Saturday, 16 January 2077

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After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Seinfeld: The Complete Series

Jerry Seinfeld is a comedian in New York City who is constantly searching for new material. He finds it in the minutiae of everyday life, particularly his interactions with his old friend George Constanza, ex-girlfriend-turned-friend Elaine Benes and next-door neighbour Kramer. The foursome's increasingly odd adventures provide material for Seinfeld's career, but their lack of "hugging and learning" eventually spells their own downfall.

Airing between 1989 and 1998, Seinfeld is an odd entry in the pantheon of Great American Sitcoms. Most American sitcoms had and still have elements of heart-warming effusiveness, friendship and emotion. Characters may screw up or cause mayhem, but at the end of the day their problems would be resolved with the help of their friends or family. Some shows had started experimenting and playing around with this formula (M*A*S*H* with its wartime storytelling, Cheers with its serialised, soap-like character arcs) but Seinfeld was the first one to come along and, if not outright reject, then downplay those elements. One of the show's unofficial mottoes was "no hugging, no learning." Characters would frequently cause untold mayhem through their actions, words or inaction and go on to do exactly the same thing. Seinfeld acknowledged that a lot of lives don't really have an arc of growth and change but instead people finding a way of spinning their experiences into self-validation, even in the face of obvious truth that they've hurt others or themselves.

In this sense the "show about nothing" was really the "show about everything." No anecdote, story or idea was too small or too trivial not to be considered for a storyline. NBC famously blew a fuse early on when an entire episode was spent waiting in the line for a Chinese restaurant and writer-producers Seinfeld and Larry David had to stare them down to get the episode made. Entire episodes revolved around parking spaces, soup and the annoyances of just traversing the subway. Continuing storylines revolved around relationships, family and jobs, in particular George and Elaine's struggles to find interesting jobs that would reward their laziness and dislike of other people.

Unlike many sitcoms, the show did not take too long to find its feet. After a somewhat indifferent pilot, the short-run second season almost immediately established the familiar character dynamics and tone. An "imperial period" of top-quality would extend from at least the third season to the end of the seventh, with the fourth year being particularly impressive for its introduction of a season-spanning arc. An early example of metahumour, the season is about George (Larry David's obvious author-insert character) and Jerry being hired by NBC to make a sitcom Jerry's life. The development of the sitcom-within-a-sitcom allowed the writers to make jokes about the show's own catchphrases, cliches and some of its real off-air drama (such as Larry David's real next-door neighbour who'd become incensed when he based Kramer on him without letting him audition for the role). Arguably no other sitcom would tackle the actual issues of making a sitcom until Episodes in 2011-17, and that was a patchier show.

Likewise, the seventh season opens with George realising he's doomed to a life of loneliness and he quickly tries to rekindle a relationship with his ex, Susan, which then goes overboard and he ends up getting engaged...just before remembering why they split up in the first place, leading to a season of increasingly desperate moves as George tries to escape his fate (the highly-memorable conclusion being the departing Larry David's last-minute hail Mary when he couldn't think of another ending).

David's departure at the end of Season 7 created a creative void in the show which it initially struggled to fill; the first half of Season 8 is the nadir of the show, with bizarre premises and a lack of the detailed, slice-of-life stories that made the show such a success. The show undergoes a creative resurgence in the latter part of the eighth season and into the ninth, however, as the new writing team get to grips with the situation. Infamously, David's return for the finale would prove to be highly controversial, with the episode seemingly determined to make the four friends out to be rather more selfish, amoral and reprehensible than they were usually depicted as being.

Seinfeld's strengths remain its writing, which is still sharp and funny. Guest characters are usually well-drawn and intriguing, with many becoming recurring players as the writers found additional ways of mining them for more stories. In this sense the unusually small regular cast became a bonus, allowing them to thread in other characters as needed without having to balloon the weekly cast out to a huge size (a problem faced by Cheers towards the end of its run). If the writers had material for George's monstrous parents, Elaine's unhinged boss or Jerry's arch-nemesis Newman, they could bring them in and if not, leave them out. The actors mostly do a good job, with Seinfeld himself being the weakest link (by his own cheerful admission) and a key reason why Seinfeld is usually more reacting to the craziness that his three friends have gotten into than driving storylines himself. This kind of generosity in ostensibly the leading man of a successful TV show is quite unusual.

Like any show which runs for nine years and 180 episodes the series does have repetitive tropes which occasionally become wearying: Jerry and George's problems often revolve around their latest girlfriend or relationship issue, with a seemingly never-ending revolving door of attractive actresses passing through the show. It's notable that these relationship stories become better when the partners actually stick around for a bit longer and get better-defined characters. There's also a few episodes where Kramer's latest "whacky hijinks" feel stretched past of the point of lunacy. The continuous character clashes between George and Elaine also make it hard to swallow that these people would be friends and hang out, at least without Jerry being around. These issues do become more marked in the final two seasons, when the show's creative juices are starting to run dry. Some may also find subsequent events - such as Michael Richards' racist-filled tirade against audience members during a standup performance many years later, or Seinfeld dating a teenager at the height of his fame - colour their appreciation of the show in retrospect.

Seinfeld (****½) is an often hilarious, smart and well-played comedy series, arguably the greatest of its time, and one that paved the way for many shows that have come since. Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO takes the Seinfeld formula and propels it into the stratosphere. Similarly, FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia seems to ask what would happen if you made the actual show that Seinfeld is often accused of being, a dystopian nightmare of several hateful characters forced to live and work together and getting into at-times nihilistic misadventures. Some patchy later seasons and over-used tics are minor weaknesses for a show that's aged well. The show is available on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK and USA. Netflix will begin streaming the show in its entirety later in 2021.

RIP Mira Furlan

In tragic news, actress Mira Furlan has passed away at the age of 65.

Furlan was born in Zagreb, Croatia, in the former Yugoslavia. She became interested in acting as a teenager, and learned English due to being a fan of American and British music. She studied acting at college and made her TV debut in 1976 in a TV movie, Knez. She became a regular on television in the series Velo Misto in 1980-81 and gained acclaim for her performance in the 1985 movie, When Father Was Away on Business.

Furlan married her Serbian husband, director Goran Gajić, in the late 1980s and commuted between Zagreb and Belgrade where he was directing plays. She appeared in productions in both cities. Although Furlan considered herself a Yugoslav first and foremost, this became an unpopular position as the country was riven by fierce nationalism between its constituent parts. In 1991, after the civil war that would lead to the break-up of Yugoslavia began, she was fired from the Croatian National Theatre for refusing to stop acting in Serbia. After some discussion, she and her husband fled the country and moved to New York City.

A year later, they relocated to Los Angeles when Furlan was cast in her most famous role, that of Minbari Ambassador Delenn in Babylon 5. The role was challenging, as Furlan had to act through significant prosthetics. In addition, she had to play a character whose gender was indeterminate, who would undergo a metamorphosis at the end of the first season to become female. Although she was fine with the prosthetics, she was less happy when she learned her voice was going to be electronically distorted to hide her gender as well. It was decided to drop this idea for the pilot. When the show was renewed for a full season, it was also decided to modify her makeup to be less restrictive. The metamorphosis saw the makeup reduced further, which helped make Furlan more identifiable with her character.

Furlan played Delenn in all five seasons of Babylon 5, becoming one of the show's leading players, and in several spin-off TV movies based on the series, as well as an unreleased video game.

She also voiced the role of Silver Sable on the Spider-Man animated show and was a guest star on several other shows.

In 2004 she was cast on the television series Lost, the biggest show on American TV, playing the role of French castaway Danielle Rousseau. She appeared in twenty episodes spanning the whole show; her character was killed off in the fourth season, but she was able to reappear in the final season thanks to flashbacks, time travel and parallel universes.

In addition to acting on stage and screen, she did voice work for several video games: Payday 2 (2013), Elite: Dangerous (2014), Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (2016) and Mafia: Definitive Edition (2020). Her recent roles include Vonn Odara on Space Command and the Traveller on Just Add Magic. During recent years, Furlan was a frequent attendee at Babylon 5 fan conventions.

Furlan had been ill for some time, although there had been hopes of improvement recently. Babylon 5 showrunner J. Michael Straczynski confirmed her passing on social media. She is survived by her husband and son. An intense and skilled performer, she will be missed.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

GAME OF THRONES prequel series based on Dunk & Egg in development at HBO

In surprising news, Variety has learned that HBO are developing another Game of Thrones prequel series, this time based on George R.R. Martin's Dunk & Egg series of novellas. This is in addition to House of the Dragon, which is currently in pre-production and casting, and the Long Night pilot, Bloodmoon, which was shot in 2019 but HBO declined to pursue to series.

The Dunk & Egg stories begin eighty-nine years before the events of Game of Thrones (or the first Song of Ice and Fire novel, A Game of Thrones) and chart the adventures of Ser Duncan the Tall, a newly-minted common or hedge knight, and his squire, "Egg," a young boy who is more than he seems. George R.R. Martin has so far written three novellas about the characters: The Hedge Knight (1998), The Sworn Sword (2002) and The Mystery Knight (2010), with these three stories combined and released as A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms in 2015. Martin had planned for around twelve stories in total spanning some fifty years, with the next two, The She-Wolves (not the final title) and The Village Hero, already sketched out and partly written, but on hold until he completes the next Song of Ice and Fire novel. He also alludes to Dunk and Egg's further adventures in his companion book, The World of Ice and Fire (2014), as well as seeding mentions of their adventures in the mainline series novels. Duncan is also mentioned several times in the Game of Thrones TV series.

The Dunk & Egg stories are extremely popular with fans and have seemed ripe for adaptation for many years. Martin has downplayed such a possibility due to his disappointment that HBO overtook him with the main TV series and did not want to repeat the process with Dunk & Egg. Martin has reiterated this many times over the years, to the point of refusing even to hear pitches about the idea. Martin's contract with HBO gives Martin veto over future Game of Thrones spin-offs that do not meet his approval (at the cost that he cannot take material set in the same world to other networks or studios).

The fact that a series is now in development indicates that Martin has changed his mind. It may be that Martin has concluded that with The Winds of Winter already nine years in the works and a further novel to follow, it will simply be far too long before he is able to focus on Dunk & Egg and the stories will not get written in a reasonable timeframe if he continues to wait. This way, he can provide outlines for each of the twelve stories and have other writers develop them into scripts, and they can reach fans much more quickly.

From HBO's point of view, there is tremendous value to the project. It is much closer to the timeframe of Game of Thrones itself and characters from the earlier series can actually appear (the notorious Walder Frey actually appears as a baby in The Mystery Knight). The stories are more straightforward, eschewing the high-budget magic and massive battles of the parent series in favour of more focused adventures on the roads of Westeros. A more episodic road-trip of a series would also contrast favourably with House of the Dragon, which is likely to be very expensive and complex in its storytelling.

The project is in very early days at HBO and HBO have not yet made a pilot or series order, and it may yet not make the grade. However, it sounds like HBO are very keen to get the ball rolling on a series. If so, we should hear more news later this year.

Meanwhile, House of the Dragon is currently knee-deep in casting. It recently added Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen, Emma D'Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Olivia Cooke as Lady Alicent Hightower, along with Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen. Shooting is expected to begin at the Warner Brothers Studios, Leavesden, in the next few weeks for a 2022 debut.

EDIT: James Hibberd at Entertainment Weekly has added more information, confirming that a number of other Game of Thrones-related pitches are currently circulating at HBO and that the network is looking to woo back Bruno Heller, who created and ran the series Rome for them in 2005-07, to get involved. Apparently one pitch under discussion is a show based on Robert's Rebellion, the civil war that brought King Robert Baratheon to power, and is set only seventeen years before the events of Game of Thrones itself, with younger versions of characters like Ned Stark, Littlefinger, Ser Barristan Selmy and Jaime and Tywin Lannister playing key roles. George has been much more vociferous that a Rebellion-era series is unnecessary, which makes me wonder if all these reported pitches are actually pitches to George rather than having already consulted with him. If so that may cast the likelihood of a Dunk & Egg series in some doubt (although I could see George relenting on D&E long before the Rebellion).

Hibberd reports that HBO are looking at Game of Thrones as a streamer-establishing franchise for the HBO Max service, hoping to replicate the huge success of the various Star Wars and MCU shows (so far) on Disney+ and the multiple Star Trek shows on CBS All Access, and it sounds like projects are also in development.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

HBO Max reportedly planning a continuation of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES

According to Kevin Smith and other sources, HBO Max are planning a continuation of the classic Batman: The Animated Series.

Batman: The Animated Series aired between 1992 and 1995, producing 85 episodes and spawning a number of spin-off shows and series set in the same continuity. The series is one of the most highly-acclaimed animated and superhero TV series of all time and has recently reached new audiences through a HD remaster and appearing on streaming services.

The show drew on Tim Burton's live-action movies Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) for artistic inspiration, although it also charted its own course with unique characterisations for Bruce Wayne/Batman, Robin and Joker. The vocal performances by Kevin Conroy (Batman), Mark Hamill (Joker) and Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn) have also become regarded as iconic, if not definitive. The show is also highly notable for its additions to the Batman mythos, most infamously the character of Harley Quinn who was introduced in the animated series before migrating to the comic a year later. Renee Montoya, Lock-Up and Simon Trent are other characters originated on the series to play a role in other versions of the mythos later on.

The Animated Series version of the mythos directly inspired the storylines and characterisation in the Arkham series of video games, which also starred Conroy, Hamill and (in the first game, at least) Sorkin.

Smith indicates that Bruce Timm, the original showrunner and co-creator, is involved in the new series. It's unclear if writer Paul Dini is also on board, or if the original vocal cast will return; Hamill, at least, has said that his version of Joker has been retired (although he's also been tempted out of retirement in the past).

If the continuation is confirmed, it is unclear if it would be a reboot in the same art style or if it would continue the storylines from where the animated show left off. This might be complicated by the sheer number of other series which have followed on from The Animated Series (including a contemporary Superman series and the SF-tinged Batman Beyond).

HBO Max has not yet formally confirmed the news.

Valve Corporation considering a move to New Zealand

Valve Corporation, one of the biggest video game companies in the world, are considering at least a partial move to New Zealand.

Valve's CEO Gabe Newell was in New Zealand on holiday when the COVID pandemic erupted and decided to stay in the country whilst the crisis unfolded. He has since been granted residency and is pursuing citizenship. He reports that many Valve employees have expressed interest in moving the company to New Zealand.

Valve was founded in Kirkland, Washington in 1996. It has since moved its headquarters to the neighbouring city of Bellevue, both located close to Seattle. Valve made its name with developing video games, particularly the Half-Life, Team Fortress, Counter-StrikeLeft 4 Dead and Portal series of acclaimed first-person shooters and puzzle games. More recently they have branched into online multiplayer games like Dota 2. Their most recent release was the highly-acclaimed VR game Half-Life: Alyx, released last year.

They are, however, much more significant for creating and maintaining the online distribution platform Steam. Launched in 2003, Steam has become the de facto primary digital distribution platform for PC gaming in the world despite a strong challenge from rival services such as GoG, Origins, UPlay and Epic Games Store. Their annual income is in the billions of dollars, with well under 500 employees which makes them probably the most profitable-per-employee company in the entire United States.

Newell has noted that New Zealand's healthcare system, success at handling the pandemic (with one of the lowest infection and death rates in the world) and general quality of life make moving the company the company there an attractive prospect. He does note that many employees have family ties in the Washington state area that makes a wholesale move of the entire company less likely, but a possible move of headquarters to New Zealand whilst keeping the Bellevue office open as a satellite operation might be an option.

Newell also opined that hosting eSports championships in New Zealand could also be an option whilst other countries are struggling with the pandemic with greater difficulty. The annual Dota 2 championship has the most lucrative prizes in eSports, with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive not far behind.

As usual, Newell refused to be drawn on news about Half-Life 3 or Portal 3, but noted that the success of Half-Life: Alyx had reinvigorated the company and they do have new, single-player games in development.

Metro: Redux

In 2013, a nuclear war devastated the Earth. The city of Moscow was destroyed by several direct nuclear hits, the few thousand survivors being driven literally underground to seek refuge in the Moscow Metro. Twenty years later several competing factions have arisen, with the Spartan Rangers, the Fourth Reich and the Red Line fighting whilst several independent city-states try to survive in the crossfire. And above their heads, strange creatures have arisen to take control of the surface world.

Originally released in 2010 and 2013, the first two instalments in Ukrainian 4A Studios' Metro series of first-person shooters were accomplished games. Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light told an intriguing story of survival, horror, war, love and loss against a superbly-realised background, provided by Dmitry Glukhovsky's trilogy of source novels (Metro 2033, Metro 2034 and Metro 2035). The developers have form from working on the earlier S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games, although the Metro series eschews those games open-world settings for a much more linear and focused experience.

In 2014 both games were reworked and re-released in "Redux" editions. These editions of the games rework graphics, AI, controls and difficulty to provide a more consistent and linear experience across both games. Minor differences in controls, interfaces and enemies are smoothed out to form what is effectively one large game.

Being the older game, Metro 2033 benefits much more from the upgrade. Graphics, physics and lighting are much-improved and things like the games' stealth system is now more reliable and works better. Best of all is the evening out of the first game's infamously punishing difficulty. The original game's "normal" is now "hard" and a newer, normal difficulty level has been imported from Last Light, which makes ammo easier to find. In contrast, Last Light has inherited 2033's more punishing optional difficulty levels to turn it more into a survival game. The disparity between the two titles is gone and you can now play both as either a hardcore survival shooter or a more relaxed and forgiving action title.

Both games have aged well, and their at-the-time impressive focus on stealth has become all the more impressive. The games don't do a great job of telling you about the stealth system though. Basically, enemies, no matter how tough, can be killed with a single thrown knife as long as you take them unawares. You can also sneak up behind them and knock them out or kill them in close proximity without alerting their friends. If one enemy does spot you, instead of magically letting everyone else know your precise location via telepathy, you do have a narrow window of opportunity to disable them before they can alert other guards, allowing you to recover from serious errors. You can also use muffled weapons to take down enemies, extinguish lights, although causing too much mischief from the shadows can lead to the enemy getting suspicious and switching to a higher alert state.

Both games retain impressive action set pieces and the storytelling remains intriguing. The environmental storytelling, reliance on NPC companions and your status as a silent protagonist all make for positive comparisons with the Half-Life series. However, the games suffer a little from their morality system, which they don't tell you about. Basically, the less mayhem you cause, the more guards you knock out rather than kill, the more you go out of your way to avoid killing (even mutants), the higher your morality score. This unlocks secret endings for both games. For Metro 2033, to be honest, this is a bit pointless as the secret ending is not canon (Last Light starts the "negative" ending from the first game, which is off-putting if you're playing both games together), but for Last Light it's more important because the "secret" ending in Last Light is the canon one and sets up the third game in the series, Metro: Exodus. Unfortunately, some of the high-moral outcomes in Last Light are a bit obtuse, requiring you to uncover secret caches and avoid killing even when it appears fully justified to do so.

These vagaries are minor annoyances, and made up for by the package's impressive amount of side-content. All of Last Light's generous DLC is included, including more missions expanding on background events in Last Light (focusing on various side-characters and their own storylines), a solid single-player survival mode set on an open world map with you scavenging for supplies at a huge library, and a specialist (and punishingly hard) sniper map.

Metro: Redux (****) takes two strong, older games and makes them sharper, better and more enjoyable for modern gamers. The morality and stealth systems feel a bit under-explained, but once you get to grips with them, they enhance an atmospheric and accomplished pair of shooters. The package is available now on PC, PlayStation 4 and X-Box One.

Transformers: War for Cybertron - Earthrise

The battle for Cybertron has ended with Optimus Prime hurling the Allspark, the key to his dying world's salvation, through a space bridge portal and into deep space. He pursues in the Autobot starship, the Ark. Back on Cybertron the last remnants of the Autobot Resistance mount what seem like increasingly futile attacks on Deception bases, with Megatron finally victorious in his goal to conquer the planet, only to find it on the brink of destruction.

War for Cybertron is a new, cross-media instalment of the venerable Transformers franchise, consisting of a toyline and a three-part Netflix TV show, consisting of the sub-series Siege, Earthrise and Kingdom. One of the goals of this series has been to create a "greatest hits" of the Transformers franchise, packaged into an easy-to-digest single storyline spanning a modest eighteen episodes in total. Given the sheer expanse of the Transformers universe - more than 300 individual characters appeared over seven years in the first generation period alone with numerous takes on the basic premise stretching back almost forty years - this is theoretically a good way of making the property approachable for newcomers.

That said, I'm not sure War for Cybertron entirely works as a stepping-on point for newcomers in practice. This second season in particular seems obsessed with fanservice, so we get nods to the Creation Matrix, the Quintessons, Galvatron, Unicron and other elements that aren't actually the focus of the series, so probably shouldn't have been brought in at all. As a result, a streamlined and focused narrative, one of the key benefits of the first season, gets bogged down in mostly irrelevant trivia.

There's also the fact that not very much happens in the second season. Prime and his Autobots pursue the Allspark through space and find a space bridge portal that might help speed them to their destination. However, the portal is jammed by a space station that's gotten stuck in it. This leads to some very cool imagery but also fairly interminable scenes as the Autobots get bogged down fighting Scorponok (whose presence in the story is fairly random). A subplot revolving around mercenaries led by Doubledealer but in the employ of a deranged five-times-schizophrenic Quintesson is also potentially entertaining but under-serviced.

Instead we get more of what Siege handled awkwardly: lots of introspection. Optimus Prime second-guessing his decisions is a common trait of the character, but appearing indecisive and audibly doubting himself is not. The Prime of Siege is less of a confident military commander and more of an awkward politician who can't seem to make a single decision without having an existential crisis. This is a mistake writers have made before with the character, but never in such a high-profile instalment of the franchise. It's hard to see why anyone would follow this guy into battle when he can't seem to get up in the morning without pangs of self-doubt.

Much better-handled is War for Cybertron's best idea (so far), namely that Megatron began the war because of class struggle. The Decepticons arose from Cybertron's downtrodden worker underclass, who were tired of being exploited, under-paid and under-appreciated. Megatron, himself a low-class bruiser with unusual intelligence who came to fame and fortune in the fighting arena, helped lead them in a revolution against the Autobot intelligentsia and nobility. This idea - on the surface somewhat barmy (Megatron as a version of Lenin) - is actually rather interesting and explains some of the oddities of the Transformers backstory, like how the majority of the population rallied to his banner and why the Autobots are such a tiny minority. Earthrise expands on this in a sequence where Megatron visits a district due to be shut down so its power can be diverted elsewhere and encounters a band of true believers in the Decepticon cause as a just one against elitist tyranny. This leads to some brief character introspection for Megatron as he has to consider whether he has been corrupted by power. This story works well, especially as it is handled relatively concisely and Megatron emerges from it more confident and surer of his motivations (unlike Prime).

In six relatively short episodes the show covers a lot of ground but not much of it seems to propel the story forward in any meaningful way. In fact, a lot of it feels like filler designed to keep things in a holding pattern until we finally get to Earth, where the third and concluding season (due later in 2021) will take place.

Earthrise (***½) eschews the first season's focus and better (though imperfect) pacing to deliver a lot of side-quests and filler, but for the most part it is entertaining. A more thoughtful and meaningfully-motivated Megatron is the show's greatest success in characterisation, but a much more hesitant and tremulous Optimus Prime is its biggest weakness. Overall, the show is watchable, if a bit too obviously treading water. It is available to watch on Netflix now. The final season should follow later in 2021.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Guy Gavriel Kay completes latest novel

Guy Gavriel Kay has completed his latest novel. The book doesn't yet have a title or plot summary.

Guy Gavriel Kay being inducted into the Order of Canada in 2015, for his services to Canadian literature.

Kay notes that this is the first draft and much more editorial work remains before the book will be published, which he currently estimates will happen in 2022. This will maintain the book-every-three-years pace he has maintained since The Last Light of the Sun in 2004; his books since then have been Ysabel (2007), Under Heaven (2010), River of Stars (2013), Children of Earth and Sky (2016) and A Brightness Long Ago (2019). 

Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson

The war between the forces of Odium, a dark god who desires ultimate power over the Cosmere, and the Knights Radiant is continuing to escalate. The Knights Radiant have conquered the ancient tower-city of Urithiru and are using it as an impregnable stronghold to wage war on Odium's forces. Dalinar Kholin forms an alliance with a skilled general and decides to mount an attack on Odium's armies to the south, whilst his son Adolin embarks on a dangerous mission into the other-dimensional realm of Shadesmar to seek an alliance with the honorspren, a task complicated by ancient crimes committed by humanity against them. Kaladin Stormblessed, the greatest soldier in Dalinar's armies, finds himself granted a leave of absence to deal with his own battle stress and self-doubt. But Odium is not beaten yet and takes advantage of Dalinar's absence from Urithiru to put a bold plan into motion.

Rhythm of War is a lot. It's the latest in a lot of books: this is the fourth of ten planned books in the Stormlight Archive series and the twelfth of a planned thirty-odd books in the wider Cosmere universe. It's a lot of pages: at more than 1,200 pages this is the longest epic fantasy novel published since the previous volume in the series, Oathbringer, which in turn was possibly the longest fantasy novel published in over a decade. It's a lot of characters, with dozens of major and minor characters playing important roles in the story. It's also a lot of worldbuilding, with fabrials and Shardplate and voidlight and stormlight and half a dozen different magic system employing different principles being discussed at chapter-stretching length (not helped by the three-year gap since the last book in the series; keeping the Stormlight wiki on standby during reading may be advisable). This is not a series for the faint-hearted or the short of time.

Rhythm of War is also, it is pleasing to report, a stronger novel than its forebear, arresting a slight decline in quality that the series had been suffering since the start. The Way of Kings was a strong novel which set up an unusual, alien setting with an interesting story and worldbuilding and characters who were among Sanderson's best. Words of Radiance was almost as good, but suffered some pacing issues. These pacing issues became overwhelming in Oathbringer, a relatively simple and focused novel that was diffused and made more complicated than it needed to be by immense amounts of worldbuilding and backstory discussions that, strictly speaking, didn't really need to be in the book. 

Rhythm of War shores up a building that was, if not in danger of collapse, starting to list under its own weight. The novel is helped by dropping the completely self-contained side-stories that appeared in previous novels and by setting up very clear stories around its four main characters: Venli, Shallan, Kaladin and Navani (with Dalinar, Wit, Adolin and Lift having reasonably important secondary roles). Each story is told clearly and intersects with the others in a well-laid out manner, with Sanderson expending a lot of energy on making these characters jump off the page more than previously.

It's also a heavy novel, in the sense that both Shallan and Kaladin's stories revolve around mental health, stress, PTSD and other issues revolving around personality disorders and the need for good mental health practice. It's a strong theme that was touched on in the previous books but becomes a major plot point in this novel. It's welcome to see a contemporary issue being fleshed out in a fantasy novel in a respectful and mostly well-handled way. However, given the novel has come out in the middle of a global pandemic and many readers will be suffering stress and pressure as a result, readers should be forewarned going into the book that it is tackling weightier-than-normal themes for the author.

The clear demarcation and semi-equal screen time between the four leads helps tremendously in overcoming the pacing issues from the previous novel (thinking of this more as four much more reasonably-sized 300-page novels, each focused on a strong lead character, helps).

That said, problems remain. There are immense stretches of time, especially in the Navani storyline, where characters sit around and discuss worldbuilding issues between them. The idea of characters in a epic fantasy novel acting like scientists and trying to work out how the magic of the world works in an experimental manner is really interesting, but the novel does feel it goes a bit overboard as we see people using magnets and beakers to try to catch stormlight and voidlight in bulbs and do weird things with them. It's a cool idea that is overindulged in.

In addition, the splitting of time between the characters feels a bit uneven at times, with the Shallan/Adolin/Shadesmar plot benched for the entire central third or so of the novel because the author ran out of things for them to do. That's a reasonable solution and better than giving them filler, but it's a bit odd that Shallan is a such a hugely important character at the start and end of the novel but then completely vanishes between.

There's also a perennial Sanderson problem that he's improved on a lot book-by-book but still pops up at odd moments, namely that Sanderson is traditionally a writer who works from the head rather than the heart. There are sections in this book that do feel more like they've come from the heart, excellent action sequences as characters confront old enemies or moments of major character revelation, but some of the book feels studied, analysed and written with something of an absence of passion. This is particularly notable whenever Odium appears live on-page. The Dark Lord showing up to confront the characters (even in a vision where they can't touch or fight one another) should be a major event, but pretty much every time this happens some kind of odd debate on rules of conduct unfolds; the last such major confrontation has all the tension of Odium and Dalinar debating the small print of a text like two opponents who've paused a board game to check the rules online to see if an odd move is allowed. There is a last-minute, genuinely impressive plot twist that might change this for future books, but that remains unproven for now.

Rhythm of War (****) is a stronger novel than the one that came before it and continues to display Sanderson's strengths to full effect: immensely detailed, convincing worldbuilding, solid action and a logical, considered development of the plot, as well as interesting characters. Some of his weaknesses remain, such as a tendency to overwrite, occasionally getting bogged down in the minutiae of the setting and a lack of writing flair in some scenes which doesn't sell big events as much as they should be sold. But it's hard not to remain impressed by the sheer size and scope of the story he is telling here.

The novel is available now in the UK and USA.