and the rise of the rival Pathfinder game knocked it off its perch. However, with its fifth edition the game has regained its crown. A key ingredient to the game's success has been the phenomenal roster of artists who have worked on the game for almost forty-five years.

Art & Arcana is a visual history of the Dungeons and Dragons game, taking in every edition and campaign setting the game has produced, as well as many of its novels, calendars and video games. Artwork from the very first prototypes right through the latest 5th Edition expansions and modules is featured, along with lengthy histories and interviews with key personnel.

Arts & Arcana is massive: more than 440 pages in length, it features over 700 separate pieces of artwork along with a significant amount of text detailing the history of the game in some depth. It starts with Gygax and Arneson playing miniatures wargames in Wisconsin in the late 1960s and rapidly hitting on the idea of moving from large armies of lots of figures to small parties of just a few figures exploring dungeons, and later wilderness and towns. Dungeons and Dragons was born, with Gygax and Arneson founding the company TSR to sell it all over the world.

This is where the fun began.

From there the game exploded, selling millions of copies and inspiring spin-off novels, board games and a TV show. Several times the management of the game became fraught and complicated, with Gygax forced out in a corporate takeover and TSR later collapsing before being rescued by Wizards of the Coast. The game's struggles in the face of competition from video games and card games such as Magic: The Gathering are also documented, not to mention the attacks on the game in the press by fundamentalist Christians in the 1980s. The book brushes over arguably the game's nadir, the problematic 4th Edition (2008-13) and the rise of rival products to challenge the game's supremacy, but it does end strongly with the game's return to recent prominence in a new era of podcasts, YouTube videos and Twitch streams.

The one constant throughout the book is artwork. The initial artwork for the game was simplistic, sourced for very little money from whatever artists were on hand. As the game boomed in sales, so the quality of the artwork increased dramatically, with iconic artists like Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell and Keith Parkinson joining the company. Later on younger artists arrived with radically different styles, ready to reassess the game for its later editions. As well as artwork for the core game, they also produced art for tie-in novels and video games.

The githyanki, created by future-bestselling SF author Charles Stross, using a name he borrowed from future fantasy megastar George R.R. Martin.

The result is a splendid coffee table book and the perfect gift for a fan of Dungeons and Dragons specifically or fantasy artwork in general. In fact, it's a tribute to the artistic strength of Dungeons and Dragons that so many brilliant pieces of artwork aren't even in the book, as there wasn't enough room.

In fact, that's probably the book's biggest weakness (along with the somewhat dry and mostly controversy-ducking text): the sheer amount of material produced for D&D over the past forty-five years means that some elements get fairly short shrift in this book. Ravenloft feels a bit hard-done by in particular. There's also, somewhat bemusingly given their prevalence in and for the game, very little material on maps, although perhaps there's enough material there for a completely separate book later on.

If you can accept the fact that the book isn't exhaustively complete (and isn't meant to be, and would be far too unwieldy even if it was), there's still a huge amount to enjoy here, and the book forms probably the best and most concise history of the D&D game to date for the beginner. Art & Arcana (****½) is available now in the UK and USA.

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 10: The Conquest of Seanchan and the War of the Hundred Years

The Conquest of Seanchan
Early in FY 993, fishermen who worked the Aryth Ocean off the eastern coast of Northern Seanchan were stunned to see a group of huge white-sailed ships appear out of the rising sun. These ships bore two banners. One was of three golden hawks in flight, formerly the Royal Flag of Shandalle and now the Imperial Flag of the Hawkwing Empire. The second was of a golden hawk clutching three lightning bolts in its talons, the personal sigil of Luthair Paendrag Mondair, eldest son and heir apparent to Artur Hawkwing, the High King of the Westlands.

Hundreds of ships arrived. Warships, cargo carriers and troop transports, more than two thousand vessels bearing over three hundred thousand settlers and soldiers to a new world. This vast fleet made landfall off the coast hundreds of men waded ashore to secure the boats and begin the weeks-long task of establishing a foothold on the continent.

Luthair sent out scouts to examine this new land in more detail. Mountains rose to the south and west, but this coastal area was relatively flat and sparsely populated. Only when the scouts ranged further afield did they run into trouble.

This continent was known as Seanchan to its inhabitants. Two and a half thousand years earlier, at the end of the Breaking, Seanchan had been overrun by Shadowspawn. The Aes Sedai who found themselves trapped here after the Breaking did battle with them, founding kingdoms and training thousands of troops to fight them. Even then they might have been defeated had not the Aes Sedai discovered several Portal Stones in this land. Travelling to the other dimensions beyond, weavings of the Wheel that had been abandoned, they found numerous exotic and savage beasts which they could tame and train. These creatures proved the equal of Shadowspawn in battle and with their aid the Aes Sedai annihilated them almost entirely, rendering Trollocs and Myrddraal extinct on the continent. The continued to serve in Seanchan armies, where Luthair’s forces mistook these creatures for Shadowspawn and thus named them "the Armies of Night."

Luthair learned that the Aes Sedai could not agree amongst themselves on how to organise and began fighting wars and skirmishes with one another. At the time Luthair arrived almost every single nation on the continent was engulfed in warfare, a shifting quilt of borders, names and dynasties. Virtually all of these nations were ruled by the self-proclaimed "Aes Sedai."

This division initially failed to work in Luthair’s favour, since even the small kingdoms to the west of his landing point had dozens of channellers of the One Power amongst their ranks whilst Luthair, thanks to his father's persecution of Aes Sedai and siege of Tar Valon, had none. The early victories that gave Luthair control of a small region along the north-eastern coast and won him the city of Imfaral and its great fortress, the Towers of Midnight, came only at the cost of thousands of his irreplaceable troops.

Luthair may have despaired and considered withdrawing from the continent, but he was then approached by a renegade Aes Sedai named Deain. Deain claimed to have invented a device which could control Aes Sedai, a device she called an a’dam. When attached to the neck of a female channeller it rendered her unable to channel (and if she tried to remove the device she suffered intolerable pain). Even better, when placed around the wrist of a woman who could learn to channel (but did not have inborn ability), it enabled her to control the Leashed One, or damane. The Leash-Holder or sul’dam, of course, did not need to be aware that she could learn to channel.

Luthair was pleased with the offer and, after some negotiation, gained the secrets of a’dam manufacture from her. Working with Deain and using the a’dam, Luthair seized all the lands north of the immense waterway that cleaved the northern part of the continent in two, extending north to the Mountains of Dhoom (a westward extension of the same mountain range in the Westlands) and the Aldael Mountains. Thanking Deain for her assistance, Luthair then placed an a’dam on her and locked her in a cell in the Towers of Midnight.

Luthair's armies invaded the southern landmass, seizing the huge northern peninsula and its greatest city, Seandar. From Seander Luthair could strike at any one of a dozen small countries to the south, but he lacked the necessary manpower, so had to recruit from the locals and their armies of exotic beasts. Backed up by damane, Luthair's army became an unstoppable force. The other nations of Seanchan failed to unite against him, their divisions being too strong.

Luthair continued the War of Conquest for the rest of his life. He died decades later in the Imperial Palace of Seandar (which would later be renamed the Court of Nine Moons). Before his death he claimed the title of Emperor of Seanchan and committed his heir and their heirs to the Corenne, "The Return", a return to the home continent to see if the Hawkwing Empire still existed. If it did, trade relations were to be opened. If not, then the Seanchan would rebuild it in the name of the High King, Artur Paendrag Tanreall and his son, Emperor Luthair Paendrag Mondair. Luthair was succeeded by his son, who in turn was succeeded by his daughter.

The War of Conquest lasted a long time. It took three hundred years before the Seanchan Empire was able to lay claim with confidence to the entire continent, and an additional two hundred years to crush the last major resistance to its rule. However, no empire rests ever easy and occasional rebellions continued to take place; the latest, on the island of Marendalar, took place less than a generation ago and saw 30,000 people killed and 1.5 million enslaved.

Several decades ago, the Seanchan Empress Radhanan (only known as "The Empress" due to custom) concluded that the Empire was stable enough to support the long-prophesied Corenne. The construction of immense fleets was ordered all along the eastern coast of Seanchan, thousands of ships taking shape in dozens of ports. The Corenne fleet itself would be the equal of the fleet Luthair led across the Aryth Ocean almost eleven centuries earlier, and would be heralded by the Hailene or "Forerunners", a reconnaissance-in-force of the Westlands consisting of 500 ships, tens of thousands of soldiers and dozens or hundreds of damane. The command of the Hailene was given to the noble Lord Turak of House Aladon, one of the most respected military commanders on the continent. The command of the Corenne would be given to the Empress’ chosen heir, the then-unborn Tuon Athaem Kore Paendrag.

Decades in the building and planning, the Hailene fleet was dispatched eastwards in 997 NE. Its destination: Falme, on Toman Head.

The War of the Hundred Years & Founding of the Modern Nations
Meanwhile, whilst Seanchan was falling to Luthair’s armies, his own homeland was in utter turmoil.

Hawkwing’s death had left a void. All his children were dead or presumed lost beyond the seas. His one surviving grandson, Tyrn, was missing, presumed dead. Hawkwing had no brothers or sisters and hence no nephews or nieces. All his uncles and aunts were long dead and most, if not all, of his cousins perished of old age or in his campaigns.

Some thought that Endara Casalain, as ruler of the largest province of the Empire, Andor, should become High Queen, but she refused. It seems that Endara was a capable administrator but a rather timid woman of limited ambition. She certainly didn’t want the throne. Attention shifted to Marithelle Camaelaine, one of Hawkwing's most senior administrators. Marithelle’s claim was strengthened by the endorsement of Jalwin Moerad, the High King’s closest advisor upon his death. However, she was strongly opposed by Norodim Nosokawa and Elfraed Guitama. Their arguments in the Imperial Court became infamous and in the end they could no longer remain in the same room. They left within hours of one another to return to their home provinces and begin raising armies.

Endara's fiery-tempered and ambitious daughter Ishara responded to the crisis with more alacrity then her mother. Ishara was a passionate, ambitious woman who believed absolutely in the integrity of the Empire. She was also a realist and could see that without a clear line of succession the Empire was doomed. To save the Province of Andor she needed an army and, fortunately, one was relatively close at hand.

Upon the death of Hawkwing Deane Aryman, Amyrlin Seat of the Aes Sedai, parleyed with General Souran Maravaile, commanding the Siege of Tar Valon in Hawkwing's name. Aryman convinced Maravaile that with Hawkwing dead the siege no longer served any useful purpose. Maravaile agreed, but he had his orders and a personal promise made to Hawkwing upon his death-bed. Thus, the siege continued.

Ishara Casalain arrived to talk with Souran Maravaile. Some parts of the besieging army had already broken away to follow the standards of Marithelle Camaelaine, Norodim Nosokawa or Elfraed Guitama, whilst others had simply returned home. Souran agreed with Ishara’s assessment that the army would simply disintegrate if he sat there and did nothing. With great sorrow at breaking his oath to Hawkwing, he gathered together all the elements of the army that he could and headed for Caemlyn. With the general and the greater part of their forces gone, the rest scattered to the winds. After nineteen years the Siege of Tar Valon was at last over. Within days Aes Sedai and their Warders would be riding to the courts of each of the provinces to retake their positions as advisors and to try to avert the catastrophe they could already see looming.

Some say that had Maravaile lifted the siege after Hawkwing’s death, Aes Sedai mediation may have prevented what was to follow. This is possible, though unlikely. Upon her return home Ishara, regretfully, announced that Andor was now a sovereign nation with its capital at Caemlyn. She raised her own personal flag, the White Lion, as the Royal Banner of the Kingdom of Andor and declared the Empire of the Hawkwing to be at an end.

Within weeks other provinces-turned-nations had followed suit, whilst Marithelle Camaelaine declared herself the High Queen and seized control of the Imperial Capital and much of the surrounding territory. The War of the Hundred Years had begun.

The first battles erupted along Andor’s borders as armies loyal to the memory of Hawkwing attempted to unseat Ishara as a usurper. Under Maravaile’s inspiring leadership the newly-formed Royal Army resisted these attacks. Ishara, however, commanded him not to try and hold all of Andor, just Caemlyn and the surrounding territory. As anarchy erupted in all parts of the land, she knew it would be wiser to hold what she already had and spread out from there rather than try to seize everything at once. It is known that before long Souran and Ishara married, though all historical records agree it was a love-match as well as a politically expedient wedding.

The Borderland Provinces broke away within months of the start of the war. From west to east these provinces were Saldaea, Kandor, Arafel, Shienar and Malkier. After some border clashes, these five nations were distracted by a series of Trolloc raids out of the Blight. Realising that the Shadow might take advantage of the chaos of the civil war to the south, these five nations formed the Compact of the Borderlands and agreed to defend the Westlands from Trolloc incursions for all eternity, if necessary. The architects of the Compact of the Borderlands were Lady Mahira Svetanya, Lord Rylen t’Boriden Rashad, Lord Jarel Soukovini, Lady Merean Tihomar and Lord Shevan Jamelle, respectively the first rulers of Arafel, Saldaea, Kandor, Shienar and Malkier.

Marithelle Camaelaine was assassinated several years into the war. Jalwin Moerad shifted his allegiance to Norodim Nosokawa. Norodim perished several years later and the lands he had seized fragmented and fell apart. After several years of warfare the nation that Norodim had tried to forge had fractured into several constituent parts, all at war with one another.

After this point it becomes meaningless, if not impossible, to chart the course of the War of the Hundred Years. Nations would form and disappear again in a matter of months. Battles would be fought with tens of thousands of casualties, yet these would barely be footnotes. Whilst well into the millions of soldiers died during the one hundred and twenty-three years of warfare, far more civilians perished as they were caught in the crossfire. Even spread across a century and a quarter, the population of the Westlands was significantly reduced during the conflict.

During the war the nations of the modern era, plus ten additional ones, came into being. Andor was initially held as only being the area around Caemlyn, but by FY 999 it had expanded to the River Erinin in the east and the River Cary in the West. It held at these borders for some time, until four rulers brought armies against Andor in FY 1063 and were defeated by Queen Maragaine’s forces at the Battle of the Four Kings. Afterwards a town, also called Four Kings, grew up on the site of battle and Andor’s border began moving further west at higher and higher speeds. By FY 1100 or thereabouts Andor had reached its modern-day borders.

During the early part of the war all of Souran and Ishara’s sons died and, after Souran’s death in FY 1017 and Ishara’s in 1020, it was left to their eldest daughter, Alesinde, to become Queen. By the end of the war it had become traditional for only Queens to sit on the Lion Throne of Andor. Sons became First Princes of the Sword, army commanders and bodyguards to their sisters, but none were permitted to take the throne. Part of Andor’s success at survival came from having the approval of the Aes Sedai. As well as relieving the siege, Ishara promised to send her daughters to Tar Valon to be trained in the arts of politics by the Aes Sedai, and for her sons to be trained in the military arts by the Warders. Thus was forged the long-standing alliance between Andor and Tar Valon, an alliance that was to endure a thousand years.

After Norodim Nosokawa’s death Jalwin Moerad attached himself to Elfraed Guitama and advised him until FY 1013, when Moerad suddenly vanished without a trace forty years to the day after first appearing in the Imperial Court. Without Moerad’s advice, Elfraed’s war effort faltered and he was slain.

Several of the modern nations came into existence relatively early in the conflict. Lord Istaban Novares and Lady Yseidre Tirado of the Province of Moreina declared the existence of the sovereign nation of Tear within months of Hawkwing’s death. Initially holding just the Stone of Tear, they seized the rest of the city within a few months and most of the rest of the nation within a decade. The political cooperation between the Tairen Great Houses which made this possible saw them band together as the Council of High Lords, but as the threat of war receded from their borders the political in-fighting which would characterise Tear for a millennia got underway. Similarly within a few months of Hawkwing’s death a group of nobles in Cairhien Province seized control of the city of Cairhien and declared the re-founding of the nation of Tova. However, another group of nobles opposed to the plan had all the surviving descendants of the Tovan Counsellors murdered at a dinner held to inaugurate the new nation and declared the founding of the Kingdom of Cairhien under King Matraine Colmcille.

Some other nations took longer to form: Tarabon, for example, was not founded until FY 1006 by Queen Tazenia Nerenhald and Panarch Haren Maseed (ranks inherited from the former kingdom of Balasun). In FY 1109, Lord Kirin Almeyda was declared King of Ghealdan, with the support of Lady Valera Prosnarin, Lord Cynric Talvaen and Lady Iona Ashmar. King Maddin founded the nation of Altara at an unknown point during the war.

One of the most infamous legacies of the war is the military organisation known as the Children of the Light. This group was initially founded in FY 1021 by Lothair Mantelar as a semi-religious group dedicated to sniffing out Darkfriends and proclaiming subservience to the Light, but as the war spread the Children found themselves fighting just to survive. By FY 1111 or thereabouts the Children had become a fully military organisation. Mantelar was convinced that Aes Sedai were Darkfriends, since they had caused the Breaking of the World and dabbled with the One Power, which was the province of the Creator alone. These beliefs were passed onto the rest of the Children, who began hunting down Aes Sedai and Warders as vigorously as any genuine claims of Darkfriend activity. The Aes Sedai, in response, mocked the Children’s fanatical ways and their white uniforms, insultingly calling them "Whitecloaks." However, after the Children actually managed to kill an Amyrlin Seat (whose identity has never been confirmed) the Aes Sedai never made the mistake of underestimating them again.

The war waxed and waned, but after the first fifteen to twenty years or so most rulers admitted that there was no hope of seizing all of what had been the Empire. In anger, they tore down all the monuments they could find to Hawkwing, hoping people would forget that there had been a time of peace and prosperity under the rule of one man. Of course, the people did not. In the end a jealous ruler even destroyed the great monument at Talidar, even though Hawkwing’s name was not even mentioned on it (though his symbol was inscribed at the summit).

There were three major attempts later in the war to restore the Empire. The one that came closest to success was from the Aes Sedai. In FY 1084 Deane Aryman was on the verge of convincing the twelve most powerful rulers in the land of accepting Aes Sedai leadership as a means of restoring unity when she suddenly fell from her horse and broke her neck. The subsequent Amyrlin, Selame Necoin (Green Ajah), failed to capitalise on this near-success and the opportunity for peace was lost.

The warrior-queen Esmara Getare conquered all of what is now Illian and the Plains of Maredo before attempting to invade Andor circa FY 1090. She failed and spent the last twelve years of her life as the "guest" of Queen Telaisien. The nation she forged broke apart and Lord Nicoli Merseneos assumed control of Illian, becoming its first king.

Around FY 1110 Narasim Bhuran, who had conquered much of what would later be Altara and Murandy, attempted to take Illian and was crushed, his head ending up on a pike. This was the last major attempt by any one ruler to conquer his neighbours. After this point most rulers concentrated on holding onto the land they already had seized and quelling internal dissent. The War of the Hundred Years finally petered out in FY 1117.

As with the Trolloc Wars, the War of the Hundred Years had depopulated most of the subcontinent and seen many cities and records burned. So great was the destruction that it wasn’t entirely clear what year it actually was. The confusion became so great that the Gazaran Calendar was abandoned circa FY 1135 and replaced by the Farede Calendar, which counted the years as being part of the New Era (NE).

The end of the War of the Hundred Years brought great relief and celebrations to the continent, but also dismay. The unity and focus of the years of Hawkwing had ended, replaced by bitter divisiveness. The Aes Sedai were less than they had been, unable to command the respect and authority they once had and now challenged by the proselytising of the Children of the Light. The death toll had been so great that even the population level of the continent had dropped precipitously, and would continue to fall over the next thousand years.

Please note that Parts 11-12 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, 7 December 2018

Obsidian announce their new RPG, THE OUTER WORLDS, from the creators of FALLOUT

Obsidian Entertainment have formally announced their next game, The Outer Worlds. As anticipated from teasers earlier this week, this is a retrofuturistic SF roleplaying game. The setting is the planet Halcyon, one of numerous colony worlds overrun by corporations. The player creates a character who wakes up from a long period in cryosleep and is asked to help recover missing colonists from across the planet. The trailer hints that you may also travel to other planets and engage in space combat.

The game is the brainchild of acclaimed RPG designers Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky. The two developers are best-known for creating the Fallout franchise for Black Isle Studios and Interplay, jointly creating the first game in the series in 1997 and working on the sequel of a year later. They later left the floundering Interplay to found the highly-esteemed development studio Troika, where they worked on Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001) and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (2004), two of the most highly-acclaimed CRPGs of all time. After Troika was disbanded, Cain joined Obsidian Entertainment (the successor to Black Isle) where he worked on games such as Pillars of Eternity (2015). In the meantime Boyarsky joined Blizzard and worked as a writer and “loremaster” on Diablo III (2012) and its expansion Reaper of Souls (2014).

In 2015 Boyarsky joined Cain at Obsidian and the two were given the freedom to work on a new game, one they’d been discussing informally for over a decade by that point. Obsidian had created a new niche making retro-2D isometric RPGs like Pillars of EternityTyranny (2016) and Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (2018) but they didn’t want to get locked into that permanently and wanted to make a colourful 3D RPG with high production values that could go head to head with the likes of BioWare and Bethesda.

The Outer Worlds is the result of that collaboration. As with Cain and Boyarsky’s previous games, it is set in an unusual, colourful and characterful world which reacts and changes to the player’s actions. Players have freedom to solve problems with violence, wits, stealth or negotiation, and have a lot of freedom over their builds. Skills play a much larger role in dialogue choices than in many RPGs (which sometimes have oddities where characters with very high science or medicine skills are unable to use those skills to solve problems, instead having to go on lengthy quests to recover information). They can also amass a crew of various characters who can provide assistance and support.

The game is played from a first-person perspective and looks on first glimpse like a cross between New Vegas, Borderlands and Mass Effect. The trailer demonstrates combat, dialogue and roleplaying possibilities. It is unclear at the moment if the game is a huge open world (like a Bethesda title) or more of a focused game set in large but linear environments (like BioWare's Mass Effect series).

The Outer Worlds will be published by Private Division, the new indie publishing division of Take Two Interactive. Obsidian were recently purchased by Microsoft, but this will not impact on The Outer Worlds which will be released on PC, X-Box One and PlayStation 4 in 2019.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Revisiting the Wasteland: FALLOUT 3 and the Art of War Never Changing

You never forget your first time in the Wasteland, and for many millions of people that first time was in the video game Fallout 3. After an odd half-hour in which your character is born in an underground vault, has a rubbish birthday party and then a frantic escape from said vault (possibly killing your best friend's dad along the way), you emerge, blinking and startled, to behold a vast, desolate wilderness. Sitting on the distant horizon are a cluster of buildings, clearly recognisable among which is the needle of the Washington Monument and the partially-collapsed dome of the Capitol Building. The scale of the landscape takes your breath away and must rank among the most iconic moments in all of gaming.

The Capital Wasteland in all its blasted glory.

Fallout 3 was released on 28 October 2008 and marks an important moment in the history of gaming, for both Bethesda Softworks and the wider Fallout franchise. The first game in the series - Fallout (1997) - had been developed and released by Interplay's internal RPG development over a full decade earlier. It was a top-down, isometric RPG with a strong focus on character development and turn-based combat. The retrofuturistic, post-apocalyptic setting and iconic factions such as the Brotherhood of Steel and Super Mutants caught the attention of tens of thousands of fans, and resulted in a true cult classic.

The game's creator, Tim Cain, went off to other projects so a newcomer named Chris Avellone was drafted in to create the sequel: Fallout 2 (1998). Fallout 2 had a lot more humour and a darker, more adult tone than the first game whilst introducing new factions like the Enclave. It was also well-reviewed and sold reasonably well, but it was massively overshadowed by the release a few weeks later of Baldur's Gate by BioWare (and published by Interplay). Black Isle were drafted into making Dungeons and Dragons games using BioWare's Infinity Engine, and the Fallout franchise fell by the wayside. Another studio developed a so-so tactical combat spin-off game, Fallout Tactics (2001) before Black Isle finally put Fallout 3 into development, giving it the code-name "Van Buren". Development was well underway when Interplay finally collapsed altogether in 2003, halting work on all games in progress.

Liberty Prime, a robot programmed to "destroy communism", remains the game's comic highlight.

Meanwhile, the game studio Bethesda Softworks had been establishing a name for itself in the 1990s with sports games and porting games for other studios from one format to another. Getting bored of that, they unexpectedly switched to making epic fantasy RPGs with the well-received Arena (1994) and Daggerfall (1996), the first two games in their Elder Scrolls series. They attempted to expand the universe with two spin-off games, Battlespire (1997) and Redguard (1998) which were both critical failures and left the studio teetering on the brink. Some much-needed recapitalisation later, they decided to go all-in on one game which would be their make-or-break moment. That game was Morrowind (2002), the third RPG in the Elder Scrolls series. Morrowind was a huge hit, especially on console (it was Bethesda's first console game, getting a port from the PC to the original X-Box), and Microsoft asked for a cutting-edge sequel to help sell their X-Box 360 follow-up console. This resulted in Oblivion (2006), which was a monster smash hit and transformed Bethesda's fortunes altogether.

However, in 2004 Oblivion was still in development and Bethesda were faced with the prospect of laying off some of the pre-production and design staff who were no longer required with the game in full development. Feeling this was a waste of talent and resources, Bethesda decided to start development on a second game, which would allow the main team to transfer over as soon as work on Oblivion was completed. It was also decided that this should be a different franchise to Elder Scrolls, so the designers would not get bored of working constantly on the same series. Bethesda's creative game director Todd Howard was asked what type of game he'd like to make and he suggested a post-apocalyptic setting, "like Fallout". Initially the game was going to be a "spiritual successor" to Fallout, but Bethesda's management decided to investigate the rights and situation and discovered that Interplay were on the brink of bankruptcy. To help save them, Bethesda offered to buy the rights to the entire Fallout franchise from them. Interplay agreed, allowing Bethesda to make a brand-new Fallout game.

The White House's Christmas 2277 decorations left something to be desired.

Work on Fallout 3 began whilst work on Oblivion was still ongoing, and used the same GameBryo Engine. Early on the developers ran into some technical issues. Oblivion, famously, looked amazing on release in 2006 but the developers had carefully used mountains, hills and trees to prevent players from seeing too much of the environment in any one go, saving video memory. The game could also be on any scale it liked, as players lacked a real-world equivalent to compare things to, complete with small medieval towns and constrained cities. Fallout 3 on the other hand was based on a real location, the distinctly un-mountainous and rather large DC metropolitan area. This pushed the developers to the limit of their technical ability as they attempted to make the game look vast, epic and convincing whilst also not crashing every five minutes. A few compromises later - including the green tint to everything to reduce the number of colours on screen and the dividing up of DC proper into distinct, small zones connected by metro tunnels - they had the makings of a memorable game.

Fallout 3 was released to widespread critical acclaim and commercial success in 2008, although fans of the first two Fallout games were largely unimpressed, complaining of a "dumbing down" of story, world and character in the pursuit of money. Their complaints are not entirely invalid, and Fallout 3 has some significant problems with worldbuilding, dialogue, general writing and quest design, and these should not be dismissed.

Deathclaws remain the game's most potent threat.

But what Fallout 3 did better than the first two games in the series - and arguably the three that have followed - is atmosphere. There's a sparseness to Fallout 3 which remains uncanny and strange. Fallout: New Vegas has a map which is more linear, directing players along somewhat (but not totally) similar roads. Fallout 4 is a much more densely-clustered map where you can barely walk six feet without tripping over three quests, a settlement (which needs your help) or a fight between opposing factions. Fallout 76 is a heavily-bugged multiplayer fiasco which we needn't go into here.

But Fallout 3 is a weirdly lonely game. There's plenty of points of interest on the map and random mutated monsters and raiders wandering around, but there's also quite a lot of quiet trudging across the landscape between distantly-glimpsed structures. Something Bethesda had teased in Oblivion, but really delivered in Fallout 3, was the idea of seeing something intriguing in the distance and being able to walk over to it and investigate further. Fallout 3 does this by placing the Capitol and the Washington Monument on the horizon the second you leave Vault 101 early in the game, and your path will eventually lead to those structures (shades of Half-Life 2, where you see the huge Citadel in the opening moments of the game and your entire journey will eventually loop round and lead you back there). The game did allow you to play with a companion character, but given their extreme fragility (at least until you meet the extremely tough Fawkes), it was often less hassle to travel by yourself.

Mods have dramatically improved Fallout 3's appearance by replacing the game's original muddy textures with 4K versions, revamping the lighting engine and improving everything from draw distance to the models for bottles. They also increase the amount of video memory that can be used, hugely improving performance.

This sparseness is down to a surprising paucity of quests: Fallout 3 has only 59 quests, approximately half the number of New Vegas and one-third that of Fallout 4. That's actually not a major criticism, as in Fallout 3 you're spending less time checking off boxes and more time exploring for your own enjoyment, ransacking buildings for supplies and roaming off the beaten path to check out what appears to be an abandoned power station or hospital. Arguably not since STALKER: Shadows of Chernobyl had been released almost two years earlier had a game put you in such a desolate, haunted landscape and allowed you to explore it as you will (and STALKER, despite being a far more hardcore and tougher game, was considerably smaller in scope).

The game also enjoyed a terrific musical score by Inon Zur, which took in everything from an epic, stirring orchestral motif to bleaker, more haunting moments mixed in with hits from the 1930s and 1940s.

Holy foreshadowing!

Fallout 3's writing was not great, but it's easy to forget that it did have some splendidly inventive quests, some of them liberally borrowed from pop culture. The slaves with exploding neck collars are taken from the movie Battle Royale (2000), the quest with the giant fire ants is based on classic pulp SF movie Them! (1954) and a VR-gone-badly-wrong black-and-white sequence is inspired by the movie Pleasantville (1998). Liberty Prime, a gigantic "anti-communism" battle droid, is a clear nod at Transformers with a design homaging The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). The society made up completely of kids at Little Lamplight seems to be an inverse version of The Lord of the Flies (as it appears to be the most stable town in the game, even though it's best not to ask where the fresh kids come from).

Other elements of the game have aged better than expected - the VATS-driven combat, which emulates the turn-based approach of the first two games, remains splendidly punchy and gory, although trying to play Fallout 3 like a first person shooter rapidly turns into an exercise in frustration - but others have not, particularly graphically. Thankfully, the hard-working modding community has made a plethora of mods which dramatically improve the game's appearance, adding 4K textures, removing that weird green tint from everything and improving lighting and draw distance to more realistic levels (as well as easing the game's weirdly restrictive memory limit, that left the game still chugging for people with monster graphics cards). I'll address how to add those to the game in a future post.

I spent 35 hours replaying Fallout 3, completing the base game and the Operation Anchorage and Broken Steel DLCs (the latter of which is essential to get rid of the original's diabolically bad ending), although I still have most of the map left unexplored (including areas I never visited in my original 2008-09 playthrough). I think I'll keep a-wandering through the Wasteland a while longer. Fallout 3 is not the best Fallout game by any means or (these days) the most approachable, but it does have a unique, haunting atmosphere and an eerie beauty which the other games lack. It also took a niche gaming series that definitely did not deserve to remain obscure and turned it into one of the biggest names in video game history, and in that sense it remains inarguably the most important game in the franchise.

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. A 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.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

Tenar is the high priestess of the Nameless Ones. She serves at the Tombs of Atuan, deep within the Kargish Empire, a place of rote and ritual. Despite the importance of her role she feels lonely and listless...until the day a wizard comes to her island.

The Tombs of Atuan (originally published in 1971) is the second novel in Ursula K. Le Guin's classic Earthsea sequence of novels, set in an enormous archipelago. It is not a direct sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea, the preceding novel, and in fact feels like a companion book more than a successor. The book focuses almost exclusively on the new character of Tenar, with the book's connection to A Wizard of Earthsea not becoming clearer until later on.

Tenar is an interesting character and it's a surprise to learn that she is Le Guin's first major female protagonist. Tenar is painted in Le Guin's traditional depth, as we get to know this young woman who combines curiosity, ruthlessness, loneliness and leadership skills. The book also inverts its presentation of Ged from the earlier novel. A Wizard of Earthsea was, for all of its travelling and epic journeys and mighty set-pieces, a deeply internal story of a boy finding out who he really is and making peace with himself. The Tombs of Atuan, being told entirely from Tenar's POV, instead allows us to meet and see Ged as strangers see him, wholly externally with only hints at what's going on under the surface. Thus our understanding of the main character of the series is expanded.

Le Guin's prose is powerful and evocative, and it's interesting in this novel that she flips the setting and feel of the earlier book on its head. A Wizard of Earthsea took place on land and sea under the sky, with the wind blowing in the characters' faces and freedom all around them, even as they were forced into a confrontation with a dark force they didn't understand. The Tombs of Atuan takes place almost entirely underground, our characters sometimes literally stifled and near-entombed under the earth, in claustrophobic surroundings. Le Guin nails this oppressive, stifled atmosphere and the elation the characters experience when they finally escape (not a spoiler, hopefully, since this is Book 2 of a six-book series).

There are some weaknesses to the novel. This is a short book, but even so, it does feel like an extended single episode rather than a novel-length narrative. Indeed, the book started as a short story for a magazine and had to be expanded to a longer word count for commercial reasons. It feels like maybe this should have been the opening section of a longer novel exploring more of Tenar's character (and it feels like her development is cut off just as it was starting to get interesting, and won't be revisited until the fourth book of the series) or remained as a short story. As it stands, the story feels a bit too slight and claustrophobic to sustain a full novel, despite the strengths of the writing and characterisation.

The Tombs of Atuan (****) is a slight story and perhaps a tad underwhelming compared to A Wizard of Earthsea, but it remains an ambitious and fascinating novel. Le Guin's writing power and her mastery of character is on full display. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of The Books of Earthsea omnibus edition.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Far Cry 6, Dragon Age 4 and Obsidian's "Project X" all to be unveiled this month

It's a busy week for some of gaming's biggest franchises and most interesting developers.

First up, and most interestingly, is that Obsidian will finally unveil their mysterious "Project X" that they've been working on in the background for the past three or four years whilst releasing smaller games like Tyranny and Pillars of Eternity. This game is the brainchild and a labour of love for Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, the co-creators of the Fallout franchise and numerous other classic RPGs, including Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscure. Boyarsky was also a creative lead on Diablo III and its expansion Reaper of Souls for Blizzard, whilst Cain worked on games for Obsidian including Fallout: New Vegas.

The images revealed so far don't give much away, but hint at an SF RPG set in a retro-futuristic setting, possibly influenced by the likes of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. We'll find out for sure tomorrow when the game is fully unveiled.

Following that, on Friday, Ubisoft will unveil the future of the Far Cry franchise. The previous five games in the series have been - more or less - contemporary open world games with a very light dusting of science fiction and fantasy ideas, along with a couple of spin-offs (Blood Dragon and Primal) that had the licence to go much weirder. Far Cry 6 - assuming that's what the game will be called - sounds like it will be a full-on post-apocalyptic story, following on from the "good" ending to Far Cry 5 where the United States is (extremely randomly, as it had nothing to do with the plot of the game) devastated by a nuclear surprise attack launched by, er, North Korea. On the one hand, this may freshen up an increasingly bored franchise (Far Cry 5 was one of the weakest games in the series to date), or it may just be a case of the exact same game with a different paintjob. We will find out more on Friday.

Coming later this month, Electronic Arts and BioWare are poised to reveal some more information about the next Dragon Age game. BioWare's fantasy roleplaying series began back in 2009 with the solid Dragon Age: Origins and continued through the interesting-but-flawed Dragon Age II (2011) and the awful Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014). BioWare, once the great market leader for Western-style RPGs, has seen its thunder thoroughly stolen first by Bethesda and more recently by CD Projekt Red. Its last few games (Inquisition and last year's Mass Effect: Andromeda) have been underwhelming in the extreme, and there is little excitement for its next game, a generic multiplayer-focused, story-lite action-SF game called Anthem, due for release in March 2019. Dragon Age IV, or whatever is finally announced, has got its work cut out for it if it is to regain the stronger critical and commercial performance of earlier games in the series.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 9: The Time of the High King

The Height of the Empire & the Siege of Tar Valon
In FY 943 Artur Paendrag Tanreall was merely the king of a small nation. Twenty years of warfare later he was the High King of the entire subcontinent. But, whilst peace fell at last across the West, Hawkwing was not done with war just yet.

Shortly before he took the throne of Shandalle, Hawkwing married Amaline Paendrag Tagora, a political marriage but one that was also blessed by love. In FY 942 Amaline gave birth to twins, Amira and Modair, and later she and Hawkwing had another son and another daughter, but their names have been lost to history. Modair was an accomplished tactician, and before the age of fifteen was already at least the equal of his father in games of skills and tactics. By this age he was also a better swordsman than his father. Artur was very proud, seeing that upon his death he would leave his growing empire in good hands, but this was not to be. In FY 959 Modair was slain in battle. Though Hawkwing mourned his son’s death for months, he knew the dangers of war as well as anyone, and when he won the battle he did not treat the enemy particularly harshly at all.

But in FY 961 tragedy struck even closer to home when Amaline, Amira and Hawkwing’s remaining children all died by poison. This almost undid Hawkwing, plunging him into a fury which would last a full three years, "The Black Years" as they are referred to in later histories. Hawkwing was a man of honour, and the cowardly slaying of women and children from the shadows sickened him, all the more for it was his own wife and children that perished. He became convinced that King Ramedar of Aldeshar had ordered the assassination and, when Ramedar surrendered to him in the summer of FY 963, Hawkwing ordered him beheaded. He then stripped the nobility of all their titles and scattered the people of Aldeshar to far parts of the Empire. This shocked many and Hawkwing’s own Aes Sedai advisor, Chowin Tsao of the Green Ajah, departed the Imperial Palace in protest.

Even being acclaimed High King of the whole of the land did little to smother Hawkwing’s rage. Almost immediately he began gathering a new army and early in FY 964 launched an invasion into the Aiel Waste. Hawkwing’s troops were not used to the Waste, a harsh, humid and all but waterless land stretching for over a thousands miles to the north and east. The Aiel themselves fought tooth and nail against Hawkwing, costing him tens of thousands of casualties although in most battles the Aiel were heavily outnumbered. Hawkwing made some progress, capturing a couple of sept-holds and a few watering grounds, but at his initial rate of progress it would have taken decades to complete the conquest. In addition, the Aiel refused to surrender to the "wetlanders", preferring to fight to the last man or woman. After nine months of gruelling warfare and with morale at an all-time low, Hawkwing called a strategic withdrawal from the Waste.

Hawkwing returned to his capital and brooded. His harsh treatment of Aldeshar had spread resentment across many parts of the Empire and a few nobles, usually former rulers of the nations conquered by Hawkwing, began whispering words of rebellion. The Empire may have fractured barely a year after it was completed, had not Hawkwing met Tamika.

Tamika was a young woman at least twenty years Hawkwing’s junior. Whilst not a peasant or commoner, she was not a high-ranking noble either. How he met her is unclear; under Hawkwing’s reforms it was possible for anyone to request an audience and, if his subordinates were convinced of the validity of the claim, be granted one. Even knowledge of her last name has been lost. What is clear is that they fell in love very quickly and married towards the end of FY 965, not much more than a year after they first met.

Tamika’s calming influence ended the Black Years of Hawkwing’s rule. He reinstated the nobility of Aldeshar, removed Jeorad Manyard, the scholar-governor who'd been place din charge of them, and even installed Endara Casalain, daughter of the late King Joal Ramedar, as the governor of the Imperial Province of Andor, the province which held most of the former lands held by Aldeshar and Caembarin.

Now the Peaceful Years of Hawkwing’s rule set in. For eleven years he ruled an empire at peace with itself and its neighbours. Trade was undertaken with the Sea Folk and, though bad blood existed with the Aiel for a while, occasional trade caravans were permitted to cross the Waste to distant Shara. It is from this period that Hawkwing gained much of his prestige and the Black Years largely forgotten, or seen as an aberration.

Artur Hawkwing was well-loved by his people, who saw him as a man of honour and fairness. It seems that every town, city and even village in the land erected some kind of monument to him, though all of these were later torn down and destroyed. Hawkwing himself was modest of his achievements, but despite repeated commands to demolish these monuments they remained and Hawkwing in the end relented, knowing this was one battle he could not hope to win.

Whilst the common people adored him, many nobles detested him. Hawkwing had known that dissolving the nobility of the lands he had conquered might have fuelled rebellions again him, so instead had kept them largely intact and appointed them to positions of power and authority in the new provinces. It seems that Hawkwing wasn’t as an expert on human nature as his former nemesis Guaire Amalasan had been, for once the nobles’ surprise at not being beheaded faded, they became resentful, for without Hawkwing they might very well be kings or generals, not just administrators and governors. And, whilst the former nobles were granted positions of authority, they only kept them if they proved worthy. Incompetence and inefficiency was not tolerated by Hawkwing, who promoted and made appointments (civilian and military alike) strictly by merit alone. Some nobles suffered the ignominy of being demoted and having commoners placed above them!

The largest rebellion against Hawkwing’s rule came from the Almoth Province (formerly the kingdom of Darmovan), where nobles formerly loyal to Amalasan attempted a coup against the Hawkwing-appointed governor. The rebellion was stopped not by Hawkwing’s armies, but by the people themselves. The rebel nobles were rounded up by public-appointed militias and handed over to Hawkwing’s troops once they arrived.

Part of this love for their ruler can be attributed to Hawkwing’s new, revolutionary style of justice. Under the High King’s Law all men and women stood equal. No noble or general was treated any better or worse than the commonest peasant. All special privileges held by nobles were suspended once accused of a crime, even if the one making the accusation was a lowly soldier or scullery maid. Judges sat in panels of three, with juries chosen at random from the local census rolls. To their horror, nobles found themselves often being judged for crimes by peasants. This was a motivating factor in several rebellions launched against Hawkwing's rule, all rapidly crushed.

Hawkwing, aware of the vulnerability of most people to bribes, also chose officials from the one source he knew to be immune to corruption: the Aes Sedai. In return for this Tar Valon merchants were not subject to the same taxes as other King’s Citizens and Tar Valon, as the only freehold remaining in the land, was given assurances of its continued independence and safety. Hawkwing, impressed by Aes Sedai efficiency, soon began appointing them to other positions in his Empire, appointing some as Governors or even generals. The Red Ajah, the one most resentful of Hawkwing and his rule of the subcontinent, was given free reign to pursue suspected male channellers of the One Power in any province of the Empire and the right to request local military aid in bringing them down. Whilst it would be saying too much to say the Red Ajah respected him for this, they at least spoke of him in less harsh terms from this point forwards.

But whilst the Aes Sedai began to see the benefits of working with Hawkwing, rather than opposing him, the Amyrlin Seat, Bonwhin Meraighdin, retained her hatred of the man. She was powerless to act, it seemed, for the Hall of the Tower judged it better to support him. After all, the land was more united than it had been at any point in history. If Tarmon Gai’don and the Dragon Reborn came in their lifetimes, they would find the Westlands already one whole to stand against the Dark One.

Hawkwing sponsored many public works during his rule, building most of the great highway network that is still maintained and used today. He established new provincial cities, including many of the capital cities of the modern nations (Amador, Chachin, Shol Arbela and Fal Moran may have been founded at this time). He organised watchtowers along the Blight to keep an eye out for Shadowspawn incursions, and established fortresses in the Niamh and Jangai passes to watch for any trouble from the Aiel.

As a military man Hawkwing’s first love was the army, and in peacetime he dispersed his forces to act as peacekeepers and "circuit rovers", patrols which regularly visited every single isolated village and hamlet to keep crime down to a minimum. At regular intervals he recalled the army to fight in great wargames on Caralain Grass and the Plains of Maredo, keeping their skills up, and took a keen interest in the development of new sciences - military and peaceful - at the cities of Tanchico and Cairhien. Hawkwing was especially interested in the rapid progress of naval technology, some of which had been gained from the Sea Folk at a massive cost in trade (although these "secrets" were techniques long ago surpassed by the Sea Folk, ensuring the continuation of their trade monopoly). The Imperial Navy, based on the west coast with its primary headquarters at Falme, Tanchico and Bandar Eban, and on the south coast with its main bases at Ebou Dar, Illian and Tear, soon grew to a huge size and patrolled the waves looking out for pirates and criminals who sought shelter on isolated islands.

All in all these were years of prosperity and peace. But it was not to last. In FY 974 Hawkwing unexpectedly and curtly dismissed all Aes Sedai from their posts as governors, advisors, generals and even Justices. Three months later, in the early part of FY 975, Hawkwing put a price on the head of every Aes Sedai who refused to renounce Tar Valon. Finally, in the summer of that year Hawkwing’s armies overran Tar Valon’s territory and began laying siege to the city itself.

Exactly why Hawkwing went from appreciating Aes Sedai and employing them to hating them with an almost religious fervour in under a year is not clear. Most historians conclude that he simply wanted to seize the last remaining bastion of independence (though the same historians concede that Hawkwing forged the Empire more out of defence than out of the desire for conquest), but this does not explain the fury that accompanied his decision. Other possible explanations range from the somewhat plausible (a complex Aes Sedai plot that backfired badly) to the downright bizarre (Hawkwing fell prey to a strange mental disorder, though this fails to explain why in all other matters he remained the same as he always had been). One theory, currently popular amongst revisionist historians, centres on a man named Jalwin Moerad.

Little is known of Moerad save that he arrived at Hawkwing’s court in late FY 973 and within six months had become one of his most trusted advisors, smoking out several plots and conspiracies against Hawkwing’s rule. Moerad also openly disliked Aes Sedai, one witness describing his attitude to them as "oddly contemptuous". Even those who hate Aes Sedai at least respect their powers and influence. Apparently these did not concern Moerad at all.

The few diaries and letters that have survived since this time indicate that the Imperial Court believed Moerad to be more than half insane, prone to giving rambling lectures and discourses. He also had a deep knowledge of history, but refused to be contradicted or even agree to discuss some his wilder ideas (one rival historian claims that Moerad often related historical episodes as if he had been there). He also vanished from Court for long periods, sometimes as long as six months at a time, and even Hawkwing proved unable to find out where he had been, save that when Moerad returned it was always with news of some development of interest to the High King, ensuring his continued service.

That Moerad may have had something to do with Hawkwing’s turning on the Aes Sedai seems possible, especially given the dates (Moerad became Hawkwing’s second-most trusted advisor a mere two months before he began dismissing Aes Sedai from his service). Some have suggested that Moerad uncovered evidence that Bonwhin may have been involved in the death of Amaline and Hawkwing’s children. Whilst this would have explained Hawkwing’s furious attack on Tar Valon, it does not explain the slow build-up to that fury; surely Hawkwing would have struck at once, with the element of surprise, instead of slowly dismissing all Aes Sedai from their posts and giving some forewarning to the White Tower that something was wrong? One possibility is that Moerad initially suggested the idea as a hypothesis and Hawkwing only acted in anger when hard evidence was brought before him.

It is probable that Bonwhin did not order the deaths of Amaline or her children. In fact, whilst she despised Hawkwing, Bonwhin seems to have at least tolerated and respected Amaline (unlike Tamika, whom she disliked immensely). There was also no logic to the decision: aside from provoking Hawkwing, what purpose would have been served by killing his wife? That leaves the conclusion that Moerad faked the evidence for his own ends.

At this point some readers may draw parallels between Moerad and Ba’alzamon/Ishamael, given their similar contempt for the post-Breaking Aes Sedai, their half-maddened demeanour and their complex, murky schemes. This is hardened by the fact that, like Ba’alzamon, Moerad vanished without a trace forty years almost to the day after he first appeared and during all that time he did not age. The simple truth is that we do not have enough information to do more than speculate.

Tar Valon fell under siege in the summer of FY 975. It was a siege that was to last for the rest of Hawkwing’s life and even a few months longer. It was a war to the death, with no quarter given. Despite numerous entreaties from the White Tower, Hawkwing refused to negotiate. The Aes Sedai either had to surrender or suffer the consequences. Interestingly, whilst a few Aes Sedai were captured during the nineteen-year-long siege (usually by threatening their Warders or soldier escorts with death should they attempt to use the One Power to escape) none were executed or even harmed at all. Hawkwing’s rage seems to have been primarily directed at Bonwhin personally and the other Aes Sedai were merely swept up in it.

Whilst Tar Valon is a large city (more than sixteen square miles), Hawkwing’s armies had no difficulty in surrounding it. Tens of thousands of soldiers were permanently committed to the siege, although these were rotated out to maintain combat freshness. However, the city never fell. Any attempt to breach the Shining Walls was immediately met with a deadly response from Green and Red Ajah sisters wielding the One Power (the Three Oaths permitted the use of the Power in self-defence). In addition, attempts to block the river were thwarted because the Aes Sedai, working together with angreal and sa’angreal, could remove an obstruction at a distance of several miles. Food was smuggled in by boat by sympathisers to the Aes Sedai cause, who did not believe they deserved this treatment.

Outside of Tar Valon, the Empire remained relatively at peace, despite frequent entreaties to Hawkwing from his juniors to lift the siege. Apparently even Tamika, who disliked Bonwhin intently, thought he had perhaps gone too far. But he did not relent.

Another eleven years passed. Aside from the siege, the Empire remained prosperous and stable.

This stability was suddenly interrupted by news of a huge, unexpected Trolloc invasion out of the Great Blight. This assault began early in FY 986, but had been dismissed as nothing more than a large raid. Weeks later this changed, with tens of thousands of Trollocs, Myrddraal, Darkhounds, Grey Men and Draghkar overrunning the Blightborder forts in numbers not seen since the Trolloc Wars. Curiously, they did not destroy or even attack Fal Dara or the other major fortresses in the area, instead bypassing them and heading due south towards the capital itself.

Hawkwing, now 74 years old, moved as quickly and decisively as ever, assembling the Imperial Army and marching northwards. In seven massive battles ranging over eighteen months the Trollocs were slaughtered almost completely. The final battle took place in the summer of FY 987 at the Field of Talidar, roughly halfway between Kinslayer’s Dagger and the River Erinin south of Fal Dara. After the battle Hawkwing raised a huge monument, inscribed with the name of every soldier who fell in the battle. This monument was reputedly huge, so big it seemed incredible it had been made by the hands of man alone, without the use of the One Power.

This act confirmed the people’s love of Hawkwing, a love tempered with sympathy when Tamika died in the autumn of FY 987. Hawkwing was heartbroken, but her death was of natural causes and their four children - Luthair Paendrag Mondair (b. FY 967), Laiwynde Paendrag (b. c. FY 975) and two others, names unknown - survived to comfort him. Early in FY 988 Hawkwing began massive planning, throwing himself into work to compensate for his loss. He planned a new Imperial Capital located at the exact heart of the subcontinent, halfway between the Mountains of Dhoom and the Sea of Storms, the Aryth Ocean and the Spine of the World, on the Caralain Grass. The people refused to build the city, however, without first raising a statue of Hawkwing himself. Despite Hawkwing’s protests a huge statue of himself was erected early in FY 989, even before the marking-out of the new city boundaries began.

Some saw this as the beginning of the end for Hawkwing, the start of a semi-retirement from his great achievements. But they were proved wrong. Hawkwing had one last surprise in store for the world.

The Great Fleets & the Death of the Hawkwing
Whilst his new capital was marked out, Hawkwing began military preparations as well. Intrigued by Sea Folk legends of "the Isles of the Dead" that lay on the far side of the Aryth Ocean and reasoning that another continent existed there (a supposition possibly confirmed by Moerad, although his sources are unknown), he ordered the construction of a colonisation fleet, apparently consisting of some two thousand ships and over 300,000 military and civilian personnel. Whilst this fleet took shape at the western ports of Tanchico, Falme and Bandar Eban, Hawkwing then ordered the assembly of a second fleet, reputedly of equal size to the first, at the southern ports of Ebou Dar, Illian and Tear. He even ordered the founding of a new construction facility at the most extreme south-eastern part of the subcontinent, on the south-eastern coast of the Bay of Remara. A town grew up supporting the naval yards, rapidly growing into a city named Mayene.

After around four years of effort the first fleet was completed and dispatched westwards, across the Aryth Ocean. It was under the command of Luthair Paendrag Mondair, Hawkwing’s eldest surviving son. Some reports also suggest that Hawkwing’s second son also accompanied the expedition, but if he did he died shortly thereafter; certainly historical records held in Seandar fail to mention the existence of Luthair’s brother. Hawkwing founded a society, the Watchers Over the Waves, at Falme to relay messages that came back from across the sea.

The second fleet departed a year later, in FY 993. Its destination lay to the east, in Shara. The Sea Folk recorded the successful assaults on several Sharan cities and their capture. However, it seems that Hawkwing badly underestimated the military and naval prowess of the Sharans as well as being completely unaware of the Sharan sect known as the Ayyad, channellers of the One Power (women and men). The imperial army was slaughtered, the survivors taken as slaves and the fleet burned. The fate of the expedition commander, a daughter of Hawkwing’s, name unknown, remains a mystery.

The lack of news from across the Aryth Ocean and the Sea Folk accounts of the defeat of the Sharan expedition left Hawkwing silent and brooding. As FY 994 began he fell into a decline, eating less and sleeping more. A message arrived from Luthair in the spring. It did not sound hopeful. Luthair’s forces had been defeated in several battles by Aes Sedai openly wielding the One Power in battle and apparently working in alliance with Shadowspawn. Luthair report dubbed these "the Armies of the Night." Whilst Luthair’s forces had seized a stretch of the coast, it seemed that this fleet as well was doomed to destruction.

Hawkwing was struck by a sudden fever. As the weeks and months passed he became prone to hallucinatory fits, speaking of Tamika and Amaline as if they were in the room with him and often crying out for his sword, Justice. News of Hawkwing’s illness spread to every corner of the Empire and hundreds of medical experts, healers and even Wise Women from Ebou Dar came to the Imperial Palace to see what they could do. Nothing worked.

Then a message arrived from Tar Valon. All historians and first-hand accounts agreed it was the single most startling document they had ever seen and it is a true tragedy that no copies of it exist anywhere today. According to all accounts, the message was from the newly-raised Amyrlin Seat, Deane Aryman (formerly of the Blue Ajah). Aryman informed Hawkwing that Bonwhin Meraighdin had been stripped of rank and title two years previously and stilled for her attempts to manipulate him. She was now working as a scullery maid in the White Tower kitchen. Aryman failed to confirm or deny any involvement on Bonwhin’s part in the deaths of Amaline and the children, but she did offer to send Yellow sisters to carry out a full Healing that would probably save his life. Hawkwing refused. His last confirmed order was dispatched to General Souran Maravaile, ordering him to continue the siege of Tar Valon until the last man.

Artur Paendrag Tanreall, Artur Hawkwing, the High King of the Westlands, died in the summer of FY 994, aged eighty-two years. Within days of his death a crucial letter arrived. One was from the city of Mayene, informing the High King of the death of his daughter Laiwynde in a shipwreck on the Bay of Remara and the presumed loss of his grandson Tyrn sur Paendrag Mashera as well. This was important for it meant that no direct heirs to the Hawkwing now survived him this side of the Aryth Ocean.

Hawkwing was dead and he had left no heirs or instructions on how to decide who would follow him. The stage was set for bloody civil war.

The illustration of Hawkwing was created by Adam Masterman. More of his artwork can be seen here and here.

Please note that Parts 10-12 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.