Thursday, 18 December 2014

An Interview with Jo Zebedee, author of the Abendau Trilogy

I’m delighted to say that the very talented Jo Zebedee, author of the forthcoming Abendau Trilogy, has agreed to a little interview. So, here it is:

You've got a trilogy coming out, starting with Abendau's Child. What's the premise?

Abendau is set in a stellar cluster ruled by an empress who needs a blood heir, but has been left barren after the birth of twins. The children were taken from her by their father and brought up as space nomads until a space collision killed their father and one of the twins. The surviving child, Kare, holds his mother responsible for the accident and, as an adult, joins a rebellion against her rule, incurring her considerable wrath. The story explores his defiance to her rule and what happens when she extracts a vengeance which, even if he survives, will leave a legacy of mental damage. It's very character focused, set against a classic space-opera background.


Is it set in the real universe or a fictional one?

It's completely fictional, even in terms of the stellar cluster not being identifiable. It's a big space opera world, with lots of politics, in-fighting and dynastic history. The main planet, Abendau, is a desert planet, a contrast of an ancient city and the futuristic.


Abendau's Child, the first book in your trilogy, is due out in early 2015. Any word on when books 2 and 3 will be out?

Sunset over Abendau will be out in Autumn 2015, with Abendau Falling to follow.


When writing the trilogy, did you sketch the whole plot out before starting on the first book in detail, or did you complete the plot for the first book, then work on the second and third?

I worked on each chronologically but am now working between the three books as Teresa Edgerton, my amazing editor, reviews them and I build the level of depth needed into book 3 and adjust book 2 where needed.

It has meant a bit of backwards and forward working, particularly between book two and three which are chronologically linked, whereas ten years has passed between book one and two, but as I write more the world grows bigger and that needs reflecting. By the time it's published, I think Abendau's Child will have had about 20 rewrites from its original concept.


Do you prefer to plan in extensive detail ahead of time, or adopt a more spontaneous approach to writing?

I'm totally spontaneous. At most I'll plot a couple of chapters ahead, but mostly I just write and revise later. I am totally in awe of planners, though, and wish I could be a bit more effective at it. I blame the characters, actually. They don't appear to want to do what's logical. I'm also fairly open to rewriting, which I think most pantsters have to be.


Is your approach to writing sci-fi one where you try and make the technical details as scientifically accurate/plausible as possible (hard sci-fi, if you will), or one where you're happy for technical detail to remain in the background?

I'm very much at the escapist end of sci-fi. I do have a few scientists I know who are endlessly patient when I ask questions, and some beta-readers are quick to point out when things are completely off-beam, which helps a lot. I also try to put some semblance of rationality into the world but the technical stuff is very much in the background.

As the books have a feel of fantasy running through them - psi powers are a big element as are a race of space nomads linked to each other by a psychic mesh - I think the lighter touch better matches the tone.


What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

It's a slow business and bags of patience are needed; I think you have to really love writing to maintain the interest when things are tough and slow. Write lots, as well. I do flash fiction pieces and short work between longer pieces, and that helps keep me fresh. And find some supporters - there are days when virtual cake is the only way forward and being able to cry out for it makes such a difference.

Which authors/books inspired you, either in childhood or more recently?

I read a lot of non-genre books, but most of my inspiration comes from sci-fi. Most recently, I've been reading the Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold, and I've been loving them. I like her blend of characters with sci-fi, and Abendau is very much cut from that same cloth.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I adore The Time Traveler's Wife. I love the close character writing, and how plausible Audrey Niffenegger makes the unusual.
I also adore Neil Gaiman, and Zafon, so my tastes are quite eclectic.

Further back, I love the classics of sci-fi: Heinlein, Clarke, Logan's Run, Dune, and each of these have had an influence on Abendau.


What aspect of writing do you struggle with the most?

Well, I run a small consultancy (something has to pay the bills), have two kids (and a husband) and numerous pets, so I'd have to say finding time can be a challenge. It helps that I'm a fast writer.

I also find switching off is hard. I could write all day happily but, obviously, need a break. When I wrote Abendau's Child it exploded out of me and I could think of nothing else. It was both exhilarating and exhausting. As I'm starting to do more and more writing, the need to find ways to switch off is increasingly urgent.

What's your favourite part of being a writer?

I love getting lost in the world, and forgetting any worries I might have for a while. I also enjoy the craft - I'm one of the few writers I know who adores a good rewrite.

Oddly, for such a solitary activity, I enjoy the camaraderie. I've met friends through writing from all over the world, doing all sorts of jobs, and it's fascinating. I've also made some close friends through it and, whilst most of my socialising with them is virtual (which is what I get for living in the sticks), it's a nice diversion and I get lots of giggles.



Do you plan on writing some stand-alone novels or sticking with series?
I'd love to write more in Abendau, but don't plan to write anymore about Kare - this trilogy tells enough of his story. I'd actually like to write something about the second male character, Lichio. There is a lot he hides about himself which we only come to know in the later books, and I think getting to know him better would be nice. He's also one of the most popular characters, so I think it could be fun to follow his story. And there's a second generation who are ready to blossom into
their own people.

I'm working on a number of standalones, including some fantasy which I'm enjoying, and some YA, which I love writing.

I also have several short stories out - two in an anthology, Malevolence, from Tickety-boo press and two on-line, with Kraxon magazine, and I work on shorts when the fancy takes me. I enter flash-fiction comps every month, on the sffchronicles.com and sometimes that germ of 75 words cries out for exploration.
I'm lucky to be represented by Molly Ker Hawn of the Bent Agency, who supports and guides me in the various ways my mind takes me really well.


Outside of writing, how do you like to unwind?

I do a lot of gardening. I bring on my own seeds and grow flowers and veg, and get a lot of enjoyment from that.I also love spending time with my family, and my long-suffering writing-neglected kids. We don't always go far, but shopping, ice-creams, beaches - all those sort of things appeal.

I like cooking, too, and, like most writers, I'm a pretty voracious reader. I also juggle pretty badly.


Thanks Jo, and best of luck with the Abendau Trilogy. [And consider growing radishes. Very easy, and you get two crops in a single year].

Thaddeus



Monday, 15 December 2014

How big should villages, towns and cities be?

In the modern world, a city with over a million people in it is nothing special. There are Chinese cities with more people than the whole of Portugal.

But in the medieval world, or a fantasy with a vaguely realistic approach to demographics, things were very different.

For a start, the rural population was much larger than the urban population.

Villages could be spread over a significant distance, or be a very simple small settlement which would basically have a few houses, a single street and a parish church. Around 150 people or fewer would probably live in a village, but obviously that varied. It would not be unusual for everyone to know everyone in a village.

A town was a bigger deal, and had one key attribute: the market. The market meant that traders (even if just occasional traders, such as subsistence farmers selling the surplus from a bumper crop) would travel to the town and do their business. This was advantageous all round. Traders got to earn cash, the local lords got to charge tolls to use the roads, bridges and trade within the town. Towns were the beating heart of the economy, but weren’t necessarily all that large. Several hundred people, perhaps, but that would include craftsmen that would not be found in villages. Towns could be home to thousands rather than hundreds of people (although you could argue at that point the difference between a town and city was almost academic).

Cities, in England at least, were defined as having a cathedral (and, therefore, a bishop). Economies of scale meant that cities would be richer, man-for-man, than other, smaller settlements. However, so many people crammed together almost made hygiene and crime more troublesome. Not to mention that fire could absolute devastate a city. A city might only have a couple of thousand people. Over ten thousand would be very significant in, say, the 14th century. Only a few were ever larger (Byzantium was enormous during its height, as Rome had been earlier). A city of one hundred thousand could well be the seat of a continental empire. According to Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (which I heartily recommend and review here), London had a population of just over 40,000 around this period.

I used to have links to a number of fantastic medieval demographic calculators, but sadly they seem to have become defunct.

It’s also worth pointing out that populations were more vulnerable at this point in history than today, and compared to the past (I’d rather fall sick in ancient Rome than medieval England). Disease was generally not handled well, with cures often useless at best and harmful at worst. Infection was not well understood, and in the middle of the 14th century the Black Death swept through England, killing a very significant proportion of the population (so much so that the price of things like swords declined, because so many sword-owners dropped dead, and food rose, because there were fewer peasants to work the land).

Fires, as mentioned above, could rip through medieval settlements, which often had wooden houses packed very close together. Not to mention the perpetual state of warfare that existed during the 14th century.

Nowadays the population, globally, only goes one way, but back then populations rose and fall as prosperity and advances in farm and mill equipment were balanced out by disease and war.

Thaddeus

Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: King of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

King of Thorns is the second book in The Broken Empire Trilogy (preceded by Prince and succeeded by Emperor). It’s dark fantasy, set in a medieval(ish), magical world several centuries after mankind has undergone a nuclear holocaust, which destroyed the vast majority of ancient (ie advanced) technology and reduced our race to swords and spears, castles and knights.

The protagonist is Jorg Ancrath, a complex chap who doesn’t so much have shades of grey as small variations of black. Accompanied by a few associates (some perhaps even worse than Jorg), he spends much of his time travelling what’s left of Europe, seeking knowledge, power, allies and to sate his own curiosity. The other half of the book (the story flits back and forth) is four years after that journey, when he’s defending his modest kingdom from a man they say is destined to reunite the Empire.

King of Thorns keeps all that was to like about the first book and adds to it. In addition to the interestingly grim Jorg and the intriguing setting (which has elements of both past and future), it feels better balanced and takes its time (in a good way) without ever letting the plot get bogged down. The past and present chapters fit perfectly well together, the writing style is very easy to read and conveys a strong impression with relatively few words. There’s also a nice little twist near the end, which I shan’t spoil.

I particularly like the setting. Post-apocalypse is done to death, and a world where things are back on their feet but not back where they were (almost as the 9th century or so was to Rome following the Dark Ages) is more interesting.

Downsides? Quite few, to be honest. The map is one of those which covers two pages, which means the paperback version has much of it disappear where the pages meet.

I’d strongly recommend it, but as it’s book 2 in a series, do make sure you read Prince of Thorns first. They’re dark fantasy, so if you’re more after snuggling up in bed with a fairy or two The Broken Empire may not be for you. But if you like the works of Martin, Abercrombie or Lynch you should definitely give this series a look.

Thaddeus



Thursday, 27 November 2014

Early Thoughts: Dragon Age Inquisition (PS3 version)

Dragon Age Inquisition (DAI) came out very recently for the PC, Playstations and Xboxes. I got the PS3 version. This is an early thoughts post about the first 20-30 hours of the game (it’s reportedly around 200 hours long if you do a completionist play-through, hence this post before I [possibly] put up a comprehensive review after finishing it).



Pre-game stuff

I hadn’t intended to include this section, but the PS3 version at least doesn’t have a manual. It has a tiny booklet with no in-game information whatsoever. I’m baffled by this. I’ve played both previous games so it wasn’t too much of an issue, but it’s still an inexplicable decision.

I realise this’ll interest almost nobody else, but I like it, so it’s included. The game has options for German, in both text and voice. After a playthrough or two, I’ll probably give that a go. And who said videogames weren’t educational?

At first, I thought Dragon Age Keep had failed to work, for the good reason that it had failed to work. However, to check and try again, I visited the Keep site and tried clicking to export my world state [which I did not do for my first playthrough]. This feature can be found at the bottom right corner after you click to open the right side bar. When you’ve done it, it’ll take a time stamp. Make a note of that, and then compare it to the one that appears on-screen after you try importing before character creation.

The PS3 browser has been buggy for a while, but, provided you have an internet connection, the Keep does work (I checked with a second character and the import did succeed).

The Keep is a free, online, browser-based system which allows you to recreate or change the choices made for the first two games, and then import those to DAI in order to affect the world.


Character Creation

There’s greater racial choice than before, with the horned and tall Qunari joining fantasy staples elves, dwarves and, of course, humans. Both genders are available, and there are two voices to choose from per gender (one English, one American).

The character creator does offer far more customisation options than before. Tattoos, for example, can now be practically any colour because a colour wheel rather than discrete options are how you select the hue [NB Qunari do not get tattoos, but instead get in-game warpaint instead of helmets, which they cannot wear due to having horns]. However, there is a dramatic difference in graphical quality between the PS4 version and PS3, and it’s a bigger difference than I was expecting.

Creation options are the best of the series by a long shot, but the surprisingly lacklustre graphics mean that you may well be wondering whether your Warden or Hawke (protagonists of the two preceding games) actually looked better.

The hair is a low point. It looks far too shiny, almost like plastic. This is also the case on 360 or a low end PC. If you’re playing on PC, turn the mesh textures up to maximum and it resolves the problem.

There are no scars in the PS3 version for memory reasons (according to Bioware’s Mike Laidlaw). In the PS4, Xbox One and PC versions (unsure of Xbox 360) you have a range of scars to choose from, can position them where you like and alter their shallowness/depth.

Whilst I do like Dragon Age a lot (including this game), the weaker than expected graphics were somewhat disappointing.


Crafting and Customisation

I was looking forward to this a lot. The vast majority of armours look different on differing characters and you can craft your own. Cloth, metal and leather of varying types can be combined to provide different appearances (so you can inflict the beeswax catastrophe of plaid weave on whoever you dislike) as well as unique bonuses (resistance to particular types of damage, for example).

In addition, weapons can be crafted in a similar manner, and you can create arm and/or leg armour which you then fuse to your main armour to augment it a bit more.

Crafting armour requires schematics which can be procured both as loot and bought through shops (unfortunately I don’t think you get a preview of what the armour’s like in either statistical or appearance terms).

In addition to armour and weapons, you can also make your own potions. Beyond the basic healing potion, which is topped up whenever you’re in a camp, there’s a range of others which must be made by the player. Improvements to potions and grenades are optional but can offer significant benefits (it seems, I must admit I haven’t done much potion/grenade upgrading).

Last but not least, the player’s base of operations can be customised. This is almost entirely aesthetic, so if you want to hang Qunari banners all over the place to remind your mostly human underlings who the boss is, there’ll be neither bonus nor penalty. A few upgraded areas (such as the garden) have a couple of options (chantry or herb, in this case).

NB creating a space doesn’t seem to work for naming crafted armour/weapons. However, as well as preserving spaces as part of the initial (and usually bland) default name you can, weirdly, insert one by making an apostrophe and then a space right after.


Gameplay

For the first time, a tactical view is available to all platforms. It’s the first game I’ve ever played with such a thing. At first it felt rather odd and old-fashioned, but (especially for more serious fights) I’ve grown to quite like it. There’s also the over-the-shoulder approach available, which is very similar to Dragon Age 2’s combat style.

Unlike DA2, it seems that you can no longer use all abilities, only those mapped to the eight slots available. That’s... interesting. You can alter them, of course, as you like and maybe I just missed how you do it, but that’s how it seems.

Tactical view offers the advantage of moving over an enemy to reveal not only their health and effects, but also weaknesses and immunities, so you can damage them more easily.

When speeding up time in tactical view, sometimes there’s a 2 second black screen delay. This is not a bug, it’s related to hardware limitations. It seems to happen when you aren’t already centred on the character you have selected.

There is very little healing. All characters have a shared pool (8, initially, can be increased with perks) of healing potions, which are easily replenished at camps but there’s no easily acquired healing spell. Instead, health is protected by spells such as barrier, or status effects such as guard. Enemies can also use such things (but you can destroy them with the right spell). It feels more tactical, as you send off one warrior to distract a boss whilst your other three characters wipe out the minions so you can all focus on the (by then) solitary boss. With the right spells or warrior skill you can block off a corridor, dividing enemy forces so you can take them down more easily.

Thankfully, the second wave of enemies that was very common in DA2 makes no return here.

I’ve been playing on normal, and my party hasn’t yet been wiped out. I may crank it up to Hard for a later playthrough.

Outside of combat, there’s also the base of the Inquisition. Weirdly, it feels a little bit like XCOM: Enemy Unknown (on steroids). You go out to a massive area, massacre the local bandits/wildlife, and when you return home you have more power to unlock missions and bits of dead lizard (and the horrendous plaid weave) to make new gear. After major story events, check in with your companions and advisers, who may well have new things for you to do (outside of the war table).

The war table is a big map of Orlais and Ferelden. As well as just visiting the open world areas (which you can do more easily via a world map in your menu), you can pick missions to attempt, and order your advisers (diplomatic, espionage and military) to send their agents to conduct missions of their own. These are well worth doing and yield small rewards in gold, influence, items and so forth.

The Inquisition also gains perks, as do characters (although much more slowly, at least early in the game). These vary from increasing your inventory from the small 60 (alas, no chest to store stuff forever) you start from, to opening up new dialogue options on matters religious, historical and so forth. When you recruit agents in the field (a fairly rare occurrence) these also provide a perk, reducing the time it takes agent missions (see above) to be completed.

On a more minor note, locked things are far rarer than in previous games (it feels like you could do without a rogue most of the time), and some barriers can be smashed down by a warrior or dispelled by a mage.

The user interface is functional but feels like it could be streamlined. Things are never in a weird place but it does seem that it takes a bit longer to get things done than could be the case. On the plus side none of the crafting materials takes up the finite space available in your inventory, so you can collect metal, cloth and herbs without worrying you’ll hit a limit.


Story

I can’t go into details because I’m only a certain distance in, and spoilers are the work of Satan. I do know who the major villain is and much of the background to what’s happening.

Weirdly, for a Bioware game, the story feels a little stilted after the very start. I think this is because of two things: your character doesn’t come with much background at all initially [more is revealed later], and you get thrust into the Hinterlands. The Hinterlands is one big open world area where you can spend 20 hours plus trying to do everything. My advice is to leave as soon as possible to get the story going.

After the early part of the game the story really kicks off, and the Inquisition becomes the centre of gravity which is all that stands between the world and chaos. The characters are well-written, and it’s nice to wander around your base, bumping into people you’ve recruited and people who’ve just shown up (tip: chatting to them can provide new quest opportunities).

I can’t properly assess this until I’ve completed the whole game, of course. Slightly slow at the start, but currently feels very promising.


Graphics

This is why I don’t like giving scores.

I’m not someone too fussed by graphics. For others, they matter a lot. The graphics in DAI are generally poor. The hair looks plastic, textures often take a while to load, the facial hair [stubble more than shiny beards] looks poor and so on. The moustache of one characters was so bad it was almost amusing (not Dorian’s, I hasten to add). It is worth mentioning that the clothing can look really rather nice, and even has a good ‘wet’ look (a bit like Dragon’s Dogma, but the dry/wet difference is determined by location rather than as a combat effect).

If you’ve got a low end PC or ‘last-gen’ console but plan on upgrading in the near future you may well prefer to wait. The graphics are disappointing, and sometimes to an extreme degree. The first vitar (facepaint) I found for my Qunari mage looked pretty good (some basic white stripes). A later one (almost full-face yellow) was so bad I swapped back.

However, for me the graphics are a secondary issue. So, this area of weakness is not a deal-breaker, from my perspective.


Sound

The music is good, and in places very good indeed. As always, voice-acting varies a bit but the general quality is very good. It’s also weird, but nice, to hear Cullen as commander of the Inquisition’s army, after we’ve seen him progress from nervous Templar, to Knight-Captain in the last game.

Assessing the Inquisitor is very hard because there are four voice actors (two per gender, one English, one American) and I’ve only heard a lot from one (Alix Wilton Regan, English female voice). Very good so far, but I want to try the others as well.

The effects could perhaps be a little better. They’re not bad, but also haven’t made a huge impression.


Bugs and other issues

In a game this massive, there will be some bugs. Worth emphasising that they’re often platform-specific. Anyway, here are the ones I encountered on the PS3 version.

Sometimes there’s a very faint (probably one pixel-thin) horizontal black line halfway up the screen. In dark settings, it’s hard to see, in snowy surroundings it stands out.

Not a bug, but the loading times can be a little long.

Sometimes, going into/out of tactical view can mean lots of sounds cease to be heard. This can be rectified by leaving the area. Whilst this has happened very rarely to me, it’s still irksome.

X means both jump and loot (and light fires, where applicable). Once I tried lighting a fire, was too far away, and ended up lighting it in mid-air, which then had my character hovering (halfway through a jump animation). I could still move around, and looting resolved the comedy problem.

To date I’ve suffered two freezes. The first was a ‘regular’ freeze (no warning about potential corruption of the system on restart), and upon reloading the last save the issue did not recur (although I did skip through the preceding cut-scene). Whilst this isn’t great, freezes do often happen now and then with massive RPGs (cf Skyrim, Dragon Age: Origins etc).

The second occurred during a cut-scene immediately after I’d saved (the save icon was still up). I waited a little while in case the save was still being processed, and afterwards did get the potential corruption warning, though all was fine.


Conclusion

It took me some time to sink my teeth into Inquisition. I think the early visit to the Hinterlands coupled with the lack of information about your character was something of a mistake. However, once the story kicks into gear it really seems to take off. As well as the companions and advisers, I like the secondary cast that join the Inquisition.

Apart from the freezes, the bugs are all minor but the little delays can make it feel like a good book where every page takes five seconds to load. Not a major problem but it does take the shine off a little.

At this stage, I’d give it 8/10. It should’ve been a point higher, but the loading times and numerous small bugs do stack up.

Thaddeus