Sunday 31 May 2009

Cloud Warrior by Patrick Tilley

AD 2989. Nine hundred and seventy-four years ago, the Old Time ended in the War of a Thousand Suns. The cities of the United States were seared from the face of the Earth in a nuclear holocaust unleashed by the evil 'Mutes', malformed immigrants whose only desire was to destroy all that was beautiful and good about this great country. Or at least, that's what the historical databanks of the super-computer COLUMBUS say, anyway.

The Amtrak Federation: a network of underground cities and overland way-stations that grew out of a few bunkers where the top-ranking politicians and generals of the United States rode out a thermonuclear war. Forced to abandon the surface world due to radiation, the descendants of the survivors dug out a vast subterranean, high-tech civilisation where everyone knows their place and does their bit to help society survive, whilst the wise and just First Family rules over everything. Once radiation levels had dropped to a relatively safe level, the Federation emerged to retake the surface world. Unfortunately, they found that the Mutes had prospered and multiplied to truly frightening numbers in the intervening centuries. The Federation's response is to build enormous 600-foot-long wagon-trains and send them into Mute territory to begin the process of conquest and purification. With the Southern Mutes cowed, the Federation dispatches one of its most decorated trains, the Lady from Louisiana, and its air wing deep into the heart of the territory of the northern Mutes, or the Plainfolk as they call themselves. But the Plainfolk are a hardier breed with unusual weapons at their command, and in the epic Battle of the Now and Then River the clan M'Call drives off the Lady and takes one of its pilots captive.

For Steve Brickman, captivity amongst the Mutes is a terrifying prospect, but as he plots his escape he learns from his captors a radically different version of history and begins to question the very foundations of the society he was born into.

The Amtrak Wars is Welsh author Patrick Tilley's grand SF adventure series, originally published in six volumes throughout the 1980s. It is a cross-genre story, incorporating elements of post-apocalyptic SF fiction with the Western and epic fantasy (with North America standing in for a Middle-earth clone as the landscape) and, in later books, Shogun-style historical fiction as well. There is also a strong, often darkly comical subversive and satirical streak as well, with the Amtrak Federation itself coming over as a fascist state which employs some of the rhetoric and traditions of the 20th Century United States. Tilley himself spent a lot of time in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s and appears to be something of an Americanphile (not just in the Wars but also in his excellent 1976 disaster novel Fade-Out), but his use here of many of the traditions and 'feel' of the US government and military in the hands of an unelected dictatorship is effectively disturbing. However, I gather that American readers got the impression that Tilley was taking the mickey instead, perhaps accounting for its low sales in the USA compared to its much greater success in the UK, Canada and Australia.

In the first book, it is fair to say that Tilley is still getting a feel for the story. His previous novels had been an SF-tinged disaster scenario called Fade-Out and a rather bizarre story about Jesus turning up in modern New York (Mission), so Cloud Warrior represented a rather unusual new direction. The tone of the writing here is less formal than in his earlier novels, and it has to be said that the prose jumps around in its remoteness from the reader (at one point directly addressing the reader in a rather jarring fourth-wall-breaking moment). Some scenes take place in the limited third person perspective that is now traditional in epic fantasy, but most adopt an omnipresent viewpoint which feels curiously old-fashioned (and this is a book that's 26 years old) but not ineffective.

It's a tribute to Tilley's vivid and well-conceived (if somewhat barmy) story, characters and setting that the book overcomes these problems and roars along like a greyhound on crack. The traditional modern fantasy approach of the author spending two hundred pages just clearing their throat has no truck here as we are whizzed through the Amtrak Federation's air force training programme, introduced a dozen protagonists in both the Mute and Tracker camps and machine-gunned with inventive concepts and ideas (although luckily most are revisited later under somewhat more relaxed circumstances) in less than a hundred pages. The book hangs on its characters and one of The Amtrak Wars' trademark concepts is that half of those characters are tools whom you want to spend a fair amount of time beating the hell out of, most notably Steve 'All-American Hero' Brickman, whose arrogance and pig-headedness makes him a hero that's hard to like. However, he is also only 17 and the result of a disturbing indoctrinated upbringing, and as the book progresses and you see the scales falling from his eyes (a bit), the reader warms to him a bit more. Amongst the other characters, Steve's Mute antithesis Cadillac is well-drawn but is also a bit of a plank (the contrast between these two characters' developmental arcs over the course of the series is extremely well-handled), with the most fascinating character in the book being Mr. Snow, the Mutes' chief wordsmith and summoner who fulfils the traditional mentor role, although his approach of thinking his would-be students are total morons is refreshing (Mr. Snow is the missing link between Gandalf and Abercrombie's Bayaz). Other characters such as the inevitable romantic interest Clearwater are a bit one-note in this first volume, whilst later, more important characters like Jodi Kazan and Steve's sister Roz barely get more than a few lines. There is also an intriguing mention of a group called the 'iron masters' and a typical cliffhanger ending, setting up the inevitable sequel, First Family.

In Cloud Warrior (***½) Tilley sets up an interesting and somewhat original (in combination, if not in original conception) world and story with well-drawn and often ambiguous characters and some fresh takes on old concepts (Tilley's handling of the tired prophecy motif is particularly nicely done). The writing is a bit all over the place, though never less than readable, but settles down in the later, stronger volumes. The novel is not currently in print but second-hand copies appear to be readily available in the UK and USA.

Friday 29 May 2009

Wertzone Classics: Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

St. Louis, 1857. Abner Marsh is the owner of the Fevre River Packet Company, running several steamboats up and down the upper Mississippi and its tributaries. But, during a particularly harsh winter, he loses all but one of his ships. In some financial difficulties, he encounters an unexpected saviour when a European, Joshua York, offers to bail him out and fund the construction of a grand new steamboat. Marsh's career and company is saved, and he is soon the captain of the Fevre Dream, the greatest side-wheeler to ever run the river. The ship begins its maiden voyage to New Orleans, but as the ship travels south, rumours begin to circulate about the unusual Mr. York, who takes his meals at midnight and sleeps through the day, and who takes a strange interest in the reports of unexplained deaths along the river banks.

UK Fantasy Masterworks covers, 2001 and 2008 editions

Meanwhile, in New Orleans a man named Sour Billy Tipton recruits slaves for his employer, a mysterious recluse named Damon Julian, who lives in an old, crumbling estate on a bayou south of the city. Julian has an odd reputation and people mutter about all the slaves who go onto his estate but never leave. It becomes clear that, to their 'people', Julian is a constant, ancient and immovable force, and York is a new saviour, come with a promise of liberation and freedom. Only one of them can prevail. But in this clash what will be the fate of the Fevre Dream, its crew and its captain?

Fevre Dream was originally published in 1982 and was a big hit for its author. It sold very well and attracted a great deal of praise, even a cover quote from the hard-to-please Harlan Ellison. The novel is a hybrid of Heart of Darkness, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the complete works of Byron, welded to Martin's gripping storytelling abilities, here at the height of their powers. In terms of completed works, it is GRRM's finest novel published to date (although in terms of incomplete ones, A Storm of Swords may be slightly stronger).

The genre here is horror, mixed in with a strong historical flavouring. The atmosphere of the novel is vivid and extremely rich, and after a few pages of reading about the steamboats on the Mississippi you'll be swatting aside imaginary flies and thinking about opening a window. GRRM strikes an impressive balance between the romantic vision and the harsh reality of a historical period here, as he does with 1960s bands in The Armageddon Rag and with medieval warfare in A Song of Ice and Fire. Yes, the steamboats on the river at dusk are a stirring and evocative sight, but there's also the slave trade and the dirty riverside towns where crime runs amok and the slowly building tensions that will explode in civil war just a few years later, all of which is well-depicted.

US mass-market edition from Bantam and limited edition from Subterrenean Press

GRRM is widely-regarded for his characterisation and here it is no different. From the bluff, fat and straightforward Abner Marsh to the driven, passionate Joshua York to the weaselly Billy Tipton (who may be GRRM's most pitiably hateful character ever) and the horrifyingly empty Damon Julian, he has populated this book with characters who stay with you long after the final page is turned. The plot is page-turningly compulsive and the pace furious, but still with enough pauses for breath to let the atmosphere sink in. And, as a horror story, it is genuinely horrific. No punches are pulled, there are no cop-outs and what victories there are come at a terrible price.

That said, like Huck Finn travelling downriver with Jim, Fevre Dream has at its core the notion of friendship and what lengths people will go to help one another, and this is worked through the narrative in a masterful manner culminating in a final chapter which may be GRRM's finest piece of writing to date.

Fevre Dream (*****) is a book I curse, for it has destroyed almost all other vampire fiction for me. Very little of it stands up to this volume (Ultraviolet, maybe Buffy before every other vampire on the show started getting a soul and going Twilight on us). But the price is worth it. This is a magnificent novel. It is available now in the UK from Gollancz (the current edition has a disappointingly bland new cover, but thankfully the superb one which previously adorned it is still in print) and in the USA from Bantam and also as a limited edition from Subterrenean Press, attractively illustrated by Justin Sweet.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Getting in touch with orc feelings

A short video where Jaine Fenn, Alex Bell, Suzanne McLeod, Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan and Alastair Reynolds discuss the differences in approach to writing fantasy:

Thanks to NethSpace for the find there.

Fallout 3: DLC Expansions 1-3

Fallout 3 was an enormous success for Bethesda when it was released last autumn, and Bethesda were quick to confirm they were working on DLC (downloadable content) for the game. Learning from the lukewarm response to DLC for their previous game, Oblivion (shelling out several pounds or dollars to get in-game 'horse armour' was a bit weak), Bethesda decided to make the DLC for Fallout 3 more ambitious, splitting the development team into three to quickly deliver three substantial expansions to the existing game in short order: Operation Anchorage, The Pitt and Broken Steel. This has since expanded to include two further expansions, Point Lookout and Mothership Zeta, which will be released in the coming months.

Operation Anchorage and The Pitt are 'plug-ins' to the existing game and can be played at any time, whether upon emerging from Vault 101 at Level 1 or having completed the original game at Level 20. Broken Steel is a direct sequel to Fallout 3, with new quests expanding the story past the end of the game. It also lifts the experience cap to Level 30. If you finished FO3 and want to carry on earning experience, it makes sense to install Broken Steel before tackling any of the DLC, which makes it a bit odd that they released Broken Steel as third expansion. The two expansions to come are also plug-ins. Assuming you don't do too much random exploring or ruin crawls, the five DLC expansions should just get you to Level 30.

Operation Anchorage (***) opens with a distress signal calling you deep into the Washington, DC ruins, where you find the base of the Brotherhood Outcasts. These individuals were found wandering around the landscape in the original game, but you now get their full story and learn they are trying to get into a vault equipped with some hardcore weaponry and high-level items. The only way to do this is to beat a VR simulation of Operation Anchorage, the US Army's retaking of Alaska after the Chinese invasion in 2077. If you volunteer to undergo the simulation, you enter the battlefield bereft of weapons and have to take the part of a US soldier fighting on the front lines. This is a combat-focused expansion with almost no roleplaying elements at all (save conversations with your commanding officer). Players who liked the VATS-fuelled combat of Fallout 3 will enjoy the battles, the new weapons and in particular the early access to Power Armour (doing Operation Anchorage at Level 1 is eye-opening, as you leave the vault with the best armour in the game). Those who want something more meaty and story-driven may be more disappointed.

The Pitt (***½) also starts with an SOS signal, this time calling you to a train tunnel at the northern edge of the map. Here you meet Wernher, an outcast from 'the Pitt', the enormous rebuilt steel mills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who asks your aid in freeing his people from slavery. You agree and have to go incognito as a slave in the Pitt (any NPC allies return to their home and can be re-hired upon your return to DC). Although illogical (at Level 20+ you could go through the Pitt, kill all the slavers and save everyone in about half an hour), being temporarily bereft of all your weapons and armour does reintroduce an element of challenge to the game, and the only weapon allowed to you, the Autoaxe (a mechanical axe with a spinning blade head), is one of the best melee weapons in the game. The Pitt is small, consisting of only a couple of outdoor areas linked by the steel mills and a dungeon-like area called the Scrapyard, but ingeniously designed with maximum use made of vertical space. The story is also solid, with a very morally ambigious climax. Unlike the Anchorage simulation, you can return to the Pitt any time after completing it, but there is very little reason to do so.

Broken Steel (****) is the main attraction of the DLCs and is the best of the three. Your character wakes up two weeks after the end of Fallout 3 (which you may recalled involved a massive water purification project, a face-off between the Brotherhood of Steel and the Enclave and the unleashing of a demented giant weapon of war) to find all-out war raging. The Brotherhood has pushed the Enclave back to the edge of the DC area, but momentum is faltering as the Enclave strike back with powerful new weapons. At the same time, the Brotherhood's attempts to use the Purifier to decontaminate the tidal basin of the Potomac are complicated by the fact that several self-serving groups in the Capital Wasteland are trying to cash in on the new, inexhaustible source of fresh, safe water. The player's job is to investigate these latter problems and put a stop to them, and help the Brotherhood see off the Enclave once and for all.

Broken Steel is an excellent addition to the game, with the raising of the level limit allowing your character to become more skilled and powerful and the addition of some impressive new weapons, such as the Tesla Coil, the only weapon in the game which can shoot down Enclave aircraft. There also seems a lot more to do, with some decent side-quests and a major new area (Edwards Air Force Base) to explore. Also, since Broken Steel takes place on the existing DC map, you can also finish off any random missions you were previously pursuing or explore any buildings you missed the first time around. Finally, unlike FO3 itself, Broken Steel ends with the game world still fully explorable, so you can carry on adventuring or hold out for the next DLC episodes as you please.

The Fallout 3 foray into DLC is mostly a success, adding a decent amount of content to the game for a reasonable price in a reasonable timescale (to have twelve hours or so of content added to the game within six months of its original release is highly impressive). There are some issues, however. Buying the expansions from Games for Windows Live is frustrating experience, notably because the expansions cost 800 points each but you can only buy points in batches of either 500 or 1,000. No matter which way you swing it, you're going to have points left over which you may never use, and thus wasted money. Holding out for the boxed copies is an option, but the fifth one, Mothership Zeta, will only be available online or in the Fallout 3 Game of the Year edition, which isn't due until October. PS3 players have also missed out, with Operation Anchorage not due until next month and the other four at irregular intervals after that. All three DLCs also had some bugs and download issues when they were first released, although these have all now been fixed.

Operation Anchorage, The Pitt and Broken Steel are available to download from Games for Windows for PC and X-Box 360 now, and will hit PS3's Sony Marketplace over the next few months. Boxed omnibus copies of Operation Anchorage/The Pitt and Broken Steel/Point Lookout will be released in the summer on all three formats. Point Lookout will be released on Games for Windows in late June and Mothership Zeta in August. According to strong rumours, Bethesda are not working on a large-scale Fallout 3 expansion and will instead be focusing on The Elder Scrolls V for 2010/2011 release, with Obsidian's Fallout: New Vegas (due in mid-2010) instead filling the gap.

Monday 25 May 2009

The Reef by Mark Charan Newton

When I read Nights of Villjamur a few weeks back, I noted that the book was being marketed as the author's debut. However, I had noticed Mark Newton's name on another book in my local Waterstones. Some research quickly revealed that Nights is actually the author's second novel. The first, The Reef, was published last year by small UK publisher Pendragon. Having enjoyed Nights, I decided to give it a whirl.

In the city of Escha, a scientist named Manolin is trapped in a difficult marriage with a demanding and paranoid wife. When his mentor and friend Santiago DeBrelt suggests an ocean trip to investigate distressing news from a scientist on the island of Arya, Manolin leaps at the chance and soon a disparate crew of researchers are on their way to the distant island. Meanwhile, in the city of Rhoam, a rumel woman named Jella is putting into operation a plan years in the making, a plan to avenge herself on Escha, the city which destroyed her life and that of her people. Her mission takes her and her companions to the coast, and to a ship bound for Arya...

The Reef is an intriguing novel. Although the events that unfold have potentially huge ramifications for the continent of Has-jahn and the rest of the world, it's largely a small-scale story focusing on the island of Arya and those who visit it. Whilst the novel is apparently about a mystery - who is behind a spate of murders on the island - it's actually much more of a character study, particularly looking at the dynamics of relationships and desire. The book succeeds admirably at both tasks, with the mystery unfolding satisfyingly and the book's comments on relationships interesting and thought-provoking. Manolin is a sympathetic but flawed protagonist, and his companions are also well-drawn, as are Jella's crew of terrorists (although I'd like to have learned more about the enigmatic and lethal Allocen). Whilst Newton's prose has improved since The Reef, it's still nicely different to a lot of fantasy books out there, with its poised manners and stylistic speech inflections reminiscent of Victorian fiction. The worldbuilding is also top-notch. As far as I can tell, The Reef is set on the same world as Nights of Villjamur (they share the non-human race of the rumel), but in a more distant location, maybe the other side of the world, since none of the locations in either book is mentioned in the other. The 'Dying Earth' feel Newton is looking for with this world of ancient, forgotten technology is again successfully achieved here.

The biggest drawback to the book is that the ending is somewhat abrupt. It feels like the plot is building to something quite big, and whilst the events of the end of the book are undeniably large in scale, they also feel a lot more perfunctory than they should. In particular, the meeting of the two sets of characters is brief and somewhat unsatisfying (although with a nice twist). That said, the final chapter is quite well-written and leaves the reader feeling somewhat uneasy.

The Reef (****) is a very solid and enjoyable fantasy which achieves the enviable task of not actually feeling like an overt fantasy despite the near-constant presence of nonhuman species and fantastical concepts. It is available now from Pendragon Press in the UK, but not as far as I can tell in the USA.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Wertzone Classics: Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

In the year 2000, an academic named Pierce Ratcliff is putting together a fresh history of Ash, a 15th Century female mercenary captain whom mainstream history has largely ignored, but whose exploits have been of interest to a small number of historians. In preparing this new history, Radcliffe undertakes a fresh translation of the original historical texts. As he translates each chapter and sends it to his editor, they discuss the intriguing historical oddities within each chapter: references to the 'Green Christ', the 'Visigoth Empire' and 'Carthage', which of course had been destroyed many centuries before that time. But as the translations continue, very strange things start happening in the real world as well...

UK one-volume trade paperback edition.

In 1476 the Lion Azure are one of the most famed and sought-after mercenary companies in Europe. Led by the female warrior Ash, they have become an elite force famed for getting out of tight spots and pulling off improbable victories. Contracted by the Holy Roman Empire to fight a war against Burgundy, Ash's leadership is threatened by a political attempt to marry her off to a high-ranking German nobleman, but this is put aside when a great threat arises: the armies of Carthage have swept into southern Europe in an invasion twenty years in the planning, crushing everything in their path.

Ash: A Secret History is an enormous book, both literally in its shelf-destroying size and in terms of its scope, which takes in two separate narratives unfolding in completely different styles and formats in two different time-periods. Ratcliff's story unfolds purely in reproduced emails between him, his editor and a couple of other correspondents, whilst Ash's story (allegedly the manuscript Ratcliff is translating) is in a more traditional prose style. As Ash's story unfolds, it starts off as an apparently purely historical account and then diverges from history as we know it. However, it cannot be dismissed merely as an alternate history, as Ratcliff and his editor share the reader's befuddlement as the differences between real history and the one described in the text become apparent, accompanied by some unusual archaeological discoveries in the present. This storytelling device is well-used throughout the book, and helps break up its gigantic length into much more manageable chunks.

Ash's story is very well-told. Rather than adopt an authentic-sounding 15th Century voice, Gentle instead tells the story if it had been translated into a modern style, complete with vast reams of modern swearing and the usage of modern military terminology. This seems to upset some readers, who find it jarring, but I found it enjoyable and it certainly adds to the readability of a complex and at times heavy-going novel. Whilst Gentle skimps on the language, the attitudes and mores of 15th Century Europe appear to be more authentic, with Ash having to prove her worthiness to every king, duke or general she meets. Gentle definitely doesn't hold back on the violence, though. Injuries are painfully described and Ash's childhood filled with abuse and pain is related matter-of-factly. Characterisation is strong throughout the novel, with Ash and her band of soldiers (Erikson could learn a bit from these books about how to distinguish soldiers from one another) and the various secondary characters very well-realised.

US four-volume paperback edition.

Mary Gentle handles all of these factors well, and manages to get across her story in convincing detail. This isn't strictly a historical novel, or an alternate history, or a fantasy, but it combines elements of all of these with hard science fiction to create something quite unusual. In fact, it's borderline genius, genre-bending and mixing elements in a manner that hasn't been pulled off so successfully before (John Grant tried to do something similar with his early 1990s duology of Albion and The World, but that was small-fry compared to Gentle's ambition here).

There are some issues which prevent me from giving this 'classic' status. It is too long. There are way too many staffing/strategy meetings with the characters sitting around talking about the plot rather than moving things on and this becomes especially notable in the last third of the novel. The first two sections moved quickly and with a good sense of pace, taking in dozens of different locations and characters. The latter third is mostly set in a single city under siege and the story becomes interminably dull at times, so much so that when the climax comes it's something of a surprise. I suspect some readers may feel sold a little short on the end of the 15th Century storyline, which is a bit perfunctory and obvious-in-hindsight. However, the 20th Century story, told in much less detail and with the reader only getting to know the characters through their emails and correspondence, is more interestingly done and its conclusion is very effective, a good example of how less can sometimes be more.

Ash: A Secret History (****½) is an immense, epic story of science, history, love, war and family spanning centuries and realities, but without losing its essentially human heart in the well-drawn characters. A superior work of speculative fiction, I'm surprised it's not mentioned more often in modern discussions of the genre. The book is available from Gollancz in the UK in its one-volume format, but in the USA is published in four volumes: A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, The Wild Machines and Lost Burgundy. Gentle's later Ilario duology (The Lion's Eye and The Stone Golem) is set in the same universe.

Friday 22 May 2009

Pat Rothfuss signing

Last night Patrick Rothfuss was in London to sign copies of The Name of the Wind at Forbidden Planet. I headed down there, met up with Graeme and we got our copies of the book signed. We hit on the idea of doing some photos. Graeme went for the serious look:

Not a publicity photograph for a new cop show coming this autumn. But maybe it should be?

Pat suggested that we do the 'funny' picture, which resulted in Traumatic Unexpected Blogger Molestation:

Not me being attacked by a young Brian Blessed.

That was an unforgettable experience. Anyway, post-signing we repaired to a nearby holstery where Pat held a Q&A and did some readings: a poem, one of his college humour columns (advice on relationships via the medium of monkeys) and a reading from The Wise Man's Fear, which was very good. Some interesting information came out of the signing - more Bast in Book 2 but not his full story, we meet some other races and cultures, and maybe only 8% of all the building Pat has done for the world will come out in the books - and Pat is a friendly guy who has a promising secondary career in stand-up if he gets bored of the whole novel thing.

"You want this, don't you?"

Pat also expanded on the reasons for the delay to the book, citing structural issues and the complications that arise when you've had 13 years to work on a book and are then asked to turn the second book in within one year, and can it be better please? There was some interesting stuff there on the writing process as well.

All-in-all, a good time was had. Thanks to Pat for coming along and the Gollancz and Forbidden Planet crews for arranging everything!

Wednesday 20 May 2009

A Game of Thrones blog

This blog has been set up by a new reader experiencing A Game of Thrones for the first time. It's well worth a look and fascinating to see someone else's reaction to this novel and how perceptive they are at picking up some of the things happening so far. Plus he's quite funny:

"Varys knows that Bran is in a coma and that Catelyn is in King’s Landing. Varys knows exactly when she arrived and where she is hiding. Varys knows why she carries a dagger and that it originally belonged to Tyrion. Varys knows what you are thinking before you do. Varys knows you know he knows. He knows you know he knows you know. Varys was on the grassy knoll with Amelia Earhart and Bigfoot, watching the final episode of Lost which explains everything. Varys knows when A Dance with Dragons will be released. Varys knows, he just knows."


There is another blog here charting the course of a re-read of the series. Very useful for those concerned they won't remember anything about the plot by the time A Dance with Dragons comes out.

In quasi-related news, Winter is Coming has had a bit of a make-over as more news starts coming in on the filming of the TV version of A Game of Thrones. Very nice.

I'm plowing through Ash and hope to finish it by the weekend. It's been a while since I last took this long on a book (albeit one the size of four normal-sized novels).

Monday 18 May 2009

Lostwatch 8: Season 5, Episodes 13-17

1977. The DHARMA Initiative is building its scientific stations on the mysterious Island and has an uneasy truce with the native 'Hostiles'. For three years security chief Jim LaFleur has kept the peace, but when some old friends arrive, his life is thrown into turmoil.

2007. Ajira Airways Flight 316 has made an emergency landing on the Island, returning Sun, Ben and a mysteriously-resurrected Locke to their sometimes home. As they set out on their own mission, it transpires that their fellow passengers are not all that they seem, and are looking for someone who can answer a very specific question...

The final act of Lost's fifth and penultimate season sees the narrative split between two times, with characters in the past striving to change history so the fateful crash of Oceanic 815 never happens and in the present, searching for answers to some of the Island's bigger mysteries. This splintered form of storytelling means that characters are kept separate from one another for many episodes in a row, but it is also necessary to move the story forward and into the show's final season.

Some Like It Hoth sees Lost easing off the gas pedal and relaxing a little to give us a lighter story about Hurley, Miles and Dr. Chang. We learn a lot more about Miles, always the most laidback and quietest of the 'freighties' introduced in Season 4, and actor Ken Leung gets a chance to shine after a lot of time spent as a supporting character. For all of its foreshadowing as a comedy episode - and Hurley gets the most harebrained but brilliant idea relating to the time travel shenanigans so far - there's actually an impressive amount of plot movement and building of the mythology of the series here, although not as much as in some recent episodes. It's a fun episode, although the show's obsession with 'daddy issues' is getting wearying.

The Variable is a sequel to Season 4's Hugo-nominated episode The Constant, which means it has a lot to live up to. We pick up on Faraday's story after his encounter with Desmond in the past in that episode (we also get flashbacks to earlier moments as well) and learn more about his relationship with his mother and how he got on the freighter at the start of Season 4. In the 1977 storyline, Faraday has learned something important and rushes to make contact with the Hostiles, dragging a reluctant Kate and a suddenly-enthused Jack along to help out. This episode tries to do a lot but overreaches, and its allegedly shocking conclusion is only made possible by having Faraday act very out-of-character. Some nice moments and a couple of big questions are answered, but this is a slightly disappointing episode.

Follow the Leader sees a switch of emphasis back to the Island in 2007 as Locke recruits the Others into his plans to confront Jacob and apparently find out what is really going on. Richard Alpert is featured heavily, as he is present in both timelines, and we get a few more hints to Richard's nature and origins. As usual, it's Michael Emerson who delivers the best performance, with the collapse of Ben's self-belief in the face of Locke's newly-enthused and ultra-confident leadership of the Others. Back in 1977 we get a brilliant comedy exchange between Hurley and Chang, but the 'torture' scenes feel a bit old hat and I am unconvinced by Jack's slightly psychopathic new plan to save the day by nuking the Island. Riiight...

The two-part finale, The Incident, certainly opens in an unexpected way with the biggest flashback to date, taking us back some 150 years to the day the Black Rock arrived on the Island. At this time the Island is home to only two men, one of whom is called Jacob. As the episode unfolds, we see through flashbacks that Jacob has had a hand in some of the formative events of many our familiar characters' lives, but simultaneously an uneasy question is raised: if Jacob could leave or at least project an image of himself off the Island, why was he living in that shack in the woods, begging Locke for help, back in Season 3?

The finale unfolds with the traditional Lost gunfights and explosions in the past storyline, whilst in the present Locke gives Ben a shocking mission. Events build through the two episodes, but it has to be said that the finale does not feel as jam-packed with events as the previous four. Instead there's an atmosphere of doom and 'wrongness' in the present-day storyline culminating in a truly jaw-dropping moment (again, Emerson is key in this scene) when everything you ever thought you knew about the show had to be re-assessed on the fly, and the show's central 'battle' that has been hinted at since Season 1 is seemingly, finally defined. Unfortunately, the 1977 story runs out of steam a good quarter-hour before the final moments of the episode, and some truly contrived and hackneyed plot devices are used to get characters to where the writers want them (the use of a length of chain is particularly grating). The final moments are effective, and leave Lost on its most demented cliffhanger ending to date. Since Season 6 is the final season of the show, this is the last big season cliffhanger and they wanted to go out on a note as bonkers as possible (and at the same time give an effective shout-out to the Season 1 finale), but it felt a little ineffective compared to previous cliffhangers.

Season 5 of Lost ended strongly, although towards the end of the season there was the feeling that the show was starting to stagger slightly under the weight of its mythology. The complexity of the plot has reached saturation point and the introduction of yet more characters and a possible new faction in the closing episodes felt unwarranted, but the finale did a good job of re-focusing the viewer on the question of what is really going on with this Island, what its purpose is and why various groups have been drawn to it over the centuries. This re-statement of the show's purpose will hopefully be followed through in the final season. It's actually rather bemusing to think there are only 17 hours of the show left, in which time a lot of questions need to be answered. The excellent pacing of Season 5 has left me confident that they can deliver these answers. I'm guessing we'll find out in less than a year.

513: Some Like It Hoth (****)
514: The Variable (***)
515: Follow the Leader (****)
516: The Incident, Part 1 (*****)
517: The Incident, Part 2 (****½)

Forthcoming: Season 6 (January-May 2010)

Saturday 16 May 2009

Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire: Season 1

With a title like that you can guess this isn't going to be a grim and serious drama series. Yes, it's time for laughs as Comedy Central and the BBC team up to rip into epic fantasy.

The Makonian Empire dominates three continents and its Emperor is the most powerful man in the world. Chancellor Dongalor, ruler of the province of Hessemeel, is his servant but his star has fallen as the province has suffered from an economic downturn (brought about by the 'whore-caravans' now preferring to steer clear of the province). Dongalor now plots to supplant the Emperor using a mystical weapon known the Eye of Gulga Grymna (which appears to be a magical medieval version of the Death Star's superlaser, able to destroy entire villages in an instant), assisted by his loyal minion Barnabas.

Meanwhile, an Empire-wide resistance movement has been brutally crushed and its leader, General Arcadius, is imprisoned in Hessemeel Castle. The rebels have scattered into small bands which carry on a guerrilla war. One such band is led by the handsome and somewhat egotistical Krod Mandoon and also consists of his pagan girlfriend Aneka, failed wizard Zezelryck and the pig-man Loquasto (who is technically Krod's slave, but Krod refuses to let Loquasto call him "Master," fearing it impacts negatively on his PR image). Mandoon mounts a sneak attack on the castle to free Arcadius, but Arcadius is killed in the process. He tells Krod that he is the 'Golden One' prophesied to lead the resistance to victory. Arcadius' boyfriend, Bruce, joins Krod's band as it sets out to stop Dongalor's plan whilst also dealing with internal divisions.

Krod Mandoon is a curious beast. It can have you laughing one minute and then cringing with embarrassment for the next five. Refreshingly, rather than just relying on the daftness of the fantasy genre for laughs, Mandoon plays the setting and backdrop reasonably straight and attempts to mine the humour from the characters and situations rather than the world itself. This is a good move as shows built on taking the mickey out of a silly premise tend not to work in the first place. Also, the cast in Mandoon is pretty good, with the actors all generally putting in a lot of effort and enthusiasm. In comedic terms the highlight of the show is the relationship between Dongalor (played by Little Britain's Matt Lucas) and Barnabas (Alex MacQueen), which comes off as a demented take on Jeeves and Wooster where Jeeves is somewhat bumbling and incompetent but also a psychopath who tends to kill anyone who brings him bad news. Almost every scene with these two is great and it's a disappointment that their screentime is dramatically cut to just one or two scenes per episode in the latter half of the season. The Hungarian scenery, the impressive sets and the decent special effects are also all worthy of praise.

Unfortunately, massive problems lie elsewhere. Whilst the actors are all at least okay, Bruce (Marques Ray) is a gay caricature who would have been cliched twenty years ago, let alone today. There are a few signs of a more interesting character lurking in there (particularly in the final episode, when we find out how good a fighter he is), but the predictable lines and campy characterisation are painful to sit through. Loquasto also doesn't have very much to do either apart from the odd fart joke.

Sean Maguire is reasonably effective as Krod with some decent comic timing, and India de Beaufort is memorable as Aneka. Her character is a pagan with 'relaxed' views on sexuality and monogamy (to Krod's disquiet) and I was surprised to see this was treated with some (emphasis on the some) respect: the results of the situation are played for laughs but at no time is her character forced to betray her beliefs. Elsewhere, John Rhys-Davies crops up in a series of extended cameos as a powerful sorcerer on the side of good, and James Murray as Ralph (pronounced 'Raif') Longshaft is excellent as the "Hail fellow, well-met," new leader of the resistance.

So, a solid cast, some good performances and some decent characterisation are all there, but where the production starts to fall apart is the script. It's interesting and possibly telling to note that some of the Dongalor-Barnabas exchanges were ad-libbed or altered on set by the actors, because elsewhere the quality is completely all over the place. The idea of a 'too friendly' cyclops is funny but is then excessively overused (a great throwaway gag turned into a tedious ten-minute scene based just on sexual innuendo). Some interesting script exchanges on paganism are then followed by a lame succubi sequence that goes exactly how you imagine it would. Worst of all is the dog scene in the finale, which seems to have been ripped from a brief dialogue exchange in a Red Dwarf episode from twenty years ago. There's some things you don't want to see on screen, you know?

After assessing the pros and cons, I have to judge Krod Mandoon's first season (**) a not-disastrous but still disappointing failure. There's some excellent potential in there and it's better and funnier than a lot of mainstream sitcoms, but at the same time it misses the mark more often than it hits it, and it wastes its greatest comedic asset - Lucas and MacQueen - in the latter three episodes (otherwise it would have gotten an extra half-star). It is possible that the series will improve in a second season if it can move beyond the obvious gags and start doing something more interesting.

Krod Mandoon's first season is now complete in the USA and will air in the UK in June.

Friday 15 May 2009


I am currently reading Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History, which is an absolute monster of a book. At 1,100 pages of fairly small print in trade paperback, it's around the fourth-longest book I've ever read (after To Green Angel Tower, War and Peace and The Naked God) and it's fairly dense in places. It's also borderline genius, which is why I'm sticking with it. Approaching the two-thirds mark but it'll still be a good few days before I'm in a position to review it.

I'm still trying to digest the Lost season finale. That was completely crazy stuff and I need to rewatch it to try and make sense of it. Review to follow in a few days.

Pat Rothfuss will be doing a signing for The Name of the Wind in London at Forbidden Planet next Thursday and I'll probably attend. Looks like it could be fun.

Dan Simmons rips into Dan Brown with typical eloquence here. An interesting read.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Wheel of Time US Cover Art revealed

When I reposted the 'leaked' cover art a couple of months back, the result was a flurry of denunciations from the co-author, editor and publishers claiming it wasn't the final art and the real American cover art for The Gathering Storm would be far superior.

Well, not so much:

Rand rallies the troops for the Last Battle with a rousing rendition of Queen's 'We Will Rock You'.

And yes, that is the real one. It's on Dragonmount and it's on Brandon's blog. As you can see, they made sweeping changes to the cover art consisting of, erm, turning Rand around 180 degrees. He's still doing a weird jig, his legs are still bending in a manner not entirely human and there's still some random bar wench and a generic house is in the background (though less Addms Family-esque now). If this is the most exciting scene they could find to paint in the book, we should start worrying right now (although Book 11, which featured about five battle sequences, did have a picture of a strategy conference on the front cover, so who knows?).

The working cover. Rand rallies the troops for the Last Battle by getting sozzled and busting some moves.

The book will be gracing US shelves at the start of November and will be released in the UK around the same time (or a few days earlier, if Amazon are to be believed).

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Patrick Rothfuss has completed The Wise Man's Fear

Pat Rothfuss has finished the first draft of The Wise Man's Fear, the sequel to his mega-selling debut, The Name of the Wind. The process of editing and rewriting will now begin, but at last the process of getting the book onto the shelves is now underway. My guess is we will see the book on shelves within the year, possibly somewhat less than that.

No word on Scott Lynch's progress on The Republic of Thieves yet.

EDIT: I'm actually hearing there may be good news in a few weeks about Lynch as well, but I suspect it will mean scrubbing the book off your 2009 calendars.

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay optioned as a movie.

Locus Online is reporting that Guy Gavriel Kay's 2007 novel Ysabel has been optioned as a movie.

Ysabel is Kay's latest novel and won the World Fantasy Award, although other reviews have been mixed. Although Ysabel is the first Kay novel to be mostly set in the modern world, it is also a semi-sequel to one of his earlier books, and is set in the shared multiverse that all his books to date have been set in.

This is not the first Kay book to be optioned. The Lions of Al-Rassan has been stuck in development hell for the last decade, despite at one point having respected director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond) attached to it. Ysabel, as a much smaller-scale story not featuring any major battles, should be easier to get on screen.

Thanks to Aidan for the heads-up!

Tuesday 12 May 2009

A Song of Ice and Fire official computer game announced

The computer game rights to A Song of Ice and Fire have been sold to French developers Cyanide, it was announced today.

Cyanide, an independent video game studio, and George R. R. Martin today announced their partnership to create the first-ever video games inspired by the author’s award-winning, international bestselling ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ fantasy series. Under the terms of the agreement, Cyanide has obtained the exclusive rights to develop ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ video
games for next-generation consoles and PC, and in collaboration with George R.R Martin, development has begun.

"We are all huge fans of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, so it is a true honour for our teams to be entrusted with creating the first video games inspired by this masterpiece", stated Patrick Pligersdorffer, Managing Director of Cyanide. "The twists and turns of the plot will allow us to deliver an experience which can be enjoyed by both long-time fans as well as gamers new to the series." Published most notably by Bantam Books in North America and Voyager Books in the United Kingdom, the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ novels have been translated into more than twenty languages (including Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian) and have been nominated for numerous prizes. Set in a world where nothing is simply black and white, the rich web of characters makes it an ideal background for numerous genres of video games. ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ has already been adapted into a card game and a board game. More recently, HBO acquired the rights with the intent of turning the novels into a television series.

Cyanide are a relatively small-scale developer who are best-known for the well-received Chaos League and Blood Bowl fantasy sports titles (the latter a Warhammer tie-in game).

This news is both welcome and of minor concern. On the welcome side, fantasy books aren't often signed up for being turned into computer games and they have a surprisingly good hit rate. The three games based on the Discworld novels were all pretty good adventure titles, the Betrayal at Krondor RPG (based on Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar novels) was excellent and even the 1999 Wheel of Time game was reasonable, considering the difficult circumstances it was made under.

On the minor concern side of things, and I stress the minor, Cyanide have never had a project of this scale to handle before, and given that both Relic and BioWare (the premier PC real-time strategy and RPG developers respectively) had cited the books as influences recently, there was some reason to hope that a major studio with a large budget would be interested in the project. However, smaller studios have a certain amount of creative freedom that larger, more financially pressured ones do not, and small or new studios have certainly come from nowhere to produce an amazing game before. The Creative Assembly, for example, were only known for porting EA sports games before developing Shogun: Total War, which came out of nowhere to revolutionise the strategy game genre in 2000.

At this time, no further information is available on the title, such as what the game's genre will be or the expected development schedule. For a modern multiformat game, unless they've already been working on it for some time before the announcement was made, it is likely to be at least a 1.5-3 year development cycle, depending on genre.

Monday 11 May 2009

The Station Agent

I picked up this movie on DVD a while ago as it had good reviews and was very cheap (it's currently about £4 on, but I'd never gotten round to watching it. When I heard that its director, Tom McCarthy, and one of its stars, Peter Dinklage, had been signed up for A Game of Thrones' pilot episode, it seemed like a good time to give it a go.

The plot is reasonably straightforward. Dinklage plays Fin, a young man suffering from dwarfism. Tired of having people comment on his height, Fin is a withdrawn man who seeks solace in his hobby of studying trains and his job working in a model train shop with his friend Henry. When Henry dies unexpectedly, Fin inherits a piece of property, an old train depot in Newfoundland, New Jersey, and moves in, hoping to continue his life of solitude.

Fin soon finds himself uncomfortably drawn into the lives of several other people. Joe is a garrulous, friendly guy running the local ice cream van on behalf of his father, who is ill. A local woman, Olivia, almost accidentally runs Fin over and in her attempts to make amends they form an interesting friendship. A somewhat less-developed storyline sees Fin attract the attention of Emily, the local young librarian, who is having her own problems.

The Station Agent is a curious movie, which for most of its length seems to be heading down the 'heartwarming relationship drama' route before the director suddenly veers away from the threat of cliche city into a new and more interesting direction. It's a short movie (only 90 minutes) but it has a laidback pace, focusing on the characters, dialogue and their slowly building relationships in a well-developed manner. As well as Dinklage in an outstanding role, Patricia Clarkson as Olivia and Bobby Cannavale give excellent performances as Patricia and Joe, the former playing a badly damaged character and the latter being that slightly overbearing, slightly too friendly type of person I think most people have met at some point in their lives. Michelle Williams has a much slighter role as Emily but makes the most of her scenes.

The late-stage shift in the narrative is an interesting move. Without giving away spoilers, the way that McCarthy avoids corny resolutions to the character arcs and deftly subverts expectations of a neat ending is well-done. He doesn't go bonkers and kill everyone or turn one of the characters into a psychopath, but he also doesn't go down the totally corny route either. It's a thought-provoking way of concluding the film that works well, although it took me a while to get into its headspace.

The Station Agent (****) is a quiet, funny, entertaining and occasionally emotionally intense movie that is well worth a watch. As a piece of character drama, it is a rousing success. The movie is available now on DVD in the UK and USA.

Sunday 10 May 2009

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek is 43 years old this year, and like any long-running franchise from time to time it needs a reboot and reset, with fresh creative energy being introduced for a new generation of fans. In 1987 the concept and series was rejuvenated by moving the story a further 78 years into the future and introducing a new crew and a new ship. Star Trek: The Next Generation and its first spin-off, Deep Space Nine, were rousing successes, building on the foundations of the original but bringing plenty of fresh ideas and talent to the table. Unfortunately, audiences were soon bloated with Trek, and both the later Voyager and Enterprise series were beset by problems with the writers unable to break free of the cliches and hackneyed storytelling (although Enterprise was seeing signs of improvement when it was cancelled) that had grown up around the franchise. The movies were also running out of steam, with First Contact somehow screwing up the series' finest villains, Insurrection being Trek-by-the-numbers and Nemesis, despite plenty of good ideas, just being weak.

Now it's 2009 and there's been no fresh Trek on screen for five years. Enter J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias and Lost, recent director of Mission: Impossible III and producer of Cloverfield, with a mission to shake up and reboot Trek. Abrams' idea was to go back to the series roots with a new cast taking on the iconic roles of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty and Uhura and setting out on some new missions. It's a bold idea, unthinkable twenty years ago but now almost logical. Aware that the original Trek is still immensely popular, Abrams uses Leonard Nimoy as the 'older' Spock as a bridging mechanism: events in the familiar Trek/Next Generation timeline have compelled him to come back in time, but in doing so he has changed history and created a new, parallel timeline. It's a nice balancing act, which allows fans of the older series who don't care for this new iteration to continue digesting novels, comics and computer games set in the extant Trek universe, whilst new viewers aren't bogged down with a ton of continuity references to something that happened in an episode that aired in 1992 or something.

The question is, is it successful? And the answer to that is: sort of.

There is much to admire in Star Trek (2009). Critically, the casting is pretty damn good. Zachary Quinto is the younger Spock, with no trace of Heroes' Sylar in his performance. He has Nimoy's mannerisms down pat but doesn't feel like he's doing a slavish tribute or imitation. Even in scenes he shares with Nimoy, they look like the same person at different ages. It is almost uncanny. Chris Pine is less impressive as Kirk to start off with, but by the end has nailed that familiar mix of command authority and ego we know so well. Karl Urban is also excellent as McCoy, really nailing the role in a manner that some of his previous performances didn't really hint at. Zoe Saldana is also solid as Uhura, who has as much to do in this movie alone as Nichelle Nichols did in all six of the original ones. Anton Yelchin is a little too broadly comic as Chekov, John Cho disappears for large chunks of the movie as Sulu (despite a decent action sequence early on) and Simon Pegg hits a wrong note as Scotty. All the other characters are written reasonably closely to their original series portrayals in character and action, but Scotty isn't even close, instead being played for comic relief complete with a weird alien sidekick and a variable accent that's all over the place. Bruce Greenwood (perhaps best-known for his superlative portrayal of JFK in Thirteen Days) is also excellent as Captain Pike, the first commander of the Enterprise.

Eric Bana is less well-served in his role as the movie's villain, the Romulan commander Nero. Bana is a superb actor (probably never better than in Chopper, although he was the best thing in Troy by miles and was excellent in Munich) but here is badly served by limiting make-up, a nonsensical rationale, cheesy dialogue and very limited screen-time. The villain could have been played by anyone, frankly, as he's purely a plot device to get the crew together.

The film has an energy and verve that Trek hasn't really had before. This is good in that it keeps the action flowing and the pace never flags. This movie certainly cannot be called boring. However, it is also too loud and flashy for its own good. We never get a moment where events calm down and we can take a pause for breath. It actually feels like the writers were under orders not to let more than three minutes go past without jeopardy or action. This leads to some of the most insultingly contrived dramatic moments I've seen in a long time, such as the unnecessary water tube sequence and a totally bollocks moment involving a threatening creature stalking a character only to be eaten by a much bigger creature that then stalks the character instead that was ripped straight from the ocean scene in The Phantom Menace. When you're stealing from the Jar-Jar movie, something is wrong.

It's also a problem because Trek is not Star Wars. Trek's main selling point is that it's a more thoughtful, slightly more sensible approach to space opera than Star Wars and this has been forgotten in this movie, with the writers and director going for constant action, unnecessarily over-the-top CGI set-pieces, impossible-to-follow space battles and gaping plot holes that feel uncomfortably close to Revenge of the Sith at times. The science in this movie makes zero sense. Trek's always taken a relaxed attitude to this, despite its claims of having NASA advisors around, but they've never really gone as far as ignoring all pretence of logic and rationale as in this movie, at times even apparently forgetting about how something as basic as warp speed works (at one point the Enterprise apparently 'jumps' into a location in a manner more reminiscent of BSG or Babylon 5 than its own warp technology).

Also, the new Enterprise is one arse-ugly ship. Seriously, there needed to be some kind of line about how the change of the timeline resulted in the Enterprise now looking like a giant Tomy baby crib toy. I was wondering if it only looked lame as a picture and once you saw it moving it would work (as was the case with the Enterprise-D when that first appeared), but no, the new Enterprise is simply a bad design. There's no reason the Enterprise shouldn't look the same as in the original series or even the first six movies.

Back to the good stuff, there's some decent lines in there (Spock got a roaring audience laugh for the delivery of one iconic catchphrase), some good fights, there's a real sparkle between the crew-members and there's no doubt that the creators have put together something which has the potential to be something very special indeed. As a film taken on its own merits, Star Trek (***) is loud, brash, fast-paced, nonsensical, turn-your-brain-off entertainment, making for a decent movie but not necessarily very good Star Trek. The decision to go in an opposite direction to the tired last few movies and the later series is understandable, but in the process the slightly more philosophical and rooted-in-real-science approach of the series has been seriously diluted. With a more measured pace and some stronger writing, the inevitable sequel could be something much more interesting.

Wertzone Classics: Mafia

In 1930, Tommy Angelo is a cab driver working in the American city of Lost Heaven when he is 'asked' to help two gangsters, Sam and Paulie, escape from a rival Mafia hit squad. With the rivals now gunning for Tommy as well, he reluctantly accepts the offer of employment with Sam and Paulie's boss, Don Salieri, and begins a life of crime.

spans a period of eight years and chronicles how Tommy's life takes a dramatic upswing as he becomes a respected - and feared - member of the local community. Tommy enjoys the camaraderie of fighting alongside his fellow mobsters, which he likens to being a soldier in a war, but is also concerned when innocents are harmed in the course of their business. As the years pass, the city grows and changes, more advanced cars come out on the market and Tommy realises his soul is being eroded as the once-romantic vision he had of life as a Mafioso is replaced by the hard, cold reality of a life of brutality, blood and treachery.

Mafia was released in 2002 and dismissed by many as a Grand Theft Auto 3 clone, especially as the X-Box and PS2 ports subsequently released were pretty terrible. However, the PC version of the game remains one of the more underrated titles of the last decade. At first glance, Mafia does resemble the GTA titles: you control a character who goes around a well-realised city, gets into gunfights and is able to use transport such as cars, buses and trams to get around. However, Mafia is very different in both tone and structure. Mafia is much more serious. There are real consequences to running around and mowing civilians down with tommy guns, and the fact that you take injuries if the car crashes or flips over means that high-speed insane stunts are discouraged. The police are also much more on the ball, and will fine you for speeding or running red lights. Whilst you can 'jack' cars on the road, doing so is risky (the offended driver roaring off and dragging you under the wheels is a real danger) and it's not really a core part of the game. The overall idea is that as a member of the Mafia and on the surface a respectable guy you're supposed to be keeping a (relatively) low profile.

Structurally, the game is also different. In the GTA titles it's up to you when you do a mission and you can just drive around and cause random mayhem if you choose. Mafia is primarily mission-based and you move from one story-driven mission to the next with no break to go off and explore the city. As the game progresses, however, you unlock various stages of the 'free ride' mode which loads up as a separate game and allows you to go exploring by yourself if you wish. Completing the entire game opens up the 'free ride extreme' which is similar to the freeform GTA style of gaming, complete with doing various jobs for money.

These elements feel like possible sops by the developer to the publisher, who was perhaps keen to cash in on the "GTA-in-1930!" angle. The heart of the game lies in the story and the story is stellar. Anyone who's seen a Mafia movie or read a Mafia novel will likely predict most of the story turns before they happen, but the plot unfolds with verve, confidence and expert pacing, delivered by exceptional voice acting (fans of The Sopranos and The Wire will spot some familiar voices) and some strong writing. Mafia is, at heart, a study of violence and what turns good men into criminals. It avoids cliches - Tommy is inducted by steps into a life of violence but is never 'seduced' by it or has a "What have I become?" moment of corny realisation - and remains, even on a fourth or fifth replay, a compelling experience.

As with many games with very strong writing and acting, it does impact on the freedom of the player's choices. In particular, it can be a bit odd if Tommy's just been in a two-minute cut scene regretting the innocent people who were harmed in his last job and then he goes out and runs over two old ladies and crashes into a wall. This is a familiar problem with games and given that the alternative - turning the player into a psychopathic nutjob like Tommy Vercetti in Vice City - doesn't entirely work either, not one that's easy to solve. Probably the best thing is to ignore the oddities and get on with the game.

The graphics are still good today, although the somewhat stiff animation is a bit disconcerting ('proper' in-game 3D character animation didn't really take off until Half-Life 2, two and a half years later). At the time of release, however, the graphics were astonishing, literally light-years ahead of the contemporary GTA3 series of games. Whilst they're not as jaw-dropping today, they can now be run on modern PCs with everything switched up to maximum with no problem aside that the viewing distance isn't all that it could be, and buildings pop into existence a bit closer than they should. Sound is also strong, although the music and soundtrack are nowhere near as varied as those of the contemporary GTA games. The handling of vehicles is also excellent, with the cars feeling very solid and heavy, and when they get going they're not going to stop easily. The way new, faster cars are introduced periodically throughout the game and the city changes over time (buildings under construction in one mission are completed in another set three years later) is also well-handled.

On the minus side, there are a number of niggles which deny the game flawless status. The quantity of cut scenes in the game is very high, exceeding 400 pages of dialogue, and although it's excellently acted and well-written, having to skip through it once you've seen it once can be annoying. Also, the save system saves the game before the cut scenes, not after them, meaning that replaying missions can involve a lot of irritated hitting of the space bar at the start. And whilst the cops being more on the ball than their Liberty City/Vice City/San Andreas State counterparts is initially very impressive, there are times when you wish you could take off the speed-limiter and go roaring through the city at 120mph without worrying about hearing police sirens in the distance. Finally, the fourth mission involves you have to take part in a motor race which is insanely difficult. Seriously, I know people who've given up on the game in disgust at how tough this mission is. Luckily, the later patches introduce a difficulty meter for the level which makes it much simpler, so this is no longer such an issue.

Mafia (*****) is a very strong, compelling and even literate computer game which is more than just a meaningless exercise in violence and mayhem. It has some interesting and intelligent themes going on, but is also a highly playable action title. It is available now on the PC (UK, USA). The far inferior PS2 (UK, USA) and X-Box (UK, USA) ports are also available. A sequel, Mafia II, which picks up on the world in a new city with different characters ten years later, will be released on the PC, X-Box 360 and PS3 at the end of the year.

Friday 8 May 2009

Avatar: The Last Airbender and Lost win Peabodies

The Peabody Award is regarded as the most prestigious American award for television shows to be nominated for. In 2007 Battlestar Galactica won an award for its mixing of space opera with raising relevant political discussions and ideals.

Producer Damon Lindelof was informed of the award on 1 April and thought someone was playing a prank on him for several hours before realising it was the real deal.

This year SF got a bit of a double whammy. Lost won an award recognising its merits:

"Breezily mixing metaphysics, quantum physics, romance and cliffhanger action, the genre-bending series about a group of air-crash survivors on a mysterious island has rewritten the rules of television fiction."

Avatar: Officially as good as Battlestar Galactica. Unofficially, frankly, a bit better.

Whilst the animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender, which came to an end last year, was also recognised:

"Unusually complex characters and healthy respect for the consequences of warfare enhanced this American-made, anime-influenced martial-arts adventure."

More on the winners here.