Saturday 29 October 2022

THE WITCHER renewed for a fourth season, but without Henry Cavill

In startling news, Henry Cavill has confirmed he is moving on from the role of Geralt of Rivia. He has played the role in two seasons of Netflix's The Witcher, and recently completed filming for the third season, due to air in the summer of 2023. However, he will not be back for the newly-confirmed fourth season. Instead, his role will be taken by Liam Hemsworth.

Cavill has played the role of Geralt since the first season of The Witcher aired in 2019. He is a noted huge fan of the character from Andrzej Sapkowski's novel series and the CD Projekt Red video game series. Cavill has since waxed lyrical about his love of science fiction and fantasy fiction and his addiction to PC gaming.

The critical reception to The Witcher has been mixed, but nobody can doubt Cavill's capability in the role, and he has been highly praised for his performance.

The reasons for Cavill's departure are vague, but he recently re-committed to playing Superman in the DC film universe under incoming new creative head James Gunn, and will apparently play the role in small doses in other films as well as a new solo movie, potentially clashing with the intensive filming schedule for The Witcher.

The news will likely fuel conspiracy theorists, as The Witcher writing team was recently criticised by a former writer who said that his love of the source material was not shared by some of his fellow writers, who instead mocked and belittled the books and video games. Cavill is a noted fan of the books and games.

Liam Hemsworth is seven years Cavill's junior and is best-known for playing Gale in the Hunger Games movie series.

It will be sad to see Cavill go, but at least we have one more full season with him in the role first.

Wednesday 26 October 2022

George R.R. Martin confirms he was a HOMEWORLD player, confirming status as man of culture

In a wide-ranging interview with Stephen Colbert, George R.R. Martin has cited the original Homeworld as one of his favourite video games, confirming his status as a man of culture.

The original Homeworld was released in 1999 and was a real-time space strategy game, praised for its peerless atmosphere, graphics, music and genuine use of 3D space (allowing your ships to move up and down and attack from above or below the ecliptic; this was a big deal back then). It was followed by sequels Homeworld: Cataclysm (2000, recently retitled Emergence) and Homeworld 2 (2003), as well as prequel Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (2016). Homeworld and Homeworld 2 were spruced up and re-released as Homeworld Remastered in 2015. The team are currently working on Homeworld 3 for release in early 2023.

Whether George has played any of the other games in the series is unknown.

GRRM also named Railroad Tycoon (1990) and Master of Orion (1993) as among his favourite video games. In other interviews he has cited Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1985), Sid Meier's Pirates (1987), Civilization (1991) and some games in the Total War series (2000-present) as titles he enjoyed playing. Martin notes that his addiction to Civilization and Railroad Tycoon may have cost him "a couple of novels" in the early 1990s and he stopped playing video games regularly in the early 2000s to focus on his books. He hasn't even played the hugely-acclaimed Elden Ring, the recent video game he provided backstory and lore for.

Various other SFF writers have reported having to manage their writing time and gaming time effectively. Iain Banks was so addicted to Civilization in the early 1990s that he had to remove the game from his hard disk and smash the disks so he could complete his in-progress Culture novel. Terry Pratchett was famously a huge fan of Lemmings (who make a cameo appearance in a Discworld novel), Tomb Raider (for which he once joke-planned a prequel called Tomb Stocker) and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which he got so into that he even contributed some writing to a fan mod of the game. Contemporary writers like Joe Abercrombie regularly report on their video game habits and Brandon Sanderson recently ran a series of reports for his playthrough of the aforementioned Elden Ring.

Does this mean that GRRM should use his clout to get a Homeworld TV show made at HBO? Yes, clearly, it does.

CD Projekt confirm a remake of the original WITCHER game is in development

A few weeks ago CD Projekt unveiled a list of future projects they are working on, including multiple new Witcher games and a sequel to Cyberpunk 2077. They have today confirmed that one of those games, the mysterious "Canis Majoris," is a full-fledged remake of The Witcher, the 2007 RPG that kicked off the franchise and began CDPR's rise to fame.

The Witcher told the story of Geralt, the titular monster-slayer, as he dealt with amnesia and re-learned his fighting skills. Shortly into the game his home castle of Kaer Morhen is raided by the Salamandra, a criminal organisation. Geralt pursues the organisation back to the kingdom of Temeria, which is being afflicted by a plague. Through his typical mix of following clues, investigating crimes and pursuing a startling number of side-quests and optional romances, Geralt eventually uncovers the secrets of the organisation and brings them down.

The game was praised on release for its writing, its focus on character-building (notably several non-combat quests doing mundane things like setting up a pleasant dinner for your friends) and its excellent atmosphere, not to mention how it used BioWare's Aurora Engine (previously used for Neverwinter Nights) but pushed it to the limit in terms of graphics and detail. However, the game was criticised for its decidedly ropey combat and its plethora of bugs, including saved games that would take several minutes to load. CDPR released The Witcher Enhanced Edition a year later with most of these issues solved, which is when the game picked up a far bigger audience. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings followed in 2011 and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in 2015.

The original Witcher is understandably a dated and somewhat janky game to play, not to mention never being released on consoles, so a full-blown remake certainly seems like the way to go. The remake will use Unreal Engine 5 and CDPR are using it to field-test features and ideas they want to include in their next three Witcher games, which will also be using the new engine.

Day-to-day development of the game is being carried out by Fool's Theory, a studio that previously worked on Outrider and Baldur's Gate III. Several veterans of the Witcher series are working at the studio and CDPR are providing "full creative supervision." The game is very early in development, so don't expect to see this for at least a few years.

CDPR themselves are early at work on what is informally being called The Witcher 4, although it is believed the game will not be called that and will involve a new protagonist. Their next release will be Phantom Liberty, an expansion for Cyberpunk 2077.

Tuesday 25 October 2022

James Gunn appointed head of DC films, animation and television

In a surprise move but one that also kinda makes sense, Warner Brothers have appointed director James Gunn as the head of DC films, animation and television. Gunn will have complete control over the direction of the DC universe on screen, effectively becoming the counterpart of his boss at Marvel, Kevin Feige. Gunn will work alongside producer Peter Safran, with whom he previously collaborated on the Peacemaker TV series.

Gunn will handle creative development of the DC screen universe moving forwards, whilst Safran will handle business and production. Gunn will also complete his existing commitments for Marvel, including The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (which launches on Disney+ next month) and post-production on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (which will hit cinemas on 5 May 2023).

Gunn established himself as a superhero player by directing Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017) for Marvel. He also provided assistance and advice to the Russo Brothers on the use of the Guardians in Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019). He was then fired after Disney "discovered" seven-year-old inappropriate tweets, which Gunn had already discussed at length and apologised for in 2012. Marvel later reversed the decision after a public backlash. In the interim Gunn moved to DC to direct The Suicide Squad (2021), which was well-reviewed but a box office disappointment (due to opening during the COVID pandemic and being available on the same day on HBO Max). He then wrote all eight episodes of the first season of spin-off show Peacemaker and directed five of them, which were very well-received, before returning to Marvel to shoot Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.

Those expecting Gunn to completely blank slate the DC film universe and start afresh will likely be disappointed, with Henry Cavill confirming his return to the franchise as Superman just yesterday. It looks like Gunn will aim to "soft reboot" the franchise instead in the same manner as The Suicide Squad did to its predecessor, keeping those actors and characters who are popular and who worked but easing off on continuity references in favour of new stories.

George R.R. Martin offers further update on THE WINDS OF WINTER, estimates the book is over 75% complete

George R.R. Martin has offered another update on his progress on The Winds of Winter, the sixth and penultimate volume in his A Song of Ice and Fire series (better known these days as "the Game of Thrones books,"), only four months after the last one.

Martin reiterates that the book is going to be significantly longer than the previous two longest novels in the series, A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons. In his previous update, he indicated the book will around 300 manuscript pages longer than either of those volumes, and maybe longer. He also reiterates that at such a size, it may be necessary for the novel to be split into two volumes. However, he wants to finish the book in full before it is split, so the two volumes can be released together or just a few months apart (unlike the split of A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, which led to a six-year gap between the two volumes).

Martin also suggests that the book is 75% complete, immediately before saying his estimates are notoriously unreliable. So the book may be significantly more than three-quarters done, although hopefully not less. If we assume that tracks linearly, that means the book might still be two to three years away.

Amazon release first teaser image for the FALLOUT TV series

Amazon have joined in the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the Fallout franchise by releasing the first teaser image from their upcoming live-action TV series based on the video games.

There's not much to go on in the image, but it confirms that the story will begin in Vault 33 (as indicated by set images released a few months ago). Vault 33 has not appeared or even been mentioned before in any prior Fallout content, seemingly confirming that this will be a completely new story in the same world, not an adaptation of any of the existing games.

The classic image of the Vault staff watching one of their number leave the Vault on some mission or quest into the Wasteland will be very familiar, as it's effectively how both the original Fallout and Fallout 3 started. The only thing we can say for sure is that the adventurer departing - presumably the main protagonist, seems to be armed with a gun and there's a body lying on the floor behind them.

The Fallout TV series stars Walton Goggins, Ella Purnell, Xelia Mendes-Jones and Kyle MacLachlan, is showrun by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner, and is executive produced by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. The show has been filming since July in New Jersey, New York and Utah and is expected to wrap in the next few weeks. The show will likely debut on Amazon in the latter half of 2023.

Bethesda have celebrated the franchise's 25th anniversary by confirming an enhanced and updated version of Fallout 4 is coming to PC and next-generation consoles in 2023, and announcing that they will be moving onto development of Fallout 5 once work on their next two games, Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI, is complete (so probably don't hold your breath on seeing it this decade).

Disney+ becomes the international home for DOCTOR WHO as part of a major revamp of the franchise

The BBC and Disney+ have signed a major distribution deal for Doctor Who. From late 2023, Disney+ will become the international, worldwide streaming home for the franchise outside of the UK and Republic of Ireland (where the BBC and BBC iPlayer will remain the home for the show). Previously, the show had aired on a number of different local platforms based on individual deals, but the new deal will allow the show to air simultaneously in 150 different markets worldwide.

The deal has been under negotiation since July as part of returning showrunner Russell T. Davies' new vision for the show. Davies wants to return the show to the international phenomenon it was during his initial reign (2005-10) and that of his successor Steven Moffat (2010-17), with the show's popularity peaking in 2013 during its 50th anniversary celebrations. The show subsequently dropped off in profile, something ascribed to a combination of a fragmented transmission schedule (the show aired seven seasons between 2005 and 2013, but only six in the decade since then), a reduced episode count, less merchandising and more inconsistent writing.

Davies' initial plan involves a three-part 60th Anniversary story featuring David Tennant returning to the role of the Doctor. Tennant previously played the Tenth Doctor from 2005 to 2010, becoming arguably the most popular actor in the role (challenged historically only by Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor). He returned for the 50th anniversary in 2013. Tennant is now playing the Fourteenth Doctor, with the mystery of why he resembles a prior incarnation to form the spine of the new episodes.

It's already been confirmed that Tennant's return is short-term, with Ncuti Gatwa to take over as the Fifteenth Doctor in time for a Christmas Special in 2023 and then a full season of episodes in 2024.

Davies also wants to overcome the show's historical budget problems. The show's budget was frozen around 2012 in the wake of major cost cutting at the BBC after the 2008 financial crisis, resulting in a decreased episode count and sometimes 18 months or longer going between seasons. To overcome this issue, Davies has convinced the BBC to move production to an independent company, Bad Wolf Productions, which allows for different accounting so the show's profits can be fed back into it (instead of being used to subsidise other programming). The Disney+ deal hopefully will also benefit the show and allow it to compete with big-budget streaming fare more convincingly.

As part of the new branding exercise, the BBC and Disney+ have also unveiled the return of the classic series' "diamond logo." This logo was used from Seasons 11 to 17 of the original series (1973-1980) and adorned vast amounts of merchandising in that time, as well as being used for most of the show's releases on VHS in the 1990s.

Doctor Who returns to the screens in November 2023.

Monday 24 October 2022

Damon Lindelof to write a STAR WARS movie

In interesting news, Damon Lindelof is reportedly working on a Star Wars movie script. The project, which is apparently very early in development, already has Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Ms. Marvel) attached to direct.

Lindelof is a well-known Star Wars fan from way back in the day, but had been reticent to work on the Disney version of the franchise due to his numerous brushes with fan backlashes. Lindelof rose to fame for his work on Lost (2004-10), which he co-created with J.J. Abrams and co-showran with Carlton Cuse. The show enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success for most of its six-season run, but had a messy finale which remains somewhat controversial (although time seems to have been kinder to it than Battlestar Galactica's near-contemporary finale).

Lindelof then attracted much more negative press for his work on a batch of films from beloved SF properties: Star Trek (2009), Alien prequel Prometheus (2012) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), which were all slated to some degree. Lindelof's name was in danger of becoming mud, but he staged a major career resurrection with the HBO drama The Leftovers (2014-17) and the mini-series Watchmen (2019), which left his skills in demand once again.

The prospect of a Lindelof-written Star Wars movie is interesting as long as he brings the quality and class that he did from The Leftovers and Watchmen, distinctly less so if it's more at the Star Trek Into Darkness end of the quality line.

DOCTOR WHO special sets new records and tees up the show's 60th Anniversary year

The BBC has aired the final episode of Doctor Who to feature Jodie Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor, setting several records for the show (and possibly two world records) in the process. It also set things up for the show's 60th anniversary in 2023, which will see Russell T. Davies return as showrunner after a thirteen-year gap.

Note that this article contains SPOILERS for the episode in question.

The Power of the Doctor marked the end of the Thirteenth Doctor's run, 4 years, 9 months and 28 days after her first appearance. Remarkably, this makes Whittaker the second-longest-serving Doctor in terms of appearances, behind only Tom Baker (who played the Doctor for 6 years, 9 months and 13 days from 1974 to 1981). However, due to the extremely low number of episodes produced in this time, she only ranks ninth in terms of screentime. And arguably both the Seventh and Eight Doctors were "in station" for longer (almost nine years apiece), as the show was on hiatus after their runs ended but without a regeneration scene.

The episode saw the return of Janet Fielding as former companion to the Fifth Doctor, Tegan Jovanka and Sophie Aldred as Dorothy, aka "Ace," former companion to the Seventh Doctor. Tegan last appeared on-screen in 1984 and Ace in 1989, and was the incumbent companion when the show went off-air for its first long hiatus.

However, the episode also saw the surprise return of three additional companions in extended cameos: Mel Bush (Bonnie Langford), who last appeared on screen in 1987; Jo Jones (nee Grant) (Katy Manning), who last appeared in Doctor Who in 1973 (but did have a guest appearance on The Sarah Jane Adventures in 2010); and, most remarkably, original companion Ian Chesterton (William Russell), who last appeared on-screen in 1965.

Russell's return sets potentially two world records. The first is the record for the longest hiatus between the same actor reprising the same role. This was formerly set by an actor on British soap opera Coronation Street who left in 1968 and returned for a storyline in 2011 (a gap of 43 years). For Russell this gap is over 57 years, which easily beats that record. The second is the record for length of time between the same actor's first and last appearances in the same show as the same character, as Russell appeared in the very first episode of Doctor Who, An Unearthly Child, which aired on 23 November 1963, giving us a run of just under 59 years.

The episode also established several records within Doctor Who itself, including the episode with the largest number of different Doctors appearing. As well as Whittaker as the Thirteenth Doctor, the episode saw David Bradley reprise his role as the First Doctor (subbing for the deceased William Hartnell, as he has in several previous episodes); Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor (for the first time since 2007); Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor (for the first time since 1986); Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor (for the first time since 1996); and Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor (for the first time since 2013). The episode also sees the return of the Fugitive Doctor, played by Jo Martin, and marks the first appearance by David Tennant as the Fourteenth Doctor, who inexplicably has an identical appearance to his tenth incarnation. Sacha Dhawan, who plays the Master, also spends some time in the episode playing the Doctor, making for a total of nine actors playing the role in one episode.

Eight companions appearing in the story is not a record, however, as The Five Doctors (1983) featured the appearance of no less than ten companions.

The episode ended in an unusual fashion with a sequence written by the returning Russell T. Davies, with David Tennant being unveiled as the Fourteenth Doctor. Tennant previously played the Tenth Doctor from 2005 to 2010, returning for the 50th Anniversary Special in 2013. The reason for the new Doctor being identical to a former incarnation is unknown, and likely a prime driver of the plot for the 60th Anniversary year. 

The BBC has now confirmed previous reports that there will be three anniversary specials airing in November 2023, with Tennant in place for all of them before he regenerates into the Fifteenth Doctor, to be played by Ncuti Gatwa. Gatwa's first full appearance will be in a Christmas special to air in December 2023, followed by the full fourteenth series in early 2024. It is known for the specials that Catherine Tate is also returning as former companion Rose Temple-Noble and Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred, his final role before he sadly passed away after the completion of filming, whilst Neil Patrick Harris is playing a villainous role.

House of the Dragon: Season 1

The Old King, Jaehaerys Targaryen, dies with no clear line of succession. At a Great Council, the realm chooses Prince Viserys as his successor, despite the superior blood-claim of Princess Rhaenys, establishing a precedent that a man's claim to the Iron Throne will always outclass that of a woman. Many years later, Viserys' wife dies in childbirth and he names his daughter and only child, Rhaenyra as his own heir. But when Viserys marries again and sires several sons, the precedent that he benefited from sets Westeros on a course for a deadly clash.

HBO's Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire epic fantasy series, was the most successful, most talked-about television show of the 2010s. The disappointing finale aside, the show reset expectations for the scale of stories that could be told on the small screen and single-handedly turned adult, live-action fantasy into a viable television genre. Many fantasy shows have come along since seeking to pick up where it left off, such as The Witcher, The Wheel of Time and, most recently, Amazon's Rings of Power. But HBO itself has now rejoined the fray with a direct spin-off, a prequel set almost 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones and charting the division of the Targaryen dynasty.

Perhaps frustratingly for all those other claimants to the fantasy crown, House of the Dragon emerges as the clear successor to Game of Thrones in overall quality. Despite the near-total absence of any of the same creative team from Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon arrives on screen with formidable verve and gravitas. It has the confidence to deal out its storytelling in measured doses, long scenes devoted to characterisation and relationships punctuated by swift bursts of action, dragonfire and violence. The show channels some of the same energy HBO's other great political drama, Succession, as a story of familial drama with vast-ranging consequences, a huge scope examined through a small lens. This gives Dragon some benefits even over its mothership series, with much less rapid transitioning between events separated by thousands of miles, allowing the show to delve deeper into the characters and their motivations.

Dragon still doesn't make things too easy for itself. The first season spans almost three decades, with several shifts in the cast. There's a lot of similar-looking characters with similar-sounding names, many coming complete with their own dragon (some of whom change owners as the story continues). If Game of Thrones had a sin of sometimes shying away from complexity and streamlining A Song of Ice and Fire's scope into something less ambitious, combining characters and (often pointlessly) renaming those with even vaguely similar names, House of the Dragon goes in the other direction, trusting the viewers will follow it along. This stands in especially harsh contrast to The Rings of Power, where at almost every turn the writers instead chose to simplify and streamline things, constantly underestimating the both the intelligence of the viewer and the richness of Tolkien's source material. 

Where Dragon overcomes potential hurdles is its constant reframing of the story on the relationship between Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower. Childhood friends and contemporaries (in a shift from the source material, where Alicent is older and more ambitious from the off), the two enjoy a strong camaraderie that is upset by politics, especially the yearning ambition of Alicent's father, Otto, Hand of the King. From the perspective of each, both Rhaenyra and Alicent have excellent reasons and sympathetic motivations for much of their actions. Rhaenyra is foolish in having children with something other than her husband, but she is also put in a difficult position by his inability to have children with her. Viserys often makes weak decisions to appease those around him, but he both has an aversion to bloodshed (not necessarily a bad thing) and a deep-seated belief that House Targaryen must marshal its strength against other, greater threats. Even the central argument over whether a woman should sit the Iron Throne delves into the idea of idealism versus pragmatism, what should be conflicting with what actually is.

The casting is exemplary. Paddy Considine plays King Viserys as a peacemaker and a family man who is never happier when sharing good news with his closest friends and family. Realpolitik and discussions of war anger him. Considine is already one of Britain's finest actors and House of the Dragon has finally given him the international awareness of that; his final scenes in the season should ensure him an Emmy nomination, at the very least, next year.

Similarly, Matt Smith shakes off the last vestiges of being Doctor Who to give a performance mixing anger, edgy violence and a yearning for acceptance as Prince Daemon, Viserys' younger, more reckless brother whom everyone fears will plunge the realm into war, but grows over the season into something of a more responsible figure. Smith had already made a great career pulling away from his early signature role and House of the Dragon solidifies his reputation.

Other seasoned hands get some great moments in the sun: Rhys Ifans is excellent as Otto Hightower, giving a human edge to his character's grasping ambition. Steve Toussaint brings a mixture of pride, dignity and passion as Lord Corlys Velaryon, the Sea Snake. Eve Best is outrageously good as Rhaenys, the Queen Who Never Was, whose historical anger at her own usurping brings an interesting perspective to the current crisis.

The focus of the season is definitely on the two central characters of Rhaenyra and Alicent. Milly Alcock and Emily Carey play the young Rhaenyra and Alicent (in the first five episodes) with a mixture of energy and responsibility. Emma D'Arcy and Olivia Cooke play their adult incarnations (in the latter five episodes) with more nuance and cynicism, but channelling their younger counterparts' mannerisms and expressions in an impressive way.

Production-wise the show is also outstanding. Impressive sets and excellent costumes abound, and the CG is superb, especially anything involving the dragons. The show does make liberal use of video walls (similar to those used on The Mandalorian) and, like a lot of other modern fantasy shows, it sometimes feels a bit unnecessarily fake when real locations are substituted for CGI backdrops that can't help but feel sterile and unconvincing. Dragon goes a step further by faking some of the exact same places that were shot on location in Thrones (most notably the Dragonstone causeway), which makes the fakery even more obvious. However, Dragon does, for the most part, avoid the awful, plastic-looking CGI that blights a lot of modern genre productions, usually with much better use of lighting. Unfortunately Dragon does have a lot of murky night-time scenes and these are almost as badly-lit as the final season of Game of Thrones, with important scenes vanishing in a murky grey soup.

House of the Dragon is not flawless and does make some odd choices, and some outright (but certainly not fatal) stumbles. Several times the show unleashes "rule of cool" nonsense, things that look really spectacular but don't make any sense if you spend five seconds thinking about them: a Kingsguard brutally murdering a guy in front of a room full of witnesses and suffers no consequences; a dragon smashes through a building and kills dozens of civilians and nobody gives a toss; a character throws away a moment where they could end a conflict before it even starts with a minimum of bloodshed (although they later give some semi-reasonable justifications for it); Daemon runs through a storm of arrows and single-handedly fights off dozens of men in a highly improbable manner. In these moments the show teeters on the edge of Game of Thrones Season 7 and 8 silliness, but it always manages to pull itself back from the abyss with its character-focused and character-based dramatic scenes, which is where the meat of the story is.

Season 1 of House of the Dragon (****) is the finest slice of the Thrones franchise since at least the fourth season of the original series, and certainly the finest slice of live-action, epic fantasy TV to air since then as well (despite some other showings bringing much more money to the table). It's character-focused story mixes family and political drama to great effect, with outstanding vfx set pieces and uniformly excellent performances. Occasional jarring jumps in the timeline and events that visually impress but don't make sense logically threaten to undo the good work being done elsewhere, but ultimately the season is a great piece of television fantasy and drama.

The season is available to watch on HBO and HBO Max (and local equivalents) in much of the world, and Sky Atlantic and Now TV in the UK.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Sunday 23 October 2022

Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me From Success by Miki Berenyi

Founded in 1987, the British band Lush were (and remain) an interesting study in contradictions. They formed as a self-described shambolic amateur unit with a terrible live performance but quickly improved and gained the ambition to make complex songs with unusual time signatures and atmospherics, becoming part of the movement which the Americans dubbed "dreampop" but the British called "shoegaze."

Lush also had a rockier side which put them in a good position when they were unexpectedly recruited by Perry Farrell to open the second-ever Lollapalooza tour in 1992, giving them a small but intense following in the United States, not to mention a hair-raising series of anecdotes about playing alongside Ministry, Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

Lush's relentless touring schedule and ability to switch between long, atmospheric songs and punkier, hook-laden guitar numbers should have stood them in good stead for the Britpop explosion, and they achieved the height of their commercial success at that time (with two Top 10 albums and four Top 40 singles), but they also found themselves creatively burned out and annoyed by label pressure to compromise to fit in with the music of the time. When drummer Chris Acland tragically committed suicide at the end of 1996, the band dissolved, returning only for a short-lived reunion in 2015-16 which ended acrimoniously.

Miki Berenyi was Lush's lead singer and frontwoman, sharing guitarist and songwriting duties with former schoolfriend (and music fanzine co-editor) Emma Anderson. Lush were somewhat unusual in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a British guitar band whose lead creative forces were women, leading to some positive attention but also highly negative and, at times, irrational criticism, including bizarre claims their songs were written by their label. They also had to suffer attempts to make them appear in revealing clothes for magazine articles and videos, and their male colleagues (Acland and bassists Steve Rippon and, later, Phil King) were largely ignored unless the band put their foot down to be depicted equally. The fact they were also moderately successful in the United States when many of their contemporary British colleagues struck up much higher profiles in the UK but couldn't crack America at all seemed even more galling to certain people, and, as gruelling as the American tours could be, they were a relief from the sometimes indifferent British ones. Berenyi, especially, found herself the frequent star of music periodical gossip columns, thanks to frequently attending gigs in London and not holding back her opinions on anything (her eye-catching red hair also made her easy to spot in such venues).

Fingers Crossed is Berenyi's autobiography and a startling look into one of the most interesting, musically creative periods in British history. It takes until almost halfway through the book before we even get to that point. The first half of the book is taken up by Berenyi's family history and childhood. This could be indulgent - rock bios are generally aimed at people who want to learn more about the inside story of who hated who in the band, not necessarily where they went to infant school - but Berenyi is astute enough to realise that much of her personality, personal history, songwriting acumen and the need for a found family of friends and bandmates is informed by her rather unusual upbringing. Also, it's fascinating stuff. The daughter of a Hungarian sports reporter and a Japanese actress (Yasuko Nagazumi, who had regular roles in The Protectors and Space: 1999) who split just a few years after her birth, Berenyi grew up in two very different worlds. Her mother's world was one of glamour, famous actors and parties. Her mother moved to Los Angeles, giving Berenyi an early experience of transatlantic travel and adventures in the Hollywood Hills and visits to the family home in Japan. Berenyi's father's world was somewhat more austere, with frequent trips to Hungary to clandestinely sell western goods beyond the Iron Curtain and being partially raised by her Nazi-sympathising grandmother, who abused her both emotionally and physically.

These aren't all pleasant stories, but there is also a lot of love and nostalgia around, and an evocation of life in 1970s Britain which could both be rough (Berenyi suffered a lot of bullying and attempted bullying at various schools) but also a lot of fun, especially given the privilege of her mother's wealth and introductions to various celebrities. Once the story moves into the 1980s and teenage Berenyi and new-found friend Anderson become music fans, things really kick off: a chance encounter with one of the Thompson Twins sees them being introduced to the world of record production and then starting their own music fanzine, Alphabet Soup. A combination of student grants, studying in London and a ridiculously low cost of living (unachievable now in London) gives them weekly access to gigs, and their contacts lead to a job in the industry for Anderson. Eventually and perhaps inevitably they form a band. Unfortunately, their industry and media contacts give them too much hype before they are ready for it, leading to a flurry of "the next big thing!" articles years before they were even ready to record their first full album, leading to a resulting inevitable backlash from the UK's notoriously tabloidy music press.

The book is searingly honest, perhaps overly so, with Berenyi's keenness to admit to her own faults being refreshing (a few bad episodes and dubious relationship choices appear to be Berenyi's own fault, so it's a relief which she readily admits as much) but also going a bit overboard. Berenyi constantly downplays her own musical skills throughout the book, when even a brief perusal of Lush's back catalogue immediately contradicts that idea.

The relationship between Berenyi and Anderson is the most interesting in the book, as the two women have somewhat different personalities which sometimes clash but also a unified interest in making the best and most interesting music possible, sometimes joining forces to overrule producers, managers and promo people who believe otherwise. There are frustrations apparent in the relationship, mainly stemming from communication issues - at one point Anderson decides to quit the band because she has taken up a position she assumes is completely at odds with everyone else and is shocked to find Berenyi already in 100% agreement with her - and their different views on the musical process. Anderson is happiest in the studio with a compliant producer, finding the best ways of assembling the songs, and finds the tours (especially of the USA) draining, whilst Berenyi much prefers getting out and playing live to crowds. The tension between the two perspectives leads to some great music, but also stressful situations within the band.

The book also features an interesting fresh perspective on being a woman on the guitar band circuit at this particular point in time. Berenyi wryly notes that she thoroughly enjoyed the life of rock and roll, drinking too much and engaging in casual hook-ups, which male artists at the time were congratulated for but women were criticised about (often by the exact same commentators). Berenyi saves much of her ire for the Britpop era, which saw an explosion of pent-up misogyny and attempts to exploit young women under the guise of empowerment, and women in the business were taken advantage of. The seedier side of Britpop proves an unedifying experience (although it's good to see various groups, like Pulp, come out of it very well), despite the avalanche of good music that comes alongside it.

One possible criticism is that the story feels incomplete. It effectively ends after Lush formally dissolves in early 1998 and we only get few a few paragraphs describing Berenyi's subsequent life: her move into being a sub-editor in the publishing industry, an ill-fated Lush reunion in 2015-16, the births of her two children and her more recent forming of the excellent band Piroshka (who have produced two very good albums to date). If the book forms the story of Miki Berenyi's life, there's a very large, 25-year chunk of it missing.

Overall the book is fascinating, eruditely-written, constantly amusing and jam-packed with interesting trivia: Emma Anderson dated My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields before Lush formed; Lush and Ministry formed a strong-if-unlikely alliance during the Lollapalooza tour and got up to mutually-supported mayhem; Berenyi once got back from tour to find an uncommunicative Richard Ashcroft pouring over music demos for A Northern Soul with her then-boyfriend; Blur and Pulp were both Lush support bands before becoming Britpop giga-stars.

It's also an at-times bruising, personal story of abuse and neglect, with periods of over-drinking and dubious relationship decisions (drug addiction, fortunately, seems to have been avoided), honestly owned up to. There's also an interesting thread, which perhaps could have been expanded on further, where Berenyi identifies episodes and events that bleed directly into her songs. The obvious example is from Lush's best-known hit, "Ladykillers," which was directly based on lengthy "hey, I'm actually a nice guy who respects women," conversations with male musicians whose actions didn't quite live up to their words. The creative process of how the songs were made is occasionally hinted at, but maybe could have been elaborated on.

Then again, this isn't necessarily your standard rock bio. There's no lengthy appendix featuring every gig the band played or a list of their equipment. It's a from-the-heart-by-way-of-the-soul story of life, music, love and loss, and is compelling reading.

Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me From Success (****½) is available now in the UK and USA.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Into the Narrowdark by Tad Williams

The High Kingdom is in peril. The Norns have returned and are advancing from the north, threatening both the Hayholt and the Sithi strongholds of the old forest. The tribes of the Thrithings are threatening an invasion from the east. There is civil war in Nabban. The realm needs King Simon to act decisively to crush these threats, but he is bereft and grief-ridden. As the king's allies try to rally to save the kingdom, his enemies move against him.

The Last King of Osten Ard is a sequel series to Tad William's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, an acknowledged classic of epic fantasy. Picking up the action thirty years later, this sequel series asks hard questions about what happens to the heroes who saved the day in one story and if they are the best people to lead the land through all the complexities of life in peacetime.

The first two volumes of the series, The Witchwood Crown and Empire of Grass, set up a fascinating, multi-sided conflict as the human kingdoms struggle with internal divisions whilst their old Norn enemies have managed to rebuild and are now threatening a fresh offensive. But, unlike the original trilogy, Williams also spends a lot of time in the Norn camp, exploring their internal divisions and politics as well, humanising this previously faceless enemy. The result is a richer, more interesting series which is less interested in being a retread of the hero's journey (though a few characters also get arcs more akin to that).

Into the Narrowdark is both the third book in the series and the opening half of the concluding chapter; yet again (to the point it's virtually become a meme) Williams delivered a book far too vast to fit between two covers and the book was split in half for publication. Unfortunately, this is to this volume's detriment. In normal circumstances, Williams is the very embodiment of the "slow-burn" writer, setting up his guns very carefully in a row before firing them, but when he fires them the story comes together impressively well, even within individual novels of a series. This novel is, unfortunately, all setup and no resolution, which is fairly frustrating given, at almost 600 pages in hardcover, it's not exactly a short book.

The other problem is that Williams is not at all shy to revisit previous story ideas. So, for those who were kind of over the characters spending hundreds of pages lost in the Aldheorte forest in earlier books, the prospect of spending yet more time with characters wandering through the exact same woods may not entice. The same for characters lost in the Nabbanese wilderness, or roaming back and forth through the Thrithings or even just roaming lost through the labyrinth cellars of the Hayholt. If we were getting major character growth or huge backstory revelations in these sequences, that would be one thing, but we're not, or very little. After the first two books did a good job of matching plot development, worldbuilding, political intrigue and character growth, this third volume feels more like an exercise in wheel-spinning.

That said, Tad Williams is still an excellent prose writer and a gifted evoker of atmosphere. The few battle sequences are vivid and well-described, and Morgan, at least, gets some much-needed growth. Returning to the world of Osten Ard is like revisiting an old favourite haunt, and there is much to enjoy in the scenery even if it doesn't feel like it's moving past very quickly.

The book does end on a rousing, startling cliffhanger and at least the second half of the novel is complete (although being revised), but Into the Narrowdark ends up feeling exactly what it is: half a book, in urgent need of its conclusion.

Into the Narrowdark (***) is half of a potentially very interesting book, but until the second half is published, it's hard to fully appreciate if this novel's slow, slow-burning pace is justified. The novel is available now in the UK and USA and the final volume in the series, The Navigator's Children, should hopefully follow in 2023.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Friday 14 October 2022

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power - Season 1

In the First Age, the great elven kingdoms made war on the Dark Lord Morgoth for his theft of the Silmarils, the greatest creations of the master craftsman Fëanor. In the War of the Jewels that followed, Morgoth was defeated and the north-west of Middle-earth laid waste and sunk beneath the waves. Although Morgoth his gone, his chief lieutenant, Sauron, survived and escaped. In the Second Age, Galadriel, whose brother Finrod Sauron murdered, has spent centuries trying to track him down, whilst her friends and her king urge her to put aside her quest. But other forces are moving. The Southlands are under renewed threat from the orcs, the dwarves of Khazad-dûm have made an amazing discovery deep under the Misty Mountains and the island kingdom of Númenor has become divided between those who would help Middle-earth and those who would remain isolated.

The Rings of Power is a television series five years in the making. Back in 2017, the Tolkien Estate relented in its decades-long practice of refusing to allow further adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's works beyond the rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings he himself had sold back in 1969, entertaining pitches from several studios and streaming services. Having dismissed Netflix's proposal for a series of films and shows about individual characters ("MCU Middle-earth," as it appears to have been dubbed) and HBO's questionable idea of remaking the Jackson film trilogy (bold but unnecessary), they landed on Amazon's idea for a prequel series set in the Second Age of Middle-earth's history.

The Second Age is the period when the Dark Lord Sauron forged the One Ring and made war on the elven kingdoms, as well as the time of the expanding power of Númenor, the great island-empire of the western seas. It was also the height of power for the dwarves, whose great mountain kingdom of Khazad-dûm still stood strong, long before it was brought low and transformed into the shattered ruin of Moria. There is a rich vein of material here that could be mined to produce a compelling narrative.

Unfortunately, the first problem is that the Tolkien Estate did not give away any additional rights to The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales, the two books in which about 90% of Tolkien's information and worldbuilding for the Second Age are contained. Amazon would have to proceed solely with the information they could glean from The Lord of the Rings and its appendices, which is distinctly lacking in comparison (the show occasionally uses isolated material from elsewhere in Tolkien's notes, and it's interesting that this has never been explained).

The other problem is that Tolkien did not ever write a novel about the Second Age. He did write histories, essays and lineages, not to mention an incomplete novella (Aldarion and Erendis, which again Amazon did not have the rights to) and answered dozens of letters expanding on reader questions about the time period, but there is certainly no analogue of The Lord of the Rings or even The Hobbit for the period. This meant that the writers would have to create most of the characters, dialogue, subplots and events themselves, with not much Tolkien material to fall upon, as opposed to the Jackson movies which transposed many entire Tolkien speeches to the screen verbatim.

The result is a show which is almost good, with frustrating glimpses of greatness that could have been reached with better access to the source material and better writing. The actors are all pretty solid, the ideas are often surprisingly good but the execution leaves much to be desired.

The show breaks its large story up into different subplots. We follow one storyline with Galadriel as our major POV character, as she goes hunting for Sauron, sets sail across the ocean, arrives on the island of Númenor and tries to forge an alliance. In a second storyline we visit the Southlands, which are divided between watchful elven guardians and resentful human villagers, as they are suddenly accosted by orcs. In a third, a mysterious stranger arrives in Middle-earth on a roaring star and befriends the Harfoots, a tribe of what will one day be called the Hobbits. In a fourth, the elf lord Elrond sets out to ally with the dwarves of Khazad-dûm to help create a forge for the elven master smith Celebrimbor, and gets embroiled in politics and mysteries within the kingdom.

The problem is that the show doesn't have enough time to explore all of these elements in depth. Eight episodes, even with several that cross the hour barrier, mean that many of the storylines have to be skimmed over, with superficial action replacing deep-rooted character exploration. There are some exceptions, such as the delightful "bromance" between Elrond and Prince Durin, but these are few and far between. Some elements, such as Galadriel's characterisation, are treated poorly. Galadriel is many thousands of years old at this juncture, a respected leader of the Noldor elves and a veteran of the wars against Sauron and Morgoth. Yet she is constantly belittled, marginalised and ignored, and her actions are often inexplicably arrogant, childish and violent, and sometimes self-contradictory. Perhaps if this was the story of the still-young Galadriel making her way to Middle-earth during the War of the Jewels, this characterisation would make more sense, but here it does not.

The pacing problem also extends to entire storylines: we spend three entire episodes building up to a significant battle sequence, with plenty of longueurs, but barely ten minutes on the forging of the actual first Rings of Power and the motivation for doing so (y'know, the title and point of the entire show). The show also expands a vast amount of time on playing musical chairs with mysterious characters, any one of whom might be Sauron or Gandalf (or another Wizard), which will be redundant the second the final episode airs and we get the answers to those mysteries.

The show also suffers from the decision to collapse two separate time periods - the forging of the One Ring and the diminishing of Númenor - into just a few years. Númenor is therefore somehow an isolationist, almost paranoid kingdom with no interest in affairs in Middle-earth but also has colonies and trade with the rest of the world to make it rich. The orcs are both a scattered, decimated people but also a numerous and imminent threat to the rest of the continent. It doesn't really make sense and the story would have been better-served by keeping to the original timeline, or at least compressing things into two time-frames with a single time-jump of 1800 years or so mid-series. This would have also had the beneficial side-effect of keeping the show more tightly focused on smaller casts of characters at a time, and giving more depth and weight to events.

Once you get over those problems - and they are not insignificant - there are some things to enjoy. The actors mostly give their all, and Morfydd Clark has impressive grace and presence as Galadriel even if her storyline and characterisation doesn't always make sense. The storyline with the dwarves is excellent, the highlight of the season, rooted in superb performances by Robert Aramayo (Elrond), Owain Arthur (Prince Durin), Sophia Nomvete (Disa) and an underused Peter Mullan (King Durin III). The storyline with the Harfoots is also surprisingly effective. I was expecting this to be awful, but the characterisation and worldbuilding of the Harfoots as a nomadic people worked quite well, and Markella Kavenagh gives a solid performance as lead Harfoot Nori. Having Hobbits crowbarred into a story where they don't really belong still feels jarring, but this is a good example of good execution making up for a poor idea (the reverse of most of the season).

Production design is mostly excellent, although both costumes and CGI can be variable. Some of the CG is very good but there's also a lot of the horribly overlit, plastic-looking CG which has come to plague the modern industry. Fans of Peter Jackson's miniatures and bigatures will find themselves wishing for more tangible, three-dimensional locations. They will also probably find themselves wishing for better use of the real vistas of New Zealand. Filming in New Zealand is a huge draw of the project, but scenes shot purely on location are relatively few and far between, with most nature shots involving CGI overlays and compositing to the point that there's almost no point to them being in New Zealand anyway (presumably why Season 2 has moved production to the UK instead), which is a crying shame.

There are other highlights: Joseph Mawle (Game of Thrones) is outstanding as the orc leader Adar, Bear McCreary's score is excellent (even if Howard Shore's main theme is forgettable) and some of the shots and depictions of events better-explored in The Silmarillion, like the epic battles of the War of the Jewels and the two Trees of Light standing over Valinor, are fantastic. The prosthetics and makeup for the orcs are also terrific, and a huge improvement over the abominable CGI orcs from the Hobbit trilogy. There is a sense of scale to events which does impress.

But the show's highlights are let down by its problems. The plotting is spotty and some of the Plot Macguffins are inexplicable (how does a sword hilt function as a key to release water to detonate a lava-bomb again? Who designed this thing, and when?). The pacing is too slow in some episodes and too fast in others. And all too often the writers would have benefitted from sticking closer to Tolkien's source material instead of running off to pull some weird new idea from the ether that doesn't work, at all. And we are long, long past the point that prequels need to just stop putting characters in jeopardy when we 100% know they are just fine and will be back later on.

The debut season of The Rings of Power (***) is certainly watchable, with some great performances, some excellent individual storylines and some tremendous production design and music. It is also variably-paced, has highly variable effects and the story and character arcs don't always make a lot of sense. But there are some good ideas here and the pieces of the story they've created are promising. They just need to be assembled with a lot more care and attention in later seasons. The season is available to watch globally on Amazon Prime Television now.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Saturday 8 October 2022

Latest STAR TREK: PICARD trailer features the new starship Enterprise

The trailer for Star Trek: Picard's third season has arrived and features the surprise appearance of the latest starship to bear the name USS Enterprise.

Eagle-eyed viewers will spot the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-F showing up towards the end of the trailer. The Enterprise-F first appeared in the video game Star Trek Online and, along with many other ships from the game, has been licensed for use in Picard. The ship is an Odyssey-class vessel and is the largest ship in Starfleet, with over 2,000 crewmembers. The Odyssey class has replaced the Galaxy and Sovereign class as the flagship class in Starfleet. Only a few ships of the class exist.

The fate of the Sovereign-class Enterprise-E remains unknown (in Star Trek Online's backstory, which is non-canon, it was destroyed in fluidic space in 2408, during a war with the Undine, better known as Species 8472).

The trailer confirms the return of the main Next Generation cast, with Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Michael Dorn and LeVar Burton returning as Picard, Riker, Beverly Crusher, Deanna Troi, Worf and Geordi LaForge respectively. Picard regulars Jeri Ryan and Michelle Hurd also return. The trailer also confirms the return of Brent Spiner, this time playing Data's evil twin Lore, and Daniel Davis as a hologram of Professor James Moriarty. The hologram twice previously caused havoc on the Enterprise-D after Data accidentally gave it sentience and the ability to access the ship's systems. Amanda Plummer will also play a major villain this season, an alien captain named Vadic who harbors a grudge against the Federation.

Star Trek: Picard's third season launches on Paramount+ in the USA on 16 February 2023. Hopefully it will be more consistent and focused than the previous two seasons of the show.

Friday 7 October 2022

Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs

In 1974, wargamers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created the world's first roleplaying game: Dungeons & Dragons. An immediate, enormous hit, the game fuelled the creation of the TSR company and a quarter of a century of classic gaming products, not to mention power struggles and dubious corporate decisions.

The story of TSR, its rise and fall, has been told before and the narrative is familiar, from Gygax and Arneson's early days in miniature gaming to coming up with the first dungeons and the first campaign settings (Blackmoor and Greyhawk). They then start TSR and Dragon Magazine, Arneson is maneuvered out of the picture and the game's immense success sees Gygax living the high life in Los Angeles trying to get a movie made whilst the company teeters on without him. Then Lorraine Williams takes over, forces Gygax out, and the company sees renewed success in the late 1980s from new campaign settings (such as Forgotten Realms), a second edition of the game and entries to the video game and novel markets, which keeps things going until everything blows up spectacularly in the late 1990s, resulting in the sale of the company to Magic: The Gathering creators Wizards of the Coast.

Whilst the story is familiar, there's a lot more detail in Ben Riggs' book, which calls upon interviews with a huge number of ex-TSR luminaries, although there are two notable absences. Gygax passed away in 2008, so is only represented through archive interviews. Williams declined to be interviewed for the book, so Riggs has to rely on second-hand accounts, interviews with some of her close co-workers and a few archive interviews (particularly drawing on David Ewalt's Of Dice and Men, the last book Williams was interviewed for). This leaves the book feeling oddly structured: a heroic saga where both the main protagonist and main antagonist (who is who depends on your point of view) are absent for large stretches of it.

To be honest, the main narrative of the book is well-known to the point of overfamiliarity to any long-standing roleplaying fans (newcomers who have come to the game in the last few years - and there's a lot of them - will find much more of interest here), so it's more in the details where it shines. The saga of TSR West, the California-based publishing initiative with its own products and an ill-advised idea to branch into comic books (costing TSR it's very lucrative licencing contract with DC in the process), is mostly new to me and fascinating. Additional details on how badly TSR could treat its superstar authors, and how some of the corporates who came in later on simply didn't understand the first thing about the product they were selling, are also intriguing. There some fascinating almost-ran stories, like when TSR nearly acquired the Middle-earth licence but foundered on Christopher Tolkien refusing to grant them permission to publish original fiction.

One of Riggs' biggest successes is getting his hands on hard sales data from TSR. In some cases, some of TSR's own big names were unaware of what the hell was going on with the company's products, and their reactions to learning how bad sales really were in the 1990s are startling. Learning that Forgotten Realms sold well, but not quite as well as some earlier, retired settings was a surprise.

The book is a goldmine of interesting trivia, but the writing tone is inconsistent. Sometimes the tone is serious and analytic, and sometimes jokey and anecdotal, and the tonal shifts sometimes feel random. There's also a marked difference in how Riggs talks about deceased people and folded companies and how he talks about still-living individuals and extant corporate entities. There's also a lack of deeper analysis on well-regarded stories. The suggestion that TSR collapsed due to an overload of campaign settings is taken as fact throughout, and the oft-mentioned idea that D&D faltered in the 1990s more because of an increasingly unwieldy rules set (contrasted to the streamlined rules of its biggest competitor, Vampire: The Masquerade) and the refusal to slay sacred cows with a more thorough revision - seemingly proven by the monstrous success of D&D 3rd Edition after the move to Wizards of the Coast and the even bigger success of the even more streamlined 5th Edition - is not really given any shrift.

There's also a distinct lack of coverage of the video game side of things, which mostly gets a few brief mentions and little more. The book may actually suffer from its conciseness: 278 pages to cover twenty-five years of history is not really enough, and several chapters halt just as they are starting to get interesting. There's also the fact that the revival of D&D's fortunes with 3rd Edition in 2000 and the subsequent appalling misjudgements that led to the ill-conceived 4th Edition in 2008 and the brand's subsequent eclipsing by former allies-turned-competitors Paizo with their Pathfinder game are just as fascinating a story, but the book decides not to pursue the story into that era. That's fair enough, but it seems to leave the book begging for a sequel (which, given Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro's legal firepower, might never happen).

Slaying the Dragon (***½) contains enough new revelations and interesting analysis to be worthwhile for seasoned D&D players, and newcomers to the game unfamiliar with all the old anecdotes will likely enjoy the book far more. But it does feel like the book could have gone into some areas in more detail and depth, and been a bit more consistent in tone.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.