Sunday, 29 November 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 29

One of the most common criticisms of epic fantasy is how lightweight and silly it can be, saying nothing about the human condition or developing relevant themes and instead being consumed by spectacle and forgettable action. This criticism is intermittently justified, with many lightweight or lowbrow works existing in the genre as indeed there are in all genres, but in the 1990s and 2000s fantasy was moving ever more decisively in favour of works which did feature more thought, rumination and artistic intent.

At the forefront of these were works like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Malazan Book of the Fallen, but numerous authors were engaged in writing fantasies that engaged in relevant topics for a contemporary reader, such as religion, power and politics. But three series in particular emerged at the turn of the millennium which provided much food for thought, were all controversial and all highly divisive amongst fans of the genre.

Heroes Die

Published in 1998, Heroes Die is the first novel in the Acts of Caine sequence by Matt Woodring Stover. This series is a rationalised fantasy, with an SF explanation for events in the series. In the 23rd Century humanity has created portal technology linking Earth with a traditional fantasy world called Overworld. Special agents known as "Actors" are sent to Overworld to pose as heroes or villains, fighting battles for the amusement of television audiences back home. The most famous of these is Hari Michaelson, known on Overworld as Caine. In Heroes Die Michaelson is sent to rescue his wife, another Actor, who has been taken prisoner by a newly-risen dark lord. However, this dark lord proves to be highly intelligent, capable and formidable, pushing Michaelson and his Caine alter-ego to the limits of their intelligence and endurance to defeat him...if defeat is even an applicable concept.

Heroes Die is a rollicking adventure novel but also a thoughtful book musing on themes such as volition, willpower, violence, entertainment, responsibility and the struggle of the individual against the masses. Its sequel, Blade of Tyshalle (2001), is considerably larger, more complex and delves into these issues in a much darker, bleaker and more complex manner. Caine Black Knife (2008) is a more back-to-basics adventure which features both a new adventure for Caine on Overworld and flashes back to his oft-referenced greatest triumph, retelling that story as a tragedy and trauma. Caine's Law (2012), probably one of the most mind-bending genre novels ever written, forces the reader to reappraise the entire series from its core concepts outwards.

The Acts of Caine sequence remains somewhat obscure, but is highly influential. Scott Lynch and John Scalzi are among the biggest fans of the series, the former citing it as key reference work whilst writing The Lies of Locke Lamora.

The Darkness That Comes Before

There are few works of fantasy that inspire both such admiration and praise and hatred and bile as R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse sequence. This sequence consists of three sub-series: the Prince of Nothing trilogy (2004-06), the Aspect-Emperor quartet (2009-17) and a forthcoming duology which will wrap the story up.

On its surface, the series is about the arising of the Chosen One. The nations of the Three Seas are gripped by conflict as the Inrithi church calls a grand crusade - the Holy War - to travel a thousand miles across harsh wilderness to destroy the heathen Fanim and take back the holy city of Shimeh. Of course, they are unaware that the legendary Consult (who once almost destroyed the world by summoning a nihilistic force of destruction known as the No-God),  have emerged from millennia in hiding and are now plotting to destroy the world as they know it. It falls to four unlikely figures to save the day: Drusas Achamian, a Mandate wizard and scholar aware of the return of the Consult; Cnaiur urs Skiotha, a formidably cunning "barbarian" warrior and self-proclaimed "Most violent of all men"; Esmenet, a prostitute whose low birth, caste and station has prevented her formidable intelligence and will from being used to its full benefit; and Anasurimbor Kellhus, a mysterious monk from the Ancient North who sees the Holy War as a tool he can use to his own ends.

As the initial trilogy unfolds and Kellhus becomes aware of the threat of the Consult and the No-God, he begins taking command of the Holy War and moulding it into a weapon against the true enemy of humanity, but in the process alienates his would-be friend and ally Achamian. It is only at the end of the trilogy that Achamian realises that Kellhus may indeed be the only person capable of saving the world, but is also a ruthless, amoral being whose thought processes are not quite human. The sequel trilogy, The Aspect-Emperor, picks up twenty years later and sees Kellhus (whose powers are now godlike) leading another crusade - the Great Ordeal - against the Consult, an apparently laudable pre-emptive strike against the enemy before they can resurrect the No-God, but one that goes horribly wrong.

The combined series is unusual for its intelligence and its dwelling on philosophical concepts, as well as its inversion of fantasy tropes, well-written action sequences, spectacular magic and the prevalence of religious metaphysics on the world and characters. It's also been criticised for its graphic sexual imagery and violence (most of it against men, it has to be said) and its perceived sexism (the world of Earwa is based on Biblical notions of original sin and women are not well-treated before Kellhus's rise to power). Heavily influenced by Dune, The Lord of the Rings and the history of both the Crusades and Alexander the Great's empire, it's not quite like anything else in the genre, both for good and bad.

The Sundering

Jacqueline Carey is best-known for her trilogy of trilogies set in a fantasised alternate-history version of France called Terre d'Ange, starting with Kushiel's Dart (2001). But in 2004 and 2005 she published a very long novel split into two volumes called The Sundering (comprising Banewreaker and Godslayer).

The Sundering is, pretty much, The Lord of the Rings as retold from the POV of the Witch-King of Angmar. In this case our protagonist is Tanaros Blacksword, reviled for murdering his king and joining the armies of the dark demigod Satoris the Banewreaker. However, less well-known is that Tanaros's king had seduced and impregnated Tanaros's wife and was a ruthless and unjust ruler. As the series unfolds it is suggested that the "good guys" aren't really that good and that the wizard Malthus (Carey's Gandalf analogue) is manipulative and amoral. The duology is heavily concerned with the idea of morality as a sliding scale rather than a binary choice between good and evil, and the notion that history is written and justified by the winners.

Some of the ideas in The Sundering have been explored independently in more recent works, most notably Joe Abercrombie's First Law universe which likewise features a Gandalf-like wise mentor who in reality is a brutally ruthless political mastermind and highly uncertain ally. But Carey's series is a much more direct riff on Tolkien and the perceived notions of moral relativism in the fantasy genre.

These were all interesting but relatively obscure and financially less-successful works. Indeed, by the mid-2000s it had been some considerable time since an epic fantasy author had launched and been an immediate big success. Perhaps, some mused, the genre had had its day and was now going into decline? But over the next few years a number of writers debuted whose books were not only critically successful but also sold a very large number of copies, restoring the genre to the top of the bestseller lists.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

According to some viewpoints, Revenge of the Sith is the best film of the Star Wars prequels and helps redeem the trilogy from being a total waste of time. This is an arguable point, possibly generated by the fact that when it came out people were so relieved it wasn't as bad as Attack of the Clones that they got a bit carried away with praise. Viewed from a decade later, it's still clearly a deeply flawed movie which fails to come anywhere near to living up to its enormous potential.

The movie opens with the Clone Wars in their closing stages (if you want to see the course of the conflict, there's a whole six-season animated series doing that which is often far better than the prequels you can check out). As victory nears, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine is expected to hand back his emergency powers to the Senate and resign. However, Palpatine is claiming that the Jedi, made arrogant and militaristic by the course of the war, want power for themselves and no longer believe in the Republic or democracy. Anakin's loyalties are put to the test, especially when he has a vision of Amidala's death and Palpatine promises him that the Dark Side can protect her.

For a start, Revenge of the Sith avoids the problems of its immediate forebears by laying out the stakes more cleanly and concisely: Palpatine wants power, the Jedi want to stop him but don't really know how to and Anakin just wants to save his wife from death. Palpatine's manipulations of Anakin are obvious and crudely unsubtle, but aren't completely implausible, especially given how Attack of the Clones established Anakin as being unreliable, arrogant and deeply stupid. These scenes would also be more effective if Ian McDiarmid hadn't checked out a movie earlier and was clearly just showing up at this point to cash his cheques (the opera house scene, in which he approaches nuance, is an honourable exception). His snarling, pantomime-buffoon performance is deeply embarrassing and damages the dramatic closing scenes of the movie quite badly.

Elsewhere, the problems in play in Attack of the Clones are ramped up to eleven. There are few scenes which aren't bathed in a distractingly fake CGI sheen, talented actors like Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor look completely lost when presented with really awful lines and there's an awful lot of action filler which has been thrown in for no explicable reason. But there are also some moments and scenes which actually do work. The dialogue-less moment, backed by one of John Williams's most atypical and haunting scores, when Anakin chooses to side with Palpatine works very well. The Wookies kicking droid backside on Kashyyyk is an effective action moment, paying back them for being written out of Return of the Jedi in favour of the Ewoks. The opening one-shot of the Jedi starfighters joining the battle over Coruscant may be the best opening shot in the entire six-film series bar only A New Hope's. The production design, which emerges as the most consistently excellent facet of the trilogy, is also superb as it begins to transition from the shiny Flash Gordon designs of the previous two movies into the more utilitarian and worn look from the original movies. The lightsabre fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan starts excellently, with some convincingly vicious swordplay and stuntwork backed by a fine John Williams musical moment. The fight is overlong and does get a little silly as the actors balance on bits of metal sticking out of molten hot lava and somehow don't burst into flames.

However, Revenge of the Sith really fails in selling these massive moments that the previous two films have been building to and the later three have alluded to. Order 66, the moment the clones turn on their Jedi allies and murder them, is only really effective once you've seen The Clone Wars spin-off series and know who all these Jedi are. Otherwise they're just characterless ciphers. Yoda and Obi-Wan going into hiding at the end of the movie really don't make much sense - let alone hiding Leia with one of the most prominent politicians in the galaxy and Luke on his dad's own planet with his dad's surname - and may as well have just said, "We need to do this to set up the original movies." Given there's a twenty-year gap between Sith and Hope, the need to leave the film with things exactly where they start in Hope is also bizarre and unnecessary. The audience is probably smart enough to join in the dots.

Revenge of the Sith has some moments which work really well and certainly it's a far more watchable film than the awful Attack of the Clones. But it's still badly-written, poorly-directed and, for the most part, clumsily-acted with severe pacing and structural issues. While the argument over whether this or The Phantom Menace is the best of the trilogy will continue to rage, Revenge of the Sith is by far the most disappointing movie in the series, with the most potential to tell a story that is dark, haunting and heart-breaking. As Matt Stover's vastly superior novelisation of the script shows, George Lucas had a really powerful, tragic story here but in his execution he severely fumbles it.

Revenge of the Sith (**½) is available now as part of the complete (but soon not to be) Star Wars Saga box set (UK, USA).

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

After the unbridled critical slamming of The Phantom Menace (although its $1 billion box office showed it didn't hurt too much), hopes were high that Attack of the Clones could repair some of the damage George Lucas had done to his own franchise. A more epic, adult story about the Galactic Republic's descent into chaos and war, showing the first signs of Anakin Skywalker's fall to the Dark Side and expanding on those fleeting mentions of the Clone Wars in the original movies. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, almost everything. Like The Phantom Menace, the first act of Attack of the Clones is a disjointed mess with lots of talk about political turmoil and separatists but never a clear definition of the stakes or scale of the problem. We find out that someone is trying to kill Amidala, but we're not sure how real the threat is and what its purpose is until way too late in the film (the fact it's a bluff is also not really explained at all, which I think was Lucas going for subtlety but came across as poor plotting). The story is muddled and disjointed and Obi-Wan's solo investigation into the clone army on Kamino is baffling. Clearly the clone army has been set up by Sidious to bring about war, but at no point does any of the Jedi consider this possibility and when called upon simply employ them on the battlefield without any further consideration of the fact they are being manipulated by outside forces.

Elsewhere, the film has a tall order in introducing us to the adult Anakin, making us feel some empathy for him and then buying his descent into the dark side. The problem is that none of this works, a direct result of Lucas's poor decision in the first film to introduce Anakin at far too young an age. There is insufficient time to tell all of this story effectively and also develop Anakin's relationship with Amidala in a convincing manner: her falling in love with him when he's the heroic young Jedi apprentice first and then trying to help stop his descent into the Dark Side would have made for a better, more tragic story. Her falling in love with him whilst he's sliding towards madness and evil is a different, more complex and far more disturbing story which George Lucas is completely incapable of addressing, let alone delivering in a convincing manner.

While The Phantom Menace recovered, to a limited degree, to deliver an ultimately watchable (if barely) film, Attack of the Clones never really does this. There are some fleeting good moments: Obi-Wan and Jango Fett's fight in the rain starts off well before fizzling out, the design work is even more spectacular than the first film and Christopher Lee's charisma helps lift some of the leaden pacing in the finale. Using Jar-Jar to bring down the Republic is also a cynical but still amusing story note, although it could have been sold a bit better in the third film when he realised what he'd done. But the film's finale is nonsensical rubbish, there is a massive overuse of CGI that removes weight and tension from proceedings (although, in the heat of the chaos, there are a few excellent individual shots and some great moments of cinematography) and the C-3PO head swapping comedy routine is more annoying even in its limited lifespan than the entirety of Jar-Jar's appearance in the trilogy. Yoda's lightsabre fight with Dooku is also appalling, the sort of thing best left to the imagination rather than shown on screen.

The biggest sin of Attack of the Clones is not just that's it's an awful movie, but there are brief glimpses of a far more powerful, interesting and darker movie that could have been made if Lucas had let someone else handle the scripting and direction. To his credit, the actual story has enormous potential, but the execution fails on every single level. Attack of the Clones (*½) is available now as part of the complete (but soon not to be) Star Wars Saga box set (UK, USA).

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

1999. The new millennium was approaching, the Cold War had ended, it was a time of unparalleled optimism and glorious hope for the future. Ruined, some (with perhaps a loss of perspective) say, by The Phantom Menace.

The first film in the prequel series to George Lucas's classic original Star Wars trilogy has had much opprobrium poured over it through the years. It's been appraised, reappraised and analysed far more than a film of its quality really deserved, to the point where it's difficult to sit down and watch it without it buckling under the weight of a decade and a half of scorn.

It's certainly not a great film. It suffers from an extremely clunky and unappealing opening sequence in which the Trade Federation (which we neither know nor care about) invades Naboo (a planet we neither know nor care about) because of tax and trade disputes (which no-one cares about) and a pair of Jedi (one of whom we kind of know) rescue the planet's queen (whom we only know or care about - back then anyway - because she was awesome in Leon) and spirit her away to Tatooine, where suddenly The Plot actually kicks in and we meet Darth Vader, except he's a ten-year-old kid who drives flying Formula One cars. They then go to Coruscant (which we only care about from a decade's worth of mostly great tie-in novels), get General Zod fired from his job ruling the universe, discover that Yoda in his heyday was actually quite annoying and then fly back to Naboo and beat up the Trade Federation with the help of a bunch of frogs led by Brian Blessed.

As plots go, it's weird, bitty and full of episodic chunks which completely fail to connect to one another with any real coherence. The events on Tatooine, based around our heroes trying to repair their ship, gambling on a highly improbable race outcome, trying to scientifically quantify the Force and finding out that Darth Vader built C-3PO (what?), feel completely isolated from the rest of the movie in particular. The resolution is also pat, convenient and implausible in the extreme.

The movie also fails quite spectacularly in its primary goals of either 1) providing interesting or relevant backstory for the films we've already seen or 2) providing a compelling alternate starting point for newcomers to the franchise. In particular 2) is a problem because The Phantom Menace is weak enough that it has put people off from proceeding any further with the series.


It's not a total disaster. As a live-action cartoon for kids, it's actually fairly inoffensive. The actors give their best with some disastrous material, but Liam Neeson in particular does sterling work by adopting an authoritarian but stubborn rebel streak for Qui-Gon Jinn. It's a difficult acting choice to pull off, but he does it reasonably well and even succeeds in providing a few of the film's more amusing moments through subtle scenes such as where he is stymied by Watto, the film's most successful CG alien creation (the fact he's presented as a humourous, somewhat sympathetic character with a genuine emotional care for Anakain whilst also being an unrepentant trafficker in human slaves hints at a moral complexity that is never fully explored). Most of the other actors are considerably less able to meld their formidable acting skills (in the case of Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman) to Lucas's often terrible lines. Ian McDiarmid takes the valid - if increasingly irritating over the course of the trilogy - alternate path of simply hamming things up in every scene he's in.

The film is also surprisingly well-paced. It moves fairly fast, packing in quite a lot of plot (if partially nonsensical) and characters (if mostly underdeveloped) into two hours. Even if a scene doesn't work, it usually doesn't go on long enough for it to be a major problem. This is every much not the case with the two films that followed them, particularly the interminable "romance" and "action" scenes in Attack of the Clones which are so numerous and lengthy that they become genuinely emotionally traumatising. There's also the phenomenal visual design of the film, from sets to spacecraft (mostly still models at this stage) to sets to creatures. The designers achieve the near-impossible task of creating a new, more pristine aesthetic within the Star Wars universe established by three older films, two animated series and numerous books, and making it work.

Then there's the music. John Williams creates a whole new soundtrack which is genuinely epic and stirring, particularly his "Duel of the Fates" during the movie's climax. This melds well with the lightsabre duel between Darth Maul and the Jedi, one of the better action sequences in the entire series (the pod race, for all its implausibility, is another). The minimalist approach to Darth Maul as a villain, in stark contrast to the overblown, overlong pomp elsewhere (see the frankly unnecessary number of "Darth Sidious talking smack over a holoprojector" scenes), actually works very well and is an approach Lucas should have used elsewhere.

None of this can save The Phantom Menace from its weaknesses, but in many ways it's a better movie than either of its immediate successors. Indeed, if you can mentally switch off Jar-Jar Binks (who is actually in a lot less of the film than you may recall) or find The Phantom Edit version of the movie, it arguably emerges as the best of the three prequels thanks to Neeson's excellent, grounded performance, the musical score and some of the more well-judged action sequences in the series.

The Phantom Menace (**½) is available now as part of the complete (but soon not to be) Star Wars Saga box set (UK, USA).

Friday, 27 November 2015

Opening titles for SHANNARA TV series revealed

MTV have revealed the opening title sequence to The Shannara Chronicles, their TV series based on the Shannara novels by Terry Brooks.

The TV series debuts on MTV on 5 January 2016.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Cover art for MALAZAN prequel novel

The cover art has been released for Dancer's Lament, the first novel in the Path to Ascendancy series. This is a prequel series to the Malazan Book of the Fallen and charts the rise to power of Kellanved and Dancer, as well as the founding of the Malazan Empire.

The novel will be released on 25 February 2016.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Kevin Bacon to relaunch TREMORS franchise

Kevin Bacon is helping to relaunch the Tremors franchise as a TV series. This will mark his first involvement with the franchise since the original film in 1990, which will allow him to Six Degree himself across the same series.

Tremors, objectively one of the Greatest Films Ever Made™, featured the inhabitants of the small town of Perfection being menaced by subterranean "graboids", ferocious burrowing monsters. The original film pitted a cast of characters led by Val McKee (Bacon), Earl Basset (Fred Ward) and Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) against the creatures. Ward would return for the sequel, Tremors 2: Aftershocks (1996) but only Gummer would go on to appear in every appearance of the franchise, which to date comprises five films and a short-lived 2003 TV series.

The new TV series will apparently reboot and reintroduce the franchise, but with Bacon reprising the role of Val McKee 25+ years after the original film, it would appear to be set in the same continuity. How many other actors or characters would reprise their roles is unknown.

Monday, 23 November 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 28

Epic fantasy has been the most commercially popular strand of the fantastical genre, but it has certainly come in for criticism from more literary quarters. In the late 1970s Michael Moorcock dismissed the genre as being simply "Epic Pooh" (an overwrought version of children's stories like Winnie the Pooh) and M. John Harrison (author of the Viriconium sequence of surreal fantasies) decried the genre for the "clomping foot of nerdism" in its overreliance on worldbuilding and trying to rationalise what should remain irrational. The genre has also been criticised for often descending into being "Medieval Europe with Dragons" rather than trying to be something weirder and more thought-provoking. Not everyone from the literary end of the spectrum agrees with this - Gene Wolfe is a huge Tolkien fan, for example - but it's certainly a point of view with some significant adherents.

Starting in the 1990s, fantasy began to move in slightly odder directions less reliant on dragons and magic and pseudomedieval Europe. Garry Kilworth employing Polynesian mythology (complete with a vast number of tiny gods and some very strange customs) in his Navigator Kings trilogy can be seen as part of this, as can some of the more bizarre concepts in works by Steven Erikson and Glen Cook. But it took a series of novels published between 2000 and 2006 to really ramp up these elements. This period became known as the New Weird.

Perdido Street Station & The Scar

Published in 2000, Perdido Street Station was the second novel by British author China Miéville. His first novel, King Rat (1998), had been an urban fantasy indebted to the likes of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (1996), but Perdido Street Station was something different. It was set in the sprawling, uncertain cityscape of New Crobuzon, a city of squalor and beauty where insects make art and the government dines the ambassadors of hell. Cactii-people live and trade alongside the inhabitants of a thousand lands and the city is linked by elevated railway lines carrying souls to work and destinies and deaths. It is part steampunk, part urban fantasy, part horror and part Alien.

Perdido Street Station is a remarkable novel, utterly beautifully written and powered by an imagination almost unmatched in the modern fantasy genre. The city of New Crobuzon lives and breathes in a way few fantasy metropoles ever achieve. Miéville populates his city with strange people but also gives them a feeling of how they live and work day-to-day. New Crobuzon is both weird and workable. Oddly, despite Harrison's criticisms of traditional fantasy and lauding (and some might say foreshadowing) of the New Weird, this works mainly because Miéville invests strongly in worldbuilding, making the city work and feel real. It even first saw light in a home roleplaying campaign which Miéville used to develop the location before trying to realise it in prose.

If Perdido Street Station works as a fantastic piece of atmosphere and mood, it's less successful in working as a structured novel, as the basic plot boils down to a bug hunt for a monster. It's the incidents along the way and the people the reader meets that makes the book so fantastic. It falls to the successor (not a true sequel), The Scar (2002), to really sing on every level. This book starts off as a travelogue, with the core characters departing New Crobuzon in search of the mysterious floating city of Armada, located somewhere in the vast ocean. As the book continues it invokes elements of Moby Dick whilst also remaining very much its own beast. The story is far more original and strange than Perdido Street Station, the characters more vivid and the situations more bizarre whilst also remaining a compelling read. It's Miéville's masterpiece.

Miéville has only released one novel since set in the same world of Bas-Lag, namely the excellent Iron Council (2004), but he has explored other worlds and settings in his fiction. Un Lun Dun (2007) and Kraken (2010) are urban fantasies set in London, Embassytown (2011) is science fiction flavoured by the New Weird and Railsea (2012) is set on a world where the ocean has been replaced by an endless landscape of train tracks. The Tain (2002) is a post-apocalyptic tale. His most successful post-Bas-Lag novel is The City and the City (2009), a weird tale that features one city split into two parallel realities where the people of one side can see those of the rest but cannot interact with them on fear of abduction by a supernatural force. Miéville will publish two novels in 2016, This Census-Taker and The Last Days of New Paris, but it appears that a return to Bas-Lag is not in the cards for the near future.

The Year of Our War

Published in 2004, The Year of Our War is noted for its vivid (and occasionally hallucinogenic) prose and its success in taking the old fantasy standby - a civilisation defended by some huge threat by a massive wall - and turning it on its head. The enemy this time is a race of insects, but humanity is defended by a race of super-powered immortals who serve as rulers and defenders and generals. The weirdness is generated by Jant, the main protagonist, who is a drug-addict and sometimes wastrel but also someone who can visit a supernatural realm of the undead where he can gain vital clues about the enemy. The immortals are riven by internal dissent, politics and love feuds that sometimes distract them from the threat that looms in the north. It is a strange and odd book that, as with Miéville, actually features some pretty robust worldbuilding and well-paced plot developments.

This was the first book in The Castle Series, and was followed by No Present Like Time (2005) and The Modern World (2007). Steph Swainston has since published a prequel, Above the Snowline (2010). However, she also vocally criticised the modern requirement by publishers and the marketplace for authors to engage in social media, marketing and networking, feeling this took too much time away from writing. She has since taken up a day job in chemistry, but continues to write a fifth book in the series in her own time.

Other Works of the Weird

After Miéville, the most successful author of the New Weird is Jeff VanderMeer (he even co-edited an anthology called The New Weird in 2007). His novels and short stories set in the fantastical city of Ambergis - Cities of Saints and Madmen (2001), Shriek: An Afterword (2006) and Finch (2009) - proved both popular and influential, as did Veniss Underground (2003), set in a different milieu but likewise bizarre and strange. His most recent major work is the Southern Reach Trilogy, an original take on the haunted lighthouse trope.

The most surprising book of the period is K.J. Bishop's The Etched City (2003), mainly because the author has not so far followed it up with any other work. Although not as well known as Miéville, Swainston and VanderMeer, Bishop's book may be the most succinct summing-up of the subgenre of the bizarre.

The New Weird never really went away, but it did start to drift into other forms of fantasy. Alan Campbell's superb Scar Night (2006) brings together the New Weird with elements of urban fantasy. It is somewhat let down by its less ambitious sequels, Iron Angel (2008) and the disappointing God of Clocks (2009), which relies on a retcon ending. Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun series (starting with Nights of Villjamur in 2009) may be seen as an attempt to merge the New Weird with the Dying Earth subgenre popularised by Jack Vance in 1950. It is a strong and original voice, hampered by a far too-rushed conclusion.

More recently the New Weird has kind of merged into fantasy as a whole. Francis Knight's Rojan Dizon trilogy (starting with 2013's Fade to Black) feels like it should be New Weird, set as it is in a towering vertical city inside a mountain, but it is played more straight as a standard urban fantasy with epic undertones. Luke Scull's Grim Company trilogy is much more set in a post-New Grim sword and sorcery world, but the immortal god-sorcerers and their ability to warp reality results in strange and bizarre consequences (and otherwise sets his work aside from the likes of Joe Abercrombie, to whom he shares superficial similarities).

As the 2000s started in earnest, traditional epic fantasy remained popular but perhaps less so that in the previous decade. Publishers looked for different kinds of fantasy, from the baroque oddness of Miéville to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink fantasy of Steven Erikson, but if there was one direction that epic fantasy was taking it was into darker territories, where philosophy and morality and ideologies were entwined and complicated, resulting in some of the most interesting - but also controversial - works published in the history of the genre.

R. Scott Bakker update

R. Scott Bakker has provided an update on his forthcoming books. He has confirmed that the final book in the Aspect-Emperor series has been split, as was anticipated from Overlook Press's schedules a few weeks ago.

The first of the two books, The Great Ordeal, will be published in July 2016. The second, The Unholy Consult, will be published at some point in 2017. Apparently the expansion of the series from three to four volumes necessitated a redrawing of the some of the contracts.

In previous comments, Bakker confirmed that his intention is still to write a further duology in the world but that, at a push, the series can end with The Unholy Consult.

First episode of THE EXPANSE released

SyFy have debuted the first episode of The Expanse online. You can watch it via the link below.

THE EXPANSE Full Episode | The Search Begins from "Dulcinea"The Expanse digital premiere is here. WATCH NOW.
Posted by The Expanse on Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Expanse is based on the novel series of the same name by Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (writing as James S.A. Corey). The remaining nine episodes of the first season will start airing in the USA in mid-December. The above link works in the UK and US, and hopefully other territories as well.