Friday 30 November 2018

DAREDEVIL cancelled after three seasons, Marvel hints at reboot

Netflix has cancelled their flagship Marvel superhero TV series Daredevil after three seasons.

The news comes after the cancellation of two of Daredevil's spin-offs, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, both after two seasons apiece, and despite the fact that Daredevil's third season (released last month) achieved greater critical acclaim and buzz than any Marvel Netflix show since the first season of Jessica Jones. This seemingly confirms that Disney (who own Marvel) is clearing house of the shows and pulling them to avoid any competition for their new Disney+ streaming service, which will launch in late 2019 with several live-action Marvel shows slated to join the service.

Daredevil's first season launched the Marvel/Netflix collaboration back in 2015 with one of Netflix's highest-ever rated shows, which was widely regarded as one of the then-fledgling streaming service's main attractions (alongside Orange is the New Black and House of Cards) to convince people to sign up. No less than four spin-offs followed - Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Punisher - as well as a team-up show, The Defenders, which ran for a single mini-series in 2017. The Marvel/Netflix universe initially did very well, with the number of viewers apparently peaking in the first season of Luke Cage (which managed to briefly shut down Netflix altogether as too many people were trying to watch it simultaneously). However, the total amount of viewership per season has apparently dropped significantly since then. The critical buzz surrounding the shows has also cooled. Both of these trends reversed with Daredevil Season 3, but apparently not enough to help save the show.

Marvel and Netflix's formerly cosy relationship has been strained by Disney's announcement of Disney+, a new streaming service which will launch next year with two Marvel mini-series, one starring Tom Hiddleston as Loki and another starring Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan as Falcon and Winter Soldier. Both series will be directly produced by the team that makes the Marvel movies and will see feature film actors directly reprising their roles. Talks are also continuing for a third series focusing on the character of Scarlet Witch, starring Elizabeth Olsen. Disney+ will also feature the first-ever Star Wars live action TV series, with Pedro Pascal to star in an ongoing series called The Mandalorian whilst Diego Luna is reprising his role as morally flexible Rebel intelligence agent Cassian Andor for a Rogue One prequel series.

Whilst Netflix has met the challenge of competition from Amazon Prime Video and CBS All Access with equanimity, they regard Disney+ and Disney's acquisition of Hulu as much more dangerous competition, due to Disney's much healthier finances (Netflix is still funding its original programming through debt, whilst Disney has profit to burn), a distinct lack of buzz around Netflix's recent shows (they arguably haven't had a really big crossover, must-watch hit since the second season of Stranger Things) and the dramatically slowing uptake of the Netflix service, particularly in the US and Europe. The loss of two of Netflix's flagship shows, Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, is also a major problem, arguably leaving Stranger Things (which will return for a third season in 2019) as their sole big, must-see show.

Marvel have put the dagger in even further in their announcement today, confirming that the Daredevil character - but not necessarily the actor, Charlie Cox - will resurface in future MCU projects, suggesting a recasting of the character and his promotion to the movies for Marvel Phase 4 (which will reportedly focus on lesser-known Marvel characters, and could potentially include other characters from the Marvel Netflix universe as well). It also sounds like Disney want to consolidate their Marvel branding into one, family-friendly tone which the adult, violent Netflix shows were fundamentally incompatible with.

With this news, it is now inevitable that the third season of Jessica Jones and the second season of The Punisher, which are expected in the spring and summer of 2019 respectively, will also be their last.

Monday 26 November 2018

Fire and Blood by George R.R. Martin

The greatest empire in the history of the known world was the Valyrian Freehold. From volcanic Old Valyria dragons and their riders conquered most of the world, until the Doom destroyed the empire in a single day of fire and smoke. Thousands of miles to the west, the Targaryen family was the only group of Valyrian dragonriders to survive the catastrophe. Rather than try to reclaim the homeland or seize the colonial territories, the Targaryens instead turned their eye west, to the great continent of Westeros where seven kings and queens vied for power against one another. Aegon the Conqueror and his sister-wives Rhaenys and Visenya conquered the land with their dragons and gave birth to a dynasty that would rule the continent for nearly three hundred years.

The history of Fire and Blood is an unusual one. Way back in 2007, George R.R. Martin's publishers suggested they release a companion volume to the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin agreed, but his workload on the novel A Dance with Dragons prevented him from writing it immediately so he suggested that Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson (who ran the largest ASoIaF fansite, write the book using the material they had collected together over the years from the books and some notes he had provided. When he finished Dragons he would write a few thousand words of introduction and sidebars.

As is now well-known, Martin took longer than expected to write and publish A Dance with Dragons, so it wasn't until 2012 that he finally delivered the sidebars and notes he'd promised...but rather than a few thousand words, he'd ended up writing about 300,000 words in the space of a few months. Although this encompassed many parts of the backstory and setting, the centrepiece was a massive section on the history of the Targaryen kings, running from Aegon the Conqueror to Aegon III in extreme detail. Needless to say, this was far too much and Garcia and Antonsson found themselves massively compressing that material for the book eventually published in 2014 as The World of Ice and Fire. The question of what to do with the original, uncut manuscript arose, with Martin pondering releasing it as a stand-alone book (his "GRRMarillion" as he joked, referencing Tolkien's The Silmarillion). In the event he left as reference material and used excerpts from it as short stories for his various anthologies (The Princess and the Queen, The Rogue Prince and Sons of the Dragon).

In 2018, with the sixth and (hopefully) penultimate novel in the series, The Winds of Winter, still incomplete, Martin's publishers have decided to finally release this material as a stand-alone book. It's a curious beast in several respects. Despite the comparison, it really isn't a GRRM version of The Silmarillion. The Silmarillion covers the entire mythology and history of Middle-earth, from its creation through the ancient wars between the higher powers to the desperate War of the Jewels between the exiled Noldor elves and the forces of the first dark lord, Morgoth. It covered thousands (if not tens of thousands) of years and channelled an epic combination of Homer, the Bible and the heroic cycle of Gilgamesh. This tome is instead much more like a fictional version of Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It covers the first 135 years (or so) of the Targaryen dynasty in exacting detail, from Aegon's invasion and conquest of Westeros through the uprising of the Faith Militant against his children when they refused to give up the practice of incest through the long, eventful reign of Jaehaerys the Conciliator (who restored peace to the realm but only at grievous cost) and then to the massive, multi-sided civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons and its chaotic aftermath. The book cuts off at this point with the remainder of the story - the Young Dragon's invasion of Dorne, the debauched reign of Aegon the Unworthy, the five Blackfyre Rebellions, the tragedy of Summerhall, the War of the Ninepenny Kings and Robert's Rebellion - to follow in an as-yet unwritten successor volume;

How much you enjoy Fire and Blood will depend on several factors. The first is your pre-existing investment in the ASoIaF/Game of Thrones setting. If you really enjoy reading about fictional backstory, about the socio-economic underpinnings on why certain things happened, and if you like treating fantasy like real history, with the more lore and detail the better, then absolutely Fire and Blood is worth picking up. Although the broad strokes of the story are familiar from the main series, there's an absolute plethora of new information here, and dramatisations of key moments from the history of the Seven Kingdoms (when the high and somewhat remote style of much of the book gives way to almost novelistic out-takes of key scenes). There's also lots of completely new material, minor episodes, even small wars and skirmishes which have gone unmentioned so far in the main series.

If, on the other hand, you take the view that only as much backstory and worldbuilding should be there to support the main narrative at hand, and anything not related to that is irrelevant, then absolutely Fire and Blood is not for you. There's relatively little material in this book which I think will become relevant in the main series, a couple of minor elements aside.

As a narrative, Fire and Blood is more lively than I was expecting. Martin's structural conceit is that the book is the work of Archmaester Gyldayn, an archmaester preparing a history of the Targaryen dynasty in the time of King Robert Baratheon, and Gyldayn is happy to discuss both the dry, traditional histories and also the more salacious rumours of unreliable eyewitnesses (most entertainingly Mushroom, a court fool from the reign of Viserys I through Aegon III who kept careful records on everything that happened, although he often added an unnecessarily ribald slant). On occasion, Gyldayn seems to give up on trying to find the truth and instead presents several theories various maesters and historians have put forward, inviting the reader to work out what happened themselves (and providing fodder for many years of fan forum and Reddit discussions to come).

It helps that Martin stretches a few muscles here that he hasn't used in a while. In particular, in one downright disturbing episode (and arguably the book's highlight) he gets to use his skills as a horror writer that he hasn't fully deployed since the likes of Fevre Dream and The Skin Trade. In another he channels a history of maritime exploration and gives us a particularly intriguing mystery surrounding the very nature of the world itself.

The other thing that Martin does well here is engaging with thematic ideas. One of these is the sheer random chance of history, the number of times that history moves onto a completely different course due to one or two unforeseen events. If anything, Martin lowballs this compared to real world history, probably to make it feel more convincing. Another key point is the price and value of peace. The long reign of Jaehaerys I, the Conciliator, has been mentioned before but usually skipped over in any kind of detail. We know that Jaehaerys restored peace after the insanity of his uncle and the religious wars with the Faith, and we know that he built the Kingsroad and created the first codified set of laws, but apart from that the histories tend to skip almost immediately to his immediate descendants and their civil war, the Dance of the Dragons. But Martin fills the rule of Jaehaerys (which was really a co-rule by Jaehaerys and his sister-wife, Good Queen Alysanne) with intrigue, the aforementioned unusual mysteries and an interesting cohort of supporting characters. Jaehaerys and Alysanne's lives are difficult ones and they pay as much, if not more, of a price to keep the Seven Kingdoms in peace and prosperity than their ancestors and descendants would through war. Arguably this is the book's finest triumph, making the bits when people aren't smashing in each other's faces with morningstars as gripping and interesting as the bits where they do.

The level of detail does vary from episode to episode and I suspect people may have foregone the extremely lengthy account of Aegon III's regency in favour of more detail on the Conquest, or even on a prologue detailing the Targaryen's origins in Valyria (here very lightly skipped over), but I was surprised that the pacing held up as well as it did over such a long book (this book is as large as Martin's full-blown novels A Game of Thrones and A Feast for Crows, for comparison purposes, and isn't far off A Clash of Kings) given its non-traditional nature.

I would say one major omission (although this may be just my thing) is the lack of any maps. In fact, in at least the UK edition, there aren't any maps at all, not even the ones normally present in the novels. This is a major omission as the military campaigns make frequent mention of locations and places as the site of battles and the absence of maps sometimes makes it harder to visualise what's going on. It does have excellent illustrations by Doug Wheatley, however.

Fire and Blood (****) is something of an unorthodox book and one that is certainly packed with surprises, intrigue, action and occasional thought-provoking moments regarding historical processes, although the pace occasionally flags and some episodes feel like they didn't need quite so much detail. But if you enjoy the world of A Song of Ice and Fire and want to delve much more deeply into the lore and backstory, the book is a must buy. If you are less interested in that aspect of the setting, or irritated that Martin delayed The Winds of Winter by a few months to write this, then it's certainly not an essential, immediate purchase. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Full disclosure: I am a moderator on the website and the creator Atlas of Ice and Fire website, so my investment in this work may be higher than most. Whilst I have tried to have been as honest as possible in my review, you may want to bear these factors in mind.

Saturday 24 November 2018

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 8: The Rise of the High King

In the aftermath of the Trolloc Wars numerous new kingdoms arose to replace those that had fallen before. These countries were smaller than the Ten Nations which had fallen before them, but cumulatively were almost as populous, once the depredations of the Trolloc Wars had been recovered from. To celebrate the freedom from the Trolloc threat, Tiam of Gazar created a new calendar, celebrating the years as Free Years.

A map of the kingdoms that emerged after the Trolloc Wars. Click for a larger version.

Twenty-nine new kingdoms arose after the wars. Unlike the relatively straightforward expansion of the Ten Nations, these new kingdoms arose out of border skirmishes and conflicts. Some large nations formed only to shatter apart into three or four lesser ones. But by FY 100 the twenty-nine nations had formed and remained relatively stable.

In the north Basharande, Elsalam and Rhamdashar bordered the Great Blight. During the Trolloc Wars the sickness and corruption of the Blight had extended southwards into and through the Mountains of Dhoom. A small strip of similarly corrupted land now ran along the southern feet of the mountains. This small area was simply called the Blight, and watchtowers were erected to watch over it for signs of Shadowspawn.

Along the west coast lay the nations of Abayan, Darmovan, Elan Dapor and Balasun, whilst bordering the south coast were Kharendor, Shiota, Fergansea and Moreina. In the east, along the Spine of the World, were Hamarea, Tova, Khodomar and Talmour. Along the Mountains of Mist lay the nations of Indrahar, Oman Dashar, Farashelle and Dhowlan.

Many more nations lay in the interior. Of these the most important and powerful were Aldeshar and Caembarin. Ileande lay in Kinslayer’s Dagger and the lands immediately north and south. Shandalle lay south of Tar Valon, bordered by Tova in the east and Caembarin in the west. EsandaraNerevanDal CalainMasenasharOburun and Roemalle completed the roll call of kingdoms in this era.

Unlike the Ten Nations, these countries did little to distinguish themselves from one another and some of them are only known as names on maps and as minor references in ancient history books. We know that Darmovan was a powerful sea-faring nation, had almost open borders for trade and had a remarkably tolerant nobility. Shiota was a mighty military kingdom. Tova, interestingly, seems to have experimented with using a council, the Conclave, to rule the whole country rather than a king. Shandalle was a small nation with an enviable position, squeezed as it was between the profitable trade routes of the River Erinin and the River Alguenya, yet its skilled army held invaders at bay. Rhamdashar, and to a lesser extent Elsalam and Basharande, were obsessed with defending the nations from the Blight and had little interest in the affairs of the other countries (despite their watchfulness, the term “Borderlands” we currently use for the nations along the Blight did not come into use until the time of Artur Hawkwing). Aldeshar was a proud and just kingdom. Of all the nations Aldeshar appears to have been the one most closely allied with the Aes Sedai.

All of the nations built up huge armies to defend against the Trolloc threat, but a second Trolloc invasion never came. These huge armies came to be used against one another in constant border skirmishes. At separate times it seems that both Tova and Khodomar attempted to seize territory in the Aiel Waste, only to be soundly defeated by the Aiel.

The first major threat to arise in this era was that of yet another false Dragon, this time a man called Davian. He was captured in battle in FY 351 and taken to Tar Valon for gentling. This reinforced the prestige of the Aes Sedai. One thing that had been transferred intact from before the Trolloc Wars was a deep and profound respect for the Aes Sedai from the various nations. As in the years prior to the wars, some rulers were Aes Sedai, though this was less common than before. Interestingly, the strict discipline and hierarchy of the Aes Sedai was demonstrated fully in FY 450 when Princess Sulmara of Masenashar, not long raised to Aes Sedai, left the Tower without permission. She refused to let other Aes Sedai give her counsel and even, most shockingly, refused a direct summons from the Amyrlin Seat herself! The Aes Sedai declared her a renegade and less than a week after her coronation seized her by force and returned her to Tar Valon, where she spent the rest of her life mucking out the White Tower’s stables. This example of the Tower’s immense power made sure that the remaining nations continued to treat the Aes Sedai well. However, the Aes Sedai numbers were also starting a slow decline.

Despite there being far more border wars and clashes than in the time of the Ten Nations, the Free Years were also relatively chaos-free. Trade which enriched all was the main concern of this time and continent-wide wars were avoided for a while.

But then, early in the 10th Century of the Free Years, something unusual happened. For the first time since the War of the Shadow, if not before, a ta’veren was born who would change the entire history of the world on its head.

The War of the Second Dragon
In FY 912 Prince Artur Paendrag Tanreall was born. His parents were Myrdin Paendrag Maregore and Mailinde Paendrag Lyndhal, the King and Queen of the small Kingdom of Shandalle. Shandalle lay between the River Erinin and the River Alguenya, two great trade routes in the east of the subcontinent, and as such was a wealthy land, living off taxes imposed on trade along the rivers. The histories are unclear and contradictory, but some believe that its capital city was Jennshain, originally the second city of Almoren before it was mostly razed in the Trolloc Wars.

Shandalle was surrounded by larger, more powerful nations. In particular Tova to the east desired a port on the River Erinin. Tova attempted to gain this portage by diplomacy and, when that failed, war. Shandalle resisted the invasion and threw back the Tovan forces across the border. Shandalle’s army was small, but trained to a very high and professional standard. By the age of sixteen Artur was already an accomplished swordsman and by twenty was a skilled leader of troops, impressing his father immensely.

Two years after Artur’s birth, Guaire Amalasan was born in Darmovan. He was the son of a noble family which claimed to trace its ancestry back to the rulers of Safer before the Trolloc Wars, but the family was now almost destitute, living only off its good name and the generosity of the other noble families. Guaire was a highly intelligent young man, with an immensely charismatic presence and keen mind. He was a canny student of human nature and once said that he could foresee how the masses would respond to any piece of news. As he grew older, he became more contemptuous of his supposed peers, the sons of other, richer noble families who were only interested in gambling and women. Guaire genuinely believed that he could rule his country a lot better than the King. With a keen grasp of politics and tactics, he would probably have succeeded in his goal anyway, apart from something that would ensure his success would be even greater: as he discovered at the age of twenty-three, he could channel the One Power.

The same year, in FY 937, the Black Fever suddenly erupted across the Westlands. Apparently, it began in Shara and was spread to our land by merchants. Certainly, the way it spread from east to west supports this supposition. It struck Shandalle early on, claiming the lives of both King Myrdin and Queen Mailinde. At the age of twenty-five Artur Paendrag Tanreall suddenly found himself King of Shandalle.

The Fever reached Darmovan two years later, in the early months of FY 939. Guaire Amalasan used his knowledge of human nature to win over the common people, using what little money he had to set up basic medical facilities and soup kitchens to feed the poor and the infected. He borrowed money from friends to continue his good works, and soon he was the talk of his home city. Then, in a startling move, he Healed someone close to death from the Black Fever. Those who witnessed the incident were awe-struck and declared him to be the Dragon Reborn.

Within six months Darmovan was his. The nation fell not by military might, though many soldiers flocked to his banner, but by political wrangling. Very few died as the power was transferred to his grasp. The only slightly sinister event in this time was the inexplicable disappearance of the King’s Aes Sedai advisor. With the country in his hands, Amalasan decided to spread his justice to other lands and bring all of the Westlands into the Light (under his leadership, of course). The small nation of Elan Dapor to the south was in all accounts in chaos due to the Fever. Amalasan led his troops in to restore order and peace. The capital city, Tanchico, apparently fell without a single death.

At the start of FY 940 the Aes Sedai denounced Guaire Amalasan as a false Dragon and demanded that the nations unite to bring him to heel, as they had done against Raolin Darksbane, Yurian Stonebow and Davian. But most nations were still suffering from the Black Fever epidemic, with as much as a fifth of the entire population of the subcontinent either dead or seriously ill. In cramped conditions, say in barracks, the Fever spread fastest and most virulently, so most countries’ armed forces were particularly badly hit.

When Amalasan rolled across the border into Balasun, he met some resistance but overcame it easily to conquer the entire kingdom. Kharendor and Dhowlan fell almost as easily. But when he reached Shiota he found himself facing a better prepared enemy.

Shiota was one of the most powerful nations of this era, the heir to Eharon of the Ten Nations. In addition, the capital city of Ebou Dar was home to the Kin, the most skilled group of healers outside of Tar Valon. Its army, which was primarily located in barracks and fortresses around the capital, had lost very few to the Fever, which by now had burned itself out in Shiota. The rulers of Shiota were canny and well-organised, and the war against Amalasan lasted months.

During this bitter war the Black Fever finally died out in the rest of the continent and fresh levies were raised and trained. Aes Sedai arrived in eastern Shiota, bolstered by troops from Nerevan, Esandara and Fergansea. The largest and most powerful nations in the land - Basharande, Elsalam, Rhamdashar, Hamarea, Caembarin and Aldeshar - united their armies in Aldeshar and headed south to confront Amalasan. Yet, despite all of this, Amalasan won the day. Shiota’s armies were shattered and Ebou Dar fell into his hands. The rest of the nation fell just as quickly. Six Aes Sedai tried to subdue Amalasan, but he killed one and stilled two more. Then he took his enlarged force north and defeated the allied forces brought against him. Within weeks he had crossed the border into Nerevan and within a few months more had seized that nation and Esandara.

It was at this point - mid to late FY 941 - that Artur Paendrag Tanreall began to note Amalasan’s progress and realised that Shandalle itself could be threatened within a year. He arranged a temporary alliance with Shandalle’s old adversary, Tova, and along with troops from Ileande, Khodomar and Talmour, formed an expeditionary force. This force met Amalasan in Esandara, before he could invade Fergansea. For well over a year Amalasan was kept on his toes, with the expeditionary force from the eastern nations almost dancing rings around his troops. The other generals gladly surrendered command to Artur Paendrag Tanreall, who by now had gained the nickname “Hawkwing” for the sheer speed with which he could move his troops. But eventually they became tired and had to retreat for reinforcements and resupply. Amalasan, free to move at last, took both Fergansea and most of Moreina in short order.

This was the situation as FY 943 dawned. Moreina was in a state of chaos. Amalasan had taken all of the country bar the capital, Tear. Tear took months to fall and, when it did, the nobles and the army retreated into the Stone of Tear. Curiously, it seems that as many as thirty Aes Sedai were also in the Stone, making it impossible for Amalasan to capture. Amalasan became bitterly frustrated, because his claim to be the Dragon Reborn hinged on him taking the Stone and claiming Callandor, thus fulfilling the Prophecies.

Meanwhile, though the Stone had not yet fallen, most thought it a matter of time and rebellions had begun in Masenashar, Dal Calain and even parts of Aldeshar as people swore loyalty to “the Second Dragon”. Amalasan realised that if he kept the pressure up, the rest of the subcontinent could fall to him with only a few more nations taken. He led his army north into Talmour, leaving a force to continue besieging the Stone.

Hawkwing, meanwhile, had mustered a new army. Before he left Shandalle, a complement of Aes Sedai arrived from Tar Valon. Hawkwing marched south from Shandalle, through Tova, towards Amalasan’s line of advance.

Amalasan continued his invasion of Talmour but, one night, his army suddenly vanished. The Talmouran government were mystified, though relieved. What had happened was that, in the dead of night, Amalasan’s forces crossed the Erinin into Esandara. Linking up with reinforcements, Amalasan marched north, crossed the Erinin again, and attacked Khodomar. Also, without completing the conquest of that land, Amalasan then marched north on the border with Tova. Amalasan apparently believed that if Tova fell, Khodomar and Talmour, suddenly outflanked, would surrender without any more need for fighting, and he was probably right.

Along the border between Tova and Khodomar, and the current southern border of Cairhien as well, stretches a line of peaks known as the Maraside Mountains, a spur of the Spine of the World. The only major pass through this range is the Jolvaine, the southern end of which was located close to the town of Endersole. Artur Hawkwing’s army crossed the mountains by this pass, emerging no more than twenty miles due north of Guaire Amalasan’s advancing forces. Hawkwing’s scouts and skirmishers quickly came into contact with Amalasan’s, and both found themselves readying for battle much sooner than either had anticipated.

Hawkwing’s forces were numbered at 23,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, with several Aes Sedai in support (some reports suggest as many as twenty). Amalasan possessed 41,000 foot and 26,000 horse, and of course himself, the most powerful male channeller of the One Power the Aes Sedai had faced in centuries, if not ever. The countryside they fought in was forested and hilly, with steep rises and unexpected river-valleys. Cavalry found it very difficult to fight effectively and it seems that both sides unseated most of their riders, using them as footmen instead.

Battle was met and proceeded pretty much as you might expect. Outnumbered two-to-one, with his back to mountains, Hawkwing found himself swiftly outflanked. He redeployed his troops to great effect and by nightfall his army was still intact, though badly blooded. Basic military doctrine would have told Hawkwing to retreat to the pass and initially it looked like he did this. Amalasan’s scouts reported Hawkwing’s retreat and Amalasan was satisfied. He was reluctant to pursue, however, because Hawkwing now had the higher ground and even outnumbered he had still inflicted great losses on Amalasan’s force. Amalasan’s instinct was to wait for reinforcements from Esandara, or until Hawkwing had cleared the pass, so he did not pursue. Also, he wished to rest his troops after the battle.

But Hawkwing did not retreat through the pass. He fell back just far enough to make Amalasan think he was on the run, but then halted. Daringly, stupidly as some of his junior officers muttered, he divided his already decimated force in four, sending two mixed forces of infantry and cavalry to the east and west and the bulk of his cavalry in a huge loop all the way round to the rear of Amalasan’s force, a night-time ride of fifty miles. Morning came, but even before Amalasan could strike camp Hawkwing struck, his army assaulting Amalasan’s force from all sides.

Panic gripped Amalasan’s army and it nearly broke, but he held it together. He even managed to regain some semblance of order and may, eventually, have turned the battle round. But Hawkwing gave him no time. Whilst the flanks and rear reeled from the attack, Hawkwing dove for the centre. He cut his way through the thinly-stretched front lines and surrounded Amalasan with his troops and also with his Aes Sedai. They shielded Amalasan from the Power and imprisoned him. Then, his prize taken, Hawkwing retreated from the battlefield. Deprived of their leader, Amalasan’s force broke and scattered. Hawkwing regrouped at the mouth of the Jolvaine Pass and then headed north as fast as possible across Tova.

Amalasan’s officers managed to partially regroup and word was sent to Amalasan’s two senior commanders. Elinde Motheneos, a famed siege commander, was campaigning against rebels across the river in Esandara and immediately rendezvoused with the remnants of Amalasan’s force, bolstering them with around 60,000 of her own troops. She regrouped Amalasan’s forces and began a desperate pursuit of Hawkwing’s troops. Sawyn Maculhene, a skilled cavalry leader, was just a day behind her, forced-marching 50,000 troops from Khodomar.

Hawkwing’s smaller force was considerably more mobile, however, and rapidly crossed Tova, where some reports suggest he gained fresh troops. He came to Tar Valon a mere twenty-five days after taking Amalasan, a journey most would be hard pressed to make in thirty-five. At this time the Amyrlin Seat was Bonwhin Meraighdin, raised from the Red Ajah and possessing a hatred of men far exceeding that of even a normal Red. Tower law held that an army could only enter Tar Valon’s territory only at the direct invitation of the White Tower. Whether or not the Aes Sedai who accompanied Hawkwing and held Amalasan prisoner had actually made that invitation is unclear, though Hawkwing later insisted they had. Interestingly, after being given a heroes’ welcome, those Aes Sedai sisters suddenly vanished from public office and found themselves working on a penance farm twenty miles outside the city for a period of several years. Whatever the truth of the matter, Bonwhin gave Hawkwing just five days to rest his army before leaving.

Hawkwing’s army, around 40,000 strong at this point (presumably reinforced from Tova and Shandalle to more than make up for his losses at the Battle of the Jolvaine Pass), camped not far from the banks of the Osendrelle Erinin (the northern arm of the river as it curves around the island of Tar Valon), certainly within sight of the Shining Walls. Hawkwing could have left immediately, but it seems he was determined to see Amalasan neutralised once and for all. Whilst Hawkwing was not invited to the ceremony, Amalasan was tried, found guilty, and gentled, cut off from the One Power forever. He was to spend the rest of his life (only a few years before he committed suicide) in the custody of the Aes Sedai.

On the same day Amalasan was gentled, the army led by Maculhene and Motheneos launched its attack. Over 130,000 troops strong and attacking by night, with almost no warning, this force shattered all three of the gates on the Alindrelle Erinin (the southern arm) side of the city, invading the city itself. The Aes Sedai held them at bay for a time, along with the Tower Guard, but Amalasan’s army massively outnumbered the defenders. Hawkwing observed the assault and led his troops into Tar Valon, engaging in bloody hand-to-hand street-fighting not seen since the fourth attack on Tar Valon during the Trolloc Wars. Amalasan’s would-be rescuers reached the White Tower itself before being turned back. They found that, once again, Hawkwing had divided his troops, sending a large number across the Erinin south of the city to burn the supply lines and siege engines and cut off the retreat. Maculhene died in combat and Motheneos surrendered to Hawkwing (this in particular enraged Bonwhin; the surrender of someone who had dared strike at Tar Valon should have been given to her as the Amyrlin Seat). She was tried and executed some days later. The bulk of Amalasan’s relief army was allowed to slip away, Hawking lacking the numbers to stop them.

No thanks or sign of appreciation was given to Hawkwing. He was simply told to leave. This he did, angered by the lack of recognition but not totally surprised. He returned to Shandalle to rule in peace, but the thought of the chaos now spreading in the leaderless west and the south did trouble him.

With Amalasan gone, his surviving generals attempted to wrest control of the nations they had taken, whilst loyalists of the former rulers attempted to return control to the rightful leaders. Within weeks of Amalasan’s death, Darmovan, Elan Dapor, Balasun, Kharendor, Shiota, Dhowlan, Nerevan, Esandara and Fergansea were in states of civil war. Moreina, Talmour and Khodomar, which had not completely fallen, managed to return to their former states of order. Aes Sedai mediators attempted to quell the chaos, but now they found an unusual new factor had entered the equation. Whereas before the name of Amalasan was cried in adoration, now the name of Hawkwing was similarly being cried. He had beaten their leader, and thus had to be an even greater man, a man even worthier of being their king. Even in lands completely untouched by Amalasan, people suggested that Hawkwing might make a great ruler.

Bonwhin’s hatred of Hawkwing now reached even deadlier levels. At her instigation (as revealed many decades later), Tova, Caembarin and Khodomar sent armies against Shandalle in an attempt to slay Hawkwing. Hawkwing, who had already begun disbanding his army, defeated all three of them, despite being outnumbered and pressed from three different sides. Enraged, he struck back and by the beginning of winter in FY 943 he held the western half of Tova (including the capital at Cairhien, one of the great cities of the continent), parts of northern Khodomar and the entire west bank of the Erinin in Caembarin, allowing him to threaten the capital at Caemlyn. Thousands from all three nations flocked to his banner. The following year Ileande, Talmour and Aldeshar entered the war, sending reinforcements to the three beleaguered nations. But, by the end of FY 944, Hawkwing had seized the rest of Tova, Khodomar and Caembarin and forged them into one whole with Shandalle.

Bonwhin could only watch, amazed, as she manipulated more nations into warfare against Hawkwing only to see them crumble before him. Sometimes a year to fourteen months would pass without any fighting, then two or three nations would attack Hawkwing, but he would always defeat them and, afterwards, add them to his growing empire. Only one nation, Moreina (where the governor of the Stone of Tear surrendered the fortress to him with no demands being made), joined him voluntarily. The rest had to be forced into submission.

One summer morning in FY 963 King Joal Ramedar of Aldeshar surrendered to Artur Paendrag Tanreall, the Hawkwing. Twenty years of warfare, the Consolidation Wars, had delivered the subcontinent of the Westlands to him. The whole land, from the Aryth Ocean to the Spine of the World and from the Mountains of Dhoom to the Sea of Storms, bar only the city-state of Tar Valon, was his. Not once in that time had he lost a single battle. He was the High King, the ruler of one land at peace, and he was not yet fifty-one years old.

Some might say that was enough. He was the ruler of millions of square miles of territory and the High King of over a hundred million souls. He led over a million men under arms. He had the love of the common people and the respect of most of the nobles. He even intimidated the Aes Sedai. He had enough for one man.

But he had barely begun his accomplishments. Before he was done his name would be hated and loved in equal measure, and known in every part of the world.

Please note that Parts 9-11 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.

Friday 23 November 2018

Wertzone Classics: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

When Karg raiders attack the island of Gont, the inhabitants of a small village are saved by a young boy who has discovered that he has magical powers. A sorcerer directs him to the island of Roke to there learn the ways of wizardry and controlling his abilities. Ged, as he becomes known, shows great promise but his pride is his downfall: an arrogant display of magical power goes awry, and unleashes a dark evil upon the world which only Ged can defeat.

Originally published in 1968, Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea has become an acknowledged classic and required reading in the fantasy canon. Fantasy was in a far more nascent state in the 1960s than now, with the genre divided between more literary works (such as Gormenghast) and action-driven swords and sorcery adventures, such as the Conan tales by Robert E. Howard. However, the immense success of The Lord of the Rings had driven publishers to seek out or even commission more work in the genre. Le Guin agreed to write a story about a wizard, inspired by the idea of what Merlin was like when he was a child. For a setting Le Guin was struck by Earthsea, a vast archipelago of hundreds of islands she'd created for a couple of short stories in 1964, and began work on a story that expanded the detail of the setting considerably.

She also tremendously popularised the "wizarding school" idea later used to blockbuster effect by J.K. Rowling. Le Guin didn't create the trope, which was first deployed by T.H. White in The Sword in the Stone (1939) and then by Theodore Cogswell in "The Wall Around the World" (1953), Robert Sheckley in "The Accountant" (1954) and Eleanor Estes in The Witch Family (1960), but she certainly ran with it.

A Wizard of Earthsea is still, however, a work that wrong-foots the audience. Most such fantasy tales feature the hero encountering an external threat (a monster, a dragon, an enemy wizard, a dark lord) and working to overcome it with their wits, skills and the help of friends they meet upon the way. This book doesn't do that: instead, Ged's primary opponent is himself, his own hubris, arrogance and the dark shadow of his own soul. His enemy is his internal fears and weaknesses, given form. The result is a profoundly introspective book about a character having to find himself and grow up, but where the metaphor becomes literal.

It's an audacious and, I suspect, slightly bemusing idea for younger children, but it certainly adds a tremendous amount of depth to the character of Ged, helping him avoid being a traditional "chosen one" hero figure. Before he can do any heroics in the future, he has to first come to terms with himself.

Which isn't to say that Le Guin skimps on the other elements required for a classic fantasy. The worldbuilding is excellent and atmospheric, the small secondary cast of characters is well-drawn, and for such a short book there's quite a few memorable set-pieces, running from Ged defeating the Karg raiders with his wits, to his mage-duel with Jasper which goes horribly wrong to his epic confrontation with the Dragon of Pendor. The book also touches on the value of friendship and the true nature of a hero.

A Wizard of Earthsea (*****) is fifty years old this year, but with its focus on internal conflict and its sophisticated worldbuilding, feels fresher and more vibrant than ever. It works well as both a stand-alone novel and as the opening novel of the six-book Earthsea sequence. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of The Books of Earthsea omnibus edition.

First-week sales and critical reception of FALLOUT 76 disappoint

Bethesda Game Studios are facing the most difficult game launch in their history, with sales of their latest Fallout game plummeting. Early release figures from the UK suggest a massive 82% drop compared to its predecessor. In addition the game has received a critical mauling from a gaming press normally all too willing to overlook their game's huge flaws in return for advertising revenue.

Bethesda Game Studios, the in-house development studio for Bethesda Softworks (itself part of ZeniMax), have been developing large, open-world and single-player focused RPGs in their Elder Scrolls fantasy series since 1992 and in their Fallout science fiction series since acquiring the rights from Interplay in 2004. Fallout 76 is the ninth game in the Fallout franchise and the first to have a predominantly multiplayer focus (and only the second to have any kind of multiplayer component at all).

Bethesda specialises in making large, open-world games where players create a character and follow an intricate storyline and a plethora of optional side-quests and activities, such as crafting new weapons, settlement-building or becoming merchant traders. This has proven immensely popular with gamers, especially since Bethesda abandoned their early, hardcore RPG focus in favour of a more approachable, mass-appeal style of game. This arguably began with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) and continued through Fallout 3 (2008), The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) and Fallout 4 (2015). Bethesda has outsourced other games, with Obsidian Entertainment developing Fallout: New Vegas (2010), a more hardcore and old-school RPG, and Zenimax Online Studios developing The Elder Scrolls Online (2014), a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game.

This approach, although unpopular with hard-core RPG fans of their earlier games (particularly cult success The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, released in 2002), has been immensely successful. Oblivion sold around 2 million copies in its first week, on sale, Fallout 3 increased this to 3 million and Fallout: New Vegas sold over 5 million copies in its first week on sale. Skyrim sold more than 7 million copies in its first week, with Fallout 4 shifting over 12 million copies in its first week.

Fallout 76, however, has sold around 2 million copies worldwide so far, meaning it is inarguably Bethesda's worst-selling game since Morrowind, a fairly niche RPG from a then-still-obscure developer released only on PC (an X-Box port did follow in the US a month later, but not until many months later worldwide). As more figures come in, the sales may go over Oblivon's, but it won't be by much. Given Bethesda's AAA status and the massive brand awareness of both Bethesda as a publisher and Fallout as a franchise, this is a disaster.

Apart from Interplay's Brotherhood of Steel (2004), a PS2-only action side-game made whilst the company was collapsing, every Fallout game going right back to the start has sold significantly more than the one before it, a streak also ended by Fallout 76.

The reasons for the game's failure seem clear. The problem isn't that it's a multiplayer spin-off of the main series - so was The Elder Scrolls Online and that's done very well - but that it's trying to play to two audiences whilst meeting the expectations of neither.

Fallout is a series of large, open-world roleplaying games with lots of locations and things to explore. Fallout 76 leans into that with a very large map, four times the size of Fallout 4's, with a lot of location and variety in the landscape, based on West Virginia. However, the game also jettisons what people expect from a Bethesda roleplaying game. Apart from a couple of robots which give out desultory quests, there are no NPCs in the game at all. The only human characters you meet are fellow actual human players. Beyond that there are only monsters.

Also, because Fallout 76 is a prequel, taking place long before the events of even the original 1997 Fallout, almost none of the traditional Fallout lore is present: there are no Super Mutants*, Brotherhood of Steel*, Enclave, New California Republic etc. There are Vaults, Deathclaws, Pip-Boys and Power Armour, but not much beyond that.

All of this would be fine if the game did its core gameplay loop - teaming up with other players to take on enemies (either environmental, monsters or other humans) in battles - well. It fails to do so, with the series' clunky shooting in place once again, worsened by the removal of VATS, an automated, RPG-style targeting system the series has used to overcome the deficiencies in combat. In Fallout 3 and New Vegas, VATS paused the game and in Fallout 4 it slowed it down, but both are clearly impossible in a multiplayer game, so instead the game tries to make it work as a real-time mechanic and, erm, fails miserably.

This latter problem is also rooted in Bethesda's curious decision (which I will go into in a separate article) to continue using its GameBryo/Creation Engine (which they've used for every game since 2002's Morrowind) to make the game. When ZeniMax developed The Elder Scrolls Online, they tailor-made a brand new engine to run the game. For some reason, Bethesda didn't do that for Fallout 76, instead recycling and reusing their engine from Fallout 4 with only a few moderate changes.

On a more mechanical level, Bethesda also chose not to release Fallout 76 though traditional PC digital storefronts like Steam or GoG, which likely put off a lot of players already wary of having too many digital onlines and logins, and too many stores with their bank details. The game also launched quite soon after Red Dead Redemption 2, which shifted 17 million copies in its first week. An a massive, sprawling game it's likely many players are still making their way through that title and aren't interested in other games at the moment. Still, the fact that Fallout 76 was comprehensively outsold by a remake of a 20-year-old Spyro the Dragon game has got to hurt, and there will be recriminations going on at Bethesda HQ.

Most likely, Bethesda will say that Fallout 76 is an experimental side-game and was never meant to outsell its predecessors. This will be disingenuous in the extreme: Bethesda were clearly hoping to tap into the Fortnite/Overwatch/Call of Duty multiplayer audience and get similar levels of sales, and falling this far short can only be seen as a major failure at this point (although if the game is improved through future patches and content updates, this could theoretically change).

Whatever the root cause, Bethesda are facing their first big miss as a development studio in their history. Fortunately, given the studio's long tail on their older games, it probably won't hurt them in the long run. Their next game, Starfield, will be a standard Bethesda open-world, narratively-driven, single-player RPG. Bethesda's owners may be hoping it comes out in 2019 though, to try to make up for the issues with Fallout 76 as soon as possible.

* ETA: I am informed that Super Mutants and the Brotherhood are in Fallout 76, because when you're Bethesda who gives a toss about the established canon timeline?

Wednesday 21 November 2018

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen

The alien occupation of Earth, aided by the ADVENT military force, continues unabated. XCOM, the organisation committed to defending Earth from alien invasion which is now acting as an underground resistance, has scored some major victories, inspiring the aliens to summon three powerful hunters - the Chosen - to destroy XCOM once and for all. But XCOM also has some new allies to bring to the fight...

War of the Chosen is a huge expansion for the strategy game XCOM 2. Just as XCOM: Enemy Within (2013) completely updated and revised XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012), improving every element of the game until it shone to perfection, so War of the Chosen attempts to do the same thing for XCOM 2.

In this game's case, it was more sorely needed. The vanilla edition of XCOM 2, released in 2016, was a fine game but also a slightly frustrating one. The turn-based combat section of the game was altogether more polished, more interesting, more varied and just plain more fun than that of the original game and its expansion. However, the strategic metagame was messier, less focused and less interesting than that of the original game. This left XCOM 2 as being a huge step forward over its predecessor in one area and a huge step back in another.

War of the Chosen certainly solves the biggest problem by giving you much more to do on the world map. The original generic Resistance faction has now split into three distinct groups you can ally with: the Reapers, an elite squad of ninja-like sharpshooters; the Skirmishers, a group of ADVENT soldiers who have escaped alien control and rebelled; and the Templars, a group of humans who have embraced the aliens' psionic powers. Winning the trust of each faction requires some work on the map screen, and in turn getting their support means you can aid them through covert actions, joint operations where XCOM and the factions work alongside one another in off-screen adventures. These operations also allow you to level up your soldiers outside of the traditional missions. The rewards - more intel, more Resistance contacts (allowing you to contact new regions without having to build more comm rooms) and even sabotaging the Avatar Project - are impressive and powerful. The factions are also fun in the sense that they had distinct characters to the game, voiced by veterans of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The aliens, of course, can also bring more friends to the party. There are now 3 powerful special alien characters who are each given control of one-third of the globe. Doing missions in one of those regions can see the Chosen intervening in the battle, giving you a mini-boss to fight. The Chosen can be driven off (but not killed, yet) and they can also achieve their own objectives (usually knocking one of your troops out and scanning them to learn clues to tracking down the Avenger, XCOM's mobile headquarters). Defeat the Chosen and they gain weaknesses (such as a fear of explosives or greater vulnerability to snipers). Fail to do so and they become stronger, eventually amassing enough knowledge to assault the Avenger directly. This has a whiff of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis System, a great game mechanic I'm surprised more titles haven't stolen. With the help of the new rebel factions, however, you can also track down each Chosen's lair, eventually mounting an assault to finish them off once and for all.

There are also new ADVENT troop types (including a flamethrower soldier and one with psi abilities) and a new, neutral faction called the Lost. Effectively zombies, the Lost are humans adversely affected by those green alien pods dropped all over the globe at the start of Enemy Unknown. These appear in missions set in abandoned cities and are attracted by explosions and gunfire. Canny players can trick the lost into attacking ADVENT forces, which is very entertaining.

On top of this, you also have new weapons, new research and much greater character customisation, including the ability to form bonds between pairs of soldiers which increases their combat effectiveness when deployed together. Soldiers also become tired after missions and need to be given time off to recuperate, encouraging you to recruit more soldiers rather than just relying one one single super team for every job. There's also tweaks to gameplay, such as offering the ability to reduce the number of time-limited missions from the vanilla game (which everyone hated).

The result is a bigger, brasher and more confident game than the original XCOM 2. There's a lot more going on and you have a lot more choices to make which are more meaningful. The game gives you more control and you do feel like you're running a worldwide resistance movement as you order covert operations to be undertaken, research some much-needed new tech or decide to launch an assault on an ADVENT base. War of the Chosen fixes most of XCOM 2's problems in one fell swoop.

There are, however, some issues. The onslaught of all this new stuff means that campaigns now last a lot longer than previously (my first XCOM 2 playthrough lasted 30 hours, whilst my War of the Chosen playthrough lasted about 50), which means a typical campaign now goes on so long that the game risks getting stale. One of the key issues with XCOM 2, the ridiculous length of time it took to resolve an action (3 days to pick up supplies when you know their precise location? 8 days to rescue a stranded engineer?), remains firmly in place and can make the early game unnecessarily punishing as it takes forever to get going. However, when you do hit a stride the sheer range of option and missions available also means that you will be levelling characters to max level very quickly, leaving you with a huge roster of top-tier soldiers for most of the game who can curb-stomp everything. This leaves the new alien threats, particularly the Chosen, feeling underwhelming as a threat once you hit the mid-game and utterly trivial in the late game period.

There's also the fact that although War of the Chosen dramatically changes an XCOM 2 campaign, the still basic structure is in place underneath and, once you get over the new factions and the Chosen, the game won't offer any new surprises. This was also true of Enemy Within, but in that case it was a very modestly-priced expansion pack which also replaced the original game. War of the Chosen, on the other hand, has been sold as a full-price game which requires XCOM 2 to run, making it a fairly expensive undertaking (less so these last few weeks, when it's been more readily available on sale). For such a higher premium people might be forgiven for expecting much more content. Firaxis have realised this themselves, recently adding the Tactical Legacy Pack which adds more weapons and equipment, more map types and a 28-mission, story-focused campaign, which certainly helps add variety to the game.

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen (****½) improves the XCOM 2 experience and makes it a more rewarding, more fun, deeper and more compelling game. Both the strategic and tactical options gameplay are improved, and there's a richness in the experience that very few games can match. It's not perfect, though, and occasionally the game can feel a bit too whacky and crazy for a series originally rooted in paranoia and horror, whilst nearly doubling the length of the game risks it getting stale.

The game is available now on PC and via the online stores for X-Box One and PlayStation 4.

Monday 19 November 2018

Happy 20th Anniversary to HALF-LIFE

"Good morning and welcome to the Black Mesa transit system."

On 19 November 1998, the course of video game history shifted. Half-Life, the first game by a brand new developer called Valve, was released to not just critical acclaim, but blanket critical awe. It changed the conversation over what players could expect from first-person video games in terms of immersion, narration, storytelling and AI. Almost every first-person shooter made in the last twenty years can trace its DNA back to the game.

Rewinding a bit, Valve was founded by Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, former developers at Microsoft who'd cashed out with large bonuses in the mid-1990s and decided to create their own video game development studio. Impressed by games like Doom and the in-development Quake, they believed that 3D, first-person games were future and set about creating their own, assembling a disparate collection of coders, artists and level designers. They drew on the Doom modding scene, recruiting people who'd done great work in level design for the more primitive game engine.

They licenced the Quake engine from id Software and heavily modified it into GoldSrc, a considerably more sophisticated piece of software. Ideas for the actual content of the game fluctuated, and at several points the new team considered making two separate games: Quiver, a fast-paced action game where the player fought monsters; and Prospero, a moody, literate and story-focused game. With insufficient manpower to do both, Prospero was canned and the work folded into the Quiver game design, bringing on board more atmosphere and a stronger focused on narrative into the game. At this point the game was also renamed Half-Life.

When was first publicly shown at game fairs in 1997, gamers and publishers alike were astonished by the game's ambition, graphics and action, but the developers were dissatisfied, feeling they could do better. Astonishingly, at a time when games were frequently still designed, produced and shipped in a year, Valve decided to give the game an additional full twelve months of development time.

It was well worth it. On release, Half-Life was an instant smash hit, receiving critical acclaim and huge sales. Two well-received expansions followed, Opposing Force (1999) and Blue Shift (2001), along with a PlayStation 2 port of the game. Fans hungrily used the game's editor to create their own mods, including Team Fortress Classic, Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Gunman Chronicles (all good enough to be released as their own stand-alone products). And, of course, Valve took the lessons and profits from Half-Life to work on two more projects: the video game delivery system Steam, which launched in 2003 (and has been credited with arguably saving PC gaming altogether), and Half-Life 2 (2004), which garnered as much, if not more, critical acclaim as its forebear.

Going back to Half-Life, it's astonishing to remember that it came out only a few years after Doom, with its blocky graphics and awkward controls to look around. Half-Life was slick, intuitive and minimalist. It was a game that knew when to throw down a massive set-piece battle involving tons of aliens and soldiers, and when to isolate the player in a remote part of the Black Mesa facility with limited ammo and health, and absolutely no warning when aliens would attack. The game dished out its storyline and lore with skilful economy, avoiding infodumps and non-interactive cut scenes. By not giving the player-character, Gordon Freeman, a voice, they allowed the player full immersion in the game, able to project whatever personality they wanted onto the character.

The game was also long, taking a good 15 hours or so for a single play-through. Given that the game was really one massive super-level (divided into discrete chapters), it felt longer. You played the whole game in real-time, so when you staggered in the alien Nihilanth's lair, exhausted and determined to finish off the threat, it felt like a tremendously well-earned victory.

The DNA of Half-Life continues through the Call of Duty and Halo franchises, and more directly through the constantly-updated online games Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2. However, it has to be said that the linear, long, story-driven first-person shooter is not in a good place. Bethesda's Wolfenstein series is keeping the flag flying, but it's more the open world, first-person RPG franchises like Deus Ex and Fallout, and semi-open world games like Dishonored and Prey, which seem to be keeping the spirit of Half-Life alive.

As for the Half-Life universe itself, there's been no fresh entry in the core series since Half-Life 2: Episode Two (and its enormous cliffhanger ending) in 2007 and spin-off game Portal 2 in 2011. Valve occasionally pipe up to say the series will continue, but no-one really believes them any more.

A pity, but it should not detract from the fact that Half-Life was a terrific work of art and a blisteringly good game which is surprisingly still playable today (particularly via its remake, Black Mesa). Good job, Mr. Freeman.

ETA: As a special bonus, the Black Mesa team have released a trailer for Xen, the second part of their remake of the original Half-Life. It looks spectacular.

WayWord Sisters: A New Board Game Cafe for Dublin

My good friends Lada and Veronika are opening a new board game cafe in Dublin, Ireland, to be called WayWord Sisters. They are running a crowdfunding campaign via as well as taking out traditional funding.

I've known Lada and Veronika for over three years. They are hardworking entrepreneurs with a lot of experience in hospitality, customer service and board games. They're also geeks of the highest order, and members of the online Song of Ice and Fire community. They once made an epic House Stark-themed sandcastle with Syrio Forel (well, Miltos Yerolemou who played Syrio on HBO's Game of Thrones), which is the kind of geek cred you can't overstate.

Please check out their crowdfunding page, the Facebook community and their Twitter feed, and if you're in Dublin once it's open, remember to swing by and look them up!

Saturday 17 November 2018

Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson

The expansionist Kingdom of Lether has subdued most of the rival kingdoms and tribes on its continent, establishing a hegemony built on notions of debt and service in the name of the king. Its eye now turns to the northern frontier, where the six tribes of the Tiste Edur have recently been united by the Warlock King of the Hiroth. A delegation sets forth to discuss peace and trade, but the true motives of the kingdom are baser. The Warlock King, aware of the growing threat, sends forth the Sengar brothers on a mission to recover a powerful item for him. When the wrong person finds the item, a sorcerous sword of alien origin, it changes the fate of a continent...and the world.

Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy sequence is one that continuously delights in wrong-footing the reader. All of the tropes of established fantasy are here, with powerful empires, great battles, impressive magic and monstrous creatures in spades, but there's also intelligent musings on human nature, philosophical asides on the weirdness of existence and thematic explorations of ideas ranging from colonisation to capitalism and family.

The first four books in the series explored the Malazan Empire and its conquests on the continents of Seven Cities and Genabackis. Although each of the four novels had its own focus and conflicts, common threads regarding the fate of the Empire and the gods ran through each book. Midnight Tides, the fifth book, completely upends this structure altogether. We're now not only on the remote continent of Lether (located far to the south-east of Genabackis or south-west of Seven Cities and Quon Tali), but we're also back in time, with the events of this novel taking place some time before the events of Gardens of the Moon. In fact, you could read Midnight Tides as a stand-alone fantasy novel, as its connections to the rest of the series are, at this point anyway, slight.

Midnight Tides is more traditional, in some respects, than the earlier books in the series. We have two factions, the Tiste Edur and the Kingdom of Lether, with protagonists and antagonists in both camps. Our main POV character is Trull Sengar, a Tiste Edur warrior with a conscience who becomes increasingly concerned over what is happening to his people. Trull is also a link to the rest of the series, as we met Trull at a much later place in his life in House of Chains (and the conceit of the series is that the Tiste Edur storyline of Midnight Tides is being told by Trull to his companion Onrack, although this is not particularly clear - or important - in this novel itself). Other major characters include Udinaas, a Letherii slave who wins the favour of the Tiste Edur ruler; Tehol Beddict, apparently a whimsical madman living in the Letherii capital who is far more than he seems; his brother Brys, the King's Champion; Seren Padac, a traveller, scout and trade factor; and Bugg, Tehol's manservant. It's probably Erikson's most vivid cast assembled so far (which is really saying something) and perhaps his most relatable: with one exception (not made clear until the end of the book) these aren't demigods or Ascendants, but relatively ordinary people dealing in extraordinary circumstances.

Midnight Tides is an enormous book (over 900 pages in paperback) and one that is trying to do a hell of a lot. The primary storyline revolves around the clash between the Tiste Edur and Letherii, a clash of ideologies and beliefs as well as military force. The Letherii have been seen - perhaps too simplistically - as a stand-in for the United States or capitalism in general, a self-described "civilised" nation which destroys the environment, eradicates indigenous cultures and makes everyone subservient to the rule of money, where wealth is the only symbol of worth. The Tiste Edur are not shown as being inherently better (Erikson, an anthropologist and archaeologist, thankfully avoids the "noble savage" trope with some skill), particularly their tendency to take slaves and engage in ritual combat at merest hint of disrespect, but there is something to be said for their much more straightforward honesty compared to the two-faced cynicism of the Letherii. Standing outside this is the Crippled God (another link to the rest of the series), who decides to barge in and get involved to manipulate events for his own benefit.

The result is a busy and (relatively) fast-paced book. Some of Erikson's more characteristic tics, such as characters stopping in the middle of a major battle to exchange philosophical one-liners, are present and correct, but there isn't really enough time for these to bog down the narrative, as is occasionally threatened in other volumes. Instead the book keeps building the tension and narrative layer by layer, chapter by chapter, as we rotate between the Tiste Edur frontier, events in Letheras and elsewhere.

Midnight Tides is also a bizarrely funny book. Of Erikson's numerous fantasy cities, Letheras is probably the closest to Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork, with its subsidence problems and slightly preposterous murder rate. The comic elements come to the fore in the story of Tehol and Bugg, as Tehol realises the only way to really destroy Lether is from inside its banking system, and the (apparently) hapless Bugg helps him to this end. Cue lots of financial skulduggery, plans-within-plans, political intrigue and the increasingly unpleasant details of Tehol's diet and wardrobe emerge. Given the story can get quite grim elsewhere, the laughs in this storyline come as a welcome relief. That's not to say that Tehol's story is disposable - very far from it - but it allows for some well-handled tonal variance.

The book does falter with a slightly redundant storyline in which one of the female characters suffers a sexual assault during a battle. Erikson already covered this story in Deadhouse Gates and did a sterling job of it, presenting the ramifications of physical and sexual abuse on a character in a realistic manner that was well-explored and informed the story without it feeling exploitative. Here the story point is handled very briefly, written off quite quickly (with magic used to take away the psychological damage) and feels almost entirely redundant to both the story and character. Erikson is one of the egalitarian of fantasy authors with well-realised male and female characters, so this feels like a (fortunately) rare misstep on this score (the last in the series until Dust of Dreams) rather than a major problem, but it's still a regrettable move.

Beyond that, the book's biggest weakness might be its awkward placement in the series: Midnight Tides sets up the events of The Bonehunters (where the events of this novel come into conflict with the wider Malazan world) and, most especially, Reaper's Gale, and several of its story threads continue into those books. For that reason, I'd hesitate to recommend reading Midnight Tides by itself (as the sequels won't make any sense unless you've read the first four books as well, and if you read this book you'd then have to double-back and read the other books before being able to press on with the sequels) despite it's stand-alone feel.

Midnight Tides (****½) isn't quite up to the standards of the best volumes in the series, Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice, but it isn't far off. It's an epic fantasy novel with heart and brains, an intelligent deconstruction of capitalist ideology but also an action-packed war story with philosophical musings. It is available now in the UK and USA.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The world is reeling under the advent of a new Fifth Season, one that threatens to destroy civilisation altogether. Essun and her daughter Nassun are both aware that the return of the long-lost Moon may help resolve the crisis, but their goals are diametrically opposed. With Essun's community recovering from a brutal military confrontation and Nassun's mentor critically ill, both will have to overcome great obstacles to reach their goal...and each other.

Concluding a trilogy when the first two volumes have been acclaimed as the finest fantasy novels of the decade, won a multitude of awards and been optioned for television is a bit of an undertaking, but one that N.K. Jemisin has pulled off with an aplomb. The Stone Sky concludes the Broken Earth trilogy, a post-apocalyptic fantasy of the "Dying Earth" school, set in the far future when the world has become a stranger place where the lines between sorcery, magic and science have become blurred by tens of thousands of years of progress.

The previous volume in the series, The Obelisk Gate, left our characters in difficult predicaments. The Stone Sky soon sets them on their way to a final confrontation where the fate of the world will be decided. So far, so standard. But The Stone Sky isn't your standard fantasy novel. The final confrontation is a clash of ideas and perspectives informed by the well-developed characters and their experiences, not a rote clash of armies (which arguably we got in The Obelisk Gate anyway).

Instead, The Stone Sky is a surprisingly quiet novel. The principle action unfolds through conversations between the characters and through lengthy flashback sequences revealing how the Earth lost the Moon in the first place and how the highly advanced civilisation which caused the Shattering fell from grace. Woven through this is a theme of intolerance: the orogenes of the present-day story being outcast and persecuted for being Other, but also used for their power. This is echoed by events in the flashback story, where entire races are enslaved and persecuted out of fear, but then used for their power.

The Stone Sky, as with the rest of the trilogy, explores powerful themes of disempowerment, slavery and fear of the unknown, but also wraps an interesting and gripping narrative, all built on some very accomplished worldbuilding. This mix of atmosphere, character, theme and story is excellently-handled and recalls the best work of Ursula K. Le Guin: a book where all of the individual pieces that went into making it complement one another and deliver a novel that is far more than the some of its parts.

The novel is not quite perfect. Like The Obelisk Gate, the pace sags on occasion and this is made more noticeable by the lengthy flashbacks to the Shattering. These flashbacks are interesting and beautifully-written, but only reveal a moderate amount of new information not previously given in dialogue. The book isn't quite the equal of The Fifth Season in its pacing and story structure, although the difference is not too egregious.

Overall, The Stone Sky (****½) ends one of the finest fantasy series of recent years in final form, wrong-footing expectations and building on the accomplishments of the first two books in the series. It is available now in the UK and USA.

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 7: The Trolloc Wars

A map of the major engagements of the Trolloc Wars. Please click for a larger version.

The Trolloc Wars
Around 1000 AB, reports came from the far north of increasing Trolloc raids through the Mountains of Dhoom. The Ogier-built city of Barsine in Jaramide was besieged and destroyed by a vast horde of Shadowspawn, the first sign that what was happening was more than normal raiding and skirmishing.

Vast Trolloc hordes erupted from the Great Blight, invading through the narrow mountain passes and the wider pass of Tarwin's Gap, between the Spine of the World and the Mountains of Dhoom. Jaramide stood fast and drove back the assaults in the west, but Aramaelle suffered a massive invasion in the east. Despite heavy fighting, the capital city of Mafal Dadaranell came under attack and fell, the Shadowspawn burning the city to the ground and leaving no trace of it behind.

The Ten Nations rallied. Distant nations raised fresh armies and sent them into the fray, but the response was initially piecemeal and unfocused. The Shadowspawn were also accompanied by Dreadlords, Darkfriends who could channel the One Power. They could only be checked by Aes Sedai, and the Aes Sedai were not numerous enough or trained in combat (outside of the Green Ajah) to meet every threat.

Early fighting was centred in Aramaelle, as the Shadow poured fresh troops through Tarwin's Gap. The capital had fallen and its other cities came under heavy attack, but the nation was vast and help was arriving from other nations. Tar Valon was also close by, allowing the Aes Sedai to deploy channellers to act against the Shadow. Despite this, the Shadow's superior numbers won out. After some years into the conflict, Aramaelle collapsed and soon the Shadows armies were surging into Almoren in the south and Coremanda and Aridhol in the south-west. Tar Valon itself was directly attacked and had to pull its forces back to the island. It is likely that the first (of an eventual four) major offensives against Tar Valon was launched at this time but was defeated. Jaramide also came under concerted attack, but managed to stand fast.

Despite the sieges of Tar Valon and the fall of Aramaelle, the nations held their ground. Every city, town or village lost was only at a high cost in Trolloc blood, far higher than those of the defenders, whom the Trollocs frequently outnumbered by as much as twenty or thirty to one. But the Trollocs bred as fast as they died, and the Trollocs rallied under the sudden appearance of a new commander, a dark and evil figure they called "Heart of the Dark", Ba’alzamon in the Old Tongue. It was later confirmed that Ba’alzamon was in reality the Forsaken Ishamael. It seems that the precautions Ishamael took against being imprisoned in Shayol Ghul along with the rest of the Forsaken were working only sporadically, on a timescale of centuries or millennia. Ishamael seems to have managed to free himself from Shayol Ghul for a period of about forty years before being pulled back and imprisoned again, but during that time his leadership proved of critical assistance to the Shadowspawn armies.

By now, the surviving nations had refined their military arts. Rather than face Trolloc armies head-on, as had been done previously, they now used skirmish techniques, luring the Trollocs into an area where cavalry and archers could attack from the flanks or the rear. Immense traps were laid, and Aes Sedai wielding the One Power inflicted great damage upon the enemy.

The Fall of Aridhol
But despite this the Trollocs moved on. By 1150 AB their armies had crossed the River Haevin and were making inroads into Aridhol. The Aridholian army was doing its best to keep them at bay, but was too badly outnumbered for even the new tactics to have much effect. It was during this time that the beleaguered King Balwen Mayel accepted the advice of a new counsellor, Mordeth. Mordeth suggested using the tactics of the Shadow against it, destroying them with hatred. As a result Aridhol became hard and unyielding, cold and uncaring for its allies. By now all of the nations had learned that using mercy against Shadowspawn was useless, but Aridhol took its ruthlessness to new extremes, slaughtering everyone who surrendered to them. Harsh capital punishment was meted out in the cities for even the smallest infractions, making the people bitter and resentful.

King Thorin of Manetheren sent his son Prince Caar to win Aridhol back to the Light, but Mordeth whispered poison in King Balwen’s ear, and Caar and his men were arrested as Darkfriends and sentenced to death. They managed to escape, but all were killed except Caar, who lost a hand in the battle. He fled upriver and eventually came to Jaramide, where he met a woman named Rhea (it is not clear if she was a commoner or a lady or princess of that nation). They fell in love and wed, and had a son, Aemon.

In the meantime, believing his son dead, King Thorin led the army of Manetheren to destroy Aridhol in vengeance, but when they arrived they found the city dark and empty. The evil that Mordeth had unleashed in Aridhol had become manifest and consumed every living soul in the city. How he accomplished this, by an angreal or otherwise, is unclear (although some believe Mordeth may have visited the enigmatic Tower of Ghenjei, which lay within Aridhol's borders, and bartered with the mysterious denizens of the tower for power). What is known is that a dark, forbidding mist swirled through the ruins for over two thousand years, consuming all who come near it. This mist was called Mashadar. The Manetheren army departed and Aridhol became known as Shadar Logoth, "Where the Shadow Waits". When he returned home Thorin learned that Caar still lived, but he was content to live with Rhea in the town of Aleth-loriel, which later fell to the Trollocs, with Caar and Rhea both dying under mysterious circumstances, forming the basis for a great tragedy still told by gleemen and court bards today. His son, Aemon, came to Manetheren and his grandfather raised him as his heir.

The Fall of Manetheren
Several decades later, Prince Caar’s son Aemon became King of Manetheren. His wife was Eldrene ay Ellan ay Carlan, an Aes Sedai of exceptional strength and skill. They led their nation as a formidable team, Aemon as a general and soldier of renown and Eldrene as a statesman and ruler of the home front. The strategic position at this time (c. 1200 AB) was increasingly desperate: Aramaelle, Aridhol and possibly Almoren had fallen; Jaramide and Coremanda were under concerted attack; and Tar Valon had already faced several sieges. Despite this, news of a large Shadowspawn army moving south with its flank exposed to Manetheren was something Aemon could not ignore. He took the bulk of Manetheren’s army and destroyed the Shadowspawn force at the Battle of the Field of Bekkar, the Field of Blood.

But this battle was a feint. Word came from the north of a vast Shadowspawn horde, one of the largest seen in the war, moving south through fallen Aridhol towards Manetheren itself. King Aemon force-marched his army back home. He was unable to gain the Arinelle before the leading elements of the Shadow forces had already crossed the river and secured a bridgehead, so he fell back on the next defensive line: the River Tarendrelle. Two large bridges crossed the Tarendrelle and Aemon resolved to form a new defensive line there.

Word had been sent for aid, to Safer, Aelgar, Eharon and beyond, and even to Tar Valon where Eldrene’s girlhood acquaintance Tetsuan now ruled as Amyrlin Seat. Several of these kingdoms were close enough to send troops by land, and possibly even small forces and Aes Sedai reinforcements by the Ways (the “tunnels” through reality linking the Ogier Waygates together). But Tetsuan harboured a grudge against Eldrene for their childhood together in the White Tower. Eldrene had been accounted more beautiful and stronger in the Power. If she had remained in the Tower, she would probably have been elected Amyrlin instead of Tetsuan. Burning with jealousy, Tetsuan refused to send aid and encouraged several of Manetheren’s allies to also withhold their strength, warning the attack was a ruse designed to weaken their own borders.

Thus, Manetheren’s army faced the Shadow alone. The Battle of the Tarendrelle was a gruelling nine-day engagement where the Manetherenese threw back wave after wave of Shadowspawn as they tried to cross the river, until it ran red with their blood. Initially Manetheren held the east bank, which allowed them to directly fight the Shadow at full strength for nine days. They then fell back to the west bank, firing the bridges behind them, and used missile fire to slaughter Shadowspawn before they could cross. However, the nine-day action on the east bank, although logical given the expected reinforcements, proved to be a mistake. Too many troops had been lost to effectively hold the west bank despite the defensive benefits of the river.

The action gave time for the city of Manetheren to be evacuated. Civilians were sent south and west in great floods, to seek safety in the southern cities of Jara’copan and Shanaine and, when it became clear they would not hold, then Aelgar, Eharon, Safer and other parts of the Ten Nations.

On the eleventh day of combat, the Shadow gained the southern bank of the Tarendrelle. With reinforcements pouring across, King Aemon gave the order to retreat. A running battle lasted for several days, until his surviving forces reached a crossroads to the east of the city of Manetheren. There he made his final stand, holding the Shadow at bay through another full day of battle before he was finally overwhelmed and slain in what became known as the Battle of Aemon’s Field.

At the moment of his death, his wife Eldrene channelled far more of the One Power than was safe or advisable. The torrent of Power obliterated the Shadowspawn army that stood victorious on Aemon’s Field, killing the Dreadlords and Myrddraal accompanying it. The torrent of Power went on and on, consuming not just the Shadowspawn but also the entire city of Manetheren. Eldrene herself was destroyed by the force she had unleashed, but leaving behind no trace of Shadowspawn south of the Tarendrelle. It would be many, many years before the Shadow dared to venture south again, to begin the invasion of Eharon.

For her part in delaying the relief of Manetheren and for sacrificing hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of lives to her own vanity, Tetsuan was deposed from the Amyrlin Seat. She was stilled and put to work as a scullery maid. She died three years later.

So fell Manetheren, most valiant of the Ten Nations. Yet its destruction was not in vain, for the entire civilian population of the city and most of the villages and towns had escaped alive. Later they crept back, finding only scorched ruins where Manetheren City had once lain. On the site of the great battle they founded a new settlement, which they named Aemon’s Field, but Manetheren had been depopulated by the battle and the war, and it never became more than a large village or small town.

The Invasion of Eharon
By the end of the second century of the war Manetheren, Aridhol, Coremanda, Aramaelle and Almoren had all fallen to the Shadow. Tar Valon had been besieged twice and Trolloc armies were rampaging from the Mountains of Mist to the Spine of the World. Yet the new tactics that had been developed slowly began to take effect. Ba'alzamon's disappearance had deprived the Shadow of superior leadership, but many Dreadlords and all the Shadowspawn remained, and it was enough to cause chaos and misery for some time yet.

With Manetheren and Coremanda fallen, the Trolloc hordes could now press south into Eharon, located on the south coast of the continent. The Shadow armies planned to reach the coast of the Sea of the Storms and thus split the continent in two, allowing their armies to isolate and destroy the remaining kingdoms. The offensive was highly successful, with at first the capital as Londaren Cor falling and then Barashta, the kingdom's major port at the mouth of the Eldar, being razed. But, remarkably, Eharon survived. Its leaders managed to evacuate to Dorelle Caromon, the great city at the mouth of the Manetherendrelle, and continue the fight.

The Shadow armies had also overextended themselves in their mad dash southwards, allowing them to be outflanked by other armies and then driven back from Eharon with heavy losses. By this time, the Ten Nation's tactics for dealing with Shadowspawn had become quite efficient and allowed them to defeat Trolloc armies many times their own size.

The Soldier Amyrlin
The Trollocs were thrown back from Eharon and Essenia, and from the fallen lands they had taken, but then a stalemate developed which lasted until around 1251 AB. In this year Rashima Kerenmosa was raised to the Amyrlin Seat from the Green Ajah. Often referred to as the "Soldier Amyrlin", Rashima was extraordinarily strong in the One Power and also possessed a gifted military mind. She personally led the Tower armies into battle, her charisma and charm winning over the surviving nations, which had begun to despair of ever fully defeating the Shadow. Under her leadership the Nations slowly pushed the Trolloc armies back, out of Almoren and Coremanda and further north. It took forty years for the Trollocs to be pushed as far north as Tar Valon, but eventually it was done. In 1290 AB the Trollocs mounted their fourth attack on Tar Valon, bringing almost their entire remaining strength against the island city. Tar Valon very nearly fell, betrayed from within as well as attacked from without, with fierce fighting even within the Tower itself.

As mentioned earlier, renegade Aes Sedai had joined the Shadow to become its new Dreadlords. But it also seems that many Darkfriend Aes Sedai remained secretly hidden within the White Tower, spying and passing their knowledge to the Shadow. This secret sect was referred to as "the Black Ajah" and few Aes Sedai believed in its existence. During the Trolloc attack they emerged to plunge the Tower into chaos, assassinating numerous Aes Sedai and opening one of the gates to the city. The Trollocs poured into the city, burning and looting their way to the White Tower itself. They were delayed by pre-planned defences that turned many of the streets into killing zones, whilst the civilians were able to shelter in fortified basements. Taking the lead, Rashima Kerenmosa slew some of the Black Ajah in combat and rallied the Aes Sedai, unleashing the One Power in vast quantities, bolstered by angreal and sa’angreal from the Tower stores. The Trollocs eventually broke and ran, fearful of being trapped in the city by the advancing armies of the five surviving nations. But the steps of the White Tower ran red with Trolloc, Myrddraal, Aes Sedai and Warder blood, the Tower Library was partially gutted and thousands of civilians lay dead.

Rashima again took to the saddle, leading the forces of the Light northwards. The Trollocs were defeated time and time again, at Kaisin Pass, the Sorelle Step, Larapelle and Tel Norwin, before they came to the field at Maighande.

The histories are in disagreement on the precise location of Maighande, whether it was just a field or a ruined city. It is known that it was the site of the largest battle fought since the War of the Shadow. All of the surviving armies of both the Light and the Shadow gathered at Maighande in 1301 AB. Both sides suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties but, at last, the Trollocs fled, defeated and dejected. Searching the ruins afterwards, a group of Aes Sedai found Rashima Kerenmosa’s body, surrounded by the bodies of her five Warders, a vast wall of Trolloc and Myrddraal bodies and no less than nine Dreadlord corpses.

The Battle of Maighande certainly did not destroy the Trolloc hordes, but it reduced them in number significantly. More importantly, the battle seems to have wiped out almost all of the surviving Dreadlords; certainly the term is never used again after the battle to refer to Shadow forces. Without channelling support, the Shadowspawn became easier prey for any enemy force that attacked with Aes Sedai assistance, greatly simplifying the task of destroying them.

A False Dragon
Perhaps the war would have ended there, had not a new distraction come from the south. Once again, even as the armies massed for battle, the standard of the Dragon Reborn had been raised. Yurian Stonebow was this claimant’s name and, like Raolin Darksbane a millennia earlier, he lay siege to the Stone of Tear in Essenia. Armies rallied and drove Stonebow from the region. Military forces were diverted and sent to capture or kill him.

It took eight years to finally capture Yurian Stonebow. His armies were defeated early on, but he managed to flee. Sometimes he lay low, hiding in barnlofts and haystacks whilst Aes Sedai searched the countryside around him, whilst other times he managed to raise small forces from local towns and farms. He was eventually taken when he attacked a group of Aes Sedai passing through the town he was hiding in, killing three and taking three prisoner. When he was gentled, it seemed he had already started to go mad.

The End of the Ten Nations
This distraction came at a hard price. The Trollocs rallied, though they were so decimated they couldn’t do much more than raid. The war degenerated into a hard slog of guerrilla warfare, removing Shadowspawn and Darkfriends from the countryside one band at a time.

The Trolloc Wars finally ended in 1350 AB. The Ten Nations were exhausted and broken, their armies smashed and their resolve weakened. Some were even unsure what year it was. Cities and towns, no longer defended by their own government, broke away to form smaller kingdoms so they might protect themselves better. The rulers of the surviving countries of Jaramide, Safer, Aelgar, Eharon and Essenia could do nothing to stop them. The war had been won by the Light, but at a very steep price.

The glory of the Ten Nations was lost, soon to become a fading memory. New kingdoms would arise, but they would not be bound as closely as those that came before them. Border wars and larger conflicts would become more frequent. The chances of reaching the heights of the Age of Legends again would fade.

Please note that Parts 8-10 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.