Saturday 29 December 2007

Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of the highly successful Crown of Stars series, which I reviewed earlier this year. Crossroads is her new series, a seven-volume series which is divided into two trilogies with a linking book between them. Spirit Gate is the first book of the first trilogy (to be followed by Shadow Gate and Traitor's Gate).

For centuries the land of the Hundred was ruled by the Guardians, powerful beings to dispensed justice, aided by their reeves, effectively a police force riding giant eagles. The Guardians have disappeared and are feared dead, but the reevers remain, overstretched and in increasingly few numbers as chaos and barbarism spreads across the land. Reeve Joss is given the difficult task of restoring order to an area in the south ravaged of bandit attacks, threatening trade between the Hundred and the Sirniakan Empire to the south-west.

Meanwhile, in lands far beyond the Hundred and the Empire, a Qin warrior named Aniji marries a local woman, Mei, and finds himself and his troop of 200 soldiers drawn into danger and adventure, forcing them to flee their lands and journey into the Hundred, where they find the land on the brink of full-scale war.

Spirit Gate is a compelling story set in an interesting and well-realised world. Whilst Crown of Stars was deliberately set in a very rigid society highly reminiscent of medieval Europe, Crossroads is far more original and fantastical, although the two works share some character tropes and ideas. The book opens with a nice piece of misdirection that holds the attention and directs the reader into the story. However, the pacing is mismatched and key characters, most notably Joss, disappear for long stretches. In other places the timeline is a bit confused, with Elliott not being afraid to revisit the events of several chapters past from another POV, although once you get used to it this plot device does start yielding useful information. There is also a rather odd tendency for central characters to engage in frivolous discussions and banter in the middle of mortal danger, which defuses tension from the book, and after a very impressive build-up to a major confrontation at the end of the book, the actual final battle is resolved in perhaps two pages at best, which is very disappointing.

On the plus side, the relationship between the reeves and their eagles is well-defined. Those fearing that the giant eagles were going to be reduced to cuddly sidekicks can rest assured that these animals are depicted as the dangerous creatures they are. The idea that the reeves are policemen and not soldiers is also nicely done and leads to some interesting exploration of the roles of the police and the military in a fantasy world.

Unfortunately, the central threat in the book is left rather vauge and undefined. Is chaos and lawlessness returning in general because the Guardians are gone and some people are taking advantage of it, or is there a much darker master plan at work? Elliott hints at both possibilities but never really gives us enough information to come to a conclusion.

Spirit Gate (***) is an enjoyable and solid fantasy novel with some very nice ideas which doesn't entirely come together satisfyingly. Still, the novel leaves me intrigued to read the sequel, which I suppose is its main objective. The novel is published by Tor in the United States in paperback, and by Orbit in the UK in trade paperback and mass-market paperback. The sequel, Shadow Gate, is released in the UK on 3 April 2008 and in the USA on 15 April 2008.

Thursday 27 December 2007

The Wertzone Awards for SF&F Novels in 2007

...although they're likely to be reduced to 'The Werties' for easy reference. Sigh.

I narrowed this list down to the fourteen SF&F books I really enjoyed reading this year.

Best SF&F Novel Released in 2007

. Brasyl by Ian McDonald

I havent read McDonald's prior work, such as his much-acclaimed previous novel, River of Gods (set in India in the 2040s), so came to this book with no expectations other than hearing he wasn't easy to get into. I was pretty much blown away by the twisting, dazzling narrative which relentlessly pursues three separate storylines across three timezones in Brazil's history (past, present, future) and then pulls them together for a satisfying pay-off. The gorgeous prose, the brilliantly-realised atmosphere (you can almost hear the samba) and the author's enjoyment and love of the country, tacky telenovelas and all, makes Brasyl into something very special indeed. If Brasyl does not win the Hugo Award in 2008, something has gone very seriously wrong somewhere.

2. Black Man by Richard Morgan

Retitled Thirteen in the United States, Morgan's latest novel starts off as just another high-octane futuristic thriller and develops into an intellectually robust deconstruction of America and its society whilst building his two main characters into deeply flawed but sympathetic three-dimensional human beings. His trademark cyberpunk ultraviolence is still intact, but tempered here by a tremendous maturing in both writing and character-building. To shamelessly steal William 'Stego' Lexner's comments about the book, Black Man is A Stranger in a Strange Land for the 21st Century.

3. The Long Price: Shadow and Betrayal by Daniel Abraham

Abraham arrived on UK shores in 2007 with this omnibus of A Shadow in Summer (previously publshed by Tor in the USA in 2006) and its sequel, A Betrayal in Winter. With its intelligent worldbuilding, original core concepts and terrific central characters, this was the finest work of fantasy I read in 2007 (or at least the finest work of fantasy that wasn't actually a 2008 release) and immediately drew favourable comparisons with the likes of Guy Gavriel Kay, as an epic fantasy that engages the heart as well at the intellect. Roll on the final two books!

4. Un Lun Dun by Chine Mieville

The notion of the master of the New Weird movement writing a kid's novel may seem slighlty incongruous, but in his adult novels set in the world of Bas-Lag Mieville frequently shows a playful capacity for creating monsters and scaring the hell out of the reader, and he carries these ideas across to the YA field with aplomb. The revisionist sideswipes at Harry Potter are very funny (particularly the main character being told she has to go on seven long and dangerous quests before she can win victory, only to decide that she can't be bothered and 'skips to the last quest') and Mieville's well of trademark barmy-but-scary ideas, concepts and characters shows no sign of drying up any time soon.

5. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

The notion of putting a 15-year-old book on this list may seem a little odd, but given that Sapkowski made his English-language debut this year I deemed it appropriate to feature here. Sapkowski's revisiting of old fairy stories through the character of Geralt, the titular 'Witcher', is constantly amusing and highly enjoyable, featuring such highlights as a barkeeper's glee as his bar is destroyed by an enraged genie (he'd had the foresight to take out insurance against supernatural forces) and Geralt's battle with a surreal man-goat thing armed with metal balls. With more than a hint of Jack Vance to the proceedings, The Last Wish is an inventive and enjoyable fantasy collection.

6. The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton

No-one does interstellar, big-budget SF blockbusters like Hamilton, replete with huge space battles, fantastic technology and deeply sympathetic characters (more than any other SF writer, Hamilton seems to suggest that the core of what makes us human will not be changed by advances in technology or our expansion across space). The Dreaming Void is a slight change of pace, focused more on character-building and featuring a long-speculated cross-genre move by Hamilton into epic fantasy in a particularly strong subplot.

7. The Fade by Chris Wooding

Sometimes it's great to read a self-contained fantasy novel which starts, says what it wants, and then gets out without overstaying its welcome. The Fade is such a story, cramming tremendous variety into its modest page count and featuring the most evocative underground environment I've read about in quite some time.

8. Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

Abercrombie follows up his accomplished debut with a sequel that turns everything you thought you knew on its head whilst escalating the action and the drama to new heights. Impressive.

9. The Inferior by Peadar O'Guilin

It's eat or be eaten in this Darwinian story of survival amidst a vivid jungle environment whilst the central character develops nicely and a terrific variety of monsters is put on display.

10. Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Lynch delivers a sequel to 2006's accomplished The Lies of Locke Lamora which starts off by retreading old ground and ends on a mildly unforgivable cliche. But in-between we get a very fun story with crackling dialogue and some more inventive cons.

11. Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson

An improvement on 2006's extremely disappointing The Bonehunters but still rather flawed in places. Erikson manages to deliver another interesting and exciting slice of the Malazan epic with great battles and the deaths of several major characters, which are are well-handled.

12. The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds

Reynolds returns to the Revelation Space universe with this compelling SF-noir thriller about a policeman investigating a heinous crime and uncovering a deadly conspiracy which threatens the Glitter Band, the circle of space habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone. With some fantastic imagery and, in the Clockmaker, one of the most disturbing SF 'monsters' produced in many years, The Prefect represents Reynolds returning to form.

13. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

As far as epic fantasy debuts go, Rothfuss' is undeniably enjoyable and well-written, although its Harry Potter-for-adults ambitions get a bit wearying after a while, as do some inconsistencies in the plot at the start of the novel. However, the story builds in a satisfying manner and Kvothe is a great protagonist.

14. Cowboy Angels by Paul J. McAuley

2007 was apparently the year that writers finally 'got' how to write quantum SF. Following on from McDonald's Brasyl, Cowboy Angels had a fantastic central concept (the USA extending its cultural imperialism across several parallel universes) that was well and logically-explored. Whilst McAuley is neither a good a prose stylist as McDonald nor as good a thriller writer as Morgan, he nevertheless delivered a servicably entertaining SF action adventure with some thought-provoking ideas in this novel.

Wednesday 26 December 2007

Wertzone Classics: Portal

Every now and then a game comes along that requires serious attention, simply because it is pure genius. Usually such games are mind-boggingly simple, and feature an idea so obvious that it makes other developers slap themselves in the face in disbelief that they didn't think of it. Portal is the latest such game to follow in this tradition.

Portal follows the adventures of a young lady named Chell, who, for reasons never explained, has been held in stasis for an unspecificed amount of time at an Aperture Science Enrichment Facility, waiting to undergo testing and training on the Handheld Portal Device 04 (aka, 'the portal gun'). Chell doesn't encounter any other people, but is guided through the testing facility by GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System), an extremely eccentric AI which becomes increasingly demented as the game proceeds, directing Chell into increasingly hazardous test chambers (including a 'live-fire course usually used to test military androids') but urging her to continue through the promise of cake.

Each test chamber consists of a puzzle which the player must overcome by use of the portal gun. The gun can create portals on certain wall surfaces. Two portals can be created. By simply stepping through one, you step out of the other. Puzzles can be very simple (crossing a chasm by firing a portal onto a wall on the far side and another next to you, and stepping through) or mind-crushingly complex. Since you retain your forward momentum when you pass through a portal, some puzzles involving crossing vast gaps (with non-portal-compatible walls on the far side) can be overcome by generating a portal at the bottom of the chasm, another one on the wall behind you, falling down the chasm at tremendous speed, which then gives you momentum when you pass through the portal to cross the vast gap. Dealing with sudden shifts in orientation and direction is key to progressing through the game.

The puzzles are complicated by the increasing addition of dangerous obstacles, such as energy spikes you have to direct through portals to generators to open up the next area of the test chamber but which will kill you if you touch them, and the sudden addition of robotic sentry guns to certain chambers (which comically tell you they hold no ill wishes when you inevitably destroy them). You also have some help in the shape of the 'weighted companion cube' or 'box' which you can use to press switches, bat aside energy spikes or deflect sentry gun bullets. For a non-sentient inanimate object, the companion cube soon becomes a trusted ally in the game and the puzzle which requires you to 'euthanise' one of them is strangely disturbing.

Of course, there's only so many times you can solve puzzles revolving around portals and the laws of ballistics before it becomes a bit old, and to their credit the developers realise this and only provide twenty test chambers. The completion of the last chamber triggers the second (much shorter) stage of the game where you have to use your carefully-gained portal skills to escape the facility once it becomes clear that something is not right in the world outside (this is where the link to the Half-Life universe is hinted at), leading to the fiendishly satisfying final confrontation and the best end games credits sequence ever.

Portal is a tremendoulsy simple idea, fantastically well-executed. I can imagine the Half-Life 2 team at Valve feeling a bit embarrassed about the fuss they made about the gravity gun when Portal shows off the capabilities of the Source Engine's physics engine with much greater finesse, elegance and originality. At about 2-3 hours in length, it doesn't outstay its welcome (and your brain will be aching by the time you get to the game's conclusion) but it does leave you wanting more. Where a possible Portal 2 could go is unclear, but the game hints that the Aperture Science facility has been abandoned due to something crazy happening in the world outside, and it isn't too hard to tie this in with the Combine occupation of Earth in the Half-Life 2 series of games. Whether this means that any sequel will see Chell taking on the Combine with the portal gun, or perhaps involve her meeting Gordon Freeman, is unclear, but it's an intriguing notion.

Portal (*****) is superb. It's original, it's funny, it's well-executed, it's perfectly-timed and has a sense of humour as black as midnight. It's part of The Orange Box for PC, PS3 and X-Box 360 (see the Half-Life 2: Episode 2 review for Amazon links) and is available now. Go get it!

Half-Life 2: Episode 2

In 1998 the Valve Corporation released a first-person shooter named Half-Life into a somewhat crowded marketplace. When the dust had settled, their title had been acclaimed one of the single greatest games of all time and had won a frankly obscene number of awards. They achieved this by creating arguably one of the most immersive game models of all time (eschewing narrative breaks from the action in favour of game engine cut scenes and never letting the protagonist speak, breaking the spell that 'you' are the hero) and combining it with high-level production values and playtesting the game until it hurt. Through two expansions and a much-delayed full sequel, Valve kept the Half-Life series right at the top of its field, picking up accolades galore.

However, the six-year development cycle for Half-Life 2 (released at the end of 2004) was a cause for concern, and Valve hit upon the idea of breaking the planned Half-Life 3 into three lesser chunks of 4-5 hours apiece and releasing them at six-month intervals, minimising the wait for them and allowing them to modestly improve the Source game engine between each release rather than having to revamp it from scratch, which is what a full sequel would demand. This plan soon ran into problems, with Episode 1 arriving in Summer 2006 months behind schedule and then Episode 2 being delayed again, again and then again until it finally arrived eighteen months late. Hardcore fans were understandably annoyed, but Valve sought to placate them by releasing Episode 2 alongside the even-more-delayed Team Fortress 2 (in development since 1999, believe it or not) and what at first glance appeared to be a throwaway puzzle mini-game called Portal. More on that in a sec. The whole package was dubbed The Orange Box, and was released for the PC, X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3 a couple of months ago.

First to the meat of the package, Episode 2 itself. Episode 1 ended with Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance fleeing City 17 as it was consumed by a colossal explosion. Episode 2 picks up with our heroes abandoned in the countryside and having to make their way to the White Forest resistance base, where the rebels have secreted a project that could shut off the Combine from Earth altogether and give the human race a chance to rebuild. Along the way they have to brave antlion tunnels and numerous homesteads and outdoor areas where the Combine are on patrol.

To a certain extent, Episode 2 thus suffers from 'middle-of-trilogy' syndrome. Nothing is really resolved and large chunks of the game consist of trying to get from Point A to Point C without being killed by Gun-Wielding Maniacs at Point B. That is fine and arguably large chunks of prior Half-Life games consisted of the same set-up. However, this formula (travel-set piece-travel-puzzle-set piece) is getting a little bit old now and having an entire game based around it makes it especially feel limited, especially with new, hungrier games like BioShock and Crysis innovating like there is no tomorrow. The game also suffers from the most terminally boring opening to a Half-Life game to date. In a series which has some of the most atmospheric, immersive openings in computer game history, Valve choose to open Episode 2 with Gordon squabbling around in holes in the ground splatting bugs. Bizarre.

That's the criticism out of the way. Onto the good stuff. Once more, for most of the game you team up with Alyx Vance, who is still the most impressive AI-controlled ally character ever seen in a game. It's a shame there's no co-op mode where a second player can take control of her, but she's so good at covering your ass in combat and not getting in your way that it often feels like there's someone else playing anyway, which is a remarkable feat. When Alyx isn't able to accompany you, you get to team up with one of the vortigaunts, the electricity-wielding enemy aliens from the first game who are now your allies. The vortigaunt's bizarre diction and somewhat over-eager praise (not to mention their occasional descent into sarcasm) provides most of the comic highlights of the game, as well as a few knowing self-referential asides (the vortigaunts seem well aware of the prevalence of physics puzzles in the Half-Life universe and Gordon's uncanny ability to solve them). You're soon given a nifty vehicle and Alyx is back in the driving seat, dealing out the pain alongside you as you engage in a running battle to get to White Forest.

It's during this section of the game that you encounter the two new enemies. The Hunters are mini-Striders who are incredibly tough and have possibly the most powerful offensive weapons seen by any Combine characters to date. Whilst you soon work out strategies for killing them, they remain a tough and challenging foe, powered by some fiendish AI. The Advisors are a very different kettle of fish, having psychic and telekinetic powers which virtually render you helpless in their presence and generally relying on circumstances or unaffected allies to help you out. This makes facing them rather annoying (as they're there to railroad you into the next bit of the plot rather than serve as viable, defeatable enemies) but they are used very sparingly.

After you arrive at White Forest, it's time to defend the base from a massive onslaught of Hunters and Striders using a new high-tech bomb you have to attach to the enemy vehicles with the gravity gun. This section of the game was massively hyped-up in press releases, which spoke of an epic battle involving hundreds of rebel soldiers and enemy forces fighting a pitched battle across a huge chunk of countryside. In reality, the battle lasts about ten minutes, the area of countryside is remarkably small, the other rebel soldiers are virtually useless (since the Striders are now inexplicably invulnerable to the same rockets you killed them with in Half-Life 2 and Episode 1) and the Strider-busting bomb is rather clumsy to use. Once you hit on a winning strategy though, it becomes rather tiresomely easy. Still, this can be forgiven for the absolutely shocking ending to the game which leaves the player reeling and waiting anxiously for news about Episode 3's release.

Whilst Episode 2 is the second-weakest Half-Life game to date (only Blue Shift was less satisfying), neverless it is still a fun, enjoyable game. It is short - only five hours or so - but it packs in a fair amount of variety in that time. Veteren Half-Life players will no doubt be punching the air as some plot elements from earlier games - including one vital piece of information going right back to the start of the original Half-Life itself - are finally explained and resolved, but it isn't long before many more questions are raised. The final scene is absolutely terrific, leaving you wanting to know what happens next.

Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (***½) is a solid game but not as revolutionary as earlier titles in the series. Nevertheless, it's good to spend time back in that universe with familiar characters and get a few more clues as to what the hell is actually going on.

The game is currently available on the PC in the UK and USA, the X-Box 360 in the UK and USA, and the PlayStation 3 in the UK and USA as part of The Orange Box, which also includes Portal and Team Fortress 2 plus Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2: Episode 1.

Sunday 23 December 2007

SFF World Discussion

I recently had the chance to contribute to SFFWorld's annual round-up of SF and Fantasy releases.

Coverage of the Fantasy side of things can be found here.

Coverage of SF, TV, movies and computer games can be found here.

Many thanks to the SFFWorld crew for inviting me to take part! I'll be preparing a more in-depth round-up of 2007 and a look at what to expect in 2008 in the next week or two.

Saturday 15 December 2007


I am currently reading Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott, the first novel in her new Crossroads series.

With the American Writer's Strike still in full swing, there is a dearth of SF TV at the moment, although Lost returns for a short (eight episode) fourth season in February 2008 and Battlestar Galactica follows with ten new episodes airing from the end of March.

Fans of the Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence will no doubt be intrigued by the news that Ian Cameron Esslemont's second contribution to the series, Return of the Crimson Guard, will have a limited two-volume edition released by PS Publishing several months prior to the 'official' publication of the novel by Bantam UK. The covers for this edition have now been released on the PS website and are very nice indeed.

Users of may be intrigued to learn the PC roleplaying game based on Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher series of novels and collections is currently half-price, and the DVD box sets of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are currently retailing at a very respectable £17.99 apiece.

Wednesday 12 December 2007

Terry Pratchett diagnosed with serious illness.

British fantasy author Terry Pratchett has confirmed that he has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. Speculation over Pratchett's health began earlier this year when he cancelled several book signings at short notice. Pratchett then revealed he had suffered from a very minor stroke. However, he has now confirmed that this stroke was related to the disease he has now been diagnosed with.

Pratchett displayed his usual good humour when making the announcement, confirming that he is wrapping up his current novel, Nation, and already planning the next, Unseen Academicals.

"I would just like to draw attention to everyone reading the above that this should be interpreted as 'I am not dead'. I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else. For me, this maybe further off than you think - it's too soon to tell. I know it's a very human thing to say "Is there anything I can do", but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry."

Pratchett has sold 55 million copies of his work, which now comprises 36 Discworld novels, four Discworld map books, three 'Science of Discworld' books, seven other Discworld tie-in books and 11 non-Discworld novels, the most famous of which is probably Good Omens (co-written with Neil Gaiman). He is the second-biggest-selling living fantasy writer (after JK Rowling) and is the most shoplifted author in Britain, which he takes as a compliment.

Best wishes to Mr. Pratchett and his family and here's to many more books, Discworld and otherwise, to come!

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

I have received some queries asking about Brandon Sanderson's prior record as a novelist before taking on the challenge of the final Wheel of Time novel. As a result, here is my pre-blog review of his first novel, Elantris (2005), reprinted for your convenience.

is the first novel by American author Brandon Sanderson. Refreshingly, it is not the first book in a series, but a self-contained novel in itself (although there are a few loose ends left dangling for possible sequels).

The plot starts off in a traditional manner. The kingdoms of Teod and Arelon is in danger of being swallowed up by their expansionist neighbour, Fjordell, whose religions brooks no rivals. Cue a desperate battle in Arelon and its capital, Kae, as various nobles and merchants race to either ingratiate themselves with the Fjordell or find a way of resisting them.

The more original element of the story is that up until a decade ago, Arelon was protected by the Elantrians, god-like beings with total mastery of magic. Occasionally, humans would be unexpectedly transformed into Elantrians by an apparently random magical process. However, something went wrong. The Elantrians' magic failed and they were transformed from demigods into cursed wretches who are permanantly affected by pain. Every time they suffer an injury, from a stubbed toe to a cut to a broken neck, the pain stays with them permanantly. Unless burned or decapitated, they are also immortal, so a broken back or neck is simply a condemnation to agony rather than death. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the Elantrians are catatonic or totally insane. Their city, Elantris, stands alongside Kae and is now quarantined, with humans transformed into Elantrians thrown into the city and forgotten about.

The novel follows the storylines of three characters: Prince Raoden of Arelon, who is unexpectedly transformed into an Elantrian and thrown into the city, where he tries to make a better life for the people of the cursed city; Hrathen, the Fjordese priest who has three months to willingly convert the populace of Arelon before a major invasion is launched; and Princess Sarene of Tedo, betrothed to Raoden but now immersed in the labyrinth of Arelese politics.

The novel is fast-paced, and generally entertaining throughout. Sanderson is not going to be winning major prizes for his prose, which is effective but somewhat uninspired in places, with occasional over-reliance on exposition. That said, his ideas and execution of plot are pretty good. Hrathen could very easily have been turned into the 'evil priest' cliche but Sanderson gives him real depth and humanity. And, after reading books where the main characters do very stupid things very frequently, Sarene is a refreshingly canny character, although occasionally this thretens to tilt the other way and turn Sarene into a Kellhus-like character (see Bakker's Prince of Nothing Trilogy) who can read people's intentions just by looking them. Sanderson just dodges the bullet on that one. The lack of any magic in the book for about 85% of its length is also refreshing and, when it does come, it's obvious Sanderson has put some thought into it.

There are some other major problems, though. The ending could be described as a bit too neat. And the absolute explosion of 'twists' (some predictable, some not) and an unexpectedly huge amount of magic use in the final part of the book threaten to make the ending implausible and a bit OTT.

Overall, this is an enjoyable 'typical' epic fantasy novel, with some neat ideas and reasonable character development. The prose could do with some work and Sanderson needs to pace his endings slightly better, but overall this is a fun book, and a superior alternative to the likes of Brooks and Eddings. I think fans of JV Jones, Kate Elliott and possibly Raymond Feist would enjoy it.

Elantris (***½) is not published in the UK at present, but US paperbacks are available at Sanderson's other novels are the first two volumes in The Mistborn Trilogy, The Final Empire and The Well of Ascension, with a third, The Hero of Ages, due next year. Sanderson has a website at this location.

Monday 10 December 2007

Brandon Sanderson to complete Wheel of Time

Tor Books today released a statement confirming that one of their other fantasy authors, Brandon Sanderson, is to complete Robert Jordan's epic Wheel of Time series. The best-selling series was left incomplete due to Robert Jordan's passing on 16 September 2007 from a rare blood condition, as related here.

Brandon Sanderson is the author of three successful fantasy novels: Elantris (2005) and the first two novels in the Mistborn series, The Final Empire (2006) and Well of Ascension (2007). There is one more book planned for in the series, The Hero of Ages, which will be published in early 2008. Sanderson is also working on a 'free' novel called Warbreaker, which is being released via his website. Sanderson had plans for two other novels entitled Way of Kings and Dark One, but these seem to be on hold for the time being.

According to Tor Books, Sanderson will pick up work on the twelfth and final Wheel of Time novel, A Memory of Light, for delivery in late 2008 and publication in late 2009. Robert Jordan left behind significant amounts of work on the book, including drafts, plot summaries and dictation tapes, and, it is rumoured, the completed final chapter. Sanderson will be working with Jordan's widow and editor, Harriet, on constructing the final novel in the sequence.

There is no doubt that this is a major task for any writer to take on. Congratulations and good luck to Brandon in this endeavour.

Sunday 9 December 2007

The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien

Given that J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973, the publication of a 'new' novel by him earlier this year provoked a storm of controversy among readers. Of course, this is not the first time that a posthumous Tolkien works has appeared, but it was the first time that such a work had appeared without Tolkien's express permission from prior to his death (as with The Silmarillion) and shorn of substantial editorial coverage explaining the work's origins (as with Unfinished Tales and the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series). As a result some heated discussion has taken place debating the book's validity and status within the Middle-earth 'canon'.

Despite this, a foreward and afterword by Christopher Tolkien does explain broadly how this book came about, namely through the combination of several distinct narratives that had appeared previously, and indeed all of the work in the book is J.R.R. Tolkien's own, with no linking passages created by his son. As such The Children of Húrin can be enjoyed in its own right, with no concerns over this being a Kevin J. Anderson/Brian Herbert-style cash-in.

The story of The Children of Húrin has been told several times before. A brief form appears in The Silmarillion (1977) whilst Unfinished Tales (1980) contains a much longer narrative, which indeed forms the majority of the work in this book. To anyone who already owns Unfinished Tales, I would suggest borrowing The Children of Húrin prior to purchase as Unfinished Tales already contains the majority of this story and it may be redundant to purchase it again. However, there is a substantial addition of new material near the start of the story and there are of course Alan Lee's gorgeous illustrations, which are worth the price of the book by itself.

The story is set in the First Age of Middle-earth, approximately 6,600 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. Morgoth, the first and much more powerful Dark Lord, has stolen the Silmarils, the great jewels of light forged by the elven master-craftsman Feanor. Feanor's people, the Noldor, have made war upon Morgoth for over four centuries to recover the Silmarils, but after early successes the conflict has turned against them. Feanor and his brother Fingolfin are dead and Beleriand - the subcontinent that used to lie west of the Blue Mountains - is now overrun by Morgoth's troops. In the Battle of Unnumbered Tears the last great army assembled by the elves and their human and dwarven allies is destroyed and
Húrin, a great human warrior and leader, is captured by Morgoth. Húrin taunts Morgoth to his face and Morgoth lays down a horrendous curse on Morgoth and his kin. As the story unfolds we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of Húrin's children, particularly his son Túrin, as the curse engulfs them.

This is not a happy story. Even the bitterseet end of Lord of the Rings may not prepare the reader for the sheer tragic power of this tale. Very, very few characters reach the end alive and for all of the victories that are won, the losses are far more vividly described. Those looking for an uplifting story are directed to The Hobbit. In
The Children of Húrin we see Tolkien's gift for myth-making in full force. This is a dark, powerful and wrenching tale which is deeply affecting to read.

However, there are some issues. Tolkien wrote the bulk of this narrative after completing Lord of the Rings but it is based on considerably older ideas, conceptions and drafts, and he deliberately employs a prose style even more archaic than some of the later chapters of Lord of the Rings. It is certainly not among Tolkien's easier-to-read works. To those who 'get' the voice Tolkien employs, however, the story is compelling. The other problems are related to the book's length. This is not a long story and despite the publishers going to some lengths to increase the page-count (including putting startlingly large margins around the edges and employing a notably large font size) and throwing new maps, appendices, forewards and afterwords into the mix, it is still a relatively short story (perhaps half the length of The Hobbit at absolute best) for the money they are asking for, especially as the bulk of it can be found in other, longer and more varied works . As I said earlier this is offset by the inclusion of numerous black-and-white illustrations and several full-colour plates by Alan Lee which are incredibly atmospheric and add to the reading experience intensely. Another disappointment is that Christopher Tolkien did not find a way of including the later adventures of
Húrin in the book as some kind of postscript (for those inclined, several versions of this narrative can be found in The War of the Jewels, the eleventh volume of The History of Middle-earth series), but arguably this would have been out of place in a book about his children, not the man himsef.

The Children of Húrin (****) is a haunting, gripping story, probably the darkest thing Tolkien ever wrote and it stands alone remarkably well. Those who found The Lord of the Rings not to their liking will probably like this even less and casual fans may find the prose style offputting, but to the serious appreciator of Middle-earth and Tolkien's work, this is a handsome (if rather brief) volume with superb illustrations and is worth a serious look.

The book is available from HarperCollins in the UK in hardcover. A paperback edition will follow on 7 April 2008. The book is published by Houghton Mifflin in the USA in hardcover.

Friday 7 December 2007

Heroes: Season 2, Episodes 1-11

TV shows very easily become victims of their own success. Lost, for example, suffered a severely disappointing second season following its impressive debut and it was a long time before the show got back on track halfway through the third year. Similarly, Battlestar Galactica has come in for a lot of flak for its third season.

Heroes, having emerged onto the scene firing on all cylinders last year, was widely anticipated to avoid the same mistakes these other shows had made. The show's ability to set up a mystery and then resolve it just a few episodes later and its use of short-term story arcs supporting a much larger narrative would seem to be able to support many different kinds of stories and characters, and as a result the second season was widely anticipated as one of the highlights of the 2007-08 season.

Things get off to an intriguing start. It's four months since the events of the Season 1 finale. Peter Petrelli is missing, presumed vapourised, but his brother Nathan is still alive and well (it isn't explained how, at least not yet). At first it appears that other characters have gone back to their old lives, but gradually it becomes clear that several of the existing heroes have formed a conspiracy to bring down the company which caused so much trouble for them last year. At the same time, several new heroes are introduced and a lengthy subplot takes us to feudal Japan, where Hiro has inadvertantly thrown history off balance by his interference and is working hard to restore the proper timeline.

All of this sounds fine, but in practice Season 2 of Heroes opens far too slowly and far too quietly. A lot of time is spent on new characters who are not especially compelling (despite some great ideas for their powers) and some established characters have all but disappeared. The writers also seem to delight in being obtuse for the sake of it, as it's not until eight weeks in that we finally find out what happened after the events of the Season 1 finale. As when Battlestar Galactica did this in its third season, it's built up to be a huge revelatory episode which doesn't tell us anything that couldn't have been explained verbally in about five minutes.

That isn't to say the actors are doing a bad job or the story itself isn't compelling, merely that the pacing is seriously off this year. The major threat the heroes have to avert isn't introduced until quite late in the day (the seventh episode, in fact) and the misdirection games that are played about the identity of the main villain only serve to make it blatantly obvious who the main villain is before he turns up. There are also several seriously unconvincing romances and some bluescreen work which is utterly atrocious.

Things pick up after the eighth episode. With an identified villain and goal, things kick into gear and some of the intensity of late Season 1 returns. We also see how the new heroes fit into the overall story arc a little better. But just as things get going, they suddenly stop again. Thanks to the American writer's strike, Season 2 ends with the eleventh episode. Although a reasonable job is done of making this an end-of-season finale, there are still some major plot elements left unexplained and unresolved, and the introduction of a deus ex machina plot device in the form of 'magic blood' that can heal anyone of any trauma, even death, leeches a lot of suspense from the Season 2 cliffhanger ending.

There is no denying that Heroes remains watchable, but the second season falls distinctly flat when compared to the first with some very poor writing decisions made. Whilst still enjoyable, the second season is something of a letdown when compared to the first. When Heroes returns, I hope the producers learn from their mistakes and can come up with something more impressive.

Heroes, Season 2 (***) will be released on DVD some time in 2008. The fate of the latter half of the season seems unclear at the moment, but most likely it will be held back until late 2008 and will now serve as the opening half of Season 3.

Sunday 2 December 2007

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

Last Argument of Kings is the third and concluding volume of The First Law Trilogy, following on from The Blade Itself (reviewed here) and Before They Are Hanged (reviewed here). Those who have not read the first two volumes may wish to skip the plot summary as it does contain spoilers of events in those books.

In the frozen wastes of Angland, the army of the Union and its allies continues to wage war against Bethod and his forces. The Gurkish, having retaken Dagoska, now develop new and more bold plans to continue to wage war against the Union from the south. And, having failed in their quest to the far side of the world, Bayaz and his companions return to the city of Adua to make new preperations for the conflicts to come. But in this struggle it becomes clear that different factions are scheming for power, that those who are allies one day may be bitter foes the next, and that the price of victory may be far too high...

The First Law has attracted a great deal of praise since the publication of The Blade Itself a little under two years ago. Abercrombie's clear style delivered an apparently 'straightforward' fantasy tale with some interesting ruthless edges to it. Before They Are Hanged forced the reader to revise a lot of what they thought they knew whilst putting several key twists into the story that were unexpected. Last Argument of Kings delivers exactly what this trilogy needed: a no-holds-barred war story in which secrets are exposed, mysteries are explained and the author resolutely refuses to pull any punches. Those expecting a gloriously happy, neat ending to this trilogy best look elsewhere.

Instead, we get huge battle sequences, including one that threatens to displace the supremacy of Steven Erikson's siege of Capustan from Memories of Ice as the greatest epic fantasy battle this century. We get more intricate, devious politics. We get more torture, courtesy of our friend Glokta (whose character arc remains the most vivid and engrossing of the series). The deepening of the character of Bayaz, who first turned up looking like a jovial Belgarath-style wizard and is now revealed to have a lot more going on to him than just that, is also tremendously satisfying. To those who have taken part in debate on various fan forums (particularly on some plot elements may emerge as rather predictable, at least until Abercrombie pulls the rug out from under your feet and, just for giggles, does it again a few chapters later. Best of all is the way quite small storyline elements from the previous two books are revisited and minor charaters of no great significance are now revealed to have their own important roles to play.

The ending is superb, particularly the tremendously satisfying epilogue and the final scene. Enough loose ends are left that Abercrombie could revisit the storyline in future books or series, but not to the extent that it is a necessity. Life goes on, albeit in a manner which some characters (and perhaps some readers) find criminally unfair. We also get enough clues laid about other, hitherto undeveloped parts of the world such as Styria that the news that the author's next novel, Best Served Cold, will be set there is most welcome. However, for the time being at least, we must bid a fond farewell to Superior Glokta, the redoubtable Jezal, the secretive Bayaz, the proud Ardee, the solid Colonel West and, of course, the Bloody-Nine. I look forward to the day when we catch up with them and their adventures once more.

Last Argument of Kings (****½) is a more than worthy conclusion to this trilogy. The novel will be published by Gollancz in the UK on 20 March 2008 in hardcover and trade paperback and by Pyr Books in the USA in September 2008.

Saturday 1 December 2007

The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V.S. Redick

The world of Alifros is dominated by two mighty nations. The Empire of the Mzithrin lies in the west, unified under the rule of its five kings and in the worship of the religion of the Black Casket.
In the east, proud Arqual extends its powers over vast regions of land and sea. Forty years have passed since the last, bloody war between these two superpowers and an uneasy peace lingers between them, whilst the small, independent kingdoms of the Crownless Lands lie between them as buffers.

It is a time of great change, however. His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Arqual, has decreed that a lasting peace shall be forged between Mzithrin and Arqual and his greatest military commander, Admiral Isiq, has agreed to give up his only daughter, Thasha, in marriage to a royal prince of the Mzithrin. It is only fitting that the greatest ship in the Arquali navy, and the most infamous ship in the world, should be given this task. The I.M.S. Chathrand is the last of the Great Ships, heavily armed and crewed by a thousand souls, the only ship capable of crossing the vast Ruling Sea. But on this mission the Chathrand takes a strange assortment of passengers and crew, from the delusional Captain Nilus Rose to Pazel Pathkendle, a tarboy with many secrets, and from the sickly Admiral Isiq and his proud daughter to the dimunitive ixchel or crawlies, the little people whose presence on ships is taken as a sign of doom. As ancient secrets are revealed and dark conspiracies are unmasked, the crew and passengers of the Chathrand come to realise that they are at the centre of events that will reshape their world.

The Red Wolf Conspiracy is the opening volume of The Chathrand Voyage, a fantasy trilogy by debut author Robert V.S. Redick. Gollancz's pre-publicity draws comparisons with Scott Lynch and Philip Pullman, and I suspect over the coming months a similar word-of-mouth pre-release excitment will build that is comparable to Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora or Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind. Certainly The Red Wolf Conspiracy is an exceptionally fine novel and more than worthy of such comparisons.

With this book, Redick creates an incredibly rich fantasy world where familiar archetypes like wizards and scheming nobles are given fresh spins, and where every chapter seems to deliver a new idea, concept or race. Redick creates vivid images in the reader's mind, from the disturbing Flikkermen with their glowing innards to the hordes of scurrying ixchel to the towering augrongs and the 'woken' animals who have spontaneously developed sentience (I suspect this is where the Pullman comparisons come from). His core characters are similarly varied and intriguing, although our two central protagonists, Pazel and Thasha, are perhaps a bit too familiar as archetypes. Whilst they are well-drawn as characters, arguably it is the secondary cast that draws more attention. The crew of the Chanthred in particular are an intriguing bunch, especially as we discover more about them through their log entries and Suzanna Clarke-style footnotes (though nowhere near as numerous or long). Fans of nautical fantasy will find much to their liking here, but whilst Redick has clearly done his homework he doesn't let the minutiae of shipboard life detract from the story, and I suspect those who normally dislike martime tales may find this story much more enjoyable.

With such a vivid world to bring to life, Redick could perhaps be forgiven for relaxing on the plot side of things, but instead the storyline fairly rips along, packed with excitement, incident and humour which builds to a conclusion that, whilst certainly leaving the reader wanting more, could perhaps be said to be anti-climatic. With two more books still to come, perhaps this is unavoidable.

The Red Wolf Conspiracy (****) is an extremely enjoyable epic fantasy tale set in a vivid , constantly inventive world. The Chathrand itself comes across as the ocean-going equivalent of Gormenghast, whilst its crew seem to have assembled variously from the works of Charles Dickens, Jack Vance and Scott Lynch, but with a style that is undeniably Redick's own. I suspect that Redick will be 'the' big new fantasy author of 2008, and deservedly so.

The Red Wolf Conspiracy will be published in hardcover and trade paperback in the UK on 21 February 2008. The UK Gollancz editions are also freely available for pre-order in the US. Gollancz have a page on the book here, including a map of the world of Alifros.

Thursday 29 November 2007

The Wertzone is a Year Old!

When I started this blog a year ago, my first thought was merely to provide another outlet for my reviews. I was pleasently surprised to quite quickly (within about four months) be getting advance reading copies from publishers (thanks to Pat of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist for that!) and getting good feedback from readers. I'm particularly happy with the thanks I received from Polish readers for pushing Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish to Western audiences. I'm also pleased to have been able to update the blog fairly regularly despite a personal life that could be called 'hectic' this year, incorporating a 500-mile house move to another country and two changes of occupation. 2008 I hope will be more settled and allow me to develop the blog and site more thoroughly, although I also hope to attend at least one of the major SF&F cons in 2008 as well (Worldcon or World Fantasy) and provide some interesting commentary on that experience.

Many thanks to readers regular and otherwise for providing feedback, either here on the blog or by email or on other forums I frequent. It is all much appreciated.

Battlestar Galactica: Razor

With Battlestar Galactica's fourth season delayed until April and its full run likely to be interrupted by a year-long break due to the ongoing Writer's Strike, the Sci-Fi Channel has seen fit to deliver us an extra treat, namely a special episode or TV movie delving deeper into the show's backstory.

Razor takes place at the end of the second season, shortly after the events of the episode The Captain's Hand. Lee Adama is now commander of the battlestar Pegasus, but as an outsider he finds himself not entirely trusted by his new crew. Lee decides to appoint a former favourite of Admiral Cain's, Lt. Kendra Shaw, to the position of XO, in an attempt to 'build bridges' with his new subordinates. Interestingly, the plot doesn't dwell on this idea. We know the fate of the Pegasus and Lee's command of her from other episodes and seeing him do a 'winning the respect of the crew' plotline would have been redundant. Instead we see much of the story through Kendra's eyes. Lengthy flashbacks take us back to the day of the original Cylon attack on the Colonies and we see Kendra rising through the ranks and observing Cain's gradual moral erosion as the tensions of command take hold. A present day storyline, which is little more than a subplot, sees the Pegasus crew stumble across a bunch of obsolete Cylons from the First Cylon War and have to eliminate them.

Razor straddles two stools. On the one hand, it is a balls-to-the-wall action story with huge, epic CGI battle sequences and lots of emotional intensity which is designed to appeal to newcomers as well as established fans. On the other, it features a lot of fan-pleasing asides and references to the original series. This is a somewhat odd idea (going for newbies and hardcore fans at the same time) but just about works, with the new character of Kendra providing a worthwhile 'in' to this story and universe for new viewers but at the same time allowing established fans to see stuff they've wanted to see since the series began. Kudos for the writers for managing not to make a total hash of this.

The TV movie lives or dies on the performance of actress Stephanie Chaves-Jacobson as Kendra Shaw and thankfully she delivers a competent performance. She tended to mumble a fair bit, however, which resulted in much rewinding of scenes to make out what she was saying. The actress has a great rapport with Katee Sackhoff and Michelle Forbes, and in these scenes she is extremely good. The other actors are as trusty and reliable as ever, although some have very little screen-time (Athena and Tigh get a single scene each, President Roslin three short scenes and Dr. Baltar is totally absent).

Overall, Razor (****) is an enjoyable slice of Battlestar Galactica and just about fills in the yawning gap between Seasons 3 and 4 (which will have been an endurance-testing 13 months long). Some elements misfire a bit (the "By your command," moment, although amusing, totally breaks the fourth wall) and the resolution's dependence on yet more BSG mysticism is mildly exasperating, but overall the TV movie fulfils its remit of being both entertaining and restoring faith in the show after a patchy third year.

Razor will be released on DVD in the United States on 4 December, and in the UK on 26 December. The DVD edition will be extended by some 15 minutes and will feature a lengthy flashback to the First Cylon War (complete with another huge battle sequence) as well as other new scenes.

Forthcoming: Battlestar Galactica returns with its fourth season premiere, He That Believath in Me, in early April 2008.

Sunday 25 November 2007

Swiftly by Adam Roberts

I am moving again, so I'll be offline for a while. So here's some reviews to be going on with:

The year is 1848. 122 years earlier a mariner returned to England speaking of fantastical lands he claimed to have discovered in remote corners of the globe. Whilst dismissed as a madman, some took note of what he was saying and the Royal Navy sent ships to investigate. The lands of Lilliput and Blefuscu were conquered, its dimunitive inhabitants enslaved and put to work as servants and engineers, whilst Brobdingnag was bombarded and its giant inhabitants subjected to genocide (out of fear they discover gunpowder and attack England). The flying island of Laputa was captured and subjected to examination, whilst the English army now employs a regiment of sentient horses.

The English are now poised to take Paris and become the dominant power in Europe, but the tide of the war is already turning, with the few surviving Brobdingnagians now in the employ of the French. In England itself, Abraham Bates is championing the rights of the Lilliputian slaves, whilst a young woman named Eleanor Burton dreams of escaping her hideous marriage and being allowed to pursue her dreams of science.

Swiftly is an impressive book. Roberts has clearly carefully read Gulliver's Travels and in this sequel he uses some of the same diction and language of Jonathan Swift, whilst simultaneously pursuing some of the same themes and ideas (there is a lenghthy digression related to faeces, which is highly reminiscent of Swift's own use of dubious imagery in the original). It's certainly a 'killer concept' (although other sequels to the book exist) and the action unfolds in a manner that the reader is probably not expecting at all.

Whilst the book is engaging and certainly contains a lot of humour, there is a fair amount of ambiguity to the tale, particularly the climatic events outside York, with the reader forced to draw their own conclusions to what is going on and how events unfold after the narrative. Those who hate ambiguity in their fiction may find the book not to their taste because of this, whilst those who like stories which require them to use their brains somewhat will find it much more to their liking.

Swiftly (***½) is a book I suspect will divide readers, but I found it intellectually stimulating and a rather different take on the story and world than I was expecting, which is a good thing. Some may find the longeurs in the book distracting and the pacing variable, which means the story doesn't flow as well as it should. Nevertheless, the book is worth reading despite these minor weaknesses. The book will be published in hardcover on 20 March 2008 in the UK by Gollancz. No US publisher is yet listed, but an earlier edition of the story can be found as a novella in a collection of stories published by Night Shade Books in 2004.

Friday 23 November 2007

Happy Birthday, Doctor Who

Doctor Who, the longest-running SFTV show in the world, turns 44 today. Launched on BBC-1 on 23 November 1963, the series was not an immediate hit, its opening episode delayed and overshadowed by news coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy a day earlier. Designed as an adventure series with an educational slant (mixing SF tales of aliens and monsters with historical adventures), the show took off massively with its second serial, which introduced the Daleks. It became a mainstay of BBC-1's Saturday night schedule and was soon attracting regular audiences of 10 million plus. The series survived numerous complete changes of cast and crew, thanks to the titular main character's ability to 'regenerate' into a new form whenever the old one was badly injured (or when the previous actor wanted to leave).

In 1989, after seven Doctors, thirty other regular characters, 26 consecutive seasons, 158 serials and over 700 episodes, the series was indefinitely 'rested' by the BBC. There was a one-off TV movie in 1996, co-produced by the BBC, Universal and Fox, which was successful in the UK but less so in the USA and failed to result in a regular series. Finally, in 2005, Doctor Who finally returned to Saturday nights on BBC-1 and was a smash hit, winning huge ratings and becoming a popular part of the USA's Sci-Fi Channel line-up as well. The 'new' Doctor Who returns for its fourth season around Easter 2008.

Sadly, this event coincides with news that the very first producer of Doctor Who, Verity Lambert, recently passed away at the age 71. A tremendously respected British television producer, Lambert won the job on Doctor Who at a very young age (27) and was the only female producer at the BBC at the time. She worked on the show for its first three seasons and then moved on to other popular British series, including Adam Adamant Lives!, Rumpole of the Bailey, Minder and Jonathan Creek. In 1985 she founded Cinema Verity, a production company with a number of film and television credits to its name. She was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2002 for services to film and television production. Earlier this year, the Doctor Who episode Human Nature paid tribute to her by giving the Doctor (whilst temporarily transformed into a human) memories of a mother named Verity. Many condolences to her family and many thanks to her for creating such a huge body of work that was enjoyed by countless millions for many decades. SFX has a tribute to her here.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Dreamsongs, Volume II by George RR Martin

Following on from my earlier review of Dreamsongs, Volume I, this entry covers the second volume of Geore R.R. Martin's collection of short fiction. Whilst Volume I covered GRRM's work from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Volume II focuses more closely on his work as a scriptwriter and editor (on the popular Wild Cards series of superhero anthologies) and includes what for many people will be the primary draw of the collection, a novella set in the world of GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire novels.

As with Volume I (as this is one huge book broken in two for US publication), Volume II is divided into sections, namely four sections containing stories and a bibliography of GRRM's published work.

The first section focuses on one of GRRM's several signature characters, namely Haviland Tuf, the vegetarian, bald and somewhat eccentric master of the ancient seedship The Ark, who proclaims himself the last of the long-extinct Ecological Engineers. Tuf was designed to be the hero (if that's the right word) of a series of stories set in GRRM's Thousand Worlds mileu, and these stories were collected into the popular 'fix-up' novel Tuf Voyaging. Two stories are presented here. A Beast for Norn (1975, published 1976) is the earliest Tuf story and was revised for its appearance in Tuf Voyaging, so it's the original version that appears here. It's not a particularly original tale and the well-worn SF reader will see the 'moral' coming from halfway through the story, but it's still exceptionally amusing to watch unfold. Guardians (1981) is much stronger, with Tuf a more sophisticated, well-developed character by this time and the story more intriguing, as the colonists on a remote ocean world are being attacked by increasingly savage creatures and Tuf has to find out where they are coming from and how to defeat them.

Around the time that Tuf Voyaging appeared, GRRM was invited to submit scripts for The New Twilight Zone, the resurrected mid-80s version of the classic Rod Serling anthology series. After some rather hectic re-jigging of the credits (including Harlan Ellison storming off the show after one of his scripts was messed around with by the studio) GRRM landed the job of script editor and worked on several episodes of the short-lived show. The Road Less Travelled (1986) was GRRM's only original contribution (the rest being adaptions or developments of other people's ideas), a somwhat curious tale which combines GRRM's trademark melancholy and musings on missed opportunities with a more optimistic ending. This script was filmed by Wes Craven and is reputedly a superb episode, but when it aired it had been butchered with nearly a third of its original material edited out, and due to legal reasons it cannot apparently be released or seen even today. A shame as the script is very interesting indeed. Also included is GRRM's pilot script for Doorways (1991), an alternate-reality show about a girl who passes from world to world and inadvertantly drags a native of our world along for the ride. This was also filmed, but again the filmed version is difficult to find and reportedly not as strong as the original script as several elements had been radically changed. The script included is very atmospheric and disturbing, and the reader may or may note the similarities to another series which aired a few years later called Sliders (purely coincidental, no doubt).

The next section takes us to the world that made George R.R. Martin an SF&F household name long before A Song of Ice and Fire took off. In 1987 GRRM and several close friends and collaborators began work on the Wild Cards universe, which postulates the existence of superheroes following the release over New York City in 1946 of an alien virus. 90% of those affected by the virus die; 9% become 'Jokers', horribly disfigured by the illness; and 1% become 'Aces', superheroes wielding incredible abilities. The Wild Cards series of anthologies became one of the biggest 'shared world' phenomenons of the 1980s, rivalled only by the Thieves' World series, eventually reaching fifteen volumes before petering out. However, the series was resurrected seven years later and several new volumes appeared, with the eighteenth and latest, Inside Straight, due out in the next couple of months in the USA. GRRM presents two of his Wild Cards stories here: Shell Games (1987) introduces another GRRM signature character, the Great and Powerful Turtle, and the role he plays in restoring the self-respect of Dr. Tachyon, the alien genius who created the Wild Card virus in the first place. From the Journal of Xavier Desmond (1988) is the framing story from the fourth volume in the series, Aces Abroad, and is a more familiar story of melancholy and musings, but is nevertheless exceptionally well-written as a dying Joker gets to see some of the world before he passes, and finds much that is worthwhile and beautiful in the world, but also sees some of its darkness as well.

The final section is called 'The Heart in Conflict', based on Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner's statement that, "the human heart in conflict with itself alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about." This appears to be GRRM's philosophy and lends itself to his 'furniture rule', that a story is just a story and is an SF tale or a Fantasy or a Western purely due to the 'furniture': a guy riding into a frontier town to settle a score or anothe man riding into a castle to challenge the wizard who wronged him or another person flying his spaceship in pursuit of an alien who has a grudge against him. The stories that follow seem to particularly respond to this, defying easy genre categorization or limitations: Under Siege (1984) is a 'remix' of GRRM's much earlier historical story, The Fortress (printed in Dreamsongs, Volume I), this time with added time travel and the suggestion that pinning the hopes of the world on one small group of people might not actually be a good or healthy thing to do. The Skin Trade (1988) is somewhere between a horror story and a thriller, featuring werewolves and private detectives and rich old men harbouring secrets. It won GRRM a World Fantasy Award and deservedly so. Unsound Variations (1982) focuses on GRRM's history as a chess tournament organiser and those not particularly interested in the game may find this tale of obsession a bit odd, but GRRM captures the game as a fictional device quite well and the melding of chess with quantum theory is well done. The Glass Flower (1986) marks GRRM's last visit (for now) to his Thousand Worlds and brings in Kleronomas, one of the signature legendary characters of that setting. The story is rather downbeat and to be honest I found it even depressing. There is a tremendous depth of character in the story, however.

The Hedge Knight (1998) is a prequel to A Song of Ice and Fire, taking place eighty-nine years prior to the events of A Game of Thrones. At this time the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are still unified under the rule of the Targaryen kings and seeing the realm at peace and shorn of the political machinations of court is interesting and somewhat refreshing. The protagonist is Dunk, a hedge knight who risks everything he has to ride in the great tourney at Ashford Meadow, but instead finds himself caught in the grip of history with a squire named Egg joining him for the ride. The first of a planned series of 'Dunk & Egg' stories is nothing short of a masterpiece in itself, expertly timed with terrific character-building and a depth of detail to the setting that is remarkable. If it wasn't for the A Knight's Tale movie a few years later, I imagine that Hollywood would have snapped this up by now. A sequel followed in 2003, The Sworn Sword, although it appeared too late to make it into this collection (the original version of which was published in 2003). A third Dunk & Egg tale will appear late next year (or early the next), in the Warriors anthology edited by GRRM and Gardner Dozois.

The final story is the Nebula Award-winning Portraits of His Children (1986), which is an obvious story to end on but still a fine piece of work. The story comes across as a modern take on Dickens, with an author visited by his creations and haunted by the decisions he made about their fictional lives. It doesn't take too huge an imagination to cast George in this light, enjoying a beer and a lively discussion with Tyrion or comparing notes on living in Brooklyn with the Turtle.

Dreamsongs, Volume II (*****) lives up to the promise of the first volume and is an essential read for any GRRM fan. The book will be published on 27 November in the United States in hardcover. The one-volume UK edition is out now in hardcover and trade paperback.

Sunday 18 November 2007


The next book review will be Dreamsongs, Volume II by George RR Martin, which I hope to finish in the next few days.

The planned Tower of Reading currently consists of:

The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston.
Swiftly by Adam Roberts (a sequel to Gulliver's Travels).
The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V.S. Redick (hot new debut from Gollancz).
Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott.
Fairyland by Paul J. McAuley.
The Confusion by Neal Stephenson.
The Helliconia Trilogy by Brian W. Aldiss (re-read).

Although there's one or two ARCs on the way which could rise to the top of the list quite handily.

On the TV front, Battlestar Galactica: Razor airs this week in the USA and Heroes continues through its highly variable second season, although the first signs of a more permanant return to its Season 1 quality are appearing.

Thursday 15 November 2007

Halo: Combat Evolved

Having enjoyed putting together the C&C3 review yesterday I've decided not to rest on my laurels and immediately proceed with another PC games review. At some point I will actually review truly classic games that everyone should play immediately if they have not done so previously (Freespace 2, Hostile Waters, Planescape: Torment etc etc), but frankly it's more fun to look at those games which everyone has heard of but which actually aren't all that. Hence:

Halo was first unveiled circa 1999 as a major first-person shooter from the makers of the classic Marathon series on the Apple Mac and the Myth series of strategy games on the PC. Halo promised to combine a solid SF setting (basically an Orbital from Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, althouh lazy reviewers referenced the more obvious titular construct from Larry Niven's Ringworld books) with equally-good vehicular and personal combat all set against a solid storyline. However, a bump appeared in the road during development, namely a large, misshapen, three-times-too-big bump called the Microsoft X-Box. Before you could say "Killer App!" Halo had been gagged and dragged screaming off to the land of Console Exclusive Releases, leaving PC players feeling vaguely cheesed off, but the developers immensely richer. Anyhow, Halo came out for the X-Box, made a tremendous wad of cash, got lots of people to buy the thing and was praised by all and sundry as the Best Thing Ever, with even the usually-more-difficult-to-excite-than-Al-Gore Edge magazine getting unseemingly excited and awarding it maximum points, which felt rather wrong, a bit like Barry Norman giving a five-star review to Debbie Does Dallas.

Meanwhile, the PC community had basically forgotten that their promised classic had been carted off to the land of mass appreciation, mainly because Half-Life 2 had just been announced, Doom 3 was on the way and something called Far Cry was looking a bit tasty as well. When Halo therefore arrived on PC at the end of 2003 like an overeager puppy anxious to please its new owners, it was rather cruelly ignored and reviews were less than stellar. No doubt some of this can be put down to PC owners generally believing that console games are unchallenging sacks of crud and console conversions are very disappointing (although if the game in question is developed by BioWare, this rule no longer applies), but most of it can be put down to the fact that Halo is in fact a bit (but not totally) crap.

Things get off to a solid if unoriginal approach when your spaceship detects a huge alien artefact in space and your captain decides to check it out. Your ship then gets borded by what appears to be a bunch of gibbering monkeys wearing brightly-coloured spacesuits, giggling like lunatics and running around like a bunch of five-year-olds on acid. These turn out to be the primary recurring footsoldiers of the Covenant. They are the worst enemy ever conceived for a first-person shooter. Shooting them is satisfying, but would be more so if your collection of weapons weren't entirely inspired by the Super-Soaker 5000. Things obviously go pear-shaped and you end up stuck alone on the huge alien construction, at least for about ten minutes until you meet up with some of your mates and engage in squad-based combat with the Covenant.

This takes up the first third of the game and is actually enjoyable. There's some nice non-linearity to the game, combat is generally okay and Halo's approach to grenades is, if massively overstated, nonetheless a welcome innovation in the staid FPS genre. Much respect to the vehicles. If there is one thing Halo gets right, it's the vehicles and vehicle combat, which are fun throughout the game. Also, whilst the gibbering Covenant monkey grunts remain infuriating, more challenging opponents turn up who are more interesting to fight.

You may suspect a huge "BUT" is coming and you would be correct. About a third of the way through the development of the game Bungie apparently checked in on the gametesters and realised that people were having fun fighting in outdoor environments with vehicles and alongside NPC allies and against a reasonably decent opposition. Bungie apparently decided that it would make perfect sense to therefore kill all of the NPC allies, take out the vehicles, set the second two-thirds of the game almost entirely indoors on the same map just repeated over and over and replace the Covenant with The Flood, the Flood being basically the headcrab zombies from Half-Life with the added bonus that they sometimes explode when standing right next to you and they never appear in numbers of less than four trillion. I can only assume that Bungie had a moment of rebellion against their evil corporate overlords at Microsoft and tried to sabotage their own game, but it didn't work because it came too late in the day and all the previews had enthusiastically widdled on about the great part of the game and not even mentioned the large chunk of it that sucked donkey legs.

Towards the end of the game, around the time you've slaughtered your sixty quadrillionth Flood creature and passed through the same room eighty times, things do get vaguely interesting again and you experience an enjoyable jeep ride along the spine of an exploding starship. However, given that the game ends three seconds after this, this turns out not to be the return-to-form you were hoping for but rather a rather cruel way of the developers telling you they could have made the whole game as fantastic as that, but chose not to because they were too busy spending their development budget on beer and pizza.

Of course, Halo (**) wasn't a total write-off. As I said, the first third of the game is still fun, the multiplayer is okay (if nothing special by PC standards) and it did give us the superb Red vs Blue Internet comedy series, which is a Good Thing. However, it doesn't really make up for the fact that nearly two-thirds of the game is unplayable by all but the terminally stubborn and the ending is so blatantly sequel-incurring that they may as well have just demanded your credit card number before running the final cut scene.

Halo is available for the X-Box (USA, UK) and the PC (USA, UK) and has been out for ages, so should be quite cheap on both systems. There are sequels which are apparently far superior, but given that the PC port of Halo 2 was apparently a total disaster, I am not in any hurry to play them.