Sunday 31 March 2013

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

Investigator Vissarion Lom is summoned to Mirgorod, capital of the Vlast, to help investigate a series of terrorist attacks in the city. Josef Kantor, the son of a famous revolutionary, is the chief suspect and Lom is soon on his trail. But a simple manhunt turns into something more serious. An angel has fallen to the earth in the vast forest thousands of miles to the east. A devastating war between the Vlast and a grouping of island-nations to the west is coming to an end. And a spirit of the forest made manifest arrives in the city, seeking a young woman who may hold the key to the world's salvation.

Wolfhound Century has picked up a fair bit of advance buzz as a novel to watch for this year. It's easy to see why. Coming over as the result of a genetic experiment splicing the works of Chine Mieville, Ian Fleming and Robert Holdstock into a single entity, but with a few twists of the author's own invention, it's definitely a refreshing change from Generic Epic Fantasy #312. The book is set in a world where revolvers and airplanes exist alongside nature spirits and giants, a sort-of Soviet Russia that never was but where honest cops still have to get on with foiling crimes, even crimes involving alien space entities and objects of transdimensional quantum power. It's a glorious mash-up of genres and styles that works very well.

Higgins is telling a big story here, but by tightly restricting the points of view to just a few characters and by using short, sharp chapters he is able to get through the story with an enviable economy. Even better, that economy does not prevent the prose from being more ambitious than the SFF norm, with evocative flourishes and place and character undertaken in just a few deft sentences. The writing is superb and the characterisation excellent, with Lom and his nemesis Kantor both shown to be complex, damaged characters, and also both more than they initially appear.

Even more impressive is the melding together of different ideas and genres. There are SF ideas about quantum physics and alternate realities existing alongside rural fantasy notions of nature spirits and living woodlands. In the middle of this lies the alternate-Soviet tropes of secret police and investigations where the truth is subservient to perception and politics. It could be an unruly mess, but Higgins makes it work with aplomb.

Where the book not so much stumbles but falls flat on its face is the unexpectedly abrupt ending. Wolfhound Century has been advertised as having a sequel (already written and submitted, thankfully), Truth and Fear, due out in a year's time, so it was already known that this would probably not be a completely self-contained book. The problem is that at no point is it stated that Wolfhound Century is functionally incomplete as a novel. It doesn't so much climax as just stop. This isn't the first in a series, but the first chunk of a much longer single novel being published in multiple volumes. Some forewarning of this would have been appreciated. Also, given that Wolfhound Century is only 300 pages of pretty big type in length, the question arises of why this story is being published in such small chunks also arises.

Still, whilst Wolfhound Century (****) may be just the first chunk of a bigger story, it is still a finely-written and compelling story. Higgins has created an engrossing fantasy world which is a million miles away from the more played-out ends of the genre and all the better for it. The book would have simply benefited from either being held back until the entire story was complete, or a mention of its heavily serialised nature was given on the cover at some point. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Mafia II

February 1945. Vito Scaletta returns from the war to his home city of Empire Bay. Almost immediately he finds himself drawn into a world of criminals and the mafia, as his best friend uses shady connections to get him released from the service early. As time passes Vito finds himself reaping the rewards from a life of well as the dangers.

Mafia II is the sequel to the 2002 game Mafia. Mafia is one of my favourite games of all time, with superb writing, tremendous characterisation and some fun shooting mechanics making up for occasionally questionable gameplay (such as that infamously hardcore racing mission). Mafia II is not a direct follow-up, set as it is in a different city with different characters. There are a couple of references to the events of the original Mafia, though these are obtuse enough that only hardcore fans are likely to spot them. Instead, the game's narrative is completely self-contained.

In terms of gameplay, the Mafia series resembles the Grand Theft Auto franchise with driving sections and on-foot combat, with the important difference that the Mafia games are not open-world titles. Instead you proceed directly from one mission directly to the next. This means that the cities do not need to be as exhaustively detailed and brimming with stuff to do as in the GTA titles, since they are merely backdrops to the action (though they are still well-realised). This gives the Mafia games a much greater focus and puts both their stories and characters under much more pressure, as they need to be good for the games to succeed. The GTA games, which a lot of people play purely to cause havoc in the cities without ever looking at the main storylines, don't quite have the same pressure.

This requirement paid off handsomely in the original Mafia. The story of Tommy Angelo's rise from taxi driver to criminal fixer, becoming a made man and gaining a family and respectability before realising how brutal and violent his world had become, was extremely compelling. It featured musings on the corrosive effects of violence on the psyche and on the morality of killing. It was a stronger story than anything to appear in a GTA title (and, interestingly, GTA4 seemed to take more than a few ideas from it).

The personalised number plates are pretty cool.

Unfortunately, it does not pay off in Mafia II. Illusion Softworks - now 2K Czech - were obviously keen not to repeat themselves in this game, so Vito Scaletta's story is rather different to Tommy's. It unfolds over a much shorter span of time (limited to two periods of several months in 1945 and 1951) and is less of the traditional rags-to-riches tale. Vito is a small-time hood who pretty much stays a small-time hood (albeit one who eventually gets a rather nice house) throughout. He doesn't have a relationship or get married, and in fact seems to be rather more sexist than Tommy (the lack of any healthy female relationships in his life and his obsession with collecting Playboy magazines indicates such). He's also a lot dumber, frequently agreeing to shady deals that have, "THIS IS GOING TO GO BADLY WRONG," written all over them.

This in itself is a problem, with Vito's misadventures being less compelling than either Tommy's in the earlier game, or the protagonists of most of the GTA games. A bigger problem is the lack of decent other characters. Aside from Vito's best buddy Joe, none of the other characters in the game gets much of a personality, or motivation. Even keeping track of which criminal is working for which gang is hard work. There is little to no emotional investment in Vito, his story, or in the other characters, which does interfere with caring about the game.

Fortunately, the gameplay is still pretty good. It's similar to Mafia's and the gunplay is even better, helped by that rarest of beasts, a cover system which actually works and adds to the combat experience. There's one oddity in that Mafia limited you to one of each class of weapon whilst Mafia II allows you to carry every weapon at once, making it a rare example of a game that actually gives the player more choice rather than taking it away through limited arsenals. This is a welcome move. Driving is also similar, with the game still being rather less forgiving about things like running red lights, speeding or hit-and-runs than the GTA series. The cops are harder to shake this time around, but you also have more options for losing them, including running into clothes shops to change clothes or offering bribes. The missions are also quite long, with mid-mission checkpoints and a number of plot twists that, whilst usually predictable, keep things ticking over. The graphics are very impressive (especially the lighting; Mafia II may have the best sunrises and sunsets of any game to date, and the way car headlights diffuse in the fog is extremely atmospheric) and the soundtrack is first-rate, with some great (if occasionally anachronistic) tracks from the birth of the rock 'n' roll era.

Ultimately, Mafia II is a far less compelling game than its forebear due to the weaker writing, story and characters. This is annoying as the gameplay is often better, but you have much less reason to care about what's going on. The game is also stingier, with combat sections often being extremely brief and easy. Mafia II has most of the same ingredients as its excellent forebear, but this time around they do not combine into as compelling a game.

Mafia II (***) is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3).

Friday 29 March 2013

GoT producers will not wait for GRRM to finish the books

The question of what HBO will do once - or if - Game of Thrones catches up with the published novels is slowly becoming more pressing as the series continues to relentlessly bear down on the books ("like a freight train," according to George R.R. Martin). Indeed, I asked this very question a few weeks ago and it's becoming a common one for both Martin and the show's executive producers and showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, to be asked at Q&As and interviews.

D.B. Weiss, George R.R. Martin and David Benioff, with castmembers Rose Leslie and Emilia Clarke.

We now have one firm answer. Benioff and Weiss have confirmed that, although their #1 preference is for the books to come out first, they will not put the show on hiatus for a year or two as some fans have suggested. They do not want to lose momentum or have to recast the younger actors.

They're as worried about when the remaining books come out as you are: Actually, "I guess we spend more time worrying than the fans," Benioff said. The two of them visited Martin at his home in Santa Fe back in February to pump him for information about where all the stories are going, so they can properly set them up in the world of the show, and "It was incredibly useful," according to Benioff.

"There's no question that this will be better for us if the books come out before the various seasons come out," Benioff added. "That said, we're not going to take a two-year hiatus (to wait for a book). The little kids are growing older, the show's got momentum now, and the show must go on. We're just hopeful that it will all time out."
Finally! The claims that the multi-million dollar show could go on hiatus for years on end whilst they patiently wait for the final two books were always extremely unrealistic, and it's good to have that officially spelled out at last. Note that this does not mean that they will catch up with Martin - they still have several years' grace and Martin is some way into the next book - but they are prepared for the possibility.

In addition, Benioff and Weiss have reiterated that, whilst they know the audience wants 12 episodes a year or more, they cannot physically make any more. I've always been doubtful about that claim. Whilst GoT's production schedule is hectic, it's nowhere near as hectic as others. Doctor Who shoots 14 episodes a year by filming over nine months (as compared to GoT shooting 10 over six), so GoT can definitely step it up. They'd need to delegate more scripts to other writers and HBO would need to invest more money, but given the show's overwhelming popularity this should not be insurmountable.

In another interview (the link eludes me for the moment) Benioff and Weiss also said that the show was approaching its halfway point, seemingly confirming speculation that the show is going to last for 7 or 8 seasons.

Thursday 28 March 2013

GAME OF THRONES Season 3 Primer

As with last year, here's a brief catch-up guide to the state of play at the start of Season 3 of Game of Thrones. As usual, spoilers for those who haven't watched the first two seasons or read the first two books.

The State of Play
The War of the Five Kings grips the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros in full fury.

Robb Stark's armies have invaded the Westerlands, the home of House Lannister, and captured several Lannister castles. However, even Stark's armies are insufficient to threaten the formidable defences of Casterly Rock itself. Whilst Robb's invasion has caused dissent and anger amongst Tywin Lannister's bannermen, it has also freed Tywin's army from being directly threatened in the field. This has allowed Tywin to take his army to King's Landing.

Meanwhile, Stannis and Renly Baratheon have clashed for the Iron Throne. However, a major battle was averted when Renly was assassinated under murky circumstances. Stannis inherited his brother's army from the Stormlands, bust most of the Reach lords followed the lead of Ser Loras Tyrell and his sister Margaery in refusing to join Stannis's forces. Stannis attacked King's Landing, whilst Petyr 'Baelish' Littlefinger negotiated with the Tyrells and convinced them into an alliance with the Lannisters, with Margaery set to marry Prince Joffrey. The Tyrell army joined with Tywin's forces and then smashed Stannis's forces in the epic Battle of the Blackwater. Stannis and a remnant of his host escaped by sea. Acting Hand of the King Tyrion Lannister was severely wounded during the battle and his father Tywin took up the mantle of Hand soon afterwards.

These actions have left the Lannister-Tyrell alliance in command of the largest army in the Seven Kingdoms, exceeding 100,000 men in strength. The Starks and their allies, the Tullys, command less than half of that. With House Arryn remaining neutral, the situation does not look good for the Starks.

Even worse, House Greyjoy has joined the war. Though not formally allied with the Lannisters, they have attacked House Stark's homeland, the North. Ships under the command of Yara Greyjoy have seized the coastal castle Deepwood Motte and surrounding lands, whilst a raiding force commanded by Theon Greyjoy struck far inland and took the castle of Torrhen's Square. When Stark forces rode to its relief, Theon slipped behind their lines and seized Winterfell itself. After an occupation lasting months, the castle was besieged by a Stark relief force commanded by Ramsay Snow, the bastard son of Lord Roose Bolton. Theon's own men seized Theon and sold him to Ramsay Snow in return for their freedom. However, Winterfell was later set ablaze by persons and for purposes unknown. Contrary to popular belief, Bran and Rickon Stark escaped the castle with several loyal retainers.

Far to the east, Daenerys Targaryen found a safe haven in the city of Qarth, where she could rest and let her dragons grow. However, she fell prey to a conspiracy involving the merchant lord Xaro Xhoan Daxos and the Undying, the famed warlocks of Qarth. Daxos seized control of the city and the Undying captured Daenerys's dragons and slew several of her most loyal followers. Daenerys retook her dragons and slew the leader of the Undying. She also locked Daxos in a vault to starve to death. Stealing Daxos's valuables, she was able to secure a ship bound westwards. Whilst her 'army' remains extremely small, her dragons are growing and becoming more formidable.

In the furthest north, the Night's Watch has marched into the heart of wildling territory, securing a camp atop the Fist of the First Men. Whilst Jon Snow has been captured by the forces of the wildling King-beyond-the-Wall, Mance Rayder, the Night's Watch force has come under attack by the supposedly mythical White Walkers.

Players in the Game

Houses Stark & Tully
Stronghold: Riverrun
Leader: Robb Stark, the King in the North

House Stark finds itself in a difficult position. Whilst Robb Stark has won every battle he's fought, the overall situation has deteriorated. Winterfell has been sacked and two of his bannermen's castles are under ironborn occupation. His invasion of the Westerlands has been a military success, but has failed to draw the Lannisters into a decisive engagement. Unwisely, Robb has also broken his treaty of alliance with House Frey by marrying another woman, Talisa Maegyr. Several of his bannermen, most notably Lord Rickard Karstark, are also angry over Robb's mother Catelyn releasing the Kingslayer, Ser Jaime Lannister, from custody. Now severely outnumbered, with his allies dwindling and bannermen no longer as happy as they were, Robb has a difficult course to follow if he wants to achieve victory.

House Greyjoy
Stronghold: Pyke
Leader: Balon Greyjoy, the King of the Isles

Balon Greyjoy has taken vengeance for his failed rebellion of a decade ago, seizing two castles in the North and making war on the Stark homelands. Though Theon's occupation of Winterfell has been defeated, it has humiliated Robb Stark and made his position in the Riverlands and Westerlands more difficult to sustain. However, given the Greyjoy's relatively limited manpower and inability to fight far from the sea (as Theon has shown), it is unclear what their long-term goal is, unless Balon can reach an accommodation with the Lannisters.

Houses Lannister, Tyrell & Baratheon (under Joffrey)
Strongholds: King's Landing (Joffrey), Storm's End (Joffrey), Casterly Rock (Lannister) and Highgarden (Tyrell)
Leader: Joffrey Baratheon, the King on the Iron Throne

Following Renly Baratheon's death, House Tyrell has secured an alliance with the Lannisters in support of Joffrey Baratheon's claim to the Iron Throne. Joffrey has set aside his engagement to Sansa Stark and will instead marry Margaery Tyrell. This gives Joffrey a vast army commanded by his grandfather, Tywin Lannister, one of the most formidable generals in Westeros, with which he can quickly and decisively end the war. With overwhelming superiority of numbers, Joffrey's victory appears imminent, but his own unpredictable behaviour remains the alliance's greatest weakness.

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

Stannis Baratheon has failed to take King's Landing and only barely escaped the battle with his life. Most of his army surrendered and joined the Lannister-Tyrell alliance, whilst most of the rest (and almost all of his fleet) was obliterated by the wildfire explosion in Blackwater Bay. Only a few mercenaries, loyal retainers and the freesail fleet under Salladhor Saan remain under Stannis's command, far too few to challenge the might of the Lannister-Tyrell alliance. However, Stannis's greatest and most formidable weapon remains the red sorceress, Melisandre of Asshai, who may yet be able to turn the tide of the conflict.

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

House Arryn has so far refused to take part in the war, the Lady Regent Lysa Arryn fearing the risk of defeat. Unless either Robb Stark or the Lannisters can convince her to join them, Lysa and the formidable knights of the Vale will continue to sit out the war.

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

Dorne has continued to pursue its path of isolation during the war. However, Tyrion Lannister, as Acting Hand of the King, has successfully negotiated a marriage pact between Princess Myrcella Baratheon, Joffrey's sister, and Prince Trystane Martell, the youngest son of Prince Doran Martell, the ruler of Dorne. Pending Myrcella's arrival and marriage, the Martells are therefore poised to join the Lannister-Tyrell alliance and strengthen it even further. Given the Martells' long-standing alliance with the Targaryens, the slaughter of members of their house by Lannister forces during Robert's Rebellion and their ancient enmity towards the Tyrells, this is a significant diplomatic coup.

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

Daenerys Targaryen has evaded a trap set for her in Qarth and now plans to take ship for the west. However, although her dragons are growing larger and more formidable, they are still not ready for war. Daenerys needs to find an army that will be loyal to her. The path westwards to the Free Cities leads through Slaver's Bay, where such armies may be found...for a price.

Season 3 of Game of Thrones starts airing this Sunday on HBO in the United States, and the following day on Sky Atlantic in the UK.

Wednesday 27 March 2013


People occasionally ask what the connections are between J.V. Jones's first published trilogy, The Book of Words, and her ongoing Sword of Shadows series, and if it is necessary to read Book of Words first. I would definitely say no to the latter point, but here are some of the ways the works are related. Obviously spoilers ahead.

First off, they are set on the same world and on the same continent. This landmass is divided into three regions: the oft-mentioned but as-yet unseen and unmapped Far South; the Known Lands, where The Book of Words takes place; and the Northern Territories, the setting for Sword of Shadows. The northern edge of the map in the Book of Words novels is the same as the southern edge of the Sword of Shadows map, and the city of Bren is shown on both. Using this, I assembled the above combined (and very rough) map. The Ranges (known as the Northern Ranges in the Known Lands and the Southern Ranges in the Northern Territories) divide the two areas from one another. According to general usage in the books, it appears that the Far South, Known Lands and Northern Territories are considered subcontinents of the same landmass and they are sometimes even called separate continents (hence references to travellers from the Far South being described as having 'crossed three continents').

There is another continent across the eastern ocean. This is presumably the source of the 'barbarian raids' on Toolay mentioned in Book of Words, and also likely the location of the Sull Far Shore and the Sankang Empire. The locations of the Topaz Sea and Unholy Sea, mentioned in the Sword of Shadows, are not known, so are not shown on the map.

Sword of Shadows begins somewhere between sixteen and eighteen years after Book of Words, though the initial prologue takes place much sooner. The series opens with a woman named Tarissa giving birth outside the gates of Spire Vanis. Tarissa appeared in the middle volume of Book of Words as the lover of Jack, that trilogy's main character. It is assumed that Ash March is thus the daughter of Tarissa and Jack. The fact that Tarissa and Jack were (unknowingly) half-siblings and that Jack eventually became a powerful sorcerer is probably why Ash has strong magical powers. Whilst it is assumed that Tarissa died soon after, it should be noted that this is not explicitly shown in the text. Jack's whereabouts during the events of Sword of Shadows - and he'd only be in his mid-thirties - are not known. There is also a possibility that there was an old switcheroo and it's actually Raif who is the child of Jack and Tarissa (due to several curious mentions of Raif not having a true clanhold name), though that might be a bit cheesy.

More directly, Baralis, the prisoner of Surlord Penthero Iss in Spire Vanis, was the primary villain of the Book of Words. Baralis was an extremely powerful and amoral sorcerer who tried to conquer the Known Lands by arranging for King Kylock of the Four Kingdoms to take control of the city of Bren through marriage and then conquer the rest militarily. This plan failed when Jack burned the castle in Bren, killing Kylock and severely wounding Baralis. Baralis was taken to safety by his loyal but simple manservant, Crope, but they were ambushed by Iss's men whilst crossing the Northern Ranges. Baralis was imprisoned by Iss for seventeen-odd years, with Iss draining his magical powers to empower his own (much feebler) abilities.

For these connections, there are odd discontinuities as well. The Sull, the much-feared non-human race who dominate the eastern coast of the Northern Territories, go completely unmentioned at all in Book of Words, despite their lands lying just north-east of Bren. More bizarre, a powerful sorcerer lives on the eastern isthmus of the continent in Book of Words, north of the mountains, putting him pretty much in Sull territory. This discrepancy has also not been addressed. The real reason, of course, is that Jones likely did not begin planning the Sword of Shadows sequence until Book of Words was completed, and it was too late to go back and adjust some of the earlier books to match later concepts and ideas. Book of Words does make it clear that the northern lands beyond the mountains are inhabited by (relatively) primitive clans, however, and there is regular merchant traffic to them.

Whether further connections will arise - and it seems unlikely to me that Jack would not eventually learn that he had a child and would not go in search of it - in remaining one or two volumes of Sword of Shadows remains to be seen.

Watcher of the Dead by J.V. Jones

Raif Sevrance is in possession of the sword known as Loss. Unfortunately, he is also the 'guest' of a renegade group of Sull, who are determined to use him and his abilities for their own ends. Elsewhere, Ash March finds herself in the heart of Sull territory, knowing she will find in them her greatest allies...or her greatest danger. War continues to rage in the clanholds, with the armies of Blackhail, Bludd and Dhoone converging as Gandmiddich for a climactic showdown. In Spire Vanis the new surlord struggles to hold onto power, and in the wilds the ranger Angus Lok relentless hunts down a wily enemy.

Watcher of the Dead brings the Sword of Shadows series to its fourth - and hopefully penultimate (though Jones has hinted that the series may expand to six volumes) - instalment. It's a slightly slimmer novel than its forebears, being a clear 100 pages shorter than the third volume, and benefits from a tighter focus on the core storylines. Raif and Ash get a fair bit of attention, whilst Angus Lok returns to the fore after spending most of the third book missing. Effie's storyline also moves forward more satisfyingly, with her relevance to the main storyline becoming clearer. The Dog Lord and Raina Blackhail also benefit from contrasting storylines in which both seek to consolidate (or re-consolidate, in Vaylo Bludd's case) their authority in the face of opposition.

There are some drawbacks to this. The tightened focus mean there's no time or room for Crope and Baralis, who simply fail to appear. Also, a tight focus on a large cast in a more constrained page count means a relative lack of major progression in any one arc. So Effie spends most of the book in a roundhouse in a swamp and then takes a short trip in a boat (although a hugely important one). Raif spends almost the entire book as a prisoner of the Sull. Ash, having set out to reach the Sull Heart Fires at the start of Book 2, finally gets there halfway through Book 4 and has a couple of conversations (and the revelation of a 'major' plot twist which is tiresomely predictable, the first disappointing plot turn in the series to date). Important things happen in these chapters, but there is definitely a contrast to the very busy and forwards-moving first volume in the series.

Still, the series has never been action-packed and fast-moving, and Jones does give us some good battles. Raina Blackhail's storyline in fact is particularly strong, aided by the arrival of an intriguing new character, and Angus Lok's revenge storyline is extremely tense. Best of all is Raif's character arc. Back in Book 1 he was the very embodiment of the 'callow youth saves the world' trope, but by the end of this volume he is a severely traumatised, battle-hardened warrior desperately searching for himself. The subversion of the traditional fantasy hero's journey is very well-done.

Watcher of the Dead (****) benefits in some ways from a (slightly) shorter page count and tightened focus, but it also suffers from it, with a lack of plot progression in some storylines and some characters simply not showing up. The benefits to characterisation are clear and there are clear signs of the scattered characters starting to come together, but we're not on the home straight yet. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The fifth volume, Endlords, is apparently still forthcoming but there has not been a firm update on its status from the author in more than two years.

New George R.R. Martin website

After many, many years of service, George R.R. Martin's curiously pink official website is no more. It has been replaced by something a bit more modern looking:

Ah, the nostalgia of logging into the old site every few months throughout the early 2000s, waiting for an update of A Feast for Crows. Great - or frustrating - times.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

On a lighter note: BioShock Infinite

BioShock Infinite was released today. Whilst I merely enjoyed BioShock, not considering it the revolutionary FPS gamechanger a lot of other reviewers did, I was intrigued enough by the new game to check it out on release day.

Just three hours in so far, but it's an immense improvement on its forebear in every way. Richly atmospheric, the game has stunning art design and some unusually good writing, not to mention a very weird undercurrent to the tone. Something that is very impressive is the way the game uses the founding history of the United States as a form of mythology, with statues of Washington, Jefferson etc. that depict them almost like Greek gods. The utopia's undercurrent of fascism is also carried out well. The first time you hear casual racist slurs in the game it's a bit of a surprise and the game continues trying to unnerve the player from then onwards.

It could all go to pot in the remaining nine hours (approximately), but so far, cautiously impressed.


I swore a long time ago that I would not discuss the antics of Robert Stanek on this blog. There is simply not enough time in the world to give publicity to trolls and pretend-authors when there's so many good books to read out there. On the other hand, when someone starts writing lies about you online, some sort of response is required.

Who is Robert Stanek and what are his antics?
This would fill many, many blog entries of many tens of thousands of words. Fortunately, other people have already done this. This is the most exhaustive series of entries on the subject.

Briefly, William Robert Stanek is the self-published author of many technical IT manuals. He appears to have been genuinely successful at this. He has also written several fantasy novels, although it is difficult to track how many since the numerous titles for books in his bibliography seem to be retitlings and rejacketings (most recently for YA editions) of the same couple of books. According to Stanek many of these books have been bestsellers, although the evidence for this is scant. Stanek is widely-suspected of writing the many hundreds of five-star reviews of his books on Amazon, Audible and other websites himself, due to the similar diction and writing style of almost all of these reviews (many of which have now been deleted). The situation was notable enough that, ten years ago, the multi-Hugo Award-winning critic David Langford published an investigation into Stanek's antics in his SFF newsletter Ansible, which resulted in him being threatened by Mr. Stanek's alleged 'lawyer'. Since then Stanek's antics have been discussed on quite a few blogs and forums (including by myself, on, SFFWorld and maybe one or two other places). However, I have not devoted too much time to this because - admittedly - I knew Stanek's MO was to come after people who had criticised him online. I thought I got off lightly when he merely suggested that I (and Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist) should be shanked in prison.

However, a couple of weeks back (see above link) he posted a lengthy rant about how he'd been treated and falsely accused of things online (oddly, his own antics went unmentioned, like the shanking thing). Fair enough. Everyone has the right to defend themselves and when I was linked to the article today, I was hoping to see a coherent defence of Stanek's actions and an explanation for them. Unfortunately, what we got was the same old spiel of confused gibberish. Particularly interesting were the following claims (poor grammar and punctuation left intact):
The timeline here is important because in May 2002, the following appeared in David Langford’s Ansible: “Amazon Mystery. Authors of fantasies on sale at have noticed a rash of oddly similar customer reviews that rubbish their work and instead recommend, say, George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and Robert Stanek. The number of Big Name commendations varies, but not the plug for self-published author Robert Stanek. Who could possibly be posting these reviews (many since removed by Amazon) under a variety of names? It is a mystery, but Ansible is reminded of how Lionel Fanthorpe's pseudonymous sf would often mention those great classic masters of the genre, Verne, Wells and Fanthorpe.”

Note how they twist what they’ve done into something I’ve supposedly done to them--this is a constant tactic. I assume this post was written by David Langford friend and blogger, Adam Whitehead, as Whitehead then took to his blog to rant about how I was supposedly writing fake five-star reviews of my own books using sock puppets. As Whitehead is and was the self-professed #1 fan of George RR Martin (and is even credited in one of George’s books), all the sock puppet one-star reviews mentioning George RR Martin were suddenly starting to make sense as they were all likely written by Whitehead and his friends.
It should be noted at this point that I did not have Internet access at home until October 2005, never met George R.R. Martin until the same month and was not mentioned (along with about thirty other people) in any of his books until 2011. Also, I would not claim to the title of "#1 Fan" of anything, due to no longer being nine years old. Much more to the point, rewinding to the very first post on his blog will reveal that I did not start it until late 2006. It would have been hard even for me to have mentioned Stanek on the blog four years before it existed. In addition, until today Stanek's name has not even been mentioned on this blog (as a cursory Google check confirms). My comments about Stanek were limited to a couple of mentions on a few forums over the years and that was it.
Around this time a new group got involved as well, including authors Patrick Rothfuss and David Louis Edelman. Rothfuss and Edelman trashed me on their blogs in 2007, trying to enlist their fans in trashing me and their fans did begin trashing me in a big way. Blogger Patrick St. Dennis of Pat’s Fantasy List, Rothfuss’ #1 fan and friend, set to trashing me in his blog as well. Others joined in and quite a few who were directly associated with fantasy publisher Tor.
Another cursory Google check of Patrick Rothfuss's blog suggests that Rothfuss has also never mentioned Stanek in any of his blog posts (Stanek alleges Rothfuss also trashed him on Facebook, which again I can find no evidence of, but tracking down information on Facebook can be a lot trickier). David Louis Edelman did indeed post an article about him, and Pat has certainly not been shy about mocking him, but the dig at Tor Books seems a bit random.

I posted the following response at Stanek's blog (repeated here in case it is deleted from there):

Hello, Mr. Stanek. Normally I don't respond to such drivel (and I even ignored it when you suggested I should be knifed to death), but when someone starts talking lies about me online, I do feel the need to correct them. It's even more unwise to lie about things that are ridiculously easy to check.

1. I didn't have a blog in 2002. I didn't even have the Internet until 2005. If I was reviewing your books I would use my name. Unlike yourself when you trash other authors using sock-puppets and fake Amazon accounts, I always use my own name on my reviews. This is because I have integrity.

2. The article was written by David Langford. That's why it appears on David Langford's website, which is the creation of David Langford. That might have been a clue to the fact it was written by David Langford.

3. I have never in seven years even mentioned your name on my blog (though do not be surprised if this changes in the near future). Please provide the URL of the article in which you are mentioned or withdraw this claim.

4. Your name has never appeared on Patrick Rothfuss's blog, according to a Google search. Please provide the URL of the article in which you are mentioned or withdraw this claim.
A response is awaited.

UPDATE: As anticipated, my comment to his post was removed, as he clearly is happier running away and hiding than standing up for himself. The comment has been reposted, and I continue to await a substantive response.

Friday 22 March 2013

Fringe: Season 1

A commercial airliner arrives at its destination with every passenger and crewmember on board dead. The FBI investigate. Clues suggest that the only person who can help with the investigation is a brilliant but disturbed scientist named Walter Bishop. Bishop has been locked up in a mental institution for seventeen years and the only person who can sign for his release is his son, Peter, a shady businessmen. FBI Agent Olivia Dunham and the Bishops successfully discover the answer to the mystery, encouraging the FBI to create a special unit dedicated to these 'fringe science' cases, which have exploded in frequency in the last few years. The cases are varied and individual, but together form 'the Pattern', a statistical trend that suggests a major event is coming.

It's easy to dismiss Fringe because of misconceptions. A new TV show from the creator of Lost, J.J. Abrams? And a premise that seems to owe rather a lot to The X-Files? The number of people who passed the show by, fearing (fairly or not) muddled mythologies and an inferior homage to an older show, must have been significant.

However, such reactions would also be unfair. Fringe distanced itself almost immediately from Lost by having a much smaller cast of characters, meaning a much tighter focus on the stories and the gradually-evolving backstory. Abrams also took a back seat after the pilot, letting other writers and producers come on board to direct the day-to-day running of the show. A key difference is that whilst Lost's mythology only got some direction in its third season, when an end date for the show was set, Fringe's mythology and story arcs were mapped out in advance from early in the first, giving the show a much stronger sense of direction.

The season kicks off with the pilot, in which the regular cast and premise is established. Anna Torv immediately impresses as Olivia Dunham, a no-nonsense FBI agent (though prone to unexpected bouts of deadpan humour) who has a lot of pressure riding on her shoulders. Joshua Jackson takes a little longer to convince as a businessman with shady contacts, but eventually turns in a very human and funny performance. The main weapon in the show's arsenal is the spectacular John Noble - previously best-known as Denethor on the Lord of the Rings movies - who plays Walter Bishop to perfection. Character traits and tics that would have been hokey or hammy in another actor's hands become utterly convincing in Noble's, who is able to play his character's memory problems and occasional emotional outbursts for either comedy or pathos as the script demands (occasionally both simultaneously). It's frankly worth watching the show just for Noble's performance. Also providing able support is The Wire's Lance Reddick as Dunham and company's boss, Philip Broyles.

The show's premise - that the FBI would employ a certified lunatic, an occasional criminal and a cow called Gene to investigate fringe science cases from a basement in Harvard University - takes a bit of swallowing. The show does its best in the pilot to try to make the premise a bit more palatable, but it's surprisingly late in the episode before 'the Pattern' and the great urgency to find out what the hell's going on (making it a bit easier to accept the desperate lengths the FBI are going to) is more firmly established.

That out of the way, the show quickly establishes a format: the mystery-of-the-week is laid out in the pre-credits sequence and our heroes rapidly show up to investigate, usually involving labwork from Walter and good old FBI fieldwork from Olivia. The procedural aspect of the show was apparently key to getting it on the air - the producers deliberately used it to entice Fox on board - but it's not too many episodes before it's being downplayed in favour of the crazy lab antics. These episodes also hit that early X-Files sweet spot of having (mostly) satisfying, self-contained stories with more serialised elements being laid down in the background.

It's not too long before Fringe's serialisation and mythology comes to the fore later in the season. A recurring enemy is established early on, followed by another, more dangerous one later on. Walter's memory loss, initially established for comedic purposes, later becomes far more important as Walter begins to discover the ramifications of experiments he conducted twenty years earlier. A key episode reveals that Olivia herself may be part of 'the Pattern' and the discovery of a manifesto belonging to a terrorist organisation spurs events in the series finale. Watching over events is a strange bald man in a suit and hat, who appears (if only fleetingly, or in the extreme background of some scenes) in every single episode and is more strongly featured in two of them. An off-the-cuff reference to quantum theory in one episode sets up a major storyline that emerges in the finale and provides the season with its final and most famous cliffhanger image.

This segueing from the stand-alone elements to the more-heavily serialised storylines is well-handled, though some may lament the decreasing frequency of the stand-alone mysteries in the late season. At its best Fringe is a surprisingly gory homage to The Twilight Zone, but at its worst can be trite and predictable (though allegedly the worst episode of the season was actually cut, showing pleasingly surprising creative integrity). Fortunately it's worst is very rarely encountered. Slightly more problematic - though perhaps unavoidable in these kind of shows - is the number of times that major reversals and deaths could have been avoided if the characters just stopped and talked to one another properly for a few minutes. Whilst far less of a problem than on Lost, it still niggles when Walter says something cryptically vital, Peter notices but then gets interrupted by Olivia and doesn't bother to raise the question again at the end of the scene.

Overall, the problems are few and outweighed by the positives. Season 1 of Fringe (****½) starts off as a finely entertaining slice of SF hokum before being carried by excellent performances and a reasonably compelling central storyline into a finale that leaves one eager to move immediately onto the second season. The season is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

TORMENT update: Rothfuss and Avellone in

The Kickstarter for Torment: Tides of Numenera is roughly halfway done, with 14 days to go before the end of the appeal. However, the game is already funded: having asked for $900,000, inXile Studios have actually received $2.9 million. The game is now deep into what Kickstarter calls, 'stretch goals', that is additional incentives for people to keep funding in the form of added content to the game.

First up, if the game hits $3.25 million then the writing team will be expanded to include bestselling fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear). Rothfuss will be adding about 10,000 words of content to the game in the form of dialogue and characters. He won't be doing any more because of his commitments to finishing off The Doors of Stone, the third and concluding volume of The Kingkiller Chronicle.

Much more enticing (to this blogger, anyway) is that at $3.5 million, inXile will add Chris Avellone to the writing time. Avellone was the primary writer and designer of the original Planescape: Torment (to which Numenera is the spiritual successor), as well as Fallout 2, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer and the forthcoming Project: Eternity. He also worked on Icewind Dale and its sequel; Fallout: New Vegas (including leading the design of several of its DLC episodes); and Alpha Protocol. He has also done some writing for inXile's previous Kickstarter game project, Wasteland 2. He is often cited as the finest writer of Western CRPGs. Exactly why Avellone still hasn't written a novel, I don't know, as I suspect it would be awesome. Avellone will be creating a new NPC character for the game and writing their dialogue, but will also be serving as an editor and a fresh pair of eyes on the work of the rest of the team as well.

With still two weeks to go, I suspect this Kickstarter will breeze past both targets and probably end up somewhere on the other side of $4 million when all is said and done. It's shaping up to be a very interesting game.

A Sword from Red Ice by J.V. Jones

The armies of Spire Vanis have invaded the clanholds and are marching against Ganmiddich. The clans are responding, mustering their armies to defeat the invaders and claim the prize of the Ganmiddich roundhouse. However, events back in Spire Vanis are outpacing the armies and may soon render the whole conflict moot.

Meanwhile, Raif Sevrance has succeeded in defeating the Endlords at the Fortress of Grey Ice, but knows the victory is only temporary. His path takes him back to the Rift, where his fellow Maimed Men are besieged by a servant of the Endlords, but he must also strike out beyond, in search of the mysterious sword known as Loss.

A Sword from Red Ice was originally published in 2007, five years after the publication of the previous novel in the series, A Fortress of Grey Ice. It is fair to say it faced a mixed reaction, with some readers citing it as Jones's best book to date and others as a novel with very limited plot development and poor pacing.

I elected not to read the novel on release, instead waiting for additional volumes to appear. Reading A Sword from Red Ice immediately after A Fortress of Grey Ice, it is clear there's been no major drop-off in quality or indeed pacing. A Fortress of Grey Ice was a slightly weaker novel than the first book in the series, A Cavern of Black Ice, because it introduced several new POV characters and storylines and the need to service all of these plus the existing characters resulted in a lessening of focus. Actually, this seems to have been one of the two main reasons for the delays to the third novel (the other being the fact that the publishers sat on it for more than a year before releasing it, due to scheduling issues): Jones had introduced even more storylines and characters to the mix and seriously pared these back in editing, allowing her to spend more time on the core characters.

The result is a book in which, when taken as a whole, a lot happens: Raif crosses the continent (twice), undertakes a quest, saves a city and finally finds a home and place in the world; the biggest battle in the series to date is fought, with the consequences being enormous; and the political situation within both Clan Blackhail and Clan Bludd shifts dangerously and dramatically. However, other individual storyline progress more modestly: Angus Lok only appears in the prologue and the epilogue; what he's doing for the rest of the book seems rather unclear, especially given the months that have passed in the interim. Effie Sevrance spends the whole book (though that's only four chapters from her POV) going up a river on a boat. Ash March, despite being set up as the series' second main character after Raif, spends the whole book traipsing through a wood. There is a definite sense of a dislocation of time in the novel, with some characters spending weeks or months travelling and others apparently only having a few days unfold in their storyline (Lok, most notably). I am also rather uncertain what Bram Cormac's storyline adds to that of the series overall. He spends most of this book (and the previous one) wandering around unable to make a decision about his future and angsting about it, like an introverted student on a particularly chilly gap year. He finally does commit to a new cause at the end of the novel, but it's questionable if we really needed this amount of set-up for him.

Of course, epic fantasies which get so big that the author loses control a little bit of them and ends up (inadvertently or not) adding more material than we strictly need is nothing new. Fortunately Red Ice is much more of a Dance with Dragons - a novel with problematic pacing and some storylines that could have been handled better but also some very fine moments sprinkled throughout - than a Crossroads of Twilight, where the reader will have more fun reading the Wikipedia summary than suffering through the novel itself. Raif reaching the titular Red Ice is a satisfyingly mythic moment. Raina Blackhail finally taking matters into her own hands and seizing control of her own and her clan's destinies is an important moment in her character arc (especially as she is arguably one of the best-written characters in the series). Ash realising the full potential of her powers is a powerful scene. If A Sword from Red Ice disappoints in some areas, it excels in others.

A Sword from Red Ice (****) is well-written, particularly well-characterised and its strongest moments shine. At other times the pace falters and some storylines are left under-developed (Book of Words fans hoping to learn more from Baralis will be disappointed). But a few problems aside, this is a strong addition to the series. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Chuck: Season 5

Chuck Bartowski no longer possesses the Intersect, but has still matured into a confident and capable secret agent. As he mentors the new Intersect, he also has to deal with the fact he and his team are now independent contractors with bills to pay and rival companies to compete with. When, yet again, a dangerous agent comes after the Intersect, Chuck has to call upon his resources and training to stop them.

Chuck has always been a curious show, a geek comedy with dramatic and romantic overtones whose tone has often spun on a dime. The show has always done a good job of managing these different tones and styles, keeping everything grounded though Zachary Levi's earnest-but-sympathetic performance as the title character. In the fifth season, the show experiences several additional such tonal shifts, as Chuck is betrayed by his best friend (but it turns out not to be his fault) and, most surprisingly, has his life almost ruined in the final few episodes of the series. For a show that's always been quite warm-hearted and entertainingly cheesy, the surprisingly bleak tone of the final few episodes comes as a bit of a shock.

The season - renewed purely to be wrapped up - only consists of thirteen episodes and it appears there may have been budgetary restrictions in place: our previous season villains were played by well-known actors such as Chevy Chase and Timothy Dalton. This year we get Angus Macfadyen, a very solid Scottish actor best-known for his supporting role in Braveheart (as Robert the Bruce). He does a good job, but lacks the geek-cred his predecessors brought with them. Even more problematic is the fact that he only appears in the last few episodes of the season with little build-up and his character is never really explored in much depth (in contrast to Dalton's hammy-but-complex Volkoff).

The truncated run causes issues throughout the season. Storylines that would have been given whole episodes to develop in the second through fourth seasons are here disposed off way too quickly. An entertaining on-going subplot involving Carrie-Ann Moss as a rival contractor (and potential romantic interest for Casey) has enormous potential, but kind of peters out with no real climax or pay-off. Most frustratingly, there is relatively very little action in the Buy More. Big Mike, Lester and Jeff barely get any lines in some episodes, although a late-season subplot that sees Lester and a reformed and sober Jeff finally discovering what's going under their feet does help reduce this problem a little.

Most surprising is a divisive late-season storyline involving amnesia. Given the tone of the show, I was confidently expecting some last-minute solution or cure would be found. Instead, we get a highly inconclusive ending. It's not quite The Sopranos, but the series ending without ever answering the central question poised by the last couple of episodes is an unexpected and possibly even brave choice. Whether it's the right choice is one that fans will be arguing about for years to come (or unless the much-rumoured Chuck movie gets off the ground). For myself, Chuck has always been first and foremost an escapist and fun show, not a gritty drama like the new BSG or something from HBO. Ending the show in this manner feels out of character for the series, and a little bit of pointless torture for our main characters who really deserved more of a happy ending.

That aside, the final season of Chuck (***½) is entertaining, well-acted and often quite funny. The shortened episode order means some storylines aren't developed very well, and the ending will be divisive, but certainly the season is worth watching for established fans. In particular, the way Chuck's character develops across the five seasons, going from nerd to an intelligent, resourceful agent (exemplified by the shots of Chuck on the DVD spines, which cleverly show this development) does pay off very well here. The season is available now in the UK (DVD) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Wednesday 20 March 2013

GRRM on pitching new projects to HBO

George R.R. Martin was stopped on the red carpet at the premier event for Game of Thrones's third season in Los Angeles and asked about his new development deal with HBO. Martin confirmed that he will not be running these projects directly but will be giving out initial ideas for HBO to develop with other producers.

Apparently to be discussed are an SF series (possibly an adaptation of his short story collection Tuf Voyaging, which he has hinted several times recently might be in development), a couple of historical dramas and the potential Game of Thrones prequel series, based on his Dunk and Egg short stories. If any of these come to fruition at HBO remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, there was also a lengthy discussion of the series featuring Martin, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and a large number of castmembers. Some interesting tidbits were dropped during the interview, with Martin indicating that his initial discussions with Benioff and Weiss happened whilst there were still only three books out (dating it to before A Feast for Crows' publication in October 2005). They then pitched the show to both HBO and Showtime in March 2006, a lot earlier than previously believed (HBO optioned the books in January 2007).

Monday 18 March 2013

A Fortress of Grey Ice by J.V. Jones

Ash March has visited the Cavern of Black Ice and stalled the arrival of the evil Endlords, at least for now. She must now make her way to the homeland of the enigmatic Sull, where her true path will be revealed. Meanwhile, Raif Sevrance's role in events seems to have conclude, and he now seeks a life for himself amongst the exiles of the Maimed Men. But it seems that his destiny has not done with him yet, as he is called into the vastness of the Great Want in search of the Fortress of Grey Ice...

Middle volumes are always the most problematic part for any ongoing series. They don't have a clearly-defined beginning or end and structurally can end up as a bit of a mess if the author isn't careful. In the case of J.V. Jones's Sword of Shadows fantasy sequence this is even more of a danger. Planned to be five books in length, this gives her no less than three middle volumes to navigate through and retain the audience's attention.

She got off to an excellent start with A Cavern of Black Ice, one of the strongest opening volumes to an epic fantasy series ever written, one that showed an impressive growth in writing ability since her debut work, the somewhat more traditional Book of Words trilogy. With its considerably more nuanced characterisation, restrained toned and thorough-but-not-overwhelming worldbuilding (particularly showing that the clans may be relatively primitive, but they are not mindless savages and have complex systems of agriculture and mining), the Sword of Shadows is a more mature and interesting work.

This quality carries forwards into A Fortress of Grey Ice, though Jones is only partially successful in navigating through the problems of middle volume syndrom. On the plus side, she introduces several new storylines (particularly the civil war within Clan Dhoone) which make for interesting reading, expanding the scope of the story and the world without resorting to filler. Raif Sevrance's storyline, as he goes from rejected hero to a member of the Maimed Men to searching for the enigmatic Fortress of Grey Ice, is also structurally well-handled, giving the book a narrative spine with its own beginning, middle and end. Book of Words fans will also appreciate the arrival of Crope, a notable supporting character from that work, and his role in this novel (which ends in the death of a major character so impressively offhand that both Paul Kearney and George R.R. Martin would applaud it). Elsewhere, other characters and storylines suffer. Ash March spends the whole book on a journey from A to B and doesn't even get there at the end of the book. Raina Blackhail's potentially gripping story of political machinations within the Hailhouse are given very short shrift. The Dog Lord's storyline, though entertaining, seems to rely on a few too many obviously unwise decisions for it to be fully convincing.

The star of the book - and probably the whole series - is the wind-lashed, freezing cold landscape of the Northern Territories. Jones's research for this series appears to be formidable, with musings on the dangers of frostbite and how the climate works within an ice desert. George R.R. Martin's descriptions of the land beyond the Wall in A Song of Ice and Fire are impressive, but Jones's depiction of her frozen setting is even more impressive (as the whole series is set there).

A Fortress of Grey Ice (****½) is well-written and finely-characterise, with a formidably vivid setting. The plot and pacing is not as impressive as in the first book, and some storylines feel drawn out, whilst others are given relatively short shrift. However, this is still a well-above-average epic fantasy and the conclusion will leave readers eager to move onto the third book (which they can do immediately, rather than waiting five years as fans had to back when this novel was first published). The book is available now in the UK and USA.

GAME OF THRONES 'No Mercy' trailer

HBO have released another big trailer for the third season of Game of Thrones. Interesting that they decided to pack these trailers into a short period of time rather than release them over a longer period and get the build-up going earlier.

This trailer is a bit longer and gives us more of a look at new characters like Daario.

Sunday 17 March 2013

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

The dreaded Queen of Blades, the leader of the Zerg, is no more. Sarah Kerrigan has been freed from the Swarm and is now human once again...but consumed by the need to avenge herself on Arcturus Mengsk, Emperor of the Terran Dominion, the man who betrayed her and left her for dead. When Mengsk's troops raid the facility Kerrigan is recuperating in, she finds herself alone and without any allies. Kerrigan needs an army to bring down her enemy and the leaderless Zerg Swarms may be the key to victory, if she can resist becoming part of the Swarm once more.

Heart of the Swarm is the rather tardy second instalment of the StarCraft II series of games, arriving an eyebrow-raising three years after its predecessor, Wings of Liberty. Considering the game uses the exact same engine as its predecessor (some minor upgrades aside) and apparently follows a story arc laid down by the guys at Blizzard almost a decade ago, the reason for the delay initially appears puzzling. The answer, of course, lies in the franchise's multiplayer angle. Blizzard have introduced new units with this expansion and have spent months and months painstakingly testing every iteration of the changes, dumping some new units and bringing in others, to make sure they don't upset the multiplayer balance. Given that StarCraft II's multiplayer scene is worth millions of dollars, this is unsurprising, but it does leave those of us primarily interested in the game's single-player storyline hanging in the wind for quite a long time.

Still, the game is here, and to a certain degree it's StarCraft as normal. You have a base, you collect resources, you build units and you fight the enemy for territory (control of additional resources areas where you can establish secondary bases) and ultimately try to destroy them. The gameplay is held together by a storyline, in this case one about vengeance and evolution. Kerrigan is out to kill Mengsk and end a feud between the two that began fifteen years ago in the original StarCraft. Blizzard cleverly raise this story - a subplot in the overall scheme of things - to prominence in Heart of the Swarm and push the big-picture storyline about the return of the alien Xel'Naga firmly into the background for the next game to worry about. Giving Heart of the Swarm its own direction and a storyline that does come to a definitive conclusion helps it avoid the 'middle title' syndrome that trilogies often suffer from. Heart of the Swarm also feels like it might be treading over the same ground as the original title's Brood War expansion, which also focused on Kerrigan uniting the Swarm under her control. Heart of the Swarm contextualises this in a different way, however, to avoid repeating concepts already visited in the series.

The campaign structure is quite interesting. There are five sub-campaigns, four of them taking place on planets and a fifth in deep space, each consisting of several missions. Between missions Kerrigan is based on board her spacecraft, a Zerg Leviathan (replacing the Terran battlecruiser Hyperion from Wings of Liberty), and can seek advice from her underlings, upgrade units and enhance her own powers and abilities through a levelling system. The unit-upgrade section is the most amusing, as Zerg mutation specialist Abathur (the Zerg equivalent of a slightly befuddled scientist) portentously reveals how he's going to improve the Zerg species, usually provoking a sarcastic response from Kerrigan. Given that the Zerg are the most alien and weirdest of StarCraft's three races, Blizzard draw a nice line here between making sure they stay that way whilst also humanising them enough to give them identifiable personalities. The surprise reappearance of a previous major character thought dead also helps give the game some more identifiable personalities.

The writing is as dreadfully cheesy as it was in Wings of Liberty, although the theme of a need for vengeance so powerful it overcomes one's humanity is a bit more interesting than the muddled and overlong campaign of the previous game. Heart of the Swarm is significantly shorter in terms of proper missions than its predecessor (clocking in at 20 compared to 29, almost a third shorter) but makes up for the shortfall with optional training missions showing how potential Zerg mutations will be used on the battlefield. Though entertaining, these mini-missions do feel like an attempt to pad out the length to make players feel they are getting their money's worth, and none will take longer than five minutes to complete.

On the battlefield, things are similar to Wings of Liberty. As with Liberty, the game tries to avoid too many build base-build army-kill everything missions, instead peppering some more creative objectives into the game. This is helped by the deployment of Kerrigan herself, a powerful unit with numerous powers (which are upgraded throughout the game). Kerrigan can turn the tide of a battle single-handed, but can't win everything by herself, so deploying additional troops is always necessary. Heart of the Swarm avoids the dull slog some of Wings of Liberty's missions descended into, but sometimes goes too far the other way by making things too much of a walkover. Certainly Swarm benefits from occasionally being whacked up to 'hard' mode on occasion.

On the minus side, there is obviously going to be another long wait for the conclusion of the story in Legacy of the Void, and certainly in the UK the pricing of this expansion set is off-putting: £30 - the cost of a full-price, complete game - for an expansion with a third less content than the previous game? Heart of the Swarm does just about justify it through monumental production values, a decent length (about 10-11 hours in total) and a more entertaining campaign than Wings of Liberty, not to mention the multiplayer enhancements. Also on the minus side, though for an expansion much less of an issue, the game has still resolutely failed to take on board any of the major RTS innovations of the last fifteen years. Proper 3D line of sight, cover and destructible scenery and battlefields are still nowhere to be seen, and the camera is still suspended uncomfortably close to your units and the battlefield even on the higher resolutions. Given that Wings of Liberty was looking outdated in 2010, Heart of the Swarm is looking positively geriatric in the impending face of Company of Heroes 2 and Total War: Rome 2. For fans of the franchise, however, this will no matter one whit.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm (****½) is ultimately a more satisfying and enjoyable game than Wings of Liberty. The writing is still poor on an individual level, but the story is more focused and has a definitive and satisfying ending, compared to Wings of Liberty's cliffhanger. The result is a game that improves on its forebear and makes for a satisfying addition to the franchise, though one that not likely to win over anyone not already a fan. The game is available now on the PC (UK, USA).

Saturday 16 March 2013

New GAME OF THRONES trailers for Season 3

This one is about war:

And this one is about 'the beast':

Season 3 begins airing on 31 March in the USA and the day afterwards in the UK.

Friday 15 March 2013


Bantam Books have released more info about The World of Ice and Fire, the companion guide to A Song of Ice and Fire. The book is due for publication on 29 October 2013 and will be 288 pages in length. They have also published several sample pages from the book.

The blurb:

With all new history and material from the maester himself, The World of Ice and Fire is a must have for both long-time fans, new readers, and viewers of the HBO series, Game of Thrones. This lavish, fully illustrated, full-colour book will be the comprehensive guide to the mega-bestselling world that George R.R. Martin has established in his Ice and Fire books.

This will be the comprehensive guide to all things Game of Thrones and beyond. From the pre-history to the coming of the First Men, through the reign of the Targaryen kings and Robert's Rebellion, this guide-co-written by George R.R. Martin and the immensely knowledgeable founders and keepers of the site-will tell series readers old and new all they might want to know about the history and culture of Westeros and the lands beyond the Narrow Sea. And there is a 30-page excerpt of all-new history invented by George solely for this volume.

ALL-NEW MATERIAL CONTRIBUTED BY GEORGE R. R. MARTIN: Much of the content of this book is all-new historical material, created by George exclusively for this volume—including a 30-page excerpt written by George.

FULLY ILLUSTRATED: The full-colour guide will be filled with gorgeous original artwork and maps commissioned exclusively for this edition.

THE HBO SERIES CONTINUES ON MARCH 31, 2013: HBO reported that 3.9 million viewers saw the inaugural broadcast of season 2, with 6.3 million tuning in among all of the network’s broadcasts for the night—a 53 percent gain from its freshman season average and a 27 percent rise from its previous series high. And with the DVD of season two releasing the month before, they only expect demand to rise.

SURGE IN NUMBERS: Since the show’s premiere, novel sales have increased exponentially, proving that people who get a taste of this world are keen to devour all there is about it.

SUCCESS OF THE NOVELS: To date, there are over 21.5 million copies of A Song of Ice and Fire series in print, and over 4.5 million in eBook sales.

APP-ORTUNITIES*: This will serve as the perfect companion volume to the Ice and Fire app, released in November 2012.

A WINNING TEAM: George’s co-authors on this book, Elio Garcia and Linda Antonssen, are the founders of the site, and probably know more about this world than anyone save George. In fact, they are the folks George calls when he forgets certain series details.

HOLIDAY GIVING: Perfectly timed for the holiday season, this volume is the ideal gift for the George R.R. Martin fan in your life.

TIMING: The MM edition of A Dance with Dragons will also be published in Fall 2013, which means extra publicity for George R. R. Martin.
Meanwhile, in a recent interview with Amazon, Martin confirms that he is continuing to work on The Winds of Winter, and is making progress ahead of HBO catching up with him (although noting that the gap is less than it was before).

* The Wertzone does not condone such use of bad puns.

Thursday 14 March 2013

Publication date confirmed for THE REPUBLIC OF THIEVES

Gollancz has confirmed a publication date for The Republic of Thieves, the long, long-awaited third book in The Gentleman Bastard sequence. It will be published on 8 October 2013 in the USA and 10 October in the UK.

Tyrion Lannister approves this news.

Gollancz's Deputy Publishing Director, Simon Spanton, commented:

"Some of you will know about the real difficulties that gathered around this novel for Scott. I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank Scott for sticking with it. I know that he was always painfully aware of the delays and what those meant both for his publishers and his fans. So I’d also like to thank Scott’s readers for their patience and for the immense support and the profound goodwill towards Scott that they have shown during this time. It’s been a long wait but I have every faith that their patience will now be rewarded with The Republic of Thieves."



Scott Lynch has posted his own take on the news at Fantasy Faction. He confirms that work is already underway on Book 4 of the series, The Thorn of Emberlain, and he hopes to return to a sane production rate and not have to get Brandon Sanderson to finish the series. Lynch has also formally surrendered his 'Crown of Lateness' (which, arguably, he never had in the first place, cough cough Melanie Rawn/David Gerrold/Patrick Tilley/Diane Duane/Harlan Ellison cough).

Friday 8 March 2013

Pratchett announces new DISCWORLD book

Terry Pratchett has announced that the next Discworld book, likely to be out at the end of this year, will be entitled Raising Steam. He made the announcement via a Skype webchat.

Pratchett announced the book by holding up a card saying "RAISING", at which point the Skype connection cut out. Pratchett had previously announced that the next Moist von Lipwig novel would be called Raising Taxes, so fans immediately assumed it was going to be that. However, it was then clarified that the book would actually be called Raising Steam. It has no release date as yet, and no further details have been announced.

Speculation: given Pratchett's way of announcing the book, which was clearly teasing fans curious about the long-MIA Raising Taxes, I'd guess this was indeed the new Moist von Lipwig book. Pratchett had previously said that he was having difficulty making the tax-based book interesting. This is understandable, given that Making Money - Moist takes over the Ankh-Morpork Mint - was fairly close to being a retread of Going Postal - Moist takes over the Ankh-Morpork Postal Service - as it was. I would guess (and to stress this is guesswork) that Pratchett has taken Moist out of the tax office and put him in charge of the Undertaking, Ankh-Morpork's under-construction subway system. This also allows Pratchett to do the 'Undertaking book' he's been hinting at for a few novels in a row now.

Of course, this might be in error and Raising Steam could be about surface trains or even an outright steampunk satire, and not involve Moist at all. I guess we'll find out soon enough.