Tuesday 30 August 2011

By Light Alone by Adam Roberts

Decades in the future, the world has been revolutionised by the introduction of photosynthetic hair. The poor now no longer need to be fed, as they can live off sunlight alone, whilst the rich flaunt their wealth and power by their unnecessary consumption of food and cutting their hair. Supermodels are now immensely fat and the rich very bald. A well-off family undertakes a skiing trip to Mount Ararat on the Turkish-Iranian border, but during their holiday their daughter, Leah, is kidnapped. Attempts to track her down fail, but a year later she is found and returned to their home in New York City. But Leah's return preludes a time of immense change in the world, as revolution threatens...

By Light Alone is Adam Roberts' eleventh novel. On the surface it's the story of a young girl who is kidnapped, returns home, and whose return serves as the catalyst for significant changes in her family life. But this is only a very shallow reading of the text. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that there are a lot of different things going on, and periodically the text switches to a new POV and rewinds in time to provide a fresh perspective on events we have already seen. The main characters - Leah and her parents, George and Marie - are all somewhat unreliable narrators and finding the inconsistencies between their accounts of the same event is a fascinating exercise in itself.

The central SF element - the photosynthetic hair - is a Maguffin that sets up a world in which poor people no longer need to work to eat, resulting in a mounting overpopulation and unemployment crisis that threatens the lives of the rich and powerful. Roberts explores the ramifications of this well-meaning development through its impact on society and how that affects the central characters. The rich are now more self-absorbed than ever before, treating skinny people with long hair as social lepers and disdaining anyone who works for a living, whilst avoiding watching the news (which they regard as beneath them). However, their lives are also portrayed as empty, with little to galvanise or interest them outside of a few hobbies. Leah's kidnapping forces her father, George, into contact with ordinary people and her subsequent return catalyses him into seeing the world in a different way. The way that the characters, world and story drive each other relentlessly onwards is particularly impressive and accomplished.

However, an even more successful move is when Roberts executes a narrative shift in the second half of the novel, dropping us into the lives of the poor, whose freedom from having to find food has simply plunged them even deeper into abject poverty and desperation, raising the spectre of revolution and violence. This is a dark, grubby and distasteful world of sexual violence and petty crime, out of which emerges the prospect of change, though whether that is for the better remains unclear at the novel's close.

By Light Alone is an accomplished novel, with expertly-crafted prose, well-developed thematic elements and engaging characters combining to form an intricate, satisfying narrative which concludes by posing hard questions and not offering easy answers (out of the four Roberts novels I've read, this has by far the strongest ending). The problems are relatively minor: there is an idiosyncratic sense of humour in George's chapters which is occasionally tonally jarring, and the limits of the hair technology are not really explained. People not needing money for food is one thing, but presumably they still need it for shelter, clothes and water, so the apparent willingness of some of the hair-using majority to ditch their jobs and loll around on the beach all day doesn't entirely track. However, given that the explanations for much of this come from the rich cats whose views are inherently biased, this incongruity can be seen as part of the effect, rather than a problem in itself.

By Light Alone (****½) is an intelligent and well-written SF novel with real literary ambitions that it comes close to fulfilling. This may not be the modern SF masterpiece I am fully confident that Roberts is capable of producing, but it is not far off. The novel is available now in the UK and on import in the USA.

Monday 29 August 2011

Is HARRY POTTER epic fantasy?

An interesting question that I posed on Twitter last night, to some interesting answers. Does the Harry Potter series count as epic fantasy?

Points for:
The series features the struggle between a band of plucky heroes against a Dark Lord and his minions. The Dark Lord has previously menaced the world in a prior incarnation and been defeated, but is now returning, a fact initially greeted with scepticism in some quarters.

The central hero is a chosen one whose destiny is to defeat the Dark Lord, as agreed upon by pretty much everyone (even the Dark Lord and his minions, who make the hero's termination a priority).

The series features conspiracies, political intrigue and notable magical battles.

The series is set in a well-thought-out, internally consistent secondary world with its own rules, including a magic system.

The series incorporates numerous 'standard' fantasy creatures and monsters, including centaurs, dragons and griffins.

Points against:
The setting may be a secondary world, but it's closely based on the real world, meaning the author hasn't had to do that much worldbuilding.

The effects of the story are epic and wide in scope, but the majority of the story is geographically limited to one single location (Hogwarts and the surrounding region) for most of the story (six of the seven books).

A lack of guys with swords, hidden crowns or claims to a throne. Also, whilst there are significantly large magical battles, there aren't any massive clashes of sword-wielding dudes.

The lack of any maps in the books.

It's a difficult call (and ultimately a pointless display of semantics) but I think the series veers close to the standard definitions of epic fantasy. Some replies suggested it should be counted as urban fantasy, but for the most part the story doesn't take place in a traditional urban environment. There's also the question of if a fantasy can be simultaneously epic and urban rather than being limited to one definition.


Sunday 28 August 2011

Joe Abercrombie and R. Scott Bakker fans needed

As some may know, one of my other gigs is running the Game of Thrones TV wiki, which is rewarding (if time-consuming) work. During my explorations of Wikia I also discovered wikis had been set up dedicated to Joe Abercrombie's First Law books and R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse series. Both wikis are in a very new state and require some editors to help out in writing entries about characters, locations etc, so if anyone fancies helping out, please feel free to do so.

I have to say that I get a lot of requests for stories-so-far and more information on these two series, so developing these resources to provide information for fans (especially when the next book in the respective series rolls out) would be very helpful.


Friend-of-the-blog Stefan Sasse is currently undertaking a detailed re-read of A Dance with Dragons and blogging on the subject here. Some interesting comments and discussion over there that's worth a look.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Heaven's Reach by David Brin

Three years ago, the human and dolphin crewmembers of the scout vessel Streaker stumbled across a fleet of derelict starships. The revelation of that discovery plunged the Five Galaxies into chaos, as vast galactic armadas mobilised to intercept Streaker and, when that failed, to lay siege to Earth itself, intending to hold it hostage for the secrets that Streaker discovered. Streaker fled to a remote corner of a fallow galaxy, lying low on Jijo where refugee species had built a new society in peace. But the arrival of pursuers has flushed out Streaker from its hiding place. Fed up and annoyed after years on the run, the crew of the Streaker has now decided it's time to go home, braving the machinations of ancient alien intelligences, the firepower of vast blockading fleets and the threat of a cataclysm that will transform the Five Galaxies forever...a cataclysm that has happened before.

Heaven's Reach is the sixth - and to date, final - novel in The Uplift Saga and is the very definition of the 'grand finale'. Storylines and character arcs begun way back in Startide Rising, published seventeen years earlier, reach epic conclusions, major revelations about the setting and the backstory take place and a number of satisfying resolutions are found. Controversially, the author also leaves a quite a few loose ends dangling.

Whilst claiming to be the concluding volume of the 'second Uplift trilogy', Heaven's Reach drops a lot of events and characters back on Jijo in order to focus on the Streaker, the Jophur battleship pursuing it and, slightly bemusingly, a new subplot about a neo-chimpanzee pilot scouting E-space, a level of hyperspace which can only be viewed in metaphors. The relevance of this latter subplot becomes clearer later on, but the slight incongruity of Brin dropping in this new storyline into an already crowded narrative space is soon overshadowed by the sheer number of ideas and hard SF concepts that Brin incorporates in the novel.

Heaven's Reach is, by far, the most wildly inventive of the six Uplift novels. Ideas that would fill up other novels, or entire trilogies, rocket past the reader at a rate of knots: the Fractal World (a fresh spin on the Dyson Sphere idea), a cluster of space habitats circling a white dwarf so fast that time slows down, memetic entities, hydrogen-based lifeforms and many more concepts are on display here, Brin unleashing them with fiendish glee. The Uplift universe has already been established as a colourful, epic setting packed with thousands of sentient races and lots of cool ideas, but Heaven's Reach brings it up to the next level and does so in a readable, gripping manner.

The characters' development continue to be a high point, with a few newcomers (like the chimp scout, Harry) fitting in nicely amongst the established cast. Seeing a few of the Jijo characters out in the weird and wonderful society of the Five Galaxies also raises a number of amusing culture clash storylines, though space constraints mean these can't be developed too much. Gillian, the commander of the Streaker and formerly a major character in Startide Rising, also comes to the fore as an opportunity (albeit a slim one) to return home arises. There is a slight backfiring here as Gillian makes frequent references to the disappearance of Creideiki and Tom Orley in Startide Rising, enough to make the reader expect an explanation as to their eventual fate which is not forthcoming (although there is a vague hint of a possible explanation at one point, though this is exceptionally vague).

This leads to the book's biggest problem: whilst several key storylines come to a conclusion quite a few others are left dangling. A character kidnapped at the end of Infinity's Shore remains kidnapped. Most of the mysteries discovered by the Streaker crew remain mysteries. A few of the cliffhangers are story seeds which Brin seems to have dropped for development in future, as-yet-unwritten stories and novels (and given it's been a decade since his last novel, may never be written), whilst there's also a few deliberately ambiguous endings which satisfy (after two decades - now three - would any explanation for the Streaker crew's discoveries satisfy?). Those hoping for this book to neatly tie up every loose end (or even a majority of them) will likely feel dissatisfied, whilst those who are happy with the prospect of unresolved elements will enjoy it more.

For myself, Heaven's Reach (****½) is brash, exuberant, almost endlessly inventive and, when the crew of the Streaker finally give the Galactics the middle finger and head home, enormously satisfying, let down by a few too many open questions at the end. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Thursday 25 August 2011

GAME OF THRONES hires two pirates

And there's more!

Ralph Ineson is a very familiar face from the past decade and a half of British television, first coming to attention with a recurring role on late 1990s drama Playing the Field (about a women's football team). He is probably best-known as the unpleasant Chris Finch in the original, British version of The Office, playing opposite Ricky Gervais. In film he has appeared in First Knight, From Hell and The Damned United, as well as playing Amycus Carrow in the sixth, seventh and eighth Harry Potter movies.

In Thrones Ineson is playing the role of Dagmer Cleftjaw. Cleftjaw is a famous ironborn pirate and reaver, the captain of the Foamdrinker. Despite his impressive skill in battle and reputation for reaving, he is remembered fondly by Theon Greyjoy from his childhood.

Lucian Msamati is a British-born actor, scriptwriter and radio presenter, raised in Tanzania and Zimbabwe. He founded the well-respected Over the Edge theatre company in Harare, which intermittently continues to perform, and in 2010 was made the artistic director of the British-African theatre company Tiata Fahodzi. His screen credits include Doctor Who, Ashes to Ashes, Spooks, Ultimate Force and, for HBO, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

In Thrones Msamati is playing the role of Salladhor Saan, the self-styled Prince of the Narrow Sea. From the war galley Valyrian he commands a fleet of Lyseni freesails who sell their services to the highest bidder. A friend and ally of Ser Davos Seaworth, Saan has recently entered into a contract with Stannis Baratheon to provide naval support for his play for the Iron Throne.

The casting of these two characters is interesting news. I thought both would be easily disposable should they have chosen not to use them, so I'm assuming news on roles like Edmure Tully, Qhorin Halfhand and Ygritte should be just round the corner (though I think it's very likely now that the Blackfish may have been deleted from the TV series).

And three more roles for THRONES

And another three roles have been cast for the second season of Game of Thrones. At this rate the second season credits will last longer than the actual episodes.

Patrick Malahide is an experienced British actor with frequent appearances on stage, screen and TV over the last thirty years. On TV he recently appeared in the new version of Survivors, whilst his movie roles have included The World is Not Enough, Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Brideshead Revisited.

On Thrones Malahide is playing the role of Lord Balon Greyjoy, the ruler of Pyke and the Iron Islands and the father of Theon (Alfie Allen) and Yara (Gemma Whelan). Balon enters the story when Robb Stark sends Theon to win his father's aid in the war against the Lannisters.

Ian Hanmore is a Scottish actor with recent roles on Doctor Who and Life on Mars (the UK version), as well as in films such as The Magdalene Sisters.

In the series Hanmore is playing Pyat Pree, one of the warlocks of Qarth and a resident of the enigmatic House of the Undying. Alongside Quaithe and Xaro Xhoan Daxos, he acts a spokesman for the Undying in the dealings between the city of Qarth and Daenerys Targaryen.

Daniel Portman is a young British actor who recently appeared in 2010 movie Outcast and the upcoming 2012 release The Angels' Share.

On Thrones Portman is playing the role of Podrick Payne, a young squire serving in the Lannister army. He finds himself assigned to Tyrion Lannister as his squire and manservant, to Tyrion's bemusement.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Infinity's Shore by David Brin

Peace has endured on the world of Jijo, where six races shelter from the wider civilisation of the Five Galaxies, for decades. That peace has now been shattered by the arrival of a starship of the Jophur, a powerful Galactic race, searching for the fugitive Terran exploration vessel Streaker and the billion-year-old secrets it contains. As members of the six races struggle to survive under the brutal Jophur occupation, the crew of the beleaguered Streaker realise they must draw the Jophur away from Jijo and its innocent population, even if the cost is their own destruction...

Infinity's Shore, the fifth and penultimate book in David Brin's Uplift Saga, picks up moments after the end of Brightness Reef, with the arrival of a Jophur warship spelling disaster for the refugee nations of the Slope. The opening of the novel successfully gets across the scale of this chaos, with the Jophur brutally 'altering' the traeki ambassador Asx with the imposition of a master ring (traeki are gestalt entities consisting of independently intelligent rings which combine to form a sentient being; Jophur have a 'master ring' which dominates and controls the others), slaughtering some of the inhabitants ruthlessly and then engaging in clandestine negotiations with criminal elements to try and splinter the six races from one another. We briefly met the Jophur in Startide Rising, but Infinity's Shore delves much more deeply into their characters and we discover how unpleasant they can really be. This is emphasised by an interesting narrative device, where the first-person musings of Asx in the previous novel continue, but now under the aegis of 'Ewasx', the same being now perverted into a full Jophur. This gives us a somewhat schizophrenic POV character who is desperately trying to keep his other intelligences under control through the application of pain, which is an original, if dark, idea. Brin's writing skills here are first rate, as Asx continues to be a character in his own right, and the reader has to puzzle out what he is up to under Ewasx's very nose (or olfactory ring sense organ, more accurately) through limited information.

Elsewhere, the novel unfolds across a number of POV characters. The purpose of the very large cast of the first book is now revealed, as the events become even more epic. Different factions choose to fight or side with the Jophur on a large scale, whilst a few characters are now revealed to be in contact with the crew of the Streaker. We also get additional POVs from the crew of the Streaker as we learn what they've been up to since we last saw them blasting free from the Kithrup system in Startide Rising. It's a complex structure that sometimes threatens to become ungainly, but Brin maintains the cohesion of the narrative, and he admirably finds time to drop in a few POV chapters that are not strictly necessary but are there to provide atmosphere and colour, showing the scale of the unrest triggered by the arrival of the spacecraft.

Infinity's Shore manages to escape 'middle book' syndrome due to is structure: whilst there is a further book to come, Heaven's Reach, Infinity's Shore successfully wraps up most of the storylines on Jijo, and the planet is (somewhat regretfully, as Brin's worldbuilding skills here are impressive) left behind at the end of the novel as the focus switches squarely to the crew of the Streaker. This gives us a lot of endings and conclusions at the end of the book, with only a couple of cliffhangers left for the next book (though these are quite large).

Brin's skills with characters are impressive, with Asx/Ewasx being the most notable, but we also get great stuff from Emerson (the semi-amnesiac human who has lost the power of speech due to torture but can still communicate through song), Alvin (the Arthur C. Clarke-loving hoon whose journal extracts drive part of the story) and Gillian (the commander of the Streaker following the events of Startide Rising), not to mention the return of a number of dolphin POVs which continue to be entertaining. Brin also successfully builds tension as Streaker tries to escape the Jophur, but in a manner that will also leave Jijo free from reprisals, and various plans are outlined and tested before one is found that might just work. There are also some great details on technology, such as the steampunk non-digital computer that one character builds, or the various genetically-engineered insects and other lifeforms of Jijo that have tasks programmed into them from millions of years ago that the refugees can suit to their own ends.

As the novel continues, Brin laces in hints that something much bigger is afoot. Markings on some of the ships abandoned on the ocean floor, abnormalities in the hyperspace transfer points approaching Jijo and some strange problems in the Galactic Library's historical record suggest something else is happening, something so vast it will utterly dwarf even the chaos and warfare unleashed across the Five Galaxies by Streaker's activities. This then leaves the reader eager to learn more in the final, monstrously cataclysmic novel in the series.

Infinity's Shore (****½) is an inventive, enjoyable and page-turning SF nove that rounds off a number of storylines from the preceding books and sets things up well for the grand finale. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday 22 August 2011

For Croatian ASoIaF and GoT fans

Filming of Season 2 of Game of Thrones is due to move to the Croatian city of Dubrovnik next month. The tentative plans are for four weeks of filming starting on 19 September, with parts of the city standing in for King's Landing (replacing the Maltese city of Mdina) and Qarth. Winter is Coming has a more detailed report on what parts of the city are being used.

Croatian fans of the books and TV show may be interested to know that the production company are looking for up to 200 extras to take part in filming. Check out the WiC article for more details on how to sign up and apply.

Sunday 21 August 2011

The Hugo Awards Get It Wrong. Again.

According to the Hugo Awards, Connie Willis' mediocre and flawed Blackout was the finest speculative fiction novel published in 2010.

They are wrong.

Here are ten books from last year that are vastly superior. I recommend checking them out.

Saturday 20 August 2011

In Search of the Trojan War by Michael Wood

The Trojan War holds a grip on the imagination like few other events in mythology. Part of the modern interest in the myth is due to the startling confirmation over the past century that Troy was a real place, located exactly where the legend puts it, with even minor details of topography from Homer's text backed up by archaeological evidence. This makes Troy a fascinating subject to discuss, but also a dangerous one: it's too easy to let the imagination run riot and conclude that perhaps the legend is a true story, that Agamemnon and Achilles were real people, and the survivors of Troy did go on to found Rome.

Back in the mid-1980s Michael Wood produced a TV documentary for the BBC based on the premise that the Trojan War was a real even that took place approximately in the 12th Century BC. This accompanying book and its later second and third editions expanded on the idea: Wood proposes that Troy was a client-state of the Hittite Empire that fell prey to a series of incursions into Asia Minor by the Greeks, at that time dominated by Mycenae. Mycenae was reaching the zenith of its power and in fact would soon face a rapid decline and collapse (plunging Greece into a more barbarous period which they would take some centuries to recover from). In one of its last expansions of power it tried to expand its empire into the Near East whilst the Hittites were distracted by clashes with the Egyptians, Assyrians and other neighbouring powers, and Troy was one of the cities destroyed in the process.

Wood outlines the 'discovery' of the site of Troy (a hill in Turkey a few miles from the Dardanelles called Hisarlik) by the early archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the mid-19th Century and the work by Schliemann and others in uncovering the site and other notable contemporary locations, including Mycenae itself. Wood describes the problems associated with these digs, which tended to be rushed and even destructive ("Schliemann has left us with the ruin of a ruin," he laments at one point) before later, more careful archaeologists could work on the sites. Accompanied by lavish illustrations and numerous photographs of the site (some modern, some from Schliemann's time), Wood describes in clear detail the problems presented by the fact that Troy is divided into 'layers', with the city inhabited both before and after the time of the alleged Trojan War, and dating the war to the correct layer is problematic (both the sixth and seventh layers have been proposed as 'Homer's Troy', and both have issues fitting that conclusion).

After this, Wood expands the scope to incorporate the entire Eastern Mediterranean at the time of the 12th-13th centuries BC. This was a time of surprisingly frequent international relations: the Hittite, Egyptian and Assyrian rulers tended to correspond with one another directly (and, less frequently with their more distant Mycenaean neighbours) and trade flourished between their nations (with wars - even large ones - put down as minor and temporary disagreements, soon mended). Amusingly, there are even surviving tablets featuring the Hittite queen exchanging minor court gossip with King Ramses II, one of the greatest Egyptian pharaohs. Unfortunately, the record is frustratingly incomplete, and Greek-Hittite discussions over a troublesome matter in the west which resulted in military activity (a clash over the city of Wilusa, and notably the Greek of Homer's time doesn't use the 'W', meaning he would have called it 'Ilusa', which is close to 'Ilium') are particularly fragmented.

Wood describes the situation well, first exploring the archaeological unearthing of Troy and other important sites. He describes the work and research done that uncovered the Hittites, a mighty empire of the ancient world that had fallen so completely that evidence of its existence was only uncovered a century ago, and how they provided a 'missing link' that explained the balance of power of the time. Sites contemporaneous with Troy are explored and shared pottery remnants and tablets written in the same languages are used to trace a network of trade and political relations between cities and nations. Pottery and pictures of the time depicting siege engines as stylised giant wooden horses smashing down city walls provide clues as to the origin of the Trojan Horse legend. But every time a conclusion seems to drift into view, it's frustratingly snatched away by a gap in the records.

Woods' solution to this is to present 'scenarios' which he acknowledges are highly speculative but nevertheless credible. The problem is a lack of specific mentions or references to Troy in the historical record of the time. Wood suggests that the evidence supports a more widespread incursion into Asia Minor by the Greeks, with Troy as a minor sideshow at best, and this is supported by strong evidence that the Greeks had an enclave on the shores of south-western Anatolia around the city of Miletus. However, the evidence that the Greeks launched attacks in north-western Asia Minor is much more limited.

This is the book's greatest weakness: whilst discoveries at Troy, Mycenae, Knossos and in the old Hittite ruins have resulted in some spectacular revelations over the last century, and expose a fascinating and more complex world than Homer suggests, they also stop short of giving us enough data to draw solid conclusions about the Trojan War. Wood seems to reluctantly agree with this in the final assessment: that having gone in search of the Trojan War, he can only prove that it could have happened, but no more than that. But the uncertainty allows for the myth of the Trojan War to yet live on, awaiting more archaeological discoveries to illuminate the time.

In Search of the Trojan War (****) is a well-researched book that succinctly (in less than 300 pages) provides an overview of the archaeological history of the region and allows Wood to present the evidence for his broad conclusions about the period. Occasionally he gets drawn a little too far down the path of 'speculative' musings rather than sticking strictly with the evidence, but these musings are well-signposted in advance. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday 19 August 2011

3 new actors for GAME OF THRONES, plus Hellboy wants a part

Three more roles for Game of Thrones' second season have been revealed.

Oona Chaplin is a Spanish-born actress resident and active in the UK. She is the granddaughter of noted comedian Charlie Chaplin and has had a number of small roles in film and on TV, appearing in the TV series Spooks and the movie Quantum of Solace. She can currently be seen on the 1950s BBC news drama The Hour.

In Thrones, Chaplin is playing the role of Jeyne Westerling, the eldest daughter of Lord Gawen Westerling of the Crag, a bannerman of the Lannisters. The Westerlings are an old family who were once very rich and powerful, but have now fallen on hard times, and Lord Gawen is hoping to find a favourable marriage match for his daughter as a way of restoring the family's prestige. Jeyne doesn't appear until the third novel, but for the series the producers have confirmed they will be following the part of the story where she appears which happens off-page in the book.

Laura Pradelska is a German actress who has been most active on stage, winning rave reviews and notices for her one-woman performances of Still Life at the Sushi Bar and The Stronger, as well as being part of an award-winning ensemble for a recent production of The Alchemist. She will be appearing as 'Greta' in an upcoming episode of Doctor Who.

In Thrones, Pradelska is playing the role of Quaithe, an enigmatic and mysterious woman from the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai who usually speaks in prophecies and riddles. In the books Quaithe only appears with her face hidden behind a lacquered mask. It is not known if this practice will also be followed in the series.

Forbes KB is a Scottish actor with a number of credits on British TV and in films. His most recent notable role was in the movie Harry Brown, appearing alongside Michael Caine and fellow Thrones actors Liam Cunningham, David Bradley and Iain Glen.

In Thrones, Forbes KB is playing the role of Black Lorren, a noted ironborn raider, a formidable warrior whose combat skills are greatly respected. He is very loyal to the Greyjoys.

Not cast, but keen for a role is the mighty Ron Perlman. Perlman, the star of the Hellboy movies and the current TV series Sons of Anarchy, is an old friend of George R.R. Martin, with whom he worked on the Beauty and the Beast series in 1988-90. Perlman expresses an interest in a role on the show in this interview, where he also laments (jokingly) on how Hollywood success has changed Martin.
"George R. R. Martin, who wrote all the books… wrote for Beauty and the Beast. I go way back with George R. R. I can’t believe how through the roof he is. He won’t return any of my calls anymore," Perlman said in jest. "It’s really disgusting what Hollywood can do to a guy."

Given Perlman's high geek-cred rating, I'm sure HBO will take his suggestion under advisement. Given that Sons of Anarchy is an ongoing show, any role on Thrones would have to be a brief one at best. Given that Balon Greyjoy has likely already been cast, I'd suggest Qhorin Halfhand: he's a relatively short-run role at the end of Season 2 (so it's likely they haven't cast him yet) but Qhorin possesses the requisite amount of memorable badassery to be worthy of Perlman.

In a final bit of news, it appears that Malta has been dropped as a filming location for Game of Thrones. The island was used for the exterior scenes of King's Landing and some of Daenerys' story across the Narrow Sea in the first season. For Season 2 the producers have confirmed that filming will take place in three countries: Northern Ireland, Iceland (for the scenes beyond the Wall) and, it now appears, Croatia, where the city of Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast will be used as a primary location. Given Dubrovnik's appearance and features, it could be standing in for Dragonstone or King's Landing.

Thursday 18 August 2011

New China Mieville book gets a title

China Mieville is maintaining his one-book-a-year release schedule with the revelation that his next novel will be called Railsea (or at least has that working title). Virtually nothing else is known about the book save its May 2012 release date, a year after Embassytown.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Next Joe Abercrombie book gets a title

Joe Abercrombie has revealed that the title for his next novel will be A Red Country. Or possibly just Red Country. This is the Western-meets-(edgy-yet-humourous)-Fantasy he's been talking about for a while, with the writing going well and a mid-to-late 2012 release date likely.

I'm going to hazard a guess his next book will involve blood, swearing, hard men and women living by their swords and absolutely no hard info on if Logen is alive or not.

Friday 12 August 2011

Six more for THRONES

HBO's mission to employ every single actor in the British Isles in Game of Thrones relentlessly continues with a brace of new casting announcements.

First up, a familiar face. Roy Dotrice was originally cast for Season 1 in the role of Grand Maester Pycelle, but had to pull out due to ill health. He was replaced at short notice by Julian Glover. Dotrice will likely need little introduction to Song of Ice and Fire fans, as he read the audio books for the first three and the fifth novels in the series, meaning he has already played every character in the books to date! He recently was awarded a Guinness World Record for playing more roles in an audiobook than any single other reader (the Wheel of Time audiobooks may have presented a challenge, but they use two readers who divide the characters between them). Dotrice has also appeared in films such as Amadeus and Hellboy 2, and TV series such as Space: 1999, Babylon 5 and Beauty and the Beast, where he first met George R.R. Martin.

Dotrice has been cast in the role of Hallyne, the head of the Guild of Alchemists in King's Landing, a noted 'pyromancer' who makes the acquaintance of Tyrion Lannister after his arrival in the city. Hallyne and his guild have a slighly worrying obsession with 'the substance', wildfire, but are the only people in Westeros trained to create and handle it.

Hannah Murray is a young British actress who made a name for herself on the first two seasons of the British drama series Skins. She was a popular fan suggestion for the role of Daenerys Targaryen for the first season.

On Thrones, Murray has been cast in the role of Gilly. Gilly is one of the daughters of Craster, a tyrannical old man who lives out beyond the Wall. Gilly is desperately unhappy living at Craster's Keep and hopes for an opportunity to leave.

Playing Craster is veteran Welsh actor Robert Pugh. A familiar face from British television, Pugh has appeared in series such as Silent Witness, Shameless, Torchwood, Doctor Who, Clocking Off and Hustle, as well as movies including Robin Hood, The Last Legion, Kingdom of Heaven and Master and Commander.

Craster is a wildling living beyond the Wall, but is friendly towards the Night's Watch, giving their rangers shelter in his keep. Despite this service, members of the Night's Watch find Craster distasteful, particularly the unsavoury nature of his relationship with his daughters and the absence of any sons.

Karl Davies is a young British actor, noted for his roles in popular soap opera Emmerdale and co-starring with Stephen Fry on the legal series Kingdom.

Davies is playing the role of Alton Lannister. This appears to be a new role created for the television series. The nature of the character remains unknown, though fansites have speculated that he may be replacing the character of Cleos Frey, a cousin of Jaime Lannister (via Tywin's sister, who is married to a Frey) who is captured in battle by the Starks and used as a go-between, carrying messages, terms and threats back and forth between the Stark and Lannister armies. This remains to be confirmed, however.

Ben Crompton is an established British actor with TV credits including Clocking Off, Dalziel and Pascoe, Heartbeat and the Terry Pratchett mini-series Going Postal.

In Thrones Crompton has been cast in the fan-favourite role of 'Dolorous' Edd Tollett, a member of the Night's Watch noted for his pessimistic sense of humour. He serves as Lord Commander Jeor Mormont's squire and becomes a friend and ally of Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly during their dangerous mission beyond the Wall.

Michael McElhatton is an Irish actor with a career in film, television and on stage. His most recent roles were in the TV series Mystery!, Zen and Your Bad Self.

In Thrones McElhatton plays Roose Bolton, Lord of the Dreadfort and a bannerman to Robb Stark. House Bolton is noted for many centuries of enmity to the Starks before they were finally cowed in several wars. Roose Bolton is noted as a canny strategist and for his sense of cunning, but he is also merciless and brutal to his enemies, and is one of the most ruthless of Robb's followers. He has a bastard son, Ramsay Snow, who is also expected to appear in the second season.

Friday 5 August 2011

Five roles cast for THRONES

HBO have announced that four additional roles (plus one I missed earlier) have been cast for the second season of Game of Thrones.

Tom Wlaschiha is an experienced German actor, best-known to English-speaking audiences with recent roles in Valkyrie, Brideshead Revisited and The Sarah-Jane Adventures, as well as minor roles in Munich and Enemy at the Gates. He has a formidable array of German credits to his name as well.

Wlaschiha is playing the role of Jaqen H'ghar, a fan-favourite character debuting in the second novel. H'ghar is another of Yoren's recruits for the Wall, dredged out of the dungeons of the Red Keep. It's widely speculated that the hooded figure in the carriage in the final episode of Thrones' first season was H'ghar, played by an extra with his face strategically hidden.

Gemma Whelan is a young British actress and comedian, who has recently appeared in the films Gulliver's Travels and The Wolfman (note that some sites have reported her casting with pictures of her co-star in that movie, Emily Blunt, which is erroneous). Last year she won the Funny Woman Variety Act Award at the Leicester Square Theatre for her stand-up character, Chastity Butterworth.

In Thrones, Whelan has been cast in the role of Asha Greyjoy, the sister of Theon Greyjoy. To the disgruntlement of fans, her name has been changed to 'Yara Greyjoy', to avoid confusion with Osha. However, fans have pointed out her name is now rather similar to that of Arya Stark, and that Osha's name has not been given on-screen. Asha/Yara is the only one of Lord Balon Greyjoy's children to have survived and remained at home in the Iron Islands, where she has risen to command ships and men in battle (to the disgruntlement of some of the more traditionalist ironborn lords). Theon hasn't seen his sister in nine years.

Nonso Anozie is a British actor with a lengthy resume. He has appeared in films such as The Last Legion, Atonement, RocknRolla, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang and the upcoming Conan the Barbarian reboot. On stage he is notable for being on the youngest actors to ever play King Lear in a professional production, and in 2005 won the Ian Charleson Award for his portrayal of of Othello.

In the series he will be playing Xaro Xhoan Daxos, a merchant prince of Qarth, the great city that guards the straits between the Summer Sea and the Jade Sea, more than two thousand miles east of Westeros. Xaro is one of the Thirteen, a powerful and influential trade guild, and becomes acquainted with Daenerys Targaryen and her retinue. In the novels, the Qartheen are notably described as pale-skinned, whilst for the TV series HBO seems to be casting them with actors of colour. Whilst some fans have grumbled about the deviation from the text, it's actually always been odd to me that the inhabitants of Qarth - a city on a latitude further south than Dorne and not far north of Sothoryos (GRRM World's Africa) would be so pale-skinned given their climate. Regardless, Qarth is also described as a vibrant and multi-cultured city, the gateway to the far east of the world, and, most importantly, Xaro's ethnicity has no bearing whatsoever on the story.

Kerr Logan is a British actor, born in Northern Ireland and based in London. He trained with RADA and Thrones is his first television role.

Logan is playing the role of Matthos Seaworth, the third son of Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham). Matthos, like his father, is a loyal servant of the newly-crowned King Stannis Baratheon. Matthos is a crewman on Davos' flagship, the Black Betha, and an accomplished sailor in his own right that Davos is grooming for his own command.

An earlier-announced role I missed at the time: Oliver Ford Davies is a British actor best-known for his role as Sio Bibble (a senior politician on Naboo) in all three prequel Star Wars movies, though his CV features many more roles on stage and screen. In film he has appeared in Mrs. Brown and Sense and Sensibility, and on stage has won a Laurence Olivier Award for his role in Racing Demon in 1990.

In Thrones, Davies plays Maester Cressen, the maester at Dragonstone, Stannis Baratheon's stronghold. Cressen is a lifelong servant of House Baratheon, helping to raise the infant Renly when his parents were killed and advising Robert and Stannis loyally for decades. He is a good and trusted friend of Ser Davos Seaworth as well. Cressen is advanced in years and has been dispatched an assistant maester to be trained up to take over when he dies, something Cressen mildly resents.

Some pretty good casting choices there, a mix of newcomers and somewhat familiar faces. Major roles for Season 2 still to be cast include: Lord Balon Greyjoy, Ser Edmure Tully, Lord Hoster Tully, Lord Roose Bolton, Craster, Qhorin Halfhand, Ygritte and possibly Vargo Hoat and Ser Amory Lorch, not to mention Jojen and Meera Reed. Filming is currently in its second week in Northern Ireland, with some scenes on Dragonstone, in Winterfell and in the Stark army camp already in the can.

Season 2 of Thrones is expected to air in April 2012.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Neverwinter Nights

The city of Neverwinter, one of the last bastions of civilisation in northern Faerun, is in danger from within and without. The rival city of Luskan has allied with various shadowy forces to oppose the city from without, whilst within a deadly plague stalks the streets. The city's rulers call upon a stalwart hero (plus a henchman) to help combat the plague and expose the sinister conspiracy that threatens the city's very existence! Etc!

Neverwinter Nights was originally released in 2002 and was greeted enthusiastically by computer RPG fans, eagerly awaiting the next masterpiece from BioWare following their monumental success with the Baldur's Gate series of 2D RPGs. Neverwinter Nights was the company's first move into 3D gaming, as well as providing a platform for players to create their own adventures and act as the 'Dungeon Master', masterminding adventures for the benefit of their friends. As a result the single-player campaign feels like an afterthought, lacking the epic scale and polish of BioWare's earlier RPGs.

Which isn't to say that Neverwinter Nights is terrible. It's solid and certainly enjoyable enough to play to completion. Playing the campaign cooperatively with friends radically improves the gaming experience. The game is also of historical interest, being the the first game to use the Aurora Engine which would go on to power Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and, for other companies, Knights of the Old Republic II and The Witcher, as well as Neverwinter Nights' own sequel. It's fascinating tracing the DNA of those later and better games to their origins in Neverwinter Nights.

The engine has aged well, and looks great when viewed at high resolution (at least, until you zoom right in, when it starts to show its age). The art style has continuity with the Infinity Engine games, animation (particularly during combat) is fluid and the late-game appearances of larger creatures like dragons and demons are impressively tense. However, the game has only a small number of art assets (creating an object in 3D being a lot more work than simply drawing a 2D sprite) and these are re-used with increasingly tedious frequency over the course of the game. Every mansion looks like every other one, every cave is identical, you'll soon get sick of the forests and only the late-game introduction of a lave-filled dungeon complex breaks up the staleness. Normally I laud games for being long (Neverwinter Night clocks in at around the 30 hour mark), but both the over-use of graphical assets and a fairly thin storyline stretched to breaking point make Neverwinter Night too long. The game should probably have been a third shorter to break up the monotony of the last part of the game. Particularly puzzling is the absence of in-engine cut scenes (which the expansions and a lot of fan modules have) which would have made the game more cinematic and interesting.

The other major problem is that whilst it looks better graphically, the game is a huge step backwards from the 2D Infinity Engine RPGs in terms of story, dialogue and character. The story is predictable (a rather familiar BioWare twist aside), most of the NPCs are unmemorable, and Forgotten Realms fans will be rather unhappy at certain characters - most notably the orc king Obould - being depicted completely differently from the canon. In the game you also only control one player-created character and a single henchman, which is a far cry from the six-man parties of the Baldur's Gate series with their random (and often amusing) dialogue exchanges and complex party inter-relationships. Hours spent traipsing around in silence with a taciturn NPC fighting spiders is more than a bit dull, and seems to have been a deliberate attempt to get people to play co-op with other human players, which may not always be practical. Even when there are dialogue exchanges with other characters, the game keeps them short, perhaps aware that the small text box is not really suited to the long, well-written dialogue that BioWare was famous for at the time.

On the plus side, whilst the main quest is only moderately interesting, there are some genuinely impressive and atmospheric sub-quests. An attempt to save a village trapped in a time warp results in some morally complex decisions having to be made, whilst there's a few particularly nasty conundrums, such as telling a woman who's asked you to find her missing children that they're dead or letting her live on in happy ignorance. These exceptionally good quests are also well-spaced throughout the game, breaking up the monotony of the more standard 'delivery boy' and 'kill everything' quests.

Neverwinter Nights also has another problem: it's very straightforward to find and complete every quest, kill every monster and get every drop of EXP than can be wrung from the game (doing the same in Baldur's Gate II, for example, would probably take over 200 hours, and even then is impossible due to some quests only being possible with the right party/character/stronghold make-up). This will leave you a good 2-3 levels higher than the game seems to have been balanced for at the end, making the final part of the game pretty easy.

Neverwinter Nights (***½) is a solid RPG which starts to fall apart quite badly when you compare it to its predecessors and successors in the BioWare stable; it's probably BioWare's weakest RPG to date (note: I haven't played Dragon Age or its sequel, or Mass Effect 2). There's still much to enjoy, especially when played co-op, but compared to the other great titles from BioWare and their partner companies, it is a disappointment. However, it is well worth investigating for the excellent fan modules and mods for the game, as well as the notably superior expansions, Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark. The game is available with its expansions now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Brightness Reef by David Brin

The planet Jijo is home to representatives from six different races, each hiding from the Civilisation of the Five Galaxies for their own reasons. Most of their high technology has been abandoned, lest it lead pursuers to them, but at great cost peaceful coexistence between the six races has been achieved. At the time of the Gathering representatives from these races meet to discuss the future...but this Gathering is interrupted by the arrival of a starship. Fearing the worst, the people of Jijo are faced with disturbing revelations from the outside universe and discover that their little backwater world is about to become very important indeed.

Brightness Reef is the fourth novel in David Brin's Uplift Saga and the first in a closely-linked trilogy. Whilst the first three books were set in the same universe and shared some references, they were mostly stand-alone novels. This trilogy is a continuous storyline spanning three novels, and indeed serves as a sequel to the events of both Startide Rising and The Uplift War, though this does not become more apparent until the fifth and sixth books.

Brightness Reef was published nine years after The Uplift War and it's clear that Brin has become a stronger writer in the interim. His prose is smoother and more varied in this novel than the preceding books in the series. Brin abandons the straightforward POV structure of the first three books in favour of a more varied approach, mixing third-person limited narration with the first person accounts of the traeki Asx (which, given that traeki are actually gestalt entities consisting of several semi-autonomous lifeforms, is not as straightforward as it sounds) and the memoirs of the hoon Alvin as he and his friends attempt to build a bathysphere to explore an off-shore underwater trench.

Of the other main characters, we have an amnesiac who has lost the power of speech and understanding language through severe head trauma, but can still communicate via music; a girl from a primitive tribe interacting with both the more advanced races of the Slope and then the visiting aliens; and a number of other Jijoan characters representing a number of different ideological viewpoints as they argue over the way forward for their unique culture. Brin's characterisation has always been strong, but here, given the much larger cast size, he is forced to be more concise, building up characters, plots and events quite quickly (though never rushed) in comparison. He pulls this off, and it's interesting that although the events of this novel are restricted to one small geographical area on one planet with no scenes set in space at all, the large cast and shifting viewpoints give the novel a more epic feeling than even the space battle-heavy Startide Rising. In fact, given the low technology nature of the setting, Brightness Reef is probably the closest Brin has come to writing a fantasy novel, and based on this novel it's a setting that Brin would do very well in.

As well as individual characterisation, Brin has to create six (eight, counting the more animal-like glavers and noors) distinct species, along with their biology and culture, and show how they interact with one another. Brin excels at this kind of 'worldbuilding', making each race distinct and interesting. This is enhanced by giving us POV characters from several of these other races to further bring them to life.

The pace of the novel is brisk, but the large cast means that Brin gets a little bogged down in touching base with all of the POV characters on a regular basis (probably the cause of the novel expanding from one book to three, although it has to be said I doubt he'd have fitted the whole trilogy into one novel, particularly in the last book where events take on a truly cosmic scale), and the importance and relevance of all the characters is still unclear at this point. There's also a question on exactly how Brightness Reef fits in with the events of the preceding two novels, though this is made abundantly clear in the last few chapters as events build to a climax and the reader realises how Brin is bringing together storylines he had been working on for fifteen years by this point in a rather impressive manner.

Brightness Reef (****) features superior worldbuilding, an epic scope and a readable, varied prose style, but suffers in comparison to its two forebears due to some bloat and a number of cliffhanger endings. Nevertheless, it is a rich and enjoyable SF novel that leads directly into its sequel, Infinity's Shore. The novel is available now in the USA and, second-hand, in the UK.