Saturday 31 October 2020

Black Sails: Season 4

The war for Nassau and the Bahamas takes a surprising turn when a devastating trap leaves the pirate coalition in tatters and the pirate leaders scattered. Governor Woodes Rogers celebrates his triumph but knows he cannot rest easy whilst his defences remain shattered and Flint, John Silver and Blackbeard are still at large. The two factions continue to jockey for position, seeking out unlikely allies and determined to win the struggle, no matter the cost.

The secret to the success of Black Sails has been in its joyous mixture of bawdy action with intriguing politics, against a semi-historical backdrop and related through superbly-played, relatably human characters. For three seasons, the writers kept up a constantly-shifting patchwork of alliances of convenience and the balancing of short-term pragmatism against long-term ambitions, and did so with finesse and skill.

In its fourth and final season, Black Sails does nearly stumble in its last dance. We've seen so many betrayals, treacherous sneak attacks and unexpected reversals that seeing a bunch more risks becoming predictable. The real enemy is trying to undercut the pirates by making Silver and Flint turn on one another? Is it Tuesday again? Long-term strategic success is endangered by small-time villains who can't see beyond the end of the week? We've been here before, several times, and the returns are starting to diminish.

At least, this is the problem that blights the first half of the season. The second half, with the writers fully aware the end is in sight, sees them ratcheting up the tension superbly. Breaks in trust are now irrevocable, reversals can see major characters dead rather than imprisoned or wounded, and the stakes have been raised so high by both sides (with Rogers even willing to commit treason to get what he wants) that there is no possibility of quarter or forgiveness. The show even remembers its original pitch as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island, as events in the back half of the season begin to converge on the opening of the book.

As usual, the cast does absolutely exceptional work. Toby Stephens has been superb throughout but reaches new levels in the buildup to the finale, whilst Luke Arnold and Tom Hopper, who started off very much in his shadow, are now his equals. Bear McCreary's soundtrack is superb, the CG teams continue to orchestrate stunning Master and Commander-beating naval battles on a far tinier budget and overall the production remains impressive.

Apart from a couple of repetitive storylines its opening episodes, the final season of Black Sails (****½) maintains the quality of the previous seasons through to the end. It has been common to compare Black Sails to Game of Thrones due to their mutual marriage of impressive action to compelling characters and intriguingly murky politics, but ultimately Black Sails overhauls its fantasy forebear by doing what it could not: sticking the landing and delivering a finale worthy of any number of mixed metaphors. The show is available to watch via Amazon Prime in the UK and in the USA via Starz.

RIP Sean Connery

Sir Sean Connery has passed away at the age of 90.

Scotland's most famous actor, Connery was born in Edinburgh in 1930. As a young man he worked as a milkman, a lifeguard and a coffin polisher. He served in the Royal Navy and, after being discharged due to medical complaint, started working as a model and a bodybuilder. A keen footballer, he was offered a contract with Manchester United but declined because, at 23, he felt he was too old to make a long-term career in the game viable.

Connery decided to become an actor after helping work backstage at a theatre. Early success came in the 1953-54 UK run of the musical South Pacific and getting work as an extra in the 1954 movie Lilacs in the Spring. During this period he met and became close friends with Michael Caine and Robert Henderson, the latter of whom encouraged him to take a more scholarly and academic interest in acting to complement his raw but untrained talent. He secured additional theatre and film acting roles, and with his easy charm and charisma built up a network of contacts among actors, agents and TV presenters.

His big breakthrough was a lead role in the BBC TV production of Requiem for a Heavyweight in 1957 and in the film Another Time, Another Place (1958). Infamously, during production of the latter, he was accused of having an affair with the lead actress, Lana Turner, by her criminal boyfriend and was threatened by him with a gun. Connery disarmed and knocked him out, cementing his reputation (already gained by dealings with Scottish criminals at home) as a genuine "tough guy." Additional success came in film (particularly the Disney picture Darby O'Gill and the Little People) and on TV, particularly a BBC production of Anna Karenina in 1961.

Connery auditioned for the role of James Bond in late 1961 and encountered resistance from the character's creator, both Ian Fleming and producer Albert Broccoli, both of whom considered the tall, muscular Connery too striking and too "unrefined" to play the role of Commander Bond. It was actually their partners, Blanche Blackwell and Dana Broccoli, who talked them into accepting Connery in the role. Fleming later admitted he had doubts about Connery's suitability up until he saw the final result, Dr. No, at its premiere. He admitted that Connery had made the part his own and this even influenced the last few novels, where Fleming adopted Connery's Scottish heritage and other characteristics into the book character.

Connery played Bond in the first five films in the series, achieving tremendous financial success and critical acclaim, and becoming one of the most famous actors on the planet. However, he grew tired with the role and quit after You Only Live Twice (1967). When his successor, George Lazenby, quit the series after just one film, Connery was tempted back with an astonishingly huge paycheque for the time (£1.25 million) for Diamonds are Forever (1971). He subsequently refused to return, being replaced full-time by Roger Moore. Connery and Moore struck up a strong friendship which lasted until Moore's death in 2017. In 1983 Connery returned to the role of Bond in Never Say Never Again, made by a different studio through a copyright loophole. Connery was tempted back because the film depicted an aged Bond with more weaknesses and frailties, which he thought was more interesting to explore.

Many of Connery's later roles were of genre interest. He appeared in the bizarre John Boorman SF movie Zardoz (1974) (wearing what one critic described as "a red nappy"). He played Robin Hood opposite Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian (1976) and was part of an all-star ensemble in the epic World War II movie A Bridge Too Far (1977). He helped defend Earth from an asteroid impact in Meteor (1979) and investigated crimes on Jupiter's moon, Io, in Outland (1981). He appeared in a surprisingly small role in the 1981 comedy Time Bandits, waiving his usual high fee because he was amused by a line in the script by Michael Palin ("for this role we need Sean Connery - or someone of equal but cheaper stature"). He went on to appear in The Name of the Rose (1986), Highlander (1986), The Untouchables (1987), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, playing Harrison Ford's father despite only being eleven years older than him), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), First Knight (1995), The Rock (1996), The Avengers (1998) and Finding Forrester (2000). His last major film role was in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), a process he hated because he felt that the director had lost control of the film. Connery himself spent time in the edit to try to salvage the picture but ultimately deemed it a failure, and a key reason in his decision to retire from acting.

Connery was offered roles in The Matrix (1999) and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001-03), the latter as Gandalf. He turned both down, noted he didn't understand the scripts (and, in the latter's case, the finished films). He later said he disliked the direction Hollywood was going in, particularly its focus on effects rather than scripts and actors, and noted there were few creatives in Hollywood he respected any more (noting George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Sean Penn as exceptions). He formally announced his retirement from acting in 2006, turning down an opportunity to appear in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).

Connery was knighted in 2000. Despite being a proud son of Scotland and a fervent supporter of the Scottish National Party and their cause of Scottish independence, Connery divided most of his time between residences in Marbella, Spain and the Bahamas. This led to accusations that Connery was a tax exile, a repeated accusation which always annoyed Connery who several times disclosed tax records showing multi-million payments to the UK treasury. Connery was also accused in 2006 by his ex-wife of being physically abusive and saying that striking a woman was "no big deal." Connery vociferously denied the accusation and reiterated his opposition to violence against women.

Sir Sean Connery was a charismatic leading man who walked the walk as well as talking the talk, with a formidable body of work. He remains the finest actor who have played the role of James Bond, and his catalogue of roles is quite notable. Even mediocre SF scripts like Meteor and Outland were livened up by his charisma and authority. An actor of the old school, whose like we may never see again, Sir Sean will be missed.

Truth Seekers: Season 1

Gus Roberts is the star engineer at SMYLE, a new 6G broadband company operating on the south coast of England. In his spare time Roberts is also "the Truth Seeker," investigating paranormal activity on a low-key YouTube channel. When he gets a new engineer assistant, who goes by the improbable moniker of Elton John, and meets a strange woman hiding behind his house, his success rate in investigating the paranormal abruptly increases.

The combination of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost is a proven, winning one. Their 1999-2001 TV series Spaced (made in concert with Jessica Hynes) is one of the great British sitcoms, whilst their films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz arguably remain the two greatest British comedy films of the 21st Century (to date), with The World's End being a distant but still decent follow-up. However, all of these projects were also undertaken with the collaboration of director Edgar Wright. Pegg and Frost's work without Wright (particularly their 2011 movie, Paul) has been very patchy, whilst Wright's solo work (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Baby Driver) has been far more accomplished.

A non-Wright collaboration between Pegg and Frost should therefore be regarded with suspicion, but Truth Seekers makes this more of a virtue. This new Amazon series makes a strength of the absence of Wright's trademark superlative editing and frenetic fast-cuts, instead opting for a slower, more deliberate and, well, more British pace. Truth Seekers is a restrained show which mixes low-key comedy with unexpected moments of real drama, pathos and horror to an ultimately winning effect.

It takes a little while to warm up. The first and easily weakest episode is stiff, not particularly funny and at times strained. The episode sets up a long list of clichés, including protagonist Frost being sad about his dead wife, living with his doddering father (Malcolm McDowell, initially phoning it in but quickly perking up and bringing his A-game) and joining forces with a new, clumsy partner (Samson Kayo) and his geeky sister (Susie Wokoma). They are given jobs by SMYLE's boss, Dave (a restrained Pegg) which somehow manage to combine fixing genuine broadband connectivity problems with paranormal activity, mostly revolving around ghosts, souls unable to move on to other planes or becoming trapped on the mortal plane. An early investigation sees the team joined by Astrid (Emma D'Arcy), a strange pixie-like girl with a mysterious past who appears to have spontaneously accumulated from every single female Joss Whedon character ever.

The piled-up clichés rapidly start dissolving though. Each character has a carefully thought-out backstory and it's the combination of these backstories that makes the plot more interesting. The show also finds convincing ways of explaining why, after twenty years of frustration, Gus is suddenly inundated with real paranormal cases. The characters evolve in surprising and original ways, and the stakes of the entire series ramp up, with the apparently disconnected mysteries-of-the-week gradually building into tiles of a much bigger mosaic. Excellent supporting actors also show up, with Trainspotting's Kelly McDonald appearing as a possible new ally and The Mighty Boosh's Julian Barratt as a recurring foe.

Events culminate in a large-scale showdown which mixes in some existential body horror and real tragedy to the mix, as well as the inevitable cliffhanger for a second season.

Truth Seekers' first season (****) succeeds by virtue of not being another Frost/Pegg gag-a-minute geekpocalypse (helped by Pegg not being in it that much), instead being thoughtful and at times genuinely eerie thanks to some taut direction from Jim Field Smith. When it's funny, it can be very funny, but it knows when to play things for laughs and when to look for other emotional responses. Apart from that weak first episode, this is an accomplished series with an interesting tone, and it'll be good if it comes back for more. The first season is available now worldwide on Amazon Prime Video.

Friday 30 October 2020

Hasbro developing DUNGEONS & DRAGONS TV series

In addition to the long-gestating live-action film, Hasbro have announced they are developing a Dungeons & Dragons TV series.

Dungeons & Dragons is the longest-running and most popular roleplaying game in history, having sold more than 20 million rulebooks and well over 100 million novels and 10 million video games since 1974. It is estimated that more than 50 million people have played the game. The current fifth edition of the game, released by Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast in 2014, is the most popular in the game's history. Hasbro has confirmed that 2019 was the biggest-selling year in the franchise's history (including its early days) and for 2020 the game is currently on track to break that record by over 20%. Hasbro attribute this to the popularity of the game in lockdown and that families are now playing the game together, as well as the more traditional friend groups. Online campaigns over Zoom, Facebook Video Messenger, Skype, Roll20 and other services have also grown significantly this year.

Hasbro are developing the film project with Paramount, with Jonathan Goldstein and John Daley (Game Night, Horrible Bosses, Spider-Man: Homecoming) set to write and direct and Jeremy Latcham (the Marvel Cinematic Universe) set to produce. However, Hasbro have been keen to expand the franchise into a shared universe similar to the MCU. Whilst everyone and their aunt has been trying to do the same thing with other properties, Dungeons & Dragons is uniquely placed to be commercially exploited in such a fashion, as the tabletop game, video games and the novels already span a large number of worlds, storylines and distinct casts of characters, with some scope for crossover but mostly consisting of stand-alone narratives. For example, the well-known Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Greyhawk and Ravenloft worlds are distinct, separate settings within the same universe (linked by the wider Spelljammer and Planescape settings, which depict space travel and interplanar travel respectively).

According to Hasbro, they have been in discussion with both streaming services and standard cable and TV networks over a D&D-branded TV series. It sounds like the project is in its earliest stages and will require a strong partner to commit before moving forwards. I can imagine Netflix, Amazon, HBO and maybe a few other companies being at least somewhat interested in the project, but we'll have to wait to see who bites.

Hasbro are having a tough time in other areas at the moment, facing a $10 million lawsuit from superstar authors Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman for allegedly breaching a contract by refusing to publish a new Dragonlance novel trilogy for reportedly spurious reasons. The outcome of that suit remains to be seen.

Thursday 29 October 2020

Y: THE LAST MAN TV series starts production

FX has announced that shooting is finally underway on its TV adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra's acclaimed comic book, Y: The Last Man.

The original comic ran for 60 issues from 2002 and 2008 and is set in a world where an unknown viral disease has wiped out every male mammal on the planet, save two: an average American guy named Yorick and his pet monkey, Ampersand. The series follows Yorick trying to survive in a world where all the survivors want a piece of him, from a religious cult who believe his survival is an insult to God's will to scientists eager to use him to help avert the extinction of the human race.

The project has spent a long time in development. The comic book was optioned in 2015. A pilot was ordered and cast in 2018, and based on the internal testing of the project a full season was commissioned in February 2019. However, the road production became rocky, with multiple castmembers dropping out and replacements having to be hired. Production was finally scheduled to start in February, only to be delayed due to the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic. This has also resulted in additional recasting.

Cameras are now rolling and FX has confirmed the cast list:

  • Ben Schnetzer as Yorick Brown
  • Ashley Romans as Agent 355
  • Olivia Thirlby as Hero Brown
  • Diane Lane as Congresswoman Jennifer Brown
  • Diana Bang as Dr. Allison Mann
  • Juliana Canfield as Beth Deville
  • Elliot Fletcher as Sam Jordan
  • Amber Tamblyn as Kimberly Cunningham
  • Marin Ireland as Nora Brady
Y: The Last Man should premiere on FX in 2021.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

New Susanna Clarke novel to be published in 2022

Susanna Clarke, the much-feted author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004), recently released her first novel in sixteen years, the well-received Piranesi. This was the first book in a two-book acquisition by Bloomsbury, leading to some speculation that that second book might be the much-rumoured Jonathan Strange sequel. However, that speculation was quashed by an interview where she indicated that a long period of illness had left her unable to work on such a large project.

The second book is instead called The Cistern and is tentatively scheduled for 13 October 2022. So far there is no plot summary or synopsis yet available.

Tuesday 27 October 2020

CYBERPUNK 2077 delayed by three weeks

In slightly surprising news (or utterly unsurprising news, depending on how cynical you are), CD Projekt Red have confirmed they are delaying the release of Cyberpunk 2077 yet again. This is their most modest delay yet, being by just 21 days to 10 December.

Cyberpunk 2077's delays are becoming meme-like at this point. The game was originally announced on 19 October 2012 - yup, eight years ago - before getting its first teaser trailer on 10 January 2013. After going completely radio silent on the game for five years, CDPR started revving up the hype engine again by releasing a much bigger trailer on 10 June 2018.

CDPR finally announced a release date with a trailer that they released on 9 June 2019, which confirmed both the participation of Keanu Reeves and the release date of 16 April 2020. However, this was delayed, first until 17 September and then 19 November.

The news seems to have taken the CDPR Twitter team by surprise: as recently as yesterday they were telling people it was fine to take 19 November off of work because the game would definitely, 100% come out on that date. Unsurprisingly, a lot of fans (especially those who have arranged holidays around the date) are unhappy with the news.

CDPR has cited multiple reasons for the delay, including a switch to work-from-home for staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have also been testing nine versions of the game simultaneously: one each for the PC, Stadia, X-Box One and X-Box One X, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro, X-Box S, X-Box X and PlayStation 5 platforms. The cross-generational release of Cyberpunk 2077 (not a problem facing their last, mid-generation release of The Witcher 3 in 2015) and ensuring a bug-free launch seems to be their key concern here.

The news will be disappointing to many, although the delay is somewhat modest and the game will still arrive this side of Christmas (assuming no further delays).

Netflix developing ASSASSIN'S CREED TV series

Netflix has teamed with Ubisoft to develop a live-action TV series based on the Assassin's Creed video game series. This will not be connected to the 2016 film based on the games, starring Michael Fassbender.

The Assassin's Creed series began in 2007 with the release of eponymous first game in the series. The twelfth main game in the series, Assassin's Creed Valhalla, is released next month.

The premise of the series is that humanity is actually a genetically-engineered creation of an ancient, superior race that used to exist on Earth but was wiped out by a solar flare tens of thousands of years ago, leaving no trace of their existence. This superior race left behind technology, known as the Pieces of Eden, to help preserve Earth through future apocalyptic events, with various factions throughout time trying to gain control of this technology for purposes selfish and selfless. The two main factions are the Assassins, who represent freedom, and the Knights Templar, who represent order; the two factions have both precursor and successor organisations existing at different points in time. In the present day, the Templar-descended mega-corporation Abstergo Industries has created a device, the Animus, that allows the wearer to experience the memories of their ancestors from different points in time and garner clues to the current whereabouts of the Pieces of Eden. This forms a framing device, with each game having its own, mostly self-contained storyline and characters, but the metastory of the modern-day Templar/Assassins battle continues to unfold in the background.

The Assassin's Creed series is one of gaming's most commercially successful franchises, having sold over 155 million copies in total.

The premise of the TV series is unclear. However, the video game setting would allow them to make an effective anthology series, with each season set in a new time and location with framing elements linking them together. This would give the creative team a formidable amount of creative freedom to develop the project.

Netflix are also working on a live-action TV show based on the Resident Evil franchise.

Friday 23 October 2020

Universal developing a BATTLESTAR GALACTICA movie unrelated to the new TV series

In a slightly confusing move, Universal is pressing ahead with a Battlestar Galactica movie project at the exact same time it is developing a new television series, via NBC's Peacock service.

Simon Kinberg - the writer of X-Men: Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix and X-Men: The Last Stand who inexplicably keeps getting work - has been hired to co-produce and write the film. Dylan Clark, who has helped mastermind the highly successful Planet of the Apes reboot series and is currently producing The Batman, will work with Kinberg on the project.

The new BSG film will be a ground-up reboot of the classic premise, which sees the humans of the Twelve Colonies suffer a brutal attack by the robotic Cylons and forced to flee into space in search of the mythical "Thirteenth Colony" of Earth.

The Peacock project is being produced by Sam Esmail and Michael Lesslie. Esmail originally planned a show that intersects with the TV version of the franchise produced by Ronald D. Moore in 2003-09, but since taking a back seat on the project, it sounds like Lesslie is also pursuing a reboot of the premise.

The idea of two versions of the same story being in production at the same time feels weird, but not completely unprecedented. There are no less than three adaptations of Resident Evil in pre-production, all set in different universes: a live-action, post-apocalyptic Netflix show; a live-action new film based on the first two video games; and an animated film taking place in the video game timeline. Paramount are also planning to relaunch their Star Trek film series with movies set in a different timeline to the TV shows currently underway at CBS All Access.

The BSG movie project is not guaranteed to move forwards. Universal have been developing a new film version of the franchise since the Moore TV show wrapped in 2009. Bryan Singer worked on the project for a couple of years (having previously been attached to a TV version pre-Moore), whilst writers Jack Paglen and Lisa Joy also took tilts at the script. France Lawrence was also attached to direct at one point, but has since dropped out. The problem is likely tied to the budget, with the premise requiring a hefty cost but the profile of the franchise (even the much-praised, multi-award-winning Ron Moore version still only has a cult following) meaning it's difficult to justify a large expense.

More news as it develops.

Wednesday 21 October 2020

Disney+ greenlights WILLOW TV series

Disney+ and Lucasfilm have commissioned a season of television adventures for Willow Ufgood, the hero of the 1988 fantasy film Willow, produced by George Lucas and directed by Ron Howard.

The new series picks up thirty-odd years after the film, with Willow and his family having to face new challenges. Warwick Davis reprises his role as Willow from the film.

The 1988 movie saw Willow team up with a redoubtable swordsman, Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), the treacherous daughter of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh), to save a young child, Elora Danan, the prophecised future Empress of Tir Asleen. It's unclear if any other actors from the film will return, although revisiting Elora Danan as an adult seems a no-brainer for the plot. The film was a moderate box office success, but not enough to warrant a sequel at the time.

A trilogy of novels, the Chronicles of the Shadow War series, was published in the 1990s as a sequel of sorts to the film, written by X-Men writer Chris Claremont based on George Lucas's outline. The novel trilogy was controversial, as it killed off most of the film cast, renamed Willow and had very little to do with the film. It's assumed that the novels will be completely ignored by this new TV series.

The Willow TV series marks the first non-Star Wars project undertaken by Lucasfilm since its buy-out by Disney in 2013. The series will be co-written by Jonathan Kasdan (Solo) and Wendy Mericle (Arrow), who will also act as showrunners. Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) will direct the first episode and produce. Ron Howard will produce.

It's expected that the show will shoot in Wales in 2021 for a 2022 debut.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Shooting starts on the SANDMAN TV series

Neil Gaiman has reported that shooting has begun on Netflix's adaptation of his graphic novel series, Sandman.

Shooting began on Thursday 13 October, with the first scene being shot being a sequence set in 1918 where Dr. John Hathaway procures a book from the museum where he works and gives it to Roderick Burgess, the antagonist of the early part of the story.

Gaiman notes that with shooting underway, they should probably get around to announcing the cast (presumably because the longer shooting continues, the more likely it is that casting and set pictures will leak) and hopes to be able to do that shortly.

Sandman is expected to debut on Netflix in late 2021 or early 2022.

Monday 19 October 2020

Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman sue DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS publishers for $10 million for breach of contract

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the famed authors of the Dragonlance Chronicles and many other series in that world, have sued Dungeons and Dragons publishers Wizards of the Coast for breach of contract after a new Dragonlance novel trilogy was abruptly cancelled after the first book had been completed.

The news that Wizards were planning a new Dragonlance trilogy is in itself a surprise, given that there has been an extreme dearth of D&D fiction over the last four years, with only three Forgotten Realms books by R.A. Salvatore being published in that time. There have been unsubstantiated rumours that Wizards are planning a relaunch of Dragonlance as a D&D campaign setting in 2021 or 2022, so relaunching the novel series at the same time would have been a good move, and an encouraging sign that Wizards might be reconsidering entering the novel space in a more substantial manner after they effectively cancelled their ongoing lines in 2016.

Weis and Hickman had completed the first novel in the trilogy, Dragons of Deceit, and were working on the second, Dragons of Fate, when Wizards of the Coast abruptly informed them that the trilogy would not be published and they were terminating the contract immediately. It sounds like there had been rumblings of problems before that, particularly when Nic Kelman had been assigned to edit the trilogy (replacing editors Weis and Hickman have previously agreed to work with). Kelman, the Head of Story and Entertainment at Wizards, has long been a controversial figure after publishing a book which was alleged to have "promoted misogyny and paedophilia".

From the complaint it sounds like Wizards of the Coast became concerned over "problematic" aspects of older D&D worldbuilding (such as always-evil races) and asked the authors to address these in rewrites, which they say they fully complied with. Wizards then terminated the book deal anyway. This is particularly bizarre given that Dragonlance, even in the 1980s and 1990s, had a progressive tone to its work, rehabilitating evil races from other settings into more honourable and nuanced civilisations (such as ogres) and featuring "good" members of traditionally evil races (such as goblins and draconians).

Weis and Hickman are two of the biggest-selling living fantasy authors and the second-most-popular authors of D&D fiction (only marginally behind Salvatore). A new trilogy from them, especially accompanying a Dragonlance relaunch, would have likely sold hundreds of thousands of copies and brought substantial revenues to both authors. For this reason, they are suing Wizards of the Coast for $10 million in lost income and damages.

Weis and Hickman were part of the editorial team at then-TSR which created the Dragonlance world of Krynn as a setting for Dungeons and Dragons adventures in 1983. They then co-wrote the Dragonlance Chronicles and Dragonlance Legends novel series between 1984 and 1986, the first six books which launched the setting to acclaim and which sold more than four million copies before the end of the decade. They returned to the setting several times in the 1990s and 2000s to pen more novels. Cumulatively, they have sold over 25 million books in total.

The setting has previously seen some controversy. In 2008 urban fantasy author Jim Butcher was approached by WotC to spearhead a full reboot of the entire Dragonlance saga, including rewriting the original trilogy as a five-book series. Butcher would only proceed with Weis and Hickman's blessing and, when that was not forthcoming, the project was abandoned.

Saturday 17 October 2020

Out of Time, or Why is the "100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time" list so incoherent?

A publication has unveiled a list called “The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time.” Predictably, it has been published to howls of complaints about the makeup of the list and what works are missing. Normally you could dismiss such a thing as hyperbole (what’s wrong with “100 Pretty Good Fantasy Books?”) and the leanings of a single writer or blog, but in this case it is Time Magazine – still an influential publication, especially in the United States – and the list was assembled by a panel of famous and well-known writers, at least several of whom are noted for their deep knowledge of the genre, so the spotty and confusing nature of the list feels particularly notable.

The panel was made up of Tomi Adeyemi, Cassandra Clare, Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman, Marlon James, N.K. Jemisin, George R.R. Martin and Sabaa Tahir. Slightly oddly, every member of the panel had at least one book on the panel and several had more than one. Fourteen books – 14% of the “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time” – were written by people on the panel that nominated it, which is an extraordinary figure. Reportedly panel members did not nominate their own books, but instead seem to have nominated one another instead.

According to Time, the original nomination shortlist had 250 books on it and this was whittled down by Time’s editors based on key factors: originality, ambition, artistry, critical and popular reception, and “influence on the fantasy genre and literature more broadly.” Which is fine, but it does seem to remove the point of the panel in the first place, if Time’s editors chose to then edit the list by criteria that seem nebulous at best and self-contradictory at worst.

The resulting list certainly is not terrible, but it is strange and doesn’t seem to fulfil the remit indicated by the title. It has a very heavy recency bias: two of the books were published this year (one in August, about eight weeks ago), a further twenty-four since 2015 and fifty-one in total since the turn of the century. This recency bias – which by its nature omits vast swathes of acknowledged classics of decades or centuries of standing in preference to the newest, shiniest flavour-of-the-month – makes one wonder why the panel didn’t put together a list of “The 100 Greatest Works of Fantasy of the 21st Century (so far).” The list would immediately become vastly more credible, and indeed, would be enhanced with the addition of forty-nine more books from this century.

Even the recency bias feels somewhat inconsistent, with the absence of several high-profile recent fantasy novels which have enjoyed both immense critical and commercial success: Senlin Ascends (2013) by Josiah Bancroft, The Goblin Emperor (2014) by Katherine Addison, Under the Pendulum Sun (2017) by Jeanette Ng, Gideon the Ninth (2019) by Tamsyn Muir and anything by Kameron Hurley all feel like major omissions in any consideration of recent fantasy works.

The list also seems to lack any of kind of rules regarding what are even technically considered “novels.” The Lord of the Rings – planned, written and executed as one single novel and only published in three for cost and paper rationing reasons - is listed as three books, but The Once and Future King – a series of four previously independent novels, sometimes now available in omnibus – is listed as one. If The Lord of the Rings was also counted as one book, then that would have freed up two more slots for other books. There are also multiple entries for trilogies and series which feel like they could have been condensed into one, allowing the scope of the list to be widened to address the more egregious absences. The list also mostly avoids short story collections before randomly dropping a couple into the mix, which makes it feel like the criteria for the list was not strongly defined beforehand.

The list also has a baffling attitude to pre-modern works of the fantastic. Including The Arabian Nights and Le Morte D’Arthur makes one wonder why The Odyssey and The Iliad are missing, not to mention The Aeneid, The Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Beowulf feels like it should merit a mention, and perhaps the Finnish myth-cycle, The Kalevala. Gulliver’s Travels, a vital work of early fantasy, is notable by its absence, as are absolutely any works connected to Shakespeare. This part of the list feels very much like a sop to the fact that fantasy is an ancient genre and that a couple of pre-modern works should be slapped in to make it vaguely more credible before moving on to more recent material.

Even worse is the list completely side-stepping the foundational texts of much of modern fantasy: The Rose and the Ring, Phantastes, The Well of the World’s End, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, The Worm Ouroboros and Lud-in-the-Mist being completely ignored is remarkable. Two or three of them being skipped over might be expected, but all of them? The incoherence on whether short story collections count or not may also explain the absence of Robert E. Howard’s Conan and C.L. Moore’s Jiriel stories.

Probably the single biggest absence on the list is that of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, published in 1937. The absence of The Hobbit is baffling, and if The Lord of the Rings had been included as one book (as it should have been), then The Hobbit could have also been included and another place freed up for another writer. As it stands, the list is YA and children’s book heavy but the biggest and most influential children’s fantasy novel of all time is missing. The absence of The Silmarillion is less surprising, given it's (oft-overstated) reputation as a "difficult" work, but its absence in favour of decidedly more disposable, recent fare is interesting.

A major issue with any list of fantasy works is the propensity of the genre towards long series, often ones which cumulatively have a huge impact but singling out single novels is difficult or contentious. For this reason, most such lists will allow nominations for an entire series rather than individual titles, but this list does not permit that (well, apart from the Once and Future King quartet, for unspecified reasons). This leaves the list in an awkward position where several times it appears to imply a place for the entire series using the first novel as an example (The Eye of the World representing the entire 15-book Wheel of Time, despite the book being middling in the quality level of the series as a whole), but in others it randomly picks a book from somewhere else in the series (The Wee Free Men, a rather minor and very definitely nowhere near the best entry from the Discworld series), or picks out the by-consensus best book of the series (A Storm of Swords representing A Song of Ice and Fire rather than the first book, A Game of Thrones). Towards the end, the list seems to lose consistency altogether by picking out multiple books from very recent series which have not yet had a chance to withstand the test of time. With the exception of the two entries for N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (since all three won Hugo Awards and immense critical acclaim, there is some rationale for that), most of these feel bit over the top: R.F Kuang, Tomi Adeyemi, Ken Liu and Sabaa Tahir are all reasonable recent writers, but giving them two entries apiece feels like overkill when, say, established and important authors like Robin Hobb, Andrzej Sapkowski, Kate Elliott and Steven Erikson are missing from the list altogether.

Fantasy is of course a broad church, far broader than say “science fiction” or “detective novel,” with very elastic boundaries. The list goes for the broadest possible definition, meaning that epic fantasy, magic realism, children’s fantasy, modern YA, science fantasy, fairy stories and myths are conflated together. Even so, the list feels somewhat unrepresentative of the genre. The New Weird goes completely unmentioned (China Miéville or Steph Swainston are both notable by their absences), as does steampunk and, startlingly, urban fantasy: Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series feels like it should have appeared from a literary perspective, or Jim Butcher or Charlaine Harris if you wanted to go for something wither more commercial clout.

The list also leans very heavily towards children's fantasy and YA. Again, if the list was specifically meant to reward books in that mode, that would be fine but it does say it is for the best fantasy books of all time, not the best YA fantasy novels of all time. YA and children's fiction is overrepresented to such an extreme that it's possible that someone looking at this list would conclude that fantasy is a juvenile genre unworthy of serious literary consideration; the absence of fantasy and magic realism's literary heavyweights like Gene Wolfe, Mervyn Peake, Jorge Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, and Rushdie only getting on the list with a children's book, may reinforce this view. This is not to say that YA and children's fantasy should not be represented on the list - there are numerous classic works of fantasy that are YA or children's books in origin (and I previously noted the puzzling absence of The Hobbit) but the field on this list is overrepresented when other incredibly popular subgenres are wholly missing.

The list is clearly aiming for inclusion and fairer representation of non-white and non-male authors, which is great, but does brush against the elephant in the room. Much moreso even than science fiction, fantasy was very white and very male until comparatively recently: pre-1960 female fantasy authors are very thin on the ground, clearly a regrettable situation, but one that is a historical fact. The list seems to address this by simply minimising the importance all of early fantasy altogether, including those female authors who were influential and important (the aforementioned C.L. Moore, Hope Mirrlees of Lud-in-the-Mist fame, science fantasy author Leigh Brackett, Ruth Thompson and Rachel Cosgrove of the later Oz books and more), or throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The list’s criteria for inclusion also do not extend to works not originally published in English. Only three of the books were not originally published in English and the list leaves out other influential and important non-English works. The Dutch De brief vor de koning (The Letter for the King) by Tonke Dragt is missing and the Polish Wiedźmin (Witcher) series by Andrzej Sapkowski doesn’t even rate a mention, despite both being recently brought to a wider English-speaking language by Netflix adaptations. Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story) by Michael Ende is also MIA.

The list also has a hesitant attitude towards controversy. The glaring absence of H.P. Lovecraft is likely down to his racist viewpoints despite the immense influence of his work over the modern genre, and I suspect Robert E. Howard’s absence might also be down to the perceived racism in his works (although Howard’s attitudes towards race were vastly more progressive than Lovecraft’s, or indeed most people of his time, and improved remarkably over his short lifetime) as well. The entry for The Eye of the World makes the interesting choice of accusing the author of sexism (the entry has a whole seems apologetic for including the book, making one wonder why they did) and even A Storm of Swords gets a non sequitur side-line where George R.R. Martin’s recent clumsy handling of the 2020 Hugo Awards is noted. However, the mention of controversy is seemingly limited to older authors: Cassandra Clare’s multiple brushes with plagiarism accusations and lawsuits are cheerfully ignored and Tomi Adeyemi’s online meltdown over an author with a similar book title to her own goes resolutely unmentioned.

When it comes to individual works that should have been mentioned but are not, there are too many to mention and of course the fact that 100 positions is far too few to accommodate any kind of broad overview of the genre. However, the absence of both Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, often cited and indeed voted the greatest SFF work of all time, is ridiculous, and the absence of any of Robin Hobb’s work which distils the sometimes-high ideals of fantasy down to the level of human experience is glaring. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell's baffling absence may make some consider if the list has, in fact, gone out of its way to be contrarian.

Ultimately the list can be seen as a form of clickbait to engender greater discussion of the genre, but it feels like Time deliberately misrepresented the list by calling it the “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time.” They should have divided the list in three, publishing perhaps a pre-20th Century list, a 20th Century list and a 21st Century instalment, which is really the only way of doing such an enormous concept justice. As it stands, the list is too incoherent to be of much worth. If this was a Buzzfeed list aimed at new readers, it’d be one thing, but I generally expect better of Time.

  1. The Arabian Nights (c. 8th Century) 
  2. Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory (1485)
  3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
  4. Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871)
  5. Five Children and It by E. Nesbit (1902)
  6. Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1907)
  7. Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers (1934)
  8. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
  9. The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola (1952)
  10. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis (1952)
  11. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
  12. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola (1954)
  13. The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
  14. The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)
  15. A Hero Born by Jin Yong (1957)
  16. The Once & Future King by T.H. White (1958)
  17. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (1961)
  18. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)
  19. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
  20. The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Lainez (1965)
  21. Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey (1968)
  22. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)
  23. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
  24. The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart (1970)
  25. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (1970)
  26. Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972)
  27. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)
  28. The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973)
  29. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (1975)
  30. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle (1978)
  31. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979)
  32. The BFG by Roald Dahl (1982)
  33. Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (1983)
  34. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)
  35. Redwall by Brian Jacques (1986)
  36. Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (1987)
  37. The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones (1988)
  38. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (1990)
  39. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (1990)
  40. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie (1990)
  41. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay (1990)
  42. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
  43. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (Northern Lights)
  44. Neverwhere by Nail Gaiman (1996)
  45. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1997)
  46. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (1997)
  47. Brown Girl in the Ring by Naolo Hopkinson (1998)
  48. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999)
  49. Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley (2000)
  50. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (2000)
  51. American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001)
  52. The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (2003)
  53. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (2005)
  54. Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (2006)
  55. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)
  56. City of Glass by Cassandra Clare (2009)
  57. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (2009)
  58. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (2010)
  59. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
  60. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (2011)
  61. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
  62. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)
  63. Angelfall by Susan Ee (2011)
  64. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (2013)
  65. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014)
  66. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)
  67. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (2015)
  68. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (2015)
  69. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (2015)
  70. Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older (2015)
  71. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (2015)
  72. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh (2015)
  73. Song of Blood & Stone by L. Penelope (2015)
  74. Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (2016)
  75. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (2016)
  76. A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir (2016)
  77. The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu (2016)
  78. Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi (2017)
  79. The Blade Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang (2017)
  80. The Changeling by Victor Lavalle (2017)
  81. Jade City by Fonda Lee (2017)
  82. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (2017)
  83. Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Choskshi (2018)
  84. Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (2018)
  85. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (2018)
  86. Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)
  87. Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri (2018)
  88. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (2018)
  89. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (2018)
  90. Witchmark by C.L. Polk (2018)
  91. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (2019)
  92. Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi (2019)
  93. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang (2019)
  94. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2019)
  95. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (2019)
  96. Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender (2019)
  97. Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter (2019)
  98. We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal (2019)
  99. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (2020)
  100. Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez (2020)

Friday 16 October 2020

GAME OF THRONES spin-off show to be shot in England

House of the Dragon, the Game of Dragons spin-off prequel show, has revealed its new production base. The show will be using the Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden, near London as its main base of operations.

Game of Thrones itself was based in the Titanic or Paint Hall Studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland, although overseas shoots ranged from Iceland to Morocco (and even, briefly, Los Angeles). HBO announced in March that they would not be returning to the Paint Hall, which surprised a lot of commentators. House of the Dragon, set during the Dance of Dragons, a brutal civil war fought between different off-shoots of House Targaryen using dragons, utilises many of the same locations as Game of Thrones, including King's Landing, the Red Keep, Harrenhal and Dragonstone, the sets for which were located at the Paint Hall. However, these sets were mostly destroyed during the filming of Game of Thrones' finale, and those which survived had to be torn down to make room for the sets for the first spinoff pilot, The Longest Night, which never got past a pilot order.

In addition, location filming for those locations ranged widely, with Malta and the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia both standing in for the exteriors of King's Landing, whilst some scenes on Dragonstone were shot in Spain and others in Northern Ireland. With House of the Dragon also scouting overseas locations, it seems possible that those locations will be used again, with just the set location in the UK changing.

Leavesden is a solid choice with economic benefits, since the studio complex is owned by HBO's parent company Time Warner. Films shot at Leavesden include the Harry Potter series, Sleep Hollow, The Phantom Menace, GoldenEye, Kingsman, Inception, Justice League, Warner Brothers, Spider-Man: Far From Home and The Batman. The studio is also notably further south than the Paint Hall in Belfast with a more temperate climate and predictable weather.

Production of House of the Dragon is expected to start in January and run through the summer, to debut in early 2022. Casting is currently underway, with Paddy Considine recently cast as King Viserys I Targaryen.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

The Emperor of the Elflands has been killed in an airship accident, along with his immediate sons and heirs. The imperial crown falls on his youngest son, Maia, who has lived in effective exile. Ignorant of the politics of the Elflands and the ways of the court, Maia has to learn whom he can trust and how to navigate the channels of government, all the while trying to find out who killed his father and brothers, and why.

Originally published in 2014, The Goblin Emperor was a moderate hit for its author, Sarah Monette. Monette had already published or co-published six novels under her own name, but chose to adopt a new pen name to differentiate this work.

The Goblin Emperor is a work heavy on political intrigue and courtly manners and light on action. The story takes place in a well-realised fantasy world, but is constrained almost entirely to the imperial court, with the reader hearing about goings on in faraway places only through reports, rumours and hearsay. Those looking for a traditional epic fantasy with lots of travelling, sword fights, awesome displays of magic and epic battles best look elsewhere, but those who are looking for a well-written, in-depth character study will find much here that is rewarding.

This is a novel of manners, where characters behave and comport themselves through strict protocols which sometimes make it hard to discern their true motivations. Maia's job is to sort through the restrictions of hierarchy to work out who is an ally, who is an enemy and who is an enemy posing as a friend, and who is a friend who feels it impolite to impose themselves on the emperor. It requires a deft hand at characterisation to make this work, but the author succeeds in making these characters rise through the layers of formality and work as fully-fleshed-out individuals.

The book makes much of language and terminology, a bit oddly for a book that also uses fairly generic terms like "elf" and "goblin," although these don't seem to be describing the traditional fantasy races but merely different ethnicities of humans, similar to the witches, goblins and demons of The Worm Ouroboros (who are actually just different types of human). There's a complex system of address, titles and styles which occasionally means the same character may be referred to in several different ways and even by different names. This doesn't happen too often and from context it's relatively easy to pick up on who's who, but it does occasionally briefly disrupt the flow of the story as you try to work out if this character is someone we've met before.

The downside to all of this is that the pace is "relaxed" and occasionally risks being "languid," with major plot movements slow to develop and having to occasionally bulldoze your way through a dozen pages of Maia musing on dining etiquette and what is the acceptable level of formalwear for the next event he has to attend. If you're looking for a fast-paced, exciting book, this is definitely not it.

The Goblin Emperor (****) is an intelligent, thoughtful and slow (sometimes a tad too slow) book, well-written and solidly-characterised with a strong background. The novel lacks a certain dynamism but makes up for it with the richness of the setting and characters. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday 13 October 2020

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD prequel announces cast

Director George Miller has announced the cast for Furiosa, his forthcoming prequel movie to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, Glass, The WitchPeaky Blinders) has been cast as the younger version of Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron in the original movie. The film explores Furiosa's backstory as a young woman before she comes into the employ of Immortan Joe.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is playing Dementus, whilst Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman, Watchmen) is playing Pretorian.

Miller spent some time working with Theron to see if there was a way of letting her continue as the character, including using de-aging technology, but concluded that the cost of doing so would be prohibitive. Theron has given the project her blessing.

Miller is shooting another project, Three Thousand Years of Longing, delayed due to the pandemic, whilst Hemsworth will be shooting Thor: Love and Thunder for the first few months of 2021, so production of Furiosa is not expected to begin until later in the year or in 2022. He has also been developing a sequel to Fury Road, called The Wasteland, but that seems to be a much further off project.

Monday 12 October 2020

Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon by James Hibberd

Game of Thrones is the most successful show in the history of HBO, rising from humble beginnings in 2011 to become the biggest TV drama on the planet. In 2019 the show wrapped after eight seasons and 73 episodes to deliver one of the most negatively-received final seasons in recent memory. Journalist James Hibberd, who was allowed on set of the show every year from the second season onwards, has written a behind-the-scenes account of the commissioning, writing and making of the show, referring to hundreds of interviews he undertook whilst the show was on air and more undertaken since. Among the people he's spoken to are George R.R. Martin, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and vast numbers of the cast, from the smallest bit-part player to leading actors Kit Harington, Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke. This is the oft-contentious story of the making of the show that changed television.

TV companion books are a bit of a dying art these days, with the Internet and its plethora of fan blogs and wikis making them feel a bit redundant. Game of Thrones is so huge - and controversial - that it can overcome that problem and James Hibberd is well-placed to write such a companion volume given his access to the writers, the sets and the actors (via his work at Entertainment Weekly covering the show). He starts at the beginning, with George R.R. Martin starting writing the Song of Ice and Fire novel series in 1991, and proceeds through David Benioff and Dan Weiss picking up the books, wooing Martin to letting them and HBO have the rights, and their difficult struggle to get a pilot made, and the difficult process of admitting that they'd messed up the pilot and had to hope that HBO would give them a second chance. From there things proceed roughly chronologically until the end of the show.

The first thing that has to be noted is that this is not an "unauthorised" guide to the making of the show, but a HBO-approved product (complete with HBO-provided photographs). If you're expecting to find dirt and gossip, you're not going to find it here. Anything majorly contentious has been finely exercised from the text. Hibberd also doesn't add much in the way of authorial opinion, letting events stand for themselves and quoting other critics in determining if a plot twist or story turn was successful or not.

Despite this, the book's fact checking clearly left something to be desired. On the very first page of the book we're told that the Battle of the Bastards was filmed in October 2014; it was actually a year later (my friend, who was a weary extra on the set of Hardhome, noted that was when they were filming that battle). A few pages later we're told that George R.R. Martin started writing A Game of Thrones in 1993 but it was actually in 1991. A few other, similar errors crop up through the book and it does feel like a bit more attention to detail would not have gone amiss.

Once that hurdle is overcome, there is much to enjoy. Hibberd is a solid writer who knows how to handle and place quotes, and how to interview subjects, and to his credit he does avoid repeating a lot of stories and information that close watchers of the show have heard a thousand times already. Some of the familiar anecdotes do get trotted out yet again but there's a lot more information here that I hadn't ever heard before, such as director David Nutter almost dying in Iceland when his car crashed during a blizzard on a location scout and it if had rolled in a different direction, it would have plummeted off a sheer drop. Other stories are less dramatic but amusing: the weather in Iceland during Season 2 was so bad that scenes were often shot right outside the hotel the cast and crew were staying in, with constructive camera angles being used to hide that fact and actors having to perform in full view of all the guests in the dining room. During Season 1 they didn't have any security and David Benioff had to personally stand guard over Robert Baratheon's tent to stop curious bystanders from making off with props. And so forth.

These stories are amusing bits of trivia but somewhat inconsequential. Meatier are the controversies. The book doesn't shy away from many of these, spending a surprising amount of time debating the merits of Daenerys and Khal Drogo's relationship at the start of the show with the writers and actors, and the different ways they approached it in both the pilot and the reshoot with different actresses, and on the depiction of the Sansa-Ramsay-Theon relationship in Season 5. There's also a lot of open discussion about the weak Dorne storyline in Season 5 and how it didn't work and they had to scramble to try to fix it later on. Other controversies are completely ignored though, with a particularly criticised Cersei/Jaime scene in Season 4 getting no mention at all.

Even more interesting are the moments when people get a bit too honest. It's clear from the writing that some of the producers encouraged something of a "fratboy" relationship with other cast and crew, and sometimes pushed things too far, resulting in tense moments on set. The most honest and outspoken actor in the book is Liam Cunningham, who cuts through the normal Hollywood PR banter (which to be fair most of the cast try to avoid, but sometimes fall into it by rote) to deliver some real honesty on some of the conditions of shooting. His pointblank refusal to film some scenes because he felt they betrayed his character and made Davos less of a relatable figure is quite startling. He also stands up for Stephen Dillane, who played Stannis Baratheon and had made some dismissive comments of the show (Dillane didn't take part in the new interviews for the book), noting that Dillane always did good work, had a strong work ethic and a withering sense of humour that didn't always come across well in interviews.

The thing most people will be interested in is the reception to the finale. Benioff, Weiss and Martin don't really talk about it, but plenty of the actors, several HBO executives and Bryan Cogman do, and note how things may or may have not worked as well as they'd hoped. However, there is a bit of a disappointing PR answer that maybe the ending will be looked upon differently in another ten years.

Hibberd has certainly written an above-average TV companion book here, with plenty of interesting stories and funny moments of trivia, but it's one that also has some glaring holes. Ramin Djawadi's memorable score (the one thing almost uniformly praised about the series) goes almost completely unmentioned, the work of Elastic and Angus Wall on the memorable title sequence is also disregarded and the CG teams tasked with bringing the locations and creatures to life are also not quoted. It's good to see the writers and actors being self-deprecating and owning various problems and mistakes, but there's also a few moments when it feels like the book pulls its punches and doesn't delve deeper into behind the scenes issues. The book's real achievement may be in getting Benioff and Weiss to admit what many had suspected all along: they really wanted to be making movies all along, they always planned to prioritise big battles and effects over character and theme (Benioff's daft assertion that themes are only for eighth-grade book reports is mentioned several times) and that without Martin's books to rest on, they lost confidence in how to proceed and struggled more without source material.

Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon (***½) is readable and fun, packed with fresh anecdotes and interesting trivia about the making of Game of Thrones. In some areas it is insightful and revelatory, getting further into why certain baffling decisions were taken, but in others it leans back and goes out of its way to avoid criticism or controversy. It certainly doesn't trouble the quality of The Deep Space Nine Companion, which twenty years after release still represents the gold standard of a TV companion volume. But it's certainly worth reading if you're interesting in what happened behind the scenes on the biggest show of the decade. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

The Halfling's Gem by R.A. Salvatore

The Companions of the Hall have successfully located Mithril Hall, the ancestral home of Bruenor Battlehammer and his clansmen. Unfortunately, the quest was completed only at great cost: Bruenor was lost in combat with the shadow dragon Shimmergloom and the halfling Regis was captured by the assassin Artemis Entreri. Entreri is now taking his prisoner back to the great southern metropolis of Calimport, leaving Drizzt Do'Urden and Wulfgar with no choice but to pursue them, whilst Catti-brie organises the armies coming together to retake Mithril Hall. The pursuit is long and dangerous, and Drizzt must decide whether the recovery of his friend is true motivation, or the knowledge that Entreri is the first warrior to have ever matched him blade to blade, and how eagerly he seeks a rematch.

The Halfling's Gem (1990) wraps up R.A. Salvatore's first fantasy series, The Icewind Dale Trilogy. The Crystal Shard had introduced the world to the dark elven ranger Drizzt Do'Urden and his companions and Streams of Silver had given them an epic, Tolkienesque quest to undertake. This concluding book sees them divided and hot on the heels of one of their kidnapped fellows, a scenario ripe for pulp fantasy adventure, and that's what we get. Drizzt and company visit the grand cities of Waterdeep, Baldur's Gate, Memnon and Calimport; engage in all manner of hijinks on the high seas; and are then pitched into battle with a shadowy thieves' guild and its allies, a mixture of wizards, giants and wererats. It's mostly splendid fun.

By this third book, Salvatore has become a reasonable writer of straightforward action adventure and delivers an entertaining book in that mode. It does feel like he has larger aspirations to write an engaging travelogue of the Sword Coast (the west coast of the main Forgotten Realms continent of Faerun and the focus for many of the works in the setting), and in that respect falters; 320 pages isn't really enough time to do that and  both Waterdeep and Baldur's Gate get decidedly short shrift in this book. Calimport is more fully fleshed out, but it's questionable to what extent Salvatore consulted the source material: the city's distinction of being divided into many dozen drudachs or subdistricts, each walled off from its neighbours, is not mentioned at all. As a result the unique character and flavour of Calimport is lost (Salvatore is also smarter than to rely on Arabian stereotypes for the city or Calimshan as a whole, although one hapless Memnon merchant does start leaning in that direction).

Characterisation remains reasonable and Salvatore explores some interesting ideas, such as Drizzt using a magical mask to pass as a surface elf and avoid the racist appraisals of his character stemming from his skin colour alone, and facing a crisis of identity as a result. Drizzt also has to face his motives for dealing with Entreri, and whether these stem from a desire for revenge, a desire for a rematch with a worthy foe or a genuine desire to save his friend Regis. Wulfgar also gets a fish-out-of-water storyline as he finds himself trying to survive in civilised surrounds for prolonged periods for the first time, and we meet a few more characters who will become important in future volumes of the wider Legend of Drizzt series, such as Captain Deudermont and the crew of the Sea Sprite.

On the minus side, there isn't much. This very much remains an action-focused, fast food meal of a fantasy novel and is enjoyable on that level, but those looking for a deeper, richer experience best look elsewhere.

Otherwise, The Halfling's Gem (***½) wraps up this trilogy reasonably well. From this book readers can go back to experience Drizzt's backstory in The Dark Elf Trilogy or press on to find out what happens to the Companions of the Hall and Mithril Hall next in the Legacy of the Drow Quartet (I'd strongly recommend the former). The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Sunday 11 October 2020

XCOM: Chimera Squad

2040. Five years ago, the XCOM resistance movement successfully defeated the alien Ethereals and liberated Earth from their control. However, the destruction of the Ethereals not only freed humanity, but also the dozen or so alien races under their control, who found themselves marooned on a strange world and having to coexist with their former enemies. This coexistence is controversial, but several cities have prospered with mixed human and alien populations. One such place is City 31, but when three criminal factions try to overthrow the new order, XCOM is called upon to deploy a police force to the city to help salvage the situation.

Chimera Squad is the latest game in the XCOM series, rebooted by Firaxis in 2012 to great success. Unlike its two predecessors - to which it is more of a spinoff than a direct sequel - Chimera Squad eschews a global perspective for the more focused setting of a single city. You're also not in command of XCOM any more, instead taking control of the Reclamation Agency of City 31. Reclamation is a subdivision of XCOM which deals with police operations in the aftermath of the War for Liberation (as depicted in XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen). Unfortunately, Reclamation is low in the priority list and doesn't have access to the high-end technology developed towards the end of that war, explaining why you start the game (once again) with machine guns and shotguns rather than plasma rifles and alloy cannons.

The game proceeds much as its forebears: you have a strategic map, this time of just the city rather than the planet, where you choose which operations to undertake. You can also research new equipment, purchase new stocks, train your soldiers or send them on secondary missions which generate more resources, such as money, intel or Elerium. You have to keep the city's panic level low, which can be achieved by completing missions and establishing police forces in each district and levelling them up.

Whilst the strategic side has less options than in previous games - there's no way of interrogating enemy soldiers, for example, and no fellow resistance forces to coordinate with - it still provides a pleasing degree of choice, with dire consequences possible if you make the wrong decision.

More controversial is the decision to limit your soldier roster. You choose four starting characters and as the campaign continues more troops trickle in from other XCOM assignments at your request. You can have up to eight agents on the team, four of whom can be deployed on a mission at a time (unlike prior games, there's no way of increasing the limit to six soldiers). The others can cool their heels at base or go on secondary missions, help speed up research or train to unlock new skills (or remove permanent injuries sustained in battle). The big difference is that these soldiers are all recruited from a set pool of eleven. You can't hire random new recruits any more. On the plus side this means all the soldiers get full voice acting with nice lines of dialogue resulting from which characters they are paired with. On the downside it means the attachment you get from shepherding characters through several missions in a row and growing their skills from scratch is lost, and you also don't have the customisation options any more to give them crazy haircuts or names. They are also irreplaceable: if they die, they die and it's game over rather than having to soldier on (particularly odd as there's more characters to recruit than there are slots on the team, so they could easily have had an option to slot in up to three replacements before saying it's game over).

Removing player choice from the game for relatively limited rewards - your soldiers' "banter" is decidedly non-revelatory and a bit hackneyed - is an odd experiment, but it does make the game more distinctive. Another questionable choice is limiting the roles available. Most of the XCOM 2 classes are represented (Terminal is a Specialist, Verge is a Psi Operative) but several are missing. Grenadiers not being around kind of makes sense - you don't want rockets blasting around an urban area with civilians present - but not having any Sharpshooters feels strange (police snipers are a thing), especially as one of your characters, Blueblood, is effectively a Sharpshooter locked into the pistol specialisation tree. Again, it feels like this franchise which celebrates player agency and choice has taken such choice away from the player and limited things.

This extends to the missions themselves, which are now played out in combat encounters rather than continuous maps. Each mission has between one and three encounters, and moving between encounters is accomplished by a "breach" sequence where you access the next encounter by smashing through windows, rappelling through skylights, booting down doors or occasionally just walking onto the battlefield. The audio barks don't change to the situation though, resulting in the occasionally non sequitur sight of one of your squadmembers screaming "BREACH! BREACH! BREACH!" before taking two steps forward and ducking behind a car. This does feel more limited than the continuous maps of the previous games and can get quite annoying, as previous encounter zones are inaccessible, sometimes resulting in your characters being bottlenecked at the entrance to the next zone and not being able to fall back to the previous room and take better cover, as the previous map is now greyed out and simply can't be accessed.

Once you get over these differences to the standard XCOM experience, much fun is to be had. The new mechanics, although sometimes irritating, do mean you spend most of your playtime making actual combat choices rather than slowly inching forwards into the fog of war in continuous overwatch. The breaches have a lot of options for when and how you enter the next encounter (like deciding to blast a hole through the wall with shaped charges to take the enemy by surprise or charging through a door into an enemy crossfire but which puts you closer to the toughest opponents). The result is much shorter, more focused combat experiences.

A big change to combat is that rather than having team turns - so all the XCOM agents go and then all the aliens go - the game instead uses interleaved turns, so one agent goes, then one enemy, then one ally and so on. This makes for a change in tactics as you start focusing on the enemy who is about to go next and can use abilities which adjust the timeline (moving characters around in it to your advantage and the enemy's detriment). This has a lot of good points, such as meaning that the enemy can't gang up all their fire on one exposed agent and kill him or her and there's nothing you can do about it, but again it does loose the ability to pick which agent is going next and having finer control over their actions. Broadly speaking, I thought this change was interesting for making combat a more varied experience, but there was no strong argument for it being better or worse than the alternative, just different.

Chimera Squad is probably not the way forwards for the franchise permanently, but it does offer a lot of variations on the standard XCOM formula which make it fun to play. It's short and focused - a single playthrough will last around 20 hours rather than the ~50 hours of an XCOM 2: War of the Chosen campaign - and the smaller scale works surprisingly well. The removal of choice from the player in favour of set characters, a preset squad roster and focused, short combat sequences is interesting, but I think would go down badly in a full XCOM 3, so hopefully if XCOM 3 is in development (and based on the cliffhanger endings to both XCOM 2 and Chimera Squad, that seems likely) they take on board the ideas that work (the breach mechanics to start a mission, but may not mid-mission, and maybe the interleaved turns as an option) and leave out the ones that do not.

Chimera Squad (****) is a tight, experimental and fun variation on the XCOM formula with some ideas that work well and others that are less successful, but fun in this spin-off context. It is available on PC only now.