Tuesday 29 November 2011

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden is in trouble. He's inadvertently started a war between the vampires and the wizards' White Council, his girlfriend has suffered an unplanned magical transformation and he's in danger of being booted out of his house and office. When a new paying job comes along it seems like a great opportunity for Harry to get on top of his troubles...until he finds himself in the middle of another magical war.

Summer Knight, the fourth novel in The Dresden Files, picks up some months after the events of Grave Peril and is the first book in the series to feature extensive continuity call-backs to previous volumes without a huge amount of exposition about what's been going on. Four books and twelve hundred pages into the series, I guess Butcher decided it was time to stop catering for newcomers and get on with business.

Having covered evil warlocks, werewolves, vampires and ghosts in the first three books, Butcher explores the faeries of his setting in this volume (though they showed up in the previous book, there's more revealed about them this time around). Making faeries work as threatening forces is tricky in supernatural fiction due to the cliches that come to mind when they show up, but Butcher does a good job here, defining the Sidhe of Dresden's world in some detail as threatening and sometimes malevolent beings who are dangerous and tricky to deal with. Their addition to the story, along with more information about Dresden's wizardly colleagues, expands the scope of the worldbuilding nicely.

Butcher's prose is as enjoyable as ever, with Butcher continuing a nice line in black humour. This book is notably lighter in tone than the dark Grave Peril, but things are still grimmer than in the first two, slighter novels in the series. The continuation of an over-arcing story arc from the third book (which still isn't resolved at the end of this volume) gives a more epic feel to events, with Harry's mission in the book having larger and more important ramifications in the wider conflict and world. It's good to see returning characters like Billy and his werewolf pack, the Alphas, whilst Karrin Murphy returns to the forefront of the action and, as she puts it, successfully kicks some major supernatural arse in one well-realised action sequence.

At this point The Dresden Files is becoming an enjoyable television series in novel form (which makes the failure of the TV version of the series more of a shame, though that may be down to how much they deviated from the source material). Each novel so far has had a satisfying self-contained narrative, but also added to the mythology and, in the third and fourth books, has brought in larger storylines spanning multiple volumes that bring a more epic feel to the series.

Summer Knight (****) is another well-written entry in a highly enjoyable fantasy series. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Westeros: Total War needs some help

Westeros: Total War, a fan-made total conversion of Medieval II: Total War that will allow players to conquer the Seven Kingdoms with the faction of their choice, is making some serious inroads towards completion. However, progress could be speeded up if some experienced Coders, Skinners or Modellers could be found to lend their help to the project.

Check out the TWCenter forum here to see what is needed, and hopefully we can be claiming the Iron Throne ourselves in 2012.

Five years of the Wertzone

Yesterday the blog turned five years old. Wow, how did that happen? Half a decade ago I started the site on a whim following another poster's suggestion on the Westeros.org forum and it's gotten bigger and led to more interesting opportunities than I ever thought possible. Because of the blog I've met a large number of my favourite authors, got into contact with many more and been able to pursue some paid writing and editing work (more on this next year) which otherwise would not have been possible. All great stuff, made possible because people seem to like reading the blog.

So, that's five years, 1,407 posts, well over 1.6 million site visits (and over 2.5 million page views) and 354 book reviews under my belt. Where from here? Onwards and upwards, hopefully (and definitely a page redesign at some point). Thanks to everyone for stopping by over the years. Sorry for the lack of cake :-)

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Detroit, 2027. The human race is changing, with nanotech research and cybernetics technology making 'augmented' humans stronger, faster and smarter than their 'normal' forebears. Numerous groups are opposed to augmentation on ethical and religious grounds. Adam Jensen, chief of security at Sarif Industries, one of the leaders in augmentation research, is severely wounded when terrorists attack and destroy one of Sarif's labs. Saved by augmentation, Adam must investigate the attack, discover the motives of those seeking to destroy Sarif Industries and, ultimately, decided which side of the argument is the 'right' one.

Human Revolution is the third game in the Deus Ex franchise, serving as a prequel to the events of the original Deus Ex and its lacklustre sequel, Invisible War. Set twenty-five years before the first game, Human Revolution helps show how that world of nanotech and enhanced humans came into existence. As a prequel, Human Revolution requires no existing knowledge of the earlier games and makes an ideal jumping-on point for new players.

Contrary to screenshots which suggest that it's a FPS, Human Revolution is a science fiction roleplaying game played from a first-person perspective. The game is built around the idea that though there is a central narrative the player must follow (this isn't an open-world SF RPG like Fallout 3), the player has tremendous freedom in how he or she follows that narrative. The game has a robust combat system which will satisfy those who like shooting things, but it also has a solid stealth mechanic for those who prefer sneaking around in the shadows (or, more often, inexplicably large air ducts). The game also has a hacking system so players can also hack into computer networks and turn automatic defences against enemy forces. Even within a particular play style, there is flexibility, with the ability to stun or knock out opponents rather than killing them being a particularly welcome feature (and the game has achievements for those who complete the game without killing anyone). Most players will probably mix and match styles as the mood takes them, or depending on the mission.

Deus Ex was infamous for its tremendous flexibility and freedom, adapting its storyline to cater for the player deciding to kill off major NPCs on a whim and letting them simply escape from tough bosses rather than being forced into difficult battles (especially if they were not built for combat). Human Revolution isn't quite as liberal in its approach to gameplay, most notably due to the four tough and unavoidable boss fights which have been commonly and frequently criticised. In a game which enjoys giving you different options in almost every circumstance, being forced into situations where you have to break out the heavy artillery is annoying, especially if you've been upgrading your character for say stealth or hacking and are not optimised for combat.

However, this is the only major criticism I can level at the game. In almost every other arena, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a triumph. The game has a fantastic atmosphere and sense of place, backed up by an absolutely superb soundtrack and carried through some top-notch writing. Deus Ex is one of the most critically-acclaimed games of all time, and there were doubts that Human Revolution could live up to that precedent. These doubts have been laid to rest. The game is more than worthy of its illustrious heritage, and deserves plaudits for its clever design. It employs regenerating health and a cover system, two features of modern FPS games which are often groan-inducing and tiresome (is there a company somewhere that specialises in building chest-high walls and inexplicably littering them over levels?), but Human Revolution takes ownership of them. The regenerating health is justified as a force-shield, whilst the cover system (well-implemented as these things go) does double time as a tactical combat mechanic, allowing your character to move around whilst suppressed, rolling from cover to cover, firing blindly and finding sniper vantage points. Actually, the cover system pulls triple duty as a stealth mechanic in non-combat situations as well.

The game has a lot to say about the rights and wrongs of cybernetics, augmentation and the power of corporations and governments, but tries not to get preachy. As the game progresses, your character can develop his own opinion on matters, informed by the events he's experienced and the choices he's made, and the multiple endings (there are four radically different resolutions, each with three different endings based on your character's actions earlier in the game, meaning a total of twelve possible outcomes) can see him reaching very different conclusions. Whilst you can't create your own character, you can certainly develop him in more depth than in most CRPGs. This is helped by an excellent 'dramatic conversation' mechanic where you must argue with a major NPC over an important topic, trying to convince them to help you or surrender without the need for violence. Major plot revelations crop up in these conversations. However, it's odd that there aren't more of these (there's only three or four in the game), as in their own way they are more critical to the game than the tedious boss fights.

The game's central storyline is gripping, tightly-written and populated with memorable, well-acted and flawed characters. However, the game has two large hub areas (in Detroit and Heng Sha) where you can wander off from the main story for a while and pursue some side-quests. A couple of these side-quests are extensive, taking a couple of hours apiece to complete, and are a great opportunity to gain additional XP and increase your character's skills and augments. These hub areas are rich in incidental detail and flavour (overhearing citizens discussing the news stories of the day, being offered food from stall-owners etc), but arguably there's little to do in them outside of the (relatively few, for the size of these areas) quests and buying some equipment and weapons from a few vendors. A bit more going on in each zone would have expanded the play-time (which at 25 hours is reasonable but not particularly notable for an RPG) and made the game a little richer. Also, the game rarely strays far from the traditional FPS paradigm of having most of its actions set indoors in successions of corridors and offices. A little more variety in locations (perhaps more outdoor opportunities for stealth or combat) would have been nice.

These kind of complaints are very minor. In a world of increasingly bland and 'safe' first-person shooters, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (****½) stands out with its strong writing, well-defined characterisation and its refreshingly open approach to freedom and choice, whilst having compelling action sequences as well. It's one of the strongest RPGs, and indeed games overall, of the last couple of years and is well worth a look. It's available now on PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA), as well as on the OnLive cloud gaming platform for PC and Mac users (UK, USA).

Monday 28 November 2011

Dungeon-crawling for the 21st Century: Legend of Grimrock

Developers Almost Human are working on a new dungeon crawl game entitled Legend of Grimrock. The game is a lovingly-crafted tribute to dungeon-crawling games of yesteryear, such as Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, Knightmare, Black Crypt and Lands of Lore, and even features the same tile-based movement of those games, as well as a similar combat and inventory interface. Here's the trailer:

Looks like a lot of fun, though what modern gamers more used to the likes of Skyrim will make of it is unclear. But for older gamers hankering for some old-school gaming, it could be just what the duergar ordered. The game is currently scheduled for release in early 2012 on PC and Mac.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden, Chicago-based wizard for hire, finds himself drawn into a new case. A plea from a helpless young woman sets him on a course that will lead to a cataclysmic showdown with an old enemy, and may cost Dresden that which he cares about the most...

Grave Peril is the third novel in the Dresden Files series of urban fantasies and an important turning-point in the series. The first two novels, Storm Front and Fool Moon, were entertaining but little more than enjoyable fluff. Grave Peril is a considerably darker and more personal book, with Butcher's writing much more confident and assured as he puts Dresden through the emotional wringer. Whilst reading the book I was in put in mind of those 'gamechanger' episodes of Buffy and Angel when Joss Whedon would rip up the status quo by doing something to the characters that hurt them badly and established a new paradigm he would have fun setting up and exploring.

Grave Peril expands the cast of the Dresden Files with Michael Carpenter, a Christian knight armed with a magical sword, joining Dresden in his battle with the forces of evil. We also get a greater depth of worldbuilding, with both the vampire and Sidhe inhabitants of Dresden's world being fleshed out in a lot of detail. Whilst Butcher's approach does not stray too far from standard fantasy/horror depictions of these creatures, he succeeds in making them feel fresh and interesting, a near-impossible task given how ubiquitous these forces have become in recent supernatural fiction.

Butcher's writing is fun and enjoyable, with more of Dresden's attitude, character and humour bleeding through the first-person prose. His writing has definitely stepped up in quality from the first two books in the series and he effectively conveys the horror of several disturbing scenes in the book. He's become better at conveying emotion since the opening volumes of the series and several scenes are real gut-punches. There's also a more epic feeling to events, with ramifications from this book likely to extend over several books to come, opening up the story to something larger and more interesting in scale.

Some complaints remain. As with Fool Moon, Dresden is injured several times in the book and Butcher goes a bit overboard in his descriptions of how tired, hurt and helpless Dresden feels due to these injuries. There is the feeling that with each successive volume, Dresden's powers and abilities with magic are growing (along with those of his allies) and this requires Butcher to go to some lengths to 'nerf' Dresden's abilities to simply stop him using a hand-wave of magic to solve all of his problems. However, this is a minor issue, and Butcher's impressive improvement in the areas of prose and characterisation overcome it quite handily.

Grave Peril (****) is where The Dresden Files comes of age, and it does so with aplomb. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

George R.R. Martin's first-ever published piece of writing

A good find by HaraktheHirsute on the Westeros.org board. This is the letter George R.R. Martin wrote to Marvel Comics in 1963, published in Fantastic Four #20 when he was 15:

There you go. From such small seeds etc.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The Empire of Tamriel is under a dark threat. The Emperor has been assassinated, leaving behind no heir. Portals to the dimension of Oblivion are opening all over the Empire, unleashing demons and monsters upon a defenceless population. The Blades, guardians of the Empire, seem unable to resolve the crisis. It falls upon a single hero to bring peace back to the Empire...if he can be bothered, that is.

Oblivion is the fourth game in the Elder Scrolls series of roleplaying games (the fifth, Skyrim, came out a few weeks ago). Originally released in 2006, Oblivion was the first game in the series to be developed with the latest generation of video game consoles in mind as well as the series' traditional home on PC, and was an early showcase for the graphical capabilities of those consoles. Five and a half years on, it remains an impressive game, even if time has not been kind to many of its niggling faults.

Like the first three games in the series - Arena, Daggerfall and Morrowind - Oblivion is an open-world RPG which gives the player a huge playing area to travel around in straight away. Whilst there is a core narrative relating to the search for a new Emperor and shutting down the portals to Oblivion, the player is free to completely ignore this in favour of pursuing side-quests, secondary narratives (such as joining the Thieves' Guild or Dark Brotherhood, both of which have extensive questlines of their own) or simply raiding dungeons for loot for personal gain. This freedom is both exhilarating and also daunting, as some players might feel overwhelmed by the amount of choice on offer. For this reason, the game pushes it core storyline much more strongly than previous games in the series to give players something more tangible to hold onto and pursue.

You know the dragons in Skyrim? These are Oblivion's equivalent, only they're crap.

Unfortunately, the central storyline ends up not being particularly interesting, which is annoying as it also seeks to subversively overthrow some of the cliches and conventions of fantasy RPGs. Initially the game leads you to believe that your character is the 'chosen one' who must save the world, but amusingly you quickly discover that you're not. Your job (if you choose to pursue the central storyline) is to find the true heir and clear the way for him to save the world. Essentially, you're a fixer who has to rush around solving problems and leaving the way clear for the real hero to do his stuff. This is a bold narrative decision, but also one that can be potentially frustrating, making you feel like you're playing second fiddle to an NPC. For this reason, the main storyline is rather short (if you concentrate on it and don't get distracted by other quests, you can finish it in less than ten hours) and also teams you up with the 'real hero' only for the final mission of that storyline. However, be advised that starting the main quest (by following directions to the city of Kvatch after speaking to the old dude at the monastery at the start of the game) will result in portals to Oblivion opening all over the countryside and result in constant, extremely annoying, battles with imps and lesser demons when you're simply trying to get around. Completing the main quest closes the Oblivion portals, thankfully.

The game engine is rather old (it was first used in 2002's Morrowind) but was hugely upgraded for Oblivion. On release the visuals were absolutely, jaw-droppingly beautiful and still look impressive today (and can be made truly awesome with high-texture mods). Vast forests, grassy plains, towering mountains, medieval towns and ancient ruins are a constant feast for the eyes, and rendered with tremendous atmosphere. Even more impressive is the freedom you have to travel everywhere: if you can see it, you can walk there. In Oblivion it's often appealing to simply go for a walk or ride through the countryside in a random direction and see what you bump into.

Unfortunately, the game is less accomplished in its depiction of people and creatures. Human characters are stiff, with somewhat oddly-rendered faces and clunky animation. Monsters fare better, with a variety of interesting creature designs. Interacting with other living creatures is also hit or miss. The game suffers massively from a very limited voice cast. Aside from Patrick Stewart (who has about five lines in the whole game) and Sean Bean (voicing the 'proper' hero), everyone else, even major NPCs, is voiced by the same small pool of actors. When Brother Jauffre, a major character in the game, is talking to you in the exact same voice that the innkeeper round the corner was using to talk to a customer who was also voiced by the same actor, any sense of immersion in the game is seriously dented. Dialogue and the writing in general are also, for the most part, cliched and predictable.

"One does not simply walk into Oblivion. Apart from you, obviously, just by walking up to gates and clicking on them and then going through that tedious tower raid thing again and again. What's up with that?"

Combat and magic use are pretty solid mechanics, with a nice physicality to the combat making it feel like you are in a serious melee. The game allows members of all classes to develop skills outside of those classes, so a sword-wielding mage or a magic-casting warrior are viable possibilities. Unfortunately, the game's levelling mechanic is a little bizarre, since you only level up when your core class skills are practised to a high enough level. Since the entire game world levels up with you (i.e. visiting a wilderness area at Level 1 might result in combat with a bandit in leather armour equipped with a short sword, whilst visiting the same area at Level 20 will reveal a plethora of bandits in magical armour armed with sorcerous blades), there is no real imperative to level up, so it's actually better to pick a class opposite to what you want to play and then develop the non-class skills to high levels. In fact, the level-scaling mechanic is a seriously annoying feature, and one that is a dealbreaker for many players. PC gamers can simply mod the feature out, but console players are stuck with it.

It's a tribute to Oblivion's team of developers that the game can survive an indifferent plot, some bad writing and a series of immersion-shattering, poor design problems. This is mainly down to the inventive and better-written side-quests. Joining the Dark Brotherhood (the assassins' guild) results in a tense, dark-tinged and morally challenging questline that puts the main story to shame. Individual quests are also very strong. Going to sleep on a boat-turned-tavern in the capital's port results in the inn being stolen and sailed out to sea! This leaves you having to take on the hijackers and return the boat to port. Another quest finds you having to venture inside a magical painting to rescue its creator, with a completely different art style to the rest of the game. A visit to a village in night results in you being attacked by invisible fiends, which turn out to be cursed villagers forced into invisibility by a dubious mage (which is a bit harsh if you've already killed several of them without realising what they were). Also, simply not following any quests at all and going dungeon-diving at random can result in memorable encounters and some sweet loot.

Umbra, noted mass-slaughterer of innocent people if you let her out of her dungeon. Which is a horrendous tragedy but also hilarious.

The central draw of the Elder Scrolls games, and indeed Bethesda's Fallout games which are in a similar vein, is the chance to experience your own narrative at your own pace. No two players will ever play the game in quite the same way or experience the same quests in the same order, and it's this involvement of the player's decision in determining the narrative which can be extremely compelling and result in unique stories. For example, in my first play-through I wandered into a dungeon holding a powerful warrior named Umbra, one of the few non-level-scaled characters in the game. Since I was only Level 3, I died near-instantly. After trying a few different tactics to overcome her and steal her sword (one of the most powerful magical weapons in the game), I gave up and fled the dungeon. As I looked back I saw the maniacal super-warrior chasing me along the lakeside. Fleeing at a full run past a guard patrol, I watched as they engaged Umbra and promptly expired. Still, their sacrifice allowed me time to escape. Thinking no more of the incident, I played on for about another 30 hours, bringing the main quest to completion (amongst many other things). On a whim I decided to travel on foot back to the Imperial City alongside Martin (Sean Bean's character) rather than fast-travel there. As we approached the lakeside, we noted numerous corpses of guardsmen, bandits, monsters and merchants along the road. There were dozens and dozens of them. Hearing a familiar cry, I saw Umbra emerge from nearby rocks and attack. It turned out that Umbra had spent the intervening in-game time (weeks, at least) wandering back and forth slaughtering everything in sight. Now considerably more hardcore and with Lord Boromir Stark at my side, I engaged the nutcase in battle and defeated her, getting her mighty sword just in time for the main quest's climactic, huge battle. Awesome.

It's moments like this that allow Oblivion (****) to overcome its many issues and emerge as a highly enjoyable computer roleplaying game. PC gamers also have access to a truly vast number of mods and expansions which do everything from upgrading the graphics, making the characters more realistic and fixing the level-scaling issues to completely overhauling the game and providing new storylines and entire new maps to play on. The game is available now (in a special edition including the expansions) on PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA).

Friday 25 November 2011

GAME OF THRONES Season 1 DVD release details

Via Westeros, we have some info on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases for Game of Thrones, Season 1.

The first season will be released in the UK and USA (and some other territories as well, from the sound of it) on 20 March 2012, about three to four weeks before Season 2 debuts on DVD. As well as all ten episodes, the set will include a plethora of special features.

The Blu-Ray will have the following exclusive items:

  • The Complete Guide to Westeros: an interactive guide to Westeros and Essos, their key locations and noble houses etc. There are also 24 exclusive histories of the Seven Kingdoms told by the characters.
  • Anatomy of an Episode: a guide to the creation of an episode from start to finish, in this case the sixth episode, A Golden Crown.
  • In-Episode Guides: in-feature infoboxes that provide information about characters, locations and histories whilst each episode plays.
  • Hidden Dragon Easter Eggs: find the hidden dragon eggs to unlock more exclusive content.

The following features will appear on both DVD and Blu-Ray:

  • Making Game of Thrones: a 30-minute documentary about the series.
  • Creating the Show Open: a featurette about how the opening title sequence was crafted.
  • From the Book to the Screen: George R.R. Martin, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss discuss the issues involved in bringing the novel to the screen.
  • Character Profiles: profiles of fifteen major characters, provided by the actors playing them.
  • The Night's Watch: an in-depth look at the men of the Night's Watch.
  • Creating the Dothraki Language: a feature on how the Dothraki language was created for the show.
  • Audio Commentaries: Seven audio commentaries with cast and crew including David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, George R.R. Martin, Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington and more.
Sounds like a pretty good package, considering the amount of time they made us wait for it, and should tide people over until the second season starts airing a few weeks later.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

A first look at GAME OF THRONES Season 2

Here are some interesting images from the recent Game of Thrones trailer released by HBO:

Rory McCann returns as Sandor Clegane, the Hound, now a member of King Joffrey's Kingsguard. Apparently Sandor's role, which was somewhat under-emphasised in Season 1, will be beefed up for Season 2 to something more like that of the books. It may also just be the lighting, but his make-up for this season looks markedly better as well.

The Painted Table of Dragonstone. It's good to see it's in the series, but it does appear to be a smaller and less grandiose version of what is described in the novels.

Stephen Dillane as King Stannis Baratheon. The production team have opted not to have Stannis bald, as in the novels, but otherwise have gone for a stern look more in keeping with his depiction in the books.

Theon Greyjoy meets a drowned priest of the Iron Islands. In a change from the books, this is a miscellaneous priest rather than his uncle, Aeron 'Damphair' Greyjoy. This is probably to keep their options open when it comes to casting Aeron for a later season.

Melisandre of Asshai, played by Carice Van Houten. With her red hair and neck choker, this is Melisandre pretty much straight out of the books.

Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell. This is a big change from the novels, as Dormer's casting means that Margaery is older and more seasoned than the young noblewoman of the novels. Some fans are speculating that Margaery's character responsibilities may be combined with those of the Queen of Thorns to produce a stronger, more interesting character.

Liam Cunningham as Ser Davos Seaworth, Stannis's most loyal retainer. An excellent piece of casting and Davos looks the part perfectly here. Since Davos spends more of his time on a ship than on a horse, it's interesting to speculate that he might be present at a certain parley here.

Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark and Finn Jones as Ser Loras Tyrell, both returning characters from Season 1. It's interesting to note the combination of the Baratheon stag and the Tyrell colours on the banner behind them, suggesting that for the TV show Renly might have adopted his own, subtly different sigil.

Gethin Anthony as King Renly Baratheon, here shown cultivating a beard, possibly to look more 'kingly'. Combined with the stag-like crown, this makes Renly look a lot more like Robert's little brother. Behind him is a mostly-obscured Brienne of Tarth, played by Gwendoline Christie.

Overall, it looks like HBO is hitting the right marks in getting A Clash of Kings onto the screen. The season will start airing in the USA and (presumably) the UK in April 2012.

Monday 21 November 2011

New Mark Charan Newton series announced

Tor UK have signed up Mark Charan Newton for a new fantasy series, starting with a two-book contract. Provisionally entitled Drakenfield, the new series will be a first-person narrative featuring a private investigator solving crimes in a fantasy world. Newton claims this series will dial down the 'weirdness' from his Legends of the Red Sun sequence and be more like historical fiction, citing C.J. Sansom as a possible reference point. The first volume is very tentatively set for publication in mid-2013.

GAME OF THRONES Season 2 behind-the-scenes vid

HBO have aired an interesting behind-the-scenes video for Season 2 of Game of Thrones, showing us our first glimpses of new characters. Keen-eyed viewers can spot Stannis, Melisandre, Davos and Margaery Tyrell.

Season 2 of Game of Thrones is currently scheduled to start airing in April 2012.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Wertzone Classics: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Thousands of years from now, the myriad colony worlds of Hain (including Earth) are being reunited under a new interstellar government, the Ekumen. Genly Ai is the First Envoy, who sets foot alone onto the surface of the frigid planet of Winter (Gethen to its inhabitants) to bring offers of trade, peace and alliance to the people of the planet. However, the genderless inhabitants (who only have sexual urges and genders for a brief period once a month) are sceptical of Ai's claims, and he soon finds himself a pawn of political factions in two neighbouring countries eager to use or discard him as they see fit.

The Left Hand of Darkness was originally published in 1969. It is set in a shared future history which Le Guin has used for several other novels and short stories, though foreknowledge of these other works is completely unnecessary to read this book. The novel also has a formidable reputation as one of the most critically-acclaimed science fiction novels in the history of the genre, noted for its complex themes and its use of metaphors to tackle a wide variety of literary ideas.

The novel spends a fair amount of time talking about the genderless inhabitants of Gethen, who have no sexual urges at all apart from a brief period called kemmer, when they are able to mate and reproduce. Le Guin has put a lot of thought into how not only this works biologically but also the impact it has on society and on the world. Her notions that a lack of sex drive for most of the month reduces the aggressiveness of humans (Gethen has never had a major war) seem obvious, but these ideas are constantly examined and re-examined during the course of the book and she steers away from trite answers.

Whilst the gender theme is notable and the most oft-discussed aspect of the novel, much is also made of the planet's cold climate and the challenges the people face in living in a world mostly covered by glaciers and icecaps where the warm seasons are perishingly short. The politics and divisions between the neighbouring countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn are also described in some detail. As a result Gethen, also called Winter, is as vivid and memorable as any of the human characters in the novel.

Amongst the individual characters, the dominant ones are Ai himself and Estraven, the Prime Minister of Karhide whose interest in Ai sees him suffer a fall from grace and having to travel a long road to try to redeem himself. The book is told from the first-person POV of both characters, moving between them with interludes taking in myths and legends from Gethen's past and also on matters such as the Gethenese calendar and sexual biology (there's also an appendix which handily collates this information into an easy-to-find collection). The two characters are compelling protagonists, with Ai's bafflement at his status as a man from another planet being considered incidental at best to the trivial politics of two nations leading him into difficulties, whilst Estraven's characterisation is subtle and compelling, with the reader constantly having to review his or her opinion of him based on new information as it comes to light.

The themes that the novel tackles extend far beyond the obvious ones of gender and climate. Duality (expressed in Ai's discussion of Taoism with Estraven), faith, the difficulties of communication even when language is shared and politics are also discussed and examined. But where The Left Hand of Darkness impresses is that these thematic discussions are woven into the narrative in a manner that is seamless and stands alongside a compelling plot. The book's climax, where the two main characters have to traverse a 700-mile-wide icecap with limited supplies, is a fantastic adventure narrative in its own right.

Complaints are few. Written in the 1960s, Le Guin presents a few outdated ideas on gender roles and sexuality that were common at the time, but these are minor issues at best.

Overall, The Left Hand of Darkness (*****) is a smart and intelligent read that has a lot to say and does so in a manner that is page-turning, compelling, relentlessly entertaining and refreshingly concise (the novel clocks in at a slim 250 pages in paperback). One of the all-time classics of the genre and a book that more than deserves its reputation. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Hadrian and Royce are partners in crime, a mercenary and thief who make a living working for the various nobles who rule over the lands of Avryn but spend most of their time feuding with one another. One particular job ends with Hadrian and Royce being arrested and charged with regicide. Determined to prove their innocence and take revenge on those who framed them, they set out on a quest that could change the fate of Avryn and the whole world.

Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations series is already a proven success, with both small press and self-published editions of the books selling well. Orbit have picked up the series and recast the original six books as three omnibuses, bringing them to a wider audience. Whilst this laudably rewards the author's success, it also raises the stakes: standing out from the crowd in self-publishing is one thing, but how does Sullivan's work stack up compared to the current fantasy heavyweights?

The answer is...okay, actually. Sullivan's ambition with this series was to create a series that in a way beat against the current trend for adult, edgy, violent and explicit fantasy novels in favour of something more straightforward or 'classic'. Something that evoked the spirit of say Eddings or Brooks without being as dire. Sullivan lists Harry Potter as an inspiration, particularly the way it welded together accessibility and a classic structure with darker elements (such as major character deaths), and that's certainly a reasonable ambition.

Theft of Swords (which combines the first two novels in the series, The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha) is a fast-paced, straightforward read with a fast-moving plot and easy-to-read writing. Sullivan's risk in aping the simpler form of fantasy fiction is that he might skirt towards blandness, and this is certainly a problem in the book. He has a fairly blank prose style which is effortless to read, but also somewhat forgettable. His skills with characterisation are somewhat stronger, but still not as great as might be wished. Particularly odd is that his central characters of Hadrian and Royce are not very well-developed at all, and many of the secondary characters are more interesting and better-drawn. The central duo do get a bit more fleshed out towards the end of the second half of the book and we also get a possible reason for why Sullivan had to hold back on certain revelations about them, but it is a bit of a challenge to read a book where the two heroes are so (apparently) shallow.

Other issues can be found in the worldbuilding, particularly the existence of apparently substantial kingdoms with walled cities in them that are only about 20 miles wide. Sullivan aims for some consistency here - a couple of hundred soldiers forms a large army in this world, presumably because populations are correspondingly tiny - but it's still a bit odd. On the racial front, things are fairly traditional: dwarves are geniuses for stonecarving whilst elves are long-lived, pointy-eared types. The only dwarf we meet is a grubby villain, whilst the elves are (in this first book anyway) kept firmly off-screen and are the enemies of humanity, but these are minor (and not particularly unprecedented) twists to the established formula. Naturally, the main storyline also revolves around prophecies, chosen ones whose arrival will signify the end of the world and so on, and it won't take a genius to guess who the chosen one is going to be.

The principle problem with the book is its very predictability. At first, reading an epic fantasy without blood spraying over people's faces every five seconds or two mandatory graphic (and usually badly-written) sex scenes per book is a refreshing change of pace, and feels like a valid direction to take at this time. However, the book's embracing of classic tropes without doing much (or, at times, anything) to subvert or challenge them eventually gets dull. Brandon Sanderson, for example, is also writing classic epic fantasy but remembers to put in plenty of interesting twists: a post-magic-apocalypse setting, a Wild West angle and, of course, lots of original magic systems. These flourishes are absent from Sullivan's debut work.

Theft of Swords (***) is an easy, relaxing read but also one that lacks depth or originality. It's fun enough to warrant reading on (and the series rep has it improving massively as it continues), but I do wonder if publishing these stories as 650-page omnibuses rather than their original 320-page, bite-sized chunks was a mistake. A fun popcorn read, but ultimately not much more. The omnibus is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Cover art for China Mieville's RAILSEA

The American cover art for China Mieville's next novel, Railsea, has been revealed:

Hard info on the book - due out in May 2012 - is scant at the moment, but from advance pagination (though we should remember this is highly unreliable) and some other hints, it sounds like this might be Mieville's second YA novel, though that is far from confirmed. More news as I hear it.

Monday 14 November 2011


The film version of Suzanne Collins' novel is due for release on 23 March, 2012 and stars Jennifer Lawrence (most recently seen in X-Men: First Class) as Katniss Everdeen. Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz and Toby Jones also have supporting roles.

The film has a good cast and Lawrence is a rising talent who should be great in the lead role. Director Gary Ross also has some interesting form, with his most notable previous movies being Pleasantville and Seabiscuit.

HARRY POTTER director developing DOCTOR WHO movie

David Yates, the director of the fifth through eighth Harry Potter movies, has revealed that he is working on a Doctor Who feature film. Apparently the movie will not tie in with the existing continuity of the TV series, presumably meaning a new cast but based on the same premise. At the moment neither Russell T. Davies (who resurrected the show in its current incarnation in 2005) nor Steven Moffat (the current showrunner/producer) are involved with the project, though BBC Enterprises are working on the movie. In particular, Jane Tranter, the person who brought back Doctor Who in 2005 whilst working as Head of BBC Drama, is producing. Tranter and Yates previously collaborated on the BBC mini-series State of Play, probably the finest British television series of the 2000s.

The poster for the 1965 Doctor Who feature film.

Although this news has sent paroxysms of nerdrage through the Internet, this is actually the third time this has happened. Back in the 1960s two feature films were released that were separate from the TV continuity but stood alongside it quite well. Peter Cushing played 'Dr. Who' (a human scientist, rather than an alien called 'the Doctor') in Doctor Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD. There have also been several other 'out-of-continuity' Doctor Who stories, such as stage plays (some of them featuring TV Doctors such as Jon Pertwee and Colin Baker) and web series (one featuring Richard E. Grant as a non-canonical version of the Ninth Doctor). Whilst this new film (if made) will be much bigger in profile and magnitude, there is no indication that it will supersede the TV series or replace it when made.

Based on Yates's comments, it sounds like the film is a minimum of three to four years away.

Friday 11 November 2011

War in Heaven by Gavin Smith

There is a war in the digital realm. The nefarious military leader Rolleston has unleashed Demiurge, an ultra-powerful AI which seeks to control and consume everything else on humanity's computer networks, to guarantee himself ultimate power. A band of opponents and self-appointed freedom fighters, led (reluctantly and often shambolically) by ex-soldier Jakob Douglas, have fought back by unleashing their own AI onto the net to expose everyone's dark and dirty secrets, which has not gone down well with the great and the good who rule the Solar system. Of course, Jakob also had to go and call this AI 'God', utterly enraging the (very large) religious portion of the human race as well. Still, God has won the first round, banishing Demiurge, Rolleston and their followers to the colony systems.

With Rolleston and his forces gathering strength in the colonies and preparing for a fresh assault on Earth, it falls to Jakob and his colleagues to pursue them and finish the job that they began. But with Jakob's allies including an alien race who until recently had been slaughtering humanity relentlessly for decades, a drug-addicted journalist and a bunch of superstitious hackers, this mission will not be an easy one.

War in Heaven is the sequel to last year's Veteran, Gavin Smith's well-received debut novel. Refreshingly, this is the conclusion to the story (no trilogies here, thank you very much) and the story ends in a pretty definitive manner which seems to limit the chances of a follow-up. As such, those who've held off on reading Veteran until the story was completed can now proceed with confidence.

Like Veteran, War in Heaven is a hard-edged novel mixing elements of space opera, military SF, cyberpunk and horror. It's heavy on the action, but also features a decent amount of character development, with the character of Jakob (our first-person protagonist) being repeatedly taken apart and his motives analysed, along with those of his friends, though often in a manner skewed by Jakob's own perspective. This focus on characterisation as well as on action and battle sequences helps give depth to what could have been a fairly straightforward military SF novel. Unfortunately, there are a few too many moments (and a few more than there were in Veteran) when this introspective edge slips over into characters pointlessly sitting around and talking about the plot for pages on end instead of getting on with business, which tends to result in slightly uneven pacing. The novel has a stop-start feel, increased by is episodic structure: the book is divided into several distinct sections, set in different locations with different tasks to be accomplished.

Smith encourages you to overlook that through some interesting musings on morality and taking responsibility for your actions, as well as a lot of black humour and some nice meta-commentary on science fiction cliches. There's some clever plot twists and the resolution to the story is reasonably well-set-up, though the full impact of some massive events that happen during the finale is lost due to the limits of the first-person perspective. He also delivers great action sequences, involving personal combat, mech battles and space engagements, and succeeds in keeping these elements fresh and intriguing.

War in Heaven (****) is a worthy successor to Veteran and concludes the storyline begun there in a very solid manner. Smith is a talented writer and a strong new voice in the SF field, but some problems with pacing and over-exposition lightly mar this first duology. Certainly he is a writer to watch. The novel is available now in the UK and on import in the USA.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Cover art for David Brin's new novel

David Brin is making his long-awaited comeback in June 2012, with the publication of Existence, his first novel in a decade.

The cover blurb:
Bestselling, award-winning futurist David Brin returns to globe-spanning, high concept SF.

As he did in his New York Times bestselling novel Earth, David Brin takes on the rapidly accelerating rate of change in technology in a very human way.

Telepresence. The neural link world wide web, where a flash crowd can gather in an instant if something interesting is happening. We see it today--one man in Pakistan live-tweets the assault on Osama bin Laden, and the whole world turns to watch. A revolution in Egypt is coordinated online.

Into the maelstrom of world-wide shared experience drops a game-changer. An alien artifact is plucked from Earth's orbit; an artifact that wants to communicate. News leaks out fast, and the world reacts as it always does: with fear and hope and selfishness and love and violence.

Existence is packed with tension, with characters we care about in danger that seems unstoppable. It is a novel brimming with ideas about the future, and how humanity will--must--adapt to it. This is a big book from David Brin, and everyone is going to be talking about it.

I'm a big fan of Brin and his long absence from SF has been regrettable, so this is great news as far as I'm concerned. Existence will be published on 19 June 2012 by Tor in the USA. The book does not appear to have a UK publisher at this time.

Monday 7 November 2011

X-Men: First Class

Here's a knotty problem for a studio to face. What happens when you decide to make a fourth film in one of your biggest franchises, but without any of the three major actors who made the first three films so watchable (particularly when your third movie was a bit of a dog and only saved by their performances)? The decision to make X-Men: First Class as a prequel to the existing movies that was fully open to newcomers was a canny one, allowing 20th Century Fox to effectively reboot the series without throwing away the continuity of the previous films, but the side-effect of losing Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen must have caused some consternation in the office. However, by bringing in director Matthew Vaughn, hot off the acclaimed Kick-Ass, and casting James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as the younger Stewart and McKellen, the studio showed some good judgement (which they could have done with on the third movie).

First Class is set in 1962, roughly forty years before the events of the existing movie trilogy. Fassbender's Lehnsherr, a survivor of the concentration camps (the memorable first scene of X-Men is cleverly recreated and expanded on in the opening of First Class), is scouring the world for Nazi criminals and in particular Klaus Schmidt, the Nazi scientist who experimented on him to find a use for his mutation. Schmidt turns out to be a mutant himself, now going by the name Sebastian Shaw (a strong performance by Kevin Bacon), who has attracted the enmity of the CIA and their new mutant consultant Charles Xavier (McAvoy) by orchestrating the rising tensions between the USA and USSR. Lehnsherr agrees to join Xavier's team of 'X-Men' to help stop Shaw's plans, but in the process finds himself questioning whether mutants and humans can ever live together peacefully. Caught in the middle is Xavier's adopted shapeshifting sister, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) who is conflicted over whether she wants to be 'normal' or be true to her mutant nature.

The inner conflict within the primary characters gives the movie an unusual depth of character for a superhero flick and is true to the themes of tolerance and identity Bryan Singer raised in the first two movies in the series (and handled somewhat more ham-fistedly by Brett Ratner in the third). It also gives us the strongest scene in the movie, as the vengeance-obsessed Lehnsherr confronts two former Nazis in a bar in Argentina in a scene that Tarantino at his best would have been proud of (and the presence of Fassbender speaking German to Nazis in this scene gives viewers of Inglorious Basterds a sense of deja vu). Fassbender's performance throughout is excellent, and he has a great rapport with McAvoy which sells you completely these are the same people as Stewart and McKellen, just younger. That said, the later movies indicated that they were friends and allies for much longer than the few weeks this movie suggests was the case.

Elsewhere McAvoy plays the young Charles Xavier to perfection, respecting Stewart's performance but bringing youthful, idealism and a spark of mischief to the character that makes him sympathetic, even when he is appearing to be naive. Scenes where Xavier has to overcome the wearying cynicism of his team-mates are given weight by McAvoy making it clear that Xavier knows that his attempts to forge peace may be doomed, but the attempt must be made anyway. Lawrence's performance is solid, but her conflicted journey is not as handled as well as it could be, with her decision on what side to join not being sold completely successfully (and there are some continuity issues based on her character's behaviour in the first three films, though nothing too bad).

The film is well-paced, with a solid use of the old standbys of montages, voice-overs and exposition used to effectively a complicated storyline involving a relatively large cast of characters. A slight failure is the depiction of the bad guys: whilst Bacon's Shaw and January Jone's Emma Frost get plenty of screen-time and dialogue, Riptide and Azazel have little to do and nothing to say, and come across as flat as a result.

Elsewhere, the film has effective and impressive action sequences, a rather clever use of real history (though somewhat altered from our own) to enhance the narrative and some nice uses of 1960s imagery and visuals (particularly in the credits sequence). The action sequences are earned by good performances, strong direction and an enjoyable script that is a bit more complex and interesting than many superhero films. There's also a rather cool easter egg for fans of the other movies to watch out for.

X-Men: First Class (****) could have been a potential mess, but it emerges as the second-best movie in the franchise to date (after the splendid X2) and one of the best reboots of a superhero franchise to date. The move is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray)

Sunday 6 November 2011

Wilfred: Season 1

Young lawyer Ryan Newman has lost his job and is left feeling depressed and contemplating suicide. Taking up an offer to dogsit his neighbour's pooch, he is bemused to find that he sees Wilfred as a guy in a dog costume, whilst everyone else sees him as a real dog. Wilfred, a pot-smoking connoisseur of movies and TV, befriends Ryan and helps improve his self-confidence...but he also commits random acts seemingly designed to annoy and undermine him. As their relationship develops, Ryan tries to work out who or what Wilfred really is.

Wilfred started life as an Australian TV show before being transplanted to the USA, with co-creator/actor Jason Gann reprising his role as the eponymous man/dog/hallucination/whatever. It is a surreal show mixing elements of relationship dramas with comedy, geek-friendly references and even hints of tragedy. The show's central 'mystery' - who or what is Wilfred? - is kept at a fairly low ebb through most of the first season, only really emerging to the fore in the last episode. The creators gleefully play on the audience's past experiences with such mystery-based shows, with Wilfred eventually revealing to Ryan (Elijah 'Frodo Baggins' Wood) his secret is that he needs to get off the Island and evade the smoke monster ("I've seen Lost!" "What did you think of the ending?"), to Ryan's frustration.

The show's comedy is based around the bizarre relationship between Wilfred and Ryan, with Wilfred expressing canine-like behaviour in human terms but still being susceptible to dog foibles (being distracted by a bubble machine, mesmerised by a laser pointer on a wall or forming a lasting sexual relationship with a stuffed toy). From the other direction, Ryan's self-confidence and ability to form friendships has been eroded to the point where he seems to become psychologically dependent on Wilfred. However, as Ryan recovers his self-esteem he reveals a cold and manipulative side which is surprisingly harsh (and masterfully showcased in the season's grand finale).

Whilst there are a few recurring castmembers and some great cameos (My Name is Earl's Ethan Suplee, Malcolm in the Middle's Jane Kaczmarek, The Hangover's Ed Helms and a totally random appearance by Eric Stoltz), the show is mostly a two-hander between Gann and Wood. The two actors are on top form throughout the series, whether it's engaging in a dramatic showdown in the rain on a hospital roof, trying to catch each other out with Dune quotes or assessing Ryan's ability to watch an entire season of The Wire in one sitting ("That stuff is dense!"). Wood undercuts his young clean-cut image through his portrayal of a character who takes drugs and, increasingly as the season progresses, emotionally manipulates those around him, whilst Gann is simply excellent as the morally questionable Wilfred (complete with a slightly surreal English accent he puts on whenever he does anything villainous). Neither character is hugely likable, but they are certainly entertaining.

As the season progresses we get more clues as to what is going on (most notably in an episode involving Mary Steenburgen as Ryan's mother, who is in a home for the emotionally bewildered) before the impressive finale, which takes together a number of very minor and apparently unconnected subplots from throughout the season and ties them together neatly to form an impressive cliffhanger. On the negative side, there is a slight feeling of repetitiveness to the premise (though the writers do a good job of keeping things as fresh as possible) and the un-likability of most of the characters occasionally makes watching the show feel slightly pointless, until the next clever line or nice piece of characterisation comes along. However, the episodes are short, sharp and amusing enough to keep things moving along nicely whenever they do start to flag.

Wilfred: Season 1 (****) is an entertaining show with a nice line in self-awareness. Whether the premise is strong enough to support multiple seasons (a second season is on its way for next year) remains to be seen, but so far it's worth watching. The show will be released in the next few months in the UK (DVD) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Mark Charan Newton's THE REEF released as an ebook

Mark Charan Newton's hard-to-find debut novel, The Reef, has been re-released as an ebook by Tor UK.

Originally released in 2008 as a limited print edition by Pendragon Publishing, The Reef is set in the same world as Newton's Legends of the Red Sun sequence, but thousands of years and many thousands of miles removed from the events of that series. It's a strong debut novel and well worth checking out.