Saturday 31 January 2009

Fable: The Lost Chapters

A while ago the SF&F blogosphere was rocked (okay, slightly tilted) by accusations of publishers 'overhyping' their books and leaving disillusioned reviewers giving overtly harsh reviews to books which they'd have enjoyed more if they'd come to them fresh. It was a bit of a three-minute wonder in which the particular accused publisher pointed out that their 'hype' consisted of them saying they thought the book was good and the author saying they thought the book was good, which isn't so much 'hype' as 'their job'. 'Hype' on the other hand is what Peter Molyneux does very well.

For those not in the know, Peter Molyneux is responsible for many of the greatest computer games of all time, from 1980s strategy classic Populous and its superior sequel through Powermonger, Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper. As the creator of Bullfrog Studios, Molyneux is also responsible for giving us the godlike Syndicate (although he didn't have that much to do with it, which may or may not be telling; okay, it is telling). In the late 1990s Molyneux left Bullfrog, which had been absorbed by the glutinous mass that was and still is EA Games, and set up a new studio called Lionhead. At this point Molyneux decided that having his hand in several of the greatest games ever made meant that any game he automatically created in the future would also be blindingly amazing and thus announced that his new company's first game would be a work of towering and astronomical genius which would force anyone who played it to explode from the sheer awesomeness of playing the game. Unfortunately the game design department didn't get the memo, as instead they made Black and White, which was not very good, although it did allow you to feed people to a giant cow and then beat it up.

Undaunted by the mauling of his bovine-abuse simulator, Molyneux unleashed his hype on the company's new RPG, Fable. The game would have immense moral consequences, where every NPC had a different attitude towards you and would remember your actions towards them, where it would be possible to get married, have kids and a home life between adventures and the game would subtly adjust to the choices you made. Needless to say, very little of this actually appeared in the game, which turned out to be BioWare-lite.

So ignoring the hype, what about the actual game? Well, you start off as a young scamp in your home village where peace and happiness spread until bad people turn up, torch the village, kidnap your mother and sister and butcher your father to death in front of you. Luckily, a wise old mentor/wizard Obi-Wan figure turns up, rescues you, and whisks you off to the 'Hero Guild' where you get to train your sword, archery and spellcasting abilities until you are ready to face the world and take on some quests. The 'twist' is that you get to decide whether you are a good person or a bad person. Erm, you know, the 'twist' that RPGs as far back as 1996's Fallout had pretty much included as a matter of course? Of course, the game doesn't really allow you to turn out to be a really evil SOB and follow the ramifications of that logically, so you can butcher your friends, torch multiple villages, kill hundreds of innocents and still be allowed back into the Guild to pick up a new quest, level up and follow the main story, which is pretty forgiving of them.

The additional stuff is pretty much worthless. You can get married, but all that does is give you a different home base and an NPC wife (the game doesn't even allow you to play a female hero, although the sequel does) who just parrots random dialogue at you. You can't have kids, and all this scene-setting gubbins really does is distract from the meat of the game, which is performing quests. You gain quests from the guild (and occasionally other places) which require you to head off into the wilderness and perform convoy, protection or rescue missions for various people. There are also very occasional 'evil' quests as well, but these are few and far between. The main story picks up at fairly frequent intervals and draws you along a path of self-discovery as you learn more about the world and your background.

At this point Fable kicks into life. The story is unoriginal, but nicely executed. There's some strong voice acting and a decent sense of humour. The combination of combat and spells is nicely done, although ranged combat turns out to be a waste of time. I think I used my bow about four times in the whole game. Swordplay and magic will get you through most circumstances. The game is also interesting in that it doesn't force you to become a fighter, mage or archer as you divide experience points between the three as you choose, allowing a decent level of customisation. There's also a nice variety of enemies to fight. However, towards the end of the story you become so ridiculously powerful that even the extremely tough new enemies introduced in the 'Lost Chapters' at the end of the game (not included in the original, X-Box-only version) do not present much of a challenge.

Even with the addition of the 'Lost Chapters' material the game is also fairly short for an RPG, coming in at the 12-hour mark including all the side quests. However, the game's relative easiness as well as its more light-hearted approach does make it a decent RPG for beginners than something more hardcore like Baldur's Gate II or even Fallout 3, and more experienced gamers will find it stands up quite well as an enjoyable game, though not one that is breaking any boundaries.

Fable (***½) is a fun, light and amusing game which is pretty entertaining. Although it is on the short side, this has to be balanced against the fact that you can typically find copies for £5-£10, since it is four years old now, and for that price is excellent value for money. And for that same reason you can pretty much ignore the hype as well and take the game for what it is: a solid amount of fun. The game is available now in the UK (PC, Mac, original X-Box) and USA (PC, Mac, original X-Box).

Friday 30 January 2009

Final Impact by John Birmingham

World War 2.3: Final Impact is the conclusion to the Axis of Time trilogy, following Weapons of Choice and Designated Targets. Those books chronicled how, in the year 2021, a UN multinational carrier taskforce was deployed to drive a terrorist insurgency out of Jakarta. Unfortunately, a nearby scientific vessel undertaking experiments into quantum tunnelling accidentally opened a wormhole through space and time, dumping the entire fleet on top of Admiral Spruance's US Navy fleet sailing to relieve Midway in the summer of 1942. With no way home, the UN force's presence rapidly changed the course of the Second World War.

The final novel opens in the late spring of 1944. Both the Axis and Allies are now equipped with considerable technological advances gleaned from the ships from the future. Jet aircraft fight on both sides, and the UN taskforce's immense AWACS and radar capabilities provide the Allies with considerable tactical and intelligence advantages over the enemy. Germany and Japan made alterations to their strategies after capturing some of the ships from the future themselves and these paid off in the short term, with Germany and the USSR concluding a cynical peace and Japan successfully invading Australia and occupying Hawaii. Driven by their superior economic base, however, the Allies are now resurgent, having retaken Hawaii and defeated a German invasion of Britain before preparing their own, improved version of D-Day. The Allies, the Germans and the Russians are now in their own, frantic races to complete the atom bomb before the others, for whoever develops a nuclear arsenal the earliest will likely be the side that wins the war.

Final Impact marks a solid conclusion to the trilogy, although unfortunately some of the more interesting elements that were being developed in Designated Targets seem to have been scaled back. The sociological ramifications of the arrival of the ships from the future continue to be examined, but not quite so cleverly as in the previous volume. The sheer mass of data that the people of the 1940s would have to absorb is overwhelming and you can't help but feel that Birmingham occasionally misses out on a few interesting possibilities (although a scene where John Kennedy quietly arranges for a young Lee Harvey Oswald to be taken into state care is a nice touch). However, with the need to bring this alternate Second World War to a conclusion the sacrificing of some of the quieter elements in favour of the main storyline is understandable. This also explains the somewhat jarring leap ahead of more than a year since the end of Book 2. Several major characters die off-page between the two books, and given the ending of Book 2 it is a surprise to find Hawaii already back in Allied hands. Birmingham obviously felt that expanding on these elements would expand the series to four books or more and I certainly understand him wanting to avoid that.

Final Impact marks a solid ending to the series, with the war rapidly winding down after the nukes start being deployed. Birmingham treats these weapons as the terrible forces they are (some military authors, Turtledove particularly comes to mind, seem to love hurling them around with almost gleeful abandon) and the impact of their use is made clear. The ending is also not particularly neat. The USSR emerges from the war far stronger than it did in real life, with the threat of a real 'hot war' with the Allies seemingly much greater than in reality, but that is not part of the story that the author is telling, so that element is left dangling. As with the prior books, the author mixes action with intriguing historical speculation with solid characterisation and a fascinating contrast of the morales and attitudes of the two time periods: the 'uptimers' are far more inured to war and suffering after twenty years of warfare, whilst the 'downtimers' are prepared to accept far vaster civilian casualties to achieve victory. There is also plenty of humour to be mined, such as SAS commander Harry Windsor having an amusing conversation with his 16-year-old grandmother or disco becoming popular thirty years ahead of schedule, as well as interesting side-effects of the transition, such as questions over who has the copyright on films yet to be made by directors and actors yet to be born.

Final Impact (****) is a solid and worthwhile conclusion to this intriguing trilogy. It is available in the UK from Penguin and in the USA from Del Rey. Birmingham's new novel, Without Warning, which depicts a world where the North American continent was destroyed by an unusual energy phenomenon on the eve of the USA's invasion of Iraq, will be published next week in the USA and I will be reading and reviewing it in the near future.

Thursday 29 January 2009

A Defence of Dragons, Part 2

Actually, this post title is a bit of a misnomer. The intent here is not to talk about or 'defend' the controversy but to actually look at the work itself. Between the howls of the denied and the rationalisations of the defenders, the actual book itself and the complexity involved in writing it tends to be forgotten.

Last time, I revisited the point that the fourth book in the series, A Feast for Crows, was never supposed to exist in the original plan for the series. Instead, there would have been a five-year gap with the original planned Book 4, then called A Dance with Dragons (this is where confusion sets in; I will refer to this version of ADWD as ADWD v1), picking up afterwards. GRRM's motives for this writing decision seem to be pretty straightforward: he regretted making the younger characters so young when the series started, and wanted to be able to write about Dany as a 20-year-old, Jon in his early twenties, Arya and Bran later in their teens, Rickon would be older than Bran was when the series began and so on. However, several problems presented themselves. Several storylines still in motion when Book 3, A Storm of Swords, ended seemed to require more immediate resolution. It seemed unfeasible that Brienne would spend five years wandering around Westeros without learning something about Arya or Sansa, and more to the point, it was unlikely that Dorne would sit still for five years after Prince Oberyn's death without taking action. Readers and fans have also pointed out that after five years of relative peace, the realm would have been able to recover somewhat from the war and also that Dany's presence in Meereen would have become common knowledge and neither situation would really fit in with the idea of the series escalating and building to a climax.

So A Feast for Crows was introduced to the mix. Originally, all the characters were together in AFFC, and A Dance with Dragons was still intended to be the book that followed it. For the interests of clarity, I shall refer to the version of AFFC with all the characters in as AFFC v1 and the version of ADWD intended to follow after AFFC v1 as ADWD v2. At this point you may start to understand where the complexity and confusion issues begin to arise.

AFFC v1 was supposed to follow immediately after the end of ASoS and chronicle the adventures of all the previously-established POV characters. It does appear early on that a problem emerged: the stories that 'needed' to be told in the former gap seem to have been written pretty straightforwardly. These would be Cersei's, Brianne's, Dorne's, the Iron Islands' and so forth. The ones that didn't, weren't. GRRM wrote several Daenerys and Jon chapters early on, but seemed to revisit and revise them constantly. Chapters from these characters read at conventions as early as 2002 show noticeable changes and shifts between different versions. It can be surmised that GRRM felt that the interim stories, the stories of 'the gap' as it were, which needed to be told immediately were for those characters primarily in southern Westeros in the aftermath of the War of the Five Kings. This makes sense. This was the main theatre of action, both military and political, in the first three novels and where the situation was left unresolved at the end of ASoS. However, Jon and Daenerys' stories were 'plateaued' at the end of ASoS. Jon was now Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and Daenerys was now Queen of Meereen, intending to learn the art of rulership before returning to Westeros. It was clear that the next logical move in both their stories is to pick up on them five years later, with Jon now an experienced Lord Commander ready to face the threat of the Others and Daenerys as an experienced ruler, ready to embark on her grand expedition to return home, or perhaps being forced into it by outside forces.

AFFC v1 was split in May 2005, and GRRM announced that the 'new' AFFC (v2, the published version) would only feature the POV characters in the south of Westeros, as those were the chapters he had finished. This was reasonable. However, at the same time he announced that those characters not included in the book would now be moved into a new novel, but that book would still bear the title of A Dance with Dragons (v3, the version that will be published hopefully in the not-too-distant future). At the time I remember the announcement being met with both relief and bemusement, but not a huge amount of discussion on the significance of the title for the next book in the series being retained. When GRRM released the page-counts for how much material he had amassed for the ADWD characters, an interesting picture emerged.

When GRRM split the book, he had over 1,600 manuscript (MS) pages ready. Approximately 500 of these were cut off and held for Book 5, whilst the other 1,100 form the published Feast for Crows (1,100 MS pages roughly equal 700-odd pages of an actual novel in hardcover, not counting the appendices and maps). With Book 5 also intended to come in at the 1,100-page count, GRRM thus had almost half the book already in hand. That still meant he had to write half of a full novel, and as the months passed there were indications that the planned fifth book was going to be longer (maybe 1,300 MS pages, maybe more), shrinking the completed material to maybe a third of the total book. Then, as discussed in Part 1, it appears that most of that material was comprehensively rewritten.

It's at this point that the chances of the book making it out comparatively quickly after AFFC disappeared. Clearly GRRM had changed his plans for the new book from simply being the other half of the story told in AFFC v1 into something else. The fact that the new book retained the same title as the one meant to succeed it suggest to me that GRRM had decided to merge the two together. My conclusion is that the version of ADWD (v3) that is to be published is the story of what would have happened in the former version of ADWD (v2) after 'the gap'. It will now simply be happening a few months after the end of ASoS rather than five years. This process clearly began in the published AFFC: Cersei's downfall and arrest by the Faithful would likely have come after the five-year gap in the original plan, as would the arrival of winter and Brienne's capture by Stoneheart. ADWD will likely take this to new extremes by downplaying some of the 'gap' material in favour of moving the story forward more dynamically (although we do know that some of the 'gap' material, such as Dany consolidating control of the city, will be retained).

But do we have any additional proof that this is the case, not just supposition? We do. GRRM has continued his practice of reading chapters from the novel at convention appearances, and last year there were opportunities to compare some of these chapters to earlier iterations (all such chapter readings are collected here for easy reference). Of particular interest were the chances to hear both the latest versions of the prologue, which GRRM has admitted struggling with since its introduction after the split, and also of Jon's second chapter (the first is currently up on his website). Both are noticeably superior to their earlier versions, especially Jon's second chapter. The original version of this chapter was as well-written as ever, but notably slower in forward storyline developments and consisted of lots of discussion, and planning. The newer version is more dynamic and features a (relatively) major character death which I suspect a lot of readers would not have been expecting for some time yet. The result would indicate a ramping-up of the stakes and of the pace of the series in the newer, revised version of the book.

To conclude, the primary reason for the delay in A Dance with Dragons is an intent to make the book better. This is a complex process, since GRRM has to achieve the following goals all in the same volume:

  • To begin the process of convergence that will be needed to get all of the POV characters back in one volume for The Winds of Winter and, not only that, but to also ensure the timelines match up. GRRM has previously stated that ADWD will cover more time than AFFC, which makes re-synching the storylines for Book 6 tricky.
  • To ensure, for both the publishers and possibly HBO, that the series does not expand to eight volumes. GRRM has said that if the story demands that the series does expand once more, he will do it but I'm guessing this would not be the preferred option. How the stories in ADWD unfold will likely be crucial in determining if this happens or not.
  • Whilst meeting the above technical and structural goals, to simultaneously deliver a reading experience that lives up to the series' heritage which includes, lest it be forgotten, a novel (ASoS) that vast numbers of fans have proclaimed the best individual epic fantasy book since Lord of the Rings.
So, no pressure there, then.

In the acknowledgements section of A Feast for Crows, GRRM says that "This one is a bitch,". I suspect stronger language may be used for A Dance with Dragons. This book started out as the second half of a book that was never supposed to exist which then got folded into storyline developments planned for later in the series and is now running out-of-synch with the other half of the cast of characters. Bringing the entire thing back on track without it sprawling out of control Wheel of Time-style is an immense undertaking, and the fact that the author has gone several years over his projected timescale with it is not surprising. Whether the author succeeds or not in resolving these issues and delivering a worthy fifth novel in the series can only be determined when the book is finally published, but the indications we have so far are extremely positive.

Note: This article is somewhat speculative in nature than Part 1. It is a conclusion drawn from GRRM's comments over the years and changes in those chapters which have been made public. None of this is based on any kind of inside knowledge. I may be way off-base with some of this speculation. Nevertheless, the problems I outline that resulted from the ditching of the five-year gap and which need to be overcome to bring the series to a successful conclusion are definitely real, and are certainly the primary reason for the delays on the book. The purpose of this article is to illuminate that fact, which is often forgotten by the critics who simply think that this was just another book and could be written in a matter of weeks if the author chose to do so.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

A Defence of Dragons, Part 1

Over on Suvudu, Shawn Speakman has presented a fairly lengthy essay on the ongoing wait for the fifth volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series. This wait has sparked a long-running and increasingly irate flame war between fans, 'antifans' and even exasperated people in the middle on numerous websites across the Internet. The article is an interesting piece which fairly accurately reflects many of the issues involved, although the author does miss out on a few factual points which could be of value.

For those not in the know, the situation is as follows:

A Song of Ice and Fire is an epic fantasy series written by American science fiction, horror and fantasy author George R.R. Martin (popularly known as GRRM). Prior to this series, he was well-known as the editor of the long-running and popular Wild Cards shared world superhero series (which began in 1986 and is still going strong today) and also as a scriptwriter, penning episodes of Beauty and the Beast (late 1980s Ron Perlman/Linda Hamilton horror/romance series) and The New Twilight Zone. Before then he had won a string of awards for his novels and short stories. This background is important because many epic fantasy series are written by newcomers to the genre, whilst for GRRM it was another, if much more ambitious, project embarked on after he'd already been a professional writer for over a quarter of a century.

GRRM started writing the series in 1991. Originally envisaged as a trilogy, the story proved to be much larger than the author had conceived and it was eventually expanded to seven volumes. Book 1, A Game of Thrones, took the better part of five years to write (although GRRM did write a TV pilot in the interim which was not picked up, taking out a year or so of that time) and was published in August 1996, although it was completed some months prior to that. Book 2, A Clash of Kings, was published in October 1998 and Book 3, A Storm of Swords - the longest book in the series to date - in August 2000. So far, so reasonable.

However, after this point problems emerged in the writing of the series. The original plan had Book 4 starting five years after the events of Book 3, but as GRRM tried to write the book he found that far too much had happened in the interim to be dismissed in flashbacks or narrative asides. In particular, he had sent one of the characters - Brienne - on a quest at the end of Book 3 that it seemed implausible would take five years to resolve. After much debate and trying to get the book to work for over eighteen months, he abandoned the novel in the summer of 2001, announcing at the Philadelphia Worldcon on 1 September 2001 that instead he would be writing a new book called A Feast for Crows, which would fill in the events of the gap. At the time there were some concerns over the move, as suddenly throwing a new book into the series and trying to course-correct in the middle of a complex narrative seemed to be a recipe for trouble. However, GRRM's judgement had proved sound so far and he was a professional editor as well as a writer, so the fans waited to see what would happen with the new book.

The new book took about three and a half years to write. Coupled with the time lost from trying to make the old book work, this meant that A Feast for Crows was published, possibly ironically, five years after A Storm of Swords, in October 2005. But during the writing process, again problems had crept in and the book had come in as being far too long to publish in one volume. The decision was apparently taken to split the book in two and publish the two volumes at one-year intervals. GRRM even put an afterword at the end of AFFC (and, bemusingly, it's still there even in the most recent reprints) to this effect, although he was careful to word this as a hope, not a promise. He also confirmed on his website that the second volume, now entitled A Dance with Dragons, was not yet complete and a lot of work would be required to bring it to completion, but he was hopeful that this would be doable within a year or so.

Obviously that didn't happen. AFFC, as it is published, was completed in May 2005, almost four years ago, and ADWD is still not with us. And, compared to the regular and detailed updates (complete with page counts) GRRM provided on the writing of AFFC, his actual updates on ADWD have proven infrequent. At the same time that his news on ADWD started tailing off, he also set up a blog on which he would post about merchandise related to the series, the development of HBO's TV adaption of the books and personal comments about football and politics. This is where a lot of the 'antifans' anger set in, with venomous attacks on the author on his own website becoming very frequent very quickly. The situation grew so bad that the semi-official forum dedicated to the series (of which I am a moderator) had to ban discussion of the issue to avoid major flamewars and having to ban people (on both sides), a move that was taken reluctantly given how tolerant the board is of constructive criticism of the author (unlike some other author forums out there).

One of the problems is that the pretty decent reasons for the delays on ADWD have actually been given (both by GRRM and his publishers) but have not really been collected into a single source before. These reasons can be summed up as:
  • 1. GRRM undertook 'structural changes' in the writing after AFFC was published. Whether this was to the series overall or to ADWD in particular is unclear. However, I strongly suspect it was to the series overall. GRRM appears to want to reign in the 'creep' that has seen the series expand from three to seven books, and I imagine that HBO are keen to keep the series to seven books as well, making it easier for them to adapt to television in a timely fashion. These changes likely took some time to implement, although their extent remains unclear.
  • 2. GRRM rewrote most, if indeed not all, of the material he had left over from AFFC. Pat's Fantasy Hotlist interviewed representatives from Bantam USA some time ago in which they confirmed this is the case and GRRM confirmed on his blog that all of Jon's material had been rewritten. In between two conventions, GRRM also rewrote the book's prologue, and keen-eared fans were able to compare the two versions (spoilers, obviously) and show the changes between them. The effective loss of the AFFC material, which would have made up over 35% of the published novel, therefore added months of writing time to the book.
  • 3. After putting in the note at the end of the AFFC manuscript, GRRM was asked by his publishers to undertake a book tour of the United States, Canada and the UK. This tour turned out to be extremely long and ambitious, and effectively removed six months from the writing of ADWD (actually meaning the chances of it coming out a year after AFFC were killed very early on, although unfortunately not early enough to pull the afterword from the fourth book). His Spanish and Portuguese publishers also asked him to visit Spain and Portugal in the summer of 2008 and he complied, losing an additional month. However, GRRM did turn down a request by his Chinese, Korean and Japanese publishers for an extended book tour of Asia on the grounds that that would take far too long out from the writing of the new book.
  • 4. GRRM is, by his own admission, prone to over-optimism.
Of course, if this was the whole story than the 'antifans' wouldn't really have much of a leg to stand on. Yeah, the author said he thought he couldn't get the book done in a year and he was wrong. It happens, and a lot more often than you might think. The substantially newer and younger authors Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch have run into significant problems with the second and third volumes of their debut series, and both books will be published at least one-and-a-half years behind schedule, maybe closer to two. Literary SF fans have been waiting for Christopher Priest's occasionally-hinted new novel since 2002. Jean M. Auel fans wail at the decade-long gaps between the later volumes in the Earth's Children series. Melanie Rawn fans seem close to giving up on her Capital's Tower series ever being completed.

However, a key weapon in the 'antifans' arsenal is that whilst GRRM hasn't been able to bring ADWD to completion, he has been able to write at length on many other issues on his blog and, for reasons that have never been adequately explained, this provokes anger from them. After all, the time spent writing a blog is the time that would otherwise be spent writing the book instead, right?

Well, no. There are many people on the Internet with blogs (ahem). Most people who have them also have full-time jobs, and write their blogs in the evening when they are at home, or maybe in their lunch hour at work or at the weekend. In fact, since the computer GRRM uses to write ASoIaF is apparently powered by a steam engine (aka DOS) and is located in another room to his Internet machine, it's actually a pretty logical conclusion that he writes his blog in his spare time when he is not working on the book. As for what he chooses to blog about, that's entirely his decision. As GRRM himself has said, substantial news about ADWD will be posted on his website's Song of Ice and Fire update page, not on his blog. So, if you are totally uninterested in his other blogging subjects, unbookmark his blog and instead check his update page regularly. If it hasn't been updated, even for a year or more, then there's been no substantive news about the books in that time. Otherwise the author is free to write about what he wants to write about on his blog whenever he wants, as indeed I am or any other blogger is.

Some of the other popular complaints:

But no-one cares about Wild Cards!
False. Wild Cards has sold many hundreds of thousands of copies. It was a huge success back in the 1980s and the current 2000s revival is doing good business for Tor Books and attracting many new fans to the series. A lot of people care about Wild Cards and a surprising number of them consider ASoIaF to be a distraction from GRRM's work on that series. It was also Wild Cards' immense success that made publishers eager to pick up GRRM's new fantasy novel way back in the mid-1990s. Finally, with Heroes seemingly disintegrating under the weight of its own ineptitude, Hollywood seems to have taken an interest in the property (or at least possibly in Melinda Snodgrass' movie script based on the setting), so it's definitely doing something right.

He's abandoned ASoIaF to write other books!
Like what? GRRM's contribution to the enjoyable Hunter's Run was written in 1981, or fifteen years before AGoT was even published. Dreamsongs is a collection of his older fiction. Fevre Dream and The Armageddon Rag were published in the early 1980s.

But he spends all his time hawking tat on his website!
As mentioned earlier, what GRRM blogs about on his website is up to him. If you purely want info about ADWD than visit his Update page on his website, not his blog. Also check out the forum, because I can assure you that that second news of ADWD's completion makes it out, it will be posted and discussed there. Also, merchandise based on the series sells (otherwise it would stop pretty quickly) and lots of people are interested in it, so GRRM feels obligated to talk about it.

But he's editing other books!
That certainly is true. However, it's been true right through the entire series to date as well.

This post is getting long, so I'll leave off this subject for now. The next time I revisit it I will be discussing what actually the problems with ADWD could be from a series structural point of view, and why there is tremendous reason for optimism based on some of the more recent news to emerge about ADWD last year.

New Song of Ice and Fire RPG on its way!

Green Ronin, publishers of many popular roleplaying games such as the True 20 system, are about to release a new RPG based on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. A previous RPG, based on the D20 system, was released to great acclaim by Guardians of Order in 2005 but the company went bust shortly thereafter. The new game uses an original rules set developed specially for the setting.

The first release will be the Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying core rulebook, due out at the start of March. This will be followed in April by the Narrator's Kit, which includes a gamemaster's screen (depicting the Wall), a 16-page adventure and a map of Westeros. In the summer will follow Peril at King's Landing, a full-scale adventure set during one of King Robert Baratheon's tourneys, and the massive 256-page Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide, a substantial resource for both gamers and also general fans of the series. Because of the delay in publication of these books, Green Ronin have already done substantial work on some follow-up products, including ones that will allow very different types of games to be played. The default model has the players representing their own House in the game of thrones, but these new expansions will also cover campaigns set amongst the Night's Watch amongst others. Green Ronin hope to start releasing these new books as early as the autumn.

Tuesday 27 January 2009

The Ninth Circle by Alex Bell

The Ninth Circle is a mystery written in the form of diary entries by the protagonist, Gabriel Antaeus, after he wakes up one morning in Budapest, Hungary, with amnesia. As the story unfolds Antaeus uncovers clues as to his former life and meets people who knew him from before. Gradually he puts together the pieces, and the picture that emerges becomes increasingly disturbing.

This is the debut novel by British author Alex Bell, completed whilst she was still at university. For a debut novel, this is an accomplished work with a central mystery presented intriguingly which unfolds logically and also unpredictably. The author sows enough red herrings and false trails into the text that you are never entirely sure where the book is going, or if there is a supernatural or a mundane explanation for the events that are unfolding. The diary format also works well, although the traditional first-person problem of defusing tension is still present: if the protagonist is in deadly danger you can probably guess he's going to survive by virtue of the fact that he lived to write up the experience in his diary. However, this is offset by the first person narrative allowing us to get into Antaeus' head and see what makes him tick in a very effective manner.

The Ninth Circle is, by SF&F standards, a relatively short book with a fascinating story told through by a conflicted protagonist. The story keeps you guessing up to the last page. The only major negative I can see is that you may feel compelled to visit Budapest after reading the book, as the city is depicted with real attention to detail and obvious affection throughout.

The Ninth Circle (****) is available now in the UK from Gollancz in tradeback. The mass-market paperback will be available on 9 April 2009. The book does not have a US publisher as yet but is available on Alex Bell's second novel, Jasmyn, will be published by Gollancz on 18 June 2009. The author has a website located here.

The Return of Red Dwarf: more details confirmed

The hit BBC SF sitcom Red Dwarf is to return to television screens at Easter to celebrate its 21st anniversary. After the BBC rejected writer and co-creator Doug Naylor's request for a new, ninth season the satellite/cable channel Dave stepped in. A new two-part story is being filmed entitled Back to Earth and sees the Red Dwarf crew finally return home after three million years in deep space.

Whilst all of that is encouraging, it was a surprise to learn that the budget is extremely tight. Red Dwarf's huge success on the BBC meant that the latter seasons had very high budgets by the standards of the day, and the news that the new specials are so cash-strapped they cannot even afford Norman Lovett to return as Holly is rather worrying. Also, despite rumours that Rob Grant might return to help write the specials, it's been confirmed that Doug Naylor is again flying solo on this project. This is again not very encouraging, as the last two Grant-less seasons of Red Dwarf were the weakest the show ever did. The two specials will be followed by an interesting improvisational Red Dwarf episode featuring the cast working without special effects, sets or autocues and a behind-the-scenes look at the series and its return to television.

Whilst all of that is interesting, I cannot help but feel that Red Dwarf has had its day, and hope that the new specials resolve the outstanding plot points and close the door on the series for good.

Monday 26 January 2009

Wertzone Classics: Rome: Season 2

The year is 44 BC. Julius Caesar is dead, assassinated by a cadre of senators led by Brutus and Cassius. The Julii and Caesar's ally Mark Antony prepare to flee, but Caesar's newly-anointed heir Octavian discovers a legal loophole that forces Brutus to agree to a reconciliation. Unfortunately for the conspirators, the popular mood in Rome swings decisively against them and they are forced to flee. When Octavian and Antony are divided by their own disagreements, the scene is set for a devastating three-way civil war which will eventually culminate at Philippi, one of the greatest battles in Roman history.

Meanwhile, former centurion-turned-politician Lucius Vorenus has seen his family torn apart by betrayal and treachery. Whilst Titus Pullo tries to save his friend's soul, Vorenus is placed in command of the Aventine Collegia and told to keep the peace between the warring criminal gangs. At the same time, the arrival in Rome of Timon's brother coincides with a rise in Jewish nationalism.

Rome's second season picks up at the moment Season 1 ends, with Caesar dead, Vorenus devastated by his loss and the Republic in danger of falling apart into anarchy. Given that the entire storylines for the second and planned third seasons had to be compressed into one season, and only ten episodes at that, the second season moves forward decisively and rapidly. The second season covers a period of fourteen years, and several times multiple years elapse between episodes which makes the season flow slightly less well than the first. In particular, the intrigue between the factions is covered in less depth and Vorenus and Pullo's storyline is to some extent separated from that of the political story, meaning that the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern-like angle from the first season is also diluted although the stories do converge decisively in the final two episodes. Timon's storyline is also given a rather unsatisfactory resolution due to this compression, which is a shame as his 'redemption' from a simple thug in Season 1 into someone with a moral conscience is one of the unsung triumphs of the second year.

Despite this haste, the series remains gripping and compelling viewing. Particularly amusing is the way that politics is depicted as one of the forms of entertainment of the day and how the notable unlovable Octavian wins popularity by surrounding himself with a 'next generation' of young, handsome but capable figures such as Agrippa and Maecenas, and arranges a crowd-pleasing marriage to the young, beautiful and intelligent Livia. These new actors fit into the tapestry of the series very well: Simon Woods replaces Max Pirkis to portray the adult Octavian and does a brilliant job portraying the cold, logical future Emperor, Alex Wyndham is excellent as the debauched Maecenas and Alice Henley is clearly relishing playing the twisted Livia. However, Allen Leech has the most challenging role playing the bumbling, well-meaning Agrippa who serves as Octavian's conscience, and hits the right note between Agrippa's somewhat sappy side and his lethal capabilities on the battlefield (Agrippa's military capabilities eclipse those of Antony in very short order, to the latter's fury).

Of course, the seasoned actors continue to deliver the goods. James Purefoy (as Antony) graduates from a supporting role in Season 1 to command almost every episode of Season 2 with an impressive, theatrical presence in a gift of a role. Unmentioned in my review of Season 1 was David Bamber as Cicero, whose task is challenging (Cicero was one of the most learned, respected and gifted orators of his generation) but his performance is compelling, especially his concluding scene with Ray Stevenson's Pullo in episode six, which may be the single finest moment in the entire series. Stephenson continues his excellent work as Pullo as the character is put through the wringer but, unlike the first season, manages to keep his head above water and even prosper. However, if Season 2 had a unifying theme it would be the journey through Hades and back of Lucius Vorenus. Kevin McKidd is superb as his character is forced again and again into some very dark decisions.

Eventually the dust settles and Rome finishes where it really had to, with Octavian ascending to absolute power with the Senate as little more than his puppet and one of the most famous love stories of all time reaching its tragic ending. Whilst it would have been perhaps more satisfying to see the series go on for longer, it ends brilliantly and the series' relative brevity becomes another one of its strengths.

Rome: Season 2 (*****) is a worthy continuation and conclusion to the story begun in the first season. With excellent effects (the Battle of Philippi is impressively depicted) and jaw-dropping set design (the new set of the Aventine Collegia is genuinely amazing in its size and scale) backing up the superlative writing and acting. As with the first season, there is still a lot of violence, swearing, sex and nudity so the series isn't for everyone, but it is well worth watching for those who can accept these elements as part of the narrative. The second season is available on DVD by itself (UK, USA) or as part of the Complete Rome box set (UK, USA).

Saturday 24 January 2009

Wertzone Classics: Half-Life 2

The original Half-Life, released back in October 1998, was the title that redefined the first-person shooter genre. As well as featuring the best combat of any FPS to date, it hit on the idea of never having the player's character, Gordon Freeman, speak or stopping the action to have an expository cut-scene. However, some players found the resulting lack of explanation for the confusing plot to be frustrating. Despite this, Half-Life and its expansions (Opposing Force and Blue Shift) won a substantial number of awards and went on to sell millions of copies. A sequel was inevitable and after a protracted development cycle (including the partial theft of the game's source code) Half-Life 2 appeared to much fanfare in November 2004. Since then, the game has sold more than 8.5 million copies, making it one of the biggest-selling games of recent years.

In the original Half-Life, junior physicist Gordon Freeman was present when an experiment with teleportation technology at the underground Black Mesa research facility in New Mexico went catastrophically wrong. Dimensional rifts to another world, Xen, were opened and hostile creatures poured through. Over the course of several days of non-stop combat, Freeman made his way across the Black Mesa installation, reversed the resonance cascade and briefly crossed to Xen to kill the Nihilanth, the alien entity who had noticed the catastrophe and sent its minions through to investigate. At the end of Half-Life Freeman was 'recruited' by the mysterious G-Man, who appeared to be a suit-wearing human with odd diction but was actually a being of tremendous power and unknown origin. He placed Freeman in stasis for the time when he would be needed again.

Half-Life 2 opens approximately ten years after the events of the first game. The G-Man awakens Freeman from stasis and informs him that the world is a very different place now. A disoriented Freeman is dumped on a train pulling into a station in an Eastern European city. The precise location of the city is never revealed, as whatever name it used to possess has been replaced by the terse designation, 'City 17'. Freeman learns that the resonance cascade at Black Mesa attracted the attention of a powerful alien race known as the Combine, who subsequently invaded the Earth and destroyed its military and governments in the Seven Hour War. The planet is now occupied, most of the population has been killed off and the surviving remnants are forced to work for the Combine. The Combine is draining the planet's oceans and it is hinted they are doing something to the atmosphere as well. Periodically the surviving civilians are taken away to be transformed into a cybernetic slave labour force or into cybernetically-enhanced soldiers utterly loyal to the Combine. Freeman also learns that his former boss, Black Mesa Administrator Wallace Breen, is now running the planet on behalf of the Combine, suggesting he may have had foreknowledge of what was to happen.

This information takes a little while to filter through, as the first section of the game sees a confused Gordon making his way through City 17, aided by his old comrade Barney Calhoun (the player's character from Blue Shift) and the other rebels, initially on foot and then by hovercraft. This section of the game eschews exposition in favour of action, with large-scale gun battles with Combine police forces and a genuinely exciting chase sequence through the sewers and along the river with airborne Combine forces in hot pursuit. Upon reaching the rebel hideout at Black Mesa East Freeman is given an experimental 'gravity gun' but is cut off from his allies by a Combine attack, and has to make his way through the town of Ravenholm which has been infested by aliens from Xen, such as the 'headcrabs' who turn ordinary humans into zombie-like automatons. The shift of tone from traditional action game to a Resident Evil-style survival horror is expertly pulled off. The second section of the game opens with Freeman having to drive along Highway 17 to reach the Combine's prison at Nova Prospekt in order to rescue an important Resistance scientist, Eli Vance. At this stage Freeman is joined by Eli's daughter, Alyx Vance, who proves an invaluable ally. Events at Nova Prospekt trigger the uprising of the human population against the Combine, and the last section of the game sees Gordon and Alyx taking part in full-scale street battles with more heavily-armed Combine forces and their powerful 'Strider' vehicles in an attempt to storm the Combine Citadel and destroy their base of operations.

Half-Life 2 is a tightly-scripted first-person shooter. Those who have gotten used to the freedom afforded the genre in Far Cry and Far Cry 2 (or to a lesser extent Crysis) may be taken aback at how linear Half-Life 2 is. In the original game the linearity of the game was rationalised by the setting, an underground base made up of offices, corridors, silos, factories and military checkpoints. However, in environments such as city streets and open stretches of highway, Half-Life 2's linearity is far more noticeable with only one direction to proceed in at any one time. In an age where FPS games seem intent on forging new ground in giving choice and options to the player, Half-Life 2's lack of freedom feels pretty dated. Once you get used to it, the strengths gained from choosing this route become more apparent, with spectacular set-piece action sequences, thrilling battles and even some nice moments of characterisation. Whilst you rarely spend time with NPCs other than Alyx, the animation, direction and voice acting of characters such as Barney, Eli, Dr. Kleiner and Dr. Mossman are all top-notch. The atmosphere of the game is also fantastic, with the excellent art direction and minimalist music providing a pervading sense of wrongness that this isn't how the world should be and it may all be Freeman's fault. At around 12 hours in length, Half-Life 2 is pretty long by the standards of most modern FPS games (such as Call of Duty 4, which barely clocks in at half that, or FEAR which comes in a good two hours shorter). Also, whilst the game looked extremely impressive on release its PC system requirements were modest, and most modern computers can run the game at full detail without breaking a sweat.

Whilst the pluses are all significant, and give the game its classic status, there are a couple of additional problems which come from the linearity of the title. Because there is only one route through the game and one possible ending, its replayability is severely limited. It's unusual for a player to find every side-room, explore every roadside building or locate every weapons cache on a first run-through of the game, so it's definitely worth playing through a couple of times but you simply don't have anywhere near the variety of say the original Far Cry, where the sheer openness of the levels means there are often a half-dozen or more routes through each stage of the game. A second issue is that both enemy and ally AI (Alyx being an honourable exception) is a bit lacking at times and worryingly comes across as less inventive than the much older original game, although still a step ahead of many contemporary games. A further issue is that the game ends (deliberately) very abruptly, literally in mid-sentence, so you may wish to have the continuation, Half-Life 2: Episode One, ready to go once you have finished this game.

Niggles aside, Half-Life 2 is a classic and gripping action game which is well-worth playing. The atmosphere is terrific, the combat visceral, the weapons inventive (particularly the gravity gun) and the game immersive, once you get used to its limitations.

Half-Life 2 (****½) is no longer available as a solo game in the UK, but only as part of The Orange Box, alongside Episode One, Episode Two, Team Fortress 2 and the spectacular Portal. This package, available for the PC, X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3, is well-recommended. The game is still available as a solo PC game in the USA, and also as part of The Orange Box (PC, 360, PS3).

Friday 23 January 2009

Supertoys Last All Summer Long by Brian W. Aldiss

Way back in the mid-1970s director Stanley Kubrick was looking for a new project and ran across Brian Aldiss' short story, 'Supertoys Last All Summer Long', in which a childless couple create their own android son, who tries to understand if he is real or not. Kubrick was moved by the story and started trying to mould it into a film with Aldiss' help. Their work on the project went on for more than a decade (including the full gestation periods for Kubrick's movies The Shining and Full Metal Jacket) before Aldiss eventually left, exhausted by Kubrick's demanding work schedule and his insistence on drawing parallels to Pinocchio that Aldiss had never intended. Kubrick died in 1999 and Stephen Spielberg picked up the project, released it as the moderately successful A.I. in 2001. Aldiss sold several additional ideas to Spielberg which made it into the movie, and expanded these ideas into two sequels to the original short story.

The short story collection Supertoys Last All Summer Long and Other Tales of Future Time was released in 2001 to tie in with the film's release. As well as the original 1969 short story, it features the two sequels: 'Supertoys When Winter Comes' and 'Supertoys in Other Seasons'. These very short stories (each is 2,000 words or less) depict the story of David, an android who is created for a childless couple, but whose quest for self-identity proves problematic and he eventually leaves to wander the city. These stories are masterfully economical, transmitting much of the same story and concepts as the movie with Spielberg's sugar-coated schmaltz and Kubrick's worrying Blue Fairy fixation removed in a very small number of pages. You can read all three in considerably less than a single lunch break, as compared to the movie's sometimes bum-numbing two-hour running time.

Obviously, 6,000 words do not make a full collection, so an additional sixteen stories are included. They are united by the themes of dislocation and loneliness, which are approached from different angles. Many of the stories are ambiguous and few have any solid resolution. Aldiss' goal here is to raise issues and questions and see what the reader makes of them, not provide pat answers. Interestingly many of the stories are prototypes or condensed versions of other stories he has written: the lengthy seasonal cycle of 'Apogee Again' feels like Aldiss' epic Helliconia Trilogy on extreme fast-forward, whilst 'A Whiter Mars' is a direct tie-in to his stand-alone SF novel, White Mars. Some of the stories are obvious - 'III' is a simple commentary on humanity's fixation of exploiting natural resources, whilst 'Dark Society's twist ending will likely be spotted by experienced genre readers but remains haunting nonetheless - but others are more inventive, such as the Lord of Light-esque 'Becoming the Full Butterfly' and the judgmental 'Galaxy Zee'.

This is a fine collection of stories reflecting Aldiss' impressive writing range. There is a feeling of distance and coldness in many of the works - possibly an attraction for the likewise non-sentimental Kubrick (Blue Fairy obsession aside) - which may be offputting for some, but overall this is an intelligent and thought-provoking book and well worth seeking out.

Supertoys Last All Summer Long (***½) is published in the UK by Orbit (out of print but copies seem available on Amazon) and by St. Martin's Griffin in the USA.

The Forbidden Planet Multi-Author Event

I travelled up to London tonight for a multi-author signing event at Forbidden Planet, also known as the 'mingle' as the authors brushed shoulders with the great unwashed without the benefit of a desk to cower behind. The evening was the idea of author David Devereux, whose new book Eagle Rising (pimped by Graeme here) was being launched and he decided to invite along a bunch of other authors to turn it into a bit of a mini-SF con in the bowels of FP.

The other attending authors were the omnipresent Joe Abercrombie (who heroically strove to sell people copies of the 'new editions' of The First Law - where the typeface and font on the front cover are slightly different), Jaine Fenn, Suzanne McLeod, Mark Chadbourn, Alex Bell, Jon Courtney Grimwood, Steven Savile, Tom Lloyd and James Swallow. Also present, but only in a supporting capacity, were Chris Wooding and the ultra-popular Robert Rankin. Many books were bought, more were signed and much fun was had by all.

No scoops from the publishers this time. I did hear from Gollancz's dark lord Simon Spanton that Ian McDonald's The Dervish House (which will do for Turkey what River of Gods did for India and Brasyl did for, erm, Brazil) is now a 2010 release rather than a late 2009 one, but that's about it for insider info.

I did pick up a lot of books at the event and correspondingly hope to get my reading back in gear shortly as it's been taking a battering in favour of DVDs and computer games in the post-Christmas period.

EDIT: A slight amendment to reflect the fact that the evening was arranged by David and Danie from Forbidden Planet, and a most enjoyable evening it was as well.

Tuesday 20 January 2009


As a British SF&F fan living less than an hour from central London on the train, it is unsurprising that I make relatively frequent trips to the capital to see friends, to visit the city's plethora of comic shops and SF stores (Forbidden Planet most frequently, obviously), attend author signings and so on. One of the frustrating things about London is that despite being the biggest city in the country, one of the biggest and most important cities in the world and so forth, finding a decent place to eat can be tricky. The number of alleged 'restaurants' whose fare is little better than a Hungry Horse pub meal (but they charge you twice as much) is quite surprising.

For that reason, I found this blog, dedicated to finding great places to eat in London, to be quite interesting, and vow to put its recommendations to the test soon :-)

Friday 16 January 2009

New Interview with R. Scott Bakker

Pat's Fantasy Hotlist has just posted an interview carried out with fantasy author R. Scott Bakker by myself, Pat and Larry from OF Blog of the Fallen to accompany the release of his new novel, The Judging Eye, the first novel in The Aspect-Emperor sub-series and the fourth in The Second Apocalypse over-series.

As usual, Scott proved forthcoming in his in-depth answers to our questions. One of the most encouraging notes was that after finishing his second stand-alone thriller, Disciple of the Dog, he will switch to working full-time on The Second Apocalypse until it is completed, with The Judging Eye's sequel The White-Luck Warrior to hopefully follow next year.

The Cimmerian on A Dance with Dragons

The award-nominated scholarly website 'The Cimmerian' has run an article on A Song of Ice and Fire and in particular analysed the current long wait for the fifth volume, A Dance with Dragons, here. The article is reasonably interesting, touching on the current flamewars sweeping various websites over the delays to the book and the shockwaves of fear sent through some of the more ill-informed corners of fandom by the death of Robert Jordan in late 2007. I was rather amused to seem them picking up on an Amazon post I made some considerable time ago about how J.R.R. Tolkien would have fared whilst working on Lord of the Rings in the Internet age. Others later pointed out many flaws in my comparison (not least that some of the target audience for the book would have been more worried about, for example, storming Monte Cassino than waiting for a sequel to a book they read as a kid ten years earlier) which led me to believe I should have cited The Silmarillion instead, but there you go. Anyway, I may have to start introducing myself as "A. Whitehead of the storied legionary city Colchester," were it not for reasons of brevity.

On a somewhat related note, the Winter is Coming blog has issued a general update on the status of production on the Game of Thrones TV series. Unfortunately, we are now in the doldrums of news with pre-production under way but no solid progress to report, since we are still many months from shooting and likely several months from casting even beginning. However, we can hopefully expect confirmation of a shooting and production location in the coming days or weeks.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Two great actors pass away

Today we lost two great actors who had iconic SF&F roles in their careers.

Patrick McGoohan is best-known for his portrayal of 'Number Six' in the iconic 1960s TV series The Prisoner, which he also wrote and produced. The series was supposed to be a mystery about a former secret agent forcibly 'retired' to a facility called 'The Village', but soon became steeped in metaphor and confusing artistic imagery. The final episode is still hailed as one of the most surreal hours of television ever. A remake of the series featuring James Caviezel and Ian McKellan will air later this year. In addition to this he had many additional popular roles, such as that of secret agent John Drake in Danger Man (sometimes believed to be the same character from The Prisoner, but never confirmed). He had a late-career resurgence following a memorable performance as King Edward the Longshanks in the 1995 Mel Gibson movie Braveheart. He passed away today at the age of 80.

Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban had an long and successful career beginning in 1943 and continuing up until his death. Despite an immense and varied filmography featuring such notable roles as the villain in the first Naked Gun movie and the memorable Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island, he will forever be linked to the role of Khan Noonian Singh, Captain James T. Kirk's greatest nemesis in Star Trek. He originally played the role in the first season episode Space Seed in 1966, before reprising it memorably for the 1982 movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He passed away today at the age of 88.

Both were excellent actors who achieved both popular and cult acclaim with their iconic SF roles. Both will be sorely missed.

Battlestar Galactica Returns for Last Episodes

The final ten episodes of Battlestar Galactica start airing on the Sci-Fi Channel in the USA on Friday and on Sky One in the UK from next Tuesday. As is to be expected, preview DVDs of the first couple of episodes have been sent out and spoilers have started to emerge. For the sake of a few days, I strongly advise avoiding not just the usual spoiler websites (the Patriot Resource, the spoiler pages on Television Without Pity etc) but also the Sci-Fi Channel forums, where so far two monumental spoilers (including THAT one) have slipped out already.

After all, you wouldn't want someone randomly posting an image or spoiler to accidentally wreck your viewing pleasure would you?


Tuesday 13 January 2009

Alex Bell launches new website

Alex Bell, the distressingly young and talented author of The Ninth Circle and the forthcoming Jasmyn, has set up a new website at this location. Interestingly, she appears to be taking self-promotion lessons from the shy and retiring Joe Abercrombie and it must be said, what better role model can there be*?

As linked by Graeme at the Fantasy Book Review, a plethora of young, up 'n' coming fantasy authors including Alex, Joe, David Devereux, Tom Lloyd, Mark Chadbourn, Jon Courtney Grimwood, Suzanne McLeod, Steven Savile and James Swallow will be carrying out a signing at Forbidden Planet in London at 5pm on January 22nd, which it looks like I may be attending, so it will be good to see people there!

* Note: not a rhetorical question. Answers not to exceed 25 suggestions. 'Darth Sidious' is an acceptable answer.

Wertzone Classics: Rome: Season 1

Four hundred years ago Lucius Junius Brutus killed the last of the tyrannical Kings of Rome and founded the Roman Republic. Rome's power and might, under the rulership of the Senate, has grown to encompass most of the Mediterranean and its legions hold sway from the Atlantic to the Black Sea and beyond. In 52 BC Rome's most famous general is Gaius Julius Caesar, who in the course of a bloody eight-year campaign has subdued the tribes of Gaul, finally defeating the Gaulish king Vercingetorix at the epic Battle of Alesia. Caesar's returning emissaries and troops have brought much loot from the newly-subdued province back to Rome and his popularity with the people is at an all-time high, to the disquiet of his former ally and friend Pompey Magnus, the head of the Senate. With Caesar determined to use his hard-won power and influence to enact desperately-needed reforms in Rome and Pompey resolved to stand against him, the scene is set for a bloody civil war.

Meanwhile, two of Caesar's soldiers are set on a path that will lead them to greatness. Centurion Lucius Vorenus and legionary Titus Pullo rescue Caesar's grand-nephew Octavian from certain death and recover Caesar's stolen standard. Their names become known and Pullo finds Octavian to be a powerful ally, whilst Vorenus is drawn into the orbit of Caesar and his ruthless lieutenant, Mark Antony, against his own moral judgement.

Rome was a co-production between HBO and the BBC, filmed on location in Italy on an immense open-air set that cost a staggering sum of money to build and was subsequently used by other productions, such as documentaries and an episode of Doctor Who. As a cable production, Rome was free of many of the restraints traditionally placed on American TV drama and featured scenes of violence and explicit sex that some audiences found unpalatable, and resulted in a lot of tabloid coverage, whilst the series' exemplary writing and stunning acting were roundly ignored.

The show is epic, with a complex, multi-stranded narrative following multiple characters across several years of tumultuous history. The political struggle for control of Rome is shadowed by the rise and fall of Vorenus and Pullo's lives among the soldiers and the lower classes. Their viewpoint on events is occasionally reminiscent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (if they'd been badass Romans and hadn't died), and provides an interesting viewpoint on the narrative. At the same time the story follows the fierce and building rivalry between Caesar's niece, Atia of the Julii, and his former lover, Servilia of the Junii, over who shall have influence in the new Rome. Servilia's love for Caesar is complicated by the fact that her son, Brutus (a direct descendant of the original Brutus who founded the Republic), is aligned politically against him. An apparently minor subplot follows the education and maturing of Caesar's nephew Octavian, whose intelligent, canny mind and innate grasp of politics is limited by a lack of charisma or reliable friends.

Rome is built around the central figure of Caesar, played with significant gravitas and weight by Ciaran Hinds. Remarkably, the show does not seek to humanise Caesar too much. As in history, his motives are not always clear and his tendency to keep even his closest allies in the dark as to his intentions means he is a somewhat distant figure, even when he has lots of screen time. Hinds delivers an exceptional performance, ably backed up by James Purefoy as Mark Antony. Although Antony doesn't truly shine until the second season, Purefoy channels Pure 100% Magnificent Bastard in his role and pulls it off remarkably well. It is also impossible to find too many superlatives for Polly Walker's performance as Atia, which is nothing short of amazing as the viewer goes from hate to admiration to sympathy, sometimes in the course of a single scene. Lindsay Duncan's more stately, reserved and far colder Servilia is also a triumph and scenes with the two women being polite and correct with one another whilst communicating their mutual loathing and hatred with just a tone of voice or well-timed look are riveting. Kenneth Cranham also excels as Pompey, whom a lesser drama would have painted as a simple villain opposed to the 'good guy' Caesar. Cranham makes Pompey an honourable, sympathetic and complex figure.

However, the series lives or dies by the performances of Kevin McKidd as the honourable, stalwart Lucius Vorenus and Ray Stevenson as the headstrong, passionate Titus Pullo, who are our anchors and eyes throughout the narrative. Both actors are excellent, bringing their characters to life vividly and engaging the audience's sympathy even when they do terrible things. In fact, one of the most underrated accomplishments of Rome is its depiction of a time when morality was very different to now. Many of the major characters murder or betray others for the most trifling of reasons, where the consequences, if any, are more a product story requirements than the legal system. Yet the characters remain compelling and watchable.

The are very few criticisms to be made of the first season of Rome (*****). History is sometimes condensed or dramatised for the purposes of clarity, and the sex and violence may be offputting to some, but the writing, acting, production values and pacing of events is superb. The story is riveting, even when it's ending (the first season ends on the Ides of March, 44 BC) is known in advance. The first season is available on DVD both by itself (UK, USA) and as part of the Complete Rome box set (UK, USA).

At least one of the producers of Rome is in contention to work on the forthcoming HBO version of A Game of Thrones, which is most welcome news. If HBO are even half as successful with that adaption as they were with Rome, it will be an excellent series.