Monday, 30 December 2013

The Wertzone Awards 2013

Best Novels

1. The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
Priest releases his second novel in two years after a decade-long gap. The Adjacent is ambitious, taking a complex idea, tying it into knots and allowing the reader to untangle it. Bolder and braver even than The Separation, this is Priest at his best.

2. River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay returns to his alternate China for a more lyrical and thought-provoking novel than its thematic predecessor, Under Heaven. Beautifully written, pitched perfectly and with memorable characters.

3. Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins
A strong debut, painting a vividly atmospheric picture of an alternate-reality Soviet Union. Let down a little by more being the first half of a longer novel than a book in its own right, but still a riveting read.

4. Ancilliary Justice by Anne Leckie
A new, distinctive voice in space opera. Leckie fuses the 'social science fiction' of Ursula LeGuin with a dash of Iain M. Banks to create something intriguing and fresh.

5. A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
A series most people had written off a decade ago is finally brought to an appropriately epic finale. There are a few more unresolved minor plot points than might be wished, but based on the history of 'sequels by other hands' this is far better than anyone had any reason to hope for or expect.

6. Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear
A sensitive, well-written and imaginative take on fantasy, reimagining Central Asia as a hotbed of magical intrigue and struggle. A startling mix of the original and familiar.

7. The Ace of Skulls by Chris Wooding
Wooding brings his fantasy airship series to a conclusion. Arguably the most out-and-out 'fun' fantasy series of the last few years, and its ending does not disappoint.

8. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
A six-year wait for this book resulted in raised expectations which did not work for some, but Lynch's clever ticking narrative timebomb over Locke Lamora's true identity and the reasons for his unhealthy obsession with a childhood crush is brutally effective. Sharp and funny, the novel is let down by a lack of stakes in the central election storyline, but Lynch leaves things on a compelling knife's edge for the next few books in the series.

9. On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds
A step-up from Blue Remembered Earth, with better characters, a stronger plot and a return to Reynolds's more traditional milieu of interstellar space. It's still not up there with his earlier novels, but this is still a compelling, well-structured read.

10. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Time travel and serial killers meet in a story which is brutally effective, if a bit too lacking in character motivation or explanation.

11. The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham
Abraham's morally ambiguous fantasy, influenced equally by Babylon 5 and the history of the Medicis, passes its middle volume with aplomb.

12. The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce
A slight let-down from Joyce: hauntingly atmospheric, well-written and completely convincing in its depiction of a place and time, but the overall impact of the novel is slight.

13. Fade to Black/Before the Fall/Last to Rise by Francis Knight

A complete trilogy, you say? Released all in one year? Impressive. Knight's debut series is rough-around-the-edges, but its magepunk stylings and main storyline are effective.

14. Queen of Nowhere by Jaine Fenn
Fenn returns to the quality of her debut novel after a couple of slightly disappointing releases in the Hidden Empire series.

15. The Grim Company by Lucas Scull
This epic fantasy debut may be more Abercrombie than Abercrombie, but it's still an effectively-paced, entertaining action story.

16. The Art of War/An Inch of Ashes/The Broken Wheel by David Wingrove
David Wingrove's Chung Kuo relaunch has run into trouble, with Corvus considering putting the series on indefinite hold after the eighth volume is released next year. This is troubling news for Wingrove's fanbase (some of who have been waiting for more than a decade and a half for the series to be completed according to the author's intentions) and newer readers impressed by the breadth and scale of Wingrove's vision. However, one can't help but think the main problem was the decision to split the series into twenty very short novels rather than ten reasonably-sized ones.

17. Parasite by Mira Grant
Above-average prose for this kind of schlock thriller make Parasite an enjoyable read, but the plot twists are spelled out in fifty-foot-tall neon letters 200 pages before they take place and the premise (itself reminiscent of Greg Bear's Blood Music) is rather credulity-straining.

18. The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett
Brett scored an impressive debut with The Painted Man but has struggled ever since to match it, with its increasingly bloated sequels featuring less and less character and plot development in favour of repetitive explorations of tedious backstory. Hopefully he can turn it around in the upcoming fourth volume of the series.

The Wertzone Award for Pulling It Out of the Fire

Bringing a series beloved by millions of readers to a successful, satisfying conclusion after the death of the original author is a very tall order indeed, but Brandon Sanderson managed to pull it off. Yes, the fates of a few minor spear-carriers may be left unresolved, but overall this was a satisfyingly explosive end to a series twenty-three years in the making.

The Wertzone Award for Best Books Read in 2013 Regardless of Release Date

Four books, four five-star reviews. No other series in this blog's history has managed to pull off that feat. The Acts of Caine is a mind-blowing fusion of science fiction and fantasy, exploring character and thematic ideas against a backdrop of action and philosophy. It also manages to be 'grimdark' without resorting to cheap misogyny (most of the major characters in the series - bar Caine himself - are female). It's also bewildering how each of the four volumes in this series are written in a somewhat different manner to the rest, even occupying a different subgenre. Inventive, imaginative and unrelenting.

Best Games

1. XCOM: Enemy Within
It shows how lacklustre this year was that an expansion for a year-old strategy game was the best title released. Enemy Within expands upon XCOM: Enemy Unknown's compelling gameplay but adds new options, missions and ideas to make for a very different-feeling (but equally excellent) game.

2. Metro: Last Light
An excellent sequel to Metro 2033, with a better-pitched difficulty level, a more tragic storyline and a more convincing-feeling world.

3. Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches
Dishonored was one of the best games of 2012 and these two DLCs were perfect expansions, adding interesting new ideas and storylines to that game without overloading it. The journey through Daud's soul was almost as gripping as Corvo's journey in the original game and some of the new locations and challenges exceeded the original game in atmosphere and playability.

4. StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
I had mixed feelings about 2010's Wings of Liberty, but the (ridiculously) late first expansion was a much better game on almost every level. The storyline was more original and interesting, with the Zerg made into a more compelling player-race. Some major storylines stretching back all the way to 1998 and the original game are finally concluded, leaving this feeling less like the middle volume of a trilogy it really is.

5. Shadowrun Returns
One of the earliest big successes of Kickstarter, Shadowrun Returns brings old-skool gameplay to modern audiences. A more linear experience than was originally expected, blighted by the absence of a save-anywhere feature, but a solid storyline, great writing and some really good combat overcome the problems to make for a highly enjoyable RPG. However, there is still a lot of untapped potential in the engine.

6. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim - Dragonborn
Dragonborn sees Skyrim bid farewell to the world with style. Providing a large, new island (or an old one, if you're familiar with Morrowind's expansions) to play around in, Dragonborn is the whole Skyrim experience encapsulated in a smaller, more manageable location with some great new ideas (even if the dragon-riding mechanic is rather terrible) and some unusually interesting (by Bethesda's standards) characters.

7. Tomb Raider (2013)
Lara Croft's first adventure in several years is a clean reboot, ably written by Rhianna Pratchett and focusing on characterisation and motivation as well as combat and exploration. Old-skool fans may be put off the lack of actual tomb-raiding in favour of combat, quick-time events and cut-scenes, but Tomb Raider makes these often-annoying mechanics work in its favour to create an enjoyable experience.

8. BioShock Infinite
One of the most visually impressive games of the year, with a highly imaginative setting and some excellent combat set-pieces. The storyline is interesting and the complicated ending works really well. However, even moreso than its forebears, BioShock Infinite is screaming out to be an RPG and seems to only sulkily settle for being an action game. The restrictions of having to lay waste to everything in sight and not being able to interact with characters badly chafe in this title, but if you can deal with this there's plenty of fun to be had.

9. Company of Heroes 2
Company of Heroes 2 is a pretty solid sequel to the original, genre-redefining RTS. However, a weaker storyline and poorer writing hamper the single-player side of things, whilst the multiplayer is not (yet) as compelling an experience as the original game. A playable and enjoyable sequel, but also one that feels a little bit too conservative.

10. Total War: Rome II
Creative Assembly are no strangers to releasing incomplete, buggy games and patching them up later on, but after two solid launches in a row, fans believed that their troubles were behind them. Instead, Rome II launched in a poor state. Four months and eight patches later the game is far more playable than it was at launch and a compelling, rich strategy experience awaits the patient. But there's still a few too many problems to be able to fairly assess the game so far.

11. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
2K's almost embarrassed attitude towards this game didn't bode well prior to release, and this turned out to be a bit of a shame. It may be Mass Effect 3 with an XCOM skin draped over it, but it still features excellent combat (better than ME3's, it has to be said), some great team mechanics and some good ideas that even the main XCOM series hasn't replicated yet (like being able to split your soldiers between different missions simultaneously). The storyline is also more twisty than you might expect, with some nice ideas emerging towards the end. Certainly not a classic - it's a little too repetitive - but definitely a worthwhile shooter.

11. Space Hulk (2013)
Stomping around a space hulk with a bunch of Terminator Marines and destroying everything in sight is, as it has always been, brilliant fun. However, a near-vertical difficulty curve and an overreliance on pure luck over strategy become frustrating long before the final missions are reached.


Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Director's Cut
One of 2011's best games is re-released with its most egregious flaws - most notably the annoying boss fights - reworked into something far more palatable. What was once a flawed gem is now improved to the status of stone-cold classic.

Brutal Legend: PC Edition
This interesting RTS/RPG/action hybrid always felt more suited to the PC than console, so it's a relief to finally see it arrive on that platform. However, the failure to rework the awkward controls into something better-suited for a strategy game means that it's still failing to fulfil its potential

Best TV Series

1. Orphan Black (Season 1)

Packing more plot and character into its pilot than most shows manage into a whole season, Orphan Black arrived with a bang and never looked back. It's relentless pace never came at the expense of character development and even a couple of iffy supporting performances couldn't dent the achievement of lead actress Tatiana Maslany, whose charisma and jawdropping versatility gave us no less than seven of the best performances of the year. The only question is whether the show can maintain the same level of quality into its second season, due next year.

2. Game of Thrones (Season 3)
Game of Thrones's third season delivered two of TV 's strongest moments of the year, with the explosive finale to the fourth episode only exceeded by the horrors of the Red Wedding in the ninth and tenth episodes. Elsewhere the show occasionally struggled for pacing and some storylines were revisited a bit too often (the 'torturing Theon' storyline went on way too long, with a very dull denoucement), but overall this remains a compelling, if controversial, adaptation of George R.R. Martin's novels.

3. The Returned (Season 1)
This French drama was deliberately-paced, beautifully-characterised and awesomely-shot, with its central mystery unfolding slowly but inexorably over the course of eight episodes. An overreliance on ambiguity and a lack of explanation for what's going on suggest this Gallic Twin Peaks could turn into Lost rather too easily if the upcoming second season doesn't deliver some anwers, but for now this was one of the most intriguing new shows of the year.

4. An Adventure in Time and Space
A drama about the real-life origins of Doctor Who might sound a little dull, but Mark Gatiss's script and David Bradley's astonishing central performance as First Doctor William Hartnell are both gripping. A galaxy of excellent supporting actors and some fiendish attention to detail result in a more-than-fitting tribute to the show's 50th anniversary.

5. The Walking Dead (Season 3.5)
This really should have been better than it was, with David Morrissey's Governor finally providing the zombie drama with a much-needed main bad guy and antagonist. However, some bad pacing in the latter part of the season and too many episodes (they should have remained at 12 episodes; don't go to 16 unless you have the story to fill it) resulted in too much filler.

6. Agents of SHIELD (Season 1.0)
One of the most eagerly-awaited new shows of the year had a very ropey beginning, with badly-written scripts and confused-looking actors eventually giving way to a more compelling, pulp action show by the mid-season cliffhanger. SHIELD really needs to go for the jugular on its return, however, if it isn't to be judged a failure.

7. Doctor Who (Series 7.5 and specials)
In its 50th anniversary year, Doctor Who should really have been firing on all thrusters. However, a typically muddled, confusing and badly-explained story arc from Steven Moffat, a surprisingly subpar script from Neil Gaiman and rather poor use of new companion Clara (played with enthusiasm by Jenna Coleman) resulted in a half-season to forget. The actual 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, was surprisingly good with some great performances and a clever way of tying in with the show's ongoing storylines. However, this good work was undone by the Christmas special which addressed outstanding plot holes with all the grace and subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Roll on the Peter Capaldi era and, hopefully, a much-needed change of production team.

8. The White Queen
A historical drama about the Wars of the Roses should be absolutely brilliant, with the rich characters and gripping political intrigue of the era ripe for historical exploration. Instead, this show was completely all over the place tone-wise, with pacing that was shot to hell, excruciatingly awful battle sequences and highly variable performances. At rare moments, some strong promise shone through, but ultimately this show wasted its terrific potential on cheap melodrama.

9. Under the Dome (Season 1)
Utter, utter drek. Stephen King's rather poor novel becomes a poor TV show, complete with dire acting, predictable plot twists and a total lack of plot coherence or logic, culminating in a tepid cliffhanger. This really should have been cancelled, but we will have to endure a second season next year. Hopefully, against all likelihood, the showrunners can turn this around and allow it to start fulfilling its actually interesting premise.

Best Film

1. Pacific Rim
It's a commentary on how weak 2013 was in the cinema - and how few films I saw - that a movie about big robots hitting big monsters with rocket-powered arms was the most enjoyable thing I saw this year. Still, Guillermo Del Toro's kaiju movie was a satisfying romp, mixing in some awesome character names (only Idris Elba could pull off a guy called 'Stacker Pentecost') and a nod at a multi-national response to an international threat (most of the film is set in Hong Kong and few of the castmembers or characters are American). Del Toro also showed Michael Bay how it's done, with massive CGI set-pieces which you can actually follow thanks to some well-judged direction. The film was also notable for the difference in reaction across the world: the USA was lukewarm, but Chinese audiences brought in more than $100 million by themselves, helping the film recoup its budget and making a sequel likely.

2. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Peter Jackson's second Hobbit movie is the least-faithful Tolkien adaptation he's helmed, but it's still an enormous improvement on An Unexpected Journey. Better action beats, much better pacing and more inventive use of the dwarven characters result in a movie that doesn't feel as long as it is (unlike the stupefying three-hour length of the original, which felt more like six). However, there's some decidedly iffy effects moments, too many superheroics from Legolas and an ill-judged cliffhanger ending.

3. The World's End
The third and final movie in the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy is also the weakest, despite some solid direction by Edgar Wright and some surprisingly good performances from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. However, the film mishandles its tonal shift from friendship drama to sci-fi action flick and too many gags fall flat. Entertaining, but ultimately much less memorable than either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.

4. Iron Man 3
Having Tony Stark suffer from PTSD in the aftermath of The Avengers is a bold idea that could have resulted in a fascinating movie. Instead, it's not long before we descend into action mayhem with more explosions than you can shake a stick at. As usual, Robert Downey Jnr. remains the most watchable actor on the screen, single-handedly preventing the movie from sinking into disposability. He even handles an ill-judged 'cute kid sidekick' subplot with some skill. Ultimately, watchable and fun

5. Star Trek - Into Darkness
It's likely that the J.J. Abams Star Trek movies are going to be remembered as films featuring a great cast desperately searching for a good script. There are brief moments in Into Darkness when it feels like they might just get it, but the ill-conceived decision to turn the movie into Wrath of Khan fanfiction (only nowhere near as good) blows it out of the water before the final act.

6. Man of Steel
Another case of a really good cast let down by an execrable script, though here the film starts going down in flames as soon as the action moves from Krypton to Earth. Structurally weak, with some awful dialogue and some of the most unconvincing CGI put on screen in a decade or more, Man of Steel is only saved from total disaster by Russell Crowe's steely-gazed presence and charisma.

Note: I haven't seen Gravity or Thor: The Dark World yet.

The Wertzone Missing in Action 2013 Award

For once, this wasn't the fault of George R.R. Martin but of some artists who allegedly were a bit late in turning in their work (though GRRM took advantage of this to deliver tens of thousands more words of material than originally planned). Originally announced in 2008 and with multiple release dates mooted and then missed, this book is currently scheduled - and finally seems a lock - for November 2014. From early sneak previews, it looks like it's going to be more than worth the wait with both compelling new backstory material and some terrific artwork.

The Wertzone Award for Best Genre-Inspired Career Boom

This may have more properly begun a decade-and-a-half ago with his casting as Argus Filch in the Harry Potter movies, but 2013 was really a bumper year for 71-year-old David Bradley. His character of Walder Frey was responsible for the most shocking moment of television of the year on Game of Thrones, whilst his performance as William Hartnell in An Adventure in Space and Time was simply sublime. He even fitted in appearances in The World's End and Broadchurch before ending the year on a high, being cast as the lead on Guillermo Del Toro's TV series The Strain.

The Wertzone Award for Special Achievements in Eyebrow Acting

'Nuff said.


Unknown said...

Nice list of books there, I think I've actually read about 4 or 5 of those, which makes a change for me. I don't read as many books as you do Werthead.

My game of the year is GTAV followed by the last of us and fifa14. But my favourites are old games terraria, and disgaeia 3 on the vita. I like a mix of gaming systems. Well when I say my favourites, those are the ones I play the most:).

Brad Murgen said...

I will have to check out Acts of Caine based on your recommendation. The only Stover I've read was the novelization of Revenge of the Sith, which I thought was quite well done.

Phil Monks said...

It seems like you disliked about 60% of the entries. Time to branch out?

Bob/Sally said...

Great call with River of Stars - absolutely amazing. Ancilliary Justice is one I'm meaning to read in the new year, along with Scott Lynch's series to date.

No love fro Grimm? Given the utter dreck that was Under the Dome, I'm surprised Nick and team didn't make the list. That's one show my genre-challenged wife and I can actually enjoy together. :)

Anonymous said...

" It's also bewildering how each of the four volumes in this series are written in a somewhat different manner to the rest, even occupying a different subgenre. Inventive, imaginative and unrelenting."

You'll definitely want to read Steven Brust then.

I always find your "best of tv" to be a misleading title, as half the list is rather bad. You should rename it to "Tv series I watched, from best to worst".


Agoglife said...

No 'Last of Us' in the games section? Come on man!!

Prankster said...

I'd argue 2013 was actually a great year for movies, just not *genre* movies (though Pacific Rim, Gravity, The World's End, Catching Fire, Thor 2, and Iron Man 3 were all good to great, and "Her" is topping a lot of critics' best-of lists).

Carl V. Anderson said...

A great list on all counts. I'm really happy for Jordan fans that Sanderson managed to do right by them and by this series. I'm hoping this is a lesson to other writers to get their work done while they have time.

River of Stars is one I had hoped to get to in 2013 but it didn't happen.

I got the first Metro game for Christmas and am enjoying it. I added it to my list because of seeing online praise of this second game. I look forward to getting to it one of these days.

I've been slowly making my way through the Dragonborn expansion. I hate to see it all end and am going to be sad when that last mission is completed.

I was very impressed with the Tomb Raider reboot.

bafriyie said...

I am looking forward to reading The Adjacent, especially after having read Inverted World two years ago. It is good to see that Priest is still writing.