Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Musings about books to buy

Fantasy is a very wide genre, and there are quite a lot of good new authors recently. The problem is that there’s a limited amount of time to read new stuff, whilst keeping up with the new releases of old favourites. (Speaking of which, The Iron Jackal [Tales of the Ketty Jay] by Chris Wooding comes out on 20th October).

Two chaps I keep hearing mentioned but whose wares I have yet to sample are Patrick Rothfuss and Peter V. Brett. Happily, both have eBook versions of their books so I’ll probably try The Name of the Wind and The Painted Man shortly.

There’s also the Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve delayed getting it slightly because I didn’t want to buy it right after The Way of Kings, but once I’ve refreshed my memory of the sample I’ll buy it.

One of the downsides of eBooks is that sometimes the formatting can be wrong. Substantial gaps between paragraphs can occur, or it might just be an enormous, unsightly wall of text. The Alchemist in the Shadows by Pierre Pavel is very highly rated, and I enjoyed the sample, but it does have blank lines between paragraphs. To be honest, I think I might end up getting it anyway. I posted a while ago I was looking for some stuff from overseas, after all and, whilst the formatting seems slightly irksome, it isn’t enough to potentially ruin a book for me.

Next year there’ll be new stuff from Joe Abercrombie (provisionally titled [A] Red Country) and Scott Lynch (Republic of Thieves) to enjoy, and there’s a fourth Tales of the Ketty Jay in production as well.

It’s quite interesting to read, which contains many fantasy book reviews. There’s an almost 0% overlap between our reading (well, reviewing) habits, and when I’ve finished the stuff on my immediate to-read list I’ll be checking it for some new authors to try out.

Which reminds me, I want to read some more Terry Pratchett. I’ve only read the City Watch Trilogy (Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, and Feet of Clay) and always meant to read more, but never got around to it. So, if anyone has recommendations (Pratchett or otherwise) do please feel free to offer them.


Monday, 26 September 2011

Review: Empire in Black and Gold, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This is the first book I’ve read by Tchaikovsky. It’s a fantasy set in a fictional world, with a number of interesting ideas, some very enjoyable moments and a few flaws which, in my view, made it likeable rather than brilliant.

A general and spoiler-free overview of the plot is that the Wasps (the Empire in Black and Gold) are patiently expanding, conquering cities and subjugating other peoples. The Lowlands resemble Greek or Renaissance Italy city-states, and are being chewed up piecemeal. Stenwold, a Beetle intent upon stopping the Wasps taking over the Lowlands, is one of the few with an eye on the bigger picture, and the story follows his efforts and those of his agents to prevent this.

The decision to divide mankind into species (or perhaps subspecies) based mostly on insects and the odd arachnid is a good one. The insects are alien enough to be a bit weird and original but well-known enough that you quickly get a feel for what being a Mantis or a Spider might mean.

I felt a little bit unengaged in some of the early chapters, and I think one or two characters could’ve been fleshed out a bit more. However, the antagonist was very well-written (reminded me of the villain in Shadow Hearts, in that regard alone). No cackling black-robed megalomaniac offering a cardboard cut-out villainy, but a reasoned, intelligent and even sympathetic foe, which added greatly to the book.

The world is more technologically advanced than standard fantasy fare, including rail, flying machines and weaponry halfway between bows (also featured) and proper guns. One city in particular stood out as being innovative and creative, with the others being built along more familiar lines.

The plot progresses at a pretty rapid pace, and the characters develop well. There’s a nice element of generations older and younger trying to work alongside one another, and the odd spot of unrequited love (thankfully not overdone. When it comes to books I much prefer blood and guts to romance).

I was surprised to see that 86% into the book (I got the electronic version) it finished, but this was because of a number of extras at the end. These included about 3-4 miniature stories mostly unrelated to the main characters of the book proper, as well as some pictures of the various races of man. I loved one of these mini-stories (the one with the treasure) and was indifferent to the others.

It was quite hard reviewing this, because at some points I was disengaged, but at others I absolutely loved what I was reading. Overall, I’d say that it has a lot of good aspects and is worth getting. I do plan getting the follow-up (Dragonfly Falling), but I may get the Mistborn Trilogy first.


Saturday, 24 September 2011

Doctor Who: Closing Time

Yes, in the week neutrinos broke the speed of light I’ve managed to write this post on time. There are rather significant spoilers regarding the next (and final, of this series) episode contained below.

Continuing New Who’s penchant for irritating sentimentality, the Doctor, having ditched the Ponds last episode, paid a farewell visit to James Corden, whom he saw last season (I missed that episode). Corden, whose character is named Craig, realises the Doctor’s recognised some strange occurrences and nags his way into helping out (despite having to look after his very young son Alfie/Stormageddon).

It soon transpires that someone has spotted a silver rat with glowing red eyes. In a welcome nod to the… Troughton era, I think, it turns out to be a cybermat (think a computer mouse, but silvery, with a tail and equipped with snapping jaws). The cybermat has been gnawing on electrical cables, causing power cuts and feeding the energy to a group of cybermen (still New Who rather than the Mondas originals).

Oddly, the Doctor stumbles across a cyberman and merely gets knocked out rather than killed, but discovers that they’re a bit old and knackered and using spare parts. He finds out that a changing room leads to their ship, which landed centuries ago, is buried underground and was powerless until the council put a load of electrical cables right next to it. The cybermat reactivated and began feeding power to the ship. Only six cybermen have been created, but when Craig follows the Doctor they begin to convert him.

However (and it’s a strain not to break into four letter words) Craig hears his son crying, and magically resists the conversion. The cybermen, who are apparently all psychic, then suffer a ‘feedback loop’ from this emotion and their heads start exploding. Deus ex machina indeed. Only, this always bloody happens with the New Who cybermen. When they were first created the Doctor made some remember emotion and they killed themselves (I think), and when Dervla Kirwan got made into the cyberleader she ‘resisted’ and defeated them.

It’s not exactly a great villain anymore if the ending can be predicted the moment their identity’s known.

End rant [until they appear next time].

Anyway, the last five minutes was much more interesting. It showed River Song just after she received her doctorate. Evil Eye-patch Woman and two of the Silence creatures accosted her, and she was brainwashed and placed in an astronaut outfit.

It’s pretty unlikely the Doctor will properly die next episode, not least because the next two series have been confirmed. So, how will he escape it? The Flesh is the most obvious answer, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Anyway, the episode was average, I liked the cybermat, but the cybermen are becoming pretty bloody pointless. They’re a step away from being hugged to death, or slain with snuggles.


Thursday, 22 September 2011

Should Hannibal have marched on Rome after Cannae?

One of the interesting things about history is to ponder if certain key events had turned out differently. What if Alexander had lived to see his son to adulthood, preventing his slaughter at the hands of the Diadochi? What if the Ten Thousand had never made it back to Greece?

Some historical events are down to chance, but others are down to choice. After Cannae, Hannibal elected not to march upon Rome. The decision has been frequently debated in the 22 centuries since it was made.

First of all, a little background. Hannibal had already shocked the Romans by marching to Italy in winter, which involved passing the Alps (defended not only by bitter winds and snowfall but also hostile Celtic tribes). After this, he slapped the Roman army about, winning at Trebia, luring Flaminius into arguably the greatest ambush in history at Lake Trasimene and so demoralising the Romans that they made Quintus Fabius Maximus dictator. Quintus took the very un-Roman step of choosing to play a strategic game, refusing to battle Hannibal directly and instead dog his steps, starve him of provisions and generally prevent him from gaining the big tactical victories he had previously enjoyed. This was highly controversial, as the standard Roman tactic was to point a big army at The Enemy, march forward and kill everything that didn’t look Italian. Despite an uppity deputy, the dictator was highly successful and Hannibal did not gain another big victory to invigorate his supporters.

After this, the dictatorship lapsed and Varro and Paullus were made consuls. They combined their consular armies and, for good measure, doubled them in size, putting a force of about 80,000 into the field. This army, despite consular disagreement, then attacked Hannibal’s forces (roughly half the size) and was thoroughly obliterated by perhaps the finest battlefield tactics in the Ancient World (or, perhaps, ever).

Hannibal had survived the sly intelligence of the dictator, smashed the largest Roman army ever assembled in a battle with slaughter on a scale not dissimilar to WWI and was now posed a difficult question: Should he march on Rome?

He decided not to.

There are many sound reasons for this. Firstly, it was still an era when a Roman citizen and a Roman soldier were practically interchangeable, and Rome was a large city (despite the huge numbers Hannibal had killed). Secondly, it was a walled city, and Hannibal had no siege engines and little experience of sieges. Thirdly, it would tie Hannibal’s army down, and keeping such a force fed and watered and preventing an external army from attacking it could prove highly difficult.

Hannibal did survive for many years in the Italian peninsula after this, but to no avail. He was recalled to Carthage to face Scipio Africanus and had his first and last loss of the Second Punic War.

So, what if he had marched on Rome?

I think it unlikely that he could have taken it by storm. The Romans were patriotic to an almost deranged extent. After Cannae the land upon which Hannibal’s victorious army rested was sold at full value in Rome, indicating the confidence/bravado of the Romans even after a crushing defeat. It’s always possible an internal conspiracy could have opened the gates, but for similar reasons I think this unlikely.

What’s more interesting is to consider the social/political impact of such a move. An army encamped outside the walls of Rome, led by a man who had repeatedly massacred the Roman army, might have caused a shock to the allies of Rome. Might more of them have abandoned the city if she had seemed helpless before the Punic conqueror? This might have enabled Hannibal to grasp a strategic victory and either conquer Rome or force a favourable peace treaty.

Ultimately, I think Hannibal made the right choice. As I think it unlikely he could have taken Rome, marching to it and then leaving it untaken would have dealt a severe blow to the morale of his men. The misfortune he faced was to fight Rome at the time of its patriotic zenith. Centuries later, the city repeatedly fell, surrendered and crumbled before lesser men, but when Hannibal fought it was still blazing determination and confidence.


Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Doctor Who: The God Complex

Apologies for the absence of bloggery and blogcraft. My computer suffered a severe maiming and a new hard drive was required, hence me reviewing a Saturday night show on Tuesday. [Spoilers lie herein, by the way].

This was much more to my liking than the previous episode. The Doctor and Ponds arrive, unexpectedly, in a rather bland hotel with irritating lobby music and three terrified, paranoid people (a conspiracy theorist geek, a mostly normal Muslim nurse and a habitually surrendering alien played very well by David Walliams).

It soon transpires that the hotel is filled with rooms, and in each room is a bad dream. After someone finds their specific worst nightmare they end up praising a minotaur, which then feeds (metaphorically) upon them, leaving the body intact but killing the worshipper.

The Doctor manages to chat, briefly, with the minotaur, and discovers that the beast is running on instinct, feeding when it can but not desiring life any more.

The Doctor initially advises everyone to focus upon their faith, but shortly thereafter realises that that’s the problem. Most of the people captured (Rory being an exception) have strong faith systems, whether luck* (one of the early victims was a gambler), religion or, in Amy’s case, in the Doctor.

Amy starts to praise the minotaur, and they manage to manhandle her into a room, which happens to be her own (with a young Amy Pond). The Doctor tells her that he didn’t want her, he just wanted someone to admire him because he was vain, and destroys her faith in him. The minotaur collapses due to lack of food and slowly dies, as the hotel around it is revealed to be a kind of holo-deck in a floating prison.

The minotaur tells the Doctor of an ancient creature travelling the universe in a shifting maze prison, desiring nothing but an end and suggesting that it speaks not only of itself, but of the Doctor too. At the end of the episode the Doctor drops off the Ponds at a nice little house with Rory’s favourite car, and leaves them because, as he tells Amy, “You’re still… breathing”.

There’s a lot to like in this episode. The concept was simple but quite cool, and it was moderately disturbing to see the sensible, intelligent nurse descend into a mindless, rapture-ridden worshipper, eager for her own death. Serious questions were raised about faith and the Doctor, and I rather liked it.

But, there are some flaws as well.

*Firstly, I’d disagree that gamblers believe in luck. I’d say they believe in analysis, knowledge, and weighing up of probabilities.

Secondly, it was suggested that the minotaur was imprisoned and ejected from its original home because the people became more secular and scientific, but a liberal religious perspective is entirely compatible with a scientific way of thinking.

However, those didn’t materially affect anything and I did enjoy the episode. It’s the best one since the mid-season break, I think.


Friday, 16 September 2011

F1 2011 Preview

Last year, around this time, Codemasters released F1 2010. After some prevarication I bought it, and quite liked it, despite the two large bugs (which can be worked around mostly).

The new game is more an evolution than a whole new game, which makes sense given the makers mapped all the circuits save India and the Nurburgring for the previous game. There are two questions: is the game any good, and is it worth buying if you already have F1 2010?

My non-exhaustive research suggests that the first answer is Yes, and the second is Maybe.

First of all, a brief recap of the pros and cons of F1 2010.


Full-length seasons available

Many options to vary the length of races and difficulty

Pretty nice visuals and sounds

Brilliant weather system


The race engineer

Big Bug 1: when in the pit lane you get held until every other car there has left [can be mostly worked around by altering your pit stop strategy pre-race]

Big Bug 2: if you save when partway through R&D your save file gets corrupted. R&D can be done, but saving should only occur (at the earliest) after Q1.

It’s enjoyable but flawed. In retrospect the score I gave may have been a bit too high, as the second bug can be forgotten during the course of seven seasons and is irritating as hell.

Happily, the fact that the game builds on its predecessor suggests that the two above bugs should be fully resolved. If not, whoever is responsible deserves to be fired into space from some sort of giant artillery gun.

The weather system was pretty much perfect, and that’ll remain, and the graphics have also been improved (I think).

Additional extras include more non-racing stuff, such as Parc Ferme and a new paddock area.

Multi-player’s not my thing, but the options from the last game have been expanded, and it’s possible for two players to compete in a co-operative championship, which sounds pretty cool.

A very significant addition is the safety car. It was missing last time, and it’ll be interesting to see whether or not they’ve managed to make it work. If the pit bug remains then diving into the pits could, instead of being brilliant, be costly.

Some of the biggest changes reflect those that have happened with the 2011 rules. Here’s a brief rundown:

KERS: Kinetic Energy Recovery System

Basically, KERS harvests the energy lost through breaking and recycles it. This means that for a short time per lap you can press a button and unleash the energy, gaining a small but significant power boost.

DRS: Drag Reduction System

The rear wing now has a flap. When opened (on a straight typically) it cuts down drag and increases the top speed. In the race, it can only be used under certain conditions, in practice and qualifying it’s available anywhere the driver can manage with less grip.

Pirelli tyres

These degrade much more rapidly than the Bridgestone ones of 2010, and they have an often substantial gap between the compounds in terms of pace and durability. This should add a significant element of strategy to the races.

Will I be buying this game? No, even though I’m a big F1 fan. I’m reasonably confident the bugs of F1 2010 will have been ironed out and many areas will be improved, but it would, for me, be too similar to it. Besides, with no major rule changes in 2012 the next game will be even more improved and offer the same rules as F1 2011.

If I didn’t have F1 2010 it’s pretty likely I’d be buying it. But, I do, and it isn’t.

I’ve also recently toyed with the idea of buying Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which has gone done very well with some friends of mine. However, as remarked upon recently, I need to spend more time writing, not less, and as I’ll be losing 6-18 months of productivity to Skyrim I don’t want to lose anymore.

On Skyrim: my plan is to write a preview a week or so before it comes out (11/11/11), then do a quick First Impressions post (think I did this with Dragon Age 2) a few days later, and a proper review when I think I’ve experienced enough of the game to do one (that might well be months after buying it, and weeks at least).


Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Writing update, Way of Kings illustrations, Skyrim and Star Trek/A-team videos

There’s good news and bad news regarding the latest redraft. I’ve done most of what I set out to do, and decided to add a world-specific calendar to help make it a bit more immersive (it’s a pretty minor change, actually, as the names of days are rarely mentioned and the festival names of Belisariad and Valerian remain unchanged). On the downside, I underestimated how much I’d make up in the word count by the changes I’d planned.

So, I’m going to finish working through the finickity stuff (mostly continuity, at which I am shockingly bad) and then embellish one part of the central plot (it makes sense presently but would be more realistic with something extra) and build on one of the subplots. I am three-quarters or more of the way there, so although there’s a bit to add it’s not a case of writing reams of stuff.

Once that’s done it’ll be time for a final mini-redraft (mostly about checking it flows well, continuity is good and the new bits don’t contradict the older material). I’ve made a little progress on the boring technical stuff of self-publishing, but finishing the book is obviously the first priority.

In other news, I was checking a few authors’ blogs and noticed that Brandon Sanderson (whose The Way of Kings I very much enjoyed) has cunningly put up the illustrations of that book on the internet. Whilst e-readers are excellent in many ways, you can’t zoom in much for pictures (admittedly, this is rarely a problem), so it’s quite helpful for Mr. Sanderson to put them up. Reminds me, actually, I must remember to get the Mistborn Trilogy. I was going to buy it next, but decided to go for Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Empire in Black and Gold first.

Skyrim news:

Bethesda have released 20 minutes of largely seen demo footage of their forthcoming game. Whilst most of it’s been seen before, it is nice to see it free of background noise or a Q&A, with the actual in-game sound track and effects.

Lastly, here’s a Star Trek/A-team spoof title sequence that I rather like:


Monday, 12 September 2011

Dr Who: The Girl Who Waited

Apologies for the later than usual review. I was feeling a bit under the weather at the weekend, (hence the last entry being a copy and paste rather than something written then posted), but John O the Benevolent has prodded me into action with the Pointy Stick of Admonishment.

As with last week, this episode was a self-contained adventure, blissfully free of River Song or suchlike. The Doctor takes the Ponds to the second most splendid holiday planet in the Universe. However, it turns out to be rather sterile, with just a few white rooms and two buttons in the entry hall.

Amy returns to the TARDIS for her camera-phone, whilst the Doctor and Rory press the green button and enter another small, white room featuring only a large magnifying glass. Amy knocks on the door and is told to press the button, but she hits the red one. Curiously, she enters the room but neither of the chaps are there.

However, they discover they can communicate through the magnifying glasses, which leads the Doctor to realise that Amy is in another time-stream, which is progressing at a significantly faster rate. A robot appears and the Doctor discovers the whole planet is under quarantine for a disease which only kills double-hearted species, but that if Pond (in the treatment time-stream rather than the visitor time-stream) gets the treatment it will kill her.

Heroically, the Doctor runs back to the TARDIS, along with Rory, and tells Amy to hide and he’ll rescue her. The Doctor gives Rory a big magnifying glass (which he nicked) to keep in touch and, after getting a lock on Amy’s position, lands the TARDIS in her time-stream.

Unfortunately, the Doctor gets his landing a bit out, and Amy’s been trapped there for thirty-six years. She’s constantly evaded the ‘nice’ robots that try and treat her with fatal injections (as she’s single-hearted), become a computer hacker, sonic screwdriver-creator and katana-wielding fiftysomething. Understandably, she’s rather pissed off with the Doctor.

Old Amy then has a destined discussion with her younger self (which she remembers from the other perspective) and, as the writer decides paradoxes can exist, decides to change her mind and help her younger self escape if she can go to. Lots of technobabble and bad science later the two time-streams converge and Old Amy, Young Amy and Confused Rory are reunited. The three of them just about make it to the TARDIS, but Young Amy gets anaesthetised by a robot and the Doctor locks Old Amy outside.

He tells Rory that the two of them cannot exist together permanently, and that if she enters the TARDIS Young Amy will disappear. Old Amy allows herself to be killed by the robots, who believe they’re curing her, and Young Amy wakes up, oblivious.

I thought this was quite an interesting episode, with some good ideas but a few flaws. I dislike the idea (and it’s the second time this season) that something [the disease in this case] can permanently kill the Doctor, no regenerations allowed. The two time-streams idea was a good one, and the questions it raised were very interesting, but the end result was a Grandmother Paradox where the trigger gets pulled and yet the murderer survives. (

So, quite good, but not stellar. Glad to see no River Song nonsense, and the next episode looks similarly blessed.

There’s also some sad news I heard today. Andy Whitfield, the lead in the excellent Spartacus: Blood and Sand, has died at the age of 39. He had cancer, and a successor to the role for the next series had been selected some time ago, (to whom he had given his blessing). He leaves behind a wife and two children. Very sad news, especially for someone so young and with a family.


Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Tale of Sir Edric the Vile, episode 2

Episode 2: Heroism, thy name is ignorance

Scene 1: [Edric is in bed with a beautiful and rather naked lady friend]

Julia: O Edric, you're so heroic!

Edric: It's true, my sweet. I'm so magnificent donkeys that are particularly

well-endowed describe themselves as 'Hung like an Edric'.

Scene 2: [Similar]

Julia: Oh no, silly. I was referring to your brave and daring trip northward.

Edric: It's all in a day's work for a knight, my love. Slaying dragons,

shooting peasants, saving the King from certain death: it's what I do,

when I'm not ploughing the furrow of the prettiest girl in town.

Scene 3: [Edric sits up and begins getting dressed]

Julia: Even so, to intrude upon the territory of the Dreaded Sheep-people, to

traverse the Goblin Forest of Doom and to scale Mount Eva's twin peaks

just to reach the Cave of Terrible Darkness is awesome! Why, nobody's ever

made such a trip before and come back alive.

Edric: .... oh, really?

Scene 4: [Edric and his squire, Dog, are waiting at the Dragon Gate for Alice

and Sir Gerald the Good. Edric is seated atop a fine palfrey, Dog atop

a rather less splendid rouncey. Sir Gerald and his squire, Colin, arrive on horseback, accompanied by the sorceress Alice, who is riding a giant lizard]

Edric: Good morning, Sir Gerald, Colin. Greetings, wench.

Colin: Good morning.

Gerald: Ah, we are blessed by the company of good Sir Edric, the slayer of the

man-eating badger and the fearsome doomdog. Hurrah!

Alice: Greetings, husband.

Scene 5: [The quintet of travellers depart from the Dragon Gate, heading north]

Narrator: And so did Sir Edric the Vile, his loyal squire Dog, Sir Gerald the Good and his squire Colin proceed with the sorceress Alice. Little did they know the mortal peril this fateful journey would plunge them into.

Scene 6: [The five have been travelling a long time, and are deep into twilight]

Alice: Edric, you've barely pulled your weight all day! Sir Gerald, Dog and Colin slew wolves, goblins and a pair of trolls and you've just trotted along on your horse.

Edric: Lies, vile woman! Did I not slay the rag demon outside the city gates?!

Scene 7: [similar]

Alice: The 'rag demon' was a beggar!

Edric: That matters not, what's important is that when I skewered it with my sword it stopped annoying me. I'm improving the unemployment figures, one poor person at a time.


Friday, 9 September 2011

End of the road for Final Fantasy?

Contrary to intuition, Final Fantasy refers to an inaccurately named RPG series rather than some sort of adult film. The first I bought was VII, for the original Playstation, and, like most others, I loved it. The game had a great villain, an innovative battle system (I really liked the materia), good music and decent range of characters and was nice and long. Since then I’ve played I, II, IV, V, VII, IX, X and XII (the first four were re-releases for the Playstation).

And yet I wonder whether the series might be waning now, perhaps terminally so.

I was less impressed with X and XII, for the PS2 and PS3 respectively, missing out XI as it was an online game. There were some good elements, but also some bad ones.

X’s lead character, Tidus, had an irksome voice and character, and the lack of a proper central villain (yes, there was Seymour but he wasn’t the real enemy) was displeasing. Auron and Kimahri were quite cool, but I was never enthralled with the game. It was great to look at but felt superficial.

XII had a party of just six (three active at anyone time) and two of them (Vaan and Penelo) were not very interesting. There was an intriguingly political plot, but it was sadly underdeveloped, and whilst cinematic graphics were as excellent as ever the in-game graphics were surprisingly not up to scratch.

I decided not to buy XIII. Reading previews and then reviews it appeared to be a graphically beautiful but linear game whose greatest selling point was the title. Three and a half stars on Amazon for a game with a huge fanbase is not very impressive either.

And why should people go for Final Fantasy? Dragon Age: Origins provided great player-character customisation, a good party system with excellent banter and great voice acting throughout. Oblivion (and, soon [although not soon enough], Skyrim), is a great first person RPG with a huge free-roaming world to explore and literally hundreds of hours of gameplay.

Now, it’s not an either/or choice. You can, obviously, buy all those games. But if I want a party-based RPG with top notch acting and some freedom of movement I can get Dragon Age. If I want a first person mammoth game that offers no linearity and total free-roaming, I’ll get Oblivion/Skyrim. Final Fantasy probably has the nicest graphics, but that’s the only area of excellence I can recall from reviews and the like.

Maybe it’ll become a great online series, but that’s not my thing. Even if my PS3 were hooked up to the internet I wouldn’t want to play those sorts of games.

Final Fantasy won’t drop dead. It’s been around for decades, has a massive fanbase and I’m sure it’ll go on for a while yet. Maybe it’ll reinvent itself like Tomb Raider, but with the likes of the Elder Scrolls to compete with it’ll have to be a bloody big change.


Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Review: Spartacus: Blood and Sand

I’m quite into ancient history, and have a couple of books on gladiators, so I was hopeful this might prove quite enjoyable, and it was.

Sex and violence are popular, and Spartacus: Blood and Sand has lashings of both. There is not, I think, a single episode that lacks a gore-soaked orgy of death and few (maybe none) without sexual encounters (mostly heterosexual but with the odd spot of man-on-man action). This is not suitable for people who are even remotely prudish or squeamish (quite a lot is seen in both regards) but for adults who are neither of those things it provides plenty of exciting entertainment.

Whilst the plot will not rival the epic I, Claudius, it is nevertheless pretty good and fast-moving. Filler episodes there are not. The fall and rise of Spartacus and the woes and glory that befall him is well told, and feature a range of sly and loathsome antagonists.

The trials and tribulations of the splendid bastard Batiatus, the lanista (master) of the gladiator school to which Spartacus belongs are quite enthralling. John Hannah plays Batiatus to perfection, and he and Lucy Lawless as his devious wife Lucretia make a very good double act.

Many members of the cast (predictably given the nature of the storyline) end up dead, though not necessarily the ones that might be expected. The general quality of acting could be better, but it’s a series of sex and violence and this doesn’t detract from it much.

Whether someone who does not share my interest in ancient history or who dislikes oodles of blood and death will like it quite so much, I don’t know. But, for me, it was a surprisingly good series that I very much enjoyed.

Sadly, the lead (Andy Whitfield) will not be able to reprise the role due to cancer. He has given his blessing to Liam McIntyre who will assume the role in the forthcoming second (proper) series Spartacus: Vengeance.

There was a six episode prequel featuring numerous characters in Blood and Sand (though not Spartacus himself), entitled Gods of the Arena.


Monday, 5 September 2011

After Alexander: the Diadochi

Alexander the Great was a legend in his own lifetime and has been a source of fascination, admiration and sometimes censure ever since. However, the period immediately after his death is sadly not furnished with the same degree of interest either now or at the time (which means that whilst we have a lot of great historical information regarding Alexander’s life we have far less regarding his successors).

The Diadochi were the Successors to Alexander. They were almost entirely his Companions, his close friends and talented lieutenants. The great general Parmenio and his sons did not survive a possibly untrue attempt at regicide during Alexander's reign, and the only other men to rise (certainly in the earliest days) were Eumenes, Alexander’s secretary (and a Greek, to the contempt of his Macedonian rivals) and Antipater, the elderly and cunning viceroy Alexander had left in command of Macedon.

Alexander had a brother, who was mentally disadvantaged, and a very young son, born after his death. The pair was manipulated by the political machinations of those vying for power and finally slaughtered whilst in Macedon.

The territory of Alexander was enormous. It ranged from modern day Albania, Greece and Macedonia in the west to Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula in the south and all the way to Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent in the east. When Alexander died the Persian Empire had been comprehensively destroyed, the Macedonian war machine was unmatched, even unrivalled, and he left behind a great number of brave and intelligent generals. Too many, perhaps.

Alexander’s lover and chief of the Companions, Hephaestion, had died before the king himself. Craterus, greatest of the generals, had been sent back to Macedon and thus missed the crucial meeting that decided who ought to succeed Alexander.

In the end a Companion named Perdiccas was named regent, but the mood of the assembly was not convivial and he proved unable to retain the loyalty of the other great men who vied for supremacy. Within a few years the men accustomed to following Alexander and enjoying unrelenting success grew displeased and he was assassinated.

Ptolemy was endowed with Egypt, and proved most resilient of the Diadochi. He lived long, his kingdom (as it became) was never taken from him and he founded a dynasty that lasted until Anthony and Cleopatra.

Antipater had allied with Perdiccas and Craterus, but the latter was surprisingly killed in a first battle with Eumenes, the former was murdered and the decision of Antipater to hand Macedonian vice-regal powers to Polyperchon (a Companion) rather than his son (Cassander) plunged the kingdom into prolonged conflict. Ultimately Cassander proved victorious, and founded Thessalonica (which is named after his wife).

Lysimachus got Thrace (modern day Bulgaria), and Seleucus was fostered in Egypt as Ptolemy’s guest, later to acquire the eastern portion of the empire.

And what of the great heart of the Persian Empire, from Turkey to the Arabian Peninsula? That fell to Antigonus Monopthalmus (‘one-eyed’). He alone had the power to dream of reunifying all of Alexander’s lands under one ruler, and that power caused his rivals to combine their forces against him.

The Battle of Ipsus is not especially well-known, unlike Cannae or Issus. However, it was very important. Cassander did not participate, but did send a significant number of Macedonian heavy infantry (in short supply after prolonged warfare), leaving only a token force to hold his own land. Lysimachus and Seleucus did attend, and the latter brought 400 elephants. Both sides had around 70,000 men, with Antigonus having the advantage in cavalry and his enemies more elephants. Also participating for Antigonus were his son Demetrius and a young adventurer called Pyrrhus, who came from Epirus.

A cavalry charge from Demetrus and Pyrrhus defeated and pursued one of the coalition wings, but they charged too far. The two centres closed and the forces of Antigonus were hard-pressed. Demetrius tried repeatedly to return and attack the enemy centre to help his father, but horses are terrified of elephants and the hundreds Seleucus possessed had formed a screen to prevent the son’s return. In the end, Antigonus and any hope of a unified Macedonian superpower lay dead, and his son and Pyrrhus escaped the field to fight another day.

Seleucus took the lion’s share of the land, and formed the Seleucid Empire (which I think gave way to the Parthians, which were themselves consumed from within by a new Persian Empire).

Cassander retained Macedon, but it never rose to the heights it had once known. Lysimachus and Seleucus came to battle when both were in their 70s, and Seleucus won. He had a hugely powerful empire, and began to march on Macedon. However, he was betrayed and killed by Ptolemy Keraunos (a son out of favour with his father of the same name), who briefly was the most powerful man in the world. He was killed himself shortly thereafter by the Gauls.

It remains to be seen whether Alexander would have been able to keep together his vast conquests had he lived, and whether he would have marched west on Italy. Macedonian politics was soaked with blood (his own father had become king by assuming the throne in the stead of his nephew, but it was Alexander rather than Philip who slew Amyntas IV) and rather unstable.


Saturday, 3 September 2011

Doctor Who: Night Terrors

Hurrah, a New Who episode without River Song.

Night Terrors is a self-contained episode, so no plot arc implications for the Silence or suchlike. It also features guest star Daniel Mays, who was excellent as Keats in the last Ashes to Ashes series.

An eight year old chap called George is scared of monsters at night, specifically in his wardrobe. So terrified, in fact, that his fear manifests itself on the Doctor’s psychic paper, and the Time Lord and the Ponds go hunting for the boy.

They go door-knocking in a tower block. The Doctor finds the right place, and Amy and Rory have a fright in a lift and wake up in a dark, old house.

The old house is a bit strange. There’s a giant glass eye in a drawer, the kitchen utensils are wooden and made to look like copper and the hands of clocks are painted on.

Meanwhile, the Doctor discovered, by playing with his sonic screwdriver, that the wardrobe is actually ‘off the scale’ [for something or other] and becomes almost as worried as George about it. He prevaricates about opening it, eventually does so and learns that George is not actually human as his parents couldn’t have children. He’s a Tenza, an alien cuckoo in the nest that adapts to suit his foster parents’ needs. However, as George is consumed with terror the Doctor and George’s father get sucked into the wardrobe.

Rory and Amy find out they’re not alone, and get cornered by some particularly creepy dolls. Rory escapes but Amy gets caught and transforms into one of the dolls. He and the Doctor, along with the father, are reunited, but surrounded by the dolls. The doll house is inside the wardrobe as is everything (and there’s a lot) George is afraid of. The Doctor calls to George to open the wardrobe, which he does, and ends up inside the doll house. It transpires that George was terrified of rejection, and when his father reassures him the fear disappears and the creepy doll house is no more. Even better, Amy Pond stops being a creepy wooden-head.

Pretty good episode. Especially for young kids it would have been a bit scary, and it’s easy to relate to a kid who’s scared at night, or of monsters, and a parent worried about their child. Definitely better than last week’s.


Friday, 2 September 2011

The Tale of Sir Edric the Vile, episode 1

So, I was pondering putting up some creative writing ahead of the release of my eBook (hopefully later this year). The problem was that I didn’t want to give away any of that book, and it takes me a while to draft and then rewrite creative stuff.

However, due to my skill and cunning, and not at all because I clicked the wrong folder whilst suffering an explosive sneeze, I found an old miniature comedy, in the style of a play. There are only two episodes, as yet, but it’s written already, so I thought I’d put it up.

Worth stressing that I wrote this a while ago, and my book is not an out and out comedy (although there are quite a few moments of light relief). Anyway, here it is:

Episode 1: A Royal Summons

Scene 1: [Edric approaches the monstrous stone home of Prince Ivan the Bloody, which is protected by a pair of guards]

Edric: I got the urgent summons. Ivan's not in one of his moods, is he?

Guardsman Barry: Oh no, sir, he's cheerier than a jester's birthday.

Scene 2: [A horrid shriek emanates from the door, which is subsequently pierced by a sword, its bloody tip wiggling playfully]

Guardsman Gary: Well, cheeryish. For the prince.

Scene 3: [Edric enters the home, steps over the fresh corpse marinated in its own blood, and approaches Prince Ivan]

Edric: Good day to thee, my liege.

Ivan: Ah, Edric. Good day indeed. Robin here was caught in bed with my sister, so I murdered him to teach him a lesson. I daresay he won't do that again!

Scene 4: [Edric glances nervously at the corpse]

Edric: Indeed not, sire. How is your wife?

Ivan[sighing]: Hilda the Impenetrable lives up to her bloody name. Anyway, I summoned you to spread some good news. The King is dead! Well, almost.

Scene 5: [Ivan swings his sword playfully]

Ivan: The old man's got longpox. Another few weeks and he'll be worm food. The problem is my damned sister, as always. She's ordered Sir Gerald and Alice to hunt down Arnold the Hermit in the Cave of Terrible Darkness.

Scene 6: [Edric nods, relieved not to be better acquainted with the pointy end of Ivan's sword]

Ivan: Arnold is reputed to be the finest healer in the world. Happily, fate gifted me a prophecy last night. Either Arnold or you will meet death in the next month. I'm sure you understand the way the gods work, old bean.

Edric: Indeed, sire. I shall report the Hermit's demise interfrastically.