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.


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. 


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.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

JUDGE DREDD TV show in development

Rebellion, the owners of 2000AD and Judge Dredd Megazine, have joined forces with independent production company IM Global to bring Judge Dredd to television. They are working on a TV show called Mega-City One and are looking to partner with a leading cable or streaming service to bring the Lawman of the Future to the small screen.

The TV series will focus on a team of Judges, the future lawmen and women of Mega-City One (a vast megalopolis stretching down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in the early 22nd Century) who are judge, jury and executioner all in one. This is a change to the comics, which focus on Dredd as an individual, although he is backed up by a recurring background cast. It is unclear if Dredd will be part of the team, will lead it, will mentor it or may not even show up.

IM Global produced the 2012 movie Dredd, the positive reaction to which apparently helped pave the way for this deal. This raises hopes that Karl Urban, who starred as Dredd in that movie, will return, given his vocal support for the character and his belief that the character should continue on television.

IM Global has partnered with HBO, Amazon, FX and TNT in the past, raising hopes that this project will find a home on a premium cable or streaming service with access to the large budgets such a project will require.

Monday, 8 May 2017


J.V. Jones has reported on Patreon the status of her current writing projects, confirming that work is underway on Endlords, the fifth Sword of Shadows novel.

The Sword of Shadows series currently consists of A Cavern of Black Ice (1999), A Fortress of Grey Ice (2002), A Sword from Red Ice (2007) and Watcher of the Dead (2010). Work on Endlords began in 2010 but stalled after a few chapters as the author's life entered a tumultuous phase which was only recently resolved. Jones has resumed work on the novel, but cautions that after such a long break she is approaching the project slowly to get back into the same writing space as before and deliver a continuation of the same quality.

Writers are always trying to recreate what we see in our imagination, whether it's a landscape, an emotion, a person, a relationship. We're chasing that almost unattainable perfection that exists as a possibility in our heads. Some writers can manage this right-off-the-block with their very first novel or short story. They are extremely talented and lucky. It takes most of us years of practice to perfectly command all the tools we need to nail a scene.

I wrote over two million words to get there.

Now I have to see if I can do it all over again. 

Jones is also serialising another project, Sorry Jones, on her Patreon as part of a reward scheme for backers. Endlords is still under contract to Tor (in the USA) and Orbit (in the UK) and will be published by them, so Sorry Jones is a way of getting new fiction out to readers sooner and help with funding.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 trailer released

A new trailer has been released for Blade Runner 2049, the upcoming sequel to Ridley Scott's 1982 movie Blade Runner.

Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), will be released on 6 October this year.

Sense8: Season 2

The sensates are in danger. The sinister Whispers has formed an unwanted, hideously invasive mental connection with Will and is stalking his every move, hoping he betrays his location. However, Will is likewise stalking Whispers, determined to defeat this enemy before he can kill anyone else. The rest of the group has to deal with their own problems, but soon find new allies waiting as they make contact with other clusters and discover their numbers are far greater than they could possibly imagine.

Sense8's first season was a deliberately-paced introduction to eight different, diverse characters hailing from completely different parts of the world, each accompanied by their own set of supporting characters but linked by a shared mental connection. It was excellent, but it was slow and at times risked becoming self-indulgent.

Season 2 has no truck with this. After the Christmas special bridging the two seasons (which gets the show's apparent annual need for a rave scene and orgy out of the way quickly) the show kicks into gear and slams the accelerator down so hard you'll be forgiven for thinking this is the same show. By the end of the second episode our characters have already reversed many of the devastating incidents of misfortune that afflicted them in the first season and the story is moving forwards on all fronts.

The show employs the same structure that we saw the first time around, with each of the eight sensates having their own story to follow as well as being unified by the ever-growing threat of Whispers and the organisation he fronts. The biggest difference is that we now know all eight characters and they now know all each other. When confronted by individual danger they can call upon the entire team's help rather than just one or two as with last season and this definitely massively ups the stakes in both emotional and dramatic terms. Seeing the team join forces to expose the identity of one of Whispers' superiors based on a glimpse of his office, like a telepathic edition of CSI, is a great idea. It's also good to see slightly under-served characters having more to contribute: Kala gets to use her scientific knowledge to great effect in several scenes (including working out how to blow up a van during a gunfight whilst Wolfgang and Will are arguing about whether to flank or fall back).

This is also the year that the show ups the stakes in action and visual terms. Season 1 had some excellent moments (rocket launcher, anyone?) but Season 2 takes it up to the next level. Lana Wachowski - flying solo for the first time as a director (Lily took a break this year) - revisits the Matrix lobby scene with a shoot-out in a restaurant between two sensates (complete with their own cluster, meaning sixteen skillsets being showcased together) which is ridiculously good fun. Even better is a high-speed car chase through the streets of Seoul - complete with vehicles flipping through the air and crashing for real - which is jaw-dropping and looks as good as any feature film. The production values, if anything, step up a notch in line with the confidence of the directors and returning co-writer J. Michael Straczynski.

But the show's characters remain the core focus of the show. As well as the central cluster and their returning allies (including a still-excellent Freema Agyeman, acting on an altogether different level to her stint on Doctor Who) there are new characters, including a wonderfully batty turn by ex-Doctor Who, ex-Radagast the Brown Sylvester McCoy as an older Scottish sensate and Valeria Bilello as a sensate from another cluster who works as an enforcer and fixer for a shady German businessman. But the core cast remains at the centre of attention, including newcomer Toby Onwunmere who is given the difficult task of replacing he likeable and energetic Aml Ameen as Capheus. Onwunmere is a different kind of actor, less funny and more intense, and the adjustment is a bit rough (not helped by a couple of comments lampshading the change) but by the end of the season he has managed to make the role his own. The rest of the cast are on top form, with Jamie Clayton in particular improving from the first season where her massive, hacker-driven infodumps of exposition could be clunky.

The second season also spends some time developing the backstory of the sensates - no Lost-style teasings here, the sensates have pretty mundane origins and well-established rules on how they operate - and how many clusters there are and how they operate. "Our" cluster, it turns out, is pretty lucky in having so many complimentary skills. We also learn that just being a sensate isn't enough to make you a good person and that some sensates are downright nasty. There's more to come on this front but the sheer size of the sensate population means that the writers have a lot of material to play with in coming seasons.

Weaknesses? Well, there are some very jarring tonal moments in Season 2 which don't quite connect with the rest of the story, some bum lines of dialogue and occasional over-indulgence in positivity (as refreshing as this is from shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead almost making a fetish out of grisly cynicism). A scene where Nomi and Nita form a secret hackers' alliance with Anonymous, who it turns out know all about the sensates and have been helping protect them (no, seriously), feels like it was biked in by a totally different writer who'd done three minutes Internet research on the organisation before he wrote it. Also, and this was exacerbated by watching this show immediately after Mr. Robot, the hacking scenes in general are pretty unconvincing. Overall, though, this year emerges as slightly stronger than its predecessor season, more confident, much better-paced and with more of a sense of purpose and energy.

Season 2 ends on a titanic cliffhanger, which is a sign of huge confidence from the writers, producers and Netflix themselves. Sense8 is massively expensive, probably the most expensive show on the Netflix roster apart from the in-production Altered Carbon, and it hasn't quite hit the same level of success in the USA as the likes of Stranger Things and Daredevil. However, it's a lot more popular in many other parts of the world (such as Brazil, which gets its own huge shout-out in an episode set in Sao Paolo) and a third season seems pretty likely at this point. Hopefully Netflix won't tease us for quite so long like they did last time and also won't make us wait two years for the next full season.

Sense8's second season (****½) is wacky, bizarre, over-brimming with optimism and also deeply rooted in interesting and engaging characters, with an interesting backstory and some of the greatest action scenes ever filmed for television. It is available on Netflix now.

Mr Robot: Season 2

Fsociety has carried out the biggest hack in history, bringing E-Corp to its knees. But the world economy is crumbling as well, sparking a crisis. Whilst Fsociety plans its next move, E-Corp sees an opportunity in the chaos to consolidate its own power. Whilst all this is happening, Elliot has gone off the grid, living a simple life without a computer in sight...but still troubled by the memories of his dead father.

At one point in the Season 2 finale of Game of Thrones, the character of Stannis Baratheon says of an enemy after he has shown his hand, "He has played his little trick and he can only play it once." At the end of Season 1 of Mr Robot the show's creator, writer and main director Sam Esmail unveiled the mother of all plot twists on his audience, one worthy of The Sixth Sense and Fight Club. It was handled well and (in retrospect) foreshadowed expertly. But, just as M. Night Shyamalan found out in his latter career, you can only really do that kind of thing once or twice before it risks getting stale, as the audience tunes in to find out what trick you're going to play next rather than focus on the character or story, and the lengths you go to one-up yourself get increasingly ludicrous and, before you know it, the psycho trees have shown up.

Esmail makes exactly that kind of mistake in the opening episode of the second season. He plays another trick on the audience and this is not made fully clear until more than halfway through the season. It's well-done and entertaining, but it's a clever gag that really should have been revealed at the end of the first episode (by which time it's already pretty clear what's going on). Dragging it out for half the season damages the show's already languid pacing and makes you wonder if the director-producer is a bit too pleased with himself for coming up with a second twist idea. It's all a bit tiresome and the pacing and structure of the second season is completely shot to hell as a result. The fact this is a longer season (12 hours rather than 10, although the first episode is double-length) doesn't help with that issue either.

Fortunately, the show survives. Whilst the Elliot storyline goes on an extended trip to tedium for the first half of the season (enlivened only by an amusing experimental episode which recasts Elliot and his friends in a 1980s sitcom, complete with studio laughter track and a guest appearance by ALF), the rest of the characters pick up the slack. His sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) takes over Fsociety and has to orchestrate their moves as they try to follow up on success of the hack but face problems from their erstwhile Chinese allies in the Dark Army. Angela (a superlative performance from Portia Doubleday) has been hired by E-Corp and ingratiates herself with its ruthless CEO, Philip Price, whilst working with Darlene to help bring the company down from the inside. Joanna Wellick (a devastatingly intense turn by Stephanie Corneliussen) is hunting for her missing husband and will let absolutely nothing stand in her way. Particularly impressive is new character Dominique DiPerro (Grace Gummer), who starts off as a fairly generic FBI character but rapidly gains added dimensions and depth as the season progresses, as well as a couple of excellent action scenes (shot in Esmail's typically off-kilter style).

It's this accumulation of more interesting secondary characters and storylines which really keeps the show's head above water until Elliot's storyline re-synchronises with the rest of the cast and things can move forward (Elliot even sits out an entire episode and I didn't realise it until after it was over). I wouldn't say that erstwhile star Rami Malek is wasted in these opening episodes - his performance is absolutely outstanding, as normal - but once you realise his storyline is designed to keep him on ice for half the season it does feel a bit pointless. But once Elliot is back in the game the pacing and intensity of the show kicks up a notch and the last few episodes of the season are excellent, once you get over your annoyance when you realise that after 12 episodes we really haven't moved very far from the end of Season 1 at all.

As with Season 1, the characterisation is subtle and clever, the soundtrack is utterly outstanding (bonus points for the well-judged, tactical deployment of Depeche Mode) and the unusual direction makes this possibly the most visually distinctive show on television. This is almost a remarkable work of art but it also strays into being cold and unwelcoming, more concerned with narrative trickery and holding the audience at arm's length lest they rumble the show's secrets. This is a show that is very easy to admire for its aesthetics but it's definitely a hard show to love. For the upcoming third season the show really needs to make up its mind on what story it wants to tell and dial back on the self-indulgence before it disappears up its own posterior.

The second season of Mr. Robot (***½) is available now on Blu-Ray (UK, USA) and DVD (UK, USA).

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Season 2 of SENSE8 arrives on Netflix

Season 2 of Sense8 has hit Netflix and should now be available to viewers worldwide.

The first season of Sense8 remains, easily, the most interesting thing Netflix has done (maybe not quite the best, but certainly the most original), a tale of empathy and how people are defined and enhanced by their shared humanity. The Christmas special - which was really the first two episodes of Season 2 combined for an event episode of television - was likewise accomplished and intriguing.

The second season is up on Netflix right now.

Cities of Fantasy: Minas Tirith, the Tower of Guard

From the (to many) obscure to the well-known. Minas Tirith is arguably one of the most famous cities in the fantasy canon, serving as the capital of the kingless Kingdom of Gondor and the site of the largest battle in The Lord of the Rings. Built into the side of Mount Mindolluin, the city was originally a fortified castle, an outpost of Númenor meant to keep guard against the depredations of the Dark Lord, Sauron of Mordor. Later, after the Downfall of Númenor, it became a redoubt and stronghold of Gondor. Finally, a thousand years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, it became the capital city of Gondor.

Minas Tirith, by Ted Naismith.

Physical Description
Minas Tirith is one of the most visually distinctive cities in fiction, oriented so that vertical space (rather than horizontal) is employed for maximum efficiency and defensive capability.  The White Tower of Ecthelion located at the top of the city rises more than 1,000 feet above the Pelennor Fields below, with the city arranged in six concentric, half-circular levels below it (for seven levels in total). Each 100-foot-tall level is surrounded by its own defensive wall. The city was designed with the idea that any invaded army would have to besiege and breach each wall in turn, all the while under arrow and missile fire from above. Thanks to extensive stores and the possibility of escape or resupply through the mountains behind the city, any attacker would also be forced to assault the city, as a siege would be ineffective.

The outermost wall of the city proper is coloured black, constructed by the Númenóreans of the same stone used to build Orthanc, the tower of Isengard. Wrought of Númenórean cunning, the outermost wall is almost indestructible, shaking off siege weapons and fire with barely a scratch. The inner, newer walls are made of white stone and are less formidable, but still very strong.
The city is built over an old hill, the Hill of Guard, and in some places the old hill is visible. Most dramatically, the hill has a protrusion, like the bow of a ship, that dramatically cuts though the upper levels and extends out from the top of the hill in front of the White Tower. The tip of the prow is located 700 feet above the plain and the lowest level, offering a dizzying view of the surrounding countryside. Behind the hill is a saddle linking it to the flank of Mount Mindolluin, eastern-most of the White Mountains. On this saddle is located the Silent Street and the Houses of Healing.
Atop the seventh level is the Citadel, the seat of the Kings of Gondor and, more recently, the Stewards. The Citadel consist of an impressive palace and the 300-foot-tall White Tower of Ecthelion, from which the standard of Gondor would be raised.

Surrounding Minas Tirith in a wide arc is the Rammas Echor, a significant defensive wall extending for four leagues (12 miles) from the Great Gate. Gates in the Rammas Echo permit roads to travel north towards Cair Andros and Rohan, south to Pelargir and east to Osgiliath. Osgiliath, the old capital of Gondor, lies a few more miles from the wall on the Great River Anduin. The Anduin curves to the south and west of Osgiliath, so the wall of the Rammas Echor follows the river. This stretch of the wall is known as the Causeway Forts, commanding the crossing from Osgiliath. South of Minas Tirith, just outside the walls on the banks of the Anduin, lies the small port of Harlond.

Located within the encircling wall of the Rammas Echor are the Pelennor Fields. The fortified breadbasket of Gondor, these fields are mostly turned over to farming. During times of siege when the Rammas Echor holds, the fields can continue to feed the city.

Minas Tirith is the twin in purpose, and some aspects of design, of Minas Ithil, better-known as Minas Morgul, which lies almost 50 miles to the east in the passes of the Mountains of Shadow.

The population of Minas Tirth is never disclosed by Tolkien, although it numbers in the tens of thousands at the time of the War of the Ring (thousands of soldiers are defending the city, so the civilian population should be significantly greater). The city is also described as under-populated by around 50% compared to the height of its power, with many buildings starting to fall into decline. The population of Minas Tirith at the height of its power may have been 30,000, or maybe more if the farms and homesteads on the Pelennor are counted.

Minas Tirith as depicted in Peter Jackson's movie trilogy. The "bigature" used to primarily depict the city was seven metres high and contained over 1,000 distinct houses, taking months to construct. A detailed CGI model was built of the city and also the entire surrounding region.

Minas Tirith was originally called Minas Anor, “The Tower of the Sun” in Sindarin. It was founded in the year 3320 of the Second Age by Anárion, the second of son of Elendil, High King of Arnor. Elendil and his sons had escaped the Downfall of Númenor, brought about the Dark Lord Sauron a year earlier when he convinced Ar-Pharazôn the Golden, the last King of Númenor, into attacking Valinor itself. For his temerity, Ar-Pharazôn and his host were slain and the Undying Lands of the uttermost west were removed from the mortal world. During this cataclysm Númenor was drowned.
Elendil and his sons, along with a host of loyal retainers, landed in Middle-earth and made alliance with the native Númenórean colonists. They were acknowledged as the rulers of the colonies and two new kingdoms were established, Arnor in the far north-west and Gondor in the south. Following the Downfall Sauron had returned to Mordor to raise a new host and complete the conquest of Middle-earth, a fact Elendil was aware of, so he ordered the construction of the city of Osgiliath and two great fortresses to defend it: Minas Anor to the west and Minas Ithil, “The Tower of the Moon”, to the east.

In 3429 Sauron attacked Gondor, but was checked by Anárion at Osgiliath. This gave Elendil enough time to call for aid from Gil-galad, the High King of Lindon, one of the elvish kingdoms. Gil-galad assembled a great host and marched to Gondor’s aid. In the War of the Last Alliance Gil-galad and Elendil proved victorious, driving Sauron from the field following the Battle of Dagorlad (3434 SA) and besieging Barad-dûr for seven years, during which time Anárion was slain. In 3441 SA Sauron emerged from the Dark Tower and engaged the besiegers in combat, slaying Elendil and Gil-galad. Isildur, the eldest son of Elendil, took up his father’s sword and defeated Sauron, cutting the One Ring from his finger. Sauron’s physical body disintegrated, but Isildur’s subsequent refusal to destroy the One Ring meant that Sauron’s spirit was able to return centuries later.

Isildur accepted Anárion’s son Meneldil as the King of Gondor, whilst Isildur chose to become King of Arnor and rule both Dúnedain kingdoms from the north. However, Isildur’s rule as High King of the Dúnedain was short-lived: less than two years later he was killed at the Battle of the Gladden Fields by orcs and the One Ring sank to the bottom of the Anduin. 2,500 years later it was recovered by Déagol, a Stoor Hobbit, who in turn was killed by Sméagol, better known to history as Gollum.
Gondor endured for over three thousand years. Meneldil and his descendants ruled initially from Osgiliath, a beautiful, large city sprawling for miles along the Great River on both sides, linked by causeways and roads to Minas Anor to the west and Minas Ithil in the east. Tolkien does not describe the status of the two guard forts at this time, but it is likely that Minas Anor was not a city as Minas Tirith became in later years. More likely, Minas Anor consisted of the watch tower and fortifications, probably expanding with a town on the lowest level to resupply merchants and travellers heading from south Gondor north into Anórien and Calenardhon (which later became Rohan).

Gondor grew into a mighty power. In the second half of the first millennium of the Third Age it suffered multiple invasions and attacks from Easterlings and the Haradrim. By 600 TA Gondor had conquered vast swathes of Rhûn north of Mordor and by 933 it had captured the port city of Umbar far to the south. The kingdom reached the zenith of its power and influence under Hyarmendacil I and Atanatar the Glorious.

Gondor was weakened by a devastating civil war, the Kin-strife, in 1432 TA, followed by the Great Plague of 1636. Osgiliath and Minas Ithil were devastated and the capital was removed to Minas Anor. The fortress began expanding into the modern city at this time.

In 2002 TA Minas Ithil was captured by the Witch-King of the Nazgûl and became known as Minas Morgul, the “Tower of Black Sorcery”. Minas Anor was renamed Minas Tirith, the “Tower of Guard”. This was a curious name, for it was ill-omened. During the War of the Jewels, approximately 5,590 years earlier, the elven fortress of Minas Tirith was constructed on the island of Tol Sirion to keep guard on an important strategic pass in long-vanished Beleriand. Sauron himself conquered the island and the fortress in battle. It is possible that the Gondorians picked the named for its descriptive qualities, unaware of its history.

In 2050 TA King Eärnur rode to Minas Morgul to answer a challenge to single combat by the Witch-King of Angmar. He was slain without issue. The Steward of Gondor took charge of the realm, organising its defences and generally acting like a king but refusing to take the title. Gondor enjoyed four centuries of relative peace until a series of rolling, continuous wars erupted along its borders. During one of these early conflicts the Gondorians made alliance with Eorl the Young, a chieftain of the northern Anduin, in order to defeat an Easterling tribe, the Balchoth. In gratitude for Eorl’s aid, Gondor ceded its enormous (but sparsely-populated) northern province of Calenardhon to Eorl. This led to the founding of Rohan and the establishing of many centuries of peace and alliance with Gondor.

After five centuries of skirmishing and raids, Sauron declared himself again in Mordor and summoned a vast army. By this time Gondor had been significantly weakened, but still remained the most powerful kingdom in Middle-earth. During the War of the Ring (3017-19 TA) Sauron attacked Gondor several times, most notably at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, during which the Steward of Gondor, Denethor, was killed. Aragorn, the long-missing heir of Isildur, declared himself and was crowned King of Gondor after the conflict. He led the combined armies of Rohan and Gondor to victory at the Battle of the Morannon (aided by the simultaneous destruction of the One Ring in the flames of Mount Doom). After the battle he led the rebuilding of Gondor from Minas Tirith and also re-established the northern realm of Arnor.

J.R.R. Tolkien's own drawing of Minas Tirith, created in 1944 whilst he was writing The Lord of the Rings.

Depictions in Other Media
Tolkien drew his own illustration of Minas Tirith to get across its complex geography. However, Tolkien inadvertently left out the city’s most distinctive feature, the prow-like rock formation dominating the eastern edge of the city.

Minas Tirith has appeared in several adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, although not Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated movie (which ends just after the Battle of Helm’s Deep). The 1980 movie The Return of the King, released by Rankin Bass as a sequel to their earlier Hobbit animated musical, therefore features the first on-screen depiction of Minas Tirith. It is only loosely based on the book version, featuring the different levels but also lacking most of the fine detail.
 Most significant is Minas Tirith’s appearance in Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, where it briefly appears in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) before being far more critical to the events of The Return of the King (2003). The city was designed by Weta Workshop, based very closely on Tolkien’s descriptions and the work of artists John Howe and Alan Lee (both experienced Tolkien artists for many years standing). A highly-detailed CG model was built of not just the city but the surrounding plains and mountains by Weta Digital for the battle sequences. However, a lot of the city shots were accomplished by combining CG, close-ups of large chunks of the city built in a quarry and a “bigature”, a massive miniature model.

Although visually stunning, the movie version of Minas Tirith does have several variances from the book version: the outermost wall of the city is white rather than black and is shown as being fairly weak rather than indestructible. Most notably, the Rammas Echor is completely missing but, confusingly, is mentioned in dialogue (by Theóden as he givens orders to Éomer).

The city appears in numerous video games, most notably The Battle for Middle-earth and its sequel. Due to hardware limitations, the city is depicted as only having four levels rather than seven (some later mods do return it to seven). Several versions of the city have also been built by fans for the video game Minecraft.

Minas Tirith as depicted in the 1980 animated musical movie The Return of the King by Rankin Bass. This was the first major depiction of the film on screen and drew inspiration from Pauline Baynes's 1969 illustration, which was approved by Tolkien.

Influences and Influenced
Tolkien was reportedly inspired by the Italian city of Ravenna, although this is likely more in terms of general location (Tolkien compared Gondor to Italy several times) rather than any geographic similarities. Readers have drawn comparisons between Minas Tirith and the dramatic, tripled-towered San Marino Castle, as well as Mont Saint-Michel in France, but there is no record of Tolkien citing either as influences on his own work. However, Mont Saint-Michel was studied carefully by Weta Workshop and Weta Digital in their design of Minas Tirith for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

The Battle of the Pelennor Fields appears to be a nod to the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. Fought in 451 AD between the Roman Empire and the invading Huns under Attila, this battle was the last major victory won by the Romans before their eventual complete collapse. Although mostly inspired by other sources, Tolkien was fascinated by this battle. The death of Theóden, King of Rohan, during the battle fought valiantly for his allies echoes the real-life death of Theodoric, King of the Visigoths, on behalf of his Roman allies during the battle (both were also crushed to death by their horses on the battlefield, and both were allegedly carried off the field to the cries of woe from their soldiers).

Minas Tirith is one of the most famous cities in all of fantasy literature, but it is also very distinctive, so direct copycats or “tributes” are rare.  The most notorious is Tyrsis in The Sword of Shannara (1977) by Terry Brooks, a multi-levelled, multi-walled city where the most critical battle between good and evil is fought whilst the real struggle (Frodo carrying the Ring to Mordor/Shea Ohmsford seeking the Sword of Shannara in the Skull Kingdom) occurs elsewhere.

Other, considerably less overt, influences can be seen in Tar Valon in The Wheel of Time (complete with its own White Tower), Armengar in The Riftwar Saga, the High Tower of Oldtown in A Song of Ice and Fire (more arguable) and, at least in terms of verticality, Mahala in Francis Knight’s Rojan Dizon trilogy.

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.

Friday, 5 May 2017

HBO developing four separate GAME OF THRONES spin-off projects

It's been known for a while that HBO have been developing ideas for a Game of Thrones spin-off series so they can continue to make substantial amounts of money explore the rich and diverse world created by George R.R. Martin. In a bizarre twist, they have confirmed that they are developing no less than four potential spin-off projects, each from a different writer, so they can pick the one (or two) they like best, like a slightly odd reality show.

The four writers (and presumably potential showrunners) are Max Borenstein, Brian Helgeland, Jane Goldman and Carly Wray.

Borenstein is heavily involved in Legendary's new "Monsterverse", writing the scripts for Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island. He is feted in Hollywood writing circles for Jimi, an unproduced biopic about Jimi Hendrix. He is currently working on the Godzilla sequel, King of the Monsters.

Helgeland is an Academy Award-winner, noted for his work on L.A. Confidential and Mystic River. Intriguingly, his scripts include the Heath Ledger 2001 medieval musical A Knight's Tale, which bears uncanny similarities with George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire prequel The Hedge Knight (1998).

Jane Goldman is an experienced SFF screen writer, having written the scripts for Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, The Woman in Black, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and both Kingsman movies. Goldman has a high hit rate and is the only one of the four writers to be based in the UK, presumably where the spin-offs will continue to be filmed (if they require the same scenery).

Carly Wray has worked as a writer and producer on Mad Men, Constantine, The Bastard Executioner, The Leftovers, Mindhunter and Westworld. Her work on The Leftovers and Westworld gives her the most experience of having previously worked with HBO.

Borenstein and Helgeland are developing ideas independently, whilst Goldman and Wray are developing their scripts with input from George R.R. Martin. Game of Thrones producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will be attached as producers and advisors, but will not be directly involved since they are starting work on the eighth and final season of Thrones for next year and will then be developing a feature film adaptation of the novel Dirty White Boys for Fox.

HBO are apparently not set in any final decisions about the spin-off project: they may like all four ideas and commission all of them, or dislike all of them and go back to the drawing board. It's worth noting at this point that George R.R. Martin retains the rights to any other material set in Westeros, so the writers will have to also win his approval as well as HBO's to move forwards.

The most likely spin-off project is either a continuing series or series of films based on Martin's Dunk and Egg novellas (starting with The Hedge Knight). There is already material available to be adapted and the stories have a (somewhat) lighter, more self-contained narrative that will make them, in theory, easier to sell to audiences. However, only three of a potential twelve stories in the series have been written. It could be, with the main series occupying his time for the next few years (at least), Martin has found the TV option as an alternate way of getting these stories out through other writers.

HBO would likely be most interested in a prequel series based on Robert's Rebellion, featuring younger actors playing key Game of Thrones roles. Indeed, they already have Robert Aramayo and Aisling Franciosi cast as Eddard and Lyanna Stark from the main series (although a big-budget, ongoing series may feature some recasting). However, Martin has always been somewhat opposed to telling this story in detail, believing it would only be "filling in the blanks" as the key parts of the story have already been revealed in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones themselves. HBO may attempt to persuade Martin of the merits of the project by burying his entire house and indeed city in dump trucks of money citing its artistic and thematic potential.

More daunting is the idea of doing a story based on the Dance of Dragons, using Martin's short stories The Rogue Prince and The Princess and the Queen, as well as the history outlined in The World of Ice and Fire (not to mention a much more detailed account of the conflict, which Martin has written for a future spin-off project called Fire and Blood). This would probably need to be a feature film or a trilogy, and with its focus on massive dragons and aerial combat, might be a good fit for Borenstein (whose upcoming workload is also quite full, making it less likely he would commit to a TV show for several years but could work on a movie project).

It's very early in the process, but it's quite likely that HBO would like something ready to air in late 2019 or early 2020, after Game of Thrones' final episode airs somewhere in the late summer of 2018.

Thursday, 4 May 2017


A couple of big trailers rolled out today. First up is the trailer for The Defenders, the Netflix/Marvel series which teams up Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist to take on a threat led by Sigourney Weaver.

The Defenders his Netflix on 18 August this year.

Next up is The Dark Tower, a film based on Stephen King's novel series of the same name. The film is both an adaptation of and a sequel to King's novels. If successful, it will be followed by a sequel and a spin-off, prequel TV series.

The Dark Tower is released in cinemas on 4 August this year.

The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker

The Great Ordeal has crossed a thousand leagues in its quest to reach Golgotterath, stronghold of the vile Consult, and to destroy it and the abominations it harbours within. It has braved a horde of a million Sranc, betrayal and, in the shadow of the ancient fortress of Dagliash, a weapon unlike any seen before in the world. Before it lies the Agongorea, an utterly dead land, beyond which lies the fabled Golden Horns of their foe. But the Ordeal is stretched to breaking point, its food gone, its Aspect-Emperor departed on an errand of his own and its greatest heroes missing on dire quests. It falls to King Nersei Proyas to guide the Ordeal over the last leg of its journey...and to a confrontation with history.

When is the ending not the ending? Thirty years ago, when Scott Bakker first conceived of The Second Apocalypse, he planned to conclude it with the events that, finally, conclude this novel. Some time later he reflected that this might not be the best idea, and drafted a plan for (at least) two further novels to wrap up the saga in a different manner.

Having finished The Unholy Consult - the seventh and most revelatory novel in the series to date - it is hard to say if this was a good idea or not. For those who read this series (so far comprising two sub-series, the Prince of Nothing trilogy and the Aspect-Emperor quartet) for the warring philosophies, SF ideas such as genetic engineering and quantum theory seen through an epic fantasy prism and the way it inverts so many fantasy tropes to the point where they unhinge, I suspect they would have seen nothing wrong with Bakker dropping the mike on the final line of this book (and it's a humdinger) and walking off into the sunset. I suspect other readers, such as those who enjoy the brainy digressions of the series but still read it as an epic fantasy with cool magic and a mystery-laden storyline, would be more horrified at the prospect. Whilst dropping the series at this point would doubtlessly be more artistic, more bloody-minded and more, well, Bakker, it'd also be, from a mundane narrative standpoint, less satisfying.

Rewinding to the start, The Unholy Consult picks up in the tumultuous aftermath of The Great Ordeal, which left many of the major characters of the series apparently dead or missing. The novel wastes no time in resolving most of these questions and getting the story back on track. Other events fall away and the story begins to narrow in on Golgotterath as the Great Ordeal, battered, bloodied and compromised by the horrors it has been forced to adopt to survive, finally arrives in the shadow of the Golden Horns. Other factions soon join them and there are moments of reunion as characters compare notes on their experiences and realise that their prior assumptions about what they face may have been erroneous.

From there the book explodes in a titanic battle sequence as Ordeal and Consult finally clash and we realise, in the grand tradition of Tolkien (whose influence lies deeper on this series than I think is often appreciated), that both forces are not what they once were, that evil has degraded and is lesser than it once was even as good faces the same predicament. The battle is long, arduous and packed with individual moments of epic heroism and foul reversals. Bakker, for all of his philosophical preoccupations, is good at blowing stuff up and sets to blowing stuff up in this battle with wild abandon. But the battle outside the foul Ark is matched by another struggle deeper within it, as intellects and ideologies clash in a struggle of viewpoints which is even more important.

Indeed, seasoned fantasy readers may be struck by the structural similarity between The Unholy Consult and A Memory of Light, the final novel in the Wheel of Time sequence, of the great "last" battle of swords and sorcery being matched by a battle of arguments and semantics that may decide the fate of the world. Bakker is considerably more concise here (in a novel less than half and only a bit more than a third as long as A Memory of Light) and of course roots his arguments in considerably more complex concepts.

The Unholy Consult is a striking novel, remarkable for its conciseness given the magnitude of the ending it depicts (similar to The Thousandfold Thought, the conclusion of The Prince of Nothing trilogy which opened this mega-series, Bakker knows how to drop an effective ending without milking it for a thousand pages) and for the way the author handles his revelations. This series is rooted in mysteries built atop mysteries and it'd be easy for the author to refuse to address them (like Lost), or give a nonsensical, pat answer you suspect they thought of only five minutes earlier (like the latter Battlestar Galactica), but Bakker shows no fear in simply squarely answering questions with answers reached a long time before. He resolves thematic and character arcs begun fourteen years ago in The Darkness That Came Before and if you figured out the answer to a particular mystery in a late-night discussion on the Three-Seas, Westeros.org or Second Apocalypse Forums five years ago, well done. Also, hold tight because here come another three revelations which you really didn't see coming. There are some revelations here that will have the reader nodding in approval, others that will be mystifying and several that are surprising in both their content and their elegance (one, extraordinarily important, answer to a vital series-spanning question would even border on the mundane, but the implications of the revelation are far-reaching).

Other issues go resolutely unaddressed: those hoping for Bakker to drop a Dungeons and Dragons Manual of the Planes-style explanation of how the metaphysics in his universe work should brace themselves for disappointment, although some concepts are further elaborated upon. The author is careful here to reveal some more of the recipe for this story without giving you a full list of the ingredients.

Events build in the novel to a frenzy of battles, arguments and, yes, death swirling down, and Bakker sticks the landing. Epic fantasies have a rather horrible tendency to blow the ending but The Aspect-Emperor gets the payoff it deserves, more The Lord of the Rings and The Crippled God rather than Magician's End or The Born Queen, and epic and impressive it is. You not so much read the finale as survive it, and in the nerve-shredded aftermath have to ask the question which will drive a lot of discussion in the months and years ahead: "Now what?"

The Unholy Consult (****½) is perhaps less elegantly structured as a novel than some of its forebears, with not much in the way of build up before it starts smashing things asunder (from that perspective, this books feels the lack of The Great Ordeal immediately before it far more keenly than vice versa), but it makes up for that with tremendously satisfying character moments, Bakker's best-ever action scenes and, in the final chapter, possibly Bakker's most powerfully effective pieces of prose to date. The novel will be published on 6 July 2017 in the UK and on 11 July in the USA.

Note: The Unholy Consult is a relatively short novel, clocking in at around 450 pages. The rest of the book is made up by an encyclopaedic glossary - an expanded successor to that found in The Thousandfold Thought - a collection of maps and two short stories previously only available on Bakker's website: The False Sun and Four Revelations.