Monday 28 February 2011

The Maester's Path

HBO have stepped up their marketing for Game of Thrones. Last night they launched a new trailer for the series:

Today they launched a new website called The Maester's Path. Each week from now to the start of April new puzzles will be unveiled which, when solved, will lead to rewards. The first puzzle revolves around the 'scents' of parts of Westeros (and beyond), a reference to the promotional boxes of scents sent out last week to various critics and bloggers. has handily collected all the symbols together here. What reward do you get? The first full scene from the series :-)

In related news, all four ebooks of the series should now be available in the UK from Voyager, and the TV tie-in edition of the first book should be properly unveiled in the next couple of weeks or so.

Friday 25 February 2011

Shadowmarch by Tad Williams

Tensions wrack the court of Southmarch Castle. King Olin has been captured by the bandit rulers of Hierosol in the distant south and is being held for ransom, but raising the money is beggaring the kingdom. Olin's heir Prince Kendrick is trying to hold the country together whilst his younger twin siblings, Barrick and Briony, have their own problems to face.

Meanwhile, in the far north, beyond the enigmatic Shadowline, the Twilight People are raising fresh armies to return to the March Kingdoms and avenge their defeat in a war three centuries ago. Far to the south, on the continent of Xand, a common girl is taken to wife by the Autarch, the god-emperor of Xis, for reasons utterly unknown to anyone. And far below Southmarch Castle, ancient secrets wait to be discovered...

Shadowmarch is the first book in the four-volume series of the same name, and is epic fantasy at its most straightforward. Tad Williams made his name with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, a big series which arguably helped establish the modern fantasy paradigm (Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire followed in the trail it blazed) before switching to the far more original SF cyberfable Otherland. With Shadowmarch, Williams has returned to his roots, going once again for that big fat fantasy sweet spot.

This is a questionable choice for those who are familiar with the genre, since there are elements of Shadowmarch which recall not only other big fantasy series, but Williams' own prior work. With the best will in the world, it's hard not to feel that Shadowmarch Castle is a rebuilt Hayholt, a feeling enhanced by the presence in both works of sinister faerie folk and a race of diminutive good guys. Echoes of A Song of Ice and Fire can also be detected, from the barrier stretching across the northern border of the kingdom to the misadventures of a princess (well, almost) on another continent, although the details are rather different.

Oddly, despite being pretty traditional, Shadowmarch remains an engrossing read. Williams is an accomplished-enough writer that in his hands even the most familiar of plot twists feels fresh and interesting. His ability to juggle moments of genuine menace alongside ones of amusing whimsy (the Funderlings and Rooftoppers initially feel incongruous but become a more intriguing subplot as the book develops) adds a sparkle to the sometimes plodding political intrigue and the somewhat vague menace from the Twilight People (whose motivations and goals are not so much under-developed as left completely unexplained). The vast Shadowmarch Castle may feel a bit close to the similarly Gormenghastian edifice of the Hayholt (from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn), but it's also an atmospheric and rich setting for the story.

The characters are an interesting bunch, although again we are treading familiar waters here, with Briony as the tomboy-princess-who-wants-to-mix-it-up-with-the-boys and Barrick as the crippled-prince-who-harbours-a-dark-secret, not to mention the innocent-young-girl-who-becomes-a-major-power-unexpectedly and the soldier-on-a-mission-to-prove-himself. Again, Williams uses some nice elements of characterisation to bring these archetypal figures to life and make the reader care about what happens to them, but their familiarity may be an issue to some readers. The most interesting character is probably Chert, simply because dwarves get short shrift in most fantasy (to the point why you wonder authors bother to include them) and it's good to see one not only at the centre of the action, but also as the most well-developed character in the book. Unfortunately, a few side-characters are less complex, and a few are downright cliches (particularly some of the "Get this peasant out of my sight!" nobles).

Ultimately, Shadowmarch (***½) is the epic fantasy novel as remade by Blizzard Entertainment: totally unoriginal, very comfortable and somewhat predictable, but polished to a terrific sheen and enjoyable for all its familiarity. At the same time, that familiarity does make it impossible to recommend unreservedly. The foundations are solid, however, and certainly I'll be checking out the next book. The novel is available in the UK and USA now, along with its sequels Shadowplay, Shadowrise and Shadowheart.

Thursday 24 February 2011

New China Mieville cover bonanza

In the UK, Pan Macmillan are rejacketing all of China Mieville's books in a new cover style. All nine of his books are getting this treatment and should be on the shelves shortly.

Mieville's debut novel, King Rat (1998) and the first two Bas-Lag novels, Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002).

The third Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council (2004); his short story collection, Looking for Jake and Other Stories (2005), and his YA novel Un Lun Dun (2007).

The multi-award-winning The City and The City (2009), Mieville's latest novel Kraken (2010) and his next novel Embassytown, due for publication in May 2011.

The new covers are appropriately dark and moody, but I'm not certain if they'd stand out enough on the shelf to attract attention. It'll be interesting to see them in the flesh, as it were, and if they result in a boost to his growing profile.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Nicholas Courtney has passed away

Sad news. Actor Nicholas Courtney passed away yesterday at the age of 81. He is best-known for his long-running recurring role on Doctor Who, where he played the role of Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart in 107 episodes over twenty-one years. He later reprised the role for various audio dramas and an episode of The Sarah-Jane Adventures in 2008. Courtney is noted for appearing alongside more Doctors than any other actor in the history of the series.

Courtney, the son of a British diplomat, was born in Cairo and considered a job in the military before switching to acting. He appeared on stage before getting roles on television shows such as The Avengers, The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). In 1965 he was cast in the role of Bret Vyon in the epic twelve-part Doctor Who serial The Daleks' Masterplan, appearing alongside William Hartnell as the First Doctor. After several episodes, his character was killed by Sara Kingdom, played by Jean Marsh.

Impressed by Courtney's performance, director Douglas Camfield re-hired him three years later for the 1968 serial The Web of Fear, in which the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and a military taskforce commanded by Colonal Lethbridge-Stewart confront robotic yetis in the London Underground. The story was a big hit, and later that year the character reappeared in The Invasion. In this story it is revealed that, following a string of alien attacks on Earth, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) has been formed to help defend the planet from alien incursions, with Lethbridge-Stewart, now a Brigadier, placed in command. The Second Doctor and UNIT joined forces to avert a Cyberman invasion of the planet.

With both stories being a big success, producers decided to adopt this as the new standard format for the series, allowing them to reign in the spiralling production costs (a by-product of the show needing new sets, costumes and props for every new planet visited in every serial) and also allowing them to switch to colour recording and transmission. This new era was introduced with the first serial of the seventh season in 1970, Spearhead from Space, which also introduced the Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee. Courtney's character was made a regular and he appeared in the majority of the serials produced from 1970 to Pertwee's departure in 1975. The Brigadier was usually supportive of the Doctor's stance in combating alien menaces, but he and the Doctor often clashed over methods, with the Doctor preferring a scientific or diplomatic solution to a military one. As the years passed the Brigadier mellowed and gave the Doctor much greater trust and leeway in resolving crises his way.

After Tom Baker's introduction as the Fourth Doctor, the emphasis moved back to space-based adventuring, and the Brigadier only appeared in two serials during Baker's seven-year tenure (Robot and Terror of the Zygons, in the latter of which UNIT battled a cyborg Loch Ness Monster which attacked London via the Thames). The Brigadier returned, now retired and running a boys' boarding school, in Mawdryn Undead in 1983, where he encountered the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison). Later that year he returned for the show's 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors, where his character finally met the First Doctor, albeit played by Richard Hurndall (as Hartnell had passed away several years previously).

Courtney's final appearance in Doctor Who came in 1989, in the serial Battlefield (the first of the 26th Season, the last season for sixteen years) where his commission was reactivated so he could help UNIT and the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) deal with a fresh crisis. Coming full circle, this serial also saw Courtney working with Jean Marsh once more (playing an alternate-reality version of the Arthurian figure Morgaine), and Courtney reminded her that she had killed him in their previous encounter twenty-four years previously.

Whilst Doctor Who was off the air, Courtney worked with Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor and Paul McGann as the Eighth on several audio dramas. He also worked with David Tennant on two audio dramas, though Tennant was not playing the Doctor at this time.

Courtney was deeply appreciative of the profile given to him by his time on Doctor Who, and regularly attended conventions and fan gatherings. He was also the honorary president of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society. In 1998 he published his autobiography, Five Rounds Rapid!, after a fan-favourite piece of dialogue from the 1971 serial, The Daemons. An updated biography, Still Getting Away with It, was released in 2005.

After Doctor Who's return in 2005, fans speculated that Courtney would make a guest appearance. However, plans were complicated by Courtney's sporadic availability, as he remained active in stage roles. In 2008 he finally returned to the role of the Brigadier, this time during a two-part adventure, Enemy of the Bane, in the spin-off series The Sarah-Jane Adventures, co-starring alongside Elisabeth Sladen's Sarah-Jane Smith, whom he first worked with during Jon Pertwee's final season. His final on-screen appearance was as the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 2008 movie Incendiary, starring Ewan MacGregor.

Nicholas Courtney was well-loved and respected by both Doctor Who fans and also the many actors and production crew he worked with over the years. SFX has posted both a memorial and an older interview with him on their website here.

Monday 21 February 2011

The Game Begins in the UK on 18 April 2011

After much speculation about when Sky would schedule Game of Thrones, the satellite broadcaster has confirmed they will be showing the series on Monday 18 April 2011 on Sky Atlantic, just one day after US transmission.

Previously Sky had indicated that they saw Saturday nights as their main slot for drama, leading to speculation that Sky would show the series a week after the UK. Perhaps realising this would lead to lots of illegal downloading, they've decided to air the series as close to US transmission as possible, even making it a selling point in their advertising for the series.

Sunday 20 February 2011

An Invitation to Westeros

HBO have released a new behind-the-scenes video for Game of Thrones. This one focuses on the different parts of the Seven Kingdoms and the major locations where the action will take place. There's plenty of new material from the episodes themselves, including a sequence where Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan) and Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo) beg Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) for help, as the Night's Watch is under-strength and vulnerable.

The first two episodes were also shown to cast and crew on Friday in London, and were apparently well-received. Review screeners should be going out in late March, so it'll be interested to see what those who are unfamiliar with the books make of it.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Richard Morgan's COLD COMMANDS nearly finished

Richard Morgan has blogged that he is close to polishing off The Cold Commands, the sequel to his 2008 fantasy novel The Steel Remains. Morgan expects to deliver the final manuscript in a few weeks. To tide readers over, he has published an excerpt from the novel as part of the blog entry.

The Cold Commands has a provisional release date of October 2011. Once the book is in and edited, we'll likely get a firmer release date.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett

The world has suffered the Reaction, a rise of religious fundamentalism that has outlawed science and thrown much of humanity into poverty. Only in Illyria, a great city-state in the eastern Mediterranean, does science still prevail. Growing up in Illyria, shy and timid George Simling accepts the doctrine of Reason until it begins to defeat itself: to prevent the development of true AI amongst its robot servitors, the rulers of the city decree that all robots are to have their memories wiped every six months, including that of George's love, the sex-robot Lucy. Fearing that her growing sentience will be obliterated and realising that Illyria's enforced atheism is as stifling as the religious insanity permeating the world outside, George takes Lucy and flees the city, hoping against hope to find somewhere they can live in peace.

The Holy Machine was originally released in 2004 in the United States, but came to broader attention when it was published in the UK by Corvus last year. Early reviews have claimed that the book is an important step forward in the development of science fiction as a literary form, proclaiming comparisons with Orwell. These have been somewhat overwrought, but certainly The Holy Machine is a book with artistic aims far beyond its simple, I, Love Robot, premise.

The novel addresses questions of blind faith (in science or religion), indoctrination, the stifling of questioning, free speech and what rights, if any, that sentient computer intelligences should be allowed to possess. These issues are discussed through the straightforward story, as George strives to find moderation and peace in a world uninterested in compromise and his mother is drawn deeper and deeper into the artificial reality of SensSpace. Beckett does not suggest his future is plausible or realistic (though elements of it are), instead using it as a backdrop to tell his modern, adult fable about identity and truth.

He is mostly successful. Like a Christopher Priest novel, the prose is deceptively simple, with themes and ideas revealing themselves as you read further into the book until you realise the picture Beckett has been painting is far more complex than it first appeared. Unfortunately, his characters suffer a little: George, his mother Ruth and Lucy are developed enough to be interesting, but don't really come to life in themselves enough to be really compelling, due to the low page count and tight focus. The same factors keep the story evolving quickly, preventing it getting bogged down too much in its issues, but this also means some interesting characters and subplots are skipped over too rapidly near the end, particularly George's encounters with religious moderates near the end of the book showing there is hope that the world can return to an acceptable balance after all.

The Holy Machine (****½) is a book that is deceptively straightforward but reveals more layers of theme and meaning as you progress further into it. This is intelligent and thought-provoking SF. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

New Pierre Pevel books on their way

The first two novels in Pierre Pevel's Cardinal's Blades series have been well-received, so it's good news that the third and concluding book in the series, The Dragon Arcana, has been given an English-language release date by Gollancz. The novel will be published on 20 October 2011 by Gollancz in the UK. It's already available now in French.

Pevel also has a new book, The Three Prince War, coming out in September 2012 from Gollancz. The blurb:

Pierre Pevel has written a fantasy Dumas novel, and now he's bringing all the skills of a historical fantasy writer to an epic stage. In the wake of Martin and Gemmell, his new project charts a dynastic power struggle between three brothers. When the King dies his will, to everyone's surprise, leaves the throne to the second of his three sons. It's a surprising choice, and a worrying one as it coincides with a prophecy: that the succession will lead to war, chaos and the undoing of the entire nation. It's something his eldest son can't allow to happen . . . so he challenges his brother's right to rule - as does the youngest son, with the full support of the Church behind him.

But while the prophecy itself is clear, it's not so clear which prince it's referring to. Lorn knows which side he's on: his King chose a sucessor, and Lorn is going to fight to the last to place him on the throne. Honouring that last wish is the right thing to do; Lorn is also fighting for his best friend and the man he believes should be king. But belief is one thing, victory in politics and war is another and the odds are against them. Worse: with every passing day the prophecies grow darker, and a land already torn by civil war is easy pickings for an invasion . . .

Sounds more traditional, but Pevel's a good enough writer to create something special out of the material.

Cyanide unveil more info on GAME OF THRONES: GENESIS

French-based developers Cyanide have been working away quietly on their two Song of Ice and Fire-related games for a while now. Two titles are planned: an RPG and a real-time strategy game. The strategy game was given a name, Game of Throes: Genesis, a little while ago but no further information was revealed.

Expect complaints about Targaryen balance issues.

Today, via GDN, Cyanide unveiled their first in-game screenshots of the title, as well as some of the box art (by noted ASoIaF artist Marc Simonetti). The strategy game allows different paths to victory, by making political alliances, by starving them through economical warfare or through direct military action. The game also allows different eras in the history of Westeros to be explored, including Aegon the Conqueror's invasion and the War of the Five Kings that the books cover (though presumably playing as Aegon might be a bit dull: send in your dragons every time and wait for the screaming to die down).

The RTS is due for release in 'summer 2011'. The RPG is apparently a lot further off.

Interesting news, if it pans out. The screenshots look unremarkable, however, with the game apparently treading the Age of Empires III/Battle for Middle-earth path of good-but-not-outstanding RTS titles. However, the notion that you can use politics and economical warfare as well as out-and-out conflict sounds good. Whether a small French company can succeed where a major developer like the Creative Assembly (creators of the Total War series) have constantly struggled for a dozen years remains to be seen.

Press release:

"A Game of Thrones - Genesis is the video game adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s best-seller series of novels A Song of Ice and Fire.

In this real time strategy game developed by Cyanide Studio (Blood Bowl), your political prowess will be as important as your strategic and military skills! A Game of Thrones - Genesis immerses you into the heart of the battles and intrigues between the Houses that shaped the Kingdom of Westeros. From Nymeria’s arrival in the Kingdom of Dorne to the awakening of the Others beyond the Wall, you’ll live the origins of the A Song of Ice and Fire saga through more than 1000 years of history. Take part in Westeros’ founding events and largest battles such as Aegon the Conqueror’s invasion on the continent or the War of the Usurper. In this great strategy game, victory does not necessarily result from brute force. You can choose to use a military approach and besiege your opponents, strangle them in an economical war, or even use dirty tricks and diplomacy to politically crush them. Treachery and deception are everywhere, so watch your back and prepare for battle! Thanks to a well-developed single player campaign written under supervision of the author George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones - Genesis is also a great multiplayer game. Up to 8 players confront each others to claim the Iron Throne in intense games where alliances, betrayals, cheap shots, and pitched battles take place."

EDIT: Coverage on the excellent Rock-Paper-Shotgun blog.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham

The thirteen races of humanity have survived the downfall of the Dragon Empire and forged new kingdoms. The great nation of Antea now seeks to expand its influence into the Free Cities, sending its army to conquer the city of Vanai. Ahead of the Antean advance, the Medean Bank evacuates its Vanaian treasury by caravan, escorted by a young ward of the bank, Cithrin Bel Sarcour, and one of the most respected soldiers in the city, Captain Marcus Wester.

Meanwhile, in Camnipol, capital of Antea, Baron Dawson Kalliam finds himself engaged in a clandestine struggle as two factions clash for influence over the Severed Throne, with the assault on Vanai just one of the intrigues in motion. Geder Palliako, a minor nobleman accompanying the army, is less interested in glory and plunder than in knowledge and lore, and in Vanai finds hints that will lead him to unexpected ends. And in a remote and distant mountain range, a shadowy organisation holds secrets that the world has long forgotten...

A bald plot summary suggests that The Dragon's Path is the same old: armies marching and lords politicking whilst an ancient threat lurks in the wings. To some degree this is understandable: after completing the Asian-influenced Long Price Quartet, Abraham decided to pen a more traditional fantasy series. The Dagger and the Coin is set in a land more overtly influenced by late Medieval/early Renaissance Europe, complete with powerful kingdoms, feuding city-states and a banking institution reminiscent of the Medici. On the one hand this may be considered a retreat by Abraham into writing something less original, but on the other it may have been a wise move, given that readers responded to the near-blanket critical acclaim of The Long Price Quartet by not buying it (at least not in the United States).

Still, whilst Abraham may be swimming in more familiar waters, that's not to say he doesn't put 110% effort into it. His trademark impressive characterisation remains the focus of the book: whilst major and epic events rock the world, his interest is more in the development of Dawson, Geder, Cithrin and Wester, our main POV characters (there's a few other minor ones, likely to rise more to the fore in future books). These characters are somewhat complex and all deeply conflicted. Dawson is presented somewhat sympathetically as a loyalist to the king, but he's also a staunchly traditionalist opponent of any change in the social order calls for greater freedom being to resonate from the populace. Geder is selfishly only interested in pursuing his interest in book-learning, which seems harmless enough until he is given a position of authority and promptly displays a side we hadn't seen before. Cithrin is a confident negotiator and investor who is utterly lost when faced with the day-to-day realities of surviving on the road, whilst Wester is the old soldier who strives for cynicism but keeps being drawn to idealistic causes.

For The Long Price, Abraham used economics as a casus belli for the conflict, but didn't fully engage with the economics in depth. This is understandable as making economics interesting to the average reader can be tricky, though in the past Scott Lynch, KJ Parker and, perhaps unexpectedly, Raymond E. Feist have made good fists of it, whilst it is a minor but important driving point in conflicts in both A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time. In The Dragon's Path Abraham deals with the economics in a more direct fashion, making one of the main characters a banker and one of the most powerful institutions in the world a bank. He avoids tedium by showing how the bank's activities impact on the wider politics of the world, though I suspect this will be more critical in subsequent volumes.

Abraham's prose is enjoyable to read, though perhaps a tad more prosaic here than in the more lyrical moments of The Long Price. The book isn't as fast and furious as his other 2011 release, Leviathan Wakes (under the pen-name James S.A. Corey), but is still well-paced, laying out the world and the stakes alongside the characters and politics.

On the weaker side of things, there are some moments when each of the four main characters loses the reader's sympathy (one of them never gets it back, but remains a fascinating protagonist). Intriguing side-characters get less page time than might be wished (Dawson's wife, Clara, has a solid subplot of her own and is one of the more interesting characters in the book). If you've read interviews with Abraham about what his influences were on the series, there are a few moments when those influences become a little too apparent (especially the parallel between Geder and events in a certain SF series; not Firefly). More problematic is that Abraham, having established thirteen different branches of humanity, doesn't give us much info on what these differences are, reducing them to just names, though in fairness Abraham has acknowledged this issue and promised to put more information in the sequels and on his website.

Overall, however, The Dragon's Path (****½) is a winner. The characters are engaging and well-motivated, the plot intriguing despite some surface familiarity, and events are resolved enough to not make the wait for the second book, The King's Blood, too painful. The book will be published on 7 April in the USA and on 21 April in the UK.

Monday 14 February 2011

Missing the Point

I was directed to this essay yesterday, entitled 'The Bankrupt Nihilism of Our Fallen Fantasists', in which the state of 'nihilistic' modern fantasy is bemoaned and a call for a return to the non-profanity-strewn 'heroic' and 'mythic' fantasies of the past is made. I think the author is conflating two separate issues here, the nihilistic/gritty/realistic 'New Fantasy' of the last two decades or so (a sweeping generalisation), which isn't really that new, and the proliferation of overt sex/violence/swearing in recent fantasy books.

Dealing with the first issue, it's an odd point to make. The problem is that the author bemusingly names J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard as his preferred flavours of fantasy. Which makes very little sense, as few fantasy authors are more nihilistic than Tolkien and Howard.

In Tolkien, Middle-earth and the world of Arda are in a state of perpetual Fall, from the very moment it is sung into existence when Melkor/Morgoth starts trying to cast it into darkness. The Silmarillion is a nihilistic work: almost every character of note is slaughtered in its pages, armies of balrogs and orcs obliterate everything that is good and heroic in Beleriand, good men are corrupted and slain and victory comes only through a desperate gambit at the very end. Even that has its consequences: Beleriand is destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people are drowned and it is made clear that Morgoth's defeat is only temporary, as he is prophesied to return and his lieutenant, Sauron, remains behind to continue causing problems.

The Lord of the Rings is much-reduced or thinned re-enactment of this tale on a far smaller, less impressive scale, but even on its own terms is an inherently melancholy work: Middle-earth is saved and Sauron destroyed, but at the cost of more blood. Frodo is corrupted by the Ring and fails in his quest, and victory only comes through the unwitting intervention of Gollum (though the point is made that it was a single act of charity, Bilbo's decision to spare Gollum in The Hobbit, that ultimately saved the day). Boromir is corrupted by the Ring, though he has a redemptive moment. Frodo is emotionally wrecked by events and cannot enjoy the fruits of his struggle: eventually he must leave his home behind forever. Even the victory comes at the cost of myth itself: the elves depart Middle-earth, the hobbits are absorbed into the race of man, and magic vanishes from the world. After the events of Rings, the world becomes mundane and less heroic (in fact, it becomes our world). Tolkien even foresaw that after the events of Rings Gondor would become a divided nation of petty politics, and abandoned work on a projected sequel, The New Shadow, because he felt it undercut the victory of Rings.

Of course, there is heroism in Lord of the Rings, moments of triumph and light, and Middle-earth is saved from destruction or dominion. But it's not a happy ending, and Tolkien makes it clear that whilst the world survives, it is also much less than what it was before. The Silmarillion is even bleaker, with very few characters (perhaps only Tuor and Earendil) surviving unscathed or not having committed heinous acts of violence or, in one case, incest.

As for Howard, his worldview was inherently nihilistic: the natural state of the world is barbarism and anarchy, with civilisation only a passing fad which will soon destroy itself and restore things to the natural order. Conan gets involved in most of his adventures out of a desire for varying combinations of riches, sex or violence. He has his moments of true heroism, but the impression Howard gives is that Conan is an inherently violent character who cannot abide defeat and who is primarily motivated by his own desires. Conan is capable of heroism but his motives are rarely pure.

Of course, one brief look at the mythic inspirations for Howard and Tolkien, the great Norse sagas, the Arthur legends, Greek myths and so on, reveal stories far more tragic, blood-drenched and horrific than anything the likes of Abercrombie or Martin has ever come up with. This notion of pure black vs. white heroism ever being a dominant force in either mythology or fantasy literature seems to be illusory.

The other point, about fantasy being overloaded by graphic imagery and swearing, is better-taken. Sometimes the feeling in modern fantasy is that 'adult' has translated as 'shagging, crapping and disemboweling' in all their glory, which after a while can be tiresome. Brandon Sanderson has shown it's possible to write entertaining and somewhat original secondary world fantasy without resorting to these steps, whilst Patrick Rothfuss pushes the less-savoury aspects of his world (there is an intimation that Kvothe suffered sexual abuse whilst living rough on the streets of a city, but it isn't pushed into the reader's face) into the background.

But at the same time being able to address such issues freely is useful. I certainly don't doubt that Howard would have employed them if he hadn't been restricted by the publishing mores of the time, whilst Tolkien certainly wouldn't have, though he didn't skimp away from darker elements where necessary (particularly in his darkest story, that of of Turin). Amongst modern authors many still have their heroes, but are less interested in displaying them as unmotivated do-gooders. In A Song of Ice and Fire the single most heroic moment in the series is probably when a character jumps into a pit to fight a bear one-handed. The character doing that is someone who was previously presented as a heinous villain, but as we get into his story we learn that his motivations are understandable and he is the hero of his own story, though as events progress Martin doesn't let us or the character forget the darker things he has done. Outside of that, we have characters like Jon Snow who are more obviously heroic (though I suspect that his story will get more complex in the future).

It is interesting that the article roundly dismisses The Wheel of Time, a work that is more closely following in the tradition of Tolkien with more overt 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. Heroism, people putting their lives at risk to save people who frequently hate them (Perrin saving a Whitecloak army which has sworn to kill him), is found there in plenty.

The problem with the essay is that its author has fundamentally misread Tolkien and Howard. The age he bemoans the passing of, that of heroic and mythic fantasy entirely lacking in moral complexity or darker elements, has never existed in the form that is set out.

Saturday 12 February 2011

CRYSIS 2 leaks onto the Internet two months early

CryTek's Crysis 2 is one of the most eagerly awaited games of 2011. It's an SF first-person shooter which is the sequel to the hugely successful 2007 shooter Crysis and has been worked on by top SF authors Peter Watts and Richard Morgan. One slight problem: it's been leaked onto the Internet two months before its release date and torrent sites are currently hosting the game.

The last time there was a leak of this magnitude was in 2003, when a large amount of Half-Life 2 was released onto the Internet. In that case, the game was only partially finished and Valve were able to rework the game's code and structure so that it was not compromised too badly by the leak.

In this case, the leak is far worse. Crysis 2 is much closer to release and the leaked version appears to be mostly complete, consisting of the full single-player game, access keys for multiplayer and the CryEngine 3 game editor. CryTek have not responded so far, but publisher Electronic Arts are understandably furious, releasing the following statement:

"Crytek has been alerted that an early incomplete, unfinished build of Crysis 2 has appeared on Torrent sites. Crytek and EA are deeply disappointed by the news. We encourage fans to support the game and the development team by waiting and purchasing the final, polished game on March 22. Crysis 2 is still in development and promises to be the ultimate action blockbuster as the series' signature Nanosuit lets you be the weapon as you defend NYC from an alien invasion. Piracy continues to damage the PC packaged goods market and the PC development community."

The game has been in development for about four years and has cost tens of millions of dollars to develop, so the leak is a serious concern for both developers and the publisher. However, finding a silver lining, players of the leaked version seem to be near-unanimously proclaiming it to be an excellent shooter, ramping up the anticipation levels which previously had only been fairly modest.

Ridley Scott's ALIEN prequel apparently back on.

In a twist no-one was expecting, it appears that Ridley Scott's new SF movie is actually an Aliens piece after all.

"Am I in this thing or not, Ridley? My agent's got a lot of other work lined up and I can't keep turning down RSC roles forever."

Scott originally developed a two-movie 3D prequel concept. The project seemed to collapse down into one film when former Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof came on board to do a rewrite, and this then inspired Scott to transform the movie into an 'original' SF feature called Prometheus. The assumption was that it was now a whole-new, original setting and film.

However, recent comments by actor Michael Fassbender and inside sources at Pinewood (where set construction is already underway, apparently including the crashed spaceship from LV-426) suggest that Scott was misunderstood. Prometheus is apparently still set in the Aliens universe and the original notion of it being a prequel to Alien seems to be intact, with the 'space jockeys' and the Giger-designed xenomorphs both still slated to appear.

Exactly what Scott meant by his comments is unclear. Possibly he wanted people to focus on the film as its own beast rather than 'yet another Aliens flick'. Interesting to see if this is clarified in the near future.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck)

Holden is a crewman on the Canterbury, an ice-hauler traipsing back and forth between the inner planets of the Solar system and the outer colonies. When his ship is attacked by unknown forces whilst investigating a derelict, a series of events is set in motion which will lead the three great powers - Earth, Mars and the Belt - to the brink of war. Meanwhile, Miller, a cop on Ceres, is tasked with investigating the disappearance of a young woman. His search leads him closer to a far-ranging conspiracy, and into contact with Holden and his crew. The stakes are high as they uncover a threat to the entire human race, a threat which some see as an opportunity...

Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse series, is an unapologetic, old-school space opera. There's been a few of these recently, but few with the elan and furiously page-turning readability of this book. Part of this can be attributed to its writers: James S.A. Corey is a pen-name for Daniel Abraham, the author of the brilliant Long Price Quartet fantasy series, and Ty Franck, George R.R. Martin's assistant who created the setting for an SF roleplaying campaign. Abraham's experience and steadying hand and Franck's ferocious enthusiasm have combined here to create something quite compelling. In the acknowledgements section they reveal that a number of other major SFF authors had a hand in critiquing the book and offering advice, such as Walter Jon Williams (himself a space opera veteran) and astrophysicist Ian Tregillis, who helped out with the hard science part of the book.

Part of the appeal of the book is its structure. Like Donaldson's Gap Series and Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, it uses a rotating POV technique. Unlike those big, sprawling series, Leviathan Wakes only has two major POV characters, Holden and Miller, and bounces back and forth between them in turn. This has the effect of keeping the book very tightly focused, helping keep the pace fast but not so much that subtler nuances of plot and characterisation are lost. The authors aren't reinventing the wheel here and the two characters are pretty standard types: Miller is the embittered, cynical, divorced, hard-drinking cop with trust issues, Holden the idealistic, righteous and optimistic officer. Naturally they're chalk and cheese and don't get on very well at first but eventually strike up a good working relationship and earn some mutual respect.

Luckily, the authors are too good to let this transform into a 1980s buddy cop movie. The characters are well-motivated with convincing motivations and rationales for their actions, and they are steered away from cliche as their relationship takes some unexpected turns as the book progresses. There is also a nice contrast in that Holden has a small crew of well-drawn characters supporting him, whilst Miller is working alone. The supporting cast, such as Holden's crew, is also well-depicted, but the important character of Fred seems a bit too convenient and good to be true, and hopefully we get more into his head in later books in the series as he is a bit flat as a character at the moment. The other major character, Julie, is presented in an intriguing manner: missing when the book opens, Miller constructs a mental version of Julie to help him get through the case and then has to keep readjusting that image as he encounters the life story of the 'real' Julie.

The book appears to have many influences. John Carpenter's The Thing appears to have been one, whilst the small ship and the loyal crew elements recall Firefly and Blake's 7. Using a (relatively) small cast as a window onto larger events, mostly reported through news reports and tension-filled long-range transmissions, is reminiscent of Babylon 5, as is the general tech level and the use of real Newtonian physics in the space battles. I'd also be surprised if Donaldson's Gap Series hadn't been read by both authors, whilst the cop-in-space-noir-thriller angle is reminiscent of some of Alastair Reynolds' work. The tensions between the 'stations' (as the asteroid settlements are derogatorily called by the people of Earth and Mars) and the planets also recalls CJ Cherryh's Downbelow Station. But these influences are never worn too overtly on the sleeve: Leviathan Wakes also forges its own path.

Leviathan Wakes (****½) is a ridiculously entertaining space opera, let down perhaps by only a couple of coincidences and moments of dramatic convenience. Otherwise it's a relentless, page-turning novel with some great character-building. The book will be published in the UK on 2 June 2011 and in the USA on 15 June 2011. The second volume, Caliban's War, is apparently already nearly complete and should follow in a year or so.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

VAMPIRE DIARIES author fired

L.J. Smith, the author of the bestselling Vampire Diaries series of novels, has been sacked by her publishers, HarperCollins. Another author will complete the series.

The Vampire Diaries is unusual in that the series premise was (apparently, going by fan comments in the SpoilerTV link above) conceived by the publisher and given to Smith as a work-for-hire project. Whilst Smith conceived of the characters, the world, the rules and so forth, HarperCollins owned the project and its copyright in their entirety. Apparently, during the recent books Smith was moving away from the character interrelationships which HarperCollins considered the core of the series. Smith has thus been replaced. On her website Smith suggested that fans continue to read the books and not feel too bad on her behalf.

The Vampire Diaries TV series is apparently unaffected by the news.

Oddly, the news comes on the same day that The CW has officially commissioned a pilot based on another work of Smith's, The Secret Circle trilogy.

This is an odd situation. The first Vampire Diaries book was published twenty years ago, so the relationship between author and publisher goes back some time. Thanks to Smith's work, the series became a bestseller and has spawned a hugely successful TV series. It's unusual for a publisher to exercise this kind of power, though it's also unusual for them to have it in the first place: in most cases the author retains copyright on their series, so this kind of move would be impossible to pull with most authors. Interesting to see if more information comes to light.

Another great map of Westeros

Long-term forum-member Other-in-Law has completed his massive map of Westeros, which he's been working on for some considerable time. Unlike Tear's excellent map, which goes for a sort-of satellite view, Other-in-Law's is considerably more stylised, in the vein of some medieval maps and tapestries which combine geography with lots of pictures and decorations.

Completely created with Microsoft Paint. Seriously.

Impressive stuff. If you check out the huge version, some great details can be seen (like Tyrion and Tywin glowering at one another over Casterly Rock, the Kingsguard hanging out with the Mad King at the bottom and Littlefinger on the Fingers). Also present is the coat of arms for every house mentioned in the series and many more that have not been (thanks to Martin giving details on the other houses to the 'Citadel' website many years ago).

In related mapping news, Bantam have reported that they are commissioning new maps for the Song of Ice and Fire novels, including hinting that they are hard at work on the Free Cities map for A Dance with Dragons as of late January. Apparently Tear's map, mentioned above, has been the impetus for Bantam to up their game. Whether this means that the hardcover editions will have colour endpaper maps, like the Wheel of Time books, is unclear. It's also unclear if these new maps will launch with the new editions of the first four novels being released on March 22nd in the USA.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

GOOD OMENS coming to television

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's co-written 1990 novel, Good Omens, is coming to television. Gavin Scott and ex-Monty Python member Terry Jones are in talks to adapt the script (though oddly Jones suggests it is for a movie version). At the SFX Weekender event Pratchett said that the current proposal is a four-episode mini-series, but did not say what television network was involved.

The book sees the Antichrist being born and an angel and demon deciding to save the world since they quite like hanging out there. The book was being developed as a movie project by Terry Gilliam for about a decade before this latest news broke.

Monday 7 February 2011

RIP Brian Jacques

It has been sadly announced that children's fantasy author Brian Jacques has died of a heart attack at the age of 71.

Jacques is best-known as the author of the Redwall series of animal fantasies. The 22nd novel in the series, The Rogue Crew, is complete and due for publication in May 2011. He also wrote an additional number of other books, including companions to the Redwall series and unrelated books. Overall, his novels had sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and been translated into 29 languages.

Congrats to Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie's new novel, The Heroes, has debuted at #3 on The Sunday Times bestseller list in the UK (I would link, but the Times website is only accessible to those who pay for it). This is a very impressive achievement for a fantasy author in the UK, solidly in Terry Pratchett territory (a bit higher than Robert Jordan, who usually gets in around #5). It's also a notable improvement on Best Served Cold, which landed at #11.

Interesting to see how the American edition does, but this is great news for Joe (though possibly not for the pressure for the next book to do even better!).

The Folding Knife by K.J. Parker

Bassianus Severus - known to the people as Basso - is the First Citizen of the Vesani Republic. He is politically savvy, financially creative, ruthlessly ambitious and very lucky. As his power and prestige grows, so does the rift between him and his sister, and the battle for the loyalty of her son.

The Folding Knife is the eleventh novel by the enigmatic K.J. Parker, a stand-alone book which is not part of any series. Fourteen years ago I picked up Parker's debut novel, Colours in the Steel, and later its two sequels and enjoyed them enormously. I've missed out on her books since then, which is something I'll have to rectify. The Folding Knife is outstanding.

This is the story of a man's life, or rather a twenty-year slice of it, but mostly focusing on the three years after he becomes First Citizen of the Republic. Basso grows up learning the family trade of banking, and through canny deals and excellent advice he soon becomes one of the richest men in the city. He then moves into politics, using his common touch with the people and his skills of persuasion and blackmail with the nobility to become the ruler of the Republic. He even has a long-term plan for the entire nation: to strengthen its borders and increase its resources against the threat of competing kingdoms jealous of Vesani's growing military and economic might.

Basso plays the Republic like an instrument, working out how to make the people and politicians jump to his tune. However, as the story unfolds Basso's inability to mend the feud with his sister or make foreign powers likewise obey the rules he sets out both become dangerous, leading to more desperate gambles. There's a strong economic spine to the book, with Parker successfully showing how expensive it is to run a large kingdom even without trying to fund major wars. In fact, I'm wondering if the economic storyline is a commentary on the current financial crisis, with Basso's self-justifications and ability to conjure money out of nowhere to keep things going just a bit longer being more than slightly reminiscent of recent news stories on the banks and national governments almost going bankrupt.

Basing the story on economics could be deathly dull, but Parker's well-paced writing, solid characterisation and dry sense of humour keeps things ticking along nicely. Basso is a well-written protagonist, monstrously flawed but also sympathetic, with his genius at handling money and politics contrasted against his disastrous relationships and his empty personal life. Basso's story is something of a tragedy then, but one with more than its fair share of humour and ingenuity. Also, by Parker's standards it's not that dark or disturbing (there's no Belly of the Bow 'moment' of unexpected ultraviolence here), though her twisted sense of humour remains intact. She also reigns in her tendency to interrupt the story for a three-page digression on the best way to build trebuchets (though there is one detailed explanation of how to use a scorpion - a piece of field artillery - as a stealthy assassination weapon, but this is quite funny so fair enough).

This is a strong novel with only a few brief but well-described moments of action, with the focus being on political and economic intrigue. Intriguingly, whilst set in an (unmapped) secondary world, there is no magic or mysticism in the novel at all, but this lack is barely felt.

As for criticisms, the tight focus on Basso means we don't get much of a sense of the Republic or the wider world beyond his own views on it, but that's the point of the story, I suppose. The ending is also perhaps a little underwhelming (and whilst it's not the first in a series, the ending is open enough to allow for a later sequel, if necessary). The reasons for Basso's sister's hatred of him are also under-explored, since we don't have any POV chapters from her. Finally, there are moments when things go as clockwork and Basso finds things going all his way that feels a little too clinical and not allowing for the unpredictability of human actions, but the latter part of the novel repays that in spades, so that's not too much of a problem.

The Folding Knife (****½) is an engrossing, page-turning economic and political thriller, executed with finesse by one of our best (but possibly most underrated) fantasists. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday 4 February 2011

SONG OF ICE AND FIRE comic on the way

George R.R. Martin and Daniel Abraham have announced that, in conjunction with Bantam Books and Dynamite Comics, a comic adaptation of A Game of Thrones will begin later this year. The plan is to adapt the first novel in the series into 24 monthly issues (to be later collected as several graphic novels), with a decision on the rest of the books to follow based on sales.

Hmm. Maybe this is because I'm not a 'comics guy' (I like them, especially things like Watchmen and Sandman, but am not a devoted follower) but this feels slightly redundant to me. We already have this story existing as an 800-page novel (plus the audiobook version) and a 600-minute television series, not to mention as the basis for two different computer games from Cyanide launching over the next few years (plus the mods for several more). Plus there's the roleplaying, board and card games which use the events of the first novel as a jumping-off point as well. So, this story has been told already.

I'd far rather have had an original series of new stories set in the history of Westeros, maybe outlined and approved by Martin and written by Abraham, perhaps about such matters as Aegon's invasion, the Dance of Dragons and the Blackfyre Rebellion (assuming that the War of the Ninepenny Kings is being held back for future Dunk 'n' Egg stories), not to mention Robert's Rebellion itself. This would be a good use of the medium, to reveal new information about the setting and backstory. As it stands, are there really many thousands of comics fans refusing to read prose novels or watch TV who need this adaptation to get the story across to them?

I'm sure it'll be well-executed. The art looks good at this stage and Daniel Abraham is a very talented writer. But this news would have been a lot more exciting a few years back (when it was first mooted as a Dabel Brothers project) before HBO optioned the books.

Thursday 3 February 2011

SON OF HEAVEN e-book available very cheaply

Those looking to sample David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series may be interested to know that the Kindle edition of the new first volume, Son of Heaven, is currently available for the knockdown price of £2.99 on Amazon UK. This is quite a bargain.

Son of Heaven is available now as an ebook and special limited edition (pictured above). The regular hardcover will be launched on 1 March. David Wingrove muses on the project here.

New Peter F. Hamilton covers

The repackaging of Peter F. Hamilton's novels continues in 2011, following on from the rejacketing of Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained last year. First up is the cover for Hamilton's new short story collection, Manhattan in Reverse, due later this year.

Then Hamilton's Greg Mandel Trilogy is being reissued. These novels - Mindstar Rising, A Quantum Murder and The Nano Flower - were originally published in the early 1990s and established Hamilton's credentials before he embarked on the epic Night's Dawn Trilogy (which I suspect will be repackaged next). An American omnibus edition of the three books is due in May, but the British editions will remain in single volumes.

Nicely-done, although somewhat misleading. Mindstar Rising seems to depict London after the proton bomb which devastates the city. Which is fine, except this is a very small part of the backstory of the series, already decades in the past when the trilogy opens. I'm assuming one of the cities in the other covers is mid-21st-Century Peterborough, which in Hamilton's vision has become the UK's new capital city after London's near-destruction (this is, by the way, the single-most-fantastical-and-unlikely thing that happens in any of Hamilton's books, way beyond the possibility of the Sleeping God existing, FTL or rejuvenation).

Much larger images can be seen at the Walker of Worlds blog.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Wertzone Classics: The 900 Days by Harrison E. Salisbury

On the evening of 21 June 1941, Leningrad, formerly St. Petersburg, the former capital of Russia and birthplace of the Soviet Union, was one of Europe's greatest cities. Three million people lived in a city where art and literature flourished, at least as much as was possible under Stalin's paranoid rule. The city and its hundreds of factories also benefited from the peace treaty with Nazi Germany, as materials poured out towards the German border to help drive the German war machine in the west. Rumours that Germany would turn on the Soviet Union were rejected as British propaganda, and those who persisted in making those claims felt the wrath of Beria's secret police.

In the early hours of 22 June, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest and most grandiose military undertaking in history to that time. Between three and four million German soldiers invaded the Soviet Union on a front more than 700 miles wide. Army Group Nord under Field Marshal von Leeb was directed to advance more than 400 miles through the Baltic States to Leningrad and destroy the city, link up with the Finnish armies advancing from the north and then swing south and east to help in the destruction of Moscow.

The Soviet Union was taken by total surprise. Its armies were strung out across the frontier and through rear-echelon areas, often lacking arms or ammunition to avoid 'provoking' any incident. Stalin had a near-total breakdown due to his disbelief in the invasion and was out of action for weeks. In his absence no-one was prepared to take responsibility for the disaster, resulting in total chaos, through which the Germans advanced almost at will, encircling, capturing or destroying hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers in individual battles. Where the Soviets stood and fought on well-prepared ground with modern equipment (such as the formidable T-34 and KV-1 tanks) they proved the equal of the German attackers, but the overall situation was a disaster. The Baltic Fleet was thrown back from Riga to Leningrad with thousands of deaths and dozens of ships sunk. Defensive line after defensive line was overrun. Divisions were sent into battle under-strength and under-armed, just to try to hold the Germans back for a few days longer.

Just nine weeks into the invasion, the German army reached the southern suburbs of Leningrad and was only stopped by the frantic digging of defensive works, with hundreds of thousands of civilians from the city recruited to help, and colossal artillery barrages from the heavy warships of the Baltic Fleet laid down to delay the advance. Finally, the Germans switched their attention to Moscow and the Panzer divisions leading the attack on Leningrad were diverted south, sparing the city from direct assault. Instead it was invested, beginning on 8 September with the cutting of all land links to the city. The Russians expected a speedy relief by the Red Army. Instead, whilst a very tentative corridor was opened in January 1943, it wasn't until 27 January 1944 that the siege was fully lifted. In full, the siege lasted 880 days, one of the longest in history and by far the most deadly.

After the siege was lifted, the Soviets admitted that 600,000 people within the city had died. They were wrong. Even conservative estimates drawing on the number of bodies interred in the cemeteries and recovered afterwards place it in the region of 1,200,000 (or considerably more than the combined British and American casualties - civilian and military - of World War II in its entirety).

During WWII Harrison E. Salisbury was the head of the United Press Office in London, and subsequently was Moscow correspondent for The New York Times. He took a contemporary interest in the Siege of Leningrad and was one of the first western journalists allowed into the city after the siege. He interviewed hundreds of people who'd lived through the nine hundred days, from senior Communist Party officials to factory-workers and front-line soldiers (some of whom he corresponded with for decades afterwards), and collected vast reams of notes for a potential book on the siege. However, whilst the siege may have ended the machinery of Soviet politics had not, and he found many of his correspondents being chewed and spat out - sometimes in pieces - by Stalin's paranoid post-war purges. The book was published in 1969 and immediately banned in the Soviet Union due to its pinning of the blame for the disasters of Barbarossa on Stalin and the blinkered reactions of the Party.

Salisbury's technique with the book is to grant an overview of the entirety of the siege as seen from the Russian side (the German perspective is given at regular intervals, but after the initial advance and prior to the liberation the Germans are essentially just standing still outside the city, so they are not a major focus of the book). He looks at the military, supply and administrative problems faced in running and protecting a massive European city under siege from a militarily superior enemy, as well as the view from the streets, from common workers, soldiers and shopworkers. This is a massive undertaking - the book was almost 25 years in the writing - but Salisbury pulls it off masterfully. One second we are with Party Secretary Zhdanov authorising the building of a road across the frozen Lake Ladoga in the hope of opening a supply route, then we might be with a truck driver crossing the dangerous route and then with a soldier trying to protect the supply depots on the far side of the lake from Luftwaffe bombardment. It's an immersive technique, one that makes the book read like a thriller in its opening chapters as the Nazi steamroller inexorably closes on the city.

Contained in this book are hundreds of anecdotes and stories that could almost be full novels by themselves: a woman whose children are evacuated from the city but stupidly into an area closer to the German advance (she successfully goes behind German lines to rescue them and returns them to Leningrad); the Russian sailors on ice-locked ships who stave off boredom by forming a book club and reading the complete works of Dostoyevsky; the tiny fortress at the edge of the siege line which the Russians hold for 500 days against overwhelming German attacks until relieved; a starving child who can't decide whether or not to eat a mouse he finds stealing his tiny bread ration; and many more. Extensive footnotes and appendices list the sources for the claims and clarify confusion between different accounts of the same events, whilst the bibliography is one of the largest I've ever seen for such a (relatively) contained event. The amount of research that went into the book is staggering.

By its nature, the book is not going to be a laugh riot, though Salisbury does include moments of lightness and kindness where he finds them. However, the final third of the book, which focuses in detail on the most desperate days of the siege (when people were left on a few crumbs of bread a day to eat), is harrowing. Soldiers return from the front to find their entire families dead of starvation. Building walls burst from the swelling corpses within. Cannibals prey on unsuspecting children. It's a catalogue of horrors not quite like anything I've read before and is very heavy-going. However, it is also inspiring when you realise how many people did endure these privations and lived to tell the tale.

Salisbury's book has a few major issues. It's been criticised for focusing a little too much on the city's artists, particularly its poets and writers. Its true this group gets maybe a little bit more of a focus than others, but then it is understandable: they generally kept detailed diaries during the siege which other residents didn't. Also, their jobs generally entailed a minimum of dangerous or physically-exhausting activity, which killed so many of the city's other residents. The biggest problem is that, despite its name, the book focuses almost entirely on the first year of the siege (particularly the period up to April 1942), then the remainder is covered very quickly in the final 100 pages of the book. This is because Salisbury has taken a human-interest approach and the bulk of Leningrad's civilian population (or rather the bulk that hadn't starved to death in the horrific winter of 1941-42) was shipped out via Lake Ladoga after that first horrific year. More in-depth coverage of the latter part of the siege would have been welcome.

Despite this, The 900 Days (*****) is a brilliantly-written, breathtakingly-researched work of history focusing on (in the west, anyway) one of the more under-reported battles of the Second World War. It's powerful, dark, harrowing but also curiously uplifting and occasionally even awe-inspiring. It is available now in the UK and USA.

RIP Margaret John

Margaret John, who was cast in Game of Thrones as 'Old Nan', sadly passed away today at the age of 84. Her voice can be heard in one of the trailers for the series, warning of the coming winter and the white walkers.

She had a long and distinguished career in television, but had seen a recent resurgence after being cast as the scene-stealing 'Doris' in British sitcom Gavin & Stacey. She had also appeared in Doctor Who (both the original and new versions) and Blake's Seven, amongst many other TV, film and stage appearances.

Margaret John had completed shooting all of her scenes for Season 1 of Thrones, which wrapped shooting in mid-December. Her character continues to make small appearances in the second book (which will form the basis of a potential second season), though arguably not critical ones. Whether the role will be recast or dropped is not known at the moment.

More on Westeros, Winter is Coming, and the BBC.