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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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

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

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

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

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


Wild Cards #1: Wild Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT has been announced by WB Games.

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

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

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


Book 1: Half a King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book 1: God's War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Book 1: Drakenfeld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Somehow.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Anyway:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Year of the Ladybird

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Book 1: Fade to Black

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

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

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

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

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

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

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


Finally!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone else going to be checking this out?


The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book 1: Heroes Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book 1: Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book 1: Shards of Honor

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book 1: Spirit Gate

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For centuries the land of the Hundred was ruled by the Guardians, powerful beings to dispensed justice, aided by their reeves, effectively a police force riding giant eagles. The Guardians have disappeared and are feared dead, but the reevers remain, overstretched and in increasingly few numbers as chaos and barbarism spreads across the land. Reeve Joss is given the difficult task of restoring order to an area in the south ravaged of bandit attacks, threatening trade between the Hundred and the Sirniakan Empire to the south-west.

Meanwhile, in lands far beyond the Hundred and the Empire, a Qin warrior named Aniji marries a local woman, Mei, and finds himself and his troop of 200 soldiers drawn into danger and adventure, forcing them to flee their lands and journey into the Hundred, where they find the land on the brink of full-scale war.

Spirit Gate is a compelling story set in an interesting and well-realised world. Whilst Crown of Stars was deliberately set in a very rigid society highly reminiscent of medieval Europe, Crossroads is far more original and fantastical, although the two works share some character tropes and ideas. The book opens with a nice piece of misdirection that holds the attention and directs the reader into the story. However, the pacing is mismatched and key characters, most notably Joss, disappear for long stretches. In other places the timeline is a bit confused, with Elliott not being afraid to revisit the events of several chapters past from another POV, although once you get used to it this plot device does start yielding useful information. There is also a rather odd tendency for central characters to engage in frivolous discussions and banter in the middle of mortal danger, which defuses tension from the book, and after a very impressive build-up to a major confrontation at the end of the book, the actual final battle is resolved in perhaps two pages at best, which is very disappointing.

On the plus side, the relationship between the reeves and their eagles is well-defined. Those fearing that the giant eagles were going to be reduced to cuddly sidekicks can rest assured that these animals are depicted as the dangerous creatures they are. The idea that the reeves are policemen and not soldiers is also nicely done and leads to some interesting exploration of the roles of the police and the military in a fantasy world.

Unfortunately, the central threat in the book is left rather vauge and undefined. Is chaos and lawlessness returning in general because the Guardians are gone and some people are taking advantage of it, or is there a much darker master plan at work? Elliott hints at both possibilities but never really gives us enough information to come to a conclusion.

Spirit Gate (***) is an enjoyable and solid fantasy novel with some very nice ideas which doesn't entirely come together satisfyingly. Still, the novel leaves me intrigued to read the sequel, which I suppose is its main objective.

Book 2: Shadow Gate

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This is the second book in the Crossroads series, and the middle volume of the first story arc, reportedly a trilogy (preceded by Spirit Gate, which I reviewed here, and to be succeeded by Traitor's Gate, due in 2009).

In Spirit Gate, a number of outlanders arrived in the Hundred to find the land beset by troubles. Armies of vagabonds and cutthroats have appeared out of nowhere to challenge the justice of the reeves, the giant eagle-riding police force who have ensured the rule of law in the land since the disappearance of the Guardians many decades earlier. The outlanders, led by Captain Anji and his wife Mai, joined forces with Reeve Joss and the militia of the city of Olossi to defeat one of these roving armies and build a safehaven in the south-west of the Hundred. However, all are troubled by rumours of beings wielding supernatural powers and riding winged horses - as the Guardians were said to have done - apparently leading the invading armies.

Shadow Gate is a worthwhile and enjoyable follow-up to the first book, mostly because it works on two levels. On the one hand, it is a direct sequel, following up on the adventures of Joss, Mai, Anji, Shai and others following the Battle of Olossi. On the other, it is also parallel novel to the first, explaining a great deal of the mysteries in the first volume. One of the key weaknesses in the first book, I felt, was that the nature of the winged horse-riding beings and some storylines, most notably that revolving around the wandering envoy-priest and the bizarre antics of the slave Cornflower, were decidedly under-developed, to the point where their inclusion seemed to be extremely confusing. In this second volume you get the answers to those questions, told in an accessible and intriguing manner. Any thoughts that this was going to be a simple good-versus-evil struggle go out the window as we learn more of the nature of the Guardians, the rules they operated under and some explanations as to why they disappeared (although the full story, I suspect, will have to wait until Book 3).

At the same time, we get to meet some new characters, such as Nallo, the refugee who is chosen to become a reeve but whose training is complicated when the main reeve base comes under siege, and Avisha, a simple village girl who attracts Mai's favour and has to sort out a complicated love life as well as caring for her family. The new additions to the cast generally give us new and interesting outlooks on the world and the plot, and don't slow the story down too much. The pacing is also good, but arguably the conclusion is not as strong as it might be. Just as the Battle of Olossi seemed to happen very quickly at the end of Book 1, so the two big set-piece battles at the end of Book 2 also get short shrift, but arguably this is less important this time around as revelations about characters and several dramatic scenes between major characters form the meat of the finale, which does a better job of leaving the reader wanting to pick up the next volume straight away.

Spirit Gate (****) is a notably superior book to the first one, and actually makes the first one more enjoyable as well (a full re-read of the first book after the series is completed will pay unexpected dividends, I suspect). The book is published by Orbit in the UK and by Tor in the USA.

Book 3: Traitors' Gate

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An invading army is laying waste to the lands of the Hundred. The reeves, the giant eagle-riding police force of the land, are unable to hold them back. In desperation they have struck up an alliance with an exiled outlander prince and his militia, but the enemy are led by corrupted Guardians, resurrected beings with the power to look into souls and strike people dead with a glance. The only hope of victory may lie with the uncorrupted 'pure' Guardians. But to achieve this, they may have to give up a terrible secret...

Traitors' Gate concludes the Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott, or rather it concludes the opening three-book arc of the series. Future books are planned picking up the story some generations further down the line. For now, however, it is a self-contained trilogy with no major cliffhangers or unresolved plot elements.

It's been five years since I read the first two volumes in the series, so I was initially a bit swamped as I caught up with what was going on. The core storyline is fairly straightforward, but the secret to the success of the trilogy is how Elliott layers in thematic elements to apparently trivial characterisation and how she addresses a wide range of different topics - from sexuality and female empowerment to commerce and religious freedom - within the confines of a more straightforward story. In fact, my biggest complaint about the trilogy as a whole is that it like it could have done with an additional book to help flesh out the world and cultures (a far cry from her prior Crown of Stars series which, whilst very good, could have probably done with at least a volume being shaved off its length).

The book and the trilogy as a whole also explores the concept of corruption and the ethics of the use of power. Elliott has little truck with evil magic or other examples of simplistic morality, instead citing that every person has within them the capacity for good or ill, the Guardians included, and she contrasts well the rigid thinking of the Qin (who prefer to see the world in absolutes rather than shades of grey) against those who are more open to a more complex view of the world. There's a good culture clash element which is not over-egged. There's also a feeling of melancholy to the story: the Hundred is an open-minded, tolerant land which has to become harder and more regimented to fight the invaders and in the process loses something of itself.

The worldbuilding is excellent - the Hundred is not another European medieval fantasyscape but an original creation drawing on many sources - and the characterisation is fairly strong. The pacing is a little off: for almost three-quarters of the length of the novel it honestly feels like there is no way of defeating the enemy and most of the time is spent on less-important character arcs, and suddenly everything spins on a dime. It is done reasonably convincingly, but certainly the ending feels a little abrupt. However, the ending is also deliciously messy. Allies suddenly find themselves at odds and what seems like deliverance could be (and we don't find out for certain) enslavement under a different name.

Traitors' Gate (****) concludes an accomplished fantasy trilogy with intelligence and complexity. Elliott has crafted an interesting world here and it'll be interesting to see what happens there next. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

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Investigator Vissarion Lom is summoned to Mirgorod, capital of the Vlast, to help investigate a series of terrorist attacks in the city. Josef Kantor, the son of a famous revolutionary, is the chief suspect and Lom is soon on his trail. But a simple manhunt turns into something more serious. An angel has fallen to the earth in the vast forest thousands of miles to the east. A devastating war between the Vlast and a grouping of island-nations to the west is coming to an end. And a spirit of the forest made manifest arrives in the city, seeking a young woman who may hold the key to the world's salvation.

Wolfhound Century has picked up a fair bit of advance buzz as a novel to watch for this year. It's easy to see why. Coming over as the result of a genetic experiment splicing the works of Chine Mieville, Ian Fleming and Robert Holdstock into a single entity, but with a few twists of the author's own invention, it's definitely a refreshing change from Generic Epic Fantasy #312. The book is set in a world where revolvers and airplanes exist alongside nature spirits and giants, a sort-of Soviet Russia that never was but where honest cops still have to get on with foiling crimes, even crimes involving alien space entities and objects of transdimensional quantum power. It's a glorious mash-up of genres and styles that works very well.

Higgins is telling a big story here, but by tightly restricting the points of view to just a few characters and by using short, sharp chapters he is able to get through the story with an enviable economy. Even better, that economy does not prevent the prose from being more ambitious than the SFF norm, with evocative flourishes and place and character undertaken in just a few deft sentences. The writing is superb and the characterisation excellent, with Lom and his nemesis Kantor both shown to be complex, damaged characters, and also both more than they initially appear.

Even more impressive is the melding together of different ideas and genres. There are SF ideas about quantum physics and alternate realities existing alongside rural fantasy notions of nature spirits and living woodlands. In the middle of this lies the alternate-Soviet tropes of secret police and investigations where the truth is subservient to perception and politics. It could be an unruly mess, but Higgins makes it work with aplomb.

Where the book not so much stumbles but falls flat on its face is the unexpectedly abrupt ending. Wolfhound Century has been advertised as having a sequel (already written and submitted, thankfully), Truth and Fear, due out in a year's time, so it was already known that this would probably not be a completely self-contained book. The problem is that at no point is it stated that Wolfhound Century is functionally incomplete as a novel. It doesn't so much climax as just stop. This isn't the first in a series, but the first chunk of a much longer single novel being published in multiple volumes. Some forewarning of this would have been appreciated. Also, given that Wolfhound Century is only 300 pages of pretty big type in length, the question arises of why this story is being published in such small chunks also arises.

Still, whilst Wolfhound Century (****) may be just the first chunk of a bigger story, it is still a finely-written and compelling story. Higgins has created an engrossing fantasy world which is a million miles away from the more played-out ends of the genre and all the better for it. The book would have simply benefited from either being held back until the entire story was complete, or a mention of its heavily serialised nature was given on the cover at some point. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


The Grim Company

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Davarus Cole has a destiny. Only he can wield the sorcerous blade Magebane, one of the few weapons in existence that can kill a Magelord. Five centuries ago the Magelords slew the gods themselves, becoming immortal in the process and seizing control of the world. Now they wage war amongst themselves. Cole knows it is fate itself which has decreed that he will kill Salazar, Magelord of Dorminia, and liberate the city from his tyrannical rule. His comrades in the rebel group known as the Shards are less sure.

Meanwhile, a new threat is rising in the far north. Demonic forces are spilling into the northern mountains and the Shaman, the Magelord who rules the region, must face this threat whilst also confronting a renegade lord who has turned against him. At the same time, he owes a favour to Salazar that must be repaid.

The Grim Company is the opening volume of the fantasy trilogy of the same name. It's the debut novel by Luke Scull, a computer game designer who has worked for BioWare and Ossian Studios. It's also one of the SFF launch titles for Head of Zeus, a new publisher which won the publication rights to the novel in a significant auction.

It's easy to see why. The Grim Company is a rollicking dark fantasy adventure novel. It moves with verve and pace, fitting more plot than some entire trilogies into its lean 450 pages, and is threaded through with a great sense of humour that pokes fun at some of the conventions of both epic fantasy and the recent eruption of 'grimdark' fantasies in particular. The book packs in an impressive number of subplots, locations and characters without feeling rushed or overburdened, and manages to ensure these storylines are not extraneous material (one side-plot taking place hundreds of miles to the north in the mountains feels like pure set-up for later novels, but is linked back into the main storyline quite impressively in the climax).

Character-wise, we are in familiar archetype territory. Davarus Cole is a fine 'pratagonist', the apparent hero who's actually a barely-sufferable pillock. Cole believes it is his destiny to be awesome and free the people from tyranny, but he suffers from a blinkered view of reality and a tendency to ignore what's going on right in the moment (occasionally even during moments of high danger) as he daydreams of gaining the adoration of screaming crowds. This is frequently hilarious, but also gets close to becoming overused by the time we get to the novel's climax. Thankfully, some well-handled moments of character revelation near the end of the book show Cole to be a more sympathetic character than might have been first expected.

Brodar Kayne is the former Sword of the North, the Shaman's champion who defied his master and is now on the run, assisted by his exceedingly temperamental and borderline psychotic best friend, 'the Wolf'. Kayne is old and past his best days, but still exceedingly lethal with a greatsword. His only weakness is a sentimental streak, which leads him into a doubtful alliance with the Shards. Kayne is the 'actual hero whom Cole is trying to be' and Scull finely contrasts the differences between the two characters. There's nothing particularly new or notable about Kayne, but Scull pulls off the 'grizzled veteran with a dark past who is now trying to be a better man' trope reasonably skillfully.

Elsewhere, we have Eremul the Halfmage, a sorcerer whom Salazar spared during a purge of potential rival magic-users but still left crippled. Then there's Isaac, Eremul's apparently bumbling aide who turns out to be unexpectedly good at, well, everything. Particularly well-done is Barandas, the head of Salazar's Augmentors (magically-enhanced super-warriors), a good man serving a ruthless and amoral ruler because of his strict code of honour. There's also Sasha, another young member of the Shards who is actually good at her job and not an insufferable prat, and Yllandris, a young sorcerer and lover of the King of the Fangs who likes to think of herself as a badass witch and master manipulator but has too much of a good heart to really pull it off.

Aspects of the novel do feel somewhat familiar. The post-apocalyptic fantasy setting and the notion of a band of rebels gathering to pull down a tyrant is reminiscent of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy, but The Grim Company is certainly a more striking and fun novel than The Final Empire. The Shards being a band of rogues rather than purely idealistic rebels also recalls some elements of Scott Lynch (particularly the brothers), though the story then goes off in a completely different direction. Much more notable - and probably will be mentioned in every review of the book ever - are the similarities to Joe Abercrombie. These include some of the basic archetypes (though Cole, Kayne and Eremul's similarities to Jezal, Logen and Glokta are thankfully only superficial), the similar black and self-aware humour and some the language, most notably their mutual enjoyment of the word 'fruits' as a euphemism. Indeed, if you enjoy the works of Abercrombie, I can unreservedly recommend The Grim Company with no hesitation.

For those who are less keen, Scull uses magic in a more interesting manner, and his worldbuilding craft is certainly stronger, but it's likely that if you are really not a fan of Abercrombie and the more recent similar eruption of similar fantasies, this will not do a lot to impress you. The author is certainly aware of the pool he's swimming in, and occasionally seems to lampoon it, but it's also not an outright satire of the genre and does play a lot of the tropes straight (though, refreshingly, his female characters are as well-portrayed as his male and that most overused of 'grimdark' plot devices, rape, is kept for the most part off-page, though not unmentioned).

The Grim Company (****) is an energetic and well-written dark fantasy debut. It doesn't steer far from familiar waters, but it combines standard tropes and ideas into a more than satisfying whole. The novel is available now in the UK and on import in the USA.


In the XCOM thread people were saying it would be cool if there was a new SPACE HULK game which played like XCOM (as XCOM seems to have borrowed a lot of ideas from the original SPACE HULK board game).

REJOICE! There will be a new SPACE HULK game which will play a lot like XCOM. Only with Terminators and Genestealers in space. The game is also taking a lot of rules from the original board game. There may be some reference to the EA 1990s games (which were great), but this new title will definitely be turn-based and not real-time like they were.

That game will launch on PC with an iOS port to follow. The release date they are targetting is the end of this year. It's looking very cool. Also a great story on how they came to make it at the link.


Redshirts

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Andrew Dahl is a newly-assigned crewman on the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. Initially what appears to be a plum assignment turns into a nightmare. Almost every away mission turns into a lethal showdown with hostile aliens and crewmen are frequently killed, although oddly the bridge crew seem to survive every one of these encounters. As the situation becomes more bizarre and crew are slain by robots, alien worms and - somewhat unexpectedly - ice sharks, Dahl becomes determined to find out what the hell is really going on.

Redshirts is John Scalzi's tribute to all of those unfortunate extras and minor characters whose sole purpose in life is to show up for ten minutes and then die in a feeble attempt to make the audience believe the main characters might be in danger. It's a huge, nerdy in-joke that anyone who's ever sat through an episode of Star Trek should appreciate. Anyone who hasn't (and Star Trek and its cheesier tropes - distressingly - are getting a bit long in the tooth these days) might find the book pretty pointless.

The book starts off as a look at the workings of such a ship from the POV of the regular crewmen rather than the command crew (and yes, The Next Generation did a whole episode about that) but rapidly escalates into being a funny commentary on the aforementioned TV tropes before moving into a metafictional storyline about fictional characters coming to life before skewing sideways into a very ill-advised attempt at pathos (which falls completely flat due to a lack of decent characterisation, meaning we don't care). Scalzi seems to be aping funny SF authors like Harry Harrison, Terry Pratchett (whose Guards! Guards! pursues a vaguely similar premise, but altogether more successfully) and Douglas Adams. However, the premise of the novel is one that Douglas Adams threw into a TV documentary about his own life, explored and moved on from in about five minutes. Stretched over 300 pages, the premise becomes rather thin. Scalzi is a funny writer (though not in the same league as the aforementioned writers) and the laughs keep things ticking over, but despite a couple of attempts to make serious points (most notably in the codas, where the laughs dry up but the prose style improves markedly) the novel is pretty lightweight and disposable.

Redshirts (***) is an entertaining, easy read which will make you laugh for a bit but you will also completely forget about within a week. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


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And so it began.

It's actually rather depressing the show is so old. I remember I started watching it in my penultimate year at secondary school and followed it avidly for the five years it was on. The very first time I ever went on the Internet was to look up info about the show. Great times.


The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

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According to prophecy, mankind will be saved by the Deliverer, a figure who will unite all of humanity during the Daylight War before defeating the forces of demonkind in the First War. The demons that rise from the Core at night will be destroyed and peace restored to the world. But there is a problem: two men have arisen, both named as the Deliverer by the people they have saved. From the north comes Arlen, the Painted Man. From the south comes Jardir, the ruler of Krasia, and his armies of well-trained, fanatical warriors. For humanity to survive to fight the First War, only one of them can live.

The Daylight War is the third novel of The Demon Cycle, currently planned to run to five volumes. It follows on from the events of the enjoyable The Painted Man and the less-accomplished Desert Spear and replicates the structure of the latter novel. Whilst the current-day storyline continues to unfold, we are treated to lengthy flashbacks to the past to flesh out the background of a key character, in this case Inevera, Jardir's First Wife.

In this case, these flashbacks are not as extensive as The Desert Spear's, which were important to add to our understanding of the character of Jardir (who, as one of the two major protagonists of the series, needed such fleshing-out to better explain his actions at the end of The Painted Man). Inevera, though an important influence on events, is not a character in the same league and as such her flashbacks are more succinct. This leaves more time for the book to address the modern-day storyline, which has effectively been on hold since the end of The Painted Man: The Desert Spear moved the present-day storyline forwards infinitesimally, due to both the flashbacks taking up an immense amount of the book and an apparent decline in Brett's pacing abilities.

Unfortunately, and for reasons that remain unclear, The Daylight War does not do this. An immense amount of the book is taken up by characters sitting around and talking about the plot, about what has happened (and is redundant, as we've already read it) and what might happen next. Then we switch from the rustic faux-Two Rivers/Shirefolk of Team Arlen to the faux-Muslims of Team Jardir and the exact same thing happens again. Then we get a brief scene in which some demons get killed. Then people discuss the plot a bit more in light of these demons being killed. This happens repeatedly for about 650 pages, whilst the reader wonders what is going on.

Finally, towards the end of the book, we get a couple of big action set-pieces in which lots of demons get killed, there are a few reversals as some minor characters are killed off, and then a painfully contrived final cliffhanger showdown between Jardir and Arlen that comes almost out of nowhere, and seems to be more the result of a dwindling page count then any natural plot development. The book's title also seems misleading: the Daylight War simply does not happen in the this novel (all of the major battles are against demons, not between the two human societies). The conclusion hints that maybe it does not need to happen, with the winner of the duel walking off with all of humanity united, so the title may be deliberately ironic.

The novel is not a complete disaster, despite its flirtation with Crossroads of Twilight levels of pacing. Brett's prose is fairly basic - and if anything has decreased slightly since the first novel - but remains effective at drawing environments, characters and situations. He is good with actions scenes, and his ward-based magic system is well-envisaged. Like Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, Brett has come up with a system that is flexible and imaginative, and allows for it to be reinterpreted and upgraded as the series continues. There's more than a tinge of Dungeons and Dragons to this approach, with Brett's characters 'levelling up' in magical power to face the increasingly powerful monsters they face, but it remains an effective device. We get more information about demons, including more scenes from the demons' POV, which give us a hint about their society (but not their origins which, given that Brett's world is clearly ours millennia hence, remain puzzling).

The book also improves - though moderately - in its treatment of female characters. Previously Brett drastically over-used rape as a device of dramatic change, with both male and female characters suffering some kind of sexual abuse whenever he needed them to undergo some kind of moment of character realisation. In The Daylight War several of these abusers get their just desserts and the institutionalised rape within the Krasian culture is heavily eroded by Jardir's progressive policies (we also see the rise of a Krasian sect of female warriors). Unfortunately this has been replaced by a willingness by the female characters to simply use their bodies as a means to get whatever they want, replacing rape with consensual prostitution. At any rate, though Brett seems aware of the previous books' dubious gender politics and moved to address them, there remains some serious issues in this area which makes for some uncomfortable reading.

The Daylight War (**½) is an extremely badly-paced novel that features a tremendous amount of filler and redundant recapping of the plot. Intermittently, we get good moments of characterisation and a fair few decent action beats, along with some imaginative development of the magic system and the basic premise of the series, which remains interesting. But the book's main storyline crawls forwards at a snail's pace (ending in a contrived cliffhanger) and its treatment of female characters and sexuality remains painfully clumsy, despite minor improvements. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


The Book of Words 1: The Baker's Boy by J.V. Jones

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Conspiracies and treachery run deep at Castle Harvell. King Lesketh is dying of an illness, the Four Kingdoms are at war with the neighbouring land of Halcus and Chancellor Baralis is intriguing with the Knights of Valdis and the Duke of Bren. The other major powers of the continent, sensing a coming clash of nations, are arming for war. But such things are flying high over the head of Jack, a simple baker's apprentice who just wants to get on with his life. When Jack manifests powers that mark him as a sorcerer, he earns the enmity of Baralis. Fleeing into the wilderness along with Lady Melliandra, who is trying to escape a marriage to the sinister Prince Kylock, Jack has to come to grips with his powers and discover his role in the unfolding events.

The Baker's Boy, originally published in 1995, is the debut novel by British fantasy author J.V. Jones and the opening volume of the Book of Words trilogy (itself the opening three volumes of a longer fantasy epic continued in her current Sword of Shadows sequence). As a glance at the plot summary will reveal, we are deep in the heart of Traditional Fantasy Territory here. There's a young boy destined for great things. There's evil sorcerers conniving to bring about dark ends. There's cruel and unworthy heirs to thrones, and beautiful ladies trying to escape from pre-arranged fates. It's all very traditional.

Traditional does not necessarily mean bad, and Jones laces her story with some darker and more interesting elements. The book is fairly 'low fantasy' in nature, dwelling on conspiracies, murders and assassinations. Characters such as Baralis are ruthless and merciless, but do not see themselves that way and are presented as the hero of their own story. Blurring the moral boundaries nicely, Jones sets up the greatest threats to Baralis as coming from Tavalisk, Archbishop of the distant city of Rorn, who himself is a venal, vain, arrogant and cruel man, little better than Baralis; and Maybor, Baralis's rival at court and the father of Melliandra, who is also presented as a violent and unpleasant man. The fact that these three characters are as bad as one another makes it hard to root for any side, although Jones gives a more sympathetic portrait of the three characters caught up in the three connivers' webs: Jack, Melliandra and Tawl, a knight who is searching for a young boy whose coming is foretold in prophecy (yes, one of those). There is also a tremendously satisfying vein of black humour running through the book, such as Tavalisk's wry observations of events being accompanied by a battle of wits with his much put-upon manservant.

Whilst Jones mixes the traditional fantasy ingredients up a little, and the book is always readable, regular genre readers will find little here that has not been done before, and better. As a first novel, The Baker's Boy is certainly very rough in places. Where the book gains some additional value is that Jones later went on to write The Sword of Shadows, a fantasy epic that is categorically superior to almost everything else in the genre (certainly it's batting at the same level as A Song of Ice and Fire, the Malazan series and the works of Guy Gavriel Kay). Whilst The Book of Words is nowhere near as good, though there is an escalation in quality from book to book that is impressive to watch, it's certainly worth a look as some characters that re-occur in the later Sword of Shadows do first appear here, and knowing their backstory has some worth for the later books.

The Baker's Boy (***) is as traditional a start to a fantasy series as there has ever been, though it remains resolutely entertaining. There are some rough spots as Jones comes up to speed but there's a rich vein of dark humour, some solid characterisation and an ending that was rather startling and refreshingly bleak in those altogether more cliched times when the book first came out. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Excession

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Thousands of years ago, the Culture encountered an Outside Context Problem. A perfectly black sphere materialised out of nowhere next to a trillion-year-old sun from another universe. It did nothing and vanished. Now it has returned, and both the Culture and a hostile alien race known as the Affront are desperate to uncover its secrets.

Excession was originally published in 1996 and is the fourth novel in Iain M. Banks's Culture series. As with all of the Culture books, it is a stand-alone novel sharing only the same background and setting, with minimal references to the events of other books and no characters crossing over.

A plot summary of the novel makes it sound like Banks's version of a 'Big Dumb Object' book, a novel where the characters are presented with an enigmatic alien entity and have to deal with it (similar to Rendezvous with Rama or Ringworld). However, this isn't really what Excession is about. Instead, the novel operates on several different levels and uses the titular artifact as a catalyst for a more thorough exploration of the Culture and its goals, as well as a more human story about relationships and change.

Excession is the first book in the series to explore the Minds, the (mostly) benevolent hyper-advanced AIs which effectively run and rule the Culture (as both spacecraft and the hubs of the immense Orbital habitats). Previous novels had portrayed the Minds as god-like entities whose vast powers allowed the various biological species of the Culture to live peaceful lives of post-scarcity freedom. Aside from their whimsical sense of humour and tendency towards ludicrous names, the Minds had not been fleshed out much in the previous novels. Here they are front and centre as several groups of Minds attempt to deal with the Outside Context Problem, or Excession, and find themselves working at cross-purposes. One group of Minds appears to be involved in a conspiracy related to the object's previous appearance, whilst another is trying to flush them out. Another Mind appears to be operating on its own, enigmatic agenda. There are also Minds belonging to the Elench, an alien race closely aligned with the Culture but who may have different goals in mind in relation to this matter.

Banks depicts communications between the Minds as something between a telegram and an email, complete with hyperlink-like codes (in which can be found some amusing in-jokes). Following these conversations is sometimes hard work (especially remembering which ship belongs to which faction), but worth it as within them can be found much of the more subtle plotting of the novel.

The stuff with the Minds and with the alien Affront (think of the Hanar from Mass Effect but with the attitude and disposition of Klingons) is all great and somewhat comic in tone, but the book also has a serious side. Several human characters are dragged into the situation as well, and it turns out two of them have a past, tragic connection that one of the Minds is keen to exploit. It's rather bemusing that Banks drops in a terribly human drama into the middle of this massive, gonzoid space opera, but the juxtaposition is highly effective, giving heart to a story that otherwise could drown in its own epicness.

Excession (****½) is, as is normal with (early) Banks, well-written and engaging, mixing well-drawn characters (be they human, psychopathic floating jellyfish or Mind) with big SF concepts. The book's only downside is a somewhat anti-climactic (though rather clever) ending. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


The publisher THQ has just gone down in flames after years of financial disappointments, but fortunately other companies have swept in to save its developers and games.

Arguably the highest-profile development firm working for THQ was Relic, the creators of the well-regarded WH40K: DAWN OF WAR, SPACE MARINE and COMPANY OF HEROES franchises. Relic have been saved by Sega, which is excellent. Sega already own the Creative Assembly and Sports Interactive, home to two of the PC's most dominant strategy franchises (the TOTAL WAR and FOOTBALL MANAGER games), and, crucially, have a WARHAMMER FANTASY licence which they are using for a new game with the CA. Reacquiring the WH40K licence to allow Relic to continue with DAWN OF WAR 3 should be straightforward, whilst COMPANY OF HEROES 2 is on course to come out this year as planned.

Potential major disappointment however: the HOMEWORLD IP, which THQ rescued back in 2006 (HOMEWORLD was Relic's first franchise, made when they were working with Sierra/Vivendi a decade ago), does not appear to have been saved, and will likely be sold off for peanuts as part of the last dissolution of the company.

Almost as well-regarded is Volition, the creator of the RED FACTION and SAINT'S ROW games. Koch Media has bought Volition and the SAINT'S ROW IP, but from the sound of it not the RED FACTION one, which will likely now disappear. Koch Media have also purchased the METRO IP, and will be publishing METRO: LAST LIGHT (the sequel to METRO 2033) in a few months.

Crytek have purchased the HOMEFRONT IP, which makes sense as they were working on HOMEFRONT II anyway, and are now free to shop it to any publisher of their choosing (probably Electronic Arts, given their close relationship over the CRYSIS franchise).

Ubisoft have purchased the rights to publish the new SOUTH PARK game, being developed by Obsidian.

The fate of a number of other franchises - most notably DARKSIDERS - are also up in the air.


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InExile, the team working on WASTELAND 2, have announced their next project. Their new game will be a spiritual sequel to the legendary PLANESCAPE: TORMENT and will bear the TORMENT name (though not the PLANESCAPE one, which is held by WotC). The setting, however, will be Numenera, the new RPG world created (via Kickstarter) by Monte Cook.

The inXile team, containing many veterans of Interplay and Black Isle who worked on TORMENT, are planning a game that will continue the original TORMENT's themes of consciousness, life and death, as well as world-hopping. The game uses new skill and combat rules, inspired by the Numenera P&P RPG.

There will be a Kickstarter for NUMENERA: TORMENT (or whatever it ends up being called), though not for a while. InXile are planning to release WASTELAND 2 in October and will probably move into full production on NUMENERA shortly afterwards.


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HBO are developing a TV series based on Neil Gaiman's novel AMERICAN GODS and its-as-yet-unwritten sequel. After a year or so in early development, the series has entered active pre-production, with Gaiman recently revealing that he is busy writing the pilot episode. Based on this, I suspect we'll see this on screens by late 2014 or early 2015 (assuming the pilot is successful), potentially replacing either TREME or TRUE BLOOD (assuming the rumours over that show ending after a 6th or 7th season are accurate).

No casting news as yet. Gaiman envisages the first season adapating the novel, the second season dealing with the fall-out from that (and possibly adapting his AMERICAN GODS short stories) and presumably the third season adapting AMERICAN GODS II, if he can write it in time.


The Fencer Trilogy Book 1: Colours in the Steel

Quote:

Triple-walled Perimadeia is one of the richest city-states in the world, famed for its teeming markets and its impregnable defences. After decades of trying fruitlessly to take the city, one of the plains tribes comes up with an ingenious idea: send one of their own to get a job in the city arsenal and learn its secrets from the inside.

Even as an ambitious young chieftain's son plans the most audacious siege in history, life in the city goes on. Bardas Loredan, a former soldier, now works as a defence advocate. In the courts of Perimadeia cases are settled through swordplay and Bardas is very good at what he does...until a vengeful young woman hires the city's Patriarch to curse him.

Colours in the Steel was originally published in 1998 and was the debut novel by the enigmatic K.J. Parker. It's also the first in The Fencer Trilogy, although it also works quite well as a stand-alone book. It can be best described as a sort-of anti-epic fantasy. The trappings of much of the subgenre are present: swordfights, large armies, sieges, military manoeuvres, magic (more or less) and prophecies (kind of). However, most of this is window-dressing, with the focus being on Bardas Loredan and his troubled family life, and on young Temrai, the chieftain's son and spy who ends up plotting the genocide of a city he actually quite likes.

As with Parker's later books, Colours in the Steel has a cynical vein of black humour running through it. There are musings on the futility of revenge, the pointlessness of warfare and the quite insane meanderings of the military bureaucracy (there's more than a whiff of WWI incompetence to the leaders of Perimadeia and their military judgement during the siege). There's no glorification of warfare, with both sides suffering heavy losses and wondering if it's all worth it. However, there is also a distinct love of military hardware. In fact, Parker devotes pages to how swords are forged, how siege engines work and are built and on the best ways of defending a city under siege from a superior enemy. Colours in the Steel belies the tendency of much of epic fantasy to be pure escapism, instead educating the reader on matters mechanical and mathematical more effectively than most science fiction novels. Sometimes the deviations onto the best way to make a trebuchet work go on for a bit too long, but Parker's writing skill is enough to keep even the most detailed descriptions of gears and counterweights interesting.

Long-term readers of Parker will know that she(?) has little truck with gratuitous worldbuilding. There is no map and the legal system of Perimadeia seems to have been created more for dramatic effect than any desire to create something that would work on a practical level. There is no 'magic system' either, with the city's Patriarch cheerfully acknowledging that he has no idea about how magic (the Principal, which actually seems more like some kind of limited prophetic or telepathic ability) works. What does work quite well is the subplot where the Patriarch and his best friend try to lift the curse the Patriach put on Bardas (without understanding what was going on), only to find other forces getting involved. Parker doesn't spell out what's going on with this 'magical' plot and it's left to the reader to piece together what it all means, which shows respect for the reader's intelligence.

The book's biggest success is in its characterisation, although it has to be said that Bardas himself is painted a little too straightforwardly. Those who are familiar with the whole trilogy (particularly his actions in the second novel, The Belly of the Bow) will be aware that there are good reasons for this, but newcomers may find Bardas a little too obvious as a protagonist. However, the rest of the cast are painted well, particularly Patriarch Alexius and his friend Gannadius who spend a lot of the book as outside observers and commentators on what's going on before having to get involved. Bardas's brother, Gorgas, is also a fascinating and contradicted character. Whilst definitely being a nasty piece of work, he also has his own sense of honour and fair play. He doesn't play much of a role in this novel, but is set up well for the sequel.

Colours in the Steel (****½) is a striking debut novel. It has the requisite amounts of well-depicted carnage and military activity for an epic fantasy, but it's focus is much more on the characters, their motivations and the realisations they lead to. The book is also darkly funny. It's an excellent example of an epic fantasy novel that uses the tropes and limitations of the genre to say something a bit more interesting than normal. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


The fourth game in the seminal ELITE space trading/combat series has been formally announced via a Kickstarter campaign.

The original ELITE was released in 1984 and is notable for being one of the first major 3D games and one of the first games to give the player total freedom of how they played it. It was a stunning technical achievement and arguably represents the single biggest jump forward in both technical and conceptual gameplay terms in gaming's history (it's sometimes been likened to the arrival of sound in film in being a transformative momentin the history of the form).

The sequel, FRONTIER, was released in 1993 and was almost as impressive, featuring hundreds of millions of star systems and allowing players to undertake a much vaster array of missions, fly different ships and land on planetary surfaces as well as with orbiting space stations. The game also had a Newtonian physics flight model and a superbly accurate recreation of our Solar system. Despite its technical brilliance, actually flying the spaceship was less fun in FRONTIER. The third game, FIRST ENCOUNTERS (1995) suffered a botched, extremely buggy launch which caused the creators to sue the publishers for releasing an early version of the game without their permission.

ELITE: DANGEROUS is planned for release in 2014 and will apparently incorporate the vast galaxy of FRONTIER mixed in with a more traditional (and accessible) flight model. The game will have modern, state-of-the-art graphics (of course) and an integrated multiplayer mode. However, further details on the project are somewhat thin. Videos and screenshots of the work undertaken so far will apparently be posted soon (and I'd argue that putting up a Kickstarter page without them was rather silly, but a mistake they can recover from).


Chris Roberts, the creator of the WING COMMANDER and STARLANCER/FREELANCER franchises, has announced that he is working on a new space combat game.

The game is hugely ambitious. The project overall is called STAR CITIZEN and works on one of several levels. On one level the game works like FREELANCER or PRIVATEER, with you trading, flying around the universe and upgrading stuff. You can run the game in this mode as a single-player game or on a private server with some friends. You can also play this mode on public servers, where it becomes more like an MMORPG.

If that doesn't appeal, there is a story-driven, single-player campaign. This campaign mode is called SQUADRON 42 and will feature sequential missions. This mode can be played single-player or in co-op with a friend (or possibly several friends). This campaign will be upgraded on a regular basis with new missions and expansions.

As well as space combat and trading, the game will also allow you to walk around in a first-person mode on spaceships and stations (and possibly starports as well).

The game will be PC-only, since it is simply beyond the capabilities of the 360 and the PS3 to even begin being able to handle. However, I would not rule out its eventual appearance on the next-gen machines.

Chris Roberts give an impressive one-hour talk about the game here.

There's a five-minute trailer here.

Apparently all of the game footage was rendered in-engine using an Nvidia 680GT graphics card, which is seriously impressive.

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