Friday 30 April 2021

Coalition of authors forms to resolve Disney royalty dispute

A few months ago, news broke that Disney was withholding royalty payments from Star Wars and Alien novelist Alan Dean Foster on what seemed like dubious grounds. After an intervention by the Science Fiction Writers of America and widespread publicity from the case, Disney seemingly backed down and reached a settlement with Foster, the details of which have not yet been revealed.

However, in the process of making the case public, dozens of other authors came forwards with reports that their own royalties had apparently not been paid, in some cases for years. The people affected include novelists and comic book writers on franchises including Star Wars as well as properties Disney has recently come into possession of via its acquisition of companies such as Marvel and 20th Century Fox, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Companies involved include Lucasfilm, Boom! Comics, Dark Horse Comics, 20th Century Fox, Marvel Worldwide and Disney Worldwide.

Many of these authors are much lower-profile than Foster, but their causes are just as valid. The SFWA has now teamed with organisations including the Author's Guild, Horror Writers Association, National Writers Union, Novelists, Inc., the Romance Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. High-profile author Neil Gaiman will take part in a joint taskforce also consisting of SFWA president Mary Robinette Kowal, bestselling novelist Tess Gerritsen and former Star Wars novel and comic writer Chuck Wendig.

The group have set up a website, Writers Must Be Paid, where those who believe they are owed many can register their complaints and seek assistance in getting redress. 

Bethesda copyrights STARFIELD for 2021 release

Bethesda Games Studios are gearing up for the release of their first big, open-world CRPG in six years. Starfield is a brand-new IP, a far-future space opera, but is expected to use a format and style of gameplay that will be very familiar to fans of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises. As usual, Bethesda have kept their cards close to their chests, but a new copyright filing backs up recent, less-substantiated rumours of a 2021 release.

For their last few games, Bethesda have preferred to keep details about their current in-progress game to an absolute minimum and then release a trailer and confirm the release date just a few months out from release; they announced Fallout 4 on 14 June 2015 and released the game on 10 November the same year. They then announced multiplayer spin-off Fallout 76 on 30 May 2018 and released the game on 14 November the same year. So it's entirely likely that they will repeat the same format when it's time to fully unveil Starfield to the public.

Bethesda issued a new copyright claim for Starfield with a date of 2021 just a few weeks ago. Games companies usually only issue copyright claims for the year of release, indicating that Bethesda are indeed planning to release the game before the end of 2021. Note that this is not set in stone: if the game was delayed to 2022, they could amend the copyright claim to that year instead. So this is not cast-iron 100% proof that the game will come out this year, but indicates strongly that this is their current plan. Certainly last year, Bethesda claimed that this year would be the earliest fans could expect to hear more news about the game.

Microsoft, who completed their purchase of Bethesda a few weeks ago, will no doubt be keen for the game to come out this year to strengthen their portfolio of games launching this winter. That includes Halo: Infinite, the first Halo title in six years, and reportedly a new Forza racing game. Unconfirmed reports also suggest that Starfield will be exclusive to the Xbox platform on console, although it will get a PC release as well. PlayStation owners will be left out in the cold, as many feared would be the case when Microsoft acquired Bethesda.

If this news is accurate, it could be confirmed as soon as E3 2021, which runs from 12-15 June; Bethesda confirmed their last two release dates at E3 events in 2015 and 2018.

Although it appears likely that Bethesda are targeting a 2021 release date, there is one fly in the ointment, namely the ongoing COVID19 pandemic. Like most developers, Bethesda have mostly been working from home which has slowed game development and quality assurance down. If there are major bugs or problems found in this process, the game could be delayed into 2022 fairly easily.

Bethesda are also working on a new Elder Scrolls game, the follow-up to the massive-selling Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which celebrates its ten-year anniversary this year. That game is not expected to be released until 2024 at the earliest, and potentially a lot later than that. A new Fallout game is even further off at this point, unless Bethesda collaborates with another studio to help them get their games out faster.

Wednesday 28 April 2021

WHEEL OF TIME TV series greenlit for Season 2, shooting to start immediately after Season 1

According to Deadline, Amazon have low-key greenlit the second season of The Wheel of Time and production is set to begin immediately after shooting is completed on Season 1. Like the first, the second season is expected to consist of eight episodes.

Amazon ordered scripts for Season 2 to be prepared whilst work on Season 1 were going on, allowing production to begin immediately in the event of a greenlight being given. However, the coronavirus pandemic hugely disrupted the shooting of Season 1. Originally planned to run from September 2019 to May 2020, shooting was suspended in March. It did resume in September but was suspended again in November with some scenes still incomplete. Production on Season 1 resumed just a few days ago, meaning that the team could be shooting Season 2 material within a few weeks.

Amazon typically give two-season orders to their new shows as a way of getting ahead of production delays and minimising the gaps between seasons. Assuming Season 2 is not impacted by any interruptions, it should be possible to air (or start airing) Season 1 before the end of 2021, with Season 2 to follow approximately year later.

Season 1 is predominantly based on The Eye of the World, the first book in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence, as well as incorporating material from the prequel novel New Spring. Season 2 is expected to draw on the events of The Great Hunt, the second book in the series. However, there are fourteen books in the series and the TV show is unlikely to run for fourteen seasons, so there is a greater likelihood that future seasons will incorporate events and characters from multiple novels, whilst some storylines and characters will likely be dropped due to a lack of time to incorporate them.

First glimpse of Daniel Henney as Lan Mandragoran in Amazon's WHEEL OF TIME TV series

Amazon have released a new video teaser for their Wheel of Time TV series. This brief teaser depicts Daniel Henney as al'Lan Mandragoran, the Warder of Moiraine Damodred (Rosamund Pike), going into battle.

The Wheel of Time appears to have resumed shooting on its first season, having experienced a second delay to filming due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. A relatively small amount of shooting remains to bring production of the first season to an end, with the hope that we'll get a formal wrap announcement some time in May or June.

A release date for the series has not yet been announced, but autumn 2021 seems possible assuming no further delays.

WITCHER, EXPANSE, PUNISHER and SHADOW & BONE vets team up to develop a WORLD OF DARKNESS TV franchise

An intriguing coalition of writer-producers has formed with a view to bringing White Wolf's venerable tabletop roleplaying universe, The World of Darkness, to television and film.

Eric Heisserer (the showrunner of Netflix's Shadow and Bone), his wife Christine Boylan (The Punisher) and production company Hivemind (The Witcher, The Expanse) have partnered with Paradox Interactive, White Wolf's parent company, to develop a number of TV and film proposals based on the roleplaying game. The World of Darkness posits a world where various supernatural creatures exist in secret alongside humanity, with the various sub-games taking place in different locations and time periods. 

The best known of the World of Darkness games is Vampire: The Masquerade. Other titles in the line include Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Mage: The Ascension, Wraith: The OblivionChangeling: The Dreaming, Hunter: The Reckoning, Demon: The Fallen, Kindred of the East and Vampire: The Dark Ages. The games were launched in 1991 with Mark Rein-Hagen as the principle creator of the setting.

The franchise has so far not been adapted for television or film, but there have been several successful and critically-acclaimed video games in the setting, most notably Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (2004). A sequel to that game is currently in development at Paradox.

The new team are planning to develop a number of different TV and film projects. It must be assumed that Vampire: The Masquerade would be the most logical jumping-off point, being the original and most popular incarnation of the franchise. In Vampire, the modern-day world is being secretly fought over by several millennia-old vampire clans who operate in the shadows, with strict codes of conduct ensuring the continuance of "the Masquerade," the illusion that vampires are myths and not real. This setting is popular because of the high degree of personality and character given to the vampire clans, allowing for numerous twists on the familiar vampire tropes.

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Shadow and Bone: Season 1

The great nation of Ravka is troubled by war with her neighbours and by the Shadow Fold, a mysterious force of darkness which has cut off the west coast from the rest of the kingdom. Only the Grisha, the magic-wielding servants of Ravka, can cross the Fold in safety. A young mapmaker, Alina Starkov, is recruited to help such a crossing but she manifests the powers of the Grisha along the way. Recruited into the order, Alina discovers she has the power to summon light, the power to perhaps destroy the Shadow Fold forever...and a power that some will do anything to possess.

Shadow and Bone is a Netflix fantasy TV show based on the Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, a highly successful YA fantasy series originally published in 2012-14. The trilogy was enjoyable, if a bit lightweight, but veered towards the traditional and predictable. By itself, it's questionable if it would have been picked up for adaptation. However, Bargudo followed up the trilogy with two further duologies which dramatically expanded the scope and scale of the world, introducing many more interesting characters, locations and factions.

For the TV show, the writers have made the decision to incorporate characters and backstory from the sequel duologies into the events of the original narrative. Thus, as well as the struggle between Alina Starkov and the Darkling, we also meet the band of ne'er do wells known as the Dregs, or Crows (from the Six of Crows duology) and the character of Nina, who plays a key role in both that duology and the current King of Scars series.

This has the benefit of giving the story a lot more meat to its bones. By itself, the Shadow and Bone novel would have perhaps had enough material for four hours, maybe five, but the other subplots allow it to extend to eight reasonably well (even if there is a fair bit of portentous wheel-spinning in the final two episodes).

On the negative side of things, it does result in a fair bit of narrative dissonance: the three main plot threads (Alina, the Crows and Nina) have very little to do with one another across the episodes, and there's a distinct fanfiction-y feel whenever Alina and the Crows' storylines cross over. Nina and her decidedly thin narrative (which is a fairly odd tale of kidnap followed by Stockholm Syndrome romance) feel like they could have been ejected from the series with no problem whatsoever and introduced later on when more relevant to the plot. Certainly keeping the Crows involved, no matter how contrived it feels and how much their heist hijinks clash tonally with Alina's Chosen One narrative, is a good idea because they're the most fun characters in the series and bring a lot of energy to proceedings.

The actors all do a reasonable job (Jessie Mei Li is probably the standout, which is great as she's playing the protagonist, and The Punisher's Ben Barnes is pretty good as the antagonist), the pacing is pretty good and the sets and costumes are appropriately lavish. However, there's a distinct "Netflix house style" that's been pervading their shows for a few years now which this series definitely suffers from. The CGI is competent, but overly-digital, with a fairly fake sheen that often took me out of the show (doing flashy effects these days is easy; seating the effects in the environment so it looks like people can see and react them is much harder). The most impressive sequences are those in the Fold and involving the Volcra, but given those scenes rely on darkness for maximum impact, that's not as outstanding as it may sound. There's also a distinctly Netflix-ish thing going on of filming too many outdoor scenes on unconvincing indoor sound stages like it's a 1960s episode of Star Trek. The musical score is also surprisingly bland, and the show even lacks a title sequence: instead we just get a brief title card like it's a 2007 big network show urgently trying to keep as much time open as possible that would otherwise be lost to the credits and adverts.

The series also has its own tonal issue. It's based on YA material and for most of the TV version it leans into that (limited swearing, no sex or nudity), but it'll then pull off some scenes of ultraviolence that wouldn't be out of place on a HBO drama (someone needs to tell TV writers that decapitations are not as common as they'd like to think). It's odd because without just a few shots of brutal deaths, the show would be suitable for 10-year-olds, and genuine family-friendly fantasy is thin on the ground these days.

But the negatives feel like they're more than balanced out by the positives. Alina's relationship with Mal, the weakest part of the trilogy, is here fleshed out and Mal made a much more likeable character. Ben Barnes plays the Darkling with scene-chewing relish and you can almost sense his disappointment at not having a moustache to twirl. The Crows - Kaz (Freddy Carter), Inej (Amita) and Jesper (Kit Young) - are great fun and it'd be interesting to see a show focused just on them. The "fantasy heist" storyline certainly made me wonder how much longer we're going to have to wait to see a Lies of Locke Lamora adaptation.

Shadow and Bone's first season (***½) on balance, is fine. It's enjoyable, reasonably well-paced and the integration of two different storylines works well (the attempt to add a third does not, though). The performances are solid and keep the show aloft whenever the over-expository dialogue and plastic effects threaten to bring it down. It does enough that I'd be interested in a second season. The season is available now worldwide on Netflix.

Sunday 25 April 2021

Eric by Terry Pratchett

Eric is a young demonology hacker who has discovered the spell he needs to summon a demon to fulfil his worldly desires. Unfortunately, due to a bit of a cock-up on the reality front, he summons the ostensible wizard Rincewind (who was banished to hell during the events of Sourcery). The always-reluctant Rincewind finds himself accompanying Eric on a prolonged road trip through time and space as he attempts to get back home.

Eric is a bit of an oddball Discworld novel, even by the series' elastic standards of tone, character and format. It's the shortest Discworld book of them all (barely cracking 150 pages) and feels almost bemusingly lightweight. After the previous several Discworld books featured much-improved and deeper characterisation and exploration of ideas, Eric is a bit of a throwback to the first couple of books by being more of a knockabout, travelogue adventure.

The explanation is that Eric isn't really a mainline Discworld novel, instead starting life as an illustrated side-project. The success of the Discworld novels in the UK was at least partially attributed to Josh Kirby's eye-catching cover art, which made up for in enthusiasm what it lacked in accuracy (such as Twoflower being depicted with literally four eyes rather than wearing glasses). Eric was conceived as a vehicle for Kirby's illustrations. However, the original, illustrated version of Eric fell out of print for many years, and it's the illustration-less version of the novel which has been most commonly encountered by readers. Fortunately, a new edition of the illustrated version of the book was issued a few years ago and is still commonly available.

Eric is a lightweight and disposable tale, though Discworld fans will enjoy it resolving Rincewind's cliffhanger fate from Sourcery and the mild worldbuilding work it does with setting up new locations (the Tezuman Empire). But there is a slight feeling of redundancy here. The Luggage rushes around and eats more people, the wizards of Unseen University fret futilely, Rincewind runs away from trouble, and the Tsortean-Ephebian War and its multiple not-Trojan horses which formed part of the subplot of Pyramids is here revisited without much effect. Eric feels distinctly half-assed in the writing stakes for a fair bit of its length.

Kirby's artwork is colourful and fun, and helps flesh out the relative sparseness of the narrative. Kirby's artwork is something of an acquired taste, though, much more stylised than it is accurate, and the continued rendition of Rincewind as an decrepit old man despite The Light Fantastic suggested he was only 32 years old (at the time of that book) remains odd. But it certainly makes the book work better than the unillustrated edition.

Eric (***) is a brief, mildly diverting tale which is a more successful showcase for the late Josh Kirby's artwork than it is for Pratchett's full writing powers. It is available now in the UK and USA.

I previously reviewed the unillustrated edition here.

Friday 23 April 2021

Disney and Marvel put CAPTAIN AMERICA 4 into development

Marvel and Disney have put a fourth Captain America film into development. Unlike previous instalments of the series, which saw Chris Evans starring as Steve Rogers in the title role, the new film will focus on Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson taking up the mantle.

Note: Spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier follow.

Malcolm Spellman, who executive produced and showran The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as well as writing the critically-acclaimed fifth episode, is developing the new script with Dalan Musson, a fellow writer on the show.

The TV series saw Sam, who'd been offered the shield and the name by an aged and retired Rogers at the end of Avengers: Endgame (2019), struggling with the idea of taking on the mantle. He initially turns down the role, leading to the US government instead naming another soldier, John Walker, to the position. Walker turns out not to have the "right stuff" to be Captain America, leading Sam to finally accept the position at the end of the series.

To what degree the film will follow up on the TV series is unclear, but the TV series does put a lot of other balls in play, including having Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl) back behind bars; Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) pardoned and returned to working for the US government, but having a shadowy agenda of her own; and Walker - having been injected with a milder form of Steve's super-serum - being recruited as a secret agent by the redoubtable Valentine Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Sam has also formed a strong working partnership with Bucky Barnes, the reformed Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

This marks the first time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that the title of one major superhero has passed to another. Marvel will no doubt be assessing the success of such a move to determine how long they can keep the MCU going in the current continuity before they feel they have to reboot.

With development of the film only just starting, it's likely we won't see the film until 2023 at the earliest. and maybe more likely 2024. Between now and then Marvel plans to release Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, Black Panther II, Captain Marvel 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Fantastic Four and Blade.

HOUSE OF THE DRAGON begins production in Cornwall

HBO's House of the Dragon, a prequel series to Game of Thrones, has begun production in the United Kingdom. Filming is set to begin shortly in Cornwall, with locations around St. Michael's Mount and Newquay already being dressed for filming.

Warner Brothers-branded trucks were spotted setting up lighting and camera rigging near Penhale Camp, Holywell, Newquay, whilst major exterior set construction was seen underway at St. Michael's Mount. A giveaway is that the set at St. Michael's Mount was emblazoned with the sigil of House Velaryon of Driftmark, a major house in the new series.

It also appears that filming may be taking place at Restormel Castle, whilst casting for extra has also been underway in Cornwall for the series.

Based on this information, I would expect actual shooting to begin imminently, maybe this week.

Thursday 22 April 2021

Cover art and release date for THE FALL OF BABEL by Josiah Bancroft revealed

Orbit, The Fantasy Inn and Josiah Bancroft have revealed the cover art for The Fall of Babel, the final novel in the four-volume Books of Babel series. It follows on from Senlin Ascends (2013), Arm of the Sphinx (2014) and The Hod King (2019).

Like the other books in the series, it features cover art by Ian Leino and design work by Lauren Panepinto. 

The Fall of Babel will be published on 9 November this year by Orbit Books.

Volume 2 of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS adapts more SFF short stories

As with its forebear, the second volume of Love, Death + Robots is adapting a series of short stories by SFF authors into animation. We now have the list of which stories have been adapted.

  • Pop Squad by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Life Hutch by Harlan Ellison
  • Ice by Rich Larson
  • The Tall Grass by Joe Lansdale
  • Automated Customer Service by John Scalzi
  • All Through the House by Joachim Heijndermans
  • The Drowned Giant by J.G. Ballard
  • Snow in the Desert by Neal Asher
It's a solid selection of short fiction, with some good talent involved. Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther, The Wire, Creed) stars in Life Hutch, both voicing the lead character and having his physical appearance reproduced in CG. The absence of stories by women is notable (after Volume I's sixteen stories only included two), although Volume 3 (still in production) is rumoured to have a Sucker of Souls sequel by Kirsten Cross.

Volume 2 of Love, Death + Robots will be released on Netflix on 14 May. Volume 3 will reportedly follow in 2022.

Wertzone Classics: Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is not a happy man. He has a thankless job, a bunch of incompetent subordinates and he doesn't get no respect or, more accurately, actually gets no respect. The arrival of a fresh, eager-eyed new recruit (a six-foot-tall dwarf named Carrot - long story) whose relaxed and literal approach to policing (such arresting the head of the Thieves' Guild for being a thief) is another headache for Vimes to deal with. At the same time, the Unseen University Librarian is upset over the theft of a book that could be used to summon dragons and, in an almost certainly unrelated incident, people over the city are vanishing, leaving behind only fine traces of ash and scorched brickwork. Yes, things are definitely afoot...

Guards! Guards! is Terry Pratchett's tribute to detective novels and all those hapless extras dressed in chainmail who's only job in films is to run into the grand hall and get cut down by the hero. No-one ever seems to ask them if they want to. The Ankh-Morpork City Watch is arguably the most popular and enduring of all of Pratchett's creations and this first book about them is one of the very best Discworld books, a solid combination of Pratchett's gifts for plot, satire, pacing, character and engaging in weightier themes of love, life, death and, er, municipal governance.

This unrepentantly eighth book in the Discworld series introduces some of its most popular characters: Captain Vimes of the Night Watch, a drunkard with a tiny sliver of civic responsibility that's just waiting to be reborn; his deputies Sergeant Colon (one of the most sergeanty sergeants ever committed to the page) and Constable "Nobby" Nobbs (a specimen who may be human only by dint of all other species refusing to acknowledge him); and their cheerful new recruit Carrot, a man raised by dwarfs and who is at all times surrounded by an impenetrable air of naivete which is more effective than full plate mail. There's also Lady Sybil Ramkin, who feels like a prototype for half the cast of Downton Abbey combined into one human being, and also the debut of the immortal Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, fast food seller and related purveyor of gastro-intestinal distress to the masses. Established characters also return: Lord Vetinari, the Patrician, a man so deviously cunning he could have Machiavelli for breakfast and Littlefinger for lunch before polishing off all of the Borgias for dinner, and of course the Librarian, who by contrast would settle for a nice banana.

Also returning, with an increased starring role, is Ankh-Morpork itself. In the great lexicon of fictional cities, Ankh-Morpork ranks right at the very top for its sheer believability as a metropolis for fantasy hijinks. For its first few appearances, the city was just a backdrop but in Guards! Guards! it is the star, Pratchett selling the grubby city through the unabashed and wholly irrational love that Captain Vimes has for it (whilst acknowledging it's million faults, oddly the same number as its population). What was once a self-acknowledged Lanhkmar tribute act is now a very effective solo artist in its own right, and will only get better from hereon out.

Pratchett's writing takes another significant upward swing with this volume, exuding a greater level of confidence than ever before. He's funny when he wants to be, dramatic when he needs to be, even touching when it is required. The story threads are laid out, developed and then resolved with impressive efficiency and maximum comedic impact. The way the last few paragraphs hilariously resolve very minor story points from a hundred pages previously is very clever.

Guards! Guards! (*****) is not the best Discworld book, but it's certainly not far off. Funny, dramatic and just brilliantly entertaining from start to finish. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

I previously reviewed the book here.

Wednesday 21 April 2021

RUMOUR: WHEEL OF TIME TV series to resume filming in the Czech Republic imminently

This is so far not confirmed, but it looks like the Wheel of Time cast and crew are regrouping to finish off the shooting of the first season of the much-delayed show. Josha Stradowski, who plays Rand al'Thor, is back in the Czech Republic and apparently already on location (in a photo later deleted), whilst Madeleine Madden (Egwene al'Vere) was back in Prague a couple of weeks ago.

Production of the eight-episode first season of the Wheel of Time TV series began in September 2019 and continued until March 2020, when it was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic with six episodes completed. Filming resumed in September and continued until December, when a second wave of the virus shut down production, although the crew were able to pick up some additional unit shooting in Spain.

Although the overwhelming majority of the material for the show was in the bag, they hadn't quite finished up everything they needed to, with several more scenes needing to be shot to finish off production on the season. Once that is done, Amazon can throw the marketing switch and get started on prepping the show for transmission.

Although the physical filming of the show has been stretched over an immense timeframe - nineteen months and counting so far - the post-production team has been hard at work on editing the completed material and working on the significant vfx requirements for the show. According to various rumours and reports, multiple episodes are already complete and could be aired tomorrow if the whole season was completed. This means that it should not take too much longer to finish the season off once the last shots are in the can.

The first season of Wheel of Time, assuming they get the final shots done relatively quickly with no further interruptions, is likely to air on Amazon Prime before the end of this year.

Robert's Rebellion spin-off off the table (again) at HBO

It has been clarified that HBO are not developing a Game of Thrones spin-off show about Robert's Rebellion, arguably the most important event in the backstory of the series. Instead, journalist James Hibberd has confirmed that rumours of this were the result of confusion over the recently-announced stage play project.

The stage play will tell the story of the Great Harrenhal Tourney in the Year of False Spring, where Lyanna Stark met Rhaegar Targaryen, sparking a chain of events leading to Robert's Rebellion. George R.R. Martin had previously said that the true story of the tourney and the Rebellion is something he is not interested in pursuing, as the Song of Ice and Fire novels will reveal the backstory of the Rebellion even as it expands the current-day storyline, and by the end of the novels readers will know all the important beats of the war. Creating a spin-off novel or TV show based on the Rebellion would simply be "joining the dots," and not interesting in itself.

Clearly he changed his mind on the tourney, perhaps because it takes place on a much smaller scale with a constrained cast of characters in one location, suiting the medium quite well. The Rebellion itself, however, sounds like it has returned to not being on the cards.

HBO are instead about to imminently start shooting House of the Dragon, a prequel series about the Dance of Dragons, a bloody civil war that raged within House Targaryen about 170 years before the events of the books and TV show. They are also in discussion on multiple other projects, including an animated series, a series about the great explorer Corlys Velaryon, a series set in the slums of Flea Bottom in King's Landing, and another epic show about Nymeria and her flight to Dorne after her homeland is destroyed by the Valyrians. HBO has also been developing ideas for adapting the Dunk & Egg prequel novellas, although Martin has also been reluctant to discuss that project before the novella series is complete.

Olivia Colman and Emilia Clarke join Marvel's SECRET INVASION

British actresses Olivia Colman and Emilia Clarke have both signed on to Marvel's upcoming Disney+ TV show Secret Invasion.

The series, which is a semi-sequel to Captain Marvel, features the return of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, leader of the alien Skrulls. In the comic book story of the same name, the shapeshifting Skrulls conduct a clandestine invasion of Earth which is stopped by the Avengers. However, the Skrulls in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are more sympathetic and presented as potential allies of the human race. It's more likely that the MCU version of the story will feature either civil war within the Skrulls (as some wish to take over Earth and others work alongside humans) or possibly a struggle between Skrulls and their traditional enemies, the Kree.

Colman is one of Britain's leading actresses at the moment, noted for her facility with both comedy and drama. Her roles include Broadchurch, The Crown, The Night Manager, Green Wing, Peep Show and Fleabag on television, and The Favourite and Hot Fuzz in film. She has won an Oscar, four BAFTAs and three Golden Globes, though she has not nailed down an Emmy despite multiple nominations.

Clarke is best-known for her role as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO's Game of Thrones, and has also appeared in films including Solo, Be Before You and Last Christmas. She has also become active in charity work, particularly neurorehabilitation after she revealed she had suffered two brain aneurysms whilst working on Game of Thrones. Like Colman, she has been nominated for multiple Emmy Awards.

Kyle Bradstreet is serving as head writer of the project, which is expected to last for six episodes. Production is expected to start in the summer for a late 2022 debut.

Tuesday 20 April 2021

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Prince Teppic is the heir to the desert kingdom of Djelibeybi*. His father, a non-traditional man with odd ideas, decides to send him to get the best education possible outside of the Old Kingdom, by sending him to join the Ankh-Morpork Assassins' Guild. Seven years later, Teppic is summoned home by sad news and sets about building the greatest pyramid ever seen on the Disc. This proves to be a Very Bad Idea.

Pyramids is one of those rare books in the Discworld series, being a total stand-alone. Its characters and events do not recur elsewhere in the series (brief cameos by Death and the Librarian excepted) and its events are barely referred to elsewhere. It's a viable jumping-on point for new readers, although in terms of quality it's not among the best books in the series, though certainly not among the weakest either. It's a middling Discworld book which, fortunately, means it's pretty good.

The book is primarily concerned about ossification, ritual and conservatism, how slavishly following ideas because they're old and "have always worked" is not good enough and can lead to long-lasting harm. It's also Pratchett's first tilt at religious fundamentalism, and how people in power use and abuse religious faith to further their own ends, although here he takes the idea to extremes by having the fundamentalist being so unflinching in his belief that he's become incorruptible by dint of every idea outside of his very narrow worldview simply bouncing off him. Pratchett would address these ideas again later on in Small Gods.

Pyramids risks being a lazy comedic novel using stereotypes (the times Pratchett does this, with "fantasy China" in Interesting Times and "fantasy Australia" in The Last Continent, are among the Discworld series' weaker efforts) and the presence of gags about pyramids, mummies and the Sphinx do occasionally teeter on the edge of Carry On territory, but Pratchett does back off and instead uses the setting as a framing device for more interesting ideas about religion and science. The result is probably the best fantasy novel inspired by Egypt outside of N.K. Jemisin's more original Dreamblood duology.

The novel also has an interesting structure which seems to be inspired by the original Star Wars movie. Although Teppic is somewhat more worldly wise, he does have a Luke Skywalker vibe going on, whilst his much more charismatic friend Chidder has a Han Solo thing . Chidder even owns an unconventional freighter which is actually a faster-than-expected smuggling ship (the Unnamed), and both have tension with the beautiful Ptraci, who turns out to have a secret identity you're already probably well ahead of the curve on. Oh, and there's even a hairy sidekick who can't talk English but is vastly more intelligent than anyone expects. Once this was pointed out to me I couldn't ignore it.

Finally, the novel riffs on the state of hard science fiction in the late 1980s. Back then there was a seismic shift going on as the SF genre stopped focusing so much on spaceships and adventure stories in favour of long, complicated novels and series about cutting-edge ideas. SF authors were scrambling to stay current ideas being theorised by the likes of Stephen Hawking - A Brief History of Time came out whilst Pratchett was writing Pyramids - even if they didn't fully understand them, leading to lot of novels about knotty time travel or black holes where the word "quantum" is subjected to a lot of questionable abuse. Pratchett has great fun riffing on this tendency, whilst also employing it himself, with the novel featuring some clever ideas on time running at different speeds and time warps stripping people of some of their dimensions.

There's a lot going on in Pyramids (****) - it was the longest Discworld book to this point, though still not cracking 400 pages - and sometimes it feels a bit crammed with ideas that it doesn't have time to fully explore, which is why some overspill into later novels (Small Gods addresses some of the same themes more elegantly). It's a funny book but also a smart one with some really cool ideas about time, space and advanced camel mathematics. It is available in the UK and USA. I previously reviewed the book here.

* Pratchett was reportedly disappointed that Americans didn't get this joke, so created the nearby kingdom of Hersheba just for them.

Sunday 18 April 2021

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries

AD 3015. The Inner Sphere is gripped by the Third Succession War, with the great powers clashing for control of human space. With the regular armies of the Great Houses stretched, it's a time of opportunity for mercenary companies to make money and gain a reputation for themselves.

Is there much more we can ask from video games than the ability to jump in a giant robot and use the giant robot to destroy other giant robots and occasionally just smash up a city for the sheer hell of it? It could be argued not, and, since 1989, the MechWarrior series of video games has satisfied that urge in a very enjoyable manner.

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is the first single-player game in the series since 2002 and makes a ton of concessions for new players. It is set earlier in the timeline than any previous game and does not require foreknowledge of the wider BattleTech franchise. However, if you played the outstanding 2018 turn-based strategy game BattleTech (to which this is a real-time companion), you'll find a lot here that's familiar in terms of mechs, terminology, equipment and even UI, especially the menus and the systems for outfitting your mechs. MechWarrior 5 is also somewhat more forgiving than its brutally tough cousin, despite also being a lot more hectic.

MechWarrior 5 consists of two game modes. The first has you on board a Leopard dropship, where your mechs and mechwarriors are based. You can wander around the ship in first-person and explore the ship and inspect your mechs at the correct scale, which is very impressive. For certain campaign missions and story moments, you can also wander up to characters to engage in conversations which further the story. Using menus you can also select your next mission, move the ship to another system and engage in equipment and mech purchase, maintenance and selling. You can also hire and fire pilots or review your progress so far. This is similar to the metagame in BattleTech, although the ability to actually walk around the ship is cool for a bit; it later becomes a bit pointless and you can do everything through menus instead. There's also much less character here. In BattleTech you could talk to characters, even upgrade the social features of the ship to make your pilots happier. In MechWarrior 5 there's somewhat less to do other than selecting missions and maintaining your war machine.

Once you arrive at a star system with contracts available, you can choose which mission to take and then engage in negotiations with the faction in question. You can discuss pay for the mission, how much salvage you can claim and insurance for mech damage. There's some gambling here, since salvaging an enemy mech could net you several times the pay for the mission, but that only applies if you can disable an enemy mech without blowing its reactor, so upping the hard cash reward for the mission might be preferable. The more jobs you do for a faction, the more negotiating points you can get as your standing with them improves. However, sometimes a faction may direct you into combat against another faction, resulting in a corresponding drop in reputation with that faction, which might become a problem later on when you need that faction to give you more jobs. This system is fun and makes choosing which missions to take on and who to appease and who to annoy a rewarding and interesting system of choices.

Once a mission is locked in, the Leopard lands and deploys your lance of mechs into real-time combat: you can bring up to three fellow mechs into combat with you, which can be controlled by AI or other human players of your choosing. Sometimes the dropship dumps you straight into a mass firefight (with the dropship laying down impressive volumes of covering fire) but more often it drops you outside a combat zone and you have to head in, perhaps using the terrain for cover, going the long way around to take the enemy by surprise or just charging in all guns blazing.

Combat is fast, furious and frantic, but you have a good amount of feedback thanks to a radar and robust damage report models for your mechs plus the enemy and allied troops. You can be more tactical and hold back with a sniper mech to attack from a distance with gauss guns and long-range missiles, perhaps directing your more brawler-focused allies into close combat, or vice versa. Like a good space or air combat game, the game mixes real-time action and a more strategic element of commanding allies; MechWarrior 2 (the game that popularised the franchise) was consciously echoing contemporaries X-Wing and Wing Commander but in a giant robot, and MechWarrior 5 feels like a solid upgrade of that, feeling like a contemporary of Ace Combat 7 and Star Wars: Squadrons (but still in a giant robot). Combat is something the game nails very satisfyingly, which is important as you're going to be doing a hell of a lot of it.

The game provides context for what you're doing through three tiers of missions. The first is story missions, which propel the game's main storyline forward. The storyline isn't fantastic (and certainly not as good as BattleTech's) but it does have some solid voice acting from Elias Toufexis  (Adam Jensen from the Deus Ex franchise) and it does have some excellently-designed mission setpieces. These missions are triggered intermittently when you gain reputation levels. There are 15 such levels in the game and you gain rep from completing jobs for factions. Once you get to a new level, new story missions appear and you can get those underway.

The second tier of mission is quests, marked on the map by yellow circles. These are, effectively, side-quests with their own storyline and characters, along with unique dialogue, with quite large reputation and cash rewards. These questlines take you back and forth across an entire warzone with twists and turns in the story, and sometimes the ability to switch sides and work for the opposition who may contact you with a much better offer. Quests are not necessary to proceed, but bulk out the game in terms of giving you meaningful stuff to do.

The lowest tier are procedurally-generated missions which are simply infinite in number, randomly generating rewards, opposition and terrain and throwing you into battle. These missions are good for picking up salvage, cash and grinding smaller amounts of reputation, though for those who want to make faster progress, quests are a better bet.

These combine into a fairly compelling experience: you do missions to increase reputation, salvage and cash; you spend those resources to improve your pilots, mechs and equipment; and then you unlock the next part of the story and move on. You can complete MechWarrior 5 in around 30 hours (roughly half the length of a BattleTech campaign) but also expand it out for much longer than that as you track down rare mechs and equipment and exhaustively try to complete every quest chain in the game.

So, with great combat, the ability to co-op every single mission and solid upgrading and loot mechanics, it'd be easy to recommend the game unambiguously. However, there are a fair few problems with the game. None of these are massive by themselves but the accumulated array of them can be fairly vexing.

The first is how fresh enemy mechs are spawned mid-mission. Originally they appeared out of nowhere way too close to your lance, resulting in damage and mission losses for no apparent reason. Patches improved this by making the enemy appear a lot further away, but it's still a disconcerting experience that feels a bit weird. 

The second is that your radar works in the weirdest way imaginable, with it working based on line of sight. So you have to see something before your radar can lock on, with enemy mechs vanishing from view if they just pass behind a boulder for a few seconds. Even worse is the low range of your radar, with you sometimes able to see a bunch of enemy mechs a couple of kilometres away and even hit them with dumb-fire weapons (like gauss guns and plasma cannons), but not able to actually lock onto them with missiles until they're much closer. This is all pretty dumb, and a let-down on how radar worked in BattleTech, where you could use sensor abilities to target enemies from much further away and you could also use telemetry feeds, so one scout mech on a recon mission could allow all your troops to lock on from much further away.

The third is that AI in general could be a bit stronger. The enemy default stance is to bum-rush you, sometimes allowing you to wipe out what would be a formidable enemy force because their light mechs outrun their heavier support, allowing you to destroy them piecemeal as they arrive. Enemy AI also seems reluctant to use long-range weapons or jump jets. Allied AI can also be ropey, particularly in base defence missions where you allies sometimes careen through allied structures without a care in the world (resulting in amusing screams of rage from your employers) and happily discharge their plasma cannons and missiles at the enemy even if you're standing right in front of them (which can be fatal).

These problems are annoying and frustrating but - very happily - they've also mostly been fixed by MechWarrior 5's outstanding modding community. As I related previously, I installed a number of mods which fixed almost all of the above problems instantly. Better Spawns removes random mech spawns altogether and replaces them with an enemy dropship arriving and dropping the mechs manually. The AI fix mods make both allied and enemy AI much stronger, so your allies stop shooting you and blowing up allied bases and the enemy will use missiles and jumpjets from time to time. The 3D Hud dramatically improves weapons and damage feedback. Max Tonnage removes the very arbitrary-feeling weight limits on missions that feels nonsensical (given that enemy spawns seem to be based on your tonnage, this doesn't make the game a cakewalk either), and the JumpShip Animation dramatically speeds up the game by removing unskippable cut scenes. The only outstanding problem is the radar, which apparently will be addressed in the forthcoming expansions.

Without the mods, MechWarrior 5 (***½) is a great game beset by annoyances. With those mods, MechWarrior 5 (****½) becomes a rich, compelling game experience mixing fun mech management with satisfying, crunchy combat.

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is available right now on PC via Epic Game Store, which easily allows for modding, and on the Xbox Game Pass, which very much does not. The game will launch on Steam on 27 May alongside a new expansion, Heroes of the Inner Sphere, and an Xbox One/Series X version of the game.

Friday 16 April 2021

RUMOUR: The first 1-2 seasons of LORD OF THE RINGS: THE SECOND AGE have cost almost half a billion dollars

The Hollywood Reporter has indicated that the upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel TV series, The Second Age*, has cost almost half a billion dollars so far. In fact, they put the figure at $465 million.

The Reporter is pretty reliable in these matters, but I've filed this under "rumour" because the source is the New Zealand government and they did not precisely break down the costs involved.

We know there are eight episodes in each of the first two seasons of the show, and the first two seasons have been commissioned together and completely written. There were also reports a while back that the LotR team were shooting up to 20 episodes in the first extended filming bloc (which began in February 2020 and is expected to continue for several months to come, although there was an extended break last year for writing), which some took to mean they were filming the first two seasons - 16 episodes - back-to-back, which makes sense. As a result, the cost may be spread across two seasons rather than one. This is backed up by a Reuters report where they learned that Amazon was earmarking $500 million for the first two seasons in combined production and marketing costs.

Back in 2017, it was widely reported that Amazon had paid $250 million to the Tolkien Estate for enhanced rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's books not previously covered by any prior deal, now believed to consist of all Numenor and Second Age-related material in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. Amazon had also tapped Warner Brothers and their subsidiary New Line to cooperate on the project, giving them access to the Lord of the Rings rights (used previously to make Peter Jackson's 2001-03 movie trilogy). It was reported that Amazon would be spending up to $150 million per season on five seasons of the series, for a total expenditure of $1 billion.

This new report indicates that that ceiling will be hit considerably sooner than expected. Assuming the costs are indeed divided between two seasons, that would make the cost of each season around $232.5 million, or $29 million per episode. The previous most expensive TV show of all time was either HBO's The Pacific, which cost over $20 million per episode, or Disney+'s currently-airing Falcon and the Winter Soldier, with a reported budget of $25 million per episode, although these are both classified as mini-series. The most expensive ongoing TV show of all time is HBO's Game of Thrones, where the budget reached $16 million per episode in the final season.

This would easily make Lord of the Rings: The Second Age the most expensive TV show of all time, if not quite by as much as some people are saying. However, if the original quote was correct and those costs are just for the first season, the first eight episodes by themselves, then obviously they would rocket up to insanity: $465 million for the season, or $58,125,000 per hour. Each of the three Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies had a budget of around $90 million for three hours, for comparison.

Lord of the Rings Colon Undisclosed Subtitle is currently shooting in New Zealand and expected to air on Amazon Prime Video, probably in early 2022.

* My placeholder title to stop people constantly asking why they're remaking the movies, which they're not; not the likely final title of the series.

Cover art for Joe Abercrombie's WISDOM OF CROWDS revealed

The UK cover art for Joe Abercrombie's next novel, The Wisdom of Crowds, has been revealed.

The novel concludes the Age of Madness trilogy, which began with A Little Hatred and continued with The Trouble with Peace. The book will be released on 16 September this year.

Thursday 15 April 2021

JV Jones releases sample chapter for new novel, SORRY JONES

J.V. Jones has released the cover art and a sample chapter from her new stand-alone novel, Sorry Jones.

Jones wrote the novel to get "back in the zone" after a long time out of the writing game. Since completing Sorry Jones a couple of years ago, she's written the majority of Endlords, the fifth and penultimate book in the long-gestating Sword of Shadows series. She hopes to complete Endlords this year for publication in 2022 or 2023.

Sorry Jones will be self-published in the near future.

Ser Criston Cole of the Kingsguard cast for HBO's HOUSE OF THE DRAGON

George R.R. Martin has announced the casting of a key character for House of the Dragon, the Game of Thrones prequel series due to start shooting imminently in the UK.

Ser Criston Cole is an honoured knight and a member of King Viserys Targaryen's Kingsguard. He is noted as a stalwart warrior who has a key decision to make in the rivalry between Princess Rhaenyra and Alicent Hightower.

In House of the Dragon he is played by Fabien Frankel. A relatively inexperienced actor, Frankel has so far played Theo Sipowicz (the son of Dennis Franz's character) in the recent NYPD Blue reunion pilot which did not proceed to series, but had a larger role as Dominique Renelleau in The Serpent. He also appeared in the 2019 film Last Christmas, opposite Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke.

Announced castmembers for House of the Dragon include Paddy Considine as King Viserys I Targaryen, Olivia Cooke as Alicent Hightower, Emma D'Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen, Steven Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon, Rhys Ifans as Lord Otto Hightower, Sonoya Mizuno as Mysaria and Eve Best as Princess Rhaenys Velaryon.

The series, which begins about 190 years before the events of Game of Thrones, charts the reign of King Viserys, an amiable and respected king, in the tumultuous days after the death of his wife. He names his daughter his heir, but this causes dramatic problems when he remarries later on, setting the scene for the bloodiest civil war in the history of the Seven Kingdoms, the Dance of Dragons.

Disney and Alan Dean Foster approaching settlement on royalties

Disney and SFF author Alan Dean Foster appear to have reached a mutually-satisfying resolution on a royalties dispute first reported last November.

Foster wrote the original novelisation of the first Star Wars movie (published in 1976, months before the film came out), as well as the subsequent original novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye (1978). He also wrote the novelisations of the first three Alien movies, in 1979, 1986 and 1992. Disney, which inherited the payment obligations for all of these works, had ceased payments to Foster in 2015. The SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) guild attempted mediation to no response. In late 2020 the matter was publicised, leading to widespread condemnation of Disney and several other authors noting similar issues with payments on older work.

Foster does not go into details, but notes on his webpage.
"The irritating imbroglio with Disney, which you may have read about, is moving towards a mutually agreeable conclusion. A formal statement will be forthcoming."
Hopefully the matter will now be resolved and Disney will agree to uphold their contractual obligations moving forwards with both Foster and all other impacted authors.

Tuesday 13 April 2021

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

The King of Lancre has died of natural causes. As everyone knows, it is very normal and even traditional for a king to die naturally from a stab wound to the back followed by a swift plummet down a steep staircase. As is also traditional, the king's heir and his crown have mysteriously disappeared and it's no doubt only a matter of time before he grows up and returns to reclaim his birthright etc etc. Some things are Traditional. Unfortunately, the new king and his scheming wife aren't hot followers of Tradition and as a reign of terror falls on Lancre, it falls to three local witches, a psychotic cat and a Fool to take a hand in events...

Six books into his Discworld series, Terry Pratchett decided to take on Bill Shakespeare. Wyrd Sisters mashes together the plot of MacBeth with influence from Hamlet and a subplot about making plays (including a Shakespeare-ish analogue character). It's also the first time that Pratchett seems to have consciously built up an entire community of characters in a book, with a view to revisiting them later on.

Our leading protagonist is Granny Weatherwax, who previously appeared (in a simpler form) in Equal Rites. This time around she's one of a coven of three witches, alongside the matriarchal Nanny Ogg and the young and (misleadingly) wet-behind-the-ears Magrat Garlick. Effectively having three leads is a new idea for Pratchett and allows him to spread the story out a bit more, even if Granny does come across as the effective leader of the group. Pratchett's characterisation is splendid as always, with the realisation of Magrat's anger issues at being constantly underestimated making for fun scenes and Nanny Ogg highly contradictory character tics being oddly compelling: she's a kind-hearted and funny person who inexplicably likes making life miserable for her extended relations and harbours a strong relationship with a cat she thinks is a fluffy kitten rather than a homicidal threat to the peace.

The wider community of Lancre is also established, with its vertiginous geography, literally-minded inhabitants (at least 25% of whom seem to be related by blood or terrifying marriage into Nanny Ogg's clan) and local colour, becoming, after Ankh-Morpork, clearly Pratchett's favourite place to write about on the Disc. 

Those with a working knowledge of epic fantasy tropes, Shakespeare in general and MacBeth in particular can likely see where the story is going, which is something that Pratchett anticipates and has fun with, especially how he overcomes the issue of the witches not wanting to wait fifteen years for the Hidden Heir™ to make his unexpected reappearance, resulting in arguably the most impressive display of magic in the entire series (we'll perhaps ignore the apparent issues this causes with the timeline, as Pratchett subsequently does). 

There is a lot of great comedy here as Pratchett riffs off various ideas and tropes (not to mention some nods to the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin), but there's also splendid use of a real-world theme, in this case propaganda. Words have power of their own, and can be a greater force than armies, and the deployment of the idea is intelligent and well-handled, and also done with relative subtlety, tying into the main storyline's use of a theatre troupe and their ability to create stories that are more memorable than real history.

Wyrd Sisters (****½) sees Pratchett evolving the Discworld setting even further away from the simple fantasy parody it started out as and into much more interesting territory, with a corresponding deepening and complicating of the worldbuilding and characters, whilst remaining funny. The novel is available in the UK and USA.

I wrote a previous review of the novel here.

As an added bonus, the 1997 Cosgrove Hall animated film version of Wyrd Sisters is freely available on YouTube.

Monday 12 April 2021

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Baltimore, 1880. Seventeen years have passed since the dead on the battlefield of Gettysburg rose, sparking a plague that has torn America part. The Confederacy has surrendered and accepted equality...on paper. In reality, the southern states (and even some of the northern) have liberated former slaves only to turn them into soldiers, cannon fodder to fight the undead menace. Jane McKeene, trained at Miss Preston's School of Combat, is destined to become a babysitter for the wealthy and privileged, until she discovers that people in Maryland are going missing without explanation. Her investigation uncovers a conspiracy with far-reaching consequences for the fate of the Union, and for herself.

The American Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict fought in American history, its outcome still debated and contentious a hundred and sixty years later. It has been used before to spur SFF novels. Several of Harry Turtledove's novels have delved deep into "what if...?" scenarios where the consequences of a Southern victory are assessed (unsurprisingly, things do not go well), whilst the Deadlands franchise of tabletop games and novels has explored the consequences of a supernatural schism taking place on the same day as the Battle of Gettysburg.

Dread Nation starts from the very same premise and likewise explores a world where the full reckoning of the recent human catastrophe has taken a back seat to the supernatural menace, including the rapid onset of steampunk technology to aid in the fight against the undead. But the book has a different tone, as Ireland uses the premise to explore complex racial issues and politics whilst always keeping an eye on delivering a gripping narrative.

After a slightly slow start, Dread Nation quickly catches fire and never lets up. The book is fearlessly inventive in how it uses its alternative history and supernatural trappings to explore real sociological and historical issues whilst also delivering satisfying characterisation. Jane McKeene, our protagonist, is complex and has an interesting background, whilst also being intriguingly flawed. Jane is something of a hothead who has issues making short-term sacrifices for long-term gains, and the novel partially explores how Jane becomes more strategic in her thinking, both in how to deal with the undead but also the considerably nastier human foes she encounters during her adventures. The book has several other major characters, explored through Jane's eyes, such as her frenemy Katherine, a rival at school who reluctantly becomes an ally when they agree to team up to investigate a mystery.

The novel is a fine action story as well. There's satisfying fight scenes and some solid zombie killings (a full-scale battle between a town's worth of defenders and a zombie horde is the highlight here). Ireland solves the age-old question of "fast or slow?" by deploying both kinds, and there's some nice background on how America has adapted to the presence of the undead although, at least in this first volume, there is no explanation for the origin of the threat.

The richness of the novel is let down a little by its villains, who feel a bit "generic Stephen King bad guy," being corrupt sheriffs and fire-and-brimstone racist preachers. They get the job done in providing numerous obstacles for Jane and Kate to overcome, but occasionally risk becoming caricatures.

Beyond that minor hiccup, Dread Nation (****½) is a rewarding, fast-paced story which combines real history and events with zombies to create something that is compelling reading. The book is available now in the UK and USA. A sequel, Deathless Divide, is also available.

Friday 9 April 2021

Harmony Gold and Studio Nue confirm collaboration for the continuation of the ROBOTECH and MACROSS franchises

Japanese animation companies Studio Nue, Inc. and Big West Co. Ltd. have announced a fresh collaboration with Harmony Gold USA. The three companies previously collaborated in the mid-1980s to bring Studio Nue and Big West's Macross anime series to American audiences, where it was re-edited and combined with two other shows (Southern Cross and Mospeada) to form an original SF epic called Robotech. The business relationship between the parties has been contentious ever since, with Harmony Gold blocking the release of the various Macross sequel and prequel series in the United States.

The new agreement was made confirming that the Macross animated series can now be released internationally, whilst the Japanese companies have dropped their legal claims that were casting doubt on the release of a planned live-action Robotech movie in Japan.

Harmony Gold previously reached a new distribution deal with Tatsunoko Productions, who worked on Macross with Studio Nue, in 2019 which helped pave the way for this agreement with the remaining stakeholders.

The most likely near-term consequence will be the release or re-release of the original Super Dimensional Fortress Macross series and its canonical sequels Macross 7, Macross Frontier and Macross Delta, and the prequel series Macross Zero, on physical media and streaming platforms.

The bigger deal will be that the planned film version could move ahead. Directors James Wan (Aquaman) and Andy Muschietti (IT) had both been attached to the film before it had gotten mired in development hell, with the Japanese companies objecting to the film's proposed use of Macross characters and mecha designs. This new deal removes those obstacles.

Other ideas that have been floating around for a while, such as a Netflix-produced total remake of Robotech in the vein of their recent Voltron series, are also made possible by this deal. Despite the franchise's name value, Harmony Gold themselves don't have the funding to make a new series (an attempt in 2006, via a straight-to-DVD movie called The Shadow Chronicles, was a failure), so will need to partner with external studios.

Given the ill feeling between the various entities that have existed for almost forty years, it is remarkable that an amicable solution has been worked out, which can only benefit the fans.