Sunday 30 June 2013


Project Eternity is the working title (though possibly the final one, given how popular it's turned out) of Obsidian's new, old-school RPG due out in mid-2014. Funded by fans on Kickstarter, it's planned to be a bit of a throwback to the days of the old Infinity Engine days (which powered the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series of RPGs, plus Planescape: Torment).

Obsidian have released a new map of the world where the game is set, which is promised to be a traditional fantasy world with a few twists (such as the dwarves being more inspired by Inuit culture than traditional Tolkien dwarves, and one of the planned NPCs is a female dwarven character). They've revealed that the city of Defiance Bay (which can be seen in the north-west) will be a major location in the game and much of the action will be set in the vast Dyrwood.

Source: Chris Avellone via Anonymous of Holland (check out the link for an interview with a more Eternity-focused interview with Chris Avellone as well).

Friday 28 June 2013

GAME OF THRONES finds its Red Viper

HBO has confirmed the casting of the most eagerly-awaited new character in the fourth season of Game of Thrones.

Pedro Pascal is a Chilean actor who has been working in American television and film for some time. He appeared in the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fourth season and has since had guest spots on Without a Trace, Law and Order, Nurse Jackie and The Good Wife. He has also appeared in the movies Burning Bridges, The Adjustment Bureau and The Fall of Sam Axe, the TV movie spin-off prequel of Burn Notice.

Pascal will be playing the role of Prince Oberyn Martell, popularly known as the Red Viper. Oberyn is the younger brother of Prince Doran Martell, the ruler of Dorne, the southern-most part of the Seven Kingdoms. Dorne was the last of the Seven Kingdoms to fall under the rule of King's Landing, only a century before the outbreak of the War of the Five Kings, and did so through peaceful alliance rather than conquest. Because of this, the Dornish enjoy greater autonomy than any other part of the nation, including being able to style themselves as princes and princesses rather than lords and ladies.

Oberyn is a skilled warrior and famed for his slow-burning temper. He was close to his and Doran's younger sister, Elia, who was married to Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. At the end of Robert's Rebellion, during the Sack of King's Landing, Elia and her two children were brutally murdered by Lannister troops, with the blame popularly falling on the shoulders of Gregor Clegane, the Mountain. After the rebellion, Dorne pursued a policy of isolation until Prince Doran accepted Tyrion Lannister's suggestion that Doran's son Trystane should marry Myrcelle Baratheon (Myrcella departed for Dorne in Season 2).

HBO has also confirmed that it is casting Ellaria Sand, Oberyn's paramour, and also the role of Mace Tyrell, the Lord of Highgarden, father to Margaery and Loras Tyrell and the son of Olenna Tyrell. Furthermore, it has been confirmed that the characters of Janos Slynt, Alliser Thorne, Lysa Arryn and Rorge will be returning to the show in Season 4 after considerable absences.

Season 4 of Game of Thrones starts shooting in about two weeks and is expected to start airing in March or April 2014.

SYNDICATE successor SATELLITE REIGN begins Kickstarter appeal

Back in 1993 Bullfrog released what may have been their finest game: Syndicate. In the game you controlled a team of four cyborg agents from an overhead perspective. They would go from massive cyberpunk city to massive cyberpunk city, carrying out missions that would help your corporation go from a modest start-up to a world-straddling conglomerate. The game was noted for the presence of large numbers of civilians, its living cities (complete with cars, trains and police), its atmospheric soundtrack and its huge arsenal of weapons. The game was also noted for its differing approaches: you could charge through all guns blazing, adopt a stealth approach of using long-range sniper weapons and hiding, or taking control of masses of civilians with a 'Persuadertron' device and using them to rush the enemy with overwhelming numbers. You could also research new technology and make more money between missions from a strategic gameplay mode.

The game spawned an expansion, American Revolt, and then a sequel, Syndicate Wars, in 1996. The sequel was similar, although it removed the limitations of having finite ammo and made all of the buildings in the game fully destructible. In 2012 Starbreeze Studios issued a new game called Syndicate, but this was an FPS lacking anything in common at all with the originals apart from some weapon names. Though on its own terms an okay shooter, the game was heavily criticised for lacking the intelligence and strategic gameplay of the original.

The creators of Syndicate Wars are now Kickstarting a 'spiritual successor', named Satellite Reign in homage to a weapon in Syndicate Wars (the Satellite Rain, which called in a laser strike from an orbiting armed satellite). The new game is similar, with again you using four agents from an overhead perspective. Rather than multiple cities, there is now one huge city and your agents can work for both moral and amoral corporations. Your four agents are also now more specialised, with some RPG elements creeping in.

The blurb:

"Satellite Reign is a real-time, class-based strategy game. You control a squad of four agents, each with distinct and unique abilities as they vie and battle for control of a fully simulated, living, cyberpunk city.

The game world is designed to facilitate emergent gameplay, giving you the tools and freedom to play how you want to play, so you can create strategies and scenarios that not even we had anticipated!

Customise your team with the strength to destroy your enemies head-on, or hack into their facilities to manipulate their infrastructure without them ever knowing you were even there.

Will you take down your enemies with brute-force? Covert espionage and infiltration? Or will you use propaganda to influence the citizens of the city and overthrow the controlling powers?

Satellite Reign will be released on Windows, Mac OS and Linux."

The team are asking for $350,000, which is fairly modest by Kickstarter standards. Their website is here.

Thursday 27 June 2013

Map of the HOMEWORLD galaxy

Deviant Art user Norsehound has created this excellent map of the Homeworld galaxy, from the games Homeworld, Homeworld: Cataclysm and Homeworld 2.

Check out the high resolution version of the map here.

Players of the game will know that the Homeworld series takes place in Messier 51, better-known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, located 23 million light-years away in the constellation of Canes Venatici. The game opens with the inhabitants of the desert world of Kharak discovering they are not native to their world and excavating the spacecraft which brought them there thousands of years earlier. The people of Kharak recover the spacecraft's hyperspace core and use it to power an expedition to discover their true homeworld. Unfortunately this act triggers an attack by alien forces which leaves Kharak burning and a few thousand survivors have to make their way across a hostile galaxy to safety.

Gearbox Software recently bought the rights to the Homeworld IP and have indicated that they are planning to bring the existing games to modern digital platforms as well as at least exploring the possibility of making a fourth game in the series.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Chris Avellone on RPG design, PROJECT ETERNITY and too many great games to count

At the Rezzed gaming conference this weekened, Obsidian developer Chris Avellone did a presentation on CRPG design. You can check it out here.

Avellone has a CV that is interesting. At Black Isle back in the day he was the project lead on Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment (probably the greatest Western CRPG of all time) as well as working on Icewind Dale and its sequel. At Obsidian he was the lead designer on Knights of the Old Republic II, Fallout: New Vegas - Old World Blues and Alpha Protocol. He also worked on Neverwinter Nights II and its expansion Mask of the Betrayer as well as the main game of Fallout: New Vegas. He has also been hired out to inXile to assist on the upcoming Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera. Avellone is a noted proponent of player choice and including more complex thematic, and philosophical elements than is normally found in games, not to mention more complex characterisation.

Some of those things are discussed in the interview, along with progress on Project: Eternity, some interesting info on how they made Planescape: Torment and Fallout: New Vegas, and on the merits of Kickstarter as a business model. He also namechecks Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss in a discussion of magic systems, though he doesn't mentioned Obsidian's planned Wheel of Time CRPG (which is still on hold until Red Eagle raise the funding for it).

Tuesday 25 June 2013

OUTLANDER TV series greenlit

Ronald D. Moore's TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books has gotten a full series order from Starz. 16 episodes will air on the Starz network in late 2014.

The books, which feature a time-displaced romance between a WWII nurse and a Scottish soldier in 1743, have sold more than 20 million copies. The next volume in the series, Written in My Own Heart's Blood, is due out in March 2014.

Monday 24 June 2013

RIVERS OF LONDON optioned for TV

Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London books have been optioned for TV. Feel Films has picked up the rights, possibly with a view to producing in cooperation with one of the main British TV networks. They are currently working on the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell TV mini-series for the BBC.

Aaronovitch is no stranger to television, having penned two serials in the final two seasons of the first run of Doctor Who, Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield, as well as episodes of Casualty and the SF soap opera Jupiter Moon. It is unknown if he will contribute scripts to the adaptation if it is greenlit.

The Rivers of London series, which features a British police officer who becomes apprenticed to the last serving sorcerer in the Met, has been highly successful. Three novels have been published so far: Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground. The fourth, Broken Homes, will be out next month.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Mirror's Edge

In the future there is almost no crime. The City, a beautiful landscape of towering white buildings, is well-policed and life is pleasant. But this is only possible through a government which is totalitarian and repressive. There are those opposed to the way the City operates, from reformers working within the system (usually to no avail) to the Runners, free-running messengers and couriers working to unseat the regime. When an innocent cop is framed for the murder of a key reformer and the police declare war on the Runners, it falls to Faith Connors to fight the system and expose the truth.

Mirror's Edge is an interesting game developed by DICE, the creators of the perennially popular Battlefield series. After many years of making manly games about guns and explosions, DICE decided to change tack with a game that mixes puzzles and parkour (though there are still a few guns and the occasional explosion). The game can be summed up as Portal by way of Prince of Persia, mixing the environmental puzzles of the former with the athleticism of the latter.

The game's striking art aesthetic is the first thing that hits the player: the game strongly emphasises the colours white and red, sometimes glaringly so but mostly in a way that gives a feeling of high-tech isolation. The simple use of colour (the skies of the game are a particularly strong blue colour) gives the game a different feel to many other first-person games, which tend towards brown and grey. The high-tech feeling of the game also contrasts the dingy, gritty and dystopian feel of many other games. Playing Mirror's Edge is often a pleasure down to the sheer beauty of the art style.

Faith is fairly athletic and can run, jump, wall-run and cling onto ledges. She can also do a reverse-jump off surfaces to reach more inaccessible areas. Though played from the first person, Faith's arms and legs can be seen at all times, giving the player a strong sense of physical presence in the game. There is also a vivid sense of momentum and speed, with Faith needing to build up a fairly strong head of steam if she wants to clear a particularly large jump. The rooftop sequences are great, if occasionally a little too hamstrung by there being just one or sometimes two routes to your destination rather than being fully-open playgrounds. Combat is also satisfyingly physical: Faith can do flying kicks, punches and disarming manoeuvres (which also work as takedowns).

Gunplay is much more insipid. The developers seem to have included it very reluctantly out of a sense of realism: if Faith can disarm someone, why can't she just pick up the gun and use it? The problem is that gunplay, shooting at people across the large levels, feels like it goes against the ethos of the game. Some sort of character or plot-based reason why Faith refuses/cannot use firearms could have been introduced and led to be a more interesting game. As it stands, those moments when the game screeches to a halt as Faith has to shoot her way out of a lobby packed with bad guys feel like admissions of failure.

The game is at its best when Faith is running across rooftoops, jumping gaps, shimmying up the side of drainpipes, crashing through offices and out of the other side. These moments are frequent, but intercut by frustrating moments of the game screeching to a halt for some more tiresome combat, or lengthy sequences in railway tunnels where you have to move cautiously to avoid getting run over by trains.

The story is slight, but told well through some wonderfully-animated minimalist cut scenes. Superbly, the game isn't a 'bring down the system' story but something more realistic, with much more achievable objectives (expect the sequels - if there are any, as Mirror's Edge 2 sounds like it'll be a prequel instead - to go down more the path of overthrowing the government). The length - about six hours - is more of an issue, though there are also a number of time challenge maps which extend interest. Fortunately, the game is five years old now so it can be found pretty cheap.

Mirror's Edge (***½) is a small, curious game which packs in a huge amount of atmosphere. It often feels like the prototype for a much bigger and more interesting game (another comparison to the original Portal), but is certainly playable and fun in its own right. The game is let down by some compromised design decisions regarding combat, but its ambition elsewhere is laudable. The game is well worth a look, though its slightness means you shouldn't think of paying full price for it. The game is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3).

Queen of Nowhere by Jaine Fenn

The Sidhe, who once enslaved and ruled all of humanity, have returned and inserted themselves into key positions of power right across human-controlled space. Only a few are aware of their return, and the data expert Bez is working hard to bring about their downfall. Her plan requires perfect timing, the recruitment of trustworthy allies and, if necessary, blackmail. But when her strongest ally apparently betrays her, Bez is left to face the Sidhe alone.

Queen of Nowhere is the fifth novel in the Hidden Empire sequence. This sequence is interesting because it tries to be a fairly tightly-serialised space opera whilst trying to make each book a stand-alone, with the focus moving between different groups of characters. Queen of Nowhere brings Bez, a fairly minor character in the earlier books, into sharp relief (Jarek, Taro and Nual, our 'regular' protagonists, are relegated to bit-players in Bez's story). Compared to the frequent point of view changes and shifting between planets of the previous volume, Bringer of Light, Queen of Nowhere benefits from a tight focus on Bez and her storyline.

That said, Queen of Nowhere also depicts events on a fairly large scale, some of them happening many light-years from where Bez is. The book's structure intercuts between Bez and brief scenes on other planets as members of Bez's network get ready for the decisive moment of action and their enemies try to protect themselves. It's an efficient structure which helps get across a big story in a modest page count.

Fenn's biggest weakness - her fairly prosaic, indifferent prose style - has been addressed, with more colour and strangeness in her descriptions. A visit to a planet with both segregation of the genders but also a relaxed attitude to sex is fairly vividly described. Her characterisation has also taken a big step forwards. Bez may be the most compelling protagonist Fenn has created so far, her very ordinariness and lack of material resources (despite her immense data-mining abilities) or superpowers being contrasted against Fenn's more familiar characters. Action sequences are handled with skill and there's a general feeling of improvement across the board.

The main weakness is that this is part of a series, despite the author's attempts to make things approachable for a newcomer. Indeed, newcomers may be frustrated by what they'll see as deus ex machina (such as Taro and Nual's Angel powers) whilst long-term readers may be disappointed by a lack of development on dangling plot threads from earlier in the series. The 'greater threat' which even dwafs the Sidhe and was introduced in Guardians of Paradise goes completely unmentioned, and there's certainly the feeling in the book's conclusion that we still have some way to go to reach the endgame, despite some elements being wrapped up in this volume.

Queen of Nowhere (***½) is, by a whisker, Fenn's best novel to date. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episodes 6-10

The second half of the third season of Game of Thrones is more inconsistent than the first. After the strongest five-episode run in the history of the series (seven, if you count the last two episodes of Season 2), the show suddenly screeches into fillersville and some of the worst excesses of Season 2 come back to haunt the viewer: characters wheel-spinning for episodes on end and lots of characters tramping around Northern Irish woods and vaguely hoping it looks like they are thousands of miles apart from one another.

The Climb is the weakest episode of the season, though it still has some very strong moments such as the barbed confrontation between Olenna Tyrell and Tywin Lannister. Diana Rigg and Charles Dance bring their all to this scene of courtesy and threats and it pays off very well. The actual Wall-climbing sequences are visually hugely impressive, amongst the best things the show has ever done, but the saccharine final image and the uncharacteristically awful CGI in the final shot let down the hard work elsewhere. Aiden Gillen, whose performance as Littlefinger has been underwhelming throughout the whole series so far, gets a rare opportunity to shine in the role during his closing monologue, which is one of the more disturbing scenes the series has done. However, in the middle we have a whole load of random scenes thrown together to see what sticks, and it doesn't really work.

George R.R. Martin has written the two best episodes of the whole show so far, so it's a bit disappointing that The Bear and the Maiden Fair does not rank on the same level. It's solid, and certainly a welcome improvement on The Climb, but it lacks the oomph of his other episodes. The stand-out scene of the episode, Jaime Lannister's Big Damn Hero moment, was even moved over from another episode. Dany's confrontation with the Yunkish envoy is also very good (with some exceptional dragon CGI). Theon's appearance may be one torture scene too many for people (but fortunately the last one of the season), although it does confirm what the novels only later vaguely infer. Gendry standing in for Edric Storm is also a good example of a change from the books that is economical and makes sense, though the route Melisandre takes him to get back to Dragonstone - going hundreds of miles out of their way to King's Landing - does not.

Second Sons is also pretty decent, with the titular mercenaries being well-introduced. Ed Skrein nails Daario's arrogance and it's good they dropped his flamboyant appearance from the books (one of the more unconvincing elements in the books is Daenerys falling for a blue-haired ponce), although I'm not sure going for the long-haired pretty boy look was a viable replacement. Tyrion's wedding is a suitably grim affair, the Dragonstone scenes are very well-done (Liam Cunningham is killing it this year as Davos) and the long-awaited 'Sam the Slayer' scene is handled well.

The Rains of Castamere is the most talked-about episode of TV drama this year, and it's easy to see why. The build-up to the infamous Red Wedding is handled well, with some great tonal variations (especially due to David Bradley's superb performance as the loathsome Walder Frey) and a late-building sense of dread. The concluding ten minutes is one of the best sequences in the history of the show, with Michelle Fairley, Richard Madden and Michael McElhatton all delivering stand-out performances. Both Jon and (thankfully) Bran's stories also suddenly kick into high gear. We also get a great action sequence as three of Dany's retainers storm the gates of Yunkai to great effect. Whilst it's not quite as well-paced and measured as And Now His Watch is Ended, it's not far off and of course the final scene is even more powerful and impressive.

Mhysa, the season finale, has to settle for merely being a well-written epilogue. There's an interesting feeling of melancholy as certain characters cross paths for what might be the only time in the whole series (Sam and Bran, most notably) and others take hugely significant decisions (the Dragonstone scenes avoid repetition from earlier storylines and get Stannis's story onto a different track). Other storylines are let down by the promise of more filler and wheel-spinning: Arya looks set to spend most of Season 4 yet again traipsing around the Riverlands. Pairing her with the Hound for longer than in the book is a really good idea, but I'm not sure I can take a whole season of it. The revelation of Ramsay Snow's true name and nature, and Theon's final capitulation to his will is a terrific scene (though it doesn't quite justify the static nature of their story through the whole season), as is the brief ironborn sequence on Pyke. Unfortunately, another key scene - where Tywin lies the smackdown on Joffrey - is underwhelming, with none of the normally-reliable actors hitting the highs of the corresponding book scene. Some terrific and iconic dialogue, such as where Tyrion and Tywin share for a moment the horror that they may have put a new Mad King on the throne and Tywin ominously hints he won't let that come to pass, is also lost, which is a shame.

The most awkward moment of the episode is in Daenerys's storyline. After a strong and decisive start to her storyline this season, it just tails off at the end, not helped by that awkward crowd-surfing scene with its unintended-but-still-uncomfortable overtones of the great white saviour. This can be subverted by what's coming up in Daenerys's storyline, but for now it feels like a really weak way to end the season compared to the very obvious alternative option.

306: The Climb (***)
307: The Bear and the Maiden Fair (***½)
308: Second Sons (****)
309: The Rains of Castamere (*****)
310: Mhysa (****½)

Forthcoming: Season 4 of Game of Thrones will start airing in March or April of 2014. Season 3 should be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in February or March 2014.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Interview with Brandon Sanderson

A few weeks ago I was contacted by Joel Williams, a writer for CNN's website, who had interviewed Brandon Sanderson last year ahead of the publication of the final Wheel of Time novel, A Memory of Light. Ultimately the website decided not to publish the interview so Joel kindly offered to let me publish it here. As it was written for a more general audience than the SFF hardcore, there's little new information here, but it's always interesting to here Sanderson's thoughts on finishing off The Wheel of Time.

When it comes to the Epic Fantasy genre, Robert Jordan is a legend. You know what Robert Frost is to poetry? Jane Austen is to literature? That’s what Robert Jordan is for fantasy. Jordan started his book series, The Wheel of Time, in 1990 and proceeded to publish 12 more books in the series before passing away in 2007 of a rare blood disease. He left the series unfinished and his millions of fans wondering if they’d ever know how the epic saga ended. Much like the characters in the books they loved so much, millions of Wheel of Time devotees needed a hero. Among dozens of other characters, the series follows Rand al’Thor, a backwoods youth who finds out that he is the next in a long line of reincarnated heroes destined to fight “The Dark One” to rid the world of evil. Not doing it for you? Don’t worry. There’s almost certainly another character in the series that will pique your interest. Jordan was notorious for spending lots of time developing side characters, often to the detriment of plot momentum. But it’s those side characters, and the love Jordan obviously felt for them, that turned casual readers into devoted fans.

Jump back to 2007. With the series in jeopardy, Jordan’s widow and editor Harriet recruited accomplished fantasy author Brandon Sanderson to finish the series using Jordan’s notes. With the Wheel of Time series having sold upwards of 40 million books, you can understand the pressure Sanderson felt to do the job right. As a lifelong fan of the series himself, Sanderson knew that this was an opportunity to end the saga as Jordan would have wanted. I spoke with Sanderson shortly before the final volume of Wheel of Time was set to hit the shelves. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Despite the fact this his series takes up a lot of real estate on bookstore shelves, Robert Jordan is not a household name. Why is that?

Sanderson: Epic fantasy is a very challenging genre, I love it, but I’m aware it’s a little harder to pick up. When you go to a bookstore and there’s a series of 14 books, where one is bigger than three other books. That’s not for everyone. But for those of us who read Epic, that big thick book is part why we love it. Not because it’s thick, but because it’s an entire world.

What was it like to take on the project of finishing Jordan’s series? Did you have any idea what you were you getting into? Did any unexpected challenges come up?

Sanderson: I certainly did not know what I was getting into. I started reading these books when I was 15, back in 1990, and I’ve loved them ever since. So I was aware of the complexity of the series and I understood how excited people were, but I didn’t know how much or little Mr. Jordan finished before he passed away. So on the one hand I had an inkling, but on the other I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Famously, before he passed away, Jordan had been telling fans that this book would be so big that they would have to sell luggage carts to get them out of the bookstores. He was planning an enormous, epic finale to his series. That’s what I was anticipating. When I got the notes it was all there, in theory. The notes indicated a great epic book. But not a whole lot had been done yet. He had written some important scenes, but most things were just outlines or pre-outlines. A project that I expected to take year and half, ended up taking up five years of my career in order to do it right.

You mention that started reading the books at the age of 15. As a fan of the series, did you ever think you’d be the one called upon to finish the series?

Sanderson: It completely blew my mind. When Robert Jordan passed away I made the choice that I didn’t want to be the literary version of an ambulance chaser. So I said to my agent, we’re not going to pursue this. I would love to do it, but I don’t think it’s appropriate. When I got called about it, it completely blindsided me. I had consciously decided I wasn’t even going to let myself consider it. I never thought I’d be here where I am. I’ve gotten to participate in the dreams and vision of an author that inspired me to be a writer in the first place. That’s been incredible, but if you had asked me what are the chances of doing something like this, I wouldn’t have given myself any reasonable chance.

Are you concerned because you were a fan, you put something in that might’ve been cut by Jordan? Are you confident you ended it the way he wanted it?

Sanderson: There were a lot of holes in the notes. I had to put in scenes where I don’t know if Jordan would’ve put it in. We’re different writers. The idea was to capture the feel, the mood, the tone. [Jordan’s widow] Harriet was also his editor. She discovered Jordan when she was working as an editor and then she married him. I like to joke that it’s one way to make sure your editorial advice is taken. If I strayed, Harriet would let me know. She has the final say. And we’ve been upfront about it, I’m not ghostwriting this. I’m a coauthor. There wasn’t enough done to be finished off by a ghostwriter, it needed somebody to fill in holes. That’s why I was brought on and that’s what I’ve been doing.

When you were working on this project did it all feel like you were cheating on your world? Maybe feel like you were cheating on a spouse?

Sanderson: [Laughs] That’s an interesting way to put it. Not cheating on a spouse, but cheating on my hobbies. I was still able to release Way of Kings, which is my big capstone epic I’d been working on up until that point. I was still able to do a book in the Mistborn sequence. I had to put a lot aside, but it didn’t feel like I was cheating because I view these characters as closely to my own as possible. Beyond that Jordan, even though I never knew him, was a mentor to me. His writing is what I studied when I was trying to figure out how to be an author. I picked up Wheel of Time and tried to figure out, how is he doing this? I wouldn’t have said yes to anything else, but I said yes because it was Wheel of Time and I was so familiar and attached to these characters.

It’s all coming to end, for yourself as well as the millions who read the books. What does that mean to people reading the books?

Sanderson: I can get a sense for it because I felt it myself in 2007. When I first was offered the project, and we signed contracts and I flew to Charleston where Harriet lives and I read the last scene that Jordan had written. The last scene in the book and the epilogue are his writing. I read that and got the same sense fans are having now. Having been on a long journey, with many wonderful experiences along the way, and having time to think about what it meant and why you loved it so much. It’s bittersweet, when a journey is done. There’s a sense of loss and regret. I felt it back then and I suspect that’s what a lot of fans are going to be feeling.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Dragon Age: Origins

The lands of Ferelden are threatened by a Blight, a horde of monstrous creatures known as darkspawn erupting from underground and destroying everything in sight. The Grey Wardens are charged with defending the land against the darkspawn. In alliance with the King of Ferelden, the Grey Wardens are assembling an army to face the Blight at Ostagar, but treachery awaits and it falls to the order's latest recruit to help save Ferelden.

Dragon Age: Origins is BioWare's reflective look at their own origin (so to speak). It's a big, broad, swords and sorcery epic meant to evoke memories of the Baldur's Gate series, where BioWare got started in RPGs. It's also in 3D, with streamlined controls, inventory management and in-engine cut-scenes. It's BioWare's attempt to blend their original, more hardcore RPGs with their later, stripped-back and more cinematic games like the Mass Effect series. It's a game that tries to balance the old with the new and does not quite succeed.

Which is not to say it doesn't have a go. The game is huge, taking upwards of 50 hours to complete. Cleverly, the game reorganises its opening two hour prologue based on your race and class: a dwaven noble starts in a separate location to a human mage, with a totally different cast of supporting characters, enemies and opening quests. The fact that you can replay the game several times and get a different opening, with the various versions not aligning until you reach Ostagar, is quite clever and rewards replaying the game. Indeed, the choices in these sections reverberate throughout the whole game, with your eventual return to your starting location allowing you to address unfinished business. It's the game's main selling point and is something that is handled very well, making it all the more bemusing that the concept was completely chucked out the window for the two sequels.

As is traditional with BioWare games, your main character is fully customisable but the supporting cast are set in stone. You can accumulate up to ten companion characters throughout the course of the game and take three of them with you on missions. Your inactive party members hang out at a campsite you can periodically visit to exchange information, form friendships (and even romantic relationships) and improve everyone's equipment. The game has a reputation system for each character, and winning their trust will give you bonuses in combat and open up additional questlines. It's a nice idea but also one that's easy to neglect. The game also treats morally ambiguous sorceress Morrigan and sarcastic warrior Alistair as almost the secondary main characters, each with huge roles to play in the endgame, which is rather bizarre if you've just gone through 95% of the game favouring other characters instead. All of the companion characters are nicely-developed, though it's far from the strongest cast BioWare have produced for a game and some self-derivation can be detected: Shale is awesome, for example, but feels a little too reminiscent of Knights of the Old Republic's HK-47.

You spend the game doing what you usually do in a BioWare games: a broad variety of quests, varying from the mundane to the epic, and getting into lots of conversations and fights. A lot of fights: you seem to spend the overwhelming majority of the game in combat, and violence seems to be the solution to almost every problem in the game. There's a few quests based on diplomacy and dialogue, and a few fights can be avoided through intimidating or persuading the enemy, but otherwise be prepared to do a ton of fighting. Fortunately, the old 'hit space to pause' option is still present and correct, allowing you to assign orders to characters and take stock of the battle as it develops. A quickbar allows easy access to abilities, spells and weapons. Combat is generally satisfying, although health spells feel a little weak (at high level they restore so few hit-points it's almost not worth bothering with them). The biggest weakness is positioning: enemy units can clip or shove past your units with ease, making it impossible to create bottlenecks in corridors and engage the enemy with warriors whilst wizards and ranged fighters engage from afar. This seriously limits tactical options and can make fighting large numbers of tough enemies particularly difficult. Some abilities also feel overpowered: the enemy's ability to encase your characters in null-magic zones where healing magic simply does not work can result in total party wipe-outs all too easily.

In technical terms, the game is okay. Graphically it looks solid on PC (but a bit washed-out on consoles) and mods are available to improve textures further. The game is a bit flaky on multi-core PCs but runs fine if you assign it to run on just one core. Camera control is a bit of an issue: the PC version allows you to play the game from an overhead viewpoint (reminiscent of Neverwinter Nights except, bizarrely for a seven years-newer game, far less customisable) but you can't zoom out very far, and enemies often engage you from outside this viewing range. Switching to the over-the-shoulder view (which the consoles are limited to) is great for spotting distant enemies and engaging them at range, but is useless for melee. You can switch between them easily enough, but it feels a bit annoying you can't stay in the viewpoint you favour throughout the game. The overhead view also sometimes seems to get confused on whether it should be 'locked onto' your selected character or allowing you to free-roam.

The writing is a mixed bag. A lot of dialogue in the game is obvious, expositionary and risible, not helped by severely variable voice acting (Claudia Black is the standout as Morrigan). There are attempts at nuanced characterisation - key villain Loghain has his reasons for doing what he's doing, though he's such an unrepentant martinet that most players will feel zero sympathy for him - but they mostly fall flat. The game also makes a nod towards gritty realism through its political infighting and bloody combat, though the game goes completely over-the-top with your characters walking out of fights covered head-to-foot in gore. The political angle also doesn't work very well due to the politics being rather boring and it's difficult to care about Ferelden when you spend most of the game hearing about how isolationist and racist it is, riven by internal conflicts with few genuinely good people in positions of authority.

Despite the clunky writing, poor camera controls and focus on violence as the solution to just about everything, the game just about manages to keep its head above water. It's satisfyingly huge and the worldbuilding is derivative (a mash-up of standard fantasy tropes with more than a bit of inspiration from George R.R. Martin) but somewhat interesting. The differing opening sections of the game give some good replay value. Combat is solid if unspectacular. There's a germ of a really good game here, but there's also an overwhelming feeling of blandness and predictability that rears its head all too often.

Dragon Age: Origins (***½) is a very solid game from BioWare, although it's self-reflection on BioWare's past is rather pointless: the Baldur's Gate series is still extremely playable and frankly on almost every front bar the technical one are better games than Dragon Age. For those simply after a big, enjoyable fantasy RPG, Dragon Age certainly fits the bill. Its ambition is impressive and even in failing to fully achieve it, it's still very playable and worth a look. The game is available now - in an 'Ultimate Edition' also including its expansion Awakenings and several DLC episodes - in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3).

Matt Stover interviews Scott Lynch

Matt Stover, author of the splendiferous Acts of Caine SF/fantasy series, talks to Scott Lynch, author of the also-splendiferous Gentleman Bastard series, over on the Orbit blog.

No, I haven't got one. No, you can't have it afterwards if I do get one.

Scott has also revealed that ARCs of The Republic of Thieves are being assembled at Gollancz Supreme Headquarters in preparation for distribution to the masses. Since revealing this news, Gollancz Towers have become encased in an impenetrable forcefield and ED-209s have been seen patrolling the grounds, so don't even think about it.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

The Tudors: Season 2

England, 1533. King Henry VIII is anxious to formally annul the marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and to wed Anne Boleyn in her stead. However, the Pope remains adamantly opposed to both the union and the king's reforming of the Church in England. As a major schism looms, the king finds himself at odds with some of his most loyal friends and supporters, including Sir Thomas More.

The second season of The Tudors covers what is generally considered to be the most pivotal period in the life of King Henry VIII, extending from his marriage to Anne Boleyn to the latter's fall from grace and execution just three years later. This period includes the separation of the Church of England from Rome, the martyrdom of Thomas More, the birth of the future great Queen of England Elizabeth I, and the rise to prominence of Jane Seymour, who is destined to become Henry's third wife. It's a rich period of history, dramatised many times (but arguably most famously in the play and film A Man For All Seasons, which focuses on More). The Tudors, due to its wider scope, has the ability and freedom to take this story and integrate it into a wider dramatisation of Henry VIII's entire reign, which has positive and negative consequences. Negatively, this is arguably the heart of Henry VIII's story and what comes after cannot help but be anticlimactic in comparison (though the producers of the show certainly give it a go). On the plus side the great time afforded the story by a television series means that the show can do some very interesting things, like devoting the entire final episode of the season to the hours leading up to Anne's execution, a move which succeeds splendidly and gives us what may be the best episode of the series.

A noticeable gap in the cast is that of Sam Neill, whose character of Cardinal Wolsey died at the end of the first season. The less-well-known James Frain has to step up as his effective replacement, the ruthless reformer Thomas Cromwell, and does an excellent job. The show also brings in the legendary Peter O'Toole as Pope Paul III, mainly to show the reactions to Henry's policies in Rome. This is a bit of an odd move, as this storyline never really goes anywhere. The Pope commands King Francis I of France to invade England, an ominous development which is subsequently ignored, and is later shown having frustrated episodes over the work of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Amusing, but it forms a digression that might have been better spent in England fleshing out the existing, more prominent characters. O'Toole is, of course, brilliant, but his presence in this role does feel a little bit of a waste of a major casting coup.

Natalie Dormer continues doing excellent work as Anne Boleyn, and has the difficult task of portraying the queen's descent into paranoia as she suffers miscarriages and earns the king's enmity. The show adopts a sympathetic approach to the queen, showing her to be distressed by her inability to bear the king a living son and innocent of the charges brought against her (though heavily indicating that she may have been promiscuous as a youth before meeting the king). Jeremy Northam also does good work as Sir Thomas More, the man of conscience and integrity who tries to balance his belief in his faith with his love for the king and dies for it.

In the central role of Henry VIII, Jonathan Rhys Meyers shows early signs of improvement over his inert Season 1 performance. This may be attributable to his decision to 'do a Riker' and grow a beard between seasons. Unfortunately, the beard is rather unimpressive (a quarter-Riker at best) and his performance soon returns to a binary state of either being coldly inscrutable or insanely furious. Scenes which require him to smile or be jovial feel forced and unconvincing, and the less said about the spontaneous way he meets and immediately falls in love with Jane Seymour the better. The whole storyline with Jane Seymour is rather badly handled, with the show deviating even further than it normally does from history (Jane had been at court for a year before Henry and Anne even married) and treating the relationship rather tritely, despite Anita Briem's best efforts with the material.

On the plus side, Henry Cavill improves significantly this season as the king's best friend, Charles Brandon. He shows Brandon's growing maturity as he casts aside his philandering ways to concentrate on his family life, in contrast to Henry's constant flitting between mistresses, and also his growing spiritual crisis of faith at the things he has to do in the name of the Reformation. This is a theme that continues into the third season.

Overall, the second season of The Tudors (***½) is much as the first: it's tosh but watchable tosh which gets a lot of the details of the history wrong but does succeed in nailing the broader picture. However, the second season is elevated over the first by the richer, more dramatic events being depicted and some improvements in both writing and acting. It is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).

Monday 17 June 2013

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

A century or more in the future, Melanie Tarent is killed in a terrorist attack in Turkey by a frightening new weapon. The only trace the weapon leaves behind is a triangular scorch mark on the ground. Her husband, Tibor, returns home to Britain and learns that the same weapon has been deployed on a larger scale in London, leaving a hundred thousand people dead. There appears to be a connection to something in Tibor's past, something he has no memory of.

The events in Tibor's life have ramifications across the years. During WWI a stage magician is sent to the Western Front to help make British reconnaissance aircraft invisible to the enemy and has a chance meeting with one of the most famous writers alive. During WWII a young RAF technician meets a female Polish pilot and learns of her desperate desire to return home and be reunited with her missing lover. And in the English countryside of the near future, a scientist creates the first adjacency, and transforms the world.

Reviewing a Christopher Priest novel is like trying to take a photograph of a car speeding past you at 100mph without any warning. You are, at the very best, only going to capture an indistinct and vague image of what the object is. Photography, perspective and points of view play a major role in Priest's latest novel, as do some of his more familiar subjects: stage magic, WWII aircraft and the bizarre world of the Dream Archipelago. The Adjacent is a mix of the familiar and the strange, the real and the unreal, the lucid and the dreamlike. It's the novel as a puzzle, as so many of Priest's books are, except that Priest hasn't necessarily given you all the pieces to the same puzzle.

The book unfolds in stages, draped on the skeleton of Tibor's adventures (for lack of a better term) in the Islamic Republic of Great Britain. The normal eye-rolling which accompanies any suggestion that Britain could ever become such is mediated here by knowing some of Priest's narrative tricks. This is a future, not the future, and it is possible that it may not be the future of our world but another where history has unfolded differently. From this linking narrative we move back to the First World War, forwards to the Second, sideways to one of the islands of the Dream Archipelago and, in the middle of it all, a short interlude in an English scientist's garden which may hold the key to the whole thing. The book's ending is revelatory, but only in the sense that you can now see the destination, not necessarily that you understand how you got there. As is also traditional with Priest's books, a full and richer understanding of the text will have to wait for re-reads. That said, Priest does play fair: by the end of the first read you should be starting to get a handle on what's going on.

Of course, the novel's satisfaction as a puzzle and an impressive work of intellect would be nothing without Priest's formidable skills with prose, character, detail and atmosphere. His research is put to good use, with the historical settings of the First and Second World Wars evoked to good effect. The future world he paints is convincing as well as disturbing. His central characters - many of whom seem to be doubles or reflections of one another - are convincing and detailed, with their growing frustration as events become more bizarre and inexplicable well-depicted. It also helps that all of the puzzles and mysteries surround that simplest and most traditional of narratives: a love story.

If The Adjacent has a weakness, it's that it's a novel that, whilst readable by itself, will especially reward those already familiar with Priest's work. In particular, the sideways trip to the Dream Archipelago will likely completely confuse those not familiar with it, but readers of The Dream Archipelago, The Affirmation and The Islanders will be able to nod sagely and think that they are 'in' on what Priest is doing (or at least they can kid themselves they are). The Adjacent feels like a culmination of the ideas and tropes Priest has been exploring since at least The Affirmation was published thirty years ago, and is thoroughly rewarding on that basis. Newcomers unversed in the 'Priest Effect' (a term coined by David Langford to describe Priest's way of writing) may find some of the ideas in the book more impenetrable.

The Adjacent (*****) is puzzling, brilliant, frustrating, page-turning, disturbing and absorbing. It is traditional Priest. The novel will be published on 20 June in the UK and USA.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Fringe: Season 2

More than twenty years ago, Walter Bishop set in motion a series of cataclysmic events by opening a doorway between this world and somewhere else. Those events have manifested as the Pattern, evidence of reality itself becoming malleable and where the rules of science have become less rigid. As Fringe Division continues its attempts to discover the secrets of the Pattern, the consequences of Walter's decision make themselves felt, with possible dire ramification

Fringe's second season picks up moments after the ending of the first season, with Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) transported to another world. In an interesting dramatic choice, the writers do not immediately focus on Olivia's adventures on the other side, instead concentrating on the impact of her absence and unexpected reappearance on the more familiar characters. It's not until several episodes into the season that we get a flashback to the events of the Season 1 finale and learn more about what's going on. In the meantime, with the show wearing it's X-Files inspiration more blatantly than ever (for the first few episodes at least), our team have to face off against a group of shapeshifters from the other side.

The second season of Fringe still unloads a few solid stand-alone stories to the audience (most notably a quarantine drama set in an office block ravaged by an unknown disease), but the focus is much more closely on the serialised elements relating to 'the other side', Walter and Peter's backstory, the experiments run on Olivia when she was a child and how much the megacorporation Massive Dynamic know about what's happening. We get a new recurring bad guy in the form of Thomas Jerome Newton (an amiably villainous performance by Sebastian Roche), whose opposition to the Fringe Division's efforts creates much of the tension for the season.

As with the first season, the cast continues to deliver excellent performances, particularly Kirk Acevedo as FBI Agent Charlie Francis, who is given a meatier role in the opening and closing episodes of the season. The stand-out, of course, remains John Noble as Walter Bishop. His performance in the first season was already remarkable, but over the course of the second season it apotheosises onto the 'Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: The Next Generation' level of sheer dominance. Whether it's playing his traditional befuddled scientist role, lapsing into trauma at the memory of a two-decade old tragedy or temporarily regaining his old memories and becoming cold, arrogant and condescending, Noble plays his part to perfection, winning the audience's sympathy or, for his more morally dubious acts, at least their understanding.

The season reaches a huge emotional and acting peak in Peter, the fifteenth episode of the season and a major 'gamechanger' of an episode. Told mostly in flashback (complete with a retro, 1980s style music and title sequence), it not only explains much of the series's backplot, but it also gives us a look at the man Walter used to be and establishes the motivations of several major characters in the show. This kicks off a run of high quality episodes which mess around with the established formula, including one episode that is a bizarre noir thriller (the result of Walter - on various substances - trying to tell a children's story) and another that is a solo adventure for Peter out in the backwoods of Washington State (and may be a homage to Twin Peaks). The season concludes with a two-part finale which is the most epic thing the show's ever done, featuring multiple castmembers in different roles, impressive visual-effects shots and the successful depiction of portraying a world that is familiar but different. The cliffhanger ending is a bit of a doozy as well.

The season does have a bit of a stinker in Unearthed, easily the weakest episode of the show to date. It was produced as part of Season 1 and held back to the second, putting it out of continuity and also rather out of keeping with the rest of the show: outright ghostly possession seems a stretch too far for the show, which whilst flirting with the paranormal usually manages to provide at least an attempt at a pseudoscientific explanation for events. Luckily, the DVD and Blu-Ray release hides the episode in the 'special features' section, pleasing completists whilst also ensuring it isn't accidentally stumbled over whilst watching the main body of the season.

Overall, the second season of Fringe (*****) takes the excellent cast and premise of the first season and boots it onto another level, with exceptional acting (especially from John 'Criminally Emmyless' Noble) and some clever, coherent storytelling. The season is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear

The lands of the Celadon Highway are in turmoil. Civil war threatens the Khagante, whilst the city of Tsarepheth is consumed by a horrific plague. Far to the west, Temur and Samarkar continue their quest to find the fortress of Ala-Din and rescue Temur's former beloved, Edene. However, they are unaware that Edene has already left Ala-Din and acquired strange new allies of her own.

Picking up from the end of Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars continues Elizabeth Bear's intelligent, measured historical fantasy which melds elements of the fantastical with real history and even a few interesting nods towards science fiction. This is the middle volume of The Eternal Sky Trilogy and as such suffers a little from 'middle book syndrom'. There's no real beginning and the climaxes at the end of the book are somewhat muted (one major plot development amongst the Qersnyk feels quite rushed as well). After the excellently-paced Range of Ghosts there's also a slight feeling of sluggishness, as our major protagonists seem to spend a lot of time in two fairly similar cities getting involved in local politics and fighting off assassins before striking out to finally do what was planned some time before.

Still, all of Bear's other strengths remain intact. The characterisation is very strong, developing the existing characters in an interesting manner (especially Edene and the 'twins') as more minor characters from the first book (like Tsering) rise to prominence. Bear's use of the traditional epic fantasy narrative to challenge ideas about gender and 'barbarian' societies remains refreshing and is not over-laboured. A subplot about the company's horse even highlights the tiresome fantasy trope that horses are basically the cars of fantasyland and don't need to be fed, watered, rested and looked after, and approaches the subject more realistically. The end of the book also feels like it comes too soon, as the book is fairly short for a fantasy (less than 350 pages) and Bear's narrative leaves the reader wanting more.

Shattered Pillars (****) lacks the full impact of Range of Ghosts, but for the most part is a worthwhile and highly readable sequel. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The final book in the trilogy, Steles of the Sky, will be published in 2014.

Friday 14 June 2013

An Unreliable World: History and Timekeeping in Westeros

Last year I contributed to the book Beyond the Wall, a collection of commentaries and essays on A Song of Ice and Fire and its television adaptation. My essay is this week's 'Free Essay' over at Smart Pop Books, so it can be perused for free right now.

The essay discusses the often-dubious measures of time given in the series and how the ancient backstory of the books is fluid and unreliable as a result.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

GAME OF THRONES Season 4 discussion

Myself, Elio from and Charlie Jane Anders have thrown some ideas around about how Game of Thrones' fourth season will unfold over on io9. Obviously, massive spoilers from A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons are included.

I may expand on some of the ideas further here, but the general thrust of the argument is that I think the show needs to start hitting some AFFC/ADWD storylines by the end of Season 4 if they are going to fit all seven books into just seven or eight seasons, whilst Elio takes the view they can be a bit more relaxed and use most of the season to address the remaining Storm of Swords material. I guess we'll find out in March 2014.

Tuesday 11 June 2013


The first trailer for the second Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug, has been unveiled:

The film will be released on 13 December this year.

Two new KJ Parker books announced

Subterranean Press has announced it has two new books by KJ Parker in the works.

The first is a collection of her short fiction, Academic Exercises, which will be published in 2014. The book is 670 pages long. What will be included in the collection is not known at this time, but it's assumed to be most or all of her short fiction and novellas to date: Purple and Black, Blue and Gold, Amor Vincit Omnia, A Rich Full Week, A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong, Let Maps to Others, One Little Room an Everywhere, Illuminated and The Sun and I. Illuminated, The Sun and I and a non-fiction piece, Rich Men's Skins, can also be found in the current issue of Subterranean Magazine.

For 2015 Subterranean will also be releasing Parker's next novel, Savages. It is assumed that this will also be released by Parker's mass-market publishers (Orbit in the UK). Whether Academic Exercises will also get a big release or will remain a Subterranean-exclusive remains unknown.

It should be noted that SubPress refer to Parker as 'her' in their article.

Sunday 9 June 2013

RIP Iain Banks

The terrible news has broken that author Iain Banks has lost his battle with cancer. He was 59 years old.

Iain Banks came to immediate attention with the publication of The Wasp Factory in 1984. A contemporary novel, the book told the story of a mentally ill murderer and wasp-torturer. With its twist ending, matter-of-fact descriptions of stomach-churning scenes and its thick vein of black humour (best exemplified by the infamous 'psychopathic rabbit on a minefield' scene), it was immediately successful and made readers sit up and take notice. A series of similarly vivid and successful 'literary' novels followed: Walking on Glass, The Bridge and Espedair Street.

In 1987 Iain Banks released his first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas. The move - a successful mainstream novelist moving into SF - was unexpected and commercially questionable. Banks moderated by the blow by continuing to alternate SF and mainstream work, and publishing his SF under the impenetrable pseudonym 'Iain M. Banks' (the M is for Menzies). Banks had actually started off writing SF in the 1970s, writing early versions of what later became Player of Games and Use of Weapons before the decade was out. He had switched to writing mainstream fiction to achieve enough success to get the SF published, and was successful in that regard (despite concerns over the SF community of accusing him of 'selling out', which never materialised).

Consider Phlebas introduced Iain Banks's signature creation, the Culture. Banks envisaged a utopian society consisting of multiple species and advanced benevolent AIs, living on a mixture of planets and exotic megastructures (most notably the Orbitals, more sensible and practical versions of Niven's Ringworld; it was actually the Orbitals that served as the inspiration for the titular constructs in the Halo video game series). In his novels Banks explored how such a utopian society could exist, usually by showing the more underhand and devious ways the Culture would protect itself and affect other civilisations.

Banks continued writing both mainstream and SF. His 1992 novel The Crow Road was adapted as a successful BBC mini-series, whilst 1993's Complicity became a feature film. However, his masterpiece is his 1990 SF novel, Use of Weapons. This novel features two streams of narrative, one moving forwards and one moving backwards, both building to huge climaxes.

Outside of his fiction, Banks was a huge fan of whiskey. In 2003 he wrote his only work of non-fiction, Raw Spirit, an account of Scottish whiskey distilleries.

Banks's work meant that he simultaneously became known as one of Britain's leading SF authors as well as a rising star of its literary scene. He ultimately became one of Britain's best-known authors. In 2007 his dual writing identity was acknowledged in a running gag in the Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright movie Hot Fuzz, in which two identical twins can be identified because one always reads Iain Banks and the other always reads Iain M. Banks.

In April Banks announced that he had inoperable cancer. He immediately married his partner and took a short honeymoon. He was hopeful of living for another year or so, but the news sadly came today of his passing. Banks's final novel, The Quarry, will be published next month.


As Iain Banks
The Wasp Factory (1984)
Walking on Glass (1985)
The Bridge (1986)
Espedair Street (1987)
Canal Dreams (1989)
The Crow Road (1992)
Complicity (1993)
Whit (1995)
A Song of Stone (1997)
The Business (1999)
Dead Air (2002)
Raw Spirit (2003, non-fiction)
The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007)
Transition (2009)
Stonemouth (2012)
The Quarry (2013)

As Iain M. Banks 
The Culture Series
Consider Phlebas (1987)
The Player of Games (1988)
Use of Weapons (1990)
Excession (1996)
Inversions (1998)
Look to Windward (2000)
Matter (2008)
Surface Detail (2010)
The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)

Stand-alone SF novels
Against a Dark Background (1993)
Feersum Endjinn (1994)
The Algebraist (2004)

Short Fiction
The State of the Art (1991, includes both Culture and stand-alone stories)
The Spheres (2010)

Saturday 8 June 2013

The Tudors: Season 1

England, 1519. King Henry VIII rules England and is beloved by his people. His wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, is popular and the king's chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, is able and formidable in administering the country and defeating plots against the throne. Another of Henry's advisors is Sir Thomas More, a man of great conscience and integrity whose respect and friendship the king values.

However, it is a difficult time in Europe. The Lutheran heresy is raging unchecked in Germany and the Pope is unable to defeat it. King Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V are engaged in a deadly rivalry, both hoping to enlist England as an ally. With his queen - the Emperor's aunt - apparently unable to bear him a son, Henry also begins movements towards a divorce. When he falls in love with the beautiful Anne Boleyn, this matter becomes pressing and threatens a breakdown of relations with Rome.

The Tudors is a television drama produced by the Showtime network and based on the life on Henry VIII, focusing on his relationships with his six wives and the political and religious turmoil that resulted. The first season covers a period of roughly eleven years, running from the accession of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor (in 1519) to the death of Cardinal Wolsey (in 1530). However, real historical events are compressed, combined or moved around in the timeline to read better as part of the drama. The contentious marriage of Charles Brandon to Henry's sister Mary Tudor (slightly confusingly changed to Margaret in the TV series) happened in 1515, but is moved to later on to create an interesting mid-season subplot, for example.

The Tudors plays fast-and-loose with the details of real history, but like HBO's Rome before it, the show does succeed in getting across the events and complications of the period. The complexities of Henry's relationships with fellow European rulers and the Pope are recounted well, as is the seething tension within the English court. As a very rough introduction to the history of the period, The Tudors works, though those interested in the real events are referred to the many history books about the time.

As drama and narrative, The Tudors is something of a mixed bag. The script is inclined towards the expositionary, with surprisingly little incidental flavour, and what there is is often questionable: a scene showing Henry VIII composing 'Greensleeves' is amusing but also cheesy and highly inaccurate (Henry VIII definitely did not write the music to the song and his authorship of the lyrics is questionable, at best). One of the strongest episodes in the season is the one where England is ravaged by disease, as it shows how Tudor England coped with such disasters and features more incidental scenes of life amongst the common folk than other episodes.

The acting is mostly good, with the likes of Nick Dunning (Sir Thomas Boleyn) and Henzy Czerny (the Duke of Norfolk) providing able support. Henry Cavill (Charles Brandon and, more recently, the latest actor to play Superman) is good as one of Henry's few true friends, though he arguably may have made a better Henry VIII himself. Maria Doyle Kennedy gives an excellent performance as Catherine of Aragorn, mixing palpable fear and worry over not being able to give the king an heir with pride and anger at the thought of being set aside. Natalie Dormer is given the hard job of portraying Anne Boleyn, the woman a king plunged a nation into anarchy for, and almost pulls it off. She is hamstrung by the indifferent script, especially as the story skips large chunks of their courtship and the precise reasons for the king's fascination with her are left somewhat ambiguous: in the TV show she simply appears to play hard to get, fascinating the king who normally just has to nod his head to get a woman into bed with him. Given their seven-year courtship and the intensity of Henry's feelings towards her, this feels rather inadequate as an explanation.

Central to this first season is Sam Neill, who plays Cardinal Wolsey with just the right mix of intelligence, political scheming and ruthless anger. Wolsey is presented as something of an antagonistic figure, but he is also shown to be a caring family man (Wolsey had a wife and two children) and to be utterly devoted to the king. As Wolsey repeatedly fails to get the annulment Henry wants, he becomes more desperate and Neill portrays Wolsey's descent with passion and intensity. Neill is possibly the highlight of the first season. Jeremy Northam also gives an excellent performance as Sir Thomas More, highlighting both More's well-known piety, intelligence and integrity but also his darker side, such as his commitment to burning heretics and Protestants at the stake.

Where the series falters - and it's quite a big misstep - is the casting of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in the central role of Henry VIII. Eight years prior to The Tudors, Rhys-Meyers had played the coldly cunning role of Steerpike in the BBC's adaptation of Gormenghast, and bizarrely he seems to be playing Henry VIII in much the same manner. The real Henry VIII is noted for his charisma and vivaciousness, his force of personality sweeping up those around him. Whilst Rhys-Meyers certainly nails the king's intelligence, confidence and raging temper when thwarted, his performance is also often cold, desperate and occasionally whiny. I can understand the idea of subverting the traditional image of the fat, middle-aged Henry VIII by showing him as a young man in the prime of life, but Rhys-Meyers simply fails to get across the complexities of the real historical figure.

Fortunately, this is not quite as disastrous as it might be supposed: The Tudors may be about Henry VIII, but the series follows those around him more than the monarch himself, and the emphasis is on the court and period as a whole rather than on the one man by himself.

From a technical viewpoint, the series is well-directed. The use of CGI to flesh out the castles and stately homes of England is interesting and rather ahead of its time (and makes up for the fact that the show was filmed in Ireland, with limited or no access to some of the real locations portrayed in the series), though also sometimes distracting. Early in the season we have relatively brief camera shots of locations that try not to dwell on their computer-generated nature. Later in the season we have rather distracting rapid camera movements and broad shots of locations which are clearly CGI and artificial (and whilst the CGI is good for 2007 and the show's limited budget, it's still not great), creating a bit of a dissonance once we switch to the live-action scenes.

The first season of The Tudors (***) is flashy, fun and enjoyable but also lightweight. The lack of historical accuracy is not a major problem - the show at least portrays the real events, if not always in the right order or with the correct details - though the uncharismatic performance of the lead actor and a sometimes indifferent and flavourless script certainly are. Luckily, most of the other actors are excellent and as a rough introduction to the time period and events, the show does work. It is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA).

Thursday 6 June 2013

Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover

Caine: the most infamous man in the Ankhanan Empire. A hero who has saved the Empire from invasion and destruction, and a villain who killed the Prince-Regent on the orders of a monastic order. Wherever there is danger, intrigue or violence, there is Caine.

In reality, Caine is a fictional character, played by Hari Michaelson. 23rd Century Earth is linked to Overworld - a post-medieval alternate reality where magic and gods are real - by advanced technology. The rigidly caste-bound population of the overcrowded planet is entertained by the exploits of the Actors, and Caine is one of the most famous Actors on the planet. When Caine's wife, Actor Shanna (who plays Caine's lover, Pallas Rill), disappears on an Adventure, Caine is summoned back into battle. This time the mission is to find his wife before her link to Earth expires, killing her, and to overthrow the monstrous new Emperor. But Michaelson faces hidden enemies on Earth even as Caine faces overwhelming odds on Overworld.

Matt Stover has carved out a reputation as the best writer ever to put pen to paper in the Star Wars franchise, writing a string of intelligent, thought-provoking books that overcome and challenge the limitations of the setting. The Acts of Caine is his most famous own creation, a four-book sequence (more are planned) that mixes SF and fantasy. It is an action-packed series, but also one that is heavily character-driven, and those characters (heroes, villains and the ambiguous alike) are three-dimensional, well-motivated individuals, even the most loathsome of whom is at some level understandable.

Heroes Die is the first book in the sequence, originally published in 1997, but is a stand-alone novel with no cliffhangers or incomplete story arcs. Its publication date precedes the bulk of the modern 'gritty' wave of fantasy novels, but it can be seen as an early example of the subgenre. The book has a black sense of humour that will appeal to fans of Joe Abercrombie, a rich urban atmosphere and cast of thieves that serves as a precursor to Scott Lynch (Lynch has said that Stover's books are one of the primary influences and inspirations behind The Lies of Locke Lamora) and features a dystopian future world that emphasises death and murder as a form of entertainment in a similar manner (but a much more sophisticated one) to The Hunger Games. It's a rich, genre-bending brew that satisfies on all fronts.

The characters are where the book shines. Scenes on Overworld are told from Caine's POV in first-person, but scenes on Earth are related in third-person. Other scenes on Overworld involving other characters are also told in the third-person.This device is quite successful, and is intriguing as Caine's POV scenes also feature his running commentary on what's happening back to the millions of people watching on Earth. Some tension is caused by Caine occasionally thinking things impolitic about life on Earth, causing friction with both the Studio and the future Earth's caste-bound government. Michaelson/Caine is a fascinating character, a man of intelligence who is ready to resort to violence at a moment's notice, but has a reason for doing so. His lover, Senna/Rill is likewise well-depicted, with her idealism contrasted against her lover's pragmatism. Stover even has well-developed villains, making even the monstrous Emperor and the psychopathic swordsman Berne (very briefly) sympathetic with reasons (if only convincing to them) for doing the monstrous things they do.

Heroes Die is unusual for the opening volume of a fantasy series by arriving complete, fully-formed and brimming with confidence and presence. It's an explosive and action-packed novel which explores its premise and characters intelligently, develops the plot and themes with skill and then finishes on a high. Complaints are few: one character gains access to a reservoir of incredible power near the end of the book, which has the whiff of deus ex machina until Stover subverts it.

Heroes Die (*****) is available now in the USA, and in the UK has just been released for the first time as an e-book only edition.