Thursday, 12 September 2019

HBO to order second GAME OF THRONES pilot about the Dance of Dragons

According to an exclusive story from Entertainment Weekly, HBO are close to ordering a second Game of Thrones spin-off pilot. This second pilot would be based on the Dance of Dragons, the devastating civil war that almost wiped out the Targaryens and did kill most of their dragons about 170 years before the events of the main series.


Ryan Condal, who was recently developing Amazon's Conan the Barbarian TV series before they passed on it, is developing the pilot. According to some rumours, he may have taken over development of this project from Bryan Cogman, who was working on a Game of Thrones project before being poached by Amazon to work on their Lord of the Rings: The Second Age series. This remains unconfirmed.

HBO is currently assessing the completed pilot for the first spin-off, with the working title Bloodmoon, before deciding to move forwards with a series order. It is unclear if this second show means that the first is dead, or they will consider having two spin-off series on air at the same time.

HIS DARK MATERIALS TV series to debut on 2 November

His Dark Materials will premiere in the UK on BBC-1 on Saturday 2 November, this year. HBO will premiere the show in the United States the following evening, Sunday 3 November.


The first season of His Dark Materials will comprise eight episodes and will adapt the first book in the series, Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass in some territories). The second season, in pre-production at the moment, will adapt The Subtle Knife, with a to-be-confirmed third and final season to adapt The Amber Spyglass.

Meanwhile, the second volume in Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust, a sequel trilogy to His Dark Materials, will be published on 3 October under the title The Secret Commonwealth.

First cast picture of the WHEEL OF TIME TV series released

Showrunner Rafe Judkins has shared the first cast picture from The Wheel of Time TV series, which is due to start shooting in the next week or two.


From left to right: Barney Harris (Mat), Madeleine Madden (Egwene), Zoe Robbins (Nynaeve), Marcus Rutherford (Perrin), Rosamund Pike (Moiraine), Josha Stradowski (Rand) and Daniel Henney (Lan).

The cast of the show are currently in Prague undergoing costume-fitting, read-throughs and rehearsals ahead of the start of principle shooting.

The Wheel of Time series is expected to shoot through spring 2020 for airing in late 2020 or early 2021 on Amazon Prime Video.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Alexander Skarsgård cast as Randall Flagg in Stephen King's THE STAND

CBS All Access has cast Alexander Skarsgård in the villainous role of Randall Flagg in Stephen King's The Stand.


One of the most iconic villains in all of horror, the supernatural Flagg arises from the chaos of the apocalypse to unleash a time of evil, savagery and darkness upon the world. He is opposed by the virtuous Mother Abigail, who assembles a band of mild-mannered heroes to fight him. Flagg is defeated in The Stand but not destroyed, and goes on to appear in several of King's other novels, including The Eyes of the Dragon and, as the "the man in black," the seven-volume Dark Tower series, where he serves as the primary antagonist.

Flagg was previously played by Jamey Sheridan in the 1994 TV mini-series version of The Stand and by Matthew McConaughey in the unsuccessful 2017 movie version of The Dark Tower.

Skarsgård is best-known for playing the role of morally ambiguous vampire Eric Northman on HBO's True Blood. He has also starred in HBO's Generation Kill and Big Little Lies, for which he won an Emmy Award.

The new version of The Stand will adapt the book across 10 episodes. It also stars James Marsden as Stu Redman, Amber Heard as Nadine Cross, Odessa Young as Frannie Goldsmith, Henry Zaga as Nick Andros, Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abigail, Jovan Adepo as Larry Underwood, Owen Teague as Harold Lauder, Brad William Henke as Tom Cullen and Daniel Sunjata as Cobb. It starts shooting imminently and will air in late 2020.

THE WATCH TV series casts Vimes and other castmembers, confirms it will only be a "loose" adaptation

BBC America's City Watch TV series, based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, has added several major new roles to its cast.



Richard Dormer, best-known to fantasy fans for playing the role of Lord Beric Dondarrion in HBO's Game of Thrones, has been cast as Sam Vimes, the commanding officer of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. One of Pratchett's most iconic characters, Vimes is the alcoholic, cynical commanding officer with a hint of a conscience who finds himself drawn back into real police work. The previously-announced Adam Hugill is playing Carrot and Jo Eaton-Kent (The Romanoffs, Don't Forget the Driver) is playing Constable Cheery Littlebottom, a dwarfish member of the Watch.


Maltese actress Marama Corlett (Guardians of the Galaxy, Blood Drive, The City and The City) is playing Angua, a werewolf member of the Watch. Lara Rossi (Crossing Lines, Iron Sky 2) has been cast as Lady Sybil Ramkin, whilst Sam Adewunmi (Luck Man, Doctor Who) has been cast as villain Carcer Dun.

The casting seems promising, although the formal BBC press release seems to drive a stake through the heart of those hoping for a faithful adaptation of the novels. It confirms a number of major changes to both the worldbuilding (crime has been formally "legalised" in Ankh-Morpork, apparently) and to characters, with Lady Sybil now apparently being a vigilante, which is presumably why they cast her considerably younger than in the novels.

It appears that this will be following in the footsteps of BBC America's Dirk Gently TV series in being more "inspired loosely by the books" then actually adapting them, which is a bold and possibly controversial choice (moreso with the considerably better-known and better-selling Discworld series).

The Watch starts shooting on location in South Africa on 30 September 2019 and will air in late 2020.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Blogging Roundup: 11 July to 9 September 2019



The Wertzone
News
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE adds a new castmember
WHEEL OF TIME TV series casts Lan Mandragoran
EARTHSEA books heading back to the screen
HOMEWORLD 3 formally announced
New CYBERPUNK 2077 gameplay video shows contrasting playstyles
HIS DARK MATERIALS confirms actors for Iorek and the daemons
Live-action DISCWORLD TV series casts Captain Carrot
Netflix's AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER reboot beings pre-production
WITCHER TV series targeting October/November release date
New GORMENGHAST TV series greenlit at Showtime
The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer to be renamed
Developers tease new HOMEWORLD project
Off to WorldCon & EuroCon
WHEEL OF TIME TV show confirms main castmembers
STAR TREK franchise reunited for the first time in fifteen years
BROKEN EARTH RPG in the works
Stephen King writing a new ending for TV version of THE STAND
J. Michael Straczynski & Brandon Sanderson developing a new urban fantasy TV show
Tom Shippey interview sheds more light on LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS movie gets yet another creative shake-up
Joss Whedon's THE NEVERS announces cast
1981 version of STAR WARS gets a very limited re-release
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE confirms full creative line-up
THE EXPANSE renewed for fifth season at Amazon
Producers confirm three-season run for HIS DARK MATERIALS
George Miller back at work on MAD MAX: FURY ROAD follow-up
DUNE wraps shooting, SISTERHOOD spin-off show gets writing team
Hulu developing new HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY TV series
First castmember confirmed for LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE
DUNE board game due in September
CBS reveals first details about STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS
Marvel reveal their movie and TV line-up for the next two years
AVENGERS: ENDGAME becomes the highest-grossing film of all time
THE ORVILLE moves from Fox to Hulu for Season 3
WATCHMEN TV series gets new trailer
THE EXPANSE Season 4 gets trailer, clip and airdate
Familiar faces join the crew in first STAR TREK: PICARD trailer
Harmony Gold and Tatsunoko Productions reach major new ROBOTECH deal
Netflix drops first trailer for THE WITCHER
STRANGER THINGS low-key renewed for a fourth season
The BBC unveils a new trailer for HIS DARK MATERIALS
Live-action WARHAMMER 40,000 TV series in development
TRANSFORMERS finally gets a movie-accurate Unicron toy
Taika Waititi to direct Thor 4, Akira put on hold
Amazon LORD OF THE RINGS presentation confirms Rings of Power focus



Reviews
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Community: Season 5
Empire of Grass by Tad Williams
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
The Leftovers: Season 1
Battles of Westeros
Dying Light: The Following



Articles
RIP Terrance Dicks
A Bit Closer to Heaven: A Max Payne Retrospective
George R.R. Martin in London
RIP Rutger Hauer
SF&F Questions: Which is the longest-running SF or Fantasy TV series?
Happy 50th anniversary to "Space Oddity"


Atlas of Ice and Fire
The Noble Housesof Westeros
Dragonlance: A Map of Ansalon
Stellar Cartography: Bajor
Dragonlance: A Map of Krynn
A Map of Osten Ard
A Map of Shadows of the Apt
The Wheel of Time Atlas: The Free Years



Patreon
A Bit Closer to Heaven: A Max Payne Retrospective
SF&F Questions: Does human religion still exist at the time of STAR TREK?
Sequence Complete: The Empire Trilogy by Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts



Dragonmount
Adam's Wheel of Television: On Casting the Man Alone


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 Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE adds a new castmember

Amazon's Lord of the Rings: The Second Age (working title) TV series has cast another character, although they have not identified who it is.


Actor Will Poulter is playing "one of the lead roles" on the series, alongside Markella Kavenagh who has already been cast in the role of "Tyra" (possibly a code name for another character).

Poulter has had a successful year, particularly for playing Colin in the Black Mirror interactive episode Bandersnatch. He also played the lead role of Mark in the movie Midsommar. He also has a recurring role on the Maze Runner film series and earlier in his career played Eustance on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third Chronicles of Narnia movie.

The Lord of the Rings: The Second Age is expected to start preliminary shooting this month ahead of entering full-time production in the spring for an early 2021 debut.

WHEEL OF TIME TV series casts Lan Mandragoran

Amazon’s Wheel of Time TV series has found it’s Lan


39-year old Daniel Henney is playing the role of al’Lan Mandragoran, the Uncrowned King of Malkier. In The Wheel of Time books Lan is a proud warrior who serves as Warder to Moiraine Damodred (to be played in the TV show by Rosamund Pike). He also helps train Rand, Mat and Perrin in the art of fighting and develops a close relationship with Nynaeve. Lan is a fan-favourite character and news of his casting has been eagerly awaited.

Henney is best-known for starring in Criminal Minds and Hawaii Five-0, as well as appearing in movies including X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Last Stand, as well as providing voice-over work for Big Hero Six.

Speculation was rife earlier this week that Korean actor Choi Si-won had been cast in the role, attracting some criticism that at 33 he was too young for the role. The reason why Si-won was thought to have been cast is unclear, leading to speculation he may be up for another role.

EARTHSEA books heading back to the screen

A fresh attempt to adapt Ursula K. Le Guin's classic Earthsea fantasy saga to the screen is underway.


A24 Studios have joined forces with producer Jennifer Fox (Michael Clayton, Nightcrawler) and Le Guin's son, Theo Downes-Le Guin, to bring the project to the screen. They are developing a television series which will faithfully adapt the books to the screen.

A previous attempt to adapt the books for television was made in 2004 by SyFy. Starring Shawn Ashmore and Kristin Kreuk, the mini-series was criticised for its huge deviations from the source material, in particular "whitewashing" the characters of Earthsea (most of whom are explicitly dark-skinned) with Caucasian actors.

In 2006 Studio Ghibli produced Tales from Earthsea, an animated film which is set in the Earthsea world but uses an original story. Le Guin was lukewarm on the results, and it is generally regarded as one of the weaker entries in the Studio Ghibli canon.

Le Guin passed away in January 2018 at the age of 88, but there has been a huge resurgence in interest in her work recently. The Books of Earthsea (2018), which collects all six Earthsea books and several novellas and short stories, has been a major success and has won its illustrator, Charles Vess, two Hugo Awards. A documentary film on Le Guin's career, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, has also won significant critical acclaim.

Monday, 2 September 2019

RIP Terrance Dicks

Terrence Dicks, the most prolific and arguably the most important writer of Doctor Who in its history, has sadly passed away at the age of 84.


Dicks was born in 1935 in East Ham, Essex, and studied English at college. He did a stint in the British Army on National Service, and then worked as an advertising copywriter. The need to produce a large amount of written material to strict deadlines later served him in good stead as a scriptwriter and novelist. He started writing radio plays for the BBC in the late 1950s and in 1962 was recruited by his good friend Malcolm Hulke to co-write episodes of the drama series The Avengers.

His association with Doctor Who began in 1968 when he was recruited to serve as script editor during the third and final season featuring the Second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. Dicks and Hulke re-teamed to co-write the epic ten-episode saga that concluded Troughton's run, The War Games. Dicks and incoming producer Barry Letts also masterminded the first major shift in Doctor Who's format, which saw the show switch to colour production and introduced UNIT.

Dicks and Letts formed a highly successful "dream team" which oversaw all five seasons of the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, and introduced the Fourth, Tom Baker. This period is one of the most critically acclaimed of the show's run. Dicks didn't accept any writing credits during this period, despite sometimes heavily rewriting scripts from other writers. Dicks also became something of an expert on the show's history and canon, writing the 1972 non-fiction book The Making of Doctor Who.

He stepped down as script editor during the Fourth Doctor's first season and resumed writing scripts as a writer on the show, turning in Robot (Tom Baker's first story), The Brain of Morbius, Horror of Fang Rock and State of Decay. In 1983 Dicks' knowledge of the history of the show led him to be invited to write The Five Doctors, the Doctor Who 20th anniversary special. This was Dicks' last on-screen contribution to the Doctor Who mythos, having penned 35 episodes in total.


However, Dicks' primary contribution to the Doctor Who mythos was arguably in a different format altogether. In 1973 Target Books had reprinted three Doctor Who novelisations from the mid-1960s and these had been hugely successful. In 1974 they decided to launch an ambitious plan to adapt every single Doctor Who story to print. In the pre-video era, this would allow fans to experience the stories and especially enjoy stories that could not be aired again due to having missing episodes. Dicks was asked to act as the range editor. He agreed, with the plan being that the original scriptwriter should write the novel, ensuring they would get paid again for their stories. Where this proved impossible or impractical, Dicks would step in and write the novel himself.

The net result was that between 1974 and 1990 Dicks would write 64 novels. His most productive year was 1980, when he published no less than nine novelisations. This novels were short by modern standards - typically 120-124 pages - and of course were based on pre-existing scripts, but this was still a hugely impressive feat.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Dicks taught an entire generation of British children to read: the Target Doctor Who range sold enormously well for over twenty years and Dicks was by far its most productive author.

In the 1990s Dicks switched to the Doctor Who: The New Adventures line which told new and original stories. Dicks' first novel for the line (and the second in its run), Timewyrm: Exodus, was also one of the most critically-acclaimed, a dark and edgy story set in an alternate timeline where 1950s Britain has lost WWII and is under Nazi rule. The brutal and adult story set the tone for the line (especially after the disappointing opening book). Dicks contributed several further, well-received books including Blood Harvest (a sequel to his TV script State of Decay). He switched to the BBC Books range when they reacquired the licence in 1996 and he wrote The Eight Doctors (1997), the biggest-selling Doctor Who novel of all time. His last contribution to the novel range was Revenge of the Judoon (2008), featuring the Tenth Doctor.

On top of all of that, Dicks also wrote the two official Doctor Who stage plays (Seven Days to Doomsday and The Ultimate Adventure) and two fan movies (Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans and Mindgame).

Outside of Doctor Who, Dicks wrote scripts for Moonbase 3 and Space: 1999, produced the mini-series David Copperfield and The Diary of Ann Frank and wrote no less than 143 other children's books and YA novels.

Terrance Dicks was the most prolific writer of Doctor Who, but also a generous writer known for bringing other talented writers onto the franchise. He will be hugely missed, especially by those of us who still have a box of his Doctor Who novels under the bed.

Friday, 30 August 2019

HOMEWORLD 3 formally announced


Gearbox Software have formally announced Homeworld 3, the third main game (and fifth overall) in the space-based real-time strategy video game series. Blackbird Interactive are developing the game for Gearbox.


Originally developed by Relic Entertainment and released in 1999, Homeworld was critically lauded for its advanced 3D engine and the power it gave players to build fleets of ships and move them around in space. It was followed in 2000 by a spin-off, Homeworld: Cataclysm (recently renamed Homeworld: Emergence due to copyright issues with Blizzard), and in 2003 by a direct sequel, Homeworld 2. The franchise languished in obscurity for many years due to Sega buying out Relic and the Homeworld IP changing hands several times.


In 2015 Gearbox Software rescued the IP and released Homeworld: Remastered, a thorough remixing of Homeworld and Homeworld 2 with new, high-resolution graphics and sound effects. In 2016 they joined forces with Blackbird Interactive, a company formed of ex-Relic staff and consisting of many of the original developers on the games, and released a land-based prequel, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak. Both were well-received.

Homeworld 3 takes place some years after the events of Homeworld 2 and seems to focus on the Eye of Arran, a vast hyperspace gateway discovered in the closing moments of Homeworld 2.


It's been confirmed that iconic musician Paul Ruskay will be returning for the game, along with many veteran developers who worked on Homeworld, Homeworld 2 and Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak.

In a less-expected move, the game is seeking additional information via Fig. The game is already pre-funded - the Fig target is $1 - but apparently the investment is so that players can use Fig's feedback systems to suggest ideas for the game and even profit if it ends up being a huge success.

The game is early in development and is targeting a late 2022 release date.

New CYBERPUNK 2077 gameplay video shows contrasting playstyles

CD Projekt Red have released a new gameplay video showing two contrasting approaches to their forthcoming SF RPG, Cyberpunk 2077.


In the video, they contrast the approach taken by a combat-heavy, "strong solo" player favouring direct confrontation and weaponry against that of a "netrunner," a stealth character who can hack computer systems and subvert AIs to their will.

CDPR is entering the home run on development of the massive game, which they have been working on since 2012. The game is set for release on 16 April 2020.

HIS DARK MATERIALS confirms actors for Iorek and the dæmons

The BBC and HBO have announced more of the cast for their adaptation of His Dark Materials, the first season of which is due to air in the autumn. This time around they've focused on the voice actors for the various CG creations in the show.



Joe Tandberg has been confirmed as the voice of Iorek Byrnison, an armoured bear of the north. Cristela Alonzo is playing the voice of Hester, Lee Scoresby's dæmon. Kit Connor is playing Pantalaimon, Lyra's dæmon. Veteran British actor David Suchet is playing Kaisa, the dæmon of Serafina Pekkala. Brian Fisher is playing the Golden Monkey, the dæmon of Ms. Coulter.

Season 1 of His Dark Materials is expected to air in October or November this year on BBC1 in the UK and on HBO in the United States.

Live-action DISCWORLD TV series casts Captain Carrot

The BBC's live-action Discworld TV series, with the working title The Watch, has cast its first actor. Adam Hugill will be playing the role of Captain Carrot on the series.


The new TV series, which is being developed by BBC America as an eight-part fantasy procedural, is inspired by the "City Watch" subset of the Discworld novels (starting with Guards! Guards!) by the late Sir Terry Pratchett. Oddly, the show will not be adapting the novels but will instead be using characters and situations established in them. The fact that werewolf Angua and dwarfish forensics expert Cheery are already part of the roster when the show opens suggests that the series may be acting as a companion or sequel to the books.

Hugill recently appeared in the pilot episode for Pennyworth and has a role on the upcoming Sam Mendes WWI movie 1917.

The Watch is now in pre-production and is expected to debut in late 2020.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Netflix's AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER reboot begins pre-production

Netflix's live-action reboot/remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender has officially begun pre-production. Location scouting and casting is underway, and the show has begun visual effects testing.


James Lew (Luke Cage) was acting as a stand-in for Fire Lord Ozai during the tests, which is intriguing as in the original animated series Ozai did not appear properly until the first episode of Season 3 (although he did appear, in shadow, in several earlier and flashback scenes). Lew is apparently considering auditioning for the role properly in the final series.

A CG test was also carried out with stand-ins for Sokka and Katara taking on a band of marauders at the south pole, with Katara using her waterbending abilities to defeat them. In a possible change to the lore, Katara is apparently unaware of her waterbending powers before they manifest in this sequence. It is unclear if this is a flashback to an earlier time or something that happens around the same time they find Aang.

Reportedly, location scouting has been underway in both Hawaii and Vancouver, the former presumably to stand in for the hotter climates and locations the heroes visit (such as the Fire Nation and the Earth Nation). Vancouver is most likely going to be the production base.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is being executive produced and co-written by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, who produced and showran the original animated series as well. Original composer Jeremy Zuckerman is also returning.

The show is currently tentatively scheduled for release on Netflix in late 2020.

WITCHER TV series targeting October/November release date

A producer on The Witcher has confirmed that Netflix is targeting a release date at the end of October or start of November for the series. This came after some earlier rumours pointed at a December launch.


Giovanni Altamarquez confirmed that principle photography finished several months ago, but some late reshoots have taken place after one role (unidentified) was recast. The show is now very deep in post-production, with CG and sound effects being added, and should be ready for an autumn launch. Altamarquez suggested that Friday, 1 November may be the most likely launch date at the moment.

It is possible this date may be off, as it depends on what else Netflix and its rivals are launching that week, but it does seem to be a reasonable estimate.


UPDATE

Some doubts have been cast on the accuracy of the source. However, it should be noted that Netflix's own marketing has confirmed a 2019 release date and the October-November period remains a likely launch window.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

3 March 1952. A sizeable meteorite crashes into Chesapeake Bay, obliterating most of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. As the USA reels from the disaster, which kills millions, the resulting ecological damage threatens to start a runaway greenhouse effect which will make the planet uninhabitable within a century. The world's nations rally to begin a crash space programme to colonise the Moon and Mars to save as many people as possible.


The Calculating Stars (which has just won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel) is the first novel in the four-book Lady Astronaut series, which takes place in an alternative history where a meteorite strike in 1952 threatens the future of the human race. The title refers to the main protagonist, Elma York, a WWII transport pilot and mathematician who finds herself at the forefront of the mission to save the human race. This effort involves a multi-national effort via a trans-national space race involving thousands of people.

Numerous issues are raised and explored by The Calculating Stars, including an exploration of the Space Race starting earlier, using less sophisticated 1950s technology; a confrontation of sexism and racism in the setting; the damage caused by the meteorite and resulting climate change, complete with deniers refusing to believe anything bad will happen; and an exploration of the intersection of science, societal change and technology.

This multitude of plot points contributes to the book's length. At over 500 pages, it's a fair bit longer than most SF novels tend to be these days, but the sheer amount of material that needs to be explored means the pages fly by. The Calculating Stars is also written in an extremely easy-to-read manner, with prose that lacks artistry but also doesn't get in the way of the story. In this sense The Calculating Stars feels like an old-fashioned Hugo Award winner, like Spin or Rendezvous with Rama, eschewing stylised prose and in-depth characterisation to instead focus on the plot and the high concepts.

The book does adopt a more modern outlook by tackling 1950s issues of sexism and racism head-on. An interest social point from World War II is that women were able to take on a multitude of roles, from working in bomb factories to flying non-combat aircraft (apart from in Russia, where they were able to serve more freely on the front lines), but the second the war ended they were expected to go back to being housewives and mothers. The meteorite crisis means that once again women have to take a front line role as mathematicians, programmers for the very early computers and in other roles that a lot of men are unhappy with. Some have suggested this problem is overstated in the book, but if anything it probably undersells it (if anything, Elma's husband being a paragon of equality-supporting hunkness who supports her every decision feels a bit convenient, but given everything else going on it's an understandable approach), and not tackling the issue would be highly unrealistic.

Months and sometimes years flash by in chapters and the sheer scale of the effort to save the human race is impressively depicted. The novel does not shirk away from the darker side of human nature in the time period, but it also highlights its good points, such as the much greater acceptance of scientific discovery and exploration. Some may question the realism of us being able to get to the Moon more than a decade earlier than in real life, but Kowal's afterword provides some compelling arguments.

The Calculating Stars (****) is both a traditional, even classic-feeling SF novel and a modernist, revisionist take on a fascinating time period, celebrating the human spirit in full. As others have said, it is an enjoyable mix of The Right Stuff and Hidden Figures. It is available now in the UK and USA. It is followed by The Fated Sky and the forthcoming The Relentless Moon and The Derivative Base.

Community: Season 5

Jeff Winger's renewed legal career has crashed and burned, leading him reluctantly back to Greendale Community College and a new job. He reconnects with old friends and faces new challenges.


Community was a sitcom which fused pop culture references, metacommentary on the show's own fictional nature and biting humour, all elements brought to the table by its creator and chief writer, Dan Harmon. Due to behind-the-scenes politics and a clash between Harmon and actor Chevy Chase, Harmon was fired from the show between Seasons 3 and 4, and a new showrunning team brought on board. The resulting fourth season, although not a total disaster, was found to be lacking compared to the previous years. With Chase departing, Harmon was reinstated for the final two seasons.

Season 5 is an immediate improvement over its forebear. The high concepts are back, such as a completely animated episode which sees the regular characters joining G.I. Joe and a "Floor is Lava" game that gets completely out of hand. These are fun and amusing, with the stories and actors clearly reinvigorated by Harmon's return and Chase's departure (most of the cast agree that Chase could be a toxic presence on set).

However, the show struggles with a much bigger mid-season change: the departure of Donald Glover as Troy Barnes. Troy is one of the most consistently funny characters on the show and is also arguably its heart, with the Troy-Abed relationship being the cornerstone of the series. Glover's departure leaves a gap that the show can't quite fill, despite a spirited attempt to team up Abed with Annie instead.

Other changes are more successful: after a two-season absence, John Oliver returns as Professor Duncan and immediately re-injects his brand of snarky humour back into the series, whilst Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad) is phenomenal as Professor Hickey. A second Dungeons and Dragons episode may be a little self-derivative, but it works well, and the season-long arc about finding a way of saving Greendale is reasonably successful.

The fifth season of Community (****) restores some of the zest and energy lost in the fourth, but the departure of Troy and the near-immediate reduction in character of Abed is a sign that perhaps the show has suffered too many cast departures to remain viable. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

New GORMENGHAST TV series greenlit at Showtime

Showtime has given a series order to Gormenghast, a fresh TV adaptation of Mervyn Peake's influential fantasy series.


Mervyn Peake's trilogy, consisting of Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959), is one of the most critically-acclaimed fantasy works of all time and considered to be one of the most important works of the fantastic ever published. The first two books were previously adapted as a television mini-series starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Christopher Lee and Stephen Fry in 2000.

Toby Whithouse (Being Human, Doctor Who) is showrunning the new project, with Neil Gaiman (Good Omens, American Gods) as an executive producer. Akiva Goldsman (Fringe, Star Trek: Discovery, Amazon's Dark Tower project) is also a producer and may write for the show.

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer to be renamed

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which recognises fresh and new talent in the science fiction and fantasy field, is to be renamed following concerns raised about the name.


The award is sponsored by Dell Magazines, who publish Analog, the magazine that Campbell rose to fame for editing (under the title Astounding, until he changed it in 1960). Campbell was a famed writer and editor, arguably best-known in fiction for his story "Who Goes There?" which has been adapted to film as The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982). However, he was also a controversial figure in his own lifetime for his views on race, slavery and pseudoscience, which caused him to sometimes fall out with close friends including Isaac Asimov, whose career he had helped nurture. Campbell's view that slavery was a natural tenet of mankind and his refusal to publish stories with black protagonists caused significant friction in his own lifetime.

The John W. Campbell Award was introduced in 1973, two years after Campbell's death, and was meant to champion new talent in SF&F. Anyone who had published a debut work of SF or fantasy within two years of the award date was eligible, no matter the medium. The award was sponsored by the publishers of Analog but it was organised and voted on as part of the annual Hugo Awards, held every year at the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon). The very first winner of the Campbell was Jerry Pournelle. Later winners included Lisa Tuttle, C.J. Cherryh, Stephen Donaldson, Ted Chiang, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, Naomi Novik and Wesley Chu.

The debate about the name was revived by this year's Hong Kong-born winner, Jeanette Ng, who pointed out in her awards acceptance speech that Campbell would have been highly unlikely to publish or appreciate her fiction, and she felt the award continuing to be given in his name was wrong. This has sparked a debate for the past few days amongst SFF fans and critics.

The publishers have responded by confirming that from 2020 (where the award will be given in Wellington, New Zealand), the award will be renamed the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, to commemorate the influence and impact of the magazine on the field of SF and fantasy.

The John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel, an unrelated award, is awarded annually by the Centre for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. There is no indication that they are also considering changing their name.

A Bit Closer to Heaven: A Max Payne Retrospective


A Binary Choice
"They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark to everything that had led to this point. I released my finger from the trigger. And then it was over."

In 2001 an obscure Finnish developer with exactly one video game to their name (a combat racer named Death Rally) released what many consider to be the finest action game ever made. Max Payne was a game that mashed together so many genre influences that it could have collapsed under its own weight. Instead it combined all of them into something artful and masterful, to the point where a full eighteen years after release there still hasn’t been anything really like it, save only the first of its sequels.

Rewinding a little, Remedy Entertainment was founded in Espoo, the second city of Finland, in 1995. It arose out of the demoscene, a movement dedicated to creating self-contained audio/visual demos which also served as testbeds for new software and technology. One demoscene group, Future Crew, decided to use their skills to form a company and create their first game. Death Rally, made in a team-member’s basement, was published by Apogee in 1996 and was a minor hit, enough for the company to expand and go big for its next game.

The company considered three ideas for their next title: a third-person shooter, another racing game and a space combat sim. Apogee were keen to continue their partnership and founder Scott Miller looked over the ideas. He thought the space combat idea was a bit niche and had a lot of successful series already underway (the X-Wing and Wing Commander series in particular, soon to be joined by Freespace), but that the action game idea was promising. First-person shooters were all the rage but arguably no-one had created a successful third-person shooter as yet, a Tomb Raider with less puzzle solving and more gunplay. There was also a nice synergy going on: Apogee Software had just rebranded itself as 3D Realms and released one of the most acclaimed first-person shooters of all time, Duke Nukem 3D.

Miller agreed to fund the game on the grounds that Remedy produced a graphically stunning game, that it didn’t cost too much and that they changed the working title of Dark Justice. He wanted a memorable, punchy title, preferably with the main character’s name in it. The team at Remedy were stumped until Miller suggested "Max” (possibly inspired either by Max Headroom or Homer Simpson’s "Max Power" alter-ego, or both) and the team suggested "Heat". A pleased 3D Realms spent $20,000 securing trademarks on the name until Remedy came back suggesting that "Max Heat" sounded like a porn title and what about "Max Payne". A few more thousand dollars later and the game had a name.

What it didn’t have was a story, engine or central mechanic. Remedy were not cowed, using their considerably technical prowess to quickly start building a 3D engine they called MAX-FX, putting a considerable amount of effort into particle effects and muzzle flares. An early tech demo, released to the public in 1998, made jaws collectively drop and started building hype for the game. Remedy had also decided to hire a professional writer, Sam Lake (who’d already provided some writing help on Death Rally), who started building up a significant amount of backstory for the central character of Max Payne. A massive fan of American TV crime dramas and pulp noir thriller novels, Lake wanted to make the game a psychological thriller as well as a violent action game, one that deconstructed the protagonist as it went along. Both he and the design team wanted the game to feel like an authentic noir thriller in New York, necessitating some of the team flying out to NYC and – accompanied by ex-NYPD officers as bodyguards – taking thousands of photographs of dingy back alleys to use as textures in the game.

The game had also gotten its gimmick. The developers were fans of Hong Kong action cinema, particularly the works of John Woo, and had noted that one of his signature styles was slowing the camera right down so individual bullets could be seen flying through the air. This wasn’t necessarily a new technique – Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch had experimented with such imagery in 1969 – but Woo had stylised it tremendously. Whilst the game was in development, the 1998 movie Blade also used some similar techniques. “Bullet time” became the central mechanic of Max Payne, with the player able to slow down time to the point where individual bullets could be seen flying through the air and allowing the player to shoot with incredible precision in the middle of the fiercest firefights.

To save money, the team decided to eschew in-engine cutscenes in favour of comic book panels, with single frames of imagery and a Raymond Chandler-esque monologue presenting the action. Northern Irish-American actor James McCaffrey was brought in to provide Payne’s voice and was an absolute find, his beyond-world-weary delivery becoming instantly iconic. Even the cost of a relatively unknown voice actor proved problematic for the budget, however, and left the team having to use themselves, friends and family as actors to portray and voice other characters. Writer Sam Lake himself was asked to model as Max Payne, giving the character his trademark signature, slightly constipated grimace.

Max Payne’s ambitions were expanding and in 1999 the game encountered an unexpected issue when the film The Matrix was released. The Matrix took bullet time to the next level, using it as a storytelling device as well as an aesthetic choice. On the one hand, this was great marketing for Max Payne but it also risked Payne looking like it was a rip-off. That was not helped by Payne’s 1999 release date being indefinitely delayed as the team encountered technical and storytelling issues that caused a full revamp of the game to take place. The game would not be released until 23 July 2001.

When it was released, it was an instant and immediate hit.

MORE AFTER THE JUMP

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Developers tease new HOMEWORLD project



Blackbird Interactive and Gearbox have teased a new project set in the Homeworld universe.

Image

Relic Entertainment originally released the pioneering 3D real-time strategy game Homeworld in 1999. It was followed by stand-alone expansion Homeworld: Cataclysm (from Relic and Barking Dog Studios) in 2000 and Homeworld 2 (from Relic alone) in 2003.

After a lengthy period where the rights to the IP were in flux, Gearbox purchased the rights in 2015 and issued Homeworld Remastered, a huge and fundamental updating of Homeworld and Homeworld 2 to modern standards. Blackbird Interactive, a new developer made up of many of the original Relic team who developed the first two game, released the well-received, ground-based RTS prequel Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak in 2016.

The source code for Homeworld: Cataclysm has been lost, preventing a similar updating, but GoG have reissued the game with patches to help it work on modern systems under the name Homeworld: Emergence.

Based on the single promo image issued (a shot of the galactic core of the Homeworld galaxy), the new project appears to be space-based and may be the long, long-rumoured Homeworld 3. Further information is expected to be unveiled at the PAX event on 30 August, where Gearbox will have a presentation which will also reveal more information on their forthcoming game, Borderlands 3.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Off to WorldCon and EuroCon



I'll be in Dublin for WorldCon this weekend and then EuroCon/TitanCon in Belfast for the following weekend, so there'll likely be fewer posts than normal for the next two weeks or so.


I have three panels for WorldCon ("Space Opera" Friday 10am, "Narrative & the Dollar" Saturday 12pm and "Winter Came" Saturday 5pm) and will be pottering around at EuroCon, so feel free to say hi if you're about!

WHEEL OF TIME TV show confirms main castmembers

Amazon Prime Television has confirmed the primary cast for its upcoming Wheel of Time TV show.


Dutch actor Josha Stradowski is playing the role of Rand al'Thor. Stradowski's credits include the TV series Hidden Stories and the TV film Just Friends.


Australian actress Madeleine Madden is playing Egwene al'Vere. Madden's previous roles include TV shows The Moodys and Picnic at Hanging Rock, Netflix's Tidelanders and the live-action Dora the Explorer movie.


British actor Marcus Rutherford is playing the role of Perrin Aybara. Marcus's roles include the TV series Shakespeare & Hathaway and the film County Lines.


New Zealand actress Zoë Robins is playing Nynaeve al'Meara. Robins' previous roles include Power Rangers: Ninja Steel and The Shannara Chronicles.



British actor Barney Harris is playing Mat Cauthon. Harris's previous roles include The Hollow Crown, Clique and All Roads Lead to Rome.

These actors join the previously-announced Rosamund Pike as Moiraine Damodred.

Further roles to be cast for the first season are expected to include Logain Ablar, Thom Merrilin, Tam al'Thor, Lan Mandragoran, Loial, Elayne Trakand, Gawyn Trakand, Galad Damodred, Morgase Trakand, Gareth Bryne, Agelmar Jagad, Mordeth and Padan Fain.

Production on The Wheel of Time is expected to begin this month in the Czech Republic, to air on Amazon Prime in late 2020.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

STAR TREK franchise reunited for the first time in fifteen years

Viacom, the owners of Paramount Pictures, and CBS have completed their long-mooted re-merger. Amongst many other interesting side-effects (such as giving Paramount and their Hasbro master-partnership access to a new streaming TV service via CBS All Access), it means that the entire Star Trek franchise is once again reunited under one banner.


To back up, the original Star Trek was produced by Desilu Studios and aired on NBC. In 1967, during Star Trek's second season, Desilu was purchased by Paramount. Paramount produced the rest of the series, the animated series and all of the movies based on the property to date, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) through Star Trek Beyond (2016). Paramount's TV division also produced Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94), Deep Space Nine (1993-99), Voyager (1995-2001) and Enterprise (2001-05).

In 2005, just as Enterprise was ending, Paramount's owners Viacom decided to divest their television arm as it was losing a serious amount of money. The television arm, effectively the old Paramount Television and CBS, became the new CBS, whilst Viacom retained ownership of Paramount. Due to arcane back-room wrangling, this involved splitting Star Trek: the movies remained the property of Viacom and Paramount, and the TV shows ended up with CBS. This is why CBS was behind the remastering of both the original series and The Next Generation, despite not having anything to do the franchise originally.

This division became problematic as both companies began producing new Star Trek material, Paramount via its movie collaboration with J.J. Abrams which gave us Star Trek (2009), Into Darkness (2013) and the aforementioned Beyond; and CBS with Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present) and its forthcoming spin-offs Picard and Section 31, all on its unexpectedly successful CBS All Access streaming service.

The division created legal uncertainties over the ability of each company to use ship designs, music and footage from other media, and meant that the writing team under Alex Kurtzman had to tread carefully when referencing events from the films in the TV shows (particularly the destruction of Romulus in the 2009 Star Trek movie in their new Picard show). The re-merger means that all such legal uncertainties are now removed and there can now be much greater integration between the TV shows and any new films going forwards, such as Quentin Tarantino's much-discussed potential film project.

What this means going forwards - a Discovery movie or an Abramsverse TV show both seem unlikely at this point - is probably not too much of a change in how the franchise operates, but it does clear up some potential grey areas.

Friday, 9 August 2019

George R.R. Martin in London

I attended George R.R. Martin's talk in London last night and tweeted about some of the things he said, which, as is Twitter's wont, some people misinterpreted or misunderstood, so I thought it might be useful to clarify and expand on these points here.


The evening started with George being surprised by bigwigs from Nielsen, who gave him two special awards for sales of A Song of Ice and Fire in the UK, confirming that A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings have individually sold over 1 million copies each in the UK since the UK Nielsen Bookscan started in 2001. Given the UK's much smaller market than the US, that's a huge sales achievement.

Most of the interview (with historian Dan Jones) was standard stuff we've heard many times before: George's early career in short stories, working in television (bearing in mind we were in a church, it was surprising that George got so wound up by reminiscing over producers messing with his scripts that he dropped a couple of f-bombs), writing Avalon and getting the inspiration for Bran's first chapter etc.

George did expand on the writing of The Hedge Knight. Robert Silverberg got a ton of money to do Legends, an all-star anthology of the biggest names in fantasy. He'd recruited people like Terry Pratchett, Stephen King and Robert Jordan. Initially GRRM thought that he wasn't established enough in epic fantasy to contribute (as only A Game of Thrones had come out and he was deep in the writing of A Clash of Kings) but the money on offer was large and it was pointed out he'd get a good cross-pollination from other authors' fanbases reading his story and deciding to check out AGoT. George realised he couldn't write anything set during the series so did a prequel. When it was nearly done, George got a message from Silverberg telling him he'd heard that ACoK was going to be late and Legends couldn't be late for the marketing push it had been allocated, so Silverberg was going to drop George's story and had already commissioned a replacement. George ended up delivering his story on deadline, before several of the other authors had delivered theirs. That's why Legends has 11 stories rather than a more logical 10. George credits The Hedge Knight with helping massively boost the popularity of ASoIaF as a whole, as there was a very sharp increase in sales for ACoK compared to AGoT.

George noted that he had identified 12 possible stories/episodes from Dunk & Egg's life that could be expanded into short stories, including the 3 already published, so that's 9 potential further stories for the duo. From previous interviews we know that the next two - The She-Wolves and The Village Hero (both working titles) - are planned in some depth and The She-Wolves is partially or even mostly written, but GRRM wasn't sure what order to publish them in. Both are on hold until The Winds of Winter is done.

The first Game of Thrones spin-off TV show is still officially unnamed: Bloodmoon sounds like a codename (or - my supposition - the name of the pilot episode) and George still wants The Long Night (or, from another interview, The Longest Night). The pilot has finished filming and HBO will mull it over before pulling the trigger (or not) on a season order in a few months.

GRRM also repeated that the inspiration for the Red Wedding was the Black Dinner of Scottish history, in particular the more "colourful" account that the doomed clan leaders were serenaded with a death march song and had a black boar's head (the symbol of death) served to them at dinner before their execution, which most historians now seem to believe was a total fabrication ("But it sounded better"). His Red Wedding was the Black Dinner "turned up to 11" but the TV version was "turned up to 14."

Also a reiteration that Fire and Blood wasn't supposed to exist, it was supposed to be his contribution to The World of Ice and Fire in the form of sidebars that he wrote shortly after finishing A Dance with Dragons, but instead of 3,000 words he ended up submitting over 170,000 words (in earlier interviews he said closer to 300,000, but I wonder if the 170,000 is specifically the information on the Targaryens and the 300,000 includes all the info he contributed on the Empire of the Dawn, Iron Island history, etc, i.e. everything else in the book), as it had just all poured out of him in a few weeks (way back in the day he said it was around 2-3 months). His publishers were horrified, as it made World of Ice and Fire too big to be publishable. His co-writers Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson compressed almost all of it down and summarised it to fit into the book, leaving George with this big manuscript which he then chopped up to produce the three anthology stories (Princess and the Queen, The Rogue Prince and Sons of the Dragon). The motivation to publish Fire and Blood came when HBO started talking about prequel spin-offs and George realised the manuscript could be a potential source of new stories and information, although ironically the one HBO decided to proceed with had nothing to do with the Fire and Blood material.

Fire and Blood II is planned out - GRRM is relishing the chance to tell the story of Aegon IV and his mistresses - but not yet written, and can't be published until after ASoIaF as a whole is completed.

George did talk about his schedule in terms of the order of things he wants to publish things in. No dates were mentioned and the order sounded aspirational rather than set in stone:
  1. The Winds of Winter (natch)
  2. Dunk & Egg IV (either The She-Wolves or The Village Hero)
  3. A Dream of Spring
  4. Dunk & Egg V (either The Village Hero or The She-Wolves)
  5. Fire & Blood II
There will also be more Dunk & Egg short stories after the fifth one. As mentioned before he has twelve potential story ideas mapped out which will span their lives. He didn't mention Summerhall or how it would work scheduling the D&E stories versus F&B2, as presumably one of them will spoil Summerhall for the other, as his "constructive vagueness" over the events from World of Ice and Fire presumably won't fly again.

The schedule may sound "ambitious" given the long wait between ASoIaF volumes and indeed D&E stories, but if was suppose The Winds of Winter is closer to being done than not, take on board that The She-Wolves is mostly done and he effectively wrote Fire & Blood I in a few months, then the only question mark is really on ADoS, how fast it can be done and if it's really going to be the last book in the series. None of these questions came up, so I guess time will only tell on those.

George rounded off the interview by saying his favourite dragon in the series is Balerion, the Black Dread, and his favourite sword is Dawn, and dropped a hint that there is something unusual about the sword as it is forged from a meteorite.

Monday, 5 August 2019

BROKEN EARTH RPG in the works

Green Ronin are adapting N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth Trilogy as a tabletop roleplaying game for release this autumn.


Green Ronin already publish licensed RPGs based on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and James S.A. Corey's Expanse books, as well as tabletop version of BioWare's Dragon Age franchise.

Jemisin's Broken Earth series (comprising The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky) is one of the most critically-acclaimed fantasy series of the decade, selling over a million copies and winning an unprecedented three Hugo Awards for Best Novel. The series has also been optioned for television at TNT.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Stephen King writing a new ending for TV version of THE STAND

Stephen King has confirmed that he is rewriting the ending of his 1978 novel The Stand for TV.


The Stand depicts the collapse of civilisation when the world is ravaged by a "superflu" virus, and the subsequent battle between good and evil groups of survivors. One of King's biggest-selling and most beloved novels, it's also garnered a reputation for having a somewhat weak ending. The 1994 ABC mini-series retains this ending.

The new TV version will feature a revamped ending, penned by King himself, which will expand on the fate of key characters. Some versions of The Stand feature a different (and more depressing) ending, so it's unclear if King is drawing on this, or if he is just adding to the ending or rewriting the "deus ex machina" nature of the ending altogether.

The Stand is a ten-episode limited series for CBS All Access, starring James Marsden and Amber Heard. It starts shooting shortly, to air on CBS All Access likely in late 2020.

Empire of Grass by Tad Williams

The kingdoms of Osten Ard are in turmoil. A resurgent Norn threat in the north threatens Rimmersgard and northern Erkynland. The tribes of the Thrithings are in turmoil, a conflict that threatens to spill across the borders into Nabban and Erkynland. Hernystir is in danger of falling under the power of a dark cult. Civil war threatens in Nabban. The High King Simon and the High Queen Miriamele both try to tackle these issues, but the number of their reliable allies is falling and their grandson and heir is missing. But the threat is greater and closer than they think, as for the first time in thousands of years, the deathless queen of the Norns prepares to leave her stronghold.


The Witchwood Crown marked the start of The Last King of Osten Ard, a fresh trilogy picking up thirty years after the events of Williams' break-out work, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. It was a slow-paced novel but one that had to set up an awful lot of plot points, as well as revisiting characters from the first trilogy and introducing new ones. At the end of the book things kicked off, with Prince Morgan fleeing into the Aldheorte Forest, Unver beginning his unification of the Thrithings tribes, Miriamele setting off on a dangerous mission to Nabban and a band of Norns confronting a dragon.

Empire of Grass picks up on these plot points and expands on them, ticking along at a faster pace than the first novel (helped by it being a slightly shorter book), with us rotating between events in Nabban, the Hayholt, Aldheorte, the grasslands, Nakkiga, Naglimund and other locations quite rapidly. The key difference between the two trilogies is that Memory, Sorrow and Thorn was focused very tightly on Simon with occasional cutaways to other characters, but Last King is a broad-spectrum, multi-POV, multi-location, full-on epic fantasy series with a lot more going on in different places. The loss of tight focus may be bemoaned by some, but it does at least present us with a really epic story told on a huge scale.

Empire of Grass is also important in that it identifies the long-missing children of Josua and Vorzheva, whose identities and destinies have driven a lot of discussion by fantasy fans for well over a decade. We learn more about the twins and where their paths have led them, with a real sense of mythic power that both may hold the fate of the world in their hands, despite not being primary POV characters. We also learn more about Vorzheva, but Josua remains missing, with a hunt for him by agents of the crown forming an intriguing subplot through the novel.

As usual, Williams' gifts remain in atmosphere, with his stately worldbuilding and measured prose, and characterisation. I've seen criticism of the first book stemming from Simon's apparent lack of success in being king, but I see this as Williams simply furthering his subversion of epic fantasy tropes that began way back in 1988 with The Dragonbone Chair: it turns out that a kitchen boy with no background in statecraft might not be the best person to make king. It's made clear that the more experienced Miriamele is a far better ruler and the real power on the throne, which helps better explain why things get worse once she leaves for Nabban. The assumption that the guy who saved the world in the first series would automatically be a greater ruler who never did anything wrong is a bit odd, and is Williams' exploration of the question George R.R. Martin asked of Tolkien about Aragorn: yes, he may have been a great warrior, but does that mean has great insights into tax policy and crop rotation techniques?

If Williams does have a slight weak spot it's political intrigue: Nabban sets up the facade of being a hotbed of double-crosses and Xanatos gambits, but the final revelation of what's going on in Nabban is more than a little simplistic and lacking, with the villain explaining why they are doing everything and might as well have twirled a moustache in the process. There's also a decided lack of explanation as for why the powers in Nabban think they can win a multi-pronged conflict against multiple enemies simultaneously, which is what they seem to be setting up at the end of the book.

There's some great battle scenes, as the Norn invasion gets underway in full, and some excellent character beats (particularly among the Norns and half-Norns of Operation Dragon Retrieval, probably the best storyline in the new series). There's also some decided repetition stemming from Williams' decision not to expand the story to new geographical areas. The big battle takes place on the site of an already massive battle from the first trilogy, and seeing Morgan struggle through Aldheorte Forest for dozens of pages on end might have been more compelling if we hadn't seen Simon do exactly this in the first trilogy, even visiting many of the same exact places along the way.

Where Empire of Grass is most successful is furthering the themes that The Witchwood Crown explored so thoroughly: ageing, losing loved ones and the younger generation not listening to its elders and making the exact same mistakes all over again. There's a melancholy strain in this trilogy which recalls Tolkien at his best.

Empire of Grass (****½) is a somewhat tighter and better-paced book than its forebear, developing the first book's stories, characters and themes well, and setting things up splendidly for the final novel in the series, The Navigator's Children, which I would be expecting to be published in 2021. The novel is available in the UK and USA now.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Miryem's father is the village moneylender, but his kindness and gullibility means he isn't very good at his job. When Miryem takes over, she finds ways of turning silver into gold and getting those who have taken advantage of her family for years into paying up. Her skills are so great they even attract the attention of the supernatural Staryk, who make her an offer: turn silver into gold three times and she can become a queen. Miryem seeks to defy the Staryk, leading her into a very dangerous alliance...


Naomi Novik is a former video game designer turned fantasy author, best-known for her epic "Napoleonic Wars but with dragons" series, Temeraire, and her single-volume fantasy Uprooted. Spinning Silver is another stand-alone fantasy, a modern fairy tale which pits a young woman against the lords of winter with the fate of her homeland and her family in the balance.

The opening 100 pages or so of Spinning Silver are as fine a slice of modern fantasy as one could wish for, with vivid descriptions of the landscape, an excellent depiction of small town politics and life and a small but memorable cast of well-drawn individuals. Miryem's development from hapless young girl to accomplished businesswoman is well-handled and the transition from a straightforward rustic story to one of an emerging supernatural threat is compelling.

Where the book starts to falter is that decision that, rather than keep this a small-scale fantasy, the author decides to make the story more epic, bringing in events in the capital city, multiple new POV characters, a second supernatural threat, the emperor of the land, religion (the main characters are Jewish, although the setting is fictional) and other elements as well. And it has to be said this transition does not work quite as well as it should. Novik's strict, disciplined POV structure and tight writing does not handle the expansion in scale very well, and the story becomes diffused as too many new elements are added into it. I was put in mind of Peter Jackson in Hobbit Trilogy mode being asked to handle a fresh adaptation of Snow White and by the time he's done with it, it's a trilogy with a cast of thousands and an incongruous Orlando Bloom cameo.

This is not to say that Spinning Silver is a bad novel, just one where the strong elements are drawn out over far too long a page count and constantly interrupted by less-interesting characters, side-plots and, oddly, a lot of words spent on the economics of luxury apron trading. When the novel is firing on all cylinders, it's phenomenally atmospheric and richly detailed. When it isn't, it becomes a bit of a slog, not helped by an awkward POV device where we have to spend the first paragraph or two of each new POV shift trying to work out which character we're now with. This is fine in the opening hundred pages when we only have two POVs, but when we get to the end of the book and there's half a dozen in play, it's more of an issue.

Eventually the book ties together is disparate plotlines and we get a somewhat satisfying end, but it feels like the book has to take a lot of unnecessary detours to get there.

Spinning Silver (***½) is well-written with lots of great individual scenes and moments, but the overall pacing and structure is awkward and flawed. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.