Tuesday 29 March 2011

A Dance with Doorstops

With the publishers gearing up for the release of A Dance with Dragons on 12 July, George R.R. Martin is continuing to round off the book, reporting that the novel has passed 1,600 pages in manuscript. In order to hit the July publishing date, the book apparently has to be handed in at some point in May; such is the manner in which the bulk of the book has already been edited, copy-edited and typeset, the publishers literally can get the book on shelves from delivery of the final pages in just a matter of weeks, which is an impressive achievement.

Will the book be thicker in size than it is wide?

Of course, the book passing 1,600 pages has triggered concerns about fitting the book into one volume. Martin has previously said that A Storm of Swords - 1,521 manuscript pages and 420,000 words - was at the upper limit of what his publishers could put in one book. More ominously, the decision to split A Feast for Crows came when the manuscript for that book also exceeded 1,600 pages.

No-one seems to have talking about a split - at least in the hardcover edition - just yet, indicating several factors have come into play. First off, sales of A Song of Ice and Fire have increased since 2000 to the point where a new George R.R. Martin novel is in the same sales bracket as a new Stephen King or a new Robert Jordan. Economies of scale mean that the publishers can now be much more confident of making a significant return and profit even given the greater production costs involved in producing a 1,000-1,100 page hardcover. Secondly, A Feast for Crows was split not just because of the 1,600 MS-page size, but also because Martin was still projecting that hundreds of more pages would be required at that point to bring the book to completion. For Dragons, Martin is projecting merely dozens more (and it appears all or most of these pages exist in draft, needing only finalisation rather than writing from scratch).

Still, when combined with the appendices this will likely leave the completed Dragons around 1,700 pages in manuscript. Based on the previous books in the series, this will likely leave the book at a word count of over 450,000 words, possibly as much as 470,000.

For comparison with other SFF novels of immense length, Tad Williams' To Green Angel Tower is 520,000 words, Peter F. Hamilton's The Naked God has been estimated at 470,000 words and the complete, one-volume Lord of the Rings is around 460,000 words. Recent doorstops The Way of Kings (by Brandon Sanderson) and The Wise Man's Fear (by Patrick Rothfuss) are positively modest in comparison, coming in at 385,000 and 395,000 words respectively.

Of course, whilst the size of the book is impressive, far more telling is how well the narrative supports that immense length. If Martin delivers a huge novel which also furthers the overall storyline of A Song of Ice and Fire decisively, that will be a great achievement, but a filler-filled book will be less popular. I guess in 104 days, we'll find out for sure.

Sunday 27 March 2011


Decades from now, the polluted, overcrowded Earth is dying, wracked by natural disasters and war. Seventy thousand people have escaped to colonise the planet Carpathia, founding the settlement of Forthaven. After ten years, the final transporter from Earth is due to arrive but is suffering technical problems. As the personnel of Forthaven struggle to survive, they are wracked by internal dissent, problems with a group of outcasts from the settlement and other, more mysterious problems from elsewhere...

Outcasts is an eight-episode series which recently aired on the BBC. Intended to be a returning series, the show was axed after its first (and only) season due to low ratings but high costs. It would be an understatement to also say it had a 'mixed' reception.

Outcasts looks great. Filmed on location in South Africa, the show's location shooting (enhanced by subtle CGI and other effects) adds a distinctly alien feeling to the show, helping the sense of otherworldliness that the producers were aiming for. However, whilst it looks big-budget there are clear limitations on this shooting: all of the action in the series seems to happen in a radius of about ten miles from Forthaven, on either side of one distinctive mountain, and after a while the impressive scenery becomes increasingly over-familiar (the same problem Lost suffered from). Forthaven itself is convincingly downbeat and lived-in, made up of box containers dropped from orbit which have been emptied and turned into cheap living quarters. There's also a nice contrast between the down-and-dirty living quarters to the high-tech HQ (actually a parked transport craft) and medical facility, though this doesn't quite transfer into the sociology of the settlement as much as you'd expect (people living in shacks don't seem to really mind other people are living in air-conditioned comfort).

The quality of the performances is rather more variable. The stand-outs are Amy Manson as Fleur Morgan and Daniel Mays as Cass Cromwell, two of the settlement's security operatives who are usually at the forefront of any investigation that might be in progress, as well as serving as liaisons between the colony's government and its military wing of semi-autonomous 'expeditionaries'. These two actors have genre form - Manson from Being Human and Torchwood and Mays from Ashes to Ashes - and take their exposition-laden dialogue in their stride. Hermione Norris is much more out of her depth as Stella Isen (who is inexplicably pulling double time as head of security and chief medical officer), whilst Liam Cunningham veers from charismatic to wooden as President Tate (sometimes in the same scene), as if he can't quite get a handle on the character. Ex-BSGer Jamie Bamber is excellent in a role light-years away from Apollo, but his role in the series is somewhat less prominent than advertised. Ex-Ugly Betty star Eric Mabius gives a quite good performance as Julius Berger, the settlement's resident bad-but-charming powermonger, even if his tactics (playing the religious card, pursuing pragmatic politics or rallying the rabble) seem to shift randomly.

The series' general premise is also solid. The settlement is isolated with little news from Earth and there are unknown forces at work beyond its walls (although after ten years you'd think that the expeditionaries would have discovered some more hard information about the planet and perhaps established more than just one colony town), setting up a vibe somewhere between Battlestar Galactica's New Caprica arc and Lost, complete with a group of 'Others' stirring up trouble in the wilderness. A whole host of backstory issues are also waiting to be explored, such as characters' murky pasts, some dark secrets from the founding of the colony and the past lives on Earth that some of the characters are trying to escape.

So, we have a solid premise, some good actor, a reasonable budget and some great scenery. So what went wrong?

Basically, the writing is awful, jam-packed with cliched dialogue, painful amounts of exposition and some true howlers ("What are they after?" "I know what I'd want...revenge,") that would fail any basic Scriptwriting 101 class. The general story arc - relating to a virus that once ravaged the colony, a bunch of outcasts from the settlement and Berger's powerbase-building efforts - is okay, if a bit familiar, but executed sloppily and clumsily. The 'problem of the week' episodes mid-season are also formulaic: either a random person emerges from the 70,000 random extras who make up the population to cause some crisis or something weird happens outside the settlement which requires the intervention of the command staff.

Most of this is pretty tiresome, but Manson and Mays emerge as the best actors on the show because they just roll with it, whilst the others seem to struggle with their dialogue quite frequently. Even so, character motivations are often clumsily-established and somewhat vague. It's not until we're about three-quarters of the way through the season that that the sloppily-set-up threads start coming together more satisfyingly, with attempted coups, viral warfare and the introduction of new factions giving the show a late-season sense of dynamism and energy that it was sorely lacking at the start.

Unfortunately, this is too late in the day. Outcasts (**½) had a lot of promise and the ingredients are all solid, but the execution is all too frequently mediocre to rise above the barely-watchable. If you can hang on to the last two episodes, a great deal more potential appears, but is then scuppered by the cliffhanger ending you know is never going to be resolved. The show is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, with no US release apparently planned at the moment.

Shadowplay by Tad Williams

Shadowmarch Castle is in crisis. Barrick Eddon is missing, presumed killed in battle, whilst his sister Briony has also vanished from the castle, leaving it under the redoubtable stewardship of the ambitious and scheming Hendon Tolly. An army of the Twilight Folk has occupied the landward side of the fortress but not besieged the castle proper, but far to the south the great city of Hierosol is under attack by the armies of Xis, threatening the safety of both the fugitive Quinnitan and King Olin Eddon, a captive of the city's rulers.

Shadowplay is the second volume in the Shadowmarch quartet and carries the series past its halfway point. As with the first volume it's a competently-executed, traditional secondary world fantasy, but as a novel it's even slower-moving and more badly-paced than the first book.

The book is divided into several widely-separated narratives: Barrick and Ferras Vansen's adventures beyond the Shadowline, Briony on the run with a bunch of theatrical players, Olin as a captive in Hierosol, Chert the Funderling trying to help his amnesiac, adopted son and various characters in Southmarch living under the new regime. Unfortunately these narratives aren't really tied together well. They also vary wildly in quality and execution. The autarch's assault on Hierosol is tense and well-handled, but Briony on the road with the travelling players is dull. Even worse is Barrick's adventures beyond the Shadowline, where Williams aims for a kind of surreal mysticism and ends up with turgid boredom (though a few moments are genuinely unsettling). Chert, the most interesting character from the first book, is also hugely reduced in importance and gets little to do here.

The book's biggest problem is that whilst we have some big battles, some ominous scenes and some intriguing (if sometimes soap opera-ish) developments, the overall storyline doesn't develop very far. For only the second in a four-book series, it feels like Williams has far too many balls in play and is only able to move each of them forward a very small amount rather than the whole thing forward decisively (probably a reason why this trilogy expanded to four volumes).

The book is somewhat frustrating as Williams is still a good writer and some storylines and characters are well-handled, but overall the book's pace feels misjudged and there are no real surprises here.

Shadowplay (***) is a competently-executed fantasy novel, but the plot is slow to develop and there are too many storylines which feel extraneous or badly-handled to be really satisfying. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday 26 March 2011

RIP Diana Wynne Jones

Prolific fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones has passed away at the age of 76. She had been battling lung cancer for the past two years.

Born in 1934, Jones studied at Oxford and attended lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. She published her first novel, Changeover, in 1970. Jones is best-known for her 1986 novel Howl's Moving Castle, recently adapated as a well-received film for Studio Ghibli, and her Chrestomanci and Derkholm series of novels. She received the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. Her book, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland should be required reading for anyone planning to write a secondary world epic fantasy.

From Neil Gaiman:

"Rest in Peace, Diana Wynne Jones. You shone like a star. The funniest, wisest, writer & the finest friend. I miss you."

Very sad news. Condolences to her many friends, family and fans.

Roy Dotrice returns to read A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Roy Dotrice, the popular audiobook reader for the first three A Song of Ice and Fire books, has been signed up by Bantam to read the audiobook for A Dance with Dragons. Schedules are being put together now for the recording and release of the audiobook.

Excellent news. There were fears that Dotrice's health issues - the same issues that meant he couldn't take up the role of Grand Maester Pycelle in the HBO series - would prevent him from reading the audiobook, but fortunately he has made a full and rapid recovery. HBO are also now looking at giving him a role in Season 2 (if renewed) of the TV show. Personally I think he'd make a great Maester Cressen (if a rather brief appearance).

Friday 25 March 2011

Cover art for David Chandler's ANCIENT BLADES TRILOGY

Horror author David Wellington is moving into fantasy, adopting the pseudonym David Chandler for his Ancient Blades Trilogy. The three books are being published in rapid succession: Den of Thieves in July, A Thief in the Night in October and Honor Among Thieves in December. The trilogy is also significant as it marks the launch of the UK-based HarperCollins Voyager as a worldwide brand, following in the success of Orbit going global a couple of years ago.

The UK cover artwork is as follows (thanks to Jussi at Westeros.org):

The US cover art is, erm, not quite as good:

"A mix of pulp and high fantasy, at turns funny, suspenseful, and touching, David Chandler’s Ancient Blades trilogy is laden with twists and turns, high adventure, a little romance, and a lot of fun.

Croy is a knight errant, and bearer of an ancient blade with a powerful destiny. He's also kind of, well, dim. He believes in honour. He believes that people are fundamentally good, and will do the right thing if you give them a chance.

Unfortunately, Croy lives in the city of Ness. A thriving medieval city of fifty thousand people, none of whom are fundamentally even decent, and who will gleefully stab you in the back. If you give them a chance.

Ness is also the home to Malden. Malden is a thief. He lives by his wits, disarming cunning traps, sneaking past sleeping guards, and running away very fast whenever people are trying to kill him. Which is often. One time Malden stole a crown. And then he had to steal it back to avoid a civil war. Croy got the credit, of course, because he's a noble knight. Another time the two of them went into the tomb of an ancient warrior race, and Croy accidentally started a barbarian invasion. Guess who had to clean that up?

They probably wouldn't be friends at all if it wasn't for Cythera. Cythera is a witch. A mostly-good witch. And despite herself she can't stop thieves and knights falling in love with her… At the same time."

Voyager seem to be marketing this to the Joe Abercrombie/Scott Lynch crowd. If Chandler is as remotely as good as those guys, it should be good stuff :-)

New Yorkers get to experience the tastes of the Seven Kingdoms

Top American chef Tom Colicchio has created a number of dishes inspired by the HBO series Game of Thrones. Starting next week, HBO food trucks will be handing out these dishes at various locations in New York City to passers-by.

As a way of marketing a show, this is definitely one of the more interesting techniques I've heard of. HBO have also published the recipe for the lemon cakes (PDF) mentioned in the clip.

Duke Nukem Forever News

Huzzah! After fourteen years in development, Duke Nukem Forever is finally coming out in early May! Nothing can stop it now!


GAME OF THRONES and ICE & FIRE news round-up

HBO have released four high-res images of locations in the series: one of King's Landing (see below), one of the Wall and two of Winterfell. These are pretty smart and worth a look.

King's Landing, with the Red Keep prominently displayed. The Great Sept of Baelor can be seen on the far right.

Still with the TV series, HBO has released a new trailer, this one entitled 'Power'. This trailer seems slightly more aimed at people who haven't read the books.

On the computer game front, Cyanide have released the first screenshot from the second game, the RPG, due in summer 2012 on PC and console. They've also spoken about it a little for the first time, revealing that the game will alternate between two characters, Mors Westford (a member of the Night's Watch and skinchanger) and Alester Sarwyck, a noble heir returning to Westeros after years travelling the east, during which time he became a priest of the red god. The game takes place close to the time period of the novels, and some characters from the books like Varys will make an appearance.

"You appear concerned, Lord Commander."
"Indeed. Are we actually in the GoT RPG, The Witcher 2 or Dragon Age? It's hard to tell."

In addition they have released two new screenshots from the real-time strategy game, Genesis, which is due later this year.

I have to say these screenshots are very unimpressive. Early fears that they are aiming more for an Age of Empires-style, stylised approach to the game appear to have been realised, with out-of-scale units and buildings and seriously unambitious ideas for the Wall and the Eyrie (which in the game appears to sit on a rather mild hill rather than on a shoulder of a 17,000-foot-tall sheer mountain).

On the book front, the new editions of the first four novels should now be readily available in the USA, along with the TV tie-in edition of A Game of Thrones (this edition should hit the UK in the middle of next week, and may already be on sale in some areas). On the Dance with Dragons front, George R.R. Martin's editor has published a picture of the manuscript for the novel (or the 95% of it submitted so far):

The manuscript is so huge it generates its own gravitational field, and has consumed the books it formerly shared the shelf with.

HarperCollins Voyager are also now listing their estimated hardcover page count as 1,040 pages, whilst Bantam in the USA are still only predicting 1,008. A final page count is waiting for the delivery of the last couple of chapters, but these estimates confirm the book is expected to be gargantuan. Unfortunately, some further controversy has been caused amongst UK purchasers by the news that Voyager is publishing the hardcover at a recommended retail price of £25.00, or about £5 more than the price of a standard hardcover (both The Way of Kings and The Wise Man's Fear, which are not far off ADWD's length, were £20 in hardcover). However, the novel will still be heavily discounted before release and during the first few weeks on sale.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Genre for Japan Appeal

Following the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a group of SF bloggers and professionals have gotten together to raise funds to help in the relief effort.

Blogger Amanda Rutter (of Floor to Ceiling Books), author Louis Morgan, Solaris editor Jenni Hill, blogger Ro Smith and writer Alasdair Stuart have joined forces to create the 'Genre for Japan' appeal, auctioning limited collectibles, rare items and signed books to raise funds for British Red Cross efforts in Japan. Bidding for the items begins on Monday and The Guardian has coverage of the appeal here.

Monday 21 March 2011

Paul Kearney's SEA-BEGGARS series to be completed

Paul Kearney's Sea-Beggars series got off to a roaring start in 2004 with the excellent The Mark of Ran, followed up by its sequel This Forsaken Earth in 2006. Unexpectedly, Bantam abruptly dropped the series, leaving Kearney briefly publisher-less before he was rescued by Solaris.

Unfortunately, Bantam UK held onto the rights to the Sea-Beggars series, preventing Kearney from completing the final book in the series, Storm of the Dead. He went on to write the well-received Macht trilogy (The Ten Thousand, Corvus and the forthcoming Kings of Morning) whilst the rights situation was thrashed out behind the scenes.

Happily, the situation has now been resolved. Solaris have acquired the rights to both the existing books and Storm of the Dead and will publish all three books in one omnibus volume in late 2012.

Jonathan Oliver, commissioning editor of Solaris Books, has acquired UK/US rights in the two previously-published SEA BEGGARS novels by Paul Kearney plus a third and final volume, STORM OF THE DEAD. They will be published in a one-volume omnibus, following the success of Kearney’s MONARCHIES OF GOD books in this form with Solaris (who also publish his Macht novels, THE TEN THOUSAND, CORVUS and the forthcoming KINGS OF MORNING). The book is due for publication late in 2012, and the agent was John Jarrold.

"Paul and I are both delighted that this series will be completed and published in its entirety by Solaris," said John Jarrold. "He is a major talent and anyone reading this or his other novels will see that very quickly."

"It’s a great pleasure to welcome Paul back to Solaris," editor-in-chief, Jonathan Oliver, said. "Fans of Paul’s will be delighted that the SEA BEGGARS series is finally seeing completion and new readers will be bowled over by the work of this brilliant and intelligent fantasy writer."
Excellent news for Paul and his fans, who'll finally be able to found out what happened to Rol Cortishane and his allies following the cliffhanger ending to This Forsaken Earth.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Ciaphas Cain: Duty Calls by Sandy Mitchell

A planet-wide insurrection has broken out on Periremunda, necessitating the deployment of the Imperial Guard to the planet to help crush it. The Valhallan 597th is part of the deployment, along with its increasingly legendary commissar, Ciaphas Cain, hero of the Imperium. As usual, Cain hopes for a quiet, simple assignment where he can sit out the trouble, and also as usual he finds himself instead at the cutting edge of danger. This time, a simple rebellion is revealed to mask a whole number of other threats which Cain and his ever-faithful aide Jurgen have to deal with. In this case, operations are complicated by Periremunda's unique geography, a world of burning, uninhabitable deserts with settled plateaus rising above them.

Duty Calls is the fifth Ciaphas Cain novel and, disappointingly, is a little bit of a let-down after the terrific Death or Glory. The good news is that we are reunited with the Valhallans 597th and also with Inquisitor Amberley Veil and her retinue of demented allies. The bad news is that Mitchell has seriously dialled down the humour and amusing references in this book. There are a few (mostly restricted to the footnotes and the extracts from General Sulla's ludicrously bombastic memoirs that provide a commentary on events where Cain is not present), but this is a more serious novel than its predecessors.

Not that this is a bad thing. Mitchell is great at describing the action which is the cornerstone of any Warhammer 40,000 novel, and is also solid at handling horror and drama as well as the traditional black humour of the books. So whilst Duty Calls won't have you laughing as much as its predecessor, it's still a solid and readable action-adventure tale, refreshingly short and to the point with a good line in characterisation. Whilst the book's main storyline is self-contained, some dangling storylines are picked up from Death or Glory and carried through to the next book in the series, Cain's Last Stand, resulting in the sense of bigger events unfolding outside of this one conflict.

Mitchell has created an interesting world in Periremunda and describes its scenery and geography with gusto. Elsewhere the book suffers from perhaps a tad too much reliance on the Ciaphas Cain formula - Cain is bluff and cowardly but emerges a hero, whilst Jurgen and his melta gun and psi-inhibiting abilities save the day more than once - as well as a sense of plot overload. As well as the rebellion, Mitchell also jams in genestealers, Chaos cults, a renegade Inquisitor and a meeting with a particularly fanatical branch of the Sisters of Battle. As a result some elements are under-developed. The planetary arbitrator goes from being a major character at the start to virtually vanishing altogether, whilst Cain's ideological clash between his pragmatism and the Sisters' idealism is never developed to its full potential.

Still, even slightly sub-par Cain remains highly entertaining and readable. Duty Calls (***½) is available now as part of the Defender of the Imperium omnibus in the UK and USA.

Cover art for the two-volume WAY OF KINGS

The UK mass-market paperback edition of The Way of Kings has been split in half due to the book's extreme length. Part 1 will be published on 26 May 2011, followed by Part 2 on 16 June. The American paperback, in one volume (of 1,344 pages!) will hit on 24 May.

In related news, the UK gets its own versions of Elantris on 11 August, The Alloy of Law on 17 November and Warbreaker in December.

Saturday 19 March 2011

Some cover art and news

The American cover art for Brandon Sanderson's new Mistborn novel, The Alloy of Law, has been unveiled:

As has the American cover art for Vernor Vinge's Children of the Sky, his long-awaited sequel to the much-lauded A Fire Upon the Deep:

Paul Kearney's Kings of Morning has apparently been delayed until November 2011. Disappointing, though that's still only a year after his previous novel, Corvus, was published. No reason has been given for the delay.

Friday 18 March 2011

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, Kvothe the Kingkiller. He is a legend but the real man is an enigma. A man named Chronicler is trying to find out the truth behind the legend by convincing Kvothe to tell him his life story, a task so long it will take three days to complete.

On the second day, Kvothe relates more of his time at the Commonwealth University, his ongoing feud with another student named Ambrose and his increasingly proficient studies in various areas. He also tells of his time spent in Vintas, serving a nobleman seeking to woo a lady, and learning the arts of combat in far Ademre. But how much of Kvothe's story is truth and how much is his own fabrication?

The Wise Man's Fear is the sequel to The Name of the Wind and the second in The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy. Since the trilogy was originally one extremely long novel split into three parts, The Wise Man's Fear has little preamble and not much of the climax. It starts, we follow the story for a time, and then it ends with little resolved. For a novel that is 1,000 pages long in hardcover, that should be a fairly damning comment.

Rothfuss's saving grace is his immense writing skill. He could make the telephone directory sound warm and interesting, and whilst the book is extremely long most of the chapters are short and snappy. The narrative is divided into two distinct sections, basically Kvothe in the University and Kvothe out in the world, and these sections are themselves fairly episodic. Whilst Kvothe's hunt for information about the Chandrian, the mysterious creatures that killed his family, provides a narrative spine of sorts, sometimes dozens of chapters pass without this plot element being as much as mentioned.

As a result The Wise Man's Fear feels less like a novel and more like a collection of tightly linked short stories (a feeling added to by the fact that one episode in the novel, The Road to Levinshir, was previously published as a separate short story almost a decade ago). This dichotomy - a very episodic book presented as a single novel - creates problems for pacing and consistency, with some of the episodes and stories being fascinating and others being tedious, whilst several more interesting-sounding incidents (like Kvothe standing trial for a misdemeanour) are skipped over in a couple of paragraphs. The Name of the Wind suffered from this as well, such as the incongruous and dull draccus incident towards the end of the book, but due to its much greater length The Wise Man's Fear is even more prone to it. Kvothe's dalliance with a famous Fae temptress goes on for far too long and winds up feeling a bit like the porn version of Tom Bombadil, whilst Kvothe's training montage with the Klingon Aiel Dothraki Vikings of the far north-east is just plain dull. Those who found Kvothe insufferable and Gary Stu-esque in the first novel will likely plain hate him here, as he picks up a ton more skills (including unarmed and armed combat, more magical skills and several more languages) with ease.

But Rothfuss does seem to be more overtly pulling the wool over the reader's eyes here. Kvothe reports on his badass fighting skills but then in a 'present' incident is unable to effectively defend himself from attack. Is this because he overrated his combat abilities, or because he's rusty, or because he deliberately holds back? The reader is invited to decide. Anomalies in Kvothe's story are also pointed out by Chronicler, and Kvothe admits to occasionally sprucing up his story. He's not exactly an unreliable narrator on the scale of Severian in The Book of the New Sun, but Rothfuss is at least letting the reader know that Kvothe himself might not be the best person to tell his tale, but he's all we've got to go on.

Elsewhere, plot elements are carefully alluded to rather than being spelt out, such as the motivations and identity of Denna's mysterious employer, or the relationship between Kvothe and a minor character that Kvothe himself is totally oblivious to. There is an impressive degree of subtlety running through this brick-thick tome that will no doubt raise questions and discussions that will keep fantasy forums busy until the final volume is released.

Rothfuss's powers of prose and characterisation remain highly impressive. The writing is rich and atmospheric, setting the scene perfectly, and Rothfuss has a keen eye for detail, humour and warmth (though in this book slightly more undercut by bitterness and cynicism), but those hoping for the story to explode into life, become bigger and more epic, will be disappointed. In a way Rothfuss is writing an anti-epic fantasy, with the focus narrowly on one character and the ordinary events that have been inflated out of all proportion. This forces the reader to keep downplaying expectations, since Rothfuss isn't playing the same game as a lot of other epic fantasy authors.

The Wise Man's Fear (***½) is a difficult book to review, as it's well-written, sometimes compulsively page-turning and features some extremely well-played and subtle storytelling. On other, briefer, occasions it's tediously dull, cloying and prone to attacks of purple prose (particularly in the frisky fairy section). The book is also monstrously overlong and could have been split into two or three more focused, shorter books without too much of a problem. But Rothfuss is too good a writer to let the book's many issues sink it, and the book ends with the reader left wanting to know what happens next, which is the key thing. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


New American cover art for The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan has appeared:

If that looks familiar, that's because it's the UK cover, re-tweaked to include the series title, A Land Fit For Heroes. Del Rey are also listing a release date of 11 October 2011. Interesting to see if the book, which has only been delivered in the last few days, will make that date.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

A Storm of HBO Videos (now with added ADWD MS shot!)

HBO have released a metric ton of new promo material for Game of Thrones today, starting with the four posters shown below.

They've also released four 'House' videos, one each for Houses Targaryen, Stark, Lannister and Baratheon. The Lannister one is notable for our first glimpse of Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister, whilst the Baratheon one makes a point of mentioning Stannis several times, though he won't be cast until the second season.

Those based in the USA should also note that Comcast have a ton of exclusive videos (USA-only at this time) on their site, including expanded behind-the-scene features and character profiles (including Jason Momoa characterising Khal Drogo as 'the biggest pimp'). Winter is Coming has YouTube links.

Excellent stuff, though I think HBO need to be careful lest they overload the potential viewer with featurettes, posters and teasers. There's quite a lot of material out there now.

Meanwhile, Bantam editor Anne Groell has released a picture of herself holding the manuscript of (95% of) A Dance with Dragons:

Impressive. And in a little under four months, everyone will be able to read it :-)

The Wertzone is up for an SFX award!

Which I have absolutely no chance whatsoever of winning! Still, gratifying to be noticed.

SFX Magazine ("Europe's Biggest-Selling SF Magazine") has opened its 2011 SF Blog Awards, with categories for Best Podcast, Best Forum, Best Celebrity Blog and so on. The Wertzone is up for the 'Best Book Blog' award (which the SFX team admit is a stretch, as the blog isn't exclusively about books), which is cool.

My competitors are Graeme's Fantasy Book Review (excellent SF review blog), Ansible (the most feted SF newsletter in the genre's history) and SF Signal (a vast review site with tons of news, articles and features, run by multiple contributors). Which means I have absolutely zero chance of winning.

The poll is a nice idea, especially since SFX is running it separately to their annual reader awards meaning that different kinds of online coverage can be acknowledged.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Richard Morgan finishes THE COLD COMMANDS

Richard Morgan has completed The Cold Commands and should deliver it imminently. The book will then enter the editorial cycle and we can see if the hoped-for late 2011 release date holds.

Great news. Interesting to see how the story develops after The Steel Remains.

Monday 14 March 2011

Three new ASoIaF-related videos

First up, a new trailer for the HBO series. Some cool elements here, such as the first dialogue from Varys (Conleth Hill), our first look at Old Nan (the late Margaret John) and, most impressive, the first long-shots of Winterfell and King's Landing.

Secondly, a featurette on House Stark, featuring some interesting musings on the house's honour and its members, featuring the first appearance of some actors in behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Finally, George R.R. Martin kills a panda with a Dance with Dragons hardcover, just because (thanks to Anon for the tip-off):

Finally, the final UK tie-in cover art:

Sunday 13 March 2011

More info on new AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER TV series

The Last Airbender: The Legend of Korra, the sequel series to the excellent animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, has an air date: the series will debut in the USA on Nickelodeon in 2012. We also have our first look at Korra, the titular central character:

Korra lashing out with destructive magic, possibly having just sat through M. Night Shyamalan's film version of the original series.

The new series picks up the storyline seventy years after the events of Avatar. Aang has passed away and Korra has become the new Avatar. Having already mastered fire, water and earthbending, she travels to the steampunk-eqsque Republic City to seek out Aang's son, Tenzin, to learn the art of airbending. However, there is widespread distrust and paranoia over magic-users developing amongst the population, leading to civil unrest.

Originally mooted as a 12-episode mini-series, Nickelodeon have extended the first run to 26 half-hour episodes. Rather than a multi-year arc, the new series will apparently adopt the 24 model of having a different, over-arcing storyline each season (suggesting the project may be evolving into an ongoing series rather than a limited one). Original series producers Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are on board to write every episode, whilst vocal talent will include familiar Avatar stalwarts such as Dante Basco (Zuko) and Dee Bradley Baker (Appa and Momo) in new roles, as well as relatively high-profile actors like J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson in the Raimi Spider-Man movies) playing Tenzin, Daniel Dae Kim (Jin from Lost) as Hiroshi Sato and Lance Henrickson (Bishop from Alien movies, amongst many other roles) in an undisclosed military role.

Avatar: The Last Airbender was a great show. Whilst it's sad to say goodbye to the old crew, it'll be interesting to see the world explored further in the new series.

Saturday 12 March 2011

A DISCWORLD City Watch TV series in the works

Terry Pratchett has signed a deal with Prime Focus Productions to bring the 'City Watch' subset of his Discworld novels to television. The deal will allow for an ongoing TV series featuring new adventures and episodes based on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, commanded by Sam Vimes and made up of a mixed group of humans, trolls, werewolves, vampires, zombies, golems and dwarfs. Exactly how this will work - whether they'll start with an adaptation of Guards! Guards! or a new introduction - is unclear at present.

Pratchett was working with the BBC on a similar project a few years ago (hence why none of the 'City Watch' books have been optioned by Sky for their TV movie adaptations) but pulled out after the BBC refused to allow him a say in the running of the series. It's unclear if a broadcaster is interested in the new project, but given that the head of Prime previously worked on the Sky adaptations, we can guess that Sky will at least give it a look.

Meanwhile, the next Sky novel adaptation, Unseen Academicals, starts shooting in the near future. Pratchett's next Discworld novel, Snuff, comes out in October.

Friday 11 March 2011

Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

Condemned to be burned as a witch for the heresy of using sorcery, young Gair is surprised when his life is spared by a whim of the Preceptor. Exiled from his homeland, Gair is taken into the care of Alderan, a man on the lookout for those with Gair's talents. Alderan takes Gair to a place of safety where he can learn to control his powers, but there are those within the Church who are not mollified by the Preceptor's pardon and have sent their witchfinders to track Gair down.

For himself, Preceptor Ansel is old and failing, near the end of his life. But before his time is done, he hopes to unveil a secret about the Endirion Church which will change everything...

Songs of the Earth is the debut novel by Elspeth Cooper, the first in The Wild Hunt Trilogy. It's a traditional secondary world fantasy with a number of interesting flourishes which rise it above the pack.

At first glance there is little new or surprising about the novel, which is firmly in the standard epic fantasy mould. Young orphan hero of uncertain birth (though there's some nice genre-nodding jokes about that), a magical academy, romance, elves (sort of) and so on. The academy stuff recalls The Name of the Wind (in a good way) whilst the notion of magic as a song is intriguingly-handled, but again unoriginal. Characterisation is solid and somewhat more subtle than first expected. Gair is the typical young hero protagonist, but he goes through some interesting and somewhat traumatic developments which start making him harder-edged and more ruthless. Alderan is pretty much the standard 'old wizard mentor' character, though amusingly tilted slightly more towards Bayaz than Belgarad. And so on.

What is interesting is that a number of the major characters are handicapped in some way: Gair is branded and recovering from torture and trauma; Ansel is old, infirm and suffering from a lung disease; Darin has diabetes; and Aysha has two crippled legs, but her shapeshifting skills enable her to avoid her disability for a few hours per day. Cooper doesn't beat the reader over the head with this (in fact I was halfway through the book before noting it), but it's interesting and all-too-rare to see handicapped and infirm characters depicted in a fantasy novel, with disabled issues viewed though the lens of a world where magic exists (but its healing properties have limits). It's not a huge deal, but it's an interesting minor theme that Cooper develops subtly through the book.

Elsewhere the plot develops nicely, the magic is intriguingly high-end (after a number of gritty, low-magic works it's good to see people throwing up fortress-enveloping shields or creating entire storms from scratch) and the characters work well. On the minus side, it's nothing we haven't seen before.

Songs of the Earth (***½) is a solid debut novel with plenty of promise but, as this stage, not a huge amount of originality. It will be published on 16 June 2011 in the UK and imports should be available in the USA.


HBO have released the first 'proper' publicity poster for the series. A version of this poster will also adorn the new TV tie-in editions of A Game of Thrones in both the UK and USA:

For something nifty that fans of the books should clock immediately, check out the mega-res version of the poster and pay careful attention to the crow...

HBO have also unveiled the titles of the first two episodes of the series. Winter is Coming will air on 17 April, followed by The Kingsroad on 24 April. You can also now view the first two full clips from the series on YouTube: Jon giving Needle to Arya, and Tyrion arriving at the Crossroads Inn.

In addition, A Dance with Dragons has a new cover blurb in the UK. There's one very minor spoiler you may wish to skip if you haven't read the Tyrion sample chapter on George R.R. Martin's website (or if you haven't read A Storm of Swords):

The fifth volume in the greatest epic work of the modern age

The future of the Seven Kingdoms hangs in the balance. In the east, Daenerys, last scion of House Targaryen, her dragons grown to terrifying maturity, rules as queen of a city built on dust and death, beset by enemies. Now that her whereabouts are known many are seeking Daenerys and her dragons. Among them the dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, who has escaped King’s Landing with a price on his head, wrongfully condemned to death for the murder of his nephew, King Joffrey. But not before killing his hated father, Lord Tywin. To the north lies the great Wall of ice and stone – a structure only as strong as those guarding it. Eddard Stark's bastard son Jon Snow has been elected the 998th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, but he has enemies both in the Watch and beyond the Wall, where the wildling armies are massing for an assault. On all sides bitter conflicts are reigniting, played out by a grand cast of outlaws and priests, soldiers and skinchangers, nobles and slaves. The tides of destiny will inevitably lead to the greatest dance of all…
Fantasy writer and occasional writing buddy of GRRM Daniel Abraham on his early reaction to the book:

"Apart from the overwhelming peer pressure that comes from everyone on God's green earth apparently looking forward to this one, I have a little insider information about this one. I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire over a decade ago, and from everything I've heard and what I've seen of the in-process manuscript, this is *the* book I've been waiting for. Not only is it made out of the characters I enjoy the most, but my sources inform me that the structure of the book is what I was hoping it would be. I am very, very optimistic about this one."
Also check out David Louis Edelman's interesting thoughts on the book in the same post, where he muses on how Martin can handle the pressure and the expectations for the book.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Ciaphas Cain: Death or Glory by Sandy Mitchell

Commissar Ciaphas Cain's adventures continue! This time we return to the beginning of his career, when he is still assigned to the 12th Valhallan Field Artillery. With the last few cushy years of the assignment on Keffia coming to an end, Cain and his unit are reassigned to Perlia, a world which has been deadlocked between the Imperium and a huge Ork invasion force for some months. Cain and his forces are part of a reinforcing army, but the Orks, aware that they are on their way, have laid a trap in the Warp. With Cain's ship heavily damaged, he and his constant companion Jurgen bail out in an escape pod and crash-land thousands of miles behind enemy lines, with hundreds of thousands of Orks lying between them and salvation. Cain, reluctantly, has to find his way through the Ork lines back to safety, only to find himself saddled with a band of gung-ho rebels and a train of civilian refugees...

Death or Glory is the fourth Ciaphas Cain novel and author Sandy Mitchell decides to shake things up a little by rewinding to his early days when he wasn't as well-known with such a formidable reputation. On the one hand it's sad not to see the familiar faces of the Valhallan 597th knocking around, but on the other Mitchell's decision to shake things up pays off handsomely, as Death or Glory is the best book in the sequence to date.

The structure is a sort-of demented black humour version of Erikson's Chain of Dogs, as a terrified Cain tries desperately to avoid confronting the enemy and hopes to be able to sneak past them. Instead he ends up escorting hundreds of civilians and isolated Planetary Defence Forces from behind enemy lines through several major battles towards safety. Along the way he meets a bunch of colourful characters and forges his later reputation, as Cain's actions inspire the demoralised defenders elsewhere to great deeds. As usual Cain is self-deprecating and makes claims of cowardice, but Mitchell seems to finally get a handle on the dissonance between Cain's self-professed cowardice and lack of acumen with the self-evident skills the character displays, by citing Cain's arrogance and his love of having an amazing reputation which he cannot risk being besmirched, possibly even at the cost of his own life. This realisation allows Cain to shake off the Flashman-in-space tag and begin developing more satisfyingly as a character in his own right.

Death or Glory is also the funniest book in the series so far. We learn that after Cain is reported KIA, the resulting bureaucratic controversy to get him undeclared dead takes so long to sort out that eventually a standing order is given that Cain is never to be reported KIA until he's been missing for several years (this order is not rescinded even when Cain apparently does die of extreme old age, meaning he's still on the active duty roster years after being buried with full military honours in front of the Imperium's most senior military personnel). Elsewhere we learn that a scholarly work on the Orks has the frankly brilliant title Waaagh! and Peace ("Waaagh!" being the traditional Ork battlecry in the WH40K universe), whilst the Orks have an apparently religious belief that any vehicle painted red or given red strips will go faster than anything else (solidifying the characterisation of the Orks as demented Essex lads and Cockney wide-boys). One of the members of Cain's convoy is a vet based on a character from the All Creatures Great and Small novels and TV series. And so on.

Weaknesses? Only a few niggles. Whilst it's great the book doesn't outstay it's welcome, at 250 pages (in the omnibus) it does feel a little short for its epic scope. A few more episodes of Cain's journey (which he admits he skips over) wouldn't have gone amiss. It also would have been interesting to see Cain reunited with his unit at the end given his CO's constant doubts over Cain's abilities, but alas we are denied this potentially amusing scene.

Death or Glory (****½) is ridiculously entertaining fun, written with verve and wit. Not high literature, but terrifically engaging and sure to leave a smile on your face. The novel is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Defender of the Imperium omnibus.

Voting still open for the Gemmell Award Shortlist

Just a reminder that voting is still underway for the 2011 David Gemmell Awards shortlist. This isn't the final vote, just the first round to whittle the longlist down to five finalists in each category.

My votes were for Corvus by Paul Kearney for the Legend Award for Best Novel, Farlander by Col Buchanan for the Morningstar Award for Best Newcomer and The Black Lung Captain for the Ravenheart Award for Best Cover Art.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Latest version of the Malazan World Map

For the last five years or so over on the Malazanempire forum, various fans have been coming up with ideas for a complete world map. Whilst maps of the individual continents and sometimes individual kingdoms and cities appear in the novels, a grand overview map linking everything together has not appeared so far. At one time Erikson indicated an Encyclopedia Malazaica, complete with finely-detailed maps, would follow the completion of The Crippled God, but more recently has indicated this project is now on the back-burner and would only appear - if at all - much later, possibly after Esslemont has completed his books (the latter two of which will take place on continents as yet unvisited in detail in the books, namely Assail and Jacuruku).

For this reason the fan maps keep a-comin'. This is the latest version of my map, updated with information from Stonewielder and The Crippled God, not to mention with the help of a rough map released by the Malazanempire admins based on a very rough drawing by Erikson himself.

The shape of the continents should now broadly be correct and the placements more or less accurate, though Erikson and Esslemont's own maps are prone to a lot of changes, so don't be surprised if additional information in forthcoming books invalidates anything you see here.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Final cover art for the American ICE AND FIRE reissues

Bantam Spectra have released the finalised cover art for their new paperback and tradeback editions of A Song of Ice and Fire. As mentioned previously, this is the Larry Rostant art used on the current UK editions of the books, with some changes (A Game of Thrones has the cover from the UK A Dance with Dragons). The final covers differ from the drafts I've posted previously only in emphasising the HBO tie-in banner a bit more and changing the background colours on the first two books.

The new editions should hit American bookstores on 22 March, along with a special HBO tie-in edition of A Game of Thrones in tradeback and paperback (we're still waiting for the final version of that).

In the UK, Voyager have no plans to revise their artwork, I am informed, though the HBO tie-in edition will also be released (in a new typeset) here, possibly not until a week after the US.

EDIT: I've been told the new editions have already hit some bookstores in the USA and Canada already.

EDIT2: Winter is Coming has discovered the apparent final version of the HBO tie-in cover.

EDIT3: Sub Press are reprinting the first two limited editions of A Song of Ice and Fire (previously handled by Meisha Merlin before they imploded) and also have 30 completed pieces of art for A Dance with Dragons. There's just a couple more which will need to be inserted once they have the final manuscript, then they can move into production. So the limited ADWD should be available soon-ish after the regular edition.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Black Death

It is 1348 and the Black Death is sweeping the English countryside, killing tens of thousands. A young monk, Osmund, has fallen in love with a young girl who has taken refuge in his monastery. His actions lead him to joining a band of the King's men, led by the knight Ulric, on a mission to find a marshland village reputed to be in the grip of witchcraft. Along the way, he hopes to break off and run away with his love. But in the woodlands he finds himself drawn onto a far darker and crueler path.

Black Death is a relatively low-budget movie financed and made in Germany, although the film is in English and has a mostly British cast. It stars Sean Bean as Ulric and Eddie Redmayne - the main character in the recent adaptation of Pillars of the Earth - as Osmund, with veteran actors David Warner (too many roles to list) and Tim McInnery (Blackadder) in support, along with rising star Carice van Houten (noted for recent roles in Black Book, Valkyrie and Repo Men). A bunch of solid supporting actors such as Emun Elliott (soon to be seen in Game of Thrones, along with Bean) and John Lynch (Merlin's father in the BBC series of the same name) line out the relatively small cast.

Given this is a small-budget movie with Sean Bean wearing armour and swinging a sword, the first impression is of a cheesy action flick. Nothing could be further from the truth. Black Death is a surprisingly bleak and dark movie about faith, power and fundamentalism. Sean Bean's Ulric is a far, far cry from his other heroic roles or his out-and-out villains. Instead he's a God-fearing knight who believes absolutely that the Black Death is God's punishment of humanity for its sins. He's a brave and capable warrior, but also utterly unrelenting and ruthless in his quest, capable of killing anyone who gets in his way. Redmayne's Osmund is idealistic and hopeful, shocked by the viciousness of the world and the perchance for violence demonstrated by his new associates.

The film unexpectedly moves into Wicker Man territory when our protagonists reach the supposedly witch-infested town and become engaged in a struggle of faith, reason and power. McInnery is cast against type as the the town headman, with Van Houten as the woman who has brought hope to it. Van Houten is a little too obviously villainous from the off, but her contempt of those who slavishly believe whatever they are told is well-played.

The director, Christopher Smith (best-known for Severance), seems to be aware of the potential for sniggering comparisons to Monty Python and the Holy Grail and with Blackadder, so tackles them head-on. McInnery's casting is possibly one allusion to this, whilst the scene with the monks flagellating themselves as they walk along seems to be a very overt reference to the Grail. Beyond these nods, there is little humour in the film, especially once it moves into its final, dark act.

The film's biggest weakness is that the supposedly wordly wise knights fall a little to easily into a certain and very obvious trap, and whilst the film's focus is commendable in an age of bloated 3D monsters, some side-elements and secondary characters could have done with a bit more fleshing out.

The film's ending is a startling, expectation-destroying sequence. Initially it appears to render the entire film pointless, but on further reflection it raises further questions over corruption and fundamentalism that are surprisingly effective.

Black Death (****) is a dark, bleak and occasionally powerful movie which poses hard questions of its audience. A sometimes uncomfortable watch, this is a far more intelligent and interesting movie than it looks like on first glance. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and, on Region 2 import only, USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Saturday 5 March 2011

The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

A hundred and fifty thousand years ago an innocent god was pulled out of his home realm and scattered across the world. His spirit was chained to prevent him from destroying the world in his insane rage. Since then, the world has known misery and fear as, every few millennia, the Crippled God has tried to escape his prison.

The former 14th Army of the Malazan Empire, the Bonehunters, now marches to resolve the problem once and for all. But for Adjunct Tavore and her battered troops, who have already crossed a world and toppled an empire, this will be their greatest challenge. The heart of the Crippled God has been imprisoned by the formidable Forkrul Assail, the most lethal of the Elder Races, who are tapping its energies so they may pass judgement and destroy humanity once and for all. The Elder Gods are playing their own game, one that will either result in the destruction of everything or merely the annihilation of the warrens of sorcery. And amongst the Bonehunter's most stalwart allies, treachery and doubt is growing.

In a remote corner of a forgotten continent, the fate of the Crippled God and the entire world will be decided. Unthinkable alliances will be forged, ancient secrets will be unveiled and many will die before the end is reached and the Bonehunters fight the final battle of their desperate campaign.

The Crippled God is the final novel in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson's monumental epic fantasy series that began twelve years, three and a half million words and 11,300 pages (roughly, in paperback) ago with Gardens of the Moon. In that time Erikson has reached the heights of writing two of the very finest fantasy novels of the last decade (Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice), but there has been some growing scepticism over later novels in the series, which have tended to open up more confusing storylines then closing down or clarifying old ones.

The Crippled God has been billed as the second half of Dust of Dreams, the previous novel, with Dreams described as all set-up and Crippled as all-resolution. That's something of an exaggeration: Erikson spends the first three hundred pages or so setting things up and clearing his throat rather than cutting to the chase, but at the same time that's less than some of the other books. We still get lengthy philosophical discussions between lowly grunts which are rather unconvincing, but frankly the people for whom that's a major problem will have dropped the series long ago. Fortunately Erikson is somewhat less obtuse in this novel than in any previous ones. On occasion he even resorts to - gasp! - actually telling us what the hell is going on. This new, more reader-friendly Erikson who respects traditional narrative techniques a bit more than previously takes a little getting used to, it has to be said.

The Crippled God is also the book that stands alone the least well out of the series, understandable as it picks up after a huge cliffhanger ending. Erikson seems to enjoy the fact that he doesn't need to do (by his standards) as much set-up as normal and throws in everything including the kitchen sink and the kitchen itself into the mix. Previews and author interviews suggested that quite a few storylines and character arcs from previous novels would not be addressed here, which is mostly focused on the Crippled God, Otataral Dragon, Jade Statue and Bonehunter arcs, so it's a surprise that as many characters and events from previous novels (including some of Esslemont's) show up as they do, and most of the few who don't are at least mentioned.

There's also a growing circularity to events. A reread of Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates before reading this one might be valuable, given the number of characters and events from the start of the series that are brought back into play here at the end (though events from quite a few other books, most notably The Bonehunters, are also heavily referenced). This appears to be Erikson's way of showing the readers that the Malazan series wasn't as incoherent and chaotic as it has often appeared, but there was a masterplan all along. He mostly pulls this off very well, with some storylines and characters which initially appeared very random now being revealed to be integral to the series.

Erikson's biggest success in The Crippled God is with avoiding the nihilism that has occasionally crept into previous books by emphasising the overriding theme of the Malazan series, which has always been compassion. Heroism and self-sacrifice, amongst common soldiers and gods alike, abounds in this book. Erikson pushes forward the message that true heroism is reached when it is performed unwitnessed (which recalls a line from Babylon 5: "Here, in the dark, where no-one will ever know.") with no singers or writers to celebrate it later. There is tragedy here, as each victory only comes at a tremendous cost, but less so than in earlier volumes. With everything on the table - the warrens, the gods, the world, humanity and ever other sentient being on the planet - the Bonehunters and their allies simply cannot afford to fail, even if it means crossing a desert of burning glass, facing down betrayal or forging alliances with old enemies, and Erikson has the reader rooting for them every step of the way.

His prose skills are as strong as ever, and in fact are strengthened by not having as much time to pontificate. As one character says:

"This is a momentous scene, you fool! This is where everything really, truly, finally begins! So squeeze the ale from your brain, mortal, and say something worthy of your kind. You stand before a god! Speak your eloquence for all posterity! Be profound!"
"Profound, huh? Fuck off."
Indeed. There's a clarity to Erikson's writing here which is refreshing. There's still some knowing glaces, enigmatic pronouncements and other techniques apparently designed solely to drive fansites nuts for the next few years, but less than in prior books. Erikson's battle mojo is also back in full swing, with the engagements described with an appropriate amount of chaos and desperation.

Character-wise, Erikson is back to being a mixed bag. Some of the soldiers are ciphers but others come through very strongly (Silchas Ruin's motives and actions are a hell of a lot more comprehensible now). The Shake in particular are much-improved here. Ublala Pung serves as great comic relief, and, whilst they don't appear as such, the presence of both Tehol and Kruppe are felt, lending much-needed moments of sunshine amidst the darkness. Erikson's choice of which characters to build up in depth and which to skim over during the preceding nine books makes a lot more sense here as well, as it's some of the best-realised and most intriguing that bite the dust here. Characters die, and, mostly, it hurts when they go. If one in particular doesn't trigger at least a lower-lip tremble amongst most readers, I'd be shocked.

There are weaknesses. After all the set-up, the actual grand finale is appropriately epic (eclipsing even the gonzoid-insane conclusion to Dust of Dreams) and Erikson chainguns down a surprising number of still-unresolved storylines, more than I think most were expecting. At the same time a number of other side-stories are still not fully resolved (though most of these have already been earmarked down for Esslemont's novels and Erikson's future trilogies). Depending on the reader, this will be either okay or infuriating. More problematic is that we go from the grand convergence to end all grand convergences though the multiple epilogues to the final page in a very short space of time: there is little time spent on the aftermath and a few more mundane questions about what happened to certain characters are left unanswered. There is also the problem that, at two key points in the narrative, Erikson reaches outside the scope of The Crippled God to basically tap other characters from several books to do something vitally important to the resolution. It's not deus ex machina - it's all been set up quite well, in one case from nine books back - but it does feel a bit odd that everything comes down to relying on a character who is only in the novel for two pages.

There's also a fair amount of scene-setting for Esslemont's next few books (particularly the next one due later this year, set in Darujhistan after the events described in The Crippled God) which is a little incongruous, though it does feel good to know that the world and the saga will continue. Erikson resolves enough that a primary fear - that this is merely Book 10 in a 22-book series rather than a grand finale - is averted, but not enough so that there won't be some grumbling.

Particularly well-handled are the final events in the book. Some may accuse Erikson of sentimentality here - though he's never been as dark and nihilistic as say Bakker - as he gives a few characters some happy endings and closes the vast circle that began so long ago, but it is a fitting and affecting ending.

The Crippled God (****½) marks the end of this crazy, awesome, infuriating, awe-inspiring, frustrating series, but fortunately not the end of this crazy, awesome, infuriating, awe-inspiring but frustrating author's career. The Malazan Book of the Fallen bows out in fine style. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.