Tuesday 30 May 2017

Joe Abercrombie progress report

It's been a while since we last heard from Joe Abercrombie. In fact, it's been two years since his previous novel, Half a War, was published and a year since his last book, the short story collection Sharp Ends. For an author who's been pretty prolific over the years (ten books in ten years), that's a surprisingly long time.

In a new update, Abercrombie reports that he is approximately halfway through writing the first draft of the sequel trilogy to The First Law. He is writing the entire trilogy in first draft before he starts revising the first book for publication, a more long-winded process but one which will ensure a more regular publication schedule once the books are done and allows for much tighter continuity and editing.

Based on this and his prior statements, it sounds like it may be late 2018, if not indeed 2019, before we see Joe's next book.

A spectacular new map of Earwa

Artist Spiral Horizon (aka Jason Deem) has updated his spectacular map of Earwa (from Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse series). The map includes new material revealed by Bakker as well as information from the new maps in the Aspect-Emperor books.

The map is enormous (at 300dpi and over 9MB in size) but well worth a look. This is now one of my favourite fantasy maps of all time, a real labour of love.

Monday 29 May 2017

Cities of Fantasy: New Crobuzon

There is a city of towers and skyrails, of delights and obscenities, a city of elevated rail lines and glasshouses inhabited by sentient cacti. It is a city of squalor and beauty where insects make art and politicians dine with the ambassadors of hell.

Welcome to New Crobuzon.

New Crobuzon is the largest city-state on the east coast of the continent of Rohagi, one of the major landmasses of the world of Bas-Lag. The city lies south of the ruins of Suroch and north-east of Cobsea, spreading for miles along the banks of both the Canker and the Tar before they meet to form the Gross Tar.

The city is separated from the rest of Rohagi by the Dancing Shoe Mountains to the south-west and the Bezhek Peaks to the north-west. South of the city lies the Rudewood, a substantial woodland which gives way to the Wetlands. South-east of the city, forming a huge peninsula, lies the Grain Spiral, a vast and fertile hinterland which keeps the city of New Crobuzon fed. South-west of the city lie the Mendican Foothills.

The mountains, the Wetlands and the Sully Swamp, which lies to the west of the city, effectively limit the approaches to the city to a few rail lines and roads. These natural defences go some way to explaining why New Crobuzon has survived for almost two thousand years despite its imperialistic tendencies and occasional wars with other powers.

New Crobuzon also exercises control over several smaller settlements, most notably Tarmuth at the mouth of the Gross Tar, which serves as the city’s port.

Further to the south-west lies the Cacotopic Stain, an area of unrelenting danger, whilst to the north-west, beyond the mountains and swamp, lies Wormseye Scrub, a vast plain. New Crobuzon’s nearest rivals are located well over a thousand miles from the city itself.

These geographic limitations make sea travel a more popular alternative. Ten miles south-east of the city, the Gross Tar opens into Iron Bay, an inlet of the Swollen Ocean. Shipping lanes lead to the nearby island of Chet and, further away, the islands of Perrick Night, Gnurr Kett, Dancing Bird Island, the Jheshull Islands and Gnomen Tor. Eventually, thousands of miles to the east, the continent of Bered Kai Nev can be found, where New Crobuzon has established a colony city called Nova Esperium.

The continent of Rohagi, based on China Mieville's own map.

Physical Description
New Crobuzon is centred on the confluence of the Rivers Canker and Tar into the Gross Tar, and has spread outwards in a rough oval shape, nine miles wide from east to west and seven from north to south. The city is furthered defined from the towering grand structure of Perdido Street Station, the city’s major transportation hub, located a mile or so from the confluence. From the station a series of major and smaller skylines radiate outwards, linking the districts of the city together. The Spike, the headquarters of the feared New Crobuzon Militia, is located nearby.

Lying between the rivers are the districts of the Crow, Brock Marsh, Sheck, Skulkford, Gross Coil,  Kinken, Rim, Tar Wedge, Raven’s Gate, Canker Wedge, West Gidd, Spit Hearth and Petty Coil. Strack Island, located south-east of the confluence of the rivers at Brock Marsh, is the location of the New Crobuzon Parliament Building and is the seat of city governance. Broadly speaking, these central districts clustered around the centres of power (civil and military) are richer and more developed, but also older and more decadent.

East of the Canker lies Dryside, Flag Hill, Chnum, East Gidd, Mafaton, Nigh Sump, Abrogate Green, Saltbur and Ludmead, the site of New Crobuzon University. South of the university lies Bonetown, a poorer district famed for the Ribs, the gigantic remains of some vast creature killed millennia ago. East of Bonetown lies Mog Hill, Pincod and Badside, whilst Sunter, Kelltree and Echomire lie to the south. West of the Tar lies Chimer, Creekside, Smog Bend, Saint Jabber’s Mound, Gallmarch, Serpolet, Lichford, Spatters and Howl Barrow. South of the river as it curves around to the confluence are Ketch Heath, Sangwine, Sobek Croix, Salacus Fields, Barrackham, Riverskin, Flyside, Aspic and, located near Strack Island, Griss Twist and Griss Fell. South of the Gross Tar lie Syriac, Murkside, Syriac Well, Pelorus Fields, Dog Fenn and Stoneshell.

At one time the city extended further south and west, but the Rudewood has encroached on the city limits. A railway line continues into the woods before terminating in disarray, a remnant of the settlement in this region.

New Crobuzon is a city of rails and rivers. Among the largest bridges in the city are the Batley, Rust, Sheer and Danechi’s, but the most impressive was the Grand Calibre Bridge, built over the Gross Tar at its widest extent in the city itself. Unfortunately, the bridge’s ambition exceeded its engineering and the bridge shattered after being opened. It has still not yet been repaired.

Lee Croyer's splendid map of New Crobuzon.

The port town of Crobuzon was founded at the mouth of the Gross Tar River some 1,800 years ago. The port thrived for a century before a major pirate raid destroyed it. The survivors fled over ten miles upriver to the junction of the Tar and Canker rivers. Here, in what is now Brock Marsh and on Strack Island just to the south, they founded a new fortified settlement. “New” Crobuzon soon prospered and grew. Its location further upriver, with the two rivers used for defence, made it much more difficult to attack.

New Crobuzon grew slowly over a period of about a thousand years. Circa 1000 AU (Anno Urbis, Year of the Town) the merchant Seemly discovered the continent of Bered Kai Nev and its khepri inhabitants, opening the way for trade and exploration.

Around 1300 the city was battered by a Torque storm, one of many “reality storms” which wracked the world of Bas-Lag and left parts of the land battered and changed. An “aeromorphic” engine was built to help defend against future storms and, as a side-effect, also allowed the government to control the weather around the city.

Between 1300 and 1500 New Crobuzon experienced a golden age, a period known as the “Full Years” when the city became the centre of mercantile trade for much of eastern Rohagi. This period also saw the city make many enemies in its quest for greater riches. This culminated in the Pirate Wars, a lengthy conflict between New Crobuzon and many of the island states of the Swollen Ocean, along with several other ports. The war was “won” in 1544 when New Crobuzon deployed “Torque bombs” against the port city of Suroch to the north. The other combatants were so horrified that they ended hostilities. An expedition to Suroch to investigate the effects of the Torque bombs in 1644 uncovered horrors so unspeakable that all records of the mission were purged. Several photographs of the ruins and the creatures left living in them leaked out in 1689 and sparked immediate riots in the city.

The detonation of the Torque bombs seemed to attract the attention of other, extradimensional entities. Hell would begin dispatching ambassadors to the city and the enigmatic, capricious and a bizarre, spiderlike entity known as “the Weaver” took up residence in the metropolis shortly after these events.

The end of the Pirate Wars did not restore New Crobuzon’s former prosperity, and the city has struggled to recreate its former golden age. The aeromorphic engine ceased functioning, the Rudewood encroached on the western approaches to the city and further tensions rose with other city-states. In 1689 the city also experienced a massive influx of refugees from Bered Kai Nev, khepri fleeing a horror known only as the Ravening. New Crobuzon would go on to establish the colony of Nova Esperium on the continent to conduct an exploration and learn more about the Ravening, but ultimately this would fail, with the colony instead becoming a dumping ground for criminals.
In 1779 the city was troubled by a slake moth which caused untold damage and despair before being defeated. The following year an expedition set out from the city which culminated in the discovery of the floating city of Armada and the hunting of a powerful and mysterious aquatic creature. Between 1780 and 1804 New Crobuzon would fight a war with the powerful southern city of Tesh for control of the Firewater Straits separating Rohagi from the southern continent. New Crobuzon would declare victory in this conflict, but has not yet capitalised on this victory in any meaningful way, making some citizens believe that the war was less of a success than first reported.

Most recently, in 1806 the city was wracked by disorder and chaos as poor workers and militants fought the militia in a series of political riots.

Three of the well-known races of Rohagi and New Crobuzon: from left-to-right, a cactacae, garuda and khepri. From The Bas-Lag Gazetteer.

New Crobuzon is home to many diverse and interesting races from all over the world of Bas-Lag. Humans are the most numerous and influential, but several others are notable.

Most common in the city, after humans, are the cactacae, enormous living catacus-people with thorns growing out of their bodies. They are large, strong and formidable, making excellent workers and very bad enemies. They are hollow, with bullets and arrows passing straight through them, making them almost impossible to kill in combat.

Garuda are winged humanoids capable of flight. They are native to the Cymek Desert far to the south of the city, but a small enclave lives within New Crobuzon.

The khepri are a race of humanoid/insect hybrids native to the eastern continent of Bered Kai Nev. They resemble human women in all respects apart from their heads, which have been replaced with scarab beetles. The females are sentient, highly intelligent and communicate with other species via sign language. The males of the species, who simply resemble large scarab beetles, are non-sentient and treated with disdain by the females.

The Remade are people (human and otherwise) whose body parts have been replaced with mechanical counterparts. Sometimes this is due to industrial accidents, but in most cases is the result of the criminal justice system.

The vodyanoi are an aquatic species, noted for resembling frogs. They can create objects out of water through their innate magical powers.

Most disturbing is The Weaver, an interdimensional spider-like entity of untested power and capabilities. An interloper from another universe, the Weaver took an interest in the city shortly after the detonation of the Torque bombs. Other Weavers are believed to exist, and it is regarded as highly fortunate that only one has shown an interest in Bas-Lag. It is possible that the Weaver’s presence has gone some way to dissuading the city government from ever using Torque bombs again. The Weaver resembles a huge spider. It is highly intelligent, but speaks in bizarre verse and random observations that are difficult to parse. The Weaver regards life as a form of art and moulds it to its own sense of aesthetics. In a crisis situation, the Weaver may remain aloof, preferring to observe; it may aid the beleaguered; or it may make things considerably worse, just to see what happens and satisfy its inscrutable curiosity. The Weaver is capricious, unpredictable and utterly alien, and its guidance should be sought with caution.

The original cover art to Perdido Street Station by Les Edwards.

Origins, Appearances and Influences
New Crobuzon first appeared in Perdido Street Station (2000), the second novel by British fantasy writer China Miéville. It is the primary setting for the novel, in which a group of unlikely characters are drawn together as a slake moth stalks the city and its bizarre inhabitants. The city is also the launching pad for the events of The Scar (2002), although the primary setting for that novel is the floating city of Armada. The city returns to prominence in Iron Council (2004), which concentrates on both a hunt for a missing train far to the south of the city as well as political turmoil within the city itself. The short story “Jack”, from Looking for Jake (2005), is also set in the city and expands on the character of Jack Half-a-prayer from Perdido Street Station.

Bas-Lag was created by China Miéville as a setting for both stories and roleplaying campaigns. He was heavily inspired by The Malacia Tapestry (1976) by Brian W. Aldiss and The Anubis Gates (1983) by Tim Powers. The world and the city seem to be a partial rejection of Tolkienesque notions of fantasy conservatism, but Miéville has also credited Tolkien with inspiring his creation of memorable, horrible monsters. New Crobuzon is also clearly inspired by London, Miéville’s adopted home town.

Since 2005, despite interest from readers, Miéville has not returned to the world of Bas-Lag or the city of New Crobuzon. Instead his books have gone further in exploring fantasised versions of the real London (most notably in Un Lun Dun but also Kraken and many of the stories in Three Moments of an Explosion) or even leaving fantasy behind altogether for SF (as in Embassytown and, arguably, Railsea). A planned development of Bas-Lag as a roleplaying campaign setting has also fallen by the wayside, resulting in this fine (but 100% unofficial) effort from fan Bryce Jones.

Despite – or maybe because of – its relative lack of exposure, New Crobuzon is one of fantasy’s most popular, iconic and impressive cities, a city which is genuinely weird, offbeat and atmospheric but is also highly convincing in its offbeat detail and captivating in its colour and stories. It is to Miéville’s credit that he hasn’t just bashed out 20 novels in the same setting, but there is also the feeling that there is much more to explore in this city, and the hope that the author may one day return to it.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

BBC confirms it is planning five more seasons of DOCTOR WHO

The BBC has signed a new deal with Chinese broadcaster SMG, giving them the rights to broadcast and stream the show's entire history from 1963 to the present day, including five more seasons of the show after this one.

This is reassuring news as the fate of Doctor Who has, once again, been under discussion recently. The currently-airing 36th season (the 10th since its return in 2005) has attracted some relatively low overnight ratings of just 3.5 million, although the consolidated ratings (including those watching time-shifted and recorded versions) are closer to 6 million, even before iPlayer viewings are taken into account. The show also continues to sell very well overseas for BBC Enterprises, and after the effective demise of the most popular version of Top Gear, is the BBC's most profitable and successful show, mainly down to Doctor Who's relatively tiny budget.

The show has already been formally renewed for its 37th/11th season, which will air next year with new showrunner Chris Chibnall in charge, with a new Doctor and a potentially a new companion to introduce. This news confirms that the BBC see a long future for the show and are increasingly disregarding overnight ratings as irrelevant to gauging the overall performance of its shows.

David Keck's KING OF COBWEBS finally has a release date

David Keck's long, long-delayed third novel, A King in Cobwebs, has a publication date. It will be released by Tor Books on 24 July 2018 in the US, ten years after the publication of the previous volume.

The book is the third in the Durand Col series, following on from In the Eye of Heaven and In a Time of Treason. The third book was delayed by the author starting a family and life getting in the way.

I haven't read the series but it does have some fans who've kept the interest alive for a decade.

Saturday 27 May 2017

Release date and extract for Philip Pullman's THE BOOK OF DUST

The first book in  Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust, a trilogy serving as both prequel and sequel to His Dark Materials, will be called La Belle Sauvage and will be released on 19 October 2017.

Illustration by Chris Wormell.

The Guardian has an extract from the novel here.

Thursday 25 May 2017

Star Wars at 40: A New Hope

Working out a reliable account of where George Lucas got his ideas for Star Wars from is a task fraught with peril. Just as Lucas has ill-advisedly revisited his earlier movies to sprinkle them with more CGI and unnecessary musical numbers, so he has revised his stories over the years about how Star Wars came about and how much of a "master plan" there was before he shot a frame of footage. Untangling this mess is not easy, but I will make the attempt.

 George Lucas and Anthony Daniels filming Star Wars in Tunisia, March 1976.

What is known is that George Lucas's first theatrical release, THX 1138, was science fiction and it was a genre he seemed fascinated by, although he was not really a hardcore fan. His early interest in speed, cars and high-tech aircraft coincided with the Space Race, which likely played a role. He also watched the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials starring Buster Crabbe. Although their original release was before Lucas was born, in the early 1950s the serials were edited into feature films and re-released in cinemas, which is where Lucas caught them. Lucas seemed more intrigued by Flash Gordon, which takes place on the fictional planet of Mongo with relative few elements from Earth (other than the visiting human characters). He not only went on to read many of the Flash Gordon comics but also some of the inspirational material, including the Barsoom (aka John Carter of Mars) novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Lucas's decision to make a second SF movie seems to have been made in 1970 or 1971, around the time THX 1138 was being shown to distributors and then its final release. The movie was critically well-received but general audiences seemed to find it too depressing and bleak. Lucas resolved to make another SF movie which was fun and colourful. He had been planning to make Apocalypse Now for his friend Francis Ford Coppola, but had second thoughts due the ongoing Vietnam War. Although critical of the war, Lucas was hesitant about being too on-the-nose in criticising it as he didn't want to be polemical. He felt that an SF project could tackle some of those ideas in an allegorical or metaphorical way instead which was less heavy-handed. Combined with legal problems, Lucas was happy to hand back Apocalypse Now to Coppola.

Lucas decided to make a bid for the Flash Gordon rights, with Coppola potentially signing on as a producer to help entice distributors on board. Prior to the release of The Godfather in 1972, Coppola's name wasn't quite the powerful force it was to become and Lucas found his pitch rejected. Dispirited, he turned his attention to American Graffiti. During the course of making that film, he discussed his ideas with co-producer Gary Kurtz and resolved to simply create his own SF mythology to back up a story.

Work on the project began in January 1973, after post-production on American Graffiti had wrapped, with Lucas working "full-time" for four months on a treatment. The first treatment focused on CJ Thorpe, a trainee "Jedi-Bendu space commando" studying under legendary warrior Mace Windy (later Windu). This treatment, under the name Journal of the Whills, did the rounds of several studios, but they were either baffled by it or concerned about the budget. Lucas produced another treatment, called The Star Wars, and began considering the problem that his story was simply far too big to fit comfortably in one movie.

To deal with the complexity, Lucas hit on an idea established by Akira Kurosawa in The Hidden Fortress, the notion of using the two most modest, least-powerful characters in the story as a window into the events and a way of commenting on the bigger epic going on (Kurosawa himself was probably influenced by Shakespeare's use of similar characters in his plays). Lucas was also inspired to pare down the complexity of the movie into a much more straightforward battle between the good Rebels and the evil Empire, with a central maguffin in the film of a huge space station and superweapon.

After having the project rejected several times, Lucas met with Alan Ladd, Jr., the head of 20th Century Fox, in June 1973. To Lucas's surprise, Ladd seemed much more enthusiastic. Aware of the building positive buzz over American Graffiti and having studied Lucas's career, Ladd decided he wanted to invest in the young film-maker. The sponsorship of Francis Ford Coppola and the fact Lucas had a ready-made team from American Graffiti, including Gary Kurtz, ready to go also didn't hurt. Ladd wasn't entirely sure what to make of the new project but decided he wanted to be on board, especially as Lucas had budgeted the film at a fairly modest $8 million and demanded a fairly low fee in return for the ludicrous idea of retaining the merchandise and sequel rights. In a move he later regretted, Ladd bought the treatment and gave Lucas the green light in return for these modest demands.

The script proceed over the next year and a half through four very tough drafts. Lucas was now on board with the idea of focusing the story on the two droids and using them to explain much of the backstory. His first full draft introduced Han Solo (originally a tall, green-skinned alien), Chewbacca (based on Lucas's pet dog, Indiana), the Death Star, Darth Vader, the Force (originally a magical energy field generated by the khyber or kyber crystals) and developed a new protagonist, Annikin Starkiller. Starkiller was originally a 60-year-old war veteran and general reluctantly dragged out of retirement to help the Rebellion. However, Lucas realised the film might be popular with children and they might want a younger character to relate to, so he revisited his original treatment concept of the hero being a young man trained in the ways of the Force under an older mentor. Annikin Starkiller became Luke Starkiller and the mentor became his father, and later his father's friend.

The second draft moved more dramatically towards the final film, although some major differences remained. Most notably, Luke's father Annikin (eventually spelt Anakin) was still alive and Luke had several brothers. For the third draft - given the title The Star Wars: From the Journals of Luke Starkiller - Lucas decided to have Anakin already dead at the start of the film, killed by the evil Darth Vader, and combined elements of the father and mentor characters into the new character of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also by this time Lucas had started working with artist Ralph McQuarrie and begun considering the issue of visual effects.

To his surprise, Lucas discovered that the 20th Century Fox effects team had been disbanded. Rather hurriedly, he set up his own company, Industrial Light and Magic, in 1975 to begin working on the film. Thanks to McQuarrie's paintings, which established a coherent visual look for the movie early on even as the scripts changed rapidly, the effects team had some clear ideas about what Lucas wanted to do. Unfortunately, some of Lucas's demands, such as the epic space dogfights which had to feel like WW2 movies (which had often been shot simply using real fighters), seemed completely unachievable. This led to a lot of experimentation and hard work before they stumbled on the technique of motion control, keeping the models still and moving the camera around them in computer-controlled movements. Although the concept was not new - 2001: A Space Odyssey had used an earlier version for several model shots - increasing computer power allowed it to be better applied and more cheaply at scale for the first time.

Peter Cushing, George Lucas and Carrie Fisher on the set of Star Wars. Not pictured: Cushing's comfortable slippers, which he insisted on wearing on set.

Lucas delivered the fourth and final draft on New Year's Day 1976, under the somewhat overly cumbersome title: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars. This draft had been worked on by Lucas's American Graffiti collaborators, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, who had introduced much of the humorous dialogue and banter, particularly between Luke, Han and Leia. This draft also included the movie's opening crawl, which was huge and incomprehensible. Director Brian De Palma assisted Lucas in paring it down to the bare essentials of the plot.

Pre-production and casting was already underway, with the film resting heavily on the shoulders of an inexperienced trio of (relative) newcomers: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford (the latter rehired from American Graffiti after a stalled acting career and a side-gig as a carpenter). Veteran screen actors Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness were hired to play Grand Moff Tarkin and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively. The very tall David Prowse, then best-known for appearing in road safety educational films in the UK, was hired to play the role of Darth Vader. Prowse was under the impression that the final film would use his voice and was disappointed to learn that he would be dubbed over. Lucas first considered Orson Welles for the voice of Vader, but later settled on the much less well-known but equally theatrical tones of James Earl Jones.

Filming began in March 1976, with the shooting script mercifully shortened to The Star Wars. One of the last changes made was altering Luke's surname to "Skywalker" instead of the more dramatic (and, given the changes to the story, now slightly nonsensical) "Starkiller". Filming lasted approximately four months, concluding in July. Lucas found the shoot highly stressful, facing criticism of the script and his dialogue from his young actors (Harrison Ford famously quipping, "You can type this shit, George, but you can't say it,") and criticism of his shooting decisions from the English crew. Although Lucas was annoyed by the crew giving him far less leeway than he was used to from American teams, some of their choices turned out correct, particularly how they lit the Death Star sets. Lucas's vision had been darker and more threatening, but he conceded the antiseptic and clinical look fit the Empire much better.

Both cast and crew were confused by the script, not understanding how much of the movie would be put together in the editing room, but  Alec Guinness was instrumental in maintaining a professional demeanour on set. Although not thinking much of his dialogue or characterisation, Guinness was impressed at Lucas's willingness to kill off his character when he realised there was no role for him in the movie's denouement and even agreed to a minor pay cut in return for a percentage of the film's profits (a movie Guiness's agent described as mad, but Guinness noted worked out "very well" in the long run). Despite hating the increased fame that came from the role, Guinness retained a lot of respect for Lucas's technical skills and even - surprisingly - agreed to return for two cameos in the later films.

Industrial Light and Magic technicians working on the iconic Star Destroyer model for the opening shot of the film.

After shooting wrapped, Lucas had to start post-production. Due to time pressures, Industrial Light and Magic had been instructed to work on the effects whilst live-action filming was underway. Upon returning from the UK, Lucas found that relatively little had been accomplished, the effects team having instead spent half the budget on just getting the technology to work. Lucas had been stressed and depressed from the shoot and now had added pressure from overseeing the effects work. He was also dismayed by the movie's first edit, which was terrible. Editor John Jympson had picked some of the bafflingly weaker takes for many scenes and put them together in a very traditional, limp way. Lucas fired him and replaced him with Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew. They ended up throwing out almost half of Jympson's scene choices and replacing them with more dynamic, higher-energy takes. They also introduced the old-fashioned idea of using wipes to switch from one scene to the next, which improved pacing and structure.

In the 1970s, post-production on a film typically lasted a few weeks - maybe a month or two at the outside - and then the film was ready for release. The idea of a post-production schedule lasting months was bizarre to the studio. They'd already negotiated a budget hike during shooting to complete production (from $8 million to $9.9 million) and now they were faced with a six-month delay to release. They initially deemed this unacceptable and asked Lucas to screen what he had for them. Lucas complied, also inviting a group of fellow film-makers including Di Palma, John Milius and Steven Spielberg along. An edit of the film was show with the wipes in place but only a few model effects sequences, the missing scenes instead featuring WWII dogfight material. At the end of the screening the other directors were unenthused apart from Spielberg, who (already planning his own epic SF movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) had grasped what Lucas was trying to do. Much to Lucas's surprise, the 20th Century Fox executives were extremely enthusiastic, noted uber-agent and studio executive Gareth Wigan (who later worked on Ridley Scott's Alien) going so far as to burst into tears and declare it "the greatest film I've ever seen".

Not only did the executives give Lucas the extension, they also approved budget overruns which took the movie to $11 million. The movie gave Lucas a great deal of confidence and renewed conviction which he needed to get the film finished. There were still creative problems ahead, however. Lucas had been unable to get his animatronic Jabba the Hutt concept to work and had to ditch a scene featuring the gangster. He instead used a different version of the Greedo scene which shared some of the same material (shot with this contingency in mind). Oddly, when he created the 1997 Special Edition of the movie, Lucas included both scenes despite them sharing word-for-word repetition of the same dialogue. Lucas also dumped other scenes from the start of the film featuring Luke witnessing the space battle overhead and discussing it with his friends, feeling it slowed down the movie too much.

Tragedy nearly struck the project when, on 11 January 1977, Mark Hamill flipped his car whilst trying to reach an exit on the freeway too fast (whilst listening to the 1812 Overture, of all things). He broke both cheekbones and his nose. When he woke up in the hospital he was convinced his career was over. Doctors worked a miracle in repairing the damage, but his appearance had been noticeably altered to the point that the opening of Empire Strikes Back included a sequence where Luke was mauled by an ice creature to explain Luke's corresponding change of appearance. Showing the resilience that would later define his career, Hamill bounced back to record dialogue and voiceover loops for the film before its final release.

Marketing for the film initially relied on the usual T-shirts, posters and some appearances by Lucas and Hamill at science fiction conventions. However, the film gained a huge boost from its novelisation. Alan Dean Foster wrote the novel of the film, using the final script draft, in the summer of 1976 (whilst filming was going on) and it was rushed out late in the year to meet the original film release deadline of Christmas. When the film was dropped back six months, no-one bothered to change the book's release date to match. As a result, the novel - containing the entire film's storyline, plot and ending - was on the shelves six months before the film was released. Judy-Lynn and Lester Del Rey, in the middle of launching their own SFF imprint, quickly mobilised to snatch up the paperback release rights for a couple of months later. The book was well-reviewed and its description of lengthy space battle sequences whetted appetites, as well as scepticism from those who didn't believe the film would live up to them. The book shifted a million copies within a year and did an enormous amount to build up pre-release hype.

The film was released, under the mercifully concise title Star Wars, on 25 May 1977. It changed the face of film-making and science fiction forever.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

2016's best video game gets a hefty price cut

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, my favourite game of last year, is part of a Steam sale on a 33% discount. The game has also had its free demo (remember those?) expanded to the entire first two levels of the game.

Shadow Tactics is a stealth-focused game where you control five very different characters with complementary skill sets who have to make their way through a civil war in Shogunate Japan, using a mixture of guile, cunning and intelligence to achieve fiendishly hard objectives. The game has a beautiful soundtrack, a vivid art style, some brilliant emergent gameplay moments (my favourite being the 13-year-old girl and a dart trap who turns an ordinary watchtower into a gruesome, corpse-filled abattoir for easily-distracted soldiers), a satisfying storyline and five well-defined characters with their own personalities.

This game came out of nowhere from a very small developer and was absolutely outstanding. Please buy this game and tell all your friends so the developers will get to make more!

Sunday 21 May 2017

A History of Eärwa Part 7: The Great Ordeal

Part 1 can be found here.


Drusas Achamian, former sorcerer of the Mandate and now the only Wizard of the Three Seas.

At one time Drusas Achamian was an agent of the Mandate, a sorcerer haunted by dreams of Seswatha, hero of the First Apocalypse, and by fears that the Second was coming. During the chaotic swirl of the Holy War he found a man whom he believed could save humanity and lead it to victory over the ancient foe, the Unholy Consult. Anasûrimbor Kellhus led the Holy War to victory, but in doing so he stole away Achamian’s love, Esmenet, and subverted the religious fervour, faith and love of millions to build himself an empire.

Faced with the choice of kneeling to the Aspect-Emperor or repudiating him, Achamian chose the latter. Unimpeded, at the Aspect-Emperor’s express command, Achamian fled into the wilds of Galeoth, erecting a tower to live in solitude and meditate on one question: “Who is the Aspect-Emperor?”

Saturday 20 May 2017

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

No-one can remember Hope Arden. A minute after taking their eyes off her, she vanishes from people's memories. Photographs can be taken, text messages read, but the very fact of her existence simply cannot be retained by the human brain. Unable to get a job (her bosses forget about her the second she leaves the premises) or hold down any kind of meaningful human relationship, Hope turns to crime to survive. What was supposed to be just one more diamond job in Dubai goes south thanks to a disturbing new lifestyle app. A woman dies and Hope suddenly discovers a cause, something to fight and die for, but a battle even her extraordinary advantage may not be able to help her win.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the fourth of five works by Catherine Webb published under the name of Claire North. These five works are thematically linked by each character in these works having some kind of special ability, usually providing great advantages but also tragic disadvantages, and a situation they have to deal with. It's thought-provoking, interesting stuff, written with a literary bent thanks to her superior ear for language and a great eye for character.

Webb may be better known to SFF fans under her other pen-name, Kate Griffin, under which she wrote the splendid Matthew Swift urban fantasy series, as well as the YA material she publishes under her own name. She's now chalked up seventeen novels under her three pen names, giving her works a sense of confidence that comes from experience. But she's also a restless author, constantly moving between ideas and embracing new concepts (hence why the Matthew Swift series wrapped up after just four books rather than being strung out for twenty). The Claire North books - given a bolster by The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August being chosen for a TV book club in the UK and taking off as a result - seem to be her way of fully engaging with an adult readership and also experimenting in ideas and literary styles between books.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is an aptly-named book: for me it came out of nowhere and staked a serious claim to being one of the best genre novels of recent years. The premise is simple: no-one can remember Hope Arden. If she spends more than a minute out of their line of sight, they simply forget she existed. She can be caught on video or audio, but a minute after the viewer or listener switches the device off they forget her again. It makes forging any kind of relationship, from a friendship to a romance or a professional collaboration. difficult. The only way Hope can really survive is by forging a secret online identity as _why, which she uses on the darknet to fence stolen goods and arrange commissioned crimes or pick up falsified documents.

What could simply be a gimmicky special ability is instead folded into the book's over-arcing themes of identity, validation and how people desperately try to stand out in a world swamped in social media and superficiality. The storyline revolves around Perfection, an app which monitors users' habits and advises them if they are being "perfect" or not. It rewards people trying to be perfect with points, and at higher levels they gain rewards, from stays in posh hotels and spas to money off expensive beauty treatment and lifestyle courses. When people using the app find themselves getting dream jobs, meeting their perfect partners and improving their quality of life, it explodes in popularity. But Hope soon finds something sinister lurking behind the App, both in the people that made it and the people who use it regularly, something that ties in with the media's idea of what makes people perfect and what makes people people.

The result is a timely reflection and analysis of the world we live in. An app like Perfection isn't quite possible right now, but it's probably not too far off. Of course, the book takes the concept to its ultimate conclusion, bringing in body horror and invasive brain surgery. When Hope discovers a second person like herself who has been made memorable by the surgery, she suddenly finds herself fighting the urge to use it herself, to rejoin the human race at the expense of the things that make her unique.

The result is a book with a killer high concept, a fascinating and psychologically complex lead character and which uses its premise as a prim through which to examine the world around us, from vacuous media culture to spin doctors to lifestyle gurus and tabloid editors wielding more power than any elected political official, all told through some tremendously skilled prose.

There are moments where the pace stalls a little, where the movements between story and theme and characters don't jar quite as well as they should, and occasional moments where you find yourself questioning quite how Hope's abilities work (most of which, to be fair, the book answers quite well), but these issues are pretty limited.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope (****½) is a jet-setting novel about a jewel thief which metamorphoses into a beautifully-written taken on life in the 21st Century and on the meaning of identity. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Wednesday 17 May 2017

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY trailer released and episode order upped

CBS has released a trailer for their upcoming new series, Star Trek: Discovery.

Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and Lt. Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in Star Trek: Discovery.

Set approximately ten years before the events of the original series, the show will follow the adventures of the USS Discovery as it engages with a major new threat to the Federation.

The new show will air on CBS All Access in the United States and on Netflix in most of the rest of the world. No air date has been set, but this autumn seems to be the most likely date. However, CBS has revealed that they have upped their episode order for the series from 13 to 15, in a welcome display of confidence in the project.

What do I think of the trailer? It's US-only at the moment, so I have no idea. More thoughts when an international version is released.

ALTERED CARBON TV series will launch in 2018

Netflix has put up a placeholder web page for their new cyberpunk SF show Altered Carbon, based on Richard Morgan's iconic Takeshi Kovacs trilogy of novels. It doesn't contain much info at the moment, but it does confirm that the show will launch in 2018 rather than late this year, as some had previously hoped.

Production on the series started at the end of last year and would appear to be wrapping up sometime around now. Lots of effects work remains ahead - Altered Carbon is reportedly Netflix's most expensive show at $7 million an episode, matching the earlier seasons of Game of Thrones (but only half of the budget of the upcoming seventh season of that series) - before the show hits the screen.

Netflix is bringing THE WITCHER to television

Netflix is developing a television series based on Polish author's Andrezj Sapkowski's Witcher series of novels and short stories. Sapkowski will serve as a creative consultant and producer on the project.

Sean Daniel and Jason Brown, who were both instrumental in bringing The Expanse to the screen, will produce. Polish visual effects company Platige will provide the effects work, with Tomek Baginski and Jarek Sawko producing. Baginski will also direct one episode per season. Baginski's CGI work is renowned, such as in his short movies The Cathedral and Fallen Art, but more relevantly he also produced the introductory cinematics for the video games The Witcher (2007) and The Witcher II: Assassin of Kings (2011) (see above).

The books are concerned with the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, a "witcher" or monster-hunter. As a mutant, he has superior reflexes and can imbibe potions and use oils to gain the edge in combat. His day job is killing the various monsters which inhabit the Northern Kingdoms, but over time he gets reluctantly drawn into politics and a major war brewing between the kingdoms and a powerful empire to the south, not to mention racial struggles between humans, dwarves and the elves they have hunted to the edge of extinction and are now fighting back.

There are eight books in The Witcher series: Sword of Destiny (1992), The Last Wish (1993), Blood of Elves (1994), Time of Contempt (1995), Baptism of Fire (1996), The Tower of Swallows (1997), Lady of the Lake (1999) and Season of Storms (2013). They have sold over 2 million copies in 20 languages since release, with the books being particularly popular in Poland, Russia and Spain.

However, far better-known to Western audiences are the three Witcher video games: The Witcher (2007), The Witcher II: Assassin of Kings (2011) and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (2015). The games have sold over 20 million copies in total, with The Witcher III being lavishly praised as the best CRPG of the current generation.

It is unclear if the TV show will adapt the books or will pursue original stories set in the same world. This announcement does seem to decrease the likelihood of Netflix being the home of the upcoming Wheel of Time TV series, since it is less likely that Netflix will want to develop two medieval fantasy TV shows simultaneously.

Tuesday 16 May 2017

A History of Eärwa Part 6: The Unification Wars

Part 1 can be found here.

Word of the great victory at Shimeh spread to all the corners of the Three Seas. The Holy War had triumphed. The heathen Fanim had been put to rout and the Holy City restored to the Faithful. But even more remarkable were the stories that accompanied the news. A new leader had emerged from the ranks of the Holy War. He had survived death, performed great miracles and pulled the battered, bloodied remnants of the crusade to a victory against odds unthinkable. Here was a story from the very Sagas brought to life.

Anasûrimbor Kellhus was born in 4076 in Ishuäl. A Dûnyain monk, he left his home in 4109 at the command of his order, to search for his father whom it had feared had gone mad amongst the Worldborn. By 4112 he had joined and conquered the Holy War, mastered the Gnosis and been crowned Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas, the greatest - and most reviled - figure in history since Triamis the Great.

Anasûrimbor Kellhus was proclaimed the Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas by the Shriah of the Thousand Temples. Tens of thousands of Men of the Tusk, forged in the burning heat of the Great Carathay and tempered on the battlefields of Caraskand and Shimeh, swore themselves his eternal subjects, his Zaudunyani, the “Tribe of Truth”. Even three of the sorcerous schools (the Imperial Saik, the Scarlet Spires and the Mandate) had sworn to his service. His victory, his rule, seemed unquestionable.

But history is never so simple. Across the Three Seas there was shock that this man, this prince of nothing, had come out of nowhere and seemingly subverted the Holy War to his own ends. Many dismissed him as a fraudster, or even a Ciphrang, a demon from the Outside sent to lead men to their destruction. Some who may have been tempted to hear him were disgusted to hear that he preached of the threat of the Consult and the Inchoroi: children’s stories that no-one but those doddering old fools in Atyersus took seriously. Armies were summoned, swords forged and bows strung as the opponents of the new Aspect-Emperor, the Orthodox, braced themselves for war. Likewise, Maithanet’s support for Kellhus had shattered the Thousand Temples, leading to many priests – the Schismatics – taking up arms in defence of the faith.

Only one nation declared for Kellhus in its totality: Conriya, united under the rule of Nersei Proyas. Every other nation splintered, the entire caste-nobility of the Three Seas divided. Provinces and palatinates and principalities declared for or against Kellhus, often depending on the zeal of their troops and rulers still encamped with the Holy War around Shimeh. Most of civilised Eärwa teetered on the brink of civil war, moreso in the Nansurium after the unexpected deaths of both Emperor Ikurei Xerius and his heir, Ikurei Conphas, on campaign, with no heirs left to them.

But the Holy War was not done. Refreshed, reinforced (by the Mandate and other sorcerers flocking to Kellhus’s banner) and resupplied, the Holy War struck south and west into Kian proper. The long war had exhausted the fighting strength of the Fanim and they could offer no effective resistance. Fanayal ab Kascamandri was unable to rally his people and melted away into the Carathay Desert. By the end of 4113 the Holy War had seized Nenciphon and installed the Emperor and Empress in the White-Sun Palace. Many soldiers formerly loyal to the Empire now switching their loyalty to Anasûrimbor Kellhus. Massar ab Kascamandri, the brother of Fanayal, underwent the Whelming, the spiritual induction into the ranks of the Zaudunyani, and swore his entire nation to the service of Kellhus.

In 4114 Kellhus published a tract on sorcery. The Novum Arcanum attracted great attention for its revelations and insights into sorcery and logic. The following year Kellhus announced a great gathering of sorcerers from across Eärwa and they came in unprecedented numbers to learn from him and hear his great Rehabilitation of Sorcery. All Shrial and Tusk condemnations of the practice were rescinded and sorcerers were no longer held to be anathema. Through such acts Kellhus won every sorcerer of rank and power in Eärwa (save one) to his side, the sorcerous schools united under his banner.

A witch of the Swayal Compact. Steeped in the Gnosis and outstripping the other Schools in sheer numbers, the Swayal may be the most powerful force in Eärwa save only the Aspect-Emperor himself.

Kellhus also made his second great proclamation: the Manumission of the Feminine. All limitations – legal, spiritual or moral – placed on the comportment of women were struck down. Women now had full equal rights to men across the Three Seas. This was initially a more controversial declaration, and seized upon by Kellhus’s opponents as proof of his madness, but it was also popular amongst, of course, the women of the Three Seas, particular with regard to inheritance and property rights. Even more dramatic was that the combination of the two declarations effectively ended the ban on women joining the Few. For centuries women wielding sorcery had been scorned as witches, burned at the stake or stoned to death even by those men who trafficked with sorcerers themselves. Now they were allowed to come out of the shadows, in numbers which caught the men of the Three Seas by surprise.

Even more breathtaking was what Kellhus did for these women: he commanded the Mandate to instruct them in the ways of the Gnosis, and gave to them the abandoned Cûnuroi Mansion of Illisserû in Holy Amoteu as their stronghold, now renamed Orovelai. He made them a simple promise, to support and empower them in return for their support in turn. This became known as the Swayal Compact, the name also taken by the witches (a name many of them now wore with pride). Within a decade their knowledge and mastery of the Gnosis rivalled that of the Mandate and their numbers far outstripped them.

Kellhus won loyalty, even fanatical and maddened loyalty, in his own way. Within a year of the fall of Nenciphon, his missionary-zealots had begun making their way across the Three Seas. They became known as the Zaudûn Angnaya, the “floating college” of young aspirants who learned from Kellhus whenever they could. They sought to persuade through argument, reason and, whenever that failed, conviction. Horrified stories spread amongst the Orthodox of “suicide sermons”, when Angnaya would slit their own throats in front of the vast crowds to prove their absolute faith. At first they used such demonstrations as proof of Kellhus’s danger and insanity, but the unshakeable faith and certitude of the zealots shook the Orthodox, who had no spiritual answer for them.

The Unification Wars. Between the fall of Shimeh in 4112, at the end of the Holy War, and the capitulation of Nilnamesh in 4122, Anasûrimbor Kellhus conquered the entire Three Seas, eventually being decreed its political, military, religious and sorcerous leader: its Aspect-Emperor. More than 75 million people lived and died at his command.

By the end of 4114 war had come: the Fanim inspired a massive uprising in Shigek, but this had been crushed by Rash Soptet, Lord of the Sempis. The growing rift in the Thousand Temples erupted in bloodletting, the War-between-Temples. Nilnamesh, long separated from its Inrithi brethren by the width of the Kian Empire, also declared against Kellhus.

In 4115 Prince Shoddû Akirapita assembled a large army in Nilnamesh and moved to defend the border. The Zaudunyani were defeated at the Battle of Pinropis, to their surprise. Kellhus took time to regroup, during which time his allies achieved greater victories: in 4116 Coithus Narnol declared for Kellhus and delivered Galeoth almost intact to his banner. King Hringa Vûkyelt likewise unified Thunyerus in Kellhus’s name and expelled the Schismatics from the kingdom. The following year both Ce Tydonn and High Ainon became divided in a bitter civil war, followed by the declaration of Ce Tydonn for Kellhus in 4118. Cironj also fell in this year.

High Ainon presented Kellhus with a major problem: the nation was vast and unruly at the best of times but unified in its fear of the Scarlet Spires. But the Holy War had almost destroyed the order altogether, with barely a dozen sorcerers-of-rank surviving the conflagration at Shimeh. To their humiliation, Kellhus award the Mandate command of Kiz, the former Scarlet Spires stronghold in Carythusal. From there the Mandate was able to bring the rule of the Aspect-Emperor to lower Ainon, but the full capitulation of the kingdom took longer. In 4120 the Sack of Sarneveh took place, Kellhus himself leading the capture of the city. Although successful, the Toll of casualties (a meticulous accounting of the cost of victory) recorded more than five thousand children slain. This news escaped the city, encouraging further resistance to Kellhus. However, by the end of 4121 High Ainon had fallen and declared for Kellhus.

At this point, a curiosity took place, one which even the most fanatical Zaudunyani have struggled to reconcile with their extolling of Kellhus as a messenger of the divine. Following the conquest of High Ainon, Kellhus spent four months in Kiz as a student of Heramari Iyokus, the famed Blind Necromancer and a master practitioner of the Daimos, the sorcerous art of communing with demons. At the end of this tutelage Kellhus emerged with the two grotesque heads of demons bound to his hip by their hair: the Decapitants. Kellhus demurred on explaining their origin, often ignoring the question altogether. Rumour said that the Aspect-Emperor had somehow plumbed the very Hells themselves and returned with the heads of trophies of war, and to remind the Aspect-Emperor of the fate awaiting all those who were damned.

Also in 4121, the Nilnameshi capital of Invishi had finally fallen to the Zaudunyani. However, Prince Akirapita refused to capitulate, gathering a new army. It was not until this army was destroyed at the Battle of Ushgarwal in 4122 and the Prince slain (his body was found in a well in Girgash in 4123) that Nilnamesh could finally be said to have been brought into the fold. This left only Fanayal ab Kascamandri out of the Aspect-Emperor’s many foes, and his forces were reduced to a few tribesfolk of the Great Salt.

The Unification Wars were declared over in 4122. Maithanet, having won the War-between-Temples, crowned Anasûrimbor Kellhus the Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas in Momemn, which Kellhus had taken as his capital.  Kellhus and his wife, Esmenet, now had several children – Kayûtas (b. 4112), Theliopa (b. 4114, in Nenciphon), Serwa (b. 4115) and Inrilatas (b. 4117) – and more would follow, the twins Kelmomas and Samarmas (both b. 2124). They had also adopted the son of Cnaiür urs Skiötha and Serwë, Moënghus II (b. 4111) as their own. The result was that they had already established a dynasty, one with the power to rule the Three Seas for generations to come.

But the new goal of the Anasûrimbor family was not to simply rule. Kellhus declared war on Golgotterath and the Unholy Consult. He declared his goal was to destroy the dread Ark and cast down its Golden Horns forever. His purpose was to forestall the return of the No-God, prevent the Second Apocalypse and to save the World itself. To this end he commanded the establishing of the greatest army in human history. Swords and armour were forged on a titanic scale. Horses were bred in their tens of thousands. Supply caches were established in the northern Empire, near the Kathol Pass leading to the vast Istyuli Plains. Sorcerers were called to train and learn as they never had before, and to prepare for the war to come, which would be known as the Great Ordeal. 


The artwork for this article was created by Jason Deem, known as Spiral Horizon, and used with his permission. You can find more of his spectacular work here. The maps are from Scott's website, adjusted by myself.

The Prince of Nothing Wiki was helpful in providing spelling checks and putting the timeline of events in better order.

Scott Bakker wrote the Second Apocalypse novels, for which this history is merely the backdrop and the scene-setting that comes before. Those novels are:

The Prince of Nothing
The Darkness That Comes Before (2003)
The Warrior-Prophet (2004)
The Thousandfold Thought (2005)

The Aspect-Emperor
The Judging Eye (2008)
The White-Luck Warrior (2011)
The Great Ordeal (2016)
The Unholy Consult (2017)

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Monday 15 May 2017

GAME OF THRONES spin-off update from George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin has provided an update on the status of the Game of Thrones spin-off projects that HBO is developing.

A Dunk & Egg TV show is - for now - off the table as George R.R. Martin still wants to write the short stories first. Artwork: Ser Duncan the Tall confronts Lord Lyonel Baratheon, the Laughing Storm, by Chase Stone.

Martin confirms that HBO is looking at four potential scripts and has been developing ideas with them since last August. He also says that this has now expanded to five scripts, with the fifth writer being someone who knows A Song of Ice and Fire better than anyone except himself and the Westeros.org admins (which makes me wonder - and this is pure speculation - if it's Daniel Abraham, who writes the ASoIaF comic books and of course has recent TV experience from The Expanse, or maybe Bryan Cogman who currently works on GoT).

Martin has ruled out a Robert's Rebellion TV show, confirming that he has no interest in "joining up the dots" of the major events of the war, all of which will be explained in the books or GoT itself. There will also not be a Dunk & Egg TV show, as Martin wants to write at least a few more of the stories before pursuing a TV adaptation. All five projects, therefore, are new. He also confirms that all five are prequels taking place some considerable amount of time prior to the novels or existing TV show, and existing characters will not be featured.

Most intriguingly, he suggests that not all of the projects will take place in Westeros, raising the prospect of a series set entirely elsewhere in the world, possibly in the Summer Islands, or Valyria at the height of its power, or exploring the mysterious city of Asshai or the Golden Empire of the Dawn.

At the moment HBO are still developing the scripts and considering the material that has been produced, and will make an announcement on which - if any - they will take forward to the pilot stage and then a series.

Martin confirms that work continues apace on The Winds of Winter, but has not provided a firmer update on the current status of the book.

Saturday 13 May 2017

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Breq, once a superintelligent AI controlling a vast starship, is now a reluctant agent of Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the Radch. Mianaai inhabits thousands of different bodies scattered across human space, but is now suffering from disassociation: two distinct factions have arisen in her multiplicity and are now waging war on one another. Aligned with one faction against the other, Breq is ordered to the remote planet Athoek and take steps to secure it against the opposition.

Ancillary Justice was released in 2013 and won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards the following year. A fine space opera novel which contained thematic musings on identity, consciousness and pre-existing biases, it was a striking debut, if one that was slightly overrated.

Being a success, of course the novel turned out to be the start of a trilogy. This is where things start to go wrong for Ancillary Sword. The Imperial Radch trilogy is what can be called a "fake trilogy", where Part 1 is self-contained (to some extent) to avoid too many unresolved plotlines if sales tank, whilst the remaining two parts form a much more closely-linked duology. The original Star Wars trilogy is a good example of that, and it's a reasonably common set-up in science fiction and fantasy which can work quite well (and arguably is better than "proper" trilogies with a single big story, where often the middle book feels surplus to requirements). However, it doesn't really work with Ancillary Sword.

This is a book which has very bizarre pacing. The entire novel, which is only 340 pages long in paperback, is laid back, chilled out, almost languorous. Breq travels on her starship to Athoek and meets lots of people and is nice to them, whilst carrying out observations of them from her unique perspective (a starship AI living in a single human body). The other characters are a mixture of interesting and bland, but the novel stubbornly refuses to engage in anything really approaching a plot or giving them anything interesting to do. A representative of an overwhelmingly powerful alien race is murdered, but this has no consequence (in this novel anyway). There's a lot of politicking and capital-building, both by Breq and her subordinates, and some of this is addressed in the novel but a lot of it isn't. At one point we learn of a mysterious "ghost gate" leading to an unknown star system where Breq suspects something is going on. She resolutely fails to follow up on this lead.

Ancillary Sword, it soon turns out, is almost nothing but set-up and pipe-laying for Ancillary Mercy, the third and concluding volume in the series. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is an issue when the book denudes itself of its own identity and storyline to benefit the later book in the series.

What the book does do quite well is character development, with Leckie also cleverly inverting the usual cliches of "AI wanting to be human" stories by having an AI become human and resolutely dislike the experience. By the end of the book Breq knows where she stands with regards to the government of Athoek and the administrators of the space station above it. The novel also makes some nods in the direction of themes such as colonialism, but treats the subject simplistically and superficially: no-one on Athoek but Breq has ever had the idea of treating the labourers fairly or even just enforcing the law on treating subject races well, apparently.

This is a slow-burning, SF-lite novel which feels like it is trying very hard to be a Lois McMaster Bujold book (who does this kind of comedy-of-manners, character-rooted story which holds back on violence and explosions with considerably less hype) but is undercut by also lacking the story and thematic elements that Bujold would include in her work effortlessly. If Ancillary Sword is anything, it's certainly not effortless: this is a turgidly-paced novel that took me five weeks to get through despite its modest length.

Still, Ancillary Sword (**½) is a desperately slow and badly-paced novel rescued by some effective characterisation and ends with some plot developments that leave things in an intriguing place for Ancillary Mercy to resolve. How well it does so remains to be seen. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.