Thursday, 21 March 2019

Epic vs. Valve: The Battle for PC Gaming

For the past fifteen years, the PC gaming market has been dominated by one retailer above all others: Steam. An online sales, downloading and gaming service, Steam is run by Valve Corporation and has utterly dominated the market since launch, fending off several competitors along the way. But that has now changed, with Fortnite developers Epic Games launching a rival service that means to do nothing less than smash Valve's monopoly forever.

The Epic Store launcher.

Steam was launched in late 2003 as a system for updating Valve's online games, titles like Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress Classic, keeping players all in sync with one another and allowing new maps and patches to be rolled out quickly and efficiently. In 2004 the service transitioned to a store, selling new games. It was mostly ignored until the November 2004 release of Half-Life 2, arguably the most eagerly-anticipated video game in history up until that time. It was the sequel to Half-Life, the 1998 game that rewrote the first person shooter rulebook and established Valve as a force to be reckoned with in the PC gaming scene.

Half-Life 2 launched with the required use of Steam. You could buy Half-Life 2 in stores, but to install it you had to also install Steam and sign up to the online service. In 2004, when not every gamer was online and certainly most gamers did not expect to have to sign up to an online service to play a single-player-only game (Half-Life 2's multiplayer mode wasn't patched in until months later), this idea was hugely controversial. Gaming communities rebelled, some gamers tried to report Valve for breaches of the law (no such claim was ever upheld) and so on. But Half-Life 2 was anticipated in a manner almost no other game in history was, and the sheer juggernaut force of the game's hype and its overwhelmingly positive critical reception saw gamers swallow their pride and buy the game in their millions. In many cases, they used the service to buy and download the game at midnight on release day, and were playing hours before their friends could get to the shops to pick up their copies.

After Half-Life 2 showed that online PC sales were viable, other publishers signed up to the service and more and more games appeared there. Valve had been either lucky or prescient, as 2004 arguably marked the last highwater for PC gaming in the 2000s. The 2005 release of the X-Box 360, followed a few months later by the release of the PlayStation 3, saw a huge crash in PC gaming sales. Within just a couple of years, the number of big titles being developed for PC dropped significantly. 2007-08 was arguably the nadir of PC gaming history, with few big titles coming out, almost no PC exclusives doing well (The Witcher, from CDProjket, being an honourable exception) and the platform being almost dead on its feet.

Remarkably, though, Steam had continued to grow in popularity and success. Valve jumped on the rise of indie gaming, adding lots of popular, low-budget titles to the platform. Valve also pushed their big sales hard. They won back support from big publishers through various tactics designed to promote sales. Rockstar Games had released the PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV after a long delay, but noted that although initial sales had not been as high as the console versions, the "long tail" of the game was significant, with sales picking up years later every time the game was put in a sale, making it far more profitable in the long run on the PC platform. By the start of the 2010s the platform had recovered most of its losses, bolstered by the arrival of Kickstarter as a platform for funding niche, mid-tier games. By the end of 2018, Steam had 150 million accounts (30 million more than Netflix) and dominated the PC gaming market with a share of between 18 and 20% (but 75% of the online market). According to some reports, Microsoft has offered over $20 billion to buy the service and the company behind it outright, but Valve's owner, Gabe Newell (who worked for Microsoft in the 1990s, quitting to co-found Valve), had rejected such overtures out of hand.

Understandably, other services have tried to compete with Steam. CDProjekt launched GoG (Good Old Games) as a rival service which focuses on getting older games updated to work on modern hardware. Their main selling point is not using an form of DRM (Digital Rights Management), which they feel hinders the customer experience. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts, UbiSoft and Blizzard-Activision launched rival services to exclusively launch their games, respectively Origin, UPlay and BattleNet (although many UPlay games are also available on Steam). With relatively small game catalogues and niche target audiences, these services have existed alongside Steam, rather than trying to compete directly with it.

This has now changed thanks to a company whose pedigree in PC gaming is even older than Valve's: Epic Games.

Founded in 1991, Epic Games spent the 1990s releasing a large number of low- and mid-budged action games before releasing their first 3D shooter in 1999, Unreal. Unreal was followed by both sequels and the immensely successful multiplayer spinoff series, Unreal Tournament. In 2006 launched a new single-player focused series on console, Gears of War, which was immensely successful. They also made immense amounts of money by licensing their Unreal Engine to other companies and publishers. In 2017 they redeployed the Unreal Engine to make a new, fun and lighthearted co-op shooter called Fortnite: Save the World, and its multiplayer spin-off, Fortnite: Battle Royale. Better known just as Fortnite, the game has become the biggest global success story since Minecraft, with Epic Games making significant profits from the game's downloadable extras and content.

Late last year, Epic Games launched the Epic Store, which they proudly proclaimed was going to take the fight directly to Valve. At first gamers chuckled and moved on: many companies had vowed to do the same thing and all had failed. But then Epic Games started doing something that no other would-be Steam-killer had done before: actively seeking out PC gaming developers and offering them staggering sums of money for a 12-month exclusivity period on PC. In addition, Epic Games offered to take only a 12% cut of the sales of games, as opposed to Valve's huge 30%. Developers, watching profit margins drop steadily over the years due to an inability to keep development costs down and also an inability to raise prices accordingly due to market saturation, started signing up enthusiastically.

The first casualty was Metro: Exodus. The third game in a popular first-person shooter series, following on from Metro 2033 (2010) and Metro: Last Light (2013), Metro: Exodus's Ukrainian developers were offered a huge sum of money for a 12-month exclusivity period. They agreed. Fans of the series and more casual gamers railed angrily against the development, citing it was bad form for a company to wall off a game behind a new service, especially a new service that did not have the ease of use or many of the most basic features of Steam. They were also suspicious of Tencent, a Chinese company accused of spying on customers, which had acquired a 40% stake in Epic in 2012. Despite these complaints, Metro: Exodus sold exceptionally well on release, outselling Metro: Last Light more than two-and-a-half times on launch day.

Last week Epic flexed its muscles by locking in Phoenix Point to an exclusivity period. Phoenix Point is the eagerly-awaited new turn-based tactics game from X-COM creator Julian Gollop and his company Snapshot Games. Using an approach similar to Firaxis's recent XCOM games, the game goes for a more simulated-based approach and has been praised for its gameplay decisions. For a tiny company like Snapshot the deal was apparently "impossible to resist," as the money offered could keep the company going for "years." For fans, the anger was much more palpable this time around and also more readily supported: Phoenix Point had been crowdfunded with the explicit promise that the game would be available on Steam and GoG on release day, and that was now not going to happen. Possibly the most eagerly-awaited PC game of 2019 became reviled overnight, with an absolute flood of refund requests pouring in.

But this has not stopped Epic's onslaught. In the last few days they have announced a blizzard of new acquisitions and deals. Obsidian Entertainment's The Outer Worlds, another of the most eagerly-awaited games of 2019, has joined the exclusivity deal (or, more accurately, publisher Take Two signed up for them). Quantic Dream, known for their moody console games with jaw-dropping graphics, were offered a deal so lucrative that they have gone back and dusted down all of their previous games going back to 2010 for release through Epic (comprising Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls and Detroit: Become Human). Remedy Entertainment's promising Control has also signed up, along with RTS Industries of Titan and The Sinking City. The full list is extensive and surprising, encompassing many mid-range upcoming PC games, which are the bread and butter of the platform.

This is nothing less than a full-scale assault on Valve's control of the PC gaming business. Whether it can be sustained is unclear, but it represents the biggest challenge to Steam's supremacy in over a decade. Valve will have to respond and in some respects it already has, promising to fix long-standing problems like people gaming the review system and offensive zero-budget, zero-effort games being shovelled onto the platform. The real test, I think, will come when a real AAA big-hitter that should be on Steam goes Epic Store exclusive. Take Two putting some games exclusively on Epic has to be a major concern. It's an open industry secret that Take Two and Rockstar Games are prepping a PC version of Red Dead Redemption 2, 2018's biggest game on console, for release likely in 2020. If they decided to make that game an Epic exclusive, it would be a huge and fundamental blow to Steam's position in the marketplace.

This battle could determine how PC games are bought, sold and played in the 2020s, so is hugely significant. But it may also be futile, as waiting in the wings is Google's Stadia system, which may offer a completely different, more Netflix-esque approach altogether. How this pans out will be very interesting, and no doubt contentious.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

FARSCAPE turns 20, hits Amazon Prime Video

Cult SF series Farscape is celebrating its 20th anniversary through a major re-release on streaming platform Amazon Prime Video.


Launching on 19 March 1999 as a US-Australian co-production, Farscape ran for 88 regular episodes and two two-hour specials, concluding in October 2004. The show focuses on John Crichton, an American astronaut who is accidentally transported across the galaxy by a wormhole. He is found by the crew of a living ship called Moya, a collection of misfits and renegades where he feels at home. Vague attempts to return home are complicated by his growing camaraderie with his newfound friends and his own mental health (Crichton develops PTSD-like symptoms as a result of his misadventures).

As the story progresses, it becomes more serialised and epic, culminating with the team becoming central in a massive interstellar war between two major powers.

The show was notable at the time for its use of serialised storytelling, a device it had inherited from Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but was also a lot more humorous. Although certainly not a comedy (unlike its absurdist Canadian contemporary, Lexx), it was a show that knew when to kick back and have fun as well as when to ramp up the dramatic tension. After a lukewarm first season, the show won immense critical acclaim in later years for its storytelling, effects, acting and the exceptional prosthetic makeup and puppetry.

All four seasons of Farscape and the concluding Peacekeeper Wars mini-series (listed at the end of Season 4) can be found now on Amazon Prime Video in most territories.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Narnia fanfic inexplicably gets media excited

News broke today that a man has written some Chronicles of Narnia fanfic and, for some reason, this was deemed worthy of inclusion in numerous newspaper and online articles.

From a Guardian article last year.

Fanfic, short for "fanfiction," is the form where fans of a fictional work take it upon themselves to write stories in the same setting and featuring the same characters. These works are, by definition, unauthorised and the writers cannot sell or make money from these stories without engaging in copyright violation.

The attitude of authors to fanfic based on their works varies immensely: George R.R. Martin disapproves, but generally doesn't make too much of a fuss as long as fanfic is not sent to him. J.K. Rowling is somewhat more supportive of the concept. Some authors are a lot more enthusiastic and even host fanfic on their website, although this becomes legally dubious if the author later makes story decisions in the "official" material that echoes the fanfic.

In the case of The Chronicles of Narnia, the situation is both less and more clear: C.S. Lewis died in 1963, so is not around to make any judgements of his own on the matter. The Lewis Estate has resisted anyone writing "official" new Narnia material, but has been happy to authorise various adaptations for television and film, with Netflix being the latest studio to pick up the rights and begin development work of a new version of the story. Curiously, around the time the first Narnia feature film was released in 2005, the Estate did suggest that new books would be released as well, but nothing ever materialised.

The fanfic in question is called The Stone Table and takes place between the events of The Magician's Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, explaining what happened to the rulers of Narnia and the castle of Cair Paravel prior to the events of the latter novel. This is a fertile area for exploration - and the title and premise feel potentially like Lewis inventions - and indeed this period has been discussed many times by Narnia fans over the years.

Francis Spufford - who has previously published exactly one novel (Golden Hill, in 2016, which won the Costa Book Award) - wrote the fanfic for his daughter, who had complained that her father had not written any books she felt like she could read (Spufford has mostly written non-fiction on adult subjects). Spufford spent three years working on the fanfic, which is apparently novel-length, which is not an inconsiderable time period for one fic.

Oddly, Spufford has declined to post the work through any of the established fanfic communities, instead only releasing the first couple of chapters at the urging of friends who have read the full book. Distinguished SF author Adam Roberts has acclaimed the book as being excellent and a worthy addition to the Narnia canon, which is a nice compliment. However, given that the only person who can make that determination is near sixty years dead, it's not particularly germane.

Spufford has apparently now reached out to the Lewis Estate to see if the book can see print in some fashion with their approval. If not, he'll apparently wait the fifteen years until the books leave copyright and publish then, which feels like an odd choice to make when there are plenty of fanfic communities who would be happy to release the book and critique it immediately, for free.

Or, of course, he could follow in the footsteps of the great fanfic trailblazer and innovator E.L. James, change a few names to create a new setting and cash in straight away.

Filming starts on the new DUNE movie

Shooting began yesterday on the new film adaptation of Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune, the biggest-selling work in science fiction history.


Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) is directing the first of what he hopes will be two movies to adapt the first of the six canonical novels in the Dune series. Dune has been previously adapted twice, for film by David Lynch in 1984 and for television by the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) in 2000.

The announced cast of Dune is as follows:

  • Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides
  • Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides
  • Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides
  • Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck
  • Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho
  • Chen Chang as Dr. Wellington Yueh
  • Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam
  • Javier Bardem as Stilgar
  • Zendaya as Chani
  • Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen
  • Dave Bautista as Rabban
  • Dave Dastmalchian as Piter de Vries
  • Stephen McKinley Henderson (role not confirmed yet)
Several key roles remain to be filled, including Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, the mentat Thufir Hawat, the Shadout Mapes, Liet Kynes, Count Hasimir Fenring, and the Emperor Shaddam IV, along (possibly) with Princess Irulan.

In addition to Villeneuve directing, it has been confirmed that Hans Zimmer will be scoring the movie. Greig Fraser (Rogue One, Zero Dark Thirty) is director of photography and Patrice Vermette (Arrival, Sicario) is the production designer.

The movie is currently scheduled to hit cinemas on 20 November 2020.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

SF&F Questions: What works are part of the Middle-earth canon?

There are few words that strike fear deeper into the hearts of long-established fantasy fans and critics when someone starts asking about “the Middle-earth canon” and “what books are canon?” It’s a simple question, but the answer is long, complex and confusing.


What is a Canon?

In this sense, a canon is the definitive “official” version of what happened in a particular story, world or narrative created by an author. In very simplistic terms, the Harry Potter canon, for example, consists of the seven novels written by J.K. Rowling and other elements that she either wrote or approved of, such as the Pottermore website, spin-off books like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Cursed Child stage play. Fanfiction is clearly non-canon and the films represent a separate canon, as they are an adaptation of the book canon rather than a formal addition to it.

The definition of canon can also change. For example, when George Lucas created the film Star Wars in 1977 and then its sequels, he held that only the films were canon and nothing else was: the spin-off novels and comic books written by third parties were not canon and he would not be bound by their events and in most cases did not read them. However, by the late 1980s he had come to believe a single Star Wars canon was more desirable and he hired people to ensure consistency and continuity between all officially-authorised Star Wars products, including novels, video games and comic books. This scheme became known as the “Star Wars Expanded Universe,” with the idea being that if someone just wanted to watch the films that was fine, but if they wanted to delve deeper into the setting, they could find a huge amount of official, canonical material, information and new stories. When Lucas wrote the Star Wars prequel movie trilogy in 1999-2005, he used planets, races, terms, concepts and characters created in prior Expanded Universe work in the films. However, when Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney in 2012, Disney decided that maintaining the Expanded Universe and keeping it coherent with the new films they were planning was impossible, and they declared that none of the material outside of the films and the animated series were canon (to the fury of many fans).

The definition can also be argued. Frank Herbert published his hugely popular Dune series of science fiction novels between 1965 and 1986 before dying unexpectedly. He left behind a very small number of notes and outlines for a possible continuation of the series, leading to his son co-writing and publishing an enormous number of additional books in the setting. The canonical status of these latter books has been hotly debated, especially since it became clear that the depth and detail of Frank Herbert’s notes had been grossly exaggerated.


Tolkien’s Works

In most cases determining which works are canon and which are not is relatively easy, especially if the author is still alive to simply answer questions on this topic. In the case of J.R.R. Tolkien, this is of course sadly impossible, as he passed away in 1973. The complexities of the determining the Tolkien canon are considerably complicated by the fact that Tolkien only published two major (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) and two minor (The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and The Road Goes Ever On) Middle-earth works whilst he was alive. After his death, his third son and literary executor Christopher sifted through his files to arrange the publication of The Silmarillion (1977), Unfinished Tales (1980), The Children of Húrin (2007), Beren and Lúthien (2017), The Fall of Gondolin (2018), and the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series (1983-96). However, the publication of the latter series, which effectively presented some 5,000 Tolkien manuscript pages written over fifty-six years, meant that readers could make their own decisions over Christopher’s choices in assembling The Silmarillion and in some cases found them wanting, particularly regarding those papers and notes which came to light only after The Silmarillion’s publication, which in some cases Christopher acknowledged would have resulted in changes to the book if he’d known about them beforehand.

For this reason, a simple determination of the Middle-earth canon is extremely difficult and debatable. This is further complicated by J.R.R. Tolkien’s own willingness to adjust even published books to reflect later decisions. Most famously, he rewrote the chapter in The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins confronts Gollum and finds the One Ring from its original, light-hearted style and tone to better reflect the darker and more sinister atmosphere of Lord of the Rings, and this appeared in a second edition of the book published in 1951. Certainly, some of the changes to The Silmarillion J.R.R. Tolkien was considering in the closing years of his life would have resulted in inconsistencies and incompatibilities with the published Lord of the Rings and Hobbit, suggesting that he may have produced third editions of both novels with revisions to take account of these developments. Thus, the reliance on a “fixed text” that canon usually relies on is absent in the matter of Middle-earth.

This has led to a controversial status for The Silmarillion as published. We know J.R.R. Tolkien was planning extensive, sweeping changes to the book at the time of his death, but these changes were not fully conceptualised or outlined. In the editing of The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien therefore defaulted to the incomplete version of the story his father had developed from c. 1930 to the publication of Lord of the Rings, incorporating some elements from later on but also having to go right back to the original Book of Lost Tales idea (developed by Tolkien from 1917 to c. 1924) since that is the only place where he sketched out the end of the story in any kind of detail, despite the major differences in tone and style to his later writings. The result, it has been complained is a hodgepodge of drafts, ideas and stories and certainly does not reflect J.R.R. Tolkien’s plans for the book at the time of his death. Christopher Tolkien’s point, well-taken, is that it was impossible to create a book compatible with his father’s intentions in 1973, so he defaulted to the most completed and “best-case” narrative he could develop. The debate will no doubt rage on eternally.


So, what is the Middle-earth canon?

Returning to the original question, the Middle-earth canon can be broken down into the following groups:


Primary Canon
These are books published and revised by J.R.R. Tolkien in his lifetime. Despite Tolkien’s willingness to revise and issue new versions of the texts, we can nonetheless declare these as primary canon.
  • The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937, revised 1951)
  • The Lord of the Rings (1954-55, revised 1965)
  • The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (1962)
  • The Road Goes Ever On (1967, with Donald Swann)
It should be noted that although The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (a poetry collection) and The Road Goes Ever On (a musical score inspired by Middle-earth) both contain canonical new information, they are relatively minor works.


Secondary Canon
These are books consisting of material written by J.R.R. Tolkien but not published until after his death, usually edited by his son Christopher. This is material which is coherent and readable as stand-alone works, but some readers may raise concerns based on information from other sources:

  • The Silmarillion (1977)
  • Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (1980)

Tertiary Canon 
This is material which was written and created by Tolkien, but was not completed by him or brought to a satisfactory state where it can be reconciled with either primary or secondary canon. However, in isolated moments this material may be argued to be canonical where it does not conflict with established material.
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume I: The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1 (1983)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume II: The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2 (1984)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume III: The Lays of Beleriand (1985)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume IV: The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume V: The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VI: The Shadow of the Past (1988)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VII: The Treason of Isengard (1989)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume VIII: The War of the Ring (1990)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume IX: Sauron Defeated (1992)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume X: Morgoth’s Ring (1993)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume X: The War of the Jewels (1994)
  • The History of Middle Earth Volume XII: The Peoples of Middle-earth (1996)
  • The Children of Húrin (2007)
  • Beren and Lúthien (2017)
  • The Fall of Gondolin (2018)

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Saturday, 16 March 2019

The classic DUNE boardgame is being reissued

Gale Force Nine Games have confirmed they are reprinting the original Dune board game released in 1979 by Avalon Hill. Out of print since the early 1980s, the game has been lauded for its tight mechanics and rich theme, a forerunner of the modern board game scene from the same designers as the long-lived Cosmic Encounter.


Gale Force Nine have picked up the gaming rights to Dune and are working with other publishers on content: Modiphius Entertainment are also producing a Dune pen-and-paper roleplaying game and Gale Force are also working on a tabletop miniatures game.

Regarded as a classic of the board game medium, Fantasy Flight Games mounted a campaign to reprint the game a decade ago but were unable to win the rights, instead issuing a clone called Rex: The Last Days of an Empire, set in their own Twilight Imperium universe.

No release date has been set, but Gale Force may be eyeing a mid-2020 release date ahead of the release of Denis Villeneuve's new Dune film, which starts shooting imminently.

RED ALERT: SPACE FLEET WARFARE hits the shelves

If you're a boardgamer or a wargamer, you've almost certainly encountered the name Richard Borg before. A veteran games designer of several decades' standing, Borg hit the big time around the turn of the century with his Command and Colours rule system, most successfully in the WW2 variant, Memoir '44, one of the most popular and biggest-selling 2-player board games of all time.


There are numerous other versions of the game, including ones set in the American Revolutionary War (Tricorne), the American Civil War (BattleCry), the Napoleonic Wars (Command & Colours: Napoleonics), World War I (The Great War) and a fantasy version, BattleLore, which in turn has spawned a Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones spin-off, Battles of Westeros, which is fantastic (but did not involve Borg at all).

One of the most logical directions to take the rules system is upwards, into space, and the latest game in the series is now sneaking onto store shelves in the USA, and is already on wide release in Australia. It should be hitting UK shelves over the next two weeks or so.


Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare pitches the Commonwealth against the Confederation for control of known space, in pitched battles involving battlecruisers, dreadnoughts, flagships, carriers, space stations and fighters. Lots of fighters. Most Command and Colours games are heavily based around terrain, which is less of a thing in Red Alert although there are tokens to represent planets, gas clouds and, in a first for the series, moving terrain tokens for things like comets and asteroids.


Command and Colours' immense success has been down to the fact it always looks fantastic - colourful maps dotted with excellent miniatures or block counters - but is very easy to learn to play. Scenario maps allow you to set up a battle map in minutes. Each map is divided into three sectors, a central one and two flanks. Each player has a hand of cards and on each turn a player may play one card. This card will say something like "Advance right flank" or "Advance 3 units of your choice". There are also special tactics cards which do things like boost your attacking or defensive power. Each ship has its own attack strength and its own abilities and differing amount of hits it can sustain. And that's pretty much it.

The simplicity of the rules combined with the tremendous tactical depth afforded by the rules has made the Command and Colours system thoroughly addictive and compelling, and it looks like Red Alert has hit the same spot.

The game is being released, unusually, with the core box and six expansions in one go. Alongside the core set, the following expansions are available to expand the roster of ships in each fleet and the amount of space phenomena that can be encountered:

  • Vice Admiral Flagship
  • Carrier Starship
  • Dreadnought Starship
  • Logistics Ships and Space Platform
  • Meteor Storm
  • Space Rift

Further expansions are planned which will add at least two additional factions and also allow for planetary assaults and landings.

Once I get my hands on the game, I'll readers know how it plays and if it's worth picking up, but so far it looks very cool, and I suspect enterprising gamers will already be working out how to substitute the existing ships for miniatures from their favourite SF setting (such as Star Wars, Babylon 5 or Mass Effect).

Friday, 15 March 2019

Thanks to George R.R. Martin (and the Hugos)

I should have mentioned this earlier (as today is the last day for Hugo nominations), but I have a very British aversion to self-promotion. Anyway, I have to extend my thanks to George R.R. Martin for recommending people to vote for myself for Best Fan Writer at the 2019 Hugo Awards.



In terms of eligibility, I'm eligible for Best Fan Writer and the Wertzone is eligible for Best Fanzine (a bit of a misnomer, as it has now become dominated by online blogs). I don't have any other works that are eligible. In terms of past history, I've been longlisted twice and my History of Epic Fantasy article series was longlisted in 2016, but I've never made it onto the shortlist.

Whatever the situation, I will be at WorldCon in Dublin in August, and at the EuroCon/TitanCon in Belfast (where GRRM is Guest of Honour) the following week.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley

The world of Umayma is still rocked by the ongoing war between the nations of Nasheen and Chenja. Former bel dame assassin turned freelance mercenary Nyx is still profiting on the sidelines of the war, slowly gathering a team of trusted associates to more effectively take on contracts, and hoping she doesn't get them killed in the process.


Apocalypse Nyx is a collection of five short stories (a couple approaching novella size) set in the world of Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy. The stories take place before the trilogy (God's War, Infidel, Rapture) and serve several functions, including being an origin story for several of Nyx's associates. Interestingly Nyx herself doesn't get such backstory, perhaps as the novels told that story well enough or because Hurley is holding onto that story for another time.

Instead, we get the stories of how Khos and Anneke join the team, how the team operates together, why Rhys stayed with them for so long and the sort of small jobs that keep the team ticking over between the more epic events of the novels. It has to be said that these are all splendid. Like the trilogy, these stories feel like a pint of science fiction mixed with a pint of fantasy and washed down with absinthe. The stories brim with attitude and verve, even moreso since Hurley can set up and resolve the story in a few dozen pages rather than across hundreds.

There aren't too many problems as such, although those who enjoy short story collections for variations in tone may be disappointed: the collection retains the same bloody-minded attitude as the novels, with a fair amount of violence, mayhem and adult content. The short length of the stories does allow for a sharper focus though, and the stakes are correspondingly a lot lower. It's interesting to see how readily Nyx hits the self-destruct button when the team are tasked with a simple data retrieval mission, perhaps explaining how she reacts when the fate of the nation/world are at stake in the trilogy.

The most successful story is the last one, "Paint It Red", where Nyx is offered the chance to join another team of mercenaries. The idea of not being in charge and not having responsibility appeals to Nyx, but soon she discovers the price of working for a team whose morality is a lot more compromised than her own. The reader realises that Nyx, for all her myriad faults, has a sense of fairness and honour that sets her apart from others of her kind, and makes her ultimately a protagonist worth rooting for.

Apocalypse Nyx (****½) is a fine collection of razor-sharp, bloody-minded tales from one of the most interesting voices in modern genre fiction. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Netflix's LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS brings some of SFF's biggest names to the screen

Tomorrow (Friday 15 March), Netflix are releasing a new series called Love, Death and Robots. An anthology series, it showcases eighteen short (5-15 minute) SF films about the title concepts, based on short fiction by some of SFF's biggest names, as well as some films by concept artists.


Executive produced by David Fincher, the anthology series features the following stories with the confirmed writers so far:

Sonnie's Edge by Peter F. Hamilton (set in the universe of The Night's Dawn Trilogy)
Three Robots by John Scalzi
The Witness by Alberto Mieglo
Suits
Sucker of Souls
When the Yogurt Took Over by John Scalzi
Beyond the Aquila Rift by Alastair Reynolds
Good Hunting
The Dump
Shape-Shifters
Helping Hand
Fish Night by Joe Lansdale
Lucky 13
Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds
Blind Spot
Ice Age
Alternate Histories by John Scalzi
Secret War


Wednesday, 13 March 2019

The entire HALO collection (almost) is finally coming to PC

In a surprising move, Microsoft have confirmed that their hithero mostly-X-Box-exclusive Halo video game series is coming to PC.



The original Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) had a well-received PC port, but Halo 2 (2004)'s PC port was poor and badly reviewed. Subsequent games were not released on PC at all.

The Halo: Master Chief Collection is now coming to PC. This will include revamped and upgraded versions of Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2, but, for the first time, Halo 3 (2007), Halo 3: ODST (2009), Halo: Reach (2010) and Halo 4 (2012). The spin-off Halo Wars strategy series and Halo 5: Guardians (2015), the most recent game in the main series, are not included.

Microsoft plan to release the games this year, although they will be releasing each title individually so they can test and optimise each game through a releasing and testing period. Microsoft will be releasing the game via their own online store but, surprisingly, also through Steam.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Captain Marvel

1995. In deep space, a war is raging between the Kree Empire and the Skrulls, a race of shapeshifting infiltrators. The Empire's most elite military unit is Starforce, a special operations unit consisting of recruits from different worlds with different but complementary skillsets. One of these recruits, Vers, is being personally trained by Starforce's commander Yon-Rogg, who senses in her great potential. Vers, however, cannot remember her own past. An operation to engage Skrull infiltrators on the planet Earth goes awry as Vers gradually realises that this is her forgotten homeworld, and she starts to piece together her past with the help of a SHIELD agent named Nick Fury.


The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now a mature franchise, eleven years, twenty-one films and $17 billion into its run. The MCU has settled down into a smooth conveyor belt of films, churning out three movies a year based on characters both well-known and obscure, including sequels and also original films based on characters never before seen on screen. Somehow it has managed to do this whilst not becoming too tired or formulaic, even if some of the series' standby tropes have become increasingly obvious (particularly a tendency towards self-deprecating humour and a big CGI finale).

Captain Marvel is an interesting movie in that it introduces the - arguably - single most powerful superhero in the entire Marvel canon to cinema audiences. Captain Marvel is the closest thing the comics have to Superman, a being capable of flight, firing energy beams our of her body and even travelling through interstellar space purely on her own power. In the comics the character (who has had several identities) can suffer from the Superman syndrome - coming up with a credible threat to her is quite tough - which is presumably why Marvel held fire this long on bringing her into the fold.

The movie also has a bit more riding on it than that. This is an origin movie not just for Captain Marvel but for the entire MCU. It explains the origins of Nick Fury, Agent Coulson and the modern focus of SHIELD on superheroes. It also brings in the Kree-Skrull War, one of the most iconic storylines and elements from the Marvel Comics which fan have been eager to see ever since the MCU started. And it also ties in with The Avengers: Endgame, where Captain Marvel will return to Earth to join the fight against Thanos.

On this level the movie feels busy and a bit cluttered. MCU fans will enjoy seeing the tie-ins to the cosmic/SF side of the franchise and elements and characters previously seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, whilst nostalgia heads will like the 1990s setting. But it does feel like some elements get lost a little in the mix, and one of these is the central character. Brie Lawson plays Vers/Carol with integrity and presence, but her amnesia means she spends a bit too much of the film as a blank slate, trying to figure out who she is. She gets there in the end, but it takes a while.

More successful is her relationship with Nick Fury, here played by Samuel L. Jackson with some very expensive CGI de-ageing going on. Marvel have experimented with this before in brief shots, but this is the first time they've done it for an entire movie and it is very nearly flawless. Fury is perhaps a bit too quick to adapt to the revelation that aliens exist and are fighting a war on Earth, but perhaps that adaptability is what made him perfect as a future director of SHIELD. Jackson and Larson have great chemistry and the road trip elements of the film are hugely enjoyable.

Also worthy of mention is Ben Mendelsohn as a Skrull leader. Mendelsohn has carved out a recent niche as Hollywood's go-to villain in the humourless martinet role, and it's great to see him being given both a character with much greater depth, a sense of humour and a more relaxed demeanour (helped by him being allowed to use his native Australian accent). There's also a fun cat character, although their prominence in the movie has perhaps been a tad overstated in previews.

Captain Marvel (****) is perhaps a little too eager to fall back on MCU tropes - lots of CGI everywhere, a few too many brief downbeat moments of self-doubt overcome by some punch-the-air good feels as the hero overcomes their issues to stand tall (in a scene oddly extremely similar to a sequence in the last-ever episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) - but ultimately ends up being a worthwhile slice of hokum and fun, with strong central performances and some very effective action sequences. Not among the MCU's strongest offerings, but still a very solid movie. The film is on general release worldwide at the moment.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Wheel of Time TV series update: multiple books per season, production to start in September

There's been a lot of low-key news emerging about the Wheel of Time TV series for Amazon Prime, so it's probably a good idea to catch up on everything that's been going down recently.


The Talent

Rafe Judkins is the showrunner and head writer on the project. He has written the first episode of the series, Leavetaking. His pop culture career began when he was a contestant on American reality show Survivor: Guatemala (the eleventh season of Survivor) in 2005. He came third (out of eighteen contestants).

Judkins subsequently began writing for Hollywood TV productions, starting with My Own Worst Enemy. He then joined the writing staff of Chuck, contributing several episode scripts and becoming a script editor and producer. He co-wrote the two-hour series finale. He then moved to Hemlock Grove and then Agents of Shield, where he has been credited as one of the writers who helped turn the show around after its disappointing first season. He also developed several drafts of a script for a movie based on the Uncharted video game franchise.

Amanda Kate Shuman is a writer on the show, having penned the second episode, Shadow's Waiting. Shuman also started her career on Chuck, writing two episodes and working as a writers' assistant. From 2013 to 2015 she worked on The Blacklist as a writer and story editor, and was then promoted to a producer on Berlin Station (also working as a writer and script editor).

Identical twins Paul and Michael Clarkson (aka the Clarkson Twins) are also writers on the show, having penned the third episode, A Place of Safety. Their previous credits include The Feed, See and the BBC/HBO project His Dark Materials.

Dave Hill is the writer of the fourth episode, The Dragon Reborn. He is - so far - the show's first scalp from fellow fantasy behemoth Game of Thrones. He started work as a writer's assistant on Season 2, providing support to the rest of the writing team. He started writing for the series directly in Season 5, picking up the slack when George R.R. Martin chose to stop writing for the series. He has so far written three episodes: Sons of the Harpy (Season 5), Home (Season 6) and Eastwatch (Season 7). He has also written an episode for Season 8.

Justine Juel Gillmer is the writer of the sixth episode, The Flame of Tar Valon. She started working in Australian television in the early 2000s, working on shows such as Home and Away. Her American writing credits include The 100 and Into the Badlands, serving on both shows as a script editor.

Celine Song is an experienced playwright, having written The Feast, Family, Tom & Eliza and Endlings, which premiered recently. She has also recently moved into television, working on Tuesday Nights. On Wheel of Time she is working as a writer.

Sarah Nakamura is the show's creative consultant. She is a "superfan" of the series, well-known in the fan community, and even played Moiraine in Tor Books' trailer for the release of Towers of Midnight in 2010.

Harriet McDougal, Robert Jordan's widow and editor and Brandon Sanderson (the writer who completed the final three Wheel of Time novels) have also been involved in consulting on the series.

Uta Briesewitz is the director of the first two episodes of The Wheel of TimeLeavetaking and Shadow's Waiting. Briesewitz is an experienced cinematographer and director. She is best-known as the cinematographer of HBO's The Wire, developing the show's signature look. Her directing credits include Jesscia JonesThe DefendersStranger ThingsThe DeuceAltered CarbonBlack SailsThe 100Fear the Walking DeadOrange is the New Black and This is Us.


The Episodes

So far we know about the following episodes:


101: Leavetaking
Written by Rafe Judkins
Directed by Uta Briesewitz

According to Rafe Judkins, the first episode opens on Tam al'Thor and Rand on the Quarry Road, riding towards Emond's Field. This is the start of Chapter 1 of The Eye of the World. Judkins has confirmed that they are skipping New Spring, the prologue and the special YA bonus prologue, which are all chronologically set before this point in the story. Those elements may be revisited later on in the series in flashbacks.

Leavetaking is the name of Chapter 10 of The Eye of the World, suggesting that the first episode may cover all of the material in those chapters (147 pages), including all of the Emond's Field events.

Leavetakings (the plural) is also the name of Chapter 9 of The Great Hunt, Chapter 16 of The Shadow Rising and Chapter 48 of The Fires of Heaven, but that's probably irrelevant for now.


102: Shadow's Waiting
Written by Amanda Kate Shuman
Directed by Uta Briesewitz

Shadow's Waiting is the name of Chapter 19 of The Eye of the World and refers to the ruined city of Shadar Logoth, suggesting that the second episode may cover all of the events between Chapters 11 and 19 (9 chapters, 127 pages), incorporating the trips to Taren Ferry and Baerlon, the chase along the Caemlyn Road and the arrival at Shadar Logoth.


103: A Place of Safety
Written by the Clarkson Twins

A Place of Safety is, curiously, the name of Chapter 8 of The Eye of the World and should already have been covered in Episode 101.

Assuming a similar page/chapter distribution to the first two episodes, A Place of Safety could cover Chapters 20-30 (11 chapters, 161 pages). This would incorporate several "places of safety", including Whitebridge and the Ogier stedding where Perrin and Egwene take shelter. This episode would introduce characters such as Bayle Domon and Elyas Machera and concepts such as wolfbrothers, Tinkers, the Children of the Light and the Tower of Ghenjei (in brief passing). This might be quite a lot to pack in, but it'd be a busy episode.

Another possibility for the title is a new side-visit to Tar Valon (the "place of safety" Moiraine is referring to in Chapter 8) to set up the storyline there.


104: The Dragon Reborn
Written by Dave Hill

The Dragon Reborn is, of course, the name of Book 3 of the series and also the name of Chapter 8 of The Great Hunt. At this juncture it seems unlikely to be referring to either of those.

Assuming a similar page/chapter distribution to the first two episodes, The Dragon Reborn could cover Chapters 31-40 (10 chapters, 139 pages). This would incorporate Rand and Mat's journey to Caemlyn via Four Kings, their meeting with Loial and Rand meeting Elayne, Gawyn, Galad, Morgase and Elaida for the first time (and Logain, sort of).

The title allusion would be to Rand seeing the false Dragon Logain from the walls of Caemlyn.


105: Unknown
Written by Celine Song (?)

Not much on this one, although I'd assume that Celine Song was in line to write this episode.

Assuming a similar etc etc, my guess is that this episode finishes off The Eye of the World, covering chapters 41-53 (12 chapters, 164 episodes) and will feature the Ways, Fal Dara, the Eye of the World, the Green Man, Tarwin's Gap and so on.

Against the Shadow could be a good title in that case, or maybe The Eye of the World itself.


106: The Flame of Tar Valon
Written by Justine Juel Gillmer

The Flame of Tar Valon is the title of Chapter 1 of The Great Hunt and one of the titles of the Amyrlin Seat, who is also introduced at the start of The Great Hunt.

Logically this infers that this episode will feature the introduction of Siuan Sanche, the Amyrlin Seat, and her meeting with Moiraine and Rand at Fal Dara, as well as other events that happen in the first 10-15-odd chapters of The Great Hunt.


Production Details

The Wheel of Time TV show starts shooting in and around Prague, in the Czech Republic, in September. Production will run well into 2020 and will be followed by a lengthy post-production phase. When the show will air is unclear and depends on the amount of effects work required. It could be late 2020, but early 2021 sounds more likely.

It sounds like the scriptwriting stage is wrapping up and location scouting is currently underway. The next key stage will be casting, which I suspect will begin fairly imminently with announcements to be made over the summer.


Assessment

It's hard to fully assess the structural status of the project since we are lacking a key piece of information, namely how many episodes will be in the first season. It could be 8 or 10 or 13 or anything between. The episode titles seem to be heavily leaning towards Season 1 covering all of The Eye of the World (Book 1) and part or all of The Great Hunt (Book 2) as well. This makes sense because clearly the show is not going to get 14 seasons, so they need to cover far more than 1 book per season (as Game of Thrones did). The only question is if they are covering both books in full or stopping partway through The Great Hunt.

Some people I know will be concerned that with only 5 episodes per book - compared to 10 per book for Game of Thrones - the series may end up feeling rushed. The traditional Hollywood rule of thumb is that 100 pages of paperback = 1 hour of screentime (the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, is 11 hours long for an 1,100-page book, although it still omitted a lot of material). Game of Thrones, at least in its first season, covered a relatively leisurely 80 pages per episode, with plenty of time for diversions and even new material. We don't know if they are really just doing 5 episodes per book, but if so, this suggests they are getting a move on. Although essential to cover the 14 books in a reasonable number of seasons, some may fear this will end up hurting the story.

We will, eventually, find out in late 2020 or early 2021.

FALLOUT to get two pen-and-paper roleplaying games

Fallout is to - finally! - make the transition to tabletop rolepaying. The venerable video game franchise, which turns 22 this year, started life as a homebrew game played by the team at Interplay using the GURPS rules system before became a video game, so this is a sign of the franchise going full circle.


Two products are in development by Modiphius. The first is an expansion to Fallout: Wasteland Warfare, the tabletop miniatures wargame released last year. This expansion will provide context for the battles in the game and uses a rules set modified from the miniatures game. It sounds like this product is aimed at those who favour using miniatures in their games. The expansion will be released in summer 2019, with a special boxed set containing both the expansion and the Wasteland Warfare starter set will follow at Christmas.


The second product is a stand-alone Fallout RPG which will use the 2d20 rules system used for Mutant Chronicles, Star Trek Adventures, Conan and John Carter of Mars, among other products. This will launch in 2020 with an initial rulebook followed by expansions.

This is positive news. Fallout has a rich setting and impressive lore, and it's way past time that a tabletop roleplaying version was available.

The LORD OF THE RINGS TV show will be set in the Second Age of Middle-earth

Amazon have confirmed that the Lord of the Rings TV series will be set in the Second Age of Middle-earth's history and tweeted a final update to their map series which adds the island of Númenor, which is only present in that epoch of history. This also confirms that Amazon has secured the screen rights to Unfinished Tales, as the map of Númenor and its place names are all copyrighted as part of that book.


J.R.R. Tolkien divided the history of his world, Arda (actually an imaginary version our world in an ancient, prehistorical time), into several epochs. Spanning tens of thousands of years were the Sunless Ages, known as the Age of Darkness, Age of the Lamps, Age of the Trees etc. The numbered ages began with the creation of the Sun and the awakening of the race of Men in Middle-earth. The First Age, which lasted a mere 600 years or so, was dominated by the War of the Jewels, the desperate battle by the Noldor elves and their dwarven and human allies against the dark power Morgoth fought to regain the Silmarils, the greatest creations of the elven smiths. At the end of the war Morgoth was defeated, but at great cost, including the destruction of the subcontinent of Beleriand in far north-western Middle-earth where the war was fought.

The Second Age saw many elves depart for the uttermost west, but those who remained forged new alliances and kingdoms in Middle-earth. In recognition of their bravery, the greatest human warriors and fighters, the Edain, were blessed with their own homeland, a great island named Númenor raised by the godlike Valar from the depths of the ocean. For a time peace reigned, but disquiet returned thanks to the machinations of Sauron, a servant of Morgoth who had escaped imprisonment or destruction. Sauron went in disguise among the elven-smiths of Eregion and tricked them into forging the Rings of Power. Using their knowledge, Sauron then forged the One Ruling Ring by himself as a means of controlling all the others and dominating Middle-earth. He then made war upon the elves of Middle-earth.

From the sequence of maps posted by Amazon, it appears that the series will cover a number of important events during the Second Age. Possible time periods could include the initial visits by the Númenóreans to the coasts of Middle-earth in the 800th year of the Second Age (due to the prevalence of forests on the maps, before they were cut down by the Númenóreans to build their ships); the forging of the Rings of Power c. 1600 SA; the War of Sauron and the Elves in 1695-1700 SA; the Downfall of Númenor in 3319 SA; and the War of the Last Alliance in 3428-3441 SA. More intriguing is the possibility that the series will cover all of this material, jumping forward centuries at a time and using immortal characters like Elrond and Galadriel to anchor us whilst the human cast keeps changing.

Hopefully Amazon will confirm more about the series soon. Production of the Lord of the Rings TV series is expected to begin by November at the latest to debut in 2021.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 7

For Buffy Summers, it's a strange sense of deja vu to see her sister Dawn starting high school at the newly-rebuilt Sunnydale High. Soon, however, an old enemy returns to Sunnydale and sets in motion a chain of events which threatens everything and everyone. Buffy has to become a leader as she never has before to stand against the threat, and the cost will be very high.


The cast of Buffy hit absolute rock bottom in the show's sixth season, a long and bleak journey from post-traumatic stress through self-realisation to catharsis via a lot of really bad relationship choices, several deaths and the world very nearly being destroyed. Season 7 opens with the fall-out from that season still being felt - Willow in recovery from her magic addiction, Spike trying to deal with his newly-acquired soul - but also with a bit of a back-to-basics feel.

There's a new Sunnydale High (unwisely built - in record time - on top of the old one and the Hellmouth) which Dawn is attending and where Buffy gets a job as a school counsellor, which is one of those genius ideas that the show proceeds not to do very much with. Early episodes of the season have a bit of a Season 1 feel, although this also includes, with the bemusing episode Him, an instalment that feels like Season 1 quality as well. The season is a bit rough in the early going with potentially solid story and character developments being undercut by filler episodes and some odd character choices, like reducing Spike to a raving loon for half the season and killing off fan-favourite side-characters for questionable story reasons.

The story does pick up with Conversations with Dead People, the season's best episode, in which characters are haunted by figures from their past (and yes, this episode bears more than a passing resemblance to Babylon 5's Neil Gaiman-written episode Day of the Dead) which leads to both character growth and also to pushing the main storyline on. By mid-season it's become clear that the true threat is an old enemy returning to destroy the world and the tension ratchets up a gear as Buffy assembles an army of new allies and older characters to face the threat. Spike also stops acting crazy, to everyone's relief.

Events then build to the epic season finale, taking in a few twists and turns along the way, including a memorable turn by Firefly's Nathan Fillion as a crazed evil preacher with superhuman (or subhuman) powers. This is all good stuff and it's a refreshing change of pace after the introspection of Season 6, although those who felt that in-depth psychological exploration of the characters in that season was a strength may be disappointed by the more obvious good-vs-evil struggles this season which dials back the intense character drama.

Buffy does at least stick the landing: the ending is thematically appropriate, rewarding for the characters and leaves the world on a good note, although some may bemoan a few perfunctory character deaths and a rather pointless apparent heroic sacrifice that had been undermined by news the character was moving to Buffy's sister show Angel. Beyond that, the ending and the final line are very nicely done.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer's seventh and final season (****) is a fine ending to the show. It's not the strongest season, but it does provide an appropriately epic finale to seven years of Slaying and it does give the show a nice coda. The season is available now as part of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box set (UKUSA).

Kellanved's Reach by Ian Cameron Esslemont

The enigmatic sorcerer Kellanved has seized control of Malaz Island. His cohort and ally Surly plots the conquest of her homeland, the Napan Isles. Meanwhile, the mainland of Quon Tali is wracked by war and civil war. Purge and Tali are locked in incessant conflict in the west, whilst to the east the Bloorian League is trying to crush the city of Gris. Conflict stalks the world but great changes are coming in the warrens as well, as Kellanved seeks the Throne of Shadow and also the First Throne of the T'lan Imass, the Army of Dust and Bone...


Kellanved's Reach is the third novel in Ian Esslemont's Path to Ascendancy series, which acts as a prequel to both the Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence by Steven Erikson and Esslemont's own earlier Malazan Empire series. Following on from Dancer's Lament and Deadhouse Landing, this book continues the story of Kellanved and Dancer, the founders of the Malazan Empire.

The events described in this trilogy, and in this single novel especially, are vast, epic and the stuff of myth. Kellanved's seizure of the First Throne, his alliance with the T'lan Imass and the military campaigns which saw the Malazan Empire start coming together have been referenced in hushed tones throughout the sixteen novels of both of Erikson and Esslemont's original series, so to see those events first-hand is thrilling. Or rather it should be.

If one word comes to mind when reading Kellanved's Reach it is "rushed". The book is only 330 pages long (barely a third as long as some of Erikson's books) and Esslemont tries to fit into this modest page count no less than five major military campaigns, a major subplot with Kellanved and Dancer exploring the Shadow Realm and the stories of numerous POV characters. There simply isn't enough room to do this justice and as a result we end up bouncing back and forth between characters and stories like a pinball machine. Massive, major events (like the nascent empire's capture of the strategically vital city of Cawn) take place in sentences, let along paragraphs, and the epic final battle which ends with Kellanved's crowning feels perfunctory at best.

This is a shame because the improvement in Esslemont's writing and character voice which has been building since Dancer's Lament continues apace here. The early chapters, which relax a little to focus on the military campaigns on opposite coasts of the continent, are well-written and excellent, and it's fun to see future important characters like Greymane and Skinner arise from the masses to start their own steps down the road to destiny. But around the halfway mark the pace accelerates and suddenly major plot events are whizzing by like they've been shot out of a machine gun.

There's still much to enjoy here, of course, even if the later chapters of the book do start feeling more like a plot summary than a novel. I suspect it will be even more frustrating as - if as seems possible - more books in this series follow; Path to Ascendancy was contracted for three books but the series has sold extremely well, so it may be extended. There's plenty of scope if so (the book ends with Kellanved crowned but only a very small part of Quon Tali under his control), and it'd be interesting to fill the gaps in between this book and Night of Knives (set roughly 100 years later), where Kellanved's plans are finally fully realised.

Kellanved's Reach (***½) is a reasonably solid addition to the Malazan mythos, with some genuinely exciting, myth-making moments. It also feels like the novel should have been either twice as long as it is, or its events should have been split over two books. As it stands, the brake-neck pacing means that the emotional resonance and dramatic power of some long-awaited scenes are diluted. The book is available in the UK now and next month in the USA.

Amazon release full trailer for GOOD OMENS

Amazon have released the full trailer for their Good Omens mini-series, based on the 1990 novel by Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.


The six-episode mini-series, which stars David Tennant, Michael Sheen, Jon Hamm, Jack Whitehall, Miranda Richardson and Nick Offerman, will debut on Amazon Prime Video on 31 May.



Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

Since leaving the Tombs of Atuan more than twenty years ago, the former priestess Tenar has found a new life and a new family on the island of Gont. When her husband dies and her son goes to sea, she finds herself alone. When an injured child comes into her care and the wizard Ged returns to his home island after an arduous journey, Tenar finds her life changing once more.


Tehanu is an unusual book. It is the fourth novel in the Earthsea series but it is very different in tone and content to the original trilogy. It is a quieter, more reflective book, less concerned with adventure than it is with the musings over the value of life, love, freedom, motherhood and responsibility.

The book focuses on Tenar, the main character of The Tombs of Atuan, the second book of the series. We learn that, despite the romantic tension between her and Ged, they never realised that affection and instead went their different ways, Ged rising to become Archmage of Earthsea (as seen in The Farthest Shore) and Tenar choosing a quiet life as a farmer's wife, despite being given the opportunity to live in luxury in Havnor or learn the ways of magic from Ged's old tutor. The book sees Tenar reflecting on her decisions, mixing satisfaction with raising two children well with regrets that perhaps she could have made other choices.

In this sense the book is about the hesitancy of middle age, when one is still young enough to find a new career or relationship or path to happiness, but old enough for some weariness and cynicism to set in. Tenar and Ged are now mature adults rather than the callow youths of their first meeting and now have to ask some serious questions about how they are going to spend their latter years.

The book is reflective but not devoid of incident. A forbidding enemy has arrived on the island and Ged and Tenar have to face down and defeat him. Dragons are seen and magic is performed. But Tehanu is not an epic fantasy novel of action and sorcery and explosions, but a book that uses fantasy to explore the common, human condition. On that level it is reflective and melancholy, but powerfully and beautifully written.

Tehanu (****½) is an introspective, quietly powerful fantasy novel. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of The Books of Earthsea omnibus edition.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Gratuitous Lists: The Twenty Best BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER Episodes

I recently rewatched Joss Whedon's 1990s supernatural drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its entirety for a pub quiz (our team came fourth, so that wasn't quite as successful as hoped), which was a great chance to re-appraise the show from the distance of twenty years or so. As a result, here's a Gratuitous List of (in my opinion) the twenty best episodes of the series.

The stories are not presented in quality order because at this level, there's not much between these episodes. This is the show firing at its very best and frankly all of these episodes are worth watching.


Prophecy Girl 
Season 1, Episode 12

The first season of Buffy had mostly contained “monster-of-the-week” episodes, linked together by a vague story arc about the evil Master trying to escape his prison under the town of Sunnydale. In the Season 1 finale, he succeeds, killing Buffy in the process.

Joss Whedon’s first time both writing and directing an episode is notable for elevating the entire feel of the show, both in scale (this is an epic-feeling episode, despite the low budget) and emotional power. Killing Buffy is a surprising move, as is the straightforward method of bringing her back (CPR; she was unconscious just for a minute or two). But the episode wins through Sarah Michelle Gellar’s powerful performance as a 16-year-old girl abruptly told she is going to die and there’s nothing she can do to stop it, and how she deals with it. This is the moment Buffy elevated itself to the next level, and started becoming a very interesting show indeed.


School Hard
Season 2, Episode 3

At some point almost every show tries to “do Die Hard” and Buffy’s answer is to do it in the high school, which is besieged by vampires led by newcomers Spike and Drusilla. The episode is notable for introducing those two iconic characters, who would go on to wreak havoc across both Buffy and spin-off show Angel for the next seven years, and also for its humour and its action. Particularly interesting are the first hints that the authorities of Sunnydale are well aware of the supernatural craziness in town and are working to suppress all knowledge of it, foreshadowing the main story arc of Season 3.


Surprise/Innocence 
Season 2, Episodes 13-14

It was easy to dismiss Buffy early on as cliché: the teenage female protagonist falling in love with a vampire was hackneyed even by the late 1990s, let alone a decade later and the Twilight phenomenon. But Buffy upended that cliché when Buffy finally slept with her vampire boyfriend Angel…causing him to lose his soul and revert back to being an undead killing machine.

According to Joss Whedon, this is the moment when realised it was okay to “be a dick” to his characters, and the cruel taunting of Buffy by Angel after his transformation – David Boreanaz showing his acting range beyond "brooding handsomely" for the first time – and Buffy’s subsequent guilt-ridden sorrow is an example of this. But Buffy is made of sterner stuff and the epic finale to the story, involving rocket launchers, dismemberment and a water-drenched battle almost to the death sees her dish out some payback. It was also bold of Whedon to keep Angel evil for the rest of the season, setting the scene for a lot more angst and anger.


Passion 
Season 2, Episode 17

With Angel turned evil, the question arises if Buffy had done the right thing by allowing him to live based on emotions and the hope he might be turned back. Passion pulls no punches whatsoever as it answers that question in the cruellest way possible, with Angelus embarking on a murdering spree culminating in the brutal murder of a regular character, the near-deaths of several others and the long-awaited sight of Giles fully cutting loose with his “Ripper” persona (which results in yet more mayhem and a major conflagration).

It’s a beautifully-written episode, but a brutal and gruelling one with the entire cast on fire (special props to Anthony Head for channelling Giles’s utter murderous rage at Angel) that asks some pretty damn hard questions and doesn’t offer easy answers. 


Becoming
Season 2, Episodes 21-22

The Season 2 finale sees the final confrontation between Buffy and Angel, but it also throws in a whole load of curveballs, from Drusilla taking down a second Slayer to Willow discovering she can use magic to Xander betraying Buffy’s trust in a key moment (sadly, only paid mild lip services to later on) to a deep exploration of Angel’s backstory, which gave Whedon the idea of a spin-off show focusing on the character. Also in the mix is Buffy’s mother finally discovering her true job and Spike teaming up with Buffy for the first (and a very long way from the last) time.

But the focus of the story is firmly on the tragic battle between Buffy and Angel and the moment when Angel is finally cured…but Buffy still has to kill him to stop events he’s set in motion from destroying the world. It’s a harsh moment (Whedon being a dick to his characters again) and one that’s sold by the actors and especially Christophe Beck’s excellent score.


Band Candy
Season 3, Episode 6

Buffy was many things over its run, from romance to tragic relationship story to intense drama. But something it did on a reasonably regular basis was comedy, finding the ridiculous in every situation that emerged and sometimes just going outright silly. Bandy Candy – in which cursed chocolate turns Sunnydale’s adults into teenagers again – is the silliest of such premises, but is also brilliantly whimsical. It’s funny with terrific performances from the adult cast relishing the chance to behave like their younger cohorts. And whilst it’s silly, it does further the season arc and explores more of Giles and Joyce’s characters in a very amusing fashion (which pays off in the later episode Earshot, when Buffy finds out what they got up to).


The Wish
Season 3, Episode 9

What starts off as Buffy-by-the-numbers – a humiliated and hurt Cordelia lashes out at her friends – suddenly transforms into a dystopian nightmare as Sunnydale is plunged into an alternate timeline where Buffy never came to town. Most of the regular characters are dead or have been transformed into vampires (most memorably Willow), the Master is still alive and Angel has been tortured for years on end as the Master’s plaything. The first appearance by later series regular Anya is certainly memorable, epic and downright disturbing.


The Zeppo
Season 3, Episode 13

This episode is weirdly experimental. The main threat is the reopening of the Hellmouth and the destruction of the entire world, representing the greatest threat Buffy has faced since the Season 1 finale and arguably the greatest she’ll face again until the end of Season 5. However, this story takes place entirely in the background, relayed through snatches of dialogue. Instead, the focus is on Xander as he gets dragged into a very weird side-story involving an undead bromance, an unexpected liaison with Faith, an awesome car and a huge bomb. A key episode for establishing Xander’s character and for showcasing the meta-awareness of the series of its own tropes, and its willingness to mercilessly mock itself.


Hush 
Season 4, Episode 10

Given that TV and film revolve a lot around dialogue, the idea of making an episode that has very little dialogue in it was challenging for both cast and crew. But the episode brilliantly handles it, using character expressions, drawings and occasionally obscene hand gestures to allow the characters to communicate with one another.

Also remarkable is this episode isn’t just a gimmick, but a key part of the show’s mythology, bringing the Initiative out into the open and introducing the fan-favourite character of Tara. But a key selling point is the makeup of the Gentlemen, possibly Buffy's most iconic and memorable monster design (including Star Trek: Discovery actor and regular Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones as one of the monsters).


Superstar
Season 4, Episode 17

Arguably the show’s finest outright slice of comedy, this episode recasts the series as being about the exploits of Jonathan Levinson, actor, government agent, genius scientist and all-round good guy, complete with its own title sequence. It’s clear early on that Jonathan has cast a spell to make himself cooler, but the fun comes from seeing how his status as superhero has been integrated into the season’s ongoing storylines. In retrospect the episode is also a little tragic, foreshadowing as it does Jonathan’s later return in Seasons 6 and 7 under less humourous circumstances. 


Restless
Season 4, Episode 22

Buffy goes full Twin Peaks in the Season 4 finale, an episode set in the shared dreamworld of the four core characters as they are hunted by a mysterious creature. The episode is steeped in mythology and metaphors, some of them highly portentous and significant, others…not so much. The episode features a mixture of whimsy, comedy and horror, expertly combined by Joss Whedon into something offbeat, strange but enjoyably compelling. 


Family 
Season 5, Episode 6

Tara is, arguably, Buffy’s most popular low-key character. Introduced in Season 4 as a love interest for Willow and a fellow witch, the writers seemed to struggle a little to find her stuff to do that wasn’t tied in with Willow. The response was to make her the conscience and most empathetic of the Scooby Gang, always willing to listen and not judge. That makes this episode – where Tara’s family come to town and turn out to be manipulative and abusive – all the more tragic as Tara is unjustly subjected to persecution by her own supposed loved ones (including an early role for Amy Adams). But the actors do great work and the resolution, where Spike saves the day more in exasperation at how stupid everyone’s being than out of altruism, is memorably entertaining.


Fool for Love
Season 5, Episode 7

After promoting Spike to series regular, the producers struggled to find something for him to do, having to go to some lengths to “defang” him and make him an ally of the Scooby Gang. This episode is one of the very best uses of Spike in this period of the show, with Buffy tapping his knowledge of how he killed two Slayers to improve her own fighting style. Instead, Spike lays bear her soul and exposing the key weakness of every Slayer: their death wish. The result is a psychological battle between Slayer and vampire, undercut by extensive flashbacks and filled with excellent dialogue. Possibly James Marsters’ finest hour on both series (which is saying a lot). 


The Body 
Season 5, Episode 16

Bloody hell.

The Body is the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, frankly, one of the twenty best episodes of television ever made. It’s also an episode that is very, very hard to watch. The premise is incredibly simple: Buffy comes home to find that her mother has died of natural causes some hours earlier. There is no hope of saving her – in the Buffyverse magic can only be used to save or resurrect someone who’s been killed by magic, not mundane illnesses – so the characters have to deal and process their grief.

The result is 44 minutes of genuinely upsetting television. There is no musical score and each act is just one long scene as different groups of characters try to process what has happened. Whedon’s attention to detail is heart-breaking, from Buffy’s brief fantasy that she’s come home in time and everything will fine, to Willow getting upset because she can’t find a top that Joyce complimented her about one time. Anya’s confusion over mortality, having only recently become human, results in a startling monologue about not understanding the stupidity of death which ranks as one of the series most memorable dialogue scenes.

Probably television’s finest single episode to ever focus on mortality and the transience of life, The Body is Buffy at its best and its most human. 


Life Serial
Season 6, Episode 5

This episode has a very simple and low-key premise: following her death and resurrection, Buffy has to find a job to pay for the hour she has inherited from her mother and also look after Dawn, her magically-created sister. In this episode she applies for a number of jobs, but is being stalked by the Trio, three silly minor villains from earlier seasons (well, two and the relative of another) who are testing their skills against her.

The result is a comic riot in the otherwise fairly bleak sixth season, culminating in a Groundhog Day riff as Buffy is trapped in a time loop in the magic shop and can’t leave until she’s sold her customer a magical mummy hand…which she can’t do because the hand has become 1) animate and 2) homicidally psychotic.

Once you get over the comedy (the surprisingly endearing Evil Mummy Hand may be the greatest monster in the history of the show), the episode also has a lot to say about Buffy and how her view of ordinary life has become skewed by her status as the Slayer. The result is a great “standard” episode of the series, albeit one which falls apart when you start asking why the Watchers’ Council pays the Slayer’s Watcher but not the Slayer herself. Shouldn’t she be on the clock? 


Once More With Feeling 
Season 6, Episode 7
Yes, of course the musical episode is here. I’ve always found Once More to be vaguely overrated. It is of course great, but it is let down a little by a couple of dud songs and the revelation that Xander summoned the song demon for a giggle, which seems massively out of character. Get over that, and the result is quite entertaining, an old-skool Hollywood musical extravaganza with some great songs (apart from those duds) and the showcasing of the cast’s musical ability, with Amber Benson particularly destroying everyone with her Kate Bush-inspired love song. Contrived as hell but great entertainment, and clever in how it drives forward the main story arc for Season 6. 


Tabula Rasa
Season 6, Episode 8

Picking up after the musical and its huge character revelations, this episode sees Willow trying to use magic to fix all the relationships that have gone wrong, but instead things go cataclysmically awry and everyone’s memories are wiped. The result is darkly amusing as the characters try to figure out their names, motivations and abilities just from context (resulting in Spike concluding that he is Giles’s son) whilst also taking on a group of vampires with no idea of how to fight them.


Dead Things 
Season 6, Episode 13

If Season 6 is “the bleak season”, Dead Things is arguably when it turned the bleakness dial right up to 11. The Trio, a fairly ineffectual threat all season, suddenly turn lethal when they accidentally kill Warren’s ex-girlfriend (whom they’d been planning to turn into an actual sex slave because yikes) and then try to frame Buffy for the crime. By this point Buffy has started sleeping with Spike, rationalising what should be a repugnant act by the idea that she came back from death “wrong,” which is why Spike is able to harm her in combat when his Initiative implant should prevent that.

This episode is dark and troubling and delves deep into Buffy’s soul, and what it digs up is unpleasant (Buffy laughing at one of Spike’s jokes about murdering innocent people is a rather telling moment). But it also holds up a mirror to Buffy when Tara confirms that there’s nothing wrong with her: Spike can hurt her solely because her aura or psychic frequency was slightly changed by her death experience. Buffy realises that her relationship with Spike is rooted solely in her own psychology and problems and she suffers a full-on breakdown, not helped by Tara telling her her friends will forgive her. Arguably Sarah Michelle Gellar and Amber Benson’s finest acting moments of the entire series. 


Conversations with Dead People
Season 7, Episode 7

Buffy the Vampire Slayer would occasionally use standard TV tropes for its episodes as well as blazing its own trail. Season 6 gave us Normal Again, in which Buffy wakes up in a lunatic asylum and has to rationalise her experiences in the rest of the series as the result of a psychotic break. That episode didn’t work quite as well as it should (and suffered in comparison to Deep Space Nine’s near-contemporary Far Beyond the Stars). Conversations with Dead People gives us a lengthy discussion between each character and another character who has previously died, a device recently used by Neil Gaiman in his Babylon 5 episode Day of the Dead.

Conversations possibly works a little better, because it ties more firmly into the season arc by having the First Evil directly confront the key characters for the first time. Not being able to use Tara is a shame (although actress Amber Benson’s reasons for not returning – as she didn’t want to present an evil version of Tara – are sound) but the dialogue is pretty sharp in all of the exchanges and the episode is notable for introducing Joss Whedon to Jonathan Woodward, who would go on to appear on both Firefly and Angel in memorable roles. 


Chosen
Season 7, Episode 22
The grand finale of the series and an echo of the original in some ways, with the four core Scooby Gang members reunited for one last battle against the First Evil and the Hellmouth. The scale is epic, with numerous allies and recurring characters brought in to help, and the stakes are high. The ending is perhaps a little more epic than the budget strictly allows for, but it’s certainly a satisfying ending on both an action and emotional level. Some character deaths are a bit perfunctory (barely anyone caring about Anya dying is startling) but overall Buffy goes out the way it came in, kicking and screaming.

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