Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Tuesday, 23 May 2017

2016's best video game gets a hefty price cut

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, my favourite game of last year, is part of a Steam sale on a 33% discount. The game has also had its free demo (remember those?) expanded to the entire first two levels of the game.



Shadow Tactics is a stealth-focused game where you control five very different characters with complementary skill sets who have to make their way through a civil war in Shogunate Japan, using a mixture of guile, cunning and intelligence to achieve fiendishly hard objectives. The game has a beautiful soundtrack, a vivid art style, some brilliant emergent gameplay moments (my favourite being the 13-year-old girl and a dart trap who turns an ordinary watchtower into a gruesome, corpse-filled abattoir for easily-distracted soldiers), a satisfying storyline and five well-defined characters with their own personalities.

This game came out of nowhere from a very small developer and was absolutely outstanding. Please buy this game and tell all your friends so the developers will get to make more!

Sunday, 21 May 2017

A History of Eärwa Part 7: The Great Ordeal

Part 1 can be found here.

SPOILER WARNING: THIS ENTRY CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST THREE NOVELS OF THE ASPECT-EMPEROR SERIES.

Drusas Achamian, former sorcerer of the Mandate and now the only Wizard of the Three Seas.

At one time Drusas Achamian was an agent of the Mandate, a sorcerer haunted by dreams of Seswatha, hero of the First Apocalypse, and by fears that the Second was coming. During the chaotic swirl of the Holy War he found a man whom he believed could save humanity and lead it to victory over the ancient foe, the Unholy Consult. Anasûrimbor Kellhus led the Holy War to victory, but in doing so he stole away Achamian’s love, Esmenet, and subverted the religious fervour, faith and love of millions to build himself an empire.

Faced with the choice of kneeling to the Aspect-Emperor or repudiating him, Achamian chose the latter. Unimpeded, at the Aspect-Emperor’s express command, Achamian fled into the wilds of Galeoth, erecting a tower to live in solitude and meditate on one question: “Who is the Aspect-Emperor?”

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

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.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY trailer released and episode order upped

CBS has released a trailer for their upcoming new series, Star Trek: Discovery.

Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and Lt. Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in Star Trek: Discovery.

Set approximately ten years before the events of the original series, the show will follow the adventures of the USS Discovery as it engages with a major new threat to the Federation.

The new show will air on CBS All Access in the United States and on Netflix in most of the rest of the world. No air date has been set, but this autumn seems to be the most likely date. However, CBS has revealed that they have upped their episode order for the series from 13 to 15, in a welcome display of confidence in the project.

What do I think of the trailer? It's US-only at the moment, so I have no idea. More thoughts when an international version is released.

ALTERED CARBON TV series will launch in 2018

Netflix has put up a placeholder web page for their new cyberpunk SF show Altered Carbon, based on Richard Morgan's iconic Takeshi Kovacs trilogy of novels. It doesn't contain much info at the moment, but it does confirm that the show will launch in 2018 rather than late this year, as some had previously hoped.


Production on the series started at the end of last year and would appear to be wrapping up sometime around now. Lots of effects work remains ahead - Altered Carbon is reportedly Netflix's most expensive show at $7 million an episode, matching the earlier seasons of Game of Thrones (but only half of the budget of the upcoming seventh season of that series) - before the show hits the screen.

Netflix is bringing THE WITCHER to television

Netflix is developing a television series based on Polish author's Andrezj Sapkowski's Witcher series of novels and short stories. Sapkowski will serve as a creative consultant and producer on the project.


Sean Daniel and Jason Brown, who were both instrumental in bringing The Expanse to the screen, will produce. Polish visual effects company Platige will provide the effects work, with Tomek Baginski and Jarek Sawko producing. Baginski will also direct one episode per season. Baginski's CGI work is renowned, such as in his short movies The Cathedral and Fallen Art, but more relevantly he also produced the introductory cinematics for the video games The Witcher (2007) and The Witcher II: Assassin of Kings (2011) (see above).

The books are concerned with the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, a "witcher" or monster-hunter. As a mutant, he has superior reflexes and can imbibe potions and use oils to gain the edge in combat. His day job is killing the various monsters which inhabit the Northern Kingdoms, but over time he gets reluctantly drawn into politics and a major war brewing between the kingdoms and a powerful empire to the south, not to mention racial struggles between humans, dwarves and the elves they have hunted to the edge of extinction and are now fighting back.

There are eight books in The Witcher series: Sword of Destiny (1992), The Last Wish (1993), Blood of Elves (1994), Time of Contempt (1995), Baptism of Fire (1996), The Tower of Swallows (1997), Lady of the Lake (1999) and Season of Storms (2013). They have sold over 2 million copies in 20 languages since release, with the books being particularly popular in Poland, Russia and Spain.

However, far better-known to Western audiences are the three Witcher video games: The Witcher (2007), The Witcher II: Assassin of Kings (2011) and The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (2015). The games have sold over 20 million copies in total, with The Witcher III being lavishly praised as the best CRPG of the current generation.

It is unclear if the TV show will adapt the books or will pursue original stories set in the same world. This announcement does seem to decrease the likelihood of Netflix being the home of the upcoming Wheel of Time TV series, since it is less likely that Netflix will want to develop two medieval fantasy TV shows simultaneously.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

A History of Eärwa Part 6: The Unification Wars

Part 1 can be found here.

Word of the great victory at Shimeh spread to all the corners of the Three Seas. The Holy War had triumphed. The heathen Fanim had been put to rout and the Holy City restored to the Faithful. But even more remarkable were the stories that accompanied the news. A new leader had emerged from the ranks of the Holy War. He had survived death, performed great miracles and pulled the battered, bloodied remnants of the crusade to a victory against odds unthinkable. Here was a story from the very Sagas brought to life.

Anasûrimbor Kellhus was born in 4076 in Ishuäl. A Dûnyain monk, he left his home in 4109 at the command of his order, to search for his father whom it had feared had gone mad amongst the Worldborn. By 4112 he had joined and conquered the Holy War, mastered the Gnosis and been crowned Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas, the greatest - and most reviled - figure in history since Triamis the Great.

Anasûrimbor Kellhus was proclaimed the Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas by the Shriah of the Thousand Temples. Tens of thousands of Men of the Tusk, forged in the burning heat of the Great Carathay and tempered on the battlefields of Caraskand and Shimeh, swore themselves his eternal subjects, his Zaudunyani, the “Tribe of Truth”. Even three of the sorcerous schools (the Imperial Saik, the Scarlet Spires and the Mandate) had sworn to his service. His victory, his rule, seemed unquestionable.

But history is never so simple. Across the Three Seas there was shock that this man, this prince of nothing, had come out of nowhere and seemingly subverted the Holy War to his own ends. Many dismissed him as a fraudster, or even a Ciphrang, a demon from the Outside sent to lead men to their destruction. Some who may have been tempted to hear him were disgusted to hear that he preached of the threat of the Consult and the Inchoroi: children’s stories that no-one but those doddering old fools in Atyersus took seriously. Armies were summoned, swords forged and bows strung as the opponents of the new Aspect-Emperor, the Orthodox, braced themselves for war. Likewise, Maithanet’s support for Kellhus had shattered the Thousand Temples, leading to many priests – the Schismatics – taking up arms in defence of the faith.

Only one nation declared for Kellhus in its totality: Conriya, united under the rule of Nersei Proyas. Every other nation splintered, the entire caste-nobility of the Three Seas divided. Provinces and palatinates and principalities declared for or against Kellhus, often depending on the zeal of their troops and rulers still encamped with the Holy War around Shimeh. Most of civilised Eärwa teetered on the brink of civil war, moreso in the Nansurium after the unexpected deaths of both Emperor Ikurei Xerius and his heir, Ikurei Conphas, on campaign, with no heirs left to them.

But the Holy War was not done. Refreshed, reinforced (by the Mandate and other sorcerers flocking to Kellhus’s banner) and resupplied, the Holy War struck south and west into Kian proper. The long war had exhausted the fighting strength of the Fanim and they could offer no effective resistance. Fanayal ab Kascamandri was unable to rally his people and melted away into the Carathay Desert. By the end of 4113 the Holy War had seized Nenciphon and installed the Emperor and Empress in the White-Sun Palace. Many soldiers formerly loyal to the Empire now switching their loyalty to Anasûrimbor Kellhus. Massar ab Kascamandri, the brother of Fanayal, underwent the Whelming, the spiritual induction into the ranks of the Zaudunyani, and swore his entire nation to the service of Kellhus.

In 4114 Kellhus published a tract on sorcery. The Novum Arcanum attracted great attention for its revelations and insights into sorcery and logic. The following year Kellhus announced a great gathering of sorcerers from across Eärwa and they came in unprecedented numbers to learn from him and hear his great Rehabilitation of Sorcery. All Shrial and Tusk condemnations of the practice were rescinded and sorcerers were no longer held to be anathema. Through such acts Kellhus won every sorcerer of rank and power in Eärwa (save one) to his side, the sorcerous schools united under his banner.


A witch of the Swayal Compact. Steeped in the Gnosis and outstripping the other Schools in sheer numbers, the Swayal may be the most powerful force in Eärwa save only the Aspect-Emperor himself.

Kellhus also made his second great proclamation: the Manumission of the Feminine. All limitations – legal, spiritual or moral – placed on the comportment of women were struck down. Women now had full equal rights to men across the Three Seas. This was initially a more controversial declaration, and seized upon by Kellhus’s opponents as proof of his madness, but it was also popular amongst, of course, the women of the Three Seas, particular with regard to inheritance and property rights. Even more dramatic was that the combination of the two declarations effectively ended the ban on women joining the Few. For centuries women wielding sorcery had been scorned as witches, burned at the stake or stoned to death even by those men who trafficked with sorcerers themselves. Now they were allowed to come out of the shadows, in numbers which caught the men of the Three Seas by surprise.

Even more breathtaking was what Kellhus did for these women: he commanded the Mandate to instruct them in the ways of the Gnosis, and gave to them the abandoned Cûnuroi Mansion of Illisserû in Holy Amoteu as their stronghold, now renamed Orovelai. He made them a simple promise, to support and empower them in return for their support in turn. This became known as the Swayal Compact, the name also taken by the witches (a name many of them now wore with pride). Within a decade their knowledge and mastery of the Gnosis rivalled that of the Mandate and their numbers far outstripped them.

Kellhus won loyalty, even fanatical and maddened loyalty, in his own way. Within a year of the fall of Nenciphon, his missionary-zealots had begun making their way across the Three Seas. They became known as the Zaudûn Angnaya, the “floating college” of young aspirants who learned from Kellhus whenever they could. They sought to persuade through argument, reason and, whenever that failed, conviction. Horrified stories spread amongst the Orthodox of “suicide sermons”, when Angnaya would slit their own throats in front of the vast crowds to prove their absolute faith. At first they used such demonstrations as proof of Kellhus’s danger and insanity, but the unshakeable faith and certitude of the zealots shook the Orthodox, who had no spiritual answer for them.

The Unification Wars. Between the fall of Shimeh in 4112, at the end of the Holy War, and the capitulation of Nilnamesh in 4122, Anasûrimbor Kellhus conquered the entire Three Seas, eventually being decreed its political, military, religious and sorcerous leader: its Aspect-Emperor. More than 75 million people lived and died at his command.

By the end of 4114 war had come: the Fanim inspired a massive uprising in Shigek, but this had been crushed by Rash Soptet, Lord of the Sempis. The growing rift in the Thousand Temples erupted in bloodletting, the War-between-Temples. Nilnamesh, long separated from its Inrithi brethren by the width of the Kian Empire, also declared against Kellhus.

In 4115 Prince Shoddû Akirapita assembled a large army in Nilnamesh and moved to defend the border. The Zaudunyani were defeated at the Battle of Pinropis, to their surprise. Kellhus took time to regroup, during which time his allies achieved greater victories: in 4116 Coithus Narnol declared for Kellhus and delivered Galeoth almost intact to his banner. King Hringa Vûkyelt likewise unified Thunyerus in Kellhus’s name and expelled the Schismatics from the kingdom. The following year both Ce Tydonn and High Ainon became divided in a bitter civil war, followed by the declaration of Ce Tydonn for Kellhus in 4118. Cironj also fell in this year.

High Ainon presented Kellhus with a major problem: the nation was vast and unruly at the best of times but unified in its fear of the Scarlet Spires. But the Holy War had almost destroyed the order altogether, with barely a dozen sorcerers-of-rank surviving the conflagration at Shimeh. To their humiliation, Kellhus award the Mandate command of Kiz, the former Scarlet Spires stronghold in Carythusal. From there the Mandate was able to bring the rule of the Aspect-Emperor to lower Ainon, but the full capitulation of the kingdom took longer. In 4120 the Sack of Sarneveh took place, Kellhus himself leading the capture of the city. Although successful, the Toll of casualties (a meticulous accounting of the cost of victory) recorded more than five thousand children slain. This news escaped the city, encouraging further resistance to Kellhus. However, by the end of 4121 High Ainon had fallen and declared for Kellhus.

At this point, a curiosity took place, one which even the most fanatical Zaudunyani have struggled to reconcile with their extolling of Kellhus as a messenger of the divine. Following the conquest of High Ainon, Kellhus spent four months in Kiz as a student of Heramari Iyokus, the famed Blind Necromancer and a master practitioner of the Daimos, the sorcerous art of communing with demons. At the end of this tutelage Kellhus emerged with the two grotesque heads of demons bound to his hip by their hair: the Decapitants. Kellhus demurred on explaining their origin, often ignoring the question altogether. Rumour said that the Aspect-Emperor had somehow plumbed the very Hells themselves and returned with the heads of trophies of war, and to remind the Aspect-Emperor of the fate awaiting all those who were damned.

Also in 4121, the Nilnameshi capital of Invishi had finally fallen to the Zaudunyani. However, Prince Akirapita refused to capitulate, gathering a new army. It was not until this army was destroyed at the Battle of Ushgarwal in 4122 and the Prince slain (his body was found in a well in Girgash in 4123) that Nilnamesh could finally be said to have been brought into the fold. This left only Fanayal ab Kascamandri out of the Aspect-Emperor’s many foes, and his forces were reduced to a few tribesfolk of the Great Salt.

The Unification Wars were declared over in 4122. Maithanet, having won the War-between-Temples, crowned Anasûrimbor Kellhus the Aspect-Emperor of the Three Seas in Momemn, which Kellhus had taken as his capital.  Kellhus and his wife, Esmenet, now had several children – Kayûtas (b. 4112), Theliopa (b. 4114, in Nenciphon), Serwa (b. 4115) and Inrilatas (b. 4117) – and more would follow, the twins Kelmomas and Samarmas (both b. 2124). They had also adopted the son of Cnaiür urs Skiötha and Serwë, Moënghus II (b. 4111) as their own. The result was that they had already established a dynasty, one with the power to rule the Three Seas for generations to come.

But the new goal of the Anasûrimbor family was not to simply rule. Kellhus declared war on Golgotterath and the Unholy Consult. He declared his goal was to destroy the dread Ark and cast down its Golden Horns forever. His purpose was to forestall the return of the No-God, prevent the Second Apocalypse and to save the World itself. To this end he commanded the establishing of the greatest army in human history. Swords and armour were forged on a titanic scale. Horses were bred in their tens of thousands. Supply caches were established in the northern Empire, near the Kathol Pass leading to the vast Istyuli Plains. Sorcerers were called to train and learn as they never had before, and to prepare for the war to come, which would be known as the Great Ordeal. 




Credits

The artwork for this article was created by Jason Deem, known as Spiral Horizon, and used with his permission. You can find more of his spectacular work here. The maps are from Scott's website, adjusted by myself.

The Prince of Nothing Wiki was helpful in providing spelling checks and putting the timeline of events in better order.

Scott Bakker wrote the Second Apocalypse novels, for which this history is merely the backdrop and the scene-setting that comes before. Those novels are:

The Prince of Nothing
The Darkness That Comes Before (2003)
The Warrior-Prophet (2004)
The Thousandfold Thought (2005)

The Aspect-Emperor
The Judging Eye (2008)
The White-Luck Warrior (2011)
The Great Ordeal (2016)
The Unholy Consult (2017)

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Monday, 15 May 2017

GAME OF THRONES spin-off update from George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin has provided an update on the status of the Game of Thrones spin-off projects that HBO is developing.

A Dunk & Egg TV show is - for now - off the table as George R.R. Martin still wants to write the short stories first. Artwork: Ser Duncan the Tall confronts Lord Lyonel Baratheon, the Laughing Storm, by Chase Stone.

Martin confirms that HBO is looking at four potential scripts and has been developing ideas with them since last August. He also says that this has now expanded to five scripts, with the fifth writer being someone who knows A Song of Ice and Fire better than anyone except himself and the Westeros.org admins (which makes me wonder - and this is pure speculation - if it's Daniel Abraham, who writes the ASoIaF comic books and of course has recent TV experience from The Expanse, or maybe Bryan Cogman who currently works on GoT).

Martin has ruled out a Robert's Rebellion TV show, confirming that he has no interest in "joining up the dots" of the major events of the war, all of which will be explained in the books or GoT itself. There will also not be a Dunk & Egg TV show, as Martin wants to write at least a few more of the stories before pursuing a TV adaptation. All five projects, therefore, are new. He also confirms that all five are prequels taking place some considerable amount of time prior to the novels or existing TV show, and existing characters will not be featured.

Most intriguingly, he suggests that not all of the projects will take place in Westeros, raising the prospect of a series set entirely elsewhere in the world, possibly in the Summer Islands, or Valyria at the height of its power, or exploring the mysterious city of Asshai or the Golden Empire of the Dawn.

At the moment HBO are still developing the scripts and considering the material that has been produced, and will make an announcement on which - if any - they will take forward to the pilot stage and then a series.

Martin confirms that work continues apace on The Winds of Winter, but has not provided a firmer update on the current status of the book.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Breq, once a superintelligent AI controlling a vast starship, is now a reluctant agent of Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the Radch. Mianaai inhabits thousands of different bodies scattered across human space, but is now suffering from disassociation: two distinct factions have arisen in her multiplicity and are now waging war on one another. Aligned with one faction against the other, Breq is ordered to the remote planet Athoek and take steps to secure it against the opposition.


Ancillary Justice was released in 2013 and won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards the following year. A fine space opera novel which contained thematic musings on identity, consciousness and pre-existing biases, it was a striking debut, if one that was slightly overrated.

Being a success, of course the novel turned out to be the start of a trilogy. This is where things start to go wrong for Ancillary Sword. The Imperial Radch trilogy is what can be called a "fake trilogy", where Part 1 is self-contained (to some extent) to avoid too many unresolved plotlines if sales tank, whilst the remaining two parts form a much more closely-linked duology. The original Star Wars trilogy is a good example of that, and it's a reasonably common set-up in science fiction and fantasy which can work quite well (and arguably is better than "proper" trilogies with a single big story, where often the middle book feels surplus to requirements). However, it doesn't really work with Ancillary Sword.

This is a book which has very bizarre pacing. The entire novel, which is only 340 pages long in paperback, is laid back, chilled out, almost languorous. Breq travels on her starship to Athoek and meets lots of people and is nice to them, whilst carrying out observations of them from her unique perspective (a starship AI living in a single human body). The other characters are a mixture of interesting and bland, but the novel stubbornly refuses to engage in anything really approaching a plot or giving them anything interesting to do. A representative of an overwhelmingly powerful alien race is murdered, but this has no consequence (in this novel anyway). There's a lot of politicking and capital-building, both by Breq and her subordinates, and some of this is addressed in the novel but a lot of it isn't. At one point we learn of a mysterious "ghost gate" leading to an unknown star system where Breq suspects something is going on. She resolutely fails to follow up on this lead.

Ancillary Sword, it soon turns out, is almost nothing but set-up and pipe-laying for Ancillary Mercy, the third and concluding volume in the series. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is an issue when the book denudes itself of its own identity and storyline to benefit the later book in the series.

What the book does do quite well is character development, with Leckie also cleverly inverting the usual cliches of "AI wanting to be human" stories by having an AI become human and resolutely dislike the experience. By the end of the book Breq knows where she stands with regards to the government of Athoek and the administrators of the space station above it. The novel also makes some nods in the direction of themes such as colonialism, but treats the subject simplistically and superficially: no-one on Athoek but Breq has ever had the idea of treating the labourers fairly or even just enforcing the law on treating subject races well, apparently.

This is a slow-burning, SF-lite novel which feels like it is trying very hard to be a Lois McMaster Bujold book (who does this kind of comedy-of-manners, character-rooted story which holds back on violence and explosions with considerably less hype) but is undercut by also lacking the story and thematic elements that Bujold would include in her work effortlessly. If Ancillary Sword is anything, it's certainly not effortless: this is a turgidly-paced novel that took me five weeks to get through despite its modest length.

Still, Ancillary Sword (**½) is a desperately slow and badly-paced novel rescued by some effective characterisation and ends with some plot developments that leave things in an intriguing place for Ancillary Mercy to resolve. How well it does so remains to be seen. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.