Sunday, 1 March 2015

Review: Game of Thrones, series 4 box set (DVD)

I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but there are spoilers for earlier series so if you haven’t seen those you may wish to stop reading now.

The story picks up with Joffrey firmly in place as King of the Seven Kingdoms, and Tywin Lannister as ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. Meanwhile, Mance Rayder is marching on the depleted Night’s Watch with a vast army.

There are a number of very significant plot twists, as you’d expect (a couple early on, a couple later). It seemed a little slower (though no less engaging) and perhaps less tense in the middle than earlier series, probably because the war for the throne is more or less over (for the time being).

We get a number of new characters, most significantly Prince Oberyn, a Lannister-hater whose sister and nephews and nieces were killed on the orders of Tywin Lannister when Robert Baratheon became king.

There seems to be a focus shift, with a little less for Daenerys and Tyrion, and more for Jon Snow. Despite liking the first two characters a lot, the way the Night’s Watch storyline develops works very nicely.

It also features the grimmest death by some way in Game of Thrones. I suspect those of a nervous disposition might be a bit unnerved by it. Otherwise, there’s the usual high and frequent level of violence. It might just be me, but there seems to be a bit less in the way of sex.

The extras are reasonable. There’s a nice round table discussion with some of the departing actors whose characters have snuffed it. Commentaries seem a bit lacking compared to earlier box sets, except on the final disc (the Kit Harrington, Rose Leslie and John Bradley commentary of episode 9 is the best by a distance). There’s a short but entertaining blooper reel, a couple of deleted scenes and a few other extras which are reasonably interesting.

Finally, if you’re also reading the books it’s worth noting that there are some departures from the source material and some accelerating of certain events so they happen sooner. For what it’s worth, I think that works perfectly well.

The tenth episode ends in such a way that I’m very much looking forward to seeing what happens for the next series, and will definitely be picking up that box set when it comes out.


Wednesday, 18 February 2015

An Interview with Andrew P. Weston, author of The IX

I’m pleased to say that Andrew P. Weston, author of the sci-fi (meets historical fiction) novel The IX has come in for an interview.

You’ve written a new novel called The IX. What’s the premise of the story?
The premise is that death might only be the beginning of the adventure.

It’s summed up quite nicely in the introductory blurb:

Roman legionnaires, far from home, lost in the mists of Caledonia.
A US cavalry company, engaged on a special mission, vital to the peace treaty proposed by Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln.
A twenty-first century Special Forces unit, desperate to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.
From vastly different backgrounds, these soldiers are united when they are snatched away from Earth at the moment of their passing. Thinking they may have been granted a reprieve, imagine their horror when they discover they have been transported to a failing planet on the far side of the galaxy, where they are given a simple ultimatum. Fight or die. Against all odds, this group of misfits manages to turn the tide against a relentless foe, only to discover the true cost of victory might exact a price they are unwilling to pay.
How far would you be willing to go to stay alive?
The IX. Sometimes, death is only the beginning of the adventure

I’m quite into classical history, and, if memory serves, the Ninth Legion disappeared about 19 centuries ago. (Assuming I haven’t misremembered), do the other detachments have similar uncertain backstories?
Not really. The Ninth was an excellent place to start though. Much debate has raged as to their fate, so, I merely gave it an outlandish science fiction twist. However, I didn’t want the Ninth to have to face that journey alone, so I created two fictional units to accompany them. One, a nineteenth century Cavalry Company, the other, a twenty-first century Special Forces team. 
In the case of the Cavalry Company, I decided to loosely base their existence upon historical fact. The time period in which the Fifth Mounted Rifles were born – the 1860’s – was a time of great interest to me, especially in the run-up to the presidential elections.
Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln was juggling growing pressure between certain state governors and congress regarding the issue of the Native American peoples. So, I simply invented a secret peace proposal between him and certain tribes from the Plains Cree nations. Of course, this treaty would also be compounded by an ongoing internal conflict between the actual clans themselves.
Needless to say, failure of the proposals, would contribute to the actual divide that led to the Union/Confederate divide.
The Special Forces unit involved is entirely fictional. Their working practices are real.

The legion is perhaps the single most iconic unit in military history. Which other units did you choose, and why did you choose them?
I chose the Fifth Mounted Rifles and the Special Forces anti-terrorist Unit as I thought they would complement the setting perfectly. Remember, these groups have been snatched away from earth at the moment of their passing, to go and fight someone else’s battle on a world on the other side of the galaxy. That society is extremely advanced. Regardless, they were unable to stand against a relentless foe who swept them away.

So there’s the dilemma. If a culturally sophisticated super power was helpless against overwhelming odds, what chance would Roman Legionnaires have? Or a cavalry Company? Or a Special Forces Team? Especially as they come from drastically different backgrounds, and time periods. Can you imagine the juggling required to combine their unique fighting styles and methods in an effective way?

It was hard work...but it paid off.

Rome had, shall we say, a robust attitude towards both warfare and criminal justice. How severe is the level of the violence in The IX?
The IX is about the fight for survival. Understandably, it encapsulates the brutality of war in a gritty and honest way.

Do you prefer to use a well-planned method for writing, or opt for a more spontaneous/organic approach?
I blend the two. I always plan ahead so that I know how the story will begin and end, and where I’ll be ‘calling in’ along the way. I think that’s important to ensure both major and minor plot points are covered and loose ends are tied away nicely. However, I’ve also seen how stories gain a momentum of their own. Sometimes, it’s good to let it flow, and go with it, as it opens up new ideas you might have otherwise missed.

Which authors inspired you to get into writing in the first place?
Stephen Donaldson, Raymond E Feist, Ursula le Guin, Julian May.

When writing about the war, did you base the fights/battles on historical formations (so, three lines of Roman soldiers, for example) or adapt them to change their style according to the new circumstances they find themselves in?
All of the fight scenes involve tactically correct maneuvers for each of the units involved. After having arrived in Arden however, there are necessary adaptations they must adopt in order to survive, for their foe is most unusual.

During the course of researching the various military units, what interesting nuggets of history did you come across?
My research took nearly three months to complete before I started writing. There are all sorts of nuggets. Perhaps one of the most mysterious is the actual posting of the Ninth to Britannia in the first place. It’s very difficult to find sources that agree. Some accounts say the Ninth never ventured into Caledonia. Even those that do don’t agree on dates. Very mysterious for an empire renown for its efficiency?

Away from writing, how do you like to unwind?
I love running and swimming, and stargazing. I enjoy zero light pollution where I live.

What are your writing plans for the future?
To write full time, and always improve.

Links for the IX:
Author page on Amazon:

Buy link Amazon:
Buy Link B&N:


Monday, 9 February 2015

Review: The Raven’s Banquet, by Clifford Beal

This is a little outside my usual area, as it’s historical fiction set in the 17th century. The story follows Richard Treadwell, both in the present (just after the English Civil War) and the past (a couple of decades earlier when he’s fighting as a soldier of fortune on the continent).

The start (in the past setting, which comprises the majority of the story) was a little slow, and it took me a bit of time to get into the story. However, once Treadwell joins the army in Europe the story there gets going and progresses nicely. His fellow soldiers are nicely written, not shirking from their significant flaws and gradually revealing the self-made trap into which he has wandered. Grim realism is the order of the day, with the romance of war soon dissolved by the bitter truth. I rather like that approach.

There is a mild fantastical element, but it is only very slight and presented such that it could be down to his mind cracking slightly under the strain. It’s well-written in its deliberate ambiguity.

The present day (as it were, it’s 1645) starts with more vigour, and although less happens (for most of it Treadwell is a prisoner) the storyline still progresses and the fact it’s a much smaller part of the book means it doesn’t drag.

Dialogue is written in ye olde style, and generally works well, although the odd phrase (break my bollocks!) did make me smile. The cast was pretty small. A little more time to develop people other than the protagonist would’ve helped flesh the world out a little.

I found the setting to be quite interesting and unusual (primarily continental Europe in the 1620s). It’s not really my sort of period, but that added to rather than detracted the story (the novelty of the period intrigued me).

The ending perplexed me. It’s set up to a certain event which then never happens, so abruptly does the story terminate. The book is a prequel, so perhaps that event occurs in the succeeding (chronologically) book, but for this one the end was abrupt to the point of being detrimental to the story.

Overall, I enjoyed it, particularly once I got a few chapters in. My to-read list remains of comically enormous proportions, but once it’s whittled down I’ll consider checking out the author’s other work.


Friday, 30 January 2015

Review: Caesar’s War Commentaries, by Julius Caesar

The Queen of Bithynia, or Julius Caesar as he is sometimes known, was a chap from the first century BC who wrote two accounts of his military and political adventures. The Gallic Wars covers his substantial role in conquering Gaul (NB Gallia Narbonensis, covering the south coast, was a province founded before Caesar turned up). The much shorter The Civil War is about his tussle with a chap called Pompey for supremacy of the known world.

The edition I read is from the 1950s, an Everyman’s Library version with an interesting take on the translation. Interesting, in that Caesar wrote in the third person and it’s been shifted to the first (with the exception of a connecting letter written by Aulus Hirtius). I have read a different version of The Civil War (including three parts, of four, which were written by other chaps) and have to say the perspective change really improves it. Another change, of which I was less fond, was changing the ‘cohort’ to ‘battalion’. Changing the money sums to pounds (from 1950s Britain) is also a bit tricky. Modern place names are used, with ancient equivalents mentioned as footnotes on the first occasion.

I have to say I really rather enjoyed it. The Gallic Wars is written in a more polished, immersive way than The Civil War (which is terser and there is some suggestion he intended to edit and redraft it until he had a meeting with Brutus which resulted in a dramatic decline in his writing output). Descriptions are concise but sufficient to fully convey the situation, and there is an air of objectivity about the writing which lends weight to the account (even though Caesar cannot possibly be entirely objective, of course).

It should be stressed that there’s an emphasis on military matters, both strategic and tactical, and that the political situation, excepting The Civil War (which is perhaps a fifth or less of the book), are in the background.

Because it ends with the last portion likely written by Caesar, it does not finish at a natural point (after Pharsalus, for example), but that merely adds to the sense of mortal strife that was encompassing the world at that point in history. Many other notable people are killed during the course of the two accounts, and the fact the author himself falls prey to mortality fits the subject matter nicely.

Caesar’s life and the aftermath of his death marked the end of the Roman Republic and ushered in the Roman Empire. It’s a critical turning point of the Roman state, which had existed for about seven centuries at this point and continued, using the longer measure, for another fifteen or so afterwards.