Wednesday 31 October 2018

RIP Dave Duncan

Scottish-Canadian fantasy author Dave Duncan has passed away at the age of 85.

Born in Fife, Scotland in 1933, Duncan studied geology at the University of St. Andrews. He moved to Canada in 1955 (becoming a citizen in 1960) and worked in the petroleum industry for thirty years before deciding to quit after a slump in the industry. He started writing and published his first novel, A Rose-Red City, in 1987 at the age of 54.

A prolific writer, he published over fifty books and was still going strong, publishing the standalone Portal of a Thousand Years last year and the Enchanter-General Trilogy this year (the final volume is scheduled for release in 2019). His best-known works include the Seventh Sword and King's Blades series and the Great Game trilogy in the mid-1990s.

A fast and reliable author of cracking tales, Duncan will be missed.

GAME OF THRONES spin-off casts another lead

Following yesterday's news that Naomi Watts would be starring in the Game of Thrones prequel spin-off show (provisionally entitled The Long Night), it's now been confirmed that the show has found another leading actor.

Josh Whitehouse (Poldark, The Happy Worker, Valley Girl) has been cast in a key leading role, although, oddly, HBO have not provided any kind of character description. Whitehouse has been seen as a strong up-and-comer, reminiscent of the profile Richard Madden had when he was cast as Robb Stark for the pilot of Game of Thrones itself, nine years ago.

The Long Night will shoot its pilot episode just after Christmas. If it impresses HBO, production of Season 1 proper will take place later in the year for the show to debut on HBO in 2020.

Netflix confirms final cast list for THE WITCHER

Netflix have confirmed the final principle cast list for The Witcher, as well as revealing the first promo image of Henry Cavill as the titular character.

The announced cast consists of:

  • Henry Cavill as Geralt of Rivia
  • Frey Allan as Ciri
  • Any Chalotra as Yennefer
  • Jodhi May as Calanthe
  • Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson as Eist
  • Adam Levy as Mousesack
  • MyAnna Buring as Tissaia
  • Mimi Ndiweni as Fringilla
  • Therica Wilson-Read as Sabrina
  • Millie Brady as Renfri
  • Eamon Farren as Cahir
  • Joey Batey as Jaskier (aka Dandelion)
  • Lars Mikkelsen as Stregobor
  • Royce Pierreson as Istredd
  • Maciej Musial as Sir Lazlo
  • Wilson Radjou-Pujalte as Dara
  • Anna Shaffer as Triss
  • Rebecca Benson as Marilka
  • Shane Attwool as Nohorn
  • Luke Neal as Vyr
  • Matthew Neal as Nimir
  • Tobi Bamtefa as Danek
  • Sonny Serkis as Martin
  • Roderick Hill as Fletcher
  • Inge Beckmann as Aridea
  • Charlotte O'Leary as Tiffania
  • Natasha Culzac as Toruviel
  • Amit Shah as Torque
  • Tom Canton as Filavandrel
The Witcher has just begun production in Budapest, with shooting expected to last until May. The series will air on Netflix in late 2019.

Marvel developing a FALCON/WINTER SOLDIER mini-series

As previously revealed, Marvel and Disney are already developing two limited mini-series to help launch Disney's new streaming service in late 2019, with Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen set to reprise their film roles as Loki and Scarlet Witch respectively. However, it sounds like they may be beaten to the screen by a new project which teams up Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes.

The new mini-series already has a writer on board, with Malcolm Spellman (Empire) tapped to write the scripts for the series. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan are expected to reprise their film roles as Sam Wilson/Falcon and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier respectively.

Both actors are expected to be seen again in the still-untitled fourth Avengers movie (due out in May 2019). Mackie also recently committed to starring in the second season of Altered Carbon for Netflix, as the latest "sleeve" for main character Takeshi Kovacs.

BBC America greenlights Terry Pratchett's THE WATCH

BBC America has formally greenlit The Watch, an ongoing TV series based on the late Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel series.

The TV show will focus on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, an initially downtrodden and ineffectual police force which, over the course of many books, becomes an effective force for law and order on the streets of the city. The TV series will include characters such as Samuel Vimes, Carrot, Nobby, Angua, Cheery and Sybil Rankin, alongside appearances by Death himself.

It is believed that the series will mix in new and original stories with adaptations of the City Watch novels (starting with Guards! Guards!), although the precise format has yet to be revealed.

BBC America is pairing with Pratchett's own production company Narrativia to make the series, with Simon Allen (The Musketeers) on board as head writer. The first season will consist of eight episodes, expected to debut in late 2019 or early 2020.

RIP Jin Yong

The celebrated Chinese novelist Jin Yong has passed away at the age of 94.

Louis Cha Jin-Yong was born in Hainan, China in 1924. In the late 1940s he pursued a career in the foreign service and moved to Hong Kong, then under British rule. A fan of literature and the classic wuxia form (which features heroic and chivalrous characters overcoming advertsity through a personal code of honour and prowess in martial arts, with elements of fantasy included), he began writing his own first novel in that mode in 1954. In 1959 he founded the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, which remains active today, and which serialised many of his books before they appeared in novel form.

Jin Yong produced fifteen novels in the wuxia genre between 1955 and 1975. His best-known work is the Condor Heroes trilogy, consisting of The Legend of the Condor Heroes (1957-59), The Return of the Condor Heroes (1959-61) and The Heavenly Sword and Dragon Saber (1961-63). In his lifetime his books have sold over 100 million copies, been translated into numerous foreign languages and spawned scores of video game, film and TV adaptations. His influence in Chinese popular literature has been compared to that of J.R.R. Tolkien in the west, and he has been occasionally dubbed "the Chinese Tolkien."

Jin Yong's work also helped further popularise the wuxia genre to wider audiences, especially given the literary praise heaped on his work. By setting his work in the past and using the form to explore universal themes of honour, redemption, love and chivalry, Jin Yong achieved a wide appeal and fame outside of China as well: he also achieved a high degree of fame in Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. For political reasons his work was banned for many years in Taiwan, but this ban was lifted in 1979 and his works became subsequently well-known there.

Jin Yong's fiction is less well-known in English, as only a few books were translated in his lifetime (the Condor Heroes trilogy, for example, only started appearing in English this year). In Hong Kong he was respected more for his journalism and his non-fiction on Chinese history. In 1981 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his achievements in these fields. He was also awarded the French Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1994 and the Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2004. The same year he received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University in 2004. Surprisingly, he decided to attend Cambridge University at the age of 80 to study Chinese history, citing the importance of continuing to learn and grow at all ages. He achieved a PhD in Chinese History in 2010.

Jin Yong passed away yesterday after a long illness.

Daredevil: Season 3

Matt Murdoch is missing, presumed dead after the incident at Midland Plaza. His friends, journalist Karen Page and lawyer Foggy Nelson, are trying to get on with their lives but find their grief is hard to forget. But Murdoch is still alive, recuperating and facing the stark realisation that only Matt or Daredevil can survive, not both of them. When Wilson Fisk is unexpectedly released from prison and exerts a new reign of terror over the city, the choice is made for him.

Daredevil was the series that launched the Marvel/Netflix alliance back in 2015. That partnership has proved both successful and prolific in a short period of time, spanning eleven seasons in six distinct series aired in just three and a half years. Its future is in question, however, with Disney launching its own streaming service in 2019 to be spearheaded by multiple Marvel shows and Netflix recently cancelling both Luke Cage and Iron Fist.

There is, then, an excellent chance that this will be Daredevil’s swansong. That would be a shame because the third season of Daredevil, despite not hitting the heights and consistency of his debut (still the best set of episodes the Marvel/Netflix team-up has produced), is definitely a much-needed improvement after a spate of weak seasons.

The strengths of Daredevil as a series are clear: it has the best central cast of characters of the Marvel/Netflix stable, with Charlie Cox, Elden Henson and Deborah Ann Woll playing Matt, Foggy and Karen with heart and vigour. Vincent D’Onofrio continues to give a brutal, monstrous but weirdly charismatic performance as Wilson Fisk (aka Kingpin). This season also brings in new characters, most notably Jay Ali as Ray Nadeem and Wilson Bethel as Benjamin Poindexter (aka Bullseye), FBI agents trying to tap Fisk for intel on other criminals who take radically different paths based on their exposure to the mobster. Both give great performances.

The series also has exceptional fight choreography. One of the biggest disappointments of the Marvel/Netflix collaborations has been the wildly inconsistent quality of the action and fight scenes, particularly Iron Fist’s lacklustre combat. Fortunately, Daredevil is right at the other end of the spectrum, with brutal, bruising and convincingly physical fight scenes that feel real, with the participants having to rest for appreciably realistic periods between fights and every punch causing winces in the viewer.

This peaks in the fourth episode which delivers a staggering 11-minute, continuous cut shot taking in multiple fights in different locations in a prison and an intense dramatic confrontation along the way. It’s a breathtaking technical, action and acting achievement, a masterclass of choreography and acting, and is simply the finest action sequence delivered in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (TV and film) to date. It’s certainly the highwater mark of the season.

In terms of pacing and story structure, which the Marvel Netflix shows have struggled with ever since the first season of Jessica Jones (the second season of the collaboration), Daredevil Season 3 is a mixed bag. It starts very slow, but starts picking up before the end of the second episode, and the wrapping-up of the story (which extends across the last three or so episodes) is excellent. In between there are peaks and troughs, with two flashback-heavy episodes dedicated to exploring character backstories. Neither of these flashbacks are entirely necessary and the exploration of Bullseye’s history is badly-directed, pretentious (the black and white “memory vault” format is in fact unintentionally hilarious) and makes it completely implausible that the he’d ever get a job with the FBI, given their thorough background checks. Karen Page’s flashback episode is well-acted and better-directed, but the revelation of her backstory doesn’t entirely line up with the character as she was presented in Season 1.

The issue of realism and suspension of disbelief recurs throughout the season, particularly in the middle third. Early episodes, in which it appears that Fisk is manipulating situations as they arise, are very well-handled. But the later-season revelation that Fisk in fact set many of the events of the season in motion a year or more earlier (despite being in prison), expertly playing people like puppets and setting up backups within contingencies within plans, is laughably unconvincing. This continues through an awful sequence where Fisk seems to instantaneously and magically know the identities of jurors, the whereabouts of key witnesses and every move our heroes are about to make (including information he couldn’t know without clairvoyance or psychic powers). It’s all very well giving your villain a credible threat level, but this season goes beyond this and makes Fisk lethally knowledgeable and dangerous when needed and incompetent when not. It feels contrived, which is a pity. The later part of the season, where he again has to reach to emerging threats, is better-handled.

More successful is how the season develops Matt Murdoch/Daredevil as a character, presenting him with a crisis of faith and a deeper crisis of morality before convincingly bringing him out the other side into a lighter and brighter place. The theme of the season is fear and how people can overcome it to do the right thing, and, as basic as it is, the season explores the theme through multiple character arcs in a very successful manner.

So, despite some major problems mid-season with plausibility and a couple of ropey flashback episodes, Daredevil Season 3 (****½) emerges as one of the strongest seasons from the Netflix/Marvel collaborative project, and leaves the show in a great place for a fourth season. I only hope it can survive the apparent Netflix/Marvel breakup and give us at least one more season of these characters’ adventures, as they have earned it. The season is available worldwide on Netflix now.

Tuesday 30 October 2018

GAME OF THRONES prequel pilot casts Naomi Watts to star

Actress Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive, King Kong, The Ring) has been cast as the lead in the pilot to the Game of Thrones prequel series, provisionally entitled The Long Night.

Watts will be playing "a charismatic socialite hiding a dark secret". The Long Night takes place approximately 8,000 years before the events of Game of Thrones itself and charts the collapse of the Age of Heroes, a golden age of human kingdoms living in alliance with the Children of the Forest. A terrible winter descends upon the world, bringing with it the first threat of the mysterious White Walkers.

No Game of Thrones characters - apart potentially from the Night King - will appear in the new series, but the ancestors of families such as the Starks are expected to be major characters. In the books the Long Night takes place during the Bronze Age of Westeros, with far more primitive weapons, castles, armour and cities appearing. The "socialite" tag sounds a bit odd in this context, but may be referring to Watts' character playing a noblewoman who becomes aware of the growing threat in some manner.

Watts' casting is high-profile, although that doesn't mean much for the longevity of her character as Sean Bean fans can attest. Watts will probably be hoping this show goes better than her last one, Netflix's Gypsy, which attracted poor ratings and reviews and was cancelled after one season. She also recently appeared in David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return.

The pilot to The Long Night - if that is its final title - will start shooting in the New Year. If HBO decide to proceed to series, it will air in early 2020.

Monday 29 October 2018

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

A new Fifth Season has fallen on the world, the worst one in history. It may last a thousand years and forever end what vestiges of civilisation remain in the Stillness. One orogene, battered and dying, has a plan to end the Season and indeed all of the Seasons: to recapture the Moon, which was moved out of its traditional orbit more than a thousand generations ago, unbalancing the world. Recapturing the Moon requires that Essun find and harness the powers of the Obelisk Gate. But this may be harder than she thought, as enemies are moving against her new-found home and, in the distant south, her daughter discovers that she herself has an unforeseen destiny.

The Obelisk Gate is the sequel to the excellent The Fifth Season and the middle volume of the Broken Earth trilogy, N.K. Jemisin's critically-acclaimed take on the venerable Dying Earth subgenre. The Fifth Season was a highly accomplished novel, describing a brand new world with skill and intelligence and blending together elements of fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction and a dash of the weird to create something compelling and interesting.

The Fifth Season was also helped by its structure, in which we follow the same character at three different points in her life. The story rotated through each version of the character in term, gradually giving the readers all the pieces to assemble the full narrative. It was a great literary conceit, well-conceived and executed, which allowed the reader to really get to grips with the character.

The Obelisk Gate can't use the same structure, so instead adapts it by moving between Essun's story and that of her daughter Nassun. Whilst the first book was an extended road trip, the second book alternates between Essun's static story and Nassun's long journey across thousands of miles into the far south. This changes things up nicely and means that Essun, now a guest of the community of Castrima, has to actually stay put, learn what's going on from Alabaster and help defend the community.

It does mean a slightly more uneven book than The Fifth Season. Not actually a huge amount happens in this novel, especially for Essun's storyline, and some implausibility creeps in when you realise she is spending months and months hanging around in Castrima (to allow Nassun to travel many, many thousands of miles from almost the equator into the Antarctic region) but doesn't seem to really learn a lot of new information despite Alabaster being right there. That said, there is quite a decent amount of character building and atmosphere here and Castrima, a subterranean city suspended in a giant geode, is a terrific piece of worldbuilding.

Nassun's storyline is more dynamic and disturbing, as her father tries to take her to safety but instead brings her into an even more dangerous and unstable situation, with her own burgeoning powers to contend with. There's a dark mirror here to Essun's childhood upbringing as related in the previous novel, with the feeling that Nassun is what Essun could have become if she was indulged more instead of tortured.

The result is a sequel which expands on the world and the story but, in a common failing of middle volumes of trilogies, can't quite match the relentless pace and sense of discovery from the first book. There's a lot of introspection in this novel which is beautifully written, but risks redundancy later on. However, the book ends with an explosive confrontation between Castrima and a rival community which once again shakes things up and leaves them in an interesting place for the final book in the series to pick up on.

The Obelisk Gate (****½) is a readable and strong sequel to The Fifth Season, if a slightly less original and relentless one. It is available now in the UK and USA. The story concludes in The Stone Sky.

Sunday 28 October 2018

Fox TV developing a new DRESDEN FILES TV series

Fox 21 Television Studios is developing a new TV series based on The Dresden Files novels.

Previously, Lionsgate Television produced 12 episodes of a TV version of the books for the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy). The TV series was (very) loosely based on the opening books of the series, but were widely criticised for taking significant liberties with the background, lore and characters, as well as not faithfully adapting the novels. Particularly criticised was the decision to adapt the first novel in the series, Storm Front, as a movie-length pilot and then cutting it down to 45 minutes and placing it eighth in the running order, which rendered some of the plotting nonsensical.

Butcher has produced fifteen (of a planned twenty-three) novels in the book series since 2000, along with numerous short stories and comics. It's likely that any TV adaptation would adapt multiple books per season.

Fox 21 produces comments primarily for the FX Channel, although some of their shows have ended up on Showtime, Netflix and the USA Network. It'll be interesting to see what comes of this project.

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 4: The War of the Shadow

"I am Lews Therin Telamon, the Dragon. I ruled these lands, unified, during the Age of Legends. I was leader of all the armies of the Light, I wore the Ring of Tamyrlin. I stood first among the Servants, highest of the Aes Sedai, and I could summon the Nine Rods of Dominion. I held the loyalty and fealty of all seventeen Generals of Dawn’s Gate."

The War of the Shadow
The War of the Shadow was also called the War of the Power, for it was during this war that most defensive and offensive uses of the One Power were discovered. In fact, it seems that the amount of knowledge regarding the Power was increased more during the war than during the preceding few centuries. It was also during this war that the most destructive form of the Power was discovered.

The war lasted around ten years from beginning to end and soon spread to all parts of the world. No island, no matter how small or remote, was left untouched by the conflict.

In the first year of the war the Light was still reeling with surprise from the unexpected entrance of Trollocs and Myrddraal (and, later that year, Grey Men, Draghkar and Darkhounds) into the conflict. During this year vast swathes of territory fell into the hands of the Shadow. During the second year the Light began to rally, but was still too disorganised to offer effective resistance.

During the third year the Light was struck hard by the sudden, unexpected defection of Barid Bel Medar to the Shadow. The second-in-command of all the Light’s armies had coldly analysed the facts and realised that the Shadow would almost certainly emerge victorious. For his strength in the Power – second only to Ishamael – the Dark One raised him to the ranks of the Forsaken and he was given a new, cursed name: Demandred.

It seems that Lews Therin may have had an inkling about Barid Bel’s defection, for he let it slip to Barid only days before his departure that he had moved the armies defending Paaran Disen to remote areas in an effort to stop a new Shadow offensive in those regions, and they could not be recalled easily. When Barid, now Demandred, told Ishamael of this, Ishamael led a huge assault on the capital itself. As promised, no armies appeared to stop them. The Shadow’s forces had come within a mile of the city’s gates when Lews Therin appeared and, apparently in desperation, challenged Ishamael to single combat. Ishamael agreed in amusement, planning to treacherously kill Lews Therin should he begin to win, but this was merely a distraction. The Light’s armies suddenly fell upon the Shadow’s forces from behind, catching them by surprise and almost completely destroying them. Ishamael and the other Forsaken present barely escaped with their lives.

This army had been the Shadow’s largest, and with its destruction Lews Therin gained the advantage. He retook much of the lost territory as well and for a time the Light stood victorious. For his skill and seemingly unbeatable strategies Lews Therin found himself called “The Dragon” and “The Lord of the Morning.” He was named supreme commander of all the forces fighting the Shadow, to the disquiet of his ally Tel Janin Aellinsar, who considered himself a superior general. Tel Janin betrayed the Light by opening the Gate of Heaven – a defensive fortification of some kind around the city of Satelle – and allowing the Shadow armies to take the city. He was inducted into the ranks of the Forsaken and given the name Sammael.

Despite this betrayal, the Light rallied and continued to win fresh victories. But the Shadow was quick to replenish its decimated armies, since Trollocs bred almost as fast as they could be killed. After four years of victories, Lews Therin found himself checked as fresh Trolloc forces arose.

The eighth year of the war was the year of stalemate, with neither side able to gain an advantage. During this year the form of the One Power known as balefire was discovered. Balefire was awesomely destructive. It not only totally destroyed whatever or whoever it touched, right down to the molecular level, but it also erased them backwards in time for short periods (usually a few hours, though channellers as powerful as Lews Therin, Ishamael, Lanfear or Demandred could erase them back a day or two), undoing their actions. This led to some unusual temporal paradoxes and, it was eventually discovered, threatened the very stability of the Wheel of Time. Without truce or discussion, both sides stopped using balefire within days of one another. But the destruction caused by balefire had given the Shadow an edge, and now Aginor gave them another. He had been working on additional forms of Shadowspawn and unleashed the jumara, a terrifying insectoid that emerged from a worm-like larval stage, and, worst of all, the gholam.

Gholam resembled humans of average height and appearance. They numbered only six, three men and three women. Without a shadow of a doubt, they were the most formidable foes ever faced by channellers of the One Power. They even scared the Forsaken. Somehow, they were completely immune to the One Power. Even balefire could not touch them. They also were boneless, somehow able to solidify or soften their body mass as needed. In their “soft” state they could squeeze themselves through keyholes and cracks under doors, through grills and the like. Their primary function was to kill Aes Sedai. Their soft body matter also made it incredibly difficult to kill them, since sword blows enough to fell a Nym barely dented them. They could also heal any wound very quickly. They were terrifyingly strong, almost as strong as an Ogier, and lightning fast. It was rumoured that devices manufactured using the Power, such as angreal, burned their skin beyond the ability to heal (since the gholam’s very nature was at odds with the Power), but there is no confirmation of this. The simple truth is that no gholam was ever killed. All six survived the War of the Shadow in stasis boxes, but fortunately these appear to have all been lost in the passage of more than three and a half millennia.

With dozens of major Aes Sedai suddenly assassinated without warning, and with the new Shadowspawn bolstering their armies, the Shadow struck out again suddenly and could not be stopped. The Dark One’s minions steamrollered across the world, slaying and murdering, slaughtering all who opposed them. The ninth year of the war, a year of despair, saw all the land retaken by the Light during their four years of victory fall again under the Shadow, and new territory was threatened.

Even with the Ogier now actively fighting alongside the humans, Lews Therin saw that there was no way the Light could win with conventional armies and combat. His forces were tired and fresh troops slow in being trained, whilst the Shadow was breeding a thousand new Trollocs and twenty Myrddraal a day. More and more cities previously supporting the Light surrendered to the Shadow in despair.

Lews Therin saw only one slim chance for victory. If the Bore was sealed and the Dark One’s touch removed from the world, then it would be a great blow for the Shadow. Morale would fall but, more than that, the source of the True Power would be cut off and the Dark One’s own words could not be heard in the Pit of Doom any more. Without its leadership, the Shadow may very well have evaporated.

Lews Therin’s plan was relatively simple: seven weavings of the Power would be created which, when properly placed, would simply collapse the earthly end of the Bore, sealing the Dark One away from the world forever. The seals would be linked to physical ter’angreal and made of cuendillar, a metal constructed with the One Power that was immune even to balefire. Once sealed, the prison could not be opened again. Unfortunately, there were two major flaws in the plan: firstly, the weavings would have to be made with the utmost care. One wrong move and they could rupture the Dark One’s prison entirely rather than seal it. Secondly, they had to be physically placed around Shayol Ghul itself, the focus of the earthly end of the Bore, in order to have any effect. The loss in life would be horrendous. There was also the possibility that the Shadow would capture the Seven Seals and use them to smash the Dark One’s prison.

The debate rocked the Hall of the Servants. Lews Therin acknowledged the risks, but said that it was the one chance to end the war forever. His opponent was Latra Posae Decume, who led an ajah known as the Fateful Concord (it came to be known as such afterwards, not at the time), who simply refused to consider it. The danger was too great, she said. Her faction proposed an alternative plan: two immense sa’angreal, the most powerful ever made, would be created, one for women and one for men (these sa’angreal would take the form of huge statues, one of a man and one of a woman, both clutching an immense crystal sphere). They would be called the Choedan Kal. These would be used to place a new seal around the entirety of Shayol Ghul itself, similarly cutting the Dark One off from its minions. The same end result would take place: the Shadow’s morale would collapse and the Light would emerge victorious. Lews Therin pointed out that this might allow the Dark One time to emerge from its prison itself, but at the very least would attract the power of all the Forsaken. Not even a One Power field made with the two most powerful sa’angreal in history could withstand thirty Forsaken and thousands of Dreadlords channelling against it.

The debate became quite heated and the Hall of the Servants split almost entirely along male-female lines. The most vocal of Lews Therin’s supporters were 113 powerful male Aes Sedai, who formed an ajah called the Hundred Companions. With the council deadlocked, it was decided that both the Choedan Kal and the Seven Seals would be constructed simultaneously. After they were completed, the situation at that time could be assessed and a final decision taken.

The year of despair continued, with the Shadow now gaining fresh victories. Lews Therin managed to prevent the complete collapse of the front, but it was a close thing. By the end of the year the Shadow’s forces had advanced to threaten Paaran Disen and many of the remaining cities held by the Light.

The tenth and final year of the war began and construction of the angreal proceeded slowly. The Seven Seals were completed first and the Power flows carefully woven into them. The Choedan Kal were completed soon after, but it was quickly discovered that they were far too powerful to use by themselves. A test subject Aes Sedai attempting to channel through one of the statues was instantly killed, consumed by fire. To use them safely, special ter’angreal known as access keys had to be used, one for each statue (though many more keys had actually been made for redundancy’s sake). Unfortunately, no sooner had the keys been completed than the research centre was overrun in a Shadow push led by Sammael and lost forever. Agents despatched undercover to retrieve them were killed or captured. Since the agents were not informed about the details of the artifacts, the Shadow did not learn what they were to be used for, only that they were vital to the Light’s war effort. Lanfear, in particular, became intrigued by them and started studying them. The Light still possessed the two giant Choedan Kal statues themselves but no way of safely using them.

It now seemed that there was no choice but to go with Lews Therin’s plan, but still the Fateful Concord prevaricated, even suggesting new access keys be constructed. But then Be’lal led a raid on the Hall of the Servants itself, killing a large number of the Aes Sedai Council and even razing part of the building. Demandred, Sammael and Be’lal led mighty offensives that Lews Therin barely checked, bringing the Dark One’s armies to within miles of the site of the Choedan Kal. It seems doubtful that the Forsaken had learned of the devices, but if so they would have realised that the devices were powerful enough to shatter the Dark One’s prison altogether. Lews Therin declared that the Light could not afford to wait any more. One fateful morning, almost ten years to the month after the beginning of the war, he and the Hundred Companions departed Paaran Disen, taking 10,000 armsmen and the Seven Seals with them. Their destination: Shayol Ghul, the heart of the Shadow itself.

Almost simultaneously, a hasty meeting of all the surviving Forsaken was called at the Pit of Doom itself. Some historians have theorised that either Lanfear had successfully divined the purpose of the access keys and was urging a capture of the two Choedan Kal as soon as possible, or a traitor in Lews Therin’s ranks had betrayed him. It was at this point that Lews Therin struck.

The Hundred Companions immediately engaged the Forsaken and the Dreadlords present, whilst the armsmen fought against ten or twenty times their number of Shadowspawn. During the battle Ishamael and Lanfear looked to capture Lews Therin, whilst Sammael and Demandred planned to kill him. None of them found him, for he was busy placing the seals. It seems that Ishamael located Lews Therin just as the last seal was placed, completing the circle and collapsing the earthly end of the Bore.

Immediately all but one of the Forsaken, intimately bound to the Dark One through the True Power, were “sucked” into Shayol Ghul and imprisoned there in some form of stasis. The only exception was Ishamael, who may have worked out Lews Therin’s intentions and taken steps against them in the few seconds he had left. But the Shadow armies had suddenly lost their leaders and found themselves suddenly on the defensive. The Light, it seemed was victorious.

But then, mere seconds after the final placing of the last seal, a vast, uncontrolled explosion of the Power rippled out from Shayol Ghul, from Lews Therin and the sixty-eight surviving members of the Hundred Companions themselves. Shadowspawn and Light-sworn trooper alike simply blew apart in the firestorm.

The Hundred Companions returned to their homes, but instead of accepting a hero’s welcome instead unleashed the Power almost at random, slaughtering friends and family alike, laying waste to whole cities. Earthquakes erupted and the seas rose over these regions.

Lews Therin returned to the Dragon Palace in Paaran Disen to a rapturous welcome from Ilyena and his children. In some kind of fevered rage, he struck them down with the Power before slaughtering every servant and Da’shain in the building. He wandered in a daze, calling out the names of the friends and his wife he had brutally killed only moments before. Then Ishamael appeared before him and using the Power Healed him of his madness. He told Lews Therin that in the last moment before he sealed the Dark One’s prison, the Dark One had discerned his plan and cursed saidin, the male half of the One Power itself. This curse drove the Hundred Companions and the Dragon himself mad on the instant, but soon all male Aes Sedai would suffer a similar fate. First, they would go mad, destroying and murdering in their insanity, and then they would die, horribly and in great agony. The Dark One was sealed away from the world for now, it was true, but it was also true that the Seven Seals had been made with saidin and would rot from the corruption within. Whether it took forty years or forty thousand, the Dark One would eventually be able to touch the world again.

Horrified at what he had down, Lews Therin fled to a remote part of the world. Here he channelled more of the Power than he could safely handle, killing himself. Curiously, as he died the very earth reared up into a tall, forbidding mountain that stretched into the heavens. Ishamael was unimpressed, knowing that one day Lews Therin would be reincarnated again and on that day Ishamael would have his final revenge. At this point Ishamael’s protection against being imprisoned along with the rest of the Forsaken seems to have run out, and he was cast into the darkness to join his fellows.

The Light had won the war. But it would be unable to enjoy the peace, for the price of victory over the Shadow was the complete and unequivocal destruction of civilisation, and the destruction of almost the entire human race.

Please note that Parts 5-7 of this series are also available to read now on my Patreon page and my other blog, Atlas of Ice and Fire, is currently running a Wheel of Time Atlas series.

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 History of The Wheel of Time, SF&F Questions and The Cities of Fantasy series are debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read them there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

AMERICAN VANDAL cancelled by Netflix

In surprising news, Netflix have cancelled their true-crime mockumentary, American Vandal, after two seasons.

American Vandal debuted in 2017 with a story revolving around a high school student expelled after allegedly vandalising twenty-seven cars in the school parking lot. Another student realises he could not have committed the crime and sets out to clear his name through a Serial/Making a Murderer-style expose. The show became a sleeper hit and did good business for Netflix, as well as attracting surprising levels of critical acclaim, especially for the character depth the show achieved despite its goofy premise.

Season 2 aired last month on Netflix and also attracted critical acclaim, despite the premise (a laxative prank on a school with explosive results) being considerably more gross than the first season. Netflix do not release viewing figures, so it is unclear how well the show did (especially given the more unpleasant premise), but certainly the buzz it generated was notable.

However, Netflix also seem to be clearing house on shows made by outside production companies in favour of original material: it recently cancelled the Marvel/ABC-produced Iron Fist and Luke Cage despite an apparently reasonable level of success with both. American Vandal is made by an outside production company, with Netflix preferring to bring more shows inhouse (especially given its two original big hits, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, are ending shortly). American Vandal also gained critical praise at the expense of Netflix Original 13 Reasons Why, particularly for its more realistic depiction of teenage life.

This does mean that American Vandal could be saved and moved to another service: reportedly other streaming services - likely Amazon Prime Video and Hulu - are interested in picking up the show. More news as we get it.

Thursday 25 October 2018

Another new Paul Kearney novel for 2019: THE WINDSCALE INCIDENT

Having previously confirmed that Paul Kearney would be releasing The Burning Horse, a sequel to The Wolf in the Attic, in late 2019, it now appears we'll be getting a double helping of his work next year. Another novel, The Windscale Incident, will be published in May 2019 from Simon & Schuster.

The Windscale Incident is set in 1950s Britain, in an alternate timeline resulting from the Windscale Incident, a real event which took place on 10 October 1957. The UK's worst nuclear accident, the incident involved a fire breaking out at the Windscale nuclear facility and spreading nuclear radiation over the vicinity, resulting in an estimate 250+ cases of cancer. The UK's nuclear decommissioning plant Sellafield was later built on the same site.

Kearney's novel sounds like it will be using the incident as a divergence point for a new timeline. The blurb is as follows:

A blistering 1950’s Alternate-History Apocalypse that marks the beginning of a major new trans-media franchise.

Great Britain, mid-1950s.

Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. The simultaneous meltdown at the Windscale Nuclear Reactor and the Calder Hall site in the North of England killed thousands, but what came next was worst. The radioactive cloud, dispersed by heavy winds, effectively cut Great Britain in half and created the Exclusion Zone.
Hysterical accounts of strange creatures, wolf-like packs and bands of human survivors abound, but no really knows since the last expedition was lost fifteen months ago.
But there are mysteries that must be illuminated, and for Doctors Brian Mortlake and Constance Garraway, aided by a crack team of British soldiers, it’s time to enter the Zone.

More news on the book and the "trans-media franchise" as we get it.

Available now: VYING FOR THE IRON THRONE, featuring contributions from myself

Today marks the publication of McFarland Books' Vying for the Iron Throne (UK, USA), a new collection of essays about A Song of Ice and Fire and its TV incarnation, Game of Thrones.

As with 2012's Beyond the Wall (UK, USA), this is a collection that I contributed to. In this case I was honoured to provide the epilogue, discussing Game of Thrones' transformative position in the modern TV landscape.

As well as my incoherent ramblings, there are 21 other essays on topics ranging from religion, death, performance and war. Well worth a look.

Monday 22 October 2018

XCOM 2: Tactical Legacy Pack

Released back in 2016, XCOM 2 was a worthy, if flawed, sequel to the classic 2012 turn-based strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown (itself a remake of the 1993 game X-COM: UFO Defence) and its expansion, Enemy Within. A year later Firaxis released War of the Chosen, an interesting expansion pack to the game which, inexplicably, they decided to sell at the same price as a full-price game. I demurred on purchasing it until it came down in price.

It's taken well over a year, but the expansion has finally come down in price and I'll be checking it out in full soon. However, to make the expansion more worthwhile and better value for money, Firaxis have also released a new expansion for the expansion, the "Tactical Legacy Pack" to make it even better value for money, as it's completely free. Taking place between XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2 proper, the expansion charts how the XCOM organisation brought itself back from the brink of extinction after the aliens successfully conquered Earth.

The Tactical Legacy Pack contains several key parts, including a collection of challenge maps which pits your team against a tough objective as well as new items and maps (some of them revamped versions of fan-favourite maps from the original game and its expansion). However, the meat of the pack is something new to the franchise: a narrative and story-focused single-player campaign. A standard game of XCOM consists of two parts, a strategic metagame where you recruit soldiers, research new technology and make decisions on what operations to carry out next against the aliens, and a tactical, turn-based combat mode where you deploy the troops you've chose and outfitted in battle.

The Tactical Legacy campaign throws out the strategic part of the game in favour of a series of missions. There's no research, flying around the globe with the Avenger or recruiting new soldiers (at least, not in the traditional way). Instead you go from battle to battle to battle, with objectives being laid out during the loading screens and in-mission voiceovers. It's an experimental change to the standard XCOM formula and one that is quite interesting, removing as it does the agonising decisions on what troops to bring on missions and what equipment to use, as your troops are selected and outfitted for you.

The campaign is divided into four episodes, each consisting of seven missions. That's 28 missions to get through the story, and will in total take a player between 10 and 15 hours to traverse (depending on the difficulty mode you select). Each of the four episodes has a different focus: "Blast from the Past" sees Bradford (aka "Central") escaping from the fall of XCOM HQ and teaming up with some other survivors to carry out a mission. Along the way he and his new team attract more support and they realise they could transition XCOM into a guerrilla resistance force. "It Came from the Sea" is a nod at the 1994 game X-COM: Terror from the Deep, with XCOM having to fight off an invasion of aquatic chryssalids (sadly, there aren't any actual underwater missions). "Avenger Assemble" sees Lily Shen reluctantly taking to the field as she scavenges crashed Interceptors, UFOs and Skyrangers to get the rebel carrier, the Avenger, ready for launch. "The Lazarus Project" sees both Bradford and Lily entering the field to recruit more elite soldiers for XCOM.

Completing these missions also unlocks weapons, soldier recruits, maps and some new enemy types, all of which will then appear in a subsequent War of the Chosen campaign. The Tactical Legacy Pack therefore offers both a significant amount of gameplay on its own terms as well as a lot of new bonus stuff to enhance a new playthrough of the standard XCOM 2 campaign (although only with War of the Chosen installed; this stuff won't work with vanilla XCOM 2). Also entertainingly, the expansions allows you change the game's soundtrack, between the standard XCOM 2 soundtrack, the Enemy Unknown soundtrack or, impressively, a remixed and upgraded synthwave version of the original 1993 game soundtrack, which is very well-done.

It's hard to knock this kind of material, especially as it's free. One of the criticisms levelled at the pack is that a set of linear missions isn't very XCOM-y, which I sort of agree with. All of the new generation of XCOM games have had linear story missions popping up at one point or another, but as a change of pace from the traditional gameplay type before getting back to the procedurally-generated missions. If you're a purist who hates linear missions, then yes, this might not appeal to you. More irritatingly, the only way to unlock all the stuff from the expansion in a standard game is to play through the missions.

That said, the missions are pretty good and interesting. Selecting troops, equipment and upgrades forces players out of their comfort zone and gets them acquainted with troop classes and weapons they might not normally deploy. You can also massively ramp up the difficulty on these missions to very high levels to make them even more of a challenge for hardened players.

It may be churlish to criticise this amount of free content, but there are a couple of issues that arise. One is that the new missions don't make many concessions to in-universe logic: your soldiers include Reapers and Templars (from War of the Chosen) long before you may have recruited those factions. XCOM 2's conceit is that XCOM lost the war in the original game very early on, but this game sees XCOM using advanced plasma and laser weapons in combat and also features crashed advanced Interceptors from the original game. If, like me, you've not played War of the Chosen yet and decided to join in the hype train with this expansion, there's a hell of a lot of stuff left unexplained (even moreso if you didn't play vanilla XCOM 2 either). Also, given that XCOM 2 launched two and a half years ago in a pretty iffy technical state and has been patched several times, it was somewhat dismaying to see the game still managed to crash several times during my playthrough with occasional graphics and game logic bugs taking place.

Having said that, these problems are more niggling than catastrophic. If you have that itch that only quality turn-based combat can scratch, the Tactical Legacy Pack (****) certainly delivers on that front. The expansion offers a solid gaming experience on its own merits, adds a lot of fresh content to your standard War of the Chosen playthrough, brings in a lot of new challenge maps and skirmishes, expands on the XCOM story and lore, and even brings in a whole new (and presumably expensive) soundtrack. It's a lot of stuff for exactly £0 ($0). The Tactical Legacy Pack is available now on PC and will download automatically for all War of the Chosen players next time you install the game. Firaxis have been unclear on when and if the expansion will be added to the XB1 and PS4 versions of the game.

Saturday 20 October 2018

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 3: The Collapse

As mentioned before, the Aes Sedai had thoroughly researched most possible uses of the Power by a couple of millennia into the Age of Legends and new uses were extremely rare in being developed. Scientists and Aes Sedai researchers began to bristle at the natural laws imposed on the One Power and looked for ways to circumvent them. Towards the end of the Age they concentrated their efforts on the True Source itself. 

Artwork by Paul Bielaczyc, from The Wheel of Time Companion.

The True Source – the vast and inexhaustible store of energy that turns the Wheel of Time and also supplies the One Power – is divided into two halves, saidar and saidin. Only women can use saidar and only men can use saidin (or so the catechism says). Yet, united together men and women could achieve far more than either working alone. A team of researchers based at the Collam Daan in V’saine focused their research on finding a way of combining the two halves or finding an undivided source of the Power and thus increase their achievements a thousand-fold.

There were various reasons for this. Boredom, possibly, played a part (paradise is only fun for so long), as did a genuine thirst for discovering new scientific frontiers and boundaries. Many of the scientists also craved recognition, since their field had not thrown up anything interesting or revolutionary in centuries, if not millennia. Certainly, the team leaders, Mierin Eronaile and Beidomon, wanted to add third names to their signatures. Exactly how many years was devoted to the project is unclear, though such a huge undertaking would surely entail tens of thousands of man-hours. The Sharom – the giant floating laboratory which dominated the skies above V’saine – and its abilities to delve deep into the Power were employed to help.

Mierin Eronaile was known as a beautiful, brilliant woman with a formidable intellect. However, she also desired recognition and prestige. During this period, she had a relationship with the First Among Equals of the Aes Sedai, a man named Lews Therin Telamon. When he left her, unsettled by her arrogance, jealousy and tantrums, she vowed to get even. A few years or decades later, when he married Ilyena Moerelle Dalisar instead, this resolve hardened into a cold obsession.

Eventually, after many false leads and frustrating dead ends, the researchers succeeded. Approximately one hundred and ten years before the end of the Age of Legends, they detected an abnormality in the Source. Further investigation revealed an apparently undivided source of the One Power, yet it was somehow sealed away by a vast flow of the normal Power. After some discussion the team decided to bore a hole through the barrier and thus be able to access the new source. They employed the full capabilities of the Sharom and used their most powerful channellers, augmented by angreal (devices that increased the amount of the Power one person could use) and sa’angreal (which increased the amount yet again, to truly staggering levels). Then, on one fateful morning, the experiment began.

Enough of the Power to shatter a small continent was channelled through the Sharom and into the obstruction. The invading blast of the Power reacted with the already-present wall of energy and a backblast erupted into the Sharom, blowing it apart upon the instant and killing almost everyone inside. Mierin Eronaile and Beidomon were among those who survived (presumably using Travelling to escape as soon as it became clear that something had gone wrong). The incident horrified the world, but was eventually written off as a particularly tragic accident and a costly lesson in pride. Mierin in particular was deeply affected, having lost some of her colleagues and the premiere seat of learning in the world just to test one of her theories.

Then odd things started to happen. The sport of “Swords,” which involved two athletes engaging in duels, had become exceptionally popular during the previous decades and suddenly those involved began refusing to take Aes Sedai Restoring when it was offered for the minor nicks and bruises that invariably resulted. Sometimes the two contestants would suddenly take it into their heads to fight to the death and refuse any Restoring at all, even at the cost of their own lives. Brutal crimes were committed and the perpetrators caught, but the Compulsion to not commit crimes again seemed to not take, with the perpetrators re-offending quickly. What would have seemed sick and perverted only a few years earlier had suddenly become fascinating and exciting. Incidents of violence – fights, riots and even murders – began taking place, at first sporadically and then more often. Some cities eventually became enclaves of terror, with murder and combat to the death being displayed in arenas and in people’s homes as sick forms of novelty.

The World Parliament was stunned and completely unprepared to act. It had no armies, no police forces and its normal methods of dealing with problems were totally ineffective, since they relied on the desire of the people to serve. Even the Aes Sedai seemed powerless.

Chaos began to spread to many parts of the world and no cause could be found. The greatest minds of the Age investigated. Elan Morin Tedronai was inarguably the world’s foremost philosopher and bent his mind to the problem at hand. His first conclusion was that after millennia of being dominated by all their positive instincts, people had spontaneously rebelled and begun investigating their dark sides. Logically, there had to be some kind of triggering mechanism for the outbreak of “evil” and he began looking for the root cause. He noted the destruction of the Collam Daan had taken place only a few months before the first reported outbreak of chaos, but upon visiting the site of the accident found no clue as to what had happened. He theorised that perhaps the experiment had destabilised the True Source itself, since Aes Sedai seemed to be falling to evil just as quickly as normal people, if not quicker, but that did not explain why non-channellers were also affected.

After further research Elan discovered something odd had happened mere hours after the accident at V’saine, namely that a previously quiet volcano on a cool, rustic island in the northern ocean had spontaneously erupted without warning. The island was mostly uninhabited and no-one died, but the eruption changed the landscape of the island. Some unknown malaise began killing off the plant life and, in some cases, perverting it, making previously edible fruits poisonous. The few thousand settlers abandoned the island as the rotting increased.

Elan Morin Tedronai headed for this island around twenty years after the destruction of the Collam Daan. He found the sea itself receding from the island, a horrible corruption extending outwards for many miles around it. He made his way into the volcano and found a huge pit of lava and flame. The sky above his head was not the sky above the island, but was instead chaotic and swirling with angry colours. Then a voice spoke to him in his mind, a voice so powerful it threatened to shatter his very skull. The voice identified itself as Shai’tan, a being of near infinite power. It claimed that it had been imprisoned since the Moment of Creation. The supposedly undivided source of the One Power that Mierin had discovered was in fact this entity’s own dark energies. Though it now had a foothold in our world through the Bore that had been drilled into its prison, it was still unable to break free. The being demanded that Elan make public the news of its existence so that it might gain servants to free it. Once free, it would then remake all of time and space in its own image and reward those who had served it.

Elan not only agreed, but swore himself to its service upon realising how much about the nature of reality he could learn from it. Elan journeyed to Paaran Disen, where a conference was being held about the growing crisis, and there announced his discovery. The Aes Sedai and most of the delegates were shocked and horrified, but some were intrigued and journeyed to the volcano to learn more. Others journeyed there to see if they could negotiate with the entity or find a way of closing the Bore. Such infiltrators never returned. Within a few months of Elan’s announcement, the evil entity had become known as “The Dark One”, for saying its true name seemed to attract its attention (causing bouts of nausea and sickness).

The century that passed between the drilling of the Bore and the beginning of the War of the Shadow was known as the Collapse, for the glory of the Age of Legends was marred and ruined during this time. The Dark One’s wish was granted and servants flocked to do its bidding. Most were just normal people and became known as Friends of the Dark. Those who could channel the One Power became known as Dreadlords and were taught how to use the Power as a weapon. The Dark One’s most favoured servant was the one who found it first, Elan Morin Tedronai. As Elan grew in strength and evil, he was given a new name: Betrayer of Hope, Ishamael in the Old Tongue. Ishamael embraced his new name, casting aside his old in contempt. The Dark One taught Ishamael in the use of the True Power, a massively corrupted form of the One Power, generated by itself. The True Power could be used for dark and horrific ends, but it invariably overwhelmed and destroyed its wielders, making flame gush from their eyes and mouth. It also removed all fear and sense of perspective from them, rendering them mad or near enough to make no odds. Ishamael used the True Power sparingly at first, but by the War of the Shadow was using it more than the One Power. Only Ishamael was entrusted with the use of the True Power initially, and the Dark One seemed loath to let others wield it (according to some barely-legible documents, only twenty-nine people were ever trusted with its use).

Lews Therin Telamon, the First Among Equals of the Aes Sedai, decided firm action was needed. He rallied the Aes Sedai to him, from the lowliest provincial Healer to the members of the high council. He persuaded them, after many months, to take firm action against the Shadow (as the Dark One’s minions became known). Originally, he did not countenance fighting them, instead overwhelming them and taking them away for Compelling as with all criminals. However, this didn’t really work. The Friends of the Dark and most especially the Dreadlords fought to the death rather than surrender. The few who were Compelled were then “uncompelled,” either by other Dreadlords or (possibly) by the Dark One itself. Eventually Lews Therin was forced to order those serving the Shadow to be killed. Many Aes Sedai balked at this; most simply refused to accept the need until it was far too late. Whilst the Aes Sedai and the World Parliament argued and prevaricated, the Shadow grew in strength and might. Around this time the Dark One chose to raise many of the most powerful and evil Dreadlords to the rank of “Chosen”. Until recently it was thought that there were just thirteen Chosen, or “Forsaken” as the forces of the Light called them, but recent revelations have confirmed that there were many more, possibly more than thirty. The thirteen famous Forsaken were merely the most powerful of this group and became its leaders. The nine most powerful Forsaken up to the start of the War of the Shadow, who in time became the most famous, were also given cursed names and Ishamael was set to lead them. The others at this time were Aginor, Balthamel, Rahvin, Asmodean, Be’lal, Semirhage, Mesaana, Moghedien and Graendal.

A few years after this Mierin Eronaile, bitter over Lews Therin’s spurning of her attentions, petitioned to join the ranks of the Forsaken and was granted a place. She was called "Daughter of Night", Lanfear in the Old Tongue, and with Ishamael plotted to turn Lews Therin Telamon himself to the Shadow, since he was the greatest threat to the Dark One’s plans. Beidomon, her former colleague at the Collam Daan, had committed suicide in horror as it became clear what he had inadvertently released into the world.

Little is known now about Lews Therin Telamon’s early years. It was clear that he was the strongest channeller of his time, though Ishamael and a few others were not far behind him. He was apparently raised to the rank of First Among Equals at a relatively young age. He was a charismatic figure, inspiring loyalty in his friends and followers. He dearly loved his wife, Ilyena, and doted on their children. He was an accomplished swordsman and writer, an idealist but also a pragmatist. It seems that his major weakness was that he held a guilt complex, blaming himself for not investigating the destruction of the Collam Daan more thoroughly and also for Mierin Eronaile’s turning to the Shadow. His second weakness, one fully exploited by the Shadow, was that he was almost physically incapable of harming a woman, even if she was a Friend of the Dark or a Dreadlord. As the darkness grew and as the cost in life increased, Lews Therin hardened and only Ilyena and his children could bring him out of his black moods. He had two close friends, Barid Bel Medar, who was a day younger and only marginally weaker than Lews Therin his strength in the Power and also in his accomplishments of writing and sword-fighting. His other friend was Tel Janin Aellinsar, the world-renowned athlete. Weaker than Lews Therin and Barid Bel in the Power (though not by much) and with no rhetorical ability at all, he exceeded both in swordplay.

As the Collapse continued the World Parliament eventually conceded that the chaos could only be stopped by direct military action. For the first time in millennia armies were formed and trained, minor skirmishes fought against the Shadow and things such as strategy and tactics relearned. Lews Therin, Barid Bel and Tel Janin all proved accomplished tacticians and generals. When the time came for the World Parliament to appoint a single overall commander for the war effort, these three men were the prime candidates. Eventually they chose Lews Therin, citing Barid Bel’s rashness and Tel Janin’s disregard for minor elements (like properly organising supply lines) for their exclusion. Both men were stunned, and angered. Both broke off their friendships with Lews Therin, finding little solace in the lesser field commands they were given.

Lews Therin began building his armies. Most human troops wielded swords and bows in combat (due to the lack of knowledge about weapons technology), but it seems that some energy weapons were developed. Jo-cars, hoverflies, jumpers and even sho-wings were fitted with weaponry and heavily armoured, able to support foot-troops and act as scouts. The most common high-tech weapon was the shocklance, a huge blade which discharged a massive blast of electricity into anyone in a certain arc of fire, killing them instantly. The One Power was used as a weapon by the Aes Sedai, many of whom voluntarily joined Lews Therin’s armies. Their job was to face the Dark One’s Dreadlords and even the Forsaken in combat. Even Ogier joined the war effort. The Nym were peaceful but not incapable of violence, but were kept out of the war simply because there wasn’t very many of them. The Way of the Leaf forbade the Da’shain Aiel from fighting or encouraging violence, but Lews Therin employed them as scribes, messengers and, with great reluctance on occasion, as scouts. He employed so many Da’shain - they were more reliable than other people and less prone to turning to the Shadow - that they became known as “Lews Therin’s People.” Later, after the war itself began, they were called “The People of the Dragon.” Lews Therin, it seems, deliberately used so many Aiel in his staff to raise their profile and remind people of the peace and contentment they represented, and what had been lost to most of the world.

After ninety-five years or so the world had degenerated dangerously close to the point of total economic and social collapse. The World Parliament finally declared martial law and surrendered control to Lews Therin Telamon for the duration of the crisis. But the Shadow was now almost ready to act. One of the Forsaken, Aginor, had been a skilled geneticist before he turned to the Dark One and now put that knowledge to good use. In great vats he fused animal and human DNA together to create a race of fierce, bestial creatures called Trollocs. Hulking humanoids, as large as Ogier if not bigger, the Trollocs had a variety of features. They usually walked upright, though some walked on goat’s legs or hooves, and had two arms, though a few ended in claws instead of hands (whatever they used, they could always wield weapons such as swords and battle-axes). But always was the head the head of the animal they had been bred from, including boars, bears, wolves, goats, wildcats, rams and eagles. Thousands, if not millions, of Trollocs were bred in great chambers underneath the volcano the Dark One used as its base of operations in this world, the volcano called the Pit of Doom, or Shayol Ghul in the Old Tongue. Once a few thousand had been created, they could breed amongst themselves.

The problem was that the Trollocs seemed to inherit the baser instincts of their origin animal as well as their facial features. They were undisciplined, almost as likely to turn on one another as on the enemy. Whilst most enjoyed using primitive weapons like axes and swords, or sometimes a bow, most found complex projectile weapons too difficult to use. The only way to get them to obey orders was frequently to kill a few as an example to the others. Aginor’s scientists almost gave up, until they suddenly discovered that every fiftieth Trolloc or so born was a mutant. Unlike the widely varying Trollocs, these mutants were all a uniform size and shape. All were six-foot-tall humanoids with black hair and lacked any sign of their animal stock. They also lacked eyes, but could see by some means unknown. These creatures were called Myrddraal, but were more frequently called Halfmen, Eyeless or Fades. Unlike the Trollocs, they were unswervingly loyal to the Dark One, skilled in the art of combat and highly disciplined. They also instilled a terrifying fear in Trollocs, forcing them to do their bidding. The Shadow had found its field commanders for the Trolloc armies.

Additional Shadowspawn were created, such as the Darkhounds (which never gave up a hunt once it was assigned to them), Grey Men (individuals who had sold their soul to the Dark One and could “fade” into their surroundings somewhat, making them ideal assassins) and Draghkar (winged humanoids with huge, black eyes capable of sucking a soul right out of its host body), but Myrddraal and Trollocs were by far the most common. By around a century after the drilling of the Bore, many hundreds of thousands of Shadowspawn were ready for battle.

In this year the Dark One’s minions moved en masse towards Shayol Ghul, planning to combine their strength and power to widen the Bore and allow the Dark One to enter this world in person. Lews Therin and his forces of Light had been anticipating such a move for several years and intercepted them, fighting a huge battle. The Friends of the Dark fled the battlefield. Lews Therin even briefly hoped that he had discouraged them for good, but within days reports arrived of monstrous creatures striking into the northern lands, overrunning towns and even eating the populace. This army seized the large town of Devaille and fed every living inhabitant to the Trollocs.

The forces of the Light attempted to contain the forces of the Shadow, but could not. Soon Friends of the Dark arose again in the cities, conquering them from within. Aes Sedai were attacked without warning by groups of Dreadlords Travelling into their homes, and the Forsaken demanded the surrender of the world to the Dark One.

The War of the Shadow had begun.

Please note that Parts 4-6 of this series are also available to read now on my Patreon page and my other blog, Atlas of Ice and Fire, is currently running a Wheel of Time Atlas series.

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 History of The Wheel of Time, SF&F Questions and The Cities of Fantasy series are debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read them there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

LUKE CAGE cancelled by Netflix

In a surprise move, Netflix has cancelled their Marvel superhero series Luke Cage when a third season of the show was in pre-production. This comes just a week after they confirmed the axing of sister-show Iron Fist.

Netflix and Marvel have teamed up to produce six superhero TV shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders and The Punisher). These shows have done very well for Netflix in terms of critical acclaim and streaming figures, although the acclaim has started to drift recently (with the first season of Iron Fist coming in for a particular drubbing).

More of an issue is the fact that Disney (who own Marvel) are launching their own streaming service in 2019 which is seen as a major competitor to Netflix and a much greater threat than Amazon's streaming service. Disney are planning to launch the service with a new Star Wars TV show called The Mandalorian and at least two Marvel mini-series, one focusing on Loki and the other on Scarlet Witch, with Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen in talks to reprise their roles from the films.

Although the Netflix-Marvel deal allows Netflix to keep making these shows, the practical business decision of that may not make much sense, since Netflix are effectively producing tie-ins for a rival service. In addition, Marvel (and thus Disney) take a slice of the shows' profits and their sales on DVD, Blu-Ray and so on. Although the Marvel shows started performing strongly for Netflix, their recent performance has been less impressive and Netflix are looking to cut some of their under-performing shows to make way for new projects. On this basis, Netflix gradually shutting down all of the Marvel shows and perhaps looking elsewhere for superhero projects does make sense.

Deadline suggests that this particular cancellation was down to "creative differences" between Marvel and Netflix, with Marvel demanding major script changes and even a change in creative personnel, suggesting that Marvel also does have a script veto, meaning that they may also have the power to effectively cancel the shows (or logjam the process to force Netflix to cancel them).

Ironically, the news comes just after Daredevil Season 3 launched on the service to the strongest critical reception any Marvel Netflix season has enjoyed since the first season of the show.

Jessica Jones Season 3 and The Punisher Season 2 have already completed filming and are expected to air in early 2019. The fate of the Netflix/Marvel shows should become clearer at that time.

Friday 19 October 2018

Season 3 of THE EXPANSE reported to hit Amazon Video on 15 November

Gamespot are reporting that Season 3 of The Expanse will be available to stream on Amazon Video for all Amazon Prime subscribers on 15 November.

The first two seasons of The Expanse exited Netflix in the rest of the world a few weeks back, after Amazon stepped into rescue the show following its cancellation by SyFy. It was expected that Season 3 would debut on Amazon but the date was a bit up in the air. Assuming Gamespot's information is accurate, fans will be able to enjoy the third season in the USA (and presumably worldwide) in under a month. Interestingly, it doesn't mention if Seasons 1 and 2 will be available at the same time.

Season 4 of The Expanse started shooting a few week ago and is expected to debut on Amazon Video in summer 2019.

Thursday 18 October 2018

Trailer for THE LAST KINGDOM Season 3

Netflix have posted a brief teaser trailer for the upcoming third season of The Last Kingdom.

Based on Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series of historical novels (which now extends across eleven novels and counting), the series is set in 9th Century Britain and explores the clash of cultures arising when Danish raiders (and settlers) arrive and clash with the native seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the most powerful of which is Wessex. Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon child raised by Danish parents, is thrust into the middle of this conflict when he allies with Alfred, King of Wessex, soon to be known as "The Great" for his dream of unifying the island of Britain as one kingdom.

The first two seasons of The Last Kingdom were produced by the BBC and well-received, but the BBC cancelled the series due to mounting production costs. Netflix stepped in to save the show.

No release date has been set for the series, but it is expected to air on Netflix before the end of the year.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

In a remote future, the Earth's landmasses have been fused together into a supercontinent called the Stillness. The geological catastrophe which caused this event still haunts the planet, with frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions causing devastation across thousands of miles in titanic disasters known as Fifth Seasons. Many civilisations have risen and fallen, with the world currently dominated by the Sanze Empire from its grand capital of Yumenes.

A new Fifth Season has arrived, heralded by the opening of a vast volcanic rift below Yumenes. Chaos grips the Stillness as thousands takes to the roads to flee the devastation. Among them is Essun, an orogene, one who can use the powers of the earth to her own ends. Her son has been murdered by her husband, who has fled with their daughter. Essun sets out to find them, as all around her the world begins to end.

There is a long and honourable tradition of genre fiction set at the end of the world, when confused humans try to live their lives in the shadow of earlier, more ancient and glorious civilisations. Jack Vance arguably became its first champion, with his 1950 novel The Dying Earth and three sequels. This accomplished, erudite, witty yet melancholy series gave the subgenre of fiction its name and directly inspired arguably its most famous work: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, sometimes cited as the greatest work of science fiction or fantasy ever written. More recently the Dying Earth subgenre has gained increased fame from Monte Cook's excellent Numenera RPG setting (and its video game spin off, Torment: Tides of Numenera).

N.K. Jemisin's sixth novel fits nicely into this genre: it is, at the very least, tens of thousands of years in the future (possibly millions). Strange obelisks float in the sky for unknown purposes. The ruins of ancient, baffling civilisations lie everywhere. Recurring geological catastrophes seek to destroy humanity, but powerful humans known as orogenes seek to defy them. But the same orogenes who can stop the quakes can make them vastly worse, so other humans - "Guardians" - are appointed to guard them and, if necessary, kill them if it looks like they are going to be come a danger themselves. It's a world of terrible inequality, where people are born into castes and forced to stay there for their entire lives. Selective breeding experiments are commonplace, and orogenes are treated like animals by those who fear their power.

The Fifth Season is thus a novel about many things: humanity and bigotry, history and myth, life and death, and the unquenchable desire of human beings to survive and seek happiness. It's a book that's received a lot of critical acclaim, with the trilogy it opens winning no less than three Hugo Awards and a score of other awards. This acclaim and the book's literary qualities have, paradoxically, put off a lot of readers who prefer their fantasy more straightforward and predictable.

Which is a shame because The Fifth Season is also a rollicking good epic fantasy novel. There's massive and awe-inspiring displays of apparently-magical power. The "magic system" is given consistent rules and treated with as much respect and seriousness as in any Brandon Sanderson book. The worldbuilding is vigorous, original and well-thought-out. There's even pirates, and some nice action scenes on the high seas. There's moments of strange alienation at the discovery of awe-inspiring remnants of earlier ages, and moments of horror at some of the creatures and powers unleashed by the same.

The book's structure is also innovative: the narrative is split into three strands, and we follow each strand with a different character at the centre of it. Each strand is set in a different time period, and as the book continues the characters and time periods converge until the book's ending results in a moment of catharsis: less of a twist ending and more one of simple revelation that makes what you've been reading make sense. Each strand is also told in a different writing style (moving from second-person/present-tense to third-person/past-tense to third-person/present-tense) which I expected to dislike, but instead it worked extremely well. The different writing style acts as a consistent reminder of what part of the story and the timeframe you are reading at any given moment, and transitions did not jar at all.

It helps that Jemisin is one of the stronger prose-writers in modern SFF, consistently nailing great moments of dialogue and deploying formidable powers of description. The book's themes are big ones, taking in ecological and environmental issues, gender relations, sexuality (especially interesting when some of the far-future humans are evolved in some unexpected manners) and inequality, but the book never remotely becomes preachy or bogged down in some semantic political argument. Everything services the world and the story that Jemisin has created.

The book also has pace. This book is 450 pages of relatively big type, and the sequel is even shorter. This modest page count helps move the story along at a brisk clip, with the narrative rotating between its three POV characters like a well-oiled machine, until the book brings its various strands together in a satisfying manner that sets the scene perfectly for the sequel, The Obelisk Gate.

The Fifth Season (*****) is one of the best opening volumes to a science fiction or fantasy trilogy of the past few years, and is strongly recommended. It is available now in the UK and USA.