Saturday 29 December 2018

The Last Kingdom: Season 2

AD 878. The Saxon kingdom of Wessex has won a tremendous victory at Ethandun. King Alfred has emerged as the pre-eminent Saxon ruler, forcing the Danes to a negotiated settlement which has resulted in the creation of the Danelaw, an area for Danish settlement along the east coast of Britain. However, Alfred's new Mercian allies are unhappy with the territory given away in this treaty. Alfred, who is driven by the vision of a united, Christian England, sends his sworn sword Uhtred to Northumbria to help liberate Guthred, a strong claimant to the throne of that kingdom. But Uhtred has his eye on his ancestral seat of Bebbanburg and, when his sworn foes Kjartan and Sven One-Eye learn that Uhtred has returned, they plot his downfall. Destiny is all.

The first season of The Last Kingdom was a pleasant surprise when it aired in late 2015. Adapted from the first two novels in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series of novels, it was well-written and well-acted, with a superb cast and production values despite a relatively low budget (especially compared to its main competition in the swords-and-chainmail genre, Game of Thrones). By the end of the season it had become gripping viewing.

The good news is that the second season continues in this vein and improves upon it. The series opens with a distinct swagger in its step, the writers, crew and cast firing on all cylinders. The show's structure, where it adapts two books per season, means it only has four hours to adapt one of Cornwell's novels, each one of which is jam-packed with characters, politics and plot. As a result the TV show is fast-moving and often exhausting, with one episode often featuring more twists, turns, betrayals and character evolution than an entire season of other series.

The theme of the second season is homecoming: Uhtred thinks that everything he needs is in the north, causing him to contemplate abandoning Alfred's cause, but by mid-season he realises that his life is divided between different families and loyalties: to his ancestral homeland and the memory of his dead father; to his slain Danish family; to his adopted Danish brother; to his friends and allies in Wessex who have accepted him when no-one else has; and to the Danish culture, which he regards as freer and less restrictive than the sometimes stifling, Christian atmosphere in Wessex...but also far more dangerous.

Seeing Uhtred navigate these waters and conflicted loyalties is always gripping: after a solid first season, Alexander Dreymon becomes much stronger this year. He is particularly outstanding in the third episode, when Uhtred finds himself on board a slave ship and has to endure a particularly gruelling ordeal as a captive. Particularly impressive is how every cliche in the genre is presented here (the possibility of a manly, heroic escape which is extremely unrealistic) and then shot down in flames. Both Uhtred in captivity and his subsequent recovery, haunted by symptoms of PTSD, are extremely well-handled by writers and cast.

The second half of the season brings the simmering conflict between Uhtred and Alfred to a head. This is frustrating as Alfred is a good king, but a questionable judge of character and his constant suspicions of Uhtred based solely on his refusal to accept the Christian religion (despite saving Alfred's skin and that of his family, allies and kingdom multiple times) gets frustrating for both viewer and Uhtred. The latter half of the season, which sees the newly-cemented Wessex/Mercian alliance struggling against the Danish raiders Siegfried and Eric for control of London, is excellent in depicting these conflicted loyalties with many of the characters drawn into the maelstrom of political deceit and tortured families. Eliza Butterworth, Simon Kunz and Harry McEntire do particularly good work in this storyline. Most outstanding is Millie Brady as Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd, the future warrior-queen of Mercia, who plays the character with both steel and grace.

The season overall is excellent and was on course for five stars, but does lose out a little in the last few episodes. Æthelflæd's character development feels a bit haphazard (setting her up as a warrior, trained by Alfred's master-at-arms, only to have her martial skills vanish for several episodes in a role) and she is reduced to a fair maiden needing rescuing, which feels restrictive. Her romance with the Danish warrior Eric also feels unconvincing, although that may be a side-effect of what remains The Last Kingdom's biggest problem: its difficulty in depicting the passing of time. Years pass between half-seasons and months may pass between episodes, but this is rarely made clear in the narrative drive of the show (which at one point just gives up and puts "THREE YEARS LATER" on screen). The events in the finale also feel a little too melodramatic and convenient, but after a rough season for Uhtred we can perhaps forgive a bit of a self-indulgent ending.

The second season of The Last Kingdom (****½) improves on the first in acting, direction, visual effects, pacing and storytelling, but lets itself down a little towards the end of the season with some odd writing decisions. However, it can't dent the quality of what may be the best sword-wielding show on the air right now (with both Game of Thrones and Vikings in qualitative decline). It is available now on Netflix.

Thursday 27 December 2018

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 12: The Aiel War

Laman's Folly

In 970 NE Illian and Tear clashed again for control of trade along the Sea of Storms and across the Plains of Maredo. The fighting lasted six years and was divided into three separate wars. During these wars Tam al’Thor rose to the ranks of Second Captain of the Illianer Companions, one of the most elite military formations on the subcontinent. At the conclusion of the wars in 976 NE Tam had had enough and wished to return home to his father’s farm in the Two Rivers district of Andor (where Manetheren’s capital had once existed). Before he could, one last battle remained to be fought.

In 971 NE Luc Mantear, eldest son of Queen Mordrellen of Andor, was urged by Gitara Moroso, his mother's Aes Sedai advisor, to seek his glory in the Blight. An accomplished swordsman, he joined the Shienarans on their patrols of the Blight and soon won acclaim for his bravery and skill. However, Luc went into the Blight one day and did not return. He was presumed dead.

This news plunged his mother into grief and his sister into despair. Tigraine despised her husband, the rude, arrogant Taringail Damodred, nephew to King Laman of Cairhien. Whilst he doted on his and Tigraine’s son, Galadedrid (born very early in 972 NE), he almost ignored his wife, or scorned and mocked her even in public. Luc was the only person Tigraine could confide in and news of his apparent death struck her hard. In desperation she also sought the advice of her mother’s Aes Sedai advisor, Gitara Moroso. Gitara, who often had the Foretelling, told Tigraine that the safety of Andor and the world itself depended on her going east, to the Aiel Waste, and joining the "Maidens". She was not to return to the lands of the west until the time came for the Maidens to journey to Tar Valon. Confused, Tigraine heeded her words. Leaving behind a son she loved dearly and a husband she did not at all, she fled Caemlyn by night in the spring of 972 NE with only the clothes she wore and enough money to get her to the Dragonwall.

Tigraine’s disappearance plunged her mother into the very deepest pits of despair. Mordrellen simply could not tolerate any more heartbreak and died in the late spring of the year. House Mantear was too weak to hold the throne and the other Houses fell into dispute over the succession. The Third Succession War raged for three months, though only a few deaths resulted of it, ending when the powerful noble Houses Taravin, Renshar, Coelan, Carand, Traemane and Pendar united behind the youthful Morgase Trakand, High Seat of House Trakand, and propelled her to the Lion Throne. Upon her ascension Queen Morgase pardoned all the Houses that stood against her and married Taringail to appease Cairhien. She also adopted Galad as her own son, again to appease Cairhien. But where Tigraine had been weak, Morgase was extremely strong-willed. She did not tolerate Taringail’s rudeness, often dismissing him from her presence like he was a servant and not even inviting him to some parties and balls. It is a matter of some debate in Andoran society as to how exactly their children, Gawyn (b. 979) and Elayne (b. 981), could have been conceived, such was their disdain for one another. Morgase inherited Gitara Moroso as her Aes Sedai advisor, but barely a year later Gitara was recalled to Tar Valon to serve as the Keeper of the Chronicles for the newly-raised Amyrlin Tamra Ospenya. Elaida do Avriny a’Roihan of the Red Ajah became Morgase’s new advisor. Though Morgase was not aware of it, Elaida’s decision to serve her was based on a Foretelling she had years earlier, that the salvation of the world at the Last Battle would depend upon the Royal House of Andor.

Over the next four years King Laman saw his nephew’s spirit being broken by his stronger-willed wife and also saw his own dreams of seeing Damodreds on the thrones of both Cairhien and Andor crumble. A skilled player of Daes Dae’mar or the Game of Houses (as the complex web of politics between the noble Houses is called), Laman decided to cut down Avendoraldera, the sapling of Avendesorathat had stood outside the Sun Palace in Cairhien for the past five centuries. From that tree he would make the most wondrous and impressive throne in the whole world. This was just a minor part of his schemes, but it had the most infamous and far-reaching outcome.

At the moment the axe bit into the trunk of the only chora tree to exist outside the Aiel Waste in almost four thousand years, Laman’s fate and the fate of the whole world was sealed.

The Aiel War, the Battle of the Shining Walls & the Dragon’s Rebirth
In the spring of 972 NE a young woman asked to join a Cairhienin caravan bound for Shara. The caravan leaders were dubious, but she could pay her way, though she refused to give a name. They agreed, but a few days after entering the Aiel Waste she suddenly left, striking out on her own. The caravan leaders tried to stop her, but she ran off. With only a few days’ worth of food and water, they believed her as good as dead.

Maybe she would have died, but a small group of Aiel Maidens of the Spear - Aiel female warriors - tracked her and rescued her from the brink of death. She refused to divulge her true name, instead taking the name Shaiel, "The Woman Who is Dedicated" in the Old Tongue. She told them that she had been sent to join the Maidens by an Aes Sedai with the Foretelling, and that she left behind a newborn son she loved and a husband she did not. Impressed by her spirit and courage, they adopted her into the Chumai sept of the Taardad Aiel. Barely a year later they let her join the Maidens of the Spear. She would never be an equal to a true Aiel Maiden, raised and trained since almost birth, but she was as skilled a warrior as a wetlander could be expected to become.

Shaiel eventually met and fell in love with Janduin, leader of the Iron Mountain sept and recently-raised clan chief of the Taardad Aiel. One of the youngest clan chiefs in history, Janduin is now accounted as one of the great Aiel leaders. He ended the Taardad's blood feud with the Reyn Aiel and made peace with the Nakai, who were not far from blood feud. He also strengthened the Taardad’s alliance with the Shaarad Aiel and came close to negotiating a peace between the Shaarad and the Goshien, who had been blood enemies for many years. But it was then that news came from across the Spine of the World: Laman had cut down Avendoraldera, destroyed that which could not be replaced and spurned five centuries of peace with the Aiel. Janduin was filled with anger and called a meeting of all the clan chiefs at Alcair Dal, a valley in the Waste where the clans can meet in safety. Despite his entreaties that vengeance was needed against the Cairhienin, only four of the twelve clans agreed to support him. The Reyn, the Nakai and the Shaarad made alliance with the Taardad and soon four full clans of the Aiel were heading west towards the Jangai Pass through the Dragonwall.

The Aiel War began with the invasion of Cairhien in the late spring of 976 NE. The people of Cairhien could only watch, stunned, as more than 90,000 Aiel warriors poured into the eastern part of the country. Taien and Selean, the fortress-towns guarding Jangai Pass, were both razed, as was Eianrod and most of the other settlements in the east. King Laman began gathering the Cairhienin army, and hired mercenaries from Murandy, Andor and Tear, for a decisive battle. That battle, the First Battle of Cairhien, was fought less than four months after the Aiel entered the country. Outnumbered, Cairhien’s army crumbled and fled the battlefield. Laman himself had already fled down the River Alguenya. The Aiel razed parts of Cairhien City, igniting the Topless Towers and sparing only the Great Library (the Aiel will not destroy knowledge, which is precious to them). Incensed that the Treekiller had fled rather than stand and fight honourably, Janduin ordered the Aiel to follow him downriver.

Fighting ravaged most of the south-eastern part of the Westlands for over a year. The rapidly diminishing Cairhienin army and its hired mercenaries battled the Aiel in the Maraside Mountains and Haddon Mirk, rarely achieving any victories of note. At this point Tear entered the war, reinforcing Laman with its own army on the condition that the fighting be moved away from their borders. Laman seemed to know that the Aiel were chasing him, but didn’t share this knowledge with his generals, who believed that the Aiel wished to destroy Cairhien as a prelude to a general invasion of the West.

The fighting now raged up the western side of the Erinin, across the Plains of Maredo near the river. Laman called upon his alliance with Andor and Morgase reluctantly sent troops to aid him. Battles were fought in Braem Wood and on Caralain Grass, but the Aiel ever harried Laman northwards. During this period Shaiel became pregnant, but refused to return to the Waste. Out of his love for her Janduin agreed to let her remain with the Aiel force which, nine months later, came to the Shining Walls of Tar Valon themselves.

The Aes Sedai had come to the conclusion that the Aiel were intent on looting the West (some guessed that they were after Laman, but it was merely one possibility amongst others for the invasion) and the only way to stop them was with a sound defeat. To this end, for the past few months they had sent Grey Ajah ambassadors to the rulers of every nation, even, through third parties, Amadicia and the Children of the Light. Though they detested the idea of working with their hated foes, the "witches" of Tar Valon, the Children of the Light concurred that a single massive battle should be enough to halt the invasion. Thus was formed the somewhat grandiosely-named "Grand Alliance’.

Only four nations did not formally participate in the Grand Alliance, though mercenaries from those lands did fight. Tarabon and Arad Doman were too far away to muster an army and have it arrive in time for the battle (although individual lords were able to march quickly enough to join in the engagement), whilst Saldaea and Kandor were both distracted by a rapid increase in the number of Trolloc raids across the Blight (in fact Kandor’s army had begun marching southwards, but had to be recalled to help combat the increasing Trolloc raids). The other ten countries all participated in the battle.

The Grand Alliance Army numbered approximately 167,500 regular troops from the ten nations, plus an additional 5,000 or so mercenaries and irregulars (much to the chagrin of the First, the small number of Mayener Winged Guards who fought in this battle are only counted amongst the irregulars in histories of the conflict). Shienar sent 29,000 troops, Andor fielded 28,000 soldiers, Illian sent 26,000 troops (including the Illianer Companions), Tear deployed 24,000 troops, Arafel sent 21,000 soldiers, Cairhien’s surviving 7,000 soldiers fought, Ghealdan dispatched 5,000 men, Altara sent 3,500 and Amadicia and Murandy both fielded 4,000 apiece. In addition Tar Valon fielded almost the entirety of its 13,000-strong Tower Guard (keeping only 1,000 back for the defence of the city itself) and the Children of the Light sent 4,000 soldiers. There is no doubt that this was the largest army fielded in the Westlands since the early period of the War of the Hundred Years.

In comparison the Aiel had around 100,000 warriors west of the Dragonwall, but of these only 80,000 or so were actually present at the battle. This discrepancy was balanced by several factors, such as the clarity of their goal (the Aiel only wanted to kill Laman; the Alliance had to defend Tar Valon from all directions and wanted to drive off the Aiel, not destroy them, which it didn’t have enough troops to do), sheer savagery (the Aiel did not fear death, whilst the Alliance troops certainly did) and a simpler command structure. The Aiel only had one leader, Janduin. The Grand Alliance had to make do with a council of eleven different leaders.

This council arose because of politics. The armies arrived at Tar Valon days or even weeks before the Aiel and, in the beginning, nine of the nations, the Aes Sedai and even the Children of the Light agreed that there was one obvious candidate for command: Lord Agelmar Jagad, Lord of Fal Dara on the edge of the Blight and Defender of Tarwin’s Gap. Unfortunately, King Laman Damodred of Cairhien demanded the right to command because it was Cairhien who had suffered the most from the depredations of the Aiel. All of the other leaders refused this simply because Cairhien had lost almost all of its engagements with the Aiel and more than three-quarters of its army had been destroyed thanks to Laman’s tactical ineptitude (this may not be entirely fair, as the Aiel invasion took Cairhien completely by surprise and destroyed most of its army piecemeal before it could assemble). The Amyrlin Seat of the Aes Sedai, Tamra Ospenya, suggested that Tar Valon retain command because it would be at the centre of the battle, but Tear, Amadicia and the Children of the Light refused even to consider this. Pedron Niall offered himself as commander and, whilst even the Aes Sedai admitted he was one of the great captains of the day (though not to his face), it would not be politically acceptable for the Children of the Light to lead a battle fought around Tar Valon. The skilled, though not outstanding, King Mattin Stepaneos of Illian offered himself as a compromise choice which might have been accepted, had not Murandy and Altara’s lords suddenly started squabbling amongst themselves for the role.

The council rotated field command on a day-by-day basis. In the event only four of the eleven commanders actually commanded the Alliance forces: Lord Agelmar Jagad of Shienar on the first day, Lord Captain Commander Pedron Niall of the Children of the Light on the second day, Captain-General Aranvor Naldwinn of Andor on the third day and Lord Hirare Nachiman of Arafel on the fourth. The commander for the fifth day, Mattin Stepaneos, took charge of the aftermath operations of the battle (tending to the wounded, burying the dead, etc) but did not actually command under combat conditions (the month-long harrying of the Aiel forces as they retreated eastwards was commanded by junior officers in the field).

The Battle of the Shining Walls, also called the Battle of Tar Valon and, most famously, the Blood Snow, began on the twenty-seventh day of the penultimate month of 978 NE. The first day saw heavy fighting as the Aiel advanced on Tar Valon from the south and, unexpectedly, from both sides of the Erinin (the Aiel’s crippling fear of water had been overcome to surround the city). The fighting was centred on the Alindrelle Erinin (the western side) and ranged onto the bridges themselves, but never any closer to the city (the Aiel, it seems, were aware that the Aes Sedai could only use the One Power against them if they were attacked and at this time the Aiel were still in awe of Aes Sedai and did not wish harm on them). Heavy snows fell on the morning of the second day, but despite most of them having never seen snow before, the Aiel were not hindered at all. On the third day a contingent of Aiel led by Janduin finally located the Cairhienin camp and in a furious battle decimated it, exposing Laman and killing him. Both of Laman’s brothers died with him. Barely 500 Cairhienin troops survived the battle, though some of the nobles Laman had brought with him managed to get away. Laman’s head was carried back to the Waste as a trophy, along with his sword, a rare Power-wrought blade from the Age of Legends.

The afternoon of the third day, that night, and the following morning saw the Aiel regroup on the eastern side of the Erinin and commence a strategic withdrawal towards the Spine of the World. The fourth day of the battle was really a harrying manoeuvre as the Alliance forces directed the Aiel away from Tar Valon.

The bulk of the Alliance cavalry continued the pursuit of the Aiel for a further twenty days, until the Aiel slipped into Kinslayer’s Dagger and all but vanished, slipping away between the peaks, down into Cairhien again and then east across the Jangai and back into the Waste. The Aiel were gone and the Alliance claimed victory, though almost all of its commanders now realised that the death of Laman had been the Aiel’s only true objective and from that point of view the Aiel had won.

The Battle of the Shining Walls saw several of the more prominent military commanders of the West fall. Captain-General Aranvor Naldwinn, commander of the Queen’s Guard of Andor, perished on the third day of the battle and was succeeded by Captain-General Gareth Bryne. Lord Hirare Nachiman of Arafel, brother to King Paitar, perished on the fourth day of combat and was succeeded by Lord Ishigari Terasian.

But one event above all others took place on the third day of the Battle of the Shining Walls, though its significance would not become clear for twenty years.

On that third day, whilst the bulk of the fighting raged around Tar Valon, a group of Aiel Maidens of the Spear pursued an Andoran contingent south-west to the lower slopes of Dragonmount, a good fifteen to twenty miles from the city itself. Here they fought, but the Aiel were surprised by the arrival of a force of the elite Illianer Companions. In fierce fighting the Aiel were all slain. Examining the corpses afterwards, Second Captain Tam al’Thor was startled to find a new-born baby boy, still in the arms of his dead mother. Tam had always wanted children, but he and his wife Kari had not been able to have them. He took the baby as his own and named him "Rand", one of Kari’s favourite names. A few weeks later he would retire from the Illianer Companions (though only forty years old or so) and return to his home farm in the Two Rivers in western Andor.

At the moment that skirmish was fought on the slopes of Dragonmount, the Amyrlin Seat, Tamra Ospenya, was discussing important matters with her Keeper of the Chronicles, Gitara Moroso. Two Accepted - Moiraine Damodred (Taringail’s half-sister and Laman’s niece) and Siuan Sanche (daughter of a Tairen fisherman) - were also present, acting as couriers between the Amyrlin and the Yellow Ajah sisters out Healing the wounded at the city gates. Suddenly Gitara Moroso was gripped by the Foretelling, crying, “He is born again! I feel him! The Dragon takes his first breath on the slope of Dragonmount! He is coming! He is coming! Light help us! Light help the world! He lies in the snow and cries like the thunder! He burns like the sun!”. At that instant she fell dead on the spot. Shocked, Tamra swore the two Accepted to secrecy and gave several trusted Aes Sedai sisters a secret mission: to find the Dragon Reborn wherever he was and bring him to Tar Valon to be brought up in safety.

As far as the rest of the land was concerned, a major battle had been won or at least endured, and things returned to normal afterwards. But they were wrong. The Dragon was Reborn. Lews Therin Telamon breathed again and nothing would ever be the same.

Before the Storm
In the aftermath of the Battle of the Shining Walls Moiraine Damodred and Siuan Sanche were raised to the shawl, becoming full Aes Sedai. Both chose the Blue Ajah. It was a startling decision, since both had been in the Tower less than ten years, but the Amyrlin Seat, Tamra Ospenya, was adamant, so pleased was she by their conduct during the battle.

Barely had the shawls settled on their necks before the two Aes Sedai went their separate ways. Siuan Sanche remained in the Tower, rising quickly through the hierarchy of the Blue Ajah, whilst Moiraine went out into the world. On the surface she merely wished to travel the land, looking for girls who could channel the One Power and seeing what matters might concern Aes Sedai. Many sisters did as much in their early years in the shawl. Others guessed that Moiraine feared being put forward for the throne of Cairhien as a niece of the dead Laman and slipped away to avoid an unwelcome destiny. But, unknown to the Tower at large, Moiraine had a secret purpose. She was to hunt down the Dragon Reborn whilst Siuan oversaw the search from the White Tower. The Amyrlin Sedai, Tamra Ospenya, had dispatched several trusted Aes Sedai sisters on the search as well (Aisha Raveneos, Kerene Nagashi, Valera Gorovni, Ludice Daneen and Meilyn Arganya) but Siuan and Moiraine appointed themselves to the hunt as well.

The biggest problem facing the hunters was that literally hundreds of children had been born in the days surrounding the appropriate date to camp-followers of the Alliance armies and in the city itself. Most of those children, and their parents, vanished without trace after the battle, with almost no record of where they had gone. Initial reports indicated the soldier might have been with a mercenary force from the Borderlands, so Moiraine’s first port of call was the Borderlands. There she met al’Lan Mandragoran, the famous Uncrowned King of Malkier. After spending some time together, she offered to bond him as her Warder. Lan initially refused, until Moiraine told him the truth behind her quest. Lan agreed that finding the Dragon Reborn was more important than anything, even his war with the Blight, and accepted her offer. In Shienar Moiraine was introduced to Lord Agelmar Jagad of Fal Dara and they became friends and allies. Around this time Moiraine also learned that all of the other sisters sent on the search for the Dragon Reborn had been murdered in highly unusual circumstances. Only she and Siuan remained alive, perhaps because none save Tamra knew that they knew of the Dragon’s Rebirth.

Halfway through 979 NE Tamra Ospenya died under mysterious circumstances. Moiraine’s search carried her to Kandor. There, in Chachin, she uncovered the first hard evidence that the Black Ajah still existed in the Tower and realised that Tamra had been murdered by them. Moiraine and Siuan both trod very warily after that.

In the spring of 979 NE what was left of Cairhien was again rocked by war, this time the Fourth War of Cairhienin Succession. This war saw House Damodred displaced and House Riatin take the throne under King Galldrian. Though House Damodred remained a powerful force under Lord Barthanes, its reputation had been seriously marred by Laman’s foolishness and it would be some time before it would become a contender for the throne again.

In Andor, Prince Taringail saw the end of his dreams to put a daughter on the Lion Throne of Andor and a son on the Sun Throne of Cairhien. Some say this was the final straw and he started plotting to take the Lion Throne for himself. Taringail was assassinated in 984 NE, leaving all such plans unfulfilled. Initially agents of House Riatin were suspected, but it is now believed that he was killed by the Court Bard, Thomdrim Merrilin, before he could harm Morgase. Thom himself was forced into exile from Caemlyn the following year, when his nephew Owyn discovered he could channel the One Power and was unlawfully gentled by the Red Ajah, who then left him to the "mercies" of the local townsfolk. Thom had several arguments with Elaida about this matter, the final one actually in public. Queen Morgase was sympathetic to Thom’s pain - after all, they had been lovers for more than five years - but refused to tolerate disrespect to her Aes Sedai advisor in the Royal Palace. When Thom refused to apologise, he was thrown out of the city. Thom took to the road as a common gleeman, entertaining peasants and farmers as he had once entertained nobles and queens.

Around 983 NE it seems that Ishamael finally escaped form Shayol Ghul for good, a clear fifteen years before the remainder of the Forsaken escaped. Ishamael made contact with the Black Ajah - it seems that he had already made arrangements for it to survive beyond the Trolloc Wars - and was enraged to discover that the current leader of the Black, Jarna Malari, had arranged the death of the Amyrlin Seat Tamra Ospenya, risking the Black Ajah with discovery. Jarna was killed in a horrific manner, which the Black Ajah arranged to look like an accident involving a ter’angreal. Ishamael then raised Alviarin Freidhen of the White Ajah to become the leader of the Black, ordering her to obey him absolutely. Sierin Vayu, the Amyrlin after Tamra, died in 984 NE but the Black Ajah took no hand in the matter (although it is speculated that some members of the Black manipulated the Red Ajah into performing the deed for unknown reasons). Marith Jaen, one of the oldest sisters in the Tower, was raised to the Amyrlin Seat, but then died of old age a mere four years later.

The Hall of the Tower decided that it was not good for the image of the Tower to go through so many Amyrlins in so short a time and it was decided to deliberately choose a young woman, one who would endure for decades. In the end they choose Siuan Sanche as the Amyrlin Seat in 988 NE, despite the minor controversy (Siuan had only been full Aes Sedai for nine years and in the White Tower less than twenty). Siuan proved a good choice, wise and strong. The Black Ajah left her alone because she didn’t seem to be a threat (Siuan in fact began actively investigating the Black Ajah at this time, but always moved slowly and carefully so as not to arouse their suspicions).

In 996 NE, a Darkfriend named Padan Fain was taken to Shayol Ghul and "altered" so he became a hound for the Dark One, destined to track down the Dragon Reborn no matter what. In his guise as a peddler he visited many parts of Andor, Ghealdan and Murandy and the Dark One’s minions sensed somehow that he had been in the vicinity of the Dragon Reborn. The following year, 997 NE, he sensed the Dragon Reborn’s presence in the town of Emond’s Field in the Two Rivers. For his visit the following year, he would have some guests accompanying him...

Between 993 and 998 NE no less than four false Dragons troubled the world. The first three could not channel, but these still caused chaos in Kandor, Arad Doman and Illian. The false Dragon in Illian, Gorin Rogad, went as far as laying siege to the City of Illian itself before being captured and executed on King Mattin Stepaneos’ orders in 995 NE. But the fourth false Dragon, named Logain Ablar, was a different matter. He arose late in 997 NE, raising the banner of the Dragon Reborn in Ghealdan. He was the first false Dragon in more than eleven centuries who could channel, the first since Guaire Amalasan himself. He made no secret of his intention to seize the Stone of Tear, and began marching eastwards towards Altara, Murandy and Illian.

Very late in 997 NE, or perhaps early in 998 NE, the town of Falme on the extreme western end of Toman Head suddenly fell silent. Merchants travelling to Falme from Bandar Eban, Tanchico or Katar did not return. Ships sailing to Falme also vanished. Tarabon and Arad Doman, each suspecting the other had invaded Toman Head as a prelude to seizing Almoth Plain, began mustering their armies for war. Tarabon even went so far as to send a small army onto Toman Head itself, but the army was apparently destroyed by a powerful, shadowy enemy.

In the east, in Cairhien, House Damodred under Lord Barthanes had managed to rebuild much of its lost prestige and began manoeuvring to challenge House Riatin for the throne. In Tear the High Lords began another of their periodic attempts to blackmail Mayene into surrendering to them, forcing the young First, Berelain sur Paendrag Paeron. In Amadicia Pedron Niall, Lord Captain Commander of the Children of the Light, hatched a new scheme to extend the Children’s power westwards into Tarabon.

And, in Illian, a young woman named Moiraine and her bodyguard Lan arrived to ask certain questions about the recent attack by the false Dragon. By chance she heard from an officer in the Illianer Companions that he'd heard that a fellow Companion had found a babe on the slopes of Dragonmount and took the child home with him to the Two Rivers. Moiraine and Lan rode for Emond’s Field that very day, unaware that a thousand miles to the north Padan Fain was riding westwards for the Two Rivers as well. Purely by chance, they would arrive within two days of one another.

And the world would forever be changed.

Please note that 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.

Wednesday 26 December 2018

Happy 20th Birthday to BALDUR'S GATE

Back in 1998, it would have appeared that the venerable Western computer roleplaying game was in a precarious position. The genre had been dealt the hammerblows of a series of a disappointing releases (including in formerly well-regarded franchises like Might & Magic), the rise to prominence of real-time strategy and first-person shooters and an explosion in the popularity of the Japanese RPG, spearheaded by the all-conquering Final Fantasy VII. The genre needed a saviour and it would arise in...Canada?

Founded in Edmonton, Canada in 1995, BioWare was a rather odd video game development company. It had been established by Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk and Augustine Yip, recently-graduated medical doctors who realised they had much more fun playing and creating games than in practising medicine. Operating out of Zeschuk's basement, they had made a mech combat game called Shattered Steel in 1996 that had done quite well for their publishers, Interplay, and were now looking for a new project.

BioWare had developed an engine for a project called Battleground: Infinity in which creatures from different mythologies could be battled by powerful heroes. Although Shattered Steel had been a 3D game, they decided this new project required a more classic, old-skool look and reverted to sprites, with painted backgrounds digitally scanned into the game with a movement grid overlaid on top, an extremely fast way of producing game areas, although a somewhat storage-intensive one in an age when PC hard disks were still averaging out at around 4 GB in size. The engine was also unusual in that it combined statistic and customisation elements taken from role-playing games, but fused to a real-time strategy control scheme (including drawing boxes round heroes to select them and hotkeys to use their abilities). The genius moment was the ability to hit the space bar to pause the game, issue commands, and then have the action resume and the results play out. BioWare were proud of the engine and its unusual blending of new and old tech, and called it the Infinity Engine.

The BioWare team took the prototype into Interplay, who had published their first game, and got talking to the RPG division headed by Feargus Urquhart. The Interplay internal RPG division had had a bit of a rough time, as their last several games (including the Forgotten Realms-set game Descent to Undermountain) had bombed and they had little promising in development except a post-apocalyptic RPG being developed by Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, which the team believed passionately in but senior management seemed sceptical about.

Urquhart liked the pitch, but not the setting. When the game's designers, including Trent Oster and Scott Greig, said for the umpteenth time it was "a bit like Dungeons and Dragons", Urquhart pointed out that Interplay held the gaming licence for D&D and all its myriad game worlds. Why not just make a Dungeons and Dragons game? BioWare were taken aback, but then enthusiastic. D&D had arguably not produced a classic game in the computer space since Eye of the Beholder II in 1992, and before that the classic "Gold Box" series of games. It was also a bit of a risk. Dungeons and Dragons was at the lowest ebb of its popularity in its history, with its parent company TSR in real danger of going bust. But Interplay loved the technology, BioWare loved the idea and they went for it.

The resulting game was to be called Baldur's Gate, named after an interesting but distinctly second-tier city in the Forgotten Realms setting (with cities like Waterdeep, Silverymoon, Calimport and Zhentil Keep being better known in the setting and the related fiction). There was relatively limited contact with TSR - whose financial woes at the time were considerable - so the teams at BioWare and Interplay delved deep into Forgotten Realms novels and pen-and-paper materials to assemble an impressive amount of lore with a high degree of fidelity to the setting.

There were worries about the project: Final Fantasy VII was released on the PlayStation several months into the development of Baldur's Gate and its elaborate cut-scenes, 3D graphics, gripping storyline and memorable characters was a huge hit (despite an iffy translation), selling millions upon millions of copies. It was a huge crossover success and brought Japanese RPGs into the mainstream. Would Baldur's Gate look tired and old-fashioned in comparison?

The developers did not believe so, and in fact they followed some of the conventions laid down by JRPGs in making the game. The biggest difference between WRPGs and JRPGs is based in character. In Western RPGs it is traditional for the player to create the entire party themselves, rolling their stats, naming them and deciding their course of action, with usually a fair degree of freedom available at any one time. JRPGs were much more focused and pre-planned, with players given control of a pre-created party of characters (although with the freedom to customise their stats and equipment as they increased in power through the game) and made to follow a much tighter storyline. Baldur's Gate squared the circle by giving the player the ability to craft a central character of any race, gender or class, but their companions would be pre-generated and the player would be able to choose up to five of them (from a pool of around a dozen) to join them at any one time. Companion characters would have moral codes and would object to the player's actions: evil actions might cause a paladin to leave the party or even attack the other characters. The interrelationships between the companion characters were fascinating, with some falling in love and marrying, or forcing the player to carry out a dangerous quest on their behalf.

During development there were already signs of a renaissance in Western RPGs: The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall had been a modest success in 1996, combining enormous player freedom with a first-person viewpoint. Diablo, also released in 1996, had been a fast-paced action RPG focused on dungeon delving and frantic combat. Interplay's own Fallout, the Cain/Boyarsky project, had been a modest and well-reviewed success in 1997 and the company had followed up quickly with Fallout 2 in 1998. During development of that game, Interplay's internal CRPG division had renamed itself Black Isle, and provided assistance in developing Baldur's Gate as well.

Baldur's Gate was released to tremendous success on 21 December 1998. Reviews were ecstatic, the game's writing and character roster was highly praised and its translation of the D&D rules was appreciated for both its fidelity to the pen-and-paper game and its approachability for newcomers. Baldur's Gate was also part of the renaissance of D&D itself: in 1997 the ailing brand had been saved by Wizards of the Coast (creators of Magic: The Gathering) who were now releasing new material for the game and preparing for a new edition, to be released in 2000. Baldur's Gate formed part of the D&D comeback, showing that the game could be as fun and as cool - and far more customisable - than any high-budget, console-focused JRPG.

Baldur's Gate provided a vivid and rich fantasy experience, drawing on almost a dozen years in print of Forgotten Realms products and twenty-four years' worth of Dungeons and Dragons rules and materials. It's locations, characters and stories became iconic almost overnight, such as the struggles of the villain Sarevok, the perilous descent into the Mines of Nashkel and rise of the Rashemi hero Minsc and his miniature giant space hamster ally, Boo (who may constitute one of video gaming's earliest memes). The game was customisable, with a difficulty level that could be adjusted on the fly and on-line guides providing help and advice on how to develop your character. The story experience could be very different depending on which characters were recruited into the party and which options were chosen. The Infinity Engine's gorgeous painted backdrops and minimalist interfaces (where complex dice-rolling mechanics could be hidden away) were also highly impressive and almost immune to being dated: in 2018, the Baldur's Gate games have aged far better than the big-budget 3D extravaganzas which they had competed again.

Baldur's Gate also led to an explosion of CRPGs. Even before development had been completed, Interplay's internal CRPG team, Black Isle, had licenced the engine to make their own games: Planescape: Torment (1999), a moody, story-driven CRPG is often cited to this day as the greatest RPG of all time. Icewind Dale (2000) and Icewind Dale II (2002) were excellent, combat-focused dungeon dives.

BioWare themselves developed an expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast (1999) and then a full sequel, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000). Baldur's Gate II was far bigger than the original with a much more complex, far more gripping plot. It also had, in Jon Irenicus, arguably the best-written and best-acted (by the brilliant David Warner) video game villain of all time. It was The Lord of the Rings to Baldur's Gate's The Hobbit, and is also often cited (alongside Planescape: Torment and, more latterly, The Witcher 3) as the greatest CRPG of all time.

After the release of Baldur's Gate II's expansion, Throne of Bhaal (2001), BioWare created a new 3D engine, Aurora, which they used to create Neverwinter Nights (2002) for Atari and, in a heavily-modified form, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) for LucasArts. BioWare chose to leave behind licensed properties to make original worlds, resulting in Jade Empire (2005), Mass Effect (2007) and their "spiritual successor" to Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age: Origins (2009). BioWare's games became more graphically stunning, more streamlined and ever more accessible, but some feared this was at the cost of character and depth. Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) and Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017) were both heavily criticised for being dumbed-down action games lacking the richness of their previous titles. Of course, BioWare are really no longer BioWare: bought out by Electronic Arts in 2007, their founders and most of their original team had left the company by the mid-2010s.

It fell to others to keep the spirit of Baldur's Gate burning. Former BioWare staffer Trent Oster founded Beamdog in 2009 with the intent of resurrected the classic games. Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition (2012) and Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition (2013) are both excellent revamps and remasters of the original games, made compatible with modern systems. In 2016, Beamdog even created a whole-new Baldur's Gate game using the Infinity Engine. Siege of Dragonspear is an interquel which links the stories of Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II, creating a continuous RPG experience lasting well north of 200 hours to complete in full.

Other companies have also paid tribute to the game. Obsidian Entertainment, which arose from the ashes of Black Isle after Interplay's collapse in 2003, have developed a series of RPGs inspired by the Infinity Engine: Pillars of Eternity (2015), Tyranny (2016) and Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (2018). inXile Entertainment, created by some of the same team at Interplay, have created RPGs such as Wasteland 2 (2014) and Torment: Tides of Numenera (2017). Larian Studios created Divinity: Original Sin (2014) and Divinity: Original Sin II (2017) which both fused the spirit of Baldur's Gate and Ultima with co-op gaming.

However, it may be the most significant offshoot of BioWare's creation of Baldur's Gate came in the founding of a Polish company called CD Projekt Red. CDPR was founded to bring official translations of English-language games to the Polish market, which was dominated by unofficial pirate copies. One of the first games they translated was Baldur's Gate, and it was a huge success. Years later, CDPR decided to make their own RPGs and licensed the Aurora Engine from BioWare to make The Witcher (2007). A huge hit, the game spawned two sequels, the second of which, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) is widely regarded as the greatest CRPG (and may be the best game, full stop) released this century. According to rumour, EA have asked BioWare to ensure that any future Dragon Age IV takes note of The Witcher 3's deep, reactive storyline and its memorable characters. Thus the apprentice has become the master.

Baldur's Gate changed the course of gaming history when it was released 20 years ago and is still a fine and engaging game to play today. You can find it now on Steam and GoG.

Sunday 23 December 2018

THE LAST KINGDOM renewed for fourth season

Netflix have renewed The Last Kingdom for a fourth season, as announced by the cast in an amusing video.

The BBC commissioned and began airing The Last Kingdom with a well-received first season back in 2015, co-produced with BBC America. For Season 2 BBC America dropped out as co-producer and was replaced by Netflix, who also started showing the series worldwide on the their platform, where it picked up a much wider audience. The BBC decided to pull out after the second season but Netflix picked up the show and it returned last month with a higher budget, more episodes and the strongest critical reception to date.

The TV series, set in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, follows the adventures and misadventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon noble boy who is captured by Danes and raised as one of them. After the death of his adopted Danish family, he finds himself torn between his Danish and Saxon heritages, but eventually swears his sword to King Alfred of Wessex, a pious and godly king who believes it is his destiny to unite the seven Saxon kingdoms together as one: England. Alfred and Uhtred have a complex relationship, with Uhtred saving Alfred's life on several occasions but Alfred struggling to create a Christian kingdom when his greatest warrior refuses to convert to the cross.

The TV series is based on The Saxon Stories, a series of novels by historical fictional writer Bernard Cornwell. The series is planned to expand across 14 novels (eleven of which have been published), which in total will follow Uhtred and the fate of Wessex from Alfred becoming King in 871 all the way to the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, when the fate of England is finally decided; Uhtred will presumably be in his eighties in the last novel of the series. The series is loosely based on real history, with the caveat that the historical Uhtred actually lived a century after the fictional one.

Sunday 16 December 2018

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 11: The New Era

The New Era

The War of the Hundred Years left the West in ruins, but twenty-four nations emerged from those ruins. Most of these nations endure today, whilst others have fallen.

The nations that emerged from the War of the Hundred Years were Arad Doman, Almoth and Tarabon along the west coast; Altara, Illian, Maredo and Tear along the south coast; Mar Haddon, Cairhien and Hardan along the Spine of the World; and Saldaea, Kandor, Arafel, Shienar and Malkier along the Blight. The nations of Amadicia, Ghealdan, Murandy, Andor, Caralain and Kintara all lay in the continental interior. The locations of Goaban, Irenvelle and Mosara have been lost to us, but they are speculated to have lain between Saldaea and western Andor; along the Shadow Coast; and east of the Black Hills. Naturally, the city-state of Tar Valon continued to survive, as did the city-state of Mayene, which had passed through the War of the Hundred Years all but unnoticed. The ruler of Mayene, now titled “The First” even made what most people took to be a poor claim, that he was descended from Artur Hawkwing himself. He claimed that Tyrn Paendrag Mashera, whom most people assumed killed along with his mother Laiwynde shortly before Hawkwing’s own death, had survived. He was raised in Mayene, but refused to let his name be known for fear of bringing war and destruction down on the city. Once his survival became common knowledge, the nobles of Mayene had made him the first First Lord of the city. When asked to show conclusive proof of this, the then-current First was unable to do so and thus their claims were ignored (though the Firsts maintain this claim even today).

The war had reduced the population of much of the Westlands and, though every part of the subcontinent was claimed by one nation or another, large areas of uninhabited wilderness existed. Even in Andor, the most populous of the nations, uninhabited areas appeared, such as the 500 miles or more of empty scrubland, forests and hills that stretch between Whitebridge and the town of Baerlon. The nations that disappeared the soonest, such as Caralain (on the vast grassplain of the same name), were the ones that were dominated by such empty lands.

It is impossible to discern why the population has never recovered. Certainly, the population was reduced to even below modern-day levels by the Trolloc Wars, yet it recovered stronger than ever before afterwards. Some believe that humanity has simply been worn out by warfare and that there is no impetus to recover. Others believe that the weakening Seals and the Dark One’s growing touch on the world are to blame. Where armies used to number in the hundreds of thousands in Hawkwing’s day, most national armies after the War of the Hundred Years were lucky to get into the tens of thousands. Even the numbers of Aes Sedai dropped. Before the Trolloc Wars there may have been as many as 3,000 Aes Sedai, yet by the present day there are barely 1,200. This latter has been partially explained by a White Ajah theory that the systematic gentling of every male channeller has “winnowed” the ability to channel out of the human race, although this is controversial.

As mentioned earlier, ten of the nations that survived the War of the Hundred Years vanished in the centuries afterwards. Almoth fell circa 600 NE, unable to support the population. Almoth Plain has been in contention between Arad Doman to the north and Tarabon to the south ever since. Hardan, which lay between the River Erinin, Kinslayer’s Dagger and the Spine of the World, gradually faded away, its capital city of Harad Dakar being finally abandoned in 700 NE. Maredo became almost a thorough-fare for armies from Tear and Illian as they attacked one another, and caught in the crossfire it too faded away, leaving behind only the great trading city of Far Madding. Kintara, a nation to the north of Maredo, was absorbed into Andor, which then proved unable to support its new lands and abandoned parts of them. Goaban, Mosara and Caralain were all abandoned because the people left, or died out. After 800 NE or so the only nations that existed were the fourteen that endure today, plus Malkier, the fall of which is related below.

During the New Era war became more commonplace. The trust and respect held for Aes Sedai now dwindled, since the smaller numbers of Aes Sedai meant they were seen less often. The Children of the Light, who thrived in these times of suspicion and fear, also contributed to this, spreading their lies about the Aes Sedai being Darkfriends and Warders their pet dogs. Some lands remained true to the Aes Sedai, mainly the Borderlands where their hatred of the Shadow earned them respect, and Andor, where their ancient alliance remained firm. Illian, Cairhien, Mayene, Murandy, Arad Doman, Tarabon and Ghealdan all had Aes Sedai advisors, though they were mainly kept in secret. In Tear and Amadicia Aes Sedai were not tolerated and girls able to channel were sent to the White Tower as soon as they were found. Tear was fearful of the coming of the Dragon Reborn (the Prophecies clearly stated that Tear would be one of the first nations to suffer from his coming, with the conquest of the Stone of Tear) and in turn feared the Aes Sedai.

It is less clear why Amadicia disliked Aes Sedai. Presumably there was a misunderstanding and the rulers of Amadicia took offence. This dislike reached new heights when, in 930 NE, the King of Amadicia invited the then-wandering Children of the Light to make a permanent base in his country. The Children gratefully accepted, founding the Fortress of the Light in the capital city of Amador itself. The King’s own Seranda Palace was moved brick-by-brick to a field two miles outside Amador to make room for it. Within a few years the King found he had very little power any more, for the Lord Captain Commander of the Children of the Light now ruled Amadicia from behind the scenes, using the King only for diplomatic functions.

The largest and most powerful nations of the New Era were - and to some extent still are - Andor and Cairhien. These nations clashed on many occasions for control of the River Erinin that was their common border. The two kingdoms even founded river-towns (Aringill and Maerone) opposite one another to keep an eye on what the other was up to. Cairhien sometimes exchanged raids with the Aiel clans nearest the Spine of the World, but these raids came to an abrupt end in 509 NE when a group of Aiel travelled all the way to the capital of Cairhien itself. These Aiel presented the King of Cairhien with a gift, Avendoraldera, a sapling of the Tree of Life itself. They also gave the Cairhienin the right of free trade across the Aiel Waste, allowing huge trade caravans to cross the Waste to distant Shara. Cairhien soon became immensely rich from this trade, though Andor almost matched this wealth thanks to the opening of very lucrative gold, silver and iron mines in the Mountains of Mist.

Around 500 NE Illian called the Great Hunt of the Horn again, asking adventurers to go on the quest to look for the Horn of Valere. Several previous Hunts had been called but none had turned up the Horn. Both had resulted in many adventures, however, and the great Hunt of the Hornbardic cycle had come into being. This Hunt was again unsuccessful, but new stories were added to the cycle.

Early in the New Era, Mayene had suddenly discovered vast shoals of oilfish off the south coast of the Termool or Waterless Sands, the desert to the south of the Aiel Waste. These oilfish provided oil that burned far brighter and far longer than the oil made in Tear or Illian, and could also be cooked to delicious standards. Mayene rapidly capitalised on these new industries. The High Lords of Tear suddenly and, they claim, coincidentally decided this was the right time to press their claim on the city which, after all, lay right on the eastern edge of Tear’s borders. The First of Mayene resisted efforts by Tear to take control of his city, using blackmail, bribery and on several occasions assassination to keep the Tairens at bay. Tear never invaded the city by military force, partially because of the severe difficulty of landing troops on the Mayener Peninsula (aside from Mayene itself there are no good harbours on the peninsula), the inaccessibility of the city by land (blocked off by the vast swamp known as the Drowned Lands to the north) and the fear that Illian might attack Tear from the west whilst its army was engaged in the east. We now know that Mayene has had strong ties with Tar Valon since perhaps the War of the Hundred Years, and it is possible that Tar Valon intervened with vague threats to dissuade Tear from attacking Mayene (just because Tairens hate Aes Sedai it does not mean they do not fear or even respect them). Whatever the case, Mayene has preserved its independence since this time and continues to do so today.

The centuries passed and suddenly false Dragons began appearing with increasing regularity. None of these could channel, but their sudden appearance was disconcerting to the Aes Sedai. Some begun to wonder if the Last Battle was drawing nigh.

The Fall of Malkier
In 955 NE the Borderland kingdom of Malkier fell into chaos and ruin due to treachery most foul from its own nobility. The Fall of Malkier is now used as a warning to the other Borderlands to remain on their guard for the Shadow within as well as the Shadow without.

Breyan Mandragoran was the wife of Lain, eldest brother of King al’Akir Mandragoran of Malkier. She was an extremely proud woman, proud of her husband and his skills at war. She was also jealous of al’Akir’s place on the throne, believing Lain to be more deserving of the crown. She was supported by Cowin Gemallen, one of the Great Lords of Malkier, who urged her to demonstrate Lain’s superior bravery and leadership skills.

Breyan took the suggestion and at her request Lain led a thousand lancers into the Great Blight. The plan was for them to travel to the Blasted Lands themselves and then return unharmed, having visited great ruin on the Shadow in the meantime. King al’Akir was furious, even ordering his brother not to go, but Lain disobeyed out of honour and a genuine love for his wife and for their son, the two-year-old Isam. Of course, he never returned. Breyan was grief-stricken and called al’Akir coward and traitor for not riding with his brother into the darkness. Al’Akir forgave his sister-in-law’s outburst as nothing more than a guilty conscience, but underestimated her duplicity. From that day forwards Breyan plotted to remove al’Akir from the throne and replace him with her son Isam. Of course, this meant that al’Akir and his own infant son, Lan, had to die.

Cowin Gemallen became Breyan’s confidant and agreed to support her plans for a coup. He convinced enough of his men to join the conspiracy and stripped the Blightborder fortress he commanded of men, sending them back to the Seven Towers to help in the attack. However, Gemallen was a black-hearted Darkfriend and stripped the fortress in order to allow Trollocs, Myrddraal and Draghkar invaders in. During the invasion Breyan was killed and her son Isam fell into the hands of the Myrddraal.

Gemallen thought that Malkier would surely fall, but al’Akir rallied his troops and held the enemy at bay. In a startling display of bravery and ingenuity, the king’s most trusted scout, Jain Charin, slipped through the Trolloc lines and took Gemallen prisoner in his own castle. He then dragged him back to the Seven Towers, where he faced al’Akir in single combat and perished.

Now the Trollocs moved again, laying waste to the country. Al’Akir abdicated his throne to his son, naming him al’Lan Mandragoran and granting him the title of a Diademed Battle Lord. They also gave into his care a blade forged in the War of the Shadow itself, a blade made with the One Power. Al’Lan, only eighteen months old, was sent south to Fal Dara in the care of Jain Charin and a dozen of Malkier’s finest warriors. Many died, but the survivors and Lan reached Shienar safely. In the meantime, al’Akir fought the last defence of the Seven Towers, but in the end, he fell and Malkier was destroyed. Within a mere two years the Blight had surged southwards, corrupting all the land that had been Malkier. The Seven Towers became toppled ruins and the Thousand Lakes became poisonous.

Lan was raised alternately on the new frontier in Fal Dara and at Shienar’s capital, Fal Moran. At the age of sixteen he declared war on the Blight, vowing never to rest until Malkier had been avenged. In 979 NE, after the Battle of the Shining Walls, he met an Aes Sedai of the Blue Ajah named Moiraine Damodred in Kandor. After learning of her mission, he agreed to become bonded as her Warder. He has only ever suspended his war with the Blight, however, never abandoning it.

Of the other Malkieri survivors, most died in battle but one went on to gain much fame across the world. Jain Charin, later called Jain Farstrider, became a legendary traveller. He explored all the nations of our land and also travelled extensively amongst the Sea Folk and the Aiel, even venturing as far afield as Shara. His legendary travelogue Travels is possibly the biggest-selling book written since the Breaking. Jain, more than sixty years old yet still hale, disappeared in the 990s NE whilst on one of his adventures and was presumed dead.

The Whitecloak War
Whilst Malkier fell into ruin to the north, another war erupted in the south. The Children of the Light believed the time had come to spread the Light from Amadicia into neighbouring countries. Immediately to the east lay Altara, a large nation made up almost entirely of feuding nobles, with little unity between them. The invasion of Altara began in 957 NE under the command of Lord Captain Pedron Niall, one of the youngest officers ever to be promoted to that exalted rank. The invasion was quite successful, overrunning the border towns of Mosra, Salidar and So Eban in a matter of weeks. Ebou Dar itself never came under direct threat, since to take the capital required a strong navy and an army far larger than that of the joint Whitecloak and Amadician force. However, there was a possibility that Altaran nobles opposed to the crown would join with the invaders to overthrow the government, in return for positions of power under the new regime. Murandy and Illian both watched the invasion with concern and the youthful King Mattin Stepaneos den Balgar of Illian came to the conclusion that once Altara was theirs, the Children would move on to Illian and Murandy. Even if they did not, Altara would no longer be a buffer between Amadicia and Illian. Stepaneos forged an alliance with Murandy and led a joint force into Altara.

The Whitecloak War, as it became known, raged for almost a year. During this year many battles were fought, though casualties were light in comparison to earlier conflicts. It was standard practice at this time for nobles and officers to be captured and ransomed back to their own side, rather than killed. At the Battle of Soremaine even King Mattin of Illian was captured and ransomed back to the Council of Nine in Illian for a princely sum. Lord Captain Niall won the great majority of the engagements (the most notable at Soremaine and Jhamara) and maybe could have forced Altara to surrender, but in the end came to the conclusion that the Children could not hold Altara and force Murandy and Illian out of the country. The best result that could be hoped for was the seizure of some parts of western Altara whilst the rest fell into the hands of Illian, hardly a desirable outcome. The Children withdrew from Altara and agreed to return to the pre-war borders on the condition that Murandy and Illian did as well. During the Whitecloak War a young Andoran soldier named Tam al’Thor fought on the side of Illian and began making a name for himself as a skilled swordsman and archer.

Conflict erupted in the wake of the Whitecloak War, though not to as great a scale. Arad Doman and Tarabon had quietly feuded over Almoth Plain for years. Whilst they still did not openly declare war, they sponsored raiding parties to fight one another on the Plain and Arad Doman began making overtures to Katar about absorbing that city. Only thinly-veiled threats from Tarabon prevented Arad Doman from accomplishing this (although more recently Arad Doman has succeeded in absorbing Katar). Cairhienin and Tairen trade ships battled one another on the Erinin during a minor dispute over trading rights up the river, but these disputes were resolved relatively quickly.

In 965 NE Laman Damodred became King of Cairhien. Irritated by Andor getting “first dibs” on trade up the Erinin from Tear (Aringill being a few hundred yards further downriver than Maerone), Laman moved to seize Aringill but was repulsed by the army of Andor. The dispute raged for three years, though there were no truly large battles, until it was solved by diplomacy. In 968 NE Queen Modrellein Mantear and King Laman agreed to wed their heirs, the Daughter-Heir Tigraine and Laman’s nephew Taringail. This united Cairhien and Andor in alliance and also saw the trade disagreements resolved: Andor giving Cairhien a small percentage of trade gained upriver from Tear and Cairhien doing the same to Andor for trade gained downriver from Tar Valon and the Borderlands.

So, the disputes between the nations continued. As the 970s began there was a brief hope for a lasting peace, but this hope soon disappeared.

Please note that Part 12 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.

Saturday 15 December 2018

The SFF All-Time Sales List (revised)

It's that time of the decade again when we dust down the SFF All-Time Sales List, the probably-definitive and at-least-half-accurate guide to the sales figures of as many SF and Fantasy series I could find. We previously did this in 2008, 2013, 2015 and 2016, so welcome to the fifth outing for this list.

The usual caveats and rules: these figures came from a mixture of publishers, authors themselves, agents, Wikipedia articles and an awful lot of PR copy. In many cases they failed to distinguish between "in print" (including copies sitting on bookshelves or in a remaindered warehouse somewhere) and "actually sold", although as e-book sales take off this is becoming less of a problem. Some authors update their figures regularly and others do not, so some of these figures are cutting-edge and up to date, and others may be years out of date.

There are 368 authors on this list, 277 of whom have sold more than 1 million copies each. The lower reaches of the list is extremely incomplete (and for future lists I may drop authors under 1 million sales, as it's getting far too hard to cover them all).

This version of the list has benefited from studies of German sales via my colleagues at, as well as increased knowledge of sales in China.

1) J.K. Rowling (600 million)
J.K. Rowling may have completed Harry Potter, but the series is still selling phenomenally well. Coupled with the success of her adult novels and the Harry Potter stage play, her position at the top of the table is maintained and her lead increased.

2) Stephen King (c. 400 million) 
As said in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1996), King's worldwide sales are totally incalculable and the above figure remains fairly conservative. King's Dark Tower series has also sold more than 30 million copies by itself.

3) J.R.R. Tolkien (c. 350 million) 
Tolkien's sales are likewise incalculable: 100,000 copies of a pirated version of The Lord of the Rings were sold in the United States alone in under a year, so the figures for unauthorised versions of the book in other countries are completely unguessable. What remains certain is that The Lord of the Rings is the biggest-selling single genre novel of all time, and possibly the best-selling single novel of all time. More than 50 million copies of the book have been sold since 2001 alone. The 100+ million sales of The Hobbit alone have also been bolstered significantly by the Peter Jackson movies. If anything, the above figure may well be the most conservative on the list and Tolkien's sales may be vastly more (and possibly more than King's).

4) Stephenie Meyer (250 million)
The Twilight series has sold a quarter of a billion copies in a decade on sale. An impressive and startling achievement.

[Dean Koontz (c. 200 million)]
Dean Koontz's official website claims sales of 450 million, which seem hard to credit for an author with a big profile, but nowhere near that of King or Rowling. Other figures suggest 200 million, which seems much more credible. However, Koontz's eligibility for the list is questionable given that he has written numerous non-SFF novels (though many of them still within the horror or suspense thriller genres). Thus his placement on the list is for those who consider him to be a genre author.

[Michael Crichton (c. 200 million)]
Michael Crichton published 27 novels during his lifetime, selling more than 200 million copies. Only eight of those novels are SF, but these include most of his best-known novels (including Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Sphere, Congo and The Andromeda Strain). His placement here is for comparative purposes and for those who consider him to be a genre author.

5) Anne Rice (136 million) 
Anne Rice's vampire books were a huge phenomenon through the 1980s and 1990s, bolstered by the Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt movie.

6) CS Lewis (120 million+) 
No change here, though Lewis's sales have likely increased somewhat due to the movies based on his books.

7) Edgar Rice Burroughs (100 million+) 
Edgar Rice Burroughs was a hugely prolific author. He has sold more than 100 million copies of his novels, including the SF Barsoom, Pellucidar, Venus, Caspak and Moon series and the non-SF Tarzan series.

8) Sir Arthur C. Clarke (100 million+) 
Sir Arthur C. Clarke gains the distinction of being the only author on the list to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and have an orbit named after him. Clarke was already a well-known, big-selling SF author when the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and his television coverage of the first moon landing catapulted him into becoming a household name. A steady stream of best-selling, high-profile and critically-acclaimed SF novels continued into the 1980s, when his profile was again boosted by his TV series, Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World. As well as his SF novels he also published a large number of non-fiction books and volumes of criticism on matters of science.

9) Suzanne Collins (100 million+)
Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games hadn't even been published when I created the very first list. The trilogy has been published in full, sold over 100 million copies (over 65 million in the USA alone) and generated four hit movies since then. Very impressive.

[Jin Yong (100 million+)]
The late Jin Yong has sold over 100 million copies of his wuxia novels in China, which cross the boundary between fantasy and historical fiction.

10) George R.R. Martin (91 million+)
A Song of Ice and Fire's sales have exploded in the last eight years. From circa 12 million books sold in 2011, the series sold more than 9 million copies in the remainder of that year alone. Though Martin's sales were starting to noticeably take off anyway in the mid-2000s, the main reason for the boost has been the remarkable success of the Game of Thrones TV series on HBO. Sales have now eclipsed 60 million in the United States alone and 90 million worldwide, and continuing to rise. He has also sold 1.2 million books in Spanish. He has also sold 1 million copies of The World of Ice and Fire.


Some cool art of the Seven Ajahs from THE WHEEL OF TIME

Artist Sofia Augusto has posted some excellent artwork depicting the Seven Ajahs of the Aes Sedai from Robert Jordan's fantasy series The Wheel of Time.

The artwork depicts, from left to right, Alviarin of the White Ajah (and Black); Yukiri of the Grey Ajah; Nynaeve of the Yellow Ajah; Cadsuane of the Green Ajah; Moiraine of the Blue Ajah; Verin of the Brown Ajah; and Elaida of the Red Ajah.

Friday 14 December 2018

Two new TV series confirm the existence of a shared WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS universe

Cult 2014 movie What We Do in the Shadows, which brought the genius of Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi to a worldwide audience (leading to the latter's involving in directing Thor: Ragnarok and working on the new Star Wars TV show), has now spawned an entire related universe, with two TV shows already in production and a sequel movie in the planning stages.

First up is New Zealand-based Wellington Paranormal, which follows hapless cops Kyle Minogue and Officer O'Leary as they investigate weird goings-on in the Wellington area. Minogue and O'Leary appeared several times in the movie as the easily-hypnotised cops constantly getting involved in the vampires' misadventures. A first season of 13 episodes has already aired and a second season has been commissioned for 2019. So far an international distribution deal has not been signed, but I wouldn't be surprised to see this showing up on Netflix or Amazon before too long.

Next in rotation is a more direct TV version of the movie, also called What We Do in the Shadows. Production of Season 1 is already complete and this should air on FX in the States in early 2019, with Netflix or Channel 4 likely to pick up the UK transmission rights. What We Do in the Shadows is set in New York City and stars Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Nastasia Demetriou and Harvey Guillen. Despite early reports that the TV show will be a remake of the movie, it's actually an all-new story with a new cast of characters. The events of the TV show are set in motion when a minion of the old vampires of Europe arrives in the New World to see how the vampire conquest is going after 400 years, only to find they haven't managed to get off Staten Island. Shenanigans ensue.

Waititi and Clement are also developing a sequel to the movie. Called We're Wolves, the film will catch up on the wolf pack established in the first move and explore their lives in a similar mockumentary style.

Clement and Waititi have confirmed (albeit possibly with tongue firmly in cheek) that they see the movies and TV shows as all taking place in one big universe (possibly Waititi's exposure to the Marvel and Star Wars universes coming through there) and there's a chance characters from the original movie may show up in both TV shows in some capacity.

Season 1 of HIS DARK MATERIALS wraps shooting

Filming has been completed on Season 1 of His Dark Materials, the BBC/New Line co-production based on Philip Pullman's novels of the same name.

The new TV series, planned to span five eight-episode seasons, will adapt the three books of the trilogy (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) in full. It is the second attempted adaptation of the series, following on from the 2007 movie The Golden Compass. This new series is a total reboot with no relation to the movie version.

A second season has already been greenlit and will now enter pre-production. Season 1 will undergo a heavy period of post-production and will air on BBC-1 in the UK and HBO in the United States, most likely in the summer or autumn of 2019.

The series stars Dafne Keen (Logan) as Lyra, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) as Lee Scoresby, James McAvoy (X-Men) as Lord Asriel and Ruth Wilson as Ms. Coulter.

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Axis & Allies & Zombies

Axis & Allies & Zombies is a new variant of the classic WW2 strategy board game, which is rapidly approaching its 40th anniversary. As with most previous versions, the game pits the Axis (Germany and Japan) against the Allies (the United States, the Soviet Union and the British Empire) in a recreation of WW2, with both sides conquering territory to gain resources and using those resources to build more military units. A simple dice-rolling mechanic resolves combat and makes for a somewhat simple game, but where complex strategies can emerge.

As the name suggests, this game throws the classic paradigm into disarray by adding zombies. Rather than forming a third faction, the zombies emerge as more of an environmental hazard. Fresh zombies are generated by an outbreak card deck (vaguely reminiscent of Pandemic's outbreak cards) and arise in combat, with every killed infantry unit generating a new zombie unit. Massed battles with lots of infantry, particularly on the Eastern Front, can therefore become very unpredictable with tons of zombies arising mid-battle to attack both sides.

If this sounds gimmicky, well, it is. However, it is also entertaining and strategically intriguing, causing even seasoned multi-decade veterans of the game to switch to new tactics to deal with the new threat. The zombies can capture territory and, although they can't build anything, they can infect the civilian population as identified by a zombie marker on the IPC tracker. If they hit 25 IPCs, the zombie outrbreak has hit an exponential, unstoppable curve and the world ends in a zombie apocalypse. This means avoiding the zombie hordes is a bad idea as it can result in both player-controlled sides losing, but you also want to think hard about attacking them (especially with infantry). Canny players may also prefer to attack a territory, generate lots of zombies and then withdraw, leaving the defender with a huge problem to contend with. Whilst you do not need to attack zombies in your territory, any zombies in your territory get a free single attack every go they are present, forming a constant annoyance. They also block blitzkrieg moves by tanks, which especially on the Eastern Front can become a major headache as both sides try to rush reinforcements to the front lines.

The card mechanic also adds a wonderful random element to the game. Those small British forces in Africa can suddenly get bogged down in fighting zombies instead of mobilising to meet the Desert Rats, and the normally-unreachable US mainland can suddenly see heavy fighting as zombie hordes surge up from South America. New technologies also allow for one (or both) sides to manipulate the zombies into fighting for them, or generate new weapons more capable of defeating the zombies en masse (like chainsaw tanks) or stopping fallen soldiers rising to join their ranks.

The result of this is a fresh spin on an older, fun but, it has to be said, somewhat predictable game. Furthermore, the game package also allows for a few other options. First, you can completely ignore the zombies and play this as an introductory game of Axis & Allies. The map is much smaller, with fewer territories (although not quite as few as 1941, which streamlined things a bit too much) and more simplistic strategies. The game plays faster (without the zombies; with them it lasts about as long as a standard A&A game, 3-5 hours depending on dice rolls) and also drops units such as AA Guns and Cruisers whilst also ignoring rules such as air drops and building new factories (veteran AA players can, of course, reinstate these if they wish). In short A&A&Z has enough in the box to play as both the zombie game and Axis & Allies 1941.

Secondly, the game has a second deck of cards which can be used (in conjunction with the zombie pieces) with Axis & Allies 1942 to play the zombie game on a larger scale, which should also be enjoyable for those who want to make their standard base games more unpredictable and complex. There aren't any rules for adding the zombies to A&A Anniversary Edition or the 1940 Europe/Pacific/Global games, but I daresay fan-made variations will emerge in time.

Thirdly, the game reintroduces paper money to the mix, which was missing from both the 1941 and 1942 editions of the game and, of course, can be used with those games without any problem.

Minuses are somewhat limited. If you hate zombies and find the idea gimmicky, you'll already have moved on. The game is a bit stingy with pieces and the poker chips (to represent multiple units), but not as much as the WW1 and 1941 versions of the game. On the reverse side, this keeps costs down, resulting in, by far, the best value-for-money Axis & Allies game to date.

In summary Axis & Allies & Zombies (****) is a fun, fresh and a great way of introducing new players (who might otherwise be put off by the serious theme and perceived complexity) to the game, and creates new tactical situations which veterans may find interesting to deal with. The game is available now in the UK and USA.