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The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman


A band of friends meet at the Inn of the Last Home in the town of Solace. Five years ago they went their separate ways, searching for evidence of the lost gods. Their findings were inconclusive, but their reunion is interrupted by the news of vast armies allied with dragons on the march and the arrival of strangers bearing a crystal staff...and the long-lost power of healing. The continent of Ansalon is riven by war and it falls on this band of heroes to save it from destruction.

The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy is one of the most famous works of epic fantasy of the 1980s. Published in 1984 and 1985, the trilogy and its immediate sequel series (The Dragonlance Legends) have together sold almost 30 million copies, making them one of the biggest-selling series of that decade. Millions of fantasy readers started out in the genre by reading these novels.

The question arises, then, is it a good idea to revisit these works as an adult and risk ruining nostalgic teenage memories in the process?

The answer is mixed. The paradox at the heart of enjoying the Dragonlance Chronicles is what age group it's actually aimed at. The generally jovial tone (even when quite dark things are happening), the casual dialogue (this is a trilogy where medieval fantasy characters say "Yeah!" a lot) and the extremely breezy pace make this feel like a series aimed at children. I don't mean YA, I mean 7-10 year olds. The prose is simple and easy to read, and it feels very much like a work aimed in writing style at the same kind of audience as The Hobbit. There's moments of whimsical humour, stirring action and intriguing worldbuilding which do withstand comparison with Tolkien's work, despite the less-accomplished writing.

However, there are moments when the series abruptly goes much more adult. There are several sex scenes (albeit mostly of the "fade to black" kind) and female characters are threatened with sexual assault on a fairly regular basis. Tanis Half-elven also can't even meet a stranger on the road without carefully explaining how his mother was assaulted by a human man, leading to his conception and outcast status from both communities. The trilogy is also painfully 1980s in how it tries to have both strong female characters (Laurana, Tika, Kitiara, Goldmoon) and then gets them into situations of undress, or wearing revealing armour or clothes (Tika, at least, gets to make some wry observations on this that makes me suspect Margaret Weis was rolling her eyes as she wrote to market requirements). There's also a quite spectacular amount of violence, including characters being beheaded, turned to stone or set on fire on a fairly regular basis, and some psychological horror in the form of Berem, who is cursed to die and live again so often that he is going insane.

If you can overcome the tonal dissonance - the gap between the lightweight, juvenile writing and sometimes darker, more adult content - then it's possible to enjoy the Dragonlance Chronicles as a fast-paced, popcorn read. The trilogy does have another key feature (or bug) which is that it is an attempt to adapt no less than twelve Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules into a coherent story. Several times the narrative cuts away from our heroes embarking on another side-quest only to come back to them after that quest is completed, leading to the heroes thinking wistfully back on adventures that the reader never experienced (such as the journey to Ice Wall Castle, or Raistlin's completely out-of-nowhere return to the main story in the closing pages of the third book). This does make the story feel somewhat incomplete. It also means that the stories are extremely fast-paced: the Chronicles trilogy features a bigger story and more characters and events than The Lord of the Rings in about 50,000 fewer words. Some will enjoy the breakneck pace, others may lament the lack of character and plot development this results in.

The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy (***) is fast-paced, fun and easy to read. It's also simplistic, juvenile in tone and has not aged fantastically well. Truth be told, there's much better options available for both adult and children fans of fantasy these days. But if you can overlook the issues, there is still some fun to be had in revisiting Tanis, Raistlin, Caramon, Flint, Goldmoon, Riverwind, Tas, Kitiara, Sturm, Laurana, Gilthanas, Lord Soth and the rest of this memorable bunch of archetypes. The trilogy is available now in the UK and USA.

Book 1: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal


3 March 1952. A sizeable meteorite crashes into Chesapeake Bay, obliterating most of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. As the USA reels from the disaster, which kills millions, the resulting ecological damage threatens to start a runaway greenhouse effect which will make the planet uninhabitable within a century. The world's nations rally to begin a crash space programme to colonise the Moon and Mars to save as many people as possible.

The Calculating Stars (which has just won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel) is the first novel in the four-book Lady Astronaut series, which takes place in an alternative history where a meteorite strike in 1952 threatens the future of the human race. The title refers to the main protagonist, Elma York, a WWII transport pilot and mathematician who finds herself at the forefront of the mission to save the human race. This effort involves a multi-national effort via a trans-national space race involving thousands of people.

Numerous issues are raised and explored by The Calculating Stars, including an exploration of the Space Race starting earlier, using less sophisticated 1950s technology; a confrontation of sexism and racism in the setting; the damage caused by the meteorite and resulting climate change, complete with deniers refusing to believe anything bad will happen; and an exploration of the intersection of science, societal change and technology.

This multitude of plot points contributes to the book's length. At over 500 pages, it's a fair bit longer than most SF novels tend to be these days, but the sheer amount of material that needs to be explored means the pages fly by. The Calculating Stars is also written in an extremely easy-to-read manner, with prose that lacks artistry but also doesn't get in the way of the story. In this sense The Calculating Stars feels like an old-fashioned Hugo Award winner, like Spin or Rendezvous with Rama, eschewing stylised prose and in-depth characterisation to instead focus on the plot and the high concepts.

The book does adopt a more modern outlook by tackling 1950s issues of sexism and racism head-on. An interest social point from World War II is that women were able to take on a multitude of roles, from working in bomb factories to flying non-combat aircraft (apart from in Russia, where they were able to serve more freely on the front lines), but the second the war ended they were expected to go back to being housewives and mothers. The meteorite crisis means that once again women have to take a front line role as mathematicians, programmers for the very early computers and in other roles that a lot of men are unhappy with. Some have suggested this problem is overstated in the book, but if anything it probably undersells it (if anything, Elma's husband being a paragon of equality-supporting hunkness who supports her every decision feels a bit convenient, but given everything else going on it's an understandable approach), and not tackling the issue would be highly unrealistic.

Months and sometimes years flash by in chapters and the sheer scale of the effort to save the human race is impressively depicted. The novel does not shirk away from the darker side of human nature in the time period, but it also highlights its good points, such as the much greater acceptance of scientific discovery and exploration. Some may question the realism of us being able to get to the Moon more than a decade earlier than in real life, but Kowal's afterword provides some compelling arguments.

The Calculating Stars (****) is both a traditional, even classic-feeling SF novel and a modernist, revisionist take on a fascinating time period, celebrating the human spirit in full. As others have said, it is an enjoyable mix of The Right Stuff and Hidden Figures. It is available now in the UK and USA. It is followed by The Fated Sky and the forthcoming The Relentless Moon and The Derivative Base.

Spinning Silver


Miryem's father is the village moneylender, but his kindness and gullibility means he isn't very good at his job. When Miryem takes over, she finds ways of turning silver into gold and getting those who have taken advantage of her family for years into paying up. Her skills are so great they even attract the attention of the supernatural Staryk, who make her an offer: turn silver into gold three times and she can become a queen. Miryem seeks to defy the Staryk, leading her into a very dangerous alliance...

Naomi Novik is a former video game designer turned fantasy author, best-known for her epic "Napoleonic Wars but with dragons" series, Temeraire, and her single-volume fantasy Uprooted. Spinning Silver is another stand-alone fantasy, a modern fairy tale which pits a young woman against the lords of winter with the fate of her homeland and her family in the balance.

The opening 100 pages or so of Spinning Silver are as fine a slice of modern fantasy as one could wish for, with vivid descriptions of the landscape, an excellent depiction of small town politics and life and a small but memorable cast of well-drawn individuals. Miryem's development from hapless young girl to accomplished businesswoman is well-handled and the transition from a straightforward rustic story to one of an emerging supernatural threat is compelling.

Where the book starts to falter is that decision that, rather than keep this a small-scale fantasy, the author decides to make the story more epic, bringing in events in the capital city, multiple new POV characters, a second supernatural threat, the emperor of the land, religion (the main characters are Jewish, although the setting is fictional) and other elements as well. And it has to be said this transition does not work quite as well as it should. Novik's strict, disciplined POV structure and tight writing does not handle the expansion in scale very well, and the story becomes diffused as too many new elements are added into it. I was put in mind of Peter Jackson in Hobbit Trilogy mode being asked to handle a fresh adaptation of Snow White and by the time he's done with it, it's a trilogy with a cast of thousands and an incongruous Orlando Bloom cameo.

This is not to say that Spinning Silver is a bad novel, just one where the strong elements are drawn out over far too long a page count and constantly interrupted by less-interesting characters, side-plots and, oddly, a lot of words spent on the economics of luxury apron trading. When the novel is firing on all cylinders, it's phenomenally atmospheric and richly detailed. When it isn't, it becomes a bit of a slog, not helped by an awkward POV device where we have to spend the first paragraph or two of each new POV shift trying to work out which character we're now with. This is fine in the opening hundred pages when we only have two POVs, but when we get to the end of the book and there's half a dozen in play, it's more of an issue.

Eventually the book ties together is disparate plotlines and we get a somewhat satisfying end, but it feels like the book has to take a lot of unnecessary detours to get there.

Spinning Silver (***½) is well-written with lots of great individual scenes and moments, but the overall pacing and structure is awkward and flawed.

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I'm sure this will go down well.

Short version: Harmony Gold and Tatsunoko have reached a new agreement which renews Harmony Gold's ownership of the rights related to the ROBOTECH franchise and its constituent sub-series (MACROSS, SOUTHERN CROSS & MOSPEADA) for a considerable number of years to come (some reports are saying up to thirty).

As part of the deal, Tatsunoko and Studio Nue will receive a more prominent credit for their role in creating the original series that make up the franchise, and will work more closely with Harmony Gold in the future on new projects.

The first impact of the deal is that both the ROBOTECH and original Japanese versions of the series are now available on streaming services FilmRise, Vudu and Roku (US only at the moment). This is the first time, I believe, that SOUTHERN CROSS and MOSPEADA have ever been released in their original, non-ROBOTECH incarnations.

This deal also clears up any lingering issues with Sony's planned live-action film adaptation of the franchise, and allows them to continue with the project. However, with their preferred directors (James Wan and Andy Muschietti) having moved on to other projects, it's unclear if they are going to wait for those guys to become available again or will start looking for a new director.

The mooted but not-actually-proposed-yet Netflix remake of the entire series would also now be able to proceed, if they so chose.

As part of the deal, HG are apparently open to releasing the various MACROSS prequel and sequel series in the West, although I believe this has been said in the past and nothing has happened.

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Fran Spotnitz of The X-Files and The Man in the High Castle is developing a TV show based on the Eisenhorn saga by Dan Abnett, set in Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 universe. This is the story of an Imperial Inquisitor rooting out heretical cults and followers of Chaos who is forced to embrace the weapons of the enemy to defeat them, and ends up in a precarious situation. There are eight books so far in the series with two more to come, so they have plenty of material to work with.

This series in particular was probably chosen because of the relatively tight focus, small scale and small cast of characters, all of which make this more practical than some of the other stories in the setting.

Square Enix have spilled the beans on their remake of FINAL FANTASY VII.

To confirm previous details, the game is NOT a straight remaster of the first game. Instead, it's a ground-up remake. Square are taking the same story and characters and effectively making the game as if they were making a new title in 2019.

This means dramatically increasing the size and scope of the game, in particular incorporating more open-world elements and new side-quests and extra material. You could complete FF7 in about 22 hours if you really went for it, 30 hours if you were a bit more leisurely and, of course, however long you wanted if you were grinding the world map for levels, materia etc.

FF7 Remake is being split into multiple episodes: the number is unclear but the smart money at the moment is on three. Episode I will be released on 3 March 2020 on PS4 (probably 12-18 months later on PC and XB1) and will cover the opening Midgar part of the game, from the attack on the reactor to the raid on Shinra HQ and our heroes' subsequent flight. This takes about 6 hours or a quarter of the original game, but in the Remake it will fill two Blu-Rays and will be the length of a full-length game (presumably ~30 hours at the lower end). This will be done by adding new subplots and material, such as a sequence where Cloud and Aerith are attacked by shadow monsters on the streets of Midgar. Midgar will also be more open to exploration, unlike the walled-off streets of the original game.

Combat has also been changed to a more dynamic, real-time system where you control character attacks in real time (tapping a button to swing Cloud's sword or fire Barrett's gun-arm) but can pause to issue new orders. When you fill gauges with your real-time attacks, you can then pause to issue special attacks, unleash magic or summons, or use potions. Limit Breaks are still in the game as well. You can also switch between party members (3 in battle, from the same pool as the original game) at will.

The producers have previously said that they envisage the entire project taking as long as the three instalments of FFXIII, which took four years for its three parts to come out.

In addition to this comprehensive remake of FFVII, there'll also be a less dramatic remaster of FFVIII coming out next year as well.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers


The crew of the Wayfarer are a tight unit with a complicated history. Rosemary Harper is a newcomer to the vessel, having to find a way of fitting into the crew whilst also avoiding her own past. But all of the crew of the Wayfarer have their secrets and their demons. When the ship accepts a commission to fly all the way to the galactic core (a journey of a year) to build a new hyperspace tunnel, these secrets will come spilling out.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the debut novel by Becky Chambers and the opening volume in the Wayfarers series. The novel was crowdfunded on Kickstarter in 2012, a result of Chambers not being able to find a publisher for the book, and it has since been a huge success. It was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy Award and Kitschies, and its two sequels and the series overall have been nominated for Hugo Awards.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet opens in a highly familiar manner, with a cast of mistmatched characters living together on a spacecraft being established. From Blake's 7 to Farscape to Firefly to Colin Greenland's Tabitha Jute trilogy to Chris Wooding's Ketty Jay series, this remains a rich and engaging way of establishing character relationships and drama, and here is no different. What is slightly more unusual is the structure. There's relatively little in the way of space heroics or daring-do, with instead the focus being more on character exploration. Through successive episodes, we learn more about each of the characters on the ship: new clerk Rosemary, reptilian navigator Sissix, the medical officer/cook Doc Chef, the navigator Ohan, fun-loving engineers Kizzy and Jenks, buttoned-up algaeist Corbin, ship's AI Lovelace and Captain Ashby.

Despite it's moderate length (just over 400 pages), The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is therefore more of a themed anthology or mosaic novel, a collection of short stories focused on each character with their shared mission (to the titular angry planet) cohering the fragmented narratives into a whole. It's a successful structure, meaning we get to know the crew in great depth before they come together to confront a crisis at their destination.

It's also a refreshingly non-violent space opera. There are moments of jeopardy and danger, but Captain Ashby is a pacifist who doesn't carry weapons on his person or his ship, so they have to think their way out of each situation rather than opening up with guns blazing. It's a more old-skool form of space opera in that sense, with people out-thinking their opponents rather than nuking them.

On the negative side, the chill pace of the novel means the ending explodes almost out of nowhere, with the entire plot wrapped up in near-indecent haste. That's not necessarily a huge problem - the book is very literally all about the journey, not the destination - but the ending of the story does verge on the perfunctory, although the individual character arcs do have satisfying endings. Some may also find it odd that we spend an entire novel building up the characters only to promptly abandon them: the sequels A Closed and Common Orbit and Record of a Spaceborn Few pursue (mostly) different casts of characters in other parts of the galaxy. However, the Wayfarers series is ongoing and we may revisit these characters further down the road.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (****) is a highly entertaining space opera, with a laudable focus on rich characters and a refreshing desire to avoid the cliches of the subgenre. The book's relaxed pace and lack of tension may not be to everyone's liking, but it makes for a different and enjoyable focus to the book.

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This is (probably) happening!

More to come at E3, but Larian stuck a massive "III" logo on their website earlier today. Fans immediately assumed it was DIVINITY: ORIGINAL SIN III, but someone looked at the source files for the logo and found multiple references to Wizards of the Coast as a licensing entity and to BALDUR'S GATE III, so the inference is that this is happening.

Larian have been rumoured several times to be working on the game, adding credibility to the claim.

If so, it's likely this game will be more of a spiritual successor to BG1 and 2 than a direct sequel, as THRONE OF BHAAL definitively ended the story back in 2001 and Wizards' licencing requirement is that developers use the current iteration of their rules and setting, which since BG2 has moved on some 100 years in time and been blown up a couple of times.

This is happening.

Waititi has agreed to direct Warner Brothers' long-gestating AKIRA project. Waititi's plan is to go back to the graphic novel series, meaning this will likely only be the first part of the story (the 1988 anime compressed over 2,500 pages into two hours, which didn't really work well).

Most encouragingly, Waititi has apparently reversed the previous script's decision to move the action in the United States. He wants to return to a Japanese setting with Asian actors. It's unclear if Warners has agreed to that, but Waititi is a proper AKIRA fanboy (his mother took him to see it in the cinema in 1988) and his current movie credit (after the huge success of THOR: RAGNAROK and the WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS TV show) is sky-high, so he may have leveraged that. Negotiations have been going on for months, with Marvel also courting Waititi for a THOR sequel, so Waititi had a lot of power in these negotiations.

The film is now set for release on 21 May 2021.

Calgar's Siege by Paul Kearney


Marneus Augustus Calgar is the Chapter Master of the Ultramarines, one of the most respected, feared and legendary warriors in the Imperium of Man. Fifty years after the defeat of Hive Fleet Behemoth, the domain of Ultramar is still beset by enemies but is held secure by the Imperium's forces, secure enough for Calgar to embark on a goodwill tour of the remote, outlying colony of Zalidar. But Calgar's arrival coincides with that of a full-scale ork invasion force. Calgar's transport is shot down and he and a bare handful of Space Marines have to make a hazardous journey to where the capital, Zalathras, withstands siege.

Paul Kearney is one of the single finest writers working in the SFF field today, adept at telling modern fables with a light touch (such as A Different Kingdom and The Wolf in the Attic) and epic stories of war and redemption (such as The Macht Trilogy and The Monarchies of God). Alas, he is also one of the perennially underread, despite the near-blanket critical acclaim that has accompanied his career to date.

Calgar's Siege is Kearney's second Warhammer 40,000 novel, although the first published. The first, Umbra Sumus, was put on hold due to a copyright dispute between Games Workshop and Sherrilyn Kenyon over the use of the name "Dark Hunters" for a Space Marine Chapter and still hasn't appeared.

Calgar's Siege, fortunately, has made to print and has been worth the wait (also, no foreknowledge of the WH40K setting is required). The marriage of Kearney's formidable skills at storytelling, characterisation and battle scenes (Kearney is, hands down, modern SFF's best writer at combat scenes) with the over-the-top, technicolour, occasionally crazed Warhammer 40,000 setting is one made in heaven. Kearney brings the setting to vivid life as we follow the defence of the hive city of Zalathras against an onslaught of orks.

The action switches between several groups of characters, including the beleaguered planetary administrator struggling to stay on top of the conflict from his tower to the rogue trader Morcault and his crew on the starship Mayfly, who first get wind of the impending invasion and then fly air support and transport during the siege. But the focus is firmly on Marneus Calgar, one of the most legendary characters in the modern 40K canon, as he leads a small number of Space Marines into battle. One of the fun things about the book is seeing Calgar, who can usually summon armies in the hundreds of thousands and vast space armadas in the blink of an eye, deal with just being a common grunt on the ground during a particularly gruelling war in jungle terrain.

Kearney is at home here, mixing up battle scenes with quieter character moments and orchestrating the entire battle with a fine conductor's hand. He is able to craft distinct characters from each Space Marine and many of the ordinary humans defending the planet and give each one a reasonable arc.

There are some minor issues. Kearney's skills at characterisation tend towards moral ambiguity and doubt: heroes who are often heroes because of their flaws and how they overcome them. There isn't much moral ambiguity in Space Marines, who are righteous, determined and genetically engineered towards supreme confidence, although Kearney does nevertheless succeed in making them distinct characters. The ordinary human characters are more conflicted and more interesting as a result. This is more a feature (or bug) of the setting than Kearney's writing and he manages to overcome it well.

More traditional a problem for Kearney, a writer who has never outstayed his welcome, is that the story sometimes feels a bit too streamlined, and more scenes of how the conflict is affecting ordinary citizens may have been welcome to establish the background setting more firmly.

Ultimately, Calgar's Siege (****) is Paul Kearney doing what he does best, crafting intricate stories of compelling characters surviving in the midst of war, chaos and adversity. It's not his best book, nor the best WH40K novel, but it is a strong SFF war novel. It is the first in a trilogy, followed by Calgar's Fury (2017) and the forthcoming Calgar's Reckoning.

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All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders


Two children have immense and varying gifts. Patricia is a nascent witch, can talk to animals and has a special bond with nature. Laurence is an engineering and scientific genius who has built a semi-functional AI and a two-second time machine. As children they are both dismissed as freaks, which draws them closer together. They are separated in their teenage years but fate draws them back together as adults, in a world slipping into despair from political, technological and scientific challenges.

All the Birds in the Sky is the second novel by Charlie Jane Anders, a noted writer and critic best-known for co-founding SFF website io9 (for which, full disclosure, I have written the occasional piece). It's a novel rich in character and variety which develops two protagonists and has them engage in two distinct narrative threads (one science fiction, the other fantasy) which merge as the novel progresses.

It's a novel which wears many hats, from coming-of-age-against-adversity YA adventure (the opening chapters), to adult relationship drama to science fiction disaster novel to a lyrical fantasy fable. Anders' strength as a novelist is moving between these subgenres with impressive ease, flipping from the YA setting to the apocalyptic SF one on a dime but never losing the book's momentum. The book has a lot of humour and drama in it (along with a topping of tragedy) and it handles these shifts in tone with skill.

Core to the book's success is the characterisation of its two leads, the rigorous and logical Laurence and the more instinctive and spontaneous Patricia. The two characters gain strength from leaning on and learning from one another's differences, and overcoming their challenges by working together. Disastrous moments in the novel come from them not trusting one another or working as cross-purposes instead of pooling resources. It's a book that, above all else, focuses on the idea of empathy and understanding, and facing down challenges through cooperation rather than division.

There are some undercooked moments. I would have liked to have known more about the Order of Assassins that crops up several times in the novel, and some late-book revelations about how much the scientists and magicians know about each other come out of nowhere, but otherwise this is a very fine and appropriate novel for our times.

All the Birds in the Sky (****½) comes across as a fusion of Neil Gaiman (on a very good day), Diana Wynn Jones and Robert Holdstock, but with a twinkling flair to the prose that is all Charlie Jane's.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay


Danio Cerra is the son of a tailor who, through luck and connections, finds himself working in the household of the Duke of Mylasia, known throughout the city-stats of Batiara as "The Beast." Adria Ripoli is the daughter of a wealthy family who is predisposed to action and danger. Folco d'Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola are rival mercenary commanders, the greatest generals of their day, whose fame and expertise are desired throughout the world, and who share a hatred and rivalry that will shape all that is to come.

A Brightness Long Ago is the thirteenth novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, the Canadian author who (since the sorrowful departure of Gene Wolfe) may now hold the best claim to being the greatest living writer of fantasy fiction, a claim backed by the likes of both and Brandon Sanderson. Kay's novels take real historical events and then weave a fantastical new shape out of them, creating a rich tapestry of characters, events and emotions that is never less than affecting, and, at his best, can be deeply moving.

Kay's finest novels, arguably, are Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan and Under Heaven, in each of which epic events are set in motion but relayed through the eyes of a small number of fantastically-drawn characters. A Brightness Long Ago comfortably joins their ranks, telling a somewhat larger, more epic story than his previous novel, Children of Earth and Sky (to which A Brightness Long Ago can be read as a prequel, although both novels stand alone). Kay's Batiara - his take on Renaissance Italy - is a land of beautiful cities and gifted artists, writers and philosophers, but it's also a land of feuding politicians and frequent warfare, which the High Patriarch in Rhodias (the Pope, effectively) is unable to overcome. With the Asharite armies threatening to breach the walls of Sarantium to the east, the cities of Batiara and the other Jaddite kingdoms are unable to join forces to save the City of Cities from its fate, which looms large in the background of the novel.

The main focus is on the cast of characters, with Danio as our first-person narrator but the action frequently cutting away to Adria, Folco, Teobaldo and several other prominent characters. As is usual with Kay, these characters are vividly well-drawn, with their hopes, desires and pasts driving their motivations. Kay's gifts lie also in atmosphere, and also in his lack of bloodlust. Too many epic fantasy authors seem to thrive on massive battles with bodies piled up like cordwood afterwards, but Kay has always been a more humane author, not to mention a more historically-minded one; bloodbath battles where tens of thousands are killed are relatively rare in real medieval and Renaissance history, with the most successful generals being those who used military force and sometimes just the threat of military force to achieve clear-cut objectives with the minimum of losses (and thus expense). As a result, the military rivalry between Folco and Teobaldo (loosely inspired by the rivalry between the real Frederico Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta) is more of a fascinating game of chess, with both men seeking to out-manoeuvre the other on the battlefield, not slaughtering one another's men en masse.

Like most of Kay's novels, the book also references artists and creatives, with Danio's ambition to be a bookbinder and seller constantly thwarted by being drawn into the affairs of the mighty, and a minor subplot focusing on an artist who is constantly wandering from city to city, being paid vast sums for work that is generally never completed, because the lord in question dies or their city is taken by someone else. As with most Kay books there are also moments of real warmth, friendship and fellowship. Kay is not afraid to the show the uglier, messier side of life, death and war, but he also embraces the good things about life, and shows that it is worth fighting for.

A Brightness Long Ago (*****) is another superb novel from an author who may be fantasy's most reliably excellent, thoughtful, atmospheric and humane writer, and one whose powers remain notably undimmed. It's a book about lives, how people live them and the events that shape them, and how everything is connected. The novel will be published on 14 May in the UK and USA.

Book 1: Seraphina's Lament


The Sunset Lands are suffering. Political discontent seethes, as the collectivist revolution which promised liberty and freedom from the old autocracy has instead devolved in a brutal, totalitarian dictatorship. The once-verdant farmlands of the east have been devastated by drought, whilst to the west the market towns which thrived on trade other lands have grown poor and destitute. Change is coming, as a wave of terrible hunger rolls in from the east and an ancient, powerful force returns to the world after aeons asleep.

Seraphina's Lament is the debut novel by Sarah Chorn, a long-established SFF blogger (her website is Bookworm Blues), and also the first novel in a series entitled The Bloodlands. The book features some traditional fantasy tropes, such as "Chosen Ones" who gain great powers, but is also rooted in real historical events, in this case the horrific famine known as the Holodomor which wracked Ukraine from 1932 to 1933, killing at least three million people.

Seraphina's Lament is the story of a group of special people: Seraphina herself, who gains unusual powers related to warmth and fire; her brother Neryan, who likewise gains powers related to water; the (slightly) Stalin-esque Premier Eyad; the rebel leader Vadden; a young woman named Mouse; and a mysterious man from the far east, Taub, whose hunger from the famine eventually results in a startling and horrifying transformation. This is the first way that the book embraces a standard fantasy trope - a group of people gaining special powers - and then inverts it, with some of that group going insane and others behaving in an evil or self manner. The motives of even Seraphina and Neryan, the most positive members of this group, are questionable at times.

This is a modern dark fantasy, with stripped-back worldbuilding, a rattling pace (the book is a breezy 300 pages long) and a strong focus on a small core group of protagonists rather than sprawling across a huge cast. It kept reminding me of Mark Lawrence's Prince of Thorns, with its dark tone, tight focus and sparse, effective prose that occasionally erupts in moments of haunting eloquence. The difference is that Seraphina's Lament feels both more fantastical, with its depiction of humans becoming something other than human (in what feels occasionally like a much darker take on Steven Erikson's notion of Ascendancy, from his Malazan series) and also more grounded, with its Ukrainian historical inspiration being worn firmly on its sleeve.

The book winds through the rotating POV cast, depicting the world crashing around our protagonists and antagonists (whose lines blur on occasion), until it reaches a revelatory and messy ending which leaves things open for the forthcoming sequel, An Elegy for Hope.

On the negative side of things, the stripped-back worldbuilding (with no map or lengthy appendix of made-up names, as fun as that can sometimes be) is welcome but at times it gets a little too sparse, with little sense of what other countries are out there, or even how big the Sunset Lands are supposed to be, or whether the famine is a worldwide or localised phenomenon. The tone is also unrelentingly grim, with nary a ray of sunshine or hope to be found in the novel. The book's brevity prevents the darkness - and it is real darkness, of both an oppressive society and psychological, rather than brutality for the sake of it - from becoming too overwhelming, but it would be nice to see a few signs that this was a world worth fighting for or saving.

Those are relatively minor concerns. Seraphina's Lament (****) is an original, thought-provoking and unsettling novel that leaves the reader wanting more. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Fox have commissioned six short (10-15 minute) films to be made to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ALIENS franchise. The first two are out now.

They're the best ALIEN stories we've seen since possibly ALIEN 3 (if not ALIENS), and it shows the short run format fits the franchise quite well, better than two-hour movies where we can predict half the beats ahead of time. Interesting to see if the quality holds up over the other four.

Netflix are making a live-action version of COWBOY BEBOP and have confirmed the cast:

Spike Siegel - John Cho (HAROLD & KUMAR, STAR TREK)
Jet Black - Mustafa Shakir (LUKE CAGE)
Faye Valentine - Danielle Pineda (THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, THE ORIGINALS)
Vicious - Alex Hassell (TORCHWOOD, SUBURBICON)

There are all very good actors, although some of the changes are interesting: Spike being older than Jet, everyone being older than their original incarnations etc. No word on Ein, Ed or the music yet, which I know will be a dealbreaker for a lot of people.

For realz.

Netflix has launched - today! - a new animated anthology series called Love, Death and Robots. It has 18 episodes, ranging from 6 to 20 minutes in length in a variety of styles. Two are original, the rest are based on existing SF short fiction, including three stories by John Scalzi, two by Alastair Reynolds, one by Mark Kloos, one by Joe Lansdale and one by Peter F. Hamilton (Sonnie's Edge from the Second Chance at Eden collection, set in the Night's Dawn universe).

I've seen the first three and very impressed so far. The animation is excellent, the scripts are pretty good and the stories quite effective. Hoping the rest keep up the good work.

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Anyone else watching this? Just finished catching up with Season 2. It's an animated show from most of the team who made AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER and THE LEGEND OF KORRA, but in an all-new world and setting.

The premise is that the continent of Xadia used to be inhabited by humans and elves, who lived in harmony. However, the humans became jealous of the elves' natural source of magic, primal sorcery. They created their own form of sorcery, but the elves considered this type of magic - dark magic - to be evil and exiled the human to the western half of the continent, cutting them off with a sea of lava. The elves allied with a race of powerful dragons to stop the humans from returning.

Just before the series opens, the king of the most powerful human nation, Katolis, has slain the Dragon King in combat. In response, the elves dispatch an elite band of assassins to kill him in turn. The king's two sons discover that the king also stole the Dragon King's last egg. They ally with one of the elven assassins to return the egg to Xadia to restore peace between the nations, but factions within both the human and elven nations oppose them.

It is a kids show, although with a lot of smart references for adult watchers. THe tone is similar to AVATAR, so if you were down with that, you'll probably enjoy this. It also shares a lot of the voice cast. The story is fairly generic (although there are some nice worldbuilding twists like LAVA ELVES!) but the characters are a lot of fun and there's also a lot of moral ambiguity, with the villains being given a lot of credible motivations for what they are doing. There's a lot of laughs, but also some moments of tragedy: a flashback in Season 2 to the events that wiped out the previous generation of characters is pretty harsh.

The main complaint would be that they don't have the budget of KORRA (or maybe even AVATAR for that matter), so they've adopted a clever way of using 3D animation with 2D post-processing over the top to render complex scenes very quickly. In Season 2 this looks fantastic, but in Season 1 they were still getting used to it, with several scenes with a weird framerate drop. It's not massively noticeable, but it is mildly irritating. Fortunately that seems to have bitten the dust for Season 2, which is much more technically accomplished.

One benefit of this system is the speed with which they can produce new episodes: each season is only 9 20-minute episodes, but they can release 2-3 seasons per year (similar to how they handled VOLTRON), which is pretty cool. Season 3, if greenlit, should air around July or August, for example.

Overall, a fine slice of animated fantasy.

Fire and Blood


The greatest empire in the history of the known world was the Valyrian Freehold. From volcanic Old Valyria dragons and their riders conquered most of the world, until the Doom destroyed the empire in a single day of fire and smoke. Thousands of miles to the west, the Targaryen family was the only group of Valyrian dragonriders to survive the catastrophe. Rather than try to reclaim the homeland or seize the colonial territories, the Targaryens instead turned their eye west, to the great continent of Westeros where seven kings and queens vied for power against one another. Aegon the Conqueror and his sister-wives Rhaenys and Visenya conquered the land with their dragons and gave birth to a dynasty that would rule the continent for nearly three hundred years.

The history of Fire and Blood is an unusual one. Way back in 2007, George R.R. Martin's publishers suggested they release a companion volume to the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin agreed, but his workload on the novel A Dance with Dragons prevented him from writing it immediately so he suggested that Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson (who ran the largest ASoIaF fansite, write the book using the material they had collected together over the years from the books and some notes he had provided. When he finished Dragons he would write a few thousand words of introduction and sidebars.

As is now well-known, Martin took longer than expected to write and publish A Dance with Dragons, so it wasn't until 2012 that he finally delivered the sidebars and notes he'd promised...but rather than a few thousand words, he'd ended up writing about 300,000 words in the space of a few months. Although this encompassed many parts of the backstory and setting, the centrepiece was a massive section on the history of the Targaryen kings, running from Aegon the Conqueror to Aegon III in extreme detail. Needless to say, this was far too much and Garcia and Antonsson found themselves massively compressing that material for the book eventually published in 2014 as The World of Ice and Fire. The question of what to do with the original, uncut manuscript arose, with Martin pondering releasing it as a stand-alone book (his "GRRMarillion" as he joked, referencing Tolkien's The Silmarillion). In the event he left as reference material and used excerpts from it as short stories for his various anthologies (The Princess and the Queen, The Rogue Prince and Sons of the Dragon).

In 2018, with the sixth and (hopefully) penultimate novel in the series, The Winds of Winter, still incomplete, Martin's publishers have decided to finally release this material as a stand-alone book. It's a curious beast in several respects. Despite the comparison, it really isn't a GRRM version of The Silmarillion. The Silmarillion covers the entire mythology and history of Middle-earth, from its creation through the ancient wars between the higher powers to the desperate War of the Jewels between the exiled Noldor elves and the forces of the first dark lord, Morgoth. It covered thousands (if not tens of thousands) of years and channelled an epic combination of Homer, the Bible and the heroic cycle of Gilgamesh. This tome is instead much more like a fictional version of Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It covers the first 135 years (or so) of the Targaryen dynasty in exacting detail, from Aegon's invasion and conquest of Westeros through the uprising of the Faith Militant against his children when they refused to give up the practice of incest through the long, eventful reign of Jaehaerys the Conciliator (who restored peace to the realm but only at grievous cost) and then to the massive, multi-sided civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons and its chaotic aftermath. The book cuts off at this point with the remainder of the story - the Young Dragon's invasion of Dorne, the debauched reign of Aegon the Unworthy, the five Blackfyre Rebellions, the tragedy of Summerhall, the War of the Ninepenny Kings and Robert's Rebellion - to follow in an as-yet unwritten successor volume;

How much you enjoy Fire and Blood will depend on several factors. The first is your pre-existing investment in the ASoIaF/Game of Thrones setting. If you really enjoy reading about fictional backstory, about the socio-economic underpinnings on why certain things happened, and if you like treating fantasy like real history, with the more lore and detail the better, then absolutely Fire and Blood is worth picking up. Although the broad strokes of the story are familiar from the main series, there's an absolute plethora of new information here, and dramatisations of key moments from the history of the Seven Kingdoms (when the high and somewhat remote style of much of the book gives way to almost novelistic out-takes of key scenes). There's also lots of completely new material, minor episodes, even small wars and skirmishes which have gone unmentioned so far in the main series.

If, on the other hand, you take the view that only as much backstory and worldbuilding should be there to support the main narrative at hand, and anything not related to that is irrelevant, then absolutely Fire and Blood is not for you. There's relatively little material in this book which I think will become relevant in the main series, a couple of minor elements aside.

As a narrative, Fire and Blood is more lively than I was expecting. Martin's structural conceit is that the book is the work of Archmaester Gyldayn, an archmaester preparing a history of the Targaryen dynasty in the time of King Robert Baratheon, and Gyldayn is happy to discuss both the dry, traditional histories and also the more salacious rumours of unreliable eyewitnesses (most entertainingly Mushroom, a court fool from the reign of Viserys I through Aegon III who kept careful records on everything that happened, although he often added an unnecessarily ribald slant). On occasion, Gyldayn seems to give up on trying to find the truth and instead presents several theories various maesters and historians have put forward, inviting the reader to work out what happened themselves (and providing fodder for many years of fan forum and Reddit discussions to come).

It helps that Martin stretches a few muscles here that he hasn't used in a while. In particular, in one downright disturbing episode (and arguably the book's highlight) he gets to use his skills as a horror writer that he hasn't fully deployed since the likes of Fevre Dream and The Skin Trade. In another he channels a history of maritime exploration and gives us a particularly intriguing mystery surrounding the very nature of the world itself.

The other thing that Martin does well here is engaging with thematic ideas. One of these is the sheer random chance of history, the number of times that history moves onto a completely different course due to one or two unforeseen events. If anything, Martin lowballs this compared to real world history, probably to make it feel more convincing. Another key point is the price and value of peace. The long reign of Jaehaerys I, the Conciliator, has been mentioned before but usually skipped over in any kind of detail. We know that Jaehaerys restored peace after the insanity of his uncle and the religious wars with the Faith, and we know that he built the Kingsroad and created the first codified set of laws, but apart from that the histories tend to skip almost immediately to his immediate descendants and their civil war, the Dance of the Dragons. But Martin fills the rule of Jaehaerys (which was really a co-rule by Jaehaerys and his sister-wife, Good Queen Alysanne) with intrigue, the aforementioned unusual mysteries and an interesting cohort of supporting characters. Jaehaerys and Alysanne's lives are difficult ones and they pay as much, if not more, of a price to keep the Seven Kingdoms in peace and prosperity than their ancestors and descendants would through war. Arguably this is the book's finest triumph, making the bits when people aren't smashing in each other's faces with morningstars as gripping and interesting as the bits where they do.

The level of detail does vary from episode to episode and I suspect people may have foregone the extremely lengthy account of Aegon III's regency in favour of more detail on the Conquest, or even on a prologue detailing the Targaryen's origins in Valyria (here very lightly skipped over), but I was surprised that the pacing held up as well as it did over such a long book (this book is as large as Martin's full-blown novels A Game of Thrones and A Feast for Crows, for comparison purposes, and isn't far off A Clash of Kings) given its non-traditional nature.

I would say one major omission (although this may be just my thing) is the lack of any maps. In fact, in at least the UK edition, there aren't any maps at all, not even the ones normally present in the novels. This is a major omission as the military campaigns make frequent mention of locations and places as the site of battles and the absence of maps sometimes makes it harder to visualise what's going on. It does have excellent illustrations by Doug Wheatley, however.

Fire and Blood (****) is something of an unorthodox book and one that is certainly packed with surprises, intrigue, action and occasional thought-provoking moments regarding historical processes, although the pace occasionally flags and some episodes feel like they didn't need quite so much detail. But if you enjoy the world of A Song of Ice and Fire and want to delve much more deeply into the lore and backstory, the book is a must buy. If you are less interested in that aspect of the setting, or irritated that Martin delayed The Winds of Winter by a few months to write this, then it's certainly not an essential, immediate purchase. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Full disclosure: I am a moderator on the website and the creator Atlas of Ice and Fire website, so my investment in this work may be higher than most. Whilst I have tried to have been as honest as possible in my review, you may want to bear these factors in mind.

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Book 1: A Wizard of Earthsea


When Karg raiders attack the island of Gont, the inhabitants of a small village are saved by a young boy who has discovered that he has magical powers. A sorcerer directs him to the island of Roke to there learn the ways of wizardry and controlling his abilities. Ged, as he becomes known, shows great promise but his pride is his downfall: an arrogant display of magical power goes awry, and unleashes a dark evil upon the world which only Ged can defeat.

Originally published in 1968, Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea has become an acknowledged classic and required reading in the fantasy canon. Fantasy was in a far more nascent state in the 1960s than now, with the genre divided between more literary works (such as Gormenghast) and action-driven swords and sorcery adventures, such as the Conan tales by Robert E. Howard. However, the immense success of The Lord of the Rings had driven publishers to seek out or even commission more work in the genre. Le Guin agreed to write a story about a wizard, inspired by the idea of what Merlin was like when he was a child. For a setting Le Guin was struck by Earthsea, a vast archipelago of hundreds of islands she'd created for a couple of short stories in 1964, and began work on a story that expanded the detail of the setting considerably.

She also tremendously popularised the "wizarding school" idea later used to blockbuster effect by J.K. Rowling. Le Guin didn't create the trope, which was first deployed by T.H. White in The Sword in the Stone (1939) and then by Theodore Cogswell in "The Wall Around the World" (1953), Robert Sheckley in "The Accountant" (1954) and Eleanor Estes in The Witch Family (1960), but she certainly ran with it.

A Wizard of Earthsea is still, however, a work that wrong-foots the audience. Most such fantasy tales feature the hero encountering an external threat (a monster, a dragon, an enemy wizard, a dark lord) and working to overcome it with their wits, skills and the help of friends they meet upon the way. This book doesn't do that: instead, Ged's primary opponent is himself, his own hubris, arrogance and the dark shadow of his own soul. His enemy is his internal fears and weaknesses, given form. The result is a profoundly introspective book about a character having to find himself and grow up, but where the metaphor becomes literal.

It's an audacious and, I suspect, slightly bemusing idea for younger children, but it certainly adds a tremendous amount of depth to the character of Ged, helping him avoid being a traditional "chosen one" hero figure. Before he can do any heroics in the future, he has to first come to terms with himself.

Which isn't to say that Le Guin skimps on the other elements required for a classic fantasy. The worldbuilding is excellent and atmospheric, the small secondary cast of characters is well-drawn, and for such a short book there's quite a few memorable set-pieces, running from Ged defeating the Karg raiders with his wits, to his mage-duel with Jasper which goes horribly wrong to his epic confrontation with the Dragon of Pendor. The book also touches on the value of friendship and the true nature of a hero.

A Wizard of Earthsea (*****) is fifty years old this year, but with its focus on internal conflict and its sophisticated worldbuilding, feels fresher and more vibrant than ever. It works well as both a stand-alone novel and as the opening novel of the six-book Earthsea sequence. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of The Books of Earthsea omnibus edition.

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The Fifth Season


In a remote future, the Earth's landmasses have been fused together into a supercontinent called the Stillness. The geological catastrophe which caused this event still haunts the planet, with frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions causing devastation across thousands of miles in titanic disasters known as Fifth Seasons. Many civilisations have risen and fallen, with the world currently dominated by the Sanze Empire from its grand capital of Yumenes.

A new Fifth Season has arrived, heralded by the opening of a vast volcanic rift below Yumenes. Chaos grips the Stillness as thousands takes to the roads to flee the devastation. Among them is Essun, an orogene, one who can use the powers of the earth to her own ends. Her son has been murdered by her husband, who has fled with their daughter. Essun sets out to find them, as all around her the world begins to end.

There is a long and honourable tradition of genre fiction set at the end of the world, when confused humans try to live their lives in the shadow of earlier, more ancient and glorious civilisations. Jack Vance arguably became its first champion, with his 1950 novel The Dying Earth and three sequels. This accomplished, erudite, witty yet melancholy series gave the subgenre of fiction its name and directly inspired arguably its most famous work: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, sometimes cited as the greatest work of science fiction or fantasy ever written. More recently the Dying Earth subgenre has gained increased fame from Monte Cook's excellent Numenera RPG setting (and its video game spin off, Torment: Tides of Numenera).

N.K. Jemisin's sixth novel fits nicely into this genre: it is, at the very least, tens of thousands of years in the future (possibly millions). Strange obelisks float in the sky for unknown purposes. The ruins of ancient, baffling civilisations lie everywhere. Recurring geological catastrophes seek to destroy humanity, but powerful humans known as orogenes seek to defy them. But the same orogenes who can stop the quakes can make them vastly worse, so other humans - "Guardians" - are appointed to guard them and, if necessary, kill them if it looks like they are going to be come a danger themselves. It's a world of terrible inequality, where people are born into castes and forced to stay there for their entire lives. Selective breeding experiments are commonplace, and orogenes are treated like animals by those who fear their power.

The Fifth Season is thus a novel about many things: humanity and bigotry, history and myth, life and death, and the unquenchable desire of human beings to survive and seek happiness. It's a book that's received a lot of critical acclaim, with the trilogy it opens winning no less than three Hugo Awards and a score of other awards. This acclaim and the book's literary qualities have, paradoxically, put off a lot of readers who prefer their fantasy more straightforward and predictable.

Which is a shame because The Fifth Season is also a rollicking good epic fantasy novel. There's massive and awe-inspiring displays of apparently-magical power. The "magic system" is given consistent rules and treated with as much respect and seriousness as in any Brandon Sanderson book. The worldbuilding is vigorous, original and well-thought-out. There's even pirates, and some nice action scenes on the high seas. There's moments of strange alienation at the discovery of awe-inspiring remnants of earlier ages, and moments of horror at some of the creatures and powers unleashed by the same.

The book's structure is also innovative: the narrative is split into three strands, and we follow each strand with a different character at the centre of it. Each strand is set in a different time period, and as the book continues the characters and time periods converge until the book's ending results in a moment of catharsis: less of a twist ending and more one of simple revelation that makes what you've been reading make sense. Each strand is also told in a different writing style (moving from second-person/present-tense to third-person/past-tense to third-person/present-tense) which I expected to dislike, but instead it worked extremely well. The different writing style acts as a consistent reminder of what part of the story and the timeframe you are reading at any given moment, and transitions did not jar at all.

It helps that Jemisin is one of the stronger prose-writers in modern SFF, consistently nailing great moments of dialogue and deploying formidable powers of description. The book's themes are big ones, taking in ecological and environmental issues, gender relations, sexuality (especially interesting when some of the far-future humans are evolved in some unexpected manners) and inequality, but the book never remotely becomes preachy or bogged down in some semantic political argument. Everything services the world and the story that Jemisin has created.

The book also has pace. This book is 450 pages of relatively big type, and the sequel is even shorter. This modest page count helps move the story along at a brisk clip, with the narrative rotating between its three POV characters like a well-oiled machine, until the book brings its various strands together in a satisfying manner that sets the scene perfectly for the sequel, The Obelisk Gate.

The Fifth Season (*****) is one of the best opening volumes to a science fiction or fantasy trilogy of the past few years, and is strongly recommended.

Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton


AD 2204. A derelict alien spacecraft has been found on a remote planet. A group of explorers are gathered together to investigate the wreck and the strange secrets it contains. For each of them, it has been a strange and stressful road that has led to this time and place. And, centuries in the future, they are revered as the “Five Saints” for the actions they are about to take…

Salvation is the first novel in both a new series and a new universe for Britain’s most successful living SF author, Peter F. Hamilton. It’s also a novel that mixes Hamilton’s well-known strengths – in-depth SF worldbuilding, an epic narrative, the meticulous construction of intriguing mysteries, his skill at both the long-form novel and short stories – with a new approach which splits the story into three distinct strands.

In the first approach, we have the “modern-day” storyline about the gathering of the protagonists (of which there are six; the disparity between the number of characters and the later veneration of five of them is the first clue that something odd is going on) and their deployment to the alien crash site. This story is told in the first person from one of the team and is interesting enough, although it really only serves as a framing device. In the second part of the story we get a lengthy flashback from each character about a key event in their lives, one that also defined who they are but also ties in directly with the over-arching mystery. This section feels a lot like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (itself inspired by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) and is where Hamilton gets a bit structurally interesting, as he combines the six apparently unrelated novella-length narratives into one story.

In the third section, it’s centuries or millennia in the distant future and the human race seems to be in desperate straits. This part of the story is most baffling, initially, due to a lack of context, but as the story unfolds the reader can start to put together the pieces. This results in impressive foreshadowing.

Hamilton moves between the three plot strands with skillful economy – at 530 pages this may not be a short book, but it’s positively a novella compared to so some Hamilton books (the longest of which are more than twice this size) – building up this new vision of the future. It’s a much less advanced vision than either the Confederation of the Night’s Dawn series or the Commonwealth of much of the rest of his fiction, but it’s still a big, brash and optimistic view. The key invention this time around is the quantum entanglement portal, which stands in for the wormholes of his earlier books. In practical terms they are similar, but they have a limitation in that twinned portals have to be created together and then one of them physically moved to the destination to be set up (it can’t be generated from light-years away). They are also much less energy-dependent, meaning that portals are set up everywhere, allowing someone to commute to work in London from their flat in Glasgow in five minutes. The super-rich even have “portalhomes”, where one bedroom might be in New York City but the bathroom is in Antarctica. It’s a fun concept that Hamilton explores to the hilt.

There’s also a foreboding tone to events. Hamilton is building up to something quite terrible happening between the present and far future storylines, and it’s not until late in the book we get an inkling of what that might be. Of course, the book ends on a cliffhanger just as we get to that point. The good news is that the second book, Salvation Lost, is almost finished already and locked for release in 2019, with The Saints of Salvation to wrap things up in (presumably) 2020.

Character-wise, Salvation probably lacks a figure as dynamic and memorable as Paula Myo, Ozzie or Syrinx, but the Canterbury Tales-style structure does allow each of the major characters to be painted in a lot of depth with their backstories and motivations fleshed out. There are also political and ideological differences between the group, which have to be overcome for them to work out what is going on.

The far future storyline is a lot weirder, with characters being trained to face an enemy who may not appear in their lifetimes, but Hamilton sells the weirdness quite well, even if the characters aren’t quite as engaging this time around.

Salvation (****) is in many ways classic Hamilton: bold, brash, epic, optimistic and packed with great worldbuilding and ideas. It’s also structurally original (for him), relatively constrained in scope and page-count and builds up a terrific momentum which is only arrested by the all-too-soon ending. On the negative side of things, the characters perhaps aren’t among Hamilton’s best and although quantum-entanglement portals may not be wormholes, they are very similar and it does feel like Hamilton is revisiting well-trodden ground here. Still, it’s a compelling, rich SF novel.

Thin Air by Richard Morgan


Bradbury City, Mars. Hak Veil used to pilot ships through the blackness between worlds, acting as a highly-trained combat operative. After a few things went wrong, he's wound up abandoned on the Red Planet, trying to find a way of getting back to Earth. His unique abilities allow him to find work in the most unlikely of places and his new job is a doozy: playing bodyguard to a pen-pusher, one of a team sent to audit the colony's finances on behalf of the colonial authorities. But things soon start going south and Veil finds himself on the line, with the promise of a ticket home being the only thing keeping him going...

Rewind a decade or so and Richard Morgan was one of the hottest new voices in science fiction. His Takeshi Kovacs trilogy (now a Netflix TV show under the title Altered Carbon) was a vital, angry work of cyberpunk meshed with hard-edged, military SF. Market Forces was a corporate thriller with an SF angle and the even angrier, dirtier Black Man (Thirteen in the US) was a gripping and increasingly prescient story of nations collapsing amidst a tidal wave of rising social discontent.

Morgan then took a hard-right turn into the grimmest end of the fantasy genre (albeit SF-tinged) with his Land Fit For Heroes trilogy (The Steel Remains, The Cold Commands, The Dark Defiles), an accomplished work but one where, it turns out, his sensibility was perhaps a little too familiar, with writers like Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence achieving greater success in that end of the market. Morgan's voice and sensibility felt a little redundant in that field at that time, despite his obvious writing chops.

Morgan is now back in the field of science fiction and it feels like the return of one of SF's prodigal sons. SF is ready for a new, scintillating book that tears the genre a new one and does fresh, exciting things.

Thin Air is not that book. That is not to say that Thin Air is a bad novel, as Morgan's skill with prose, with ideas and with violent action remain undimmed. It is, however, a novel that is not so much in his comfort zone as it is one clad in a Richard Morgan dressing gown and slippers. We once again have an ultra-competent, alpha-male protagonist with near-superhuman technological abilities whom everyone underestimates repeatedly, whom women want to have sex with and men want to have a beer with, who is constantly living on the edge of either death or bankruptcy (despite his clear and unique skillset), who gets in over his head but comes out on top through his superior skills and intelligence and ability to murder literally everyone in a room in seconds. When Morgan did that with Takeshi Kovacs, it was fresh and exciting. When he did that with Carl Marsalis, the racial angle added something fascinating to the mix. When he did that with Ringil, the fact he was an angry and unapologetically gay man made that work. With Hak Veil, it's starting to feel a bit less fresh and a bit more like a retread.

It doesn't help that there isn't really a great hook in the story. Mars is being audited and some people are unhappy with that and that's really kind of it. The Martian angle is also not tremendously distinctive either, the odd mention of the weaker gravity and the tall walls of Mariner Valley aside, the book could be taking place in pretty much any SF metropolis on or off Earth. Kim Stanley Robinson's position as the author who has brought Mars vividly to life as its own place better than any other remains unchallenged. Also, most of the characters are distinctly unlikable and the plot makes frequent pit stops for increasingly non-sequitur random sex scenes (rather more than in most of Morgan's prior novels, in fact, including the distinctly late-Heinleinian use of the phrase "pneumatic breasts").

On the plus side, Morgan's writing crackles with kinetic energy and no-one does a brutal turn of phrase better than him. If this novel is Morgan-by-the-numbers, it at least brings the author's talents as well as his weaknesses. There's some pretty good action set pieces, Veil putting together the clues to the mystery is fun (even if, as with his previous novels, there's zero chance of the reader solving the mystery themselves) and there's a wry sense of humour that occasionally surfaces. Whilst virtually all of the characters are unlikable, they're also mostly at least interesting and well-drawn (the major exception being Veil's stripper neighbour whom he also has a no-strings relationship with) and the novel's finale features an appropriate amount of clever plotting and visceral carnage that makes for an explosive ending to the story, even if the stakes never feel hugely engaging prior to that.

Thin Air (***) is a fairly solid Richard Morgan novel. It's far from his best, but certainly readable and it's nice to see him back in the science fiction thriller genre. But it feels like he's capable of far more. Readable, engaging but ultimately perhaps a little too ordinary a novel for an author who should never be ordinary. The book will be published on 25 October 2018 in the UK and USA.


The difference to the 2010 movie (which shall be mentioned no further) is that original AVATAR creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are on board the live-action project as showrunners, writers and executive producers. They're absolutely 100% in charge, and have already committed to no whitewashing of the cast and keeping most of the spirit of the show intact (the promo art shows that Appa, at least, is staying the same). Apparently they and Netflix have been planning this series for "a long time" and will start shooting in early 2019.

Cautiously, intriguing and they're certainly making the right noises. If I did have one concern, it's that AVATAR: TLA was so successful because of the combination of writers and other creatives. Of the other people involved, Dave Filoni is now heading up the STAR WARS animated shows at Lucasfilm, whilst head AVATAR writer Aaron Ehasz and director Giancarlo Volpe are making THE DRAGON PRINCE for Netflix (Season 1 of which dropped last week and is great), so not all of the creative team will be available.

Still, I'm willing to give this a shot. It will be Netflix's second live-action epic fantasy series, after THE WITCHER (which will air in late 2019).

Although he won't be producing it day-to-day.

Monica Owusu-Breen has been tapped to write and producer a fresh version of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, possibly with a black actress taking over the lead role in a contemporary take on the material (although there are some rumours that this has been confused and it may instead be a "next generation" deal with a new Slayer character instead). 20th Century Fox have been apparently keen to do this for a year or so and have spent most of their time working to get a reluctant Whedon involved.

Whedon will produce from afar and will co-write the first episode, but his new HBO gig, THE NEVERS, will prevent him from being involved more regularly.

Okay, I guess? It's been 21 years, so a reasonable amount of time for a remake, although I'd be more interested in a show that revisited the characters in middle age. That'd be a logistically difficult and impractical show to make though (since you couldn't really have 20-year older vampire characters showing up).

Can we get someone to take Freehold's blood pressure please?

Just so.

Whedon describes THE NEVERS as his "most ambitious narrative to date", a serialised story about a group of young women in the Victorian era who have strange and unusual powers (so far, so Whedon).

Whedon apparently presented the project (which started life as a comic book he had planned a few years ago) to several studios, starting a bidding war between HBO and Netflix that ended with HBO victorious. HBO have given a straight-to-series order, without even having to go through the pilot stage.

This continues HBO's aggressive move into genre television, following their greenlighting of the GAME OF THRONES: THE LONG NIGHT pilot, their development of a second GAME OF THRONES spin-off (called EMPIRE OF ASH), their commissioning of a third season of WESTWORLD, their pilot order for the WATCHMEN sequel series, their Jordan Peele horror collaboration (THE LOVECRAFT DIARIES) and their collaboration with J.J. Abrams on a new TV series (DEMIMONDE), although this may be delayed due to his commitment to STAR WARS EPISODE IX.

Book 1: The Spirit Thief


Eli Monpress is a trickster, a thief and a manipulator of spirits. His latest caper involves kidnapping the King of Mellinor, but the kingdom holds a dark and ancient secret that triggers an intervention by the powerful Spirit Court, the arbitrators of the use of spirits and sorcery. Monpress may be in over his head, but he has resources to call upon that no-one suspects.

The Spirit Thief is the first novel in the five-volume Eli Monpress fantasy series by Rachel Aaron, and was her debut novel. The book is standard fantasy caper fare, a little bit Ocean's Eleven by way of Dungeons and Dragons, with a group of mismatched protagonists forced to work together to pull off a challenging mission.

In the right hands - say Scott Lynch with his excellent Lies of Locke Lamora or Joe Abercrombie with a considerably bloodier take on the idea in Best Served Cold - this can make for a gripping and compelling novel. The Spirit Thief doesn't really come close to that kind of quality, but Aaron makes up for the relative lack of depth by making a book that's short, fun and even kind of airy. There's not much in the way of grimdark here (a few cynical musings on power aside), with Aaron instead clearly having fun writing the book and creating a breezy palate-cleanser of a fantasy novel.

There are some interesting ideas, most notably the magic system which revolves around the manipulation of spirits. Every organic object in the world has its own spirit and sorcerers can "talk" to those spirits to bring about events they want: getting a wood spirit to lose cohesion so a door frame collapses and the door can just be pushed over, for example. Monpress's skill is in negotiation: rather than commanding or cajoling spirits, he makes friends with them and can thus extract a much greater level of service than other wizards. Exactly why Monpress has this level of spiritual empathy is unclear, but will presumably be explored in later books.

The magic system is interesting and the central characters are interesting, but so far pretty archetypal: Spirit Court investigator Miranda is by-the-book and overconfident, Eli is a rogue and charmer but with notable secrets, Josef is an honourable warrior whose ideology gets in the way of practicality and Nico is an apparently young girl but with weird superpowers. There's also a talking wolf and a couple of sentient swords, because why not? If you're going to write a fantasy novel you might as well go all-out.

This sometimes leaves The Spirit Thief feeling derivative of other works and it struggles to maintain its own sense of identity. This isn't helped by extremely limited worldbuilding (the nation of Mellinor is so bland it's barely even described, which is a problem when the geological history of the kingdom suddenly becomes important in the finale) and the prose, which can tend towards the bland. Dialogue is a bit better and there are some interesting tics in characterisation which are promising for future books. But overall the book is fun and easy to read.

The Spirit Thief (***½) will win no prizes for originality or the quality of its writing, but it's also a refreshingly straightforward and even more refreshingly short and concise fantasy adventure with some hints that the series may get more interesting in the sequels. The novel is available now in the omnibus The Legend of Eli Monpress (UK, USA).

Book 1: The Ember Blade


Two great empires have dominated the east of Embria, the fall of the great subterranean empire of the urds heralding the rise of Ossia, protected by the Ember Blade and the sacred order of Dawnwardens. But thirty years ago Ossia was invaded in turn by Kroda, a kingdom of order, logic and science. Declaring itself the Third Empire, Kroda sees its destiny is to unite the continent through the Sword and the Word.

Although it is a land under occupation, life is good for many Ossians. The Krodans keep the bandits in check and the roads maintained. For young Aren, an Ossian noble son born into happy fortune, he sees his nation's destiny is in alliance with Kroda. That dream dies when he is betrayed by the empire he believes in. Left to rot in a prison camp, he is given an opportunity to strike back against his enemies...and help reclaim the Ember Blade.

Chris Wooding has been one of science fiction and fantasy's most interesting and restless voices for a long time now, moving from writing cracking YA reads to mature, thoughtful works of science fantasy like The Fade. His work in adult fantasy is mostly contained in the excellent Braided Path series, rooted in Asian mythology and influences, and the rollicking Tales of the Ketty Jay, a dieselpunk saga of airships, fighters, rampaging titans, surly cats and heroes whose buckles are, indeed, swashed.

The Darkwater Legacy is Wooding's back-to-basics take on the traditional fantasy saga (even the title feels like it was copyrighted in 1985). Ossia is a land under the grip of a cruel empire, a heroic band of freedom fighters are trying to save the day and a young man finds himself touched by destiny. It's like David Eddings, Margaret Weis, Tracey Hickman and Terry Brooks had a brainstorming session over a power lunch. If they did, though, then Wooding stole their notes, drank their beer and set about skewing everything slightly away from the way you think it's going to go.

The Ember Blade introduces us to Aren, the son of an Ossian noble who thinks himself destined for great things, unable to accept that his blood means that he will never be taken seriously by the Krodans. His best friend is Cade, a carpenter's son. They are separated by class and their feelings about the Krodan invaders, but they are soon bound together by profound misfortune. Along the way they meet up with a highly dubious warrior, thief and scoundrel, Grub the Skarl (master of the boastful non-sequitur), and a bunch of rebels led by the enigmatic "Hollow Man", before they find themselves on the run from supernatural trackers and gradually realise more is going on than it first appears. So far, so Lord of the Rings meets The Eye of the World. When our characters join forces with a druidess searching for a hero who is the fulfilment of prophecy and reach Skavenhald, a terrible ruin inhabited by a profound supernatural evil (Moria by way of Shadar Logoth, with a name that nods at Warhammer), you may be trying to keep your eyes from rolling. Wooding writes with skill but there's the feeling that maybe the traditional fantasy archetypes are being assembled a bit too familiarly here, as if assembled from an IKEA flatpack.

But then things get a lot more interesting. Skavenhald is weird and a distinctly Lovecraftian tone creeps in as screeching horrible things from other realms threaten to break through the skein of reality. It's more Dark Souls than Balrog Retirement Village, and all the better for it. After this the book becomes more engrossing as Wooding strips back the psychology of his characters, revealing them to be less the Fellowship of the Ring and more the Companions of Utter Dysfunction. One late-emerging main character is fascinating, a middle-aged teacher and patriot whose ruthlessness and resourcefulness dwarfs that of almost any of the other characters. The story takes several extremely unexpected swings (complete with a few shocking dispatches of characters you thought were around for the duration) before we reach the appropriately epic conclusion and the inevitably-frustrating wait for Book 2.

The Ember Blade is Wooding's longest novel to date - just under 800 pages in tradeback - but has more story in it than most entire trilogies. We have a prison break narrative, a horror story, a war story and an urban fantasy adventure. There's pirates, wolves, dodgy Viking warriors and some discomforting WWII allegories. One sequence feels like it's come out of Moby Dick, another out of Baldur's Gate. Wooding has had a frankly unseemly amount of fun in assembling his Big Fat Fantasy Saga and is keen to share that with the reader. The pages rattle by, the worldbuilding becomes more well-rounded and intriguing and the characters never stop growing and changing. It would be easy to condemn the author for writing "just" another throwback fantasy here, but it's also easy to forget that writing a good epic fantasy is still very difficult, and Wooding does it with aplomb.

The Ember Blade (****½) is great fun, a classic epic fantasy which, after a perhaps slightly too-traditional opening, avoids becoming too predictable. The characters are memorable and charismatic, but also flawed, with their darker moments that give them more edge than the one-note heroes of yesteryear. The tone is light and fun to start with, but matures throughout, with a few moments of real darkness at the end as things get real. The novel will be published on 20 September 2018 in the UK (and will be available on import in the USA).

Bethesda have surprise-announced a new FALLOUT video game.

Entitled FALLOUT 76, the game will be more formally unveiled at Bethesda's E3 showcase on 10 June. So far Bethesda have been coy on what the game will be like and about, but Kotaku has lifted the lid on what's going on (using the same sources who nailed everything about FALLOUT 4 months before the announcement).

What Has Been Confirmed

It's called FALLOUT 76 and is partially set in Vault 76. V76 was mentioned in both FO3 and 4 as a control vault, just a normal survival vault and not one of the weird experimental ones. According to reports in FO4, all other records of Vault 76 were expunged. The game is also apparently set in the year 2102, just 25 years after the bombs fell, making it by far the earliest-occurring FALLOUT game (FO4 takes place 185 years later, for example).

What Has Leaked

FO76 started life as FALLOUT 4's multiplayer mode (explaining the mentions of Vault 76 in FO4), but Bethesda cut it partway through development, preferring to concentrate on the quests and the settlement mechanic. When Bethesda cancelled BATTLECRY (an online shooter an external team were working on), they absorbed the team into BGS and gave them the multiplayer mode to play around with. FO76 is the result.

Apparently the game will use the standard FALLOUT setup: a wasteland environment, a Vault, a main story mission, side-quests etc. However, the game takes influences from DAYZ, RUST and ARK: SURVIVAL EVOLVED, with survival mechanics a key part of the game. This builds on FO4's optional survival mode. This makes sense as the setting means there'll be little or no civilisation around, making for a more primal, desperate environment than previous FALLOUT games.

The game will feature multiplayer but it's unclear what this means, whether multiplayer will be a core focus of the game and everything is built around it (like DESTINY) or if it's more of an optional co-op bolt-on to what is still primarily a single-player game (a la FAR CRY 5), or somewhere between.

The game is apparently still using the Creation Engine and a lot of FO4 assets, partially "cleaned up" to reflect that less time has passed for decay to set in.

The game will be released on 27 October 2018, ten years to the day (give or take 24 hours) after FALLOUT 3's release and on the same day the game begins. It's also the day after RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2 hits, which is ballsy for Bethesda (if this was FALLOUT 5 or ELDER SCROLLS VI, no problem, but a spin-off?).

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang


The Second Poppy War between the vast Nikara Empire and the island-bound Federation of Mugen ended in victory for Nikara...just. The cost of victory was high, so the Empire has established an elite military academy at Sinegard. Open to everyone, nobles and commoners alike, the academy is training the next generation of warriors who will defend the Empire. For Rin, a war orphan from the provinces, the academy is her only hope of avoiding her arranged marriage. But the path she sets out on will take her to far stranger places, and in the maelstrom of an unwinnable war involving forces she does not comprehend.

The Poppy War is the debut novel by R.F. Kuang and is an Asian-themed epic fantasy. War, magic and dark forces beyond mortal ken are all present and correct, as are angst, training montages and moral mazes the characters find impossible to travel through without getting blood on their hands and their consciences.

The novel doesn't do anything particularly new, but it does have an interesting arc for the central character of Rin. Normally these kind of stories feature a plucky young hero who is tempted by dark forces but nobly avoids them and wins a great victory for the forces of the light anyway. The Poppy War doesn't do that. It's message is consistently one of choice and consequence: the easy option is always the more costly one, and Rin, being a teenage orphan with no real experience of how the world works, makes pretty much the worst decision at every turn. It's a human and realistic response that moves The Poppy War away from its opening chapters - where it veers a bit too close to every fantasy school drama you've ever read - more towards psychological horror and a bloody-minded war story. Imagine Joe Abercrombie taking over Harry Potter halfway through the series before handing off to R. Scott Bakker for the finale and you may have an idea of the dramatic tonal darkening the novel undergoes on its way to one of the more memorable fantasy finales of recent years.

There's an interesting magic system, based around the summoning of god-spirits into the world, although this is not developed perhaps as fully as it could have been. The worldbuilding is fine on a macro level but on the level of fine detail it is lacking. The best fantasy worlds draw you into them, making you eager to learn more about them, but Nikara and Mugen are drawn in very broad strokes. The modern language (including a fair bit of swearing) and nomenclature are reasonable language choices, but doesn't do much to bring you into the mindset and shoes of the characters. The map, for once, is a hindrance rather than a help as it is drawn with apparently no mind to scale (Nikara is supposedly enormous but the islands of Speer and Mugen - widely separated on the map - are within eyesight of one another) and ends up being more confusing than enlightening.

These elements are negligible compared to the fine character work that's employed, especially as Kuang has very little truck with telling yet another version of the hero's journey. There's also a relentless pace to the novel. In 500 pages it covers more ground than some 2,000-page trilogies, with dramatic shifts in setting, cast and tone as the book proceeds. Compared to fantasy sagas that take a thousand pages to clear their throat, there's something to be said for how quickly and determinedly The Poppy War gets down to business.

The Poppy War (****) is an accomplished fantasy novel, especially for a debut, with an unusually bleak and cynical tone to it that becomes much more pronounced as it continues (to the point where I'm glad the next book I'm reading is the much more positive Space Opera). The characters are interesting and well-developed, but the worldbuilding and magic could be a bit more developed. Hopefully we'll see this in the sequels, as The Poppy War is (as you may have guessed), the opening volume of a trilogy.

The Barbed Coil


The formidable warlord Izgard has crowned himself King of Garizon and donned the Barbed Coil, the symbol of Garizonian rule. As Garizon's armies muster and prepare to invade the neighbouring kingdom of Rhaize, Camron of Thorn takes it upon himself to raise a defending army. Figuring strongly in his plans is Lord Ravis, the mercenary who engineered Izgard's rise to power. No-one knows more about Izgard's plans then Ravis. But the recruitment is complicated by the arrival of a mysterious woman called Tess, who claims to be from a distant land called California...

One-volume epic fantasies are a rare beast. The building of an entire world, the development of not just multiple characters but entire cultures and empires is something that can eat up not just hundreds, but thousands of pages. Commercial factors also convince many fantasy authors to flesh out their worlds for sometimes dozens of books at a time, cashing in long after the magic of the setting has gone.

The Barbed Coil is a rarity, then. It builds up a major military conflict between several nation states, develops an original magic system (based on the idea of painting and illumination) and features an expansive cast of both "good" and "bad" guys, all of whom are painted in some depth. It's a story with quiet moments and also packed with fast-moving action and some impressive magic, all delivered with Jones's formidable skills.

The Barbed Coil was released in 1997, between her debut Book of Words trilogy and it's sort-of sequel series, The Sword of Shadows. Book of Words was decent, with a nice improvement between volumes, but a far cry from Sword of Shadows, which is one of the finest epic fantasy series of the last generation (bearing in mind it's still unfinished). The Barbed Coil is a complete standalone, set in its own world unrelated to the two big series, telling one complete story with a beginning, middle and end. And it's a good one.

The novel delves into the character of Tess, someone who finds herself drifting through life on Earth with no purpose until she is borne off to a fantastical world and discovers that she is a smaller part of a much bigger pattern that goes back before her birth. Tess's journey of discovery is traditional, but well-handled. It's a pleasant surprise that Tess is less traumatised or freaked out by her arrival on this world than relieved, as various illnesses she was suffering from on Earth have disappeared in transit (shades of Thomas Covenant here, to a much less wrought degree). Our two male protagonists, Ravis and Camron, are also well-drawn characters, neither traditional heroes but who are drawn into having to choose whether to stand against Izgard, join him or flee. We also spend significant time with Izgard, his young bride Angeline and his scribe Ederius, who form an exceptionally well-written, monstrously dysfunctional triumvirate.

One of Jones's skills is combining the best elements of high fantasy - good fellowship, a sense of humour and a genuine ability for heroism - with the darkest - war, savagery and betrayal. The Barbed Coil bears comparisons with K.J. Parker, particularly the exacting detail given to the painting and illuminating side of things and the disturbingly complex relationship between Ravis and his brother, although it's not quite as unrelentingly grim as Parker's work. Still, that's not bad company to be in.

The Barbed Coil (****) is J.V. Jones doing what she does best, building an interesting world populated by complicated people, fleshed out with an interesting take on magic. The book is available now in the US but, regrettably, is out of print in the UK (even on Kindle). Hopefully it will become available again at some point.

On Monday I got a chance to preview the BBC's adaptation of China Mieville's 2009 novel THE CITY AND THE CITY, about a murder which takes place in two cities which cohabit the same spot in space/time. The first episode was excellent. They nailed the weird atmosphere of the novel brilliantly and David Morrissey was great, as he is in everything. The production value was also incredible (given it was filmed in Liverpool and Manchester, not a remote corner of Eastern Europe) and they sold the idea of the two cities which are in the same place but not really well, although the exposition at the start to get the idea across was a bit clunking. Once they got over that, it was much better.

The 4-part series is due to air next month in the UK. It's unclear who'll be handling the international distribution.

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America City


One hundred years from now, the world is in a terrible state. Super-hurricanes blight the Atlantic, smashing the coast of North America with repeated ferocity. The American south-west has turned into a dustbowl, entire towns and cities abandoned as water supplies dry up. The United States has an immigration problem, but not one crossing the minefield-laden, fortified wall with Mexico. This one is a flood of refugees from the southern and coastal states headed north, to more temperate climes. As the northern states threaten to close their borders, a charismatic politician named Slaymaker emerges with a platform to "reconfigure" America, to reshape the United States in a way it can survive the weather catastrophe. He employs a superbly talented PR executive, a woman repelled by Slaymaker's politics but inspired by his integrity and his genuine desire to confront the problems facing America head-on instead of standing idly by.

America City is the latest novel by British SF author Chris Beckett. Although still not a household name, Beckett has been establishing himself through a very fine collection of work over the last few years, most notably the accomplished Holy Machine and the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden, which has also spawned two sequels. The Eden Trilogy was an SF parable set on a planet shrouded in darkness, whilst The Holy Machine was about religion, atheism and what falls between. America City is something else, a story about politics, climate change and what happens when Americans themselves become refugees by the hundreds of thousands and millions.

It's a sweeping novel, packing an entire continent's worth of stories into a breezy 350 pages. It's also a very current novel, taking place in a world where fake news has been weaponised by humanity, aided by AIs so clever they are capable of writing speeches, coming up with jokes and even posing as commentators without detection. It's a book that feels very cynical, as our protagonist Holly moves from being a die-hard delicado (a 22nd Century version of a liberal) to, frustrated by her tribe's predilection for making disapproving noises at the TV but not actually doing anything to make things better, throwing her lot in with the arch-reactionary Slaymaker. Slaymaker's views on everything from climate science (which he still doesn't believe in, even as the American Atlantic coast drowns and the south-west boils) to the death penalty repel Holly, but his insistence on tackling the problem head-on by "reconfiguring" the country (and, later and far more controversially, the continent) makes him stand out from the crowds of talking heads and hand-wringers.

The result is a process by which Holly is seduced, bit by bit, into supporting ever more draconian policies, convincing herself that each more extreme measure is justified if is to save America and its people. Holly's POV chapters alternate with those of her boyfriend Richard, who gets to see the changes in Holly - and the country - from the outside, and has to wonder if she has the right idea. Other POV chapters move between various climate refugees, people fleeing northwards from the floods in Georgia and the encroaching desert in Nevada only to find their fellow Americans turning them away (often at gunpoint), until they have nowhere left to go.

Beckett tackles a lot of topics in this novel, from climate change to politics. The old left-right paradigm mostly collapsed in the 21st Century, but the politics that have replaced it are still dealing with (or causing) familiar problems. There's glimpses of what's going on elsewhere in the world - Africa and Mexico collapsing, Britain turning itself into a fortified island outpost of paranoia and fear, and China annexing the Russian Far East for more living space - but the focus is firmly on the US and what can be done to save it.

It's not a happy or uplifting novel. The book's main message seems to be that human beings are selfish and predictable in their responses: Texans and Californians who once zealously guarded the Mexican border are now forced to cross borders themselves, only to find themselves driven off. But of course when it's them who need help, the situation is different. Politics is still a game won by those with the loudest and best propaganda, not those with genuinely the best ideas (a fascinating background SF idea - the development of carbon dioxide scrubbers large enough to start reversing the effects of climate change - is virtually ignored as it's hard to get voters excited about it).

There are moments of hope: humans are shown to be tenacious and capable of adapting: millions of people are moving north to establish new cities in the Arctic, where they hope the storms and the deserts cannot reach them. They may even be right, but the book ends (messily and inconclusively, like life) before we can find out for sure.

America City (****½) is not for the faint-hearted or those looking to escape the grimness they seen on the news every day. It's also wonderfully well-written, alternates between the grandiose and the subtle, and is unflinchingly honest. It's available now in the UKand USA.

The HIS DARK MATERIALS TV show is entering production imminently. The BBC and Bad Wolf Productions have teamed up with New Line/Warner Brothers to make a 40-episode TV version of Philip Pullman's trilogy, consisting of five eight-episode seasons. Both Netflix and Apple TV are in discussions to air the show Stateside (hopefully Netflix gets it, as I think Apple may have missed the boat on the TV window).

Dafne Keen (LOGAN) will be playing the starring role of Lyra. Lin-Manuel Miranda (HAMILTON, the upcoming KINGKILLER CHRONICLE projects) will be playing Captain Lee Scoresby. Further casting will be announced in the next few weeks.

The first season is expected to adapt the bulk of the first novel in the series, NORTHERN LIGHTS (aka THE GOLDEN COMPASS in foreign climes).

Amazon are developing a TV show based on Iain M. Banks' CULTURE novels.

Jeff Bezos himself delivered the news via Twitter. It's the latest in a line of high-profile announcements by Amazon TV, which has already greenlit a LORD OF THE RINGS prequel TV show which will comfortably be the most expensive TV show in history, and they are also working on a TV series based on Robert E. Howard's CONAN THE BARBARIAN character. They are also working on mini-series adaptations of Larry Niven's novel RINGWORLD and Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH.

The new TV project will start off with an adaptation of the first novel in the setting, CONSIDER PHLEBAS. It's unclear if the plan will be to adapt each of the nine novels in the series, which will make it something of an anthology as there are no continuing characters in the book, where each novel is separated from the rest by hundreds of light-years and often hundreds of years of history.

To tie in with my Babylon 5 Rewatch/Reread Project, I've been rereading the canonical B5 novels and graphic novels (the ones that tie into the story arc and are referenced in episodes of the TV show).


The Shadow Within by Jeanne Cavelos

November, 2256. Anna Sheridan, an archaeologist working for Interplanetary Expeditions, is investigating an ancient alien artefact recovered from a remote planet. When the artefact scrambles the brain of a telepath, Psi Corps becomes very interested in where the device came from and what it means. Improbably, Interplanetary Expeditions rapidly discovers a candidate for the machine's homeworld - "Alpha Omega III", on the rim of known space - and dispatches a ship, the Icarus, to investigate. Anna joins the crew and discovers a seething mess of corporate espionage, competing interests and hidden secrets hinting at how this planet was discovered so quickly. Anna feels the only person she can trust is an archaeo-linguist suffering a profound grief and trauma: Dr. Morden.

When J. Michael Straczynski started planning his Babylon 5 television series in the late 1980s, he had the idea of creating the first-ever genuinely multimedia franchise. His idea was for the tie-in novels and comic books to be just as important and canonical to the setting as any episode of the television series (Star Wars later tried to do something similar with its Expanded Universe, which ended in failure). In the event this proved challenging: the publishers did not want to spend a lot of money on quality writers and their production schedules for the books was ridiculous. John Vornholt had a month apiece to write his two books in the series and found that so tough he refused to write any more.

After the first six novels came out and, with the honourable exceptions of Vornholt's Voices and Jim Mortimore's Clark's Law, turned out to be terrible, there was a reset of the line. Straczynski assigned the next three book outlines and premises personally and tried to find better writers. The result gave us another awful novel - Betrayals by the normally-reliable S.M. Stirling - but it did finally provide two books which finally fulfilled the potential of the idea by giving us novels that told stories the TV series was unable to. These two books - The Shadow Within and To Dream in the City of Sorrows - are both considered fully canon for the TV show and are pretty decent SF novels in their own right.

The Shadow Within is the more self-contained of the two and can be read without any pre-knowledge of the Babylon 5 setting, especially since the titular station and the regular TV characters barely appear. Instead, the focus is on Anna Sheridan and the mission to Alpha Omega III. This storyline is well-played, although modern readers may draw parallels with the 2012 movie Prometheus. Fortunately, The Shadow Within is far better-written and more plausible in how it depicts the behaviour of the team of scientists and engineers. Jeanne Cavelos is an actual former NASA astrophysicist, which helps with the description and outfitting of a scientific mission.

The book also has a significant subplot, with Captain John Sheridan assuming command of the Omega-class destroyer Agamemnon. To his horror, the crew is lackadaisical and insubordinate, the result of the corruption of the previous captain. This subplot sees Sheridan having to uncover what happened with the previous captain that corrupted so many of the officers and trying to bring the crew up to Earthforce standards, just as the ship is dispatched on an urgent mission. This subplot is pretty decent but feels a little incongruous when contrasted to the Anna story, which is much more interesting.

This storyline also begins to cross-bleed into the horror genre, especially when the Icarus reaches the alien planet to find it is not as dead as was previously indicated. Strange things start happening, crewpeople start going missing, people start behaving weirdly and a growing feeling of doom envelops the story. But there's some big surprises here even for seasoned Babylon 5 fans. The ending in particular transforms Mr. Morden from an evil snake-oil salesman into a much more tragic figure, destroyed by circumstance and grief, which makes you re-examine the character from the TV series.

The Shadow Within (****) is a decent and solid - if rather short - SF novel which works well as a Babylon 5 tie-in and as an introduction to the entire franchise for newcomers. It also serves a prequel to Cavelos's later Passing of the Techno-Mages Trilogy, which picks up on some of the story threads left dangling from this novel and the TV series. The book is available in the UK and USA.

Some non-fiction this time around.


Up to the early 1990s, the discussion of how life is formed and how many habitable planets there may be in our galaxy was massively restricted by us having only one star system - our own - and only eight planets and two dwarf planets to study. In the last quarter of a century, that has radically changed. 3,710 confirmed planets circling other stars have been discovered, with an additional 15,000 suspected to exist and awaiting verification. We have gone from having a handful of planets to look at to veritably drowning in them, with more discovered almost every month.

The key question is can any of these planets harbour life, even intelligent life, and if they do how can we find them? And how do you build a planet and a solar system anyway?

Astrophysicist Elizabeth Tasker tackles a large number of questions in her book. It looks at how the Earth was formed and the role played by the rest of the Solar system in its creation. This involves a detailed look at the phenomenon which, highly unusually, resulted in our gas giants ending up in quite distant orbits from the Sun (most gas giants end up orbiting their stars at a mere fraction of the orbit of Mercury, becoming so-called "hot Jupiters"), allowing the Earth to form unmolested in the inner Solar system. The book also looks at how water is formed and gets deposited on planets, and the degree to which water is essential for life or if other substances could be used.

The book also explores several dozen of the more exotic exoplanets, including worlds which orbit pulsars and are fried in their radiation beams on a regular basis; worlds covered in thick tar and others where diamonds literally rain out of the sky. There are water worlds with oceans thousands of kilometres deep and frozen iceballs which have been catapulted out of their parent systems and now wander on their own between the stars. These descriptions are vivid and show how chemistry and physics can combine to create worlds far stranger than any science fiction has come up with.

The book is approachable, with occasional dips into more complex discussions of chemistry and orbital resonances, but for the most part the book is perfectly readable for the layman. There's a nice line of humour in the book and the use of pop culture references to explain how certain planets work (a chapter on exomoons compares them to the Forest Moon of Endor from Star Wars, for example, and the one on rogue planets briefly invokes the Transformers homeworld of Cybertron which was likewise blasted out of its orbit around its home star).

The book also explains the techniques used for detecting exoplanets and how they are being refined further to look for planets the size of the Earth, or smaller, and how we may be able to pick up the telltale signs of life through atmospheric conditions.

One of the things I liked most about the book was its upbeat tone. Given that exoplanets seem to have added a whole load of extra steps to the conditions necessary to have life, it would have been easy to have concluded that if life is out there, it's even rarer than we thought and would be very difficult to find. However, Tasker instead keeps showing how even the craziest worlds may still be able to give rise to (at least) bacteriological or microbial life. In one of the most positive chapters, she even looks at the problems Earth has had in developing life - its frequent ice ages as the result of Milankovitch cycles caused by the gravitational tugs on its orbit by other planets, its occasional collision with large asteroids - and postulates planets that wouldn't have these problems and where life and even intelligent life could develop much more quickly than on Earth.

The Planet Factory (****½) is a fast-paced and readable non-fiction book which expands on current science, explains planet formation theories in an approachable way and is highly informative. It's also a good watch of catching up on what is a very rapidly-evolving field. The book is available now in the UK and USA.



In the not-too-distant future, the world is a morass of internet-based TV shows and corporate greed. The people best-equipped to survive in this world are those who synthesise content for the net: synners. The arrival of sockets, cybernetic implants which allow people to directly interface with computers through their minds, marks a major change in society and technology, and what it means to be human. But when something goes wrong, it falls to one group of synners - outcasts, failures and data junkies - to save society, fix the net...and discover that intelligence itself can be synthesised as well.

Synners is the third novel by American SF author Pat Cadigan. Originally released in 1991, it was a late-breaking novel in the cyberpunk movement, championed by the likes of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and Neil Gaiman. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and has been enshrined in the Gollancz SF Masterworks range as one of the all-time defining works of science fiction.

Synners is interesting for coming towards the end of the cyberpunk movement, at least before subsequent books like Jeff Noon's Vurt and Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon began taking it in very different directions and the movement was subsumed more into science fiction as a whole. It's also interesting for coming during the earliest days of the internet as we know it, so at least some terminology (laptops, email, virtual reality) rings true, unlikely earlier cyberpunk whose invented terms now feel very dated. Like most cyberpunk authors Cadigan missed mobile phones, but it oddly doesn't feel as archaic in this book. Cadigan is more interested in how technology and being networked impacts on the human condition and the methodology for accessing the net is less important. It is impressive how many other things she got right: satnav systems which actually don't really help anyone get anywhere, hackers uploading viruses to the net just for giggles and self-driving vehicles all feel pretty much on-point at the moment.

More impressive is how the novel feels like it's subverting cyberpunk itself. The Los Angeles of Cadigan's future America is, well, pretty much Los Angeles today, maybe slightly bigger and dirtier but certainly not the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. There's nary a mirrorshade or ill-advised superskyscraper (in an earthquake zone!) in sight and cyborg cops smashing down doors and firing massive guns are notable by their absence. But growing corporate power and tech companies acting like they are above the law and pressurising baffled politicians who can't see beyond the next election into giving them carte blanche to do whatever the hell they want without regard for the consequences for society and the economy have never felt more appropriate.

Cadigan's prose mixes poetry with hard-edged science fiction descriptions of hardware and software. They are sequences of people immersing themselves in the net and drugs which come across as lucid fever dreams. The novel also delights in the mundane: one of the most important viewpoint characters, Gabe, has marriage problems and a changeable relationship with his daughter, Sam. There is a frustrated air of rebellion in many characters, who take drugs and listen to loud music but no-one really cares any more, certainly not the government which is now wholly in the pocket of corporate interests.

Synners has some sins (syns?). The novel is slow to come together, taking a hundred pages to assemble a large cast of viewpoint characters (possibly too many; Gina, Gabe, Sam emerge as the main viewpoints and the novel may have benefited from dropping some of the secondary viewpoints). The scattershot opening makes the world feel grounded and realistic, but the lack of focus makes it hard to work out what's going on. But about a quarter of the way into the book starts to coalesce and the last quarter has the pedal fully to the metal as a global crisis erupts and only our "heroes" - the most dysfunctional bunch of hackers and artists you could ever hope to meet - can save the day.

Synners (****½) is a smart and grounded cyberpunk novel that gave the genre a final shakedown, stole its wallet and told it go and do something more interesting. Not the easiest of reads (especially at the start) but one that more than rewards the effort. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Netflix is bringing Richard K. Morgan's classic cyberpunk SF novel ALTERED CARBON (the first in his TAKESHI KOVACS trilogy) to the screen.
Shooting wrapped a few months ago and today the first images from the show leaked, showing some locations in and around Bay City.

ALTERED CARBON is one of Netflix's most expensive shows, rivalling SENSE8, MARCO POLO and THE CROWN in cost (not to mention being more expensive than early seasons of GAME OF THRONES). The cast includes Joel Kinnaman, Dichen Lachman, Martha Higareda and the legend that is James Purefoy.

The current plan is for Netflix to screen this in February 2018, but they may drop that back as the CG and post-production on this story is immense.

If the series is successful it will continue (presumably with a recast lead: Kovacs transfers his personality between different bodies in every story), with Netflix planning a five-season run incorporating original stories and adaptations of the later two novels in the series, BROKEN ANGELS and WOKEN FURIES.

Well, okay.

Warner Brothers and (allegedly) the Tolkien Estate - I suspect they mean the TV rights-holders at Middle-earth Enterprises and made a mistake - are developing a new TV show based on THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Warners are offering a multi-season adaptation of the book with a bonkers upfront rights cost ($200-250 million) and a guaranteed budget of $100-150 million per season.

HBO have already turned them down, with Netflix and Amazon now in the running. Amazon are apparently close to signing a deal: Jeff Bezos is personally involved in negotiations and he wants a massive, high-profile GAME OF THRONES-level project to attract attention to Amazon TV.

Reception to the idea so far appears to have been cool. It is, after all, only three years since the Peter Jackson movieverse exited our screens and the LotR movies are still widely considered the definitive adaptation. Although a TV version could add back in elements missed out from the book, it's questionable if the story needs, say, 24 or 36 hours to tell rather than the 11 it already has covered in the films' extended editions. It's also doubtful if a TV version could match the films' production design, spectacular location filming, musical score or the quality of the actors involved.

A LotR remake is inevitable at some point, but that point is more sensibly several decades from now, not just fourteen years after the previous version finished screening. It'll be interesting to see if Amazon go for this, considering they could make 6 or 7 other shows for the same pricetag.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Sudden Appearance of Hope


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book 1: The Mirror Empire


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Well, that just happened.

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

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

Book 1 will be out in October.

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

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

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

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

The game should be out in 2018.

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

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

The Heart of What Was Lost by Tad Williams


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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