Thursday 28 April 2011

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

The Caribbean, 1718. Jack Chandagnac - Jack Shandy - is sailing to Haiti to reclaim some property when his ship is boarded by pirates. Shandy is recruited onto the pirate crew and becomes aware of a bizarre conspiracy that is unfolding between one of the passengers, Benjamin Hurwood, and the feared pirate Blackbeard, involving Hurwood's daughter Beth and the mythical Fountain of Youth. Shandy is soon drawn into a strange and magical quest set against the backdrop of the dying days of piracy in the Caribbean.

On Stranger Tides is arguably Tim Powers' most well-known and influential novel. Published in 1988, it has been quoted as one of the primary inspirations behind both Ron Gilbert's splendid Monkey Island computer games and also the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, to such an extent that the film producers bought the rights to the novel and the imminent fourth film in the series is both named for and draws on some of the plot elements of the book. Yet it's not quite the swashbuckling, good-time adventure that the those later works would suggest.

On Stranger Tides is rich and full of vibrant colour that brings alive the setting, but it's also weird, offbeat and often downright bizarre. Jack Shandy is a reluctant hero who spends a fair amount of time moping around and musing on his bad luck rather than getting on with business (especially in the second half of the novel, dissipating dramatic tension rather than building it up) whilst Beth is a fairly weak character lacking much motivation, rather disappointing given there aren't many female characters in the novel (in this regard the inspired works have done a better job; Beth is no Elaine Marley and isn't even an Elizabeth Swann). On the plus side, the likes of Blackbeard and Davies make for more interesting characters, though as one of the main villains Ben Hurwood lacks any real defining characteristics beyond being insane.

The writing is crisp, clear and flows nicely, with Powers conjuring up some dark and threatening vibes whenever seriously weird voodoo goes down. He's also good at the skirmishes, with cutlasses flashing in the sunlight and pirates and navy crewmen urgently reloading their pistols and boarding one another's ships with wild abandon. There's also a nice maudlin feeling evoked at the dying of the pirate culture in the face of increased colonisation of the islands from Europe, though Powers never lets the reader forget that, for all its romantic image, piracy was built on theft, pressganging and murder.

On Stranger Tides is thus a mixed bag: the central plot starts and stops a bit erratically, and some well-rounded, three-dimensional characters with well-explained motivations sit uneasily next to cliches and cyphers. The dark and foreboding atmosphere evoked by the magic is impressive, but then tends to be undermined by the 'science' of voodoo, which sometimes reduces it to just another fantasy magic system. The action sequences are rousing, but infrequent. But overall the novel has a strange, offbeat atmosphere that is interesting and, if the plot doesn't flow as well as it could, the weird collection of characters and their antics makes for an enjoyable, if not entirely page-turning, reading experience.

On Stranger Tides (***½) is available now in the UK and USA.

Wednesday 27 April 2011


George R.R. Martin and his wife Parris were in New York yesterday to attend the TIME Magazine 'Most Important 100 People' dinner. It also appears that GRRM took advantage of the visit to drop by Bantam HQ and drop off a fairly substantial package on his editor's desk.

So, eleven years to the week after A Storm of Swords was delivered and almost six years to the month after A Feast for Crows was submitted, A Dance with Dragons is done and dusted. It's off to the editor for a final polish and then the production process will step into high gear to get the book onto shelves on 12 July.

Of course, this wouldn't be ADWD if there wasn't some controversy. After promising that the completion announcement would be unambiguous, erm, it was fairly ambiguous if you've never seen King Kong, or if you didn't know that GRRM has been calling the book 'Kong' for a good two years now.

Let's hope The Winds of Winter has a smoother ride, though I can't really imagine it being possible for a book to have a rougher one.

UPDATE: From George's editor:

There were a few moments of George in a spare office yesterday, cleaning up the last bits and inserting a few new bits in longhand, while I typed the changes into the electronic files, but we are honestly and officially done.

And there is MUCH rejoicing!

New interview with Paul Kearney

I recently teamed up with Pat's Fantasy Hotlist to interview Paul Kearney on his new novel, Kings of Morning (due in November), the recent reissuing of his Monarchies of God series and the news that his Sea-Beggars series will be getting a much-delayed finale next year.

Check out the interview over on the Hotlist.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

GAME OF THRONES maintains ratings performance

If last week's story was about Game of Thrones smashing UK expectations and doing moderately well in the USA, this week was about maintaining that healthy performance and not losing ground.

Gregor Clegane urges viewers to watch his debut episode.

Studying TV ratings is an interesting game, something I first experienced back when anxiously biting nails over whether Babylon 5 was going to be renewed each year and watching Doctor Who's ratings plummet as the BBC did its level best to kill the series with insane scheduling decisions (which they successfully did in 1989). A familiar pattern is to see a new series, especially one as heavily-trailed as Thrones, start off strong, then drop over the next few weeks and then either level out (renewal, but possibly only as a mid-season replacement with fewer episodes), shoot up again (full renewal) or keep dropping (cancellation). However, Thrones doesn't seem to be doing that.

First off, an extra few days' analysis revealed the full, adjusted-for-DVR-and-online figures that Thrones hit for its first episode: 6.8 million watched in the the USA in the first week, compared to 7.1 million for Boardwalk Empire, the most successful premiere in HBO's history. Impressive. Most impressive. Of course, HBO did completely nuke their channels with showings, trailers, more showings and behind-the-scenes videos for the series to the point where an impressive performance was highly probable anyway, but given the lack of a real star name or known behind-the-cameras talent (such as Buscemi and Scorsese), not to mention the perception of fantasy as an off-putting genre, Thrones' first episode performance was impressive.

Similarly, in the UK DVR and Sky Online viewings lifted Thrones' ratings from an already-spectacular 743,000 to a downright phenomenal 1.07 million (or over 10% of potential Sky viewers tuned in, which considering that drama makes up a very low percentage of Sky figures is startling).

For the second episode, HBO kept things ticking over nicely. The overnights for Thrones were 2.2 million, for the first showing alone, exactly the same as for the first episode. The overall figures will likely be down due to the fact that HBO aren't going quite so repeat-happy with the episode this week, but the fact that the show maintained its audience figures on a holiday weekend when the expectation from everyone was that we'd see a notable drop-off remains a solid achievement.

In the UK, Sky Atlantic delivered 531,000 (unadjusted) for the second episode, a significant drop compared to the first. However, the unseasonable weather in the UK (we're currently experiencing the sort of temperatures we normally see in July) and the fact that Bank Holiday Monday was an extra day off for most of the population meant that many more people were out and doing things than a week earlier. Also, the drop-off of 30%, although disappointing, is nowhere near as bad as what Boardwalk Empire experienced (dropping from 400,000 to well below 200,000 by its third episode). It is also possible that, for the reasons mentioned above, many more peopled timeshifted the episode this week than last. That figure will be interesting to see, hopefully later this week or early next. Episode 3's figures will likely be more telling for the show's future success in the UK.

So far, so good. Whilst a second season is in the bag, the ratings performance of the series overall will likely be a factor when HBO comes to decide whether to renew the show or not for a third season in a year's time, so the more success now, the better. But so far things are off to a good start.

Bantam confirms that ADWD will NOT be split

With the release date of A Dance with Dragons' drawing closer and the novel growing larger, there has been speculation in some quarters that the novel would have to be split in half for hardcover publication. HarperCollins Voyager have already said that the UK paperback will be two volumes and Bantam hasn't ruled out a two-volume US paperback, but the status of the hardcover was less certain.

After all, back in 2005 when A Feast for Crows was split, Martin said that the 1,600 manuscript page mark was a line in the sand that couldn't be crossed, and once it was other plans had to be made. Dragons passed the 1,600 manuscript page mark several weeks ago, leading to fears of a split. Of course, the context is somewhat different: Martin is a much bigger-selling author now (A Song of Ice and Fire has more than doubled its total number of copies sold since 2005) and at the time of Crows's split he still had hundreds more pages to write, whilst with Dragons not much more work remains to be done.

Still, the question was being asked enough for Shawn Speakman of Suvudu and the Terry Brooks website to ask Martin's US editor what the score was. Her reply was pretty clear:

Shawn's Email to Anne, George's Editor:

"Hey Anne, has there been any talk of having to split DANCE? Seems like it is getting quite large...? -- S."

From Anne:

"No, we cut some stuff back out. Will be about as long as ASOS..."

So that's one possibility laid to rest. A Dance with Dragons will be published in one volume on 12 July. Although I'm sure everyone will be happier once GRRM confirms that the final manuscript has been fully completed and delivered.

Friday 22 April 2011

Re-release of Chris Wooding's THE BRAIDED PATH

Chris Wooding's excllent Braided Path trilogy is being reissued in omnibus by Gollancz this July. This is the second time the trilogy - The Weavers of Saramyr, The Skein of Lament and The Ascendancy Veil - has been made available in omnibus, but the the previous edition has gone out of the print.

Unfortunately, it has to be said that the new cover is not that great. It's yet another dude in a hood with swords. To be honest, I don't even remember there being very many dudes in hoods with swords playing a role in the book. It's also unfortunate that the novel's Asian-themed backdrop is not represented at all on the cover, unlike the previous omnibus:

The new edition should be hitting the shops in the UK on 21 July. Even with a weaker cover, it's still a fine and enjoyable novel mixing traditional fantasy tropes with Asian influences to great effect.

Thursday 21 April 2011

The GAME OF THRONES title sequence

Making a good title sequence is a disappearing art on American television. With only 44 minutes available for a network show once adverts are removed, losing 1 or 2 minutes of filmed material to a title sequence is understandably something shows are now keen to avoid. This wasn't always the case - Babylon 5 had a terrific opening title sequence which changed every year - but more recently shows like Lost and Heroes have only just flashed up a title card quickly and gotten on with the action.

Of course, premium cable shows which run without adverts have more time to spend on title sequences. Recently we saw Starz's Pillars of the Earth, which had a great title sequence with paintings coming to life and the cathedral rising out of the ground (this is the only link I could find, but weirdly it's been mirrored), but HBO generally has had some of the best title sequences recently: Rome with its graffiti coming to life as daily life in the city plays out around it; True Blood with its evocation of sex, religion and heat in Louisiana; The Wire with its scenes of life on the streets of Baltimore; and Carnivale's weird, surreal juxtaposition of darker moments from history with Tarot cards.

Obviously HBO were going to come up with something special for Game of Thrones and contracted Angus Wall and his company Elastic to do the job. Wall was the creator of Rome's title sequence, which won him a BAFTA, and also Carnivale's, which won him an Emmy. His work as an editor on The Social Network also won him an Oscar, so clearly he had the qualifications for the job. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he explains that the title sequence was meant to evoke the maps found at the start of every Song of Ice and Fire novel (and fantasy books in general) and the mechanical innovation of a late-medieval society (not a primary theme of the novels, though such innovation is referenced in the maesters' Citadel and also the Free City of Myr, where great advances are being made in optics) whilst also fulfilling story-telling functions: the sequence subtly outlines the history of the Seven Kingdoms and will change several times a season as new locations come to the fore.

The conceit of the sequence is that there is an immense globe of the world, with the continents of Westeros and Essos outlined on the inner surface of the globe rather than the outer, with a sun at the heart of the sphere ringed by a mechanical astrolabe. The whole thing is similar to a miniature Dyson Sphere. Under the surface there are gears, cogs and pulleys which, when activated when the camera gets near to particular locations, allows buildings and features to rise up out of the surface of the map. In the first episode, the cities of Kings Landing and Pentos, the castle of Winterfell and the Wall all rise up out of the map, with individual buildings and locations (such as the Red Keep and the Great Sept of Baelor in King's Landing, and the godswood in Winterfell) easily visible.

These locations will change as the series progresses: Pentos disappears from the sequence in Episode 2 to be replaced by Vaes Dothrak, whilst the Twins and the Eyrie will join the sequence in later episodes. With Season 2 confirmed, I'd expect to see Dragonstone, Pyke, Storm's End, Riverrun and Qarth appearing on the map.

A very nice touch is that the astrolabe surrounding the sun has scenes from the history of Westeros chiselled into the side of it. We see three such scenes during the title sequence: at the very beginning and end, and just after the camera visits Winterfell. In the first sequence we see a volcanic eruption destroying a city whilst a dragon looks on and people flee by boat, a clear depiction of the Doom of Valyria and the flight of the Targaryens to Westeros (technically the Targaryens didn't flee the Doom directly to Dragonstone, they were already there manning a trading outpost with the Seven Kingdoms, but that doesn't sound as cool). In the second the dragon is being brought down and killed by a direwolf, a lion and a stag, a reference to the alliance between the houses of Stark, Lannister and Baratheon that removed the Targaryens from power. The final scene has the other animals bowing down to the triumphant stag, noting that the Baratheons now hold the Iron Throne.

We then get the final logo for the series, backed by a great sigil showing the heads of the Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark and Lannister heraldic animals and setting out what the principle factions in the game of thrones will be.

It's a great title sequence. Some elements are odd - the 3D map, the Dyson Sphere-like set-up and the mechanical gears seem too advanced for the setting - but it also does a great job of showing the various locations and hinting at the deeper backstory behind events. Ramin Djawadi's theme tune is also a bit underwhelming at the start, but it's growing on me every time I hear it. HBO have poured a lot of effort into this - Wall apparently worked on the sequence for over a year - and the results are impressive.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

RIP Elisabeth Sladen

Unfortunately, the sad news broke this evening that Doctor Who actress Elisabeth Sladen has passed away from cancer at the age of 63.

Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah-Jane Smith alongside Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor in 1973.

Sladen played the role of journalist Sarah-Jane Smith, arguably the Doctor's most iconic companion, over a period of almost forty years. She first appeared in the serial The Time Warrior, the first serial of Season 11, in December 1973 and was the regular companion until the end of The Hand of Fear, the second serial of Season 14, in October 1976. Her time on the show overlapped the departure of the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, and the arrival of the fourth, Tom Baker. Her departure from the show was marked by news headlines, the first time this happened for the departure of a companion. Sladen returned to the role in 1981 in a pilot for a possible spin-off series, K-9 and Company, but the series was not picked up. This was followed by a return for the 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors, in November 1983, reuniting her with Jon Pertwee for one story.

In 2006 Sladen rejoined the show for the episode School Reunion, alongside David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor. The episode was very well-received and Elisabeth Sladen was asked by producer Russell T. Davies to helm a spin-off series, The Sarah-Jane Adventures. Sladen agreed (though she has also made several return appearances in Doctor Who itself) and the spin-off series began in 2007, notching up 4 seasons and 47 episodes. Production on a fifth season began in 2011, but production had to be suspended after three episodes were filmed due to Sladen's illness.

Elisabeth Sladen alongside Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor in an episode of The Sarah-Jane Adventures aired in 2010.

This is terribly sad news. Elisabeth Sladen was, by all accounts, a tremendously well-respected and professional actress. Her performance as Sarah-Jane entertained an entire generation of young British fans of Doctor Who and her return to the show thirty years later entertained another, as well as giving her a late career renaissance. Coming so soon after the news of the passing of her co-star Nicholas Courtney (who played Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart alongside Sladen several times, most recently on The Sarah-Jane Adventures), this is a particular blow.

Condolences to her friends and family. Doctor Who has lost one of its most iconic and treasured actors today.

Justin Cronin's THE PASSAGE is heading for the cinema

Justin Cronin's 2010 vampire novel, The Passage, was optioned as a movie by Ridley Scott's production company way back in 2007, based on just the first few chapters and an outline of the full trilogy. With the novel having established itself as a roaring success and the sequel on track for a 2012 release date, work on the movie version is now pushing forwards.

It's been announced that Matt Reeves, the director of Cloverfield and Let Me In, will be directing from a script originally written by John Logan (The Time Machine and Star Trek: Nemesis, though he'd probably prefer it if people put Gladiator at this point), though thankfully the script is now being reworked. Exactly when we'll see it on screen is unclear.

GAME OF THRONES renewed for a second season

Based on the first episode's bullish performance, Game of Thrones has been renewed for a second season by HBO.

Season 2 will enter production in the summer and should air around this time next year. It will be based on the second novel in the Song of Ice and Fire book series, A Clash of Kings, though the title will remain Game of Thrones. Once again, George R.R. Martin will be contributing a script, whilst the bulk of the work will remain with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. It is not clear at the moment how many episodes the second season will be.

Obviously, excellent news. Let the casting speculation for Stannis, Melisandre, Davos and all the rest of them begin :-)

Season 2 will have 10 episodes, according to the head of HBO. That's disappointing. Given the greater length of Kings over Thrones, some critics were hoping for at least 11 and maybe 12 episodes. Fitting everything into 10 is going to be a challenge.

Congrats to SF Signal

SF Signal have defeated me to become the SFX SF 'Literary' Blog of the Year. Congratulations to the team over there on a job well done :-)

Initial GAME OF THRONES ratings info

Due to time constraints and the fact the episode was about to air anyway, I'd decided to hold off on a more in-depth discussion of the first episode of Game of Thrones for a little while. Expect that soon.

Tywin Lannister approves, and will not now unleash some Rains of Castamere on viewers.

In the meantime, ratings information for the show has started to come in. The 'overnights', the first-night ratings, were the first sign of the show's success. Vulture Entertainment reported that it got a 1.6 share which translates at somewhere between 2.5 and 3 million viewers. However, this was for the first showing of the first episode and perhaps the initial repeat. The repeats on the second day were not counted, and nor were time-shifted or DVR or HBO On-Demand viewings. There's also some confusion on whether just HBO subscribers or additional viewers (HBO had a free pass weekend) were counted as well. Combined these should push the ratings comfortably further up, and news on those ratings should come in later today. Some have panicked that the show didn't get the 5 million viewers Boardwalk Empire got on its first viewing, but that was a huge outlier and came off the back of True Blood, HBO's monstrous megahit, which Thrones is now leading into. Compared to a lot of other HBO shows (including True Blood itself, which started with less than 2 million viewers), Thrones has done pretty well.

Even more impressive is its ratings success in the UK. Thrones is airing on Sky Atlantic, a new channel which only launched eleven weeks ago. Furthermore, whilst Sky is in a lot of homes in the UK (just over 10 million, or about a quarter of the total number of households in the country) its television drama ratings have historically been pretty low: Battlestar Galactica typically got 100-200,000 viewers on the far better-known and more-established Sky One and was counted as a success. Also on Sky One, Lost got about 400,000, rising to 600,000 for the finale, and was counted as a big hit for them. Boardwalk Empire got 400,000 when it debuted as Sky Atlantic's flagship show in February (dropping down to 200,000 within two weeks) and was counted as a success.

So all of these factors mean that Game of Thrones getting 743,000 viewers for its first hour has sent Sky representatives into paroxysms of happiness on Twitter. This is a huge and unexpected success. I expect to see a big drop-off for the second week, as that always happens plus it's a holiday weekend, but even so this bodes well for Sky's future coverage and sticking with the programme.

It turns out that the initial figure Vulture reported - which was actually 2.2 million - did not include the Sunday night repeats. With these GoT has been pushed up to 4.2 million, which is excellent news. And that's still not factoring in DVRs, time-shifted viewings, HBO On Demand or the Monday night repeats. So that's smiles all round at HBO HQ then :-)

Monday 18 April 2011

When Joe Met George

Game of Thrones began airing last night in the States and appears to have been well-received so far. UK fans get to see it tonight on Sky Atlantic, where it begins airing at 9pm. However, just a reminder than a bonus programme will air at 8.30pm featuring fantasy author Joe Abercrombie interviewing George R.R. Martin in LA and discussing the books and the TV series. Hopefully this will be made available online for international audiences, as it should be interesting.

Saturday 16 April 2011

GAME OF THRONES: first thoughts

I'm working on a much longer, more in-depth and slightly spoilery (if you've read the books) review for later on, but here's a much briefer summary of my thoughts to be going on with from last night's screening of the first two episodes of Game of Thrones.

As with the book, this is a big, complex story with multiple plot-lines and a significant number of characters with their own motivations and story arcs that need to be established. Even trickier, there is a significant amount of backstory to set up, along with discussions of characters who have been dead for seventeen years when the action starts (they may turn up in flashback later, but they certainly don't at this point). With the action unfolding in multiple locations on two continents, the potential is there for the whole thing to collapse under its weight into a huge mess.

Thankfully, it doesn't. The script and the acting does a good job of introducing us to the characters briskly and efficiently, but hinting at depth and more complex motivations. The main cast give uniformly great performances: my more in-depth review will cover this, but Peter Dinklage, Maisie Williams, Mark Addy and Harry Lloyd are outstanding, and Sean Bean's performance has an element of humour and nuance to it that I think will surprise some, whilst Richard Madden does great work with only a limited amount of material. Dialogue - much of it taken directly from the book - is mostly strong, but there are a few clunky moments during sequences of exposition. Particularly notable is the presence of humour: the audience I was with laughed quiet a lot at Arya's antics and some of Tyrion's lines.

The script is faithful to the book, though a couple of fan-favourite scenes are exorcised for time reasons and some new ones are dropped in to help clarify certain characters and storylines. The success of this is mixed: the establishment of Robb and Sansa's characters are hurt a little by the removal of some scenes, but Cersei and Cat's are helped by the insertion of new ones.

Problems emerge in Pentos and the Dothraki Sea scenes. Daenerys doesn't have a huge amount to do at this stage and Emilia Clarke does good work with what she has, but her character isn't strongly-established at this stage. Jason Momoa has little to do other than look buff and show off his arse a lot, both of which he handles well. Whilst events in Westeros are mostly free of cheese, a distinct odour of Stilton emerges in scenes involving the Dothraki and Dany being taught how pleasure her man by a bed slave (though British fans may be distracted at this stage by, "Hey, it's that girl off Hollyoaks,"). These scenes are uplifted by the presence of Harry Lloyd as Viserys, who is outstanding and actually makes the character work better than in the novels, and Iain Glen as Ser Jorah Mormont, who makes scenes 150% classier just by showing up. Still, the Dothraki sequences skirt around the edges of corn and could be problematic for some viewers.

Overall, we have a show that isn't 100% brilliant out of the gate, but one that lays out some very strong foundations to build on. The problems are ones that to some extent were unavoidable, and none are terminal. The cast is fantastic, the new scenes are mostly well-judged, the subtle effects work well and the story is accessible to non-readers. One thing that will be interesting to see is how the show handles the expansion of the cast: by the end of Episode 2 we're two hours into the story and we still haven't even met Varys, Renly, Littlefinger, Lysa Arryn, Barristan Selmy, Samwell Tarly or other iconic characters from the books. How the show is able to juggle these new characters with the elements introduced in the first two episodes will be key to its future success.

More in-depth thoughts, especially on the actors, to follow.

Friday 15 April 2011

HBO option Neil Gaiman's AMERICAN GODS

HBO have optioned the television rights to Neil Gaiman's multi-award-winning novel American Gods. Gaiman is co-writing the script with Robert Richardson (who has won two Oscars for his work on JFK and The Aviator), whilst Tom Hanks is set to produce.

Interesting news. Clearly the buzz over Game of Thrones has meant that TV companies are starting to look for other adult fantasy books to adapt. However, whilst understandable from a production standpoint - American Gods is far less ambitious and thus less expensive - I'm disappointed they didn't go straight for the jugular and adapt Sandman. Still, this should be interesting.

Thursday 14 April 2011

THRONES hits the screens, HOBBIT starts filming

Four years after HBO first optioned the Song of Ice and Fire books, the TV series is finally almost here. The first episode of Game of Thrones, appropriately entitled Winter is Coming, will air on Sunday night on HBO in the USA and then on Monday on Sky Atlantic in the UK. British viewers get a special bonus as well: at 8.30pm Sky are showing a half-hour interview with George R.R. Martin conducted by fellow fantasy scribe Joe Abercrombie.

I hope to have a preview/first impressions of the first two episodes up on Saturday; thanks to a well-timed glance at Twitter, I managed to grab tickets to see them being aired in London tomorrow night on the big screen at a BAFTA event. A simple Google check will also uncover several dozen advance reviews of the first episode, from fans and newcomers alike, which suggest that the HBO team have done an excellent (but not entirely flawless) job.

Just as one production moves out of a long, almost arduous production schedule and finally hits the screens, another jumps into the same process. Peter Jackson has posted the first video blog about filming The Hobbit, production on which finally started last week:

The first part of the film will hit cinemas in December 2012.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

New Terry Pratchett cover art

Here is the cover artwork for the next Discworld book, Snuff:

The novel is due out on 13 October.

Saturday 9 April 2011

The White Luck Warrior by R. Scott Bakker

The Aspect-Emperor, Anasurimbor Kellhus, is leading the Great Ordeal into the heart of the Ancient North. Hundreds of thousands of troops and thousands of sorcerers are heading for Golgotterath, the seat of the vile Consult, where they plan to destroy the Ark of the Heavens and obliterate the alien Inchoroi before they can resurrect the No-God and plunge Earwa into the Second Apocalypse. After the relatively painless opening leg of the march, the Ordeal now crosses through hundreds of miles of territory infested by the vile Sranc, whose numbers blanket the earth. For Sorweel, the young King of Sakarpas who has been sworn to Kellhus's cause but continues to harbour doubts, the Ordeal is doubly a nightmare, for he also seeks to avenge the death of his father and serve the gods, who, blind to the machinations of the Consult, are offended by Kellhus's temerity and fear his power.

Elsewhere, the gods' fury makes itself known as the Cult of Yatwer allies itself to the Fanim to launch a devastating challenge against the New Empire. As the Empress, Esmenet, struggles to hold the Empire against this external threat she also faces internal crises; a growing schism with Maithanet, the Shriah of the Thousand Temples, and a force for chaos and destruction which is growing much closer to home...

The mercenaries known as the Skin Eaters have departed Cil-Aujas and now face a gruelling march along the 'Long Side' of the Osthwai Mountains, through a terrible forest and across vast plains to reach their destination: Sauglish, where Drusas Achamian hopes to find a map that will lead him to Ishual, the home of the Dunyain and the truth behind the Aspect-Emperor.

The White Luck Warrior is the middle volume of The Aspect-Emperor, itself the middle sequence of a much longer series called The Second Apocalypse. As such it carries us firmly into the second half of the overall series and, fittingly, it raises the stakes, expands the backstory and furthers the understanding of both the characters and reader of what is happening. The previous volume in the series, The Judging Eye, was very fine but also somewhat claustrophobic and lacked a satisfying conclusion (arguably only the Cil-Aujas storyline had a real climax). The White Luck Warrior has no such issues: it is a monumentally satisfying work of epic fantasy and probably the finest volume in this subgenre published for half a decade.

With this series, Bakker has taken the most basic of epic fantasy plots - a bunch of ugly bad guys want to destroy the world and wipe everyone out, only to find an ultra-powerful 'chosen one' rising to oppose them - and empowered it with motivation and ambition before not so much deconstructing it as tearing it apart and rebuilding it brick by brick. It's a work of fiendish intelligence, but also one of at times wearying nihilism and cynicism. This world is dark, cold and brutal, but the alternative is so dark and horrific that it is shown to be worth saving.

The White Luck Warrior sees Bakker achieving a near-perfect balance in his work. The Prince of Nothing trilogy was packed with philosophical asides which were often fascinating, but had a tendency to slow down the narrative (the problem being not so much that they were long, just that were a lot of them). In The Judging Eye Bakker reduced these asides quite a lot, resulting in a book where it felt like he was restraining his full powers in the service of accessibility. In this book he strikes a compromise between the two: Bakker's philosophical points are here locked to the story and the characters and made to service them. So discussions about the nature of belief, faith, damnation and redemption are relevant to the actual plot, the nature of the Outside and the gods, and cast intriguing new light on the nature of sorcery and the precise motivations of the Consult, the Inchoroi and Kellhus himself.

The plot is perfectly pitched as it moves between three primary storylines: the Great Ordeal as it battles its way through hordes of Sranc, mostly related by the young Sorweel; the long journey of the Skin Eaters, as told by Achamian and Mimara; and events back in the imperial capital, focusing on Esmenet and her increasingly disturbing child Kelmomas. Some other characters come in for brief periods, but the book's sharp focus on these three storylines results in a relentless pace that pushes the story forward at all times. Each chapter builds character, or reveals backstory, or hints at things to come or at things that have already passed. For a book almost 600 pages long in tradeback, there is no flab or filler, which is itself an impressive achievement.

The title of the novel and its 'middle book' status recall The Warrior-Prophet, the middle volume of The Prince of Nothing, and there are echoes of that novel here: the endless march into a desolate wilderness, resulting in supply problems, whilst, unexpectedly, the words and actions of Cnaiur are still driving events two volumes after his death. Most notably, after the mostly 'quiet' Judging Eye, Bakker brings back the badass here. Massive battles and huge sorcerous conflagrations make a comeback and are handled even better than before. At the same time, Bakker doesn't repeat himself: the Sranc represent a very different enemy to the Fanim of the first series. Elsewhere, Bakker's oft-criticised (sometimes justifiably) treatment of women is reversed somewhat here, especially when the Gnosis-empowered Swayal witches enter the fray and Mimara's discovery of the Judging Eye gives her soul-stripping powers that exceed those of the Dunyain.

Structurally, Bakker suddenly (and after the anti-climactic Judging Eye, unexpectedly) seems to have discovered the art of a perfect cliffhanger. To the point where he gives us no less than three of them, leaving yawning mysteries that need to be solved, characters walking into horrendous danger and huge battles about to be joined. He also deepens the sense of mystery in the series through carefully-measured revelations about the Consult, the Inchoroi and their goals (including the Consult's fixation on one particular numerical value). Expect fantasy forums to be buzzing as the full implications of these revelations are discussed in the coming months.

The White Luck Warrior (*****) is a powerful, engrossing, ferociously intelligent novel that sees Bakker at the very top of his game. It leaves the reader on the edge of their seat for the concluding volume of the trilogy, The Unholy Consult, which we need yesterday. The novel is available now in Canada, 5 May in the UK and 14 April in the USA.

Fenrir by M.D. Lachlan

AD 886. Paris is under siege by the Vikings under King Sigfred, but the city's tall walls and outlying towers are preventing them from carrying the city by assault. The reasons for the siege are curious: the Vikings want a noblewoman, the Lady Aelis, and will leave if she is given to them. But she is unwilling to sacrifice herself to save her city. Jehan, a crippled monk held to be a living saint, is called upon to convince her to do the honourable thing...but Jehan worries that the Vikings don't want Aelis as a wife or hostage, but as a sacrifice, and surrendering her to pagan murder could imperil the defenders' souls.

But the truth of the matter is far stranger. Decades ago Odin, Loki and the wolf known as Fenrir fought a battle of wits and wills revolving around the lives of three mortals. The mortals died, Odin was thwarted and Loki triumphant...but the wheel has since turned and the mortals' souls have been reborn. And now the game has begun anew.

Fenrir is the follow-up to M.D. Lachlan's splendid Wolfsangel, a sequel which picks up the story with the same souls but now incarnated in different bodies. Whilst some blurbs suggest that Fenrir can be read independently of the earlier book, this is not really the case. Callbacks to the earlier book are fairly subtle at the start, but become increasingly overt as the novel continues, until specific events from the first book are being referred to. For this reason I recommend reading Wolfsangel before proceeding with this book.

Wolfsangel was interesting in that it alternated prose styles between the more straightforward action-adventure part of the narrative and the mystical, spiritual side of things. Fenrir is more ambitious as it combines the two sides of the story into a more cohesive whole, which works well. The book also expands its scope, with a larger cast, a greater geographic spread (the second half of the book is effectively an epic journey from France to Ladoga, near modern-day Saint Petersburg) and also explores more themes than the first novel. Religion is particularly prominent, since Jehan is a Catholic monk and his faith clashes with that of the Vikings he comes into contact with. This leads to one of the book's rare humourous tangents, as initially the Vikings are uninterested in Jehan's religion, but a series of freak events deliver them riches and victories after they allow Jehan to preach, leading to them wanting to convert because they think Jesus will make them rich, which Jehan considers an unworthy motivation.

Characterisation is pretty good. Aelis, Jehan, Leshii and Ofaeti are particularly well-drawn protagonists, but Hugin and Munin are harder to pin down. Hugin's character in particular shifts during the course of the nove, but the fact we only see him through other characters eyes makes him tricky to get a handle on. Some of the shifts in character, as 'flashes' from the earlier incarnations break through to the present, are also difficult to understand unless you've read Wolfsangel and know which character from that book has been reincarnated in this.

The dark, visceral horror of the situation is portrayed starkly, and there are moments of raw terror and bloody mysticism which Lachlan handles well. The first half of the novel also unfolds at a terrific pace. Unfortunately, things bog down a little after that: there's maybe a little too much running around in circles in the woods outside Paris or on the beaches of the North Sea before the plot gets going again. The plot also hinges on some awfully big coincidences which the reader may find hard to swallow, divine intervention or not.

Lurking over everything, however, is the notion that the gods have set in motion a series of events that will be fulfilled despite the wishes of mortals, but that mortals will fight against that fate no matter the cost. Again and again the book reinforces that desperate heroism, and in doing so captures something mythic and powerful.

Fenrir (****) is a dark, brooding story of violence, mysticism and death, but it's also a story of hope and faith. The novel will be published on 21 July 2011 in the UK and on import in the USA on the same day.

Friday 8 April 2011


Ah, it had to happen. There is a moment of pride for any blogger the first time their site becomes popular enough to start getting spam comments trying to sell trainers or dodgy movie download sites, and even moreso the first time another website steals an article and tries to claim it as their own.

This French fantasy website has reposted my earlier article 'A Dance with Doorstops'. They add a small bit at the top revealing that the French edition of the book is going to be split in three, but the rest of the article is basically my material. No credit and no backlink is given. I have complained to the site and await their response. Many thanks to the person who alerted me on the comments to the prior article and more thanks to my French readers who have volunteered to help with the issue.

The website admins have contacted me, said there was a genuine oversight, apologised, and promised to amend the article ASAP (I can't load it at the moment). Excellent news :-)

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Interview with Steven Erikson

Myself, Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist and Ken from Nethspace recently combined our powers to interview Steven Erikson about The Crippled God, the Malazan series and his future plans. Check it out here.

Mapping the Free Cities in A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE (continued)

Thanks to HBO briefly allowing access to a new, lore-based website about Game of Thrones (and it is excellent) this morning, the first map of the Free Cities is now doing the rounds.

A comparative map showing the relative locations of Westeros and Essos, separated by the Narrow Sea.

For the uninitiated, the action of the Song of Ice and Fire novels (and by extension the TV series) takes place on two continents. The bulk of the action takes place on Westeros, a 3,000-mile-long landmass stretching from north to south, whilst the storyline of Daenerys Targaryen (and later other characters) takes place on Essos, a vast, Eurasia-sized landmass located just to the east of Westeros across the Narrow Sea. Oddly, despite the presence of extremely detailed maps of Westeros in the first four novels, the only map of Essos that has appeared is the area of Slaver's Bay, which was published in A Storm of Swords. Whilst useful, it didn't illuminate the rest of the landmass: the Free Cities, the Dothraki Sea, the Red Waste and Qarth, all of which Dany visited in her earlier travels.

HBO decided they wanted to use maps in the series to illuminate the action, including that of Dany and her journeys in the east, so George R.R. Martin provided them with some additional maps. The TV series will use these in the opening title sequence (which changes every episode to reflect the locations visited). In fact, as well as the map of the Free Cities it sounds like Vaes Dothrak and the Dothraki Sea will also be featured, and therefore presumably Lhazar (a region south-east of the Dothraki Sea, near Slaver's Bay, where Dany's storyline in the first novel and season climaxes).

Detailed map of the Free Cities region. Note that Norvos, Qohor and Volantis are located just off the eastern edges of the map. The location of Lorath is not known.

This is the first canon map of the Free Cities that has ever appeared, despite a significant amount of action in both the first and fourth books taking place there. Apparently a more detailed version of the Free Cities will also appear in A Dance with Dragons (incorporating some locations off the edges of this map).

Some locations of note:

Braavos: the northern-most of the Free Cities, a major location in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons.
Pentos: home of Magister Illyrio, site of Daenerys and Drogo's wedding in A Game of Thrones.
Flatlands: vast farming lands and estates beyond Pentos' walls. A relatively fertile land, but sometimes raided by the Dothraki when they are not appeased by being bought off.
Myr, Tyrosh & Lys: Three of the southern Free Cities, often clashing over the Disputed Lands.
Disputed Lands: an area of territory disputed between Myr and Lys (and sometimes Tyrosh and Volantis). A near-permanent warzone, bordered by the immense River Rhoyne to the east.
Stepstones: a chain of islands off Essos's south-western coast, the eastern-most end of the shattered land bridge that once linked Dorne and Essos.

Not on the map:

Ibben: a large island in the Shivering Sea north-east of Braavos, about a thousand miles east of Skagos. They have some colony states on the north coast of Essos (presumably east of Braavos on this map).
Norvos: an inland Free City due east of Pentos on a river. It looks like a map curves around the edge of the map east of Pentos, so Norvos is probably just off the map there.
Qohor: an inland Free City due east of Norvos, in the midst of the Forest of Qohor.
Forest of Qohor: a vast forest on the western edge of the Dothraki Sea.
Hills of Andalos: a low-lying hill range south-east of Pentos. The ancestral homeland of the Andals, who evacuated the area to invade Westeros after being visited by a vision from the Seven.
The Rhoyne: a huge, substantial river of Essos, forming the eastern edge of the Disputed Lands. Homeland of the Rhoynar, who fled to Dorne a thousand years ago. The southern Dothraki Sea lies east of the Rhoyne.
Volantis: a Free City, located at the mouth of the River Rhoyne. A location in A Dance with Dragons. A waystop for people travelling to Slaver's Bay, which lies many hundreds or thousands of miles to the south-east.
Lorath: the least-known and most enigmatic of the Free Cities, an island city. Its location is unknown. It's either extremely remote and little-known in Westeros, or it's a bit rubbish and no-one likes hanging out there.

Interesting to see if the map in ADWD features some of these missing locations :-)

Tuesday 5 April 2011

UK cover art for Brandon Sanderson's THE ALLOY OF LAW

Brandon Sanderson has released the UK cover art for the new Mistborn novel, The Alloy of Law.

The book will be published in both the UK and USA in November 2011.

Ciaphas Cain: Cain's Last Stand by Sandy Mitchell

After eighty years on the front lines, Commissar Ciaphas Cain is enjoying a relatively quiet semi-retirement tutoring students on Perlia, the site of one of his greatest victories. The period of peace is rudely interrupted when the hordes of Chaos, led by Abaddon the Despoiler, launch a vast invasion of the Imperium through the Eye of Terror. Fortunately, Perlia is on the other side of the galaxy to the main battlefront. Unfortunately, a major Chaos battle fleet is on its way to invade the planet and seize an ancient relic that Cain has dealt with before...

Cain's Last Stand is the sixth (of seven so far) books in the Ciaphas Cain series and sees author Sandy Mitchell fast-forwarding to near the end of his protagonist's career, right up almost to the 'present day' of the Warhammer 40,000 setting. Thanks to the SF setting, Cain and his constant companion Jurgen are still hale and going strong, though they're a bit more seasoned and experienced than earlier books focusing on their earlier days. Cain is somewhat less cowardly and more commanding here and has evolved into a fine tutor of commissariat students, trying to imbue them with a degree of common sense and intelligence in their dealings with demoralised troops. With Perlia in danger of attack and the planet's defenders mostly being inexperienced soldiers, it falls to Cain and his students to keep morale high in the face of overwhelming enemy numbers.

As with the previous books, this is an entertaining romp with black humour laced through it. The time setting also introduces an element of regretful nostalgia to proceedings: Cain remembering various people he's fought alongside and reflecting that many of them have died (from either natural causes or enemy action) during the preceding years.

Plotting-wise, Mitchell has taken a leaf out of Dan Abnett's book. Aware that these last three books would be assembled into an omnibus edition, he's laced ongoing storyline points through them which build to a huge finale. This works well, but the actual ending is actually a little disappointing in its lack of resolution and it's difficult to work out if it's a final one or setting up more adventures in future. Elsewhere the book is very busy, combining planetary politics, Cain's activities in the college and interactions with other tutors and his forging of his students into an effective force whilst also taking part in military action proving to be a lot of plot to pack into just 250-odd pages (in the omnibus edition). As a result the book moves very fast, but doesn't have time to build up the secondary characters as successfully as Mitchell normally manages.

Cain's Last Stand (****) brings this three-book arc to a successful conclusion and shines a different light on Ciaphas Cain to great effect. Not the series at its best, but relentlessly entertaining nonetheless. The novel is available now as part of the Ciaphas Cain: Defender of the Imperium omnibus in the UK and USA.

Monday 4 April 2011

Fifteen-minute preview of GAME OF THRONES

HBO aired a 15-minute preview of the first episode of Game of Thrones last night (lacking the title sequence). Here it is (note, not safe for work due to multiple decapitations and lots of blood):

Very promising so far. Two weeks to the series premiere!

Saturday 2 April 2011

New MALAZAN novels from Ian Cameon Esslemont named

In an interview between Ian Cameron Esslemont and Elitist Book Reviews, the final two Malazan novels in his series have been named.

We knew that the Darujhistan novel, Orb, Sceptre, Throne was up next (out in December in the UK), but he has confirmed that the next book has the working title City in the Jungle, will be set on the continent of Jacuruku and will feature the Ascendant Ardata. The sixth book has the working title Assail and will be set on that continent, and will also act as a coda to the main series. Esslemont also confirms that he hopes to get the books out a yearly intervals (so City in the Jungle in late 2012 and Assail in late 2013, hopefully).

The interview also features additional tidbits on how he and Erikson give feedback on one another's work, and his plans for a series of novellas showing the formation of the Malazan Empire. Interesting stuff.

Mapping the Free Cities in A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE

Amongst the many common emotions felt by readers whilst reading A Game of Thrones for the first time is confusion when the action switches to the Free City of Pentos and they thumb back to the map only to find it's not on there. The confusion is increased by all the people referring to the body of water between the two continents as 'the Narrow Sea', which makes it sound like the other continent (unnamed in the books so far but dubbed 'Essos' for the TV show, a name approved by the author) should certainly be visible on the maps in the books. Given that Daenerys's story ranges over many regions of the vast eastern landmass, it does feel slightly odd that her part of the story (save Slaver's Bay in A Storm of Swords) goes resolutely unmapped in the books, though it does help reflect the 'off-the-edge-of-the-known-world' feel of her adventures.

Fifteen years after people first started scratching their heads over this (not to mention multiple fan maps of the area, based on information in the text), we finally get to see George R.R. Martin's map...but not for the first time in A Dance with Dragons as many had assumed. Whilst ADWD will indeed feature a map of the Free Cities, we will get to see the first canon map of the area on the HBO show. The opening title sequence of the series ranges over a map of Westeros and the Free Cities, with each location featured in that episode 'popping up' out of the landscape. So in the first episode we will see Pentos, whilst later episodes will feature the Dothraki Sea, Vaes Dothrak and presumably Lhazar.

Furthermore, if the 15-minute preview of the first episode features the title sequence, that means we'll see it tomorrow evening (EST) on HBO (and for the rest of the world, shortly thereafter on the HBO website). A minor but nevertheless interesting bonus for the book fans from the TV show.

Friday 1 April 2011

New book covers from Gollancz

Some new cover art for your consideration:

The Islanders by Christopher Priest, his first novel since 2002's brilliant The Separation, is my most eagerly-anticipated novel of the year (yes, including ADWD). It's due in September.

The UK cover for Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker, due in December.

The cover for Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth, due in January 2012.

In all cases this is work-in-progress which may be subject to change before release.

GAME OF THRONES episode titles and air dates

With sixteen days to Game of Thrones' premiere, the amount of news for the show is increasing. The first good pictures of some of the secondary cast in action have emerged, and HBO have also confirmed the titles of the first eight episodes.

David Bradley as Lord Walder Frey.

101: Winter is Coming
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Tim Van Patten
Airdate: 17 April

102: The Kingsroad
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Tim Van Patten
Airdate: 24 April

103: Lord Snow
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Brian Kirk
Airdate: 1 May

Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister.

104: Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things
Written by Bryan Cogman
Directed by Brian Kirk
Airdate: 8 May

105: The Wolf and the Lion
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Brian Kirk
Airdate: 15 May

106: A Golden Crown
Written by Jane Espenson
Directed by Daniel Minahan
Airdate: 22 May

Kate Dickie as Lady Lysa Arryn.

107: You Win or You Die
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Daniel Minahan
Airdate: 29 May (tbc)

108: The Pointy End
Written by George R.R. Martin
Directed by Daniel Minahan
Airdate: 5 June (tbc)

109: tbc
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alan Taylor
Airdate: 12 June (tbc)

110: tbc
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alan Taylor
Airdate: 19 June (tbc)

Ian McElhinney as Lord Commander Barristan Selmy of the Kingsguard.

In addition, Ran from Westeros has commented on the show's title sequence (which will apparently give us our first look at a map of the Free Cities, but will change from episode to episode) and Den of Geeks has the first review of the screeners HBO has sent out of the first six episodes. Other critics who have received the episodes but are holding back on full reviews are also Tweeting almost unanimous praise for the series, which is encouraging news.

Finally, on a slightly different angle, actors Harry Lloyd (Viserys), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys) and Richard Madden (Robb Stark) have been interviewed by the London Evening Standard with a fashion-based approach. An interesting read. Clarke is also interviewed alongside Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy) here.