Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


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.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

HBO releases first publicity images from HOUSE OF THE DRAGON

HBO have released the first publicity images from House of the Dragon, their Game of Thrones prequel series. HBO were moved to make the decision after a large number of unofficial photos leaked online.

The first image depicts Emma D'Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Matt Smith as her uncle, Prince Daemon Targaryen. The story opens with the death of Rhaenyra's mother Aemma, leaving her father, King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine, not pictured) in a bind as the realm prefers men to inherit the Iron Throne. However, Viserys's younger brother Daemon is flighty, quick to anger and Viserys fears he would embroil the realm in costly and unnecessary conflicts, whilst Rhaenyra is studious, serious and, in her father's eyes, more capable of ruling.

The second image depicts Olivia Cooke as Lady Alicent Hightower and Rhys Ifans as her father, Otto Hightower, Lord of Oldtown and Hand of the King. Alicent may be the most eligible bride in the Seven Kingdoms and with the queen deceased, Lord Otto hatches a scheme to marry his daughter to the grieving king to cement his house's power. Alicent and Rhaenyra are on friendly terms, but the prospect of Alicent having children whose legitimacy might threaten both Rhaenyra and Daemon's claims to the throne drives a wedge between them.

The third image depicts Lord Corlys Velaryon, Lord of Driftmark and Master of Ships on the small council. A formidable sailor, explorer and warrior, descended from ancient Valyria, Corlys has sailed to the very edges of the known world, to distant Ib and Nefer on the Shivering Sea, to Cannibal Bay at the howling edges of the northern icepack and to distant Asshai-by-the-Shadow, on the far side of the Jade Sea. Though his exploring days are behind him, Corlys has used his immense wealth to make his family the richest and most powerful in Westeros, even eclipsing the Lannisters of Casterly Rock. A friend and ally of Prince Daemon, as well as Princess Rhaenyra's prospective father-in-law, he is poised to become the most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms behind only the king, and whomever he backs in the ensuring struggle for power will have found themselves a vital ally.

The images seem to come from a later point in the storyline (as Alicent and Rhaenyra are much younger at the reported start of the story, unless they are completely changing the timeline), presumably scenes from later in the first season they are shooting first for practical reasons.

House of the Dragon is currently shooting on location in Cornwall. The series is expected to air on HBO and Sky Atlantic early in 2022.

Monday, 3 May 2021

RIP Richard Halliwell

Richard Halliwell, one of the leading creative visionaries at Games Workshop and the co-creator of the Warhammer fantasy battle game, has passed away.

Halliwell co-designed the original Warhammer wargame in 1983, working alongside Rick Priestly and Bryan Ansell. The game drew on Halliwell and Priestley's earlier work on a 1978 wargame called Reaper, but featured a much larger scale and allowed for more elaborate games and worldbuilding. Warhammer became a huge success, propelling Games Workshop to greater achievements.

Halliwell worked on several other games, including Block Mania (1987), a board game set in the Judge Dredd universe. He also worked on the second edition of Warhammer (1984).

In 1988 and 1989 he produced two new games for Games Workshop which were both hugely acclaimed. In 1988 he published Dark Future, a post-apocalyptic miniatures game where the player controls a driver trying to make it across America. The game resulted from an idea he had for a miniatures game in the Judge Dredd universe, which eventually made it to print as a spin-off of the Judge Dredd tabletop roleplaying game, Slaughter Margin. The original setting was created by Marc Gascoigne. The Mad Max-influenced game became a cult classic and has seen digital versions released recently.

In 1989 Halliwell co-created the game (with Dean Bass) he'll probably be best remembered-for. Space Hulk is an iconic title spinning off from the Warhammer 40,000 game, pitting an isolated number of Space Marines trying to defeat alien invaders on a rotting, Chaos-infested derelict starship. Noted for both its simplicity and is incredible difficulty, Space Hulk became one of the most popular Games Workshop games of all time. It's subsequently been re-released three times in new editions, and ported to video games no less than six times.

His other credits include Combat 3000 (1979), Imperial Commander (1981), Rogue Trooper (1987) and The Tragedy of McDeath (1986).

A hugely influential game designer, he will sadly be missed. A thousand bolters shall be fired in his honour.

DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS movie starts production

After many, many years of delays, legal action and a lot of writer and director turnover, filming is finally underway on the new Dungeons and Dragons film.

Shooting appears to be underway at the main production base in the Titanic Studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the production is using the studio facilities previously employed by Game of Thrones. Second unit location shooting has also already taken place in the south of Iceland.

Production is set to run through the summer, with next year devoted to post-production and effects. The film is directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley and starts Chris Pine, Hugh Grant, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page and Justice Smith. The film is currently set for release on 3 March 2023.


Marvel have confirmed that two of their upcoming films are getting new titles.

As part of a sizzle reel to get people excited about going to the moves again post-pandemic, Marvel confirm that Black Panther II has been retitled as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, whilst Captain Marvel 2 has now been renamed The Marvels.

The reel also features the first footage from Eternals. The film was already eagerly awaited, but director Chloe Zhao's recent spate of Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA successes for her previous movie, Nomadland, and excited early buzz on the film has raised anticipation to new levels.

The release dates for Marvel's upcoming movies currently run as follows:
  • 9 July 2021: Black Widow
  • 3 September 2021: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Five Rings
  • 5 November 2021: Eternals
  • 17 December 2021: Spider Man: No Way Home
  • 25 March 2022: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
  • 6 May 2022: Thor: Love and Thunder
  • 8 July 2022: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
  • 11 November 2022: The Marvels
  • 17 February 2023: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
  • 5 May 2023: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
  • TBC: Fantastic Four, Blade

Warrior: En Garde by Michael A. Stackpole

The year 3027. Three hundred years ago, the great Star League, which united all the worlds of humanity in a peaceful, golden age of technology, fell into ruin. From the chaos emerged the five Successor States: the Lyran Commonwealth, the Draconis Combine, the Federated Suns, the Free Worlds League and the Capellan Confederation, each ruled by a Great House. At the centre of them all and controlling ancient, holy Terra is ComStar, a mercantile consortium turned religious institution and the arbiters of interstellar communications. Political intrigue is rife, and warfare is conducted by vast, towering war machines called BattleMechs. The period of chaos known as the Third Succession War has come to an end and the Great Houses are rebuilding, but stability is no guarantee of safety. The Allard family, in noble service to House Davion of the Federated Suns, is placed in the centre of huge events when one scion is disgraced and sent into exile on the game world of Solaris VII and another joins the legendary mercenary army known as the Kell Hounds.

BattleTech is the franchise that stubbornly won't die. Starting life in 1984 as a tabletop miniatures game, it quickly spun off a series of over one hundred novels and more than a dozen popular video games (most famously, the MechWarrior and MechCommander series) before petering out in the late 2000s after an ill-advised reboot (the Dark Age setting). After a few years in the doldrums, it suddenly spun back into life with a new edition of the tabletop game and two well-received video games: 2018's turn-based BattleTech and 2019's real-time simulator MechWarrior 5 (which is getting a wider release this month on Steam and Xbox). Capitalising on the moment, franchise-holders Catalyst Game Labs have started making the immense backlog of novels available again vie ebook and Amazon's print-on-demand service.

Arguably the best-known and regarded of the BattleTech authors is Michael A. Stackpole, whom in later years would gain much greater fame and success as a Star Wars author (particularly of the X-Wing series, alongside the late, great Aaron Allston). Stackpole has built a career on writing fast-paced but also character-based military SF and fantasy. Like Dan Abnett (his Warhammer 40,000 counterpart, or the nearest equivalent), Stackpole knows that writing good military SF isn't just about the action and explosions, but creating interesting characters and telling the story through their eyes.

En Garde, the first book in the Warrior Trilogy, was the fifth-published novel in the BattleTech line but is widely regarded as the best novel to start with. The earlier books were published when the details of the setting were still being worked out and are prone to bouts of early-installment weirdness (CW: TVTropes link). They were also not as well-written as Stackpole's work, and tended to be smaller in scale. In contrast, En Garde is a book at times so epic it becomes dizzying.

The novel packs more storylines and characters into its modest 320 pages than some 1,000-page epic fantasy novels. At the start of the book it appears that we'll be following Justin Allard as he tries to clear his name after being wrongfully exiled as a traitor. However, Allard's experiences rapidly turn him into an apparently rage-fuelled antihero as he murders and backstabs his way through the crime-ridden underbelly of the gladiatorial world of Solaris VII. His much more sympathetic brother Daniel, a member of the Kell Hounds, finds himself on the front lines when his mercenary company is targeted for extermination by the ruthless intelligence agency of the Draconis Combine. Elsewhere, very high-level political intrigue unfolds when Princess Melissa Steiner of the Lyran Commonwealth has to travel incognito to the Federated Suns to discuss an alliance with Prince Hanse Davion, a prospect bitterly opposed by the other three Great Houses and many factions within their own empires. Yet another subplot follows a dishonored MechWarrior of the Draconis Combine who is offered the chance at redemption by forming and training an elite new military cadre (a fascinating idea which, unfortunately, mostly happens off-page). On top of all that, there is a framing story revolving around the priest-businessmen of ComStar, who preach neutrality and serving all of mankind's needs but, predictably, are up to their elbows in everyone else's business and trying to pull everyone's strings.

Stuffed to the gills with political intrigue and crunchy, mech-on-mech action, En Garde moves fast. As Stackpole's first novel and written under an unholy deadline (the entire trilogy, totalling north of 300,000 words, was written in under ten months), the novel lacks the polish of his later works. There's a noted prevalence of exclamation marks, especially in Justin's storyline: Justin is a big fan of making threatening speeches to his enemies, which are sometimes icily effective and sometimes feel like a five-year-old on the playground explaining why he's so tough and about as intimidating. Dialogue favours exposition, which is often clunky but at least does a good job of explaining what the hell is going on. I do feel like an appendix of in-universe terms and maybe some head-of-chapter preambles explaining the factions (like those in Frank Herbert's Dune) could have been a more elegant way of getting this information across to the audience, rather than a few too many "As you already know but I will explain anyway..." style conversations.

But Stackpole makes many of the characters complex and interesting: Gray Noton is initially presented as an antagonist but becomes a much richer character as the novel progresses, whilst expertly flipping Justin's storyline from a predictable "clearing his name" narrative to a more elemental story of utter vengeance makes for a much more morally murky storyline. A few characters do get short shrift, but hopefully they will rise more to the fore in the succeeding volumes of the trilogy.

There are a couple of other issues stemming from the background material more than Stackpole's writing. The Capellan Confederation and Draconis Combine are fairly obviously based on China and Japan, and a few wince-inducing stereotypes ensue, such as House Kurita's warriors being obsessed with honour, relaxing in tea houses and sometimes inexplicably wielding katanas against enemies with assault rifles. To be fair this actually plays a key role in the storyline, with Justin's half-Capellan heritage marking him out for racist abuse, but it's unsurprising that later iterations of the BattleTech franchise beat a retreat from these kind of stereotypes, with the Confederation and Combine receiving a great deal more nuance. It doesn't help that they are presented as the "bad guys" at this stage, whilst Houses Davion and Steiner, more Anglo-American in inspiration, are the "good guys." Very fortunately, Stackpole upends this idea as soon as the very next book in favour of the setting's more familiar equal-opportunities moral murkiness, with all the factions having good and bad elements to them.

Warrior: En Garde (***½) is a slightly dated but still readable slice of pulp military SF, with interesting characters and a fascinating universe (very much Game of Thrones meets Pacific Rim, with a light dusting of Dune). Some clumsy exposition and iffy dialogue are offset by a relentlessly readable pace and some very enjoyable action set-pieces. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Alan Moore signs deal for five-volume fantasy series and short story collection

Retired comics writer Alan Moore has signed a deal with Bloomsbury for six volumes, including a short story collection and a five-volume fantasy series.

Illuminations, the collection, will come first in autumn 2022 and will be followed in 2024 by the first book in the Long London series, an alternate-reality fantasy saga that begins in 1949 London and moves to "a version of London just beyond our knowledge."

Moore, best-known for his 1986 comic masterpiece Watchmen and other work including From Hell, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, retired from working on comics and graphic novels in 2019. In 2016 he published the utterly gigantic novel Jerusalem, a dizzyingly complex and stupendously long novel about his home town of Northampton in different time periods and different versions of reality.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Shocking no one, the next Tad Williams book will be published in two volumes

In news that will not be a surprise to anyone, the final volume of Tad Williams' Last King of Osten Ard series, The Navigator's Children, will be published in two volumes.

This is a matter of history repeating itself. To Green Angel Tower, the final volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Williams' prior work in the same world and possibly the longest epic fantasy novel ever written (and around the fifth-longest SFF novel of all time), was split into two volumes in paperback. The final book in the Shadowmarch series was also split into two volumes for publication, Shadowrise and Shadowheart. Williams deliberately paced his Otherland series as four volumes, fearing the same thing would happen again, and very nearly extended that series to five books as the final volume came in so long, but they were able to keep it to four.

At the moment it is unclear if the two volumes will be published as "Part I" and "Part II" or if they'll have to be retitled. Tad is currently rewriting and editing The Navigator's Children with a view to Part I being published in 2022 and hopefully Part II six to twelve months later.

Williams' next novel, Brothers of the Wind, a prequel to the entire Osten Ard saga so far, will be published this November.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

The Guild of Alchemists have created a new form of entertainment: moving pictures! Soon, Ankh-Morpork, perennial city of fads, is gripped by the phenomenon and everyone wants to break into the business. Semi-rejected wizard Victor Tugelbend and Theda Withel - who comes from a small town you've probably never heard of - are surprised when they become the biggest stars in Holy Wood. They are more surprised when it turns out that the magic of the movies is causing the threads of reality to break down and endanger the future of the Discworld. But that's showbusiness for you.

If there's ever such as a thing as an archetypal Discworld novel, Moving Pictures is probably it. Pratchett finds a facet of our everyday life that he finds interesting and transplants it to the Discworld, where he subjects it to all kinds of satirical analysis and character explorations, having a huge amount of fun in the process. He'll later do the same thing to rock music (Soul Music), the theatre (Maskerade), Christmas (Hogfather), war (Jingo), the press (The Truth), the post office (Going Postal), banking (Making Money) and football (Unseen Academicals), among many other examples.

It's a solid format and one that results in a much greater variety of stories than you might expect, although there is the sense that Pratchett didn't have much more of an idea here beyond "Discworld movies" before starting writing, as the plot only loosely comes together. It's certainly not as tightly-plotted and constructed a novel as Mort or Guards! Guards! That doesn't stop it being entertaining. It helps that Pratchett avoids contemporary movie references (the novel came out in 1990) in favour of more classic and long-lived ones. A series of King Kong gags are fortunately still relevant thanks to more Kong movies being made, although the Keystone Kops and Laurel and Hardy references might go over younger readers' heads. One joke feels stunning prescient - a troll actor calling himself "Rock" and there being widespread mirth at the idea of an actor with such a name - until you realise that Pratchett is referencing Rock Hudson rather than Dwayne Johnson, but amusingly that joke still works for the next generation. It also helps that some of the things Pratchett was mocking - advertising, product placement and crass commercialisation - have become if anything even more dominant forces in modern films.

The book features some more world and character-building. The tendency of Unseen University Archchancellors to have a briefer lifespan than terminally depressed lemmings living next to the Grand Canyon comes to a merciful end with the arrival of Mustrum Ridcully, whose terminal cheer and straightforward approach to all problems causes shockwaves through the establishment (most of them landing on the head of the Bursar, still semi-sane at this point, although his decline into bewilderment arguably begins when Ridcully nearly shoots him in the face with a crossbow). Unseen University also gets most of its regular cast: the Dean, the Lecturer in Recent Runes, student genius Ponder Stibbons and the ancient Windle Poons. We also meet Gaspode the Wonder Dog, and more character development for characters introduced in Guards! Guards!, such as Detritus the troll and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, who gets his biggest starring role of the series.

The book's biggest problem is pacing. Pratchett is usually very good with this, packing a lot into a modest 300-400 pages and then clearing out when the story is done, but Moving Pictures feels a bit sluggish, probably a result of the author knowing where he's starting and finishing, but a bit vague about making it join up in the middle. The book also arguably has a few too many endings, with several big climaxes in a row rather than one bigger, more elegant ending. Also, the fact that Victor and Theda become the biggest stars on the Disc only to go completely unmentioned in later books is odd, although possibly also a commentary on how the biggest actors can completely vanish from view after a few years in the doldrums.

Moving Pictures (***½) is a fine, readable but distinctly second-tier Discworld novel which has a ton of great ideas which don't entirely cohere into strong whole. But, as usual, Pratchett delivers enough laughs, intelligent observations and quotable lines to make the book worthwhile. It is available now in the UK and USA.

I previously reviewed the novel here.

THE LAST KINGDOM to end with fifth season

The saga of Uhtred of Bebbanburg is coming to an end on television. Netflix have announced that the fifth season of The Last Kingdom, currently shooting in Hungary, will be the last.

The Last Kingdom adapts the Saxon Saga series by Bernard Cornwell and tells the story of the unification of England out of seven founding kingdoms in the 9th and 10th centuries, a mixture of Saxon nations and lands seized by the invading Danes. Early books focus on King Alfred the Great as he tries to protect Wessex from the invaders with the help of Uhtred, a Saxon raised by Danes who becomes an expert on their way of battle; later books see Uhtred torn between his Saxon and Danish loyalties, but ultimately helping Alfred's successors complete the unification of England. There are thirteen books in the series, with the last, War Lord being published last year.

Each season of the TV show has adapted two novels, leading to the conclusion that the show would last six or seven seasons. However, each season has moved further and further away from the source material and the TV show has had issues in depicting the realistic aging of the characters over many decades. Concluding the TV show with the events of The Flame Bearer, in which a middle-aged Uhtred finally sets out to reclaim his childhood home of Bebbanburg from his duplicitous cousin, is a reasonable dramatic compromise (the books end with a seventy-something Uhtred taking part at the Battle of Brunanburh).

Cornwell fans hopefully won't have to wait too long for another adaptation, though. Cornwell's even more acclaimed Warlord Chronicles trilogy, a "realistic" depiction of the Arthurian legend, is currently in development at Epix.