Sunday 30 June 2019

Netflix and Warner Brothers developing a SANDMAN TV series

In surprising but welcome news, it has been revealed that Netflix, Warner Brothers and Neil Gaiman are in advanced discussions about developing a Sandman TV series.

The news comes after the success of Gaiman's American Gods TV series, for Starz and Amazon Prime, and Good Omens on Amazon. Netflix clearly want in on a piece of the Gaiman action as well.

Sandman is Gaiman's magnum opus, a massive story spanning 76 comic issues released by DC between 1988 and 1996, collected in ten graphic novels which have sold well over 30 million copies. The comics tell the story of Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, after he is imprisoned by an English sorcerer in 1916. He escapes seventy years later, but finds the realm he rules over - the Dreaming - in ruins, and has to set about restoring it. Along the way he reconnects with his family, friends and allies, and realises some mistakes that he made centuries in the past finally have to be made right.

Actor-producer Joseph Gordon-Levitt was previously developing Sandman as a movie project as Warner Brothers, but left after "creative differences" with the studio. It is believed that Gordon-Levitt wanted a straight adaptation of the graphic novels, whilst the studio wanted something more effects-driven to compete the superhero marketplace.

The project has not yet been formally greenlit, but reportedly Netflix and Warner Brothers are close to agreeing terms.

UPDATE: The story has now been confirmed by Entertainment Weekly, with Allan Heinberg set to write, with Neil Gaiman and David Goyer to serve as executive producers. Netflix has apparently stumped up a massive budget and amount of money for the rights to the show. It is also the most expensive television project ever undertaken by DC Comics. Surprisingly, DC and Warner's sister studio HBO turned down the project due to the price tag attached.

Cities of Fantasy: Tar Valon

From: The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan

Tar Valon is the largest, most populous and richest city-state in the Westlands, as well as the oldest city on the continent to have survived intact since its founding. An independent city-state located halfway between the Borderlands and the rich southern kingdoms of Andor and Cairhien, it is famed as the home and main stronghold of the Aes Sedai, the wielders of the One Power.


Tar Valon is located on an island in the middle of the River Erinin, approximately 400 miles north-west of the city of Cairhien and almost 1,600 miles upriver from the port city of Tear. The Erinin splits in half around the island city, with the western branch of the river called the Alindrelle Erinin and the eastern branch the Osendrelle Erinin.

The city sits on a relatively flat river plain, with the only major feature breaking the horizon being the mountain known as Dragonmount. Located more than thirty miles south-west of the city, Dragonmount is huge. The height of the mountain has not been firmly charted past twenty thousand feet, but it is known that it is very difficult to breathe high on the mountain. The peak is almost unreachable due to a massive rent in the side of the mountain, which spews lava and smoke into the sky on a regular basis. Dragonmount is believed to be the tallest mountain in the world, taller even than any peak in the Spine of the World and much more dramatic for the way it rises from the plains alone. There aren’t any other mountains or even significant highlands until the Black Hills some 250 miles west of Dragonmount.

Tar Valon sits at the centre of the northern half of the continent’s road and highway network, built over the past three millennia but accelerated under the rule of the High King, Artur Hawkwing (before he turned on Tar Valon late in his reign). Superb roads link Tar Valon directly with the cities of Caemlyn, Cairhien, Maradon, Chachin, Shol Arbela and Fal Moran. The Erinin and its tributaries, particularly the Mora and Alguenya, link the city by ship with many other trading partners.

Tar Valon and the surrounding region.

Physical Description
The city of Tar Valon fills the entire island of the same name, which is eight miles long and three miles wide at its widest point. The entire island is surrounded by thick, impressive walls, approximately 50 feet tall and punctuated by sixty-four guard towers, each around 100 feet high. The walls are smooth, but there are river gates at the base of the towers which allow small ships to dock; these alleviate passenger pressure on the bridges. The river gates can be sealed very easily in times of war, so as not to make a weak point in the defences. The walls, guard towers and many of the buildings within Tar Valon are made of a beautiful white stone, the result of Ogier workmanship. Tar Valon has a long-standing contract with Stedding Jentoine (located 300 miles to the west, in the Black Hills) for the upkeep and maintenance of the city. The site of the walls from afar is breathtaking, and led to them being dubbed the Shining Walls.

Six long, arching bridges link the city to the mainland; even the shortest of these bridges is still over a mile long. At the foot of each bridge is a town or village which has sprung up to support trade: clockwise from the north-east, these are Luagde, Daghain, Osenrein, Alindaer, Darein and Jualdhe. Some speculate that in time these towns may grow into cities of their own, suburbs of a greater Tar Valon metropolitan area. Each bridge (and each gate it leads to) are named for the town in question, and each bridge is heavily fortified by gatehouses at both ends. The towns themselves have been sacked, occupied and burned several times in war.

At the northern and southern tips of the islands are two great harbours, named Northharbor and Southharbor. The Shining Walls extend in massive white circular arcs around each harbour, with a gap for entry and exit. Larger ships, up to Sea Folk rakers, can dock in these ports. There are also additional docks along the inland banks of the river for larger cargo vessels, or if the main harbours are full. Each harbour possesses a massive chain and winch-houses (elegantly hidden in the walls) to seal the harbour off in times of siege.

From the harbours, massive boulevards (capable of handling at least six wagons abreast) lead to the very centre of the city. Larger boulevards also radiate out from the centre to each of the bridges. These boulevards are the city’s main thoroughfares, sometimes lined with trees but mostly lined with impressive buildings. The city is dotted with beautiful structures constructed by the Ogier over 3,000 years ago, including a building in the shape of a cat and another as a shoal of fish. Many of these buildings are filled with businesses reflecting the nature of the building; the cat building is now the home of the Blue Cat Inn, for example, and the shoal of fish building is the home of the Great Fish Market.

At the very centre of the city is the White Tower. The tallest building constructed in the Westlands since the Breaking (although the Stone of Tear contains a greater volume), the White Tower is 600 feet tall and over 300 feet wide at its base, tapering to 200 feet wide at the top. The central tower is divided into 40 levels above ground (with an unknown number of basements and subbasements), with the lower twenty containing classrooms, lecture halls, meeting rooms, administration, services and the Hall of the Tower. The upper twenty contain the living quarters for the seven Ajahs. Two wings extend out some 300 feet on either side of the central tower, one containing living quarters for the Accepted and the other for the novices. The White Tower was built to house some 3,000 Aes Sedai (on the assumption that many more would be out working in the world), but with only 400-500 sisters present at any one time and only forty novices currently enrolled in the Tower (as of early 998 NE), the building can feel strangely empty.

Behind the White Tower is a palatial building which houses the Tower Library, the greatest accumulation of knowledge in the known world (only challenged by the Great Library of Cairhien, although even this is generally considered to be inferior). Other buildings dot the Tower grounds, including the quarters and practice yards for the Warders and several surprisingly elaborate stables, which are multi-level affairs with impressive facilities for the upkeep and care of the Tower’s huge number of horses (since each sister and Warder require a riding horse each, alongside pack animals). The Tower grounds are surrounded by their own walls and gates, although the gates are usually left open (albeit guarded at all times). The Sunrise Gate and Tarlomen’s Gate are two of the gates through the walls.

Dotted throughout the city are more towers of varying height, although even the tallest do not challenge the White Tower. These towers are sometimes solitary but occasionally are linked to nearby towers via skybridges. These towers serve a variety of functions, some being homes but others being places of trade or commerce.

Commerce is the lifeblood of Tar Valon; with no nation to support the city, it instead relies heavily on its status as an independent city-state with reasonable taxes and a commanding position on transcontinental trade routes. Merchants’ guild halls dot the city (including an elaborate branch of the Kandori Guild), as do banks. House Dormaile of Cairhien has made an impressive profit from the Tar Valon establishment, which is so trusted that it does extensive business with the Aes Sedai themselves. This is also why the city is packed with inns, fine eateries and other places where business can be conducted.

Tar Valon is an extremely safe city, with the streets well-lit and frequently patrolled by the Tower Guard. The areas near the docks but away from the boulevards, where the buildings crowd more closely together and there are back-alleys and narrow lanes, are the closest Tar Valon gets to rough quarters, but even these are very safe compared to similar districts in, say, Tanchico or Tear (and nothing in Tar Valon or the surrounding towns comes close to the Rahad of Ebou Dar).

Tar Valon is notable for the amount of greenery within its walls, considering that space is at a premium. There are several small parks and several noble families and rich businesses maintain small estates even within the city walls. Most notable, however, is the Ogier Grove. Located in the south-east of the city and over two miles wide, the Grove also acts as a park and meeting place. It is surrounded by white walls, but these are penetrated by frequent arches, allowing people in and out of the grove at their leisure rather than having to search for a specific gate. Near the heart of the Grove is a Waygate, which, according to rumour, can allow people to travel from the Grove in Tar Valon to those in other cities (although some have been destroyed, buried or built over) via the Ways. The Ways have become dangerous to travel, so the Waygate has been sealed off by thick gates and is guarded at all times.

A map of the city of Tar Valon.


As of 998 NE (New Era), the population of Tar Valon stands at approximately 500,000, accounting for the bridge town populations and seasonal visitors. This makes Tar Valon the most populous city on the continent, with its nearest rivals being Caemlyn, Cairhien and Illian (all estimated with populations around 300,000).


Tar Valon is administered by a city council which is under the authority of the Aes Sedai. Several sisters sit at the head of this council and are appointed by the Hall of the Tower. They in turn report to the Hall, the Keeper of the Chronicles and the Amyrlin Seat. The council is generally efficient enough that governance of the city is left to its hands without troubling the Aes Sedai’s upper hierarchy. The council also holds representatives from the guilds, banks, nobles, Tower Guard and businesses.


Tar Valon is defended by the Tower Guard, a highly-trained elite force whose modest name belies their capabilities. The Guard are a multi-disciplinary force consisting of crossbowmen, footsoldiers and cavalry. As well as defending the Tower itself, they police the city and patrol the outlying hinterlands of the city-state. During the Aiel War, other 12,000 soldiers served in the Tower Guard, although it is unclear if this is its peacetime strength as well.

A floor plan of the White Tower, the largest structure in the Westlands.

Tar Valon is the richest individual city in the Westlands and its economy may be stronger than that of some entire countries. The city’s lifeblood is trade, which comes from its control of the River Erinin. Trade from Tear, Andor and Cairhien flows northwards along the river and goods from Arafel and Shienar come south along the river, with substantial goods also coming overland from as far as Saldaea (whose capital, Maradon, is almost 1,200 miles from Tar Valon). Even the Sea Folk trade at Tar Valon, despite its discomforting distance (almost 1,700 miles) from the sea.

Tar Valon’s trade economy is bolstered by the presence of numerous banks, guilds and trading houses within the city, attracted by the city’s position athwart several key trade routes linking north and south, east and west, as well as its reputation for honesty, security and safety.

Tar Valon is also the home of the Aes Sedai. Although the Aes Sedai do not, as a rule, sell their use of the One Power to the highest bidder, they do entertain offers and requests from individuals and nations to lend their aid in particular endeavours of mutual interest. The low number of Aes Sedai and the growing distrust of them among more distant nations means that this it is a rare event, but occasionally the Aes Sedai will grant their services.

Finally, Tar Valon is a neutral and respected power (if not as respected as it once was), and its location makes an idea location for meetings between major governments. Andor, Cairhien and the Borderlands are all relatively nearby and enjoy good relations with Tar Valon, and use it (and, sometimes, Grey sisters) to mediate trade deals or peace treaties.


Tar Valon is a melting pot of peoples, cultures and representatives from every nation in the Westlands and beyond, to the Sea Folk islands. The streets at the height of the trading season can be a riot of colours, styles and different types of people. Still, the city tends to follow the Aes Sedai preference for more modest clothing and restrained behaviour, with licentiousness generally frowned upon.

The flag of Tar Valon, showing the Flame of Tar Valon surrounded by the colours of the seven Ajahs of the Aes Sedai.

In the Age of Legends, the Aes Sedai – “Servants of All” in the Old Tongue – were channellers of the One Power, both male and female. They were loosely organised in a guild, commanded by the Hall of the Servants. The Hall – both the body and the building in which it operated – was located in Paaran Disen, the largest and most beautiful city in the world.

At the end of the War of the Shadow, the Dark One’s curse tainted saidin, the male half of the True Source, driving all male channellers insane on the instant. In their insanity they destroyed civilisation and almost wiped out humanity in a series of tumultuous earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions known as the Breaking of the World. The Breaking lasted for some three centuries and was ended only when the last male Aes Sedai was killed or gentled (cut off from the Power).

In the aftermath of the Breaking, numerous organisations of women able to channel had formed. These had been begun by female Aes Sedai survivors of the Age of Legends, who had found and trained girls. The process had been complicated by the loss of the art of Travelling (able to travel thousands of miles in an instant with the Power), possibly due to the constantly shifting ground making it impossible to “learn” a location in the world and work out how to Travel to another. The groups trained others and so on. By the end of the Breaking it appears that few or no Aes Sedai from before the chaos survived.

How many groups of female channellers emerged from the chaos of the Breaking is unknown. What is known is that these groups soon began jostling for power and influence with one another, sometimes violently. It may well be that the Westlands may have gone the way of Seanchan, a shifting quilt of kingdoms ruled by Aes Sedai warlords, had not reason prevailed.

In 47 AB (After the Breaking) a grand convocation was held of female channellers. Approximately sixteen factions were represented, possibly more, and the names of twelve representatives are recorded: Elisane Tishar, Mistora Caal, Karella Fanway, Azille Narof, Saraline Amerano, Dumera Alman, Salindi Casolan, Catlynde Artein, Biranca Hasad, Mailaine Harvole, Nemaira Eldros and Lideine Rajan. It appears that each woman represented a separate group or organisation claiming to be Aes Sedai. During this conference it appears there was an agreement to ally these factions into one “true” Aes Sedai organisation. Each one of the separate factions was to become an ajah, a political alliance within the larger organisation. Ajah were a creation of the Aes Sedai in the Age of Legends, temporary groups which came together on certain issues. It appears they were prevented from becoming permanent factions due to the divisiveness, factionalism and tribalism this encouraged (believed by some to have resulted in significant chaos in the period before the Age of Legends began). Groups such as the Hundred Companions and the Fateful Concord were ajah of the War of the Shadow, for example.

Once the agreement was made to ally the Aes Sedai together, it was also decided they would need a base of operations. The wide island on the River Erinin within sight of Dragonmount, the burial mound of Lews Therin Telamon and reportedly the place where he would be reborn, was a natural choice. However, the amalgamation of the Aes Sedai was not smooth. It appears that, at a certain point, Lideine Rajan and Mailaine Harvole rebelled against the way things were being handled and tried to break away from the nascent organisation. At the end of the resulting conflict, circa 77 AB, Lideine was stilled and Mailaine forced to surrender.

In 98 AB construction of both the city of Tar Valon and the White Tower began. Ogier stonemasons were contracted and the One Power was employed in both endeavours. By this year the organisation of the Aes Sedai had become established, with Elisane Tishar listed as the first Amyrlin Seat (a title descended from the First Among Equals of the Age of Legends Aes Sedai, who wore the ring of Tamyrlin). The Hall of the Tower had been established to advise her, consisting of seven advisors: Caal, Fanway, Narof, Amerano, Almoan, Casolan and a newcomer, Kiam Lopiang. This suggests that the earlier twelve ajah had by now amalgamated into seven, with Lopiang perhaps representing Mailaine Harvole’s now-reconciled faction.

During this period the Aes Sedai carried out a purge of other groups claiming the title. This purge was thorough and widespread. During this period the Aes Sedai also established firm influence through the nascent city-states and nations, with several Aes Sedai rising to command these polities as governors and sometimes Queens.

By the time Tar Valon was completed in 202 AB, the current formal organisation of the White Tower had come into being. The Aes Sedai were split into seven permanent Ajah, each represented by a colour: Blue, Brown, Green, Grey, Red, Yellow and White. Each Ajah is represented in the Hall of the Tower by three Sitters, for twenty-one Sitters in total. The Amyrlin Seat is the head of the Tower, the first among equals, with the Keeper of the Chronicles serving as her aide-de-camp.

This organisation remains in place today, despite the numbers of Aes Sedai falling. The White Tower was designed to hold 3,000 women, with room for future expansion, meaning the original number of Aes Sedai was likely between 2,000 and 2,500. That number was approximately 1,250 during the Aiel War, some 3,254 years after Tar Valon’s completion. The reduction in numbers is slow, but steady. Some Aes Sedai believe this is down to the Aes Sedai practice of gentling or killing male channellers “winnowing” the ability to channel out of the human race, whilst others point to the lack of proactive Aes Sedai recruitment: since far more women can learn to channel than have the inborn spark, the majority of these will go undetected unless found by an Aes Sedai. The potential number of Aes Sedai sisters, given the population of the Westlands, is likely in the tens of thousands at least, but the White Tower prefers a smaller, more flexible organisation.

In 209 AB Mabriam en Shareed of Aramaelle, both Queen and Aes Sedai, called a meeting at Tar Valon between the rulers of the ten nations that had arisen. At this meeting was signed the Compact of the Ten Nations, binding them to peaceful coexistence and mutual trade and alliance in face of the Shadowspawn threat. The Aes Sedai likely played a key role in mediating this treaty. The treaty held for eight centuries, through the rise of the false Dragon Raolin Darksbane in 335 AB (whose followers mounted the first assault on Tar Valon when he was captured, which was repulsed) until the Westlands were invaded by Shadowspawn hordes in 1000 AB, marking the beginning of the Trolloc Wars.

The Aes Sedai proved key in defeating the Shadow during the wars, particularly the leadership and impressive military acumen displayed by Rashima Kerenmosa, the Soldier Amyrlin. Rashima’s bold leadership saw the Fourth Siege of Tar Valon (1290 AB), which saw Shadowspawn storming the city, end in a stunning victory, followed by her planning for the Battle of Maighande (1301 AB), the largest battle fought since the War of the Shadow. The surviving armies of the Ten Nations crushed the Shadow, slaughtering so many Myrddraal and Dreadlords that the Trollocs went out of control and lost all battle discipline. This reduced the rest of the war to a prolonged mopping-up exercise. Rashima gave her life and that of her five Warders in the battle, personally slaying nine Dreadlords in direct combat.

During the Free Year period, Aes Sedai influenced remained key but somewhat dwindled. After Queen Sulmara of Masenashar (c. FY 450) no Aes Sedai are reported as ruling nations and respect for the organisation, although still present, was less all-encompassing. A particular blow to the organisation was the Black Fever, which swept across the continent in FY 937-939 and killed millions of people. Although the Aes Sedai helped where they could, the number of sick people was too high and the number of Aes Sedai (particularly Yellow sisters, who specialised in Healing) too low. This was followed by the opportunistic rise of Guaire Amalasan, a false Dragon. Seizing control of the Kingdom of Darmovan (in modern Tarabon and Almoth Plain) in FY 939, he embarked on a campaign of conquest which, by the spring of FY 943, had delivered a third of the continent into his hands. He was defeated by Artur Hawkwing at the Battle of Jolvaine Pass in FY 943, who then delivered him to Tar Valon to be gentled. Hawkwing then had to help defend Tar Valon from a counter-attack by Amalasan’s followers in a fierce battle that reached the White Tower itself. Hawkwing was credited with saving Tar Valon, to the unmitigated fury of the Amyrlin Seat, Bonwhin Meraighdin, who could not countenance the idea of a man saving the White Tower. Bonwhin spent almost fifty years trying to destroy Hawkwing, including manipulating other nations into attacking him and – as certainly Hawkwing believed – arranging the deaths of his wife and children. The latter incident (although doubted by historians and Aes Sedai) inspired Hawkwing to break all ties with Tar Valon and besiege the city in starting in FY 975. In FY 992 Deane Aryman, a Sitter for the Blue Ajah, exposed evidence confirming that Bonwhin had tried to manipulate and control Hawkwing against the Hall of the Tower’s command. Bonwhin was deposed and stilled only two years before Hawkwing’s own death from advanced age.

On Hawkwing’s death, his general Souran Maravaile lifted the siege of Tar Valon and marched to aid Ishara Casalain in securing the Lion Throne of the newly-declared sovereign kingdom of Andor. Within days, Aes Sedai sisters were riding to every corner of the Westlands, hoping to forestall that chaos they sensed was coming. They failed.

The War of the Hundred Years was a particular low point for the Aes Sedai, who were unable to bring their influence to bear to mediate an end to the conflict. The war petered out by itself. A combination of the Aes Sedai’s failure and the rise of the Children of the Light, a military ascetic group who believed that the Aes Sedai were Darkfriends for their use of the Creator’s blessed power, saw Aes Sedai influence and respect tumble (along with their numbers) in the subsequent thousand years.

In 978 NE Tar Valon became the hinge on which the fate of the Westlands turned…or so it was popularly said. Two and a half years earlier, four clans of the Aiel had swarmed out of the Waste and sacked Cairhien. King Laman had retreated south into Haddon Mirk and fought a lengthy guerrilla war before finally winning support from Tear and Andor. His armed crossed the Erinin and fled north, pursued by the Aiel. It was realised that if the Aiel could be delayed enough, the Aes Sedai could negotiate a Grand Alliance between all the Westlands nations to meet the Aiel in battle at Tar Valon itself, which could be fortified and turned into a trap for the Aiel armies. After some tense negotiations (particularly with Amadicia and the Children of the Light), the Aes Sedai succeeded. More than 170,000 troops in official contingents from ten kingdoms, along with mercenaries and irregular forces (such as a band of Malkieri veterans led by Lan Mandragoran and a small force from Arad Doman under Rodel Ituralde), arrived to meet the Aiel force of approximately 70,000. The resulting battle was declared a victory, as the Aiel force withdrew and returned to the Waste. However, in reality the Aiel simply withdrew the second they had achieved their objective – killing King Laman for the crime of cutting down the tree Avendoraldera, a gift from the Aiel to the Cairhienin given five centuries earlier – and no longer had any need to press the attack.

This engagement – the Battle of the Shining Walls, sometimes called the Blood Snow – remains the largest battle fought since the War of the Hundred Years. The Aes Sedai hoped it would usher in a new age of cooperation between the nations, but alas this did not come to pass.

Origins and Influences
Tar Valon is a key location in The Wheel of Time fantasy series by Robert Jordan (and completed by Brandon Sanderson). Mentioned frequently in the first novel in the series, The Eye of the World, it appears for the first time in the second, The Great Hunt, and a map of the city is provided in the third, The Dragon Reborn. It goes on to play a major role in most of the books in the series.

The inspiration for Tar Valon’s name is, of course, Avalon from the Arthurian legend. In the Arthurian cycle, Avalon is an island located either off the coast of Britain or in the midst of a large lake or swamp. Early versions of the legend tended to place the island far out to sea, but later ones instead identify the island with Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, which was once an island surrounded by the marshland of the Somerset Levels. It is home to a powerful group of women, variously identified as priestesses, sorceresses or druids.

Near the end of the cycle, Arthur sustains injuries from fighting Mordred at the Battle of Camlann and is taken by a group of women by Morgana to Avalon to recover. In some versions he actually dies, in others is in a coma or deep sleep. Most versions of the legend agree that Arthur is prophecised to return in Britain’s greatest hour of need.

The analogy in The Wheel of Time is with Artur Hawkwing, High King of the Westlands, who initially allies with the Aes Sedai sisterhood to help bring justice to the land. However, he is betrayed by his councillor Jalwin Moerad (almost certainly the Forsaken Ishamael in disguise) and manipulated into betraying and going to war against Tar Valon, besieging it for twenty years. When Hawkwing is on his deathbed, the Aes Sedai offer to forgive him and give him the gift of healing so he might live on, but he refuses. Thus, the legend is inverted, with Tar Valon’s offer of healing refused and so Artur Hawkwing dies.

Jordan was deeply interested in Celtic and British history, particularly the role of the feminine in mythology, which probably explains why the island ended up looking the way it does!

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

Saturday 29 June 2019

LORD OF THE RINGS TV series to film in Auckland, New Zealand

Contrary to previous rumours that Amazon's Lord of the Rings: The Second Age TV show was ditching New Zealand for Scotland, it's now been revealed in the New Zealand trade press that "a huge part" of the production for the new show will be based in Auckland.

According to reports, pre-production has already been underway for a year, with sets being built and studio space secured ahead of the start of filming, reportedly in August.

The filming of both Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies was based in New Zealand's capital, Wellington, some 300 miles further south.

The report suggests that there may be additional filming elsewhere, although realistically it seems unlikely that production will be occurring on two completely opposite sides of the globe. However, Amazon have not yet formally confirmed shooting locations.

The new TV series will be set in the Second Age of Middle-earth's history, some 5,000 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, although the precise time period is yet to be confirmed.

Thursday 27 June 2019

FINAL FANTASY TV series in development, based on FF14

Sony Pictures Television, Square Enix and Hivemind Productions have joined forces to bring the long-running Final Fantasy video game series to television.

The series will be loosely based on Final Fantasy XIV, a multiplayer online game with a strong narrative component. The story will focus on the realm of Eorzea, which is being invaded by the Garlean Empire. The heroes are Warriors of Light, great warriors and mages called to stand against the Empire.

Final Fantasy XIV was originally released in 2010 to a middling reception; it was later rebooted as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn in 2013 and became a huge success, with over 16 million subscriptions sold. By some counts, it is currently the second-most-popular fantasy MMORPG in existence, behind only the veteran World of WarCraft.

The decision to focus on Final Fantasy XIV (with its fluid and by-design incomplete story) for an adaptation may surprise some people; Final Fantasy VII (1997) is the most well-known game in the series and is getting a huge boost of popularity next year, when the first part of a comprehensive remake of the game launches on PlayStation 4 in March 2020. However, FFXIV is the biggest-selling and by far the most profitable game in the history of the series, and many more current players will be familiar with its lore, story and characters.

The series - where each game consists of completely self-contained narratives, worlds, characters and ideas, but similar story structure and controls - began with Final Fantasy (1987), the success of which is widely credited with saving Squaresoft (as it was then) from going bust. Final Fantasy VII took the series to international success, using the-then state of the art PlayStation technology to create a much more immersive story whilst retaining the RPG customisation and battle features that had attracted players to the series. Final Fantasy X (2001) was the first game in the series to feature spoken dialogue, whilst Final Fantasy XIII (2009) was the first game to launch in HD. Final Fantasy XI (2002) was the first MMORPG in the series, running until its servers were finally shut down in 2016. The latest game in the series, Final Fantasy XV, was released in 2016.

The series previously flirted with dramatic adaptations in the form of the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2000). The film was widely seen as a failure, bombing at the box office and getting a critically mediocre reception. A straight-to-DVD feature-length film, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (2005) was considerably more successful.

The Final Fantasy TV series will be co-written by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton, who don't seem to have any credits of note between them. Sony are currently shopping the project to networks and streamers, although they face a tough market with many potential markets already developing epic fantasy projects of their own.

Wednesday 26 June 2019

The Expanse: Season 3

The Solar system is on the brink of war, with the numerically superior forces of the UN-controlled Earth and the technologically superior forces of the Martian Congressional Republic poised to unleash their ships and weapons. The crew of the starship Rocinante race to Io to expose the protomolecule conspiracy which has brought the Solar system to the brink, but face serious opposition. Meanwhile, the protomolecule fragment that landed on Venus has not been idle, and beneath the impenetrable clouds of the planet something is taking shape.

The first season of The Expanse was good. The second season was superb, the best season of space opera television since (at least) the second season of the newer Battlestar Galactica. The series, based on the novels by James S.A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), paints a picture of a near-future Solar system riven by competing corporate interests, political tension and the dangers of unrestrained technological development. As well as the compelling main storyline, a host of finely-judged character arcs unfold, with the whole thing hinging on a (relatively) realistic depiction of Newtonian physics and space travel.

Season 3 continues in this vein. It is divided into two strands. The first six episodes round off the events of Caliban's War, the second novel in the series, and focus on the political showdown between Earth and Mars, which goes further than it does in the book. The latter seven episodes have the steep challenge of adapting the third novel in the series, Abaddon's Gate, in full. This breaks up the season quite nicely, with the first half being more of a political and war story and the second being more of a hard SF mystery, complete with multiple Big Dumb Objects to investigate and some excellent use of the laws of physics to provide obstacles to the characters.

There are also new characters this season, particularly Anna Volovodov, played with aplomb by genre veteran Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost), and the highly morally ambiguous character of Klaes Ashford, played with charisma by David Strathairn (Lincoln). Both are excellent additions to the cast. There is also a significantly expanded role for fan-favourite character Drummer, played by Cara Gee, a recognition of her superb performance.

On a thematic level, the show continues to contrast politics, science, war, expediency and ideology as clashing ideals, with even Holden's idealism and desire to "do the right thing" being scrutinised as not always possible (or even logical). Sometimes the good guys do bad things for the greater good (summed up by Amos's chilling, "I am that guy," in possibly the season's best single scene), sometimes people make what appears to be perfectly reasonable decisions which have horrendous consequences (the look on Errinwright's face when Earth's defensive railguns fail to shoot down a Martian nuke is priceless, and horrific) and life is messy and chaotic, with arguing over the way forwards. If anything, the show makes a case (through Avasarala) for political compromise and negotiation, no matter how boring, as it is preferable to people dying as a result of nationalist propaganda. There's a powerful message of hope in The Expanse which sometimes wins out over the cynical, morally murky manoeuvrings elsewhere in the story.

There's also the idea of the mystery, with the protomolecule and its later creation, the Ring, being the implacable Unknown which humanity is struggling to understand, and only doing so imperfectly and through its own morass of selfish, competing viewpoints. The Unknown hits back several times, reminding humanity of just how tiny and insignificant they are in the universe, something which gains added traction in the cliffhanger, which seems to be going for Arthur C. Clarke levels of awe and wonder.

Season 3 of The Expanse (*****) continues the show's streak of being the best SF series on air this decade, with outstanding production values, pacing, effects and acting. It is available to watch now on Amazon Prime (UK, USA). Filming for Season 4 is already complete and should air later this year, also on Amazon Prime.

Schitt's Creek (Seasons 1-5)

Entrepreneur Johnny Rose has built a vast fortune after becoming one of the most successful video store chain owners in history. Unfortunately, his accountant was somewhat less honest and has absconded with the tax money. As a result, the Rose family are made destitute and have to relocate to the one asset they've been allowed to keep: the town of Schitt's Creek, which Johnny once bought on a whim because he thought the name was amusing. Forced to start again from scratch, Johnny, his wife Rose and grown-up children David and Alexis move into the Creek's motel and try to rebuild their lives.

Schitt's Creek is one of the beneficiaries of the new age of streaming media: a small-scale Canadian sitcom which slowly built up a small cult following over several years before finally exploding thanks to Netflix buying the international rights, bringing the show to a much wider audience.

The series is built on a classic sitcom conceit, that of "riches to rags," a formerly successful family reduced to nothing and forced to start again from the bottom. Previous sitcoms have played with this idea, such as To the Manor Born and later episodes of Only Fools and Horses, although Schitt's Creek engages with it with head-on directness, reducing the central four characters to living in adjoining motel rooms in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. As usual with Canadian shows trying to appeal to an American audience, there's some ambiguity about the setting, with not even the state/province or country being mentioned, but that really doesn't matter.

Central to the show are the Rose family: hapless patriarch Johnny Rose, played with exasperated, masterpiece comic timing by Eugene Levy (American Pie); his wife, a former soap star named Moira, played with impeccable vocal stylings by Catherine O'Hara (Home Alone, Six Feet UnderBest in Show); his son David, played by his real-life son Dan Levy (who is also the showrunner and executive producer of the show); and his daughter Alexis, played by relative newcomer Annie Murphy.

Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara's formidable experience and comic firepower brings a lot to the series, but Daniel Levy and Annie Murphy more than hold their own, and the four quickly develop a real chemistry and rapport that is frequently hilarious, and captures the bickering of families quite well. This is important because the show's set-up - in an attempt to avoid cliche - establishes both the Rose family and the people of Schitt's Creek as oddballs who are not always likeable. Whilst this avoids cheesy arcs like the salt-of-the-earth Creekers teaching the Roses the meaning of friendship, it does risk the show not giving viewers a good enough reason to tune back in. In particular, the gratuitous self-obsession of David and Alexis can be a little over the top in the first three or four episodes.

Fortunately, things calm down before the first season is even halfway over, with the viewer siding with the family over the bizarre behaviour of the Creekers (particularly the oft-inappropriate activities of mayor Roland Schitt, played with jovial annoyance by Chris Elliott) and then with the Creekers over the more delusional activities of the family, who sometimes forget they are no longer multi-multi-millionaires. Character growth is an important part of this, as Johnny's initial despair over being made penniless soon turns to a kind of delight at the prospect of having to prove himself again, this time in older age (which leads to people underestimating his business acumen). Moira's dislike of no longer having the rich and famous on speed dial likewise translates into a growing appetite to dominate the town's cultural and political scene, but also a growing humanity and desire to help her newfound friends improve themselves. David's selfishness is rapidly overcome by his friendship with hotel receptionist Stevie (a magnificently cynical Emily Hampshire), which helps him become a more selfless person. Arguably, it's Alexis who takes the longest to develop as a character, but a perfectly-judged arc in which she comes to realise the consequences of a horrendous relationship mistake she made in the first two seasons and tries to reverse it sees her also become a more interesting figure later on.

The show is divided into both individual episode storylines, in which, say,  Moira jumps on a chance to rebuild her acting career by appearing in a tacky winery advertisement, or Johnny and Stevie try to organise an alliance between the hotel and a local golf course, and longer season-spanning arcs, revolving around the opening of a new business or an impending election or wedding. These give each 13-episode season (of just 22 minutes each) a narrative impetus that is often lacking from sitcoms, making it more binge-worthy than most. The way the characters evolve on-screen is also very well-done, giving the show an overall direction and arc that's very satisfying.

The first five seasons of Schitt's Creek (****½) evolve from a somewhat creaky start into a compelling comedy show, featuring laughs, drama and occasional pathos. This is a hidden gem that's well worth catching up on ahead of the show's sixth and final seasons, which will start airing in Canada later this year and on Netflix internationally next year.

WHEEL OF TIME Season 1 to shoot for nine months in Croatia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic

Industry site KFTV is reporting that Amazon's Wheel of Time series will start shooting in Prague in September.

This news was already known, but KFTV go on to confirm that there will be additional shooting in Croatia and Slovenia. The production team under showrunner Rafe Judkins was also recently scouting locations in Denmark, but if it is unclear if they have committed to shooting there as well.

The shooting dates are also interesting: September 2019 to May 2020, a nine-month shoot which is quite impressive (and longer than that for Seasons 1-6 of Game of Thrones, for comparison purposes). With the likely requirement for a lengthy post-production period, this makes it unlikely the show could air much before the very end of 2020, if not the start of 2021.

At the moment it is unknown how many episodes will be in the first season. Six have so far confirmed, but more are likely.

Tuesday 25 June 2019

Year of the Rabbit: Season 1

London, 1887. Detective Inspector Rabbit is a hard-drinking copper who hates playing by the rules. However, his rowdy behaviour and the odd tendency of his heart to stop beating at inopportune moments encourages his boss to assign him a new partner, the young, posh and unstoppably chipper Strauss. He is also joined (initially unofficially) by Mabel, who harbours ambitions to become the first female police officer ("fopper...lady-filth?") in London. The trio tackle a series of serious crimes, unaware that they are involved in a much more serious and large-scale operation which may imperil all of the East End.

2019 may not be the technical Year of the Rabbit, but it may be the Year of the Berry. Matt Berry has been a British comic institution for well over a decade, due to his memorable appearances on everything from Gareth Marenghi's Darkplace to The IT Crowd to Toast of London. This year that has stepped up a notch with his appearance on the What We Do in the Shadows TV spin-off, which has brought his madcap comic genius and impeccable vocal gesticulations to a wider international audience, as well as this new sitcom for Channel 4.

Year of the Rabbit is a period comedy with decent production values, recreating the streets of Victorian London with impressive skill. The cast is also exceptional. As well as Berry as Rabbit, up-and-comers Freddie Fox and Susan Wokoma play Strauss and Mabel with gusto and conviction. Elsewhere, more veteran hands can be found in the form of Alun Armstrong as Rabbit's long-suffering boss, Paul Kaye as his arch-rival detective Tanner, Keeley Hawes as recurring semi-villain Lydia, Ann Mitchell as tough innkeeper Gwen and Sally Phillips as a Princess of Bulgaria (with a truly outrageous accent). There's also blink-and-you'll-miss them camoes from Berry's new Shadows bosses Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.

The behind-the-camera firepower is also impressive. Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil are veteran comic writers who've had a hand in The Armstrong and Miller Show, Black Books and HBO's Veep, and are more than capable of delivering great comic lines.

It's therefore a shame that Year of the Rabbit doesn't quite live up to its billing. There are usually several good laughs per episode, but there's also a lot of jokes that don't really land. There's also a curious overreliance on swearing. Swearing can be funny when deployed judiciously, especially combined with some great use of Cockney slang (one of the show's better gags is that whenever a new piece of technology is introduced - the telephone, electric street lights - a group of Cockneys must gather to decide on the appropriate slang term), but in Rabbit it often feels like it's trotted out whenever the writers run out of ideas, which is a dismaying several times per episode. There's also a couple of running gags that don't really work, especially an odd one about Rabbit's eyebrow that I thought was a setup for some kind of grand revelation, but nope, at least not in this season.

The season does generally improve after the opener, which can best be described as mildly diverting rather than required viewing. The series also goes quite a long way on Berry's rich voice booming out ridiculous declarations, albeit this time in Cockney. Hawes's superb ice-cold villainy is also excellent, and the show does get a lot of mileage out of the horrendous conditions of the time, slipping through a surprising amount of period detail in the gags, such as characters pondering if they've been struck by love when in fact they're sniffing in mercury fumes from a poorly-ventilated shoe factory.

Ultimately, the first season of Year of the Rabbit (***) feels a bit undercooked. The premise is excellent, the acting talent is certainly there, but the writing needs to be tighter with less reliance on the old stand-bys of swearing and tired running gags. There's enough solid jokes to make viewing worthwhile, but it's not, at this stage, essential viewing.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Miles Morales is navigating high school and the expectations of his parents, including his police officer father. When he is bitten by a radioactive spider, Morales gains powers similar to those of his idol, Spider-Man, and he decides to seek out the web-slinging superhero and ask him to be his mentor. However, archvillain Kingpin is unleashing havoc on New York City. As part of his plan, the walls between realities is breached and multiple "spider-people" from different timelines arrive. Morales has to negotiate an alliance between the dimensionally-maladjusted group if Kingpin is to be stopped.

Into the Spider-Verse is the (count 'em!) seventh Spider-Man movie to be released this century, and, as with the character's addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which is giving us a second live-action Spider-movie, Far From Home, just next month), some may be feeling a bit Spidered-out by this point. However, Into the Spider-Verse overcomes the danger of franchise fatigue to emerge as one of the best movies featuring the character to date.

Of course, it helps in keeping things fresh that Into the Spider-Verse isn't really about Peter Parker, who here is an experienced, veteran superhero who's been saving people for many years. Instead, our protagonist is Miles Morales. Morales had previously appeared in both comics and animation, but this is arguably his most significant moment as he is introduced to a much wider audience. Unlike Parker, whose status as an orphan with only one living relative is a key part of his motivation, Morales has much more of a traditional family background, even an extended one as his rebellious, graffiti artist uncle is a role model of his (to the disapproval of Morales' more straight-laced cop dad). However, Morales is struggling with making friends and getting a girlfriend, as is traditional in these types of coming-of-age stories.

In fact, Into the Spider-Verse does relatively little that drifts from the archetypal norm (save a willingness to perhaps kill a few more sacred cows than you'd expect, as the film revels in the fact it is not part of any previous continuity or canon) and many of the story beats are fairly predictable. Why that doesn't matter is because the film is a stunning, vivid and at times breathtaking piece of animation.

Into the Spider-Verse is a colourful, inventive and wild explosion of colour and form, the film fairly exploding off the screen with constant visual experimentation. The film's not quite so wild as to induce headaches, but for a film focusing on one of Sony's most lucrative characters, it's amazing how much freedom they allow the artists. You can pause the movie on almost any frame and it'd be a desktop-worthy masterpiece of an image. The visual splendour of the movie cannot be overstated.

This extends to the action, which is visceral and convincing, and is matched by the voice acting, which is uniformly outstanding. This is a film where every department gives 110% and it ends up on screen.

It is not a flawless, masterpiece, though. The film has no less than six different spider-protagonists, but really only gives three of them (Morales, Parker and Spider-Gwen) a lot to do; the other three characters have some funny moments and a few nice scenes, but otherwise feel like they're there to make up the numbers, and receive much less development as a result. The film may have been stronger by holding off on featuring a couple of the other characters until the inevitable sequel. Also, the film's fairly standard plot trajectory is on one hand a boon (the visual richness of the film applied to a convoluted plot may have ended up being a bit too much) but on the other does mean that the ending can mostly be spotted a mile away.

These should not detract from the fact that Into the Spider-Verse (****½) is exceptional fun, the closest we've come yet to seeing the spirit and ferocious energy of a comic book in motion, and arguably the strongest Spider-movie to date. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday 24 June 2019

Angel: Season 4

Angel is trapped in a coffin at the bottom of the ocean. Wesley, feeling betrayed by his friends, has turned into a hard-bitten, demon-killing mercenary. Cordelia is missing and Lorne has relocated to to Vegas. Connor, Fred and Gunn are carrying on the good fight, but outnumbered and outgunned there are limits to what they can do. As the gang set out to gather their friends, a much greater threat is gathering force and is about to unleash an evil upon the world that nobody, not even the demonic law firm Wolfram & Hart, are prepared to deal with.

The fourth season of Angel is the most polarising. It's the show's darkest season, at times seemingly delighting in finding ways of sending characters already in dire straits to an even lower and more depressing state. However, it's also the most serialised season and the writers spend a lot of time delighting in one-upping one another with ever more elaborate and challenging cliffhangers and dramatic plot twists, most of which (just about) hang together.

It helps that the previous seasons established both this tight-knit group of characters and their enemies in Wolfram & Hart so well, so when the show rolls hand grenades into both camps in the form of "the Beast" (a seemingly unstoppable killing machine) there's a lot of good drama to be mined. Previously-established secondary characters are killed off at a rate of knots, and the show has to draft in some heavy guns from previous seasons (not to mention Buffy) to help tackle the threat, which makes the story feel genuinely high-stakes.

This year also benefits from better pacing than the third season, with a more heavily serialised arc split into chapters separated by stand-alones (which nevertheless further either characterisation or subplots related to the main arc). There's also a lot to do, from rescuing Angel to getting Wesley back on-team (or at least on speaking terms again) to identifying the Beast and formulating a plan to deal with it. More than most Buffy and Angel seasons, it earns its 22-episode running time.

Although the pacing is excellent and the general storyline very good - arguably the strongest season arc Angel ever tackled - some characters suffer, a lot. Behind-the-scenes shenanigans led to Cordelia's character being effectively thrown under a bus for most of the season and then shuffled off to Ambiguous Coma Land. Given Charisma Carpenter's excellent performance in the third season as she changed Cordelia into being the show's strong, moral centre, that's a bitter disappointment. Even worse is what happens to Angel's son, Connor. Connor is a moody teenager, which automatically makes him hard to like, but whilst the similarly-initially-unpopular character of Dawn on Buffy was allowed to change and grow and eventually earn her place on the team, Connor stays a mopey teenager all season. He also ends up being everyone's patsy, played like a fool by multiple enemies. His late-season redemption isn't enough to save the character and the producers have to shuffle him off the show in the most embarrassing way possible once they realise they can't redeem the character.

The fourth season of Angel (****) is divisive, being both a compelling rollercoaster of interesting storylines, and a sustained character assassination which renders at least two major characters unlikable for no real particular reason. It is available now as part of the complete series boxed set (UK, USA).

Love, Death and Robots: Volume 1

Love, Death and Robots is a series of short animated films, mostly based on short fiction published by established science fiction and fantasy authors, and marks a collaboration between Netflix, David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) and Tim Miller (Deadpool). There are eighteen short films in total, marking the first time that SF stalwarts Peter F. Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds and John Scalzi have seen their work adapted for the screen.

Sonnie's Edge, based on a Hamilton short story from his Night's Dawn universe (and available in A Second Chance at Eden), is a hyper-violent thriller set in late 21st Century London. It depicts a battle to the death between two genetically-engineered monsters, controlled by human "operators" via the affinity gene (which plays a much larger role in the novels). It's a short, simple story with a killer twist that survives the translation to the screen, although the visceral nature of the violence is quite startling.

Three Robots, based on a Scalzi short, is arguably one of the best films in the collection, and easily the funniest. Three robots land on a post-apocalyptic Earth to take a tour guide of the ruins of human civilisation. There's plenty of paths and comedy, along with an amusing ending. It makes the other two Scalzi offerings, When the Yogurt Took Over and Alternate Histories, feel amusing but slight, short and inoffensive in comparison.

The Witness, written and directed by Alberto Mieglo (one of the visual consultants on Into the Spider-Verse), is one of only two originals in the collection and it is comfortably the worst of the stories by quite a margin. The SF nature of the story is only implied and otherwise the episode is an excuse for an extended chase sequence through some very sleazy locations for no readily apparent reason. The animation style is quite breathtaking, but that doesn't help the short survive when it is in the service of a story this thin.

The other original story for the series, Blindspot (by Vitaliy Shushko), is fun with some good character interplay, but it also ends up feeling a bit underdeveloped. It might have been better to have given these two slots to other modern SF authors to adapt more stories (I could see one of Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha short stories being exceptional in this kind of adaptation, for example).

Suits, based on a Steven Lewis short, is another of the strongest films in the series. The story feels like it takes inspiration from the original StarCraft, with hard-working homesteaders defending their crops from a rapacious alien horde with some impressive battlemech suits. There's some deft characterisation and some great action sequences in this story, although the "twist" ending is a little rudimentary by SF standards.

Beyond the Aquila Rift is the first Alastair Reynolds story to make it to the screen, and they chose a good one. A starship drifts off course due to a warp jump mishap and arrives at a remote space station, with remote chances of rescue or escape. The captain tries to adjust to life, especially after an immense coincidence means he knows one of the people on the station. A brooding sense of mystery ends in outright existential horror. This would be one of the strongest stories in the series, if it weren't for a number of totally superfluous sex scenes which eat up the screen time to no dramatic benefit. The other Reynolds short, Zima Blue, is also very good, but suffers a little dramatically from being a story that's more told than shown.

Ken Liu's Good Hunting, a sort-of cybernetic fairy tale set in a chronologically ambiguous Hong Kong, is another one of the strongest stories in the batch, a fever dream melding fantasy, technology and romance.

The Dump, by Joe Lansdale, is impressively animated but otherwise feels a little pointless. His other story, Fish Night, is more obtuse from a plot perspective, but it is visually beautiful and amusing.

Another three strong stories in the series follow military personnel: Marko Kloos's Shape-Shifters is about werewolves openly serving in the US Army in Afghanistan; Lucky 13 (also by Kloos) is a terrific story about the bond between a pilot and her dropship (there's a distinct Aliens colonial marines vibe to this story which is cool); and David Amendola's Secret War is a terrific story about Soviet soldiers who uncover a horrifying secret in the Siberian wilderness. All three stories are a little bit "video game cut scene CGI," but the character work and action in all three stories is remarkable.

Ice Age, based on a Michael Swanwick short story, is the only one of the set to use a live-action framing device. A young couple, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Topher Grace, discover than a entire civilisation exists inside their freezer in a time-accelerated state and became witnesses to the civilisation's rise and fall over time. It's a fun story.

Sucker of Souls by Kirsten Cross is an enjoyable but fairly standard horror story. Helping Hand, by Claudine Griggs, is a much stronger, hard SF story. Feeling a bit like an addendum to the movie Gravity, it features a maintenance worker who gets into trouble in Earth orbit, and is a terrific slice of classic, old-skool short SF.

Overall, the series is successful in that it brings some genuinely innovative and interesting SF ideas, crafted by some of the strongest writers the genre has at its disposal, and gets them on screen with arresting and often breathtaking visuals. Some of the stories don't work - The Witness is particularly pointless - and one might wish for a broader range of authors (do we really need three Scalzi stories?) but for the most part, the first season of Love, Death and Robots (****) is a success. A second season has been commissioned.

Anarch by Dan Abnett

Ibram Gaunt is now the First Lord Executor of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade, the adjunct of Warmaster Macaroth. His unit, the Tanith First and Only, is now among the elite forces defending the forge world of Urdesh from the invading Chaos troops under the command of Anarch Anakwanar Sek. Urdesh has become the crucible for the entire war, with both Macaroth and Sek in-theatre and determined that only one will walk away. But the battle for Urdesh marks another flashpoint, the awakening of a threat that has been growing within Gaunt's own ranks for decades...

I imagine the pitch meeting for Anarch went a bit like this:

"You know the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones?"
"How about that, but..." *leans forwards* " an entire novel?"

Anarch is a book that takes absolutely no prisoners, preferring to slice them into a thousand pieces of screaming blade death instead. The fifteenth Gaunt's Ghosts novel and the concluding book in the "Victory" arc takes a whole host of character arcs, subplots and storylines that have been percolating across the entire series (a long time; the first novel, First and Only, was published twenty years ago) and sets about tying them off with utterly ruthless, remorseless efficiency.

The story unfolds on several fronts. In the first, one of the First's most veteran soldiers, Mkoll, has been taken prisoner by the Archenemy and subjected to interrogation. This storyline follows Mkoll as he endures the trials of captivity and tries to find a method of escape. In another, enemy troops who infiltrated the capital of Urdesh in the previous novel, The Warmaster (to which this is less of a successor and more of a direct continuation) set about attacking Imperial forces whilst a special, elite unit tries to steal back the vital artefacts seized in Salvation's Reach. Different companies of the First have to blunt both attacks, which is where we get a lot of "classic" Ghosts action: last-ditch plans with little chance of success, heroic holding actions, brave last stands, improvised defences etc. This is all stirring stuff, although the body count is higher than some may be expecting.

Where the book goes cheerfully nuts is in the supposedly impregnable Imperial compound itself, when Abnett reveals a hitherto unknown talent for full-on, Event Horizon levels of body and existential horror. Not only is the battle in the undercroft of the palace utterly horrific and surprisingly visceral, but it's also ruthless on a scale we've not seen before in this series. Gaunt's Ghosts has occasionally played into the long-running military series cliche of killing off barely-named recruits and background soldiers whilst major players live to see another, lucrative day, with the occasional major death to keep things fresh. Anarch cheerfully says to hell with that and starts scything down major, long-running characters with at times almost wild abandon.

Killing characters for the sake of it can be rather pointless, but here Abnett gives almost each death meaning and resonance, concluding storylines stretching back as far as the first novel but particularly from the third, Necropolis (to the point where a re-read of Necropolis, or at least reading through a detailed plot summary, may be advisable to refresh the memory). Not only do some old favourites bite the bullet in this book, but some other characters, long missing on side-adventures, reappear and rejoin the team in this novel, which at least helps balance things out. Still, things will never be the same again for the Ghosts after this book, always a relief in a long-running series where the temptation to not shake things up and keep playing it safe must be strong.

Anarch (****½) is one of the finest novels in the entire Gaunt's Ghosts series, being atmospheric, foreboding, horrific and fantastically-written, as well as featuring Abnett's signature excellent action set-pieces and strong characterisation. It brings the entire series to a climax but not a conclusion; the Crusade is not yet victorious and more battles lie ahead. Abnett is busy helping finish off the Horus Heresy mega-series and then his own Bequin trilogy, so it may be a few years before we rejoin the Ghosts, but Anarch leaves the series on a fine - if bittersweet - note. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday 21 June 2019

RIP Peter Allan Fields

Veteran and Hugo Award-winning television scriptwriter Peter Allan Fields has passed away this week. Fields enjoyed a 34-year career in Hollywood, but is best-known for his contributions to the Star Trek franchise.

Having trained as a lawyer, Fields switched to television writing and began his career working on The Man from UNCLE in 1965. He went to work on many shows in the 1960s and 1970s, including The Six Million Dollar Man and Man from Atlantis.

In 1991 he began his association with Star Trek: The Next Generation, penning the Lwaxana Troi-centric episodes Half a Life and Cost of Living. In 1992 he co-wrote the episode The Inner Light with Morgan Gendel, which remains one of the most highly-regarded Star Trek episodes of all time (if not the highest-regarded). He won a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation for his work on the episode.

He also worked on The Next Generation as script consultant for Seasons 5 and 6 but soon accepted an offer to jump ship to work on the spin-off show, Deep Space Nine. His scripts for the series included Duet and In the Pale Moonlight, episodes almost as well-regarded in Trek lore as The Inner Light. After Deep Space Nine ended in 1999, he retired from scriptwriting.

Fields passed away on 19 June. One of the best and most human writers to work on the Star Trek franchise, he will be missed.

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Rosamund Pike cast as Moiraine in WHEEL OF TIME TV series

It's been officially confirmed (after several days of rumours) that Rosamund Pike has been cast in the role of Moiraine Damodred in Amazon's Wheel of Time TV series.

Pike is a veteran British actress who started her career with A Rather English Marriage (1998). She came to Hollywood attention by playing Bond girl Miranda Frost in Die Another Day (2002), Pierce Brosnan's final James Bond movie, and Jane Bennett in Pride & Prejudice (2005). Subsequent movies have included Doom, An Education, Wrath of the Titans, Jack Reacher and The World's End. She currently plays Lady Penelope in the rebooted Thunderbirds Are Go (2015-present).

In 2014 she achieved her biggest breakthrough by playing the role of Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, alongside Ben Affleck. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, as well as Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for the same role.

In The Wheel of Time, Moiraine Damodred is an Aes Sedai of the Blue Ajah. As an Aes Sedai, she can channel the One Power, a source of tremendous sorcerous power. As a member of the Blue Ajah, she specialises in intrigue, politics and causes. Twenty years before the events of the series, Moiraine learned a vital piece of information which has set her on a hunt across the continent known as the Westlands, accompanied by the Malkieri warrior Lan Mandragoran. The events of The Wheel of Time begin when Moiraine learns what she is looking for can be found in the Two Rivers, a remote part of the kingdom of Andor. Moiraine then becomes a guide and mentor for a group of young people she encounters in the course of her mission.

The Wheel of Time TV series is now in pre-production with production based in Prague in the Czech Republic (which is also expected to at least partly stand in for the city of Caemlyn). The team have recently been working on both casting and location scouting (most recently in Denmark, possibly for the Two Rivers). Filming is set to being in September for transmission in late 2020 or early 2021.

Sunday 16 June 2019

The Warmaster by Dan Abnett

The Tanith First have completed a near-impossible strike mission to the remote enemy outpost of Salvation's Reach. As well as stealing a vast amount of intelligence material from the enemy, their attack has triggered an internal conflict within the Chaos armies between Sek and Gaur, allowing the Crusade to reach new levels of success. But a warp mistranslation on the way home throws the First into a dire new battle, as Gaunt and his team have to face a desperate Sek in battle on the forge world of Urdesh, and face a renewed threat from within the Crusade's own leadership.

The Warmaster is the fourteenth novel in the Gaunt's Ghosts series and the penultimate volume in the "Victory" arc. It was also released after an unprecedented five-year publishing gap in the series, the result of internal realignments within the Black Library and Games Workshop.

As a result, the book takes a little while to rev up to speed, with a somewhat disjointed narrative that attempts a lot of ideas - the Ghosts being shipwrecked in deep space, visited by Chaos horrors and suddenly in the thick of urban warfare and political intrigue on Urdesh - before the story comes together.

When it does, the results are impressive. We are fourteen books into this series now and we've never even met the guy in charge of the entire operation, and in fact (as Abnett's Sabbat Worlds Crusade companion book makes clear) the Ghosts have been operating on the fringes of the main war effort. Their actions have occasionally been decisive and even affected the main course of the war here and there, but only to a small degree. That revelation gives a real sense of scale to the war - in which tens of thousands of Imperial starships are carrying hundreds of millions of Imperial Guard troops, millions of support vehicles, thousands of Space Marines and hundreds, if not thousands, of skyscraper-sized Titans into battle across dozens of star systems simultaneously - which is remarkable. The Warmaster does a good job of pivoting the action, so suddenly the Ghosts and Gaunt are right in the middle of the key decisions being made for the entire war effort.

Abnett's key gifts are characterisation - finding ways of differentiating the two dozen or so characters of import within the Ghosts, plus various recurring side-characters - and action. He makes you care about the characters and their stakes. Like Bernard Cornwell before him (as tired as the "Sharpe/Uhtred in Space" comparisons are, they remain somewhat apt), he paints these soldiers as individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses and quirks, and makes you care about what happens to them (even the cowards and malcontents). That continues through The Warmaster, with an astonishing array of subplots being furthered in a remarkably constrained page count.

The Warmaster (****) does a good job of bringing together plot threads from the previous books in the series and making it feel like the war has reached a decisive turning point. The temptation to carry on this series forever must be strong, but in this book it does feel like the end of the Crusade is starting to lurch into view. On the minus side, aside from the slightly choppy opening, the ending to the book does feel a bit perfunctory for a Gaunt's Ghosts novel, although the reasons for this become clearer in the following book (Anarch), which is less of a successor and more of a direct continuation of this novel. No five-year wait this time for the next part of the story, fortunately. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday 15 June 2019

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Several centuries ago, Earth was verging on becoming completely uninhabitable. The survivors fled the planet in a fleet of thirty enormous space arks, the Exodus Fleet, whilst others sought survival in primitive colony domes on Luna, Mars and Titan. Years later, humanity was contacted by the alien alliance known as the Galactic Commons and welcomed as a member, but rather than abandon the Exodus Fleet for a planet, most of its complement remained behind. The remarkable spaceborn civilisation continues to survive in deep space...until a terrible accident makes it clear how tenuous their existence is.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third book in Becky Chambers' Wayfarers series, following on from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. It only shares a setting in common with those earlier books and a very tenuous character connection (far moreso than the previous novel), so can be read completely independently of those books.

What it does share is Chambers' enjoyable, laidback writing style, her attention to detail and gift for crafting interesting characters with some depth. Unfortunately, it also shares her tendency to focus on extremely "nice" characters and neglect any kind of over-arcing narrative. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - SF novels which eschew explosions and people running around lots in favour of worldbuilding and atmosphere are all too few - but it does feel like this time we've been invited back to visit the Galactic Commons, only for there not being very much going on when we arrive.

A Closed and Common Orbit worked because of the very tight character focus on just two protagonists and how it explored two timelines in tandem. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet worked because of its exploration of the whole crew of a small ship and how they come together to overcome a series of challenges. Record of a Spaceborn Few doesn't really have the same kind of engine driving it. Instead, it feels like a series of interlocking short stories as we flip between six characters in different parts of the Exodus Fleet. There's a human who's arrived on the Fleet from one of the colony worlds and tries to fit in; a corpse disposal specialist who has a huge amount of respect for the importance of the job in the community; an ageing archivist; an alien visitor keen to learn more about the Fleet; a teenage boy trying to escape the society; and a mother and worker trying to make the best of life in the fleet for her family.

Individually these are interesting stories, which are brought together by a surprising event towards the end of the novel, but beyond that there isn't much connecting them together. The whole point of a Wayfarers novel at this point is reading a slow-paced, well-characterised book lacking the blood and lasers of more familiar space opera, but this one feels so laidback it is bordering on falling asleep, and the book never really comes alive because of it.

Record of a Spaceborn Few (***) is readable and has some interesting characters, but it lacks much of a kind of narrative drive. As an exercise in worldbuilding and establishing more information about the Galactic Commons, it's very good (helped by an appendix), but as a novel it lacks cohesion and tension. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Friday 14 June 2019

Unknown Pleasures at 40

Joy Division's debut album, Unknown Pleasures, turns 40 tomorrow. One of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time, the record has withstood the test of time like few others.

The band began life in 1976 when former school friends Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook attended a Sex Pistols gig in Manchester. The band only played for half an hour, but Sumner and Hook left and promptly bought instruments (Sumner an electric guitar and Hooky a cheap bass) and taught themselves to play. Within weeks they were putting together their first, halting compositions. They advertised for a singer and drummer and recruited charismatic, enigmatic frontman Ian Curtis and the relentless, machine-like Stephen Morris, completing their lineup. They started performing under the moniker Stiff Kittens, but soon came to dislike the name, so switched their name to Warsaw, under which they made their live debut in May 1977.

The band had befriended local superstars the Buzzcocks early on, which proved a boon when the Buzzcocks invited them to support them in local gigs and on tour. It wasn't long before music journalists started paying attention to Warsaw and gave them favourable write-ups in the press. This attracted the attention of London-based group Warsaw Pakt, who angrily demanded that they change their name. Exasperated, the band started looking for a new name and seized gratefully on a suggestion of Ian's: Joy Division. Ian, a history buff, had fished it out of a book on the Third Reich, with the name coming from the nickname from a group of Jewish women sold into prostitution for the edification of Nazi officers; needless to say, this connection soon became controversial, with the band being accused of fascism and attracting a neo-Nazi element (the latter was true, resulting in several violent clashes at gigs).

The band recorded their debut EP in late 1977, An Ideal for Living, which attracted rave reviews but also brought renewed criticism as the cover art depicted a member of the Hitler Youth. Stephen Morris, who vehemently hated the coverage, said that the band had a contrarian streak where they got annoyed with the Nazi criticism, so kept doing it to annoy people even more (later on the band recanted, although not before naming their next incarnation "New Order").

Throughout 1978 the band write and toured incessantly, building up a collection of songs for their live performances and constantly adjusting them based on audience feedback. This year was crucial for their development, as it saw them take on an experienced manager (Rob Gretton) and sign to the nascent Factory Records, TV presenter Anthony Wilson's publishing company. Wilson also featured Joy Division on his TV programmes. Music press coverage grew and became outright laudatory, with John Peel pushing the band hard on his BBC radio programmes.

The result was a frenzy of anticipation for the band's debut album. Recording it proved slightly stressful: Wilson assigned maverick, visionary producer Martin Hannett to produce the album. He'd already worked with the band on some songs for A Factory Sample (a collection of songs from Factory's line-up), but for the album he went Full Hannett on them. According to legend, he once had Stephen Morris take apart his drum kit and reassemble it with parts from a toilet; during another recording session he told him to take the drums up to the roof and record them in the open air. Hannett had a massive array of digital delay devices, drum machines and synthesisers which he insisted on using, which the band initially felt was slightly weird. Bernard Sumner was particularly impressed with the technical wizardry Hannett was displaying and became intrigued by the use of synthesisers (Sumner built his own synthesiser from scratch a few months later).

Hannett's peculiarities aside, the band were also pushed for time, as Factory had only paid enough money for the studio for three weekend sessions. As a result the entire album had to be recorded in just six days. To make matters worse, the band's time estimate for their songs proved overly generous, forcing Hooky and Morris to lock themselves in a room and bash out "Candidate" and "From Safety to Where" in short order ("Candidate" ended up being longer than planned, so "From Safety to Where" was booted from the album).

Eventually, after a great deal of stress, the record was completed. The band initially were bewildered by it. Live, they played the songs loud and aggressively, but Hannett had stripped the songs down and added a strange sparseness, as well as overdubbing parts with keyboards (on a couple of occasions, without telling the band first). Curtis was unsure about how his voice sounded, declaring that he sounded like Bowie, whom he hated (Curtis had actually been a Bowie fan, but Bowie wasn't particularly trendy at that moment in time). The band were somewhat unhappy with the record, but Wilson and the rest of the Factory team loved it. Designer Peter Saville created a cover which is arguably more iconic than the record: a visual depiction of the x-ray pulses from pulsar CP1919 (spotted by Sumner in a book on radio astronomy). When the album was released on 15 June 1979, it was an immediate critical success, acclaim which only continued to grow over the following months.

The band didn't release any singles from the record, at all, which severely damaged its commercial chances. Instead, they let the entire album stand by itself. This bolstered their critical integrity, but did mean for lean sales; the album sold roughly 15,000 copies in its first few months on sale and didn't trouble the UK Album Chart. However, the release of non-album single "Transmission" in September saw the album start selling in greater quantities. Word of mouth about the band, who were continuing to tour full-tilt in the meantime and begin working on songs for a follow-up, spread like wildfire. They recorded their second album Closer in London in March 1980, along with the single-only releases "Atmosphere" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart," which was already starting to tear up their gigs and remains their best-known and best-loved song.

The band seemed poised for greatness, but Ian Curtis's life was falling apart at the same time. His marriage was collapsing at the same time he was trying to start a new relationship and he had been diagnosed with epilepsy. The frequency and intensity of his epileptic fits had worsened to the point where it made his future in the band doubtful. On 18 May 1980 he committed suicide at his home in Macclesfield. His shocked bandmates eventually rallied as New Order and began a new career that was every bit as remarkable as their incarnation as Joy Division. Unknown Pleasures finally got its first single in late 1980 when "She's Lost Control" was paired with "Atmosphere" as a double A-side release. The album also finally cracked the UK Album Chart when publicity in the wake of Curtis's suicide pushed the band into higher levels of public awareness.

At 40, Unknown Pleasures still sounds alien, odd and slightly ethereal, a result of Hannett's far-ahead-of-its-time production making the record sound much more recent. Its sparseness, initially derided by the band (until Hooky, grudgingly, admitted twenty years later that it was genius), gives the record a feeling of alienation at odds with its punk contemporaries, and makes it more timeless. But the production can only do so much. It's the four songwriters who take centre stage, with Hooky's pounding, melodic bass lines not only supporting punchy lead guitar riffs from Sumner but taking the lead on several songs (such as "Disorder," where the bass is often mistaken for the guitar, and the high-fret playing of "She's Lost Control"). Ian Curtis's deep, slightly off-kilter vocals go through a battery of strange treatments, a lot of them Curtis's own ideas; on stage he'd plug his microphone into a synthesiser to create odd effects for his vocals, like the multiple layering on "She's Lost Control." Morris's rhythmic, pounding drums, executed with beyond-robot efficiency, make it impossible to tell when he's playing and when a drum machine kicks in. It's a remarkable achievement, bearing in mind three years later these guys didn't know how to play any instrument, and a year earlier they were still blasting out fast-moving 2-minute punk songs.

To this day the argument will rage whether Unknown Pleasures or Closer is the stronger album, but it is clear that the two-punch release of the two records barely a year apart represents a musical achievement to rival any other, and Joy Division will endure for many decades to come.

At the moment the Joy Division YouTube page is releasing brand new music videos for each of the ten tracks on the record. The rest should be released over the coming days.