Friday, 30 December 2011

Review: First Lord’s Fury (Codex Alera 6), by Jim Butcher

The final part of the thoroughly enjoyable Codex Alera series sees Mr. Butcher tying together the various threads of the series to date. Unlike other series of similar size, it has never gotten bogged down in detail so intricate it becomes a vice, and if this sacrificed an element of complexity it did enable a clear sense of clarity and momentum to be maintained from start to finish.

As a result, the threads being tied together are pretty big. More ropes, really, than threads. Tavi returns to Alera with quite a few friends and allies as the nobility unites, for once, to face an invading force from the south. Outnumbered by a critical margin, the Alerans stage a fighting retreat as they make for the fortified Calderon Valley and Tavi tries to reach and reinforce the massive (but still woefully outnumbered) Aleran army.

There is a certain feeling of fate in the book, and (unlike previous instalments) the death toll isn’t limited to the equivalent of men wearing red Star Trek uniforms. A few surprises help to enliven the plot (which is a single, enormous war) and I like the way that the somewhat strange antagonist is portrayed. As has become customary, Tavi comes up with a few innovative ideas, one of which is quite brilliant and unexpected.

However, there was perhaps a slight lack of dramatic tension. I felt there was always a looming certainty regarding the outcome, and whilst that often happens with books there’s some leeway even then (does the hero get fatally wounded fulfilling the quest? Does his best friend die at the last hurdle? And so on). Given it’s the last one and there’s no need to retain characters for book 7 I was hoping for a slightly more murderous death toll. Perhaps I’m being picky.

A word on the Kindle edition: there are blank lines between paragraphs. Whilst it’s not a good look, this doesn’t bother me too much, but if it would irritate you then you might prefer the physical version.

In conclusion, I liked the final book of the Codex Alera. Buying it should be a no-brainer, as to get this far you’d have had to already buy five books in the series. It isn’t quite as good as the fifth (Princeps’ Fury), which is the best of the lot, but is still a decent book.

Thaddeus

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Alphas

It was the season finale last night, on 5*. Alphas takes place in a world where certain humans have undergone mutations which enable them to have certain abilities (ultra-acute senses, the ability to manipulate data without needing hardware and so on). Naturally, some of them are good, and some are evil. So, it’s a bit like X-Men or Heroes (the creator was one of the writers of X-Men 2, the best of the three films, I think).

I did miss the first episode (must admit I’m hardly an avid viewer of 5*) but saw the rest. I rather liked the series. My favourite episode was the penultimate one, which involved the non-Alpha team leader Dr. Rosen and the Alphas being accused of harbouring (unwittingly) a double agent.

It did take me a little while to get into it. The first two (well, episodes 2 and 3) didn’t grab me right away, but unlike the exercise in hopeless masochism which was the viewing of Outcasts I am glad I kept watching.

There wasn’t a single antagonist throughout the series, but there was a collective one: the terrorist Alpha organisation Red Flag. I thought that the treatment of terrorism (given the psychological aftermath of 9/11) was well-balanced, with the ‘good guys’ often in disagreement about whether hard or soft power was the way to combat terrorism and Red Flag itself portrayed as a violent but not unthinking group.

The basic formula behind Alphas is tried and tested (as above, X-Men and Heroes have done similar things) which does create a problem: how do you make powers that aren’t identical to other shows and how do you add some originality?

Alphas does a reasonably good job of not copying and pasting powers. Yes, there’s a chap who’s very strong, but if he weren’t there it would be a glaring omission. Gary, an autistic chap, and his ability to manipulate wireless communications is perhaps the most original and interesting. Generally, the power level is less than X-Men, and far less than the sometimes over the top Heroes. The series is about people (rather flawed people, as Dr. Rosen doubles as their therapist as well as boss) with powers, rather than cool powers who happen to have people attached. Sometimes the episodes were not as engaging as they could have been and some more special effects would’ve been nice.

I intend to watch the next series, assuming it gets made and filters through to freeview. I think Alphas has room for improvement but is pretty good.

Thaddeus

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Review: Princeps’ Fury (Codex Alera 5) by Jim Butcher

The penultimate entry in the Codex Alera series is also probably the best so far. The action follows a number of separate perspectives, including Tavi’s journey with the Canim to the latter’s native land and the First Lord struggling to fight yet another armed threat to his realm.

Every thread of the story is written with pace and/or tension, and there are plenty of surprising twists and turns. A little more is revealed about Tavi’s father and we see Raucus, father of Max and Crassus, for the first time.

One particularly interesting feature of the book (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the series) is the notion of power being more of a burden than a blessing. Given Mr. Butcher’s fondness for Romanesque references (legions, the Senate etc) I wonder whether he was thinking of the 3rd century, when many army leaders were proclaimed emperor (against their wishes and without their consent) by their army and had to choose to either get killed at once or fight for a prize they never wanted in the first place. Gaius, First Lord of Alera, has a similarly unhappy position, as his heir is far away and unaware of what’s happening to Alera, and numerous lords seek to usurp his throne.

We learn more about the Canim, who are always interesting to read about, and their own country, as well as being introduced to some more of Varg’s enemies. The numerous plot twists throughout leave not a moment to be bored or allow oneself to become relaxed, and one or two of the surprises are especially cunning.

I raced through the book, and thoroughly enjoyed it. If I hadn’t already done my top 10 reads of the year this would probably make it (I might add it to next year’s list).

Thaddeus

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Return of the Death Star and other ramblings

One of the blogs I enjoyed reading, http://workingatthedeathstar.blogspot.com/, went dormant recently. However, I’m glad to report that it has since erupted back to life and is now, once more, liquifying boredom in the lava of mirth.

In entirely unrelated news, here are some little tips that apparently help reduce the lag bug that afflicts some PS3 copies of Skyrim:

Turn off autosave

Try and keep 2GB or more of hard drive space free

Sometimes waiting (in-game) for a while can help

I think the above reduce the problem rather than solve it entirely.

Been making some progress with the general plot outline of the (probable) next book I’ll be writing. It’ll be more tightly focused than Bane of Souls because of its nature (a small group of people hunting down a gang of treasure-seekers who are in a remote location). After Christmas I’ll try and make some progress on finding a cover artist (assuming I ever get that reply I need), and maybe ask for Bane of Souls and Book II at the same time, to cut the delay for the second book. Of course, this will mean thinking up a title and cover image before completely finishing the text.

With luck, once I get the reply (and the cover art, obviously) it won’t take too long to get it released.

Thaddeus

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Review: Captain’s Fury (Codex Alera 4) by Jim Butcher

After a bit of a pause I decided to return to the very enjoyable Codex Alera series.

The fourth book continues the over-arching theme of the succession question, and focuses upon the war, (and potential end to it), with the Canim, who have annexed western Alera following an exodus from their native land.

The book has three main storylines, that of Tavi (who’s trying to find a peaceful end to the war), Valiar Marcus (who is busy fighting it) and Amara, who is trying to help the First Lord prevent Kalarus from committing a lunatic act of destruction.

I quite liked the book. It was as well-written as I’d come to expect, there’s more genuine progression of the series’ theme and there’s some more romance (for those who like that sort of thing. I prefer sadism and violence, which may explain why I’m single).

A few more plot twists would’ve gone down nicely. Sometimes it felt a little too predictable, although I did enjoy the ongoing mental torment of Valiar Marcus. He, more than Tavi, seems to be the real central character of the story (not unlike Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker). I also enjoyed the ending of the Amara storyline, and the scene-setting for book 5.

Mr. Butcher does well with some significant news Tavi receives, and the emotional conflict he suffers. Given he’s no longer a boy but a seasoned soldier and leader I think his reaction emotionally makes perfect sense, though he seems slightly too self-assured about its implications.

The approach of the Canim and their leader, Nasaug, to the war and Alerans fits with previous Canim behaviour. The writing of the campaign is good, as it avoids getting bogged down in petty detail yet manages to get across why some decisions are moronic, and the idiocy of a certain kind of politician.

I enjoyed it, but think a little more pace/urgency would have helped. I’ll certainly be getting book 5, though I may get something else first. I’ve been considering getting another saga (although Njal’s was something I found a bit of a slog), but was surprised to see some are more costly in eBook than physical format (which I hate).

Thaddeus

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Hiatus over (sort of)

I’m still lacking the necessary reply, so I can’t make progress with Bane of Souls just yet, but have decided to fill the gap with some world-building.

The next two projects I’m looking at are a small(ish) stand-alone book and a series about a civil war. It’s quite enjoyable to try and piece together a nation, plotting which cities go where, how the climate and people differ and so on. I had a lot of the ideas either half-formed in my head or written down concisely already, so it’s going pretty well.

The theme of human subspecies is going to continue, with some slightly more divergent examples (for the civil war series, I may use just Kuhrisch, Dennish and Felarian for the stand-alone book).

Bane of Souls occurred almost entirely in a single city, Highford, so I was able to go into quite a bit of detail, a lot of which can be used for the other two projects. It’s useful for a writer to have done some world-building before going into the first draft because it helps smooth things out, and can provide inspiration when writer’s block threatens.

One of the most helpful pages I’ve found (well, saw on Chrons) was by S. John Ross about medieval demographics. Whilst not every fantasy world is medieval, quite a few are, and even if one isn’t the principles behind what Mr. Ross wrote are useful to know.

At the bottom of Mr. Ross’ page are a few links to calculators. Sadly one of the best is now defunct (if anyone knows if Derek Bryan has relocated his calculator, please do let me know) but most of them are still active.

I’ve done quite a bit of work regarding the major cities and the differing peoples of Denland, and plan to do some of the basics regarding just how big each city and region should be. Map-making’s always fun, and I’ve done the first of those (it’s mildly amusing that my artistic talent with computer-generated maps is as bad as when I’m drawing by hand).

So, whilst I’d prefer a swift reply so I can get on with publishing Bane of Souls, I’m at least keeping busy with related work and will hopefully be able to make a running start with whatever I do next.

Not sure how often I’ll be blogging from now until the New Year, but fret not if I’m a little quiet until January.

Thaddeus

Thursday, 8 December 2011

All I want for Christmas…

…is a TARDIS. That way I could buy as many physical books as I wanted without having to rejig my shelves or throw some away. However, as TARDISes are difficult to get hold of, I’m going to have to wish for something else.

In a blend of annoyance and confusion the DVD of A Game of Thrones comes out in March. I’m baffled as to why this wasn’t released for Christmas, but shall be buying it anyway. I loved the book and am looking forward greatly to finally seeing the series.

Another DVD I’ve been pondering getting for a while is the Lord of the Rings extended edition. It’s pretty cheap (£15 or so) given it lasts for ages (admittedly, the ending alone is about 12 hours long) and has quite a few extras. I will need somewhere to put it though… I might have to delve into the shadowy shelves crammed with books bought long ago.

If you haven’t got any of the A Song of Ice and Fire series I’d advocate getting it. The first three books are all excellent, and although the fourth and fifth don’t match the high standard of the earlier instalments it’s still a fantastic series. The first book, as above, is A Game of Thrones. It’s a very gritty series, so if you’re squeamish then you should probably avoid it.

In a similar mould, but, I think, even better is The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. The characters are deliciously gruesome and the twists and turns, particularly nearer the end, are inspired. It also has one of my very favourite characters in modern fantasy.

Something that’s been nestling in my Amazon basket (I may start buying some more stuff from AbeBooks, I seem to be spending an obscene sum on Amazon of late) is Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero. As it suggests, it’s a biography of the heroic warrior-bear enlisted by the Poles in World War Two. Sounds like a cracking read, even if it is a bit modern for me.

I, Claudius is available on DVD for around £13 or so. It’s a slightly old but nevertheless excellent drama of the early Roman emperors, from Augustus to Nero. As the title suggests it’s told mostly from the perspective of Claudius, and has a stellar cast (Livia, played by Si├ón Phillips, is perhaps the pick of the bunch) telling a tale that lasts many decades. It’s worth pointing out that unlike some more recent Roman TV series there’s little in the way of sex and explicit violence, and an emphasis on the performance of the actors and the script.

Thaddeus

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Animals in ancient warfare

Animals have always been used, to a greater or lesser extent, in warfare. Even today, dogs are fantastically useful for the army and police, and horses are still used.

However, in the ancient world a variety of animals were sometimes of more combative use.


Elephants

Nothing quite matches the stature and might of an elephant. They could trample people to death, impale them upon their tusks or fling them aside with their trunks. Counter-intuitively, elephants are also very quiet creatures. This is because they lack the hooves of horses and have soft feet.

Although Hannibal is famous for crossing the Alps with elephants few of them survived, and by the time of his march through the Arnus Marshes there was but one still living.

Pyrrhus actually made far greater use of the beasts earlier in the 3rd century BC. They were a great asset for him in his battles against Rome (he had a 2-1 winning record), but cost him the battle at Beneventum (which had previously been named Maleventum and was renamed by the Romans after their victory). The elephants at Beneventum ended up going berserk and stampeded over much of Pyrrhus’ army.

After the First Punic War, I think, the Carthaginians realised the potential for this, and in the Second their riders had a mallet and big nail to hammer into the beast’s skull if it went berserk.

Seleucus is less well-known than Pyrrhus or Hannibal but perhaps made the most important use of elephants in warfare. He entered into an alliance with Chandragupta, a leading light of India at the time, and received 400 elephants or so as a present. He used these at the Battle of Ipsus and they played an instrumental role in the victory of Seleucus and his ally kings against Antigonus Monopthalmus. Horses will not charge elephants, understandably, and the 400 were used as a screen to prevent the cavalry of Demetrius Poliorcetes (including a young man called Pyrrhus) from riding back to aid his father. The defeat of Antigonus dealt a death blow to any hope of a unified Macedonian world, and the remaining kingdoms of Macedon, Thrace, Seleucia and Egypt were gradually devoured by Rome and Parthia.


Horses

They have the rather obvious advantage of being pretty fast, and were used extensively throughout ancient warfare. Intriguingly, whilst Rome always had very good infantry its cavalry was almost always dire. Alexander, on the other hand, had the excellent Companions and many other skilled horsemen, and himself rode the splendid Bucephalus.

The Parthians had two types of cavalry, both of which were brilliant. Their first was a mounted archer, skilled enough to fire a shot backwards as they galloped away. This type slaughtered the Roman army at Carrhae, after which Crassus’ career rather nosedived. The second was the cataphract, which was essentially a heavily armoured man on a heavily armoured horse. They were very difficult to stop or kill, and the greatest problem they faced may have been the hot weather.

Hannibal had excellent cavalry. The best of these were the Numidians, who were natural horsemen and had very good discipline. A huge potential problem for cavalry is the getting carried away and chasing your enemy too far, which cost Antigonus and Demetrius at Ipsus. The Numidians would shower the enemy with darts, then retreat, then attack again and so on.

I have read that horses are afraid of camels (or camelry, if you prefer). However, I have never led a cavalry charge at a caravan of camels and cannot verify this one way or the other.


Snakes

Yes, snakes. No, I’ve not been sniffing glue.

Unlike elephants or horses (or dogs) snakes are not a likely creature to use in warfare. However, Hannibal, being a genius, found a brilliant way to use them during his later and less well-known career fighting the Romans after the Second Punic War. When fighting Eumenes, an ally of Rome, in a naval battle he developed a cunning plan. He had snakes collected and placed in clay pots. During the battle the pots were hurled onto the enemy decks and the snakes emerged, much to the horror of the defending sailors.


Bears. Well, one bear

This does veer away from classical history by about two thousand years, but is so brilliant it must be shared.

In WWII some Polish soldiers had a bear fighting with them. Wojtek was an enlisted soldier, found as a cub, and had a rather distinguished war record. He discovered a quite probably terrified enemy spy in a shower block, enjoyed drinking and smoking, and could carry heavy (for his human comrades) munitions with ease. He also saw action at Monte Cassino.

Whilst I’m on a tangent, I rather like bears. They have a sense of smell better than dogs, can swim, climb trees, run very quickly, have great dexterity and strength and are very intelligent. I think Lord Byron had one at university (pet dogs were banned).

Thaddeus

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Top 10 reads of 2011

These are selected from books I’ve reviewed on this blog and have read during 2011. I’ve not included multiple entries from a single author (except for trilogies). They aren’t in any particular order, and I've linked each title to the full review I wrote previously.

History

Byzantium Trilogy by John Julius Norwich

Prior to this my knowledge of Byzantium and the Byzantine Empire was absolutely minimal, and after reading it I was staggered there had been such a gaping chasm of ignorance. Given the Empire lasted over a thousand years (and was more recent, obviously, than Republican and almost all of Imperial Rome) it’s bizarre it isn’t better known. Lord Norwich’s history is easy to read (with a minor exception early on when the family of Constans kept giving the sons almost identical names) and fascinating.


Gladiator: The Roman Fighter’s (Unofficial) Manual by Philip Matyszak

I could’ve picked any of the Unofficial Manuals (the others are Legionary and Knight, with Samurai out in February), but went for Gladiator due to the dry humour that pervades the history of the dark and glorious trade.


The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire (volumes 1-3) by Edward Gibbon

Not one for beginners, or anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of a slog at times. Gibbon’s excellent work (whilst occasionally veering off course) paints a vivid and detailed picture of Rome’s descent from the Golden Age (Nerva to Marcus Aurelius) to its final destruction.


Restorer of the World: The Emperor Aurelian by John White

In the early 3rd century Rome had become weakened by ambition and serial regicide and its virtues were diluted by luxury. However, in the latter half of the century there was a spate of fantastically talented general-emperors and of these Aurelian may claim to be the greatest. His name isn’t commonly known, but it should be, as Aurelian ranks with the likes of Trajan when it comes to ability and his biography is engaging and interesting, perhaps the best history I’ve read this year.



Fantasy/sci-fi

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

For some reason I thought I hadn’t actually reviewed this, and almost left it off the list. The Heroes, (like Best Served Cold), is a stand-alone book that takes place in the same world as The First Law Trilogy (buying this is a good idea because it’s excellent, but not necessary to make sense of The Heroes). It relates a prolonged battle between the North and the Union in grim and vivid detail, and does a great job of fleshing out the capriciousness of fate and the unpredictable nature of warfare.


The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

A little bit Marmite due to the slightly shaky start, I would urge readers to keep going. By the middle of the book the plot has become engaging, shortly thereafter it becomes enthralling, and the latter third builds to a climax like a runaway train. Bloody good book.


God-Emperor of Didcot by Toby Frost

I’ve read all of the Space Captain Smith books (to date, I’m hoping more will be written) and this one, the second, is the best. It’s packed with wry British humour and a cast of, er, creative characters such as the serial killer Suruk and the navigator, an android [who is also an escaped sex toy].


The Iron Jackal (Tales of the Ketty Jay) by Chris Wooding

The Tales of the Ketty Jay is one of my favourite series (loosely, the books are stand-alone but take place with the same crew) as it blends sarcasm and humour with credible characters and fast-moving plots. The Iron Jackal’s the third instalment so I’d advocate buying Retribution Falls and The Black Lung Captain first, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read on its own.


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

Perhaps the most surprising find of the year, as I’d never heard of Jim Butcher (which seems to have been a blind spot of almost Byzantine proportions). The Codex Alera series generally is excellent, and the first book prompted me to get the next two immediately. The plot moves swiftly, there are a number of sharp twists (some foreseeable, others not) and the fury system of magic somehow seems both innovative and old school.


The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

My last pick, and I had some difficulty selecting this over A Dance With Dragons. I love the strange world Mr. Sanderson has created and the partially mythic, partially technological approach to magic. Little details like the rain being a kind of horrid mud and coins being spheres that get recharged by storms bring the world to life, and although one or two characters seem too good to be true there are a few that are refreshingly murky.

Anyway, I hope the reviews this year have been of some interest/use, and I look forward to writing more in 2012.

Thaddeus

Friday, 2 December 2011

A weird sort of hiatus

I’ve fallen into a strange kind of No Man’s Land of writing at the moment. I do have some technical things to do regarding Bane of Souls, but before I can sink my teeth into that I need to get a reply to something.

I’d like to thank Ellis Jackson, the author of Simon and the Wardrobe of Destiny, for some help answering a few finickity queries I had about Smashwords/Amazon. His book’s a bit like Pratchett meets Narnia, and whilst the traditional elf/dwarf/human archetypes feature there’s a rather unusual take on the elves and it moves along at a fair lick. It’s mostly light-hearted, more like Space Captain Smith than the First Law Trilogy and can be bought on Smashwords and Amazon (rather obviously, as this is how he knew the answers to some questions I had).

In the meantime there’s not a huge amount I can do. Skyrim and hunting for Christmas presents (at which I am woeful) has consumed much time, though I could try and pick a favourite artist to potentially do the cover.

There are two main possibilities for me to write next: a short stand-alone adventure reusing some of the Bane of Souls cast or a trilogy (set in the same world) about a civil war. I’m leaning more towards the former, as it would be quicker to get done, and I’d sell it at a low (even for eBooks) price to help drum up interest and rapidly put out a second book (apparently a big thing people look for when considering new authors is whether they’ve got a few out or just the one).

Anyway, hopefully I’ll get a good book or two for Christmas, and there are a few books I’m thinking of buying myself. In February the Samurai Unofficial Manual comes out, and at some point they’ll release the Game of Thrones DVD (I’m baffled as to why this hasn’t happened yet). I also want to read more of Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series, and there’s The Alchemist In The Shadows by Pierre Pevel.

Thaddeus