Friday 30 July 2010

Antiphon by Ken Scholes

The Named Lands continue to suffer tumults in the aftermath of the rise of the Machtvolk and the birth of Rudolfo and Jin's son, who it is prophesied will save the world. Vlad's quest to unearth the true nature of the threat to the Named Lands leads him deep into the equatorial oceans and a startling discovery, whilst deep in the Churned Wastes Nebios discovers the path to his true destiny, and a fateful encounter with the enigmatic antiphon.

Antiphon is the third and middle volume of Ken Scholes' five-volume Psalms of Isaak series and suffers acutely from 'middle volume syndrome'. There's an enormous number of scenes where people sit around and talk about the plot or, rather more oddly, stand around and have lengthy internal monologues about the plot rather than getting on with business. There's also a continuation and indeed expansion of the number of scenes where people 'in the know' about what's going on stand around and make smug, enigmatic pronouncements about events and the clueless protagonists refuse to ask what is going on. If Scholes had become a screenwriter, he'd have made an excellent addition to the Lost writer's room.

On the plus side, several of the characters continue to be engaging (not Rudolfo or Jin this time around, as they are both pretty inert for most of the narrative, one startling moment for Rudolfo aside), most notably Winters whose character arc is the only one in the book which has sense of momentum and vigour to it. Isaak, somewhat under-used in the previous volume despite giving the series its name, also has more to do this time around, which is welcome. There are also several moments where Scholes' writing comes alive and gives us brief bursts of awed wonder of the kind that SF and fantasy can do so well (most notably one sequence involving a ladder).

Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. Scholes is aiming for something different and more interesting than the traditional fantasy series here, and his ideas are excellent. The problem is that the execution and writing is frequently lacklustre and occasionally even skirts the edge of being bland. Considering the solid pace of the previous two volumes, all the character naval-gazing that goes in this book (still only 370 pages long) also bogs down the narrative at the moment it should be gearing up to deliver us down the home straight of the final two books to the conclusion.

Antiphon (***) remains engaging enough for fans of the previous two books to enjoy, but the series feels like it's running out of steam. I hope this is just a teething issue and Scholes will return strongly in Requiem. The book will be published in the United States on 14 September 2010.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Tywin Dancing with Dragons

In arguably the single highest-profile casting news since Sean Bean, HBO have confirmed that Charles Dance will be playing the role of Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones.

Hopefully, Charles Dance needs no introduction. He is a highly respected British actor of many years' standing, most recently lauded for his barnstorming performance as Tulkinghorn in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House. His most famous genre roles come from the movies The Golden Child, Alien 3 and Last Action Hero, as well as recently appearing in Merlin as a witchfinder and in the Terry Pratchett mini-series Going Postal, playing Lord Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork and a similarly iconic role of modern fantasy. In an amusing coincidence, Dance played one of the henchmen to Julian Glover (just announced playing Grand Maester Pycelle) in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only.

In the series he plays Lord Tywin Lannister, the extremely formidable head of the powerful Lannister family, the no-nonsense father of Cersei (Lena Headey), Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). Tywin is ruthless to his enemies, loyal to his friends but merciless when he feels the honour of his house and family is being questioned. He is obstinately the villain (or one of them) in A Song of Ice and Fire, but is never really written as such, as all of his actions (even the heinous ones) are driven by clear, if twisted, motivations. It is an absolute gift of a role and I am eager to see what an experienced actor as Dance will do with it.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

Four years have passed since the Brood War. The Koprulu Sector is struggling to rebuild from the cataclysmic conflict that left the Terran Dominion and Protoss Empire weakened and Kerrigan in uncontested control of the Zerg as its Queen of Blades. The Terran Emperor, Arcturus Mengsk, finds his rule being contested by the rebel Jim Raynor, his former ally who turned against him when Mengsk betrayed Kerrigan to the Zerg.

Raynor's low-level rebellion is taken up a notch when he is joined by an old friend, Tychus Findlay, and the Zerg unexpectedly return to launch a series of raids on human worlds. As Raynor furthers the cause of Mengsk's downfall, he also receives an unexpected 'gift' from his old Protoss ally, Zeratul, and learns that a much greater threat is lurking on the horizon...

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is the sequel to the 1998 game StarCraft and its expansion, Brood War. The game has been released twelve years after its predecessor, during which time StarCraft has gone on to become the biggest-selling strategy computer game of all time and, bizarrely, become a national sport in South Korea, where multiplayer matches are televised and its top players are minor celebrities. It would be fair to say the game has a lot hopes and expectations riding on it.

StarCraft II is very much a game of three parts. The multiplayer, which is fast, furious and satisfying, is one part of this. However, that part does not develop far beyond what was achieved with StarCraft. There's some new units and a much more flexible interface, but broadly it's a shiny 3D make-over of the old game. It's the single-player part of the game which has received the most changes from the original.

For a start, almost the entire game is devoted to the Terran faction alone, save a four-mission side-story where you control Protoss forces. You play Jim Raynor, continuing on his quest to destroy the Dominion whilst being haunted by guilt over his failure to save Sarah Kerrigan from the Zerg in the first game. Rather than simply following a pre-set list of missions, the single-player game is much more oriented around player choices. Depending on circumstances, the game has a between-mission, RPG-like section set on one of three different locations (in a bar on Mar Sara for the first few missions, then on the battlecruiser Hyperion for most of the rest of the game, and then 'somewhere else' for the last few missions). In this section you can catch up on news reports, talk to crewmembers and allies, research new upgrades for your units, purchase new abilities and hire mercenaries. You can also play a mini-game called Lost Viking (a vertically-scrolling shoot 'em-up), listen to the jukebox or indeed just chill out in the bar.

When it comes time for the next battle, you are given a list of several different missions you can tackle (usually three at a time). You can approach the missions in any order you wish, but you get different research points (unlocking new units and abilities) and new unit deployments depending on the mission you take. A player eagerly wanting to get his hands on Siege Tanks will take a different route through the game than someone anxiously wanting to research Tech Reactors (allowing buildings to construct two units simultaneously and unlocking all of their upgrades), for example. There are also some minor storyline and dialogue changes based on what missions you do. You can also steam straight through to get to the final mission and simply choose not to do a whole bunch of missions, but I heavily recommend against this. For the final mission you really do need every unit and every upgrade you can get your hands on.

As a bonus, you also have access to a Protoss 'memory crystal' which allows you to relive Zeratul's investigations into the revelations of Brood War, giving you control of Protoss forces for several missions (the last of which is, impressively, an apocalyptic vision of the fate of the entire sector). This section is also optional, but does set-up storyline points that I suspect will become much more important in the two planned expansions, Heart of the Swarm (focusing on the Zerg) and Legacy of the Void (focusing on the Protoss).

As a single-player experience, the game does not spare any expense. The between-missions RPG stuff is excellently done, with it being possible to spend 10-15 minutes between missions simply talking to everyone, upgrading and researching new gear and ruminating over what mission to tackle next. These sequences are accompanied by in-engine cut scenes which further the story and characterisation, and really take the original StarCraft's most notable achievement (satisfyingly telling an epic but character-based story in a strategy game environment) to the next level. It's very impressive, despite the often cheesy dialogue.

The game itself does not stray too far from the original, although of course the graphics are much nicer and shinier. There's a whole metric ton of interface improvements which I suspect will make playing the original game without them a lot harder, such as the ability to build infantry and have them report immediately to a bunker, or train new SCVs and have them sent straight into mining without the need for extra micro-management. The 'guard' mode from the original game is now much-improved and allows you to send SCVs and medics with your attack force. They'll (mostly) stay out of the enemy's line of fire but remain close enough to repair and heal on the fly as needed. Individual mission design is varied but highly entertaining, ranging from a Firefly-influenced mission where you have to intercept a bunch of futuristic trains and nick some stuff from them to what a lot of people are already talking about as the game's high point: a 'zombie' or Pitch Black-inspired level where you have to go out and work during the day but then retire behind fortifications at night when you are swamped by light-sensitive enemy forces. In fact, every mission has at least one little difference to set it apart from others, resulting in a constantly varied, sometimes surprising gameplay experience.

The unit roster is larger than the original game's, allowing much more flexibility. Relying on just one unit was possible, if a little dangerous, in the original game but is a much less viable strategy here. Unfortunately, the larger roster means that the differences between some units is slight, and some units tend to be disregarded and never used as a result.

The game builds over the course of its length to an apocalyptic final set of missions which are impressive in their epic scope. However, the game unexpectedly ends in a somewhat neat manner. Given that two expansions are forthcoming I was expecting a major cliffhanger, but the finale could have served as a simple final ending with no major problems. Sure, there's clearly more stuff to come, but it's a pause rather than a cliffhanger, which given the indeterminate amount of time before Heart of the Swarm is released, is a good thing.

On the downside, the game is fast, frenetic and fun, but there are moments when you do have to acknowledge that it isn't innovative. Several RTS developments from the past ten years are ignored, and the game sometimes does feel like a very high-quality WarCraft III mod down to the feeble zooming-in button and the lack of realistic terrain. However, most of the time you are too busy playing to really focus on this aspect. The other issue is that the charming, slightly cartoony style of the cut scenes and between-mission discussions in the original have been replaced by more of a 'realistic' look, which drops Jim Raynor and his buddies squarely into the uncanny valley. It's not as bad as most games (and light-years beyond the likes of say Oblivion), but still somewhat disconcerting.

In addition, the game requires a one-time Internet activation (although you need to stay online to get the game's various achievements) and the original game's more approachable multiplayer aspects have been removed, most notably LAN play and the ability to spawn a lightweight version of the game on a friend's computer without having to buy additional copies. These are irritations rather than anything particularly deal-breaking for me, but others clearly feel otherwise.

However, a very common complaint, that this is only a 'third of a game', is more puzzling. StarCraft II is longer, more varied and more epic than the original game, and certainly moreso than any other real-time strategy game released in the past dozen years. It will take most players between 10 and 20 hours to complete, which is a very healthy amount of time for a modern single-player game, and of course the game editor, mods and multiplayer modes (where you have control of all three factions) extend the game's lifespan exponentially. If there was ever a time when a 'complete' strategy game consisted of 90 single-player missions taking 60+ hours to finish, one of the most powerful game editors have shipped, hours of cut scenes and extensive multiplayer, it must have passed me by. Certainly the original StarCraft was nothing like that at all.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (****) tends towards the conservative end of the spectrum for a sequel, but its impressive storyline, satisfying and varied gameplay and toweringly impressive polish more than make up for it. It's a powerful statement of faith by Blizzard in the so-called 'dying' PC games genre and is immensely impressive. It is available now on PC and Mac in the USA (standard, collector's edition) and UK (standard, collector's edition).

Four more for THRONES plus recasting news

Filming started on Monday on HBO's Game of Thrones. The series is being filmed out-of-order, apparently using the British 'production block' method (as I detail here), and it appears the focus of the first phase of filming will be on King's Landing and the Red Keep, with apparently Sean Bean (Eddard Stark) and Aiden Gillen (Littlefinger) doing a lot of the filming work at the moment. Apparently the Winterfell set will not be in regular use until September, whilst construction of the Castle Black set is also ongoing.

George R.R. Martin has announced that, sadly, Roy Dotrice has been ill and proscribed four months of rest, preventing him from playing the role of Grand Maester Pycelle as planned (although, hopefully, this may mean that Dotrice may be able to record the Dance with Dragons audio book, depending on timing). Dotrice has been replaced in the role by his old friend Julian Glover, a very distinguished British actor. Genre fans will best know him for playing the role of General Veers in The Empire Strikes Back (just about the only Imperial officer who actually fulfils his mission properly in all three films) and his superb turn as the villainous Scaroth in the Douglas Adams-scripted Doctor Who story City of Death in 1979, which I heartily recommend to everyone. He'd also previously played Richard the Lionheart in the adventure The Crusades fourteen years previously. His most recent major roles were as Triopas in Troy (the guy at the start of the film who gives his fealty to Brian Cox after his champion is killed by Brad Pitt) and as the Duke of Wellington in Young Victoria.

Four additional female roles have been cast and announced (I'm late with one of them). First up, acclaimed German actress Sibel Kekilli is playing Shae.

Kekilli is an experienced actress who has won several major film awards in her native Germany. As a Muslim of Turkish descent, she has also been embroiled in controversy over her racy film roles and her support of charities helping victims of domestic abuse. Martin reports that her audition, of the scene where Shae meets Tyrion just before the Battle of the Green Fork, was very impressive.

Shae is a camp-follower who accompanies the Lannister army in the field. She - somewhat naively - hopes to attach herself to a knight or lord and become a respectable citizen and, to this end, attaches herself to Tyrion Lannister when she meets him. Shae has a small role in the last part of the first book but is a more important player in the second and third volumes.

Amrita Acharia is playing the role of Irri. Acharia is a young actress with a few movie and stage roles to her name. Irri is one of Daenerys Targaryen's handmaidens, and is famous in the books for voicing the phrase, "It is known,".

Roxanne McKee is playing Doreah. McKee is a British model and actress best-known for a three-year stint playing the character of Louise Summers in Hollyoaks. Game of Thrones will be her second major television role. Doreah is a young slave gifted to Daenerys as part of her wedding to Khal Drogo and becomes one of her closest and most loyal advisers.

In slightly older news, Natalia Tena has been cast as Osha.

Not the most flattering picture of Tena, but probably not far off her appearance in THRONES.

Natalia Tena is a British actress and musician, best-known for playing the role of Nymphadora Tonks in the Harry Potter movies The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince, a role she will resume in the two-part The Deathly Hallows. She also appeared in the movie About a Boy. As a musician, who sings and plays accordion in the excellently-named band Molotov Jukebox.

Osha is a wildling warrior woman who abandons her people to seek solace south of the Wall. She finds her way to Winterfell and (for lack of a better word) befriends the Starks and becomes part of the household.

With these roles cast we're almost done. Tywin Lannister remains the only truly major role left to be cast, now it has been confirmed that Brynden and Edmure Tully have been pushed back to Season 2. The status of Walder Frey, Roose Bolton, Maege Mormont and Rickard Karstark also remains unknown, but it may well be that they're not going to be very high profile in the first season given the lack of news about them. I certainly cannot imagine losing Walder Frey from the first season, as establishing him early is absolutely critical to the storyline.

To round off, Sky TV will be showing Game of Thrones in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland as part of a new, $130 million deal with HBO to show both new and old shows on their channels.

Some film and movie news

SyFy are developing an online Battlestar Galactica web series called Blood and Chrome. The new series, which would consist of 10 episodes of about 10 minutes, will be set during the First Cylon War and follow the adventures of the young William Adama stationed aboard Galactica. How they handle the continuity issues - namely that Razor established that Adama didn't perform a Viper combat mission until the very last day of the war - remains to be seen.

Guillermo Del Toro has returned from New Zealand and is now planning his next film: a 3D adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, to be produced by James Cameron. According to Del Toro he thinks that the film will need a budget of around $130 million, which is a fair amount in these increasingly frugal times in Hollywood. Whether he gets it for a relatively obscure (to the mass audience) adaptation remains to be seen.

Damon Lindelof is apparently onboard to rewrite Ridley Scott's planned Alien prequels (or at least the first one). However, during discussions between Lindelof and Scott they apparently generated an idea for a free-standing SF film as well. Whether that gets developed into its own movie or is pulled back into the Alien drafts is unclear at this time. Apparently Fox are seriously wooing Scott to make the first Alien prequel his next project, whilst Scott is also eying up an adaptation of Justin Cronin's The Passage.

Moon director Duncan Jones passed on the chance to direct the new Judge Dredd movie, but now wonders if he's going to regret it. However, he suggests his planned film was too off-the-wall to be commercially viable anyway.

Monday 26 July 2010

Canticle by Ken Scholes

Nine months have passed since the destruction of Windwir. The kingdom of the Ninefold Forest Houses has taken up the mantle of 'the light', the collected wisdom of ancient times, and built a new library to preserve the remnants of what was lost when Windwir fell. However, war and civil war wracks the Named Lands and House Li Tam has sailed into the southern ocean, following a hint that previous events are being orchestrated by a hidden power for their own, inscrutable ends.

Canticle is the second novel in The Psalms of Isaak series and the sequel to Lamentation, a reasonable debut novel which overcame its lack of depth and polish with fast, readable prose and good pacing. Canticle is a better book, making character motivations considerably more complex and murkier, expanding the world and scope of the story and adding some new factions previously only hinted at in the first volume.

It pains me to say it, but Canticle is also 'darker' than Lamentation, with one of the characters being captured by the shadowy enemy and undergoing particularly grim and unpleasent torture for what feels like half the book. The process adds to the character's development and is somewhat uncomfortable to read, contrasting the first volume's 'safe' feeling that occasionally tipped it too close to the 'bland' end of the spectrum for comfort, although Scholes always steered the story away from that fate.

Some of the issues with the first book remain, such as Jen and Rudolfo being less interesting than most of the remainder of the cast and some story developments feeling mechanical rather than organic. There's also a slight issue with repetitive story structure, with the plot once again hinging on everything our characters knowing turning out to be the result of a masterful secret agenda set in motion decades ago for shadowy purposes. The closing section of the book is also somewhat annoying for suffering from Lost syndrome, with characters resolutely refusing to ask people in the know just what the hell is going on, or if they do remember to do this getting needlessly enigmatic replies.

Still, Canticle is a more interesting read than its predecessor. Winters, a supporting character in the first book, becomes a key protagonist here and her journey very well-depicted despite over-familiarity (young female ruler having to overcome inexperience to become a plausible leader). There's also a host of new revelations which continue to show that the series is a post-apocalyptic science fantasy more in line with The Dying Earth and Nights of Villjamur than yet another MOR epic fantasy, which Scholes handles well.

Canticle (****) is an entertaining, effective fantasy novel which builds on the successful elements of Lamentation and eliminates some of its key weaknesses. It is available now in the USA and in the UK on import.

Brief updates

At Comic-Con, Patrick Rothfuss reported that The Wise Man's Fear has come in just short of 400,000 words, making it larger than, for example, any book in the Wheel of Time or Malazan series. He remains very confident of the planned March/April release slot.

A sinister hooded figure, made even more mysterious by being painted very, very small and put in a location where he looks like he's assessing the mould damage.

The new Avatar series, The Legend of Korra, is apparently only planned to be a 12-episode mini-series at the moment rather than an ongoing serial.

At the Battlestar Galactica panel, several actors and one of the writers hinted that we might be seeing the BSG characters again in some form. Meanwhile, the second half of Caprica's first season has been pushed back to January 2011. SyFy are apparently still debating whether to renew the series.

StarCraft II is released tomorrow. The United States defence department would not be drawn if the current naval exercises off the coast of the Korean peninsular were planned specifically to deter a North Korean invasion as millions of South Koreans skive off work to play the game, leaving the country dangerously distracted by Zerg rushes and mastering the new units.

Filming of Season 1 of Game of Thrones commences today in Belfast and will continue through to January 2011, with transmission a few months later. Good luck to the cast and crew!

Thursday 22 July 2010

New Gollancz covers: FENRIR and THE COLD COMMANDS

This is the hot-off-the-presses UK cover art for M.D. Lachlan's Fenrir (recently renamed from Wolfsbane), the sequel to his excellent debut Wolfsangel:

No word on if the Gollancz advertising campaign will make use of a Duran Duran song. You know the one. You're humming it now.

Fenrir is due for release in the UK in May 2011.

Meanwhile, this is the completed cover art for Richard Morgan's The Cold Commands:

"Harder, faster, bloodier...and that's just the sex!"

The cover was unveiled previously but this is the first time it's been reunited with its original title (the book was going to be called The Dark Commands for a while until Morgan found a way of making the original title relevant to the book). The Cold Commands, the sequel to The Steel Remains, is due in Spring 2011.

THIRD AGE: TOTAL WAR v2.0 released

The Third Age Development Team have released Version 2.0 of Third Age: Total War, their total conversion of Medieval II: Total War and its expansion Kingdoms. Appropriate timing, as we are close to the eightieth anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien starting to write The Hobbit (now probably not coming to a movie screen near you soon).

Owners of Medieval II and Kingdoms can download Third Age (all 2.9 GB of it) for free. The game, as with the previous editions, allows you to refight the War of the Ring playing as one of the sides of 'good' (Gondor, Rohan, Dale, the Silvan Elves, the High Elves, the Dwarves or Eriador/Arnor) or 'evil' (Mordor, Hard, Rhun, Isengard, Orcs of the Misty Mountains, Orcs of Gundabad) across a gorgeously 3D-rendered map of Middle-earth.

Version 2.0 introduces several new features to the game. People were disappointed with Eriador in the previous version of the game. True to the books, Eriador was a hodgepodge faction consisting of disparate forces (the Hobbits of the Shire, the Rangers, the townsfolk of Breeland and so on) and as such did not field a particularly formidable army (despite the terror-inducing sight of its, er, Halfling Archers). The new version allows an 'Arnor emergence' mechanic, where Aragorn, instead of claiming the throne of Gondor as in The Lord of the Rings, instead re-founds the Dunedain North Kingdom of Arnor to replace Eriador. Arnor is a much more formidable faction with units more comparable to Gondor's, making them a more viable playable faction.

More intriguingly, the new version features a 'Fellowship' mechanic which allows you to follow the Fellowship of the Ring's route and adventures. How on Earth it does this given the limitations of the Total War engine is unknown (I'm still downloading the thing), but it'll be interesting to see how it works.

It's not all good news, however, as the Orcs also get an additional faction (the Orcs of Gundabad and the Grey Mountains) and a new, possibly familiar general unit:

"I SEE YOU. And therefore can punch you in the face!"

The game is available to download from the link at the top of the post now, but you need both Medieval II and Kingdoms installed to play.

Steven Erikson completes THE MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN

"Going on holiday now. Thinking of Assail. The brochure looked nice."

From the author himself via Facebook (as spotted by Pat):

"GASP! That would be me, coming up for air. How long was I down there? About twenty years, from conception to completion. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is done. Sure, editing and all that crap to follow. But ... done. I don't know who I am. Who am I again? What planet is this? Three months of butterflies ... maybe this double whiskey will fix that. Hmm. No. Delayed reaction going on here."

Congratulations to Steven Erikson. I'm on record as being sceptical over how much closure The Crippled God can bring to the series (what with no less than ten additional Malazan novels on their way from both Erikson and Ian Esslemont, plus myriad novellas and a companion volume), but I am more than happy to be proven wrong. At the very least, it sounds like the story of the Crippled God, the Bonehunters and the Master of the Deck will conclude in February 2011.

Wednesday 21 July 2010


Against my better judgement I joined Twitter a couple of months ago. You can follow me there, if that sort of thing is your wont, although my Tweeting frequency is highly variable.

Kvothe after he'd pulled off the 'Great Glamdring Heist'.

This weekend is the San Diego Comic-Con, which means potentially major TV and movie announcements but relatively little on the book front. That said, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss and, erm, Christopher Paolini are on a panel together, which should be interesting. Apparently very, very early and tentative chunks of The Wise Man's Fear have been sent out to very select editors and authors for feedback (Sanderson says it's great), which is unusual, given that the final book hasn't been turned in yet.

In other news, George R.R. Martin has brutally murdered Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, which I'm sure has made him very happy. I'm betting for "Splattered under rampaging mammoth," as the causal event.

The countdown to StarCraft II continues. io9 has a reasonably brief summary of the story so far. The game launches in less than one week.

Currently reading: Canticle by Ken Scholes.
Currently watching: The IT Crowd (Season 4).
Currently playing: Alien Swam, Overlord.


Nickelodeon have announced Avatar: The Legend of Korra, a new animated 12-episode mini-series which will serve as a sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender. The name seems to be inspired by the name that the previous series went under in the UK and other countries, The Legend of Aang.

Staring moodily at a distant city from what appears to the be the top of a tiny bridge. Awesome.

The new series will be set in a different time period to the original series and focuses on the emergence of a new avatar (someone who can use all four of the elemental forms of magic), a girl named Korra. The single screenshot revealed hints at a slightly more technologically-advanced time period, with much taller buildings than in the original series, although the traditional Asian influence remains strong. The accompanying press-speak suggests that the series will build on the mythology of the original series with a hotheaded female lead. The series will debut in 2011.

To reiterate, this is a sequel to the excellent, possibly classic, animated series, not the M. Night Shyamalan movie.

More detailed information has emerged. The Legend of Korra is set seventy years after the conclusion of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Korra, a member of the Southern Water Tribe, is already the Avatar when the series starts and has mastered three of the four elements, leaving only airbending unmastered. She is looking for Tenzin, the son of Aang (and presumably Katara), who will teach this skill to her. A principle location will be Republic City, a metropolis powered by steampunk technology which is riddled with crime and where the people, a mix from all four nations, are becoming disenchanted with magic-users in general.

This sounds more hopeful. A rebellion of the 'normal' people against all of the magic-users and more focus on one location sounds like good moves, throwing up good storyline possibilities.

Monday 19 July 2010

Lamentation by Ken Scholes

The most powerful city of the Named Lands is Windwir, home of the Androfrancine Order and their attempts to rebuild the lost technology and wisdom of ancient times. Then Windwir is scoured from the face of the world by ancient sorcery, throwing the Named Lands into turmoil. The scattered remnants of the Androfrancine Order have become divided over the succession of the Pope, whilst Rudolfo, Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses, falls into conflict with Sethbert, Overseer of the Entrolusian City States, over who is to blame for the disaster.

From the south, House Li Tam is manipulating events to its own ends, whilst in the north the enigmatic Marshfolk see the destruction of Windwir as a sign that their long exile may be coming to an end. Amongst the ruins of Windwir an old man and a young boy find their destinies united as they seek to bury the remains of the dead, and a mechanical lifeform is uncovered who holds the key to the secrets behind the disaster.

Lamentation is the first novel in The Psalms of Issak series, a five-volume sequence. The series is epic fantasy filtered through the Dying Earth subgenre with just a dash of the New Weird thrown in for good measure. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world where people imperfectly try to understand the science and sorcery of what came before.

Ken Scholes's debut novel is an effective first book. It is fairly short by genre standards (350 pages in length) and is well-paced. There are a lot of interesting ideas being worked on here, with the author skirting close to some deeper themes on religion, knowledge, power and responsibility, although the book's short length and fast pace means that these cannot be explored thoroughly. These flashes of extra depth hopefully hint at some more intriguing things to come in the latter four volumes.

As it stands, Lamentation is a solidly enjoyable fantasy novel. The prose is brisk and effective, the characters sympathetic and relatable even if some of them are a little on the thin side. The two central figures of Rudolfo and Jin Li Tam are not quite satisfyingly developed in the book and both come across as a little too perfect for comfort. Other characters such as Petronus, Neb and the metallic and titular Issak are far more interesting. Jin's father, who emerges as a figure of some importance, is also over-the-top in the psychohistorical levels of his forward planning and contingencies, which starts to become vaguely comical towards the end of the novel, eliminating tension as the next disastrous turn of events is defused by, once again, Jin's father having already foreseen it and worked out a counter decades previously.

In addition, the worldbuilding is somewhat lacking. Scholes's abilities with description are good, such as his evocation of Windwir's transformation from bustling city to a vast tomb, but he never really convincingly suggests that much of a world exists beyond the bubble the characters travel around in. This is not helped by the fact that the area on the maps is apparently traversable in just a few days yet stretches from a frozen waste in the north to tropical lands in the south.

What Scholes does have is a readable, page-turning style, some nice and unexpected plot twists, some solid and well-drawn characters and a nicely different, vaguely steampunk-influence setting to the standard epic fantasy template.

Lamentation (***½) is a flawed novel, but enough good points shine through to make reading on worthwhile. The book is available now in the USA but does not have a current UK publisher. It is available on import.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Soldier Bronn and Trojan Mormont

The two biggest names to emerge from the new round of casting for Game of Thrones are Jerome Flynn as Bronn and James Cosmo as Jeor Mormont.

Jerome Flynn rose to fame in the military drama Soldier, Soldier in the early 1990s, where he formed a friendship with fellow actor Robson Green. After their characters featured in an episode singing, they were given a record contract by Simon Cowell and became a massive chart success as Robson and Jerome, with various easy listening covers of classic tracks such as 'What Became of the Broken Hearted' and 'Up on the Roof'. Green went on to appear in a string of acclaimed acting roles in various dramas, whilst Flynn went into musicals and theatre work. Thrones marks his first return to television in a decade. Interestingly, after a much shorter break, Green is also returning to television acting next year in a genre piece, as a guest actor in the third season of Being Human.

On Game of Thrones Flynn will be playing Bronn, a roguish sellsword encountered by several characters in a tavern. Bronn forms a lasting friendship and alliance with Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who values the rogue's formidable ability to get things done (just don't ask how he did it) and somewhat relative loyalty. Bronn is a fan-favourite due to his dark humour and his excellent double-act relationship with Tyrion.

James Cosmo is a veteran Scottish actor with roles in many TV series and Hollywood films. He is the go-to guy if you want "Badass Old Guy Who Can Still Slaughter Everyone On Screen Believably," a role he has perfected as Hengist in Merlin, Hrothgar in The Last Legion, Campbell in Braveheart and General Glaucus in Troy. He has also recently appeared on American TV shows FlashForward and Castle, played Galder Weatherwax in the Sky One adaptation of Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic and was also Father Christmas in the recent movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

In Thrones he is superbly cast as Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. Nicknamed the Old Bear, he commands the defence of the Wall. He is also the father of Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and the brother of Lady Maege Mormont, who took over control of the House after Jorah's disgrace and exile to the Free Cities. Mormont is a formidable warrior, strategist and commander, a fine man to hold the Wall against the coming winter.

This last batch of casting announcement brings us much closer to a complete cast list for the first season. Only a few major roles remain to be cast, most notably Lord Tywin Lannister.

A ton of supporting actors for THRONES.

HBO have issued a comprehensive cast list for Game of Thrones, including many roles previously unannounced. The bigger names I will save for another post. This is going to be a long one.

Francis Magee as Yoren

Francis Magee may not be a household name, but pretty much anyone who's watched any British drama in the last decade will recognise him from a plethora of roles he's played on TV and in film, with roles ranging from stints on EastEnders to the Daniel Craig movie Layer Cake. He recently appeared in the one-off docu-drama Trafalgar Battle Surgeon, had a guest stint in Survivors and a recurring role on City of Vice. Magee is playing Yoren, a member of the Night's Watch who acts as a recruiter, visiting cities and castles and offering to take their convicts off their hands to join the Watch. This is a relatively small casting decision in the grand scheme of things, but a finely-judged one.

Peter Vaughan as Maester Aemon

Peter Vaughan is a veteran British actor with a very long and distinguished career, with credits stretching back to the 1950s. Among his more notable roles is Admiral Hood on the Hornblower TV movies, but his other credits include The Saint, Citizen Smith, Heartbeat, Our Friends in the North, The Avengers, Boon, Lovejoy, The Sweeney, Porridge and even Morecambe and Wise. He is playing Maester Aemon, the oldest man in Westeros, the maester at Castle Black and one of the closest advisors to Lord Commander Mormont.

Margaret John as Old Nan

Margaret John is another British actress of long standing, with roles in many notable productions since the 1960s. She is one of a few actors to have appeared in both incarnations of Doctor Who, appearing as Grandma Connolly in The Idiot's Lantern under the new regime and as Megan Jone in the 1968 serial Fury from the Deep. She also played the small but crucial role of the Arbiter in the first episode of Blake's Seven, sentencing Blake to the penal colony of Cygnus Alpha and kick-starting the entire series. Her more recent credits include Being Human and Gavin and Stacey. She is playing 'Old Nan', the oldest resident of Winterfell, a former loyal servant who is now effectively retired, but still tells the Stark children stories. She is engaged in a minor battle of wills with Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter), who is left to rationalise or explain in scientific terms the legends she tells the children. Old Nan is also the grandmother or great-grandmother of Hodor (Kristian Nairn).

Sir John Standing as Lord Jon Arryn

Continuing the line of excellent, long-established British actors appearing in the series is Sir John Standing (technically Baron John Standing, but he doesn't use the title), an actor with a lengthy pedigree stretching back to the 1960s. His most recent genre role was in the film V For Vendetta, but he has a prior GRRM connection, having appeared in the 1980s movie based on his short story Nightflyers. On Thrones he is playing Lord Jon Arryn, a character whose demise sparks the events of the series. He appears in flashback.

Gethin Anthony as Lord Renly Baratheon

Gethin Anthony is playing Renly Baratheon. Anthony is another young actor with some theatre work who has done the rounds of several British soaps. His character of Renly is King Robert Baratheon's youngest brother. Whilst King Robert has gone to seed somewhat, Renly remains in the prime of life, a charismatic and popular warrior and a member of the King's small council, where he serves as Master of Laws.

Kate Dickie as Lady Lysa Arryn

Kate Dickie is playing Lysa Arryn. After a number of roles on TV and film (starting, amusingly, in Scottish sitcom Rab C. Nesbitt many years ago) she will imminently be appearing as Agnes in the Starz mini-series Pillars of the Earth, based on the Ken Follett novel. She has also won a Scottish BAFTA for her leading role in the film Red Road. In Thrones she is playing the sister of Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley). Lysa is the widow of Lord Jon Arryn and the mother of his heir, Robin (not a typo). She used to have a major crush on Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). Lysa appears relatively briefly in the books but her actions and words have huge and lasting consequences in the story.

Lino Facioli as Lord Robin Arryn

Lino Facioli is playing 'Robin' Arryn. Facioli is a very young actor but who has already picked up some notable roles, most recently appearing in the film Get Him to the Greek. His Thrones character is known in the books as 'Robert Arryn', but between King Robert and Robb Stark, it was decided to modify his name for the series to keep things less confusing. His new name allows him to keep his nickname from the books of 'Sweetrobin', however. Robin is the very young and sickly son of Lord Jon Arryn, and becomes Lord of the Vale upon his father's death. He has led a sheltered life, coddled by his mother, and is not a strong child.

Eugene Simon as Lancel Lannister

Eugene Simon is playing Lancel Lannister. Simon's most notable previous roles were in the Russell T. Davies drama Casanova, where he played the younger version of David Tennant's title character, and in the Ben-Hur mini-series, playing the younger version of the title character. In Thrones he plays the cousin of Cersei, Tyrion and Jaime Lannister, one of King Robert Baratheon's squires.

Derek Halligan as Ser Alliser Thorne

Derek Halligan is a Northern Irish actor who started out as a singer in a band in the 1970s before moving into theatre with a stint in Jesus Christ, Superstar. Most of his career has been spent on the stage, but he recently appeared in British soap Hollyoaks and as supervillain Dr. Nightshade in the 2000 movie Tonight We Fly. In Thrones he plays Ser Alliser Thorne, the trainer of the new recruits to the Night's Watch and not a friend of Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly. He is known for the condescending nicknames he gives to the new recruits (such as 'Lord Snow' and 'Ser Pigg' for Jon and Sam).

Dominic Carter as Commander Janos Slynt

Dominic Carter is a British actor with a recurring role on Coronation Street as policeman DC Hooch (oddly appropriate). He had a recurring role on modelling drama Drop Dead Gorgeous and many other TV credits, including My Family and Black Books. In Thrones he is playing the role of Janos Slynt, the commander of the King's Landing City Watch, the goldcloaks (effectively the city's chief of police).

Susan Brown as Septa Mordane

Susan Brown is playing Septa Mordane. Brown is a familiar face to British audiences, appearing in many TV roles over the years. Her most recent notable appearance was as Bridget Spears in Torchwood: Children of Earth. Her character of Septa Mordane is a septa (priestess) in the service of House Stark, responsible for the education and comportment of Lord Eddard's two daughters.

Josef Altin as Pyp

Josef Altin is playing Pyp. Altin is a young British actor with extensive television credits, including recent appears in 'superhero' drama Misfits and in the popular UK genre series Being Human. Pyp is another recruit of the Night's Watch, and is one of Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly's friends at the Wall.

Dermot Keaney as Gared

Dermot Keaney is playing the recast role of Gared, replacing Richard Ridings from the pilot. Keaney has a number of TV and film appearances, but his highest-profile role was as Maccus, Bill Nighy's second-in-command in the second and third Pirates of the Carribean film. You won't recognise him, though, as he was buried behind a ton of CGI and prosthetics. He was the guy with the hammerhead shark head. Gared is one of the three rangers of the Night's Watch who get into trouble in the prologue.

Brendan McCormack as Ser Vardis Egen

Brendan McCormack is playing Ser Vardis Egen. McCormack has a recent role in The Tudors and a number of roles in theatrical productions. Ser Vardis Egen is the captain of Lord Jon Arryn's household guard and is a loyal servant of House Arryn at the Eyrie.

Emun Elliott as Marillion

Emun Elliott is playing Marillion. Elliott recently appeared, appropriately, in the movie Black Death with Sean Bean, as well as SF-tinged television drama Paradox. Marillion is a singer and minstrel, chance-met on the road by Catelyn Stark, who attaches himself to her party. Martin was surprised not to be asked to change his name, due to the number of fans who've linked the character to the band when GRRM had never heard of them previously.

Jefferson Hall as Ser Hugh of the Vale

Jefferson Hall is playing Ser Hugh of the Vale. Hall is another young British actor. His most notable recent appearance was in the latest BBC adaptation of Emma. Ser Hugh, for those who may not remember the character, was Lord Jon Arryn's squire whom King Robert knighted upon his lord's death for his leal service.

Ciaran Birmingham as Mord

Ciaran Birmingham is playing Mord, a jailor at the Eyrie. Birmingham is another experienced stage work who has played some minor roles on TV, most recently a brief appearance in The Tudors.

Anthonia Christophers as Mhaegen

Antonia Christophers is playing the role of Mhaegen. Christophers is a stage actress with no major screen credits to date. Mhaegen isn't a new character, but is 'Barra's mother' in the book. She was given a name for the TV series (something Martin also did for Ros, as he felt that 'Red-Headed Whore' wasn't good enough).

Rhodri Hosking as Mycah

Rhodri Hosking plays the role of Mycah. Hawkings appears to be a newcomer to the acting world, with Mycah his first role of note. Mycah is the son of a butcher who falls in with King Robert's party as it returns to King's Landing, and befriends Arya Stark.

Thursday 15 July 2010

Along Came a Spider

In the latest casting news from Game of Thrones, Irish actor Conleth Hill has been cast as Varys.

Hill is a veteran stage actor, the winner of the Laurence Olivier Award and nominated twice for the Tony Award. His list of film and TV credits is much smaller, but he recently worked with Larry David and Woody Allen on the film Whatever Works.

In the series he is playing the eunuch Varys, the Master of Whisperers, King Robert's spymaster and gatherer of intelligence. Nicknamed 'The Spider', Varys is a fiercely intelligent and incredibly knowledgeable master of intrigue whose ability to ferret out secrets is uncanny. His loyalties are uncertain, his goals unclear, but he professes to want to keep the peace in Westeros no matter the cost.

Also announced was Rob Ostlere, a young new actor out of film school, who is replacing Jamie Campbell Bower in the role of Ser Waymar Royce in the first episode. Bower played the role in the pilot but is unavailable for the reshoots as he is filming the new King Arthur series Camelot for Starz, hence the recasting.

George R.R. Martin has also hinted that three more casting announcements are imminent.