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, 12 May 2021

Guy Gavriel Kay has given the 2021 Tolkien Lecture

Fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay has given the 2021 Tolkien Lecture, at the invitation of Pembroke College, Oxford.

Kay started his fantasy career in 1974 when he was asked by Christopher Tolkien to assist in the editing and preparation of his late father's book, The Silmarillion, for publication. Kay worked on the project in 1974-75, providing editing assistance and helping write a few passages to link areas of Tolkien's material which had no such material. The Silmarillion was published in 1977 to success.

Kay later became a highly acclaimed fantasy writer in his own right, penning a trilogy called The Fionavar Tapestry, a duology called The Sarantine Mosaic and numerous standalones, comprising Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Ysabel, Under Heaven, River of Stars, Children of Earth and Sky and A Brightness Long Ago. His next novel is scheduled for publication in 2022.

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

BALDUR'S GATE: DARK ALLIANCE to hit PC after twenty-year wait

The 2001 action-RPG Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is to arrive on PC later this year after spending more than twenty years as a console exclusive.

The original game was an action-oriented spin-off from the Baldur's Gate CRPG series from BioWare, although they were not involved in the Dark Alliance project. Snowblind Studios (now part of Monolith) developed the game and its highly-acclaimed (for the time) engine, and the game was published by Interplay via their Black Isle subsidiary. The game is less talky and cerebral than the mainline CRPG series, instead focusing on combat as the resolution to most of the game's challenges. Despite this, it still uses a simplified version of the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition ruleset to handle gameplay.

The game was well-received and sold over a million copies in its first year on sale, which at the time was considered a great success. Polish developers CD Projekt began developing a PC version of the game as their very first project, but Interplay, in financial difficulties at the time, went bust and the port was cancelled; CD Projekt used the expertise and experience gained to help develop The Witcher for release in 2007. Black Isle did release a sequel to the game, Dark Alliance II, in 2004.

The game has since been reissued for PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Series X/S and Nintendo Switch, with a PC version now slated to follow in a few months. At over twenty years, this marks one of the longest waits a game has had to endure for a port to a platform that existed when it was released, although it is not a record: Final Fantasy III (1990) had to wait for twenty-four years for its port from the Nintendo Entertainment System to PC in 2014, whilst Chrono Trigger (1995) had to wait twenty-three years for its port.

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, a spiritual successor the Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance series, is set for release on 22 June this year. Baldur's Gate III, a semi-sequel to the original CRPG series, is currently in Early Access and should get a full release in late 2021 or (more likely) 2022.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Graham McTavish cast in HBO's HOUSE OF THE DRAGON

Scottish actor Graham McTavish has been cast in House of the Dragon, HBO's prequel/spin-off to Game of Thrones. It is not known what role he was playing, but he was spotted filming in Cornwall last week, and confirmed his presence there on Instagram.

McTavish is best-known for playing the roles of Dwalin in The Hobbit trilogy, Dougal Mackenzie in Outlander, King Atlan in Aquaman, the Saint of Killers on Preacher and Father Kinley in Lucifer. Other TV roles include Red Dwarf, 24, Prison Break and Rome. He has also provided voices for the animated TV series Duck Tales and Castlevania, and voices for the Uncharted, Call of Duty, Total War, Guild Wars, Ace Combat and Metro series. He will be debuting as the important and fan-favourite character of Sigismund Dijkstra in the second season of Netflix's Witcher series, a role that's expected to recur for the entirety of that show's hoped-for seven-season run.

McTavish is also a published writer, having co-authored the non-fiction book Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other with his Outlander co-star Sam Heughan.

McTavish's role in House of the Dragon is unclear, although he could possibly be playing Lyonel Strong or Harrold Westerling, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard when the story opens.

McTavish's casting on The Witcher may suggest that his role on House of the Dragon may be short-lived, but given that his role, although a regular one, would not be hugely prominent, it's possible that they could schedule his appearances on both shows around one another's needs. The filming bases for the two shows are pretty close together near London.

Warrior: Riposte by Michael A. Stackpole

3028. The Inner Sphere has been rocked by the news that Prince Hanse Davion, ruler of the Federated Suns, is to wed Melissa Steiner, the Archon-Designate and heir to the Lyran Commonwealth. This union will unite almost half of the human race under one banner. The Draconis Combine, the Free Worlds League and the Capellan Confederation are opposed to the union but, after a failed assassination attempt on Melissa's life risks open war, seem powerless to stop it. As the governments of humanity gather on Terra for the wedding of the century, former enemies find themselves united in common cause as they begin to realise that ComStar, the priesthood-conglomerate that rules humanity's homeworld, has been keeping a dark secret from them...

Picking up after the events of En Garde, Riposte continues Michael A. Stackpole's Warrior Trilogy. Set in the BattleTech universe - think Game of Thrones meets Pacific Rim - this trilogy is a wildly ambitious work which sets to tell the stories of both individuals and cultures clashing a thousand years in the future, when wars are fought with building-sized robotic war machines called BattleMechs. En Garde was a fun but extremely busy novel which had more storylines and character arcs going on than most thousand-page epic fantasies, making for a novel with a cracking pace but on occasion could feel rushed,

Riposte calms down that pace and has a bit more time to smell the roses. There's still a lot going on but it's mostly a continuation of the first book's storylines rather than introducing new ones, allowing the story to breathe a lot more.

The book is divided into two general sections. The first section, before the wedding, is mostly setup as we rejoin the characters. The Kell Hounds mercenary group are recovering from the tough battle they fought in the first volume, Andrew Redburn's meteoric career rise is continuing and Justin Xiang (formerly Allard) has been recruited to serve in the Capellan Confederation's intelligence division, where he now directly contests the plans of his father, the Federated Suns' intelligence chief. This section is low on action but high on intrigue, and is mostly well-handled.

The wedding is the centrepiece of the novel and shows how you can use a wedding in an SF novel to completely upend the balance of power in a story without murdering everyone present (cough). The wedding arguably remains the most notable gamechanging moment in the BattleTech universe (or maybe the second, after the events covered in the subsequent Blood of Kerensky trilogy), even being live-reenacted at GenCon 1988 as a clever way of kicking off the BattleTech miniatures battle tournament. It's a fun scene which, oddly, we don't get to see the full events of, with Stackpole choosing to cut away at the key moment to events elsewhere and we only see the aftermath in flashback, which is mildly disappointing. It does make the second part of the novel much more of an all-out war novel, with major characters in action on the front and setting things up for the concluding part of the trilogy.

Some of the weaknesses of the first novel remain - the book veers at times towards melodrama and pulp, entertainingly realised but old-fashioned by today's standards - but others are solved. The first novel made it appear that Houses Steiner and Davion (based on European powers) were the "good guys" and Houses Liao and Kurita (based on Asian powers) were the "bad guys" (House Marik continues to mostly be ignored at this stage), This book throws that into considerable doubt and makes the setting more morally grey across the board, which is more interesting, and instead encourages readers to sympathise with individual characters rather than their polities. Another weakness is that some key characters from Book 1, most notably Melissa Steiner, all but vanish in this second volume, making their storylines feel curtailed.

Still, Warrior: Riposte (***½) is a fun action-SF novel set in a well-realised universe of giant stompy mechs fighting other giant stompy mechs. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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.