Sunday 29 April 2012

Full trailer for PROMETHEUS

Here's the new, full trailer for Ridley Scott's Alien quasi-prequel Prometheus.

Looks impressive. The film launches on 8 June.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Norway, 1942. A Nazi special weapons division commanded by Johann Schmidt secures an ancient artifact of unknown origin but incredible power, which they hope to use to power a new, more advanced war machine. At the same time, in New York City, Steve Rogers is rejected from joining the US Army due to a significant number of health issues. Frustrated, he tries to falsify documents in order to enlist. Impressed by his tenacity, Dr. Abraham Erskine instead recruits him for a top-secret programme, designed to create the ultimate soldier using technology. Rogers becomes Captain America, just as Schmidt (adopting the alias, 'the Red Skull') breaks away from his Nazi masters to undertake his own mission of destruction and world domination.

Captain America: The First Avenger is yet another piece in Marvel's 'cinematic masterplan', of tying together different characters into a single coherent universe. This plan - which also incorporates Thor, The Incredible Hulk and the two Iron Man movies - culminates in The Avengers, which recently hit cinemas. With Captain America, Marvel resist the urge to bring the character immediately into the present, instead giving him a full origin story set in WWII. This sets the film apart from its contemporaries and allows Rogers' patriotism to be established in full at a time of good vs. evil before bringing him into the murkier present.

The film is anchored on Chris Evans's performance as Rogers/Captain America (Evans previously played the Human Torch in the two Fantastic Four movies), which is decent. A problem with the Captain America character is that unabashed American patriotism isn't a concept that travels well abroad. However, taking a nod from the comics where the same issue has come up a few times over the years, Evans plays the character as a good man who wants to do his part and isn't a blind follower of American policy. Later in the film the character becomes based in London and leads an international team of agents in taking the fight to the Red Skull, mixing things up in a more interesting manner. A combination of Evans's performance and impressive CGI also totally sells the illusion of the puny, short and unhealthy Rogers in the opening sequences of the film before his transformation into the buff Captain America.

Other performances are good, with director Joe Johnston opting for safe and reliable actors in many of the roles: Tommy Lee Jones plays a brash US general who gets the best lines in the movie (as may be expected), with Stanley Tucci bringing eccentricity and humanity to the role of Erskine. Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull and Toby Jones as his sidekick Dr. Zola also form a solid double-act (though Weaving occasionally slips into 'auto-pilot evil', this being a role he could do in is sleep). Hayley Atwell provides solid support as British agent Peggy Carter. The potential for saying something interesting as a British female agent working alongside square-jawed American soldiers in wartime is squandered, however, with Carter characterised as a 'plucky British gal' and not developed much further beyond punching out a solider who makes a sexist comment before she falls for the hero. The ever-reliable Neal McDonough also appears as one of Rogers's international team of agents, though aside from a truly outrageous moustache he is not very distinguishable from the very similar roles he's played before on Band of Brothers and Minority Report.

The film adopts a cool retrofuturistic (or 'Americanapunk') tone at times, with Johnston clearly tapping the same well as his entertaining early-career picture, The Rocketeer. There's a playful sense of humour at times, and Captain America deserves some plaudits for being the first contemporary superhero movie to transform into a musical for ten minutes halfway through (rationalised in the storyline). However, its musings on patriotism, warfare and heroism rarely rise above the predictable. The plot is pretty straightforward, although well-paced with some good action sequences. The links to the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe are downplayed to a few appearances by Tony Stark's father and the now-traditional appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the movie's closing moments (interestingly, in the actual finale of the movie rather than a post-credits sequence). This allows the movie to stand alone as an independent piece of entertainment.

The film's biggest problem is a total lack of surprise or tension. It's a solidly-made piece of entertainment which relies on its period setting as its sole distinguishing feature from its contemporaries. The actors and director all do good work and it certainly passes the time enjoyably enough, but it lacks long-term appeal.

Captain America: The First Avenger (***½) is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray). A sequel is planned for release in 2014.

Saturday 28 April 2012

PORTAL 2 map creator trailer

Normally the notion of a trailer for a year-old game's map creator could be dismissed as sheerest lunacy. However, when the game is Portal 2 and the trailer consists of a voice-over from the mighty Cave Johnson (played by J.K. Simmons) trying to rationalise the map creator's existing within the game's mythology (giant octopuses are involved), it becomes something very entertaining indeed:

“This is not a dramatization. An Earth where mollusks have created an advanced land-based society with wholly inappropriate bipedal keyboards is guaranteed to exist.”

The Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative will be released on 8 May 2012 and will be free for players of the game on PC and Mac. X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3 owners will not have access to it, although Valve are apparently looking at ways of integrating the new maps with the console versions of the game, so at least they can still play them.

Thursday 26 April 2012


Bethesda and Arkane have released the first full trailer for Disonhored, their highly-promising steampunk stealth 'em-up. Whilst made up of cut-scenes, the trailer showcases some of the things you'll be able to do in the full game. The game is due for release later in 2012.


No-one saw that coming!
Westeros: Total War, the fan-made Song of Ice and Fire mod for Medieval II: Total War, is finally starting to come together properly. As part of this process, the modding team require voice-over talent for the game. Urgently needed are:

Northern English/Scottish voices for the First Men (the North, wildlings)
Middle Eastern voices for the Rhoyne (Dornish)
Southern English voices for the Andals
Scandanavian voices for the Ironborn.
Possibly Welsh and/or Irish voices for the Vale of Arryn.

Both male and female voices are required at present. If interested, please apply to the TWCenter forum for the mod.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

A hundred petty warlords are struggling to carve their own pieces out of the Broken Empire, the divided remnants of a glorious, high-technology society obliterated in a monstrous war. Little has survived from before that time aside from a few books of philosophy and war, and religion.

Prince Jorg, the son of King Olidan of Ancrath, is a boy of nine when he sees his mother and brother brutally murdered by agents of Count Renar. When Olidan makes peace with Renar in return for a few paltry treaties and goods, Jorg runs away from home in the company of a band of mercenaries. As the years pass, Jorg becomes cruel, merciless and ruthless. He sees his destiny is to reunite the Broken Empire and rule as the first Emperor in a thousand years, and nothing and no-one will deny him this destiny.

Prince of Thorns is the first novel in The Broken Empire, a trilogy which was fiercely bidded over by several publishers before HarperCollins Voyager won the publishing rights in the UK. It's being touted by Voyager as 'the big new thing' for 2011, to the extent where they are even giving away copies to people who have pre-ordered A Dance with Dragons from certain UK bookstores.

This faith is mostly justified. Prince of Thorns is a remarkable read. Well-written and compelling, it is also disturbing. Anyone who's ever bailed on reading Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books because of a horrific thing the main character does a couple of chapters in will probably not enjoy this book either. Jorg is a protagonist with the quick wits of Locke Lamora, the charm and resourcefulness of Kvothe but the moral compass of Gregor Clegane. The book has the protagonists (the word 'hero' is completely incompatible with Jorg or his merry band of psychopaths and lunatics) doing things that even the bad guys in most fantasy novels would balk at, and for this reason it is going to be a challenging sell to some readers.

Lawrence writes vividly and well. The dark and horrible things that Jorg and his crew get up to are mostly inferred rather than outright-described, which is just as well. Lawrence also avoids dwelling on Jorg's physical actions too much in favour of delving into his psyche, working out what makes him tick, presenting these ideas to the reader, and then subverting them. As the book unfolds and we learn more about Jorg's hideous experiences, we realise why he is the way he is, though at almost every turn Jorg also chides the reader for thinking he is trying to excuse himself or beg for forgiveness. He is simply presenting the facts and the context and leaves them to decide whether he is the logical result of circumstance or someone who could have saved himself from this dark path if he had chosen to do so. Lawrence's aptitude with the other characters is no less accomplished, with deft strokes used to create vivid secondary roles concisely and with skill.

Outside of the excellent characterisation, Lawrence paints a vivid picture of a post-apocalyptic world. The ruins of an earlier, technological age (probably our one, though the map suggests that if it is, the geography of the world has been radically transformed, at least in the area the story takes place) paint the landscape, and it's interesting to see references to familiar names and places. The works of Plutarch, Socrates and Sun Tzu have survived, as has the Christian faith, and in the distant east place-names sound more familiar (Indus, Persia). This evokes the feeling of a world broken and twisted, the new rammed in with the old, the effect of which is unsettling (I think it might be what Paul Hoffman was going for in The Left Hand of God, but Prince of Thorns does it much better). I assume more about the world and the history will be revealed in the inevitable sequels. Whilst Prince of Thorns is the opening volume in a trilogy, but also works well as a stand-alone work. Whilst there is clearly more to come, it ends on a natural pause, not a cliffhanger, which is welcome.

This is a blood-soaked, cynical and unrelentingly bleak novel, but it also has a rich vein of humour, and there are a few 'good' (well, relatively) characters to show that there is still hope in the world. There are some minor downsides: a few times Jorg seems to 'win' due his bloody-minded attitude overcoming situations where he is phyiscally or magically outclassed, and there's a few too many happy coincidences which allow Jorg and his men to beat the odds, especially right at the end. There's also an event about three-quarters of the way through the novel which is highly impressive, but may be a bit hard for some fantasy fans to swallow.

Prince of Thorns (****½) is a page-turning, compelling and well-written novel, but some may be put off by its harsher, colder aspects. Those can overcome this issue will find the most impressively ruthless and hard-edged fantasy debut since Bakker's Darkness That Came Before. The novel will be published on 2 August in the USA and two days later in the UK.

EDIT: Interesting. Updating labels seems to have caused the whole post to be republished. Odd.

A Game of American Politicians

Via Sam Sykes on Twitter:

(and the original source)

 Seems about right :-)

Monday 23 April 2012

Finally! An official quasi-update on HALF-LIFE 3

Valve have, famously, said very little about the status of the next game in their core Half-Life franchise. In fact, the head of Valve, Gabe Newell, has been reticent to even comment about it, outside of the standard "It'll be done when it's done," comment and mutterings about Valve Time.

On the Seven Day Cooldown podcast, Newell is asked a question about Ricochet, a minor and highly obscure title that Valve released in 2000 and which Valve themselves do not acknowledge on their own website. Coming after a series of Half-Life questions, Newell suddenly starts talking about 'Ricochet 2'. Given that the chances of a real Ricochet 2 are non-existent, it seems probable that he was actually talking about Half-Life 3/Episode 3 (the fact that both Newell and the show's presenters keep laughing is a bit of a giveaway).

So based on his comments, the situation seems to be that:
  • A team is currently working on Half-Life 3/Ep3 and the freeform work structure at Valve has not been responsible for the delays on it.
  • The game has been the subject of several delays resulting to changes in the storyline that came up in development. Some of these unexpected changes have been positive and some have been negative.
  • More traditionally, Newell confirms that there will be no firm news until the game has taken on a much more definitive shape and form and is headed for release.
With Valve apparently stamping out rumours that the game will be revealed at E3, it seems that the next window for news will be after the release of their current games in development, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, both due for release later in 2012.

Friday 20 April 2012

Tor release abandoned cover art for A MEMORY OF LIGHT

Tor have released the rough sketch of the cover for A Memory of Light (the final Wheel of Time book) that Darrell K. Sweet was working at the time of his death last year.

Michael Whelan will be providing the final cover artwork. He is working from a totally different image from the book and will not be re-using any of Sweet's ideas.

Sweet's rough cover is interesting. Obviously, the three women are Elayne, Min and Aviendha and the funeral bier is presumably Rand's, with the unified Aes Sedai symbol in the background. More curious is the pyramid-like structure on the left, which does not appear to be a familiar location from the books.

A Memory of Light is currently scheduled for release in January 2013.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Chuck: Season 3

Charles 'Chuck' Bartowski and his handlers, Sarah Walker and John Casey, have successfully defeated FULCRUM, a rogue intelligence agency. The Intersect, the combined intelligence database of the entire United States which has been downloaded into Chuck's brain, has been radically upgraded. Now Chuck has access to advanced weapons and kung fu skills, amongst other abilities. But Chuck's emotions are getting in the way of him being able to do his job. A new agent, Daniel Shaw, is assigned to the team to help train Chuck as a spy, but this has unexpected results.

After the relentlessly entertaining second season of Chuck, the third season gets off to a surprisingly weak start. Rather than picking up immediately on Season 2's cliffhanger ending (where Chuck comes into possession of the Intersect 2.0), we rejoin the action six months later. This causes problems even with Chuck's elastic notions of plausibility (why are Sarah and Casey hanging around Burbank for six months when Chuck isn't there?) and necessitates a lot of backtracking and flashbacks to fill in the gap. Once we're past the hurdle of the first few episodes (and a somewhat dubious Vinnie Jones guest role), however, things improve a lot. The second season's format of stringing together several multi-episode arcs into one cohesive whole is repeated and is almost as successful as previously. Brandon Routh is decent in the new role of Shaw, with the writers not wasting any opportunity to highlight his previous major role as Superman (even draping him in the American flag in one amusing scene).

As usual, the season has a good mix of comedy and drama, with some great stand-alone stories (Armand Assante's turn as a somewhat demented, American-friendly version of Castro is especially entertaining) standing alongside the ongoing story arcs. Most satisfying is the unexpected way the show's set-up suddenly changes. Major characters discover Chuck's secret with little forewarning, altering the show's premise for the better by dropping the 'secret identity' storyline just as it was starting to get a little stale. Chuck and Sarah's relationship is moved onto another level, again just as the 'will they/won't they' angle was running out of steam. Even Casey is given a stronger personal storyline, as he discovers a family he never knew he had and becomes conflicted over contacting them or not. And, as usual, the more serious spy stuff is balanced out nicely by the lunacy going on over at the Buy More store.

Overall, the third season of Chuck (****) is funny, self-aware and entertaining. It's not quite as a good as the second season, due to a dodgy set-up in the first few episodes that results in a lot of backtracking and wheel-spinning and the fact that the new bad guys, the Ring, are identical to FULCRUM. Beyond that, the show evolves its premise and characters in compelling new directions and shows a willingness to change even fundamental parts of the premise when necessary. The season is available now in the UK (DVD) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Final cover art for Peter F. Hamilton's GREAT NORTH ROAD

Via the Unisphere, we have the final cover art for Peter F. Hamilton's Great North Road (click for larger versions):


The cover art is by Steve Stone and will grace the British edition of the novel, to be published by Macmillan in hardcover on 27 September. Here's the cover with the full blurb:

Rome Burning by Sophia McDougall

Rome, 2760 AUC. Three years ago, the Emperor's younger brother was murdered as part of a scheme to seize control of the Roman Empire. His son, Marcus, went into hiding and survived thanks to the help of two slaves, Sulien and Una, who harbour secrets of their own. When the Emperor suffers a stroke, Marcus has to assume the regency. With tensions rising between Rome and her great eastern rival, Nionia, Marcus embarks on a daring peace mission. But there are those within Rome who still covet the Imperial throne, and will use Marcus's past against him.

Rome Burning is the sequel to Sophia McDougall's debut novel, Romanitas, and the middle book of the Romanitas Trilogy (which concludes with Savage City). The premise of the trilogy is straightforward: the Roman Empire never fell and, by the present day, has gone on to conquer most of the world. However, the Empire is still built on the back of capital punishment, slavery and the occupation of other peoples. The principal characters in the books are Marcus, the imperial heir whose view of life is radically altered after spending time in the first book as a fugitive, and Sulien and Una, the freed slaves who now want Marcus to abolish the institution once and for all. Also, somewhat randomly, Una also happens to have mildly telepathic powers (which definitely seem to have been pared down in this second novel).

Romanitas was a flawed novel. It had a strong premise, but the premise was constantly under-explored throughout the novel. Coupled with somewhat poor characterisation and often stodgy prose, it was a hard book to get through, despite the 'on-the-run' storyline giving rise to some interesting tension. Rome Burning shows massive improvements in some areas but, unfortunately, some significant weaknesses in others.

On the plus side, McDougall's characters are (mostly) much-improved. Sulien, Una and Marcus are all better-defined, with Una in particular becoming a more interesting, complex protagonist and Sulien having a lot more to do this time around. Marcus's development from callow youth to statesman continues, with his former idealism now being tested by political practicality. His desire to end slavery is contrasted against the possible economic collapse of the Empire if he moves too quickly, and his attempts to find a balance (that come across to Sulien, Una and other former slaves as back-pedalling) are constantly misunderstood. There's a lot more meat to the main characters this time around. Unfortunately, our principal antagonist for most of the book, Drusus, is a cartoon villain at best, who is so utterly unsuited for the political skulduggery required that he should never really be a threat to the considerably more intelligent Marcus. The eventual defeat of Drusus's return to power is also chronically under-explained (basically Marcus gets annoyed and makes a speech to his uncle and suddenly everything's okay).

On the worldbuilding front, the alternate Imperial Rome is not particularly convincing, resembling as it does one of those computer game RPG cities which seem to consist of three streets and twenty people. There is no real sense of any life in the city beyond where the immediate action takes place, and it's a genuine surprise when other Roman senators or characters outside of the core cast show up. For the first half of the book, it's a claustrophobic-feeling story rather than the epic it is aiming towards. Things improve a lot when the action moves to Bianjing (where the isolated-from-the-outside-world feeling is much more appropriate) and the scope of the story widens.

The biggest problem is the writing. McDougall favours a very old-fashioned style with frequent POV shifts within the same paragraph, making following what's going on and who's thinking what unnecessarily difficult. Coupled to some fairly indifferent prose, this makes reading the novel rather hard work. In fact, the book is definitely leaning towards the turgid when the halfway-point shift to Bianjing takes place. At this point, fortunately, the book picks up a lot, the writing improves, the pacing turns up a notch (as Drusus's laughable political fumblings take a back-seat to a much more interesting plot about slavery and terrorism) and things become more enjoyable, ultimately culminating in a genuinely tantalising cliffhanger.

Rome Burning (***) is a book that very nearly collapses under the weight of its negatives until they get straightened up and it ultimately becomes a solid read. The presentation of the premise is still highly implausible, characters outside of the central trio can still be sketchy and the writing style can be frustrating, but the latter half of the novel shows an improvement in quality that ultimately makes the experience - just about - worthwhile. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Mapping Daenerys's journey in A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE

With the arrival of the semi-canon world map produced by HBO for the Game of Thrones TV series, it is now possible to - at least roughly - chart the journey undertaken by Daenerys Targaryen in the Song of Ice and Fire novels. This has long been a subject of much discussion amongst book fans due to the absence of maps of the eastern continent in the books.

Note that if you are only familiar with the TV series, this article contains significant spoilers for later events from the books.

Note that the scale on the above map is approximate, and all distances given are approximate as well. It's also worth noting that the HBO map (on which the above is based and which in turn was based on George R.R. Martin's rough draft map) is canon only up to (roughly) Vaes Tolorro. The precise location of Qarth and the shape of the landmass around it will be clarified in The Lands of Ice and Fire (due in October), though I doubt the distance will be radically different.

A Game of Thrones
Pentos - Norvos: 550 miles (approx.)
Norvos - Qohor: 500 miles (approx.)
Qohor - Vaes Dothrak: 2,255 miles (approx.)
Vaes Dothrak - Lhazar: 1,000 miles (approx.)

A Game of Thrones opens with Daenerys and her brother Viserys living in the Free City of Pentos as guests of Magister Illyrio Mopatis. Mopatis and Viserys arrange the marriage of Daenerys to Khal Drogo of the Dothraki. They then leave Pentos for the Dothraki city of Vaes Dothrak, which lies approximately 3,000 miles to the east, on the far side of the Dothraki sea. The khalasar travels via the Valyrian straight roads for maximum speed, passing through the Free Cities of Norvos and Qohor along the way. They then leave the Valyrian roads and strike out through the vast Forest of Qohor (taking two weeks to cross it) before arriving on the far western edge of the Dothraki sea. The route they take across the sea is unclear, as the HBO map reveals the presence of a large river and an area of lakes in the midst of the Dothraki sea. The Dothraki may have had to have gone around or simply crossed straight through the middle.

Drogo and Daenerys then spend a period of time - several weeks at the very least but possibly months - in Vaes Dothrak (where Viserys meets his gold crown-assisted end). Drogo's khalasar then strikes south for the lands of the Lhazareen, where he plans to take many slaves and herd them downriver to Meereen to sell them to fund an invasion of Westeros. As we know, this doesn't exactly work out as, thanks to Mirri Maz Duur, Drogo is reduced to the state of a vegetable, forcing Daenerys to put him out of his misery. The book ends with the hatching of Dany's dragons somewhere south of the Lhazareen lands, on the edge of the Red Waste.

A Clash of Kings
Lhazar - Vaes Tolorro: 850 miles (approx.)
Vaes Tolorro - Qarth: 450 miles (approx.)

Compared to her long trip in the first book, A Clash of Kings sees Daenerys facing a much shorter - but far harder - journey. She and her much-reduced khalasar have to cross the Red Waste, a forbidding landscape of arid plains and deserts which stretches southwards for over a thousand miles. Fortunately, her khalasar finds refuge in the abandoned city of Vaes Tolorro (and fans can debate the plausibility of Dany's followers surviving a journey of over 800 miles through harsh terrain with limited supplies) and is able to regroup before completing the journey to Qarth, the great city which guards the straits linking the Summer Sea to the Jade Sea.

At the end of the novel, Daenerys and her followers board Illyrio's ship, planning to return to Pentos by sea.

A Storm of Swords
Qarth - Astapor: 2,500 miles (approx. by sea)
Astapor - Yunkai: 225 miles (approx.)
Yunkai - Meereen: 163 miles (definite)

Obviously, the plan to return home by sea doesn't exactly work out. Thanks to Ser Jorah Mormont's "It sounded like a good idea at the time," plan to stop off at Slaver's Bay to hire an army of Unsullied, Daenerys ends up fighting a war she never really planned, liberating tens of thousands of slaves but also bringing massive amounts of death and destruction to the lands of Slaver's Bay. This culminates in her plan to remain in Meereen and learn the art of rulership.

A Dance with Dragons
Meereen - 'Dragonstone': Unknown, probably a few hundred miles.

Daenerys spends most of the novel in Meereen trying to work out how to extricate herself and her followers from the quagmire she has inadvertently stumbled into, and ends up being paralysed by indecision. However, towards the end of the novel she does make a final journey of several hundred miles on the back of her largest dragon, Drogon, into the southern edge of the Dothraki sea. There she finds refuge on an isolated hill she dubs 'Dragonstone' in memory of the island of her birth. Some time after that, she encounters a Dothraki khalasar with her dragon at her side. And that's where she'll stay until The Winds of Winter reveals what happens next.

Total: 8,466 miles (with a fairly large error margin of a few hundred miles either way by this point)

The map also raises some interesting questions about what will happen next. We know there will be a huge battle at Meereen between its besiegers and defenders, with the ironborn (and their magic horn of dragon summoning) and the mercenaries Tyrion is trying to woo as unpredictable elements. Whether Daenerys returns home by land or sea (or air!), she may find her job has already been done for her, as ten thousand warriors of the Golden Company have already begun their own invasion of Westeros following her (alleged) nephew, Aegon VI. How exactly that unfolds will be fascinating to watch (though I doubt we'll see it soon).

Wednesday 18 April 2012

New covers for Mark Charan Newton's LEGENDS OF THE RED SUN series

I'm now convinced that there's some kind of market research going into Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun novels, namely just how many bad covers can you give them before they stop selling. Check out the new covers for Nights of Villjamur and City of Ruin: least the first guy doesn't have a hood. But that's probably the only good thing that can be said about them. Given the inherent visual possibilities in the cities, the winter-ravaged landscapes and the invading horde of weird monsters, I don't really understand why it's seemingly impossible to give these books good covers. Oh well.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Full episode list for Season 2 of GAME OF THRONES

Thanks to a leak from HBO Asia, we now have the full list of episode titles for Season 2 of Game of Thrones. The list is as follows:

201: The North Remembers
Written by David Benioff & D.B Weiss, directed by Alan Taylor
Airdate: 1 April 2012

202: The Night Lands
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by Alan Taylor
Airdate: 8 April 2012

203: What is Dead May Never Die
Written by Bryan Cogman, directed by Alik Sakharov
Airdate: 15 April 2012

204: Garden of Bones
Written by Vanessa Taylor, directed by David Petrarca
Airdate: 22 April 2012

205: The Ghost of Harrenhal
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by David Petrarca
Airdate: 29 April 2012

206: The Old Gods and the New
Written by Vanessa Taylor, directed by David Nutter
Airdate: 6 May 2012

207: A Man Without Honor
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by David Nutter
Airdate: 13 May 2012

208: The Prince of Winterfell
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by Alan Taylor
Airdate: 20 May 2012

209: Blackwater
Written by George R.R. Martin, directed by Neil Marshall
Airdate: 27 May 2012

210: Valar Morghulis
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by Alan Taylor
Airdate: 3 June 2012

As a bonus, George R.R. Martin also confirmed on his blog that he will be writing the seventh episode of the third season, with the working title Autumn Storms.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

GAME OF THRONES renewed for a third season

HBO has renewed Game of Thrones for a third season. The news comes after the show scored a colossal 33% ratings increase for the first episode of Season 2, jumping from 3 million for the Season 1 finale to just short of 4 million for the opening of the second run. The second episode scored 3.8 million viewers, holding onto 97% of the audience from the premiere episode.

"New season!" "Excellent!" "So that's you off to Iceland again then." "Oh."

This is an impressive performance for the show, especially following extremely strong sales of the Season 1 DVDs and Blu-Rays.

Season 3 of Game of Thrones will air in 2013 (probably April again) and will be based on the first half or so of A Storm of Swords, the third novel in A Song of Ice and Fire. The novel's massive size (half again the length of A Game of Thrones) prevents it from being adapted in just one season. According to the producers, Season 3 will likely end with an event codenamed 'RW' (which will likely be as impenetrable as tissue paper to people who've read the novels). David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will be producing and writing once again, and George R.R. Martin is expected to contribute one episode. However, one disappointment is that Alan Taylor, the show's most acclaimed director (he helmed the last two episodes of Season 1 and four episodes of Season 2, including the first two), will only be back for one episode next year. He has been picked to direct Marvel's Thor 2, which will clash with the filming of most of the third season.

The third season is expected - once again - to be 10 episodes in length, although this has not been formally confirmed yet.

The renewal comes after speculation that HBO was considering ordering  two seasons at once. This would have several benefits, such as allowing the showrunners to segue from making one season straight into the next, without having to put things on hold for the renewal notice, and would also give the showrunners a full season's notice of cancellation, allowing them to insert some kind of resolution. Clearly HBO chose not to pursue that option at this time.

HBO's statement:
LOS ANGELES, April 10, 2012 – HBO has renewed GAME OF THRONES for a third season, it was announced today by Michael Lombardo, president, HBO Programming.
        “Series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss raised our expectations for the second season – and then surpassed them,” said Lombardo. “We are thrilled by all the viewer and media support we’ve received for the series, and can’t wait to see what Dan and David have in store for next season.”
        Based on the bestselling fantasy book series by George R.R. Martin, GAME OF THRONES is an epic drama set in the world of Westeros, where ambitious men and women of both honor and ill-repute live in a land whose summers and winters can last years. The Emmy®- and Golden Globe-winning fantasy series began its ten-episode second season Sunday, April 1 (9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT), with other episodes debuting subsequent Sundays at the same time.
        Among the early critical praise for the second season, Newsday called GAME OF THRONES “the best show on television,” while the Los Angeles Times termed the series “a cinematic feast” and “masterful.” The Wall Street Journal hailed the show as “magnificent” and USA Today called it “near perfection.”
        According to early data, GAME OF THRONES’ season two premiere has already accumulated a gross audience of 8.3 million viewers, and is on track to easily surpass the season one average of 9.3 million viewers.
        Season two cast members include: Emmy® and Golden Globe winner Peter Dinklage, Michelle Fairley, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Aidan Gillen, Iain Glen, Kit Harington, Richard Madden, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Sophie Turner, Jack Gleeson and Alfie Allen.
        Season two credits: The executive producers of GAME OF THRONES are David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Carolyn Strauss, Frank Doelger; co-executive producers, George R.R. Martin, Vanessa Taylor, Alan Taylor, Guymon Casady, Vince Gerardis; produced by Bernadette Caulfield.
Obviously, excellent news!

WHEEL OF TIME RPG on hold at Obsidian?

Just over two years ago, Obsidian Entertainment announced they were partnering with Red Eagle to bring a new Wheel of Time computer game to the masses. This new game, unlike the ill-conceived first-person shooter released in 1999, would be a roleplaying game, likely set earlier in the WoT timeline than the novels.

Obsidian and Red Eagle promptly went into radio silence on the project. Last year I assembled a post based collecting together information from Tweets and interviews. Unfortunately, it appears a lot of the information I found was actually based around their then-unannounced South Park RPG (particularly the stuff about an exciting property they really wanted to work on and the need for 2D artists).

More recently, Obsidian have run into difficulties. A project they were developed under a codename, 'North Carolina', for Microsoft Games was cancelled unexpectedly. There was a theory that this was the Wheel of Time game (based on the admittedly rather thin notion that Robert Jordan lived in neighbouring South Carolina), but this seemed unlikely given the length of time since the original announcement and the fact that 'North Carolina' was going to be a launch project for the X-Box 720 (or whatever it ends up being called), whilst the WoT game seemed to be for this generation.

In this interview with Rock Paper Shotgun, Obsidian writer Chris Avellone comments on the projects currently in development at Obsidian:
"A project..." - presumably North Carolina - "...was suddenly cancelled. It happens in the industry – in this case, it affected a large number of employees. We’re working hard at finding them jobs, and friends and developers in other companies also were great in coming forward and helping us out, so many thanks to them. We’re still working on two projects: South Park, and a team focused on pitching our second project that we put on hold for North Carolina."
 The second project could well be the WoT game, but if so that meant they don't have a publishing deal in place for it, and that means it is without a development budget and is thus on hold. However, since Obsidian were partnering Red Eagle on the WoT game, it may be more likely that Red Eagle (as the rights-holders) should be handling that side of things. If so the second project isn't the WoT game either, and thus it is either on hold or has been cancelled.

Hopefully we can get clarification on this point soon, but in any case, it sounds like it will still be some considerable time before a new WoT game hits our screens.

Monday 9 April 2012

Eastercon 2012

This weekend I attended Eastercon 2012, the largest annual British science fiction and fantasy convention. This year it was held at a hotel adjoining Heathrow Airport. For the first time in its history, the convention was sold out in advance, likely due to the presence of George R.R. Martin (although having authors such as Joe Abercrombie, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Chris Wooding, Lisa Tuttle, Pat Cadigan and Cory Doctorow didn't hurt either).


Time and budgetary constraints meant I could only attend for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, though I did manage to catch the Game of Thrones TV panel, featuring actors Miltos Yerolemou (Syrio Forel) and John Bradley West (Samwell Tarly). Gethin Anthony (Renly Baratheon) and Natalia Tena (Osha) could also be found around the convention, though they didn't take part in the panels. This was followed by a Wild Cards panel where GRRM talked about the long-running shared world setting with John Jos. Miller, Pat Cadigan, Paul Cornell, David Anthony Durham, Gail Gerstner-Miller and his wife, Parris McBride (who played in the original RPG games that led to the creation of the setting).

The meat of the convention, as normal, happened at the bar and the late night parties. I met Adrian Tchaikovsky (author of the highly enjoyable Shadows of the Apt series) for the first time (he's halfway through writing the tenth and final book in the series) and caught up with a whole raft of other contacts. No massive exclusives, although Joe Abercrombie is heavily into the edits on A Red Country and confirmed that it looks like the UK edition will keep the 'A' in the title whilst the US edition will drop it (as seen on the already-revealed cover art). Gollancz also announced that they are bringing the Wild Cards series to the UK, with the original three books to be published before the end of the 2012 and then the 'new generation' books starting with Inside Straight to follow next year. A plan for the 'middle books' (including the long-missing iBook volumes) hasn't yet been decided upon, aside from the possibility of releasing them as ebook-only editions. Elsewhere, Chris Wooding confirmed he was just about to start working on the fourth Ketty Jay book as well.

The Gemmell Award nominations were announced, to much frowning (there definitely seemed to be a consensus amongst many present - though not the award organisers to my knowledge - that the award could do with being moved to a juried format), and there was much discussion of the Hugo shortlist, not least the renewed GRRM vs Rowling contest caused by Game of Thrones Season 1 going up against the final Harry Potter move in the Long-form Dramatic Presentation category. Previously, The Goblet of Fire bested A Storm of Swords to the 2001 Best Novel Hugo Award, so it'll be interesting to see how it falls out this year. Otherwise the main topic of interest regarding the Hugos was that the novels on the list were books people had actually heard of, with particular positive surprise over the presence of Leviathan Wakes on the list.

My biggest moment at the convention was interviewing GRRM on the Sunday. We talked for about an hour about his career, from short stories through ASoIaF and the TV series, before he fielded questions from the floor. Some interesting stuff there. The interview was recorded and live-streamed, although it seems to have vanished from the Internet now. Once it resurfaces I will link it here.

Overall, it was an interesting - not to mention nerve-wracking - experience. But good fun for catching up with old friends and contacts and making some new ones.

Edit: Interview linkage.

Friday 6 April 2012

More info on BEYOND THE WALL

Here's some more info on Beyond the Wall, the book of Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones essays I have contributed to.

The full list of contents is as follows:
  • Foreword: Stories for the Nights to Come by R.A. Salvatore
  • Introduction: In Praise of Living History by James Lowder
  • The Palace of Love, the Palace of Sorrow by Linda Antonsson, Elio M. Garcia, Jr.
  • Men and Monsters by Alyssa Rosenberg
  • Same Song in a Different Key by Daniel Abraham
  • An Unreliable World by Adam Whitehead
  • Back to the Egg by Gary Westfahl
  • Art Imitates War by Myke Cole
  • The Brutal Cost of Redemption in Westeros by Susan Vaught
  • Of Direwolves and Gods by Andrew Zimmerman Jones
  • A Sword Without a Hilt by Jesse Scoble
  • Petyr Baelish and the Mask of Sanity by Matt Staggs
  • A Different Kind of Other by Brent Hartinger
  • Power and Feminism in Westeros by Caroline Spector
  • Collecting Ice and Fire in the Age of Nook and Kindle by John Jos. Miller
  • Beyond the Ghetto by Ned Vizzini
Smart Pop books has a webpage for the book and is taking preorders. The book is currently due for release in June. Excerpts from some of the essays will go up on the page closer to the date of release.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Two centuries after the Oblivion Crisis and the death of Emperor Uriel Septim VII, the Empire of Tamriel is a shadow of its former self. A powerful new nation has arisen in the south and pushed the boundaries of the Empire back, forcing the near-bankrupt Empire to accept its religious pogroms or face open war. In the north, the province of Skyrim, home of the Nords, has become divided between those who wish to support the Empire in its moment of weakness and those who are enraged at the oppression of their religion and seek to make Skyrim an independent kingdom once again. Against this backdrop, chaos is unleashed when the elder god Alduin returns, unleashing a storm of dragons to devastate Skyrim. Only a warrior known as the Dragonborn can stop Alduin and save Skyrim and all of Tamriel from his wrath.

Skyrim is the fifth game in The Elder Scrolls series, following on from Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind and Oblivion. As usual with this series, the game contains only minor continuity references to the previous titles and can be enjoyed on its own. As normal, you get to create a character, choosing their stats, background, gender and race, before being unleashed into the wilds of the Imperial Province of Skyrim. You can follow the main storyline, pursue side-quests or simply strike off into the wilderness to kill some wolves. If you're really into role-playing you can even go off and split some logs or pursue a career as a blacksmith. The game is an immense toybox and it's up to you how you play it.

Those who've played Bethesda RPGs before, particularly the recent era beginning with Oblivion and continuing through the SF Fallout 3 and New Vegas games, will find much here that is familiar. The ageing Gamebryo Engine has been given an overhaul and renamed the Creation Engine, but it's the same old technology propelling the title along (particularly noticeable with the still-clunky movement and jumping). The upgrades are impressive, with much-improved graphics (particularly in the departments of wind and snow effects) and character animation. The stiff, robotic figures of the previous Bethesda games are thankfully gone and people are now less off-putting to interact with. Bethesda have also provided a full voice cast for the game, which is a relief after Oblivion's tiny pool of voice actors resulted in some serious immersion-breaking moments. In Skyrim this is limited to a few of the various city guards, who have the same voice and even the same dialogue (the oft-repeated, "Arrow to the knee," complaint) no matter where they are, which is more amusing than problematic.

The game has also had a major overhaul to its rules system. Oblivion's level-scaling mechanic (where the whole world levels up with you) has been chucked, thankfully, and the skill system has now been made sane (in Oblivion it was a valid tactic to choose a mage class and then increase your opposing sword skills, so you wouldn't level up and make the entire world tougher). Bethesda have chucked out the class system altogether, so now you can tailor your character precisely. If you want to play a magic-fuelled archer of death, you can do that, as well as a rapid-casting pyromaniac or a sword-slinging barbarian who's also handy with a lockpick. The result is a 'streamlined' system which is actually just that, streamlined and made more logical without sacrificing depth or complexity. The perk system, where you gain impressive skills and powers in return for levelling up skills, also works well in the game.

Combat is mostly unchanged from Oblivion, particularly in the sword-swinging side of things. Whilst combat remains chunky and satisfyingly physical, it's still a button-mashing affair, disappointing in an RPG. Some sort of fantasy implementation of the VATS system from the Fallout games could have been a really good idea, but Bethesda chose not to do that. However, Skyrim permits dual-wielding, or dual-spellcasting, or using one hand to cast a spell and another to use a sword, which adds a greater tactical nuance to the game. There are also now animated sequences for impressive creature deaths, which is nice but only of cosmetic value. More interesting are Shouts, super-powered spells that you have access to as a Dragonborn. These can blow people off the side of mountains, fill a subterranean corridor with fire or carry you through the air in a mini-whirlwind. They're pretty cool and tie in directly with the game's other big change: dragons!

At first glance the dragons of Skyrim merely replace the Oblivion Gates of Oblivion: a hazard that can show up at any time in the wilderness and cause mayhem, often when you're simply trying to get from Point A to Point B hassle-free. However, the dragons are (normally) visible from miles away, so it's much easier to avoid them. Dealing with the Gates was also a major pain, as you had to fight your way through a mini-dungeon and steal an orb for each Gate to shut them down. With the dragons you just have to kill them, which is surprisingly straightforward (dragons can be dealt with relatively easily from about Level 8 or 9 onwards, maybe even lower if you trick the dragon into attacking a settlement or bunch of tough monsters, like giants). Every time you kill a dragon you open a slot for a new Shout power, which is filled by visiting major dungeons and searching them for magical symbols. It's an elegant process which ties the game's primary enemies, the myriad tons of dungeons in the game and a cool new magic system together into an impressive whole.

The game has the standard Bethesda set-up of having a major storyline quest, a number of important subquests and a bajillion side-quests. The major storyline is relatively entertaining (Skyrim's dragons are pretty cool and getting to talk to them and then kill them is enjoyable), certainly moreso than Oblivion's, but Bethesda's biggest problem of poor writing remains in place. Dialogue is po-faced and characterisation of the major NPCs is limited at best. Some of the major subquests, such as the Guild storylines, are also a lot of fun. The side-quests are variable, running from straightforward fetch quests to quite major episodes in themselves taking hours to complete. Many of the quests involve dungeons, and compared to Oblivion's small caves the dungeons in Skyrim are stunning, often spanning multiple levels and varying art styles (Skyrim contains lots of fortresses belonging to the long-vanished but technologically advanced Dwemer, so there's a brilliant genre cross-slide into steampunk in the game as well). They're impressive but also disappointingly linear with the game often holding you by the hand as you make your way through them lest you get lost, despite the fact that getting lost is half the fun of a good dungeon-delve.

The game scores big on atmosphere, as well. Trekking through an alpine forest with the snow streaming down and something growling nearby in the fog is suitably disconcerting, especially when the cloud breaks, revealing the northern lights in all their glory (and an ice troll charging at you). The environment is depicted superbly throughout, aided by an excellent musical soundtrack.

Where Skyrim falls down is the typical Bethesda problem of providing an immense world packed with things to do, but no real emotional reason to do them. The world is stunning, but populated by thinly-drawn characters who lack motivation or depth (though this is still better than Oblivion's world of disconcerting mannequins), and provide you with no real reason to help them beyond financial rewards or greater power. You can spend almost the whole game with a companion, but beyond swapping items with them, you can't talk to them about anything of interest, leaving them as little more than an an extra inventory and sword-arm. The 'civilised' parts of the game are among the most disappointing due to the lack of good writing and the resulting lack of emotional investment in the people you meet. The game even fails to have major NPCs recognise changes in the game's storyline: after completing the main quest with all its world-altering conclusion, it's astonishing how few people take notice of the fact.

However, the game is at its best when you are stuck on the side of a mountain exchanging spells with a dragon, or exploring a vast subterranean city whilst battling ancient steam-powered robots from before the dawn of recorded time. Or to put it another way, it's at its best when it puts you in charge of it and deciding what you want to do with it rather than following the developers' choices. On that level, Bethesda succeed more completely than with any of their previous games to date.

Skyrim (****) is rich in atmosphere and represents a significant improvement over Oblivion on almost every level. However, Bethesda's poor writing, dialogue and characterisation continues to hold The Elder Scrolls series back from fulfilling its true potential. The game is engrossing and interesting whilst it's you against the wilderness, but becomes flat and dull when you enter more civilised area. Still, it's a stunning technical achievement with some fabulous artwork and design. The game is available now on the PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA). The PC version has some highly impressive mods for it, not to mention comprehensive content-creation tools, to the point where the PC version of the game gets an extra half star from me.

Get FALLOUT for free! has a special offer on until Monday. You can get the original Fallout (legally!) for free. That's £0 or $0. You can get it now and download and play later on or whatever.

Fallout was originally released in 1997. Set in 2161 in Southern California, the game follows a player-created protagonist as he or she makes their way through a post-apocalyptic landscape. There is a main storyline to follow, lots of side and subquests to investigate, NPCs to talk to and, of course, mutants and bandits to blow away with an impressive array of firepower. The GoG version has been upgraded to work fine (touch wood) on modern PCs and operating systems. Given its age and modest graphics, it should work fine on fairly low-spec machines as well.

It's also good prep work for Wasteland 2, as much the same team who developed Fallout are working on that game. The rights to the main Fallout series are currently held by Bethesda, who will likely start development of Fallout 4 in the near future.

Cover art and blurb for Peter F. Hamilton's GREAT NORTH ROAD

One of the biggest SFF releases of 2012 will be Great North Road, a stand-alone SF novel from Peter F. Hamilton and his longest novel since The Night's Dawn Trilogy.

Cover blurb:
In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, AD 2142, Detective Sidney Hurst attends a brutal murder scene. The victim is one of the wealthy North family clones – but none have been reported missing. And the crime’s most disturbing aspect is how the victim was killed. Twenty years ago, a North clone billionaire and his household were horrifically murdered in exactly the same manner, on the tropical planet of St Libra. But if the murderer is still at large, was Angela Tramelo wrongly convicted? Tough and confident, she never waivered under interrogation – claiming she alone survived an alien attack. But there is no animal life on St Libra. Investigating this alien threat becomes the Human Defence Agency’s top priority. The bio-fuel flowing from St Libra is the lifeblood of Earth’s economy and must be secured. So a vast expedition is mounted via the Newcastle gateway, and teams of engineers, support personnel and xenobiologists are dispatched to the planet. Along with their technical advisor, grudgingly released from prison, Angela Tramelo. But the expedition is cut off, deep within St Libra’s rainforests. Then the murders begin. Someone or something is picking off the team one by one. Angela insists it’s the alien, but her new colleagues aren’t so sure. Maybe she did see an alien, or maybe she has other reasons for being on St Libra ... This is a stunning standalone adventure, by a writer at the height of his powers.
The novel is due in the UK on 27 September 2012 and in the USA on 26 December.

New cover art: Abercrombie, Sanderson, Banks, Sapkowski

A host of cover art for forthcoming books.

First up is The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson. This 30,000-word novella is a limited edition from Tachyon Press and sees a young woman use her forbidden magical skills to save the life of a dying emperor. The book appears to be set in Sanderson's unified Cosmere super-setting, but not on one of his established worlds. The book is due in December.

Next up is the American cover art for The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks, his ninth novel in The Culture setting. This book is due in October.

The American audience is also getting new covers for the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski. The Last Wish and Blood of Elves are being rejacketed and should be available soon, and will later in 2012 be by The Time of Contempt, which is finally hitting the stands after years of delays due to rights issues.

Finally, there's the American cover art for Joe Abercrombie's Red Country (dropping the 'A', at least on this early version of the cover). Aidan has more info on the cover art here. The book is currently being revised and edited and will be out in late 2012 or early 2013.

Thursday 5 April 2012

BioWare to revisit MASS EFFECT 3's ending

The furore over the ending to Mass Effect 3 is one of the biggest Internet controversies of the year, but BioWare and publishers Electronic Arts have moved to try to defuse the situation. In the summer they will be releasing an 'Extended Cut' DLC (downloadable content), for free, for all three formats of the game. The DLC will add additional cut scenes and an 'epilogue' which will clarify and explain elements of the hitherto bizarre ending that has so bewildered fans.

"Well, everything makes sense now!"
"No, but thanks for trying."

However, parsing the PRspeak of the announcement, it sounds that those hoping for a 'new' ending, or for the Indoctrination Theory to be proven correct, will be disappointed. It sounds like there will be no new gameplay elements at all, not even extra dialogue during the finale which will better explain just what the heck is going on. This may change as more news is revealed closer to launch, but this sounds like it will mitigate the damage rather than reverse it.

Still, a good move on BioWare's part, even if it doesn't go as far as some might wish.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Glen Cook gearing up for a new BLACK COMPANY novel

In an interview with SF Signal, Glen Cook has confirmed that he is planning to write two more Black Company novels. The first, Port of Shadows, will take place between the first two novels of the original trilogy. He has already done some work on this book (in the form of two short stories which will be expanded into the novel) and will make this his next project once some other existing commitments are met.

There will be another book, A Pitiless Rain, which will be set after all the other books in the series. He does not disclose a timeline for this book. He also confirms there will be another Garrett, P.I. novel in the future, with the working title Wicked Bronze Ambition.

Cook also expands on what happened to his Dread Empire series, including the loss of the original manuscript (not just for the eighth novel but part of the ninth as well) and how he approached bringing the series to a final conclusion in A Path to Coldness of Heart.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

New info on Ian Cameron Esslemont's next MALAZAN novel

Ian Cameron Esslemont's new Malazan novel, Blood and Bone (formerly City in the Jungle) will apparently be published in December 2012. Tor USA have issued a cover blurb for the novel:
In the western sky the bright emerald banner of the Visitor descends like a portent of annihilation. On the continent of Jacuruku, the Thaumaturgs have mounted yet another expedition to tame the neighboring wild jungle. Yet this is no normal wilderness. It is called Himatan, and it is said to be half of the spirit-realm and half of the earth. And it is said to be ruled by a powerful entity whom some name the Queen of Witches, and some a goddess: the ancient Ardata. Saeng grew up knowing only the rule of the magus Thaumaturgs -- but it was the voices out of that land's forgotten past that she listened to. And when her rulers mount an invasion of the neighboring jungle, those voices send her and her brother on a desperate mission.

To the south, the desert tribes are united by the arrival of a foreign warleader, a veteran commander in battered ashen mail whom his men call, the Grey Ghost. This warleader takes the tribes on a raid like none other, deep into the heart of Thaumaturg lands. While word comes to K'azz, and mercenary company the Crimson Guard, of a contract in Jacuruku. And their employer... none other than Ardata herself.
Looks like the Crimson Guard will be back in action this book. Steven Erikson's new Malazan novel, Forge of Darkness, will precede this to publication in August.

Final cover art for THE LANDS OF ICE AND FIRE

Bantam have unveiled the final cover art for The Lands of Ice and Fire, the forthcoming map book accessory for the Song of Ice and Fire novels.

The final cover has a familiar view, that of the lands beyond the Wall. The cartographer for the book has also been announced, Jonathan Roberts of the Fantastic Maps blog, which is well worth a look. The book will be released on 30 October 2012.

Monday 2 April 2012

HBO releases extended GoT world map

With the start of Season 2 of Game of Thrones HBO has updated their Viewer's Guide website with a whole host of new information. Most notable is a new map that shows a lot more of the eastern continent of Essos than previously seen, although not all of it (Asshai is still off the map, though Qarth and the edge of the Jade Sea are shown).

So is this map 'canon' for the books as well? Mostly, certainly as far east as the Red Waste and Lhazar. However, George R.R. Martin recently re-conceptualised the map of Essos past that region. The HBO map is based on older material and should not be considered canon for the books (although the approximate locations of Vaes Dothrak and Qarth should be correct, the coastlines and some of the geographic detail has changed).

Amusingly, since it doesn't show the known coast of Sothoryos, the map fails to resolve the age-old question of whether the Jade Sea is a landlocked semi-inland sea (like the Black Sea) or not. Speculation may continue, at least until The Lands of Ice and Fire map book (which will be canon for the books) is released in October.

Note that at the HBO website the map is zoomable on quite a large scale, and shows locations not visible on this map, such as Vaes Dothrak and Lhazar.

Sunday 1 April 2012

GAME OF THRONES Season 2 primer

With Game of Thrones resuming tonight (in the USA; tomorrow in the UK), it might be handy to have a brief catch-up on who's doing what to whom.

Obviously, MASSIVE SPOILERS if you have not yet watched Season 1.

Major locations in Seasons 1 and 2.

The State of Play
The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are wracked by civil war, a war that threatens to spiral out of control and eclipse even the bloody rebellion of Robert Baratheon against the Mad King Aerys Targaryen in casualties.

The arrest of Eddard Stark by the newly-raised boy-king Joffrey Baratheon has led Eddard's son, Robb, to declare war on Joffrey and his primary supporters, the Lannisters. The Stark armies have won a strategic victory at the Battle of the Whispering Wood, taking Jaime Lannister prisoner and breaking the siege of Riverrun, leading many of the River Lords to join Robb's cause. The main Lannister army, under the command of Lord Tywin Lannister, has retired to the formidably-defended castle of Harrenhal and launched a war of attrition, using mercenaries and skirmishes to raid the Riverlands without risking a large-scale field engagement. Robb's determination has been increased, however, with the execution of his father on Joffrey's order and his own elevation to the role of King in the North.

Meanwhile, before his death Eddard Stark managed to send a letter to the late King Robert's younger brother, Stannis, warning him that Robert's supposed children were actually bastards born of incest between Queen Cersei Lannister and her twin brother, Jaime. This had led Stannis to claim the Iron Throne for himself and begin mustering an army and fleet at his island stronghold of Dragonstone. However, whilst Stannis is a respected and feared battle commander and general, he is little-loved by the common people. Seeking to capitalise on this, Robert and Stannis's (considerably) younger brother Renly has also claimed the Iron Throne. He has won the support of the armies of House Baratheon and also the allegiance of House Tyrell, who command the largest army in the Seven Kingdoms (as big as any of the other two combined), and plans to press his claim by the sword.

Far across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen, last surviving child of the Mad King, has seen her brother Viserys and husband Drogo die, as well as her son perish in childbirth. Drogo's Dothraki khalasar of forty thousand warriors has split asunder, leaving Daenerys and only few dozen retainers and loyal warriors in her command. However, she also has a prize the entire world would kill to seize: the only three dragons to hatch in two centuries. Eventually they will be large enough to raze cities and burn armies alive, but for now they are small and vulnerable, and Daenerys must protect them until they grow to their full strength.

In the furthest reaches of the North, the Night's Watch has seen rangers disappear beyond the Wall. They have also seen the dead return to life to threaten the living. With rumours growing that the King-beyond-the-Wall, the wildling leader Mance Rayder, is gathering a large force in the mountains, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont has commanded that the Night's Watch mount a reconnaissance-in-force beyond the Wall. They will determine Rayder's intentions and also see if there is any truth to these rumours that the mythical White Walkers have returned.

Areas of control at the start of Season 2. Expect this map to change rapidly over the course of the season.

Players in the Game

Houses Stark & Tully
Strongholds: Winterfell (Stark) & Riverrun (Tully)
Leader: Robb Stark, the King in the North

The Stark-Tully alliance controls a vast swathe of territory, including the entirety of the Noth and most of the Riverlands. However, their numbers are limited due to the North's vast size and harsh climate. Reinforcements will take a long time to gather and come south. In addition, the Lannister host has encamped at the impregnable fortress of Harrenhal. The Starks and Tullys must seek an alternate strategy if they are to gain victory. The fate of Robb Stark's sisters (one missing, the other a prisoner in King's Landing) must also be considered in this situation.

House Greyjoy
Stronghold: Pyke
Leader: Balon Greyjoy, Lord of Pyke

Part of Robb Stark's strategy is to use his friendship with Theon Greyjoy to win the allegiance of the Greyjoys of the Iron Islands to his cause, which will give him the use of a massive naval force to use against the Lannister homelands. However, whether the ironborn can be won to Robb's side remains to be seen, especially given their enmity to the Starks following their failed rebellion a decade ago.

Houses Lannister and Baratheon (under Joffrey)
Strongholds: Casterly Rock (Lannister) & King's Landing (Joffrey)
Leaders: Tywin Lannister, Lord of the Rock, & Joffrey Baratheon, King on the Iron Throne

King Joffrey Baratheon holds the Iron Throne and the capital of Westeros at King's Landing. However, his own armed forces are minimal, with the bulk of his allies fighting the Starks in the North. The Lannister army has retreated to Harrenhal, giving them a firm base from which to mount sorties, but they lack the manpower to challenge the combined Stark-Tully host. Whilst Lord Tywin is pinned down, King's Landing remains vulnerable to attack from the south. Tywin has sent his son, Tyrion, to take King's Landing in hand and reign in the wilder excesses of Joffrey and his mother, the Queen Regent Cersei, but his ability to handle this task remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Jaime Lannister remains Robb Stark's prisoner, compromising the Lannisters' ability to use Sansa Stark as their own hostage.

Houses Tyrell and Baratheon (under Renly)
Strongholds: Highgarden (Tyrell) & Storm's End (Renly)
Leader: Renly Baratheon, the King in Highgarden

Renly Baratheon has claimed the Iron Throne and won the allegiance of his own storm lords and the lords of the Reach (under House Tyrell) to his cause. He commands a vast strength at arms, as the Reach is the most fertile and populous region of the continent, and it's a long but relatively easy march from Highgarden to King's Landing up the Roseroad. Renly's formidable might could end this war decisively and quickly. The question then would be Renly's intentions towards Robb Stark.

House Baratheon (under Stannis)
Stronghold: Dragonstone
Leader: Stannis Baratheon, the King in the Narrow Sea

Stannis Baratheon has claimed the Iron Throne from the formidable fortress of Dragonstone in the Narrow Sea and begun mustering men and ships. However, Stannis's lands are poor and under-populated. With the storm lords declaring for Renly rather than their rightful lord, Stannis, his prospects in the war appear bleak. Stannis is one of the most feared and respected generals in the Seven Kingdoms, so his chances cannot be discounted entirely.

House Arryn
Stronghold: The Eyrie
Leader: Robin Arryn, Lord of the Eyrie

Although Lady Lysa Arryn triggered the current crisis by accusing the Lannisters of murdering her husband, the late Jon Arryn, and conspiring against King Robert, she has refused to take sides in the war. Instead, the Knights of the Vale have been commanded to remain at home and protect her young son, Lord Robin, rather than siding with her sister, Lady Catelyn Stark, or father, Lord Hoster Tully. The Arryns must be counted out of the conflict for now.

House Martell
Stronghold: Sunspear
Leader: Doran Martell, Prince of Dorne

The southern-most part of Westeros, Dorne, has practised a policy of isolation since the death of the Mad King and the murder of his daughter-in-law, Princess Elia Martell, by Lannister troops during the Sack of King's Landing. Dorne's military reputation is impressive and their numbers could bolster any claim to the Iron Throne, but for now they are sitting out the conflict.

House Targaryen
Stronghold: none
Leader: Daenerys Targaryen, the Queen Across the Water

With the reported deaths of Viserys Targaryen and Khal Drogo of the Dothraki, little if any thought in Westeros has been given to the fate of Daenerys. However, Daenerys is alive with a small group of retainers and, more importantly, the only three living dragons in all the world. Daenerys's route is unclear, with hostile Dothraki khalasars lying to the west, the unhappy Lhazareen to the north and the avaricious cities of Slaver's Bay to the west. Daenerys's course may lead south and east across the forbidding Red Waste to the rich lands of the Jade Sea said to lie beyond. At this stage Daenerys is in no position to take any part in the wars wracking Westeros.