Sunday, 30 October 2011

Review: Cursor’s Fury: Codex Alera 3, by Jim Butcher

Set three years after the previous book (and without the blank lines between paragraphs that book 2 had), Tavi has been working on ancient ruins with Magnus (a teacher referred to in book 2) when he gets called to join a new legion. Unlike most legions its men are from across the whole country rather than from a area, and it’s meant to be more of a symbol of unity than an immediate fighting force.

Until, of course, the civil war that had been quietly brewing suddenly explodes and the legion gets thrust into action.

There’s more excitement and rapid development earlier on in the book, which I enjoyed very much, with a number of twists and turns. To a certain extent the latter half runs along more predictable lines and, generally, the plot slows a little.

Mr. Butcher does very well to square the slight circle of a legion-style military unit in a world that’s probably halfway between feudal and republican (in the Ancient Roman sense of the word). Tribunes are now appointed rather than elected, and each has specific duties (logistics, for example) and a number of deputies. Tavi’s a logistical subtribune, whose typical day is spent inspecting latrines. The only minor gripe I have is that whilst almost all names are Roman or Romanesque ‘Schultz’ seems a bit out of place.

The ongoing character development of Tavi is a plus point of the series, and it’s also nice that each book genuinely moves along the unstable political situation and edges closer to an all-out power struggle.

A few more major deaths would have gone down well. Not necessarily on a George RR Martin level of mass slaughter, but it adds dramatic tension when there’s a real chance a protagonist or main character might get killed.

The major villain of the piece is less subtle and three-dimensional than the Aquitaines, but his prime job is to be universally loathed, which he achieves pretty well.

Overall, I liked Cursor’s Fury, particularly the cunning revelation at the end (and I’m not referring to frisky time with Kitai). The major characters continue to be developed in complex and interesting ways, and it was nice to see one or two Canim make a return.

That’s three in a row I’ve read fairly rapidly, and there are a few more books to read in the Codex Alera. I think I’ll read the first Mistborn book and give myself a break so that book 4’s a bit fresher.


Friday, 28 October 2011

Review: The Greek and Roman Myths: A Guide to the Classical Stories by Philip Matyszak

This book is a concise introduction to and overview of the myths of classical Greece and Rome. It begins right at the start of the universe’s (or cosmos’) creation and proceeds until the Odyssey and Aeneid which tell the tale of two heroes after the Trojan War ended.

Although far from dry it is more strait-laced than the other books (the Legionary and Gladiator Unofficial Manuals, which I highly recommend) I’ve read by the author. Having read a few works of classical literature it’s easy to appreciate the difficulty of sorting the entangled and various accounts of myths into anything approaching a coherent narrative, and Dr. Matyszak does a good job.

It should be stressed that whilst there are summarised accounts of a few major myths (the likes of Perseus, Aeneas and so forth featuring particularly prominently) this is not so much a collection of abridged stories as an over-arching guide to the entire canon of Greek and Roman myths.

There are multiple references to the later impact of classical myths upon the world, such as where words derived from the myths, works of art inspired by various divine shenanigans and so on. In addition, there are a number of photographs and illustrations of the gods and heroes.

The parts I found most interesting were actually the earliest bits and pieces, as the Trojan War and its aftermath for Odysseus and Aeneas are pretty well-known. I didn’t, for example, realise that Aphrodite was actually the oldest of the Olympians.

Another aspect of the book that was new to me and helpful as well as interesting was the concise explanation of how Greeks and Romans viewed their gods. This is my own example, but to an extent they might praise Zeus for rain in the same way a modern person might say “Thank God for that” (ie not necessarily a literal thanking, just an expression of relief at a handy change in the weather). The Olympians and heroes as forces of civilising order arrayed against the monsters and wilderness of chaos was another perspective I hadn’t considered before.

It is somewhat tangled, with multiple references throughout to characters who are involved in multiple myths, however, this is the nature of classical mythology. Everything’s interwoven and there are often multiple accounts of single events.

If you’re after an overview of classical mythology, this is nice and concise, clearly written and covers the major stories (although Dr. Matyszak was a bit rude about Telamonian Aias, my favourite hero of The Iliad).

There’s a slightly short section at the end on further reading, and I was surprised to see that I’d read many of the suggestions. The Iliad (apparently Lattimore’s version is excellent, but I’ve got the Rieu translation recommended in the back) and Odyssey are obvious starting points, and the Aeneid, though later, is also worth reading. To be honest, I found West’s translation of Hesiod’s Theogony and Work & Days to be the most easy to read of classical literature, but it is quite brief.

The author also refers to a number of other books, including Graves’ Greek Myths, which I’ve been intending to buy for about four years now.


Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Mythical monsters

The Ancient Greeks did many great things, not least of which was their storytelling. The Trojan War has echoed down the ages, as has the plethora of Greek gods, titans and monsters.

One of the most evocative of twisted creatures is the gorgon Medusa. She has the lower portions of a giant snake, her head and torso are those of a human woman and her hair is a forest of writhing snakes. Worst (or best) of all, her very gaze turns a man to stone. Medusa’s best known for her appearance in the popular and oft-repeated 1980s film Clash of the Titans. I think I recall reading that she had two sisters, both of whom were invincible. If true, that would make her the wimpy runt monster.

The minotaur is a nameless brute that dwelt within the labyrinth of King Minos. After Minos cheated a god of his rightful sacrifice the god got his own back (rather dramatically) by bending the mind of Minos’ wife and persuading her and a bull to copulate. The resultant abomination was the minotaur: a man of great strength with the head and horns of a bull. He was eventually slain by the heroic Theseus.

The Twelve Labours of Heracles (NB not Hercules, unless you’re deliberately going for a Latinised version) include a number of fantastic beasts, but the most interesting of these was the Lernaean Hydra. The Hydra had many heads (accounts vary somewhat) and vile, poisonous breath. Whenever a head was severed two more grew in its place. However, Heracles was helped by his nephew (and Argonaut) Iolaus, who sealed the stumps with fire. When the creature was finally slain Heracles dipped his arrowheads in its blood, which was potent venom (this would later have rather serious implications for the centaur Chiron and the titan Prometheus).

The Chimaera was a sort of special offer, three-for-the-price-of-one beast. It had a snake for a tail, a goat’s middle and a lion’s front, with three heads (the snakey tail, goat in the middle and a fire-breathing lion’s head). Some reckon that it’s an allegory for a mountain which had snakes at the base, goats in the middle and a volcano at the top. Not content with having three species, the Chimaera also manages to be both male and female, as it’s referred to as a female but has a mane. It’s very much an equal opportunities monster. Bellerophon slew it, although from a distance and Pegasus did most of the hard work.

Last but not least, my favourite: Typhon. Not a household name, unlike Medusa, but undoubtedly the toughest and most horrific of monsters. Descriptions vary a bit, but (if memory serves) his head brushed the stars, his lower portions were the coils of a snake and from his shoulders a hundred dragon heads sprouted, each breathing flame. When he attacked Olympus the gods ran off to Ethiopia, leaving Zeus to fight. Unfortunately for Zeus, Typhon kicked his arse, cut off all his sinews and put them in a jar, put the jar in a cave and set a guardian to protect it. The gods, meanwhile, decided that Zeus was a better ruler of the Universe than Typhon and stole back his sinews. Zeus, restored, fought a second bout with Typhon and finished the duel by dropping Mount Etna upon him.

In a fitting coincidence, volcanic eruptions sometime feature quite spectacular lightning, as explained here [which is also where the picture’s from]:


Sunday, 23 October 2011

Review: Academ’s Fury (Codex Alera 2), by Jim Butcher

First of all, a quick word on the Mistborn Trilogy business. Apparently there were some errors with the e-book version, so it was withdrawn and now that corrections have been made it’s available again. That said, I checked yesterday and the trilogy (as a single purchase) wasn’t up, so maybe it will be in a few days.

I liked the first Codex Alera book so much I bought the second immediately afterward (and I’m presently sorely tempted to get the third). In Academ’s Fury the main scene of action is Alera Imperia, the capital city. Tavi is two years older, has made a few friends and perhaps even more enemies, and has barely time to sleep or eat due to his studies and other work.

A being from the first book plays a highly significant role in this one (I don’t want to give much away) and poses a grave threat both to Calderon and Alera Imperia. In Calderon Bernard and Amara are reunited with Doroga to face an enemy of the Marat which is encroaching upon the valley. The First Lord continues to face his High Lords in subtle conflict, and a new chap, Kalare, is added as a potential rebel.

The pace in the first half of the book is somewhat slower than in Furies of Calderon, which was almost ferociously fast throughout. This works pretty well, allowing the new characters to be defined, the political subplots to be fleshed out and Tavi’s own story/character to be painted. In the latter half it picks up speed and resembles (in terms of pace) the fantastic finale of the previous book.

We also get a new species introduced: the Canim (singular: Cane). They’re basically 9’ bipedal hounds. The author doesn’t overuse them and does a good job with the main Cane, Ambassador Varg. The Iceman (another Aleran foe, apparently held in checked by the northern provinces) are also referred to, but do not appear directly.

There’s a bit more romance that Furies of Calderon, but it’s a side-order rather than a main course. The meat of the story is the subtle political machinations of Lord and Lady Aquitane, Lord Kalare and the First Lord’s loyal followers, combined with the grave threat I mentioned earlier.

One negative is that for some reason the formatting is slightly off. There are spaces between every paragraph which is an unfortunate annoyance. It doesn't bother me too much, but if that kind of thing irritates you then the physical version may be preferred.

In short, Academ’s Fury builds upon an excellent first book, fleshes out the political conflict, expands the interesting world Mr. Butcher has created and is well worth buying.

Although the Codex Alera is set in a fictional world, he has written some other works which are set in the [mostly] real world. For those who like that subgenre of fantasy, they’re reviewed in a friendly corner of the internet:


Friday, 21 October 2011

Preview: Skyrim

In three weeks probably the biggest fantasy game of the year will be released; The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is the successor to the tremendously popular Oblivion and will be available for consoles and PCs.

I’d intended to leave the preview until a week beforehand, however, I’m thinking of going on a hiatus from following the game to stop myself seeing any more spoilers and, as there’s tons of info and clearly high interest, I thought I’d post it now. For those concerned about spoilers, I’m going to make the bulk of this preview very low on them. I’ll put the small section with significant spoilers at the end, and clearly flag it up beforehand so that the game’s not ruined for anyone.

So, with that clear, let’s begin.

Character creation and customisation

As before, the same 10 races and 2 genders are available for the player’s character. The races are Altmer, Dunmer, Bosmer, Orc, Khajiit, Argonian, Imperial, Nord, Breton and Redguard. The character creator seems to have been greatly improved both in terms of options and in terms of the characters looking more realistic than in Oblivion. Particularly pleasing is the ability to alter the character’s body, with a skinny to brawny slider.

Stats have been abolished, so there’s no Strength or Agility and so on. Health, Magic and Stamina remain, and the number of skill groups have been slightly cut from 21 to 18, and also rejigged somewhat. Encumbrance will be less of an issue (it sounds like there’s a more generous amount of weight you can carry compared to the previous game) and if you go over the limit you can still move but at a greatly reduced speed, which is a change for the better.

The levelling system of Oblivion (one of my few major dislikes of the game) has been abandoned and a new, improved system utilised. It’s highly similar to Fallout 3, with perks given at each level increase, sometimes capped by character or skill level. Skills level up as you use them.

Third person has been made a lot better (admittedly, that’s not all that hard given Oblivion’s clunky third person), with smoother animations (different for the genders), and with some unique animations for the beast races.

You will not be able to alter your appearance in-game.

User Interface (UI)

I have slightly mixed views about the new UI. From what I’ve seen it does appear to be much more user friendly than Oblivion’s, and I love the fact that every single item can now be viewed in three-dimensions. However, it seems slightly odd that you cannot now see your character in the menu screen, so presumably we’ll have to look at some clothing/armour, equip it, quit the menu, see how it looks in third person and then keep or get rid of it.

The map is three-dimensional and looks either like a super SatNav or a dragon’s eye view of Skyrim. It’s my understanding that just about everything in the HUD can be turned on or off and the opacity varied (so, you can get rid of quest markers, roam around without a compass and so on). Whilst I doubt I’ll change too much I do like the option to choose.


Ah, combat. I’ll split this into mini-sections for each archetype (warrior, mage, rogue).


The least changed of the approaches, in my view. Blunt and Blade skills are now replaced with One-handed Weapons and Two-handed Weapons, which I think makes more sense. You can also equip two one-handed weapons for dual-wielding combat, or mix and match with a one-handed weapon and shield/torch/staff [NB bows are two-handed, and have a separate skill-set]. However, I don’t think you can block whilst dual-wielding which seems, er, abnormal and a little bit stupid. Swings are generally slower and seem to have more impact, and I believe it’s possible to wound multiple enemies with a single swing. Shields can be used in a more offensive way than in Oblivion.


This has been hugely changed from Oblivion. Spells are now equipped, like weapons, to each hand. So, the keys are for the left and right hands, and you’ll swing a sword or unleash a flamethrower according to what you have equipped. It’s also possible to equip the same spell in both hands and (if you have a certain perk, which is needed for some but not all spells) you’ll perform a super-powered version of that spell. Spells can be put in one-hand and weapons in the other, giving your character a battlemage feel and this seems to be a pretty strong play style from the limited viewing available.


Archery also seems to have been improved a lot for Skyrim. Arrows are now scarcer, but do more damage, and I read that the old Oblivion trick of walking backwards and firing arrows at the enemy charging you does not work any longer. The new rogue skills look quite good, and daggers get a hefty bonus when it comes to backstabbing unwary enemies.

There are also dragon shouts (like ultra-powered spells) which take a great deal of effort to learn and are equipped, I think, in a special slot which is also used for certain special racial abilities (rather than the left or right hand). Learning a dragon shout requires slaying of the aforementioned creatures as well as knowledge of dragon words from walls scattered throughout the game.

Crafting and manual labour

There are three major crafting areas, which have their own skill-sets, and a number of minor ones. The major crafts are alchemy, smithing, and enchanting.

Alchemy in Oblivion was an easy way to raise money and/or bump up a certain stat. In Skyrim it will also enable you to brew potions and poisons and use an even wider range of ingredients to do so. However, you can only do this at an alchemical laboratory, not whilst meandering around the countryside.

Smithing is new and sort of replaces the degradation of weapons and armour which now does not occur (some people like this absence, others don’t, personally I’m ambivalent). Anyway, a smith is able to enhance weapons or armour, or create them. The perks available improve the quality of creations or enables the player to use more exotic materials to make their weapons and armour.

Enchanting can be used to add magical bonuses to armour, weapons and clothing. As in Oblivion, enchantment requires the use of soul gems. You can pay others to do it for you, and, as with the above skills, it can only be done at a location specifically set aside for enchantment. I look forward to transforming a lump of gold into a nugget of purest green.

Minor crafts don’t need any sort of skill and involve doing basic work for money (or other advantages). Woodcutting is self-explanatory, mining likewise (you can, I would guess, keep the stuff you mine for use in the smithy) and cooking is perhaps the most interesting. You can find foodstuffs and improve them by just cooking an ingredient or combining them (into stew, for example) which then gives an almost potion-like bonus. Cooking requires a special cook-fire, which are scattered throughout Skyrim, and sounds like a small but nifty idea.

Sounds (voice-acting and music)

The number of voice-actors has been increased to more than 70, which is excellent news both for everyone who got irritated by recognising voices all over Oblivion and for the poor voice-actors who must have worked their socks off for bloody months. Ahem.

Most people will have heard Max Von Sydow (he speaks during the first trailer), who plays Esbern, one of the last Blades. Numerous actors from previous games return (happily including the chap who voiced Lucian Lachance) and are joined by Christopher Plummer, Joan Allen and others.

The music has been composed by Jeremy Soule, who also provided the scores for Morrowind and Oblivion. Most of the music is new, although one or two tracks from those earlier games have been heard during preview videos.

Here’s a fantastic piano version of the main theme which I found a little while ago:


In geographical size (square miles) it’s basically the same as Oblivion. However, the mountainous nature of Skyrim means that it will appear larger than Cyrodiil. In addition, there will be more points of interest. It’s unclear just how many dungeons there are, however, they have been designed on a far more individual and less identikit manner compared to the predecessor game. Dungeons will typically last from 15 minutes to 2 hours.

There are a smaller number of big cities than in Cyrodiil, but the cities are larger than their Oblivion counterparts. There are also more middle-sized towns and a greater number of villages and hamlets.

Children are included, which I think a mistake. It’s meant to be more immersive, but (unlike the vast majority of adult NPCs) they can’t be killed. That’s understandable, as I’m sure the creators would not be thrilled with child massacres in their game, but, that being so, why include kids at all? Bah.

Anyway, almost all adults can be killed (if you kill a shopkeeper sometimes they’ll be replaced by a relative). Because Skyrim is breaking up, not unlike a crumbly chocolate chip muffin, there’s no one justice system, but nine separate holds. So, you could commit rampant murder in one hold and then run off to another and be free as a bird. Early entertaining bugs, such as chickens reporting crimes to the guards, have hopefully been fixed. Incidentally, if you commit a crime and then murder the witnesses the bounty on your head will disappear.

A few adults cannot be killed by other NPCs but can by yourself, and a few cannot be killed at all.

As with Fallout 3 and Oblivion, you can have a companion (including at least one animal companion) follow you around and helping you out. In addition, you can get married (same-sex marriage is possible), although there are no frisky videos, and your husband/wife can act as a companion.

Buyable houses are back, though there isn’t tons of detail beyond the ability to buy furnishings for them (presumably including a chest or two for storing tons of items).

Factions make a return, with one each for warriors, mages and rogues (Companions, College of Winterhold and the Thieves Guild). There are also some juicy new factions, including the Legion and the Stormcloaks (rebels). Perhaps the best faction news is that the Dark Brotherhood make a very welcome return. There may also be a few other minor factions, and sometimes the faction quest line will continue even after you become the leader.

Unlike Fallout 3, the game will continue once the main quest is completed.

Right, that’s the low spoiler section over with. If you keep reading you’ll find out more information regarding stuff I consider to be pretty big spoilers.

The return of vampires has been confirmed. However, werewolves will not be in the main game, although there is talk of it possibly being made available through DLC.

There are only 10 playable races but there are some additional non-playable ones in the game. Giants are well-known, but there are also thought to be Falmer (snow elves) who look pretty ugly and the machine-like relics of the Dwemer (dwarves, essentially) in some of their ruins. It’s highly unlikely we’ll see an actual Dwemer as they all disappeared (then again, that’s what was supposed to have happened to the Falmer).

In recently released videos a new dragon shout was officially announced, which sounds like it may be the coolest of them all. Late in the game, it’s possible to become allied to a specific dragon. After this, when outdoors, you can call and the dragon will fly to you from wherever in Skyrim he is and help you out.


Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Writing styles

I’ve written for almost as long as I’ve been able to read (somewhere under my bed there’s a sci-fi/fantasy story about a laser-wielding dragon) and different writing styles have always interested me.

Most stuff is, of course, written in the third person. It puts the reader in the position of an outsider observing the story unfold from (usually) numerous perspectives, with the writing style perhaps coloured by the perceptions of whichever character happens to be the focus of the action at any given time.

First person (“I did this” etc) is less common, but not especially unusual. I always used to write that way, but rarely do so now. There are some really good books written in this style, such as Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles (I’ve not read them for a while but they’re amongst the very best modern books I’ve read) and Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies.

Second person is almost unheard of, and that’s not surprising as it’d bloody weird to read a book with sentences like “You attacked him with an axe” in it.

In addition to the standard narrative style, which usually has either a single protagonist (more common with first person books, with Derfel and Fitz taking those roles in the above examples) or a reasonably small number of them, there are some more exotic methods of writing.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker, is amongst my least favourite books. Excepting the odd moment I think it’s a tedious slog through a quagmire of boredom and woe. However, it does have a rather interesting approach to storytelling. The story unfolds via press cuttings, diary entries and official reports, which I think is a pretty cunning way of doing it. Obviously, this is much easier in an approximately modern world than in ye olden days.

For the still-untitled (I’m terrible when it comes to naming things) book I’ve gone for a fairly standard approach, with a central protagonist and a few other main characters. Occasionally I give a minor character their own little section, including one chap I already plan to bring back.

I’ve got two ideas for the next project, but I’m deliberately not thinking too heavily about them as Book 1 is yet to be entirely completed (though the initial redraft of the extra bits is well underway). One possibility is a trilogy regarding a war referred to in Book 1, which would be quite hefty. The other is a much smaller stand-alone book, involving an old-fashioned bit of tomb raiding by a motley crew of characters that are also in Book 1. The former would definitely be third person with multiple points-of-view, though the latter could be first person or focus entirely on one third person perspective (I do intend to make it rather labyrinthine and claustrophobic, so that’d fit).

Varying the perspective, number of protagonists and narrative style can change a story for the better, although ultimately the quality of the writing and the plot matter far more.


Monday, 17 October 2011

Books, videogames and imagination

Increasingly stories are capable of jumping media, particularly from books to videogames and vice versa. Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls have a number of fiction books set in the same world, there’s already one Game of Thrones game (a PC strategy game) with an RPG set for PC and consoles in the future.

Lord of the Rings, of course, is the ultimate fantasy example with three huge films, and a slew of videogames. It is rivalled by the Chronicles of Narnia, which has had some recent films and a great BBC TV series I watched as a child (the serpent moment is something that made a huge impression on me, I loved it).

A perhaps not widely known example is that Sonic the Hedgehog had four spin-off books by Martin Adams. They were some of the earliest books I can remember reading (my long term memory is shocking), and I remember learning about transmogrification, the fourth and fifth dimensions and time travel paradoxes from them.

One of the things I love about books is the imagination that’s needed to really enjoy them. When I really get into a book it’s a fantastic feeling. The author provides a blueprint for the world, but when a reader imagines the voices and sees the images described they’re unique to that one reader. Little changes to sentences (‘drooled’ becoming ‘dribbled’ adds an air of idiocy and/or infancy, and reduces the gawping lust of the former) can make substantial changes to meaning and the impression the reader gets and the mental picture they subsequently draw.

Although reading’s not really seen as an interactive activity (you get given all the words and read them, in order, occasionally turning the page) I don’t think that’s accurate. Readers take different things from exactly the same books, or even sentences, and readers’ imaginations play almost as great role for them as the authors’ writing.

Videogames are the exact opposite. The voices are supplied by actors (and, being an audio more than a visual person, I bloody love good voice acting), the scenes are described in often tremendous detail and although some games offer great freedom of action it’s almost as limited in storyline terms as an actual book (albeit a bloody enormous gamebook).

Games are more obviously interactive and less relaxing/more exciting, but rely far less on imagination. I think that this is one reason why getting people reading, particularly inculcating the habit early on with kids, is such an important thing. Books provoke thinking, imagination and are absorbing and relaxing. Games are stimulating and exciting, but if overdone (especially at a young age) can leave the player with a short-attention span and less able to take things slowly.

Happily, one side-effect of the e-Reader is that they’ve prompted a pretty rapid growth in the sale of e-Books, which can only be a good thing.


Saturday, 15 October 2011

Review: The Furies of Calderon (Codex Alera 1), by Jim Butcher

I had intended to buy Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy, but somehow the eBook version managed to be unavailable. So, I decided to get The Furies of Calderon instead, and a very pleasant surprise it turned out to be.

The book takes place in a fictional world, where almost everyone can command one or more furies. A fury is a kind of spirit, of which there are six varieties. Fire, earth, air and water are from Western elemental mythology and metal and wood (which, if Fear Effect 2 is accurate, come from Chinese myth) round out the set. Each element has its own particular advantages (and sometimes disadvantages). Air, unsurprisingly, can help someone fly or suffocate a foe, watercrafters can heal people and have a sometimes unhelpful degree of empathic power and so on.

Anyway, without giving too much away the plot revolves around the Calderon valley (hence the title), where traitors to the Crown are seeking to deliberately incite an attack by Marat barbarians. If successful, the attack would prove the Crown to be weak and undermine the First Lord’s position.

Amara, the Crown’s agent, fights to secure the valley, aided by the capable steadholder Bernard, his sister Isana and their furyless nephew Tavi.

The plot moves at a cracking pace throughout, and there are plenty of twists and turns in the plot. Occasionally it’s easy to see one coming, but most of them are genuinely surprising without ever falling into the hateful deus ex machina trap or seeming incredible (in a fantasy-based context).

Romance isn’t my thing in books, and there’s a little but it’s actually rather well done. There’s some light relief, though a little bit more might have helped, given the plot moves at a rapid pace and there’s plenty of conflict and violence (hurrah!).

The villain of the piece is nice and understandable rather than a cardboard cut-out cackling with two-dimensional evil, and he has a pair of engaging underlings.

In addition to the furies, the biggest difference between a wholly realistic world and the one in The Furies of Calderon are the flora and fauna. Well, the fauna, anyway. There are some terrible birds called herdbane (think chocobos on steroids plus PMS), bull-like gargants and the creepy Keepers. People are essentially as we are, but the Marat are distinctive and have their own culture and somewhat differing physiology, though they are humanoid.

I’d never heard of this Jim Butcher chap until recently when I was browsing aimlessly and stumbled across his books. A few days later, by chance, a friend recommended him. The first book’s very enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the second.

Hmm. Now I think of it, The Iron Jackal’s out on the 20th. So I might order that instead. O, the agony of choice!


Thursday, 13 October 2011

Historical fun and games

Bit of a fantasy/history mish-mash, as much of what’s written here could be used to make a fantasy a little more immersive. After all, even bloodthirsty warriors and ancient mages need something to lighten the load.

Probably the most famous ancient games are the gladiator battles of the Roman Empire, particularly those that took place in the well-named Colosseum [strangely, the spellchecker wants this to be Coliseum]. I think that the fights to the death between men (and occasionally women) who were typically slaves are confined to Rome. Before Byzantium arose as the second empire one chap or other forbade them altogether.

Obviously there’s lots of drama and excitement to be had when it comes to gladiators. That’s partly why the film Gladiator was such a success and why the more recent Spartacus series has been so well-received (possibly aided by the large number of naked ladies). The downside is that it’s so associated with the Roman Empire, and is not especially original. On the plus side, a gladiator battle is rather more exciting than a game of chess.

Chariot-racing is another old Roman favourite. The Circus Maximus could hold a surprisingly large 150,000 spectators, roughly twice the capacity of a modern, large football stadium. A sort of Formula Horse for the Ancient World, they were pretty rough affairs with the charioteers often trying to force their rivals into the spina (the median in the track’s centre). Intriguingly, there were four teams in Rome (Red, White, Green and Blue, eventually amalgamating into just Green and Blue) which were fanatically loyal and, in the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian had what almost amounted to a civil war that threatened the emperor himself. Whilst not overtly deadly, chariot-racing could easily lead to fatalities, and the fans were perhaps just as dangerous as the races.

Tabula is, apparently, an ancestor of backgammon (I was just checking it on Wikipedia) and an enjoyable game. Unlike gladiatorial combat and chariot-racing, I have actually played it, and it does require some thinking although there’s a hefty element of luck involved as well. It’s a board game where players move their pieces around in progress from square I to XXIV. Enemy pieces can be captured by landing on that square (provided the enemy piece is alone), and pieces can only successfully leave the board once all remaining pieces are on the board. The rules indicated on Wikipedia are moderately different to the ones I played by (I used two dice rather than three), but it’s basically the same. It’s a surprisingly tactical game and it’s possible to be unable to move (if you have a single piece on square XX and the enemy has three pieces each on XXI and XXIII and XXIV and you roll a I and a III there’s no square you can land on). Pretty lengthy, two player only and a bit tactical. Lacks the probably of impending doom that the previous games have, but it is better for scheming confederates to play whilst plotting woe and terror. I think Nero had one fixed to his chariot.

There’s quite a nice dice game called Mexicana, but an ancient (approximate) equivalent is Meier, a Viking game. Meier involves throwing two dice, with certain scores being better than others. However, you are allowed to deceive the other players and claim a better score, as every sequential score must be better than the last *or* the player who throws poorly must throw more money into the pot. As all you need is two dice and a mug, or something else to cover the dice, it’s a game the meanest peasant could play.

King’s Table, or the rather ugly-sounding Hnefatafl, is a kind of Viking chess. Unlike chess, however, the two sides are not even. Only one has a King, and that player starts with his pieces in the centre and aims to have the King escape the board. The other player has four clusters of pieces, a cluster per edge, and seeks to capture the King. Of course, chess is another option, but sometimes using even legitimately ancient things in fantasy stories can seem out of place if they’re still in modern use.

I got my info about Meier and Hnefatafl from this site, where you can buy related stuff (NB I haven’t actually bought any and I’m not affiliated to the website in any way):

There’s a lot of political discord in Spain right now regarding bullfights, but until quite recently the British were also lovers of blood sports. Cockfights were tremendously popular, and as chickens are not the priciest of animals (tedious fact: chicken is the most efficient meat in terms of land usage, as well as being handy due to the eggs) even small villages could have a cockpit. Obviously this would have to be a communal game.

Last but not least: bareknuckle boxing. Somewhat oddly, this is safer than, er, gloved boxing. The fact is that boxing gloves are bloody good at protecting your own hands but don’t cushion the blows that strike your foe. Human knuckles are only so tough, and smashing them into a jawbone is a good way to bruise or break them. A nice, relatively safe form of fighting (certainly compared to gladiatorial combat) which could take place almost anywhere.


Tuesday, 11 October 2011

What price writing?

Along with all the technical stuff I need to consider once the book’s finished (ISBN, formatting, title, cover artwork etc) there is a question that’s quite tricky to answer: what price tag would be appropriate?

It’s going to be an e-book, probably 100-115,000 words in length (possibly more, certainly not less). I read an article a few weeks ago suggesting that, counter-intuitively, lower prices are better. Using my Sherlock Holmes-like sleuthing power (checking the Amazon Kindle bestsellers) I was slightly surprised to see that the advice seems sensible. Most of the top 20 are below £3 in price, and many are less than £1.

E-readers have prompted a rise in reading for many, and the purchase of books is quicker and more convenient than ever before. Authors can also benefit from a higher percentage return per book as it’s rather easier to self-publish an e-book.

A lower price would, one would hope, yield a higher number of sales. On the other hand, I would like to make some money, which pushes me towards a higher price (in relative terms; this would be something like £1.50-£2.99).

I do ultimately want to get as much as possible from writing, and whilst this will be largely down to the quality of what I’ve written the price will also play a factor. There are tons of cheap or free e-books jostling for attention and downloads, and whacking a £7.99 price tag on book 1 would probably be a good way to scare off most potential readers.

Right now I’m thinking of something like £1.99, but it’s just a pencilled-in figure at the moment. As indicated above, I’ve got quite a lot of other finickity technical thingummyjigs to consider before I get to seriously consider the vulgar matter of the price tag.

On writing the new bits: progress has slowed lately due to a minor but irksome malady. On the plus side, I had actually written more than I’d imagined (I think I guessed it was about 5,000 words but it was actually just a little under 10,000). Before fitting in the new bits I’ll read through and redraft (the Kindle is handy for this), and then do a final redraft of the whole book (partly to make sure the new bits don’t jar with what went before or feel out of place).


Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Christmas games rush

The pre-Christmas splurge of new games is almost upon us. Every year there’s a drought of good games from summer to about November and then a huge number get released all at once as game companies are renowned for Christian piety and consider their works offerings of joy to please Jesus.

Well, either that or they know gamers and relatives/friends of gamers will have money saved and a strong urge to buy lots of stuff to avoid looking like cheapskates come Jesus’ birthday. Ahem.

Aaanyway, I’ll skip over Skyrim as I’ve mentioned it literally some times before now and will be writing a proper preview in early November (it’s released on the 11th).

So, let’s imagine you have a PS3 but don’t want or have already decided to buy Skyrim. What else is there to tickle your fancy?

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception comes out on 3 November. I liked both previous instalments but opted to wait awhile and get the platinum versions. Great graphics, fun gameplay and good voice-acting previously makes this almost a dead cert good game, and will doubtlessly sell by the bucketload.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is out on the 15th. At the risk of being hunted down and pelted with rotting vegetables I’ve got to say I wasn’t a fan of Assassin’s Creed 2. It looked great and the premise seemed promising, but Renaissance parkour was never as fun as I imagined it would be. It kept reminding me of Spiderman…. 2 (I think), for the PS2, in which roaming aimlessly around the city was tremendous fun. The combat wasn’t to my taste either. However, the series is very popular and Revelations will probably sell very well.

Already released is Dark Souls, a sort-of sequel RPG to the famously difficult yet almost universally praised Demons Souls. Skimming the reviews it sounds just as hard as its illustrious predecessor and a great game for people who don’t mind that and have a large quantity of time to kill. Hmm. It’s tempting me actually, not unlike a topless siren calling the good ship Thaddeus onto the rocky shores of procrastination and gaming.

Anyway, for those wanting games either shortly or for a Christmas gift, the above should prove entertaining for most people.


Friday, 7 October 2011

What is the point of Women’s/Black/Left-handed History?

It always seems strange to me that some people, who often rail against any perceived or real segregation in the modern world, seek to do precisely that to the world of ages past.

Human history is obviously too enormous to be a single subject and has to be sliced into easier portions for consumption. Given its temporal nature, cut-off points at important moments of human history (Charlemagne’s becoming Roman emperor on Christmas Day 800AD, or the birth of Jesus, or the end of a dynasty etc) are obvious moments to begin or end a subject. Likewise, national or organisational cut-offs (religious movements, nation-states etc) make sense.

But trying to teach something like Women’s History, for example, seems slightly bonkers to me. It is true that much of the world’s history, particularly ancient history (which I prefer), is dominated by men. But that’s because that is what happened. Carving up historical episodes to suit a modern political agenda doesn’t alter what happened, and filtering history using identity politics means that especially interesting parts of history may be neglected for tedious moments because the protagonists lack the ‘right’ skin colour, gender and so forth.

I was surprised to read in Herodotus’ Histories (which, despite the odd sparkling gem, I do not recommend) about the female captain in the fleet that accompanied Xerxes, and was his particular favourite. Similarly, Edward Gibbon recalls the Empress Zenobia, who ruled the Palmyrene Empire before Aurelian defeated her. If you segregate these moments and individuals from the wider context then at best a misleading picture is painted.

Xerxes sought to complete his father’s (Darius) work and conquer Greece. To do so he amassed the largest army ever seen and a correspondingly enormous fleet. If you focus upon the female captain exclusively then you miss the big picture (and the world-changing Battle of Thermopylae).

In the 3rd century AD the Roman Empire was falling to pieces. There were multiple rival emperors to Aurelian, and it was eminently possible that the Dark Ages could have started a few centuries earlier than they did. One of these breakaway empires was the Palmyrene Empire which, for a time, was led by Zenobia. Aurelian managed to unify the empire by defeating all rivals, including Zenobia, but her story only makes sense in the wider context of a fragmented and failing Roman Empire.

Defining oneself by gender or skin colour is slightly bizarre. Should we not be judged by the content of our character rather than the colour of our skin, as a gentleman once suggested? It’s perverse to promulgate equality and neutrality when it comes to such matters in the modern world and then insist on looking at the past through a racial or sexual lens.


Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Music and Writing

I don’t always listen to music when I’m writing, but quite often I think it helps. Often I’ll go for music without lyrics (usually classical), as lines in songs can sometimes be distracting.

Anyway, I thought I’d share a couple of tracks I’ve been listening to recently. I’ve been making some decent progress writing new stuff (done around 5,000-6,000 words extra since the end of the last full redraft) and although not every daily target’s been hit I’m generally writing something at least.

First of all Für Elise, by Beethoven:

Rondo Alla Turca by Mozart:

Last, and noisiest, Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King (I rather like the Peer Gynt Suites generally):


Monday, 3 October 2011

Review: Great Battles of the Hellenistic World by Joseph Pietrykowski

This book very much does what it says on the tin, and writes up a number of Hellenistic battles, divided into chapters based upon eras (for example, Philip/Alexander and Pyrrhus). Some are very well known (Alexander’s), others less so.

Interestingly, the writer took the decision to entirely omit Hannibal’s exploits from the book. I think that this is legitimate, given he wasn’t Greek or Macedonian, and although his troops fought in roughly a phalangial order they weren’t Hellenic but a mongrel force.

The writer does a good job of putting each battle into context, setting out not only what occurred during the battle but the wider situation in which it took place and the aftermath and impact of the battle’s result.

Each battle has a number of maps which help to clearly illustrate the initial deployment, progress and conclusion of the various actions.

Looking at the various battles (which are in chronological order and cover 170 years or so) it’s possible to chart the rise and fall of the Hellenic approach to warfare (ie the use of the phalanx) as it waxes under Philip and Alexander, plateaus under the Diadochi and Pyrrhus and then declines as the example of Philip and his son is forgotten. It begins with the unification of the Hellenic world under Philip, and ends with defeats to the Romans.

However, this is not a continuous narrative and a buyer should be aware that each battle, although the context and aftermath are outlined, is detailed on its own. So, if you’re after a general history of Alexander or the Diadochi this is not the best book to get. If, on the other hand, you’re particularly looking for a book specifically about battles (and this one covers well-known and more obscure contests) or you already have general histories and want a perhaps more detailed analysis of battles, this is a good book to get.

A sort-of sequel about battles of the classical Greek world is being written by Joseph Pietrykowski, but has yet to be released.


Saturday, 1 October 2011

Doctor Who: The Wedding of River Song

Sooo, the long-awaited season finale, which explains what happened in the first seven minutes or so of episode 1, has been screened. Needless to say, spoilers lie ahead.

New Who has typically had wildly overblown and often quite bad season finales. (Yes, RTD, turning the Master into a crying nancy-boy whose ‘revenge’ is to refuse to regenerate and die [totally contrary to past history as well as being lame in its own right] is rubbish).

So, how did Moffat do with his first season finale as New Who overlord?

Bit mixed. There’s a lot to like. First and foremost, Amy Pond in a trouser suit. I also liked the marvellously bonkers imagery at the start, in particular, showing bits of time melding together (Roman chariot waiting at a red light, steam engines leaving the stock exchange and so on).

I also loved Amy, in her foxy trouser suit, taking revenge upon the creepiest midwife in the universe.

Annoyingly, there was a reasonable plot emerging but two things irritated me a bit. Firstly, two different scenarios (River Song killing and not killing the Doctor) taking place somehow ending time. Leaving aside the strange irrational plot twist, why would that end time? Why not just splinter the universe into two parallel dimensions? [Regarding the fixed point: if it’s fixed, it can’t be changed, making the ‘not killing’ bit impossible]. Secondly, a load of gobbledegook and nonsense apparently means that them kissing would reset everything and she could kill him (as she knew he was the Teselecta[sp] robot).

But why not just have that in the first place, without the nonsense in between? Moffat’s tenure has seen some great dark moments (I still think the excellent two-parter at the start of the season was the best of the series) but there are times when the season’s decided plot and reason are optional extras.

Overall, the finale was pretty good, and easily better than all (perhaps excepting the daleks versus cybermen) that have gone before.

I hope River Song does not feature anywhere near as prominently next season. Pretty pleased with the Doctor speaking of going back into the shadows. Shouty, cocky New Who Doctor is less likeable than understated Old Who Doctor.