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Frost Giant

Werthead's page

2,336 posts. No reviews. No lists. No wishlists.

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North


Harry August has a pretty ordinary life. He is born in Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1919 and dies in a hospital in Newcastle in 1989. In the meantime he has different jobs, various relationships and tries to move on from his difficult family life. But when he dies he finds himself as a child again, regaining his memories of his prior life. This happens again. And again.

Harry is an Ouroboran, destined to live his life again and again. He is one of hundreds, and through the overlapping lifespans of Ouroborans it is possible to send and receive messages from the distant past and distant future. But, in Harry's eleventh life, the messages from the future start changing: the world is ending, and it is accelerating. When Harry's fellow Ouroborans start permanently dying (by someone assassinating their parents before they conceived) or having their memories wiped, and amazing technology appears decades early, he realises that one of their number has betrayed them and is using their power for their own ends, with destructive consequences for humanity.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was released in 2014 and won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, as well as being nominated for the Arthur C. Clark Award. It gained surprising widespread prominence after being featured on the UK's biggest TV book show. It is written by Catherine Webb under the pseudonym Claire North, which she uses to explore protagonists with unusual abilities (The Sudden Appearance of Hope is in a similar vein).

Webb is a constantly intriguing and interesting author, shifting genres and prose styles with enviable ease as she explores different ideas and characters. At her best, she comes across as a restless, far more prolific and slightly less repetitive (but also somewhat more wordy) Christopher Priest, with her books dwelling on themes such as identity and motivation amongst shifting realities and points of view.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August may be her finest novel to date. The central premise is incredibly strong and it deals with the existential questions surrounding the idea in surprising depth and with logic. Questions are raised such as if the Ouroborans are living in the same world, changing it each time they live through it, or if they are skipping from one timeline to another, and the moral consequences of that for the timelines they leave behind upon death. The overlapping lifespans of different Ouroborans allow them to bring back knowledge from the distant future (since an Ouroboran born in say 1984 dies in the late 21st Century, is reborn, reveals that information to another one who was born in 1925, who can pass it back in their next life etc) and this raises moral quandaries about if they should hoard their knowledge or try to improve humanity's lot.

This latter question consumes much of the novel, especially when it becomes clear that trying to change things often results in far worse consequences. But the dry time travel shenanigans are contrasted against Harry's characterisation, especially the trauma he carries from his first life and his intriguing relationship with a sometimes-nemesis Vincent. The path of the Ouroboran can be a lonely, frustrating one and Harry's dislike of Vincent for his relaxed morality is tempered with respect for his intelligence and just the company of a fellow travel on a journey through their looping lives. This relationship forms the core of the novel and is developed with relish by the author.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (*****) is a smart and thoughtful reflection on life, love, loss, identity, science and the end of the world. It is available now in the UK and USA


The Sudden Appearance of Hope


No-one can remember Hope Arden. A minute after taking their eyes off her, she vanishes from people's memories. Photographs can be taken, text messages read, but the very fact of her existence simply cannot be retained by the human brain. Unable to get a job (her bosses forget about her the second she leaves the premises) or hold down any kind of meaningful human relationship, Hope turns to crime to survive. What was supposed to be just one more diamond job in Dubai goes south thanks to a disturbing new lifestyle app. A woman dies and Hope suddenly discovers a cause, something to fight and die for, but a battle even her extraordinary advantage may not be able to help her win.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the fourth of five works by Catherine Webb published under the name of Claire North. These five works are thematically linked by each character in these works having some kind of special ability, usually providing great advantages but also tragic disadvantages, and a situation they have to deal with. It's thought-provoking, interesting stuff, written with a literary bent thanks to her superior ear for language and a great eye for character.

Webb may be better known to SFF fans under her other pen-name, Kate Griffin, under which she wrote the splendid Matthew Swift urban fantasy series, as well as the YA material she publishes under her own name. She's now chalked up seventeen novels under her three pen names, giving her works a sense of confidence that comes from experience. But she's also a restless author, constantly moving between ideas and embracing new concepts (hence why the Matthew Swift series wrapped up after just four books rather than being strung out for twenty). The Claire North books - given a bolster by The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August being chosen for a TV book club in the UK and taking off as a result - seem to be her way of fully engaging with an adult readership and also experimenting in ideas and literary styles between books.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is an aptly-named book: for me it came out of nowhere and staked a serious claim to being one of the best genre novels of recent years. The premise is simple: no-one can remember Hope Arden. If she spends more than a minute out of their line of sight, they simply forget she existed. She can be caught on video or audio, but a minute after the viewer or listener switches the device off they forget her again. It makes forging any kind of relationship, from a friendship to a romance or a professional collaboration. difficult. The only way Hope can really survive is by forging a secret online identity as _why, which she uses on the darknet to fence stolen goods and arrange commissioned crimes or pick up falsified documents.

What could simply be a gimmicky special ability is instead folded into the book's over-arcing themes of identity, validation and how people desperately try to stand out in a world swamped in social media and superficiality. The storyline revolves around Perfection, an app which monitors users' habits and advises them if they are being "perfect" or not. It rewards people trying to be perfect with points, and at higher levels they gain rewards, from stays in posh hotels and spas to money off expensive beauty treatment and lifestyle courses. When people using the app find themselves getting dream jobs, meeting their perfect partners and improving their quality of life, it explodes in popularity. But Hope soon finds something sinister lurking behind the App, both in the people that made it and the people who use it regularly, something that ties in with the media's idea of what makes people perfect and what makes people people.

The result is a timely reflection and analysis of the world we live in. An app like Perfection isn't quite possible right now, but it's probably not too far off. Of course, the book takes the concept to its ultimate conclusion, bringing in body horror and invasive brain surgery. When Hope discovers a second person like herself who has been made memorable by the surgery, she suddenly finds herself fighting the urge to use it herself, to rejoin the human race at the expense of the things that make her unique.

The result is a book with a killer high concept, a fascinating and psychologically complex lead character and which uses its premise as a prim through which to examine the world around us, from vacuous media culture to spin doctors to lifestyle gurus and tabloid editors wielding more power than any elected political official, all told through some tremendously skilled prose.

There are moments where the pace stalls a little, where the movements between story and theme and characters don't jar quite as well as they should, and occasional moments where you find yourself questioning quite how Hope's abilities work (most of which, to be fair, the book answers quite well), but these issues are pretty limited.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope (****½) is a jet-setting novel about a jewel thief which metamorphoses into a beautifully-written taken on life in the 21st Century and on the meaning of identity. It is available now in the UK and USA.

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson


They called it the Second Pulse: an unexpected collapse of glacial valleys in Antarctica that poured billions more tons of ice into the world oceans than was ever expected. Global sea levels rose by fifty feet in a few years, displacing hundreds of millions of people and triggering an economic meltdown. The world recovered, but it had to adapt.

In New York the lower half of Manhattan was inundated, becoming a "Super-Venice". New Yorkers are a hardy breed and they keep trucking along, taking skybridges and boats to work instead of taxis and trains, and still grumbling about the weather. For the inhabitants of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building on Madison Square, life continues in this changed world. But when two residents are kidnapped and the city is threatened by a tropical storm, the tower becomes the centre of a sequence of events which could change the world.

New York, New York, so great they named it twice. In novels and on screen, it's been blown up, hit by meteors, invaded by aliens, attacked by Godzilla and King Kong and been subjected to every disaster that the human mind can conjure. Kim Stanley Robinson is the latest author to take a crack at subjecting the city to catastrophe, but his one is both much simpler and more plausible: a significant rise in sea levels. Lower Manhattan is transformed into a series of islands, buildings connected together by bridges and boat taxis, the city at considerably greater risk from storm surges and hurricanes but New Yorkers carrying on as normal because that's what they do.

Robinson is one of SF's most interesting voices, mixing realism with a healthy optimism with real scientific vigour with an interest in macroeconomics. His work veers from the large scale to the intimate: his Mars Trilogy remains the final word on the colonisation of the Red Planet, whilst Galileo's Dream, Shaman and the Science in the Capital trilogy have been more down-to-earth works. Generation ship drama Aurora and his state-of-the-Solar-System epic 2312 have shown a general trajectory back to large scale events, as will his next novel (in which China colonises the moon). New York 2140 takes a different tack, depicting a vast, complex and changed world through the prism of the (now very soggy) Big Apple. There's some interest to be found from parsing the ultra-cynical, profit-driven city through the eyes of Robinson, a Californian utopian scientist through and through.

So this is a book which examines the future of human society through the greatest city humanity has ever built (and maybe ever will build), but the book zooms in even further than that, concentrating on the inhabitants of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building on Madison Square (the one with the impressive giant clock), now, like so many other buildings, an island rising from the waters. The main characters include NYPD office Gwen, a lawyer named Charlotte, a hedge fund manager, two homeless kids, the building's supervisor Vlade (whose tasks involve making sure the building doesn't sink or collapse from waterlogged foundations) and a cloud video star named Amelia who has her own web channel covering her attempts to save endangered species using an airship. The plot initially appears rather diffuse, with the kidnapping of two computer programmers from the building providing a dramatic spine but the book moving away from this for lengthy tangents on matters material, political and financial, but eventually the sprawling plot threads come together for a fascinating conclusion.

Robinson is that rarest of beasts, a hard SF author who can actually write. His prose is vivid, flows well and changes tonally between narrators (hedge fund manager Frank gets his chapters written in first person, unlike everyone else, just because Robinson likes mixing things up a bit). New York 2140 is simply a tremendous pleasure to read from start to finish for this reason. Robinson is also a bit on the light-hearted side of things here. That's not to say there isn't serious drama and incident (there is, especially when a tropical storm hits the city), but Robinson mitigates this with a sense of humour and an genuine outsider's appreciation for the city.

Really, New York 2140 is a love letter to a city that you'd think doesn't need any more, but works anyway. The city is peppered with anecdotes from the city's history, most of them true. It's startling to learn that Met North (the building adjacent to the Met Life Insurance Building) was supposed to be a supermassive skyscraper taller than the Empire State Building but was abandoned after 30 floors for financial reasons, or that in 1903 an elephant made a break for freedom from Coney Island and swam three miles across the Narrows to Staten Island before being recaptured. Robinson's list of sources and stories will have readers hitting the internet to check out the awesome 18th Century British topographical surveys of the mostly-unsettled Manhattan Island, or confirm that Manhattan is actually sloped with the southern part of the island much lower than the northern. Most insane is the story that a British warship carrying gold to pay its troops, HMS Hussar, sank in New York Harbour and was never recovered. The money on board would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars today, but since the Bronx has been extended over the site of the wreck it can't be recovered. Implausibly, but entertainingly, this becomes a major plot point in the novel.

The book is mostly successful but occasionally flounders: the novel is a little too consumed with economic history and a few jokes wear thin ("sunk costs" is a term that takes on a new meaning), but these points remain minor.

New York 2140 (****½) is more than a well-written profile of the city. As the book continues it gains drama and urgency and ends on a note which moves the story far beyond New York's borders to take in the entire world. It's a little bit too neat and maybe too optimistic, but the book's (unnamed) narrator acknowledges this and points out that the great social transformation which results from the book's events may be temporary. But overall New York 2140 is Robinson at his best: brimming with verve and humour and hope, taking all the knocks that politics and economics and cold science can throw at us and showing that humans can always adapt, change and prosper. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Book 1: The Mirror Empire


The subcontinent of Grania is divided between several nations, including the spiritual, peaceful Dhai and the more militaristic, aggressive kingdom of Dorinah. The murder of the Kai, the spiritual ruler of Dhai, sees her untested and inexperienced younger brother taking charge at a time of turmoil. Internal dissent against his rule is accompanied by assassination attempts...apparently from other Dhai, despite this being a violation of their ideology. Meanwhile, one of Dorinah's best generals is ordered to cull the Dhai slaves living in their kingdom, despite the destructive impact this will have on the economy, and a young girl living in a Dhai monastery discovers that her destiny is far more complex than she first thought.

The Mirror Empire is the first novel in The Worldbreaker Saga, Kameron Hurley's follow-up to her splendidly weird science fantasy Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy. Worldbreaker is wholly fantasy rather than SF and features a lot of standard fantasy tropes, but it mixes these in with fluid gender definitions (some of the inhabitants of Grania are a third sex, or change gender depending on circumstance) and also makes use of the idea of alternate timelines and quantum ideas. Some of the villains of the story are the alternate-universe versions of some of the heroes, which is an interesting idea, especially because there are "good" and "bad" guys on both sides of the mirror and many of the characters are morally nuanced, with good guys doing despicable things and bad guys occasionally showing moral courage.

So far, so standard and so grimdark (if intelligently-realised). Hurley is different in that she seemingly has no interest in making this book easily accessible. In fact, I'd go as far as saying that the first hundred pages or so represent the densest and most-confusing entry to a fantasy series since Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon in 1999, which famously puts as many people off reading his Malazan series as it does entice them in to read more. The Mirror Empire opens in media res, features explosive flashbacks without providing context and features an absolute motherlode of invented terminology and nomenclature which will have you flipping to the glossary on a very regular basis. Entering a fantasy world and spending the first hundred pages wading through stodgy exposition is quite a dull experience, so I can see why Hurley took this course. However, this book arguably goes too far in the opposite direction and I can see some readers being alienated by the opening.

Once the book calms down and relents a bit from machine-gunning the reader with under-explained ideas and concepts every five seconds, it radically improves. The characterisation of our four key characters - Roh, Lilia, Zezili and Ahkio - is first-rate and we learn more about their motivations and foibles that makes them more interesting characters than it first appears. Hurley enjoys setting up archetypes - Lilia as the callow low-class girl with unusual powers and a destiny, or Ahkio as the inexperienced young heir thrust into ruling without adequate preparation - and then undercuts them. Lilia does some pretty horrific things in her quest for self-realisation and Ahkio applies his skills from navigating household politics to the greater nation at large and this helps him become a better ruler, as well as being clever enough not to trust the temple officials and to call upon his allies when necessary.

The book unfolds from that point with Hurley's customary vigour and her aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach really makes the book stand out from the fantasy crowd. By the end of the book it has achieved a significant narrative drive that will make you want to press on to the sequel, Empire Ascendant, immediately.

The Mirror Empire (***½) is a robust, entertaining and relentlessly original fantasy, playing with concepts of identity and destiny in a fresh manner. It's also a big that takes no prisoners and almost overwhelms the reader with concepts and invented nomenclature that can be alienating. Stick it out and you are rewarded with one of the better fantasy novels of recent years. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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Well, that just happened.

Philip Pullman has written (and possibly completed) The Book of Dust, a prequel and sequel trilogy to His Dark Materials. It starts with Lyra as a baby and explores how she ended up at Oxford, and then jumps forward to 30 years after the original trilogy. Pullman has indicated that numerous other characters from the first trilogy will return and the focus will be on a confrontation between totalitarianism and liberty.

This started off as a very modest companion book/short story collection over a decade ago, but it sounds like the story grew in the telling.

Book 1 will be out in October.

A new DUNE movie has been greenlit with Denis Villeneuve (ARRIVAL, BLADE RUNNER 2049) to direct.

The plan at the moment is for a movie (or two) of DUNE (and maybe more for the sequels) and a spin-off TV series at some point.

I'm hoping for a two-film adaptation of DUNE, maybe another film each for Books 2 and 3 and then kind of forget that everything else exists (and certainly don't touch the non-canon sequels-and-prequels-by-other-people with a 50-foot bargepole).

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Obsidian have announced PILLARS OF ETERNITY II. It will take place shortly after the events of the first game and be set mostly in the Deadfire Archipelago far to the south of the Eastern Reaches. Mechanically it seems there will be a big focus on multi-classing and mixing up previously-separated class abilities.

The game should be out in 2018.

Hoorah, I guess. I found the first game rather underwhelming (I actually enjoyed TYRANNY far more) and still need to get back to finishing it. My main complaint was the tiny environments and the rather dull phase-based combat which really took away from the Infinity Engine feel they were trying to achieve. The storyline was also extremely forgettable. Still, some of the characters and quests were quite decent.

The problem with the first game, I think, was the general level of blandness to the title. I was hoping for humour, for offbeat weirdness and more character, but it looks like that all got leeched out during the development process. Hopefully the second game can have a bit more character to it.

The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams


The Storm King has been defeated, his army of Norns driven off and peace returned to the lands of Osten Ard. King Seoman and Queen Miriamele have taken the throne in the Hayholt and a new age of peace beckons. But for Duke Isgrimnur of Rimmersgard the war is not entirely over. Along with the famed warrior Sludig, Isgrimnur has been given command of an army with orders to pursue the fleeing Norns back to Stormspike and ensure they are destroyed forever.

The Heart of What Was Lost acts as a bridge between the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams and its upcoming sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard. The first novel in that trilogy, The Witchwood Crown, will be released in June 2017. This book is useful for laying some groundwork for that trilogy and wrapping up some loose ends from the earlier series that Williams was unable to address at the time.

The Heart of What Was Lost is short, focused, lean and mean. Just 200 pages long in hardcover, making it barely a short story by the author's normal standards, it moves with pace and energy. As a war story it has quite a bit of action, but also with some strong moments of character-building as characters reflect on what is going on.

The book is related from three different points of view. Porto is an ordinary soldier in Isgrimnur's army who yearns for an end to the war so he can go home, but is distracted when he befriends a terrified younger fellow soldier and tries to keep him alive. Isgrimnur, a returning character from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, is the gruff general and old warrior, still charismatic and skilled at warfare but hurting from the death of his son in To Green Angel Tower. Viyeki is a Builder, one of the main orders of Norn society, tasked with maintaining walls and fortifications, and the first Norn POV character in the series.

This POV rotation is effective, although Porto's contribution to the story is limited. I suspect Porto, or maybe his offspring, will play a role in the upcoming trilogy otherwise I can't see much reason for him being in this book. Still, he provides an interesting ground's eye view on the battles. Isgrimnur is the same world-weary warrior we met in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, but fleshed out as he grapples with the fall-out of his son's death. Williams is successful in making Isgrimnur's grief raw and convincing, given he last wrote for the character some twenty-three years earlier. The most successful character is Viyeki, who gives us a much-needed "bad guy" perspective on events. Although the first trilogy successfully established why the undead Ineluki wanted to destroy the world, it was less clear on why the Norns would support him. This book goes much deeper into their motivations, backstory and histories, fleshing out an under-explored area of the original trilogy's worldbuilding.

The story is short, mostly concerned with moral concerns as Isgrimnur ponders the wisdom of trying to make the Norns extinct and the Norns' battle for survival and hope to leave something for future generations to build upon. But it is powerfully and effectively told. Williams slips back into Osten Ard like he's never been away, and the novel feels weightier than it could have been, as the author slips extra moments of worldbuilding and foreshadowing for the future books into the narrative. There's also some nice misdirection. At one point the Norns outline a plan which feels almost like it could be the plot synopsis for the next trilogy, but this is then abruptly undercut when a major character dies and the plot takes an unexpected 90 degree turn onto a different path. Ultimately, this makes the book more self-contained than I was expecting. Certainly there is pipe-laying for The Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, but it's done very subtly.

The Heart of What Was Lost (****) is not just an effective scene-setter and palate-cleanser for the new trilogy, but a strong self-contained story in its own right, with more twists and turns than you might expect for its short length. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

SHADOW TACTICS: BLADES OF THE SHOGUN is a pretty nifty game. I bought it yesterday after playing the free demo (remember when all games had demos? Good times).

This is a real-time tactics game focused on stealth, infiltration and using characters with desperate skillsets to complete missions in large, sandbox levels. You have an objective and it's up to you how you do it. It's very heavily influenced by the first two COMMANDOS games, DESPERADOS: WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE and ROBIN HOOD: THE LEGEND OF SHERWOOD. A more recent example, although rather less hardcore (but still lots of fun) is the cyberpunk game SATELLITE REIGN. However, SATELLITE REIGN allowed you to walk into targets all guns blazing. BLADES OF THE SHOGUN makes that a lot more difficult, so the focus is firmly on stealth.

The game is viewed from a fully-rotatable overhead isometric viewpoint. You can only control one character at a time, although you can give delayed orders so characters will act simultaneously. The game rations which characters appear on which levels, so sometimes you'll have access to all 5 and sometimes only 2. The levels are HUGE. There are only 13 of them, but some could take 2 hours+ to clear on a first playthrough. You can also hide in wagons, disguse yourself as a civilian and distract people with the help of animals (or anger a cow so it kicks a passing samurai in the face).

There's some excellent emergent gameplay as well: one guy on Steam reported throwing an unconscious body off a building and it landed on top of a passing guard, knocking him out as well.

The game is heavily reliant on lines of sight, the use of bushes, buildings and rooftops for concealmeant and hiding slain enemies. You can knock people out but they come around after about 5 minutes, so a complete non-lethal playthrough is highly improbable (but apparently possible). You do get bonus marks for not killing civilians, remaining undetected and speed runs.

Enemy AI is impressive. They will note when guards have disappeared from their posts, raise the alarm if they see a dead body, help an unconscious person back to their feet and can even spot your footprints in snowy levels. You can kill enemies using daggers, swords, shurikens, traps and even primitive guns (one of the characters has a matchlock rifle and can provide fire support if you get him into a sniper's position), but mass combat is not advised. Your characters are quite fragile and not able to withstand a stand-up fight.

I really like it. It's a smart game which ticks a lot of the same boxes as DISHONORED, DEUS EX and the earlier COMMANDOS/DESPERADOS games. It has a fantastic art style, excellent acting, engaging characters and an interesting (if somewhat generic) storyline.

There's some very good reviews around: w/ view/18145/ review/ es-of-the-shogun/

You can pick up the free demo here (it's also on GoG).

Chinese production company DMG has picked up the rights to all of Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere universe books - past and present - for colossal sums of money.

The company has earmarked $270 million as 50% of the production budget for three films. They will be looking for international partners to pick up the rest of the budget, which given who they've worked with in the past (they've co-produced everything from Iron Man 3 to Looper) probably won't be hard.

The first two movies will be The Way of Kings and Mistborn: The Final Empire. Exactly how they're going to boil those books (especially Way of Kings) down into a single movie remains to be seen. They've already appointed writer-producers to Way of Kings and are prioritising the project on a fast-track to the screen.

The Endless Franchise is currently 75% of on Steam.

I haven't played them, but they've picked up masses of critical acclaim so I'm definitely going to check them out. Anyone else tried any of the games?

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft


Senlin and his new wife, Marya, have decided to visit the fabled Tower of Babel for their honeymoon. The vast tower, miles wide and unfathomably tall, is divided into many different levels or "ringdoms", each level controlled by a different force and fulfilling a different function. Reaching the tower, Senlin loses his wife in the crowds and desperately tries to find her. This requires him to begin an ascent of the tower, searching for clues to her whereabouts and learning more about the powers that control it...and learning more about what he is capable of.

Senlin Ascends is the first novel in a trilogy called The Books of Babel, followed by Arm of the Sphinx (out now) and The Hod King (working title, due next year). This is fantasy, but not quite as you may know it. It's a steampunk romance with airships and sky-pirates. It's a character-focused slice of the New Weird. It's a Biblical allegory (...maybe?). It's a science fiction novel set inside a Big Dumb Object created by peoples unknown for scientific purposes (...perhaps?). It's a black comedy of manners, a dashing adventure, and a devastating deconstruction of people, places and tropes. It's what you'd get if China Mieville and Christopher Priest collaborated on a novel and both brought their A-game, and it was then adapted for film by Studio Ghibli. It's quite possibly the most striking debut work of speculative fiction published in the last decade.

Senlin Ascends is the story of a man who visits the Tower of Babel - which may or may not be "our" mythological tower - on honeymoon only to lose his wife. He ventures into the miles-wide, miles-tall tower in search of help, only to find most people indifferent to his plight and out to rob or enslave him. Initially he proceeds with optimism and reason, but as he suffers repeated setbacks he becomes more willing to manipulate and deceive people to achieve his ends. At key moments he realises the danger of what he is becoming and resolves to find his wife and escape before the tower batters him down from the man of integrity he used to be.

In the course of this first novel, Senlin only ascends the lower four (of over forty) ringdoms of the tower. Each ringdom is an impressive feat of worldbuilding, complete with its own rulers, function and cast of characters. The Basement is a place of squalour and robbery. The Parlour is a bizarre place where guests have to take part in insane plays for the amusement of its rulers. The Baths is a vast spa resort where deadly politics play out and Senlin is blackmailed into becoming an art robber. New Babel is a collection of docks and markets where people toil in labour. Each location is painted in rich detail, each fulfilling a function that Senlin tries to grasp (and, late in the novel, manages to do so in an intriguing moment of revelation about the tower's purpose) and each being compelling enough for entire novels to be set there.

What makes Senlin Ascends work so well is a combination of literary ambition - Bancroft's prose is evocative, exciting and occasionally beautiful - with a relentless pace. Chapters are short and punchy, Senlin's adventures rich and compelling, and Bancroft peppers the book with comic interludes, excerpts from quite ludicrously misleading tourist guides to the tower and, later on, Senlin's own journal about what is going on. A supporting cast of players is subtly put in place, ranging from the redoubtable painter Ogier to the fantastically violent warrior-woman Iren to Edith, a fellow lost traveller who inadvertently runs afoul of the tower's harsh and arbitrary justice system. There's also a genuinely unsettling and terrifying villain, of sorts, in the Red Hand, a literate and erudite enforcer with a tremendous capacity for violence. The supporting cast is small, but fantastically well-drawn.

The novel builds over the course of its reasonable, focused length (350 pages) to an action-packed climax which sets the scene wonderfully for Arm of the Sphinx.

In another universe, Senlin Ascends, which was originally published in 2013, would have already won the Campbell, Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke Award. In this one, however, the author chose to not only self-publish it, but self-edit it as well. He did exactly the stuff that you're not supposed to do as a self-published writer and has done with tremendous skill, restraint and self-awareness. To date self-publishing has given us some very fine light adventure novels from the likes of Michael J. Sullivan and a reasonably strong epic fantasy from Anthony Ryan, but now it has given us SFF's first genuinely evocative work of self-published literature (that has broken through to mainstream attention, anyway). It may mark a serious turning-point in the field.

Senlin Ascends (*****) is available now in the UK and USA. The sequel, Arm of the Sphinx, is already available. The author's website is here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

Just announced.

This one is going to be set in Colorado and a have a much more powerful engine. It will have vehicles and multiplayer co-op, along with fully voiced dialogue and cinematics.

The game has an interesting funding model. They've gone with Fig rather than Kickstarter, as Fig entitles people to a slice of the profits of the game rather than just a copy of the game, which they thinks will get people more interested.

They're also only crowdfunding about 25% of the game's budget. The rest will come from profits from Wasteland 2, which seems reasonable.

The Farseer Trilogy #1: Assassin's Apprentice


The Six Duchies are troubled by internal strife. King Shrewd's eldest son and heir, Prince Chivalry, has fathered an illegitimate son. Riven by guilt and controversy, Chivalry abdicates his position and goes into into exile. His son, Fitz, is raised in Buckkeep and tutored in the ways of becoming an assassin. For King Shrewd, Fitz is a weapon he can use to further the cause of his kingdom. But all Fitz wants is a home and a place to belong.

Assassin's Apprentice, originally published in 1995, is the first volume in The Farseer Trilogy, the first of nine books focused on the character of Fitz and also the first book in a sixteen-volume series entitled The Realm of the Elderlings. For a book that launched an enormously successful series, it is relatively small-scale and restrained.

This is traditional epic fantasy, but one that is slanted a little from the standard. It's medieval faux Europe, but the land of the Six Duchies is based on Alaska (albeit a slightly warmer one) and the neighbouring Mountain Kingdom is more inspired by Tibet. There are existential threats - the Red Ship Raiders who ravage the coastline and the threat of civil war - but for the most part these are kept firmly in the background. Assassin's Apprentice is primarily the coming of age tale of FitzChivalry Farseer as he grows up, gains allies, masters the art of the assassin and encounters two forms of magic: the Skill, a form of telepathic communication and control, and the Wit, a bond of empathy with animals.

Robin Hobb's greatest strength is her deft hand with charaterisation and her naturalistic way of presenting the world. Her greatest weakness is a tendency to meander, to have characters sitting around talking about the plot rather than getting on with things and taking a hundred pages to do what a more concise author would do in ten. These weaknesses manifest much more strongly in the later volumes of the series, however. Assassin's Apprentice is, at 480 pages in paperback, relatively short and breezy by Hobb's standards with both a strong character focus and clarity of storytelling.

Much of your enjoyment of these books relies on your engagement with the main character, Fitz. Fitz is an introverted, introspective young man who spends a lot of time reacting to events rather than taking decisive action (this changes in later novels, in which he is a lot less passive). This can be frustrating, but it is also realistic: Fitz occupies a place less than nobility but more than being a peasant, and this dichotomy leaves him isolated and almost friendless, his position in the world uncertain and unreliable. It is only towards the end of the volume, when he visits the Mountain Kingdom and encounters people less concerned with rank and pomp, that he is able to come out of his shell a little. As it stands, Fitz is a mildly engaging but far-from-compelling central character. However, he does serve as an effectively unreliable narrator: the further things and events are from Fitz's perspective, the less reliable they are. This serves to upset reader expectations several times over the course of the trilogy. It's not exactly Gene Wolfe, but it is an effective way of getting the reader to share in Fitz's biases and ignorance before presenting them with the truth of events later on.

Hobb is a superior prose writer and a gifted communicator of emotions and atmosphere. Although it's not a primary focus of her writing, she is also a good writer of horror: the Forged, people with their morals stripped away to be turned into monstrous echoes of their former selves, are a truly disturbing fantasy creation. In terms of politics she stumbles a little. Concluding events in the Mountain Kingdom are highly implausible and the way that Fitz escapes retribution for the events people genuinely believe that he has committed is extremely unconvincing. Fitz should be dead three times over before the book ends and the fact he isn't stretches the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.

But there's also a lot to enjoy here. Fitz's tortured upbringing, his relationship with Burrich and Chade, and his punishing tutelage under Galen are all vividly (and sometimes painfully) described. The Red Ship Raiders are an intriguing enemy and the Forged a horrifying creation. Certainly the novel leaves one wanting to move onto the sequel, Royal Assassin.

Assassin's Apprentice (****) is thus a conflicted book: extremely well-written with a interesting backdrop and a terrific atmosphere, but with a plot that is a bit start-stop and political intrigue that is rather undercooked. But in terms of emotional engagement and its use of an unreliable narrator, Hobb is a formidable writer. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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This is out today (unlocks in seven hours) and I broke my rule to pre-order it. The reviews have been outstanding and the technical appraisals suggest it's very solid on PC. It's done by the same team who did the PC versions of both THIEF and DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION, so it should be absolutely fine.

I'm enjoying hearing there are no boss battles and a lot more options for stealthing and ghosting, although HR was pretty good on that already.

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Tuf Voyaging


A thousand years ago the old Earth Empire collapsed. Most of its amazing technology was lost and the galaxy settled back into a period of decline. But one of the Empire's old seedships, the Ark, has been rediscovered. With its cargo of ferocious beasts and genetically-engineered plagues, the Ark can lay waste to entire star systems. Fortunately for the galaxy, its new owner is the morally-minded and fussy merchant Haviland Tuf. Accompanied only his crew of telepathic cats, Tuf sets out on a voyage that will take him to many worlds...and many problems.

George R.R. Martin began writing stories about Haviland Tuf in the mid-1970s. In the mid-1980s, following the disastrous performance of the novel The Armageddon Rag and his move into Hollywood, Martin was convinced to repackage the old stories with several new ones to make a "fix-up" novel, one book formed from several smaller tales. The result, Tuf Voyaging, sold reasonably and kick-started Martin's literary career again, leading to the Wild Cards series and, a decade later, A Game of Thrones. It might not be quite the book that saved Martin's writing career, but it certainly helped give it a bit of a leg-up when it was urgently needed.

The book consists of seven short stories (the first of which is long enough to qualify as a novella). After the first, "The Plague Star", which explains how Tuf came to possess the Ark, the rest relate episodes where Tuf has to use the Ark's amazing abilities to resolve a crisis or emergency. Three of these stories form a recurring narrative when Tuf has to visit the planet S'uthlam, one of the few worlds advanced enough to be able to repair and maintain the Ark. During his initial visit Tuf incurs a massive repair bill and he periodically has to return to satisfy his monetary debt to the planet and renew his personal friendship (as much as Tuf has one) with Molly Tune, the planet's dockmaster.

The stories often resolve around moral quandaries: "A Beast for Norn" sees Tuf recruited to help a planet which pits animals into gladiatorial combat against one another. Tuf is petitioned by each ruling house in turn to give them the most ferocious beasts. The result is a neat little morality play that wouldn't have been out of place on The Twilight Zone. "Guardians" sees Tuf taxed to the limit as he uses the Ark's capabilities to genetically engineer a solution to a planetary infestation of sea monsters, only to find some kind of intelligence working against him. "Call Him Moses" sees Tuf recruited by a planetary government that has been forced to surrender to an anti-technology religious maniac using the threat of plague to seize power. These are all clever stories, but also ones that have a common thread to them: rather than facing a naturally-occurring disaster, the problems Tuf encounters are the result of human hubris greed, stupidity and fanaticism.

The S'uthlam trilogy - "Loaves and Fishes", "Second Helpings" and "Manna from Heaven" - represents the book's high point as it gives Tuf a formidable foil in the form of Molly Tune. Each one of the stories sees Tuf confronted by the problem of S'uthlam's overpopulation: the planet's population is 39 billion and rising, outstripping its ability to feed itself. Each time Tuf presents a situation, carefully noting that it is a stopgap at best and the people of S'uthlam have to back it up by not breeding so uncontrollably and by carefully preserving their resources. And each time he is ignored, for religious or economic reasons. In the final story Tuf presents Molly with the final solution to the problem, one that will save her world from starving itself to death, but at the expense of her people's right to freedom and self-expression. It's one of the thorniest moral quandaries science fiction has ever presented to the reader, and the solution is grim.

The result may be George R.R. Martin's most resonant SF moment in his long career writing science fiction (before epic fantasy stole him away). In 1976, when the first Tuf story was published, the Earth's population was 4 billion. In 2016, it stands at almost 7.4 billion. The Earth's population has almost doubled the first story in this book was published. What was a theoretical concern when Martin started writing these stories is starting to look terrifyingly prescient, and the solution presented in these stories may be horrific but there are also a lot of people who would take the solution Tuf offers Tune in a heartbeat. This element adds a surprising amount of contemporary value to a book published thirty years ago.

Moving on from that aspect of the book, characterisation is excellent, particularly of Haviland Tuf himself (the reader may detect faint pre-echoes of Varys in his character and appearance) but also Molly Tune and the demented crew of space pirates who try to steal the Ark in the opening story (Rica Dawnstar may also be the best name for a space mercenary there ever has been). The writing style is a fair bit different from his prose in other books, being more whimsical, florid and witty. Martin's favourite author is the fantastic Jack Vance. Martin can't quite match Vance's supremely joyous command of the English language (frankly, no-one can) but he does come startlingly close on occasion. This is also a book that should appeal to all cat lovers, as Tuf's brood of felines grows, gets into antics, gets older and occasionally (and sadly) shrinks as the stories continue to unfold.

Tuf Voyaging (****½) is not quite up there with A Song of Ice and Fire and Fevre Dream as Martin's best work, but it a very well-written book packed with entertaining characters, moments of real comedy (it's Martin's funniest work, by a long way) and some unexpected moments of tragedy and pathos. It's also a book that's become more resonant over the years as real-life issues catch up to Martin's vision. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 1: Throne of the Crescent Moon


Dr. Adoulla Makhslood is a ghul-hunter, a slayer of monsters who battles against the evil wizards who summon them. He is also in his sixties and feeling his age. Raseed bas Raseed is his protege, a holy Dervish warrior with legendary sword skills but awkward social graces. A new commission leads them to a chance meeting with Zamia, a desert tribeswoman with the ability to transform into a lion. As Raseed struggles with his vow of chastity, the band of adventurers learn of a great threat to the city of Dhamsawaat and have to join forces with a dubious thief prince to defeat it.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is the debut novel by Saladin Ahmed and the first novel in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms series. It's a rollicking, swashbuckling, grin-inducing romp of a book which takes inspiration from The Arabian Nights and never lets up in its ability to entertain.

The book draws on Arabian mythology and history, so the book immediately has a different feeling to most faux-European fantasy novels. Indeed, whilst reading the novel I was reminded of the immensely fun Al-Qadim roleplaying world (for 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons) from the mid-1990s, which featured bands of heroic adventurers and noble thieves tackling trickster djinn and corrupt viziers with nary an orc or elf in sight.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is definitely a romp with more than a passing nod to the likes of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, but it's also a wonderfully well-characterised novel. The characters are archetypes but also have tremendous depth to them. Making the central hero a fat man in his sixties who gets winded way too easily and is physically incapable of engaging in combat is a brave move, making Adoulla the brains of the operation but also an irascible and stubborn fool on occasion. Raseed is lightning-fast with his sword and almost unbeatable in battle, but is riven by self-doubts and struggles with his faith. His humourless martinet routine is the butt of many jokes, but his religious conflict is an important part of his character which gives him depth when he finally realises the world is a messier place than his strict morals allow. However, arguably the most interesting characters are Dawoud and Litaz, former adventuring buddies of Team Adoulla who have now retired from monster-fighting to run their own business. They are reluctantly drawn back into Adoulla's adventures, allowing for a detailed examination of the lives of a middle-aged couple against a fantasy backdrop.

Throne of the Crescent Moon does this - mixing the conventional and unconventional, magical and mundane - throughout its length and it's this blending of knockabout fun with fleshed-out, realistic characters which gives the book much greater depth and longevity than just being an action novel (although Ahmed's action sequences are first-rate). Ahmed also achieves a tremendous depth of worldbuilding, making Dhamsawaat (which is basically Baghdad by way of Lankhamar) a fully-realised location so vivid you can smell the spices and hear the merchants hawking their wears.

If there are criticisms, it is the book's length: at 260 pages (in tradeback) the book rushes some aspects, especially towards the ending, and the Falcon Prince feels a bit too remote and off-stage a character for the sudden prominence he gains in the grand finale. However, plot synopses for the sequel suggests he plays a larger role in that volume, which will be welcome.

Throne of the Crescent Moon (****½) is a breath of fresh air, a fiendishly addictive novel which is over way too soon and will leave readers begging for more. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The sequel, The Thousand and One, is due for release later this year or in 2017.

As anticipated, SyFy has let the old WILD CARDS movie development deal lapse and there was a scramble of interest in picking up the rights to GRRM's Wild Cards series of books. Unexpectedly, SyFy (or at least a producer there) has reacquired them, alongside parent company Universal and its cable productions wing. This is interesting as it gives them more flexibility: the project may end up at SyFy again or it could go somewhere like USA or even Amazon (where Universal co-produces Mr. Robot).

George isn't directly involved (due to book commitments) but series co-editor Melinda Snodgrass will be an executive producer and potential showrunner on the project.

Interesting news, and the buzz this time is that this is probably going to happen, unlike the movie project which lost most of the people pushing for it at an early stage. I could imagine Universal and someone like Amazon being interested in an edgier, different take on superheroes.

Book 1: Shadow and Bone


The great nation of Ravka is troubled by war with her neighbours and by the Shadow Fold, a mysterious force of darkness which has cut off the west coast from the rest of the kingdom. Only the Grisha, the magic-wielding servants of Ravka, can cross the Fold in safety. A young mapmaker, Alina Starkov, is recruited to help such a crossing but she manifests the powers of the Grisha along the way. Recruited into the order, Alina discovers she has the power to summon light, the power to perhaps destroy the Shadow Fold forever...and a power that some will do anything to possess.

Shadow and Bone is the opening novel of Leigh Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy, a work of fantasy that is both familiar and different. Its core story, of a young woman who discovers she has powers and different forces in the world want to use or abuse those powers, is pretty standard. The setting, which borrows elements from Russian history and geography, is certainly unusual for the fantasy genre although not completely unique (The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia and Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins are recent genre works influenced by Russian culture and mythology).

Shadow and Bone has a number of negatives which I'll get out of the way first. It's pretty standard fare. Traditional fantasy tropes are deployed and explored with some flourishes, but no real originality. It's entirely possible you will predict every plot twist well ahead of time. The main character, Alina, is an orphan who turns out to have amazing powers. There's an unrequieted romance, a heated rivalry with a jealous, more aristocratic fellow student and a dangerous, spark-filled relationship with an older man. There's also scenes of Alina learning the arts of magic from an older mentor who deploys pithy sayings and unconventional teaching methods to get spectacular results. There are desperate betrayals, daring escapes in the night and magical battles. And so forth. Depending on how much traditional fantasy you have read in your life, you may not have a huge amount of time for yet more of the same.

But if Shadow and Bone is mostly standard and familiar fare, it is very well-written standard fare, delivered with pace and excitement. The Grisha, a magical order set up like an army with chains of command and different forces and disciplines within its ranks, is an original and memorable creation and the interaction between the different orders is quite well-established. The Shadow Fold is also an unsettling creation and the nature of the creatures within it (the volcra) is disturbing. The different types of Grisha and their abilities are set up but in this first novel we haven't seen too much of what they can do, which hopefully later volumes will rectify.

Characterisation is mostly strong, with Alina making for a likeable heroine and the Darkling (despite his emo name) an interesting and multi-faceted character. Most intriguing is Genya, a Grisha with an apparently limited skill (making people appear more attractive) which she deploys to strong effect. I get the impression she has an interesting story to tell and hopefully she will be more prominent in later volumes, along with her low-key love interest, David. Less interesting is Alina's unrequieted love, Mal, who is a pretty standard hunky soldier with elite tracking skills and limited personality, but hopefully he will develop more in later volumes.

Shadow and Bone (****) won't be winning awards for originality, but it does tell its story with verve and vigour, building up to an explosive climax. It's a very short novel (360 pages in paperback, but with a fairly genrous font size) but will leave you wanting to jump into the sequel, Siege and Storm, straight away. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

The Call by Peadar O Guilin


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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.


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)


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.

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