Monday, 29 June 2015

A Song of Facts and Figures: A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords
Writing Period: 1997/98-April 2000 (very approx.)
Originally Published: 8 August 2000 (UK), November 2000 (USA)

Word Count: 424,000
Manuscript Page Count: 1,521
Hardcover Page Count: 975
Paperback Page Count: 1008 (US one-volume), 1178 (UK two-volume)

Chapters: 82
POV Characters: 10 + Prologue + Epilogue

As with A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords was not supposed to exist in George R.R. Martin's original plan for A Song of Ice and Fire. The original plan was for a trilogy consisting of the civil war-focused A Game of Thrones, the Daenerys-focused A Dance with Dragons and the North-focused The Winds of Winter. The original Game of Thrones was expected to cover not just the set-up for the War of the Five Kings, but the full struggle itself, culminating in the Red Wedding.

During the writing, Martin discovered that this wasn't really working. In the event it took three books and almost 4,000 manuscript pages (rather than the 700-800 he'd originally thought) to get through this material. Of course, this was a much-expanded version of the story he'd originally conceived with numerous differences. These included expanding the cast of POV characters in every book (Swords adds Samwell Tarly and Jaime Lannister to the roster), covering perspectives such as the ironborn in more detail than originally planned and bringing in many small-but-popular bit-part players absent from the original outline, such as Bronn.

A Storm of Swords was - and remains - the longest book in the Song of Ice and Fire sequence, but it was almost certainly the fastest-written (although it's impossible to be sure due to the heavy overlap of writing between Swords and A Clash of Kings). When A Clash of Kings was completed, hundreds of pages were left over for A Storm of Swords, including (according to some reports) Tyrion Lannister's complete story arc for the latter. Martin wrote like a man possessed through Swords, reportedly even cramming in some work over Christmas 1999 to help get the thing done as fast as possible. Martin reported that the book was completed in April 2000 and it hit the shelves in the UK in August, although it was actually on some bookshelves in the last week of July. For such a big book, this was a very rapid turn-around.

The reason for the sheer length of Swords was that Martin had made a crucial decision during the writing process. His original plan had been for weeks or even months to pass between chapters, so the characters would grow up a lot through the first book or two of the series. In the event this did not place, and between them the first three books in the series cover rather less than two years of time. Unhappy with the impact this had on some storylines (Martin, at least at one early stage, had considered a love triangle forming between a grown-up Arya, Jon and Tyrion as a plot point for the later books), Martin made a fateful and, in hindsight, unwise decision: there would be a "jump forwards" of about five years between A Storm of Swords and the fourth book in the series, A Dance with Dragons. As a result, A Storm of Swords had to conclude pretty much all of the storylines-in-progress so that Martin could pick them up again five years later, with either no cliffhangers or ones that could be easily explored later on in flashback. This required every story put in motion in A Game of Thrones to either be finished, cut off or plateaued by the end of Swords, put into stasis for five years until the next book could pick up on them.

On release, A Storm of Swords easily became the most critically-acclaimed book in the series. It was also the first volume to hit the New York Times bestseller list and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, a prize it missed out on to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. With the book completed, Martin set to work on A Dance with Dragons, unaware that this book was going to take slightly longer than its predecessors to get on the shelves.

A Plethora of Pages
A Storm of Swords is one of the largest fantasy novels ever published. The book is over 424,000 words in length and there are very few notable SF or fantasy books which are larger. Here are a few of them:

The Stand: Stephen King's apocalyptic SF/horror epic clocks in at 462,000 words.
The Naked God: The concluding volume of Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy is 469,000 words long, making it comfortably the largest space opera ever written.
The Lord of the Rings: J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy saga - the whole thing - tops out at 473,000 words.
To Green Angel Tower: The final book of Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy is a mind-boggling 520,000 words in length, making it one of the longest single novels in the English language. Memory, Sorrow and Thorn was a key influence on A Song of Ice and Fire, and several references to it can be found hidden in Martin's work.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Malazan Update

Amazon has suggested new release dates for the next two Malazan novels.

Fall of Light, the much-delayed second volume in The Kharkanas Trilogy by Steven Erikson, will now be published on 16 February 2016. This will pick up after the events of Forge of Darkness.

Meanwhile, Ian Cameron Esslemont's next Malazan novel will be called Dancer's Lament and will open the Path to Ascendancy series. This series will be a prequel to the existing Malazan novels and will chart the backstory of Kellanved, Dancer and other key figures from the founding of the Malazan Empire and the preceding years.

A Song of Facts and Figures: A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings
Writing Period: 1995-mid. 1998 (approx.)
Originally Published: 16 November 1998 (UK), March 1999 (USA)

Word Count: 326,000
Manuscript Page Count: 1,184
Hardcover Page Count: 752
Paperback Page Count: 741 (original UK edition, featuring the smallest font know to man), 1040 (original US), 911 (current UK)

Chapters: 70
POV Characters: 9 + Prologue

As discussed previously, A Clash of Kings was not supposed to exist in George R.R. Martin's original plan for the series. This plan was for a trilogy consisting of the novels A Game of Thrones (focusing on the War of the Five Kings), A Dance with Dragons (focusing on Daenerys) and The Winds of Winter (focusing on the Others), with each novel maybe coming in at 700-800 manuscript pages each.

Instead, when Martin realised he was approaching 1,400 manuscript pages and wasn't even halfway through his original storyline for A Game of Thrones by itself, he realised he had a problem on his hands. He found suitable end or cliffhanger points for the existing characters and storylines and submitted this material as A Game of Thrones. The remaining 300-odd manuscript pages were held back for the second volume. It appears that for a time Martin considered rolling this material into the original planned second book, A Dance with Dragons. As late as the summer of 1996, on the eve of A Game of Thrones's publication, marketing materials and blurbs were referring to Dragons as the second volume of a trilogy. Shortly after that point Martin had to concede defeat and announce a new plan: A Song of Ice and Fire was going to be a four-book series.

The new second volume gained the title A Clash of Kings. Using the 300-odd pages inherited from A Game of Thrones, work on A Clash of Kings proceeded relatively speedily. However, the same problem that afflicted Thrones now cropped up in Kings. Martin would write material for one POV character and then switch to another. However, he found himself writing large amounts of material for some characters and getting much further ahead in chronology, so then had to stop and skip back to catch up the other characters. He also made the decision to expand the cast of POV characters. His original plan had been to solely use the seven surviving characters from A Game of Thrones, but for the second volume decided to add Theon Greyjoy and Davos Seaworth to the character roster.

By early-to-mid 1998, the book had ballooned in size just as Thrones had. Martin, once again, had to make the decision to split the book and hold back material for an additional volume. This time, he also wrote a more detailed outline. This new outline (which has never been seen publicly) suggested to him that the whole series would be longer than originally planned. What had been the first novel was going to be three, whilst the originally-planned final book would now be two. As a result, the series leapt from four volumes to six: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Dance with Dragons, The Winds of Winter and A Time for Wolves (a title he disliked, but a better one escaped him for the moment).

During the writing of A Clash of Kings, Martin also received an invitation from legendary science fiction and fantasy author Robert Silverberg to contribute to a new anthology work he was planning, entitled Legends. This book would feature new short fiction set in some of the biggest and most popular fantasy worlds ever created. The book would feature new stories in the Discworld, Dark Tower, Dragonriders of Pern and Wheel of Time worlds by Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, Anne McCaffrey and Robert Jordan respectively, among many others. Martin decided to contribute a prequel to A Song of Ice and Fire, a story called The Hedge Knight set eighty-nine years before A Game of Thrones and featuring the adventures of Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire, Egg. The story was a big hit and reviewed as one of the highlights of the collection, convincing Martin to write sequels.

A Clash of Kings was finally published in November 1998 in the UK (the American edition had to wait until February 1999). At 1,184 manuscript pages, it was noticeably larger than A Game of Thrones and ended on a series of cliffhangers. It also featured some of the most iconic scenes in the series, such as Daenerys Targaryen's surreal adventure in the House of the Undying and the epic clash of armies and wildfire in the Battle of the Blackwater. The novel's arrival also coincided with the appearance of the earliest fan websites and forums dedicated to the series, which were soon eagerly debating where the series would go next.

For Martin, again he had written far ahead of the material he had just published and had several hundred manuscript pages in progress for the third volume in the series, A Storm of Swords.

Cover Art
After the cover shenanigans surrounding A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings had a far easier time of things. Stephen Youll created the American artwork and Jim Burns the British, both following the same styles laid down for the first book.

Fan Theories
A Clash of Kings was the first book in the series to be discussed in-depth online after publication, and as such it is notable that fan theories such as "R+L=J" (the notion that Jon Snow is actually the son of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, not the bastard son of Eddard Stark at all) and that Aegon VI Targaryen had survived the Sack of King's Landing (following the "mummer's dragon" appearance in Daenerys's vision) both gained widespread credence following the novel's publication. Fans were gratified when the latter theory, at least, was proven with the publication of A Dance with Dragons thirteen years later.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

A Song of Facts and Figures: A Game of Thrones

After seeing some recent online discussions about A Song of Ice and Fire - the book series upon which the hit HBO series Game of Thrones is based - I thought it would be useful to provide some statistics and information about each book in the series.

An American first edition of A Game of Thrones spotted by myself at Worldcon in London, August 2014. This edition was retailing for £540 (approx. $850). I passed.

A Game of Thrones
Writing Period: Summer 1991-Late 1995 or early 1996 (very approx.)
Originally Published: 6 August 1996 (UK/US)

Word Count: 298,000
Manuscript Page Count: 1,088*
Hardcover Page Count: 672
Paperback Page Count: 836

Chapters: 73
POV Characters: 8 + Prologue

George R.R. Martin started writing the first volume in the series, A Game of Thrones, in the summer of 1991. He conceived of the chapter where Bran watches Gared being executed and then finding the direwolf pups in the snow whilst working on a separate SF novel, Avalon. Martin was originally unsure if this was a novel, novella or a series. He wrote several additional chapters, initially deciding that this would be a "realistic" fantasy novel featuring no magic or supernatural elements, just set in a fictional world. However, his friend and fellow writer Phyllis Eisenstein convinced him this was the wrong path to take and, as he later put it, talked him into "putting the dragons in" (A Storm of Swords is dedicated to her).

Martin had completed approximately 100 manuscript pages before he received word from Hollywood that a TV pilot script he had written, called Doorways, had been picked up by ABC. Martin returned to Hollywood for much for 1992 and 1993 to work on the project. In the event, a pilot was produced but never aired and ABC passed on the series. During this time Martin continued to develop ideas for the novel and its characters. By the time he had returned to Santa Fe and resumed work on the novel in 1993, he had expanded the series to a trilogy, provisionally consisting of the novels A Game of Thrones (focusing on Eddard Stark and the War of the Five Kings), A Dance with Dragons (focusing on Daenerys) and The Winds of Winter (focusing on events at the Wall).

By October 1993, A Game of Thrones consisted of 173 manuscript pages and thirteen completed chapters. Martin also, unusually for him, prepared a brief outline of how he envisaged the story developing. This outline, made public early this year, is extremely different to the story that we ended up with (not to mention being much shorter), but some of the bare bones remain.

The outline, prepared to help sell the trilogy to potential publishers, proved highly and rapidly successful: HarperCollins in the UK picked up the trilogy for £450,000 ($662,000 in 1994 money) in February 1994. Bantam Spectra picked up the American rights around the same time.

It is unclear when A Game of Thrones was completed, because Martin originally did not envisage the novel finishing where it did. Originally, it appears that Martin planned for a rather shorter and more concise version of the War of the Five Kings to take place, with the first novel expected to end around the time of the Red Wedding. However, this proved impractical during the writing. When he passed 1,300 manuscript pages, Martin realised that the first novel would have to be split into two. He found suitable endpoints for the first novel, which ended up at 1,088 manuscript pages, and submitted this as the first novel in the series, A Game of Thrones. The remaining 300-400 pages were held back for the second novel, now provisionally entitled A Clash of Kings. This split seems to have taken place in late 1995 or early 1996.

Blood of the Dragon, a self-contained novella consisting of all of the Daenerys chapters from A Game of Thrones. Published in Asimov's in July 1996, it won the series a Hugo Award in 1997. Note in the blurb that A Dance with Dragons is still envisaged as the second (!) book in the series.

For A Game of Thrones, both the US and UK publishers chose similar release strategies. Epic fantasy was big business at the time and an established, respected SF author of many years standing dipping his toe into the genre was seen by both publishers as a good marketing opportunity. In the American market, the chapters featuring Daenerys Targaryen were extracted from A Game of Thrones and turned into a stand-alone novella called Blood of the Dragon. This was published in Asimov's Science Fiction in July 1996. It later won the Best Novella Award at the 1997 Hugo Awards, the only Hugo the series has won for fiction (although its TV spin-off, Game of Thrones, has now won three), and helped drum up American interest in the novel.

The pre-release preview novella released by HarperCollins Voyager, circa May/June 1996 and sold in bookstores for 99p.

In the UK, HarperCollins Voyager published the first few chapters of the book as a stand-alone novella, retailing at 99p. Voyager seemed to cunningly position this so readers picking up the then-latest Wheel of Time hardcover, A Crown of Swords (released in May 1996), might be tempted by this sneak peek. I certainly remember it being available at the same time, although I chose not to pick it up at the time (otherwise I may have ended up getting involved in the ASoIaF fandom years earlier than I did, which would have been interesting).

Cover Art
The first edition of A Game of Thrones was published with a silver, reflective foil cover prepared by Tom Hallman and a debatable blue-purple typeface. It was not a huge success, and initial American sales were disappointing. The British edition, with more striking cover art by Jim Burns, was more successful. Sales of the book did not really start taking off until the US paperback, with new cover art by Stephen Youll, was released in 1997.

Sales of the book were also helped by a number of prominent fantasy and science fiction authors providing cover blurbs. Katherine Kerr (known for her Deverry novels), Julian May (of the Galactic Milieu sequence), Raymond E. Feist (of Riftwar fame), Janny Wurts (known for The Wars of Light and Shadow) and Anne McCaffrey (author of the Dragonriders of Pern series) all provided quotes but the most influential (according to both Martin and his publishers) was that given by Robert Jordan, author of The Wheel of Time. The Wheel of Time was the then-dominant epic fantasy series on the market and Jordan's blessing seemed to provide a noticeable boost to sales.

In 1998, Martin and Jordan both contributed short stories to Robert Silverberg's Legends anthology. Martin provided The Hedge Knight, the first of his Dunk & Egg novellas set ninety years before the events of A Game of Thrones, whilst Jordan contributed New Spring, a short story set twenty years before his Wheel of Time sequence. Martin pointed out that many readers picked up Legends primarily for the Jordan story and then read his tale, which inspired them to pick up A Game of Thrones.

George R.R. Martin has not revealed much about Avalon, the novel he abandoned to work on A Song of Ice and Fire. It was part of his Thousand Worlds setting, where his early novels Dying of the Light (1977), Windhaven (1981) and Tuf Voyaging (1987) were all set, along with a large amount of his short fiction (most of it collected in Dreamsongs). Avalon is the name of a planet in this setting, mentioned several times in the other books as being one of the more powerful and civilised planets in the Thousand Worlds, but nothing about the plot or characters of the book are known.

Over the years Martin has even hinted that he may finish Avalon once A Song of Ice and Fire is completed. If true, this would almost certainly make A Song of Ice and Fire the biggest mid-novel writing tangent in history.

The completed manuscript of A Dance with Dragons.

* A Note on Manuscript Pages
As regular readers of Martin's blog will know, he often speaks about "manuscript pages" when talking about the length of his novels. This occasionally causes confusion, especially when he talks about The Winds of Winter being 1,500 pages long, as this leads people to expect a novel half again even the massive lengths of A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons.

"Manuscript pages" refers to the number of pages the book takes up on Martin's word processor, an ancient (late 1980s vintage) piece of software called WordStar 4.0 running on an old DOS machine. All five books to date have been written on this machine, as (presumably) is The Winds of Winter. The published versions of the books vary in length immensely depending on font and margin size, and are inconsistent with one another. Martin prefers to refer to the manuscript page size as this remains uniform across all five published books to date.

Under this count, the novels are the following lengths:

A Game of Thrones: 1,088 manuscript pages (approx. 298,000 words)
A Clash of Kings: 1,184 manuscript pages (approx. 326,000 words)
A Storm of Swords: 1,521 manuscript pages (approx. 424,000 words)
A Feast for Crows: 1,063 manuscript pages (approx. 300,000 words)
A Dance with Dragons: 1,510 manuscript pages (approx. 422,000 words)

Note that A Feast for Crows is 2,000 words longer than A Game of Thrones but occupies 25 fewer MS pages, likely the result the former having 27 fewer chapters and thus fewer page breaks than Thrones.

Next up (natch): A Clash of Kings

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Scott Bakker's THE UNHOLY CONSULT delayed for no apparent reason

Fans of R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse mega-series have been eagerly awaiting the sixth and (sort of) final novel novel in the series, The Unholy Consult, since it was submitted to Overlook Press in February 2014 for publication. However, since then there has only been a deafening silence from Overlook over a publication date. This has recently been compounded by the removal of the ebooks for the five previous volumes from sale.

The Second Apocalypse is divided into two sub-trilogies, The Prince of Nothing and The Aspect-Emperor. Bakker also plans a third series, currently a duology, although this is apparently more of a sequel to the first six books and The Unholy Consult will provide closure to the series as a whole if necessary. The previous novels in the series were The Darkness That Comes Before (2003), The Warrior-Prophet (2004), The Thousandfold Thought (2006), The Judging Eye (2009) and The White Luck Warrior (2011). Combined worldwide sales of the series to date are in the neighbourhood of one million books sold.

Overlook Press has been Bakker's primary publishers in the United States. However, Overlook are a relatively small and independent publishing company without the resources of many of the larger publishers to get lots of copies on the shelves. Sales in the United States have been relatively low compared to Bakker's performance in other markets: sales for Orbit Books in the Commonwealth territories (most notably the UK) seem to have been a lot stronger. Bakker's American sales through Overlook seem to account for only a quarter of total sales of the series, which is highly unusual. A move to a bigger publisher may be a good idea, although for in-progress (and in-contract) series that can be very complicated.

According to Scott, despite turning in the first draft, complete manuscript for The Unholy Consult in February 2014 (almost sixteen months ago now), Overlook are still to announce a publication date and have not yet even assigned an editor to the book. So if they began editing work tomorrow, it would still be unlikely for the book to come out much before the end of 2016 at the earliest. Other publishers, such as Orbit in the UK, are unable to proceed until Overlook have completed the final copy-edit of the novel.

Overlook have also not yet explained why the ebooks of the series have been pulled from sale.

To help the situation, it may be worth sending a polite email to Overlook asking a release date and explaining why the series appeals to you. Tweeting them may also be of use. If you haven't read the series yet because you were waiting for the final volume, it sounds like The Unholy Consult will give enough closure in case the sequel series never appears, so now is a good time to get off the fence. Tweets to Overlook to that effect may also be helpful. I would also recommend following Bakker on Twitter. Whilst Bakker uses Twitter more for philosophical musings than marketing (as he cheerfully admits), an increase in his social media profile would certainly help matters.

On the positive side, Bakker confirms that there is a lot of interest in the series from other publishers if Overlook do choose not to proceed with finishing the series. However, the Paul Kearney situation over The Sea-Beggars trilogy (where the US publishers have refused to publish the third volume but also refused to give up the rights to Solaris, who are very keen to finish it off) shows that a transfer of rights can be along-winded process in itself.

Updates as I get them.

Emails to:

RIP James Horner

One of the greats of the film composing world, James Horner, passed away on Monday. He started composing for film in 1978 with The Lady in Red and was still active at the time of his death. He is best-known for composing the soundtracks for the two highest-grossing movies of all time, Avatar and Titanic.

Horner was an concert hall composer before moving into films. His first soundtrack of genre interest was Battle Beyond the Stars in 1981, but he hit the big time when he was picked to score Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the following year. His score was highly praised for the way it backed both the action and character moments perfectly. He also scored Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

This moved Horner into the big leagues and he scored many of the most well-known movies of the 1980s and 1990s, including 48 Hours, Krull, Cocoon (and its sequel), Commando, An American Tail, *batteries not included, Willow, Red Heat, The Land Before Time, Field of Dreams, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Glory, The Rocketeer, Patriot Games, The Pelican Brief, Clear and Present Danger, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, Apollo 13, Jumanji, Deep Impact, The Mask of Zorro and The Bicentennial Man.

In 1986 Horner began a highly fruitful collaboration with the director James Cameron. He produced the acclaimed soundtrack to Aliens before working with the director on Titanic. Horner won his only two Academy Awards for the film, both for the score and for the song "My Heart Will Go On" (sung by Celine Dion). In 2009 they reunited so Horner could produce the score for Avatar. Both Cameron and Horner had indicated that Horner would return to score the Avatar sequel trilogy, but it's unknown if Horner had already begun working on that project at the time of his passing.

James Horner was acclaimed as one of the "Three Js" of film scoring in the latter part of the 20th Century, alongside the late Jerry Goldsmith and the still-going-strong John Williams. He soundtracked many of favourite movies of all time and he will be missed.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Game of Thrones: Season 5

Westeros is trying to recover from the devastation of the War of the Five Kings. Bandits and raiders are rife in the countryside and the Greyjoys and Stannis Baratheon remain in arms against King Tommen. In King's Landing, the machinations of the Queen Regent threaten to shatter the alliance between Houses Lannister and Tyrell, whilst Jon Snow's determination to forge an alliance with the wildlings proves controversial with his brothers in the Night's Watch. Far across the sea, Daenerys's attempts to restore peace to the ancient city of Meereen are threatened by a band of rebels enraged by her decision to ban slavery and by the fact that she has lost control of her dragons.

Much will be written about the fifth season of Game of Thrones in the months and years to come. This was always going to be the season in which George R.R. Martin's novels and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss's TV show were going to dramatically diverge from one another, the near-inevitable result of both the needs of dramatisation (which would likely not bear the introspection and subtlety of the fourth and fifth books in the series) and the fact that the TV show is now outpacing the books, requiring both outright invention on the part of the producers as well as drawing on elements from books as-yet unreleased, or even unwritten.

This process has mixed results. In some cases, the adaptation continues to hit its sweet spot of getting complex stories from the novels across on screen in a simpler form, but one that is also clearer, more concise and retaining the thematic essentials whilst paring away unnecessary (if still interesting) supporting material and characters. King's Landing particularly benefits from this, with lots of minor politics involving new or vanishingly minor characters swept aside in favour of a more ruthless focus on Cersei's growing hatred of the Tyrells and the arrival of the High Sparrow, played with flawless passion by Jonathan Pryce. This culminates in the excellent, distressing "Walk of Shame" sequence, in which Lena Headey knocks it out of the park as Cersei is humiliated to the point where even the most hardened viewer may feel sorry for her, despite her many crimes.

Almost as well-handled (until its conclusion) is the story at the Wall. Lots of minor crises within the Night's Watch are jettisoned in favour of Jon Snow being given a more decisive story arc: becoming Lord Commander, leading a fleet to rescue the wildlings, getting in over his head at the Battle of Hardhome and then being forced to flee but at least having secured a new alliance.

Then we have the infamous Dornish storyline. This is botched, and botched quite badly. It's a waste of both superlative casting (Alexander Siddig is fantastic, but doesn't have much to do) and beautiful scenery (the result of Spain being added to the shooting locations), with the show delivering the feeblest fight sequence in its history, some of the most risible dialogue and, in the relationship between Tyene Sand and Bronn, who is old enough to be her grandfather, some of its most cringe-inducing flirting (despite the heroic efforts of both actors). There are moments where you can see why the producers thought it was a good idea, such as the "reasonable" negotiations between Jaime and Doran and the final scene with Jaime and Myrcella, but it could be argued that the producers should have followed their first instincts and simply not gone to Dorne at all. The fact that the story is also missing its key scene from the books (the one that made the whole story in the books make sense) also hurts it badly.

Then we have Meereen and the Winterfell/Stannis situation, which can both be described as "problematic". The Meereen story is simplified from the books, which might be a good thing, with less interchangeable characters, less factions and less politics involving minor tertiary characters. However, the TV series fails to replace these elements with anything more interesting. Instead we have repeated (and redundant) scenes of the Sons of the Harpy slaughtering curiously ineffectual Unsullied by the dozen and repeated (and redundant) scenes of Daenerys musing on opening the fighting pits or not. There are some golden moments here, such as Tyrion and Daenerys finally meeting and the final, epic showdown in the Great Pit, but otherwise it's a story left spinning its wheels for too long.

The Winterfell story is even more variable. Combining the wildly disparate and disjointed Brienne, Sansa, Theon and Ramsay arcs from the novels into one storyline that fuses them together is a bold move and one that actually makes sense and almost works. It is sabotaged by again benching characters for long periods (Brienne's Season 5 storyline can be summed up as "The Woman Who Stared At Masonry"), running roughshod over motivations (Littlefinger seems uncharacteristically uninformed and stupid) and introducing controversy for controversy's sake (the ending to the sixth episode). Excellent acting by all involved does elevate the story and some scenes are genuinely brilliant. Roose Bolton's matter-of-fact recounting of Ramsay's conception seems to disturb even the unflappably demented Ramsay, whilst Alfie Allen sells Theon's internal struggle to become his old self again with tragic intensity. Sophie Turner also rises above some questionable story twists to deliver some of her finest moments in the role of Sansa to date.

However, it is Stannis's storyline that walks off with the prize for the most howl-inducingly frustrating. Since his introduction in Season 2, the show's depiction of the character has suffered in comparison to the novels, where he is one of Martin's most subtle and complex characters. His motivations are simple on the surface but more complex underneath and he is a character that is determined more by bad PR than reality (the common observation that Stannis humourless is undercut by occasional, very dry almost-quips). Fleetingly, the TV show has shown the same character such as during his determination at the Blackwater and in his first meeting with Jon Snow. But it's not until Season 5 that it seems to nail his character: correcting the grammar of the Night's Watch, nodding approvingly over Jon Snow's leadership tactics and being more fatherly with his daughter. Of course, it was a trap, all done to make his preposterous and utterly unconvincing about-heel turn towards the end of the ninth episode all the more painful to watch. Stephen Dillane was superb in the role, but it does feel like the TV show's producers and writers fundamentally misunderstood the character throughout the series.

Almost as disappointing is the end to Jon Snow's storyline. In A Dance with Dragons, Jon gradually sends away his most experienced men to man the other castles on the Wall, inadvertently removing the Night's Watch officers who were at the Fist of the First Men and fought the White Walkers there. This leaves behind a cabal of men who haven't seen the true threat from the north and whom it feels convincing would turn on and betray their commander. In the TV series this does not happen, and Castle Black is stuffed full of rangers who have just seen thousands of corpses rise from the dead and the White Walkers themselves in the full terrible majesty of their power. The notion that the Watch would betray Jon under such circumstances is laughable, not helped by the climactic Caesar moment being staged in a manner more befitting Monty Python (with the assassins neatly lined up in a row to each stab Jon and utter their catchphrase, and he politely doesn't keel over until they're all done). Poor stuff.

There are other moments in the fifth season of Game of Thrones when it feels like the show is dealing with pure myth: the voyage through the ruins of Valyria is a genuinely awe-inspiring moment of magic and the Battle of Hardhome is the best action sequence conceived for the series so far, a full-on zombie rumble that would do Sam Raimi proud and which blows every single zombie action sequence in five seasons of The Walking Dead completely out of the water. The depiction of Braavos is pretty good, and the scenes in the House of Black and White are creepy. The scenes with the dragons are amazing, the more frequent use of CGI establishing shots gives the show a sense of scale that favourably compares with the best films and the production values remain jaw-dropping. The show still has the best cast on television. It remains, even in its weakest moments, watchable.

But there's also the feeling that the fifth season is a little too disjointed, more willing to lean on lazy coincidence and cliche than previous seasons. There's also a distressing lack of attention to detail, with Dorne's location on the title sequence map not being quite right, Jon Snow's fleet apparently landing on the wrong side of the Wall and the plausible military side of things being completely thrown out the window (if Stannis was really a master tactician, he would never do the things he does in the finale).

The fifth season of Game of Thrones is the weakest to date, delivering some of the worst moments and episodes, but it still manages to shine with some real moments of dramatic power. It certainly leaves things in an interesting place going forwards, even if it feels implausible that this huge story (even the TV show's truncated version) can be wrapped up in just twenty more episodes. But we will see how the sixth and penultimate season handles things next year.

501: The Wars to Come (***½)
502: The House of Black and White (***½)
503: High Sparrow (***½)
504: Sons of the Harpy (****)
505: Kill the Boy (****½)
506: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken (**½)
507: The Gift (****)
508: Hardhome (*****)
509: The Dance of Dragons (****)
510: Mother's Mercy (***½)

Forthcoming: Season 6 (March/April 2016)

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Sony and Square Enix announce FINAL FANTASY VII remake, internet goes crazy

With Bethesda showcasing Fallout 4 (due out improbably soon in November), the Doom reboot and very pleasingly announcing a Dishonored 2, it was fair to assume that they'd be walking off with the "Best Showcase of E3" award. However, Sony unexpectedly gazumped them. They confirmed that the long-gestating Last Guardian was finally coming out in 2016, then announced (controversially) a Kickstarter for Shenmue 3, which has already smashed through its funding in 24 hours and is a strong candidate to become "Biggest Kickstarter Game of All Time". Then Sony casually dropped this bit of information:

After years of fans being teased and disappointed, it's finally real. Final Fantasy VII is being remade with state-of-the-art graphics and sound for PS4, likely with XB1 and PC versions to follow.

Released in 1997 on the original PlayStation (and a year later on PC), Final Fantasy VII is one of the most critically-acclaimed games of all time. It was revolutionary in its day, mixing beautiful 2D environmental artwork with 3D characters and a then-revolutionary, fully-3D battle system. The game was also noted for its extremely well-handled characterisation, the controversial decision to kill off major characters as part of the plot and the twisting, turning storyline. The game also had an unusual setting for a Japanese RPG, taking on board cyberpunk, SF and steampunk influences alongside medieval fantasy elements. The musical score was also phenomenal. It did all this despite being hamstrung by a very ropey English translation and its clunky presentation on three CD-ROMs which required occasional swapping.

The original game has been available in moderately updated and tweaked builds based on the graphically superior PC version for a few years now, but fans have been clamouring for the original game to be fully remade with modern graphics and sound. Square have indicated that this would require a massive commitment of resources (and they're not kidding). With the much-delayed Final Fantasy XV finally closing on a release date, it looks like they have decided that Final Fantasy VII Remake will be their next big project.

Square Enix have indicated that work is only in its early stages on the remake, but they'd be silly to not try to hit the 20th anniversary of the original game, which falls on 31 January 2017.

Monday, 15 June 2015

METAL GEAR SOLID V trailer is six minutes of WTF

I must admit that the Metal Gear Solid series is one of those game franchises that has pretty much completely passed me by. Every time I try to read a plot summary on Wikipedia my brain starts to melt and I've never been moved to pick up any of the games.

The reason I'm posting the trailer for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is that it is gloriously bizarre. Six minutes of total inexplicable sloganeering, impenetrable dialogue, randomly-appearing weird characters (who is the ghoul cowbow who's just dropped in from Fallout? Why is that female sniper wearing a bikini?) and portentous dialogue, all set to one of NewOrder's more obscure (but excellent) tracks. Bewilderingly compelling stuff. Probably not enough to get me to play the game, but fascinating.


BioWare confirmed a while ago that Mass Effect 4 was going to be a thing, but it wasn't going to be called that and would be a very different game. They've now reaffirmed that with the proper title, Mass Effect: Andromeda.

The new game will take place some considerable time after the events of the Mass Effect Trilogy. You will play the commander of a starship exploring the Andromeda Galaxy, having made the dangerous intergalactic journey from the Milky Way. The game will apparently feature a mixture of established, "classic" races from the original games and some new species you encounter in the new location. The game's setting will allow BioWare to minimise references to the original trilogy.

No word yet on the storyline, but the game's structure will see your ship exploring new worlds both from orbit and using the Mako ground vehicle, which plays a bigger role this time around and can be upgraded. The game is set for release in late 2016.


The E3 game expo is underway in Los Angeles, with the great and the good from the gaming world showing up to announce new games and what people will be getting excited about over the next year or so.

One of the more interesting games on the horizon is Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, the prequel to the original 2008 game. Set some years before the events of Mirror's Edge, Catalyst explores the origins of the series main character Faith and how she became a free-running courier/agent provocateur in a futuristic city ruled by a totalitarian regime. The big change is that whilst the original game was very short and quite linear, Catalyst will be set in an open world city with multiple missions, objectives and side-missions all going on at the same time.

Most encouraging is the news that the game will drop the risible gunplay from the original and focus more on environmental and unarmed combat. The game will be released on PS4, XB1 and PC on 23 February 2016.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold

Komarr, second world of the Barrayaran Empire, is slowly being terraformed over the course of centuries. Key to the terraforming effort is an orbiting soletta, a massive mirror which increases the amount of sunlight being directed onto the surface. When the soletta is damaged by a spacecraft collision, the future viability of the planet is put in jeopardy. Newly-anointed Imperial Adjudicator Miles Vorkosigan is sent to investigate whether this was an accident or deliberate sabotage.

Komarr is the first novel in the series to focus on Miles Vorkosigan in his new role as an Imperial Adjudicator. Bujold wanted to freshen things up by taking Miles away from his support network of thousands of loyal soldiers and a fleet of powerful starships and it's a move that could have been mishandled. The loss of most of Miles's supporting cast from the Dendarii Mercenaries (who only warrant cameo appearances and the occasional mention from now on) is a blow and it was initially unclear if Miles as a (mostly) solo investigator is a compelling enough idea to replace the military SF feel of the earlier novels.

Komarr lays those fears to rest. This a well-written, crisply-paced and masterfully characterised novel. Bujold develops a new POV character in the form of Ekaterin Vorsoisson, a young woman and mother married to a difficult husband involved in the terraforming project. Komarr has the reputation of being a "romance novel", with Ekaterin brought in as a serious love interest for Miles, whose relationships up until now have mostly been more like casual flings and friends-with-benefits arrangements. However, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Komarr as a light or frivolous book because of this.

Instead, Komarr is a serious book about adult relationships, motivations and fulfilment, and it layers those themes into a thriller storyline involving betrayal, murder and intrigue. Bujold has said she enjoys writing about "grown-ups", and the romance in the novel is between two adults who have been through the wars (literally and figuratively) and find something in each other they like and respect, but have to overcome personal issues before they can turn that mutual attraction into something more tangible. It's an approach rooted in character that works effectively without overshadowing the SF thriller storyline, which has all the required twists and turns of a solid mystery before Miles and Ekaterin can resolve the problem.

Komarr (****) is a solid entry in The Vorkosigan Saga which sets the books on a new course and does so effectively. It is available now as part of the Miles in Love omnibus (UK, USA).

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Bradley Cooper's HYPERION adaption now a mini-series at SyFy

Four years ago, Bradley Cooper was reportedly interested in directing a movie based on Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos novels. The project disappeared into development hell and many people assumed that was that.

However, Cooper, now a much more well-known actor thanks to roles in movies such as American Sniper, has used his newfound starpower to get Hyperion back on track. The project has also - thankfully - transformed into a TV series. Itamar Moses, a writer on Boardwalk Empire, will write and produce the series with Cooper on board as executive producer (it is unclear if Cooper will also direct some episodes).

The Hyperion Cantos is set in the distant future and relates the journey of seven pilgrims to the planet Hyperion, where they must confront the enigmatic creature known as the Shrike to uncover the secrets of the "Time Tombs", which are threatening to open and trigger a devastating war.

It is unclear if this will be a one-off mini-series based on just Hyperion itself, or will include the sequel The Fall of Hyperion in some manner. Dan Simmons also wrote two further novels in the series, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, set 275 years after the events of the first two books.

RIP Sir Christopher Lee, total legend

Sir Christopher Lee has passed away at the age of 93.

The British actor is known to genre fans for almost too many roles to count, including Dracula in half a dozen Hammer Horror movies of the 1960s and 1970s; the villainous Lord Summerisle in the classic The Wicker Man; Bond villain Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun; Comte de Rochefort in The Three Musketeers, Four Musketeers and Return of the Musketeers; Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt in Steven Spielberg's 1941; Dr. Catheter in Gremlins 2: The New Batch; and Mr. Flay in the BBC mini-series Gormenghast. Lee's own favourite role was as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, a role he played in the 1998 film Jinnah.

However, he is best-known to modern movie-goers for his role as Count Dooku in two Star Wars movies (Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith) and as the wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. He later reprised the role in the Hobbit movies. For the latter films, Lee felt unable to make the long trip to New Zealand so filmed his sequences separately on a soundstage in London and was green-screened alongside his co-stars. Lee was the only person involved in the films to have met J.R.R. Tolkien, as he had spent time in Oxford in the 1950s. Lee had also met C.S. Lewis and Gormenghast author Mervyn Peake.

Lee's early life was as action-packed as anything in his movies. He was born in London in 1923 and raised both in London and Switzerland. He was the step-cousin of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. During the opening stages of WWII Lee was a number of British men who, unhappy with the lack of action in Europe, chose to fight alongside the Finns in the Winter War with Russia. However, he soon returned to the UK and joined the RAF, being deployed at home, in South Africa and in Egypt. He fought alongside Gurkhas at Monte Cassino and climbed Mt. Vesuvius shortly before it erupted. Lee is credited with helping defuse a near-mutiny among disaffected British soldiers and airmen during the Italian campaign. He also took part in the capture and interrogation of Nazi war criminals. Alongside his other duties, Lee also took part in operations for the Special Operations Executive, the forerunner of the elite SAS. He declined to speak of these operations, but later confirmed (during the filming of Lord of the Rings) that he was familiar with the sound someone makes when killed by stealth.

After the war Lee became an actor but found it tough going: he didn't get his first speaking role until 1947 and spent a decade playing heavies, muscle or background characters. In 1957 he made his breakthrough as Frankenstein's monster in Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein, alongside Peter Cushing. Lee and Cushing became fast friends, remaining so until the latter's death in 1994. They made twenty films together. The following year Lee appeared as the titular character in Dracula, a role with many sequels. Lee enjoyed the attention and fame the films brought, but was unhappy with the quality of the sequels. He felt that the character was too often shoehorned into the scripts for no real reason and rarely had a substantial role. After almost twenty years Lee ended his association with Hammer with 1976's To the Devil a Daughter.

Seeking to avoid the typecasting that had afflicted fellow Hammer actors Cushing and Vincent Price, Lee moved to the United States. He sent up his horror movie roles with an appearance on Saturday Night Live, showing a hitherto rarely-hinted dry sense of self-deprecating humour. Impressed, Steven Spielberg recruited him as the villain in his comedy movie 1941. Lee enjoyed a career boost from his time in America, especially when a new generation of directors who had been impressed by his Hammer appearances as children (such as Peter Jackson and Tim Burton) broke through.

In later years Lee continued working, shrugging off suggestions that he should retire. When he became too old for physically demanding roles, he switched to cameo appearances and a lot of voiceover work. His deep voice, undaunted by age, also saw him reprise his role as a narrator and singer. To the bewilderment of many, he released two heavy metal-influenced albums about the life of Charlemagne, for which he was honoured at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods Awards.

Sir Christopher Lee passed away on Sunday, 7 June 2015 from respiratory problems. He had a full, well-lived life and leaves behind a truly amazing body of work.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Chris Avellone leaves Obsidian Entertainment

Chris Avellone, one of the best-known writers in the CRPG field, has left Obsidian Entertainment, the company he co-founded a dozen years ago, for pastures new.

"What can change the nature of a man?"
"Being reduced to a floating, disembodied skull."
"Oh, right."

Normally, a change of career for a video game staffmember would not be news-worthy, but Avellone is one of the most critically well-regarded writers in the genre. He started out at Interplay, in particular its Black Isle RPG development team, where he won early acclaim for directing the development of Fallout 2. Following that he worked on what is widely regarded as the greatest CRPG ever written, Planescape: Torment. He proceeded to work on Icewind Dale and its sequel before leading development of Project Van Buren, the code-name for the original Fallout 3. During the development of Van Buren Black Isle was abruptly shut down due to financial issues and Interplay effectively ceased to exist as a games development company.

Avellone and several of his Black Isle colleagues regrouped to found Obsidian Entertainment in 2003. BioWare, who had produced the Baldur's Gate series for Interplay and worked alongside Black Isle, gave Obsidian their first break by convincing LucasArts to hire them to make Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, with Avellone taking a key writing role. Although hamstrung by budget and time constraints, Knights of the Old Republic II won critical acclaim for its subversive deconstruction of the Jedi and the simplistic black/white morality of the Star Wars universe. Obsidian subsequently developed Neverwinter Nights II, Alpha Protocol and Fallout: New Vegas, the latter of which re-used some of the old Van Buren ideas. Avellone worked on all of these games, gaining kudos for his key work on the Mask of the Betrayer expansion for NWN2 and Old World Blues for New Vegas.

More recently, Avellone has been allowed to branch out and outsource work to inXile Entertainment (made up of other ex-Interplay and Black Isle staff), contributing quests, dialogue and characters to both Wasteland 2 and the upcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera. His last big project for Obsidian was working on the hugely successful crowdfunded RPG Pillars of Eternity.

Avellone's writing is noted for being rooted in character and thematic development, philosophy and internal realisation, unusual for a medium which is usually more story and action-focused.

According to Twitter, the break with Obsidian was wholly mutual. Avellone's next project is unknown, but speculation is rampant that he may team up with inXile, who recently regained access to the Van Buren trademark. Although it won't be a Fallout game (the rights for which reside with Bethesda, who recently announced Fallout 4), there is speculation that Van Buren will be re-tooled either as a whole new post-apocalyptic franchise, or may form the basis for the inevitable Wasteland 3.


The new Dungeons and Dragons video game - the first based on the 5th Edition of the tabletop rules - now has a release date. The game will arrive on 8 September for Windows, Mac and Linux, with XB1 and PS4 versions to follow.

Sword Coast Legends will be set in the Forgotten Realms universe along the titular Sword Coast, where both the Neverwinter Nights series and the Baldur's Gate series were located (although in different parts of it). The new game will comprise a story-driven campaign which can be played solo or co-op as well as a robust multiplayer engine where one player can assume the role of the Dungeon Master and create new scenarios for players.

The game is played from a top-down, isometric viewpoint and looks like it has been inspired by the recent success of crowd-funded CRPGs like Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity. Most intriguingly, there is no major publisher involved. The last few official D&D games were MMORPGs and action titles, with this being the first actual, proper CRPG in the setting since 2007's Neverwinter Nights 2.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

SENSE8 released tomorrow

Netflix release all 12 episodes of Sense8 tomorrow. This new series is a collaboration between the Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy, Bound, Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5 and way too many comic books to count).

Early reviews are promising, praising the performances, mystery and premise but warning against a slow opening episode.

Straczynski claims that the show has a projected five-year story arc but that the first season is self-contained enough to satisfy viewers.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

FALLOUT 4 confirmed

As hinted yesterday, Bethesda have indeed confirmed that Fallout 4 is on its way with a trailer:

The trailer confirms that the game will be set in Boston. Your character this time appears to be from Vault 111 and you will, once again, have a canine companion. We can assume that the game will be set in and around the city and out in the surrounding countryside. In Fallout lore, Boston is the home of the Institute (built in the ruins of MIT) and the capital of the Commonwealth, a new nation forged from the ruins of the old world. In Fallout 3 it was hinted that something was wrong in Boston, with androids escaping from the area to seek safety in Washington, DC. Fallout 4, we can assume, will expand on that storyline.

Fallout 4 will be exclusive to PC, X-Box One and PlayStation 4. However, this is surprising as graphically the game does not appear to be a significant improvement over New Vegas and Skyrim. The next-gen exclusive nature of the game may be down more to memory requirements. Previous games in the series were sorely constrained by the tiny amounts of memory available on the PS3 and X-Box 360, necessitating frequent loading times. Hopefully the greater power of the new machines should allow seamless area and interior/exterior transitions. Fallout 4 will likely (and hopefully) be the final game to use the geriatric GameBryo/Creation Engine (which debuted with 2002's Morrowind), since Bethesda have indicated that all of their future games will use the Void Engine, based on the new id Tech being used to power games like Doom 4.

No release date has been set for Fallout 4. However, Bethesda typically announce games between 12 and 18 months before release, so a 2016 release date appears likely.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Bethesda tease new game

Bethesda will be revealing their next game at 3pm GMT tomorrow, posting this impossible-to-decrypt image:

Bethesda's previous solo game was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, released to immense success in late 2011. Although their partner studio Zenimax subsequently released The Elder Scrolls Online, the core Bethesda studio hasn't let much slip about their next single-player game in the past four years. Fans and media alike have been anticipating Fallout 4, based on the immense success of both Fallout 3 (2008) and Fallout: New Vegas (2010), the latter co-produced with Obsidian Entertainment.

The teaser image suggests that this speculation is correct and that Bethesda will almost certainly announce Fallout 4 tomorrow, possibly with a CG video produced by Del Toro Studios. A longer presentation, rumoured to focus on actual gameplay, will be made at the E3 games expo later this month.

It has been heavily rumoured that Fallout 4 will be set in Boston and focus on the Institute (probably descended from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), an area of advanced scientific study responsible for the androids and some of the other crazy backstory elements in Fallout 3. With Bethesda also saying they wanted to focus on the east coast and leave the Mid-West and west coast areas to other developers (probably Bethesda), this makes the suggestion of Boston as a setting more likely. The other crowd-pleasing choice, New York, would likely require a more advanced engine to depict the massive city in more convincing detail. Bethesda indicated a while ago that their next game would still be using Skyrim's Creation Engine (itself only a modestly-weaked version of the old GameBryo Engine used to power everything from Morrowind onwards) instead.

We should learn more tomorrow.

XCOM 2 announced

Firaxis and Take Two have announced that XCOM 2, the sequel to 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its expansion, Enemy Within, will be released in October this year.

The new game is set twenty years after the events of the previous ones and features a bit of an about-turn from the end of those games: the aliens have invaded, again, but this time in much greater force and have won, occupying the planet. XCOM has been forced underground, waiting until some degree of complacency has set in on the part of the aliens, and then striking back unexpectedly. The game features a mobile base, the Avenger, and XCOM teams launching attacks on alien forces both in rural areas and inside the gleaming, futuristic cities they have built for their human sympathisers/drones. There is more of an emphasis on stealth and guerrilla warfare this time around, with the game apparently drawing inspiration from the third of the original 1990s XCOM games, X-COM: Apocalypse.

The game will also use procedural generation to create battle maps, rather than simply rotating through the same eighty-odd default maps as in the original game. There will be new weapons, alien types and new character classes.

XCOM 2 is, unexpectedly, a PC exclusive with no console release mooted at the current time. Enemy Unknown did surprisingly well on console, so the decision to limit the release to PC only is interesting. Firaxis should be revealing why shortly, but there are theories that the new game will feature a much heavier modding focus than the previous ones.