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Frost Giant

Werthead's page

2,160 posts. No reviews. No lists. No wishlists.



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The Call by Peadar O Guilin

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The island of Ireland has been sealed off from the rest of the world by a mystical barrier. Technology cannot penetrate it. The people of Ireland, the division between north and south no longer mattering, are under constant attack. Every teenager is "Called", summoned to another realm where they do battle with the Aes Sidhe, the ancient rulers of Ireland before they were banished in a great war. The Sidhe have a day in their realm (three minutes in ours) to hunt down and kill the child, otherwise the victim escapes. Sometimes the Sidhe spare the victim, to return them home mutilated or "changed" in some horrific fashion. Most of the time, the Sidhe kill them.

Nessa is a teenager at school, but in this age schools do not teach algebra or humanities. Instead they teach each student on how to survive in the Sidhe realm, how to kill the fairies and how to escape back home. Nessa's prospects are dim due to a childhood brush with polio and the resulting weakening of her legs. But Nessa has made a vow to survive, no matter the cost.

It's been nine years since Peadar O'Guilin released his debut novel, The Inferior, an SF story of high-tech and savage, cannibalistic societies coexisting next to each other. Since then, he's made a habit of writing stories that combine mythology, SF and horror, told with verve and intelligence. The Call is an evolution of that storytelling style, and should be a major step forward for his career.

The Call is a rich story mixing horror, survivalism and deep-rooted Irish mythology. "Hey, this sounds a bit like The Hunger Games," some may say, and I suspect the comparison will become a cornerstone of future reviews. However, I would argue that the story is less like The Hunger Games and, at least in spirit and tone, more like that's novel's considerably darker, superior and more adult inspiration, Koushun Takami's Battle Royale. Like that novel The Call channels many of the real issues, challenges and emotional turmoils of being a teenager, given greater resonance by being studied through the lens of an extraordinary situation that transforms the foibles of adolescence into a grim and deadly game of survival.

The result is a mash-up of Battle Royale, Terry Pratchett's Lord and Ladies and an Irish version of Skins, but parsed by O'Guilin's signature dark wit and expert pacing. The book moves like a rollercoaster from the off, but has time to delve into Irish mythology, reflect on teenage angst and sexuality (this is a pretty frank book in that regard) and develop its key characters, not just redoubtable protagonist Nessa but also her friends, the teachers at the school and her sworn enemies. O'Guilin has developed that most enviable knack of dropping us into a character's head for a few moments and establishing them as a full-realised person in just a page or two. He does this so well that it's hard not feel sympathy even for the "bad guys" when they get offed.

It's a short novel at 320 pages, but it moves fast, is extremely bloody-minded and has a body count that might make even George R.R. Martin wince. It's also very smart, with its premise and "rules" interrogated by the characters as much as by the reader, and tremendously adult. It may be marketed as a "YA" book but it does not pander to presupposed juvenile tastes. It treats its audience with respect and credits them with intelligence.

There's not much to say that is negative. It's another one of these books that's the first of a series but the marketing doesn't really mention it (a sequel, The Cauldron, should follow in due course). It also feels like the danger of "sleeper agents", people sent back by the Sidhe having apparently survived their Calling but in reality transformed into their slaves, should have been more properly considered by the Irish authorities and protected against. But these are less than minor issues.

The Call (****½) will be published by David Fickling Books in the UK and Ireland on 30 August this year, and in the USA by Scholastic around the same time. I very strongly recommend it.

Edit: I've now had a couple of people ask about this. The term "Aes Sidhe" is the original Irish term ("Aos Si" is a more recent form) for a mythological species of fairies or elves who originally ruled Ireland before being defeated by men. The Book of Conquests (also The Book of Invasions or The Book of the Taking of Ireland) is an account of this conflict, dating back to the 11th Century but based on considerably older oral traditions.

Needless to say, the term massively predates the term "Aes Sedai", which Robert Jordan borrowed from the Irish for his Wheel of Time sequence beginning in 1990. O'Guilin is simply using the original term from Irish mythology.


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Julian Gollop, the original creator of X-COM (along with LORDS OF CHAOS and LASER SQUAD, and advising on the new Firaxis XCOM games), has announced a new X-COM-esque strategy game called PHOENIX POINT.

The game will play in a similar way to the original X-COM, with a world map from which you can organise research, recruitment and procuring equipment and then a turn-based battle mode where you fight the enemy in procedurally-generated landscapes. In a twist, there will also be procedurally-generated monsters and enemies, assembled on the fly from dozens of body parts and types to form hundreds of potential enemies.

The plot is that the melting permafrost has released a virus known as "the Mist" that mutates both people and creatures into terrible monsters. The Mist has also spread across much of the globe, destroying civilisation and reducing it to pockets surviving in Mist-free enclaves scattered over the globe. There are numerous factions of survivors, some of whom are more interested in fighting each other than the Mist, and you have to guide your faction - the titular Phoenix Point - to victory by arranging strategic alliances or even outright conquering other factions to help gather resources to drive the Mist back.

Gollop has taken inspiration from several sources: the original X-COM (and the third game, APOCALYPSE) for the strategic layer, which will be more involved and dynamic than the Firaxis games. The other factions will be fighting one another, researching and doing other stuff regardless of your actions, so if you kick back too much you might let other factions wipe one another out but you might also end up out-resourced, outnumbered and outflanked. The second inspiration is ALPHA CENTAURI, for the very different factions and their goals and ways to appear them. The third is survival horror: although the game has lots of combat and action, the monsters are disturbing and genuinely monstrous, constantly mutating and evolving to adjust to your tactics. The Mist is also active on the battlefield, capable of warping or mutating your soldiers if you don't find ways of defeating it. Some of the monsters are also absolutely huge. The final inspiration is the modern XCOM, which Gollop has praised for its approachability and accessibility, but thinks there is a way of getting a more complex and malleable game underneath. PHOENIX POINT will have at least 3 wildly different endings (possibly more) depending on how the campaign unfolds.

PHOENIX POINT's release date will apparently be in 2018 on PC, with console versions possible.


The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney

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Oxford, 1929. The Great Depression is looming. Anna Francis is a Greek refugee, one of many forced to flee the fighting between Turkey and Greece in the aftermath of the First World War. She lives with her father, who continues to campaign on behalf of his countrymen. Whilst Anna's father hosts meetings and writes to politicians, Anna explores Oxford and the surrounding countryside. One night she sees something in the fields that she wasn't supposed to, irrevocably changing her and the course of her life.

Paul Kearney is, very easily, the most underread author in modern fantasy. He has written epic fantasy with vast armies clashing, heroic fantasy about the tribulations of a flawed hero and several "slipstream" stories about people who cross from one world to another. He has also written a personal novel about the real world's intersection with the fantastic. He's even written a Warhammer 40,000 novel about Space Marines (although that's currently on hold due to legal issues). Kearney has an ability to switch gears and voices to tell many different kinds of story that is highly enviable.

The Wolf in the Attic represents another such gear shift. This is a story about a young woman coming of age in a country that treats her like a foreigner, despite her fluency in the language and her father's attempts to integrate. The notion of being a refugee and trying to find a home after your own is destroyed is a powerful one, and Kearney tells this part of the story extremely well. There is also an impressive mastery of POV and characterisation: Anna idolises her father whilst also being honest about his flaws, but even so the reader may pick up on things about him that Anna herself does not (or is in denial about).

These musings on identity, home and growth sit alongside a couple of scene-stealing cameos from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien had met and become friends in the mid-1920s and would remain in contact for the rest of their life. They appear very briefly, but Kearney has clearly done his research about the two men, their characters and the times they lived in.

So richly and vividly drawn is 1929 Oxford that the reader may even forget they're reading a fantasy novel until the supernatural enters the fray. First slowly and then with a growing presence, Kearney presents a sort of magical shadow world intersecting with our own, with people and factions represented as one thing in our world but having another role in the other. A mid-novel twist brings the supernatural element much more to the fore and this transition is successful as the book becomes more of a quest or road trip that takes Anna from her comfortable life into something more mystical and primeval.

Kearney has always had an excellent grasp of character and no-nonsense writing, but his writing skills in this book reach new heights with easily the most accomplished prose of his career to date. He handles the transition from the earlier, more grounded chapters to the later, more fantastical ones very well and he makes Anna a compelling protagonist, young but not foolish, inexperienced but not naive. If there is a weakness it might be that some secondary characters are not developed as strongly (Luca most notably) but in a first-person narrative that may be expected.

Overall, The Wolf in the Attic is an unusual book. It has YA hallmarks but isn't really YA. It has elements of fantasy and mythology and history but is more than the some of those parts. The movement between realistic childhood issues and fantasy reminded me somewhat of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but The Wolf in the Attic is an effortlessly superior novel which has more to say.

The year may only be half over, but The Wolf in the Attic (*****) makes a bold claim to be the best SFF novel released this year (contested, at least so far, only by Guy Gavriel Kay's Children of Earth and Sky). It is a rich and unputdownable read and increases its already-talented author's range and capabilities even further. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Book 1: Cold Magic

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The nations of Europa are struggling with threats from within and without. Vast ice sheets cover the north of the world and everyday survival can be a challenge. Technology is advancing, with the invention of airships and firearms, but the Mage Houses despise these developments and actively fight them. A would-be emperor, Camjiata, has been defeated but political turmoil has been left in his wake.

Cat Barahal, a young orphan growing up in the city of Adurnam with her aunt, uncle and cousin, is about to reach her majority when she discovers that a pact was made when she was younger. This pact means she must marry one of the feared Cold Mages. As she reluctantly goes along with this arrangement, she discovers secrets about her past, her family and her culture, and what this means for the future of Europa as a whole.

Kate Elliott has consistently been one of the most interesting fantasy authors working over the last twenty years. Her seven-volume Crown of Stars series, set in an alternate history version of Europe, was fascinating, well-characterised and offered fascinating commentary on religion and society. The Crossroads trilogy was much more complex and original, whilst also being tighter, and featured similar musings on both the individual and the larger scale of cultures and ideologies clashing across a continent, not to mention featuring one hell of a twist ending. Cold Magic is the opening volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy and does some similar things but also brings some new ideas to the table.

The setting is vivid and fascinating, a steampunk/icepunk Europe where the sea levels never rose after the last Ice Age (because the Ice Age is still going on). Much of this book actually takes place in lands that were destroyed by floods tens of thousands of years ago, forming the English Channel. There is lots of detail on how people survive in a land where even the hottest summer days can still be chilly, most of it done organically. There's also a rich, unusual but convincing cultural backdrop, particularly the idea that the Mali Empire (one of the wealthiest in history before European colonisation) has been overrun by a plague, sending its incredibly wealthy upper classes to become refugees in Europa where they join forces with the Celts. But if Elliott is one of the best worldbuilders working in epic fantasy, she is also one of the best handlers of character. Cat, our central character, is a strong and confident woman but whose outer confidence and mastery of etiquette hides inner doubts, especially given her lack of knowledge about her parents and real family backstory. A major subplot of the novel is Cat piecing together her history from documents and accounts of the fate that befell her parents, rolling the story back even as it moves forward. Andevai, the Cold Mage that Cat is forced to marry, is painted in similar depths. Initially he appears unrelatable, remote, arrogant and selfish, but considerably more interesting nuances about him emerge as the story unfolds.

Cold Magic's greatest success is how it handles a striking tonal shift. The opening chapters are fairly grounded. Magic exists, but it is not prevalent and the world is dominated more by industry and the move to a steampunk(ish) existence. Then, about a third of the way into the book, Elliott hits the "Let's weird this stuff up" button and we have an explosion of otherworldly creatures, dalliances into the spirit world, animal spirits taking human form, dinosaur lawyers and prophetic dreams. Elliott foreshadows this quite nicely in the opening chapters so the shift is not jarring. There's also moments when the characters become aware of the existence of other worlds (possibly other timelines) and the world seems to teeter on the brink of fragility, recalling (if briefly) the malleable realities of Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History.

Cold Magic (****) is an imaginative, well-written and different kind of epic fantasy. There are some complaints possible about pacing (not a colossal amount happens in its 500 pages) but the slower pace actually allows the reader to take in the vividly-drawn setting and atmosphere more completely. Those looking for a pedal-to-the-metal action novel may want to look elsewhere, but for those who like imagination and immersion in their fantasy, Cold Magic is a very good read. The book is available now in the UK and USA.


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The previous legal difficulties have been resolved, and a major TV studio has optioned the WHEEL OF TIME rights. We should know who in the near future.

Prior to the legal kerfuffle between the Jordan Estate and Red Eagle, Sony TV was interested and based on the short period of time that's elapsed since the legal problem was resolved (last August), it seems unlikely someone else will have had time to have done anything. But never underestimate the ability of Netflix or Amazon to make things happen with mountains of cash. If it is Sony, I would be surprised if they didn't join forces with AMC again (like they did on BREAKING BAD), since their own epic fantasy show would augment AMC's enviable line-up of genre programming (alongside THE WALKING DEAD and PREACHER). But that's all speculation. We know it won't be HBO (they've never double-dipped in the same genre at the same time) but beyond that the field is wide open.


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Better late than never. Sixteen years after the PS1 version, Square Enix released its PC port of FINAL FANTASY IX on Steam today.

It's based on the recent mobile version, but with higher-res models, backgrounds and movies, and with mouse and keyboard support.


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Obsidian and Paradox are collaborating on a new CRPG called TYRANNY. This game will use the PILLARS OF ETERNITY engine and casts you as a Fatebinder, a servant of the Dark Lord Kyros who has conquered the world (the premise being that the ultimate battle between good and evil has been fought and evil has already won).

Unlike PoE, this game will not be crowdfunded (Paradox are funding it in full) and it's already pretty far down the line, with a release in late 2016 currently being expected.

More interestingly, this will be Obsidian's first-ever RPG that has been made with no input at all from Chris Avellone, who has decamped to Larian to work on DIVINITY: ORIGINAL SIN II. Obsidian's other writers are pretty good so this isn't a mortal blow, but I'll be interested to see what they come up with.


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Harebrained Schemes have announced that a new BATTLETECH video game is in the works.

This game will feature turn-based strategy and RPG elements, allowing you to build your own mechs and take part in an open-ended campaign where you choose which mission to take on next (this feature is partially inspired by the MECHWARRIOR MERCENARIES games). There'll be a Kickstarter in the autumn.

The game is being made by the same team behind the SHADOWRUN RETURNS games (the last of which, HONG KONG, arrives on 28 August), including of course Jordan Weisman, co-creator of the BATTLETECH/MECHWARRIOR franchise. Based on the quality of SHADOWRUN RETURNS, this should be good.


Elite: Wanted by Gavin Smith and Stephen Deas

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The 34th Century. A routine bit of piracy goes badly wrong, leaving the crew of the Song of Stone wanted by both the authorities and the most lethal criminal gang in inhabited space. When a bounty hunter famed for being relentless and efficient gets on their tail, events rapidly spiral out of control.

The Elite video game series has always had a good relationship with its tie-in fiction. The original game, released in 1984, had very simple graphics so relied on the manual and flavour text to fit in a lot of the background. Key to this was The Dark Wheel, a novella written by Robert Holdstock (who won the World Fantasy Award the same year for his seminal Mythago Wood) which brought the setting to life with memorable characters and a focused storyline about revenge and family.

For the release of Elite: Dangerous, the fourth game in the series, a whole line of new books are being released from several different publishers. First out of the gate is Wanted, a collaboration between Stephen Deas (best-known for the Memory of Flames fantasy sequence) and Gavin Smith (Veteran, War in Heaven, Age of Scorpio). This novel focuses on pirates, bounty-hunters and the dividing line between the law and lawlessness, key features of the Elite games which can also be used to generate good stories.

Wanted has a simple but extremely effective structure: chapters alternate between Captain Ravindra of the Song of Stone and Ziva, pilot of the Dragon Queen and one of the most renowned bounty hunters around. The characterisation of these two leading figures is strong, with the authors setting up each captain's motivations (Ravindra's wayward son and Ziva's relationship problems) and using them to drive the story forward. For a tie-in novel the risk is always that the iconic setting will overwhelm the story and characters, but there Deas and Smith avoid that, putting the central characters front-and-centre.

That said, they do handle the setting pretty well. There's always been a conflict between the Elite universe being set so far in the future and the relative low technology of it all, with no artificial gravity and ship-to-ship combat being carried out at close range rather than with drones from thousands of miles away. The two authors do a good job of staying true to the game setting whilst throwing their own innovations and extrapolations of technology into the mix.

On the weaker side of things, some of the secondary cast could do with being fleshed out more. The motivations of the villains is also under-developed, especially as the maguffin the plot revolves around is never really explained. On one meta-level it's irrelevant, as it's simply the excuse for the story to happen, but on another it means that the stakes are never properly defined.

Still, Smith and Deas deliver more than what was expected here: a punchy, rip-roaring space opera with some clever bits of science, some nicely-handled character relationships and a book that leaves the reader intrigued to try both the game and the other books in the setting. Elite: Wanted (****) is out now in the UK and USA.


Book 1: The Abyss Beyond Dreams

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AD 3326. Nigel Sheldon, the originator of wormhole technology and the person responsible for the creation of the Intersolar Commonwealth, is semi-retired and planning to leave this galaxy for a new one. However, his plans are interrupted by the enigmatic Raiel, the powerful aliens who guard the Milky Way from the expansion of the Void, the mysteriously growing mini-universe hidden in the galactic core. The Raiel need Sheldon to go into the Void and help recover one of their ancient warships. Sheldon agrees...but soon finds himself on the wrong planet in the wrong time and the only way out is to support a full-scale revolution.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams is the first novel in a duology, to be followed by Night Without Stars. This series, The Chronicle of the Fallers, is the latest work in Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth universe. Familiarity with the previous works in this universe (the Commonwealth Saga duology and the Void Trilogy) is recommended as this book contains spoilers for the earlier ones, but is not strictly essential.

As with the preceding Void Trilogy, this novel is divided into two sections and almost two distinct genres. In the opening sequence we have far-future SF, set thirteen centuries hence when humanity is immortal, can cross the galaxy in a matter of weeks and live any kind of life imaginable. The bulk of the book is set within the Void itself, where high technology does not work but the inhabitants gain the powers of telepathy and telekinesis. Whilst the Void sequence was set on Querencia, which was more of a fantasy setting, the Fallers books are set on Bienvenido. Unlike Querencia, where a lot of history was lost after the human refugees settled on it, Bienvenido has maintained more of a history and identify, as well as a slightly higher level of technology. This gives the novel more of a steampunk feel, allowing Hamilton to mix up some more genres.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams starts off by feeling a little bit too much like The Dreaming Void. One of our primary POVs is Svlasta, a soldier wounded in battle with the mysterious Fallers (hostile aliens who can assume human appearance) who soon becomes the architect of social change. The similarities with Edeard's story in the earlier books are uncanny. However, Hamilton is clever enough to subvert the reader's expectations and soon moves off in another direction. It's not long before we're meeting some clever (and very conscious) Russian Revolution parallels and seeing how all revolutions carry within them their own capacity for self-destruction.

As usual, Hamilton's prose is unornamented but highly readable. His characters are well-delineated, although they're all a little too prone to using British swear words and idioms. The book is structurally similar to the Void novels but this is deliberate and soon used to set up and then undercut expectations in an interesting way. There are a few complaints, however. One of these is how quickly the ending unfolds (bordering on the abrupt) and how rapidly one of our main characters descends into outright madness. Whilst foreshadowed earlier on, the actual transition feels a little too rapid.

Another is only an issue for long-standing fans. The Commonwealth universe is undeniably a fascinating place, but we've now spent four (out of a planned five) big novels on the subject of the Void. Given the size and variety of the Commonwealth, it would be nice to see more of it than this same bit of it. I can see the fascination, as it allows the author to experiment with different genres without having to fully abandon his SF roots to do it, but there is the feeling that it would be nice to wrap up the Void and move on. The next book in the series will hopefully do just that.

Otherwise, The Abyss Beyond Dreams (****) is a very solid Hamilton SF novel: big ideas, fun characters and affecting moments of gut-wrenching horror. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


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Well, at least a pilot, anyway. Amazon Prime have released it to see the response before going to series.

The good news is that the critical and popular acclaim for it has been universal, so it's quite likely to make it to series.

For those not in the know, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is considered one of the greatest SF novels ever written. It's written by Philip K. Dick, who also gave us (by way of movie adaptations) TOTAL RECALL, BLADE RUNNER, A SCANNER DARKLY and MINORITY REPORT and is often said to be his finest novel (although this is disputed). The book is set in an alternate history where Germany and Japan won the Second World War (helped by Germany developing nukes long before the USA) and have occupied the United States, partitioning the country along the Rocky Mountains.

Based on the clips (being in the UK, I can't see the full pilot yet) it looks absolutely excellent. If this makes it to series, I'll be a day one viewer.


8km-long space cathedrals to shoot one another in space in a computer game.

Initial races will be Imperium, Orks, Eldar and Chaos, to be released by Focus Interactive in 2015 or 2016.


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The Creative Assembly have - rather accidentally - confirmed that their next game will be based on the WARHAMMER fantasy licence. It's the first game in the long-running strategy series to be based on a licence, and their first move outside real history.

The game will likely be released in late 2016.


The highly-acclaimed VALKYRIA CHRONICLES will arrive on PC on 11 November. It will include all of the PS3 DLC and will run in resolutions up to 1080p.

No word on if the handheld sequels will follow.


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X-Wing and TIE Fighter are being re-released later today on GoG with updated modern-PC friendly editions and include both the original versions and the 1998 special editions and all their expansions. Which is nice.

We're also getting updated versions of Sam and Max Hit the Road, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Knights of the Old Republic today. Apparently this is the start, with GoG bringing a total of 30 LucasArts games to their service in the next few months. Discounting the console-only titles and newer games that still work fine, that has to be almost all of them.

And to cap it all off, Sega are also apparently going to be releasing a PC version of Valkyria Chronicles.


This is due out on 24 March 2015 and seems to be one of the most heavily-anticipated CRPGs of the year. There's a 35 minutes gameplay video highlighting the new open world (which is significantly larger than SKYRIM's, and vastly prettier), combat and some quite extraordinarily good music for the game.


The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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A middle-aged man returns to his home for a funeral, only to be drawn back into the long-forgotten events of his childhood, when he travelled through an ocean, visited another world and brought back something that did not want to leave.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Neil Gaiman's first novel for adults for eight years. It started off as a novella and grew larger than he first intended, though at 250 pages it's still on the short side for a novel. This is a book that touches on a number of themes, such as nostalgia, memory (and how it is mutable) and how a child's perception differs from that of an adult's. The book also ties in with some of Gaiman's other work, bringing in the Hempstock family from Stardust and The Graveyard Book. This is a novel that operates primarily as a mood piece, evoking the feeling of a childhood idyll and then darkening it with a nightmarish intrusion from another place. It's a classic trope, taking the idea of childhood as a sacrosanct time of warmth, fun and protection and then violating it with a force of darkness and evil.

That said, it's a story that Gaiman seems to shy away from exploring fully. Our unnamed protagonist has a rather capable of group of allies in the form of the Hempstock family, who know everything that's going on and have a solution for every problem that arises. It's difficult to build tension when your main character has a group of powerful magic-users on speed dial (effectively) to call upon at every turn. The book's structure is also odd: the novel is short, but it's quite a long time before the evil force arrives and it departs some time before the end of the book. It's almost like Gaiman wanted to write a moody piece about childhood but then decided he needed some sort of existential threat to be introduced and defeated because, well, it's a fantasy novel.

It's all well-written, as you'd expect, and there's some very nice moments of humour, characterisation and even genre-bending (the Hempstock occasionally evoking atomic physics and dark matter to explain magical events). But it's also a slight novel, with an odd structure and some fairly straightforward plotting. Gaiman seems to have always struggled a little with plotting in his novels, oddly as it's something he does very well in his comic and TV work, and Ocean doesn't address that issue.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (***½) is a readable, enjoyable and, ultimately, disposable book. It passes the time but does not lodge in the mind the way Sandman or Neverwhere did. So, the wait for the undisputed Gaiman masterpiece novel continues. Ocean at the End of the Lane is available now in the UK and USA.


Wild Cards #1: Wild Cards

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An alien species decides to use Earth to test a new bioweapon. An airborne criminal seizes the weapon and tries to use it to blackmail the city of New York. A former WWII flying ace tries to stop him. And, on 15 September 1946, the world is forever changed when the wild card virus is unleashed in the skies over Manhattan.

Ninety percent of those infected by the virus die instantly. A further nine percent develop crippling deformities or abnormalities, becoming known as 'jokers'. And one in a hundred of those infected develops a wondrous superpower. They become the 'aces'. As an alternative history of the 20th Century unfolds, the American government first tries to use the aces for their own ends and then, in a paranoid frenzy, turns against them, before they finally win some recognition for themselves. But for the jokers, forced to live in a ghetto in Manhattan, their road to recognition and respect will be much harder.

Wild Cards is the first book in the series of the same name, which of this time of writing spans twenty-one volumes with two more planned. This isn't a series of novels, but collections of stories written by many different authors. George R.R. Martin (of A Song of Ice and Fire fame) and Melinda Snodgrass provide editorial control, ensuring that each volume has its own narrative drive and point beyond just collecting random short stories together. The stories are set in their own milieu, with authors sharing ideas, using each other's characters and building up a consistent, coherent shared world.

The first Wild Cards book opens with a bang, with Howard Waldrop giving us the origin story for the entire setting in 'Thirty Minutes Over Broadway'. This is a terrific slice of fiction, with Waldrop fusing pulp energy with his own idiosyncratic style to give us something weird, resolutely entertaining and rather tragic in its own right. Roger Zelazny - yes, that one, the author of the Amber series and Lord of Light - then provides the origin story for Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, one of the original aces whose powers shift every time he goes to sleep. Crenson's periods of hibernation provide a handy way of fast-forwarding through the immediate aftermath of the crisis, showing how New York, the USA and the world adapt to the arrival of the virus. Walter Jon Williams and Melinda Snodgrass then show us two sides of the same tale through 'Witness' and 'Degradation Rites', the story of the Four Aces and their betrayal by the American government. These opening four stories provide a quadruple-whammy of setting up this alternate history and doing so whilst telling stories that are well-written (superbly so in both Waldrop and Zelazny's cases, though the others are not far behind), finely characterised and as gut-wrenchingly unpredictable as anything in the editor's fantasy stories.

Later stories remain highly readable, though perhaps not quite on a par with this opening salvo. Martin's own 'Shell Games' is, perhaps unexpectedly, the most uplifting story in the book, the story of the bullied boy who becomes a superhero. Michael Cassut's 'Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace' and David Levine's 'Powers', two new additions for the 2010 edition of the book, are both decent, filling in gaps in the history. Lewis Shiner's 'Long Dark Night of Fortunato' introduces one of the setting's less salubrious characters and makes for effective, if uneasy, reading. Victor Milan's 'Transfigurations' shows how the anti-Vietnam rallies of the late 1960s and early 1970s are changed by the presence of the wild card virus (and gives us an ace-on-ace rumble that is particularly impressive). 'Down Deep' by Edward Bryant and Leanne Harper is probably the weirdest story in the collection (which in this collection is saying something), a moody trawl through the underbelly of New York (figurative and literal). It's probably a little bit too weird, with an ending that is risks being unintentionally comical, but is still reasonably effective.

Stephen Leigh's 'Strings' and Carrie Vaughn's 'Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan' (the latter being another new addition in this edition) return to the quality of the opening quartet. The former depicts the jokers' battle for civil rights, resulting in riots and chaos in Jokertown and New York that a shadowy figure is manipulating for his own ends. 'Ghost Girl' is a straight-up adventure with the titular character teaming up with Croyd Crenson to find her missing friend. 'Ghost Girl' could be a novel in its own right, with the battling criminal gangs and dodgy drug-taking rock bands providing a canvas that's almost too big for the story, but Vaughn's method of keeping the story under control and resolving it is most effective. Finally, John J. Miller's 'Comes a Hunter', in which a 'nat' sets out to avenge the death of his friend by going up against some criminal aces, is a superbly-written thriller which examines how 'normal' people can stand up against aces and jokers.

The book as a whole is excellent, with the stories entwining around real history and changing it in a way that is mostly organic and convincing. There are a few issues with plausibility here - most notably the way no-one seems particularly bothered about the proven existence of an alien race that has just tried to poison the entire planet - but for the most part the writers use the premise to tell stories about the changed history of the USA (from McCarthyism to civil rights to Vietnam) in an intelligent, passionate manner.

Wild Cards (*****) introduces the world, setting and many of its memorable characters through a series of well-written, smart stories. There isn't a weak card in the deck, and the best stories (those by Waldrop, Williams, Snodgrass and especially Zelazny) are up there with the best of their original work. The book is available now in the UK and USA.


Bear Simulator is a game that simulates you playing - wait for it - a bear.

That's right: a bear! You can go fishing, beat up pigs and crush butterflies for no discernible reason. You can engage bees in mortal combat and pick berries.

And the end of the video suggests there may be a more to it than that...


BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT has been announced by WB Games.

It will be a sequel to ARKHAM CITY, picking up a year after the events of that game. The primary villains will be Harley Quinn, Two-Face and the Scarecrow. The game will also be set on the streets of Gotham City proper, featuring wide streets and long boulevards. Why? So you can drive the Batmobile down them, of course :) The playing area will also be substantially larger than ARKHAM CITY/ORIGINS.

The game will be exclusive on consoles to PS4 and XB1; there will be no prev-gen versions. The game will also launch on PC. Release date unconfirmed, but probably October-November.

Rocksteady, who made the first two games, are back for this one. It is unconfirmed who the writer is.


Book 1: Half a King

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The abrupt death of his father and elder brother puts Prince Yarvi on the throne of Gettland. It's not something he ever wanted: born with only half a hand, he's spent his life training to become a Minister, a man of learning and science. Thrust onto the throne, Yarvi must instead take up the sword to avenge his dead kin and defeat his kingdom's enemies, from within and without.

Half a King is the first novel in a new trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. It's also his first novel for a new publisher and the first set outside his signature First Law world, not to mention his first Young Adult novel. It's a change of gears for the British author, and there's a fair bit riding on how he manages to pull it off.

Those hoping for a radical change in direction or prose style will be disappointed, though conversely those hoping he'd stick doing at what he does best will be overjoyed. This is still very much a Joe Abercrombie novel, meaning there's an air of both cynicism and humour to proceedings and there's a fair amount of violence. There isn't much swearing and no sex at all, but beyond that the only way you'd know this was a YA novel is because the author said so on his website.

The main character is Yarvi, initially presented as a crippled, intellectual man forced to exist in a society where valour with a sword or axe is praised above everything else. Yarvi is constantly on the back foot until put into a situation where his wits and education can be used to the mutual benefit of himself and a band of companions. Abercrombie paints deftly the relationships between Yarvi and his new companions, such as the enigmatic swordsman 'Nothing', the master navigator Sumael and the bowman Rulf, fusing them into a genuine fellowship over the course of many trials and adventures: a harsh overland march through a frozen, barren wasteland is particularly vivid. Working with less than half the word-count of any of his previous books, this is also his most concise, focused novel to date.

The benefit of that is that there are not many wasted words and the story moves extremely briskly. The downside is that the worldbuilding doesn't get as much of a look-in as it sometimes needs to. My review copy didn't have a map and it doesn't look like the final version will have one either, which is a shame because the geographical interrelationships between the various kingdoms of the Shattered Sea and the northern wastes from where Yarvi has to make his overland journey are not strongly presented in the text. Characterisation outside of the central group is also a little vague: the machinations and plots of the main villain seem a bit random without further exploration of his character. These issues mean that Half a King does not satisfy as much as a complete package as Abercrombie's prior novels.

However, whilst this is the opening of a trilogy it is surprising that Abercrombie is able to bring as much closure as he does to the novel. There are still loose ends to be addressed in the sequels, but there are no cliffhangers. Given the relatively rapid release schedule of the trilogy (the second volume is due at the start of 2015), Abercrombie could have been forgiven for adopting a more serialised approach than he does.

Half a King (****) is in many ways vintage Abercrombie: action-packed with a vividly-told plot and characterisation is which straightforward on the surface but gives way to hidden depths underneath. The concise page count makes for a focused story but also doesn't leave much room for deeper explorations of the world. Still, this is a fast-paced, gripping story with a few nice twists. The novel will be published on 3 July in the UK and 8 July in the USA.


Book 1: God's War

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The world of Umayma is divided between two warring superpowers, Nasheen and Chenja, and a whole host of neutral nations surrounding them. The nations are divided by religion, each preaching a different version of their holy book split along gender lines. Nyx is a native of Nasheen, a bel dame assassin sent out to do dirty undercover missions too dangerous to entrust to standard law enforcement. When Nyx gets in over her head, she ends up in prison and is eventually released as a free agent, a mercenary for hire. When the Queen of Nasheen gives her a special mission that can set her and her team up for life, Nyx jumps at it...only to find herself trapped behind Chenjan lines unsure of who is the enemy and whom she can trust.

God's War is the opening volume - volley may be a better term - of The Bel Dame Apocrypha. This is an SF take on the New Weird, set on a planet well over 3,000 years in the future where the natives practice different forms of Islam that have evolved from the various present-day versions of the religion, but along very different lines. Nasheen is a matriarchy where women have the power and do everything from ruling to fighting (either on the front or in boxing rings). Chenja is a more conservative and repressive nation where women are kept firmly in the home and not allowed much in the way of freedom.

The New Weird elements creep in the form of technology. For reasons not really explained in this opening volume, the colonists on Umayma does not use traditional power sources. Instead everything from lights to weapons to computer consoles are powered by bugs of varying size and capability. Special types of people, 'magicians', can manipulate these bugs for offensive and defensive purposes, sometimes to devastating effect. Also, there's other people who can transform themselves into animals, somehow. This isn't really explained either, although one revelation suggests it's a form of long-forgotten genetic engineering.

Kameron Hurley is also not an author particularly interested in exposition or infodumping. The novel opens in media res and leaves the reader scrambling to keep up with what the hell is going on. Chapters alternate between Nyx, a bel dame assassin who later turns independent contractor, and Rhys, a Chenjan refugee and magician who reluctantly teams up with Nyx for protection from her racist countrymen (and women), as well as employment. There are occasional chapters from the POV of other members of Nyx's team, but for the most part the novel is a two-hander alternated between these two very different characters and their worldviews. Rhys and Nyx are studies in contrasts, with him being religious, a man of deep conviction and faith, whilst Nyx is all but an atheist with occasional forays into depression and nihilism, whose answer to most problems is violence. Oddly, they complement one another well and most of the setbacks they face come about when they are separated.

Hurley is balancing a huge number of issues and ideas in this novel: religion, politics, gender issues, war, science and morality all play their parts against the backdrop of a mystery thriller plot. Occasionally the book staggers under the weight of these elements and bogs down. There's a few too many times when our 'heroes' are betrayed, captured and interrogated before escaping/being rescued, like an unusually violent episode of mid-1970s Doctor Who. Hurley's prose is razor-sharp and intelligent, but sometimes bogs down in quieter moments between the action into repetitive character introspection, giving a somewhat stodgy feel to some passages.

But when God's War catches fire, it catches fire like petrol thrown on a bonfire. There's a fearsome mixture of violence, attitude, politics, religion and action at work here, resulting in the most caustic and driven SF debut novel since Altered Carbon. But whilst that novel didn't seem to know quite what to do with its attitude and drive beyond fuel a mildly diverting techno-thriller, Kameron directs her writing skills here in much more productive directions. This is an exhausting, nerve-shredding and vital novel.

God's War (****) is an action-packed, smart book which occasionally stutters in its pacing and is a bit too often just confusing. But it also brims with attitude and verve and represents the arrival of a refreshing new voice in SFF. It is available now in the UK and USA.


An article by io9 which lists the 24 most embarrassing and pointless D&D character classes.

A lot of these are indeed a bit pony, but some of them actually seem fine: Arctic Druid sounds pretty viable, for example, although I'd love to see a D&D party including a 14th level clown. "I gain XP by killing enemies with custard pies whilst balancing on a unicycle."


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The fan community for Outerra - a graphics engine capable of rendering high-quality terrain images from relatively sparse data - has recreated Tolkien's Middle-earth using the software. This has resulted in some stunning and impressive views, especially considering this is only an alpha version.

You can see more pictures here and here, and a discussion on the Outerra forum here. The dedicated Middle-earth project website can be found here. Plus there's also a tech demo video.

This could be the next big thing for fantasy cartography. Westeros or Faerun or Malaz (or Golarion?) next?


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GoG are giving away FREE copies of Dungeon Keeper and its expansion, The Deeper Dungeons for the weekend, and offering a monster 75% off discount on Dungeon Keeper 2 (reducing it to just $1.68).

For two of the best games ever made, this is a steal, especially compared to the godawful tablet/moble version EA released a few weeks ago which requires you to spend vast sums of money to do almost anything at all in the game. This is really the no-brainer alternative.

DK1 and its expansion will work on PC and Mac. DK2 is PC only.


Book 1: Drakenfeld

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The Royal Union has bound the nations of the Vispasian continent together for more than two centuries, with the ultranational police force known as the Sun Chamber being essential for enforcing peace between the kingdoms. Lucan Drakenfeld, an officer of the Sun Chamber, is recalled to his home city of Tryum by the death of his father. However, whilst setting his father's affairs in order, Drakenfeld becomes embroiled in politics and murder. There are forces in Tryum that would see it reach out and become the great empire it used to be, forces that would kill to make that happen...and other forces who would kill to ensure it doesn't.

Drakenfeld is Mark Charan Newton's sixth novel and the first in a new series set in a fantasised Rome (sort of) featuring Lucan Drakenfeld as a private detective (or the equivalent thereof). Drakenfeld is an enlightened man living in unenlightened times, a man who believes in the Union but has to deal with the nationalistic forces that threaten to tear it apart.

In this novel, Newton is doing several things. First of all, he's telling a fairly compelling murder mystery. Secondly, he's using the novel to comment on the state of epic fantasy and its conservative tendencies. A large number of interesting issues come into this, such as the fear of the people of Tryum towards 'the other' (Drakenfeld's assistant is a dark-skinned woman from a far distant nation) and kneejerk nationalism overriding the wider common good. There aren't lazy correlations with real-life events, but there's certainly some food for thought going on under the fairly straightforward surface.

In terms of character, Drakenfeld makes for a likable protagonist but not the most dynamic one. Drakenfeld is a good man, trusting (but not too much), loyal, dedicated and so on. He's also a little bit boring due to his earnest reasonableness with no apparent foibles. His sidekick, Leana, and redoubtable friend, the amable-but-prejudiced Veron, are both far more interesting but the strict, first-person POV means we don't get to know them very well.

In terms of writing, Newton knows how to tell a good story and does it quite well. However, the book suffers from an abrupt shift in gears and pacing towards the end of the novel that the writing never really pulls off. Suddenly what was an intriguing, well-played murder mystery turns into a full-on epic fantasy complete with marching armies, sieges and clandestine night assaults. This shift in gears is so jarring you may drop the book, and never really makes much sense. The worldbuilding is also flawed: the superb evocation of the faux-Roman atmosphere of Tryum and its people is let down by the later revelation that the 'continent' of Vispasia is actually only marginally bigger than Italy itself (oddly, given the variety of landforms mentioned in the descriptions of the various nations) and armies can be summoned, assembled, armed, equipped and sent into battle at just a moment's notice.

This conclusion saps a lot of believability from the narrative, and I was left wishing for a novel much more focused on the murder and perhaps on the political intrigue. The military stuff fails to convince, but at least it does upset the status quo and leaves Drakenfeld in a very interest place for the sequels.

Drakenfeld (***½) is, for most of its length, a compelling murder mystery novel with some great atmosphere and writing which abruptly shifts gears in the final chapters and fails to pull it off. However, it does a great job of establishing the character of Drakenfeld and the world of the Vispasian Union and certainly leaves the reader wanting to know more about his adventures. The novel is available in the UK and USA now.


Somehow.

I don't think this will stand up for very long, but in the meantime the makers of CANDY CRUSH are telling all video gamer creators to stop using the word 'candy' because they now own it.


Hollywood actor/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt and David Goyer are to co-produce a movie based on Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN graphic novels. Goyer will write an outline for the film and may write the script (though that seems less likely at the moment). Gordon-Levitt is so far only producing, but is also open to directing and starring.

Based on comments by Gordon-Levitt, the proposed film sounds like it will directly adapt PRELUDES AND NOCTURNES, the first SANDMAN graphic novel.

This is the latest in a long line of attempts to bring Gaiman's signature character and series to the screen. However, this has more traction than previous efforts due to the profile of those involves. Gaiman has also apparently given his tentative approval to the project as well.


The Princess and the Queen by George R.R. Martin

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King Viserys I Targaryen has ruled the Seven Kingdoms for more than twenty years, presiding over a time of peace and prosperity. He has declared his heir to be his eldest child, his only surviving child from his first marriage, Rhaenyra. But after his death, his widow, Queen Alicent of House Hightower, and Lord Commander Criston Cole of the Kingsguard instead crown his oldest son as Aegon II. Rhaenyra rejects this as a coup and is herself crowned on Dragonstone. The Seven Kingdoms are divided, with the Starks, Arryns and Tullys declaring for Rhaenyra and the Lannisters, Baratheons and Tyrells for Aegon. This will be a civil war of not just armies and fleets, but also of dragons battling one another in the skies of Westeros. The Dance of Dragons has begun.

The Princess and the Queen is a 30,000-word, 80-page novella. It sits somewhere between an actual story and a narrative history, alternating between brief summaries of events and dramatic exchanges (of dialogue, steel or dragonfire) between characters. I must admit to some scepticism when the change was first announced (The Princess and the Queen replaces the fourth Dunk and Egg novella, which Martin has now delayed until after The Winds of Winter comes out), wondering if this was going to be nothing more than a bit of filler. Instead, I was surprised to find it a fairly gripping and interesting account of the civil war.

The Dance of Dragons has been oft-mentioned in the novels, but not in as much detail as other events such as Robert's Rebellion or the Blackfyre Rebellions. What has been established about it in the novels is fairly minimal, giving Martin the freedom to populate it with a whole host of new characters and political factions and set them against one another. As with the main series, Martin has little truck here with 'good guys' and 'bad guys': Rhaenyra's claim might be more sympathetic, but both sides have heroes and villains. The war takes several unexpected twists and turns, with the capital changing hands several times and major figures in the war dying unexpectedly. Both sides are also brutally betrayed at different times. In terms of tone, The Princess and the Queen reads like an ultra-condensed version of A Song of Ice and Fire itself.

The biggest difference to the main series is its use of dragons. At this point dragons are, if not commonplace, certainly reasonably established in Westeros. The Targaryen princes and princesses (and, controversially, some of the bastards) travel around on dragonback and they are often used in war. What is unusual is them being used to fight one another, and there are several brutal battles between dragonriders which are vividly described by Martin. There are also interesting descriptions of military engagements between conventional forces and dragons: the armies of Westeros and the Free Cities have had more than a century by this point to get used to dragons being around and the surprise and terror of Aegon's Conquest has passed. It is possible (if extremely difficult) to kill a dragon and that knowledge provides the downfall of several of the creatures.

Considering the short length of the story, Martin successfully embues the characters with life and motivations. Rhaenyra is proud and haughty, but also jealous and over-protective. Her husband, Daemon Targaryen, is a charismatic warrior, ruthless but also prone to bursts of romance and chivalry (though never to foolishness). It's also fun spotting future historical figures in their youth, such as Alyn Velaryon (who will grow up to be Admiral Oakenfist, partially responsible for Daeron I's successful invasion of Dorne).

The story certainly isn't perfect. The format means that this sometimes reads like a summary of what could have been (in a different life, or much further down the line) a fascinating duology or trilogy of novels in its own right. In addition, whilst Martin takes some effort to come up with new Targaryen names, there's still a few too many Daerons, Daemons, Aegons and Aemons (or Aemonds) wandering around to easily differentiate them at a glance, at least at first. Most notably, the story cuts off a little too abruptly with the war still not done. Considering the story's presence in the Dangerous Women anthology, I was expecting a greater focus on the battle of wills between Alicent and Rhaenyra, but this is a minor element at best in the story. Cutting it off after this element is resolved may be thematically correct, but as the theme was not dominant in the story it simply feels a bit random for the conflict to be left hanging. The World of Ice and Fire, due in 2014, will at least resolve this issue.

The Princess and the Queen (****) isn't just a stopgap, but a readable and entertaining story that expands on our knowledge of the Song of Ice and Fire world whilst also working as a narrative in its own right. More encouragingly, Martin apparently wrote a much longer version (almost 90,000 words) - of which this is an edited excerpt - in just a few weeks, showing that he can still put the pedal to the metal on writing when he needs to. Whether this means we can expect The Winds of Winter in a reasonable timeframe is still unclear, of course. The novella is published as part of the Dangerous Women anthology, available now in the UK and USA.


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Erm, the newer one is, anyway, not the original which is almost 36.

Anyway:

Ten years ago, on 8 December 2003, the first part of a new Battlestar Galactica mini-series aired on the Sci-Fi Channel in the United States. In response to strong ratings and rave reviews, an ongoing series was commissioned. The series eventually concluded in 2009 after four seasons, 75 episodes, two TV movies, a Hugo Award, a Peabody and a slew of technical Emmies.

BSG was an attempt by its writers to rejig TV science fiction for an adult, mainstream audience. Most of the creative team - most notably showrunner Ronald D. Moore - had previously worked on the Star Trek franchise and had grown frustrated at the limitations on realistic human conflict they could portray on those shows. BSG threw out a lot of the rules of TV SF by featuring no aliens, more realistic spaceflight physics (the first show since Babylon 5 to do it on a large scale), being more ruthless and featuring more morally ambiguous characters. However, the series also focused on the classic SF trope of humans versus AI, and if it is possible for biological and machine intelligences to co-exist.

The series was also notable for its more relatable aesthetics: no jumpsuits or impractical onesies here but shirts and ties and more convincing military uniforms. The Galactica didn't stay in the same shape each episode but got more broken-down and damaged as time passed. Its stock of Viper fighters and trained pilots dwindled (despite a handy mid-series resupply). Each episode gave a count of how many survivors there were from the Cylon attack, and this number dropped (sometimes by quite a lot) as casualties were sustained. Characters died, sometimes heroically in battle or guiding stranded ships through radioactive clouds, but sometimes committing suicide after reaching tragic breaking points. It was a series that - for the most part - did not pull its punches.

The characters were familiar archetypes turned into more realistic human beings: hotshot pilot Starbuck has family problems; executive officer Colonel Tigh is an alcoholic; President Roslin is suffering from a terminal illness; Apollo is a great pilot but is unsure of his future; and scientist Baltar is the biggest walking collection of neuroses you will ever see on TV. Even stoic, unflappable Commander Adama finally breaks down from the pressure at the worst possible moment. The actors, from seasoned hands like Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell to newcomers like Katee Sackhoff and former model Tricia Helfer, relished their complex, unpredictable roles and the meaty storylines they could get stuck into.

In terms of visual effects, the show was a substantial step forwards in quality. One of the earliest shows to take advantage of HD, it featured astonishing, imaginative space battles and some excellent spacecraft design, sometimes drawing on the original 1978 show for inspiration and at other times going its own way. The use of CGI to convincingly portray beings who were supposed to be physically present in scenes, such as the robotic Cylon centurions, was ahead of its time as well.

Of course, not all great things last. From the opening part of the mini-series to somewhere around the fifth episode of the third season, the show was almost flawlessly excellent. The writing was tight, the actors were great and the show had a real sense of momentum and purpose. The long-running story arc unfolded logically and even sub-par episodes, like Black Market or Sacrifice, were still eminently watchable. Some problems appeared during the confused 'New Caprica' arc, with the decision to jump forwards some sixteen months from the end of the previous season creating a disconnect in character development which was never really fixed: the behaviour of some characters, most notably Roslin and Apollo, became random and lacking in motivation following that point. The New Caprica arc, though visually exciting and featuring some strong moments of drama and characterisation, also seemed to trip up on the show's own press. The apparent desire to invoke comparisons with the contemporary war in Iraq was laudable, but also confused: were the colonials the Iraqi insurgents or the Cylons? Or vice versa? As an analogy, it lacked substance.

In terms of the plot, the series and ongoing storyline also seemed to lose coherence as it went along. The Kobol arc, which dominated no less than nine episodes, was completely forgotten about within a few weeks and the revelations from that story that was supposed to lead to Earth were disregarded, or referred to only in a very confused manner, in later episodes. Listening to Ronald D. Moore's commentaries, it is shocking how often hugely major story points were developed 'because they were cool' with no regard for how they fitted into the big picture. Sometimes these storylines were begun only for the writers to lose interest and get rid of them as quickly as possible. Lame retcons and wince-inducing continuity errors came to dominate the last two seasons, sometimes minor and easy to ignore but sometimes major. The show remained extremely well-acted to the end, and great episodes still cropped up towards the show's finale, but BSG's once-unassailable quality level dipped quite alarmingly in those last two seasons. The finale summed up these issues with some terrific moments of acting and some brilliant effects and space battles, but an actual ending that ranks amongst the stupidest ever put to screen. For a show that, at its best, never shied away from complexity and having different points of view, the resolution was far too pro-Luddite for it ever to convince.

Still, these major dips in quality aside, BSG was a great show. During those first two-and-a-bit seasons it was easily batting on the same level of quality as contemporary shows like The Wire, Rome and Deadwood, and was a lot better than the likes of Lost or the relaunched Doctor Who. It couldn't quite sustain that quality level to the end, but when BSG was on top form, it was the best space opera ever made. We're still waiting for the space opera that will come along and build upon BSG's successes, but until then revisiting the original is still, warts and all, worthwhile.


Parasitology #1: Parasite by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire)

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2027. Millions of people across the world are enjoying unprecedented good health thanks to a genetically-engineered tapeworm designed by the SymboGen Corporation. One of the poster children for the treatment is Sally Mitchell, put into a coma by a near-fatal car crash but whose tapeworm repairs the damage and allows her to live again. Six years on from her accident Mitchell has made an almost-full recovery, but is at the centre of events when other people with the Intestinal Bodyguard start behaving very oddly indeed.

Mira Grant is a pseudonym of SF writer Seanan McGuire, winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. As Grant, McGuire has published the zombie-based Newsflesh trilogy as well as a series of urban fantasies under her own name. Parasite is the first novel in a new series called Parasitology, which is important to know going in: the book doesn't actually climax but instead is cut off almost in mid-flow as soon as an appropriate cliffhanger is reached; those looking for a complete novel best look elsewhere.

The book is told almost entirely from the POV of Sally Mitchell. Since her life was apparently saved by the SymboGen Intestinal Bodyguard, she has contacts that allows her to observe the growing crisis from both inside the company and outside. This is rather handy, since it means she has a clearer idea of what is going on than almost anyone else in the world, but it also negates one of the points of having a limited POV in the first place: that they only have part of the puzzle and must work out the rest themselves. Since Sally is on top of everything from the off, this limitation does not apply and indeed makes for a curious structural choice, as it lessens tension from the narrative.

In terms of prose, Parasite is acceptable and probably a bit above average for this sort of biological thriller. In particular, McGuire does a good job of nailing the different voices of the feuding scientists whose biography extracts open every chapter. This doesn't extend too well to the dialogue, which often feels clunky and falls into the cheap Lost trap of having characters not ask the blindingly obvious questions and as a result delaying the delivery of vital information to the reader for quite some time. It also doesn't help that Sally is a bit of a blank character, a recovering amnesiac who appears to be extremely rational but also a bit on the slow side: almost every major plot twist (including the Shyamalan-class example at the end) is so heavily foreshadowed that even less-than-careful readers will likely predict most of the things that are going to happen chapters (or in the case of the big one, three-quarters of the book) ahead of time.

Beyond Sally, most of the characters are uninteresting; I spent most of the novel more worried about the fate of Sally's newly-rescued dog than any of the other humans. I also found the fall-back on zombies to be tedious, especially from an author who's already written a major zombie trilogy. It may turn out that the 'sleepwalkers' are rather different to traditional zombies (and there are hints to this effect), but for most of the book they are employed in a similar enough manner to make such differences moot.

Despite predictable plot twists, clunky dialogue and dull characters, the book moves with a fair bit of pace and McGuire is pretty good at action sequences and occasional moments of suspense. These prevent the book from bogging down in its numerous flaws. The book also has a big ask of its readers: the revelation of what is actually going on is so utterly implausible - especially given the robust science the author employs up to that point - that it will likely cause many to throw it down in disgust whilst others swallow it down and press on (also known as the 'Night's Dawn Trilogy Effect').

I found myself vaguely enjoying Parasite (***) despite it having a huge number of flaws. Ultimately, McGuire is an effective thriller writer and keeps the action and suspense beats coming at enough of a clip that it maintains just about maintains interest even over the problems with dialogue, characterisation, predictability and plausibility. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Sony Pictures Television has ordered a pilot episode for a TV series based on the controversial, violent PREACHER comic series by Garth Ennis. If it goes to series, it will air on AMC in the United States.

Interesting. I think they're going to have their work cut out for them on this one. Both HBO and Sam Mendes have had goes at doing this and not gotten anywhere. I'm not sure if, erm, Seth Rogen (yes, that one) is going to have better luck.


Midkemia: The Chronicles of Pug by Raymond E. Feist and Stephen Abrams

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Earlier this year, Raymond E. Feist concluded his Riftwar Cycle of epic fantasy novels. The sequence that began in 1982 with the publication of Magician concluded with Magician's End, resulting in a massive series consisting of thirty novels spread over ten sub-series. Six of the novels were co-written with other authors, but the rest are solely by Feist. However, it's less well-known that the world of Midkemia is not Feist's creation, instead being conceived by Stephen Abrams. Abrams and Feist attended the University of San Diego together in the 1970s and Abrams created the world for use in roleplaying games. Feist later (with Abrams's permission) used the setting for his novels, fleshing it out further.

Thirty-five years later, Feist and Abrams have regrouped to deliver a companion book to The Riftwar Cycle, featuring maps, artwork and further information on the world of Midkemia not given out in the novels. Whilst I haven't followed the later Riftwar novels (I bowed out after the quite amazingly boring Talon the Silver Hawk), I did enjoy the early ones and particularly liked the worldbuilding (haphazard as it was) depicted in the books and the spin-off computer games (Betrayal at Krondor and Return to Krondor), so I was looking forward to seeing that background fleshed out.

I was disappointed. As a companion book, Midkemia: The Chronicles of Pug is sorely lacking in almost every department. The first thing that grates is a lack of proof-reading: the book is riddled with spelling errors on both the maps and in the text (Shamata is frequently rendered as 'Shomata', whilst 'Murmandamus' is spelt in several different ways depending on the writer's whim of the moment). The maps are pretty, but difficult to use. The fonts render many names difficult to read and the artist seems to frequently get bored and only fill in the trees around the edges of the forests, making it look like Midkemia's woodlands are all plains surrounded by a ring of trees. Also - though this is a long-standing problem from the book maps as well - the mountains are depicted as quite ludicrously-sized given the scale used. The continent of Novindus continues to look like a small island instead of a huge landmass. There is also a discrepancy between the size of the Empire of Great Kesh on the maps and its reported size in the books (several times that of the Kingdom, whilst the maps show it as roughly the same size), and contradictory statements in the book which say that Kesh is sparsely-populated with the cities separated by vast gulfs of wasteland, whilst the novels report that Kesh has many times the population of the Kingdom. There's also the problem of the maps featuring locations that don't actually exist when the map was supposedly made: Port Vykor (or Vikor, as the maps never seem to agree on a spelling), founded after Rage of a Demon King, is shown on maps pre-dating Magician, more than fifty years earlier. Oh yes, and there's supposed to be two world maps of Midkemia, showing the state of the world at the start of Magician and after Magician's End (both visible on various fansites promoting the book) but only one of the two world maps is actually in the book. The other one seems to have simply been forgotten. This is made more amusing by the surviving book having 'MAP II (2)' written on it with 'MAP I (1)' nowhere to be found (in the UK first edition, it should be noted; the US edition and later editions may have fixed this).

Then there's the actual text itself. Those expecting a book which talks about geography, history, society, customs, cultures and so on like previous fantasy companion books (like The World of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, The World of Shannara and next year's World of Ice and Fire) will be in for disappointment. The text is a fairly basic plot summary of the events of The Riftwar Cycle. Sidebars and illustrations show there is some potential in this approach: a map of Sorcerer's Isle appears at the relevant point in the text, followed by maps of the Sunset Islands when they first appear and so on. Occasionally the summary of plot elements the reader is probably already familiar with is interrupted by a little bit of background information on politics or culture, but such moments are rare and fleeting. The depth and usefulness of the plot summary amusingly mirrors the general consensus of the quality of the books: the events of Magician are covered in substantial depth, then Silverthorn through Rage of a Demon King in somewhat less detail, and then all of the books afterwards (which is almost two-thirds of them) are covered in just a few pages of confusingly repeated names and events which sound generic to the point of painfulness (having bailed out after Talon of the Silver Hawk, I see I'm not missing very much).

The book is accompanied by artwork from Steve Stone. These aren't actual illustrations, however, but rather stiff and unconvincing 'photo art' featuring posed models in front of CG backgrounds. Occasionally this is effective (Amos Trask's ship running the Straits of Darkness is pretty good) but most of the time it's awful, not helped by occasional re-use of the same model to depict completely different characters.

There are moments when the book comes to life: the opening couple of chapters feel more inspired and some of the maps expanding on the somewhat-confused geography of Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon are genuinely useful. Occasional bursts of background material hint at much more interesting detail. Getting 'canon' maps of the Keshian Confederacy and the full Empire is also gratifying (though it turns out they are pretty much the same as the ones that have been available on the Elvandar website for many years). But ultimately this is a companion book which tells us almost nothing about the history, chronology, societies and cultures of the world it's named after, which is a baffling choice.

Midkemia: The Chronicles of Pug (**) is a disappointing volume, featuring almost none of the information that I suspect readers will really be interested in or expecting. Instead, it's an unproofed plot summary of books they've already read, interspersed with bad artwork, ill-detailed maps and an astonishing number of spelling mistakes. There are a few, scant interesting nuggets of new information to be found and some maps that helpfully clarify confusing descriptions in the books, but beyond that this book is not really that useful. One for die-hard fans and completists only. The book is available now in the UK and USA.


The Year of the Ladybird

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It's the hottest summer on record and Britain is infested with an invasion of ladybirds. A young man named David takes up a job at seaside holiday resort in Skegness, keen to escape the future mapped out for him by his stepfather. His choice of Skegness is informed by the fact that this was the last place visited by his real father before his disappearance. David is caught in a bizarre love triangle whilst he is visited by disturbing visions of a man on the beach, and Britain is caught on the cusp of a new era.

The Year of the Ladybird is the latest novel by Graham Joyce. I've read two of his previous novels, The Tooth Fairy and The Silent Land, and both were haunting, well-written and deeply atmospheric works which provided much food for thought. The Year of the Ladybird shares some of the strong points of these novels but ultimately is not quite as effective a book.

Early chapters see David arrive at the holiday camp and take up his duties, which are described in considerable detail. Like his publisher-mate Christopher Priest, Joyce has the knack of taking the mundane and making it interesting, through clever prose or by imbuing the ordinary with the hint of the extraordinary. 1976 was a year of great social change in the UK, with an explosion in popularity of the white supremacist National Front party and the country in economic turmoil, with the arrival of punk music (and the associated changes in British culture that would come with it) just around the corner. Combined with the remarkable heatwave of that year and the ladybird invasion, this gives Joyce a great setting for a book about a young man trying to come to terms with himself and his own past.

However, the novel is highly restrained and David is fairly reactive as a protagonist. His bizarre encounters with a strange man on the beach are disturbingly-written, but ultimately David shrugs them off and gets on with his life. His romantic dalliances (with a married woman who isn't what she appears to be, and later a much healthier relationship with one of his female co-workers) form much of the spine of the book, but are not imbued with much drama. A misunderstanding which leads David to accidentally attend a National Front meeting at a pub appears to start a new plot thread, which again just tails off. There is a moment of revelation at the end, but it is fairly straightforward. The result is a slight novel that doesn't really seem to be about anything, but has more going on than first appears.

As an evocation of a particular point in Britain's history, the book is highly successful. David's characterisation seems under-cooked, but the surrounding cast are memorable and varied. The minutiae of holiday camp life is both humorous and nostalgic. The prose is restrained and elegant. The fantasy elements are very lightly added (to the point that it's highly debatable if this is in any way a fantasy book at all) but work well when they are evoked.

The Year of the Ladybird (****) is a quiet, slight, evocative novel. It is a well-written snapshot of a particular moment in time and works very well on that basis. Those looking for something more plot-driven would be advised to look elsewhere, however. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


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The BBC are mounting a big-budget, seven-part adaptation of Susanna Clarke's seminal 2004 fantasy novel. The series starts shooting in a few weeks and will be filmed in Montreal, Leeds and Venice. It will air in 2014.

For those not familiar with it, the story takes place in an alternate 19th Century England where magic returns to prominence after a practicing magician, Mr. Norrell, goes public. He takes on an apprentice, Jonathan Strange, and they work to help England in its war against Napoleonic France. Strange and Norrell later have a falling out and become rivals.

Bertie Carvel, a noted British stage and musical actor, is playing Jonathan Strange. Eddie Marsan, recently seen as one of the stars of THE WORLD'S END, is playng Mr. Norrell.

It will be interesting to see if they can pull this off. The book is long and complex, with numerous storylines and a large cast of characters. Squeezing the 1,000-page novel into just seven episodes is going to be an impressive feat.


Book 1: Fade to Black

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The city of Mahala is located in an enclosed pass, the city built up the sides of the mountains over hundreds of years. Ravaged by plague, magical chaos and religious discord, the city is barely ticking over, relying on the mysterious substance 'Glow' to power its machines. Rojan Dizon, a private investigator and secret mage, is forced to go deep into the underworld to find his missing niece, but what he will find there will transform the future of the city.

Fade to Black is the debut novel by Francis Knight and the first in the Rojan Dizon trilogy, which continues in Before the Fall (out now) and Last to Rise (out in November). It mixes elements of 'magepunk', steampunk and urban fantasy to create something that could be new and innovative, but which fails to fulfil its full potential.

Which is not to say that the book isn't fun along the way. The novel uses a mixture of fairly familiar archetypes for its characters, from Rojan himself (hard-boiled mage detective, useless at relationships or managing money, lives for one-night stands and occasional alcoholic over-indulgences) to Jake (ice-queen warrior with trust issues) to, well, everyone really. However, the author gives the characters enough depth and backstory to make them convincing, even if they often remain familiar.

The book makes much of its setting (not least on the impressive cover), a vast vertical city built in a narrow mountain canyon. Mahala isn't exactly the next Ankh-Morpork or New Crobuzon as far as iconic fantasy cities go, but it serves reasonably well, with effective descriptions of vertiginous drops, seedy bars and cramped shops. The worldbuilding is interesting, if at times confused: characters are simultaneously told that there is nothing interesting outside the city, but also retain a fairly detailed knowledge of the neighbouring kingdoms and their economic dependency on Mahala. This is a contradiction which Knight satisfyingly ties up in the sequel, but in this first volume just seems confused. What works better is the magic system, which is based around the application of pain. The way magic works seems logical and well thought-through, with some interesting applications that become clearer (and more disturbing) in the latter half of the novel.

Where the novel threatens to unravel completely is the completely over-the-top ending, in which plot revelations that would be acceptable in isolation are stacked on top of other, more ludicrous and cliched revelations until the whole thing teeters on the edge of collapse. It's only Knight's skill in getting through the plot twist overload and establishing a potentially strong new set-up at the end of the novel that leaves the reader with hope that future books won't be quite so implausible. Fortunately, a third of the way through the sequel, it does appear that Knight's writing skills have improved between the two books.

Fade to Black (***) mixes potentially strong and fascinating ideas with occasionally dubious execution and the employment of a few too many fantasy stand-bys. The ending borders on the silly, but the author just about manages to hold everything together to deliver a fast-paced, enjoyable read (if you don't think about it too much). It is available now in the UK and USA.


Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

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Breq is an ancillary, an animated corpse possessed by the controlling intelligence of a vast starship, the Justice of Toren. The Justice was destroyed more than twenty years ago, with Breq as the sole survivor and the only person to hold a secret that could tear the interstellar empire known as the Radch apart. Breq, now driven by grief and vengeance, goes in search of the only weapon that can accomplish her goal.

Ancillary Justice is the debut novel by American author Ann Leckie, who has already established herself as a writer of short stories. It's an interesting SF novel which riffs on a whole load of ideas. The most striking is the one of identity. Breq is a tiny, splintered part of a much vaster, destroyed intelligence and has difficulties in relating to other people and the world around her. She's also effectively possessing a dead body and suffers from a cultural bias. The Radchaai do not believe in gender differentiation and go to some lengths to keep their gender unclear. The culture defaults to describing everyone in the feminine, resulting in odd moments when a character you've spent a dozen pages mentally picturing as female actually turns out to be male. This playing around with gender roles is not new - Ursula Le Guin did it rather more literally in The Left Hand of Darkness more than forty years ago - but it's something that relatively few SF authors have dealt with before and forces the reader to confront their own biases.

Those looking for in-depth worldbuilding and explanations for this SF universe will be left disappointed. There's little information on the amazingly powerful armour that protects the Radchaai, nor much on how their ships work. FTL travel gets relatively short shrift, and the only hint as to the fate of Earth is a single line about how it's a remote backwater. There is a slight inconsistency in that the Radch's tech level, though impressive, appears to be reasonably believable until someone casually throws it out there that they've also built a Dyson sphere, which seems beyond their capabilities. I daresay that the inevitable future books in the series (yes, there will be at least two more) will reveal more, but in this volume the author is focusing more on the immediate story at hand.

Structurally the book adopts a tried-and-tested technique of alternating between flashback chapters showing what happened to the Justice of Toren and why (and doing a good job of showing how massive events can unfold from the tiniest of causes), and events in the present day. Characterisation is reasonably strong, with Leckie showing how citizens of the Radch differ from one another whilst retaining the same cultural and religious traits. Breq herself is well-drawn, as the ship AIs in Leckie's setting are perfectly capable of having emotions and development (and indeed, Breq's actions are catalysed by what happens to one of her favourite crewmembers).

Whilst a lot of reviews are drawing comparisons with Le Guin, I was also reminded of the works of Iain Banks, particularly in the idea of living ships with their own goals and motivations and how they work when placed in humanoid bodies. What Leckie shares with both authors is more of a fascination with the social sciences than the hard ones, and also a belief in storytelling that also challenges the reader.

Ancillary Justice (****) is one of the most striking SF debuts of recent years. It's not perfect - the restrained prose sometimes risks stodginess and the opening chapters risk an almost Eriksonian level of confusion due to a lack of context for what the hell is going on (though this is still well-handled) - but ultimately the novel evolves into an intelligent take on gender roles and identity issues against a fascinating (if only hinted-at) SF backdrop. More please.


Finally!

HOMEWORLD: SHIPBREAKERS is a prequel to the original 1999 real-time strategy game HOMEWORLD. It is being funded and published by Gearbox, but before you set yourselves on fire and hurl yourselves from the nearest tall building, they're not actually making it. The people making it are Blackbird Interactive, founded in 2007 by a large number of the people who made the original HOMEWORLD game. The original art director, music director and several of the same writers are on board.

Even better, HOMEWORLD: SHIPBREAKERS has already been in development for three years under the title HARDWARE: SHIPBREAKERS, with a large amount of work already done. An early alpha video of the gameplay can be seen here. According to the team, they always had a secret plan to turn HARDWARE into a new HOMEWORLD game if the rights situation permitted, and actually approached THQ (the former rights-holders) in 2010 with this plan. They never heard back from them and it looked like HARDWARE would have to be a new (though very similar, aesthetically) IP. Fortunately (erm, for HOMEWORLD fans anyway), THQ went bust at the start of this year and the IP was snatched up by Gearbox. Gearbox, showing welcome self-awareness, realised they didn't know a thing about making strategy games. They contacted Blackbird, initially to see if they could track down the original HW and HW2 source code (they did) and then began discussions over this project. They signed the final deal live on-stage at the PAX Dev conference a few days ago.

As a prequel to HOMEWORLD, SHIPBREAKERS will likely be set on Kharak, the desert planet the Hiigarans were exiled to thousands of years ago. HARDWARE was set on a desert planet and had different mercenary groups fighting to loot a number of alien wrecks on the planet. As a HOMEWORLD prequel, SHIPBREAKERS will likely change this to have the different kiith (Hiigaran clans) also in conflict over resources, possibly not crashed spacecraft (in HOMEWORLD there was only one, the Khar-Toba) though they may retcon things to keep them in.

Gearbox will be funding SHIPBREAKERS, so it's likely that the game will have a much bigger budget than previously anticipated. Crucially, HARDWARE was going to be a free-to-play, multiplayer-focused game. Whilst not confirmed, it seems to be expected (especially given the 'prequel' line and the fact that the HOMEWORLD games have always been single-player focused) that the game will now incorporate a single-player, narrative campaign.

As well as releasing SHIPBREAKERS, Gearbox will also create and release new versions of HOMEWORLD and HOMEWORLD 2. These new versions will incorporate both the original games, simply updated to work on modern OS (and also on tablets), and HD remakes with modern, updated graphics and control schemes*. It is likely that if all of these are successful, a 'proper', space-set HOMEWORLD 3 may also follow.

No release date has been set for any of these projects yet.

* The source code for HOMEWORLD: CATACLYSM - the excellent stand-alone expansion to HOMEWORLD - has apparently been lost forever, so it can't get the same treatment. However, it may be possible for them to simply re-release the original game with advice on how to get it working on modern systems, GoG-style.


Full details here, but the quick version is as follows:

If an author is not present, that's likely because official sales figures have not been released yet. Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, for example, should definitely be on here but as they have no official figures, I can't place them. That's also true for older authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick.

1) J.K Rowling (c. 450 million)
2) Stephen King (c. 350 million)
3) JRR Tolkien (c. 300 million)
4) CS Lewis (120 million+)
5) Stephanie Meyer (116 million)
6) Anne Rice (100 million)
7) Robert Jordan (80 million+)
8) Sir Terry Pratchett (75 million+)
9) Richard Adams (50 million+)
10) Suzanne Collins (50 million+)
11) Christopher Paolini (33 million)
12) R.A. Salvatore (30 million+)
13) Kaoru Kurimoto (28 million)
14) George Orwell (25 million+)
15) Terry Goodkind (25 million)
16) George R.R. Martin (25 million+)
17) Cassandra Clare (24 million)
18) Terry Brooks (21 million+)
19) Eoin Colfer (21 million)
20) Isaac Asimov (20 million+)
21) Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (c. 20 million)
22) Brian Jacquies (c. 20 million)
23) Kazumasa Hirai (c. 20 million)
24) Charlaine Harris (c. 20 million)
25) Frank Herbert (18 million)
26) Hideyuki Kikuchi (18 million)
27) Diana Gabaldon (17 million)
28) Douglas Adams (16 million)
29) Kevin J. Anderson (16 million)
30) Raymond E. Feist (15 million+)
31) Rick Riordan (15 million)
32) Philip Pullman (15 million)
33) Yoshiki Tanaka (15 million)
34) Stephen Donaldson (10 million)
35) Neil Gaiman (10 million + )
36) Alice Sebold (10 million+)
37) Madeline L'Engle (10 million+)
38) Timothy Zahn (8 million)
39) David Weber (7 million)
40) Laurell K. Hamilton (6 million+)
41) Frank L. Baum (5 million+)
42) Guy Gavriel Kay (3 million)
43) John Ringo (3 million)
44) Joe Abercrombie (3 million)
45) Harry Turtledove (2.5 million)
46) Peter F. Hamilton (2 million+)
47) Dan Abnett (1.2 million+)
48) Robin Hobb (1 million+)
49) David Gemmell (1 million+)
50) Steven Erikson (1 million+)
51) Trudi Canavan (1 million+)
52) Chris Wooding (450,000+)
53) R. Scott Bakker (125,000+)


In less than two weeks, Creative Assembly and Sega will release TOTAL WAR: ROME II, the eighth game in the acclaimed TOTAL WAR series and the sequel to 2004's ROME: TOTAL WAR.

As with the other TOTAL WAR games, ROME II will mix large-scale, turn-based strategic gameplay with a (pauseable) real-time tactical battle engine. Using the map you recruit and deploy armies and navies, build new structures, expand cities and manage diplomatic and economic matters. When one of your armies comes into contact with an enemy force, combat results. The game then switches to a map in which you directly control your army in battle. The focus in these games is on realistic tactics and unit formations, with a wide range of units to control from skirmishers to cavalry and archers. The same rules apply to naval combat, with you deploying fleets packed with troops and able to engage other fleets in battle and undertake boarding actions. For the first in the history of the series, however, the game will also allow combined-arms battles, with navies and armies fighting on the same coastal maps.

ROME II also allows you to play as different factions. As well as Rome, you can play as Carthage, Macedon, Britannia (the Iceni), Gaul (the Arverni), Germania (the Suebi), Parthia or Egypt. A free expansion (available on release day) adds Pontus, whilst a month or so later another free update will add the Seleucid Empire. Three of the Greek city-states - Athens, Epirus and Sparta - will also be available to play as a paid expansion on release day, although this will be included free for those who pre-order the game. The game will also feature dozens of non-playable minor factions, many of them with unique forces, for you to defeat and conquer as you try to spread your empire across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Available exclusively for PC, TOTAL WAR: ROME II is the most graphically-impressive-looking game in existence. However, Creative Assembly claim that they have optimised the game so it will work on any machine that can run their previous game, SHOGUN II, without sacrificing visual quality.

For myself, I was a huge fan of the original ROME and MEDIEVAL II (released in 2006) but not so much of the more recent games in the series. But this is certainly looking hugely impressive, and will be the first TOTAL WAR game I get on release day since MEDIEVAL II. Here's hoping it can live up to its immense promise.

TOTAL WAR: ROME II will be released on 3 September 2014. It is available to pre-order now on Steam (though those without fast broadband might want to be forewarned that the game will be a colossal 35GB download, and maybe prefer to get a boxed copy for a faster install).

Anyone else going to be checking this out?


The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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A young woman is brutally attacked and left for dead. Against the odds, she survives and vows to find her would-be killer. Joining the Chicago Sun-Times as an intern, she uses the resources of the newspaper to begin piecing together the signature of a serial killer...a serial killer who has somehow been active for sixty years.

The Shining Girls is the third novel by South African author Lauren Beukes, whose previous novel Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The Shining Girls is a novel told primarily from two perspectives, one from the time-hopping serial killer himself and the other from his would-by victim who escaped and is now trying to track him down, Kirby. Other POVs (such as the killer's other victims and Kirby's reluctant journalistic partner, Dan) occasionally intrude but the novel benefits from this compare-and-contrast approach between the unhinged murderer criminal and the person trying to track him down.

Whilst Zoo City was applauded for its SF credentials, the primary SF element of The Shining Girls - that the serial killer can travel through time - is curiously incidental. It's more of a mechanism to deliver the serial killer to his targets and the introduction of the occasional (and quickly resolved) closed time loop is about as speculative as things get. This isn't a big problem because the core themes of the book lie elsewhere.

Spanning the period 1931-1993, the novel takes a look at the evolution of women's rights and attitudes towards them in the 20th Century. Possibly aware that this might sound preachy, Beukes has cleverly hidden this beneath both thriller and SF elements and does a good job of integrating these different ingredients together into a cohesive narrative. Each of the 'shining girls' would seem to be, to some extent, a trailblazer or a harbinger of the changing role of women in the time period. One victim in the 1940s is a black single mother supporting her family by working as a welder at a military dockyard; another in the 1950s is a man who wants to become a woman, and succeeds in fooling everyone (even the murderous 'rules' governing the serial killer's activities, apparently). Another victim loses her 'shininess' when her early promise is ruined by a descent into drug-induced insanity. The rules governing the serial killer's activities are never spelt out, but left open to interpretation, especially with regards to Kirby herself.

The book's sense of time and place is impressive, with Beukes charting the changing landscape of Chicago back and forth over the years. The atmosphere of the book changes from the Depression and prohibition-wracked 1930s to the more modern and relaxed 1990s and back again with deceptive ease. In terms of character, the writing is accomplished with Beukes often having to use single chapters to establish a character in depth and then brutally kill them off. Beukes does well in portraying the serial killer, Harper, as a man with no redeeming qualities at all. We don't feel sympathy for him, but he remains interesting despite his repellent acts. Kirby is also a well-developed character dealing with severe post-traumatic stress but overcoming it to focus on her goal. In a brave move, Kirby is also not presented as a sympathetic character: she keeps other people at bay, she uses them and their contacts to get what she wants and she rides roughshod over the feelings of the family members of other murder victims in her haste to find more leads. She isn't a typical heroine, but she is an all-too-human character and that makes her more realistic.

The book does feature some weaknesses. The ending, which apparently dumps any kind of SF explanation for what's happening for a supernatural one, feels a bit disappointing. Beukes does such a great job of destroying or obscuring evidence that would lead Kirby to the killer (a rejection of the amazing coincidences or deus ex machina that lesser thrillers rely on) that when she does catch a lead it feels a bit contrived. A bigger problem is that the pacing is uneven, with nail-biting and tense chapters alternating with lengthy, dull ones where characters muse on their mundane life-problems with their ex-partners or parents.

Still, The Shining Girls (***½) is a fascinating read, if at times a difficult, flawed, uneven and stomach-churning one. It is available now in the UK and USA.


Fox has optioned Patrick Rothfuss's KINGKILLER CHRONICLES trilogy of fantasy novels for television. The first book in the series, THE NAME OF THE WIND, will be adapted first followed by the other two, THE WISE MAN'S FEAR and the forthcoming DOORS OF STONE (due in 2014), in later seasons.

Rothfuss is a well-known fan of Joss Whedon and has expressed criticism in the past of Fox's handling of FIREFLY. This has led some to speculate that the KINGKILLER books may be headed for the FX cable channel rather than Fox proper. Though not in the same league as GAME OF THRONES, the novels do contain some scenes of violence and, particularly in the second book, a fair amount of sex and nudity.

Obviously this is just an option so far. A script has to be written and the network will decide on whether to order a pilot or a full series. This is likely 2-3 years away from getting on-air at a minimum.


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SATELLITE REIGN, a 'spiritual successor' to the classic 1990s action-strategy SYNDICATE series, has launched its Kickstarter appeal.

SYNDICATE was released in 1993 and was a major jump forwards in gaming. It depicted a series of vast cyberpunk cities, with the player controlling four cyborg agents from above. The player had missions to fulfil to transform their small company into a world-dominanting colossus, and immense freedom in how to undertake those missions. Some players would prefer to use sniper rifles and a stealthier approach. Others would prefer to whip out miniguns and drive in all guns blazing. Others would use the 'Persuadatron' to force a massive crowd of mind-controlled minions to rush the enemy with overwhelming numbers. Between missions you could research new equipment, recruit new agents and make more money as part of your plan for global domination. In 1996 it was succeeded by a sequel, SYNDICATE WARS, which did much the same thing but in full 3D with destructible buildings.

In 2012 EA released an ill-advised FPS 'reboot' of the series, which lacked all of the strategic elements and had none of the original attributes apart from some similar weapons. The game was an unmitigated failure.

SATELLITE REIGN is again played from an overhead perspective with four agents, although this time your agents have skills, stats and more specialisations available. There is also only one immense mega-city, rather than lots of little ones. You have more moral choice in this game, being able to work for 'good' corporations as well as trying to conquer the world for your own profit. Several of the guys from the original games are working on it, along with veterans from Rockstar and other companies. They're also only asking for a relatively modest $350,000.


The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

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A century or more in the future, Melanie Tarent is killed in a terrorist attack in Turkey by a frightening new weapon. The only trace the weapon leaves behind is a triangular scorch mark on the ground. Her husband, Tibor, returns home to Britain and learns that the same weapon has been deployed on a larger scale in London, leaving a hundred thousand people dead. There appears to be a connection to something in Tibor's past, something he has no memory of.

The events in Tibor's life have ramifications across the years. During WWI a stage magician is sent to the Western Front to help make British reconnaissance aircraft invisible to the enemy and has a chance meeting with one of the most famous writers alive. During WWII a young RAF technician meets a female Polish pilot and learns of her desperate desire to return home and be reunited with her missing lover. And in the English countryside of the near future, a scientist creates the first adjacency, and transforms the world.

Reviewing a Christopher Priest novel is like trying to take a photograph of a car speeding past you at 100mph without any warning. You are, at the very best, only going to capture an indistinct and vague image of what the object is. Photography, perspective and points of view play a major role in Priest's latest novel, as do some of his more familiar subjects: stage magic, WWII aircraft and the bizarre world of the Dream Archipelago. The Adjacent is a mix of the familiar and the strange, the real and the unreal, the lucid and the dreamlike. It's the novel as a puzzle, as so many of Priest's books are, except that Priest hasn't necessarily given you all the pieces to the same puzzle.

The book unfolds in stages, draped on the skeleton of Tibor's adventures (for lack of a better term) in the Islamic Republic of Great Britain. The normal eye-rolling which accompanies any suggestion that Britain could ever become such is mediated here by knowing some of Priest's narrative tricks. This is a future, not the future, and it is possible that it may not be the future of our world but another where history has unfolded differently. From this linking narrative we move back to the First World War, forwards to the Second, sideways to one of the islands of the Dream Archipelago and, in the middle of it all, a short interlude in an English scientist's garden which may hold the key to the whole thing. The book's ending is revelatory, but only in the sense that you can now see the destination, not necessarily that you understand how you got there. As is also traditional with Priest's books, a full and richer understanding of the text will have to wait for re-reads. That said, Priest does play fair: by the end of the first read you should be starting to get a handle on what's going on.

Of course, the novel's satisfaction as a puzzle and an impressive work of intellect would be nothing without Priest's formidable skills with prose, character, detail and atmosphere. His research is put to good use, with the historical settings of the First and Second World Wars evoked to good effect. The future world he paints is convincing as well as disturbing. His central characters - many of whom seem to be doubles or reflections of one another - are convincing and detailed, with their growing frustration as events become more bizarre and inexplicable well-depicted. It also helps that all of the puzzles and mysteries surround that simplest and most traditional of narratives: a love story.

If The Adjacent has a weakness, it's that it's a novel that, whilst readable by itself, will especially reward those already familiar with Priest's work. In particular, the sideways trip to the Dream Archipelago will likely completely confuse those not familiar with it, but readers of The Dream Archipelago, The Affirmation and The Islanders will be able to nod sagely and think that they are 'in' on what Priest is doing (or at least they can kid themselves they are). The Adjacent feels like a culmination of the ideas and tropes Priest has been exploring since at least The Affirmation was published thirty years ago, and is thoroughly rewarding on that basis. Newcomers unversed in the 'Priest Effect' (a term coined by David Langford to describe Priest's way of writing) may find some of the ideas in the book more impenetrable.

The Adjacent (*****) is puzzling, brilliant, frustrating, page-turning, disturbing and absorbing. It is traditional Priest. The novel will be published on 20 June in the UK and USA.


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According to Bleeding Cool, who have checked this story with multiple sources at the BBC, a 'large' number of the missing episodes of DOCTOR WHO from the 1960s have been returned to the BBC. The BBC will formally announce this shortly once they have a plan to release the missing material to the fans.

As people may or may not be aware, in the 1970s the BBC, showing less foresight than a chronically depressed lemming, decided it would be a splendid idea to wipe their stocks of DOCTOR WHO episodes to re-use the film. Almost the entirety of the First and Second Doctor's runs were literally burned in the BBC's incinerators as a result. Fortunately, many, many copies of the material had been made when the series had been sold to other broadcasters around the world. As part of a serious restoration effort beginning in the 1980s, over half of the lost episodes were returned to the BBC archives from these other sources. Right now, 106 episodes remain missing, including nine complete serials.

According to the rumour, a 'large' stash of the missing episodes has been recovered. Several of the totally-missing serials are allegedly included, and several almost-incomplete serials have also been completed. The one constant in the rumour is that the 1967 seven-part serial EVIL OF THE DALEKS has been completely restored (only one episode survives). Several also report that the episode haul may complete William Hartnell's run as the Doctor (currently 44 Hartnell episodes are missing). If so, that suggests that at least 50 episodes have been recovered. However, the reports also say that the haul is not the complete run, and a few episodes remain missing. The source for the episodes is allegedly an African TV engineer who kept the episodes after transmission rather than junking them as instructed.

According to Bleeding Cool, the BBC will only announce the news once they have a release plan in place, and also possibly to tie in with the 50th anniversary in November.

However, several fans have pointed out that only a few WHO episodes from the 1960s were ever broadcast in Africa, and we know that EVIL OF THE DALEKS and THE TENTH PLANET (the fourth missing episode of which, featuring the first-ever regeneration scene, is also reportedly in the haul) were never broadcast over there. 'The Feast of Steven', an episode of THE DALEKS' MASTERPLAN (the 12-part megaepic in DOCTOR WHO's second season), was also never sold or transmitted outside of the UK and shows every sign of having been lost forever, so it seems unlikely that would be in the haul (it'd need to be to complete Hartnell's run).

How much of this story is accurate remains to be seen, but Bleeding Cool seem certain of their sources.


The terrible news has broken that author Iain Banks has lost his battle with cancer. He was 59 years old.

Iain Banks came to immediate attention with the publication of The Wasp Factory in 1984. A contemporary novel, the book told the story of a mentally ill murderer and wasp-torturer. With its twist ending, matter-of-fact descriptions of stomach-churning scenes and its thick vein of black humour (best exemplified by the infamous 'psychopathic rabbit on a minefield' scene), it was immediately successful and made readers sit up and take notice. A series of similarly vivid and successful 'literary' novels followed: Walking on Glass, The Bridge and Espedair Street.

In 1987 Iain Banks released his first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas. The move - a successful mainstream novelist moving into SF - was unexpected and commercially questionable. Banks moderated by the blow by continuing to alternate SF and mainstream work, and publishing his SF under the impenetrable pseudonym 'Iain M. Banks' (the M is for Menzies). Banks had actually started off writing SF in the 1970s, writing early versions of what later became Player of Games and Use of Weapons before the decade was out. He had switched to writing mainstream fiction to achieve enough success to get the SF published, and was successful in that regard (despite concerns over the SF community of accusing him of 'selling out', which never materialised).

Consider Phlebas introduced Iain Banks's signature creation, the Culture. Banks envisaged a utopian society consisting of multiple species and advanced benevolent AIs, living on a mixture of planets and exotic megastructures (most notably the Orbitals, more sensible and practical versions of Niven's Ringworld; it was actually the Orbitals that served as the inspiration for the titular constructs in the Halo video game series). In his novels Banks explored how such a utopian society could exist, usually by showing the more underhand and devious ways the Culture would protect itself and affect other civilisations.

Banks continued writing both mainstream and SF. His 1992 novel The Crow Road was adapted as a successful BBC mini-series, whilst 1993's Complicity became a feature film. However, his masterpiece is his 1990 SF novel, Use of Weapons. This novel features two streams of narrative, one moving forwards and one moving backwards, both building to huge climaxes.

Outside of his fiction, Banks was a huge fan of whiskey. In 2003 he wrote his only work of non-fiction, Raw Spirit, an account of Scottish whiskey distilleries.

Banks's work meant that he simultaneously became known as one of Britain's leading SF authors as well as a rising star of its literary scene. He ultimately became one of Britain's best-known authors. In 2007 his dual writing identity was acknowledged in a running gag in the Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright movie Hot Fuzz, in which two identical twins can be identified because one always reads Iain Banks and the other always reads Iain M. Banks.

In April Banks announced that he had inoperable cancer. He immediately married his partner and took a short honeymoon. He was hopeful of living for another year or so, but the news sadly came today of his passing. Banks's final novel, The Quarry, will be published next month.


Book 1: Heroes Die

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Caine: the most infamous man in the Ankhanan Empire. A hero who has saved the Empire from invasion and destruction, and a villain who killed the Prince-Regent on the orders of a monastic order. Wherever there is danger, intrigue or violence, there is Caine.

In reality, Caine is a fictional character, played by Hari Michaelson. 23rd Century Earth is linked to Overworld - a post-medieval alternate reality where magic and gods are real - by advanced technology. The rigidly caste-bound population of the overcrowded planet is entertained by the exploits of the Actors, and Caine is one of the most famous Actors on the planet. When Caine's wife, Actor Shanna (who plays Caine's lover, Pallas Rill), disappears on an Adventure, Caine is summoned back into battle. This time the mission is to find his wife before her link to Earth expires, killing her, and to overthrow the monstrous new Emperor. But Michaelson faces hidden enemies on Earth even as Caine faces overwhelming odds on Overworld.

Matt Stover has carved out a reputation as the best writer ever to put pen to paper in the Star Wars franchise, writing a string of intelligent, thought-provoking books that overcome and challenge the limitations of the setting. The Acts of Caine is his most famous own creation, a four-book sequence (more are planned) that mixes SF and fantasy. It is an action-packed series, but also one that is heavily character-driven, and those characters (heroes, villains and the ambiguous alike) are three-dimensional, well-motivated individuals, even the most loathsome of whom is at some level understandable.

Heroes Die is the first book in the sequence, originally published in 1997, but is a stand-alone novel with no cliffhangers or incomplete story arcs. Its publication date precedes the bulk of the modern 'gritty' wave of fantasy novels, but it can be seen as an early example of the subgenre. The book has a black sense of humour that will appeal to fans of Joe Abercrombie, a rich urban atmosphere and cast of thieves that serves as a precursor to Scott Lynch (Lynch has said that Stover's books are one of the primary influences and inspirations behind The Lies of Locke Lamora) and features a dystopian future world that emphasises death and murder as a form of entertainment in a similar manner (but a much more sophisticated one) to The Hunger Games. It's a rich, genre-bending brew that satisfies on all fronts.

The characters are where the book shines. Scenes on Overworld are told from Caine's POV in first-person, but scenes on Earth are related in third-person. Other scenes on Overworld involving other characters are also told in the third-person.This device is quite successful, and is intriguing as Caine's POV scenes also feature his running commentary on what's happening back to the millions of people watching on Earth. Some tension is caused by Caine occasionally thinking things impolitic about life on Earth, causing friction with both the Studio and the future Earth's caste-bound government. Michaelson/Caine is a fascinating character, a man of intelligence who is ready to resort to violence at a moment's notice, but has a reason for doing so. His lover, Senna/Rill is likewise well-depicted, with her idealism contrasted against her lover's pragmatism. Stover even has well-developed villains, making even the monstrous Emperor and the psychopathic swordsman Berne (very briefly) sympathetic with reasons (if only convincing to them) for doing the monstrous things they do.

Heroes Die is unusual for the opening volume of a fantasy series by arriving complete, fully-formed and brimming with confidence and presence. It's an explosive and action-packed novel which explores its premise and characters intelligently, develops the plot and themes with skill and then finishes on a high. Complaints are few: one character gains access to a reservoir of incredible power near the end of the book, which has the whiff of deus ex machina until Stover subverts it.

Heroes Die (*****) is available now in the USA, and in the UK has just been released for the first time as an e-book only edition.


Book 1: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

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Qarash, the greatest city of the Khaganate, has been destroyed by treachery. Temur, a grandson of the Great Khagan, survives and goes into exile, knowing his cousin will seek his head to eliminate any rivals. At the same time, in distant Tsarepheth, the Once-Princess Samarkar is set to undergo her testing. She will casting aside her life as a noble to become a wizard, if she has the strength of character needed. The destinies of Temur and Samarkar are linked along with those of others: a half-blind warrior monk, a pregnant princess doomed by politics and a tiger-woman with formidable skills in battle. The destruction of Qarash and the raising of armies of ghosts portends the arising of a great threat which must be faced.

Range of Ghosts is the opening novel of the Eternal Sky Trilogy. This is a work that blends together different fantasy elements, with traditional epic fantasy stylings such as political intrigue and war mixing with both the historical fantasy of Guy Gavriel Kay and moments of offbeat strangeness that recalls the New Weird (though this is the least of the three influences).

The world the book takes place in is reminiscent of our own Central Asia during the Middle Ages, with lands in the book serving as analogues of the Mongol Empire, India, China and Russia. These aren't quite one-for-one correlations, with Bear mixing things up in interesting ways. The skies over each land are different, with the Khaganate skies being filled with small moons which appear or disappear to herald the births and deaths of important figures. The Uthman Caliphate's skies have a sun which rises in the wrong location. These differences extend to constellations as well. It's an odd detail but one that is never dwelt on by the characters, as it's simply the way the world is to them.

The book is divided amongst relatively few POV characters: Temur and Samarkar (whose names are echoes of Timur the Lane/Tamerlane and his capital city of Samarkand) are our primary protagonists, but we also get occasional chapters from Al-Sephehr (our antagonist) and Edene, an innocent woman caught up in events due to a chance meeting with Temur. The restricted POV count keeps the book moving quickly, but Bear is able to lace a lot of characterisation through this small POV count. Other fantasies, even otherwise excellent ones such as A Song of Ice and Fire, have a tendency to portray their 'barbarian' cultures fairly broadly (the Dothraki are rather under-developed and unconvincing compared to their Mongol, Hun and Amerindian inspirations, for example). Bear here flushes out the Qersnyk tribes with much greater nuance, noting their ability to speak many languages, their relaxed approach to religion and their military skills. Temur is widely-travelled and much more than the simple barbarian it would have been easy to portray him as. Bear also uses her characters to analyse issues ranging from gender discrimination to religious co-existence, and does so in each case as an intelligent and natural extension of the story.

Weaknesses are few and are mostly the natural issues that arise with a book being merely the opening section of a much larger tale. The book packs a lot into its 350 pages before ending fairly abruptly, leaving readers wanting more (although this is better than the alternative). There are a few passages which are a bit over-expositionary. I wasn't entirely sold on the romance that develops near the end of the novel with relatively little preamble. And that's about it really. Otherwise, this is a very fine novel.

Range of Ghosts (****½) is an exceptional opening volume to a fantasy trilogy that blends different influences and the author's own impressive prose to great effect. It is available now in the UK and USA. The sequel, Shattered Pillars, is also available now. The already-delivered third book, Steles of the Sky, will follow in early 2014.


Book 1: Shards of Honor

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Cordelia Naismith, commander of a survery ship from Beta Colony, is marooned on an uncharted planet when her vessel is attacked by Barryarans. Naismith is captured by Captain Aral Vorkosigan, the infamous Butcher of Komarr, and taken on a gruelling cross-country journey to his base camp. However, Vorkosigan himself is facing a prospective mutiny led by an ambitious junior officer and both Beta and Barrayar are about to find themselves on opposing sides of a bloody war.

The Vorkosigan Saga is one of the most famous ongoing works of science fiction in the United States. Comprising (so far) fifteen novels and numerous short stories and novellas, the series has won four Hugos (including three for Best Novel), been nominated for another six and has won an additional two Locus Awards and two Nebulas. The series has sold more than two million copies for Baen Books in the States, but is almost unknown in the UK. Repeated attempts to publish the series here have failed, usually due to low sales and indifferent reviews.

Reading Shards of Honour, I have to reluctantly adopt the traditional British stance of not seeing what all the fuss is about. The book starts off well enough, with an adventure storyline featuring two people (and a severely injured third) abandoned on a planet and having to work together to survive. These sequences, though indifferently written, are interesting enough and Bujold reveals an interesting amount of character through the actions of Cordelia and Aral. Unfortunately, what she doesn't do is provide them with any chemistry. When Cordelia realises she is attracted to Aral, and Aral reciprocates those feelings, it kind of comes out of nowhere. When (spoiler alert!) they are eventually rescued, the book descends into a montage of Cordelia being captured, released, re-captured, escaping, being almost-raped (the lazy go-to jeopardy trope for any female character in peril, naturally) and so on for a good hundred pages or so. Due to the stodgy prose, mechanical dialogue and somewhat stilted character reactions, none of this is particularly exciting.

Things perk up a little bit towards the end, with the revelations of the extent of a supporting character's psychological trauma and a subplot about a bunch of unborn babies in exowombs (the result of war rapes) having to be forcibly supported by the fathers who conceived them both being intriguing, but these are very minor elements that arrive rather late in the day.

Shards of Honour (**) has moments of interest, but overall is stodgily-written and unconvincingly-characterised. Still, it's a first novel and not one of the most well-regarded in the series, so I will press on with the (chronologically) second novel in the series and one of the most critically-acclaimed, Barrayar. Shards of Honour is available now as the past of the Cordelia's Honour omnibus (UK, USA).


Occasionally I am asked why I don't review Doctor Who on the blog. The answer is pretty simple: I do not regard Doctor Who as a serious SF drama. I enjoy watching the show, especially with my girlfriend's son, but usually as a way of switching my brain off and just having fun without having to worry about analysis. If I did try to analyse the new show and review it with its myriad plot holes (which at this point are so numerous as to make the show resemble Swiss cheese) and often very ropey writing, I would probably go mad.

It was not always so. I grew up with Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, although I didn't count myself a fan until Remembrance of the Daleks and the final two seasons of the original show. I spent most of the first half of the 1990s collecting large numbers of Doctor Who stories on VHS. A few years back I revisited some of the more classic stories, like The Caves of Androzani and The Ark in Space, and found (dodgy effects and being filmed on video aside) that they still stood up quite well. The new series has had some very good moments, such as The Doctor's Wife, Blink, The Girl in the Fireplace and, most recently, Cold War, but generally speaking it has been mostly incoherent and confused.

There has been much discussion in fan circles of why this is so, with some going as far as saying they are going to 'break up' with the show. Some have cited the decision to move the show to mostly self-contained 45-minute episodes (rather than the 25-minute, three-to-seven part serials of the old series), which severely curtails the time available for plot setup, resolution and characterisation. There may be something to this, as Doctor Who does not have a regular cast outside of the two or three central figures and each story needs to establish its own cast, location and threats, which is a tall order in just a few minutes. This is the inverse of most shows, where the cast and location are fixed and a small number of guest cast come in every week who can be set up quite quickly. However, I don't think it's the whole story, especially as most of the two-parters (which are roughly the length of the old four-parters) suffer from the same issues.

More convincing is the argument that the show has become way too dependent on season-spanning story arcs: Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Mr. Saxon, the disappearing planets, the crack in time/exploding TARDIS, the 'death' of the Doctor and now the mystery of Clara Oswald. In contrast, the old show had exactly two season-spanning story arcs in twenty-six years (three, if you count the much looser 'E-space' trilogy in Tom Baker's final season). Doing a season-spanning epic story arc is great if you have a really compelling storyline for it. At the moment it feels like the story arcs are there simply because it's 2013, and almost every series has a big story arc of some kind, so Doctor Who needs to do one as well. Doctor Who has never been a trend-follower, so it's not entirely clear why it has to be one now.

However, I have also been pondering if one of the problems with the new series has been that it puts way too much work on the shoulders of a single person: the showrunner/head writer. Since 2005, Doctor Who has been run by just two people: Russell T. Davies (2005-10) and Steven Moffat (2010-present). Davies and Moffat have both been in charge of the show and have also been the head writers, each penning several episodes per season in addition to handling rewrites on other writers' scripts as well. There have been other producers (a veritable revolving door of them, in fact) but their roles on the show seem to have been more like facilitators and enablers rather than having a strong say in the creative process.

Going back to the original series, there is a stark difference in how the creative workload was handled. Going right back to 1963, the first showrunner, Verity Lambert, was not a writer. She made business decisions and had a strong say in the creative process, but the creative direction was handled by her script editor, David Whitaker, and the individual writers. An associate producer, Mervyn Pinfield, was also present to help with production issues, although in reality Pinfield was actually only present due to BBC concerns that Lambert, who was only 28, might be too inexperienced to handle the whole show; this criticism was withdrawn after Lambert overruled the BBC executives who didn't want to include the Daleks in the series and was shown to be right, with a massive boom to the show's profile and popularity following their introduction.

Throughout most of the show's history this pattern was repeated: a strong producer focusing on the big picture but rarely actually writing episodes, with a script editor who handled the creative direction of the show. The show's most creative and interesting periods were usually the result of an excellent producer and a good script editor working in concert: Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks during most of the Jon Pertwee era and Philip Hinchliffe and Robert Holmes during the early Tom Barker period are the most notable examples of this. Later partnerships were more troubled but also successful on occasions: the pairing of Graham Williams as producer and Douglas Adams (yes, that Douglas Adams) as script editor resulted in one of the very best Doctor Who stories of all time (City of Death) but also several of the very worst. John Nathan-Turner's controversial, long period in charge of the show in the 1980s was marked by bursts of creativity led by strong script editors, most notably Eric Saward in the late Davison and Colin Baker years, and Andrew Cartmel at the end of the original run.

This set-up may also be more familiar from American television, which is often handled by two or more executive producers with a number of other writers working for them. Game of Thrones is handled by two showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Lost was handled by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Battlestar Galactica was handled by Ronald D. Moore, who focused on the show's writing, and David 'not that one' Eick, who focused more on production. Babylon 5 divided its executive producer credits between head (and often the only) writer J. Michael Straczynski, business facilitator Doug Netter and on-set producer John Copeland. The Star Trek shows of the 1980s and 1990s may have been overseen by Rick Berman, but he devolved a lot of authority to individual showrunners, such as Michael Pillar, Ira Steven Behr, Brannon Braga, Jeri Taylor and Manny Coto, each of whom in turn was supported by other writers and producers. And so on. Running a TV show is a big job, and arguably requires more than one person in charge.

Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat are interesting in that both are quite capable writers (the latter rather moreso than the former, to be frank) but in both cases their writing seems to have suffered when they had to handle production duties as well. Moffat wrote several of the very best episodes of the new run when he was working as just a jobbing writer under Davies, but since he became showrunner the quality of his scripts has nosedived. Even great concepts he created under Davies, such as River Song and the Weeping Angels, seem to have gone off the boil under his stewardship of the whole series. Arguably the role of the showrunner-producer should be more focused in one direction or the other. If Moffat wants to keep writing, he needs a strong production partner who can keep an eye on the show as a whole (and who perhaps can advise Moffat when, for example, he has incomprehensible and overly-confusing story arcs for two seasons in a row). If he wants to run the show in an oversight capacity, he needs a strong writing partner who can focus on the show's creative direction.

As it stands, the constant comings and goings of the sub-producers and the seeming lack of anyone equal in rank to Moffat as producer means that the show is way too dependent on just one person, which is definitely a recipe for disaster.

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