Monday, 31 August 2015

Justin Cronin completes the PASSAGE TRILOGY

Via Facebook, Justin Cronin has confirmed (actually a couple of months ago) that he has completed the manuscript for The City of Mirrors, the third and concluding volume in his Passage Trilogy.

The trilogy began in 2010 with the publication of The Passage, a well-written, post-apocalyptic vampire novel with a story divided between three different time periods. The more concise sequel, The Twelve, was released in 2012. The City of Mirrors will be released in 2016.

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 5

Not so much a continuation of the series, but a pause for definitions. The Lord of the Rings did not create epic or secondary world fantasy, but it did sum it up, defining it so strongly that every work of fantasy released for the next fifty years would be compared to it. We've seen how it was written, but what influence did it have on what came after?

Tor's one-volume omnibus edition of The Wheel of Time proved surprisingly unpopular with booksellers.


The Lord of the Rings was, for its day, unusual in its length. At 470,000 words it massively outsized The Hobbit at 97,000 words, and The Hobbit was considered long for a children's novel. However, that length allowed Tolkien to explore his fictional world in some depth, treating it like a place that had actually existed, and putting a lot of detail into the people and places. Whilst writing such long books is time-consuming and publishing them problematic, Tolkien's achievement meant that length came to be a feature of the epic fantasy subgenre.

Indeed, many later series are so huge that individual volumes are almost as long as The Lord of the Rings in its entirety. To Green Angel Tower, the concluding book of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams, is over 520,000 words in length, making it the longest epic fantasy novel ever written and one of the longest-ever books written in English. Two volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire - A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons - exceed 420,000 words in length. Two recent epic fantasy novels, The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss and Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson, just go over 400,000 words. The Wheel of Time, in its entirety as one story, is over 4,360,000 words. This shows that while writing long novels may give publishers a headache, it can pay off.

However, some authors have reacted against such huge lengths. Joe Abercrombie's First Law novels crept over 200,000 words with Last Argument of Kings and he pulled back the length with Red Country. His recent Shattered Sea novels are considerably shorter, resulting in a more focused narrative and also faster turn-around times. Terry Pratchett, disdainful of both unnecessary doorstops and cliffhangers, didn't even get above 100,000 words until he was twenty-three books into his Discworld series. Paul Kearney, the author of The Monarchies of God, The Sea-Beggars and The Macht Trilogy (and some very fine stand-alones), writes very slim volumes which have occasionally been cited as a reason for his relative obscurity, with some fantasy readers preferring big doorstops and passing over short novels on the bookshelves.

Ironically, given that by modern fantasy standards it's quite short, the precedent of The Lord of the Rings gave authors the freedom to write long stories with the confidence that readers would stay with them. This has been both a good and bad thing for the genre.

Sometimes less is more when it comes to creation myths.


J.R.R. Tolkien began consciously creating Middle-earth in 1917 (and subconsciously several years earlier). By the time The Hobbit was published, he'd already been working on it for over twenty years. By the time The Return of the King was released, Middle-earth had existed in Tolkien's head and on numerous pieces of paper for just shy of forty years. In that time Tolkien had expertly crafted the history, geography and languages of his fictional world, giving him an immense reservoir of material to draw on.

This also gave readers and budding fantasy authors an appetite for "worldbuilding", expertly crafting a world so convincing in its solidarity and background that the reader would be fully immersed in the experience.

Of course, most fantasy authors don't have twenty years to prep their world ahead of writing the book, so they tend to do both the novel-writing and the worldbuilding at the same time. This is actually in keeping with what Tolkien did. Although Tolkien had created Middle-earth twenty years before starting The Lord of the Rings, all of that action and focus had been in Beleriand, the lands west of the Blue Mountains destroyed at the end of The Silmarillion, or on the western continent of Aman. For The Lord of the Rings itself Tolkien had to create Third Age Middle-earth as he went along. Gondor, Rohan and Mordor did not exist in his mind before he started writing the book, and indeed he took lengthy breaks from the writing to fill in their histories, develop their cultures and draw maps (see below).

Years later George R.R. Martin would allude to this. When he started writing A Game of Thrones, he had no idea who any of these people were or what they were doing. He didn't draw a map until he was a hundred pages into the writing, and never created a language for the books: when he needed a Dothraki word, he'd create it and try to remember it in case it cropped up again. He made it up as he went along, with the history of Westeros accumulating in stages. It was only later, and after some errors and inconsistencies were pointed out by fans, that Martin sat down and did worldbuilding in serious detail, but again nowhere near that practised by Tolkien (at least, not until he knew it was going to be published in The World of Ice and Fire and the planned Fire and Blood volume). In Martin's parlance, Tolkien created a vast iceberg of detail, with only a small amount showing above the surface in the novels but much more remaining out of sight. Martin and many other modern fantasy authors prefer to create the illusion of the iceberg, without the time-consuming job of actually creating things that would never be seen but giving a sense that they are still there.

An exception to this would be Ed Greenwood. In 1967 (at the age of eight!) Greenwood began creating a fantasy world in which he would set various short stories. This was soon replaced by creation for creation's sake, with a purpose given to it when he began setting Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying games there a decade later. In 1987 TSR, the publishers of D&D, were so impressed that they bought the setting for commercial release. Today the Forgotten Realms stands the most detailed, exhaustively-researched fantasy world ever created, and one where the published materials in the Realms (now spanning 300 or so novels, more than two dozen computer games, 100+ gaming materials and a forthcoming feature film) are apparently still outmatched by Greenwood's private notes.

Tolkien made worldbuilding a cornerstone of fantasy, but also warned of getting carried away with it and neglecting the story and characters in favour of "subcreation".

Diana Wynne Jones's map of Fantasyland for The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. As you can tell, an enormous amount of thought and originality went into this map, carefully constructed to reflect that of a lot of contemporary epic fantasy novels.


Maps in fantasy novels did not begin with Tolkien. Jonathan Swift's 1726 classic Gulliver's Travels has maps of the various islands Gulliver travels to, whilst The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Worm Ouroborus and Robert E. Howard's Conan stories all had maps accompanying the text, as did C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. Tolkien did perhaps go a bit further than most, though. The Lord of the Rings has a big frontispiece map showing the whole of western Middle-earth. There is also an additional map of the Shire, and then, accompanying The Return of the King, a more detailed map of Rohan, Gondor and Mordor. And although he did not publish them in his lifetime, Tolkien also drew illustrations and maps of locations in the books, such as Isengard and Minas Tirith.

For a while after Tolkien, maps ruled the fantasy roost. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, set in the Four Lands, features a map of the entire landmass. The two sequels, set in the Westland and Eastland respectively, feature more detailed maps of those locations. Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen Donaldson is intended (at least partially) as a literary deconstruction of fantasy, but Donaldson knew he still needed to have a map of the Land at the front of the book. Raymond E. Feist had two maps, one of each of the two planets his novel Magician takes place on. David Eddings, who was cheerfully and openly inspired to write The Belgariad because of the success of The Lord of the Rings, doubled down on maps. His fantasy series would visit a new kingdom or region almost every other chapter, and zoomed-in maps would appear when required (or even when not required). Tad Williams did the same in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, sometimes showing maps of regions completely different to where the action in that section was taking place.

The presence of the map was soon apparently mandatory in fantasy novels, leading some to rebel against it. David Gemmell refused to include a map of the Drenai Empire in Legend, feeling it would limit creativity. Many years later, tiring of reader requests for a map, he selected the fan map he liked best and used that. Richard Morgan did the same with his Land Fit For Heroes series, not including a map in the first book and challenging fans to produce one for later volumes. Glen Cook did not include a map in his Black Company novels, although he later allowed a roleplaying company to create one (grudgingly, it appears, approved by himself) for a rulebook. Terry Pratchett was absolutely dead-set against maps appearing of the Discworld, believing that maps inhibited creativity. Stephen Briggs changed his mind by producing a coherent, detailed map of Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett found just studying the map gave him ideas for future stories and, reluctantly, allowed an official map of the Discworld to appear in The Discworld Mappe, published in 1995 some twelve years after the first novel in the series was published.

Some authors seemed to enjoy even mildly trolling readers over the matter. Steven Erikson and Ian Esslemont's Malazan novels features many splendid maps, but sometimes and inexplicably of completely different continents to where the action in the novel actually takes place. Large swathes of action falls outside the boundaries of any map. Ian Esslemont, notably, has lots of events happening in Stratem, the home of the Crimson Guard, but has never released a map of the continent. Details and directions in the books themselves can also be highly contradictory (the eventually-confirmed location of the Lether continent, for example, seemed to directly contradict statements in earlier novels). Joe Abercrombie also refused to provide a map of the Circle Sea region in his First Law trilogy, but later relented and released maps of the locations in Best Served Cold, The Heroes and Red Country. Amusingly, he still declined to release maps for the earlier books, but did sneak a map of the entire known world into a single frame of the comic book adaption.

At other times, authors liked to hedge their bets. George R.R. Martin provided maps for Westeros in A Game of Thrones, but decided against releasing a map of the eastern continent, aside from a small portion in A Storm of Swords. It took twelve years for the eastern continent to even get a name (Essos) and a further four beyond that for HBO to release the first map of the known world. And even then Martin wasn't happy with it, almost completely redrawing and reconceptualising it for The Lands of Ice and Fire.

So, maps. Some readers will put a book down if they don't have a map in them, some won't touch them with a bargepole if they are present. But we have Tolkien to thank for their seeming omnipresence in the genre.


Tolkien's motives in writing The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings stem, in part, from his love of language and of creating new languages. During his lifetime Tolkien developed two languages in detail, these being Quenya and Sindarin. He also sketched out several other languages in a less-developed form, including Dwarfish and the Black Speech of Mordor. Needless to say, this took quite a long time.

Modern fantasy authors, generally speaking, don't have time or knowledge or background to sit down and create entire languages from scratch. As mentioned above, most authors simply invent a word or two and try to remember them for later on if needed again.

Some exceptions exist. M.A.R. Barker created the language of Tsolyáni in the 1940s, which eventually saw publication in the Empire of the Petal Throne roleplaying game in 1975. Marc Okrand also created a working Klingon language for the Star Trek films in the 1980s. However, it wasn't until The Wheel of Time in 1990 that a major work of epic fantasy employed a functioning fictional language. Robert Jordan developed a vocabulary of over 1,000 words for the Old Tongue used in the novels and rules to go along with it. Only a small amount of this material ever made it into the novels, but a more comprehensive account of the language is planned for The Wheel of Time Encyclopedia.

In more recent times, it has become more fashionable to create entire languages for works of fiction. James Cameron commissioned linguist Paul Frommer to create a language for the Na'vi in his 2009 film Avatar. When HBO created the Game of Thrones TV series, based on George R.R. Martin's novels, they hired linguist David Peterson to create a working Dothraki language for the show. Later on he expanded this with Valyrian and elements of other languages. Peterson also went on to create more fictional languages for Thor: The Dark World, Defiance and The 100.

Still, it is relatively unknown for epic fantasy writers to create entire languages for their novels, this being an area that Tolkien was uniquely suited to deal with.


Tolkien also popularised the use of the "traditional" fantasy races: elves, dwarves, orcs, goblins, monstrous wolves and so on. Whilst the use of these races did not originate with Tolkien, he did shape them into their most familiar form, where the elves are long-lived, semi-immortal and graceful, the dwarves are miners fond of drinking and battle, and orcs are marauding, malevolent raiders. Tolkien drew on mythology for his sources, although he did change things around: elves in fairy tales and myths tended to be more mischievous or even capriciously evil races (in which form Pratchett deploys them in his Discworld novels Lords and Ladies and The Shepherd's Crown).

Amusingly, Tolkien originally considered using the word "gnome" for his long-lived, immortal species, drawing on its association with wisdom and knowledge ("gnomic", "gnosis"). However, in the 1920s and 1930s there was a boom in the popularity of garden gnomes (a fad imported from Germany) and Tolkien seems to have decided that the word was no longer appropriate. Gnomes would go on to appear in Dungeons and Dragons, but the only epic fantasy writer of note who would make major use of them would be Terry Brooks, who employed them as an antagonistic race in The Sword of Shannara.

Many fantasy writers would go on to use the races in their Tolkien-esque mode, although sometimes not using the same name. Elves and dwarves would show up pretty much as described in Tolkien in Raymond E. Feist's work, although later Riftwar books would stop using them (to the point where readers began to wonder if Feist had forgotten there were even dwarves on Midkemia). David Eddings, despite his publicly-state desire to make money from cashing in on the Tolkien crazy, actually eschewed using any of the familiar races. Tad Williams used them in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn but changed the names: the elves became the Sithi (a common alternate name for the elves, borrowing from the Irish Sidhe) and the dwarves and hobbits became mixed together a little to form the Qanuc (confusingly described as "trolls" in the novels). Dennis L. McKiernan's Iron Tower trilogy employs both elves and dwarves in the standard mode.

More recent epic fantasy either dispenses with the elves and dwarves together (such as Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire, although the latter's Children of the Forest do have some elf-like qualities) or changes them much more substantially. Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen features the Tiste, an elf-like immortal species famed for their skills in battle and with sorcery who have become divided into several, occasionally warring factions. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse mega-series features the very elf-like Nonmen, who have been driven insane by their longevity and the horrors they have witnessed over the course of thousands of years.

What is slightly more unusual is the lack of appearance of hobbits in later fantasy work. The word "hobbit" itself is copyrighted (unlike the very generic terms "elf" and "dwarf"), but Tolkien drew on pre-existing ideas in the creation of the race. Dungeons and Dragons would in fact develop two successors to hobbits, in the form of halflings (a word Tolkien himself deploys in The Two Towers) and, in the Dragonlance world, the fearless kender. McKiernan's Iron Tower series, itself originating from a failed attempt to write an authorised sequel to The Lord of the Rings, features the diminutive Dwarrows. However, most subsequent fantasy authors have preferred to use actual humans (usually callow youths from a rural background) in place of hobbits: Rand, Mat and Perrin in The Wheel of Time, Simon in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, the Ohmsfords of Shannara and Garion of The Belgariad can all be seen as the successors of the hobbits, despite being human.


In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien employs a number of themes he develops through the work. He is concerned with the corruption of power, personified in Sauron and Saruman, and the effect that the One Ring has on characters such as Boromir. He also explores the idea of redemption, with Gollum, almost destroyed by the Ring, very nearly redeemed by Frodo before he finally falls under the spell of the Ring one last time. However, Bilbo's act of mercy in The Hobbit (by not killing Gollum when he had the chance) is revealed to have been crucial in ensuring the ultimate victory over Sauron.

There's also a tremendous sense of nostalgia for a bucolic past replaced by a technological future. Tolkien is often mischaracterised as a Luddite, when in fact he saw the practical value of progress, such as when in old age he learned to drive and bought himself a car for the freedom it gave him and his wife, despite his dislike of the environmental damage wrought. However, Tolkien did strongly believe in the dehumanising effect that technology brought to warfare, seeing for himself the impact of industrial slaughter on the Western Front of World War I. He was later repulsed by the idea of mass aerial bombardments of civilian targets and the deployment of nuclear weapons. This disdain for technological warfare shows up in The Lord of the Rings through elements such as the Scouring of the Shire and Saruman tearing down the woods and groves of Isengard to create weapons factories.

Tolkien also wrote The Lord of the Rings as a bittersweet tragedy. Yes, Sauron is defeated but the world is forever changed. The elves and dwaves have no place in the world any more and Frodo is so traumatised by his experiences he must leave his home forever and seek succour in the west. Tolkien believed that change was a fundamental part of human life and you could never step back, a core theme of his work that is curiously often misunderstood or ignored (most notably in Michael Moorcock's well-written but poorly-supported "Epic Pooh" essay).

Later works of fantasy would, for the most part, abandon any kind of substantial thematic development in favour of being purely entertaining: there's not too much literary depth to be found in the Shannara or Belgariad books, which exist really as popcorn novels (not that there's anything wrong with that). However, some of the stronger and better works of epic fantasy do engage with ideas and themes beyond being entertaining, and emerge the better for it. The Black Company studies the morality of evil in a way few works (fantasy or not) manage. Memory, Sorrow and Thorn ponders the idea of inherent racism in works of fantasy. Legend and much of David Gemmell's work asks what exactly heroism actually is. The Wheel of Time concerns itself with gender issues, sexual equality and how the "chosen one" may fall to evil due to the stresses placed upon him or her. A Song of Ice and Fire is primarily concerned with power, who wants it, who disdains it, who takes it up reluctantly and who hungers for it. The Malazan series engages with a whole host of themes, running from capitalism to mercy, and, for all of its myriad faults, at least The Sword of Truth aspires to socio-political ideas (if often in a morally questionable form). However, the greatest explorer of themes in fantasy was Terry Pratchett, who used his Discworld books to examine everything from religious fanaticism to the development of steam technology to the power of propaganda.

So the influences Tolkien brought to epic fantasy were many and varied. The impact of The Lord of the Rings was so immense that it took a surprising amount of time for other writers to begin exploring some of his ideas and bring their own to the table.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 4

In any discussion of the development of epic fantasy one work looms over the rest to such a titanic extent that, for years, the subgenre was often said to consist of just it and a few pale imitators: The Lord of the Rings. That perception has changed over the last two decades, but it remains the most important book in the development of the field.

 J.R.R. Tolkien towards the end of his life, having completed Lord of the Rings and while he was still working on The Silmarillion.

As mentioned in Part 2, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had begun writing "The Hobbit II" in December 1937. He envisaged the book as a short sequel to The Hobbit, written in a similar, jovial tone and focusing on Bilbo's nephew Bingo. The storyline would focus on the magical ring that Bilbo had found in Gollum's cave and would feature the Necromancer (an off-screen villain in the prior book) as the main antagonist.

Despite sketching out a few chapters in that mode, Tolkien seemed to find it limiting. He'd already written The Hobbit and writing it again did not seem particularly interesting. There was also a change in his structuring of the story. The Hobbit had started off a self-contained tale, but it had "strayed" into Middle-earth, the setting for Tolkien's massive mythological cycle The Silmarillion, which he'd been working on since 1917. Although that change had come too late to really change the tone and direction of The Hobbit, it was something he was acutely aware of when starting the sequel. He realised early on that the Necromancer could be Sauron, the chief lieutenant of the Dark Lord Morgoth from the earlier work. Although Morgoth had been defeated at the end of The Silmarillion and cast into the void, Sauron's fate was not mentioned, allowing Tolkien to redeploy him for this new work.

This resulted in a shift and transformation in the tone of the story, a move away from another children's adventure into something grander, bigger and more sophisticated. Tolkien kept modestly referring to it as "The Hobbit sequel" long after it had passed the earlier work in word count (the new book would end up being five times the length of the earlier), but eventually he revealed a more epic title: The Lord of the Rings.

Work on the book proceeded for ten years. There were many interruptions. Tolkien lost the thread of the story on several occasions, at one point pausing the writing for over a year. The complexity of dealing with two separate narrative strands (Frodo and Sam on their way to Mordor and the rest of the Fellowship in Rohan and Gondor) stymied him for a while until he hit on the idea of writing the two stories sequentially and separate from one another, reuniting them only at the end: a device unconsciously, perhaps, echoed in later fantasy authors who would rest characters and storylines for a book or two and pick up with them later on. At various points he'd stop and rename characters: Bingo was switched to Frodo fairly early on. Worldbuilding also became a concern: Tolkien drew a map that was, by the end, so heavily annotated and amended that his son Christopher had real problems when it came to deciphering it to produce a version for inclusion in the book itself. Tolkien also found himself bogging down the narrative at key points with lengthy infodumps about the history of his invented countries and languages. Most of this was removed to the appendices in the writing process, allowing the narrative to (despite its eventual bulk) remain focused on the core storylines.

Tolkien completed writing The Lord of the Rings in 1947; revisions and typing up the massive manuscript took a further two years. However, publication was delayed due to Tolkien's decision that he also wanted The Silmarillion published as well. This proved difficult because it wasn't finished. The publishers of The Hobbit, Allen and Unwin, were unwilling to consider the manuscript since it was incomplete, but also had doubts about its commercial potential compared to the more traditionally-structured Lord of the Rings. Unwisely, Tolkien saw this report and was unimpressed. In 1950, he offered both books to Collins, who were more willing to entertain both works and also had more capacity to print them: paper was still being rationed in the aftermath of WW2 and Collins, as a stationary company as well as a publisher, had access to larger stocks. Unfortunately, delays and a late decision to edit the two books down led to Tolkien abandoning his relationship with Collins in 1952.

Tolkien returned to Allen and Unwin and they agreed to publish The Lord of the Rings - which was complete apart from the appendices - and hold fire on The Silmarillion until it was actually done. Further delays, issues with the printers and a late completion of the appendices meant that the book was not finally out, in full, until three years later. Ongoing paper shortages meant that the book had to be split into three volumes, with The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers being published in 1954 and The Return of the King in 1955. Tolkien had just inadvertently created the Traditional Epic Fantasy Trilogy, despite his strenuous later protests that it was one novel.

Early reactions were mixed, with enormous praise from the likes of C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden muted by a lot of dire reviews. Despite the mixed reception and the fact that the books were more expensive than most, sales were buoyant and Tolkien soon found himself receiving royalty cheques dwarfing his annual income from teaching. He soon began receiving fan mail, some of it written in his own Elvish languages (to his delight), from people all over the world.

Yet, The Lord of the Rings remained only a modest success. It was known in SFF circles, certainly, but it was not immediately obvious that it was a gamechanger in the genre. For that to happen took an act of piracy.

The unauthorised 1965 Ace Books editions of The Lord of the Rings. Despite being unauthorised, they were actually more faithful to the original text than the authorised ones, having less typos and much better cover art.

In 1965 Ace Books in the United States released their own copy of The Lord of the Rings, citing a failure by Houghton Mifflin (the authorised US hardcover publisher) to copyright the book. The Ace Books paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings was wildly popular, selling 100,000 copies in just a few months and exposing a hunger for a paperback edition of the work. Houghton Mifflin corrected their error and released an authorised paperback, but it was more expensive than Ace's. To everyone's surprise, Tolkien himself then joined the fray. Despite having little to no interest in SFF fandom (he was a fan of Isaac Asimov, but little else) and having declined multiple times to visit the United States, he began a letter-writing campaign, calling upon his fan and author connections built up over a decade. Soon fans were demanding that the unauthorised edition be pulled from sale, and bookstores began to refuse to stock it. Aware of the negative PR, Ace apologised and made Tolkien several royalty payments. "The War Over Middle-earth", as it was dubbed in the press, had ended but it had been a reasonably big news story for several months.

The result was less of a boom in sales than a titanic explosion of popularity. Suddenly, everyone was reading Tolkien. Everyone had an opinion on it, Tolkien was receiving requests from fans urgently demanding a sequel (he placated them with news that he was revising The Silmarillion and working on new background information and stories, which later ended up in Unfinished Tales) and, most bizarrely, Leonard Nimoy relased a music video about Bilbo Baggins. Even the Beatles expressed interest in buying the film rights.

Tolkien was bewildered by this turn of events, but was not totally dismayed by the "grosser forms of literary success". It allowed him and his wife to live comfortably and to provide for their children and grandchildren. It also allowed him to buy a car (which given his hatred of the internal combustion engine was remarkable) and got him interviewed by the BBC.

Tolkien died in September 1973 at the age of 81. He left behind The Silmarillion in an incomplete state, but he had been working with his son Christopher to get his notes in an orderly state and to arrange for the book to be finished in the light that he would not be able to do it. He also left behind other stories, notes and fragments which later saw the light in other books. Tolkien even left behind recollections and some notes on his childhood, perhaps feeling that if someone was going to write his life story they should have as much information as possible (this helped Humphrey Carpenter immensely in his writing of Tolkien's biography).

The influence he left behind was seismic. In fact, it was so seismic that no other writer seemed to know how to respond. It would be over twenty years after publication that the first works written in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings would start to appear. But its impact was notable early on: in a review of Dune, Arthur C. Clarke stated that he could compare it to nothing other than Lord of the Rings (Clarke was a fan of the book, also referencing it in his novel 2010 when he compares the hellscape of Jupiter's moon Io to Mordor). Other writers decried it, with Michael Moorcock in particular lambasting it for its conservatism and safety at a time of increasing literary experimentation. But it was clear that something had changed in the fantasy genre as a result of the book, and the impact of that was going to be remarkable.

China Mieville's THE CITY AND THE CITY to become a TV series

The BBC has announced that it will be adapting China Mieville's 2009 novel The City and the City as a four-part mini-series.

The series will air on BBC2 and is being written by Tony Grisoni, known for co-writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tideland with Terry Gilliam, as well as TV series such as Red Riding and Southcliffe. Grisoni is an offbeat and interesting scriptwriter, and would seem a perfect match for the novel.

The book is set in the city of Besźel, which coexists at the same point in space and time with the city of Ul Quoma; residents of the two cities have to ignore one another, can't go into buildings that are in the "other" city and have to cross over at specially-designated border posts. Any transgression of these rules is retaliated against by a (possibly) supernatural force. A murder in one of the cities leads the investigating detective on a dizzying journey which incorporates both cities and the forces which control them.
"We are thrilled to be bringing China's dazzlingly inventive novel to BBC Two. It's a 21st Century classic - a truly thrilling and imaginative work which asks big questions about how we perceive the world and how we interact with each other."
No airdate for the series has yet been set, although at this point it'll likely be late 2016 or some time in 2017.

Winterfair Gifts by Lois McMaster Bujold

Winterfair on Barrayar and the unthinkable is happening: Miles Vorkosigan is getting married. For his family this is a time of great happiness and joy. For Armsman Roic, one of Miles's long-suffering security officers, it's a time of paranoia, vigilance and stress. When things start to go wrong, Roic joins forces with one of Miles's old Dendarii comrades to ensure that the wedding goes off without a hitch.

Winterfair Gifts is a short novella set after the events of A Civil Campaign. It centres on Roic, a minor supporting character most notable at this point for engaging in combat with overzealous offworld security officers whilst half-naked and covered in butter (produced by insectoids from another planet, but that's another story). The novella actually feels a bit like an apology from Bujold to her character, giving him a chance to shine in his own story.

It's an enjoyable piece, with some laughs, some drama and some pathos in the relationship between Roic and Taura, the genetically-engineered soldier Miles rescued from Jackson's Whole. The drama part of the novel - including an assassination attempt and a dramatic arrest - feels almost tacked on, with much of the pivotal action happening off-page. Bujold's focus is on the two main characters, their development and their unexpected relationship, which is effective and touching.

A minor interlude in the overall Vorkosigan Saga, then, but one that is enjoyable and worth reading. It is available now as part of the Miles in Love omnibus (UK, USA).

Saturday, 29 August 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 3

Seventeen years passed between the publication of The Hobbit and its much larger and longer sequel, The Lord of the Rings. However, this period was not without significant works of fantasy being published.

One of the more interesting fantasy works to emerge in the immediate post-Hobbit era was a series of short stories by the American author Fritz Leiber. Leiber, in collaboration with his friend Harry Otto Fischer, had created two characters loosely based on themselves, but also intended to subvert expectations of what fantasy characters could be. These characters were, of course, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The duo appeared in thirty-six short stories and a full-length novel, published between 1939 and 1988. Initially they appeared in magazines such as Unknown and Fantastic, but in 1968 the stories began to be packaged in omnibus editions, at which point their sales began to take off impressively.

Leiber is, lamentably, not a household name but his influence was huge. Both Gary Gygax (the creator of Dungeons and Dragons) and Terry Pratchett read his stories whilst younger and found them hugely influential. Gygax even later licensed Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's world of Newhon as an official D&D campaign world, whilst Pratchett's first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, is as much an affectionate satire of Leiber specifically as it is of fantasy as a whole. In particular, before taking it in its own direction in later books, the city of Ankh-Morpork in the earlier novels can be seen as a direct riff on Lankhmar, the most notable settlement of Newhon. Indeed, Lankhmar can be seen as perhaps the first archetypal fantasy city, a place of narrow alleys, raucous inns and rooftop chases.

There was another author engaged in a spot of worldbuilding and subcreation closer to home as well. In 1938 C.S. Lewis published Out of the Silent Planet, a science fiction novel borne out of a conversation with his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. The two authors had agreed to write a series of complementary stories about space travel and time travel; Tolkien's story, The Lost Road (about the downfall of Numenor), was never completed as he prioritised work on The Lord of the Rings, but he did make use of the material he created for it for backstory to the new novel. Lewis not only finished his book but published two sequels (Perelandra and That Hideous Strength), creating the Space Trilogy. When looking for a new writing project, Lewis recalled an experience in 1939, at the outset of the Second World War, when his family home had to host three girls sent out of London in fear of bombing. Lewis used this as the seed to write a fantasy series set in a fictional world called Narnia.

The Chronicles of Narnia spanned seven fairly short novels, published between 1949 and 1956. The land of Narnia was described in some detail and Lewis used the fantastical setting to explore Christian themes of sacrifice and redemption. The series was critically acclaimed upon release, bringing Lewis fame and fortune that (for a time) eclipsed that of his friend Tolkien. However, Tolkien himself was cool on the series, in part because he couldn't help the suspicion that Lewis had modelled Narnia on Middle-earth and been inspired by the still-gestating Lord of the Rings, which he had been reading to his writing friends as work progressed (in particular, he was irritated by Lewis using the name "Numinor", despite it apparently being used as an affectionate nod at Tolkien).

As well as its worldbuilding and religious themes, Narnia was notable for its non-sequential, non-linear storytelling. Each book was self-contained, but jumped around in time and space, with some of the later books being prequels and interquels and the primary cast of characters changing with each novel, both ideas used in later fantasy series to keep things fresh for the author.

The other major key work of this period was written by another English author and illustrator: Mervyn Peake. In 1946 he published Titus Groan, a novel about the inhabitants of a colossal, crumbling castle called Gormenghast. The novel was dense and complex, but featured at its core a villainous point-of-view character called Steerpike, who was determined to bring down the ruling Groan family and take power himself. The story was too big for one volume and Peake continued the story in Gormenghast (1950), which concluded Steerpike's story rather definitively. Peake planned to continue the series, at one point considering no less than ten volumes set in the same world. He started writing a third book, Titus Alone, and made plans for two more (tentatively entitled Titus Awake and Gormenghast Revisited), but died at the tragically early age of 57. Titus Alone was published in 1959, but in rather butchered form. A proper edition was released in 1970, whilst Peake's widow wrote her own version of Titus Awakes that was eventually published in 2011.

The Gormenghast Trilogy is best-known for its setting, an ancient edifice of crumbling stone whose physical disrepair matches the declining state of the family that rules it. It is certainly not an epic fantasy, being more reminiscent of Gothic drama. However, the idea of impossible, vast castles - the Big Dumb Objects of epic fantasy - would live on in later works: the Hayholt of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and Winterfell and Harrenhal (among others) in A Song of Ice and Fire owe some of their inspiration to Peake's work.

Back in the United States another author decided to start writing a series of short stories while at sea as part of the Merchant Marine. His name was Jack Vance, and starting in the early 1940s he began penning stories set in an unimaginably distant future when the Earth is dying and the sun is about to go out. Despite the alleged SF backdrop, Vance populated his far future setting with rogues, thieves and wizards. Although not epic fantasy as such - The Dying Earth (1950) and its three sequels instead creating a subgenre of their own - many of the touchstones of epic fantasy can be found in this series. There's the vigorously scientific approach to magic, giving the fantastic a set of reliable rules and limitations. These proved so strong that Gary Gygax later lifted them wholesale for his Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game. There was also the use of post-apocalyptic Earth as the setting for the story. Many later epic fantasies, from Shannara to The Wheel of Time to the recent Shattered Sea, would do the same thing. There's also the impact Vance had on later writers, most notably Gygax and Pratchett but also George R.R. Martin (Vance is Martin's favourite author). In 1983 Vance himself penned a more traditional epic fantasy, The Lyonesse Trilogy, one of the all-time finest works of the genre.

Throughout all of this time J.R.R. Tolkein had been busy at home in Oxford, writing, re-writing, editing and re-editing The Lord of the Rings. The impact it would have when finally published is something the author, and the SFF world, was not expecting.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Bethesda re-release some classic games on GoG

Bethesda have joined the GoG bandwagon by releasing some of their older, classic RPGs and some other games inherited from other companies onto the service.

Of interest to fans of Skyrim and The Elder Scrolls Online will be the older games in the Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is by far the most critically highly-acclaimed game in the series and the most unusual, with taxi services provided by giant stilt-legged monsters, very few traditional fantasy cliches and the constant threat of being killed by annoying cliff racers. Far more obscure are the two action-oriented spin-offs, the dungeon crawler Battlespire and the third-person action game Redguard.

As a bonus, anyone buying any of these titles also gets The Elder Scrolls: Arena and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall added to their collection for free. These games have been free for years on Bethesda's website, but it's nice to see them being put out on GoG. Certainly playing Arena in 2015 - 21 years after it was originally released - is an, er, interesting experience when comparing it to Skyrim.

Bethesda have also released Fallout, Fallout 2 and Fallout Tactics on the service, likely to help set the scene for the release of Fallout 4 in November. In addition, they have also released some of id's back-catalogue, via special editions for Doom, Doom II and Quake.

DIVINITY: ORIGINAL SIN II arrives on Kickstarter

Larian Studios have commenced the Kickstarter campaign for Divinity: Original Sin II. This is the sequel to last year's hit RPG.

The new game has sailed past its Kickstarter target of $500,000 less than 24 hours after the appeal went live. With 34 days still left in the campaign, I think we can comfortably expect the final total to be well into the seven figures. However, the video game record set by Shenmue III with $6.33 million would appear to be safe for now.

The new game is very similar to the original, but with the party now expanded to four fully-controllable heroes (as opposed to two fully-controllable ones and two NPC allies in the original). The game will retain its focus on high-quality graphics, physics-assisted battles and open freedom, but this will be joined by the idea of the party occasionally splitting up and engaging in separate, simultaneous narratives. The designers are also working on the idea of furthering roleplaying in video games in multiplayer mode by allowing the players to work at cross-purposes to one another. This is fascinating, although only time will tell how successful they will be.

What is interesting is that, this time around, the basic underlying tech is already in place (and Original Sin II is clearly in a much more advanced state of prototyping than the original was at the same point) so the Kickstarter money this time can go more towards, writing, art and the development of these intriguing ideas of consequence and competing narratives. If Larian pull off what they are promising, this game could be something very special indeed.

Monday, 24 August 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 2

It would be fair to say that J.R.R. Tolkien did not create epic or secondary world fantasy. He stood on the shoulders of those who came before, bringing a new perspective to old ideas and creating a variant form of storytelling out of existing approaches. But The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) define the subgenre of epic fantasy in a way that very few other works so completely define their fields. Every work of fantasy in that mould - and, to the irritation of their authors, many of fantasy outside of it - is seen in the light of Tolkien. In more recent years other defining figures have appeared such as Rowling and Martin, or older ones have been reappraised, such as Howard and Dunsany, but Tolkien was for many years the author who summed up, coined and personified the field, and his life story and the stories that grew out of it are important to understanding it.

John Ronald Reul Tolkien in 1916, shortly before beginning what would become The Silmarillion.

John Ronald Reul Tolkien had been born in Bloemfontein's, South Africa, in 1892 to British parents. His father died when he was just three years old whilst the rest of the family were visiting the UK on holiday. Remaining in the UK, Tolkien and his brother were raised by their mother in and around Birmingham, in conditions of some financial distress. Tolkien's mother died when he was twelve from complications arising from diabetes and he was raised by a priest who had been a friend of the family. Tolkien attended Oxford University and married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Bratt, after a courtship complicated by interference from both their families on religious grounds (Tolkien was a Catholic and Edith a Protestant; she later converted, with some regrets).

In 1916 Tolkien was deployed to the Western Front to fight as part of the British Army in the First World War. Tolkien spent just four months in the trenches, although the horrors he saw during that time never left him: those four months included the bulk of the Battle of the Somme. In October of that year Tolkien came down with trench fever and was invalided back to England. Repeated bouts of sickness kept him confined to the home country. With Edith only able to visit occasionally, Tolkien was bored out of his mind. He was already a keen writer, poet and artist, and had already used fantastical imagery in his amateur works: he had already painted a great blazing tree of light in 1916 and had written a poem called The Lonely Isle. He had also started developing his own imaginary languages, driven by a love of philology inherited from his mother (who had taught him Latin as a young child). He had no greater plan in mind for these works but during his convalescence he decided to start writing an actual story, about the arrival of a great warrior at a glorious city called Gondolin, one of the few surviving strongholds in the midst of a great war. The Fall of Gondolin was the first of what he came to call The Book of Lost Tales, consisting of stories drawn from a common backdrop but varying immensely in tone and content.

Ted Nasmith's rendition of the meeting of Beren and Luthien, the most personal and favourite of Tolkien's own stories.

Others soon followed. A few months later Tolkien and his wife went on a picnic and Edith danced for him among the flowering hemlock. This inspired Tolkien to write his epic romance, The Lay of Leithian, better-known as The Tale of Beren and Luthien, which became a core part of Tolkien's developing legendarium.

With the war ending, Tolkien took a job working on the Oxford English Dictionary before becoming a university lecturer and professor, first at Leeds and then back to Oxford. He became Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College in 1924. During this time he continued working on The Book of Lost Tales, adding many more episodes to the book and developing a vast, mythological backstory. In this story supernatural beings known as Valar (servants of the One God Eru, also called Illuvatar) create the world and rule it as a paradise, until one of their number, Melkor (later Morgoth) turns against them and brings disquiet and corruption into paradise. Melkor is responsible for numerous conflicts, culminating in him seizing control of three powerful, magical jewels and securing them in a stronghold in the central continent of the world (hence, the "Middle of the Earth", although the name also drew on Midgard and other mythological roots). During his villainous antics, Melkor had betrayed the immortal "gnomes" and suffered their retribution in the form of a bloody crusade launched against his forces in Middle-earth over the course of centuries. Deciding that "gnomes" wasn't quite right, Tolkien recast them as the heroic and otherworldly elves, to the relief of the many imitators who came after. Eventually, with the assistance of the supposedly "lesser" races of dwarves and men (not to mention the intervention of the Valar), the elves defeat Melkor and he is driven from the world in defeat, although only at the cost of the annihilation of parts of Middle-earth in a titanic flood.

Tolkien's grand mythological cycle was complete in concept, but Tolkien found structuring it and making it more comprehensible to general readers to be difficult. He tried creating a framing structure in which a shipwrecked mariner from the modern age washes ashore on the Lonely Isle of Tol Eressea (having somehow found the "Straight Road" from our world to that of Valinor, the land of the Uttermost West) and hears about the Lost Tales from his hosts, but found this unsatisfying. He continued working on the legends and polished them into a more familiar form, changing names and races and events and even the book's title - by 1930 The Book of Lost Tales had become The Silmarillion - but still could not find a satisfying way of presenting his world of Middle-earth as he wanted. But, as is usually the way, inspiration struck from an unexpected quarter.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, published in 1937 and a vital moment in the development of the epic fantasy genre.

In or around 1930, Tolkien was marking papers when he found a blank sheet of paper left in the middle of an essay. On a whim, he wrote down "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," and put the paper aside. Later, he picked it up and became intrigued by what exactly a "hobbit" could be. He resolved to find out.

Over the course of the next six years, whilst working hard as an academic and tinkering with The Silmarillion, Tolkien fleshed out his new story by inventing episodes for it as bedtime tales for his four children (who successively grew up hearing it). He set it down on paper, and later a typewriter, before leaving it unfinished. It was only because a former student-turned-friend, Susan Dagnall, had become employed by George Allen and Unwin, a London publishing house and had heard about the book, that it was ever finished.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, was published in September 1937 to considerable critical acclaim, winning Tolkien several awards and selling well in both the UK and the United States. Tolkien's publishers quickly asked for a sequel but Tolkien had not planned one, and had ended the book by saying that Bilbo Baggins lived long and happily to the end of his days. He could not think of a way of writing a sequel that did not contradict this. Nevertheless, he tried and by Christmas had started The Hobbit II, another light-hearted adventure about hobbits. Among the ideas he had placed in the first novel but had not developed fully was an off-page, secondary villain called "The Necromancer" and the backstory for a curious magic ring, discovered by Bilbo and granting the bearer the ability to become invisible. Keen for the second book to develop naturally from the first, Tolkien followed up on these plot points and made them more central to the narrative, eventually hitting on the idea that the Necromancer was the creator of the ring and that he was looking for it. The story took a darker turn when Tolkien had his band of hobbits chased across the Shire by a sinister Ring-wraith, with the language and atmosphere both becoming more adult and oppressive. Tolkien chose to remain in this mode. A final element clicked into place when Tolkien suddenly realised that the Necromancer could be Sauron, a minor villain in The Silmarillion (although a primary antagonist in The Tale of Beren and Luthien) whose fate had not been revealed at the end of that story. Tolkien's new story was not going to be just a sequel to The Hobbit, but also The Silmarillion itself, elevating it to a new level in Tolkien's eyes and also resulting in its new and decidedly more epic title: The Lord of the Rings.

In the event, it would be seventeen years before the new book would be published and the rest of the SFF field was not standing idle.

QUANTUM BREAK blurs the lines between gaming and TV

Microsoft and Remedy have announced the release date of their new video game collaboration: Quantum Break, an action SF-thriller set in a world where time and space have become fluid concepts in the wake of a temporal accident. However, the game will also be part of a multimedia concept incorporating a digital TV series.


The game itself is a fairly standard action title incorporating gunplay and cover-based shooting, with the addition of Remedy's trademark polish and new mechanics revolving around the manipulation of time. This is a natural development for the developers who gave us the first two (and best) Max Payne games, with their development of bullet time in gaming. Like their previous title, Alan Wake, Quantum Break will be broken up into episodes. Each episode of the game will be followed by a 22-minute TV episode expanding on the story. There will be four episodes as part of the game, although if the game is a big hit presumably more could be made.

The live-action port of the game will incorporate some pretty well-known genre hitters, with Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), Dominic Monaghan (Lord of the Rings, Lost), Shawn Ashmore (X-Men, The Following) and Lance Riddick (The Wire, Fringe) being the most notable.

Quantum Break will be released on X-Box One on 5 April 2016. A later release on PC is likely, given Remedy's track record.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Christopher Priest announces a new novel

Christopher Priest has taken to his blog to confirm the completion of a new novel, The Gradual.

According to Priest, this novel breaks with the tradition of his last few books by having a reliable narrator and a linear storyline told in sequence. Priest's last few novels - The Separation, The Islanders and The Adjacent - have all featured non-linear storytelling, unreliable (or mad) narrators and shifting perspectives and realities.

This is interesting news, as Priest had previously said his next novel would be called The Mariners. Whether this is the same book with a new title, or a different work that cropped up, is unclear. Hopefully, we will see The Gradual on shelves in 2016.

Two new China Mieville novels in 2016

It appears that we will be getting two new China Mieville novels in 2016.

China Mieville is one of SFF's most respected and critically-acclaimed authors, and also one of its more prolific. He released six novels in just seven years (bookended by the YA works Un Lun Dun in 2007 and Railsea in 2012) before taking a hiatus. He released a short story collection, Three Moments of an Explosion, a couple of months ago and will apparently be back with two new works in 2016.

First up in January is This Census Taker, a short novel or long novella. Blurb 1:
Like Neil Gaiman’s major bestseller The Ocean at the End of the Lane, this is short and stirring fiction from a genre master.

After his mother goes missing, a boy is left alone in a remote house on a hilltop with his increasingly deranged father. When an odd man knocks on his door, the boy senses that his days of isolation are over. But will this stranger at last trigger the doom the boy has feared or will he somehow save the boy from the worst?
And Blurb 2:
For readers of George Saunders, Kelly Link, and Karen Russell, This Census Taker is the poignant and uncanny new novella from award-winning and bestselling author China Miéville. After witnessing a profoundly traumatic event, a boy is left alone in a remote house on a hilltop with his increasingly deranged parent. When a stranger knocks on his door, the boy senses that his days of isolation are over—but by what authority does this man keep the meticulous records he carries? Is he the boy’s friend? His enemy? Or something altogether other?

This will be followed by his next novel proper, The Last Days of New Paris, later in the year. Blurb:
THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS is an intense and gripping tale set in an alternative universe: June 1940 following Paris’ fall to the Germans, the villa of Air-Bel in Marsailles, is filled with Trotskyists, anti-fascists, exiled artists, and surrealists. One Air-Bel dissident decides the best way to fight the Nazis is to construct a surrealist bomb. When the bomb is accidentally detonated, surrealist Cataclysm sweeps Paris and transforms it according to a violent, weaponized dream logic.

Fringe: Season 4

The Fringe team has saved two parallel universes from destruction but have paid a heavy price they are no longer even aware of. Peter Bishop, who as a young boy was saved from death, irrevocably altering the timeline, has been removed from existence. His Fringe team-mates have no memory of his existence and his removal has led to numerous changes, such as the continued existence of a very old enemy. But - somehow - Peter returns to find a world which he is no longer part of. Can he find a way "home"?

Fringe's penultimate season starts off in a difficult place. The timeline of both universes has been reset and although things are broadly similar, a whole host of details have changed. These include Olivia and her sister being raised by Nina Sharp and Walter, never having been brought out of his shell by Peter, still being a crazy recluse. It is fascinating to map these changes, and the way the writers cleverly use them to resurrect previously-slain foes and revisit past plot points, but it does cause some problems with the viewer not being sure how much to invest in this new universe. Is Fringe going to hit the reset button at some point and revert things back to the way they used to be?

If you can get over that issue, there is much to enjoy with this season. The notion that parallel universes can exist but time can also be rewritten within those universes is one that hard SF has played around with a few times, but this is the first time that an SF TV series has treated the concept with some seriousness and not gotten bogged down in technobabble. The timeline reset also allows the writers to drop a few storylines they developed earlier on which clearly they didn't know how to follow up on (particularly Fauxlivia's pregnancy). However, a late-season development allows them to revisit some of these plot threads and give them a more elegant form of closure.

Once the season sorts itself out, there is much fun to be had from having our characters (in both universes) pitted against a returning old enemy (who later turns out to be a front for another returning antagonist) who is a step ahead of them at every turn. The season does a good job of balancing out its share of characters, with Peter dominating mid-season but Seth Gabel's Lincoln Lee rising to the fore later on. Lincoln has always been an interesting character, but his early placement this season as Peter's effective replacement feels a little off. That said, the writers use the oddness of his position to inform the storyline and eventually his character achieves a destiny that is fitting.

A key subplot through the season revolves around the ongoing mystery of the Observers. Some fans thought we wouldn't get much, or any, explanation for these mysterious beings and their objectives, so it's a huge shock when we do get a detailed explanation for their origins and their ultimate goals. These ramp up in the nineteenth episode, Letters of Transit, which fast-forwards to the year 2036 and a nightmarish, dystopian possible future that awaits our heroes. Given that Fringe was going to be cancelled after the fourth season (the ratings were utterly diabolical) and was saved almost solely by the goodwill of fans at the network, this was an incredibly bold decision that could have left the series on a massive downer. As it stands, Fringe was reprieved at the last minute and given a final season to wrap up its storylines.

Unfortunately, Season 4 does run out of steam a little before its end. There's some wheel-spinning episodes and even Fringe's generously elastic notions of plausibility take a serious beating with some plot developments. The actual season finale is also extremely weak, with some bitty plotting and Blair Brown being given some hideous exposition to relate to the other characters (the writers seemingly later apologised by giving her an incredibly poignant and well-played storyline in the final season).

The fourth season of Fringe (****) is probably the show's weakest, although it's still eminently watchable, highly entertaining and, as usual, excellently played by a tight, capable cast. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 1

Buzzfeed recently posted a "51 Best Fantasy Series Ever" list, which of course is nothing of the sort. Some very good books and a few nods at excellent-but-obscure stuff, but for the most part the list divides its time between the obvious and a lot of currently-trendy-but-incomplete stuff that we have no way of knowing will stand the test of time (putting such series at #1, #2 and #3 seems a bit optimistic, to me).

Rather than simply throw up my own list (although I may put together a Gratuitous List of such in the coming weeks), I thought it might be more interesting to look at epic fantasy, or at least the modern interpretation of the subgenre, through a chronological perspective. This has the benefit of allowing works to be listed without too much regard for whether they're any "good" or not, but more by their importance in the development of the field.

Pre-Modern Fantasy

Any discussion of the origin of epic fantasy can easily get diverted into discussions of older, mythological and pre-modern works. I've seen some discussions of the subgenre open with The Illiad and The Odyssey, in which case the history of epic fantasy can also be seen the history of literature as a whole. What we're more concerned with is epic fantasy in its current form and how it got there.

That said, there are some amusing parallels between modern publishing concerns and more ancient works of literature. Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses (8 AD) can be seen as an attempt to order both Greek and Roman mythological traditions into one cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end (the then-recent deification of Julius Caesar), a bit like Tolkien's Silmarillion but drawing on pre-existing actual legends. Similarly, Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur is a gathering together of various medieval and Dark Ages myths (particularly Geoffry of Monmouth's earlier work of three centuries prior) into a single coherent story. However most pre-modern fantasies can be seen as being more collections of fairy tales, folklore and religious legends rather than conscious works of "subcreation", to use a term coined by J.R.R. Tolkien.

"Subcreation", in Tolkien's definition, means for a writer to create a world (fictional or a variation on our own) and populate it with detailed peoples, cultures, histories and traditions, to give the illusion (however deep) of reality. This differs sharply from other forms of fantasy in which the weird, the strange and the genuinely fantastical are not given any form of explanation. Critics of epic fantasy have suggested that this is a counter-intuitive approach to the genre of the fantastic, giving rationalisation to something that cannot be rationalised. West of the moon and east of the sun should not be mappable (to paraphrase Pratchett), and pausing a reading of the legend of King Arthur to reflect that Camelot does not have a sound economic foundation to survive a major military campaign is to miss the mystery and romance of the legend. However, "subcreation" has come to define modern epic fantasy, to the point of some authors revelling in the sheer joy of creating places, cultures and stories about them, although even Tolkien warned of the dangers of getting carried away with this instead of focusing on the story at hand.

This form of work can be seen at an early stage in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1725), in which his hero travels to various fictional islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These islands are described in some exacting and pedantic detail, as if Gulliver is making a report to the British Foreign Office, with their economies and politics discussed at length and maps of the islands included. Of course, this was part of Swift's satirical swipe at the then-modern (and, to his eyes, absurdist) politics of the British and French governments. But the idea of rationalising the irrational certainly took hold in the following generations.

Pre-Tolkien Fantasy
Tolkien is held to be the father of epic fantasy, but certainly books were published before him which could be seen to have some of the same hallmarks. George MacDonald's Phantastes (1858), sometimes held to be the first fantasy novel written exclusively for adults, has the protagonist journeying into a fictional world which even has a proto-"magic system", in its depiction of the rules governing the spirits of the trees. The Well at the World's End (1896) by William Morris features a fantastical quest through an imagined landscape. Frank L. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and numerous sequels depicted a fantasy world divided between various factions and races, all plotted on a handy map. Starting in 1905, Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (popularly, "Lord Dunsany") wrote a series of books and stories where gods living in a fictional realm called Pegana are shown to have influenced human life. In 1924 he published The King of Elfland's Daughter, a novel-length quest narrative. Slightly preceding it, E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros (1922) is very much an epic fantasy in the traditional mould, complete with maps, military campaigns and a well-described background setting.

However, the most well-known writer of fantasy pre-Tolkien is Robert E. Howard. Born and raised in Texas, Howard started publishing short stories in a local high school newspaper in 1922, when he was just sixteen years old. Two years later his first story was published in Weird Tales and he became a regular in the magazine, selling stories about cavemen and reams of shorter works such as poems. In 1927 he created his first "hit" character, Kull the Conqueror, a warlord from Atlantis. This was swiftly followed by Solomon Kane, a puritanical warrior out to avenge his dead family. Both were moderately successful, although the rejection of several Kull stories discouraged Howard from using the character again. However, he cleverly rewrote one of the rejected stories, replacing the brooding Kull with a more outgoing, straightforward barbarian character: Conan of Cimmeria. The story, The Phoenix on the Sword, was published in December 1932 to a rapturous welcome.

Numerous Conan stories followed, with Conan's adventures attracting a dedicated fan following. After writing several stories, Howard paused to flesh out Conan's world - actually our own in a fictional epoch known as the Hyborian Age - and wrote a long essay about the world and its peoples, an early form of "worldbuilding". The essay was accompanied by maps of the Hyborian continent, which is recognisable Eurasia (and some parts of Africa) in a fictional, earlier form of development.

Conan was Howard's most successful creation, with numerous short stories being published in Weird Tales. After just a couple of years, Howard developed an interest in historical works and Westerns, and the Conan stories dwindled. Just as Howard was close to getting an actual book deal, which would have brought his work to a much wider audience, he suffered a depressive breakdown when his mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness and he committed suicide in June 1936.

However, the publication of the epic fantasy ur-work was imminent. By the time of Howard's death, an English academic had been gradually building up his own fictional legendarium for twenty years, and just a few months later published the first work set in that world: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

2017 Worldcon to be held in Helsinki

The 2017 World Science Fiction Convention will be held in Helsinki, Finland. Although not "officially" confirmed yet, the news has broken at the 2015 Worldcon, currently ongoing in Spokane, Washington.

This is good news for international SFF fans. After the success of the 2015 Worldcon in London, the convention has returned to the United States for two years in a row: Spokane and next year's Kansas City. There were fears that Worldcon could end up staying in the USA for four years, with Washington, D.C. throwing their hat in for 2017 and, at present, only San Jose and New Orleans being in the running for 2018.

Helsinki and a strong bid from Dublin for 2019 break that up nicely and will hopefully keep Worldcon moving all over the globe so SFF fans from different parts of the world get a chance to attend.

CBS options Ian McDonald's LUNA books for TV

In a surprising move, the American CBS network has picked up the TV rights to Ian McDonald's Luna duology. The first novel, New Moon is not even published until 17 September.

Shane Brennan, the showrunner of NCIS: Los Angeles, picked up the right after a bidding war with rival broadcasters. The book is set in 2110 when the moon has been colonised and heavy industry has created a booming economy. Five powerful business families control the moon, one of which is targeted for a hostile takeover. It falls to the matriarch of the family and her five children to defend themselves.

The book has picked up some good pre-release press, but being optioned like this is surprising and good news for Ian McDonald. More than one commentator has picked up on possible similarities to  Dallas (McDonald has even called Luna "Dallas on the Moon") and Fox's family music drama Empire, except that Luna will presumably actually be watchable.

Tad Williams' WITCHWOOD CROWN delayed until 2017

The Witchwood Crown, the first volume in Tad Williams's Last King of Osten Ard trilogy has been delayed until March 2017, due to issues at the publisher.

DAW and Penguin Books have been forced to delay the novel due to undisclosed publishing problems with their schedule. The novel is mostly complete and Williams is working on edits and rewrites now. The novel had been planned for a Spring-Summer 2016 release, so this delay pushes back the novel almost an extra year.

Whether the delay means that there will be a much shorter gap before the second volume, Empire of Grass, is published remains unclear.

The Last King of Osten Ard is a sequel to the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy (The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower), published between 1988 and 1993. The original trilogy (named for three swords) chronicled the land of Osten Ard being torn apart in war, with a young kitchen-boy named Simon escaping the vast Hayholt castle and playing a pivotal role in saving the land from the machinations of the Storm King, Ineluki. Despite a standard premise, the trilogy is credited with revitalising the epic fantasy genre through some smart writing, strong characterisation and a mildly revisionist take on standard fantasy tropes, such as including characters with many shades of grey rather than being all good or evil, and challenging the notion of "inherently evil" races. George R.R. Martin has cited the first two volumes as being highly influential on A Game of Thrones, which he started writing in the summer of 1991. Later Song of Ice and Fire novels feature nods to Williams's characters (such as Josua and Elyas of House Willum, whose arms show a skeletal dragon and three swords). The trilogy is the biggest-selling of Williams's works, which have sold over 30 million copies to date, whilst To Green Angel Tower is the longest work of epic fantasy ever published in one volume, outsizing even the combined Lord of the Rings by almost 100,000 words.

The Last King of Osten Ard is set thirty years after the events of To Green Angel Tower and will feature both established characters from the first trilogy, some of their children and some completely new characters as well.

Meanwhile, there is some additional "big" news linked to Williams's work expected in September. This may be related to Warner Brothers acquiring the Otherland film and TV rights a couple of years ago, or possibly a development deal for Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (aside from Wheel of Time, currently mired in development hell, MS&T is probably the highest-profile fantasy series not under option at this time). Or it could be something completely different.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

New trailer for SATELLITE REIGN

5 Lives Studios have revealed a launch trailer for their tactical cyberpunk game Satellite Reign.

Satellite Reign is a "spiritual successor" to the classic Bullfrog games Syndicate and Syndicate Wars, created by some of the same personnel. Like those games, Satellite Reign is played from an overhead perspective and is set in an enormous futuristic city. You can rearm and equip agents between missions as well as engaging in research. The game expands on Syndicate's combat-focused gameplay by allowing hacking, stealth and corporate espionage. Your agents are also now specialists, with some being better at certain tasks than others.

The game will be released for PC, Mac and Linux on 28 August. The funky soundtrack to the trailer is "Infiltrate" by Protector 101.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Gratuitous Lists: Games for Readers

It is always interesting to see various websites produce "Books for Gamers" articles, where writers suggest novels and series for the hardcore Skyrim fan to enjoy when they're tired of knocking undead monsters into chasms. More interesting, however, would be to do the reverse. So here's a few games that SFF readers might do well to check out:

Ion Storm - 2001 - Available from

Humour in video games can be a hard thing to get right, with many more failures than successes. One of the more interesting successes is Anachronox, a 2001 roleplaying game set in the distant future. Humanity has colonised (alongside various alien races) Anachronox, a floating city made up of rotating sections inside a huge sphere of alien origin. The sphere enables FTL transit across many worlds. Your character, down-on-his-luck private investigator Sly Boots, is drawn into a mystery that starts off small in scale but eventually becomes huge in scope, taking in the fate of the galaxy, alternate realities and a mind-bending number of plot twists.

The humour is absurdly brilliant, taking in everything from satire on detective and SF cliches to riffing off superhero stories and governmental philosophies. It also has some of the craziest ideas to appear in an SF video game, taking in a miniaturised planet that joins your team as a party-member (to the disquiet of everyone you later meet - "Is that a planet floating behind you?") and a fantastically-developed sequence which pays tribute to silent movies by not involving any dialogue at all.

The game has not aged well graphically, but if you can look beyond the surface, one of the richest and most imaginative games in the roleplaying pantheon awaits.

See also: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and the Mass Effect trilogy draw more than a little inspiration from this game, but are much more po-faced; Gearbox's Borderlands series also employs a nice line in humour (but not as good as this).

Play if you like: Douglas Adams, Harry Harrison, Terry Pratchett.

Planescape: Torment
Black Isle Studios - 1999 - Available from

Most fantasy games stick fairly close to the Tolkien-derived norm (although they can often be great fun to play), but Planescape: Torment is wildly different. It is set on alternate planes of reality where thoughts and deeds can shape the landscape and where battles are more often won with philosophy and oratory skills than with swords. The game features vast reams of text and is built with subtlety and intelligence. Bursting into rooms and killing everything in sight is not the right way to go here (although the game gives you the freedom to do that, as long as you are prepared for the consequences). The game is also darkly funny and beautifully characterised with some of the most memorable characters in CRPG history, and its tone is grimly tragic.

See also: Fallout: New Vegas (see below), made by some of the same team; Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, also made by some of the same team; and the forthcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera, a deliberate spiritual successor, made by some of the same etc.

Play if you like: Gene Wolfe, Steven Erikson, China Mieville.

Elite: Dangerous
Frontier Developments - 2014 - Available from Steam

You can't fault Elite: Dangerous for ambition. It seeks to recreate nothing less than the entire Milky Way Galaxy inside your computer, all 400 billion stars of it. Every known expolanet is in its right place, you can fly through the Orion Nebula and visit the black hole at the centre of our galaxy (if you don't mind spending weeks flying there). The scale and scope of the game is vast, allowing you to make a living as a bounty hunter, mercenary, trader or miner, or mixing them up as you like.

The game can be a little bit daunting to approach, although it's fairly easy to get the basics down (and there's plenty of help online). More interesting is that the game is expanding and improving constantly, with the ability to land on planets about to be added. The game is light on story and narrative-based missions, so those who want more direction and structure may find the game too open-ended. But for those who relish exploration, this can be a deeply rewarding and time-consuming game.

See also: Freespace 2 (below) for more focus, story and combat; X3: Reunion for the ability to build your own space stations and own your own corporations; EVE Online for a much bigger, multiplayer take on the same ideas. Star Citizen (expected in 2016/17) will be a similar game with a much smaller scope but more side-ideas (such as a first-person, on-foot combat mode).

Play if you like: Arthur C. Clarke, Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton.

Fallout: New Vegas 
Obsidian Entertainment/Bethesda - 2010 - Available from Steam

The post-apocalyptic Fallout series has been going strong since the seminal, original 1996 RPG. It received a lease of new life when Elder Scrolls developers Bethesda bought the rights to the franchise and released Fallout 3 in 2008. However, it's the 2010 entry to the series, New Vegas, that remains the strongest game in the series to date. Developed by much the same team as the first two games, it's a post-apocalyptic Western taking in themes of revenge, redemption and war.

Like Skyrim (developed on the same engine), New Vegas allows you to create your own character and set foot in a vast, open-world landscape (in this case, the Mojave Desert and the area around Las Vegas), free to pursue a large number of missions and quests for different factions. However, New Vegas has a much tighter focus on narrative and character than other games of its ilk, with a particular emphasis on the moral consequences of your decisions. The game gives you enormous freedom to decide how to proceed, who can live or die and which faction will rule Nevada...or if you tell them all to take a running jump and conquer the wastelands yourself with your own army of laser death robots. The game's expansions (included in most editions of the game) are by turns inventive, epic, hilarious and darkly metafictional.

See also: Fallout 3 is less sophisticated than New Vegas in terms of character and narrative, but it is more approachable, easier and perhaps a little more rewarding for those who prepare straight-up action to dialogue; Wasteland 2 is a top-down, party-based take on the same post-apocalyptic genre and is more reminiscent of the original two Fallout games. Of course, the most natural alternative is the brand-new game in the series, Fallout 4, which will be released in November and will be set in and around Boston.

Play if you like: Hugh Howey, Walter M. Miller Jnr., S.M. Stirling, the Mad Max movies.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Eidos Montreal - 2011 - Available from Steam

The original Deus Ex (2000) may be one of the greatest games ever made, but it's also borderline unplayable today due to clunky controls and aged graphics. The 2011 series prequel/reboot is much less hardcore and flexible, but also a lot more approachable whilst still being true to the series' roots.

This is a cyberpunk epic, set in a future dominated by massive mega-corporations, growing AI and the increasing augmentation of humans with cybernetic technology. Hard questions about morality, medical ethics and corporate responsibility are asked and engaged with intelligently. The game also allows you to choose how to play it, whether you burst into every situation with all guns blazing (note: I would not recommend this), stealthily knock out all of your enemies with EMPs and tranquilisers, or instead "ghosting" your way through situations with no-one being aware of your presence at all. Some irritating boss fights aside (made much better in the Director's Cut of the game), this is a smart and smoothly-executed SF game.

See also: The direct sequel, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, is due out in 2016. In the meantime, you can try Satellite Reign, a top-down, squad-based cyberpunk game from the team that brought us the classic Syndicate games of the 1990s, due out on 28 August. There's also Shadowrun Returns and its sequels Dragonfall and Hong Kong, which fuse cyberpunk with epic fantasy. Those who enjoy the stealth aspects of the game may want to check out Invisible Inc, or the similar steampunk take on the same idea, Dishonored (see below). If you have a high forgiveness for its aged graphics and idiosyncratic gameplay, you can also check out the original Deus Ex.

Play if you like: Richard Morgan, William Gibson, K.W. Jeter.

Blizzard - 1998 - Available from Blizzard

Real-time strategy had been around for a few years (not least in Blizzard's own WarCraft franchise) when Blizzard released StarCraft in 1998. However, this was the first game to really successfully marry some intelligent, solid strategy gameplay with memorable characters and a well-told story. There's nothing hugely original here, but the story of three races caught in a desperate struggle for survival on the far side of the galaxy is well-told and colourfully depicted. The game also has a wonderful line in self-deprecating humour.

See also: StarCraft II and its two expansions are more recent, better-looking and more lavish. However, they are also more po-faced, way too overlong and more clumsily written. They're still entertaining, but lack the original game's tightness. Relic's Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series are much more satisfying real-time strategy games from a gameplay perspective, but lack Blizzard's narrative drive. For different types of strategy game, Hostile Waters and Homeworld (see below) are worthy alternatives.

Play if you like: Dan Abnett, Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Jack McKinney.

Crusader Kings II
Paradox Entertainment - 2012 - Available from Steam

Strategy games usually de-emphasise the human element in favour of managing economics, fighting massive battles and researching tech trees. Crusader Kings II still has those things, but uses a complex dynasty simulator to add a tremendous amount of humanity to the game. Your heir is no longer just a collection of stats, but an overreaching religious fanatic with poor diplomatic skills but makes for a serviceable general. Unfortunately, it later turns out he has a perchance for incest that puts your entire dynasty's future in jeopardy when you offend a prickly vassal and he declares a rebellion against you.

The result is a tense, unpredictable and original strategy game (which can also be inadvertently hilarious) where each playthrough can be completely different. There are also excellent mods available, including a fantastic one that turns the game into an unofficial Game of Thrones title, complete with maps of Westeros and Essos and all of the factions from the books available.

See also: Crusader Kings II can be a little complicated and daunting to get into. Firaxis's Civilization V is likewise huge in scope but much more approachable (but less hardcore); the Creative Assembly's Total War series (see below) dial back the sophistication of the grand strategy element but are far more compelling simulators of historical warfare. Paradox's own Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron series take the gameplay ideas of Crusader Kings forwards into the Renaissance and World War II eras respectively.

Play if you like: George R.R. Martin, Bernard Cornwell.

Freespace 2
Volition/Interplay - 1999 - Available from

The space combat genre was huge in the 1990s, with games like the Wing Commander and X-Wing series providing the thrills of jumping into a trusty space fighter and blowing the hell out of everything in sight. However, it was the one-two punch of Volition's Conflict Freespace: The Great War (1998) and its sequel (1999) that dropped the mic on the genre. Freespace 2 was a stunning achievement, beautiful to look at, massive in scope and constantly engaging with a twisting, turning storyline and, in the implacable Shivans, one of the most terrifying alien enemies to ever appear in a game. The inscrutably bizarre ending, unsullied by sequels that could only have cheapened it, is also highly unusual and thoughtful for the genre.

It's not often to see a game basically perfect its genre to the point where further games of its type are pointless, but Freespace 2 did just that. You can also visit the Freespace 2 Source Code Project to get some excellent mods that upgrade the graphics to modern standards and add new campaigns.

See also: GoG recently reissued the entire X-Wing series of space combat games, which are well worth taking a look at for Star Wars fans. Elite: Dangerous (see above) has brilliant combat, but is much less narrative-focused. The forthcoming Squadron 42 (a spin-off from the in-development Star Citizen) will be the first major, single-player, narrative-driven space combat game in many years.

Play if you like: Timothy Zahn, David Weber, David Drake, anything with spaceships going boom.

The Banner Saga
Stoic - 2013 - Available on Steam

The Banner Saga is a remarkable game. It mixes the harshness and brutality of a Viking-riffing epic fantasy with the beauty of a classic Disney cartoon and richly compelling gameplay influenced by sources ranging from Battlestar Galactica to The Oregon Trail. This is a story about choice and consequence, with an invading army of mechanical robots reducing entire civilisations to ash and causing thousands of refugees to try to escape to other lands. Unusually, you take command of two of these refugee trains on opposite sides of the continent, trying to reach one redoubt of safety halfway inbetween where a final stand can be mounted. Your leadership skills are put to the test as you deal with attacking enemy skirmishers, low supplies and how to handle disputes between different factions. It's a delicious mix of gameplay types set against a vivid world where the Sun is dimming and massive artifacts from a long-obliterated age sit on the horizon. Well worth a look.

See also: The Banner Saga II, due in a couple of months, continues the story. The ancient Oregon Trail (and its amusing zombie remake, The Organ Trail) feature a similar focus on survival in a harsh wilderness. Some of the same team are also making a thieves' guild management simulator, Killers and Thieves, with a similarly interesting art style. Skyshine's Bedlam is a forthcoming, post-apocalyptic steampunk take on the same ideas as The Banner Saga, using the same engine.

Play if you like: Steven Erikson, R. Scott Bakker, anything Viking-flavoured.

Arkane/Bethesda - 2012 - Available on Steam

Dishonored is a game which mashes up multiple genres together to memorable effect. It's set in a steampunk world of weird creatures and has a strange, haunting atmosphere, more than slightly reminiscent of China Mieville's Bas-Lag books. It allows you to proceed through stealth or all-out violence but gifts you with an array of abilities which, by the end of the game, allow you to teleport and stop time like a superhero. It's a freeform adventure with an intriguing narrative which adjusts flexibly to different playing styles. More impressively, in the game's expansions the POV reverses and you can now play from the perspective of the villain as well as the "hero".

See also: Deus Ex: Human Revolution for a cyberpunk game in a similar vein; Thief: The Dark Project and its sequels and remake for the direct inspiration to this game; Half-Life 2 for similarly memorable graphic and architectural design. Dishonored II is in development for a 2016 release.

Play if you like: China Mieville, Fritze Lieber.

Homeworld Remastered
Relic/Blackbird/Gearbox - 1999/2003/2015 - Available on Steam

Few games wear their classic SF influences as openly as Homeworld. Using a similar basic premise to Battlestar Galactica, this tale of a group of survivors from a destroyed colony planet to find their true homeworld is haunting, atmospheric and strategically compelling. The game is worth playing alone for its fantastic graphic design, influenced by classic 1970s SF cover artists Peter Elson and Chris Foss, and its beautiful soundtrack (although sadly the recent Remastered Edition does away with the closing credits song by 1970s prog-masters Yes).

See also: Ground Control and its sequel are probably the closest we have to a ground-based version of Homeworld. Sins of a Solar Empire and Haegemonia: Legions of Iron are other space-based strategy games, but play very differently. The creators of Homeworld are currently working on a planet-based prequel, Homeworld: Shipbreakers.

Play if you like: the Terran Trade Authority universe books, Battlestar Galactica, military SF, anything with a Chris Foss or Peter Elson cover.

Subset - 2012 - Available on Steam

A lot of space games take either the perspective of you directly controlling the ship through a 3D universe (like Elite: Dangerous) or massing a huge fleet and taking on enemy forces (like Homeworld). FTL is a little different. You only have one ship but the game is more interested in how you manage the crew and resources than directly controlling its course. You have a fleet of hostile ships on your tail and you have to make it to a rendezvous point with vital intel on the enemy flagship. Along the way you can be ambushed by roving enemies, answer distress calls, salvage valuable tech and recruit new crewmembers. It's a tough, unforgiving game where death is frequent and failure almost inevitable. But you also learn from each failure and every play-through gets you a little closer to the end. It's a compelling experience that results in a user-created narrative that changes with each play-through.

See also: Nexus: The Jupiter Incident for a more combat-based, 3D experience; Star Trek: Bridge Commander, which does exactly what it says in the title.

Play if you like: Firefly, James S.A. Corey, Peter F. Hamilton.

Medieval II: Total War
Creative Assembly - 2006 - Available on Steam

A lot of strategy games, from Civilization through to Crusader Kings, allow you to take command of a nation-state and take it from minor player to world-bestriding colossus through a mix of diplomacy, technological research and, occasionally and carefully-considered, restrained warfare.

The Total War series has little truck with this. You still control an empire and build up cities, but the game's focus is firmly on war, war and more war. The turn-based strategy mode is pretty much just there to provide a context for the gorgeous, well-realised 3D battles featuring real-world tactics and armies of thousands raining arrows on one another and hitting each other in the face with swords. There have been numerous games in the series, but 2006's Medieval II probably remains the high point due to its sheer scope (all of Europe from the end of the Viking age to the dawn of the Renaissance) and also its moddability: you can download mods for the game that turn it into anything from Middle-earth to Westeros to Hyrule. Later games in the series are far less customisable.

See also: more recent games in the series like Total War: Rome II and its stand-alone expansion Hannibal are graphically far superior, but tend to lack the deeper gameplay of older titles in the series. The next game in the series will be a major departure, taking place as it does in the Warhammer fantasy universe. Games like Crusader Kings II go into the strategic layer a lot more, but lack the amazing 3D real-time battles.

Play if you like: J.R.R. Tolkien (the Third Age: Total War mod for Medieval II is the best Lord of the Rings video game ever made), George R.R. Martin, David Gemmell, Paul Kearney, Stephen Pressfield, anything with large armies of dudes whacking other dudes with bits of metal.

The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings
CD Projekt - 2011 - Available on Steam

This may be cheating a little, as The Witcher 2 is based on the bestelling fantasy novels by Polish superstar Andrzej Sapkowski. However, it's also interesting for a game based on a series of novels to first massively outsell those novels and then raise interest in them. It's happened before with TV and film of course, but I haven't seen it before with video games.

On its own merits, The Witcher 2 is worth playing. It has a morally murky plot with real consequences (the entire middle third of the game is completely different based on choices made near the start), a refreshingly mature attitude to sex and nudity (unlike the first game, which was much more juvenile) and the successful evocation of a traditional fantasy world but imbuing it with an alien and bizarre atmosphere.

See also: The Witcher 3, once you've finished the second game. The third is a much, much bigger and more freeform title, so you may benefit from playing the second (and more focused) first. I'd avoid the first game as it's combat and sluggish pace is painful to behold, although it does have some great moments in it. BioWare's Dragon Age series can be seen as The Witcher's more PG-rated, duller and less ambitious cousin. Obsidian's recent Pillars of Eternity is a similar brilliant, fantasy roleplaying game that does things a bit differently to the norm.

Play if you like: Andrzej Sapkowski, natch.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Starbreeze - 2013 - Available on Steam

Platform games in which you don't have to kill people in the face are few and far between, and this is the best of them. You control two boys whose father is sick and they have to travel to a mountain to find the cure. There are some fun puzzles based around the boys' personalities and ages (the older son is stronger but also clumsier, whilst the younger son can charm other characters with his goofy antics) but the game's strength lies in its atmosphere. There's also no dialogue, with the characters speaking a completely fictional language which is not translated. You have to work out what they are saying or meaning through context.

It's a short game, taking just 3-4 hours or so to put away, but in the process the game ranges through multiple, beautiful environments and runs the full gamut of emotions from comedy to terror to tragedy.

See also: Journey on the PS3 for a similar combat-less, dialogue-less experience.

Play if you like: crying, Studio Ghibli, feels. Actually, I cheated on this one because it's a good example of a game where its effect and mood would be near-impossible to replicate in a novel or short story. It gives a hint of what the medium can do when it really tries to be its own thing, rather than a Hollywood movie or blockbuster novel in another form.