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.


Thursday, 18 September 2014

Review: Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Thorns is the first of three books in The Broken Empire trilogy.

The story is set in the very distant future, after a nuclear apocalypse has brought about a second dark age, and as mankind is still struggling to escape a second bout of feudalism. Technology has regressed to a more or less medieval state, and an awful lot of knowledge has been lost.

Power is splintered as a hundred petty lords battle for the imperial throne. Jorg is the eldest son of a king. At nine years of age he survives an assassination attempt by one of his father’s enemies which kills his mother and brother. Shortly thereafter he flees the relative safety of his father’s castle and takes up with a band of criminal scum. It’s there that we first encounter him.

The story centres firmly on Jorg, as he chooses to finally return home (at the grand old age of fourteen) and is given a nigh on impossible task by his father. The prince is a ruthless, black-hearted youth, and his father is perhaps even harder. There’s an almost, but not quite, unremittingly dark tone to the book. Jorg kills people in large number and has no qualms about inflicting pain or fighting dirty. He does, however, have a quick wit, a fondness (though he tries not to) for a few of his ruffian underlings and is occasionally lost as a teenager can be.

The secondary cast are not fleshed out too much as Jorg takes front and centre stage. Several are given a bit more depth, particularly Makin and Rike, and this approach works well. The ‘brothers’ do come across as a rough company of scum but the spotlight is firmly on Jorg.

The setting is immensely likeable. I prefer fantasy to sci-fi, and although there are very occasional snippets of what could be called sci-fi the world is definitely fantasy. There’s a strong echo of the collapse of Western civilisation when the Western Roman Empire disintegrated and the ensuing Dark Ages began, and I rather like that.

Prince of Thorns is written in the first person, and the writing style is very easy to read. Chapters are (mostly) nice and brief, and I often found myself reading rather more than I had planned.

That’s not to say the book is perfect. A case could be made for a bit more development of secondary characters, and the latter part of the first third felt a bit slow. However, overall I enjoyed Prince of Thorns. The pace is generally good and was particularly fast at the end, Jorg does a good job of being engaging despite being pretty rotten and the setting is fascinating.

I will be buying King of Thorns, the sequel, at some point.


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Dragon Age Keep is an online feature

Dragon Age Inquisition, the third instalment in the series, is due out on 21 November (a few days earlier in America for reasons that are unknown and annoying).

Sometime, perhaps a month, before its release it is planned for Dragon Age Keep to be released.

The Keep is a means to allow players who are new, or who are not, to create the world state and import that to Inquisition. In previous games decisions of varying degrees of importance were made, and Keep allows you to import these regardless of whether you’re changing platforms or playing for the first time. Each decision will be explained, and you can alter as much or as little as you want.

Dragon Age Keep will be an online feature, for which you will need an Origin account.

I have some mixed feelings about that. Whilst my PS3 is internet connected and it won’t affect me, I know lots of people have patchy internet access or none at all. Making the Keep browser-based enables it to be expanded and used for future Dragon Age games, but also means that if you don’t have access to the internet on your chosen console then you’re out of luck.

Of course, there will be a pre-set default world state, but in Mass Effect 2 (where I lacked the comic despite some effort to acquire it...) I found the default world state made every damned decision differently to me.

The reason for not having it as part of the Inquisition game is that save files from Origins, Awakening and DA2 have some issues. They work just fine for the games, but when importing to later versions there are inconsistencies and errors, which rather defeats the purpose of such an import.

It sounds like it’s possible importing to the Keep might come about, but I do not think importing a DA2 save file to set-up Inquisition’s world state without the Keep could happen.

From what I’ve seen, the Keep looks pretty good and I’m looking forward to its release, but I wish there were an alternative for those without online capability. Even in America there are a huge number of people who don’t have it for consoles, let alone in Europe and further afield.


Friday, 12 September 2014

A publishing deal with Tickety Boo Press

As the incredibly subtle title may have revealed, I've got one of those publishing deal thingummyjigs with Tickety Boo Press.

In addition to the currently self-published Sir Edric's Temple, Sir Edric's Treasure (the second instalment in The Adventures of Sir Edric) will be released by Tickety Boo at some time in the future.

The books will be sold separately rather than bundled, so if you were one of the wise fellows or ladies who bought Temple already you won't have to fork out for it a second time just so you can read Treasure.

No ETA for release. I'm hoping it'll be sometime next year. The basic text for both is done, though small changes are likely (I shall not be adding the "That's about as tempting a prospect as a handjob from Edward Scissorhands" joke, though. Just too anachronistic).

So, thanks to Tickety Boo for the opportunity, to my beta readers for pointing out the many flaws in my writing, and, most of all the readers, who will hopefully buy Temple and Treasure in enormous numbers to help me walk a little further along the road from struggling artist to obscenely successful writer.


This was originally posted on my site, at

Thursday, 4 September 2014

How long can a state survive?

With the Scottish referendum looming, and as I near the end of re-reading John Julius Norwich’s excellent three part history of Byzantium, I was wondering how long a state can survive.

It’s an interesting question in the real world, and also for fantasy, where countries seem to often exist for X thousand (or even X tens of thousands) years, which seems a shade excessive.

The oldest coherent political structures in Europe are England and France. Using the longest, most generously vague measures, they’re about 15 centuries old. Countries which sound ancient, such as Germany and Italy, are actually surprisingly recent (both less than two centuries old). However, from the Act of Union the UK is just over three centuries old, and France has altered (in boundary terms) beyond all recognition, growing a fair bit and doing its best to establish the French identity as the cost of Bretons, Gascons and so forth. It was, of course, conquered last century by the Germans, and its present constitution began in 1958.

China is sometimes considered to have effectively been founded by Qin Shi Huangdi in about 200BC. One of the problems with trying to assert how old a country might be is whether or not substantial political/border changes mark a new beginning (in China’s case, the Communist party coming to power). A clever chap elsewhere on the internet suggested 1,000 years or so for China’s age, based on current borders established by Kublai Khan (although the Song dynasty was quite a bit smaller).

The first Roman ‘Empire’ (as kingdom, republic and only then empire) lasted for about 12 centuries (or just over five if we strictly take the Imperial period as one nation). The Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantine Empire) lasted a little over 11. The latter fell entirely due to military reasons (the city was taken by storm after its hitherto invincible land walls were assaulted by cannons). The former fell due to a combination of continual infighting, political instability and military weakness.

It’s worth also, briefly, concentrating on just how mighty the Western and Eastern Roman Empires were. At its height, the Roman Empire (then singular) held the entire coastline of the Mediterranean in its grip. It stretched from partway into Scotland down to the deserts of Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to Jerusalem. The Eastern Empire lacked, almost always, quite the aggression and militarism of the Western, but it had the perfect city from which to rule, as Byzantium’s famed Land Walls were invincible excepting only an earthquake and, at least, the advent of truly powerful cannons. (It’s also worth mentioning Rome fell with a whimper, whereas Constantine Dragases, the last Byzantine Emperor, was killed heroically fighting to protect his doomed city).

Turning to fantasy, it’s not uncommon to have states be thousands of years old. But this is a great rarity (depending how you consider states to change, with borders and substantial political alterations, you could make a case for almost no country in the world being so old, possibly excepting Japan).

Consider also how we view our own history. WWI seems a long way off, but it’s just over a century ago that it started. WWII has a much stronger sense in the public consciousness, but it’s still within living memory, and was an unusual war in that the whole world was at risk from an evil lunatic.

Two centuries does not sound long. But it’s just over a little more than that which saw America gain independence.

A thousand years ago (1014) -
England was a Saxon kingdom, to be conquered half a century later by William the Bastard
Byzantium was the most powerful country in the world, led by the arse-kicking (but very poor at succession-planning) Basil II
Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands for about four centuries (it would be about 80 years before the First Crusade surprised everyone by recapturing it)
Spain was mostly in Muslim hands
Italy was becoming a collection of powerful city-states
The Normans invaded southern Italy (they would go on to create the Kingdom of Sicily, including the island and much of southern Italy as well)

In short, we would recognise a few names but the whole world was very different. The odd nation might last half a millennium, and a rare one might make it to a thousand years, but the world isn’t some sort of static artefact that remains more or less unchanged. In the last century we’ve seen the collapse the British, Austro-Hungarian and German Empires, the downfall of Imperial Russia, the collapse of Imperial China and astonishing economic rebirth of Communist China, and the end of the Ottoman Empire.

It’s nice to think we live in a stable world. But we don’t. And if you’re trying to write a more realistic type of fantasy, it’s worth considering just how much borders change, and how short-lived countries can be.

In 2014, the UK’s death knell may be sounded. For some, who identify solely as English, Welsh, Northern Irish or Scottish, it will be of little emotional impact. For others, who see themselves solely or primarily as British, it may be heart-breaking.