Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Fourth Crusade

The Fourth Crusade is arguably the single most stupid multi-lateral policy the West took since the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Although it’s not very well-known (crusades conjure up images of Templars in the Holy Land, although crusades also occurred in Eastern Europe and against the Cathars in France), it had dramatic implications for the short term, and enormous implications in the long term.

For reasons of trade, Venice was not best friends with Byzantium, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, in the early 13th century. An ever-widening religious gulf between the Western Latin Church and Eastern Orthodox Church meant that there was also a great deal of rivalry within Christendom.

And so, when the Fourth Crusade appeared in financial difficulty, Enrico Dandolo, the ancient, blind Doge of Venice, played a pivotal role. In return for funding, he diverted the Crusade to Byzantium. Not only was this helpful for Venice, Byzantium, despite being on the ropes in the years leading up to the Crusade, was immensely rich. If it fell, there would be enough booty to satisfy every man who partook in the city’s conquest.

Byzantium, at this stage in history, was suffering. The Ottomans were making continual progress in the East, and the glory days of Nicephorus Phocas, John Tzimisces, Basil II, and Alexius and John Comnenus seemed very long ago. The ironically entitled Angeli dynasty had been steadily buggering the Empire’s fortunes through a combination of stupidity and ill fortune.

By contrast, Dandolo was a brilliant, persuasive, energetic man, despite his advanced years (he was over 90 at the time of the Fourth Crusade). Under his leadership, the Fourth Crusade did what no-one else (until the advent of gunpowder) ever managed. Byzantium, despite its invincible land walls, was conquered.

The leadership of the city fled to establish an empire-in-exile, occupying what remained of Roman territory in Anatolia (modern day Turkey). Meanwhile, the Latin potentates and Dandolo plundered the city and carved up the rest of the Empire between themselves.

It was a great success, especially for Venice. Or so it seemed.

In time, the Latin leaders set to squabbling. They didn’t understand the culture or religion of the land they were trying to govern, and their less than subtle approach did not universally endear them to the Byzantines. The empire-in-exile reclaimed the city. But it took several decades, and came at great cost.

During this time, the Turks did not sit about. They, naturally, took advantage of the situation to advance. The greatest (indeed, only) bulwark against their expansion from the east had been Byzantium, and the Empire, which rapidly diminished to a mere city-state, never recovered even a shadow of its former power. The Fourth Crusade had shattered Byzantium, and the next two and a half centuries were a lingering death.

When Byzantium truly fell, in the mid-15th century, it was not to the advantage of the Latin Church or Venice. Precious little help was given to defend the city (although a few men did heed the desperate plea). After it fell, the Ottoman expansion continued for centuries, halting only at the gates of Vienna in 1683.

As I mentioned, Byzantium had been on the ropes even before the Crusade. But it’s also worth noting that it had had dodgy moments and recovered before (between Basil II and Alexius Comnenus were many years and numerous unimpressive emperors). After the Fourth Crusade, it was in perpetual decline. And not because the Ottomans had struck a decisive blow. But because the Fourth Crusade had done so on their behalf.

Thank goodness we don’t make short-sighted decisions for narrow-minded self-interest any more.


Saturday, 14 November 2015

Fallout 4 (PS4): First Impressions

This is an early review, (obviously, given the game’s only been out a few days), on my initial thoughts. I might do a more comprehensive review later on, depending how much I play the game if my opinion alters, and if I have the time.

I know spoilers have been all over the place. This review will have no story spoilers whatsoever. Gameplay mechanics will be discussed in a little more depth. For a comprehensive review, I’d include longevity and replayability, but obviously that section won’t make an appearance here.

For those wondering, I played the game after downloading the 500MB day 1 patch.

Character Creation

Bit of a change here. Instead of a list of sliders, you just move the cursor over the face and alter the part you want to.

As well as this, there are some slider-type options for make-up, hair, and imperfections (moles and scars). There’s also a basic body changer. It’s a triangle, with thin, muscular and fat at each point, and you move within that triangle to alter the body. It’s simple, but a nice touch. No option to change height, alas.

One thing I disliked about the new system was that there are now only pre-defined hair colours. A decent range, to be sure, but I liked the older system which allowed you to make your own colour as well. The styles may be appear fewer than before, at creation, but you can get the post-apocalyptic styles when you visit a barber in the game.

Overall, it’s pretty good.


At the time of writing I’ve done a few main storyline missions, and perhaps a dozen side quests (I’m around level 14, and playing a sniper build). Because of that, and the zero tolerance of spoilers, this is going to be brief and vague.

There’s a nice premise early on, both on the global and personal levels. The initial mission or two feel a bit vague rather than compelling, but that may be intentional, so that people who want to wander off feel able to do so comfortably.

Side-quests can come about from overhearing conversations, wandering into range of radio distress signals or just stumbling across them. So far, and keeping with the minimal spoiler theme, they appear quite interesting and can yield opportunities to join new factions and gain legendary gear.


The atmosphere is tense, not just because VATS has become slow-motion rather than a total pause, but because of the way enemies appear. Ghouls lie dead, until they rise and attack in a horde, or they might creep through the walls. Mole rats burrow up through the earth, and you’re never quite sure whether a house might be mined or not.

The non-VATS shooting has been substantially improved, but VATS is still useful. A balance needs to be struck between using it for some enemies and not others (because action points are limited). I play as a sniper, so my approach is to take out the most distant enemies possible without VATS (this is more accurate at long range), shift to VATS for any charging medium range enemies, and then switch to a more rapid weapon and out of VATS when they’re about to claw my face off.

Weapon modding is intuitive and easy, likewise armour modding.

It took me a little while to get the gist of settlement building, perhaps because I’ve never played a game with that sort of aspect, but I’m enjoying it so far. I think tens of hours could easily be sunk into this, and am looking forward to how it develops.

Allocating your 21 SPECIAL points is tricky. It’s a good number, because it feels too low and forces the player to compromise. Incidentally, you can increase (by both bobbleheads and using up a perk point) your SPECIAL stats during the game, so I’d advise against setting anything at 10.

Levelling seems to happen faster than in previous games (as Intelligence affects experience gained, I should note that mine is set at 4, so I’m not playing a jacked up Intelligence build). This is good as, initially, there are at least half a dozen perks that all seem very useful but you only get one per level.

Companions are the biggest surprise for me so far. They seem much more three-dimensional than in Fallout 3 (or Skyrim), commenting when you see certain locations, praising or criticising your actions, and occasional joining in conversations you have with a third party (when it is appropriate). When I replaced one companion with another, he and she had a brief conversation about looking after me, which made them feel more realistic.


The world looks nice. More vivid than Fallout 3, though not quite as beautiful as The Witcher 3. Weather effects are a good addition. I’ve seen dense fog, rain (unlike previous games, I think, your clothing does get wet) and glorious sunshine. Not encountered a radiation storm yet, but these do exist.

Faces are a bit ropey, and the facial animations/lip-syncing is somewhere between mediocre and poor (think comically bad 1970s kung fu film dubbed into English).

Objects, whether clothing, weapons or larger/smaller are generally pretty good.

The PipBoy looks better than ever, and now the icons are animated (a small change, but still a nice one). The Perk chart looks good too. You can also alter the PipBoy (or HUD, separately) colour to whatever you like.


The voice-acting so far is good, and I’m enjoying Courtenay Taylor’s portrayal of the female protagonist. I discovered early on that there’s a classical radio station, and when I get the time to properly dive into settlement building I think that’ll be my station of choice.

There’s also a pleasing absence of repetition, both regarding specific lines and the issue Bethesda had previously (especially in Oblivion) where one voice actor/actress has too many roles.

Sound effects are good, it’s nice to hear the thrum of bullets firing or the inane moaning of a ghoul trying to eat your face.

Music is very good, whether that’s the ambient sound track or the classical music station.

Bugs and other issues

I have had the game freeze once, and close a couple of times.

On a couple of occasions, conversations have had an awkward moment where my character stands there in silence when she should be speaking (uncertain if subtitles would partially remedy this, as I don’t use them).

Early Conclusion

Obviously much too early to give a definitive view (I’m a few missions into the main quest and have done perhaps a dozen side missions). At this stage, Fallout 4 has significantly exceeded my expectations. Combat is engaging, companions have greater depth, the new approach to perks/skills seems to be working very well, and the world is a great place to explore.

Preliminary score = 9/10


Sunday, 25 October 2015

Macedonian She-Wolves

Alexander the Great’s death left a massive power vacuum, exacerbated by the fact his heirs were a foetus and a man with the mind of a child. Worse still, their guardians were a large number of bold, intelligent and fiercely competitive men, any one of whom would make a great king in his own right.

These men, the Diadochi [Successors], embarked almost immediately on a massive war, from the coast of modern day Albania to Pakistan to Libya, and all points in between.

But no less vicious were the machinations of the women Alexander left behind, most prominently Roxanne (one of his wives), Olympias (his mother), and Adea (AKA Eurydice, wife of Alexander’s half-brother).

When Alexander died, he was in his early thirties. The most obvious successors were absent (Hephaestion had died a short time earlier, and the greatest general, Craterus, had just been sent west). His half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, was a grown man but had the mind of a small child (it is suspected the jealous and ruthless Olympias had poisoned him to damage his mind, and remove him as a potential rival to Alexander [her son]). The only other credible blood heir would be the child of Roxanne, his wife.

However, Roxanne was only pregnant. There was no guarantee she would give birth to a son rather than a daughter. To make matters worse, she was only the daughter of a Bactrian satrap, and lacked the regal pretensions of Alexander’s other wives (Macedonian kings were permitted multiple wives).

To enhance her position, Roxanne took the brutal step of (along with the regent Perdiccas) having Alexander’s other two wives murdered. One of them, Stateira II, was the daughter of Darius, once ruler of the Persian Empire (and, therefore, of rather better pedigree than Roxanne).

As it happened, she did give birth to a son, whom she named Alexander. He and Philip Arrhidaeus become joint monarchs, although in truth the power lay (for a time…) with the regent, Perdiccas.

Two women, Cynane and her daughter Adea, who also had royal Macedonian blood, travelled east with the plan of marrying Adea to Philip Arrhidaeus. However, Perdiccas (allied to Roxanne) sent his brother Alcetas to remedy the problem by assassinating the two women. Cynane fell, but when the soldiers realised the identities of the women they had been sent to kill and that Adea still lived, their respect for the royal house made them her protectors rather than her killers.

Later, a botched invasion of Egypt led to Perdiccas’ death. After he was killed (by his own troops), Adea, backed by the sentimental support of the army, demanded a share of authority. She seemed to attain it, but only briefly. Antipater, the aged, respected veteran viceroy of Macedon during Alexander’s adventures, arrived on the scene. The army was in vengeful mood and very nearly murdered him, but Antigonus and Seleucus rescued the viceroy. Adea tried to provoke further mutiny, but in the end authority was settled on Antipater, Antigonus and Seleucus.

Antipater, a loyal servant of the Argead dynasty but understandably not well-disposed towards the now powerless Adea, accompanied her back to Macedon. However, he died shortly thereafter, and political turmoil ensued.

Adea made another bid for power, allying with Cassander, the son of Antipater. Against her was Olympias, Polyperchon (the rather feeble successor, as per Antipater’s will, of the viceroy) and Roxanne.

For perhaps the first time in history, two armies, both led by women, approached one another.

However, the same loyalty that had prevented the Macedonian soldiers killing her years ago, now worked against Adea. They couldn’t bring themselves to even fight the mother of the legendary Alexander, and surrendered to Olympias.

Olympias came to power. Adea, wife of Alexander’s half-brother, found her days numbered, and that number was very small. At first, she and her husband were strictly confined, but Olympias was concerned by the sympathy the Macedonians felt towards them. In line with her usual response to a problem, Olympias chose to kill those who might be a threat. She presented Adea with a sword, rope, and poison, to choose her own death. Adea first of all killed her husband, the unknowing, blameless Philip Arrhidaeus, whom Alexander had taken to Asia and protected, and then hanged herself with one of her own garments, shunning the rope Olympias gave her.

By contrast, Roxanne was protected by the violent, volatile and cunning Olympias (because she was the mother of Alexander’s son). However, Olympias’ uncompromising and arrogant manner lost her much support, and she faced perhaps the wiliest of the Diadochi: Cassander. Antipater’s son gradually built up his strength, even as it drained away from the bloodthirsty Olympias.

Eventually, he bottled her up in a port city, and she surrendered herself, Roxanne and Alexander. The surrender included the condition Cassander show her mercy. He did not, and had her killed by the relatives of her many victims.

Defeat to Cassander removed the shield that had protected Roxanne and her son. Cassander kept the young Alexander alive until he reached his mid-teens, at which point he became a threat, and was killed. His mother was also assassinated, and thus ended the Argead line of kings in Macedon.

For more reading on this, I highly recommend James Romm’s Ghost On The Throne, which I reviewed here.


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Three Open Windows

Writers without agents, there is good news!

Three major publishers have open windows coming up in the near future. So, if you’ve got a finished novel, prepare to submit. (NB Responses to submissions can often take a bit longer than the publishers intend, largely because they get a huge number of submissions).

Do read the guidelines, especially regarding the submission dates. If you’re submitting grimdark to a publisher after primary school stories, you’re wasting your time and the publishers. If your word count is a tiny bit off, you’ll probably be alright, but if you submit a quarter of a million words to someone after 110,000, they’ll just bin it.

Be aware the odds on success are smaller than a pixie’s tallywhacker. There are many reasons for rejection (beyond the rather obvious lack of quality). A book may not fit the market, or it may not fit the particular publisher. It might be seen as a bit unusual, which can be a positive for some publishers, but others may feel wary that it will struggle to make the necessary sales. Publishing is a business, so don’t take it personally if your book’s rejected.

On that note, always be as civil as possible. If a publisher says no to your book but thinks your writing is proficient and your manner delightful, they may ask you to send them other things you write in the future. If you pester the publisher and whine like a spoilt brat when, along with 99.6% of other submitters, you get a swift rejection, you may get a black mark next to your name. Your character can help you gain or lose traction, as well as your writing.

Anyway, it wasn’t my wibbling that got you to read this post, but the three open windows. Here are the links, and best of luck [don’t forget to sacrifice a goat to Apollo]:

Angry Robot:


Gollancz (unusually these days, it’s physical submissions only):