Monday, 22 December 2014

Review: Emperor of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

Emperor of Thorns is the last instalment in The Broken Empire Trilogy. Here are my reviews of Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns.

The approach taken with Emperor is slightly different. Jorg Ancrath remains the central character and the story covers him in the present day (two years after the events in King of Thorns) as well as the past, but there is a third aspect. A certain character who has featured in both previous books gets small sections, set in the present, to herself. This does help to develop the antagonist, but I’m not sure whether it was necessary.

The secondary cast (the Brothers) seem to have a lesser role, due to both their numbers being diminished and their total absence from Jorg’s adventures in the past, which is a bit of a shame. However, we do get to see some new and interesting corners of the Broken Empire, and this also helps to flesh out the vote for the emperor near the end of the book.

The writing style, as has been the case with both prior books, is very easy to read. We continue to see the development of Jorg’s character, as well as the likes of Makin and Miana.

The story and ending did not progress quite the way I imagined they would. The premise of the present day plot is that Jorg is travelling to a planned voting ceremony, held every four years, to see if there will (finally) be an emperor agreed upon. Obviously I won’t spoil the ending, but there was less time than I’d imagined spent negotiating/arguing over the vote.

Emperor of Thorns is a good final part of a cracking trilogy, set in an intriguing world that mixes elements of both the past and future. I’ll probably try out something new in the immediate future, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for other books by Mark Lawrence.


Thaddeus

Thursday, 18 December 2014

An Interview with Jo Zebedee, author of the Abendau Trilogy

I’m delighted to say that the very talented Jo Zebedee, author of the forthcoming Abendau Trilogy, has agreed to a little interview. So, here it is:

You've got a trilogy coming out, starting with Abendau's Child. What's the premise?

Abendau is set in a stellar cluster ruled by an empress who needs a blood heir, but has been left barren after the birth of twins. The children were taken from her by their father and brought up as space nomads until a space collision killed their father and one of the twins. The surviving child, Kare, holds his mother responsible for the accident and, as an adult, joins a rebellion against her rule, incurring her considerable wrath. The story explores his defiance to her rule and what happens when she extracts a vengeance which, even if he survives, will leave a legacy of mental damage. It's very character focused, set against a classic space-opera background.


Is it set in the real universe or a fictional one?

It's completely fictional, even in terms of the stellar cluster not being identifiable. It's a big space opera world, with lots of politics, in-fighting and dynastic history. The main planet, Abendau, is a desert planet, a contrast of an ancient city and the futuristic.


Abendau's Child, the first book in your trilogy, is due out in early 2015. Any word on when books 2 and 3 will be out?

Sunset over Abendau will be out in Autumn 2015, with Abendau Falling to follow.


When writing the trilogy, did you sketch the whole plot out before starting on the first book in detail, or did you complete the plot for the first book, then work on the second and third?

I worked on each chronologically but am now working between the three books as Teresa Edgerton, my amazing editor, reviews them and I build the level of depth needed into book 3 and adjust book 2 where needed.

It has meant a bit of backwards and forward working, particularly between book two and three which are chronologically linked, whereas ten years has passed between book one and two, but as I write more the world grows bigger and that needs reflecting. By the time it's published, I think Abendau's Child will have had about 20 rewrites from its original concept.


Do you prefer to plan in extensive detail ahead of time, or adopt a more spontaneous approach to writing?

I'm totally spontaneous. At most I'll plot a couple of chapters ahead, but mostly I just write and revise later. I am totally in awe of planners, though, and wish I could be a bit more effective at it. I blame the characters, actually. They don't appear to want to do what's logical. I'm also fairly open to rewriting, which I think most pantsters have to be.


Is your approach to writing sci-fi one where you try and make the technical details as scientifically accurate/plausible as possible (hard sci-fi, if you will), or one where you're happy for technical detail to remain in the background?

I'm very much at the escapist end of sci-fi. I do have a few scientists I know who are endlessly patient when I ask questions, and some beta-readers are quick to point out when things are completely off-beam, which helps a lot. I also try to put some semblance of rationality into the world but the technical stuff is very much in the background.

As the books have a feel of fantasy running through them - psi powers are a big element as are a race of space nomads linked to each other by a psychic mesh - I think the lighter touch better matches the tone.


What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

It's a slow business and bags of patience are needed; I think you have to really love writing to maintain the interest when things are tough and slow. Write lots, as well. I do flash fiction pieces and short work between longer pieces, and that helps keep me fresh. And find some supporters - there are days when virtual cake is the only way forward and being able to cry out for it makes such a difference.

Which authors/books inspired you, either in childhood or more recently?

I read a lot of non-genre books, but most of my inspiration comes from sci-fi. Most recently, I've been reading the Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold, and I've been loving them. I like her blend of characters with sci-fi, and Abendau is very much cut from that same cloth.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I adore The Time Traveler's Wife. I love the close character writing, and how plausible Audrey Niffenegger makes the unusual.
I also adore Neil Gaiman, and Zafon, so my tastes are quite eclectic.

Further back, I love the classics of sci-fi: Heinlein, Clarke, Logan's Run, Dune, and each of these have had an influence on Abendau.


What aspect of writing do you struggle with the most?

Well, I run a small consultancy (something has to pay the bills), have two kids (and a husband) and numerous pets, so I'd have to say finding time can be a challenge. It helps that I'm a fast writer.

I also find switching off is hard. I could write all day happily but, obviously, need a break. When I wrote Abendau's Child it exploded out of me and I could think of nothing else. It was both exhilarating and exhausting. As I'm starting to do more and more writing, the need to find ways to switch off is increasingly urgent.

What's your favourite part of being a writer?

I love getting lost in the world, and forgetting any worries I might have for a while. I also enjoy the craft - I'm one of the few writers I know who adores a good rewrite.

Oddly, for such a solitary activity, I enjoy the camaraderie. I've met friends through writing from all over the world, doing all sorts of jobs, and it's fascinating. I've also made some close friends through it and, whilst most of my socialising with them is virtual (which is what I get for living in the sticks), it's a nice diversion and I get lots of giggles.



Do you plan on writing some stand-alone novels or sticking with series?
I'd love to write more in Abendau, but don't plan to write anymore about Kare - this trilogy tells enough of his story. I'd actually like to write something about the second male character, Lichio. There is a lot he hides about himself which we only come to know in the later books, and I think getting to know him better would be nice. He's also one of the most popular characters, so I think it could be fun to follow his story. And there's a second generation who are ready to blossom into
their own people.

I'm working on a number of standalones, including some fantasy which I'm enjoying, and some YA, which I love writing.

I also have several short stories out - two in an anthology, Malevolence, from Tickety-boo press and two on-line, with Kraxon magazine, and I work on shorts when the fancy takes me. I enter flash-fiction comps every month, on the sffchronicles.com and sometimes that germ of 75 words cries out for exploration.
I'm lucky to be represented by Molly Ker Hawn of the Bent Agency, who supports and guides me in the various ways my mind takes me really well.


Outside of writing, how do you like to unwind?

I do a lot of gardening. I bring on my own seeds and grow flowers and veg, and get a lot of enjoyment from that.I also love spending time with my family, and my long-suffering writing-neglected kids. We don't always go far, but shopping, ice-creams, beaches - all those sort of things appeal.

I like cooking, too, and, like most writers, I'm a pretty voracious reader. I also juggle pretty badly.


Thanks Jo, and best of luck with the Abendau Trilogy. [And consider growing radishes. Very easy, and you get two crops in a single year].

Thaddeus



Monday, 15 December 2014

How big should villages, towns and cities be?

In the modern world, a city with over a million people in it is nothing special. There are Chinese cities with more people than the whole of Portugal.

But in the medieval world, or a fantasy with a vaguely realistic approach to demographics, things were very different.

For a start, the rural population was much larger than the urban population.

Villages could be spread over a significant distance, or be a very simple small settlement which would basically have a few houses, a single street and a parish church. Around 150 people or fewer would probably live in a village, but obviously that varied. It would not be unusual for everyone to know everyone in a village.

A town was a bigger deal, and had one key attribute: the market. The market meant that traders (even if just occasional traders, such as subsistence farmers selling the surplus from a bumper crop) would travel to the town and do their business. This was advantageous all round. Traders got to earn cash, the local lords got to charge tolls to use the roads, bridges and trade within the town. Towns were the beating heart of the economy, but weren’t necessarily all that large. Several hundred people, perhaps, but that would include craftsmen that would not be found in villages. Towns could be home to thousands rather than hundreds of people (although you could argue at that point the difference between a town and city was almost academic).

Cities, in England at least, were defined as having a cathedral (and, therefore, a bishop). Economies of scale meant that cities would be richer, man-for-man, than other, smaller settlements. However, so many people crammed together almost made hygiene and crime more troublesome. Not to mention that fire could absolute devastate a city. A city might only have a couple of thousand people. Over ten thousand would be very significant in, say, the 14th century. Only a few were ever larger (Byzantium was enormous during its height, as Rome had been earlier). A city of one hundred thousand could well be the seat of a continental empire. According to Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (which I heartily recommend and review here), London had a population of just over 40,000 around this period.

I used to have links to a number of fantastic medieval demographic calculators, but sadly they seem to have become defunct.

It’s also worth pointing out that populations were more vulnerable at this point in history than today, and compared to the past (I’d rather fall sick in ancient Rome than medieval England). Disease was generally not handled well, with cures often useless at best and harmful at worst. Infection was not well understood, and in the middle of the 14th century the Black Death swept through England, killing a very significant proportion of the population (so much so that the price of things like swords declined, because so many sword-owners dropped dead, and food rose, because there were fewer peasants to work the land).

Fires, as mentioned above, could rip through medieval settlements, which often had wooden houses packed very close together. Not to mention the perpetual state of warfare that existed during the 14th century.

Nowadays the population, globally, only goes one way, but back then populations rose and fall as prosperity and advances in farm and mill equipment were balanced out by disease and war.

Thaddeus

Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: King of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

King of Thorns is the second book in The Broken Empire Trilogy (preceded by Prince and succeeded by Emperor). It’s dark fantasy, set in a medieval(ish), magical world several centuries after mankind has undergone a nuclear holocaust, which destroyed the vast majority of ancient (ie advanced) technology and reduced our race to swords and spears, castles and knights.

The protagonist is Jorg Ancrath, a complex chap who doesn’t so much have shades of grey as small variations of black. Accompanied by a few associates (some perhaps even worse than Jorg), he spends much of his time travelling what’s left of Europe, seeking knowledge, power, allies and to sate his own curiosity. The other half of the book (the story flits back and forth) is four years after that journey, when he’s defending his modest kingdom from a man they say is destined to reunite the Empire.

King of Thorns keeps all that was to like about the first book and adds to it. In addition to the interestingly grim Jorg and the intriguing setting (which has elements of both past and future), it feels better balanced and takes its time (in a good way) without ever letting the plot get bogged down. The past and present chapters fit perfectly well together, the writing style is very easy to read and conveys a strong impression with relatively few words. There’s also a nice little twist near the end, which I shan’t spoil.

I particularly like the setting. Post-apocalypse is done to death, and a world where things are back on their feet but not back where they were (almost as the 9th century or so was to Rome following the Dark Ages) is more interesting.

Downsides? Quite few, to be honest. The map is one of those which covers two pages, which means the paperback version has much of it disappear where the pages meet.

I’d strongly recommend it, but as it’s book 2 in a series, do make sure you read Prince of Thorns first. They’re dark fantasy, so if you’re more after snuggling up in bed with a fairy or two The Broken Empire may not be for you. But if you like the works of Martin, Abercrombie or Lynch you should definitely give this series a look.

Thaddeus



Thursday, 27 November 2014

Early Thoughts: Dragon Age Inquisition (PS3 version)

Dragon Age Inquisition (DAI) came out very recently for the PC, Playstations and Xboxes. I got the PS3 version. This is an early thoughts post about the first 20-30 hours of the game (it’s reportedly around 200 hours long if you do a completionist play-through, hence this post before I [possibly] put up a comprehensive review after finishing it).



Pre-game stuff

I hadn’t intended to include this section, but the PS3 version at least doesn’t have a manual. It has a tiny booklet with no in-game information whatsoever. I’m baffled by this. I’ve played both previous games so it wasn’t too much of an issue, but it’s still an inexplicable decision.

I realise this’ll interest almost nobody else, but I like it, so it’s included. The game has options for German, in both text and voice. After a playthrough or two, I’ll probably give that a go. And who said videogames weren’t educational?

At first, I thought Dragon Age Keep had failed to work, for the good reason that it had failed to work. However, to check and try again, I visited the Keep site and tried clicking to export my world state [which I did not do for my first playthrough]. This feature can be found at the bottom right corner after you click to open the right side bar. When you’ve done it, it’ll take a time stamp. Make a note of that, and then compare it to the one that appears on-screen after you try importing before character creation.

The PS3 browser has been buggy for a while, but, provided you have an internet connection, the Keep does work (I checked with a second character and the import did succeed).

The Keep is a free, online, browser-based system which allows you to recreate or change the choices made for the first two games, and then import those to DAI in order to affect the world.


Character Creation

There’s greater racial choice than before, with the horned and tall Qunari joining fantasy staples elves, dwarves and, of course, humans. Both genders are available, and there are two voices to choose from per gender (one English, one American).

The character creator does offer far more customisation options than before. Tattoos, for example, can now be practically any colour because a colour wheel rather than discrete options are how you select the hue [NB Qunari do not get tattoos, but instead get in-game warpaint instead of helmets, which they cannot wear due to having horns]. However, there is a dramatic difference in graphical quality between the PS4 version and PS3, and it’s a bigger difference than I was expecting.

Creation options are the best of the series by a long shot, but the surprisingly lacklustre graphics mean that you may well be wondering whether your Warden or Hawke (protagonists of the two preceding games) actually looked better.

The hair is a low point. It looks far too shiny, almost like plastic. This is also the case on 360 or a low end PC. If you’re playing on PC, turn the mesh textures up to maximum and it resolves the problem.

There are no scars in the PS3 version for memory reasons (according to Bioware’s Mike Laidlaw). In the PS4, Xbox One and PC versions (unsure of Xbox 360) you have a range of scars to choose from, can position them where you like and alter their shallowness/depth.

Whilst I do like Dragon Age a lot (including this game), the weaker than expected graphics were somewhat disappointing.


Crafting and Customisation

I was looking forward to this a lot. The vast majority of armours look different on differing characters and you can craft your own. Cloth, metal and leather of varying types can be combined to provide different appearances (so you can inflict the beeswax catastrophe of plaid weave on whoever you dislike) as well as unique bonuses (resistance to particular types of damage, for example).

In addition, weapons can be crafted in a similar manner, and you can create arm and/or leg armour which you then fuse to your main armour to augment it a bit more.

Crafting armour requires schematics which can be procured both as loot and bought through shops (unfortunately I don’t think you get a preview of what the armour’s like in either statistical or appearance terms).

In addition to armour and weapons, you can also make your own potions. Beyond the basic healing potion, which is topped up whenever you’re in a camp, there’s a range of others which must be made by the player. Improvements to potions and grenades are optional but can offer significant benefits (it seems, I must admit I haven’t done much potion/grenade upgrading).

Last but not least, the player’s base of operations can be customised. This is almost entirely aesthetic, so if you want to hang Qunari banners all over the place to remind your mostly human underlings who the boss is, there’ll be neither bonus nor penalty. A few upgraded areas (such as the garden) have a couple of options (chantry or herb, in this case).

NB creating a space doesn’t seem to work for naming crafted armour/weapons. However, as well as preserving spaces as part of the initial (and usually bland) default name you can, weirdly, insert one by making an apostrophe and then a space right after.


Gameplay

For the first time, a tactical view is available to all platforms. It’s the first game I’ve ever played with such a thing. At first it felt rather odd and old-fashioned, but (especially for more serious fights) I’ve grown to quite like it. There’s also the over-the-shoulder approach available, which is very similar to Dragon Age 2’s combat style.

Unlike DA2, it seems that you can no longer use all abilities, only those mapped to the eight slots available. That’s... interesting. You can alter them, of course, as you like and maybe I just missed how you do it, but that’s how it seems.

Tactical view offers the advantage of moving over an enemy to reveal not only their health and effects, but also weaknesses and immunities, so you can damage them more easily.

When speeding up time in tactical view, sometimes there’s a 2 second black screen delay. This is not a bug, it’s related to hardware limitations. It seems to happen when you aren’t already centred on the character you have selected.

There is very little healing. All characters have a shared pool (8, initially, can be increased with perks) of healing potions, which are easily replenished at camps but there’s no easily acquired healing spell. Instead, health is protected by spells such as barrier, or status effects such as guard. Enemies can also use such things (but you can destroy them with the right spell). It feels more tactical, as you send off one warrior to distract a boss whilst your other three characters wipe out the minions so you can all focus on the (by then) solitary boss. With the right spells or warrior skill you can block off a corridor, dividing enemy forces so you can take them down more easily.

Thankfully, the second wave of enemies that was very common in DA2 makes no return here.

I’ve been playing on normal, and my party hasn’t yet been wiped out. I may crank it up to Hard for a later playthrough.

Outside of combat, there’s also the base of the Inquisition. Weirdly, it feels a little bit like XCOM: Enemy Unknown (on steroids). You go out to a massive area, massacre the local bandits/wildlife, and when you return home you have more power to unlock missions and bits of dead lizard (and the horrendous plaid weave) to make new gear. After major story events, check in with your companions and advisers, who may well have new things for you to do (outside of the war table).

The war table is a big map of Orlais and Ferelden. As well as just visiting the open world areas (which you can do more easily via a world map in your menu), you can pick missions to attempt, and order your advisers (diplomatic, espionage and military) to send their agents to conduct missions of their own. These are well worth doing and yield small rewards in gold, influence, items and so forth.

The Inquisition also gains perks, as do characters (although much more slowly, at least early in the game). These vary from increasing your inventory from the small 60 (alas, no chest to store stuff forever) you start from, to opening up new dialogue options on matters religious, historical and so forth. When you recruit agents in the field (a fairly rare occurrence) these also provide a perk, reducing the time it takes agent missions (see above) to be completed.

On a more minor note, locked things are far rarer than in previous games (it feels like you could do without a rogue most of the time), and some barriers can be smashed down by a warrior or dispelled by a mage.

The user interface is functional but feels like it could be streamlined. Things are never in a weird place but it does seem that it takes a bit longer to get things done than could be the case. On the plus side none of the crafting materials takes up the finite space available in your inventory, so you can collect metal, cloth and herbs without worrying you’ll hit a limit.


Story

I can’t go into details because I’m only a certain distance in, and spoilers are the work of Satan. I do know who the major villain is and much of the background to what’s happening.

Weirdly, for a Bioware game, the story feels a little stilted after the very start. I think this is because of two things: your character doesn’t come with much background at all initially [more is revealed later], and you get thrust into the Hinterlands. The Hinterlands is one big open world area where you can spend 20 hours plus trying to do everything. My advice is to leave as soon as possible to get the story going.

After the early part of the game the story really kicks off, and the Inquisition becomes the centre of gravity which is all that stands between the world and chaos. The characters are well-written, and it’s nice to wander around your base, bumping into people you’ve recruited and people who’ve just shown up (tip: chatting to them can provide new quest opportunities).

I can’t properly assess this until I’ve completed the whole game, of course. Slightly slow at the start, but currently feels very promising.


Graphics

This is why I don’t like giving scores.

I’m not someone too fussed by graphics. For others, they matter a lot. The graphics in DAI are generally poor. The hair looks plastic, textures often take a while to load, the facial hair [stubble more than shiny beards] looks poor and so on. The moustache of one characters was so bad it was almost amusing (not Dorian’s, I hasten to add). It is worth mentioning that the clothing can look really rather nice, and even has a good ‘wet’ look (a bit like Dragon’s Dogma, but the dry/wet difference is determined by location rather than as a combat effect).

If you’ve got a low end PC or ‘last-gen’ console but plan on upgrading in the near future you may well prefer to wait. The graphics are disappointing, and sometimes to an extreme degree. The first vitar (facepaint) I found for my Qunari mage looked pretty good (some basic white stripes). A later one (almost full-face yellow) was so bad I swapped back.

However, for me the graphics are a secondary issue. So, this area of weakness is not a deal-breaker, from my perspective.


Sound

The music is good, and in places very good indeed. As always, voice-acting varies a bit but the general quality is very good. It’s also weird, but nice, to hear Cullen as commander of the Inquisition’s army, after we’ve seen him progress from nervous Templar, to Knight-Captain in the last game.

Assessing the Inquisitor is very hard because there are four voice actors (two per gender, one English, one American) and I’ve only heard a lot from one (Alix Wilton Regan, English female voice). Very good so far, but I want to try the others as well.

The effects could perhaps be a little better. They’re not bad, but also haven’t made a huge impression.


Bugs and other issues

In a game this massive, there will be some bugs. Worth emphasising that they’re often platform-specific. Anyway, here are the ones I encountered on the PS3 version.

Sometimes there’s a very faint (probably one pixel-thin) horizontal black line halfway up the screen. In dark settings, it’s hard to see, in snowy surroundings it stands out.

Not a bug, but the loading times can be a little long.

Sometimes, going into/out of tactical view can mean lots of sounds cease to be heard. This can be rectified by leaving the area. Whilst this has happened very rarely to me, it’s still irksome.

X means both jump and loot (and light fires, where applicable). Once I tried lighting a fire, was too far away, and ended up lighting it in mid-air, which then had my character hovering (halfway through a jump animation). I could still move around, and looting resolved the comedy problem.

To date I’ve suffered two freezes. The first was a ‘regular’ freeze (no warning about potential corruption of the system on restart), and upon reloading the last save the issue did not recur (although I did skip through the preceding cut-scene). Whilst this isn’t great, freezes do often happen now and then with massive RPGs (cf Skyrim, Dragon Age: Origins etc).

The second occurred during a cut-scene immediately after I’d saved (the save icon was still up). I waited a little while in case the save was still being processed, and afterwards did get the potential corruption warning, though all was fine.


Conclusion

It took me some time to sink my teeth into Inquisition. I think the early visit to the Hinterlands coupled with the lack of information about your character was something of a mistake. However, once the story kicks into gear it really seems to take off. As well as the companions and advisers, I like the secondary cast that join the Inquisition.

Apart from the freezes, the bugs are all minor but the little delays can make it feel like a good book where every page takes five seconds to load. Not a major problem but it does take the shine off a little.

At this stage, I’d give it 8/10. It should’ve been a point higher, but the loading times and numerous small bugs do stack up.

Thaddeus



Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Review: Wyrd Worlds II, by various authors

Wyrd Worlds II is a speculative fiction anthology of short stories from a variety of authors (one or two have two bites of the cherry). It was the November Book of the Month at the Indie Book Club on Goodreads.

The stories include contemporary real-world stuff as well as stories that occur in entirely fictional worlds/universes. There’s a very significant degree of variance in how long the stories are (the first, one of the best, is a full 15% of the book, which did surprise me a little).

As might be expected with an anthology including stories of greatly varying length, style and genre [all speculative but there’s a wide range] it’s somewhat similar to a sketch show, in that it’s inherently hit-and-miss.

I’ve read stuff by a couple of the authors before, and, discounting them for that reason, there were a few stories that have flagged up potential new writers to check out once my current mountain of books has been devoured. The first and last stories are both very good, and I enjoyed the tale of a father and his ill son, as well as a time-travelling tale [I’m being deliberately vague, because all the stories are short so even a brief description of the plot might give away too much].

However, quality is variable. A couple of the stories were not my cup of tea (often, but not always, because YA isn’t my type of genre). The very wide range of story size could be a little off-putting, as I’m one of those people who frequently reads chapter-by-chapter (or story-by-story in this case) and the stories ranged from very short to pretty substantial.

The price is delightful: it’s free.

It’s quite a clever idea for independent/self-published authors to band together and release a free e-book of short stories. Even if some of them aren’t to your taste, it costs nothing and if you find even one writer whose style you like, it helps them and provides you with another good author to enjoy.

Wyrd Worlds II has its peaks and troughs, but I think it’s worth checking out. Leaving aside the wallet-pleasing price tag, there’s a wide variety of styles, genres within the speculative fiction range, and story length, so you’ll probably find something to pique your interest.

Thaddeus


Saturday, 15 November 2014

Review: The Silmarillion, by JRR Tolkien

I first read the Silmarillion over a decade ago, and just finished it for the second time. Unlike The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (which are set in the Third Age), The Silmarillion is mostly set in the First Age, and is more about elves than men. The version I had also includes (as well as the precursor bits) the Akabelleth [a 30 page or so summary of the Second Age] and a similarly concise retelling of the Rings of Power.

It’s the highest of high fantasy, telling the creation of the world from before its birth, through to its early days when the gods were fiddling with it by themselves, and then (the lion’s share of the text) telling the tale of the elves. To be honest, I like it a lot more than The Lord of the Rings. Although the span of time it covers is enormous, there isn’t much wasted space. Instead of endless detail, time is devoted to interesting escapades (Beren’s adventures, for example) without the excessive padding that, for me at least, makes The Lord of the Rings a little too fat.

The Silmarillion is a great book of world-building (in both the literal and story-telling sense), covering Arda from before its creation to the final events that are described in greater detail in The Lord of the Rings. A potential downside is that, after the initial part, it can be damned tricky remembering just who certain elves (and, later, men) are, and how they’re related to one another. Elves being immortal makes this more difficult than it would otherwise be.

Because the author doesn’t dwell needlessly on less interesting events, the pace is good despite the enormous scale of time involved. It is not essential reading for The Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit, but it does help fill in some background knowledge and is interesting in its own right.

I’d strongly advocate checking a sample, however. The writing is substantially different to other works, and I suspect some people would loathe it.

Thaddeus



Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Preview: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition comes out in ten days in the UK (seven days for the US, nine days for the EU outside the UK), so now seemed the right time for a proper preview (regulars will know I’ve posted quite a bit about this game already but we’re at the maximum level of pre-game knowledge now). It comes out for the PC, Playstations and Xboxes. Naturally the PC and current-gen consoles have better graphics, but in terms of gameplay and content all platforms have the same offering. If you have an Xbox (not sure if it's only One or 360 as well) you can get early access in a couple of days via the EA subscription service.

I’m going to adopt a minimal spoiler approach. There will be some relating to how gameplay works, very basic details (some of which have been known about for over a year) regarding the plot/companions, but I will do my best to keep spoilers to a bare minimum. So, if you’re deliberately starving yourself of info to avoid the venom of spoilers poisoning the delicious cake of Inquisition, this should be the preview for you. It’s pretty lengthy, I should warn you.


Dragon Age Keep

This is either very good news, if you’re connected to the internet, or very annoying news. The Keep (which you need an Origin account to access) is an online, browser-based feature which basically allows you to customise the choices that were made during Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 and DLC (you do not need to have played any of that to make the choices). These will then have an impact on Inquisition, and your world state will be imported during character creation. The upside is that if you’re shifting consoles (or going to/from PC) you can recreate or amend past decisions without playing through whole games, and that if you’re new you can easily get to grips with the backstory (each decision is concisely explained). The downside is that you cannot import saves directly and that if you lack online connectivity to your console then you cannot alter the world state from the default. I think it’s a shame there isn’t a basic Keep for major decisions on-disc. If you’re online, this should be fine, if you’re not, it’s a bit disappointing [NB I know it’s not encouraging to start on a downer, but I should stress this is about the most negative view I have of the game].

The Keep is now in Open Beta, so you can access it but it isn’t quite finished. I strongly advise getting this sorted ahead of time so that you can just import your finished world state on the day.


Character creation

Character creation is more in-depth and has more options than any previous Dragon Age game. There are four race choices (dwarf, elf, human, Qunari), both genders and two voice options per gender (one English, one American [you can test them during character creation to see which you like]).

There are the usual options you’d expect, but many features (eye colours for inner/outer iris, tattoo colour, makeup colours) use a colour wheel which effectively means you can pick any colour on the spectrum. For the first time, scar intensity and location can be altered.

Certain features (ears, noses) can be altered using not only presets and sliders, but also a grid system which gives great versatility when it comes to how wide/pinned back ears are, and so forth.

Female dwarves can have beards, although it’s fuzz rather than full-blown man-beards. Adam’s apple size can also be altered, for both genders, and male characters have full access to makeup. Qunari horns can be varied considerably, though there are fewer hornless/hairstyle options, and hair colour is more limited in range than for other races.

As with previous games, classes are only limited in that dwarves cannot be mages for lore reasons. If you choose rogue or warrior then you also choose archer/dual-wielding daggers and sword & shield/two-handed weapons respectively but this does not lock you into that play style (you cannot change class in-game but you can shift from dual daggers to archer, for example).

I’ve seen a few videos of character creation and, to be honest, it looks tremendous. The lighting has been designed to be neutral, giving a good indication of your appearance (usually a problem with character creators), and it’s worth noting there is no capacity, at launch, to alter your face once you’re in-game.


Crafting/customisation

A significant complaint about Dragon Age 2 was the lack of capacity for customising companions (almost none, in fact). This has been very, very dramatically improved upon for Inquisition.

For a start, you can actually change their armour. I know this is Videogames 101, but you couldn’t in DA2.

Even better (and quite surprisingly because it must’ve taken a huge amount of time) almost every piece of armour changes shape to suit the style of the individual on whom it is equipped. I think a few stay the same on whoever wears them, but the vast majority will change. So, a robe on an Inquisitor will look very different than it would on the mage companions.

For the first time, we can craft our own armour and weapons. Better still, using varying materials (whether metal, stone or cloth) will alter both the appearance and the stats of armour and weaponry. Multiple colours of each armour can be changed this way (NB you do need to acquire schematics to do this), and it suggests a very high degree of crafting customisation.

In addition, the home base of the Inquisition can be customised in both stylistic terms with decoration, and in terms of more practical advantage (for example, making a garden in which you can plant herbs to grow more).

Potions and the like can also be crafted and customised, so the infamous Jar of Bees can be improved by adding wasps.

The crafting looks very good.


Gameplay

This is one of the hardest things to assess without actually playing, so I’ll summarise what we know factually and then try and surmise how well, or badly, it’ll work.

Combat will be fairly fast-paced, but the tactical camera will return and be available on all platforms this time (for those unaware this will enable the player to pause combat, issue orders and then either end the pause or run time forward a little and issue more orders).

There is very little magical healing [reports of there being none are false, but it is rarer and more difficult than past games, and there is no ‘healer’ set of spells]. Potion healing (with a limited number that can be increased via perks and the like) does come back. Health regeneration out of combat is strictly limited based on difficulty. There are various ways to increase health through perks or to diminish damage likewise (a barrier spell, for example, makes a barrier that takes damage instead of health so long as it lasts).

A character who runs out of health in combat can be revived by a spell or by a nearby character, provided the reviver is not attacked for a little while.

Spells seem to offer more tactical options (for example, you can make a wall of ice which could close off a corridor) than past games.

There will not be second waves of enemies all the damned time (as in Dragon Age 2) but this might happen very occasionally.

Combat can often be a weak spot in RPGs (except for Dragon’s Dogma, which somehow managed to be an RPG with fantastic combat and somewhat rubbish world-building/story). My guess at this stage is that it’ll work pretty well, without being trouser-explodingly good.


Is it open world?

Jein. There are specific areas (forested, desert, mountains etc) but these are very large (many are larger than all of Origins) and I believe there are well over 20. Within these areas there’s lots of scope to explore, so much so steeds were introduced so you could get around more quickly (fast travel is possible within areas).

Reports from journalists who’ve played the game suggest a total size comparable to Skyrim, and possibly even bigger.

So, it’s not a true open world, but there is a very large world and plenty of room to go off the beaten track. One thing Mike Laidlaw, Beardmaster of Bioware, said was that he wanted every area to have at least one location that wasn’t part of any quest and that was just there to be found by exploring.


How the Inquisition works

The Inquisition will almost be a character in itself. It will gain power as you progress through the main and side-quests, enabling you gain perks. In addition, the choices you make will have a lasting impact (choosing between rival sides in a war, for example). You will also be able to send agents out on missions independently of what you and your companions do. So, it’ll be more than the Grey Wardens were in Origins. If you played Awakening, it sounds like a much more developed version of how that worked.

As you conquer areas you can ally or destroy certain groups, and the forts you take can be dedicated to trade, espionage or military might.

The Inquisitor will be able to make judgements about certain individuals, with a wide range of options over the course of the game (I’d guess only a couple per individual).


Very basic story outline

The world is embroiled in war and attacked by demons, and to quell the turmoil the Inquisition is formed. It is not loyal to a nation or religion, but is a law unto itself and seeks to impose order. This can be done through nice or ruthless means, and whilst there isn’t a ‘full evil’ option (after all, you’re there to save the world, not end it) it seems you’ll have a pretty wide range of options from pragmatic brutality to peace-making compromise.

That’s based on many things I’ve seen and read ahead of the game’s release, but that’ll only be proven (or disproven) with the game itself.

Once the main story is complete, unlike all previous instalments, the game will not end. Instead, you will be able to keep playing. There is no New Game Plus option.


Characters

The Inquisition is not a one man band. In addition to the Inquisitor (the player-character) there are nine companions (three each of warrior, rogue and mage) and three advisers who advocate diplomatic, espionage and military means to resolve problems.

Several characters return (Varric, Cassandra, Leliana, Cullen amongst others) and others may or may not based upon the choices you make in the Keep. There’s a large number of romance options (I think at least four regardless of gender/race, with more possible for certain combinations). Those characters interested in amorous relations have a set sexuality (gay, straight, bi) unlike Dragon Age 2, where anyone would shag Hawke given the chance.


Longevity and review plans

Given it’s been described by many developers and journalists as a massive game (I’ve heard 30-40 hours, or more, for the main storyline and 150-200+ hours for all the things in the world) I won’t wait until I’ve finished my first playthrough to do an initial review. As I’ve done for other games (such as Skyrim) I’ll do an Early Thoughts review, indicating my view based on the first few days or so. Once I’ve completed my first playthrough I’ll do a more comprehensive review (not sure whether I’ll go straight arrow through the storyline or dilly-dally picking mushrooms, so it could be over a month before I finish it).

Anyway, that’s my preview. A week to go if you’re in the US, and a few days more if you’re in the UK or other bits of the EU.

Thaddeus






Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Why BCE/CE is nonsense, and why it matters.

I was recently eyeing up a history book (as a future purchase probably next year) when I saw in the sample it used BCE. After a little thought I decided to not bother with it on that basis.

BCE and CE are politically correct revisionist terms, standing for Before Common Era and Common Era. They correspond directly to BC and AD (Before Christ and Anno Domini, which means The Year Of Our Lord). So, 97BC is 97BCE and 1456AD is 1456CE.

It’s an abjectly pointless change. Who has asked for it? Jews, Muslims, the Chinese and others all have their own calendars. Nobody has asked for those to change or taken some sort of offence, and I don’t think anyone has for the Christian calendar either.

The ‘Common Era’ did not begin by a group of people sitting around a campfire singing folk songs and holding hands. It’s dated from the approximate birth of Jesus. Attempting to airbrush this out of the calendar is a nonsense.

It’s also very depressing that a historian would diminish respect for the past by imposing an unasked for and unnecessary revision based on a politically correct worldview.

This video (nothing to do with me, I hasten to add) sums it up rather well. I saw it a week or two before the history.


Amending history as new evidence comes to light due to scientific and archaeological advancement is shining light on the darkness of our past. Imposing politically correct dogma on the past veils the truth with nebulous nonsense. The Western calendar is dated from the approximate birth of Jesus. Pretending otherwise is derisory, and historians should know better.

Thaddeus



Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Review: The Honor of the Queen, by David Weber

This is the second Honor Harrington book. Like the first, On Basilisk Station, it’s currently available for free as an e-book, which is wallet-pleasing.

I generally liked the first book. In certain aspects it was very good but it did sometimes info-dump a bit.

The second retains all the virtues of the first and diminishes or eliminates the flaws. The author is very good at creating tension and prolonged space battles, the longevity of which serves to heighten the sense of danger.

It’s even oddly topical, with the choice of religious lunacy as an antagonistic force.

Honor Harrington (HH), freshly promoted after the previous book’s doings, is the military lead on a Manticoran military-diplomatic taskforce to Grayson, a potential new ally. The downside is that they’re very conservative religious sorts who don’t think a woman capable of being a soldier and her being the military chief could make signing a treaty difficult. However, they are keen on allegiance with Manticore, due to the threat posed by Masada, a nearby planet crammed full of religious lunatics, who are also potential friends for the People’s Republic of Haven, Manticore’s cold war style enemy.

The plot is simple in broad scope but complex in detail, so I won’t go into it too deeply. It’s very well-conceived, as HH and the diplomats try and forge an alliance with a world that has a drastically different view of society. Meanwhile, Masada and Haven seek to destroy any prospect for such a partnership.

Whilst there’s a good amount of backstory, it feels naturally presented. The author also doesn’t fall into the trap of making the religious conservatives or extremists into two-dimensional caricatures or scarcely credible idiots.

The pace of the plot is well-balanced: slow tension mixed with bouts of frantic action, and leavened with just the right amount of ambiguity and uncertainty.

I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the previous book, but it would help give a little bit more background to the general universe (or Honorverse) as well as specific characters. Mind you, as both this and the first book are free, there’s little reason not to get them.

So, I would recommend this if you’re into sci-fi, and even if you’re not I would suggest giving it a look. Found it very entertaining myself, particularly the latter half, and it’s well worth a look.

Thaddeus




Monday, 13 October 2014

Malevolence: Tales from Beyond the Veil

Good news!

Malevolence: Tales from Beyond the Veil, comes out in less than a week.

Malevolence is an anthology of ghost stories featuring tales written by over 20 authors, including excellent sorts such as Jo Zebedee, Teresa Edgerton and Toby Frost, amongst others.

It will also include the short story ‘Saxon & Khan’, written by me (Thaddeus White). It’s my first traditionally published story, so it’s quite a nice milestone. Unusually for me, it’s set in the modern day real world, which was an odd place to write a story.

I’m not familiar with every author, but I’ve read (or sometimes beta-read) stuff from several of them and can attest to the quality of many of the writers.

There’s still time to pre-order a cut-price version here: http://shop.ticketyboopress.co.uk/index.php?id_product=1&controller=product



And there’s to be a signed edition, released a little bit later. They’re limited in number, so if you’re interested best to snap them up now: http://shop.ticketyboopress.co.uk/index.php?id_product=29&controller=product

I’ve got short stories in the pipeline (submitted but not yet accepted or rejected) for several other anthologies. Hopefully one or more of those will come out next year, and I’m also working on Kingdom Asunder.

In the meantime, enjoy Saxon & Khan's paranormal escapade.

Thaddeus




Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Cruelty and Clemency

Grimdark, as the grimmer and darker sort of fantasy currently very much in fashion has been dubbed, can often have lots of horrid things within. Rape, murder, torture, pain, woe and anguish abound.

Human history (and, sadly, the human present in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere) reveals that mankind has a quite remarkable capacity for inflicting tremendous pain upon itself. At the same time, it’s worth recalling even despicable groups can have a good member (Schindler for the Nazis, for example). Brutes can occasionally show clemency, just as kind men can sometimes erupt with rage.

The strength of the rule of law is critical to considering widespread levels of violence. The Romans were not exactly soft on crime, but the Roman legal system was pretty advanced for its time. Stability and low crime rates were important for the Empire, because stability made people feel more confident, happier to trade and spend, and less likely to hoard money ‘just in case’ something terrible happened. The economy worked well, everyone had a stake in peace, and those who tried to rebel got crushed by the Roman army. For a long time Roman authority was strong, and this worked.

But when the Western Empire collapsed, power ended up being devolved to such small levels that there was barely even the pretence of law and order. Brutality replaced civility, as proven by charming games such as nailing a cat to a tree and headbutting it to death. (I am, sadly, not making that up. The excellent By Sword And Fire, by Sean McGlynn, is really worth buying for a good look at cruelty and clemency in the medieval world, particularly warfare).

Lots of what went on in the medieval era was pretty brutal, and we would consider a leader who commanded such things (including the massacre of prisoners who surrendered on condition they be allowed to live) war crimes. But today’s tyrant was yesterday’s hero. People in villages, towns and cities welcomed a strong ruler. There was no police force, so when criminals were caught harsh measures were approved of and often reassured the people. In war, there was a conflict between brutality and mercy.

The Black Prince had a fearsome reputation, and he deserved it. But this cut both ways. People would often not surrender to him, simply because they preferred to fight (and perhaps die) to entrusting themselves to his care. By contrast, Henry V adopted a milder approach when he conquered much of France in the 15th century.

However, a reputation for being meek and weak could lead to problems. If every surrender is accepted then what penalty would there be (for example) for those rebelling against their lawful king? In the medieval era the lion’s share of a king’s duty was to be the chief warrior of the realm. His position depended upon being strong and being perceived to be strong, and a show of weakness could prompt rebellion, with ambitious rivals taking a tilt at the crown.

Not to mention the fact that if enemies were left alive to fight another day, they might be victorious next time, and not return the merciful favour.

It’s easy to look back and consider the medieval era to be thoroughly uncivilised and savage, but there were rational causes behind the cruelty sometimes enacted. In the same way, a surprising degree of mercy could sometimes be shown. It’s hard for us, with long-term nation-states, international law and well-established domestic justice systems, to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who lived almost a thousand years ago. Back then there was no police force, practically no disease could be cured by medicine and countries (most notably England and France) were just beginning to centralise power and impose order.

Thaddeus




Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The 100: first season review

The 100 is a new TV series that just finished airing (in the UK). It’s a sci-fi set a century or so after a nuclear war devastated the world, and charts the efforts of the few people left trying to return because their space station is beyond saving.

The first people sent (one hundred) are criminals. Because of the lack of resources all crimes are capital, but juvenile offenders are incarcerated until they reach the age of majority, when they get the special birthday present of a spacewalk without a spacesuit. The 100 are sent to see whether radiation has died down enough for the Earth to be survived.

I’ve got to admit, whilst liking the premise, I was going to give up on this roughly a third of the way in. A fellow from the internet, who had seen the whole series, suggested I reconsider, so I gave it another shot.

I enjoyed the latter half more than the first (bit like Supermodels of SHIELD. The 100 have also outlawed ugly women). There’s a nice diarchy situation going on, with two characters (Clarke and Bellamy) effectively leading the juvenile criminals. Clarke being more conciliatory and Bellamy more authoritarian/militaristic, though both have a certain pragmatism.

Early on, I felt that the episodes were sometimes not very engaging, and that the main storyline was taking a while to unfold. Later episodes did a better job of mingling the central storyline with each individual episode’s plot [I won’t go into detail for fear of spoilers]. Still room to improve, but it was entertaining.

The action on the Ark (the space station, where the parents and other adults still dwell) was usually interesting as a power struggle took hold as resources dwindled to almost nothing, and efforts to reach the ground hit a snag or two.

The finale of the season worked very well, I thought. Can’t go into detail, obviously, but it had been built up nicely and left some questions hanging for the second season.

I still don’t see why enforced American accents were the order of the day, though. The protagonist, Eliza Taylor (as Clarke), has a perfect American accent but what’s wrong with her native Aussie? Did those space fascists ban non-US accents as well as ugly women?

Pace, in the first half, could’ve and should’ve been faster.

On the plus side, there are some genuinely surprising plot twists, perhaps the most notable coming fairly early on.

I hope the second season builds on the first and the show continues to improve. I’ll be watching it.

Thaddeus





Thursday, 25 September 2014

How long should a war last?

Wars are pretty commonplace in fantasy, for obvious reasons. They’re exciting, give a good reason to kill off lots of characters (creating danger, drama and tension) and are a perfect setting for heroism and the most vile villainy.

But how long should a war last?

There are several factors to consider. The difference in army size and skill (including any warmages present). The geography of the land (and whether navies matter). Whether any fantastical or geological factors are at play (volcanoes, firestorms, flying monkey attacks, etc). The competence of the rulers and generals involved. Is the technological advantage with besiegers or the besieged? And, last but not least, the nature of the constitution and peoples on either side.

History furnishes us with many examples. The Hundred Years’ War lasted quite a while. In fact, so long that the nature of warfare changed during its course. In the earlier period chevauchees (massive raids to seize booty and burn property) were commonplace, with the Black Prince carrying out many. The purpose was to show the French citizens that the French king was incapable of protecting them, and the cause was partly because it was hard to take a walled settlement by storm. Later on, the development of siege engines made it easier to conquer cities (during Henry V’s time). This also meant that the English policy changed, and instead of terrifying French peasants Henry V ordered that all civility and decency should be shown to them.

The Second Punic War would’ve had a different ending and been much briefer if the Romans had not been at the height of their pathological patriotism. When Hannibal’s victory at Cannae obliterated a Roman army four times the size of a normal full consular army, just about every other country in the world would’ve, quite reasonably, sought terms. The Romans, on the other hand, sold the land Hannibal’s army was camped upon for full market value and then carried on. [The Roman politico-military setup helped enormously as it enabled more armies to be raised despite the enormous loss of manpower]. In later centuries, Roman virtue was enervated by luxury, and they repeatedly surrendered to far weaker opponents.

In the opposite moral direction, in the same war, Carthage surrendered pretty quickly after Hannibal suffered his only defeat, at Zama. But decades later, during the Third Punic War, the city (whose territory was by then not an empire but Carthage alone) showed far more backbone and vigour when provoked by outrageous Roman demands into war. Yes, Rome won, but it took several years for a massive empire to subjugate a single city with very few resources.

Deus ex machina is generally frowned upon (and rightly so), but a real life equivalent happened around 1400. Ottoman forces were poised to conquer Byzantium, and would likely have succeeded, but Tamerlane (think Genghis Khan but a little later) and his massive army rolled into Anatolia, obliterated the whole Ottoman army and reduced the Sultan, quite literally, to a footstool [Tamerlane used him to stand on when mounting his horse]. Byzantium survived for another half century, due to this massive stroke of luck.

Brilliant generals can also play a significant role. Alexander the Great is the most obvious. He was personally heroic but also tactically and strategically astute. An underestimated advantage he enjoyed was that his father was probably just as good, and did all the hard work reforming the Macedonian army and transforming it into the most formidable military machine in the world. In addition, he enjoyed a significant number of highly talented subordinates, such as Craterus, Parmenio and Antipater. This allowed him greater flexibility, as he could comfortably leave Macedonia behind in safe hands (Antipater) and deploy forces under a competent general (Craterus) without worrying they’d either rebel or fail.

It’s also worth mentioning that battles are pretty rare in history (far more time is spent marching about). I do think this is an area where it’s legitimate to be a bit unrealistic on purpose when writing. Pre-gunpowder warfare often involved walking up to several hundred or thousand men and trying to stab them to death. Understandably, the men were not keen on this if it could be avoided, and leaders were wary of either outright defeat or losing so many men the victory proved Pyrrhic.

Not only that, but keeping a large army together required significant logistical foresight (if only for the food and water), and always ran the risk of disease breaking out.

Campaigns sometimes did happen over winter, but it’s more difficult to get food at that time of year, and to dig (fortifications, for example), so it often meant a pause in hostilities.

There’s also the difference between a war of conquest and a war of glory. Rome fought to permanently acquire new territory. In Ancient Greece, it was often the case that a single battle was fought and the victor would acquire beneficial terms from the loser, but neither city-state was at risk of extinction (as happened to Corinth when the Romans crushed them in the 2nd century BC). A war of conquest will be more bitter and hard fought, because people will fight the harder for their survival. If surrender is a viable option, it can weaken the resolve.

From a writing perspective, a war that lasts as long as The Hundred Years’ War would probably be the work of either a Silmarillion-like approach, or a mega-series (Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire etc). For a normal single volume or trilogy, a couple of years would seem a better prospect.

Thaddeus