Sunday, 30 September 2012

Nobs and Nobility

Nobles and their titles/roles are very important historically, as well as being quite useful for a fantasy writer. Of course, you don't have to borrow titles from history but the general feudal system is still pretty handy as a template if you're working in a post-ancient, pre-industrial age.

Rundown of noble ranks:


The baronet and knight are not nobles, but they are a cut above the yeomanry or peasants (a yeoman is a sort of high status peasant, so you might have a Yeoman Master of the Hounds, for example).

So, how did these roles come about and what differences, if any, are there between them?

Starting at the top, the King is an ancient position that goes back as far as mankind does. Top dog, although in a feudal (or Macedonian/Spartan, even) system they don't have absolute despotic power because the nobility have a certain level of autonomy and independence. The position is usually considered hereditary, but that need not be the case. The Golden Age Roman Emperors (kings in all but name) were appointed by their non-paternal predecessors, there was a debate after Alexander's death as to who would become king and, of course, there's the potential for revolution and revolt.

Duke and Count (there's a reason the latter's not on the list, below) both evolved during the latter Roman (and Byzantine) period as powerful military positions. The old system of proconsuls fell by the wayside and new, appointed nobility replaced it, just as the consuls and emperors were replaced by the all-powerful Byzantine basileus (king, though Byzantine emperors are still what they're usually called). Dukes are very powerful, and are not infrequently princes or even an additional title of the King.

In Britain, the Count was replaced by the Earl (an earl's wife is a countess) because of our unique and Vikingy history. Those who have enjoyed Skyrim will know that rulers of holds are called Jarls, and it is from that genuine Scandinavian word that the title Earl is derived.

A Marquis (also spelt Marquess) is below a Duke and above an Earl/Count. The principle difference to the latter is that a Marquis' territory is called a March, and is often in an area that is prone to invasion and in need for a strong and capable man who can handle military difficulties.

Viscount is simply a lower form of Count, and can also be used as a courtesy title for the heir to an Earl or Count (as happened in Bane of Souls with Vicomte Henri).

Baron is the lowest form of nobility, and was introduced to England by William the Bastard to distinguish those who had proven loyal (it's little remarked upon but the war continued after 1066 with Edgar the Aetheling actually becoming the next King of England before being crushed by William).


Tuesday, 25 September 2012

First Impressions: F1 2012 (PS3)

Yes, yes, I said wasn't going to buy this, but decided I would to tide me over until The Last Of Us. I didn't buy the 2011 game but do have 2010, and I'm a reasonably big F1 fan, so it'll be interesting to see how it stacks up.
When I do a proper review I'll make a point of trying to assess it more thoroughly, but at this stage I've done the Young Drivers' Test and several races/qualifying sessions (50% race length) in Career Mode.

The most immediately noticeable thing, aside from the game trying to persuade me that an online VIP pass code is worth redeeming, is that the graphics are bloody fantastic. 2010 had very good graphics, but these are a significant improvement. The sound also appears to have been improved to a slight degree.

Another feature I like is that during loading screens you get stats on your gameplay to date (average finishing position, highest speed, most G-force etc) which is quite cool. There's also quite a lot of statistical stuff in the My F1 section, which can be used to not only check stats and fiddle with basic options but also to change your name and nickname, and so on. Unfortunately nicknames have been reduced and I don't believe it's possible to be known as Tiberius this year.

The paddock's gone and replaced with a swish Gran Turismo style approach. It works pretty well, and I'm glad the zombie agent of 2010 has gone. Although I haven't used them there are plenty of modes, from time trials to a full blown career, and a half-sized (10 race) career-type mode called Season Challenge. There is multiplayer, but as multiplayer gaming is the work of Satan I shall not be looking into it.

Before you can do anything else you have to do the Young Driver's Test. Basically, this involves some simple 'challenges' like starting and then stopping in a certain zone. It's mostly tedious but is handy for learning about KERS and DRS. One slight omission is how to call for a pit stop. In-race experimentation has led me to conclude you cannot do it; you simply specify your next tyre choice and then turn up whenever you like (NB, it is useful to use practice to find out where the pit entry is, as opposed to guessing during the race).

A Career involves not just racing, but some nice additional touches such as a one lap walkthrough commentated upon by Anthony Davidson, and e-mails/news cuttings regarding the next race and so forth. However, there is a small mistake (I hesitate to call it a bug). In China I got pole and the fastest lap, but finished quite low down due to cocking up strategy. The game, though, indicated by e-mail and news cuttings that I'd gotten the win! My points were not affected by this so it seems to have been a pole/fastest lap confusion.

Races have been cut from 3 to 1 practice sessions and qualifying and race distances remains as per real life (race distance can be cut to 25% or 50%, and I went for the latter).

There's no lag or choppiness during racing, either when it's congested or when the track is clear. The DRS and KERS become second nature very quickly, and the DRS especially makes a qualifying lap quite different to a race lap. Entirely due to my desire to be a good reviewer, I went off the track quite a bit at Australia (first race) and my tyres became suitably green. It also meant that later on the grip level went and it's pretty clear when that happens. In Malaysia I was kicking arse (it was on Easy, I'll check proper settings later) in first by more than a minute as it rained heavily. However, my brakes became cold for the last two laps and I found myself struggling not to spin at almost every corner. Plus, my KERS temporarily broke, but got fixed about 5-10 laps later. These are very cool, realistic touches.

Obviously, I've not played it enough for a comprehensive review, but at this stage I can definitely say that I'm enjoying it a lot.


Thursday, 20 September 2012

Dragon Age 3 confirmed

After a lot of speculation Dragon Age 3 has formally been confirmed:

The subtitle, which had been one of several doing the rounds, will be Inquisition. As was very widely expected, the action will take place in Orlais, the faux French kingdom west of Kirkwall and north of Ferelden. 

As expected (and pretty much necessitated by the end of DA2) the game will feature the chantry being torn apart as mages and templars go at each other's throats and refuse to acknowledge the chantry's authority.

According to the info the game's been in production for 2 years already and is expected late in 2013. Hopefully the much longer turn around time than DA2 had will see a superior quality game. Apparently the world will be more expansive, there will be more customisation (I'd love the chance to play as a Qunari but would be surprised if that's an option) and more 'reactivity' to player choices.

Of course, we'll have to wait and see how it turns out. DA2 had some good elements (the Qunari were a rare case of retconning improving things and the voice acting remained of a high standard) but it was clearly rushed. There was little variation to areas, with the vast majority simply copy and pasted. Likewise, the story lacked a central theme or sense of direction.

I like Dragon Age, so hopefully Inquisition will be a great RPG.


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Harper Voyager Open Door

A few months ago Angry Robot ran an Open Door scheme, and it's good news that Harper Voyager are doing something similar. An Open Door programme is where a publisher enables, for a usually time-limited period, submissions of a specific genre from aspiring authors who lack agents (which are most of them as getting an agent isn't easy).
Full details can be found here:

The publisher already has a stellar array of fantasy writers including George RR Martin and Robin Hobb.

They're after pretty much any kind of 'speculative fiction', which translates to sci-fi, fantasy, horror and dystopia.

Digital submissions will be accepted from the 1st to the 14th of October.

I strongly advise those considering submitting to read the guidelines and FAQs to avoid making a schoolboy error and potentially losing out on a deal due to a technical failure.

The start of the submission window isn't far away, so if you've got a manuscript that needs dusting off and checking, you'd better get cracking.


Friday, 14 September 2012

Why Reviews Matter

Most people don't write reviews, and I can understand why. If a book, film or anything else already has a ton of reviews and you agree with the average rating it can seem pretty pointless. At the same time, writing a first review (or a second/third when you disagree entirely with the first) can be a bit tricky. After all, everyone's opinion differs and it can be quite difficult to write a good review that's objective enough to be critical when necessary without going overboard.
However, I do think that from both sides of the fence writing reviews is a good thing.

From a reader's perspective

Readers, or prospective readers, are pulled towards a book by a number of things, and these vary quite a bit from one potential reader to the next. There's the cover, of course, the summary of the plot, the sample, the overall rating and the reviews themselves.

The first of these is done by an artist, who will usually be a different person to the author. The next two are done by the author, but the advantage of the average rating and reviews is that they're written by people with no vested interest in the book. They also take less time to read than the 15,000 word (or however long it is) free sample.

So, they're more impartial and can be digested in a minute or so. This makes it easier to assess whether or not a book's worth a shot before downloading the sample (or buying it outright) and spending several hours on it.

For the individual writing a review, it can also be interesting to see whether or not one agrees or disagrees with reviews that have gone before. Was the comedy laid on too thick or was it hilarious? Was the whip-wielding dominatrix a bit of a cliché or rather thrilling? And it's fine to disagree. Books are incredibly subjective, and whilst disagreeing with someone does not make them wrong neither does it make one's own opinion invalid or dilute the value of it.

Writing a first review means you start with a blank canvas, but that's perhaps the best place to start. Review number 137 won't affect the rating much, and if a book has that many reviews already it's almost certainly sold a ton and one more review will neither help nor hinder it. But review number 1 can help. Or not, if the book is woeful and the reason nobody's reviewed it yet is because they're embarrassed about how awful it is.

From a writer's perspective

Writing is, by its very nature, a solitary pursuit. With the probable exception of the cover you don't need anyone else to be involved. Agents, publishers, editors are now optional extras, and even if you've gone down the traditional route then 99% of your time is still spent solo. The characters, plot, pacing, humour, grittiness, death count, word count and speed of progress are all down to you.

Lots of writers employ beta readers (objective people they know who can tell them X is good and Y is so appalling the author should be beaten to death with their own shoes), but this occurs during the process. Reading reviews written by others means that the author can enjoy the glowing praise of this and that, and also learn from the criticism of bits and pieces that don't quite work. As with so many things in life, praise is more delightful to receive, but criticisms often lead to the biggest improvements.

In short, reviews are useful for both potential readers and for authors, and it's a good thing to both write and read them. So, if you've read a cracking book that has no review to its name or a dire creation that should be sealed in a filing cabinet in a disused toilet with a 'Beware of the leopard' sign on the door, why not write a review?


Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Medieval History

Partly for research for the book after next and partly because I'll just enjoy reading it I'm going to buy some medieval history in the near future. It's slightly hard to decide what to go for, given there's tons of interesting, and highly rated, stuff on offer and my reading to date is pretty limited.

I think the only medieval history I've read, discounting a thin but memorable children's book about castles, is the Knight Unofficial Manual by Michael Prestwich and a Hawkwood biography by Stephen Cooper.

The aim for me is enjoyment as much as learning. I'm not going to be chained by history when writing, as one of the best parts about fantasy is the freedom it offers (not to mention Fenshire lynx and hornskins aren't actually real). However, a certain level of detail, often about the small things of life, can help make a fantasy world more credible and immersive.

Here are three recommendations I received from helpful fellows:

War in the Middle Ages, by Philippe Contamine - this is rather pricey at £28 (if I get it I'll probably use Abebooks for a second hand version, where it's less than half the price) but very highly rated.

Terry Jones' Medieval Lives - seems to be one of those books that blends fun with being surprisingly informative, not unlike the Unofficial Manuals series.

Montaillou: the Promised Land of Error, by Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie - is a book that's very well-regarded and revolves around life in a medieval village.

In addition to those books, I'm also looking at:

Life in a Medieval Village, by Frances Gies (not much point getting this and Montaillou, so I'll buy one or neither of them)

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer (like Jones, this seems to be a light-hearted read)

By Sword and Fire: Cruelty and Atrocity in Medieval Warfare: The Savage Reality of Medieval Warfare, by Sean McGlynn (actually this was also recommended to me, quite some time ago, by an author renowned for his grisly depictions of woe and agony)

A Brief History of the Hundred Years' War, by Desmond Seward

Unfortunately I have quite limited space, as well as needing to get my head down and crack on with Journey to Altmortis, so I won't be buying all of the above. There's quite a bit of cross-over between various books so I'll see if there's a happily efficient way to cover the main areas (warfare, city life and so on) without having to bend the laws of time and space to accommodate the necessary books.

I've spent a little time fleshing out earliest sketches of characters and a rudimentary plot of book 1 for the trilogy, but I'm going to do the plot of all three books before I start the first draft of book 1. Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations were extremely coherent and well-integrated as a six story series, and his approach of sorting out the entire storyline before beginning worked very well, so I shall copy it.

However, in the nearer term I've been a little distracted and need to knuckle down and make more progress with the first redraft of Altmortis. After that, I'll probably write extra scenes (some of which are needed to correct glaring errors, like forgetting to properly finish off a certain character) and make various continuity changes before seeing where things stand. The world also needs a little work to make it more immersive, and I've got a few cunning ideas of how to achieve that.  


Thursday, 6 September 2012

Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads.

In the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, there was a kind of hover-car that Luke used. Unlike an actual hovercraft it didn't have a physical air cushion and just floated above the ground. Such a thing as been the preserve of frequently re-edited science fiction… until now!

Well, nearly. The devices aren't commercially available and I imagine there are many teething problems with such an unusual type of transport but there is a working model which operates using two massive underside fans to generate lift. It's also unclear what the power source would be.

There are lots of obvious advantages to such a vehicle, if it were commercially viable. Roads would not be needed, and rivers/lakes and maybe even seas could be crossed. Unlike hovercrafts you would not need to worry about the air cushion getting punctured, and vertical ascent could even make it of use to mountain rescue (or particularly wealthy window cleaners).

However, the flying car has been something that people have been trying to build for years and years, without real success. The issues are numerous. For a start, a mid-air collision, unlike a land-based crash, involves both the incident itself and then plummeting to earth. Even if the cars are hovering rather than flying, the last thing you want after smacking into someone else is a 5' plunge to the ground (and if it's a long way you'll want a parachute). Secondly, the driving test is arguably too easy, but would you need a pilot's licence for a hovering car? It might be better, then, as a plaything for the rich and a practical tool for those whose working environment makes it worth the effort rather than as a popular vehicle to replace the car.

It does look rather more practical than one of my favourite vehicles, the bonkers but fun ekranoplan. The ekranoplan is a slightly mental creation. It's a cross between a hovercraft and an aeroplane with stub wings. It generates enough lift to raise itself off the ground (like a hovercraft without the physical cushion) but not enough to take off and fly. They're capable of moving at tremendous speeds over a flat surface (a frozen lake, for example). A Soviet-era ekranoplan (aka ground effect vehicle or GEV) hit speeds of 350mph whilst 20m above the sea.


Monday, 3 September 2012

The changing face of writing

Short stories, free-books, instant delivery, online vouchers and so on have changed the face of writing in recent years. It isn't so long ago that an eReader was science fiction (the Star Trek pad, for example). Its arrival, and the high quality screen which was vital to stop readers' eyes going weird has (coupled with the internet) revolutionised the writing industry.

For writers, and aspiring writers, this presents a great opportunity. The once nigh-on impermeable agent/publisher barrier has been removed, but at the same time this has created a new problem (namely that there's so much published getting noticed, which was hard anyway, has become even tougher).

I've got to admit that whilst I think I have a decent handle on writing the peripheral stuff (from technical things like formatting books to marketing) is not something I'm quite so comfortable with.

Here's what I've done so far:
A personal blog (this, to be precise) with occasional bits of self-plugging and little adverts for my own work.

A website dedicated to the stuff I write and am in the process of writing:

Threatening to unleash an army of genetically engineered superfish on everyone I know who doesn't buy a copy of Bane of Souls.

Now, those are all common sense, but there are a few more things to be done. One of the most obvious, biggest but most time-consuming thing a writer can do is to write book 2 (whether a stand-alone or part of a series). If readers know a writer isn't a one hit wonder they are likelier to buy his work, and it also means that if they liked book 1 you've got a ready made base of readers.

Giving away free books is something lots of people have done, and sometimes it can be pretty successful. You can also get your free book listed on certain sites dedicated to such things, which amounts to free publicity. Obviously you won't make money directly, but if people like it they may well buy your other stuff.

I'm loathe to give away an entire book for nothing, so for the first book of a forthcoming trilogy (I'll start work on it after my next book's out) I'll be giving away roughly half. It's a civil war story, so I'll be able to give away one side's perspective. Hopefully that way it'll make sense as a self-contained story whilst also enticing people to buy the proper version and see what the other side were doing.

Another intriguing possibility someone mentioned to me the other day was the short story. It never really occurred to me, but giving away short stories for free could be a pretty cool idea. The advantage over giving away full novels is that less time is consumed so there's a few weeks/months rather than years spent working for nothing, effectively.

I also haven't really made use of vouchers yet, but I plan on doing so for Altmortis. The price will be up on Bane of Souls (probably $2.99) but I plan to have vouchers for the first week that will cut that to $0.99. With the exception of this sort of thing, which rewards people who are paying attention, I really dislike fiddling with prices. It seems a bit like revisionism or retconning.

An interesting thing I read on Kindleboards (a free forum mostly used by Kindle authors) regarded the addition of India to the market. Apparently the cost of a paperback in India is just $2. Now, I don't know the cost of a Kindle in India, but I'd guess that having relatively high costs ($4.99-5.99, say) might put off those Indians in a position to buy. Hard to know just how big the Indian market is, though. There are roughly a billion people living there, but the vast majority of them won't have Kindles or similar devices.

Hmm. Maybe I should write a low-priced book about a Chinese fellow and an Indian embarking upon a series of exciting escapades. If I made 25p a sale, and made one billion sales I'd have… almost as much money as Tom Knox!