Friday, 30 December 2016

Vote: Picking A Paperback Cover

January comes from the Roman god Janus, a two-faced deity of doorways. So, it’s fitting to end the Year of Doom with a post that looks back to the electronic versions of Kingdom Asunder and ahead to the paperback release.

I plan to use CreateSpace, but, as well as stressing over typos, I need to decide which cover to use. So, please take a moment to cast your eyes over the artwork below and vote on which you prefer. If you’re on Twitter, you can vote there, or you can vote using the poll on the upper right hand side of this blog, or you can just reply to this post with your preference.

Not made a paperback via CreateSpace before so giving a timetable is tricky, but I’d guess at least a few weeks will be needed to sort through the formatting pish.

But that’s not all I have planned for next year.

Forthcoming Stuff of Excitement in 2017:
January = Journeys, a fantasy anthology featuring Black Sails, by me
24 January = Saint Francis’ Day (will probably do a sale)
January/February = hopefully get Kingdom Asunder, physical edition done
Latter half of 2017 = Traitor’s Prize, the sequel to Kingdom Asunder, is anticipated

Possible extra stuff = I may well have stories in a couple more anthologies, and there’s just the smidgen of a chance that Sir Edric will return in Sir Edric’s Kingdom.


Friday, 16 December 2016

XCOM 2 (PS4) Review

I really enjoyed Enemy Unknown for the PS3 (never played the expansion/DLC) and was delighted when the sequel came, after some delay, to consoles. I wrote this review right after completing a single playthrough on the standard (Veteran) difficulty, and amended it following the 1.02 patch (which makes some improvements I’ll mention below).


The doom counter of the previous game more or less makes a return, with the Avatar project. It’s an unknown project of alien dodginess, and if the counter fills all the way and the countdown hits zero, it’s game over for mankind. The counter can be reduced by progressing with story objectives and completing missions, and advances sometimes naturally over time, and sometimes in response to mission failures.

A second part of the overall strategy are the Dark Events. These are basically Bad Things (for example, doubling the cost of new recruits for a month, or rapid Avatar project progressions) that can happen. When you have a choice of mission you’ll need to weigh up the Dark Event that particular mission will avert, the potential rewards and how difficult it is. But you can only do one. The others (usually two) will go undone and those Dark Events will not be averted. XCOM 2 doesn’t give you a pain-free option.

Missions usually have a turn timer. Fail to complete it within that turn and, at best, the mission is chalked up as a failure and a Dark Event proceeds, or, at worst, your squad will not be evacuated and everyone still on the ground will be captured. I’m not one generally in favour of such things, but it does actually work very nicely because you can’t just crawl forward with multiple overwatches and one chap running forward. It creates stress between the need for safety (losing soldiers is very easy) and the time limit on the mission, so you need to take risks and use your limited resources wisely. Do you use a one-shot heavy weapon on the first enemies you meet to maximise the chance of killing them without suffering any damage at all, or do you save it in case more difficult enemies lie ahead?

Otherwise the mechanics are very similar to the previous game, with full and half-cover, multiple classes (four to start with, the Psi class requires a new structure in your base), and flanking bonuses. The skills have been nicely rejigged.

There’s a wide variety of customisation on both a cosmetic and gameplay level. You can alter the appearance, voice, name, nationality and biography of every soldier, and equip them with a variety of armours, weapons and extra items (grenades, ammunitions, medkits and so forth).

The classes (I have limited experience with the 5th, Psi) are extremely well-balanced. Not only that, but at each rank (past the first, which assigns class) there are two skill options of which one can be picked. Most of these present interesting choices, and can feasibly be used to create substantially different soldiers (you might have two Sharpshooters, and make one focused on pistol skills and the other on sniper rifle skills, both being very useful).

You can also create your own characters in the character pool, which means they’ll persistently appear in your games. So you can have Zhuge Liang, Nicephorus Phocas, Arthur Wellesley and Benjamin “Dizzy Rascal” Disraeli in your squad. Unfortunately, and unlike the PC version, it does not seem possible to either export your soldiers so others can download them, or to download any (excepting some the developers made). That said, still a cool feature.

The counterpart to the missions is, of course, base-building. This time the base is an old alien ship, but functionally it’s very similar to the old base. It’s been streamlined, which is usually code for dumbed-down, but here the streamlining actually works very nicely. Facilities can be upgraded, often by employing engineers (which may reduce research times on Proving Ground projects, or increase radio capacity), so you could choose to have two bog standard radio facilities or just one, but fully upgrade it. However, whilst facilities are affordable, getting everything is tricky so, as ever with XCOM 2, you need to prioritise.

One big advantage of the base aspect over the previous game is that the latter was a bit passive. You had to wait for aliens to do things. Here, there’s always *something* to do, whether that’s contacting new rebel groups, scanning for Intel, visiting the Black Market or doing missions.


Surprisingly, Firaxis has managed to make the story both less linear and more interesting than the last game. The narrative’s a bit stronger and there’s a fair degree of flexibility as to the order you do things.

The basic story is thus: the aliens won. Earth is under their control and Advent (think a global version of Vichy France) is governing a cowed people subject to widespread propaganda campaigns.

You, the Commander, get rescued from stasis by Bradford (the only main character to survive from one game to the next) and set about building a resistance movement and slapping the aliens across the face with the giant haddock of righteous indignation.


As you’d expect, these are a bit step up from the previous game. There are some graphical glitches, with the frame rate occasionally stuttering (not a major issue with a TBS game) and the camera can sometimes be dodgy when trying to throw a grenade (only for the roof to get in the way). Generally, a good-looking game without being ground-breaking.


The main characters are nicely voiced, but the soldiers are where the improvement really comes from. No longer does the vaunted world-wide organisation only recruit people able to speak in an American accent. Now they speak in American, British, French, German, Spanish and Italian accents. A few more (Japanese, Chinese etc) would’ve been nice but there’s substantial improvement.

The effects of weapons fire and grenades remains good, and there are now fire effects, so you can hear the sizzle as the building around you is consumed by flames (and might partially collapse).

Music is good but prolonged loading times can make it a bit wearing (see the Bugs section).


I’ve only played it once (hard to guess play time because I took a long break in the middle, but it took me perhaps 20-30 hours), but I think the game will have excellent longevity. Even on the standard difficulty it can be a serious challenge, and with two higher tiers and the Iron Man mode (no loading, it auto-saves after every action) there’s a lot of replay value.

Maps are procedurally generated, meaning you can’t just memorise the layout of critical missions.

The first thing I did after finishing it was start a new game on the same difficulty, but Iron Man mode.

Bugs and Other Issues

There are numerous bugs. Most are minor. Sometimes when an alien arrives their appearance is a little glitchy. The old XCOM problem of shooting through walls recurs (although this seems to be true for both humans and aliens).

More seriously, the game does crash sometimes (I’d guess once every 8-10 hours or so for me). The auto-save is so frequent it doesn’t result in much, or any, lost progress but obviously it’s still not great. Load times are long. Very long. Early game it’s fine but late game you can be looking at 5 minutes plus. However, Firaxis have recently released a patch which reportedly fixes that problem. [Update: with the 1.02 patch this doesn’t appear as bad. I’m fairly far into an Iron Man campaign and the problem seems diminished or absent].

Also, if you get a free mini-DLC be aware at least one item (the ski-mask, I think it is. In appearance, a balaclava with mouth and eye holes) means you can’t use a character with it. [Update: the 1.02 patch seems to have mended this].

Most importantly, you can make characters from the UK. Or Scotland. But not England or Wales. This is clearly in need of correction.

After two very late missions (the game tells you when you reach the point of no return), there are cutscenes which are followed by a few minutes of black screen, then the scenes replay and all continues normally. Just be aware of this.


A fantastic game that improves in almost every way on its predecessor, but which is hampered by technical flaws mostly corrected by the patch. I’d say it’s a 9/10 with the patch, and 8/10 without.


Friday, 9 December 2016

Interview with Brian Turner

Today I’m joined for interview by Brian Turner, who is author of the recently released fantasy Gathering (Chronicles of Empire book 1), as well as lord of the SFF Chrons manor (an excellent forum where people into fantasy and science fiction can discuss writing, reading, books, film and so forth).

There’s an ensemble cast rather than a single (or a couple) stand-out POV characters. Why did you choose to go down the route of many POVs, and what did you feel the advantages were?

As some people have noticed, the inspiration for the Chronicles of Empire series came from role-playing games. One huge difficulty was taking that experience and giving it life outside of those limitations.

But if I were plotting and writing from scratch, I would definitely have focused on no more than 3-4 max. The more main characters there are, the more difficult it becomes to pull off successfully.

I found it horribly, horribly, challenging. I was lucky in that I had a great developmental editor in Teresa Edgerton, who wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was going wrong.

The sole advantage of an ensemble cast, though, is that you can tell a more complex yet complete story. That’s why they’re so common in film and TV. But with novels, it requires a disproportionate amount of effort to try and make it work. There’s a clear reason why most books are focused on one main character, even in the presence of a strong supporting cast.

Seven main characters travelling together is the hallmark of a writing genius* but it also somewhat limits the scope of action. Presumably in later books (a bit like the Fellowship of the Ring) the group gets split up for separate adventures?
(*I may have used a very similar approach in Journey to Altmortis).

That already happens to a degree in Gathering, and it will do so to a degree in other books. Ultimately, the story is about how these characters work for and against one another in the longer telling of it.

At no point do I ever think about sending people off on journeys to make the writing easier - such events must make the writing harder because it has to make the story more complex and self-referencing.

A story about an ensemble cast must remain a story about an ensemble cast, and not a collection of individual adventures.

It’s clear from reading the book that you’ve done plenty of research when it comes to historical influences. What particular sources did you find useful for world-building a (mostly) medieval fantasy?

I’ve read a huge amount of history over the past 20 years as research for the Chronicles of Empire series. The aim has always been to use that to make the world of the story seem more real, even if I’m limited with how much world-building I can share.

The big challenge has been to move away from political history and into social history, and focus on the details of daily life that make the everyday experience both extraordinary yet ordinary.

Any good history book will do that, whether it’s second-hand commentators such as Edward Gibbon, John Julius Norwich, Terry Jones, Ian Mortimer, Francis and Joseph Gies; or first-hand sources, such as Thucydides, Polybius, Tacitus, Suetonius; and outstanding historical fiction and fantasy fiction writers such as Colleen McCollough, Ken Follet, Bernard Cornwell, Robert Fabbri, George R R Martin, Joe Abercrombie, David Gemmell ... and so on and so on.

Pedantic classical question: you made the chariot teams yellow, blue, green and red, like Rome. Except Rome had a white team rather than a yellow. Any reason for the difference?

Simply because it made all the colours primary ones. And while I’ve used history as a great source for inspiration, it made no sense to simply repeat everything if I found it better to personalise it.

A good example is that I abandoned the Theory of the Humours from ancient and mediaeval medicine, and replaced it with a colour-based theory of philosophy. This is why prime colours became all the more important, and why changing the whites to the yellows was more consistent with the worldview I’d created.

Although largely fantastical, there’s also a sci-fi element. Why did you opt for this, as opposed to going for a fantasy-only approach?

Simply because I hate the way that thousands of years of ritual folk magic has become abused by the modern fantasy genre. It’s no longer treated with any respect, and instead largely appropriated for simple power fantasies. Ironically, it’s RPGs that have driven this development.

So my first act with writing about my own RPG adventures was to invoke Clarke’s law about suitably futuristic technology being indistinguishable from magic. That way, any element relating to RPG magic could be swapped out for future technology.

I wrote a science fiction novel based on the same world, set 2,500 years in its future, then connected their stories. That forms the core plot arc in the Chronicles of Empire series.

Then, in the character development process, I gave each of the seven main characters their own individual belief system and developed it accordingly. There is magic in Gathering - but it’s based on real-world ritual magic, with the personal and social meaning it’s meant to have.

The Gathering is the first book of the Chronicles of Empire series. Do you know how many entries there will be, or have an approximate schedule of releases in mind?

I’ve posted something about that here: About the Chronicles of Empire series. There are 6 books in the core Chronicles of Empire series, with potentially as many as two trilogies that will support and complete this.
However, the writing needs time to grow properly. With only one character, an author just has to get a character from A to B. With seven characters, everyone is transecting each other’s scenes and development arcs. It requires time to consider and account for the effects of this on each one, as well as plot and continuity.

I suspect it’s going to take about 2 years to write each book, but I won’t rush to release anything I’m not happy with. Conversely, I won’t allow the story to stray and meander either. I have a very clear sense of focus, but not everything comes into view immediately.

Being vague, the ending is a natural break point in the story. Will the sequel continue immediately afterwards or (my guess) will there be a few months/years interval?

The story does continue shortly after, but the structure for the second Chronicles of Empirebook, Awakening, is going to be very different. Gathering takes place over just 6 days, but Awakening must cover around 3-4 years. That’s going to be a tough sell for a character-driven story, even with its far more pronounced emotional highs and lows.

Away from writing, how do you like to relax?

My social outlet has been the chronicles forums SFF Chronicles - science fiction and fantasy forums, and it’s also been a great place for critical feedback, as well as meeting some truly wonderful people.

I also read a ton of books, about 2:1 fiction to non-fiction. I’ve been making a big point to read different genres, and outside of my preferred topic areas. I figure anyone who wants to be a good writer needs to do that.

I’m especially enjoying the thriller genre at the moment, and the way the writers there focus on being concise while driving pace. When I’m burned out from reading I always pick up a Lee Child novel.
I’ve also discovered some amazing hybrid authors - those with normal publishing deals, but also self-publish - who write exceptional and polished cross-genre novels, such as Jo Zebedee and Ralph Kern.

There's also a book called Kingdom Asunder by a writer named Thaddeus White I need to read as well. [Sounds like the sort of splendid book everyone should buy – TW].

Beyond the next books in the Chronicles of Empire, what are your writing plans for the future?

Chronicles of Empire is going to keep me very busy for a long time. There’s so much I could cover outside of the main story. If I’m lucky, the Universe will grant me time enough to write a WWII thriller series after all that.

Thank you for having me.

Brian G Turner

The pleasure was all mine,


Friday, 2 December 2016

Review: The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides

I re-read this history (which is nearly two and a half thousand years old) recently, and it’s still amongst my favourites. The edition I have is published by Penguin, with translation by Rex Warner and introduction/notes by MI Finley.

Thucydides wrote an account of most of the Peloponnesian War, which occurred in the 5th century BC between Athens and Sparta, and their respective allies. It lasted decades and was rather complicated. Unlike some other ancient conflicts there weren’t persistent strong characters who defined the war (the exception might be Alcibiades, but only to an extent) which may be why it’s not quite as well-known as the Second Punic War or Alexander’s campaigns.

The author himself was an Athenian who played a brief role in the War before being exiled. He then spent years writing of the conflict, but appears to have died before he could finish it.

Thucydides wrote in a precise, factual manner. Although some elements are guessed at (the specific wording of speeches, for example) most of these are guided by speaking to witnesses or documentation. Although sometimes coloured by personal views (he was not a fan of Cleon), he does not appear biased in general terms for or against Athens, Sparta, Syracuse or any other player in the game, and is not afraid to condemn his own side when he felt they were in the wrong.

His approach (contrary to many ancient historians) of including specific numbers where possible and giving detail as to battle and siege where it existed enables a more lively and accurate account to come out. Whilst written with a cool, calculated hand, Thucydides does a great job of portraying success and plight as the fortunes of war ebbed and flowed.

As he himself wrote, this is intended to be an objective account of what happened that will stand the test of time, and on that score it’s a clear success.

The sometimes dry style and willingness of the writer to use an eight clause sentence if that’s what it takes to write what he wants to write may mean this isn’t ideal for a beginner to classical history (that said, I got it fairly early on and didn’t have particular problems). The footnotes and appendices do a good job of explaining what needs to be explained. There are also several maps in the back (perhaps a few more would’ve been helpful, though maybe I’m being picky).

The only real downside is that the book is unfinished, but it is still substantial, covering over two decades and 600 pages.

I’d advocate reading this after Thucydides, but can also strongly recommend the excellent single volume history of the Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan.