Tuesday, 19 November 2019

LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE renewed for a second season

Surprising no-one, Amazon's Lord of the Rings: The Second Age TV series has been renewed for a second season before production was really underway on the first.

Some early shooting on the series has already taken place in New Zealand (fulfilling a contractual requirement for shooting to begin before this month to ensure the rights do not revert to the Tolkien Estate), but full production is not expected to start until the spring. The show will shoot for most of 2020 in and around Auckland and is expected to air in 2021.

Amazon has moved to a new system of greenlighting two seasons up-front to ensure that viewers will not have to wait 18-24 months between seasons, as is happening more and more frequently with Netflix and HBO dramas (Westworld will air its third season in 2020 more than two years after the second aired). The Boys and The Expanse were both recent beneficiaries of this system, with both shows currently filming their next seasons for transmission in 2020.

In an interview, creative consultant (and noted Tolkien expert) Tom Shippey had confirmed that Amazon was working on twenty episodes in the initial production bloc, suggesting that Amazon is planning each season of the show to last for ten episodes.

More cast announced for Terry Pratchett's WATCH TV series

BBC America has announced more casting news for The Watch, its TV series based on Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (more specifically, the ones focusing on the Ankh-Morpork City Watch). BBC America had previously confirmed that the series will be made up of original stories loosely inspired by the books, and this seems to be the case with the casting announcements made today.

Patrician Vetinari, Cut-Me-Own-Throat-Dibbler (now named "Throat") and the head of the Assassins' Guild, Dr. Cruces, are male characters from the books who have been cast with actresses: Anna Chancellor, Ruth Madeley and Ingrid Oliver respectively. Anna Chancellor in particular is a superb actress with tremendous presence and form and could play the Patrician very well, although the move does continue down the path of moving the TV series very far indeed from the books.

James Fleet has been cast as the Archchancellor of Unseen University (which one is unknown). The minor character of Lupine Wonse, also male in the books, will be played by Bianca Simone Mannie. Hakeem Kae-Kazim has been cast as John Keel, Sam Vimes' mentor in the Watch when he was younger.

Filming on The Watch started back in September in South Africa and the series is expected to debut in the second half of 2020.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Franchise Familiariser: Warhammer 40,000

It’s quite likely you’ve heard the phrase "Warhammer 40,000" thrown around. Forty thousand what? It is it a board game, a novel series, a video game series? You may find this Franchise Familiariser course useful.

The Basics
Warhammer 40,000 is a science fantasy franchise created by the British game company and publisher Games Workshop. Set in the 41st Millennium (approximately 38,000 years in the future), it originated as a tabletop miniatures wargame called Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, published in 1987 but drawing on an earlier game called Laserburn (1980) for inspiration and ideas. The game was conceived as a science fiction equivalent of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Battle line (1983-2015), although the two settings are not directly related.

Rick Priestley is credited as the co-creator of both Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, with Andy Chambers listed as a key collaborator on the first edition of the game. Bryan Ansell, the creator of Laserburn who was working at Games Workshop at the time, was also a key creative figure. Many dozens of designers, novelists, artists and playtesters have contributed to the expansion of the setting since then.

Since its release in 1987, Warhammer 40,000 has gone through eight editions of the core wargame and spawned numerous spin-off board games, the best-known of which are arguably Space Hulk (1989) and Space Crusade (1990). The setting has also spawned a series of role-playing games and card games. The background setting has been fleshed out through a huge amount of fiction, which by August 2019 comprises some 382 novels, novellas, short stories, anthologies and audio dramas in the core Warhammer 40,000 line and 149 novels, novellas, short stories, anthologies and audio dramas in the spin-off Horus Heresy series.

Since 1990 no less than 49 video games have also been released in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, the best-known of which is the Dawn of War real-time strategy series (which is also credited with helping break the setting in the United States). However, Warhammer 40,000 may be considered even more influential as being the inspiration for the WarCraft and StarCraft video game series from Blizzard Entertainment, which reportedly started as failed attempts to develop officially-licenced Warhammer video games based directly on the wargames but then became their own, self-contained (but very similar) universe.

Warhammer 40,000 was popular from launch, with the setting’s unusual mix of magic, aliens, psi-powers and warfare being considered much more original and distinctive compared to Warhammer’s more standard epic fantasy (with elements of steampunk) setting. However, its popularity was dramatically increased by the board games Space Hulk (1989) and Space Crusade (1990); the former was a nerve-shredding game of tension against overwhelming odds and the latter was a more straightforward game aimed at children with highly detailed miniatures. The extremely detailed and well-designed miniatures for the game proved to be its biggest selling point, with both adults and children spending significant amounts of money to acquire a full army of miniatures with accompanying vehicles and scenery, not to mention painting them. By the late 1990s, sales of Warhammer 40,000 and its spin-offs were lucrative enough to allow Games Workshop to open a string of speciality shops across Britain, selling the games, figures and paints, and providing a meeting place for gamers.

The popularity of the setting expanded with the addition of novels in the setting, which began with Ian Watson’s Inquisition War trilogy (starting with Inquisitor in 1990). Watson’s Space Marine (1993) was also important in establishing some of the background for the series. Starting in 1999, Games Workshop decided to begin publishing a full line of novels, starting with Eye of Terror by Barrington Bayley, Space Wolf by William King and, most importantly, First and Only by Dan Abnett. The latter began a series called Gaunt’s Ghosts, about the adventures of the Tanith First-and-Only, a division of the Imperial Guard fighting in the Sabbat Worlds Crusade. Loosely inspired by Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series of novels, Gaunt’s Ghosts is one of the most popular novel series in shared world history, help drive Abnett to sales of over 3 million (making him individually Britain’s third-biggest-selling living SF author).

More recently the novel series was boosted by the Horus Heresy spin-off series. Set ten thousand years before the rest of the setting, the Horus Heresy tells the story of the massive civil war that tore the Imperium apart and provides the backstory to the rest of the series. Beginning in 2006, this sub-series remains incomplete in 2019 with fifty-five main sequence novels and dozens of short stories, novellas and audio dramas, although it has entered its last phase with six more books projected to bring it to a conclusion.

The first video game in the setting was Space Crusade, a turn-based tactics game released in 1990 and based on the board game of the same name. It was followed by Space Hulk (1993), a real-time combat game which required the player to control four Terminator Marines in first-person simultaneously. It was infamous for its punishing difficulty. However, the setting did not really take off in video games until the release of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War in 2004, a real-time strategy game from Relic Entertainment. A massive success selling millions of copies, Dawn of War helped boost the success of the Warhammer 40,000 setting in the United States. Although Warhammer and 40K were known in the States and had enjoyed a cult following, it was only with the success of the novels and Dawn of War (and numerous sequels) that sales of the franchise started going stratospheric. More recent video games in the series include Dawn of War III (2017), Space Hulk: Tactics (2018) and Battlefleet Gothic: Armada II (2019).

Despite the setting’s immense popularity, it has only resulted in one feature film being made, the CG movie Ultramarines (2010). It was not a huge success, and was criticised for having a low budget and underwhelming visuals. However, in 2019 it was confirmed that Games Workshop were working with Hollywood producer Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files, The Man in the High Castle) to bring the Eisenhorn series of novels to live-action television.

A lot more after the break...

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER live-action remake to start shooting in February

Netflix's live-action remake of acclaimed Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender is to start shooting in February 2020. The news came courtesy of Avatar voice actor Jessie Flower, who played Toph in the original animated series, after she teased it from the showrunners. It also sounds like the original voice cast may be up for cameo roles in the live-action series.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a world whose politics and magic are divided between the four elements: water, earth, air and fire. The world has gone out of balance since the Fire Nation started a devastating war against the other three kingdoms, defeating the Air Nomads and invading the massive Earth Kingdom. The best hope for peace lies with the Avatar, the one person in the world who can channel or "bend" all four elements simultaneously, but he disappeared a century ago. The story begins when two members of the Southern Water Tribe, waterbender Katara and her non-magic-using brother Sokka, find the Avatar - an airbender named Aang - frozen in an iceberg. Awakening from his slumber, Aang sets out to save the world...but needs some help along the way.

The original animated series was acclaimed for its animation, character and environment designs, its writing and strong characterisation, which helped it win an Emmy and a Peabody Award. The show ran for three seasons and 61 episodes from 2005 to 2008, and was followed by a sequel series called The Legend of Korra (2012-14). There have been numerous graphic novel and comic spin-offs.

A February 2020 start date suggests that the series may not air until early 2021. It's unclear if Netflix are envisaging a three-season run for this version of the show as well, or if they will be greenlighting two seasons at once to minimise downtime between seasons (essential in this case given the young age of the cast).

The animated series creators and showrunners Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are also working on the new show as the main creative leads.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Where to Start? - Guy Gavriel Kay (updated)

This is an updated version of an article previously published in 2010.

All of Kay's novels - ten to date - take place in the same universe, but are divided into two broad sub-worlds. However, they are published out of chronological order and are almost entirely made up of stand-alone books. The sole exceptions are his two series, The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy and The Sarantine Mosaic duology. Everything else is stand-alone.

The Fionavar Universe

Kay's first published work was The Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy in which a group of Canadian university students are transported to the world of Fionavar where a traditional battle between good and evil is underway. The trilogy is noted for an interesting magic system (in which sorcerers use other living beings as sources of magic) but is probably Kay's most 'standard' work.

The core trilogy consists of The Summer Tree (1984), The Wandering Fire (1986) and The Darkest Road (1986). Ysabel (2007) is a stand-alone follow-up to the trilogy set on Earth and focusing on different characters in Provence, but several trilogy characters show up in supporting roles.

Stand-alone works in the Fionavar Universe

Kay's next two novels are stand-alone titles, entitled Tigana (1990) and A Song for Arbonne (1992). They are set in the Fionavar universe but some very minor references and allusions aside such connections are purely cosmetic. Indeed, Tigana is oftern referenced as the best book to start with Kay with.

The Alternate Earth books

Kay's remaining books are all set on the same planet, a lightly fantasised version of our Earth in several different time periods and locations. Technically this alt-Earth is also located in the Fionavar universe, but again some minor references aside this is again completely irrelevant. The alt-Earth books are all independent of one another and do not require knowledge of the others to enjoy one, with the sole exception that the two books of the Sarantine Mosaic duology need to be read in order.

In publication order with a note on their historical inspirations, these books are as follows:

  • The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) - Andalusian Spain during the time of El Cid (11th Century).
  • The Sarantine MosaicSailing to Sarantium (1998) & Lord of Emperors (2000) - Byzantium at the time of Justinian I (6th Century).
  • The Last Light of the Sun (2004) - Saxon England at the time of Alfred the Great (9th Century).
  • Under Heaven (2010) - Tang Dynasty China during the An Shi Rebellion (8th Century).
  • River of Stars (2013) - Song Dynasty China during the Jin-Song Wars (12th Century).
  • Children of Earth and Sky (2016) - Dubrovnik and the Balkans (late 15th Century).
  • A Brightness Long Ago (2019) - Renaissance Italy (mid-15th Century).


Kay's work can be approached from several entry points. The first book in The Fionavar TapestryThe Summer Tree is an obvious choice, although Tigana is often cited as a stronger first book. The Lions of Al-RassanThe Last Light of the SunSailing to Sarantium and Under Heaven can all be approached as other first books as well. In conclusion Kay is an author whose body of work can appear tricky to get into due to the inter-connectedness of the books, but in practice most of these connections are so slight as to be invisible, and with the obvious exception of the multi-volume works his books can be read in any order.

There are some anomalous elements in Under Heaven with regards to the other books. It still appears to take place in the alternate Earth setting, and its China analogue (Khitai) is mentioned in the other alternate history books. However, at one point a character mentions how there is only one moon when he talks about having a dream of a world with three. The Alt-Earth seen in The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Last Light of the Sun is noted as having three moons. This seems to place Under Heaven in a sort of parallel universe to the Alt-Earth, whilst still retaining much of its layout. This is odd, but, that one reference aside, it can be read and enjoyed either as a complete stand-alone or as part of the Alt-Earth books with no problem.

The Outer Worlds

The future. Vast mega-corporations control Earth and its colony worlds. One such colony is in the Halcyon system, where the colony ship Hope is taking thousands of colonists to help start a new life. One colonist - yourself - is awoken early by a scientist named Phineas Welles, who has dire news. The Hope came out of its skip drive far too early, and has spent decades in sublight flight to Halcyon. The colonists have been frozen so long it's too dangerous to wake them up without an exacting and difficult procedure. He calls on you to help save your fellow colonists and save Halcyon from its current troubles.

The Outer Worlds has some serious pedigree behind it. It's a collaboration between veteran CRPG designers Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, the creative geniuses behind the original Fallout, Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura and Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, among many others (Boyarsky also worked on Diablo III and Cain on Pillars of Eternity). It's also the first 3D RPG game from Obsidian aimed at a commercial audience since Fallout: New Vegas in 2010. Their intervening games have mostly been crowdfunded, 2D retro-RPGs such as the Pillars of Eternity duology and the excellent Tyranny: great games, but not likely to win over vast audiences.

The Outer Worlds resembles - very closely in places - the Bethesda-published Fallout games. You create a character whom you can customise to your heart's content, through skills, perks, weapons and armour choices, and can also choose your character's name, gender and appearance. There's a main storyline you can follow but also a vast number of side-quests you can complete for extra rewards, and you are also joined on your adventure by several companion characters, who also have their own loyalty missions for you to complete. Everything unfolds in 3D with an emphasis on first-person combat, although you can also use stealth, engineering skills or negotiations to overcome obstacles. Expect to do an enormous amount of exploring, shooting and talking.

A key difference is that The Outer Worlds not exactly an open-world game. The game's universe is split between several planets and each planet has several large wilderness/outdoor areas, some of them very generously sized but not on a par with the open worlds of say New Vegas, the province of Skyrim or the Boston Commonwealth. There are usually one or two large towns in these areas, surrounded by more hostile areas plagued by bandits and dangerous wildlife. A plethora of different storylines and missions take you through these areas.

As an Obsidian RPG, The Outer Worlds hits the right notes of being a morally murky, twisty game where the "right decision" is not always immediately obvious, and where each problem has multiple solutions. A stressed boss has fired one of her pit gangs for asking for a pay raise: you can use persuasion and logic to get her to give in to their demands, or you can hack her terminal to find out she's been skimming off the back end and blackmail her into agreeing to their demands. Or you can break into the pit gang boss's house and find his stash of stolen goods, and then blackmail him into giving up without a fight. Or just say sod it and shoot both of them. The Outer Worlds gives you a tremendous amount of freedom in how you play it, leading to several wildly different endings.

Mechanically, the game is very solid. The Unreal 4 engine is a vast improvement over Bethesda's Creation Engine and makes the game look great (helped by a slightly retro art style) and feel much more modern. You can customise weapons through mods and different ammo types, and also modify armour to give you strong bonuses (further improved by your skills and perks). Your choice of companions - you can bring two with you at any time - also gives you bonuses to different skills and perks. Shooting is chunky and solid. There is a weapon and armour degradation mechanic which I found a little bit tedious, especially because the risk of your weapon actually breaking is pretty much non-existent due to the vast amount of repair parts available. Ammo and cash are also extremely readily available, and apart from the very start of the game hoarding ammo and supplies is not really necessary.

The writing is pretty good, as you'd expect from this team, and the central story about the saving of Halcyon is reasonably engaging, especially the clever way it ties together many of the quests and companion missions as you go along. Open-world CRPGs can feel a bit diffuse at times, their main storylines lacking urgency because they have to be able to explain you wandering off to do completely unrelated activities for 200 hours instead. The Outer Worlds' tighter focus is to its benefit in that area. This is still not a short game - I finished it off in a bit under 30 hours - but it's more in the vein of Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect than say The Witcher 3 (which takes more like 80-90 hours to complete).

The companion characters are also brilliant fun, witty and engaging (well, maybe not so much Felix), providing valuable support in combat and engaging in banter with one another, sometimes in ways that opens up new storylines and quests. Earning the respect of each team member is a lot of fun and gives the game greater depth.

On the negative side of things, The Outer Worlds is perhaps a little too easy. On the second-highest difficulty level, the game is still very forgiving and does not pose too much of a challenge. The game is also not that great at supporting a jack-of-all trades kind of player. It really encourages you to play as a soldier (with a strong focus in weapons), engineer (with a focusing in hacking and lockpicking) or stealth operative. If you try to spread your points out over a variety of skills, you may find yourself unable to deal with several late-game challenges. Fortunately you can re-spec at any time using a console on your ship, the Unreliable, but this did feel a little bit like cheating. Some areas of the game also feel like they had more time spent on them than others: Monarch and the areas on Terra 2 all feel huge and packed with quests, whilst it took less than half an hour to do everything I could find to do on Scylla.

The Outer Worlds (****½) is an excellent CRPG with a strong focus on writing, character and player choice. It can't quite compete with the likes of say Fallout 4 for budget (The Outer Worlds' budget seems to have been around one-sixth that of a Bethesda title), but it certainly outstrips it hugely in terms of dialogue, a genuinely reactive storyline and moral murkiness. The game is available now on PC, X-Box One (UK, USA) and PlayStation 4 (UK, USA).

Friday, 15 November 2019

Tor Books bringing John M. Ford's books back into print

Tor Books have agreed to bring John M. Ford's catalogue back into print, starting next year.

The late, great John M. Ford was one of science fiction and fantasy's most underrated stars. A writer, game designer, poet and mapmaker, Ford is best-known for his alternate history fantasy, The Dragon Waiting, and two of the best Star Trek novels ever written, How Much for the Just the Planet? and The Final Reflection.

Ford had a great many famous friends during life, including Robert Jordan (author of the Wheel of Time sequence) for whom Ford drew maps, and Neil Gaiman. Despite his critical acclaim, Ford's work was only modestly successful during his lifetime and he passed away in 2006 at the age of 49. Most of his work has since gone out of print.

Thanks to fan Isaac Butler, who tracked down Ford's family and rights-holders and then coordinated with Tor Books, Ford's back-catalogue will return to print starting with a new edition of The Dragon Waiting next year. More intriguingly, some of Ford's previously unpublished work will also be printed for the first time, including his final, incomplete novel, Aspects, with commentary by Neil Gaiman, which is due in 2021.

This is good news which will hopefully bring one of SFF's most unsung writers back into prominence.

The Power and the Glory: A Rome Retrospective

Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) returning victorious after the Battle of Pharsalus.

HBO’s Rome is quite possibly the most underrated show in that broadcaster’s canon of very, very fine TV programmes. Airing for just two seasons and 22 episodes in 2005 and 2007, Rome arrived in a blaze of publicity, hyped as the most expensive ongoing TV show ever made, a cross-ocean co-production between HBO and the BBC. Critical indifference and declining viewing figures saw the BBC pull out of funding the series after its second year and HBO, uncharacteristically panicking, chose to cancel the show. A later critical reappraisal and very healthy DVD and Blu-Ray box set sales made HBO realise they’d made a terrible mistake, but it was far too late to remount the project. The actors had scattered to numerous other projects and the moment was lost.

Still, although Rome’s time in this world was brief, it was certainly memorable, and more and more people are rediscovering the show every year. Its brief run is also nowadays a strength: convincing someone to watch a show that lasted for eight or ten or fifteen seasons and hundreds of episodes is tough, but 22? You can bash that out in a couple of weekends, tops.

Rome tells the story of one of the most pivotal moments in pre-modern history: the transformation of the Roman Republic, a nation without a king, into the Roman Empire, whose ruler was the most powerful human being in European history this side of Napoleon Bonaparte. It tells the story of Gaius Julius Caesar and his second-in-command Mark Antony, and the woman they both loved, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. It tells the story of Caesar’s family, the Julii, and their initial friendly relations with another family, the Junii, that turned sour and ultimately led to the most famous son of that house, Marcus Junius Brutus, betraying Caesar in a moment of profound infamy. It is the story of Caesar’s nephew Octavian, a studious and quiet boy who will ultimately become the most powerful man on Earth. It is also the story of a dozen or so historical figures of only marginally less importance: the great orator Cicero, the senators Cato and Cassius, and Pompey Magnus, the great general and hero of the Republic who saw his formidable reputation eclipsed by that of his former best friend, Caesar.

Mark Antony (James Purefoy) and Cleopatra of Egypt (Lyndsey Marshal).

If Rome was all of those things alone, it would still be a triumph, but the show’s masterstroke was to be more than that. Rome tells the story of the rich and the powerful primarily through the eyes of two ordinary soldiers: Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Surprisingly, these are not total fabrications, being the only two common soldiers mentioned by Caesar in name in his memoir of the Gallic Wars. With virtually nothing else known about them, though, the show’s writers felt happy to invent their family backgrounds, their relationship and how they interacted with Caesar and the other mighty figures of Roman history over a period of twenty-five years. Vorenus and Pullo are our Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (only somewhat less likely to die), our ground-level eyes on this epic period in history. They’re also our eyes into everyday life in Rome for its ordinary citizens, freedmen, and slaves. There is a tendency in history to get caught up in the soap-opera like events of the rulers and their families, and exciting things like battles and political intrigue, but Rome remembers the little people, the man and woman on the street who wield tremendous power of their own: at several key moments in the series, the opinion of the street results in major shifts in the balance of power.

The show also delves into religion and how the different myriad cultures that make up the Empire interact with one another. Rome was not a monolithic bloc, but instead a grand melting pot of dozens of faiths, kingdoms, tribes and beliefs. One relatively minor character, a Jewish horse-trader and part-time thug named Timon, grows in importance as the complex interactions between Rome and its client-state in Judaea rise to the fore.

Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) of the XIII Legion, the ground-level soldiers through whose eyes much of the series unfolds.

Each episode of Rome is a mixture, often very cleverly-constructed, of historical fact, dramatic invention and family soap opera. It may be instructive to give a summary of the very first episode of the series, The Stolen Eagle, to explain how this works:

The episode opens in 52 BC. The army of Gaius Julius Caesar is besieging the Gallic fortress-town of Alesia, where King Vercingetorix has taken refuge with his army. A much larger Gallic relief army has arrived but, anticipating their arrival, Caesar has built an enormous defensive fortification stretching for twenty miles right around Alesia. The lines come under attack from the relief army and also from Vercingetorix’s forces within Alesia, but the Romans defeat the vastly numerically superior Gauls and take Vercingetorix prisoner. Key in the battle is the discipline and valour of Centurion Lucius Vorenus of the 13th Legion, although he is disgruntled with his subordinate Titus Pullo, who lacks battle discipline and frequently breaks ranks to seek personal glory in the field. Pullo ends up in the stockade for striking Vorenus mid-combat.

Back in Rome, the Senate is divided about Caesar’s constant stream of military victories over the preceding eight years. Caesar has brought all of Gaul under Roman control, extending the Republic’s borders and creating vast new provinces to be controlled by his allies. Caesar’s fame has also grown through his brief and mostly pointless, but still unprecedented, military sojourn on the island of Britain. Caesar has won him and his army honour, glory and gold, and his popularity with the common people is at an all-time high. The Senate is divided into two parties: the Populares, who support Caesar, and the conservative Optimates, who are wary of him. Holding the line in the middle is a neutral faction led by the noted orator and speaker Cicero, who privately sympathises with the Optimates but publicly will not speak against Caesar. The Optimates turn to Pompey Magnus for aid. Pompey is a great military hero in his own right but his conservatism and decision to remain in Rome rather than rule over his own provinces in Spain in person has made him popular with the Senate. Pompey is a close friend and ally of Caesar’s, not to mention his son-in-law by marriage, and refuses to countenance betraying him, despite being troubled by Caesar’s apparent idolisation by the masses and his own troops.

The Newsreader (Ian McNeice), who relates the important events of the day and stands in as a useful font of exposition.

In a similar boat is Marcus Brutus, a young man who looks up to Caesar as a mentor but is also a staunch supporter of the Republic who is suspicious of any one man who puts his ambitions ahead of the good of the state. Brutus is a direct descendant of the man who, centuries earlier, killed the last King of Rome and founded the Republic. Brutus’s mother Servillia is also a former lover of Caesar’s, and yearns for his return from war. These loyalties to Caesar have aligned their family, the Junii, with Caesar’s own Julii, the matriarch of which is Caesar’s niece Atia, a hedonistic but also ruthless woman who is an occasional lover of Caesar’s second-in-command, the charismatic but short-tempered Mark Antony. Initial friendly relations start to turn sour, however, as the somewhat reserved and intelligent Servillia finds herself constantly clashing with Atia, whom she considers her intellectual and social inferior. Atia also causes division with her own family: her hot temper and quick decisions befuddle her son Octavian, a clever, reserved and logically-minded boy, and annoy her daughter, the prim and proper Octavia. The feud between the Junii and Julii begins to become more serious when Atia gazumps Servillia at a horse auction to secure the finest steed in Rome. She then sends Octavian to Caesar’s camp with the horse as a gift. The move appears to be thwarted when Octavian is captured by brigands in Gaul, although in reality they are agents in the employ of Pompey.

Pompey’s close alliance with Caesar is tested when his wife, Caesar’s daughter, dies in childbirth (along with the child). Caesar moves quickly to have Atia force Octavia divorce her husband (to Octavia’s distress) and promise Octavia in marriage to Pompey. Pompey is tempted and beds her, but is also being courted by Scipio, an enemy of Caesar’s, who offers instead his daughter Cornelia.

Meanwhile, one of Caesar’s eagle standards has been captured by Gallic raiders and Lucius Vorenus is ordered to recover the eagle by any means necessary. He recruits Titus Pullo from the stockade, reasoning he is the most expendable man in the legion, and they set out to find the eagle. After subjecting local villagers to a mixture of torture and bribery, they learn the identity of the thieves; by happy coincidence, they find not only the eagle but also the captured Octavian. Returning both to Caesar earns them the friendship and respect of Octavian, and the notice of Caesar. Pullo, who values personal loyalty, is very happy but Vorenus, who is morally opposed to Caesar’s growing cult of personality, is less-pleased. Antony and Caesar recognise Pompey’s agent and behead him, sending the head to Pompey to let him know his plan has been discovered. Furious, Pompey marries Cornelia and breaks all ties with Caesar, throwing his lot in with the Optimates.

Atia (Polly Walker), the ruthless matriarch of the Julii family.

As we can see from this, a typical episode of Rome is extremely busy, and does several things at once. It relates an actual historical event, it explains the personal, political and military ramifications of that event and it also has invented, original drama to keep the viewer interested. There’s also an element of simplification involved: the Optimate and Populare parties are never named as such in the show (instead being described as the Caesarean and Republican factions) a lot of the fine detail of the period is missing. For example, Caesar and Pompey are described as co-consuls, but this is inaccurate: it was Caesar wanting to be consul after his return from war, as he might expect having won a series of huge military victories, and the Senate’s refusal to grant him the position that primarily triggered his rebellion against the Senate. There is also some more fantastical invention: Octavian was never kidnapped by Gallic brigands and rescued by two common Roman soldiers. There’s also some action, sex and violence: episodes of Rome can vary on how much of these things they contain, with some episodes being very bloody and others not at all, but generally some of these events happen to maintain viewer interest (how useful that actually is remain debateable).

Rome’s success was grasping the complexity of Roman life and getting not just the bare facts but the everyday feel of that lifestyle across to the audience rather than begging bogged down in detail. One interesting fresh approach, in marked contrast to almost every previous Roman film and TV drama, was showing Rome as a colourful city, the beautiful stone and marble buildings being covered in gaudy paint and obscene graffiti, as was really the case. The Roman military’s iron discipline, such as the arrangement so that each line of infantry will only fight for four minutes before being rotated to the back of the line for half an hour of rest, is also depicted. Unfortunately, despite Rome’s titanic budget, the show frequently wimped out on major battle scenes. The only battle they really had a go at depicting was Philippi in Season 2 and even that is a somewhat bare-bones affair compared to say Lord of the Rings or what HBO achieved on the later seasons of Game of Thrones. As a result, despite Pullo and Vorenus being soldiers, we very rarely seem them actually fighting as soldiers. More frequently they are seen operating almost as henchmen or mercenaries, fighting in very small groups and skirmishes.

The show also, by necessity, lowballs the timeline. The show opens in 52 BC and ends in 27 BC, spanning a period of twenty-five years, but virtually no attempt is made to show the passage of time, aside from the recasting of Octavian with a slightly older actor in Season 2 (Vorenus and Pullo, for example, start and end the show as thirty-somethings). There are also wild inconsistencies in the aging of the children in the show: Vorenus’s son is shown as a newborn in the second episode but appears to be around 10 in the series finale, whilst Caesar and Cleopatra’s son is conceived, born and apparently grows to around 11 or 12 in later episodes. For those who enjoy paying attention to the details, these things are grating, but in the grand scheme of things they’re not very important.

What is important is the characterisation (excellent), politics (rife with intrigue) and how Rome portrays the culture in both the macro and micro, the lavish detail given to religious ceremonies, feasting customs and the architecture of the city, recreated in a lavish open-air set in the Cinecittá Studio in Rome (near where Ben-Hur was filmed). The set was damaged by fire in 2007 but is mostly still standing, and has been used for other productions since filming ended (most notably the Fires of Pompeii episode of Doctor Who). This epic scope was remarkable for television, and arguably not matched until Game of Thrones hit screens four years later.

Octavian (Simon Woods), the boy who would be emperor, and Marcus Agrippa (Allen Leech), a constantly-underestimated young man who turns into one of the greatest generals of antiquity.

Rome is also interesting for how matter-of-fact it is. At different points in the series, both Pullo and Vorenus do things which are deeply amoral, if not outright evil, and also perform great acts of self-sacrifice heroism. Mark Antony is scheming, ruthless and selfish, but also capable of tremendous generosity to the (tiny number of) people who earn his respect, including Atia and Vorenus. Caesar’s motivations, probably the most fiercely-debated in history, are left pleasingly ambiguous in the series.

Could Rome one day return? Perhaps. A few years ago, HBO began developing a new TV series based on Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which would have used the still-standing Rome sets and would have effectively worked as a sequel to that series, picking up on Octavian as a much older man and the misadventures of his heirs, the insane Caligula and stuttering Claudius. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to take off. A shame, as the power and glory and rich worldbuilding of Rome deserves to be seen on screens once more.

If you haven’t seen the show yet, do yourself a favour and check it out. Beyond the veneer of nudity and violence, it’s a compelling political and character drama, set against a rich backdrop, and well worth viewing.

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.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

New actor announced for WHEEL OF TIME TV series

Irish actor Daryl McCormack has been cast on Amazon's upcoming Wheel of Time TV series.

McCormack currently plays Isaiah Jesus on Peaky Blinders and has previously appeared in series including Fair City and Vikings.

His role on Wheel of Time is undisclosed, but based on his age he could potentially be playing Logain Ablar or Gawyn Trakand, among other possibilities.

THE WITCHER renewed for second season at Netflix

The Witcher has been renewed for a second season at Netflix, before the first season even airs.

The first season filmed in late 2018 and early 2019 and will be released on the streaming service on 20 December. A second season renewal was considered likely - Netflix usually gives shows two seasons to find their feet - but it's still a good sign of confidence by Netflix in the project.

Season 2 of The Witcher will shoot next year for likely release in early 2021. Henry Cavill, Anya Chalotra and Freya Allan will return as Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri respectively. It will again consist of eight episodes.

The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli & Alicia Zaloga

Roger Weathersby was once a promising surgical student but he is now a "resurrectionist," a corpse-stealer who takes the recently interred to medical schools to further the cause of science. One such incident leads Roger to investigate a spate of similar deaths and rumours of a serial killer at work. Roger's investigation sees him framed as the serial killer. It falls to his brother and Sibylla, a princess of the realm, to help clear his name and allow him to find the true murderer.

The Resurrectionist of Caligo is the joint debut novel by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga. It mixes elements of Gothic fiction, steampunk, Victoriana and outright secondary world fantasy, with moments that recall China Mieville but an atmosphere all of it own.

I hadn't heard of the novel prior to randomly wandering into the book's launch party at the Dublin WorldCon in August, and was intrigued enough by the premise to pick the book up. It's proven to be an unexpected delight, a compelling novel with one of the most standard plots you can imagine - an innocent (but not flawless) protagonist framed for a crime he didn't commit, with him and his colleagues trying to clear his name - but set in a vivid and interesting world.

The book engages with a variety of themes across its length. Class struggle is a key point: the rich and powerful get the best medical attention and the best protection whilst the poor are left to suffer and die without acknowledgement. Class responsibility also comes into play: the nobles of the country of Myrcina (of which Caligo is the capital) are shocking arrogant and feel they have no obligations to their servants, whilst the neighbouring empire of Khalishkha has a very different attitude. Myrcina is also sexist and backwards, again whilst Khalishkha appears to be more enlightened.

The novel is told entirely from two POVs. Roger is a surprisingly unsympathetic protagonist. He is arrogant, overconfident, embittered and has enough chips on his solider to open a restaurant. He is also intelligent and principled, and his real plight is powerfully realised in the prose. The authors take a risk making Roger an at times difficult-to-like lead character, but it gives him a more discernible personality and also creates a more interesting arc for character change and growth.

Sibylla is an altogether more interesting protagonist with more agency, despite her station (as several steps removed from the throne) and gender working against her in this world. Watching Sibylla negotiate delicate matters of state and international diplomacy is fun, as she has a lot more charm, wit and finesse than Roger, whose approach is often more of a bull in a china shop.

The book also features some pretty good worldbuilding. Caligo is depicted in all its glory, a city of dimly lit cobbled streets, back-alley gangs and eerie mausoleums, as well as colourful palaces and dingy gaols. The wider world is also described in more detail than expected, with plenty of references to historical events and personages. As a result, the book feels part of a larger tapestry, one that the ending suggests we will get to see more of (a sequel is implied, but not necessary).

The Resurrectionist of Caligo (****) is a superb debut novel, well-written and compelling with fascinating characters and worldbuilding. If it has a weakness, it's that one of the two protagonists can be a little grating and the book can't quite avoid a couple of cliches along the way. But the prose is great, the pacing brisk and the storytelling accomplished. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Into the Badlands: Season 3

The Widow and Madam Chau are engaged in a bloody war to finally determine who will control the Badlands. Sunny is living free in the wilderness beyond with his son, Henry. When Henry falls ill, Sunny is forced to reunite with his old allies to seek out a way of saving him. But Bajie's distress signal has attracted the wrong sort of attention, and an army of warriors imbued with the dark power invades the Badlands...

Into the Badlands may be the best-kept genre secret on television from the last few years. A post-apocalyptic fantasy inspired by the best of Hong Kong action cinema, it's not quite like anything else on air. It's a frenetic martial arts epic and now, unfortunately, it is over.

It goes out in style though. The third and final season is a chunky sixteen episodes in length and depicts a much broader, more epic story than previously. It focuses on a society at war but where hope is held alive by conviction and belief. The invading army, led by the aptly-named Pilgrim, are motivated by a prophecy, but it is unclear how reliable the prophecy may be. For the war-ravaged people of the Badlands, the Widow is trying to offer them hope of a better life afterwards, but until the war is won this vision cannot be delivered. For Sunny his task is more straightforward: he must survive and hopes to raise his son in a better world.

The scope of the series means that the pacing rarely flags (a much more serious problem for Badlands' increasingly tired AMC sister show, The Waking Dead), although the extra episode count does feel a little unnecessary. A few later episodes, heavy on flashbacks or sequences of characters being imprisoned and working out how to escape, do feel like they may have struggled to tell more worthwhile stories, but Badlands is pretty good at handling filler material. It uses it as a way of exploring added character depth or revealing more backstory, and sometimes quite inventively, so it wears the increased length reasonably well.

The third season also benefits from an improved set of villains. Marton Csokas' Baron Quinn was, how shall we say, a less-than-compelling villain and it was a relief to see him off at the end of Season 2. Babou Ceesay makes a more interesting antagonist as the newly-arrived Pilgrim, whilst promoting the recurring Sherman Augustus into a regular as Nathaniel Moon was a great idea, as he adds gravitas to the cast. A possible weak point is that the new character of Castor (Game of Thrones' Dean-Charles Chapman) feels a little underdeveloped given his heavy screentime in the early part of the season.

The returning cast all do great work, with the lead trio of Daniel Wu (Sunny), Nick Frost (Bajie) and Emily Beecham (the Widow) all being outstanding as normal. All three characters get a lot of development this season and more depth added. Lewis Tan is also a welcome addition to the core cast this season. The show also figures out what to do with MK (Aramis Knight) after two seasons of flapping around a bit with him, which is great news. Even better is that Orla Brady (Lydia), who had little to do in Season 2, has a much stronger storyline and presence this season, more fitting an actress of her calibre.

In almost every aspect, the third season of Into the Badlands is the best, with some of the finest storytelling, acting and action of the entire series. It is let down by a few minor issues. The violence in Season 3 does feel a bit more excessive than previously. Badlands has always had action, blood and carnage, but it's never really dwelt on it or been gratuitous in how it's handled. This season that's definitely not the case and there's a few scenes which do feel genuinely unpleasant. It's only a few scenes out of sixteen episodes, but it feels like a creative misstep (similar to the growing reliance on shock-gore in The Waking Dead from the midpoint of the series onwards) and takes attention away from the still-breathtaking fight choreography.

Into the Badlands' final season (****½) is a compelling, fast-paced pulp epic. It's well-acted, beautifully choreographed and has a genuinely enjoyable story. Some gratuitous violence and a few wheel-spinning scenes late in the season detract a little, but otherwise the series comes to a fine and worthwhile close. The season is available now in the USA and on Amazon Prime in the UK.

The BBC's new WAR OF THE WORLDS adaptation gets an airdate

The BBC's new three-part mini-series based on H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds has gotten an airdate. The series will start on Sunday 17 November (that's this Sunday), airing immediately after His Dark Materials.

The new drama promises to be a more faithful adaptation of Wells' original novel, retaining the period setting (although moved forward slightly to the Edwardian era rather than the Victorian). Most screen adaptations of the book favour moving the action to a more contemporary setting, such as the 1953 and 2005 movies which both re-cast the action in modern America.

Mark Lawrence's BROKEN EMPIRE trilogy optioned for TV

Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire trilogy has been optioned for television.

Lawrence declined to name the production company involved, but notes at length on his blog that the optioning process is long and rarely results in a finished TV show hitting the air (especially if, as this sounds, this is a speculative option from a TV production company without a studio or streaming service already backing them). It is a more significant option, however, because money has exchanged hands, which was not the case for previous deals.

Lawrence's Broken Empire trilogy consists of Prince of Thorns (2011), King of Thorns (2012) and Emperor of Thorns (2013). It attracted critical acclaim and some strong sales on release.

Lawrence also confirmed that his unrelated fantasy trilogy, Book of the Ancestor, and his Impossible Times SF trilogy have also had some TV interest.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu

Tim Goodman, a former Pokémon trainer turned disillusioned young insurance salesman, is called to Ryme City after the death of his estranged father. However, he bumps into his father's former Pokémon partner, Pikachu, whom only he has the ability to talk to. With Pikachu's help, he learns of a shadowy conspiracy and the possibility that his father may still be alive...

The Pokémon phenomenon is one that mostly passed me by, although I was certainly aware of it: I was working retail in the fateful Christmas of 1999 when the toys, video games and perennially-out-of-stock card game landed and still have flashbacks to the time. I never really got into the fiction of the game. I was, however, intrigued by the trailers for Detective Pikachu. The concept seemed crazy and I always have time for Ryan Reynolds doing his thing.

Detective Pikachu is something of an unexpected pleasure. It's a very traditionally-structured movie with a hero's journey, redemptive arc, a fair bit of CG action and some moral lessons along the way, but it's all executed extremely well. It's the cinematic equivalent of a comfortable pair of slippers. It's predictable (well, mostly, there's a couple of nice twists), cosy and not going to surprise you too much, but you enjoy the heck out of it anyway.

Ryan Reynolds, of course, steals the show as Pikachu. His vocal performance is impeccable and he imbues the little character with some real warmth and charm. There's a few moments when it feels like things are starting to go a bit Deadpool, but Reynolds rains it in and mostly keeps Pikachu feeling like his own thing rather than a non-sweary, less-meta version of the merc with a mouth. Other performances are very solid, especially Justice Smith as the lead character Tim and Bill Nighy as multi-billionaire Howard Clifford.

The film is also very welcoming to Pokémon newbies, with just enough exposition given to let people know what the creatures are and how they evolve before getting on with the story. The film rewards both newcomers and veterans of the franchise. I was also pleasantly surprised that whilst the movie has a fair bit of CGI, it doesn't go completely mad with it, restraining its use for the creatures and the larger action sequences.

There are a few negatives. Ken Watanabe has almost nothing at all to do and I was a bit puzzled why they cast an actor of his stature and then failed to give him a story arc. Kathryn Newton as Lucy is also very good, but pretty much disappears in the denouement. It feels like a lot of her story was left untold, which is a shame.

Broadly speaking though, Detective Pikachu (****½) is undemanding, knockabout fun, a standard story told with some skill and heart. It won't reinvent the wheel but it's a solid way of passing the time. The film is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday, 11 November 2019

The WHEEL OF TIME video game turns 20 years old!

The Wheel of Time video game - yes, there is one - was released twenty years ago today, and to celebrate the occasion I've written a special article about it over on Dragonmount (where I'm also blogging twice a month about Amazon's upcoming TV show).

Whilst you'd assume that the natural way to adapt The Wheel of Time would be as a big-budget RPG, the creators of the video game had other ideas and decided to turn it into an action-packed, first-person shooter using the Unreal engine (in fact, The Wheel of Time was only the second game after the original Unreal to use the engine). The result was far more interesting than you might expect given such a decision. Unfortunately, the game was not a critical success and isn't even available to buy any more.

With Amazon developing the new Wheel of Time TV show, it'll be interesting to see if a new video game adaptation is on the cards.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Salvation Lost by Peter F. Hamilton

A salvage operation to a remote world has revealed a devastating secret: the alien Olyix, the supposed friends and allies of humanity, are an existential threat to the human race. Humanity is forewarned, but the Olyix are also aware that their deception has been exposed and unleash their forces. As all-out interstellar war begins, it will take every resource on Earth and its colonies to stave off the attack. Meanwhile, millennia in the distant future, humanity's descendants prepare to mount a last, desperate offensive against the Olyix...but they have some unexpected allies waiting in the wings.

Peter F. Hamilton's Salvation trilogy is Hamilton back to doing what he does best: combining the science fiction thriller and an epic space opera into an addictive narrative set in a richly-detailed future. Hamilton is the finest worldbuilder in science fiction working today - perhaps ever - and his constant capacity for invention and storytelling remains unmatched in the genre. When it comes to big-budget, high-concept, highly readable science fiction there is simply no other game in town at present.

Salvation marked the start of a new sequence and it's familiar territory for Hamilton: painting a picture of a futuristic human society which is suddenly put in peril and a disparate group of characters scattered across many fronts has to respond to the threat. It recalled his two finest novels, The Reality Dysfunction and Pandora's Star, but clocked in at considerably less than half the length of either of those novels, so benefited from the tighter focus. This is Hamilton doing his normal thing but slimmed down a lot.

As with the first novel, this book unfolds on multiple fronts simultaneously. We get to see the war between humanity and the Olyix beginning from the POVs of the characters from the first book and other powerful figures. We also get a continuation from the story of the first book of the far-future humans fighting a war across an almost unimaginable timescale, with battles separated by centuries or millennia and the overall shape of the conflict hard to discern. This conflict, which is more cosmic in scale, feels a bit different to Hamilton's other work and is arguably the freshest aspect of this new series.

A new storyline also begins in this book, with a bunch of low-level London criminals providing a ground level view of the unfolding conflict and how they get more involved in it. I felt this storyline was a bit less interesting, mainly because all of the characters involved in it were morally irredeemable thugs. The attempts at moral complexity - giving one of the characters an elderly and failing relative and showing his plans to escape from the criminal world - aren't handled very well and I ended up not particularly caring about this storyline very much, especially as in a relatively short novel (if only by Hamilton's normal rhinoceros-stunning standards) it felt like page time that could have been spent on the other two, considerably better storylines. Some may also feel that some Hamiltonian tropes are a bit over-indulged here, such as once again the fate of humanity resting with an ultra-rich but ultimately benevolent super-corporation run by a semi-immortal philanthropist.

Still, Salvation Lost (****) is fiendishly readable and compelling (I read it in one sitting), intelligent and features a scope and scale unusual for Hamilton whilst simultaneously being a lot shorter and more focused than most of his prior work. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The concluding book in the series, The Saints of Salvation, will be released next year.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

A History of Homeworld Part 6: The Reconstruction

In this series celebrating the franchise's twentieth anniversary (and the recent announcement of Homeworld 3), I look at the background lore of the critically-acclaimed Homeworld series of video games.

In the Galactic Standard Year 9510 – 1216 of the Kharakian Dating System – the Exiles returned home. The almost-50,000-strong crew of the Mothership and the fleet it had accumulated over the course of the six-month Homeworld War began the slow process of thawing out their 600,000 brethren, cryogenically frozen for up to a dozen years before the Genocide.

The Mothership in orbit around Hiigara, now converted into an orbital spacedock.

The return to life was, for many, traumatic. They went to sleep on a world of approximately 300 million people and woke to learn that almost all of them had been killed, a great war had been fought, and the homeworld recovered at tremendous cost. For many the recovery was difficult, almost impossible. The joy of finding themselves on a verdant new world was offset by the knowledge of the losses that had the trip had incurred. 

Establishing a working civilisation and industrial base was essential. The Taiidan had occupied Hiigara for over three millennia and considered it their world, but the fall of the Emperor had sparked an exodus. Millions of Taiidan had fled the planet in every ship that could carry them, returning to their own homeworld or one of its numerous colonies. Some remained behind and surrendered with honour, in many cases being remanded into the custody of the Taiidani Republic that had arisen in place of the brutalist Empire. Taiidan cities were occupied, factories converted to Kushan – Hiigaran – use and surrendered Taiidan ships were used to bolster the Mothership’s own fleet. Resource-gathering missions were launched into the small asteroid clusters in Hiigara orbit, and elsewhere in the system. 

The Mothership, now converted into an orbital shipyard, began pumping out ships by the score. With Taiidan Republic and Bentusi help, the Hiigarans secured a buffer zone out to ten light-years from Hiigara itself. Several systems in this vicinity were colonised as mining and military bases to defend against incursions by Turanic pirates or Taiidan Imperial warlords. 

The New Daiamid was established in the capital city of Hiigara, now named Asaam Kiith’sid. The kiithid assembled, but soon a problem was discovered: seven kiithid (S’jet, Manaan, Soban, Naabal, LiirHra, Paktu and Kaalel) now represented slightly more than half of the Hiigaran population and dozens more were massively underrepresented, in some cases with only a few hundred survivors in the population. Some kiithid, such as Gaalsien, had no representatives amongst the Mothership crew or the “Sleepers” and were presumed extinct in the Kharakian Genocide. Some of the larger kiithid took advantage of the situation to offer a new home to members of smaller ones, a helpful "merger," although some kiithid saw it as a hostile takeover and resisted furiously. 

A key moment came seven years after the Landfall. Kiith Naabal attempted to almost forcibly absorb Kiith Somtaaw, which had been reduced to barely 15,000 members. Naabal wanted to use the Somtaaw’s mining expertise to enrich themselves. The Somtaaw resisted, helped by the Soban and Paktu. Several smaller kiithid chose to unite with Somtaaw, raising their numbers to over 25,000. In a furious series of debates in the New Daiamid the Somtaaw proved surprisingly victorious and not only secured their independence but were granted access to the Mothership fabrication facilities. In a matter of months, the Somtaaw had established a fleet of three ships: the mining cruisers Faal-Corum and Kunn-Lan, and the research frigate Clee-San. The Somtaaw used these resources to carve out mining territories in the Hiigaran system and beyond. 

Hiigara seen from space, with the lights of an old Taiidan city still visible.

Hiigara’s position in the galaxy was controversial. Some races, looking at the history records of the First Time, were nervous about giving the Hiigarans a place on the Galactic Council, but the Bentusi and the Taiidan Republic spoke for them. Hiigara’s claim to the surrounding systems was recognised, and support and supplies provided until the Hiigarans could stand by themselves. The Bentusi profited from early trade with Hiigara, in thanks for their support during the Homeworld War. Hiigara and the Taiidan Republic also signed a treaty of peace and alliance, with war criminals implicated in the Kharakian Genocide extradited to Hiigara for trial. 

The Taiidan Empire had effectively collapsed, placing the fate of its 360 billion citizens in doubt, but sixty star systems remained loyal to the new government on Taiidan. Ninety more collapsed into civil war, or were seized by former Taiidan admirals and generals keen to restore the empire. These warlords spent more time fighting one another or the Republic than challenging Hiigara, but several times (in 4, 9 and 11 After Hiigaran Landfall) they mustered enough forces to invade Hiigaran space. The second and third attacks penetrated the Hiigaran system, but all were thrown back in disarray. Hiigara was secure, but the Exiles would have to fight to continue to protect it.

Some Hiigarans did more than defend themselves: circa 3 AHL the newly-awoken Iifrit Tambuur-sa, the sole survivor of Kiith Tambuur (after his wife was killed in the Taiidan attack on the cryo-trays in Kharak orbit), declared paaura (eternal vengeance) on the Taiidan Imperials and launched a bloody campaign of retribution, claiming over three hundred kills in the next dozen years. 

The Hiigarans had endured many challenges in the aftermath of the Landfall, but had overcome them. But a new threat was arising which no one in the galaxy had foreseen, and one that was so dangerous, disturbing and disquieting that almost all knowledge of it was suppressed, an astonishing feat considering the tens of thousands killed in the process.

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Disney+ to hit the UK on 31 March

Disney have confirmed that its new streaming platform, Disney+, will arrive in the UK on 31 March, some four months after its US launch. Germany, France, Italy and Spain will get the service on the same day.

The delay in launching is apparently down to the complex rights situation. Disney is reverting the rights to its programmes and films held by numerous companies across the world and moving them onto its own platform. However, domestic and international rights are held by different companies, expiring at different times, so Disney+ UK will have a different line-up of shows and movies to Disney+ in the USA.

One thing it will have at launch is Disney+'s original content, in particular its eagerly-awaited Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian. The platform will also launch with a host of legacy content, including numerous shows and films from the Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic back-catalogues, and will quickly be joined by material from Fox Television (which Disney recently acquired). Disney+ is intended to be a family service, so adult-rated material from those stables will not be available on the service, instead launching on sister streaming service Hulu in the United States. The fate of this material in the UK, where Hulu does not operate, is unclear.

More original content is coming down the pipe in 2020 and 2021, including a seventh season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and multiple TV shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and featuring the movie actors, including Falcon & Winter Soldier, WandaVision and Hawkeye.

Archer: Seasons 7-10

Sterling Archer and his team of former anti-terrorist secret agents are now jobless, both their private security firm and attempts to work for the CIA having ended in failure. Relocating to Los Angeles, they set up a private detective agency and are soon embroiled in a complex mystery involving a Hollywood starlet and a movie set hiding a lot of secrets. However, Archer finds himself in over his head and a shocking reversal leads him to three very strange places indeed...

The first six seasons of Archer saw the titular agent and his back-up team at private security firm ISIS (hurriedly renamed and then removed from references for fairly obvious real-world reasons) getting into scrapes and hijinks against an ambiguous historical background. Season 6 was the final one for the "classic" Archer set-up, with the crew working for the CIA directly against hostile foreign powers whilst getting into their standard inter-team banter. Season 7 moves the team to Los Angeles and a private detective agency setting, which works well but also feels a little too reminiscent of Season 5's Miami-set "Vice" season.

At the end of Season 7, however, the show takes an abrupt turn for the surreal. Archer is shot and falls into a coma; the subsequent three seasons unfold entirely in his mind (shades of classic British genre shows Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes) with the regular cast re-conceptualised each time. Season 8, subtitled Dreamland, sees the team in 1947 LA and riffing off classic film noir tropes. Season 9, Danger Island, puts the team on a tropical island. Season 10, Archer 1999, is set in the future with the regular team now crewmembers on a starship.

For a show to completely rejig its premise like this and for so long is remarkable, perhaps even unprecedented. Archer was so firmly immersed in the world of spies, espionage and modern pop culture references that yanking the show completely out of it and forcing it into areas away from its comfort zone feels unsettling, but also extremely brave and, when it works, quite inventive. For any show, six seasons and 75 episodes in one milieu is more than enough, so to switch to a new approach helps in keeping the show fresh.

Or at least it should. Truth be told, these latter four seasons of Archer are a mixed bag. Season 7 feels very much like a reheated version of Season 5 and very little of the season's storylines or characters have remained memorable. Fun to watch in the moment, but a little too reliant on running gags. The three "concept" seasons are all better, and there's a lot of fun seeing the characters reimagined in new situations. However, the characters quickly fall back into their more familiar roles and a lot of the running gags and repetitive character tics from earlier seasons return. There's no denying that the "high concept" idea does inject fresh energy to the show at a moment when it was running out, but it doesn't solve all of the problems.

Of the three high concept seasons, Archer 1999 is by far the best. Putting the team on a spaceship is a brilliant idea and allows the writers to bring in a lot of new concepts that they couldn't touch previously. It features some of the best laughs since the show's early seasons, with Mr. Deadly Goes to Town (starring the incomparable Matt Berry as the titular Mr. Deadly, a sentient bomb who just wants someone to detonate him) being a stand-out moment. Danger Island is okay, but it feels like we visited a lot of these ideas in previous seasons when Archer had to go to exotic locations to undertake one-off missions. Dreamland has a lot of promise but the noir setting isn't really compatible with Archer's usually cynical and biting humour, so it does go to waste a little.

If the three high concept seasons don't entirely work as intended, they still help keep Archer (***½) fresh, and it's good to see that at the end of Season 10 the idea is put to bed permanently. Season 11 should see the return of the "real" world and Archer catching up with everyone over what has happened in the past three years should hopefully result in a more interesting show. The series airs on Netflix in the UK and FXX in the United States.

Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

A new war is threatening to erupt between the Northern Kingdoms and the Empire of Nilfgaard. Sorcerers are gathering on the island of Thanedd to decide on their position. A young woman guarding a power she cannot control is in the care of a sorceress, whilst the Witcher, Geralt, is fighting off threats to her life. These are perilous times for the Continent.

Time of Contempt is the fourth book (and second full-length novel) in the Witcher series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Following directly on from the events of Blood of Elves, the novel follows several storylines in close parallel. Numerous factions are still trying to capture or kill Ciri, the princess and only heir of fallen Cintra. Ciri is in the protection of the sorceress Yennefer, who is also trying to navigate the perils of both international and sorcerous politics. The situation also draws in Geralt, who has been trying to protect Ciri from afar, and puts all three of our protagonists in jeopardy when all-out chaos erupts.

Time of Contempt is an improvement over Blood of Elves, which felt like a very long prologue for the rest of the story. That story really gets underway in Time of Contempt, which mixes character development (particularly Ciri becoming less impetuous), international politics, war and action. If Blood of Elves didn't feel complete as a novel, Time of Contempt is more successful in that area, with a distinct battery of storylines and subplots which further the overall narrative.

There are some issues. In order for the chaos at Thanedd to really land, the reader should already be familiar with many of the wizards involved from their (oft-brief) appearances in the opening two short stories collections, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. In fact, several more events during the story only really landed with the appropriate emotional weight because I was familiar with the characters from their chronologically later appearances in The Witcher 3 video game. In the absence of that familiarity, I think the events of this storyline might be much less effective.

Once the book straightens itself out it does get more compelling, and the concluding section which is effectively a solo adventure for Ciri as she crosses a desert and finds a new band of companions feels like the opening of a bold new storyline for her, one that is cut short by the novel not so much concluding in a thematic or dramatically appropriate way, but just ending as if Sapkowski was working to a strict page count deadline. The storyline continues fairly directly into Baptism of Fire.

Time of Contempt (****) is an improvement over the previous Witcher novel and features some very good plot and character development. If it has a weakness, it's that it feels a bit too short and in fact I think the series may have benefited from being released as four fat omnibuses rather than eight shorter novels. Nevertheless, it is another solid installment in the series. It is available now in the UK and USA.