Tuesday, 29 September 2015

BATTLETECH Kickstarter launched

Harebrained Schemes has launched its Kickstarter campaign for BattleTech, a new, turn-based tactical wargame set in the universe of the miniature game BattleTech and its roleplaying-based spin-off, MechWarrior.



The new game will be helmed by Jordan Weisman, the co-creator of the entire BattleTech/MechWarrior franchise, along with many of the same team who worked on the recent Shadowrun RPGs.

As of this time of writing, less than 24 hours after the launch of the campaign and with 34 days to go, the game has already made $600,000 and seems likely to hit the $1 million target, at which point the game will get a fully-fleshed out singleplayer campaign in addition to a skirmish mode.

Preliminary Initial TitanCon Report Preview

 

More to follow.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Ridley Scott confuses everyone with PROMETHEUS sequel

Ridley Scott has made a series of somewhat odd comments about the upcoming sequel to Prometheus, his 2012 quasi-prequel to Alien.



Prometheus 2 is still due to go into production in February 2016 and will see Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender reprise their roles as Elizabeth Shaw and the android David. At the end of Prometheus they stole an alien starship and set out to find the homeworld of the Engineers and somehow stop them from destroying Earth. In the meantime, a horrendous and almost-familiar alien creature had come into being on LV-223, although with no food around and no more people or Engineers, presumably its chances for long-term survival are bleak.

Scott had previously said there would be a trilogy of films in this series and the last film would tie in with the original Alien, presumably explaining why the Engineer starship carrying hundreds of facehugger eggs ended up crashed on LV-426, as we see it at the start of Alien. The middle film in the saga would have the fewest connections to the rest of the Aliens universe, focusing as it likely does on the Engineers and their backstory.

Scott doubled down on this last week, confirming that Prometheus 2 would not feature the traditional xenomorph at all (not even in the very brief and ambiguous way the original did in its closing moments) and we'd have to wait until Prometheus 3...or Prometheus 4, although knowing Scott's sense of humour he may have been taking the mickey out of fans with that last statement.

Today, just to confuse everyone further, Scott announced that Prometheus 2 will in fact now be called Alien: Paradise Lost. Erm.

There are several explanations here. The most likely is that Fox has decided it wants to use a brand name to "universify" the Alien franchise in the same way Marvel have with their films and Disney has with Star Wars, with lots of films in the same universe even if some are connected only tangentially. Fox are also developing a new core Alien film with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Hicks (Michael Biehn), to be directed by Neill Blomkamp. Although it has the working title Alien 5, this other film seems likely to jettison Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection from continuity and pick up instead twenty years or so after the events of Aliens. Some of Blomkamp's concept art for the film shows an Engineer starship being dissected by humans (possibly from the Weyland-Yutani Company), so it might be that Alien 5 and Paradise Lost will yet find a way of tying into one another. Or it might just be a bit of branding, and we may even see the first film retitled Alien: Prometheus for some future re-release.

Some thoughts on how Prometheus and Alien tie into one another can be found here.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Cover blurb for the MALAZAN prequel novel DANCER'S LAMENT

Bantam UK have released the cover blurb for Dancer's Lament, the first novel in the Path to Ascendancy Trilogy by Ian Esslemont.



This new trilogy chronicles the founding of the Malazan Empire, which went from a group of adventurers hanging out in a bar (where else?) on Malaz Isle to a superpower spanning three continents in less than a century.
Taking Malazan fans back to that troubled continent's turbulent early history. the opening chapter in Ian C. Esslemont's epic new fantasy sequence, the Path to Ascendancy trilogy.

For ages warfare has crippled the continent as minor city states, baronies, and principalities fought in an endless round of hostilities. Only the alliance of the rival Tali and Quon cities could field the resources to mount a hegemony from coast to coast -- and thus become known as Quon Taili.

It is a generation since the collapse of this dynasty and regional powers are once more rousing themselves. Into this arena of renewed border wars come two youths to the powerful central city state that is LiHeng. One is named Dorin, and he comes determined to prove himself the most skilled assassin of his age; he is chasing the other youth -- a Dal Hon mage who has proven himself annoyingly difficult to kill.

Li Heng has been guided and warded for centuries by the powerful sorceress known as the "Protectress" and she allows no rivals. She and her cabal of five mage servants were enough to repel the Quon Tali Iron Legions -- what could two youths hope to accomplish under their stifling rule?

Yet under the new and ambitious King Chulalorn the Third, Itko Kan is on the march from the south. He sends his own assassin servants, the Nightblades, against the city, and there are hints that he also commands inhuman forces out of legend.

While above all, shadows swirl oddly about Li Heng, and monstrous slathering beasts seem to appear from nowhere to run howling through the street. It is a time of chaos and upheaval, and in chaos, as the young Dal Hon mage would say, there is opportunity.

The book will be released on 21 April 2016.

ORPHAN BLACK Season 3 released in the UK

The third season of Orphan Black has finally hit UK screens, although in an unexpected way.


Helena was resolutely unimpressed at the BBC's dicking-around antics.

The first season of the critically-acclaimed SF show aired on BBC3, several months after the original Canadian/American transmission. Season 2 then aired just a couple of days after the North American airing. It was assumed that this pattern would be repeated for Season 3, but the BBC oddly sat on it and refused to say when it would air. And then today the first eight episodes of the season were released simultaneously on the BBC iPlayer.

The remaining two episodes should go up shortly. The season will also air on Sunday mornings on BBC3, with the first two episodes airing at, erm, 2.10am this coming Sunday. The rest of the season will follow in double bills.

The bizarre release pattern may be a test run for the future of BBC3. The channel will go off-air next Spring, its content instead transitioning to the iPlayer only. The BBC may be looking at the numbers from Orphan Black for an indication as to how well it will do. Which is nice, but I would submit that if they want this to be more successful they need to 1) actually advertising the show and 2) not wait until six months after the season has aired in the States and Canada.

Anyway, after a lengthy delay it's good to be able to watch the season at last.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Truth Stranger Than Fiction: THE MARCH

In 1990 the BBC sponsored a week of television which focused on problems and issues from different parts of the globe. The highlight, and the most expensive, part of this season was a one-off TV movie starring Juliet Stevenson (then a major British TV and film star) called The March.



The March is set in an unspecified near-future, when climate change has started to make parts of Africa uninhabitable and the continent remains wracked by war and chaos. Fed up of being in a situation not of their making, a charismatic Sudanese leader encourages a mass exodus of refugees to cross the Mediterranean and seek refuge in Europe, where they can make a better life for themselves. The reaction from Europe and Britain in particular - as the bulk of the refugees seek to land at the British outpost of Gibraltar - is one of panic and a divided political response, with the urge to do humanitarian good brought into conflict with concerns over practicalities and outright prejudice.

The drama has not aged tremendously well, but some of the issues it touches on are, 25 years on, startlingly prescient. The biggest mistake is does make is massively underestimate the scale of such an exodus, with "only" 250,000 refugees on the move in the film. It's also rather simplistic: the refugees cross the sea in a single mob at a single location and are easily turned back by the forces of Europe. The notion of multiple hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to cross into Europe by both land and sea from multiple directions simultaneously is clearly one the TV writers had not considered.

Still, it is interesting to see that a quarter of a century ago people were aware of the dangers that constant war and chaos in other parts of the globe would encourage flight on a massive scale to safer areas of the world, even if they could offer no constructive solutions on how to deal with such a situation.

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 13

When they came up with the name "Dungeons and Dragons" for their roleplaying game in 1974, Gary Gygax and David Arneson envisaged heroic adventurers entering vast underground labyrinths in search of treasure and battling mighty dragons. It turned out this didn't happen too often, as their dragons were incredibly tough monsters, best-handled by heroes only after many months of adventuring and acquiring magical weapons.



In 1982 TSR, Inc., the owners of Dungeons and Dragons, decided to restore the game's focus on the mighty winged beasts. They had developed an elaborate number of different types of dragons, some good, some evil and some indifferent, and wanted to draw them together with a cohesive backstory and mythology. They also wanted to create a grand story using the D&D brand, rather the smaller-scale, sword-and-sorcery adventures that most players had been enjoying up to this point. So was born "Project Overlord", an attempt to turn D&D into an epic saga.

To bring this project to fruition, TSR turned to Tracy Hickman. A (relatively) new employee at TSR HQ in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Hickman and his wife Laura had conceived of a new campaign idea during a lengthy car journey. This campaign had been unfolding in D&D sessions run by Hickman for his friends and co-workers, and would now serve as the basis for "Project Overlord". Hickman was put in charge of the project, along with Margaret Weis, an editor working for the company. This was going to be a multimedia project, incorporating a series of a dozen or so roleplaying adventure modules and a series of novels. TSR had limited experience in this field, so brought in a professional author to write the books. Weis and Hickman felt that this author didn't get what they were trying to do, and in the end fired him. Over the course of a weekend they together wrote the opening chapters of the first novel themselves. Impressed, TSR hired them as the authors for what would now be called The Dragonlance Chronicles.

Red dragon pulls off the best portraitbomb ever.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight

The world of Krynn is suffering in the aftermath of the Cataclysm, the devastation of the landmass of Ansalon by the gods, furious at the temerity of a human empire which had challenged their power. The gods have turned their backs on the stricken continent, which has sunk into war and conflict. When the dark goddess Takhisis secretly casts her influence over Krynn once again, sponsoring the rise of an empire allied to the dragons of chaos, it falls to a band of heroes to save the world. However, the heroes are divided by internal conflicts and their would-be allies are scattered and leaderless.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight certainly didn't win any awards for originality in its setting or general storyline. But it did do things a little differently to other fantasy stories. The magically-enhanced genetic engineering of a race of human-dragon hybrids was fairly unusual for the time and the story took a number of unexpected, dark turns. A major character died unexpectedly in the cliffhanger to the second volume (more shockingly, killed by one of his own former friends and allies), and there were a number of epic dragon-on-dragon battles. That said, these flourishes were more about rearranging the furniture than totally rewriting the rules.

What made Dragons of Autumn Twilight and its immediate sequels, Dragons of Winter Night and Dragons of Spring Dawning, such a success was the marketing. The books were pitched at a young and teenage audience, many of them already familiar with dragons and Takhisis (in her core D&D guise of Tiamat) from the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series that had started airing in 1983. The focus on dragons and the cross-marketing with the adventure modules also proved extremely successful. Sales of the Dragonlance Chronicles shot through the roof, helped by strong sales in the UK thanks to a team-up with Penguin Books. Sales increased again a few years later when the trilogy was repackaged and sold in an omnibus edition.

By 1991 there were over four million copies of the Chronicles trilogy in print, giving it a claim to being the biggest-selling epic fantasy trilogy of the 1980s. It helped revitalise interest in both dragons and the D&D game, as well as serving as the entry-point for hundreds of thousands of young and new fantasy fans. It also kick-started the collaborative writing career of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. They followed up on the initial series with an expectation-defying sequel trilogy, The Dragonlance Legends, comprising Time of the Twins, War of the Twins and Test of the Twins (1986). The original trilogy had been a war epic of massive scale and scope, but this was a far more intimate story focused on the intense and complex relationship between the heroic Caramon Majere and his brother, the sickly, morally-compromised wizard Raistlin, whose antihero antics had made him easily the most popular character in the franchise.

Weis and Hickman then edited some additional Dragonlance books before striking out to write original fiction for Bantam Books, including the hugely popular Death Gate Cycle, before returning to the Dragonlance world for more novels around the turn of the century. With sales approaching 30 million, they the most successful collaborative writing team in the history of epic fantasy and one of the most influential.

The success of the initial Dragonlance books led to more, a lot more, written by numerous authors. Almost 200 Dragonlance novels have now been published, ranging over a span of time from millennia before the Chronicles trilogy to centuries after, but none have repeated the enormous success of Weis and Hickman's books. It would take another four years - and a completely different world - for that to happen.


The Crystal Shard

Ed Greenwood had started writing fantasy stories in 1967, at the age of eight. Over the course of years he built up and created his own fantasy world, telling stories about characters like Mirt the Moneylender, a cheerfully roguish adventurer-turned-merchant who was actually one of the secret lords of Waterdeep, the City of Splendours. In 1978 Greenwood converted his world into a setting for his homebrew games of D&D and started publishing gaming articles in Dragon Magazine. Over the next seven years or so he became one of the most prolific and popular contributors to the magazine, making frequent references to his home setting.

In 1985 TSR bought the rights to Greenwood's fictional world and turned it into an official D&D campaign setting. The idea was that Dragonlance had become very narratively centred on the War of the Lance (covered in the Chronicles books) and its aftermath, and TSR wanted a much bigger world where they could tell a wider canvas of stories. Greenwood and designer Jeff Grubb set about this project with enthusiasm, releasing in 1987 the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It was accompanied by novels, both a trilogy by Douglas Niles about the Moonshae Isles and a stand-alone book by Greenwood called Spellfire. These did okay, but were not huge successes. It was the next book published in the setting that established its popularity.

Robert Salvatore was 28 years old and had sent TSR a novel on spec, Echoes of the Fourth Magic, about a research submarine and its crew which are transported into a fantasy world. It wasn't TSR's normal kind of thing, but it was enough get the attention of editor Mary Kirchoff. She gave Salvatore a large map of the Realms and asked for ideas. The one he came up was for a sub-arctic tundra setting, an evil magical gemstone of enormous power and a young barbarian hero. The editor bought the idea, but later on had to reject one of the sidekick characters. Five minutes late for a marketing meeting to discuss the book, she asked for Salvatore to create a new character on the spot. His panicked response was to suggest a dark elf ranger named Drizzt Do'Urden, which he didn't even know how to spell. On that random moment, Salvatore's entire writing career was set in motion.

Published in 1988, The Crystal Shard was a slightly unusual D&D novel. The frozen setting, the characters who are twisted versions of standard fantasy archetypes (the dark elf character suffering from racial prejudice and a halfling who's a shrewd trickster and thief rather than a cosy hobbit) and an unusually proficient ability at writing action sequences set The Crystal Shard apart and made it an enormous success. Two sequels followed, but it was the Dark Elf Trilogy (1990-91), which abandoned the epic scale of the earlier books and delved deep into Drizzt's personal backstory, which took the character and made him iconic. Almost thirty years later, approximately 30 million copies of Drizzt's adventures have been sold, making him the most popular-ever D&D character and Salvatore the single most successful author to have worked in that fantasy universe.

By the late 1980s epic fantasy was now firmly established as a marketable, popular genre. There were a few bestselling authors working in the field, critically-acclaimed novels and books which did things a bit differently. But it was still lacking a work that would build on Tolkien's legacy and take it to another level. But at this point there was not just one but two authors working on books and series that would be defined by their extraordinary lengths, their enormous popularity and the huge impact they would have on the genre.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

TITANCON!

Next weekend I'll be at TitanCon in Belfast, Northern Ireland.



This will be the fifth TitanCon, which is held every year in Belfast. The convention is primarily dedicated to Game of Thrones, which films its studio scenes in the city at the nearby Paint Hall Studios, but also has a strong track dedicated to literature.

This year will feature authors Joe Abercrombie, Sarah Pinborough, Pat Cadigan, Peadar Ó Guilín, Laurence Donaghy, Debbie "DJ" McCune, Zoë Sumra and Jo Zebedee, as well as appearances by the Medieval Combat Group. Miltos "Syrio Forel" Yerolemou and Aimee "Myrcella Baratheon" Richardson will be representing for Game of Thrones, along with some other castmembers (not confirmed until the day as the filming schedule keeps changing).

There are also workshops on papercraft, claymaking, leather crafting and even waterdancing. Things are rounded off with a quizz and a party (of course!). There's also a coach tour on the Sunday which takes in various filming locations in and around the city.

I haven't been to TitanCon before, but I went to its predecessor, the 2009 Belfast Moot when they were filming the pilot and Kit Harington and Maisie Williams could walk down the street without being mobbed, which was great fun. I will also be moderating the "Season 5 in Review" panel which will be very interesting.

If you're interested in coming, there are still some tickets available and the congoers know how to throw a great event!

Saturday, 19 September 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 12

Of course, fantasy fiction has always had its female writers. But, even in 2015, epic fantasy still has a reputation of being a male-dominated genre. Authors like Tolkien, Martin, Rothfuss and Sanderson are talked about on a daily basis and female writers tend not to be...with a few exceptions like a certain J.K. Rowling.


A Wizard of Earthsea

As related previously, a key bridging work between The Lord of the Rings and the epic fantasy explosion of the late 1970s was Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), which was followed by four successors: The Tombs of Atuan (1972), The Farthest Shore (1973), Tehanu (1990) and The Other Wind (2001), along with the Tales from Earthsea short story collection (2001). The Earthsea series was set in a secondary world consisting of a vast, world-girdling ocean and numerous islands. Magic was real and treated as a science, with students learning how to use it in academies, whilst dragons play an important role. The human characters are also mostly dark-skinned, a result of the location of the Earthsea on its planet. SyFy's TV adaptation of the series in 2004 was largely reviled for "whitewashing" the cast. The setting and ethnicity of the characters also moved it away from the Tolkien model (and the one still prevalent in epic fantasy) of using western Europe as a primary influence.



Deryni Rising

Another author writing at the same time went in a different direction. When Katherine Kurtz set out to write a fantasy novel, she threw herself into European history (Welsh in particular) to map out the Eleven Kingdoms, the setting for Deryni Rising (1970) and numerous sequels. The Deryni series, as it came to be known, is set in a land reminiscent of Western Europe (the British Isles in particular) in the early Middle Ages, with a strong focus on religious faith. Rather then telling one large mega-story, Kurtz divided her story into smaller and more easily digestible trilogies, as well as treating the series like historical fiction. The series is sometimes called "historical fantasy" for the rigour with which Kurtz treats her story and setting, and is closer in style to the likes of Maurice Druon and Dorothy Dunnett than Tolkien and Howard. This type of "historical fantasy" has more recent successors in the likes of Raymond E. Feist and George R.R. Martin.

The Deryni series seems to have become fairly obscure over the years, which is unfortunate because it set the tone and format for many of the fantasy novels that would follow.


Dragonflight

We've touched upon Anne McCaffrey before, but the epic fantasy boom of the late 1970s proved to be a boon to her career. She had published Dragonflight and Dragonquest in 1968 and 1970 but the books had not been big successes. She'd envisaged a trilogy, but held off on writing the final volume. Instead she wrote a companion series, The Harper Hall Trilogy (1976-79), for a different publisher. The nascent Del Rey reprinted Dragonflight and Dragonquest with a lot of fanfare and allowed McCaffrey to both complete the trilogy and write additional books in the series.

The Dragonriders of Pern series is rationalised fantasy, where the fantastic premise - humans riding dragons that can destroy an infectious substance called "Thread" that falls from the sky as the result of the close passage to Pern by a rogue planet - is given a hard SF explanation. The books are set two thousand years after the colonisation of Pern by humans, with human society having become more primitive due to the constant dangers of Threadfall. In numerous sequels and prequels, McCaffrey would explore the colonisation of Pern, the genetic engineering of the dragons to combat Thread and numerous other aspects of the world. Later books were written in collaboration with her son Todd. Despite its SF rationale, the Pern books played an important role in furthering the role of dragons as a key cornerstone of epic fantasy mythology.



The Mists of Avalon

If epic fantasy owes a lot to The Lord of the Rings, it may owe even more to the legend of King Arthur. Developed over centuries, the legend about the youth who rises to greatness as the King of England but is then overthrown by hubris, jealousy and (in some versions) incest has proven immensely popular. However, it is also a story in which the men, particularly the Knights of the Round Table, are usually given centre stage.

Originally published in 1983, The Mists of Avalon was a surprising change of pace for Marion Zimmer Bradley, up to that point known more for her lengthy Darkover series of science fiction novels and a series of horror novels. The Mists of Avalon is told from the point of view of Morgaine, usually presented as a villainous figure but here treated with some sympathy. The story also focuses on other female characters from the legend, presenting a familiar story from a feminist perspective.

Although arguably not epic fantasy itself, The Mists of Avalon would foreshadow other fantasy authors who would base their work on existing mythology and history before spinning it in original ways, such as Garry Kilworth's Polynesian-influenced Navigator Kings trilogy and the works of Guy Gavriel Kay.


Stormwarden

Likewise mixing fantasy and SF was Janny Wurts. In 1984 (after publishing a stand-alone novel called Sorcerer's Legacy two years prior) she wrote Stormwarden, the first volume in the Cycle of Fire trilogy, which is set centuries after a starship crashes on a planet whilst carrying alien prisoners-of-war. The trilogy pitches the primitive descendants of the human crew against the descendants of the aliens (now believed to be demons) in a trilogy featuring action, politics and numerous seafaring scenes.

Wurts's work came to the attention of Raymond E. Feist and they decided to collaborate on a trilogy set during the events of his seminal novel Magician. This became the Empire Trilogy, starting with Daughter of the Empire (1987), now considered to be one of the more accomplished words in the epic fantasy subgenre and arguably one of the best things either author has written. In 1993 Wurts began her immense Wars of Light and Shadow mega-series, which would eventually comprise eleven novels spread out over five sub-series; two more books remain to bring this huge undertaking to completion.


Arrows of the Queen

First published in 1987, Arrows of the Queen was the first volume of The Heralds of Valdemar. Author Mercedes Lackey had been a student and protege of authors such as Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley, contributing short stories to Bradley's Darkover shared universe, before embarking on her own epic fantasy series. Her debut novel revolved around a young farm girl who is chosen to become the Queen's Own Herald, gaining magical powers in the process and trying to win respect from her peers.

The Valdemar series now stands at 32 novels published in 13 distinct sub-series, with another eight collections of short stories and a companion volume, approximately tying it with Terry Pratchett's Discworld and Piers Anthony's Xanth as the most prolific fantasy series of modern times. Lackey's novels feature romance, adventure and magic, and her fans are happy to have an extremely prolific author: as well as the Valdemar series, Lackey has published at least another 120 novels, making her arguably the most prolific SFF author since Isaac Asimov.



Dragon Prince

In 1988 Melanie Rawn published Dragon Prince, a fantasy novel involving - yet again - dragons but this time in a desert setting (at least to start with). The book uses the traditional tropes of magic, a well-defined setting and political-religious intrigue, but combines it with romance, which resonated strongly with readers. This book spawned five sequels across two trilogies.

Rawn would later write other stand-alone novels and additional series, but her most popular work, the Exiles Trilogy, remains incomplete after almost twenty years.



Harpy's Flight

Published in 1983, this was the debut novel by Megan Lindholm. Set in a harsh mountainous landscape, the book and its sequels focus on harpies (a popular mythological creature under-utilised in modern fantasy) and the humans who serve them. In its own terms, this was a solid debut but not a major work. Far more interesting, however, is the fact that twelve years later the author would launch a new series about assassins under a pen name which would rapidly become one of the most accomplished and famous in the fantasy genre: Robin Hobb.

In the mid-1980s fantasy received another major boost in popularity from another source. As already related, fantasy had inspired the creation of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game in 1974, but in 1984 the D&D game returned the favour and provided the genre with a trilogy which would become one of the very biggest-selling works of the decade.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 11

1984 represented another shift in the evolution of epic fantasy. Most of the books published up until this point had been adventure stories, either derived from Tolkien or bringing in their own ideas. With the exception of Donaldson, the darker side of fantasy remained relatively unexplored.



That changed with the release of two novels on opposite sides of the Atlantic, both from authors interested in the idea of heroes and morality. Unusually, it was the American author who took the more cynical viewpoint, painting a picture of a dark world terrorised by an amoral and ruthless empire...who the protagonists are working for. The British author also took a downbeat, maybe even more realistic view of war and politics, but also used that to make his heroes shine all the more strongly.

 
The Black Company

American author Glen Cook had served in the US Navy before starting work at General Motors, in an auto assembly plant. The job was not mentally taxing, so Cook was able to spend his work days conceiving ideas for stories and novels. One of these was about a mercenary outfit, the Black Company.

The Black Company worked for money and for something to do: they were not "evil", as such, but had no issues working for more morally dubious employers. Over the course of the eponymous first novel, they start working for the Lady, a powerful sorceress whose armies have overrun the land and now rule with an iron fist. However, as the series continues they discover the fate of the world itself is at stake and, as much out of self-preservation as anything else, decide to take a stand.

The Black Company and its sequels (Shadows Linger and The White Rose in the initial trilogy, with more books following intermittently) dealt with interesting questions of relative morality and how far you can go down the dark path before you can go no further. The notions of there being such a thing as a "just war" and that people can be unaffected by war or suffering are rejected. But there is also room for forgiveness: the primary antagonist of the first trilogy becomes a leading "hero" of the later books and arguably atones for her crimes, but never repents them fully.

The Black Company and its sequels are also notable for combining military tropes with what can also be called flat-out weirdness: magical trees, windwhales and a sentient menhir alarm system contribute to a series whose grim tone and reputation occasionally mask a genuine sense of the fantastic and some whimsical (if dark) humour.

Up in Canada, a young pair of budding writers named Steve Lundin and Ian Esslemont were reading with interest, and taking notes.



Legend

David Gemmell came from the school of hard knocks. Born in the aftermath of World War II and growing up in a tough part of East London, Gemmell got into trouble in school, was taught how to box by his stepfather and had a number of jobs including a nightclub bouncer and a labourer. Writing was perhaps an unlikely-seeming profession, but Gemmell had a love of reading as a child, particularly of history. His mother arranged for him to have an interview at a local newspaper, but he got the job more for his take-no-prisoners attitude than his actual writing skills.

In 1976 Gemmell was diagnosed with cancer. Believing his time was limited, he decided to write a fantasy story he'd had knocking around in his head. He completed The Siege of Dros Delnoch in two weeks before learning that he'd suffered a misdiagnosis. A friend read the manuscript and urged him to expand it into a full novel. Gemmell completed the book in 1982 and it was published in 1984 under the title Legend (no relation to the Tom Cruise movie released a few months later).

Legend tells a fairly straightforward story: the northern barbarians have united under a new warleader and are now marching on the Drenai Empire, which they believe is weak and vulnerable. The only obstacle is Dros Delnoch, a fortress defending a narrow mountain pass. The defenders are outnumbered fifty-to-one but amongst their ranks is a legend: the great warrior Druss, wielding his axe Snaga. Old and failing, haunted by the prophecy that he will fall at Dros Delnoch, Druss must take a stand alongside his people.

Legend is a book that also has a cynical and dark tone, but is not as nihilistic as Cook's work. Gemmell's philosophy is a shade different, namely that true heroism comes from the darkest hour, that people will be tested and some will fail, but a few will not. He does not believe that heroes are perfect or flawless, but they are heroes because they overcome those flaws to achieve things greater than they are. Legend's message is simple but delivered with brutal, stirring efficiency to make it one of the most well-regarded fantasy novels of all time. Gemmell passed away in 2006 whilst telling another story about a brutal siege (this time at Troy) but his legacy was secured when the David Gemmell Legend Award for Fantasy, the most popular award for epic fantasy, was named in his honour.

By the mid-1980s fantasy had become a bigger and more successful genre, but one that was dominated by male authors. However, more women were starting to write in the genre and several key works by female authors emerged at this time, drawing on Celtic mythology, Chinese politics and an absolutely massive number of dragons.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

STARCRAFT II: LEGACY OF THE VOID release date announced

Blizzard have announced the release date for Legacy of the Void, the second expansion to StarCraft II.



Legacy of the Void will be released on 10 November, just two months from now, and will conclude the StarCraft II story. More to the point, with Blizzard's interest in single-player games apparently waning and no more StarCraft material planned, it is possible that this game will conclude the entire StarCraft saga, at least for many years to come.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, focusing on the Terrans, was released in 2010 and was a solid game, if a bit uninspired compared to the excellent original StarCraft (1998) and its expansion Brood War. The first expansion, Heart of the Swarm, centred on the Zerg species and was released in 2013. It was a stronger game, although fans were incredulous at Blizzard taking almost three years to release the game. Legacy of the Void now arrives a further two and a half years down the line, still using the same engine and many of the same assets as the original game released in 2010. It is safe to be said that Blizzard's release schedule here has been pretty disappointing, even by their slow standards.

Hopefully Legacy of the Void will bring an element of closure to the StarCraft storyline, because if not it will certainly be a long, long time before we see any continuation to the story.

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 10

Dare we say it, but some people think that fantasy is a bit funny. Humorous. Comical. Small people with furry feet saving the world from a giant flaming eyeball? Sentient dinosaurs who use gravity as a source of magic? It can sometimes all be a bit daft, no matter how many Pratchetts or Eriksons successfully employ the genre to make sharp points about real life.


Comic fantasy novels are reasonably common. Good comic fantasy novels are surprisingly rare. Fantasy as a genre can be po-faced and self-parodying enough, so writing a genuinely funny book which successfully riffs off the genre without simply collapsing into lazy cliches seems a lot harder than writing a genuinely good epic fantasy novel. But some authors have made careers based on the attempt.

In September 1977, just a few months after the double-whammy of Lord Foul's Bane and The Sword of Shannara, Piers Anthony released (via Del Rey) A Spell for Chameleon. This novel was set in a fantasy world which bore a curious resemblance to Florida, and was considerably lighter-hearted and more playful than its contemporaries. This became the first book in the Xanth series, which as of this year stands at 41 volumes in length. The Xanth books have some genuinely interesting and fantastical ideas, but also rely a little too heavily on puns and poor wordplay for laughs. The books have also gathered a distressing reputation for sexism, with the bemusingly-titled fifteenth novel in the series, The Colour of Her Panties, being particularly singled out for juvenile and distasteful content. Anthony has also written more serious fare, most notably the epic Incarnations of Immortality sequence, but humour is never far away in his works. Xanth is the longest-running American comic fantasy series (more books are expected for years to come, even with the author now in his eighties), but is largely unknown outside of the States.


Another writer who started rising to prominence at the same time was Diana Wynne Jones. Her Chrestomanci sequence is her best-known work, which started publication in 1977. Jones wrote widely and well in a number of subgenres for decades, usually for children. In 1998 she wrote Dark Lord of Derkholm, which riffed off epic fantasy. Its sequel, The Year of the Griffin, also playfully invokes the Harry Potter series by being set in a wizarding school. However, Jones's definitive work of epic fantasy remains The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, published in 1996. The blurb is worth recounting in full:
This authoritative A-Z constitutes an essential source of information for all who dare to enter into the imaginative hinterlands. It provides acute insights into such mysteries as how HORSES reproduce, the various types of VIRGINS and the importance of CLOAKS to those wondering about going on a quest with a fellowship (of the Ring or otherwise).

Features include:
  • A map (obviously)
  •  Live background on those you will meet, including: BARBARIAN HORDES, lots and lots of wild-seeming people advancing under a cloud of dust in order to devastate more civilised parts, and ELVES, who claim they did not evolve like humans...certainly there seems to be no such thing as the Elvish ancestral ape.
  • Full details on the catering arrangements: BEER always foams and is invariably delivered in tankards (what do you mean, "it tastes awful")?
  • Useful hints on coping in Fantasyland: ARMOUR is generally regarded as cheating. TORTURE is obligatory at some stage.
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland remains the definitive guide to the cliches and hazards of the genre, and is recommended reading for all fantasy writers and fans.

Direct parody is rarer in fantasy, perhaps due to legal considerations. In 1969 the National Lampoon released Bored of the Rings, a comic novel based, of course, on Tolkien. It was extremely successful. In 2003 the British SF author Adam Roberts released The Soddit (based on The Hobbit) and followed it up the next year with The Sellamillion (you get the idea). These can be quite witty, but are limited by the source material.

Parodies and mickey-taking of famous modern fantasy novels are proving harder to write, as more recent writers employ humour directly in their works. Part of the success of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire can be traced to the character of Tyrion Lannister, who on occasion seems to be on the verge of breaking the fourth wall and directly commenting on the insanity of the situations he finds himself in. Other comic characters like Dolorous Edd also keep laughs coming even in the story's darkest moments. Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch's novels also have a air of knowing self-deprecation about them.

More difficult is taking the genre of fantasy and using it and humour to directly make valid points about both the genre and life in general. But one author has done it with resounding success, becoming the biggest-selling single author of secondary world fantasy since J.R.R. Tolkien himself.


The Colour of Magic

Terry Pratchett published his first novel, The Carpet People, in 1971. It was a humorous book about a tribe of tiny people who lived in a carpet, a world threatened by a destructive force known as Fray. Whilst well-regarded, it was only a modest success. Pratchett's second novel, published in 1976, was a science fiction novel called The Dark Side of the Sun, with employed some offbeat comical ideas but was more serious. It was not successful at all. In 1981 Pratchett published his third book, a serious science fiction novel called Strata. Influenced by Larry Niven's Ringworld, it was again not a major success and it looked like Pratchett was doomed to be a minor footnote in the annals of fantastic fiction.

However, Strata had contained within it an interesting idea. During the novel the characters discover an unusual, huge flat planet floating in space. It serves as the book's "Big Dumb Object" (similar to Niven's Ringworld or Clarke's Rama). Pratchett was taken with the idea but found that he could not explore it to its fully extent in SF. So he decided to repurpose it for his fourth novel. The flat planet remained, but was now mounted on the back of four elephants who stood on the back of a giant, space-faring turtle. The planet was now inhabited by hundreds of millions of people belonging to pre-technological civilisations, with magic and gods as force of reality.

The new novel was called The Colour of Magic and was published in 1983. The book was an overt parody and satire of sword and sorcery, most notably the works of Fritz Lieber: the great metropolis of Ankh-Morpork is heavily influenced (in the opening novel at least) by Lieber's Lankhmar. The book was a big hit, selling out of its initial print run. Building on good reviews and word-of-mouth, the book took off in a massive way and Pratchett quickly wrote a sequel, The Light Fantastic, publishing it in 1985. Again Pratchett satirised sword and sorcery, this time using the character of Cohen the Barbarian to riff on the works of Robert E. Howard. Readers wanted to hear more about this world and wanted more adventures with the wizard Rincewind and his hapless tourist companion, Twoflower, but Pratchett found the idea of using the same characters in book after book limiting, not to mention the fact that he was running out of authors to parody. For the third novel in the series, Equal Rites, Pratchett changed tack. He introduced two new protagonists, a witch named Granny Weatherwax and a young woman named Eskarina Smith, and used the book to comment on sexism, discrimination and resistance to change.

Thus the Discworld was born, a world where Pratchett could examine any topic he chose using any characters he chose. Disliking doorstops and cliffhangers, Pratchett also made each book self-contained and able to be read in any order, although he also contained enough continuity to reward regular readers. Ankh-Morpork's evolution from a standard medieval fantasy city to, forty volumes later, a proto-steampunk metropolis is particularly cleverly handled.

Pratchett used Discworld to address the foibles of modern life. He attacked the cult of celebrity in Moving Pictures and Soul Music, ossification and ludditism in Pyramids and the media in The Truth. He also told one of the best coming-of-age stories ever in his exploration of the character of Tiffany Aching (from The Wee Free Men to The Shepherd's Crown), and also addressed old age with Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. He also explored middle age and rejected the idea that those later in life could not change with the character of Sam Vimes (starting in the Guards! Guards!). Most famously, Pratchett scathingly attacked fundamentalism and religious hatred in the brilliant Small Gods. Finally, through Mort and Reaper Man he movingly examined the idea of death and mortality. Discworld may represent the finest use of fantasy and the secondary world to date, to say intelligent and sometimes challenging things about the real world in an approachable manner. Int his manner Pratchett is less of an heir to Tolkien or Lieber and more the successor to Dickens.

Discworld isn't an epic fantasy, although its worldbuilding, story construction and characterisation outclasses those of almost every epic fantasy ever written. But it shows the huge potential for fantasy to reach and move readers when used in an imaginative and intelligent way. In the mid-1980s fantasy became a battleground between writers striving for more intelligent and, some might say, grimmer explorations of the genre and those who wanted popcorn fun, with the next vital milestone in the genre waiting in the wings.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

THE LAST KING OF OSTEN ARD expands to four novels (sort of)

After the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn "trilogy" expanded to four books and after the Shadowmarch "trilogy" expanded to four books, it should be no surprise that Tad Williams has done it again. He's gone from promising three new Osten Ard novels to four.



The Last King of Osten Ard itself is still (so far) a trilogy: The Witchwood Crown will be published in early 2017 and will be followed by Empire of Grass and The Navigator's Children. However, there will now be a new bridging book set between the events of To Green Angel Tower and The Witchwood Crown. Williams hopes that this book, which will be shorter than his usual fare, can now be published in 2016 to help make up for the delay in the publication of The Witchwood Crown, which is now complete but waiting on the publishers.

Will THE WINDS OF WINTER come out in 2016?

There's been some speculation that The Winds of Winter will be published in 2016 due to comments made by the Spanish publishers of the Song of Ice and Fire series. So, will it?



There are some positive indications, which are as follows:
  • A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons were both published five years after the previous novel in the series. July 2016 will make it five years since the publication of A Dance with Dragons. This isn't exactly logical, but if it's happened twice in a row...
  • George R.R. Martin has cancelled a whole load of appointments and appearances for this year to get the book done, indicating that he believes it's close enough that a few days here and there will make a big difference. He's also not written scripts for Seasons 5 or 6 of the TV show to give him more time to write the book.
  • Last year, George reported that the rewrites on The Winds of Winter had been nothing like as arduous and difficult as those on Dragons.
  • As noted above, the Spanish publishers are apparently expecting the book in 2016.
  • George himself has said he thinks it is possible to get the book out before Season 6 is expected to start airing in April 2016.
Before we get too excited, there are some negative indicators as well:
  • Compared to the excitement and regular updates we got when A Dance with Dragons was close to finished, there have been no comparable reports or updates for The Winds of Winter. GRRM suggested this might be the case, no updates until the book is delivered, but it's not a positive indication.
  • Given that A Dance with Dragons had its cover art out in the wild and being discussed years before the book was done, it's odd that we haven't seen the same for Winter. That cover with the horn everyone's seen is fan art, by the way, not the real deal.
  • GRRM recently retreated a little from his determination to get the last two books out before the TV show ends (probably in 2018), taking a more philosophical line that if the TV show overtakes, it overtakes.
  • If the book is to come out in April 2016, it really needs to be finished before the end of this year, which is starting to loom large.
  • For previous novels, George sent large chunks of the books to his editors a while before completion, allowing early editing of the novel whilst it was still being written. As of a few months ago, that hadn't happened (apart from some 360-odd manuscript pages, most of them held over from Dragons). This may mean a longer editing cycle for Winter will be required.
Conclusion: the book may well come out in 2016. But it's not a done deal by any means: the fact that the Spanish publishers are expecting it means that a lot of people, including George, see 2016 as achievable. Whether that makes it likely or not remains to be seen.

The Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire blog has an excellent "What we know" page about The Winds of Winter which is being updated with the latest information, which I recommend periodically checking.

STAR WARS EPISODE VIII starts filming this week

Filming of Star Wars: Episode VIII is due to start on Monday. Director Rian Johnson and a crew will film for most of this week on the small island of Skellig Michael, off the south-western coast of Ireland.



The same island was used for filming of Episode VII: The Force Awakens, suggesting that the same location is being revisited.

It looks like this will be some early shooting down for scheduling reasons, with the bulk of filming not expected to start in earnest until after Christmas. Still, Episode VIII is now officially in production, alongside Rogue One which started filming a few weeks ago. The Force Awakens is in the final stages of post-production ahead of its December premiere.

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 9

If 1977 was the year that epic fantasy came of age, it took another couple of years for the genre to start unfolding in earnest.

 

Stephen Donaldson rapidly followed up on Lord Foul's Bane with two sequels, The Illearth War (1978) and The Power That Preserves (1979), completing The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. He then immediately launched into The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which attempted to answer the lingering questions from the first trilogy, such as whether the Land is real or not, by introducing a second major POV character, Linden Avery. The Wounded Land (1980), The One Tree (1982) and White Gold Wielder (1983) were also big sellers, establishing Donaldson as a successful author.

However, Terry Brooks took a bit longer to follow up on the success of The Sword of Shannara. He'd taken a decade to write the first book and was still writing around his law practice hours. This problem was magnified by his originally-planned sequel being rejected by Del Rey Books when it was three-quarters done (with Brooks struggling with the ending). This necessitated a page one restart and rewrite. This proved fortuitous, for although it delayed the publication of The Elfstones of Shannara until 1982 it also resulted in a rather stronger book than otherwise may have proven the case. The Elfstones of Shannara, although another classic quest narrative, was considerably different to its predecessor (and Tolkien) and was much more warmly received. It's still widely regarded as Brooks's best novel, and forms the basis for the first season of the Shannara TV series due to start airing in January 2016. In fact, Brooks was unusually slow (compared to some of his contemporaries) to exploit the Shannara brand. The third novel, The Wishsong of Shannara, did not appear until 1985 and it would be another five years before he returned to the setting with the four-volume Heritage of Shannara series, after a stint writing the Magic Kingdom of Landover comic fantasy series.

During this period another highly influential work appeared, although it is not epic fantasy in itself. Instead, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun (written as one novel but published in four volumes between 1980 and 1983) belongs to the Dying Earth subgenre of fantasy, being set on Earth in a remote future epoch when the Sun is dimming. Influenced by Jack Vance's Dying Earth series, the Book of the New Sun can be read as a sustained study of fantasy tropes. The "hero", Severian, is a torturer who has committed amoral acts and is only moved to a more repentant life when he falls in love/lust with one of his victims. As the story continues it becomes clear that Severian is some kind of "chosen one", but he is isn't necessarily a benevolent or kind one. In fact, Wolfe makes it clear that Severian is a liar, and the novel is riven with the inconsistencies and contradictions of a supremely unreliable narrator. Wolfe also equips Severian with a number of magical (or highly technologically advanced) weapons and items, such as the execution sword Terminus Est, but unlike many epic fantasies Severian is not dependent on such trinkets, and achieves his destiny by his own means. The Book of the New Sun and its sequel, The Urth of the New Sun, are both rationalised and revisionist fantasies, challenging the conventions of the genre but employing them to make their points. Two sequel series, The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun (the three series combined forming the 12-volume Solar Cycle), are more overtly SF.

More traditional epic fantasy had to wait until 1982, when two more important and influential books arrived within a few months of each other.


Pawn of Prophecy

David Eddings had been a frustrated writer for many years. He'd published an adventure novel, High Hunt, in 1973 but it had not been a big success. In his late forties he was considering his next writing project when he was surprised to see a copy of The Lord of the Rings on a shelf in a bookstore. His reaction was to say "Is that old turkey still around?" Then, leafing through the book, he was shocked to see it was on no less than its 78th printing. Realising there was money in them there epic fantasy hills, he went home, revised an old fantasy map he'd doodled a few years earlier and set to work.

Eddings did not write alone but collaborated with his wife, Leigh. Together they wrote a traditional (but not completely standard) epic fantasy trilogy and started shopping it around. Lester del Rey, searching for a follow-up to The Sword of Shannara, fell on it like a starving man and not only published it but blitzed it with ideas: the three books were chunky, so he divided them into five novels with slightly corny chess-inspired titles. He then decided that co-authored books would not sell (Weis and Hickman, two years later, would prove him wrong on that) so he had them credited to David Eddings alone, something that mildly irked the writers until they were able to change it a decade later. With some canny marketing and more maps than you can shake a stick at, the result was one of the key early works of epic fantasy: The Belgariad.

The Belgariad opens with a farmboy, Garion, discovering that Dark Forces are awake in the world and have taken a Special Interest in him. He is whisked away from his home by the Grumpy Mentor Wizard Belgarath and learns that he is the Chosen One who will both oppose the Dark God and is fated to rule as the High King of Riva. He reluctantly falls in love with a Feisty Princess, Ce'Nedra of Tolnedra, and eventually defeats the bad guys with the help of Prophecy.

The series is pretty standard, but has a few individual flairs. None of the standard fantasy races are involved, the tone is reasonably light-hearted throughout and the characters are all pretty damn reasonable. Sworn blood-enemies become best friends just by chilling with one another for a while and even the bad guys are treated with compassion. In fact, the sequel series (the considerably inferior Malloreon) is largely concerned with bringing in former enemies from the cold to work with them. There is a lot of humour, and although a lot of it is tired and repetitive there are some genuinely good ideas: the prophecy is semi-sentient and at times seems exasperated with the poor material it has to work with (less-whimsical echoes of this may be detected in The Wheel of Time). None of this is earth-shaking stuff, but it does make The Belgariad a little bit more interesting and bearable than it might be otherwise. The series has more recently been repackaged as a Young Adult series, which is a sensible move that has won it over a legion of new fans.


Magician

One of the curses of epic fantasy, and indeed any author who opens with a massive hit, is that authors often find it hard to achieve that success again with another work. The preponderance of long series in fantasy is partly down to this issue. Stephen Donaldson found that his sales more than halved when he completed the then-six volume Thomas Covenant series in 1983 and moved on to Mordant's Need, a less serious, more Zelazny-influenced duology. When he moved on again to space opera, with the brilliant Gap saga, his audience more than halved again. It wasn't until he returned to the Land with The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in 2004 that he found his sales shooting back up again. Frank Herbert experienced the same issues when he moved away from his Dune series.

Raymond Elias Feist's experience is a bit odder. He's sold somewhere in the region of 30 million copies of his thirty novels, which is impressive. However, apparently between one-quarter and one-third of those sales have come from his debut novel alone: Magician.

Feist started writing Magician in 1977, when he was 32 years old. He was a mature student at the University of San Diego and, whilst studying, played roleplaying games with some of his fellow students, initially on Thursday nights and later on Friday nights. One of the other guys in his gaming group, Stephen Abrams, had created his own fantasy world complete with a detailed geography and history. The group collaborated on producing materials for this world, which was dubbed Midkemia. With their permission, Feist started writing a novel set 500 years before the "present" of the setting.

Magician was published by Doubleday in 1982 and was an immediate success, winning some laudatory reviews and soon some big sales. As a debut novel, it has some problems in prose and dialogue, but for the most part it is a fast-paced, action-packed and rather unusual fantasy novel which disposes of many of the key features of the genre.

The book opens with two young boys, Pug and Tomas, living and working in the castle of Crydee, the administrative capital of the lightly-settled Far Coast of the Kingdom of the Isles. This remote, largely-neglected area is thrown into chaos when a strange ship washes up on the nearby rocks and mysterious invaders are soon spotted in the nearby forests and mountains. It is soon revealed that a magical portal has been discovered, linking Midkemia to the world of Kelewan. Kelewan is light in metals and the powerful Tsurani Empire wants to establish a foothold on Midkemia to strip-mine its resources. The Kingdom, allied with the local elven and dwarven kingdoms, soon launches a military campaign against them and the result is a desperate struggle, with the Kingdom's numerical superiority threatened by the Empire's more devastating and powerful use of magic in war. Tomas inherits the magical powers of a long-vanished race and is able to turn the tide against the Tsurani at the risk of his own soul, whilst Pug is captured and taken to Kelewan.



Magician is a novel that pays homage to standard tropes: Pug is an orphan boy with a great destiny, there is a desperate journey through an ancient mine which splits the party of the heroes and there are numerous, large battles. However, the book also dispenses with other cliches: Pug's parentage is utterly irrelevant (they were just peasants and Pug has no bloodline-related fate; sometimes a spade really is just a spade), the ancient magical spirit in the mine is friendly and, very weirdly, there is no main bad guy. There are antagonists, such as the Tsurani Warlord and Guy du Bas-Tyra, but one of them is merely an opportunist and the other is redeemed in one of the sequels. The characters are instead all at the mercy of circumstances. There are no prophecies and no dark lords.

Magician is also, refreshingly, a stand-alone novel. It ends fairly decisively and the narrative is self-contained. Feist did write more material setting up sequels, but this was cut by the editors; his revised edition of the novel, published in 1992, reinstated these elements but the book remains very readable on its own terms. In fact, Feist did such a good job of wrapping up the story that only a relatively small number of readers moved onto the sequels, although still enough for them to sell very, very well.

Magician's impact on the genre can be seen in several key ways. It was the first epic fantasy novel to be spun directly off a roleplaying campaign. It was the first epic fantasy book to be built around collaborative worldbuilding. It also took on board elements of travel between multiple worlds and realities, bringing in both a second planet to serve as a location as well as different planes of reality. Sword and sorcery had dabbled with this (such as in Moorcock's own multiverse) but Feist's version was more orderly and less chaotic.

It also established a slightly iffy precedent for the publishers of epic fantasy to split up novels into smaller volumes for financial gain. Magician is not a very large book (under 300,000 words, maybe even shorter than The Sword of Shannara) but the paperback was split into two volumes for the US paperback, entitled Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master. The UK edition remained in one volume. Annoyingly, many later and more recent books have suffered from this as well, with a lack of coherence on what makes a book too big for one volume. Obviously Tad Williams's To Green Angel Tower (at 520,000 words) was too big for one volume but it's also clear that George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons (both 420,000 words) - both split in the UK - could have both been one volume each in paperback, and in fact were in the USA. More recently, the UK edition of Pat Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear was published in one volume but Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings and Words of Radiance were both split, despite the books being all the same size and the publisher being the same (Way of Kings has since been reissued in one volume, suggesting that Sanderson's sales are now high enough to justify the one-volume treatment).

Magician was a solid book with some nice humour in it, but epic fantasy as a whole remained a fairly serious field at this point. But fortunately there had already been some attempts to make a funny epic fantasy, and the biggest fantasy series since Tolkien was about to begin with a warm satirising of the genre.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Asimov, Ellison and Wolfe talk SF

io9 have unearthed a 1982 television roundtable discussion between SF titans Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov and Gene Wolfe, where they talk about genre definitions and how awesome the genre is.



An interesting look at the SFF field from a very different time.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Wertzone Classics: The Wire - Season 1 (HD)

On 8 October 2008 I published a review of Season 1 of The Wire, David Simon's five-year ode to the death of the American Dream and the corrupting effect of institutions. I recently completed a rewatch of the season, this time in HD from the official Blu-Ray release. The original review is reprinted below along with some updated impressions.



The Wire is, at first glance, Yet Another Cop Show, about a group of disparate and conflicted police officers working to bring down criminals who are often not much better than they are. Yawn. However, there are two things that mean that people should take this seriously. Firstly, it's made by HBO who, up to a couple of years ago anyway, seemed physically incapable of making something unless it was absolutely gripping and awesome. Secondly, it's the creation of former police writer and journalist David Simon, whose previous show was the brilliant Homicide: Life on the Street.
 

The Wire kicks off on the mean streets of Baltimore, Maryland, in 2002. A murder case against a young black man named D'Angelo Barksdale collapses when one of the witnesses is scared into retracting her testimony. The furious judge learns from homicide detective Jimmy McNulty that D'Angelo is a junior member of a far-reaching criminal gang run by his cousin, the extremely elusive Avon Barksdale. This gang controls all the drug supplies on the west side of the city, and are protected by a labyrinth of legit front organisations. Determined to get some payback, the judge uses his influence to have a special joint homicide-narcotics unit formed to bring down the Barksdale gang, with McNulty assigned and an up-and-coming officer named Lt. Daniels placed in charge.

The investigation into the Barksdale organisation by the unit forms the backbone of the first season of the show, but that's just one side of the story. We also get to see the investigation from the POV of the criminals themselves, most notably D'Angelo as he finds himself free but busted down to supplying the lowest of the estates, as well as the kids who work for him. A dangerous, unpredictable third faction is also in play in the form of the one-man army Omar Little, a criminal whose personal code means he can only steal from other criminals. The police try to form an alliance with Omar to bring down Barksdale, but their erstwhile ally has an unfortunate tendency to blow away the criminals they're trying to get locked up, which makes this a difficult task.

The appeal of The Wire is hard to explain to those who haven't seen it. It's fairly slow-moving (although never dull) in places and arguably takes two or three episodes to really kick in. It's also pretty unforgiving if you miss an episode. Flashbacks to prior episodes are non-existent, and plot points and character and emotional arcs often turn on a single conversation from several episodes earlier. You need to pay attention here. Luckily, that's made easy by the tight writing, the ingenious methods the criminals go to avoid being caught and the even more intelligent methods the police need to use to investigate them, and the acting. It'd be almost impossible to single out any of the actors for praise. British actor Dominic West has the closest thing to a central role as McNulty, and handles the character very well, but Lance Reddick (more recently seen as the enigmatic Abbadon in Lost) holds every scene he's in as the formidable Lt. Daniels. Clarke Peters develops his character of Lester Freamon from almost a background role to that of the most intelligent and confident officer on the team in a natural and impressive manner. John Doman's constantly-infuriated performance as McNulty's commanding officer and eternal nemesis Major Rawls has to be mentioned as well.

On the criminal side of things, British actor Idris Elba (formerly seen as Vaughn in the excellent Ultraviolet) impresses as Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale's trusted number-two man, and Larry Gilliard Jr. provides the main criminal POV as 'D' Barksdale, as he tries to claw his way back up the organisation amidst growing concerns about how the family does business. For most people - including Barak Obama - the stand-out performances in the show belong to two of the more morally ambiguous characters, namely Michael K. Williams as the dangerously unpredictable Omar and Andre Royo as 'Bubs', a street informant struggling with his own drug addiction. Royo's performance was so convincing that whilst filming he was offered a heroin fix by a passer-by who thought he badly needed it, and later referred to this as his 'street Oscar'.

The cast is uniformally brilliant (the above barely scratches the surface of the quality performances and characters on display here), the writing is fantastic and the show is, surprisingly, very funny. Whether it's the stories of some mind-bogglingly stupid criminals, or the ridiculous difficulties the team faces at getting a desk into their basement office, or Bubs' methods of identifying suspects for the police observers, the show has a jet-black vein of comedy which gives several laughs per episode. This is necessary because the show can be quite bleak, showing as it does wasted young lives amidst the crumbling tenements of a poor city, and a lot of the characters die in rather unpleasant ways over the course of the investigation. The investigation also ends messily, and the fates of many of the characters is left wide open for the second season.

The Wire: Season 1 (*****) takes a couple of episodes to build up a head of steam and get you into its headspace, but once that's done it never lets go. The show is available on DVD in the UK and USA, and also as part of the complete series box set (UK, USA). Fantasy writer Joe Abercrombie waxes lyrical on the show here, whilst British TV critic Charlie Brooker has a video appraisal here.


McNulty in full-on smug mode is even more supremely punchable in 1080p

Updated Thoughts
It's been seven years (!) since I watched the first season of The Wire and I was concerned that I would have forgotten too much about the show to enjoy one of its oft-reported key features, the fact that on a rewatch you pick up so much material that flies over your head in the initial viewing. In fact, it didn't take too much past McNulty's opening eulogy to Snot Boogie (the first, but a long way from the last, murder we see on the show) for the entire season to reassert itself in my head. There's not too many shows that can do that, but this is one that stays with you through the years.

On a rewatch, the first thing that impresses is how tightly written and meticulously constructed the series really is. There is not a single wasted breath, pointless line of dialogue or redundant moment in the entire season. The season is beautifully bookended by looping things full circle (Stringer Bell's respectful - if sardonic - acknowledgement of McNulty's intelligence in the finale reflecting McNulty's angry congratulations in the opening episode) but the finale also moves things forward and keeps stories in play for the second season. The characterisation is absolutely stunning, with even the most seemingly irredeemable character given their moments of humanity: Rawls decisively taking charge of the crime scene investigation after Kima is shot and his reassurance of his sworn nemesis McNulty afterwards gives him a depth matched by only one other scene in the entire series (and knowing that about Rawls...changes nothing at all, because it's completely irrelevant). Wee-Bey may be a totally murderous, ruthless killer, but it's hard not feel a momentary twang of sympathy or respect when he stands up and takes the fall for the entire drug gang in the finale, knowing he will never see freedom again. This is given more resonance by knowing what he does in Season 4: the man, for all of his despicable attributes, has his code.

Beyond the terrific writing, measured pace and awe-inspiring construction of the story, there is the absolute howl-inducing sense of humour. There's the single greatest crime scene investigation scene in filmed history (TV or movies), the desk-moving scene, the fishtank episode, McNulty's handling of Bunk's (very minor) betrayal, Bub's crazy schemes to get drug money, Omar's apology for killing an important witness (and McNulty's resulting attempt to measure his own morality) and the banter of the kids in the low rises. This is balanced out elsewhere by the tragedies: what happens to the witnesses in the opening court case (even the one who plays ball with Stringer), the fate of Bubs's friend and the absolute gut-punching of Wallace's rise and fall in favour.

Later seasons may be more complex and more layered, but the first season of The Wire has a tremendous focus and story-telling purity to it that makes it my favourite of the five, and easily one of the greatest seasons in the history of television (absolutely no hyperbole required). The high definition makeover is technically stunning, and in fact David Simon's concern that the show would suffer from losing its grainy documentary look doesn't really materialise. An on-the-streets documentary about Baltimore today would be shot in HD, and in fact the grimmer aspects of The Wire take on a stronger resonance when you can see the streets, the corners and the dusty police offices in much clearer detail.

The Wire complete series blu-ray set is available now in the UK and USA.

The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

Prester John is the unchallenged High King of Osten Ard, the ruler of all the lands from the Nornfells to the southern deserts. He has ruled wisely and well - but not without bloodshed - for seven decades. Now his health is failing and his son Elias prepares to inherit the throne. Elias is strong and a canny general, but is also mistrusted for his close relationship with the sinister priest Pyrates. There is also a growing rift between Elias and his younger brother Josua Lackhand that threatens the peace.



Simon, a simple kitchen boy in the High King's castle, the Hayholt, is drawn into events beyond his understanding. A cold winter is coming, things are stirring in the far north that have not been seen for centuries and the fate of the world will turn on three lost swords: Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.


The Dragonbone Chair is the opening novel of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, a massive trilogy written by American author Tad Williams. First published in 1988, the novel was an important milestone in the development of epic fantasy. Previous fantasy novels had been split between easy reading versions of Tolkien (Brooks, Eddings) or insanely dark reactions to it (Donaldson, Cook), but Williams's novel was arguably the first to really engage with Tolkien on the same kind of playing field. It's a huge book (over 900 pages in most paperback editions, and only the first part of the story) filled with a complex backstory, numerous ethnic cultures and different races, lots of made-up names and maps. Lots of maps. And an appendix, just to show you that this author means business.

Of course, epic fantasy is a very different field in 2015 to what it was like in 1988, so does the novel hold up?

The answer is a qualified yes. This is a big, epic story which Williams tells well, with some colourful prose, some solid characterisation and development and a bit more depth to the story than it just being another Tolkien clone. The (relatively few) action sequences are well-handled and there are some evocative descriptions, particularly of the vast Hayholt and its Green Angel Tower, as well as the forbidding Aldheorte forest. The characters are a fairly diverse and interesting bunch, although Simon himself, at this early stage, is a bit too much of a wet blanket with a tendency to pass out (either from injury or magically-induced visions) every time something important happens. His companions, particularly the "troll" Binabik, are altogether more compelling in this first novel.



The book also constantly develops and restructures the stakes and the scope of the story as it goes on, bringing in more history, factions and people as it develops. This works in both the Tolkien-esque sense of starting small and branching out later on, and also in forcing a constant reappraisal of the world and the situation. It's telling to see how Prester John is viewed by his own people as a mostly just and benevolent ruler but people from other lands remember him as a conqueror.

There are some structural issues. The book can switch POVs several times in a conversation, which is a bit bewildering for those readers used to the modern convention of staying with one POV for a whole chapter, or for POV switches to be marked by at least a paragraph break. This is also not exactly the fastest-paced novel in the world. Compared to Lord of the Rings, The Eye of the World or A Game of Thrones, The Dragonbone Chair (which is only marginally shorter than the latter two) drags its feet a little. Williams is a good enough writer to make lengthy travelogues or conversations between two minor characters hold the attention, but you do realise from time to time that not actually a lot has happened in the previous hundred pages. Finally, the POV structure can be a bit jarring: much of the first half of the book is shown from Simon's POV, but the latter half introduces a ton of other ones, including some who have an important role to play but we only get a few pages with them because so much time is being spent elsewhere.

But these are both standard (for the genre) and forgivable problems, especially given that this was only the author's second novel. The Dragonbone Chair (****) may be slow to get off the mark and occasionally low-key given the scale of the events, but it's a well-written novel that is rather smarter than it first appears (this becomes more apparent in the sequels). It's well worth checking out ahead of the publication of the sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard, due to start in 2017. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.