Thursday 28 February 2013

GAME OF THRONES Season 3 Episode Titles Revealed

Eight of the ten episode titles for Season 3 of Game of Thrones have been announced. These are as follows (with airdate and writer/director information):

Paul Kaye as Thoros of Myr

301: Valar Dohaeris
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Daniel Minahan
Airdate: 31 March

302: Dark Wings, Dark Words
Written by Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Daniel Minahan
Airdate: 7 April

303: Walk of Punishment
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Airdate: 14 April

304: And Now His Watch is Ended
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alex Graves
Airdate: 21 April

305: Kissed by Fire
Written by Bryan Cogman
Directed by Alex Graves
Airdate: 28 April

306: tbc
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Alik Sakharov
Airdate: 5 May

307: The Bear and the Maiden Fair
Written by George R.R. Martin
Directed by Michelle MacLaren
Airdate: 12 May

308: tbc
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Michelle MacLaren
Airdate: 19 May

309: The Rains of Castamere
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by David Nutter
Airdate: 26 May

310: Mhysa
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by David Nutter
Airdate: 2 June

For those wondering, 'Mhysa' is a Ghiscari word from the book, which translates as 'Mother'.

STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE #2 gets a title

Brandon Sanderson has announced that his second Stormlight Archive novel, the sequel to The Way of Kings, will be entitled Words of Radiance. He'd previously suggested The Book of Endless Pages and Highprince as War as possible titles, but settled on this title for the reasons given at the link.

Assuming Sanderson completes the novel on schedule, it should be released this November.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

How the Next Generation Could Kill Gaming (as we know it)

Back in the 1980s, when I started gaming, it took a few people perhaps a few weeks to make a good game. Even the mighty Elite - the first proper 3D game and arguably the first proper open-world game - took two guys a few months to put together. A few years later, during the 16-bit era of the Commodore Amiga, SNES and Megadrive (Genesis for you American types), this had increased to teams of a dozen or so taking a few months to a year, tops, to put together a game. The gaming industry was in the good health, with the biggest mega-hits making tens of millions of dollars but even a game selling just a few thousand copies could still turn a profit.

How times have changed. Today, it takes teams of several dozen people anything from two to six years to make a game, with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. Dozens of game development studios have closed over the course of the last generation of gaming (which began in 2005 with the release of the X-Box 360), in many cases despite selling millions of copies of games. It's no longer enough to be successful. Now you have to produce a fast-selling megahit from day one, otherwise your company might go bust.

It's been a disturbing period. Several of my favourite games of all time are Hostile Waters, Anachronox, Planescape: Torment, Freespace 2 and the Homeworld trilogy, all moderately-budgeted games that sold reasonably well on release but nothing to write home about. Those games simply would not exist in today's publisher-driven marketplace. The entire midlist of gaming - those games that are well above the indie level in terms of both cost and sales but below the mega-hits - has simply evaporated.

A good example of this is Rockstar's May 2012 release Max Payne 3. This game cost an estimated $105 million, not including marketing. The game was required to sell 3 million copies at full price in its first few weeks on sale to break even, which it rather spectacularly failed to do: the game 'only' shifted 440,000 copies in its first month. It is questionable if the game has broken even yet, and if it has it's only a moderate success, especially by Rockstar's standards. Their previous game Red Dead Redemption (released in 2010 had sold 8 million copies since release and, before that, Grand Theft Auto IV (2008) has sold more than 25 million.

Rockstar obviously aren't going bust over this disappointment. Their latest game, Grand Theft Auto V, launches in September and will likely be the biggest-selling game of the year (this year's Call of Duty title notwithstanding). However, with a much vaster gaming environment that GTA4 and with three major protagonists to voice and write rather than one, GTA5's budget is likely considerably larger than even the $100 million of its predecessor.

Last week, Sony announced the existence of the PlayStation 4 console, due for release later this year (probably November). In April Microsoft are expected to announce the release - either this Christmas or early next year - of their successor to the X-Box 360. Both of the new consoles are going to be more powerful and more impressive than their forebears. The PS4 has 16 times the memory and a vastly more powerful graphics card and CPU than its forebear. Crucially, it's also based around off-the-shelf PC hardware rather than dedicated technology, keeping costs down and making games development and porting between the platforms much easier. Nevertheless, the arrival of the new consoles is hugely problematic for studios. Games will now require more advanced graphics and even more resources to make them look as good as possible. Some gaming companies are already warning that budgets for the next generation of gaming could balloon out of control and leave very few companies and franchises standing. The massive popularity of Facebook games and mobile games is also begging the question: do gamers really want even moar graphics? Sony desperately need the PS4 to be a huge hit to help arrest their company's decade-long decline, but it's far from certain it will be.

Some companies are already taking avoiding action. Obsidian Entertainment are developing their new epic fantasy RPG, Project Eternity, for PC and Mac alone (but don't be surprised to see mobile/tablet versions later on), forsaking the console race altogether. Project Eternity is a game using hand-drawn 2D artwork for its background and 3D character models. This keeps costs and development time down immensely. The game was greenlit (via the Kickstarter service) only in October, but is expected to ship in early 2014, after less than 18 months of development. The Dragon Age games, on the other hand, are full 3D titles, which each item in the game taking anything from hours to weeks to create and texture. The original Dragon Age title took about five years to make, with its sequel re-using many of its assets. Dragon Age III, due in 2014, will have taken about three years to develop. All three games had budgets comfortably in the tens of millions, whilst Project Eternity's budget is only about $5 million ($4.1 million or so of that from Kickstarter). As the above screenshot shows, Project Eternity is still a good-looking game by any measure. Obsidian have simply been a lot more careful about where to put its money and to minimise its risks.

If a lot more companies take steps like these, the next generation could be a fruitful time for innovation in gaming. However, the blunt forces approach taken so far by Sony, and likely by Microsoft as well, is not encouraging. If sales of the new consoles and their games are down whilst budgets continue to escalate past the point of sustainability, we could see the entire notion of a video game console disappear altogether. Of course, that may not entirely be a bad thing if it results in more rewarding and original games appearing on other platforms. As always, time will tell.

Hugo Nominations 2013

As a paid-up member of Loncon 2014, I was able to participate in the nominating process for this year's Hugo Awards (though not the final vote). Here's what I have nominated so far, although I'm still mulling over a few other categories:

Best Novel
Existence by David Brin
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Kings of Morning by Paul Kearney
Railsea by China Mieville

Best Dramatic Presentation - Long Form
Game of Thrones: Season 2*
The Walking Dead: The Episodic Adventure Game
The Dark Knight Rises
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Best Dramatic Presentation - Short Form
Game of Thrones Episode 209: Blackwater*
Game of Thrones Episode 210: Valar Morghulis*
The Walking Dead Episode 210: 18 Miles Out
The Walking Dead Episode 213: Beside the Dying Fire
Merlin Episode 513: Diamond of the Day, Part II

* Game of Thrones is eligible in both categories, but if it receives more votes in one category than the other, it will be disqualified from the other, as happened last year.

Best Professional Artist
Marc Simonetti for the 2013 Song of Ice and Fire calendar

Best Fancast
Sword and Laser

Best Fan Writer
Aidan Moher for A Dribble of Ink
Graeme Flory for Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Niall Alexander for the Speculative Scotsman
Ken Neth for Nethspace

Also worth a look is Beyond the Wall, edited by James Lowder, a collection of excellent essays (and one by me) about A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Modesty prevents me from nominating for it myself, but that doesn't mean I can't urge others to do the same :)

Monday 25 February 2013

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Andrew Dahl is a newly-assigned crewman on the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. Initially what appears to be a plum assignment turns into a nightmare. Almost every away mission turns into a lethal showdown with hostile aliens and crewmen are frequently killed, although oddly the bridge crew seem to survive every one of these encounters. As the situation becomes more bizarre and crew are slain by robots, alien worms and - somewhat unexpectedly - ice sharks, Dahl becomes determined to find out what the hell is really going on.

Redshirts is John Scalzi's tribute to all of those unfortunate extras and minor characters whose sole purpose in life is to show up for ten minutes and then die in a feeble attempt to make the audience believe the main characters might be in danger. It's a huge, nerdy in-joke that anyone who's ever sat through an episode of Star Trek should appreciate. Anyone who hasn't (and Star Trek and its cheesier tropes - distressingly - are getting a bit long in the tooth these days) might find the book pretty pointless.

The book starts off as a look at the workings of such a ship from the POV of the regular crewmen rather than the command crew (and yes, The Next Generation did a whole episode about that) but rapidly escalates into being a funny commentary on the aforementioned TV tropes before moving into a metafictional storyline about fictional characters coming to life before skewing sideways into a very ill-advised attempt at pathos (which falls completely flat due to a lack of decent characterisation, meaning we don't care). Scalzi seems to be aping funny SF authors like Harry Harrison, Terry Pratchett (whose Guards! Guards! pursues a vaguely similar premise, but altogether more successfully) and Douglas Adams. However, the premise of the novel is one that Douglas Adams threw into a TV documentary about his own life, explored and moved on from in about five minutes. Stretched over 300 pages, the premise becomes rather thin. Scalzi is a funny writer (though not in the same league as the aforementioned writers) and the laughs keep things ticking over, but despite a couple of attempts to make serious points (most notably in the codas, where the laughs dry up but the prose style improves markedly) the novel is pretty lightweight and disposable.

Redshirts (***) is an entertaining, easy read which will make you laugh for a bit but you will also completely forget about within a week. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday 24 February 2013

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Dragonborn

A failed assassination attempt on the Dragonborn hints that an ancient evil has returned to the island of Solstheim, located off the north-eastern coast of Skyrim and north of Morrowind's foreboding Red Mountain. The Dragonborn sets sail for the island and is confronted by a mystery that will take them across the island and into the Oblivion realm of Apocrypha to confront Miraak, the first Dragonborn.

Dragonborn is the third piece of DLC (downloadable content) for Skyrim, the monstrously successful fifth game in The Elder Scrolls. Unlike Hearthfire, which simply added the ability to build houses to the game, and Dawnguard, which was a short, linear quest adding the ability to transform into a vampire lord, Dragonborn is a proper expansion like we used to get in the good old days. The setting is Solstheim, previously the setting for Bloodmoon, an expansion to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The island has changed a lot in the subsequent 200 years, with the eruption of the Red Mountain covering much of the southern half of the island in ash. However, the central mountains and the north coast retain that mountainous, sub-arctic feel that Skyrim evoked so successfully.

Dragonborn starts when your character - the Dragonborn - is attacked whilst going about his or her daily business (the Dragonborn questline only starts once you have completed a few of the main storyline quests in Skyrim itself and been proclaimed Dragonborn). Clues on the attackers lead you to a boat moored in Windhelm. The captain - reluctantly - agrees to sail you to Solstheim. Upon arrival in the main settlement at Raven Rock, you are confronted by houses built out of the shells of long-dead giant crustaceans and a wizard living inside a gargantuan mushroom. You are not in Skyrim any more.

The dominant race in the southern half of the island are the dunmer or dark elves, who were allowed to settle on Solstheim by the Nord High King after being driven out of their homeland. After 200 years living together with the Nords and other races, a tolerant multi-racial community has grown up that is a pleasant change after the prejudices of Skyrim proper (where the Nords treat any non-Nord characters with disdain, if not outright hostility). The smaller size of Solstheim - a fraction the size of Skyrim but still big enough to contain dozens of main quests, side-quests and missions, as well as dozens of locations and vast quantities of loot - also allows for a more focused game without sacrificing the freedom the series is renowned for.

As is traditional with the gameplay of the series, you can completely ignore the main storyline in favour of the side-quests. I actually did this for about eight or nine hours, simply traipsing around the island pursuing optional missions or just exploring and checking out locations I'd discovered. Dragonborn does a good job of adjusting to where you are in the main game's quests: being a member of the Thieves' Guild immediately gave me an 'in' to the town, with the local blacksmith being related to one of the senior guild members. A bunch of hunters living up in the mountains have a quest that will only be activated if the player is a werewolf. There are different dialogue options depending on if you play the expansion before or after the defeat of Alduin in the main game's storyline. In particular, Dragonborn improves upon Skyrim by making its NPCs more memorable and interesting than that in the main game. The aforementioned mushroom-dwelling wizard is a total nutjob, with some very amusing lines, whilst it's possible for the player to win the allegiance of a tribe of Rieklings (think of a race of demented Ewok-goblins) who will then follow the player around and randomly help out in combat.

As well as Solstheim itself, the game features sequences set in Apocrypha, the home of the daedric prince Hermaeus Mora. This is an alternate dimension made up of stacks of billions of books, guarded by psychotic librarians known as Seekers (Cthulu-like tentacled horrors). Traversing these chunks of Apocrypha - accessed by the foreboding Black Books - rewards the player with different powers and effects, and is required to find and defeat Miraak. Unlike the repetitive Oblivion Gate towers in Oblivion, these sojourns to Apocrypha are shorter, more concise and more imaginative. You also only need to do a couple of them to finish the expansion's storyline, at which point finding more of them becomes purely optional.

On the negative side of things, Miraak is a dull enemy and the expansion's biggest selling-point, being able to ride around on dragonback, is severely underwhelming. There's also perhaps an over-relianced on draugr (undead) as enemies in the new dungeons, when they'd already become quite played out in Skyrim itself. Fortunately, these make for surprisingly tiny parts of the expansion and it gets just about everything else right, breathing fresh life back into a game that was starting to feel a little stale.

Overall, Dragonborn (****) makes for a very welcome return to the world of Skyrim. The changes to the game's visual style are refreshing, and there's some better writing and characterisation than in its parent game. The expansion takes that everything that worked well in Skyrim and packages it into a smaller, more focused and more concise (though, at well over 30 hours worth of content, in no way tiny) gaming experience. Recommended to all fans of Skyrim, especially those underwhelmed by Dawnguard and Hearthfire. The game is available via Steam for PC owners, PSN for PS3 owners and X-Box Live for X-Box 360 owners.

Saturday 23 February 2013


HBO have finally released a 'proper' trailer for Season 3 of Game of Thrones:

The trailer has a lot of great bits in it, but my favourites were our first proper look at Dragonstone in the daylight:

And this shot of Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) climbing the Wall is quite impressive:

Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly has reported that the second season has sold more than 241,000 copies on its first day on sale in the USA, a 44% increase on the first season. More than 350,000 episodes were also bought from digital vendors, more than twice that of the first season. This bodes well for the Season 4 renewal (which is expected after the first few episodes of Season 3 airs, but pre-production has already started).

Friday 22 February 2013

Happy 20th Birthday to BABYLON 5

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the American SF TV show Babylon 5. Its pilot episode, The Gathering, aired on 22 February 1993, with the first season proper following eleven months later. Never a mass break-out hit, Babylon 5 remained on-air for five seasons and 110 episodes (plus 4 TV movies and a straight-to-DVD movie), not to mention generating a spin-off called Crusade that lasted half a season before being cancelled and a pilot for a second spin-off that never went to series. Not too bad for a show that, even today, most people have never even heard of.

Some of the regular cast of Babylon 5 in its first season: Jerry Doyle as Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, Peter Jurasik as Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari (with the hair), Claudia Christian as Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova, Mira Furlan as Minbari Ambassador Delenn, Andrea Thompson as Talia Winters, Andreas Katsulas as Narn Ambassador G'Kar and Richard Biggs as Dr. Stephen Franklin, with Michael O'Hare as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (seated).

Babylon 5 is noted for its structure. The series is arranged like a series of books, with each season having its own name (Signs and Portents, The Coming of Shadows, Point of No Return, No Surrender, No Retreat and The Wheel of Fire), title sequence and musical score. Each season acts as a movement in the traditional five-act structure of a story: introduction, rising action, climax, resolution, aftermath. This gives the entire series a sense of tremendous narrative momentum. Creator/showrunner/head writer Joe Michael Straczynski also layered a number of mysteries into the backstory of the series, giving fans something to discuss and theorise about online (B5 was easily the first show to make significant use of the Internet in building its fan community). However, he also explained and resolved these mysteries long before the end of the show, avoiding the problem of overloading the series resolution with too many elements to support (and in doing so avoided the pitfalls which made the endings to later serialised shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica so problematic).

The show is also notable for its case of extremely well-drawn characters, all of whom have significant backstories, and how they evolve over the course of the series. Babylon 5 was very much the TV equivalent of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones in that regard (and, interestingly, Straczynski namechecks George R.R. Martin as an inspiration in an article for Foundation magazine in early 1995, though this was for his earlier work as A Game of Thrones didn't come out until Babylon 5's third season was already over), though Straczynski was moderately less ruthless with his characters. The casting was excellent, and in particular gave long-standing Hollywood supporting actors like Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas some meaty, solid roles to get their teeth into. The show was also praised for its still-impressive (if rather low-res by today's standards) CGI graphics, which allowed the show to have the most visually impressive space battles since the Star Wars trilogy on a tiny budget.

In terms of overall quality, Babylon 5 was conceptually bold and, at its best, was complex and satisfying, with multiple character arcs interweaving around one another and the main storylines of the series in a manner that was occasionally awesome. This was all accomplished at the same time that Straczynski also pursued a number of important thematic elements, as well as bringing in elements of realism to the setting (which was considerably more dystopian than Star Trek's). Babylon 5 was the first space-based SF show to comprehensively explore such issues as religious fundamentalism, substance abuse, alcoholism and political censorship. Other elements were not so lucky, with an examination of gender identification (via a male character - played by a woman in makeup - who would have become female in the second season and then pursued a relationship with the lead character of the show) torpedoed by the technology not being up to the job. A planned lesbian relationship between two lead characters was also ditched when one of the actresses involved left the show.

Unfortunately, whilst Babylon 5 at its best was easily the finest show on TV at the time, at its worst it stunk like weeks-old cheese. Unusually, the fans and writers were in agreement over the weakest shows of the series, and in several cases Straczynski even warned fans that that week's episode might be a bit sub-par ahead of time. This unusual honesty was refreshing, though notably it lessened as the series went along (with the near-unwatchable first half of the fifth season being defended to the hilt by the production team). The show certainly took a while to build its reputation, with the first season being 'variable' in quality and only becoming reliably good in its second year. Even then, good episodes could be let down by the odd jarring line or recycled plot element (the 'assassin/bomber loose on the station' storyline got a bit old after a while), whilst the show's production values were always only a bit above 'acceptable' (though what B5 achieved on a tiny budget was always impressive). Also, the show had a major problem with doing funny comedy episodes, with the show always falling flat on its face when it attempted it (the fact that the two funniest episodes were written by Peter David, not Straczynski, is rather telling).

Babylon 5 was flawed then, but somehow it's strengths shine all the more brightly because of its flaws. It hasn't aged brilliantly, but it's still a show that's worth watching now for its great performances (especially from Andreas Katsulas, Peter Jurasik and Mira Furlan), still-impressively-constructed central story arc and its formidable worldbuilding, not to mention some of the best spacecraft designs and space battles ever seen in the genre.

A Narn heavy cruiser parked alongside Babylon 5 in the episode Walkabout.

Conception and Genesis
Babylon 5 was conceived as a 'novel for television', a pre-planned story with a beginning, middle and end. That story was the creation of Joe Michael Straczynski, an experienced Hollywood scriptwriter who'd worked on series such as He-Man, The Real Ghostbusters, The Twilight Zone, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and Murder, She Wrote before becoming executive producer and co-showrunner on B5.

Straczynski conceived of the show in 1987. A huge fan of authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert and TV shows like Star Trek, Blake's 7, Doctor Who and The Prisoner, he'd previously been working on two separate SF projects. The first was a small-scale, personal show set on a space station and focusing on characters. The second was a big, epic story told on a huge canvas. One day - whilst in the shower according to Straczynski - he hit on the idea of combining the two into a single show, with the potentially ruinously expensive big story told through the (much more affordable) lens of the space station setting. Originally he planned two five-year shows, Babylon 5 and its immediate sequel, Babylon Prime, but whilst working on the show's first season realised this was over-ambitious and conflated the two into a single, five-year storyline.

Straczynski's pre-planning and recruitment of respected producer Douglas Netter allowed Babylon 5 to be presented to studio execs with detailed costings, which suggested the show could be made for not much more than half of the budget of the then-on-air Star Trek: The Next Generation. Key to this plan was for the show's special effects to be completely computer-generated, eschewing the then-standard expensive and time-consuming use of motion-controlled cameras and models. Early CGI pioneer Ron Thornton (himself a veteran of British series such as Blake's 7, for which he built spaceship models in the final season) used a Commodore Amiga computer equipped with a Video Toaster plug-in card to produce an impressive image of the Babylon 5 space station orbiting a planet which wowed execs. However, most were still wary of the show, believing that there was only room for one space opera franchise on TV and that was Star Trek. Paramount themselves turned down the project in 1989 (the source of Straczynski's later grumbles when the superficially-similar Deep Space Nine was announced two years later).

In 1991, Warner Brothers agreed to develop Babylon 5 as a TV pilot. Straczynski was surprised: during the pitching session, he shattered one of his teeth and got through the rest of the session slightly spaced out on painkillers and ice. But Warner Brothers liked the idea and got behind the show with enthusiasm. SFF magazines, keen to see a non-Star Trek show on the air, also gave the project plenty of early coverage. Even computer magazines leap aboard, thrilled at seeing affordable home computers (the Amiga was huge around 1989-94, especially in Europe) being used to generate special effects for a Hollywood production. All of this enthusiasm was nearly wasted when Warner Brothers wobbled upon hearing that Deep Space Nine was in development, but they held the course and got the pilot onto the screens.

Their faith was rewarded: Babylon 5's pilot pulled in impressive ratings, got favourable reviews and sold gangbusters when it was released on VHS and LaserDisc for rental and sale a few months later. A first season was commissioned, which started airing in January 1994, with some modest cast changes (and impressive upgrades in CGI hardware). The final episode aired on 25 November 1998.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

According to prophecy, mankind will be saved by the Deliverer, a figure who will unite all of humanity during the Daylight War before defeating the forces of demonkind in the First War. The demons that rise from the Core at night will be destroyed and peace restored to the world. But there is a problem: two men have arisen, both named as the Deliverer by the people they have saved. From the north comes Arlen, the Painted Man. From the south comes Jardir, the ruler of Krasia, and his armies of well-trained, fanatical warriors. For humanity to survive to fight the First War, only one of them can live.

The Daylight War is the third novel of The Demon Cycle, currently planned to run to five volumes. It follows on from the events of the enjoyable The Painted Man and the less-accomplished Desert Spear and replicates the structure of the latter novel. Whilst the current-day storyline continues to unfold, we are treated to lengthy flashbacks to the past to flesh out the background of a key character, in this case Inevera, Jardir's First Wife.

In this case, these flashbacks are not as extensive as The Desert Spear's, which were important to add to our understanding of the character of Jardir (who, as one of the two major protagonists of the series, needed such fleshing-out to better explain his actions at the end of The Painted Man). Inevera, though an important influence on events, is not a character in the same league and as such her flashbacks are more succinct. This leaves more time for the book to address the modern-day storyline, which has effectively been on hold since the end of The Painted Man: The Desert Spear moved the present-day storyline forwards infinitesimally, due to both the flashbacks taking up an immense amount of the book and an apparent decline in Brett's pacing abilities.

Unfortunately, and for reasons that remain unclear, The Daylight War does not do this. An immense amount of the book is taken up by characters sitting around and talking about the plot, about what has happened (and is redundant, as we've already read it) and what might happen next. Then we switch from the rustic faux-Two Rivers/Shirefolk of Team Arlen to the faux-Muslims of Team Jardir and the exact same thing happens again. Then we get a brief scene in which some demons get killed. Then people discuss the plot a bit more in light of these demons being killed. This happens repeatedly for about 650 pages, whilst the reader wonders what is going on.

Finally, towards the end of the book, we get a couple of big action set-pieces in which lots of demons get killed, there are a few reversals as some minor characters are killed off, and then a painfully contrived final cliffhanger showdown between Jardir and Arlen that comes almost out of nowhere, and seems to be more the result of a dwindling page count then any natural plot development. The book's title also seems misleading: the Daylight War simply does not happen in the this novel (all of the major battles are against demons, not between the two human societies). The conclusion hints that maybe it does not need to happen, with the winner of the duel walking off with all of humanity united, so the title may be deliberately ironic.

The novel is not a complete disaster, despite its flirtation with Crossroads of Twilight levels of pacing. Brett's prose is fairly basic - and if anything has decreased slightly since the first novel - but remains effective at drawing environments, characters and situations. He is good with actions scenes, and his ward-based magic system is well-envisaged. Like Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, Brett has come up with a system that is flexible and imaginative, and allows for it to be reinterpreted and upgraded as the series continues. There's more than a tinge of Dungeons and Dragons to this approach, with Brett's characters 'levelling up' in magical power to face the increasingly powerful monsters they face, but it remains an effective device. We get more information about demons, including more scenes from the demons' POV, which give us a hint about their society (but not their origins which, given that Brett's world is clearly ours millennia hence, remain puzzling).

The book also improves - though moderately - in its treatment of female characters. Previously Brett drastically over-used rape as a device of dramatic change, with both male and female characters suffering some kind of sexual abuse whenever he needed them to undergo some kind of moment of character realisation. In The Daylight War several of these abusers get their just desserts and the institutionalised rape within the Krasian culture is heavily eroded by Jardir's progressive policies (we also see the rise of a Krasian sect of female warriors). Unfortunately this has been replaced by a willingness by the female characters to simply use their bodies as a means to get whatever they want, replacing rape with consensual prostitution. At any rate, though Brett seems aware of the previous books' dubious gender politics and moved to address them, there remains some serious issues in this area which makes for some uncomfortable reading.

The Daylight War (**½) is an extremely badly-paced novel that features a tremendous amount of filler and redundant recapping of the plot. Intermittently, we get good moments of characterisation and a fair few decent action beats, along with some imaginative development of the magic system and the basic premise of the series, which remains interesting. But the book's main storyline crawls forwards at a snail's pace (ending in a contrived cliffhanger) and its treatment of female characters and sexuality remains painfully clumsy, despite minor improvements. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Scott Lynch update on THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES

Scott Lynch has posted an update on The Republic of Thieves to the Fantasy Faction website, amusingly in response to the question, "What books haven't you finished?".

The Republic of Thieves.

(I am so sorry. I simply couldn't resist. In the immortal words of my grandfather: "If you can't laugh at yourself, you're an asshole.")



P.S. It ain't the finishing that's the issue, it's the editing and the miserable damned anxiety attacks.

P.P.S. I'm working on both as you read this.

P.P.P.S. None of this is the fault of my editors or publishers. They have been patient and steadfastly helpful during a long difficult period of my life.

Based on Gollancz's prior information (in their 2013 catalogue) that Republic would be out in the summer if Scott finished before the end of January, and given that he has not finished, we can conclude that book will now not be out in the summer. In fact, at the moment a 2013 publication at all must be doubtful. Hopefully we'll have some better news soon.

Master and Fool by J.V. Jones

Melliandra, Maybor and Tawl are in hiding in the city of Bren as the mad King Kylock expands his power across the north. As armies march and cities burn, Jack discovers how to control his power and learns that his road leads to the forbidding island of Larn.

Master and Fool is the final volume of J.V. Jones's Book of Words trilogy. As is traditional with these sort of things, epic climaxes are reached, daring deeds are undertaken and destinies are fulfilled. However, Jones undertakes these actions with unusual cynicism, showing there is a cost to victory and no triumph is unmarred by tragedy.

Jones's writing skills have improved from book to book in this series, with the somewhat jarring tonal shifts of the first volume (from tragedy to black comedy and back again) now smoothed other by more natural transitions. Unlike the second volume, which was prone to time-filling wheel-spinning, this third book is fairly jam-packed with plot development. In fact, it's rather too full and a long and epic journey that fills the middle part of the book whilst events are on hold back in Bren feels a bit implausible. It may have been better for Jones to have restructured this series and allowed this journey to begin in the second volume (sacrificing the more tedious and disposable Jack scenes at the farm if necessary). As it stands, whilst Jack and Tawl are off having an epic adventure we have to endure quite a few unpleasant scenes of Melliandra being tormented in prison, which get redundant quite quickly.

In fact, given Melliandra's character growth in the second volume, it's disappointing to see her relegated to the standard damsel in distress role here, whilst Jack and Tawl get to do the whole traditional hero's journey, male-bonding thing. In fact, given that the trilogy moves away from the standard epic fantasy template several times in its earlier volumes, it's rather disheartening that the author returns so quickly to the genre's standard tropes in the final volume. Even one of the more interesting devices, of using castle guards Bodger and Grift to offer commentary on what's going on around them, is marred by having the two guards join forces with our heroes and become more central characters, which feels like an indulgence. More satisfying by far is Tavalisk's lazy villainy and attempts to manipulate events from afar, which backfire on him most amusingly.

Whilst the ending is problematic - and one character arc is left rather blatantly unresolved for the sort-of sequel series Sword of Shadows to address - there are still positives to take from it. Jones's actual writing and characterisation are reasonable and things are wrapped up satisfyingly without being too neat. The trilogy as a whole is definitely one of the better examples of mid-1990s epic fantasy, even moreso for being an example of the darker direction the genre was headed in regardless of A Game of Thrones (the first two volumes of Book of Words came out before it).

Master and Fool (***½) is a solid - if flawed - conclusion to Jones's opening trilogy, but is only a hint of how much better she gets later on. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Map of the REVELATION SPACE universe

Alastair Reynolds has posted this map of the star systems that appear in the Revelation Space novels and short stories.

The map was created by Richard Terrett, a fan of Reynolds's work.

Friday 15 February 2013

Stephen Donaldson delivers last-ever THOMAS COVENANT novel

Stephen Donaldson has delivered the third and final draft of The Last Dark, the fourth and concluding novel in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. This will be the tenth Thomas Covenant novel overall, and is planned to conclude the entire series.

According to Donaldson:

I have just delivered the third draft of THE LAST DARK. Under the circumstances (the circumstances being that Putnams has already put the book on their schedule for October), I have no doubt that this will constitute D&A. For me, the next step will be copyediting; but of course my  publishers have a variety of things that they need to get done.

Just to provide a frame of reference: this draft is 932 pages (not counting WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE and the Glossary). I've done some rather draconian cutting, all of which I believe was necessary. I deliberately wrote the first draft *long* because I wanted to be sure that I didn't leave anything out. But the result was an unusually high number of repetitions and digressions; and weeding them out--while creating more effective or at least more efficient alternatives--has been a very long and arduous challenge.
The novel will be published in November 2013, thirty-six years and six months after the publication of the first novel in the series, Lord Foul's Bane.

Donations update

Back on 30 October, I opened the blog up to receiving donations. In the interests of transparency, I can confirm that in the last four months I have received £150 in donations, to help keep the blog ticking over.

Many thanks to everyone who has contributed so far, or will do so in the future.

Meanwhile, a brief update on things:

What I'm Watching: Deadwood Season 2, to be followed by Fringe Season 1.
What I'm Reading: The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett (a review of Master and Fool by J.V. Jones should be posted in the next day or so).
What I'm Playing: Skyrim: Dragonborn and Dragon Age: Origins (nearly done with the former). Also (more intermittently) Final Fantasy XIII.

Terry Pratchett update

Terry Pratchett reports that he is hard at work on the next Discworld novel, which will feature a new character and will not be part of any existing sub-series. It's been confirmed not to be Raising Taxes, the long-awaited third and final book in the 'Moist von Lipwig' sub-trilogy.

Meanwhile, pre-production is continuing on the City Watch TV series. Terry and Rhianna Pratchett have also clarified previous comments suggesting that Rhianna would be taking over the Discworld books once her father (who is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's) retired from writing the series. Apparently Rhianna Pratchett has now ruled out this possibility, feeling it would not be appropriate to continue the main series without her father's involvement. However, she will be involved in possible spin-offs and future adaptations of the series to other mediums.

THE CITY AND THE CITY on stage in Chicago

The Lifeline Theatre in Chicago is staging an adaptation of China Mieville's 2009 novel The City and The City. The preview run starts today and will continue to 24 February, with the full run taking place from 28 February to 7 April.

There will be a joint performance/signing even on 16 March, with China Mieville attending to sign books and talk about the play. Mieville recently relocated from London to Chicago.

Meteor Friday

Today is turning out to be a bit of a bonanza for asteroid-watchers. Early this morning a substantial meteor shower took place over the Urals in Russia, with one meteor coming quite low before exploding. The resulting airburst shattered windows in various towns and cities (most notably Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk, 900 miles east of Moscow), injuring approximately 400 people.

This event takes place only hours ahead of the close approach to Earth of asteroid 2012 DA14, a considerably larger body which will pass about 17,000km over the Earth at around 5pm GMT today. There is no known connection between the two events, with the meteors coming from different directions.

Happy 25th Birthday to RED DWARF

Red Dwarf, the UK's second longest-running SF TV show, celebrates its 25th anniversary today. The first season began airing in the UK on 15 February 1988.

The core, long-term cast of Red Dwarf: Danny John-Jules as the Cat, Craig Charles as Dave Lister, Chris Barrie as Arnold Rimmer and Robert Llewellyn as Kryten.

Red Dwarf is a comedy series with an SF premise: Dave Lister (Craig Charles), a lowly technician on the vast mining ship Red Dwarf, is sentenced to eighteen months in temporal stasis (without pay) after smuggling an unquarantined pregnant cat onto the ship. In the interim, the ship suffers a colossal radiation leak that wipes out the crew. The ship's AI, Holly (Norman Lovett, later Hattie Hayridge), takes the vessel out of the Solar system to avoid contamination and waits for the radiation to die down before releasing Lister. Unfortunately, this takes three million years. After Lister is awoken to face the possibility of eternity alone in deep space, Holly resurrects Lister's anally-retentive superior officer, Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), as a hologram to help keep him sane. The cast is rounded out by Cat (Danny John-Jules), a humanoid being whose ancestors evolved from Lister's cat's progeny, and Kryten (Robert Llewellyn), a neurotic android recovered from a crashed spacecraft.

The show is notable for not featuring aliens: instead the crew encounter a variety of human-built computers, androids, cyborgs and genetically-engineered lifeforms, most of whom have gone insane due to the length of time that has passed since their creation. The eventual fate of the rest of the human race in the series is not known, though often speculated upon by the characters. The series features SF concepts such as relativity, time travel, parallel universes, genetic engineering, the dangers of sentient AI. Though a comedy, the first five seasons or so are also notable for their focus on characterisation and the evocation of pathos - Lister is the last human being alive in a cold, vast and apparently godless universe - for effect. Later seasons are more concerned with broad comedy, slapstick and running gags.

The series was created by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, and was an evolution of their radio sketch Dave Collins: Space Cadet, which aired in 1984. Grant and Naylor wrote the first six seasons together. The show had initially disappointing viewing figures, but the highest audience appreciation stats of any programme since the Queen's Coronation in 1952, which convinced the BBC to renew the series. The show rapidly climbed the viewing figures, with the fifth and sixth seasons gaining five million viewers, a staggering high for BBC2 (where many programmes regularly only need to get two to three million to be considered a success).

The full cast of Red Dwarf: Danny John-Jules (Cat), Norman Lovett (Holly Mk. 1, Seasons 1-2, 7-8), Robert Llewellyn (Kryten), Craig Charles (Lister), Chris Barrie (Rimmer), Chloe Annett (Kochanski, Seasons 7-9) and Hattie Hayridge (Holly Mk. 2, Seasons 3-5), with the show's long-term director Ed Bye.

After the airing of the sixth season in 1993, the show went on an extended hiatus due to legal troubles faced by actor Craig Charles, as well as creative differences between Grant and Naylor. Rob Grant quit the franchise to concentrate on writing novels and, more recently, stand-up comedy. Doug Naylor continued flying the flag for the series, assembling a writing team for the seventh season which finally aired in 1997. A cool reception to this season, which was praised for its high production values but criticised for poor writing, resulted in a shift in format for the subsequent eighth season (aired in 1999) which, though better-received (and, with eight million viewers, was by far the most popular), was still criticised for lacking the more effective character-based comedy of earlier seasons.

A ten-year hiatus followed, during which time Doug Naylor attempted to find financing for a feature film version of the series. Production almost started several times, only for financing to fall through on each occasion. Eventually Naylor abandoned plans for a film in favour of a return to television, but inexplicably the BBC refused to consider resurrecting the show, despite its enormous viewing figures and high DVD sales. Instead, the small cable channel Dave agreed to finance a three-part special called Back to Earth, which aired in 2009. Despite appalling reviews, the special attracted significant audience figures for the tiny channel, enough for them to commission a new, six-part season. This tenth season aired in late 2012 to good ratings and the strongest critical reception the show had received since the sixth season. An eleventh season is currently being discussed by Doug Naylor and the Dave channel.

In 1992 NBC bought the rights to produce an American version of the show. They produced two pilot episodes, with Robert Llewellyn crossing the Atlantic to play Kryten in the American version as well. NBC was not happy with either pilot and did not commission a series. The pilots are notable for featuring actresses who went on (almost immediately) to much more famous roles: Jane Leeves, who played Holly in the first pilot, went on to star as Daphne in Frasier, whilst Terry Farrell, who played a female version of the Cat in the second, was almost immediately cast as Jadzia Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine after the pilot was not picked up. However, the show did win an International Emmy Award for Best Comedy in 1994, for the Season 6 episode Gunmen of the Apocalypse.

The series has also spawned a series of best-selling novels.

Thursday 14 February 2013

CHUNG KUO update

The fifth volume in the Chung Kuo series, The Art of War, is out on 1 March. Unlike the previous volumes, I haven't received an ARC so I'll have to pick it up the old-fashioned way at some point. Here is the Larry Rostant cover art for the sixth volume in the series, An Inch of Ashes:

Corvus's new catalogue confirms that there will only be three Chung Kuo novels published this year rather than the previously-suggested four. An Inch of Ashes will be out on 4 July, followed by The Broken Wheel on 7 November. The good news is that apparently Corvus has reached a deal with Barnes and Nobel in the United States, with the UK versions of the novels being released in the USA via their shops. With no news on a US-specific publisher picking up the series, this should be of interest to American readers. The books are also available via Amazon, with the e-editions also accessible from the USA (though not always on release).

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Solaris to publish Paul Kearney omnibus in early 2014

Though not the one you're likely thinking of.

Solaris has purchased the reprint rights to Paul Kearney's first three novels: The Way to Babylon, Riding the Unicorn and A Different Kingdom, and will be publishing these as an omnibus in early 2014.

The status of Kearney's omnibus of The Sea-Beggars, which will include the brand-new third and concluding volume of the trilogy, Storm of the Dead, remains unclear.

These early novels of Kearney were different from his later work, which was historically-influenced epic fantasy. They featured people from the real world crossing into a fantastical one, with A Different Kingdom being more of an Irish take on Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood (without being derivative of it). The three books are also independent of one another and are not part of the same series.


Brandon Sanderson has confirmed that the second Stormlight Archive novel now has a target release date of 12 November this year, as revealed on Amazon. However, it is not a confirmed date and is dependent on when Sanderson finishes the book. Via a Facebook update, Sanderson has said that he will know for sure in April.

Sunday 10 February 2013

George R.R. Martin expands on HBO deal

Not very far, but Martin confirms that, in the wake of the new deal, he is actively discussing Dunk and Egg with HBO and will be pitching a Tuf Voyaging TV series to them as well (note he doesn't say to HBO, but the recent deal means it really has to be to HBO). He also suggests Conleth Hill (Varys in GoT) could make an excellent Haviland Tuf, and rules himself out from having any role on the new I, Claudius TV series.

No word on a possibly Ron Donachie-starring version of Fevre Dream, unfortunately. Martin's comments do confirm earlier supposition that the deal will be used - at least in part - to explore his existing, non-optioned franchises.

Update: Martin has confirmed that a movie version of Fevre Dream is in the works, with a 'name' director interested in the project. However, nothing has been signed yet. The Wild Cards franchise is currently being worked on as a movie collaboration between SyFy and Universal, with Melinda Snodgrass having just delivered her first draft of the script.

The Making of XCOM have an excellent article here on the making of the recent strategy game (and my top game of 2012) XCOM. Lead designer Jake Solomon and head of Firaxis Sid Meier talk extensively about the game's nine-year development process, the multiple false starts on the project and how it only came together when they brainstormed ideas for a week whilst playing a board game version of the title.

Lots of great stuff there and confirmation at the end that an XCOM sequel is being looked at.

First WASTELAND 2 gameplay video

inXile have released the first gameplay video for their upcoming, Kickstarter-funded, retro-RPG, Wasteland 2.

Wasteland 2 is a stand-alone sequel to the original, released, way back in 1988. The new game features similar turn-based combat and text-based descriptions of events, but also a vastly more advanced graphics engine based on 3D models. It'll be interesting to see how this old-school style of gaming resonates with modern audiences, but there's a lot here that looks promising (particularly the fully-customisable UI). The game is due for release at the end of the year.

A Man Betrayed by J.V. Jones

Jack and Melliandra continue their flight through the lands of Halcus, seeking refuge in the distant city of Bren. Meanwhile, the mad Prince Kylock has seized his father's throne and embarked on a bloody invasion of Halcus, committing atrocity after atrocity. In Bren, Chancellor Baralis and Lord Maybor have arrived to arrange the marriage between Kylock and the Duke's daughter, to the Duke's disquiet, as well as continuing their own bitter feud. And in the fighting pits of the city, a disgraced knight struggles to find his redemption.

A Man Betrayed is the middle volume of the Book of Words trilogy and is a prime example of a novel that falls foul of 'middle book syndrome'. The book has no real opening and no real end (though there's a hell of a cliffhanger) and the plot is a mixture of dynamic forward movement in some storylines and some slightly tedious wheel-spinning in others.

In one of the more successful storylines, Melliandra is kidnapped (again), but this time around is able to turn her circumstances to her favour. She goes from victim to political player over the course of the novel in a transition that is convincingly-handled by the author. On the other hand, Jack's storyline becomes seriously bogged down. Jones clearly had to find something to do to prevent him from travelling straight to Bren and getting involved in events there, and somewhat unconvincingly lands him with a screwed-up family unit living in the backwoods and getting involved in a murder plot. There's some attempts to turn it into important character-building material for Jack but, aside from the titular betrayal at the subplot's climax, it fails to resonate.

More successful is Tawl's storyline, which is a more traditional arc of seeking redemption following the heinous crime he commits (though unwillingly) at the end of the first volume. Though there is little surprising in this storyline, it's handled well by the author, particularly in the use of the previously tedious 'lovable rogue' Nabber to help Tawl along his path. Elsewhere, Baralis is as fiendishly (if occasionally cartoonishly) evil and Machivellian as ever, Maybor becomes a more interesting character and Tavalisk's observations-from-afar of the main plot remain amusing. Bodger and Grift (the trilogy's answer to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) also get a bit more involved in the plot as well as providing the book's more comical moments.

Overall, A Man Betrayed (***½) is not without its shortcomings but is a stronger book than The Baker's Boy. Jones's writing has improved, and she juggles the multiple character arcs with confidence. Aside from Jack's repetitive storyline, this is an entertaining fantasy novel, though one that does not stray far from familiar ground. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday 8 February 2013

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 2 (remastered)

Originally airing from 1988 to 1989, the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation was beset by challenges. A writer's strike crippled Hollywood between seasons and the show was almost cancelled as a result. The producers were able to get around the problem by re-tasking scripts from the aborted Star Trek: Phase II TV show from the 1970s, reducing the season order by four episodes and - in a fit of true desperation - dropping a clip show (the terrifyingly awful Shades of Grey, widely-acknowledged as the worst episode of the entire franchise) into the mix. They scraped through to produce a season that is a notable improvement over the first year, and definitely better than it has any right to be given the situation it was produced under.

As with the first season, things get off to a bumpy start but improve later on. Fortunately, they improve a lot faster. The first two episodes, The Child (Troi gets pregnant with a rapidly-evolving alien thingamajig) and Where Silence Has Lease (the Enterprise gets stuck in a void in space where an alien superintelligence messes around with them just because that's how it rolls), are pretty bad but there is a quantum leap in improvement when Elementary, Dear Data comes on. Excellent performances and a strong script alleviate the somewhat ropey rules the show is establishing regarding the holodeck. Weaker episodes continue to roll in - The Outrageous Okona (slightly tepid conman comes on board), The Dauphin (Wesley Crusher romance episode...NO!), The Royale (crew encounter weird hotel IN SPACE) and Up the Long Ladder (outrageous Irish stereotyping) should all be burned - but there's also a better sense of the characters getting their own voices and characterisation becoming more consistent.

More to the point, the season gives us a larger number of very good episodes compared to the first. A Matter of Honour is terrific fun, establishing Riker as the first officer of a Kling Bird of Prey during an officer exchange programme. Jonathan Frakes - whose acting powers have now been radically enhanced by The Beard - steps up his game a lot. Contagion is a very dumb episode about computer viruses, but as an action romp it's very entertaining (similar to The Arsenal of Freedom in Season 1, but better). Peak Performance from later in the season is in a similar vein. Time Squared is a creepy episode about time loops and features some disturbing ideas and a doom-laden atmosphere, though some questionable writing for Picard prevents it from fulfilling its full promise. The Emissary is an important episode for Worf and the progression of his character arc and is very solid.

More impressively, this season gives us the first two hands-down, no-questions, absolute 'classic' episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. First up is The Measure of a Man, written by Melinda Snodgrass (best-known as the co-editor of the Wild Cards superhero books series). The episode is an examination of whether Data is a sentient being or not, and features some terrific acting from Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner and Jonathan Frakes. It's a morality play, the sort of thing that Trek can make tedious if it mishandles it, but here the team do an exemplary job of exploring the issues and turning them into a riveting hour of television (and it is an hour, as the Blu-Ray set features the hitherto-unseen 60-minute cut of the episode before it was trimmed down to the normal 44 minutes).

Even more impressive is Q Who? This episode is notable for introducing the Borg, but it's also a masterclass in pacing, music (the score is incredibly ominous), exposition without getting leaden (the hints to the past antagonism between Guinan and Q are played just right), tension, action and a genuinely surprising ending: arguably the only time on ST:TNG that the crew 'lose' the struggle of the episode and only barely survive. It's also the one and only time that Q is effectively used as a dramatically intense character. His other appearances either misfire or are played for comedy. Here we see John De Lancie at his absolute best, particularly in the scene where he pitifully tells Picard what is happening is no illusion after eighteen Enterprise crewmembers are killed by the Borg. The climactic scene where Picard begs Q to save them before they are all slaughtered is handled pitch-perfectly by Patrick Stewart (who was genuinely troubled by the episode's message that the Enterprise crew can't win all the time) as well.

Whilst Season 2 will never be remembered as the best season of the show, it does feature two of its finest hours and a whole host of other, very solid episodes. The cast turn in excellent performances, particularly Diana Muldaur as Dr. Pulaski in her only season on the show (replacing Gates McFadden as Dr. Crusher, who was sacked for criticising the show's sexist scripts in the first season; internal and fan pressure resulted in her reinstatement for Season 3). It's a shame we didn't get to see Pulaski again, as the evolution of her character arc and the development of her relationships with Worf and Data were very well-handled over the course of the season.

As with the first season, the restoration job has done a pretty good job. However, a different team was used for the second season and there is the sense that a few corners were cut. The redone effects aren't quite as well-handled as in the first season (particularly noticeable in Q Who?, though the original version of the episode had a few iffy effects issues as well, so perhaps it was unsalvageable) and the new team have only cleaned up the planets that the Enterprise orbits, rather than replacing them with fully-convincing 3D spheres. Whilst the improvements are still light-years beyond what people might be expecting, they're not quite as jaw-dropping as the job that was done on Season 1. This is made up for a bit by the other extras, which are impressive. The highlight is a lengthy roundtable discussion between the entire cast about the show and what it meant for their careers and legacies, although the ongoing 'history of the series' documentary is also excellent. The original DVD extras are also included, though again only in standard definition.

The second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (****) sees the show improving by leaps and bounds over the weaker first year. It is available now on Blu-Ray in the UK and USA. The third season - often regarded as the show's finest season - will be released in April.

The Baker's Boy by J.V. Jones

Conspiracies and treachery run deep at Castle Harvell. King Lesketh is dying of an illness, the Four Kingdoms are at war with the neighbouring land of Halcus and Chancellor Baralis is intriguing with the Knights of Valdis and the Duke of Bren. The other major powers of the continent, sensing a coming clash of nations, are arming for war. But such things are flying high over the head of Jack, a simple baker's apprentice who just wants to get on with his life. When Jack manifests powers that mark him as a sorcerer, he earns the enmity of Baralis. Fleeing into the wilderness along with Lady Melliandra, who is trying to escape a marriage to the sinister Prince Kylock, Jack has to come to grips with his powers and discover his role in the unfolding events.

The Baker's Boy, originally published in 1995, is the debut novel by British fantasy author J.V. Jones and the opening volume of the Book of Words trilogy (itself the opening three volumes of a longer fantasy epic continued in her current Sword of Shadows sequence). As a glance at the plot summary will reveal, we are deep in the heart of Traditional Fantasy Territory here. There's a young boy destined for great things. There's evil sorcerers conniving to bring about dark ends. There's cruel and unworthy heirs to thrones, and beautiful ladies trying to escape from pre-arranged fates. It's all very traditional.

Traditional does not necessarily mean bad, and Jones laces her story with some darker and more interesting elements. The book is fairly 'low fantasy' in nature, dwelling on conspiracies, murders and assassinations. Characters such as Baralis are ruthless and merciless, but do not see themselves that way and are presented as the hero of their own story. Blurring the moral boundaries nicely, Jones sets up the greatest threats to Baralis as coming from Tavalisk, Archbishop of the distant city of Rorn, who himself is a venal, vain, arrogant and cruel man, little better than Baralis; and Maybor, Baralis's rival at court and the father of Melliandra, who is also presented as a violent and unpleasant man. The fact that these three characters are as bad as one another makes it hard to root for any side, although Jones gives a more sympathetic portrait of the three characters caught up in the three connivers' webs: Jack, Melliandra and Tawl, a knight who is searching for a young boy whose coming is foretold in prophecy (yes, one of those). There is also a tremendously satisfying vein of black humour running through the book, such as Tavalisk's wry observations of events being accompanied by a battle of wits with his much put-upon manservant.

Whilst Jones mixes the traditional fantasy ingredients up a little, and the book is always readable, regular genre readers will find little here that has not been done before, and better. As a first novel, The Baker's Boy is certainly very rough in places. Where the book gains some additional value is that Jones later went on to write The Sword of Shadows, a fantasy epic that is categorically superior to almost everything else in the genre (certainly it's batting at the same level as A Song of Ice and Fire, the Malazan series and the works of Guy Gavriel Kay). Whilst The Book of Words is nowhere near as good, though there is an escalation in quality from book to book that is impressive to watch, it's certainly worth a look as some characters that re-occur in the later Sword of Shadows do first appear here, and knowing their backstory has some worth for the later books.

The Baker's Boy (***) is as traditional a start to a fantasy series as there has ever been, though it remains resolutely entertaining. There are some rough spots as Jones comes up to speed but there's a rich vein of dark humour, some solid characterisation and an ending that was rather startling and refreshingly bleak in those altogether more cliched times when the book first came out. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Mass Effect 4 - Knights of the Old Republic 3

Following up their comments a few weeks ago, Obsidian have confirmed that they have pitched a new Star Wars roleplaying game to LucasArts. The new game won't actually be Knights of the Old Republic III, as it will be set between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. Obsidian's top writer, Chris Avellone, has developed and written the story. Obsidian are waiting to hear back from LucasArts and their new owner, Disney (who have made discouraging noises about not wanting to focus on big gaming projects any more) about their pitch.

Don't expect to be seeing many - or any - of these guys in the new Mass Effect.

Meanwhile, BioWare have made a lot of confusing comments about Mass Effect 4. The only thing they have seemingly confirmed is that it will not be called Mass Effect 4. In a bizarre twist one of the developers has said that "the game does not have to come after. Or before. Or off to the side. Or with characters you know." Actually, logically it kind of does, unless it's set in a completely different universe (and hence wouldn't be a Mass Effect title). Good to see that BioWare still can't make a single announcement about the Mass Effect franchise without turning into a confusing mess. However, it does confirm that Mass Effect 4: Whatever is now in active development.

Meanwhile, Ubisoft have confirmed that Far Cry 3 has sold 4 million copies since its release, far outstripping their projections. As a result, they have confirmed that a Far Cry 4 will be released within the next three to four years. Surprising no-one, they have also confirmed that a new Assassin's Creed game is in the offering for 2014. Assassin's Creed III has sold a staggering 12 million copies since its release just three months ago.

Thursday 7 February 2013

George R.R. Martin signs new development deal with HBO

George R.R. Martin has signed a two-year development deal with HBO. The deal includes extending his 'executive producer' credit on Game of Thrones for another two seasons and also gives HBO exclusive rights to any TV show ideas he creates in that time.

"So, Tyrion and Bronn bromance series?"

Development deals, out of favour in Hollywood during the financial crisis, have recently come back into vogue. J.J. Abrams has such a deal in place, allowing him to develop or produce new shows for several networks (two pilots based on his ideas have been greenlit for later this year). Abrams's deal allows him to develop TV projects whilst working elsewhere: he has been working full-time on his second Star Trek movie for the past eighteen months or so, and is about to plough into working full-time on Star Wars: Episode VII for anything up to three years.

On that basis, fears that this deal will delay The Winds of Winter (the sixth and currently-planned-to-be-penultimate Song of Ice and Fire novel) until the middle of next decade seem somewhat overstated, though it is possible will have an impact of some sort. It's also possible that this deal was made as a sweetner to keep Martin on-board with GoT, or that HBO are actively considering adapting some of Martin's back-catalogue and this allows them easier access to it.

In particular, there has been speculation that HBO are planning to adapt the Dunk and Egg prequel novellas as an ongoing (and perhaps more episodic) TV series. These stories - The Hedge Knight (1998), The Sworn Sword (2003), The Mystery Knight (2010) and The She-Wolves (forthcoming) - are set between 85 and 90 years before the events of ASoIaF/GoT, so would not impact on that ongoing main series. HBO have also done some subtle foreshadowing for the series, with Old Nan mentioning Ser Duncan the Tall to Bran Stark in a Season 1 episode of the show. It was recently confirmed that GRRM's prior deal with HBO did not include Dunk and Egg, so a new deal such as this one would be required to adapt them. With at least one major new character in the later novels set-up much better by the prequel novellas, it is possible that HBO are thinking about going down a similar route.

There has also been speculation that HBO might consider adapting the Wild Cards TV series as their own take on superheroes. However, SyFy and Universal own the Wild Cards TV and movie rights, so HBO would either have to co-produce or buy the rights outright from them, which would be unusual in Hollywood. A TV or film adaptation of Fevre Dream or one of Martin's Thousand Worlds SF stories and novels also cannot be ruled out.

Martin has yet to comment publicly on the deal, but will likely soon do so via his blog.