Monday 31 December 2012

Greatest music video ever

There is only one possible note on which we can leave 2012:

Peace out.

Peter David has had a stroke

The crappiest way to end the year. News has broken that novelist and comic book writer Peter David has suffered a stroke.

David has many accolades to his name, arguably most notably as the author who ended the "Is Pluto a planet?" debate by having the Borg destroy it in a Star Trek novel. He also picked up the numerous loose ends left dangling by the Babylon 5 TV series and resolved them in a particularly fine trilogy of tie-in novels in the early 2000s. He also wrote what is arguably the greatest TV tie-in novel of all time in Vendetta (a Star Trek: The Next Generation novel) and spent twelve years writing The Incredible Hulk, to considerable critical acclaim. I wish him a full recovery and for many more comics and novels to come from him in the future.

The Wertzone Awards 2012

Once more unto the breach!

Best Novels

1. Existence by David Brin
David Brin returns after a long absence with a sweeping, state-of-the-nation take on what our lives may be like in the mid-21st Century. Strong characters and a thorough exploration of scientific and technological ideas combine for my strongest book of the year.

2. Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Beckett's second novel is difficult to describe, being a piece built more around mood and atmosphere than plot. It's the story of the descendants of an ancient starship crash who discover more about the world around them and their true history, and thus about themselves.

3. Kings of Morning by Paul Kearney
Kearney conclude his exploration of Greek and Persian history through the lens of fantasy with aplomb, with flawed characters finding their destinies against the backdrop of war.

4. Railsea by China Mieville
A vast world consisting of oceans of rails, with immense trains ploughing across them. A crazed and whimsical echo of Moby Dick, but with awesome monsters and concepts straight from Mieville's weird imagination. Also incidental winner of the Biggest Mole Monster in SFF Award 2012.

5. Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson
Erikson steps back from the immense complexity of his Malazan sequence to deliver a (relatively) straightforward prequel. Freed from the weight of backstory, Forge of Darkness is Erikson's finest fantasy novel in a decade.

6. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Like Brin, Robinson also undertakes a thorough exploration of what humanity may be like in the future, this time 300 years hence. His effort is larger-scaled, taking in the entire Solar system, but fails compared to Brin due to an undercooked political thriller subplot. Still, a visionary work.

7. Red Country by Joe Abercrombie
A bonkers mashup of Al Swearengen, Rockstar Games and Clint Eastwood, this is a fantasy war western on an epic scale. With Abercrombie's trademark black humour and cynical characters, the story is traditionally bloody, brutal and conspicuously lacking in banjos.

8. Sharps by K.J. Parker
Parker's latest novel veers away from her(?) recent novels in being based around an ensemble cast rather than a single individual. It's also hilarious, with the characters being in the middle of a traditional epic fantasy backdrop but without a clue what's going on.

9. The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham
After the good-but-underwhelming Dragon's Path, Abraham's Dagger and the Coin series explodes more readily into life with this second volume. It's a more coherent and focused work than the first novel, consolidating Abraham's position as one of our most promising (relatively) new fantasy writers.

10. The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
Jemisin's epic fantasy by way of Egyptian history and mythology is a bit of a slow-burner, but a smart and intriguing book.

Bubbling under: Blood and Bone by Ian Cameron Esslemont, Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton, The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams, The Twelve by Justin Cronin, Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds, Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian Cameron Esslemont, The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow, Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey, The Middle Kingdom by David Wingrove, Ice and Fire by David Wingrove, Crown of Embers by Rae Carson.

The Wertzone SFF Comeback Award 2012

After a decade being mildly snarky about the Star Wars prequels (among a few other things), Brin returns with his most epic and impressive novel to date. Nicely done.

The Wertzone Award for Best Book Read in 2012 Regardless of Release Date

A book that manages to pack more story, character and thematic exploration into its low page count than some authors manage in entire trilogies. Intelligent and thought-provoking. Next year for the hat-trick?

Best Games

Firaxis's resurrection of a twenty-year-old classic is a resounding success. Eminently replayable with a fiendish, "Just one more go!" feel, XCOM is a fitting tribute to the original game and a thoroughly compelling game in its own right.

2. Dishonored
Darkly atmospheric with an unusual setting and a laudable focus on stealth and intelligence over mindless slaughter, playing Dishonored is a rich (but often stressful) experience with a strong element of replayability to it as you attempt to get that perfect 'undetected' pass of a level.

3. Far Cry 3
As bonkers freeform shooters go, they don't get much more bonkers or more successfully freeform than Far Cry 3. A fantastic sense of setting and place with sublime combat overcomes some early makework problems in the early game. Plus the only game on this list where you can blow up a crocodile with a landmine, and is that not what humanity has striven for since first we looked at the stars?

4. The Walking Dead
A zombie game where the zombies are incidental, serving only as the vehicle which fleshes out character and plot. And with this game (based on being halfway through), Telltale have delivered their best characters and most compelling plot so far, not to mention the finest take on The Walking Dead franchise in any medium to date. Full review forthcoming.

5. Alan Wake (PC Edition)
An older, under-appreciated game on console is brought back to life on PC with jaw-dropping graphics and a sense of atmosphere that is staggering, not to mention some hilarious observations on the life of a 'struggling writer'. The PC version includes the two expansions and is an absorbing game.

6. Black Mesa
A bunch of unpaid fans spend eight years updating the greatest first-person shooter of all time (Half-Life) with modern graphics and production values. Frankly better than almost all of the actual original first-person shooters professionally released this year. Worth it just for the Chuckle Brothers reference.

7. Mass Effect 3
It's been a surprisingly thin year for roleplaying games, but Mass Effect 3 nearly makes up for it by itself. With a thorough exploration of consequence and hopelessness, set against a backdrop of smart characterisation and a soundtrack to die for, this could have been a contender for game of the least before a series of titanic logic failures leads to the single most controversial ending of any popular franchise in the last ten years. The Leviathan and 'Extended Cut' DLCs help repair the damage somewhat, but it's not quite enough to overcome the disbelief. Still, the other 95% of the game is awesome.

8. Max Payne 3
Rockstar were always going to have to work hard to convince fans of one of the finest action games of all time that they were suited to take over the franchise, and in isolated, brilliant moments Max Payne 3 succeeds. In others it disappoints, particularly the game's reluctance to actually let you play it (with frequent, unskippable and tedious five-minute cut scenes). The breathless action sequences and stunning soundtrack go some way to repairing the damage, however.

9. Game of Thrones: The RPG
Awful graphics and dubious combat do not for a good RPG make. However, the awesome characters and a series of plot twists that even GRRM may have considered too shocking elevate this game above its problems to become something really interesting. And, based on the dozen hours I've pumped into it so far, frankly better than Dragon Age: Origins.

10. Alan Wake's American Nightmare
Remedy's quasi-sequel to the excellent Alan Wake has some terrific ideas floating below the surface, but ultimately proves too repetitive to withstand comparison with its older, more impressive sibling.

Best TV Series

1. Game of Thrones
The second season may have been more disappointing than the first, but it was still the television highlight of the year. Peter Dinklage's performance is even stronger this year than in the first, and more screen time for Charles Dance is always a good thing (though skirting the edges of being too much of a good thing). Some of the more tedious aspects ("Ships! Dragons! Ships! Dragons!") are more than outweighed by the outstanding episode Blackwater.

2. The Walking Dead
The second season of this show was probably best first-experienced on Blu-Ray, with the endless wanderings through the forest looking for missing characters getting a bit old by mid-season. But a renewed focus on character relationships and the deteriorating mental state of the redoubtable Shane (along with the occasional zombie massacre scene) do prove ultimately worthwhile.

3. Merlin
The final season of what started as a light-hearted kid's show proves to be unexpectedly dark, with multiple character deaths and a surprising adherence to the original legend's brutal conclusion. Well-acted and thoroughly enjoyable. If only the whole series had been like this.

4. Doctor Who
A switch to more stand-alone episodes after last year's over-convoluted arc proves to be a success, allowing the show to return to its roots as an enjoyable slice of SF hokum. The arrival of mysterious new companion Clara 'Kenny' Oswald, played with infectious enthusiasm by Jenna-Louise Coleman, has also helped revive the show following the exhaustion of Rory and Amy's storylines.

5. Red Dwarf
Given the damage wreaked on the Red Dwarf name by its seventh and eighth seasons (and the horrendous Back to Earth special of a few years ago, now retconned as the ninth season), expectations were accordingly low for this new season. The cast overcome the issues of age to continue to deliver fine performances with some of the best scripts the show has had in twenty years. Whilst there's still lots of misfires, this latest return for the show is worthwhile.

6. Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome
This pilot for an aborted Battlestar Galactica spin-off tries to make up for the problems of Caprica - being too talky and lacking action - but goes way too far in the opposite direction. Dubious characters and workmanlike performances are held up by some remarkable CGI, but ultimately it's for the best the show wasn't picked up.

Best Film

1. Ted
The touching and beautiful story of a young boy and his magical bear who comes to life. Later they take drugs together and meet Sam Jones from the 1980s Flash Gordon movie whilst Patrick Stewart berates Brandon Routh for making Superman Returns in narrative voiceover. Frankly, no other film this year was as much fun.

2. The Dark Knight Rises
Better than The Dark Knight (note: I am well aware that I am the only person on Earth who thinks this), this third movie in the series is a satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan's grimdark interpretation of the Dark Knight. As usual, Michael Caine is the best thing in it but is given a run for his money by Anne Hathaway's unexpectedly excellent Catwoman and Tom Hardy's evil Bane (despite sounding like he's sucking in helium whilst at the bottom of well).

3. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Whilst the overall wisdom of extending a very short novel into a nine-hour trilogy remains to be seen, this first installment works thanks to excellent performances by Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Andy Serkis and Richard Armitage and the decision to flesh out the dwarves and their backstory much more than Tolkien did. Also the winner of the Best Hedgehog Scene of 2012 Award.

4. Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's metatextual examination of the horror movie genre risks tremendous smugness in its own cleverness but just about gets away with it with a darkly effective premise. Jet-black humour and a ruthlessness in dispatching major characters combine with inventive methods of murder and misdirection to create something very interesting.

5. The Avengers
Joss Whedon almost loses control of this vast behemoth of a movie several times, but just about reigns it in. The movie risks overwhelming the audience with explosions and action, but an undercurrent of humour and some great character moments (mostly involving Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson) save the film from total Baydom and instead render it nosily enjoyable.

7. The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins's slightly underwhelming novel is transformed into an enjoyable film, even if it adheres too much to the books in not giving the characters real moral issues to address. Still, great performances from Jennifer Lawrence and Donald Sutherland bode well for the sequels.
7. The Woman in Black
Daniel Radcliffe shakes off the Ghost of Potter to deliver a fine performance in this adaptation of Suzanne Hill's novel. Some standard horror techniques are over-used, but the film delivers an atmospheric experience.

8. Prometheus
Ridley Scott's Alien quasi-prequel features some superb acting, stunning set design and phenomenal set-pieces, but sacrifices too much logic and intelligence to achieve it. A visually impressive cinematic experience, but ultimately a hollow one. However, it does confirm the long-held belief that Everything is Better With Idris Elba.

The Wertzone Missing in Action 2012 Award

At the start of the year it seemed very possibly - even likely - that Valve was on the cusp of officially announcing Half-Life 3. That didn't happen, though head of Valve Gabe Newell did confirm that they are at least working on it, and we can expect it to appear some time between now and the heat death of the universe.

The Wertzone Award for Special Achievements in Seriously, Dude, What the Hell?


Update on the WHEEL OF TIME catch-up posts

As some have pointed out, it's been a while since I posted the 'story so far' post for the eleventh Wheel of Time novel, Knife of Dreams. With the fourteenth and final book due for release on 8 January, that leaves me with a week to summarise The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight.

Unfortunately, it now looks like this will not happen. A combination of two rapid changes of jobs, constant six-day weeks since mid-November and the requirements of doing these summaries (about 8-9 hours of work, basically requiring a full working day of effort) have left me little chance to work on the project. I've done about 30% of The Gathering Storm so far and might just manage to finish that off before AMoL comes out, but definitely not the complex-to-summarise (due to its convoluted timeline) Towers.

I will complete the project, as I know many people will not get to Memory of Light until it comes out in paperback or ebook (the ebook version has, once again, been ludicrously delayed until several months after the hardcover), but sadly not in time for the release of the hardcover. Apologies for that. In the meantime, I can recommend Encyclopedia WoT's summaries of The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight.

My traditional year review/preview posts will be along as normal in the next few days, however.

Sunday 30 December 2012

Blood and Bone by Ian Cameron Esslemont

Jacuruku: an island-continent located south-west of Quon Tali and west of Stratem. Separated from the rest of the world by large ice floes, Jacuruku has long existed in isolation. The peoples of western Jacuruku lie under the dominion of the Thaumaturgs, mages of tremendous power, whilst the eastern half of the continent is dominated by the jungle of Himatan, domain of the goddess Ardata.

Now the Thaumaturgs have launched an invasion of Himatan, determined to find the fabled city of Jakal Viharn. But even as their army drives deep into the jungle, so their homelands come under threat from the desert tribes of the far south, now united into a formidable army by an invading foreigner...who may not be as foreign as he first appears. Also newly arrived in Jacuruku are the Crimson Guard, summoned to bring to justice their renegade warrior Skinner and those sworn to his service. For K'azz D'Avore and his Avowed, this is an opportunity to heal a painful schism...but at a cost.

Blood and Bone is Ian Cameron Esslemont's fifth novel, taking us to the hitherto unexplored (but oft-mentioned) continent of Jacuruku. The setting is the key to the novel, with the reader soon feeling the humidity and discomfort of the jungle terrain. It's actually rather unusual for geography to be so integral to a Malazan novel (normally it's incidental), and it's a new approach that Esslemont handles well.

In terms of character, the book has a substantial cast taking in Jacuruku natives, Thaumaturgs, demigods, Malazan mercenaries and Crimon Guardsmen. Esslemont takes the time to establish story arcs which are contained within this one novel (such as Saeng's journey) as well as furthering long-running storylines established in earlier books, such the Crimson Guard looking for a new purposes in the aftermath of the Quon Civil War. There's also some excellent use of the established backstory (Jacuruku was once the site of Kallor's empire, the one whose destruction resulted in the Fall of the Crippled God) to drive forward the storyline. Unusually for a Malazan novel, I felt I had a pretty good handle on what was going on throughout. Newcomers might be tempted to jump aboard due to the main storylines being more or less self-contained in this book, but will likely be lost by references to past and simultaneous events (the novel takes place simultaneously alongside Stonewielder, Orb Sceptre Throne and The Crippled God).

Esslemont's prose is readable and compelling (and more accomplished in this novel than ever before), but a little lacking in artistry compared to Erikson's. However, it's also far more concise and approachable. Esslemont handles his large cast and his complex, multi-layered plot quite successfully. In fact,  Blood and Bone just about nudges it as his best book to date.

Blood and Bone (****½) is available now in the UK and will be published in May 2013 in the USA.

Friday 28 December 2012

RIP Gerry Anderson

On Boxing Day it was announced that Gerry Anderson had passed away at the age of 83. Anderson was one of the most famous figures in UK TV in the 1960s and 1970s, working on a number of science fiction and fantasy shows. However, he will always be closely associated with a number of children's series featuring puppets operating highly-detailed vehicles: Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Joe 90 and Terrahawks.

In addition to his puppet shows, Anderson created several live-action SF series: UFO, Space: 1999 and Space Precinct (as well as the non-SF The Protectors). Despite his fame and his shows' place in popular culture, he was unable to find a format with longevity: aside from Terrahawks, none of his shows lasted more than two seasons. Thunderbirds returned with a live-action movie in 2004 which Anderson was not involved with, criticised heavily and was panned on release. Anderson did produce a two-season revival of Captain Scarlet in 2005 (using CGI) which was critically well-received, but which was not a financial success.

Despite the setbacks, Anderson's shows were always worth watching. They usually presented a positive view of the future and of the ways that technology could improve people's lives, though tinged with caution over its misuse. His shows also had production values that defied belief for their day: the model effects (and endless, artistically impressive explosions) on Thunderbirds are particularly stunning for a series made in 1965. His 1970-71 TV series UFO (which inspired the 1994 computer game X-COM and its sequels and recent remake) was also notable for being aimed squarely at adults, with a dark theme of paranoia running through the series along with a much grimmer tone than his other work, a move which was very successful.

Anderson also had an influence on other shows. His work inspired Ron Thornton, the creator of the CGI on Babylon 5 and, later, Star Trek: Voyager, to make space scenes more colourful and original (Thornton later worked with Anderson on the new Captain Scarlet). Anderson's habit of putting highlights from the episode in the title sequence of each episode also led to the creators of the newer Battlestar Galactica to do the same thing in their show, somewhat controversially. His work was also very popular in Japan, where even a tribute anime to Thunderbirds was produced in the 1980s (called Thunderbirds 2086 with the permission of the company that produced the original show, but without Gerry Anderson's involvement).

In 2011 Anderson was working on a revival of Thunderbirds using CGI, but the status of the project became uncertain after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and had to retire. Hopefully, this project will be revived and introduce a new generation of fans to his work and legacy.

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Updated MALAZAN reading order and map

Updated with info from Orb Sceptre Throne and Blood and Bone:

Following the publication of Blood and Bone, it's now possible to work out a new reading order for the books to best account for the information given by both authors. This list is not the chronological order of the novels, which would likely be very confusing, but a 'best' reading list accounting for publication and chronological orders:
  1. Gardens of the Moon
  2. Deadhouse Gates
  3. Memories of Ice
  4. House of Chains
  5. Midnight Tides
  6. Night of Knives*
  7. The Bonehunters
  8. Return of the Crimson Guard**
  9. Reaper's Gale
  10. Toll the Hounds***
  11. Stonewielder****
  12. Orb Sceptre Throne*****
  13. Dust of Dreams
  14. The Crippled God
  15. Blood and Bone*** ***
  16. Assail (forthcoming)

The placement of Forge of Darkness remains difficult. It is so full of references to things already-established in the Malazan series that reading it first is hard to recommend, but it does clarify some elements of the world and terminologies that may be much more helpful to newcomers than jumping straight in with Gardens of the Moon.

The side-novellas form a totally separate side-story. Aside from recommending that they be read after Memories of Ice, they can be read whenever.

* Night of Knives introduces several characters who play a role in The Bonehunters.
** Return of the Crimson Guard picks up shortly after The Bonehunters, whilst Reaper's Gale tells us explicitly that a year has passed since the events of TBH.
*** According to dialogue, Toll the Hounds takes place six years after Memories of Ice. According to every other piece of information in the whole series, this is flat-out impossible, and needs to be ignored. Orb Sceptre Throne retcons it to about two years after MoI. The presence of a child born after MoI who is five years old in TTH also has to be ignored.
**** There is an argument for moving Stonewielder after Orb Sceptre Throne, as it shares a major scene with Blood and Bone viewed from an alternate perspective and thus happens simultaneously. This also puts Toll the Hounds right next to its direct sequel, Orb Sceptre Throne. However, there is a subplot in Stonewielder which takes place before Orb (thanks to the time-bending properties of the Warrens) and continues in it, requiring Stonewielder to be read first.
***** According to dialogue and various events, Orb Sceptre Throne takes place before the conclusion of the Dust of Dreams/Crippled God duology.
*** *** Blood and Bone takes place simultaneously with the events of The Crippled God and immediately thereafter.

Monday 24 December 2012

Merry Christmas Everyone!

What Prime said.

Far Cry 3

A group of American tourists in Bangkok are convinced to visit the isolated Rook Islands, a beautiful tropical paradise off the normal tourist track. Unfortunately the islands are also in a state of civil war, with the native Rakyat tribe battling pirates and drug-runners who have taken over the area. The Americans are taken prisoner by the pirates, but Jason Brody manages to escape and find sanctuary amongst the Rakyat. He is trained in the ways of war, but as he seeks out his friends and tries to take down the pirate leader, Vaas, he risks losing his soul as the violence and conflict intensifies.

Far Cry 3 is the third title in the Far Cry franchise, though it is not a true sequel. It does not share any story or character elements with its two predecessors and can be played fully independently of them. What it does share is the same ethos: a dedication to providing a story-driven single-player experience within a sandbox environment, giving the player immense freedom in deciding how to proceed.

Far Cry 2 was heavily criticised for featuring a similar approach, but not doing enough with it. The game's annoyances - almost non-existent characterisation and of course the frequent road checkpoints with near-instantly respawning enemies which made travel across the map excruciatingly frustrating - overwhelmed the game's conceptual strong points, such as its 'buddy' NPC system and rich atmosphere. The designers of Far Cry 3 seem to have borne the previous title's problems in mind and provided a counter for every one of them whilst reinforcing those elements that did work. In short, Far Cry 3 finally fulfils the potential its predecessor squandered, and redeems the franchise.

The game employs a number of different systems which work in tandem to make it more engrossing for the player. There's a campaign story which you can follow, in which Brody rescues his friends one-by-one before trying to kill Vaas and his ally, the drug-runner Hoyt. However, at the start of the game Brody is a nobody with no combat training and no ability to carry lots of guns around. To improve your chances of survival, you can undertake training missions for the Rakyat or go hunting animals to improve your aim. Skinning these animals also allows you to craft holders, bandoliers and backpacks, allowing you to carry more ammo and gear. However, your map at the start of the game is almost devoid of any useful information: to open up more map information, you have to ascend radio towers and download information from them. Travelling around the islands is also hazardous due to enemy checkpoints and strongholds. To reduce the number of enemies roaming the islands, taking out these outposts is essential. Unlike Far Cry 2's instantly-respawning bases, however, the outposts in Far Cry 3 stay cleared once cleared. In fact, Rakyat forces soon show up and these outposts become havens for resupply and re-equipping between missions. Outposts also generate their own missions, with side-quests, further hunting challenges and assassination assignments becoming available.

In short, there is rarely a lack of something to do in Far Cry 3. It's up to you whether you pursue the single-player storyline to the exclusion of everything else, or put it on hold whilst clearing up all the side-quests first, or (more satisfyingly) mix and match as you proceed. There are whiffs of the Elder Scrolls and GTA series in the game's freeform structure, with the same potential for unintentional dark comedy: laying down a minefield to trap  unwary enemies only for the mines to be detonated by a wayward crocodile, or standing triumphant at the entrance to a freshly-liberated outpost only to be run over by a jeep carrying your over-exuberant allies. The game's addition of upgradeable skills and experience points continues the franchise's evolution into a pseudo-RPG, whilst it is a huge improvement over both its predecessors due to its much stronger characters. I can't remember the name of a single NPC from Far Cry 2, but the likes of Vaas, Hoyt and Citra definitely rank amongst the more memorable characters from recent first-person shooters.

Graphically, the game is lush and even beautiful. Whilst not quite the equal of the still-astonishing Crysis in its depiction of a jungle environment, it is still a remarkable graphical environment. Combat is much more satisfying than its predecessor, with a pleasing mix of long-range sniper and close-up assault options. The 'magic binoculars' from Far Cry (and missing from FC2) return, allowing you to 'tag' enemies and keep track of them even through walls. Whilst still being completely nonsensical, they are nevertheless a vital and welcome tool to help plan attacks.

On the negative side, the game is tonally disjointed. The main storyline features a thematic element in which your character's evolution from urban city-dweller to mystical jungle warrior (complete with magical tattoos) is commented on, with a sideline in musings on the corrosive effects of violence on the soul. Whilst it remains interesting that a game which features shooting people in the head actually takes time out to dwell on the consequences of such violence, it's also the case that this element is not particularly developed very far. Also, every violent game of recent note has done this, leading to the suspicion that such an element is being thrown in as a sop to justify its violence rather than a genuine attempt at commentary. Less philosophically, the game sometimes feels like a bit of a mish-mash between a linear, story-driven adventure and an open-world free-for-all, with the two sides of the game not meshing as well as they could.

Ultimately, Far Cry 3 (****½) is a ridiculous amount of fun. As a pure first-person shooter, it's the finest example the genre has thrown up in several years. It's a careful and successful refinement of the best elements of its predecessors, with the negative factors mostly removed. Whilst not as broodingly atmospheric as the recent Dishonored, in terms of a game being a sheer joy to play, it's a triumphant success and one of the best games of the year. The game is available now on the PC (UK, USA), X-Box 360 (UK, USA) and PlayStation 3 (UK, USA).

Cover art for Christopher Priest's THE ADJACENT

Given that waits for a new Christopher Priest novel are often measured in half-decades (or, in the case of the last one, a full decade), it feels like we're being spoiled with a new book so soon after his previous one. The Adjacent will be published in June 2013 and now has some cover art:

Priest calls this the longest and most complicated book he's ever written, which coming from the author of The Affirmation and The Separation is saying something.

Sunday 23 December 2012


The new Gollancz catalogue reveals some interesting information about Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard series.

For the obvious question, the catalogue reveals (on page 47) that the latest hand-in date for The Republic of Thieves (the third book in the series) is at the end of January. If Lynch can hit this date, the book will be published in July. Of course, after almost six years of getting hopes up, I wouldn't be too surprised if this date is not achieved.

More intriguingly, the press info also reveals that The Lies of Locke Lamora has been 'optioned for television'. I can find no information at all about that elsewhere online, which is odd as that kind of news is normally formally announced to the trade magazines before anywhere else.

More news as I get it.

Friday 14 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Many years ago, the dwarves of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, were driven from their home by Smaug, last of the great dragons. Thorin Oakenshield, the grandson of the last King of Erebor, has vowed to reclaim his home and called upon the dwarven clans of Middle-earth to aid him. Rebuffed, he instead plans a daring raid of a few chosen dwarves to slay Smaug whilst he sleeps. To aid them, Gandalf the Grey has promised to recruit a skilled burglar: Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of the Shire. Their journey will take them through forests and caverns, all the while being tracked by an old enemy of Thorin's...

An Unexpected Journey is the first movie in a trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel, The Hobbit. That's Tolkien's short novel which, by word-count, is just under a fifth of the length of The Lord of the Rings. There's been enormous controversy about director Peter Jackson's decision to split The Hobbit into three three-hour films, with a fear that there simply isn't enough story to warrant it and this will result in padding. That is the threat that constantly hangs over the film and to be fair, it mostly avoids it by making a major change: Jackson has decided to show in full Gandalf and the White Council's side-story to confront and destroy the 'Necromancer' of Dol Guldur (a storyline that takes place off-page in the novel). Whilst also controversial amongst fans, it does give Jackson a rich vein of story to mine to add to proceedings, but how successful this will be remains to be seen (this subplot is only really started in the film).

The movie opens with the older Bilbo (still played by Ian Holm) writing an account of his adventure for Frodo and narrating the destruction of the human town of Dale and the neighbouring dwarven mountain-city of Erebor by Smaug. We then have the traditional opening from the novel, with thirteen dwarves and the wizard Gandalf turning up on Bilbo Baggins's doorstep to recruit him for an adventure. By the time the young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) agrees to join the quest, a rather surprising forty minutes has passed. This sequence risks interminability, but Jackson takes advantage of the time to introduce the thirteen dwarves and give them some character traits missing from the source material. James Nesbitt's Bifur in the somewhat cynical joker of the pack, whilst Fili and Kili are the over-eager young guns out to impress their older peers. Dwalin is the bruiser and Balin the wise old - and somewhat pedantic - sage of the group (Ken Stott is excellent in the role). Bombur is fat and little more than that. The real impact is made at this stage by Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. Armitage is charismatic and has steely resolve and presence in his role, and is the standout performance of the movie (and, dare I say it, impresses more than even Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn in the original trilogy).

As well as showing the Necromancer stuff on-screen, Jackson has made some other changes to the story to increase the dramatic weight of events. Thorin now has his own nemesis, a mighty orcish warrior whose arm he cut off in battle. This warrior, long-thought dead, has returned and is now chasing down Thorin and his band (a bit like Lurtz in the movie version of Fellowship of the Ring, but a lot smarter and more continuously present). It's another change that I think some won't like, but as a dramatic device it worked fairly well at introducing some tension to the film. However, what was really distracting is that this orc has the exact same skin tone and texture as the Engineers in Prometheus and is likewise gigantic. His story arc is left unfinished at the end of the film, so we can assume he will return in the sequel (rather cleverly, as it provides a potentially better way of explaining a subplot in that film than Tolkien was able to do in the book).

Elsewhere the film feels a lack of cohesion: the Necromancer plot has little to do immediately with Thorin's quest, so every time we cut away to Radagast the Brown (a great performance by the ex-Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy) trying to resuscitate hedgehogs (!) or Gandalf discussing backplot with Saruman and Galadriel for what feel like nineteen hours, the movie flags. In fact, the dwarves get so bored of Rivendell (missed opportunity: someone saying, "On second thoughts, let's not go to Rivendell. 'Tis a silly place,") they just up and randomly leave. Once the dwarves are back on the road together and causing mayhem, the film perks up and more fun is had, even if sometimes accompanied by some unconvincing CGI.

The scenes in the goblin caves in the Misty Mountains are entertaining, but also daft. Barrie Humphries as the Goblin King works rather better than most were likely expecting (and there's a humourous nod to Gandalf's "You shall not pass!" moment from the original trilogy), but the extended battle-and-escape sequence is too slapstick to really present much tension. This contrasts to the successful scene where Bilbo meets Gollum (Andy Serkis, on fire as always) and acquires the Ring, which is brilliantly acted by both parties and features some nice tonal variations from comedy to menace and back again.

Overall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (***½) can be called a qualified success. It has some big problems that Jackson has not been able to overcome: the storyline is too slight to sustain three hours and even with the addition of extra storylines and characters, there are some scenes which feel like wheel-spinning for the sake of it (most notably at Rivendell). There is also a near-omnipresent use of CGI in almost every scene of the movie. The original trilogy worked best when the camera was allowed to film natural landscapes or when miniatures were used to depict locations and give them a sense of reality and weight. Here, CGI is much more freely employed, often with less regard for hiding the fact it is CGI. In particular, there is a dearth of truly awesome shots of the countryside of New Zealand in all its glory compared to the original trilogy: here, even many of the landscape shots have been bathed in CGI until they glow with lens-flare. Even in 2D and at 24fps, the film has a 'faker' sheen across it than the original films, which sometimes distracts.

Fortunately, Peter Jackson has learned from the mistakes of George Lucas and has remembered to include plenty of character moments to keep things more real. Armitage is awesome, as previously mentioned, but it's Martin Freeman's performance as Bilbo which anchors the movie. His character arc (and Thorin's, which develops in tandem) is well-handled and Freeman nails this icon in a way he didn't manage with Arthur Dent (in the disappointing Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie). These character and thematic moments are less-successfully handled than in the original trilogy, but still give the film some dramatic weight and tension that keeps things interesting.

The film is on general release now and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray - twice over - in 2013.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

The Belly of the Bow by K.J. Parker

Shastel is a country owned and run by an academic foundation, whose bank holds the debts of its impoverished citizens in perpetuity. Spying an opportunity for profit, the Loredan Bank has taken over the nearby island of Scona and is undercutting the Foundation's economy, sparking a trade war that is in danger of turning very real and very bloody. For Bardas Loredan, living in seclusion as a bowyer in Scona's backwater, the last thing he wants is anything to do with the schemes of his ruthless brother and pragmatic sister. But he is soon drawn into the conflict, even as he comes to realise that his attempts to live a good life may be nothing more than a sham.

The Belly of the Bow is the second volume of K.J. Parker's Fencer Trilogy. At first glance, this is a slighter novel than Colours in the Steel. Whilst Colours centred around a massive siege and the attempts to defend a city, The Belly of the Bow is a much more personal story focused on the dysfunctional Loredan family. The war this time is more in the background, and played for maximum cynical impact. Parker's black humour and refusal to glorify the horrors of war combine to provide a damning indictment of violent conflict and the reasons for it.

As a personal, more character-focused story the novel takes a while to get going. The complex relationships between Bardas, his sister, brother and niece are built up steadily but the thematic point of the novel is elusive until a shocking late-novel development throws everything into sharp relief. The book is essentially a character study of Bardas Loredan, who believes himself to be the 'good' member of the family, a hard worker who sends money home to his younger two brothers on their farm and has always tried to do the right thing. As the novel demonstrates, Bardas is kidding himself (his previous careers as soldier and lawyer-at-arms being steeped in blood and mayhem) and his self-belief is a rather brittle thing. When faced with a revelation of a betrayal on an massive scale, his reaction isn't reasoned or understanding, but a cruel and merciless lashing out that is genuinely unexpected.

The novel pivots on this moment (which happens very late in the book) and doesn't fully work until you realise that moment - a moment of gut-wrenching horror that even George R.R. Martin might consider excessive - is coming. As such, the book works a bit better on re-reads. However, as well as Bardas the novel concentrates a lot on his brother, Gorgas. Gorgas is best described as an ex-sociopath who has genuinely reformed from being a violent lunatic and is now seeking to make amends for his past mistakes. Unfortunately, Gorgas is rather disturbingly single-minded in this attempt to seek redemption, and the crimes he commits to achieve it actually dwarf his original offence. The contrast between the two brothers (and Bardas's angry denials he is anything like his brother, which ring increasingly hollow as the trilogy unfolds) is a key point of the novel that Parker develops effectively.

As with much of Parker's work, the tone is often deceptively light-hearted whilst masking a cynical edge, the humour is jet black and the characterisation is strong, but takes a while to come to the fore. Also, as it standard, the novel is packed with information on the creation and use of a standard fantasy weapon of war, in this case the bow. These passages of mechanical engineering may appear skip-worthy, but Parker actually cleverly uses the bow as a metaphor for her(?) characters and the world they live in. Other characters from Colours in the Steel return and there is some more information on the Principal (less of a magic system than an ability to nudge future probabilities to get a more favourable outcome, but due to chaos theory this is wildly unpredictable), but the focus is firmly on the Loredan family and their issues.

The Belly of the Bow (****) is a less-obviously engaging novel than its forebear, but once the scope of Parker's ambition for the book becomes clear it turns into a much more impressive work. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday 3 December 2012

GAME OF THRONES Season 3 preview

HBO has aired a preview of the third season of Game of Thrones, which will start airing on 31 March 2013.

The video gives us our first good glimpse at a number of new characters in costume and make-up (screencaps from

Clive Russell as Ser Brynden 'the Blackfish' Tully, Catelyn's uncle.

 Tobias Menzies as Ser Edmure Tully, Catelyn's younger brother and heir to Riverrun.

Nathalie Emmanuel as Missandei, a translator from Astapor.

Dame Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna Tyrell, the 'Queen of Thorns'.

Richard Dormer as Ser Beric Donarrion (replacing David Michael Scott, who played the character in one episode of Season 1).

Ellie Kendrick as Meera Reed, whose father was one of Ned Stark's oldest and closest friends.

Another shot of Meera, this time with her brother Jojen, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster.

Looking pretty good so far. The promos also confirm that, after a lot of hand-wringing last season, Daenerys looks like she'll be kicking some backside this year. Also, what appears to be the set-up for a wedding or celebration. Interesting stuff.

Sunday 2 December 2012


The BBC has commissioned a six-part TV mini-series based on Susanna Clarke's highly successful 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The novel is set in an alternate-history England during the Napoleonic Wars and features two magicians who are employed by the government to help defeat France, but soon fall to bickering between them. There is huge number of other characters and subplots, some of which I imagine will be dropped or reduced for the TV show.

Peter Harness (Wallander, City of Vice) is writing, whilst Toby Haynes (Sherlock, Doctor Who, Being Human, Wallander) is directing. The series is expected to go into production in 2013 for transmission in 2014.

There has been no recent word on the progress on the Jonathan Strange sequel. Clarke took a decade to write the first book, and it looks like the sequel will take just as long to appear.

The Sandman: Worlds' End by Neil Gaiman

Two travellers are driving across the United States, headed for Chicago. An unseasonable storm strands them at an inn, known as Worlds' End. Within waits a collection of fellow travellers from many worlds, all waiting for the storm to end. To pass the time they tell stories, stories from many worlds and many times.

Worlds' End is the eighth Sandman collection. It's a collection of self-contained short stories, but the stories feature recurring motifs. They are being told against the backdrop of a 'reality storm' that has been triggered by a cataclysmic event somewhere else in the multiverse (and, although a strong clue is given, we will not find out the nature of that event until the end of the following volume). It's Neil Gaiman's last chance to really exercise his imagination at short lengths before the beginning of the subsequent story arc, Sandman's largest and most epic, The Kindly Ones.

Worlds' End features a succession of stories, told by and featuring characters both new and familiar from the Sandman mythos. 'A Tale of Two Cities' is told in a minimalist art style, mostly through prose accompaniment, and features a traveller who loves his city so much that he becomes trapped in its dreams. It's weird and offbeat, and will probably appeal a lot to fans of China Mieville.

'Cluracan's Tale' features the return of the elf Cluracan, whose story is a bonkers collection of trickery, deception and a swordfight that may or may not have happened. It's lightweight (and Gaiman's not a huge fan of it, feeling it was too big for his page count and was consequently diminished in its impact) but fun. 'Hob's Leviathan' features a traditional narrative device, of a youngster running away to sea, and the return of one of the more popular Sandman characters, Hob Gadling, who was gifted with immortality by Dream and who meets him once a century to catch up. In this story, Hob is a passenger on a ship where the journey takes a turn for the very strange. It's a smart and tight story, with a couple of twists that are perhaps predictable but pulled off so well it doesn't really matter.

In 'The Golden Boy' Gaiman resurrects the fairly obscure DC character Prez Rickard, the first teenage President of the United States of America (running on an independent ticket). Set in an alternate United States, Prez becomes the embodiment of the hopes that Americans apparently place in their leaders: a virtuous man who helps the poor and needy without impoverishing the country, and manages to lower its debts. He resists corruption and survives tragedy (an attempted assassination that takes the life of his fiancee). A story about such a paragon sounds boring, but Gaiman infuses it with wit and some amusing lines and cultural references, not mention several nods to his friend Alan Moore's Watchmen. He also solves a minor puzzle about Dream that had been left dangling for almost five years by that point.

The next story, 'Cerements', is the most complex. Given there are nods in it to the work of Gene Wolfe - the inhumers share some similarities with the guild of torturers in The Book of the New Sun - this is to be expected. It is a tale told by Petrefrax, a prentice inhumer from the Necropolis Litharge. But within his tale, three others tell their tales (one of which contains a short story in itself). The result is a complex Russian's doll of narratives nestled within one another, seemingly disconnected but featuring some key insights into the Endless and (another recurring element in these stories) the nature of how they die. Compared to Cluracan's story (which is lightweight but baggy), 'Cerements' is fiendishly complex but told with impressive economy.

At the end of the collection - after a meta-aside in which a woman at the inn complains about the sexism of the story-tellers - the storm ends with a haunting vision of vast figures in the sky, a clue as to what caused the storm and the event that will drive the remainder of the series.

Worlds' End uses a familiar device (influenced by The Canterbury Tales) but does so with wit and intelligence. The stories are decent, with Cluracan's perhaps being the least memorable, and feature some wonderful fantastical imagery. 'The Golden Boy' also flirts with politics, not the nitty-gritty of ideologies, but what people want from their leaders, no matter how unrealistic. There is also a feeling of doom overhanging the collection, of events, no matter how seemingly disconnected, being linked to a tragedy whose own story is yet to be told.

Worlds' End (****½) is one of the stronger Sandman collections and is available now in the UK and USA, and as part of Volume III of The Absolute Sandman (UK, USA)

Saturday 1 December 2012


Neil Gaiman has tweeted that he is now writing the American Gods TV show pilot, indicating that the project is still moving ahead despite a long gap since the last hard news about it.

In addition, the BBC is recording a new radio drama adaptation of Neverwhere, Gaiman's novelisation of his 1996 television series of the same name. This would not normally be big news, except the cast that has been assembled is nothing short of stellar. The list of names currently stands as:

James McAvoy - Richard
Natalie Dormer - Door
Benedict Cumberbatch - Islington
Antony Head - Mr. Croup
David Schofield - Mr. Vandemar
Sophie Okenedo - Hunter
Bernard Cribbins - Old Bailey
Romola Garai - Jessica
Christopher Lee - The Earl
David Harewood - The Marquis
Andrew Sachs - Tooley
Johnny Vegas - Lord Ratspeaker

Impressive. They could make a movie of the story with this cast and it would be awesome.