Sunday, 20 August 2017

Fallout 4 – Diary of a Deceiver, Part 1

Note, I’ve deliberately taken some liberties with the storyline, so there will be some spoilers and me making some stuff up. This is a little bit of comedy intended to be read by people who have finished the game (just so they get the references, as well as not suffering spoilers).

This is the first time I’ve written something like this (well, apart from a Metal Gear Solid story I wrote about 15 years ago) so do let me know if you like it and I’ll write more of this and/or other games.

Date: 2077 October 23rd

I’m growing really tired of this suburban hell. Being married to the most stupid man alive doesn’t make it any easier. Nate’s idiocy does mean I’ve gotten away with a few close calls when anyone with half a brain would’ve noticed something amiss (my bosses back in Beijing really did pick out a prize-winning sucker for me), but this latest episode is just something else.

The baby’s black, Nate. And you’re not. Did you think he was born with a suntan?

It’s bloody annoying, but if this jester really is the calibre of a career soldier in the US then at least we’re going to win this war, and probably soon.

HQ sent over a muppet with a clipboard to get me signed into the local vault (a private enterprise shelter in case of nuclear devastation). Seems a little unnecessary, but does help me blend in with the local paranoid bed-wetters.

Halloween’s close. It’s this Western holiday which involves socially-sanctioned vandalism, harassing people in their own home for sweets, and dressing up like fools (or skanks. You wouldn’t believe the kind of thing Nate wanted me to wear). The sooner we crush these capitalist pigdogs the better.

Although I do like their sweet rolls.

Late addition: we’ve nuked most of the US! Got to run to the shelter, but we’ve won!

Late late addition: you know, some warning from Beijing would’ve been nice. I almost got swallowed by a nuclear storm. The shelter seems functional enough, although I think in the confined conditions I may end up murdering Nate. And the social etiquette is really intrusive. I had to strip down to my underwear and put on this blue catsuit in front of some pervy doctor. Just as soon as I’ve gone through decontamination and everything checks out I’m going to lay down the law to him.

Date: 2287 October 23rd

Decontamination was a con. I should’ve known better than to trust a dodgy Western corporation. I got frozen cryogenically. Briefly got thawed out to see some slaphead shoot Nate and steal the kid. When I woke up properly, everybody else was dead. A dozen cryo-chambers and every single one failed except mine (Nate’s seemed to be working but given he had a gaping hole in his skull it didn’t do him much good).

Found myself a new catsuit and a truncheon. Everything’s dead here except for some giant cockroaches. I must have been out for a while. Got hold of a gun and some glasses (I always did my best work as ‘sexy secretary’) and found a handy PipBoy. Time to go home, dig out the transmitter, and get in touch with Beijing.

Late addition: more roaches at home. Codsworth (damned silly name. Serves me right for letting the moron pick it) was the only thing still functioning but I think he’s suffered some sort of corrosion. Gave me a holotape of Nate being soppy.

Oh, and the war ended just over 200 years ago.

Everyone I know is dead. On the other hand, my backpay is going to be billions of yen, so swings and roundabouts.

Date: 2287 October 24th [Morning]

All the houses were absolutely ruined. Took a while, but I managed to salvage enough junk to build a half-decent home, and used my stash of weaponry (still serviceable) to create some machine-gun turrets. That’s the good news. The bad is that my radio transmitter was busted. Seems like vandals broke in, missed the guns but had a shooting match and turned the comms gear into Swiss cheese.

The US is an absolute mess of lawless decadence and social breakdown. And now it’s irradiated too. Still no idea how things are back home. Starting to worry Uncle Sam might have sent a missile or two Beijing’s way. But we’re resilient, I’m sure everything’s ok. That does leave the problem of contact, though. Only option is to wander into this apocalyptic mess and try to find someone who knows one end of a diode from another. What fun.

Oh, and Codsworth kept rambling on about Shaun (that’s the kid). Annoyed me at first, but “I’m looking for my son” is a much better excuse for wandering about than “I’m a Chinese spy. Any idea how to get in touch with Beijing?”, not least because I can’t imagine the locals (if there are any) will be fans of China given we nuked their country back to the Stone Age.


Friday, 18 August 2017

Marching Speeds

A man can walk four miles in an hour relatively easily. And yet, an army of foot soldiers marching (in the ancient world) would cover perhaps six miles in a whole day. Even horsemen would only go twelve.

There are exceptions, but the above are averages taken from Theodore Dodge’s excellent histories (check out his Hannibal, Alexander and Caesar biographies if you haven’t yet).

Why does it take so long to move an army, when a single man with staging posts (for fresh horses) could cover, theoretically at least, well over a hundred miles in a single day? Even a chap out for a walk could easily make 10-20 miles over the course of a day.

Various changeable circumstances can affect how fast an army can move. Weather, terrain, and supplies all have a serious impact (more on those below). But even when it’s nice and warm, the ground’s flat and roads are good, and there’s plenty of food and beer, armies are still, usually, horrendously slow.

Moving one person is easy. They get up on time, and wander off. If they reach a bridge, that’s fine. If they need to climb a little, that’s usually no problem.

An army is different. The whole army can’t set off at once, because a road might only be wide enough for six, or fewer, to march abreast. Even as the vanguard strolls off, most of the rest of the army will be taking down last night’s camp and eating the last of the cheese. The sheer volume of people slows the army’s progress.

The number of men and beasts (not just war horses, but donkeys and oxen and mules to carry supplies or pull wagons) can also ruin roads. What might be a nice journey for the vanguard could be a squelching quagmire for the middle or rearguard. Similarly, if the vanguard reaches difficulties (say a flood washes away the only bridge for miles and it needs repairing) that then slows everyone else as a queue forms.

Narrow passes in mountains or slender footbridges are no problem for one man, but they’re bottlenecks when you’ve got thousands. Not only that, they may well be impassable for wagons and difficult/impossible for horses. A route one man can take is not necessarily a route an army can take.

Then there’s pestilence. Leave aside that a small army of whores will be prising coin from men who could die tomorrow (pox was spread thus although certain diseases were different. Syphilis didn’t exist in medieval England, arriving in the Tudor period and only mutating in Elizabeth I’s reign into the disease it is today). Medieval hygiene could include eating in close proximity to latrines. The camp disease of dysentery would usually break out. Fouled wells or even just drinking uncontaminated water could lead to typhoid. Having so many men together (and a medieval army could outnumber most medieval cities’ populations) in such close proximity massively increased the chances of disease breaking out, and then spreading rapidly. For this reason, armies besieging a castle/city could suffer as much as those trapped on the inside.

Supplies were often problematic. Gathering sufficient before you start depended on a good harvest and organisational abilities. If your adversary knows you’re coming he’ll foul wells and ensure harvested crops are safe inside castle walls so you struggle to feed your army off the land. This means the foraging parties have to roam further afield (and they need protection so you need to send more men), again slowing an army down. One man can swipe a few apples and blackberries, but an army takes a lot of feeding (and the animals need food too).

Weather can have a substantial impact. Ordinary drizzle (almost the default setting of Britain) can soften roads which turn to sludge beneath a thousand marching feet. Heavier rain can destroy roads or bridges, or flood camps and drown people and horses. But hot weather has dangers too. Finding sufficient water becomes even harder, and may slow the pace of men and animals. Even worse, forest fires (as now) can spring up out of nowhere.

Most travelling in the ancient and medieval world, as you’d expect, was by land. However, sea journeys also could be delayed on account of an army. If you don’t have enough ships because they’re delayed due to bad weather or simply take time to arrive, then either you split an army in two and risk it being defeated in detail, or you have to wait. One man needs just one ship.

In books, both historical and fictional, it’s entirely legitimate to have individuals travel a lot faster than armies, for all sorts of reasons (not to mention the possibility of messages being sent by bird).

As an aside, the Persians had an interesting measure called the parasang. Unlike a mile, the parasang was a unit of distance measured not in length but time. One parasang was one day’s march. That’s quite a clever way of doing things, as two roads leading to the same place might have a very large number of miles to the north compared to the south, but if the south road leads through mountains the northern road might still be a quicker route.


PS the next few blogs will likely be book reviews of The Wonder Book of Aircraft, The Emperor’s Edge, and Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Review: King John, by Marc Morris

King John does not have the finest of reputations in English history, but is the opprobrium deserved or unkind?

This biography recounts the life (with a strong focus on adulthood) of perhaps the most persistently disliked of English kings.

The structure for the first 2/3 or so is unorthodox, in that it has alternating timelines, leading up to and after 1203 (the former, of course, comes to an end from which point the later timeline continues until John’s death). Although the cut-off points are chosen well and skilfully lead to some interesting juxtapositions, I probably would’ve preferred a more straightforward single timeline account.

John was one of four sons of Henry II (Henry, Richard and Geoffrey being the others) who embarked upon a great many squabbles, rebellions, and wars with/against Philip Augustus (the king of France, a wily fellow who benefited greatly from Henry II’s rank incompetence when it came to keeping his family singing from the same hymn sheet).

John was an interesting, and wretched, character. I found him despicable in personality, but less incompetent than imagined (indeed, he did have a few strokes of bad luck that substantially altered the course of events. That said, it’s possible to imagine Richard [his elder brother] reversing such misfortunes, and John was never accused of a surfeit of courage). His greatest skills were extortion and low cunning.

But it was this very wretchedness that brought about Magna Carta, which became touchstone against tyranny for centuries to come.

The writing style is easy to read, and there aren’t many difficult terms (where these occur, such as ‘prise’, they’re explained). If you don’t read much history I don’t think you’d have any problems with this as an introduction to 12th/13th century history.

This biography of King John is the second book I’ve read by Marc Morris, (the first, an Edward I biography, is reviewed here).

Those interested in the period may also find Thomas Asbridge’s biography of William Marshal (reviewed here) of interest.


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Julius Caesar and Genocide

Yes, it’s one of those cheerful blogs.

I was twittering away, conversing with a friend, when I happened to mention Julius Caesar once massacred almost half a million Germanian tribesmen.

And so the idea for this blog was born. Unlike almost every other figure from classical history, people do generally know a bit about Julius Caesar. Some of it is tosh. The ‘veni, vidi, vici’ quote isn’t from when he invaded Britain (and failed), it’s from when he crushed Pharnaces II, the ruler of Pontus. Similarly, he wasn’t born by Caesarian section (we know this because although Romans could practice it, the procedure always killed the mother and we know that Caesar’s mum survived birthing him).

Other bits of common knowledge are true. He did conquer Gaul (mostly. Gallia Narbonensis had been conquered some time earlier). He did cross the Rubicon and cause a cold war to become a hot one. And he was murdered in the Senate by some of his former friends.

Part of this history is written by Caesar himself. The Gallic War entirely, and the first quarter or so of The Civil War (the rest being written by a few contemporary authors). His adopted son, who took the name Augustus, also had reasons to embellish the propaganda around Julius Caesar’s conduct. After all, nobody wants to say their adoptive dad was a lunatic, do they?

But there are certain things about Caesar which are not common knowledge today. In his lifetime he acquired (and detested) the nickname the Queen of Bithynia. This was because he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Bithynia (small kingdom in Asia Minor, if memory serves) and was so fond of the king he stayed on longer than planned.

A loathed nickname being expunged, mostly, from history is understandable when you become dictator for life and your adopted son becomes the first emperor of Rome. There is a more troubling act of Caesar’s that remains obscured from general knowledge, though.

He murdered tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of innocent people.

A Germanian tribe, reportedly 430,000 strong (even allowing for exaggeration, the number will be vast), was negotiating peacefully with the Romans, led by Caesar. Or so they thought. In the middle of negotiation, Caesar had them all slaughtered.

This was not an army, it was a tribe of men, women and children. And he butchered them, citing duplicity on their part as the justification. In his biography (simply entitled Caesar), TA Dodge used the term ‘holocaust’ to describe the act (the history pre-dates WWII by some decades).

This was not the first time such an action was attempted. Decades earlier, the Cimbri (a tribe seeking to settle peacefully on Roman territory if possible, and to migrate west by passing through Roman territory if not) was similarly attacked. Unfortunately for the Romans, who initiated the battle, the Cimbri won. This was repeated, farcically, several times. In one such battle, Arausio, partly due to mutual loathing of Roman leaders Caepio and Maximus, the Romans suffered a defeat to rank alongside Cannae. Eventually the Cimbri were defeated by Marius, Julius Caesar’s uncle.

Roman belligerence towards barbarian tribes, therefore, was nothing new. Indeed, in Rome and Italy (by Livy), there’s an approving passage written of Roman action to kill a huge number of fighting age men of the enemy.

And yet this genocide of Caesar is little known. I do wonder whether, at the time, the reason was very different to that of his nickname becoming little known. It might just be that in the 1st century BC, wiping out a tribe of barbarians was seen as a good thing, but not significant enough to be worth remembering.

It’s tempting to think of the Romans only in terms of civilising influence (roads, rule of law, the Pax Romana, what have the Romans ever done for us? Etc). They weren’t above exterminating tribes of people who wanted peace. But it was deemed ok. Because the hundreds of thousands they murdered were savages.


Friday, 28 July 2017

Traitor’s Prize – out now

Traitor’s Prize, the sequel to Kingdom Asunder, is out today.

Both books are discounted until 5 August (KA is just 33% of the usual price, TP 60%), so now’s the perfect time to buy.

If epic and dark fantasy is your cup of tea, if you like medieval bloodshed, treachery and political conniving, you can get just under 200,000 words for less than half the price of a cinema ticket (and no adverts to annoy you for the first half hour).

UK Amazon
US Amazon
Barnes and Noble


Thursday, 27 July 2017

Ethnic diversity in history/fantasy

I read an interesting tweet the other day regarding this, and racially homogeneous societies/worlds in fantasy being justified by historical reference. This little ramble will look at how things were historically, and how/whether this should affect fantasy writing in an ancient/medieval setting.

First off, a disclaimer on my own approach. My serious fantasy all occurs within the same world within which every book has multiple races (mostly of human), skin colours etc. The comedy of Sir Edric doesn’t ever actually refer to human skin colour (he’s white on the cover because he has to be a colour, though I can’t recall if I actually specified that to my artist). There’s also elves, Ursk (tall, red-skinned carnivores), feathery chaps, gnomes, dwarves etc.

In a given farming village, in England in the medieval world, travelling would happen. Every so often the nearest market town (walking distance) would be visited to either sell or buy. More infrequent travel to a larger town or city (NB ‘city’ in this context might just be a settlement with a few thousand people) would happen to attend court or for other serious business. The population of the village itself would not change substantially in terms of people leaving or newcomers arriving. The largest churn would be marrying people from a nearby village.

Jumping from that to the opposite end of the spectrum (sticking with England, for now), London was the largest city by a mile. Smaller than several continental capitals, it still drew in people from the surrounding area (especially true after the Black Death which also threw the feudal servitude system up in the air). Not only that, but merchants from continental Europe and further afield were constantly coming and going. On a more permanent basis, there were embassies from foreign powers, and establishments set up by prosperous foreign merchants.

Leaping perhaps a few centuries back, and a few thousand miles away, we have Byzantium. Or Constantinople. Or Mikligard, if you’re feeling Viking. Or, as it’s currently known, Istanbul. Now, you might think a capital city at the heart of the Eastern Roman Empire wouldn’t have many Englishmen. And you’d be wrong. Basil II, who was a great military leader but whose treatment of prisoners is about as far away from the Geneva Convention as you can get, is emperor. He establishes the Varangian Guard, a bodyguard for emperors made up of non-Byzantines. Initially, it’s largely composed of Anglo-Saxons, irked at the pesky Normans who have conquered England. Later, it gains a more Viking flavour as Scandinavians prefer getting paid a small fortune for guard duty to raiding.

Under Basil II (and his co-emperors/predecessors Nicephorus “White Death of the Saracens” Phocas and John Tzimisces), the city has been enjoyed continual military triumphs. The city is bustling with merchants from the rising Italian commercial powers of Genoa and Venice. Soldiers are largely drawn from Anatolia, modern day Turkey.

In short, scale and geography determine to a substantial degree how homogeneous or diverse a settlement (or story) is. Before mass transit and easy travel, getting to the Shetlands was quite a slog. If you set a story there you could, depending on the period, credibly feature Picts, Scots, Scandinavians. But if you put Saracens and Byzantines there it would feel a bit odd.

Similarly, if you wrote about the Eastern Roman Empire it would be odd to paint Constantinople as a city of one people only. It was effectively the global (or at least continental) capital, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and drew in a correspondingly cosmopolitan population.

However, we should be wary both of imposing our own norms on the past, or of neglecting/misunderstanding those of history. It’s easy to overlook the prevalence of religion in medieval history (and they were addicted to philosophical religious debates in Byzantium). Similarly, the terror of disease or urban fire (arson in ancient Rome was reckoned a crime second only to parricide). There were, particularly in large continental cities, substantial populations of minorities (often same race, different country) but not on the scale that we see today.

What about a pure fantasy land? An island could legitimately be mono-cultural. And, of course, you can gerrymander the rules of science and nature as you please. Personally, I think that could feel quite odd, particularly if your story happens in major cities on a large continent. More importantly, different cultures and races also present opportunities for conflict which can help drive stories.

Although a game rather than book, I was not impressed when some people bleated about The Witcher 3 having no black people in it (it has white humans, elves, dwarves and halflings. And the odd troll). Does it come across as unrealistic because of this? Absolutely not. The world has a great backstory and lore. Just as it seems ridiculous to me that some criticised Idris Elba being in Thor (did amuse me some people were happy with a magic rainbow bridge that threw almost invincible demi-gods across the universe, but thought a black guy being in charge of it was unrealistic), it’s not right to condemn a fantastic game because it’s deemed to have committed the sin of being ‘too white’.

Ultimately, it’s down to the author’s own whim. I don’t think other people should be trying to constrain creative freedom and dictate that their own personal perspective is The Only Way To Do Things.


Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Debuting. Again. (guest post by Jo Zebedee)

My 5th book is out next week - yet I'm getting to use the #debut headline all over Twitter. Why? Because my first four books were science fiction, whereas Waters and the Wild is my first (but not my last) fantasy. Which means I get to have all the fun!

There are challenges to writing both genres. Not all fans of my military-esque Space Opera books will want to read my fairy-fuelled roadtrip through the Antrim Glens of Northern Ireland. To counter that, however, a lot of people who might have wanted to try out my writing find science fiction, as a genre, less appealing than fantasy and are looking forwards to reading one of my books for once!

I thought I'd explore what I love about writing the two genres, where I struggle and where I intend to go with this weird assortment of books.

What I love about writing fantasy.

Firstly, no physics. I am not a scientist. I manage okay with plants and the biology side of thing (I have a gcse in there somewhere, and an A level). But physics, chemistry and I parted company very happily at age 14. Which means sf research hurts my brain but fantasy is easier - not least because I worked in a 12th century castle for a few years. As soon as I decide to use a castle as a setting that will be very useful, I'm sure....

Playing with mythology. A lot of what I write is based in Ireland - particularly the frozen North of the island. Now, Irish mythology is wide and interesting, and not averse to being played with. I really love that. In Waters and the Wild I play with changeling mythology, bring in the legend of Ossian and Tir-na-nog, and adapt all that to the modern world. I use landscapes that haven't changed in years, that carry the feel and knowledge of the land, and rip through them with my contemporary story. And I can do that because mythology is just that - stories that have been passed down. Like the recipe for Irish stew there is no right and wrong, just one way or another.

Being really, really spooky. Fantasy is great for creeping fear. It's fabulous for slow build and dark shadowed corners. And I love that sort of writing. So, for general creepiness and the delight of knowing a reader might want to leave the light on for a while, fantasy is huge fun to write.

Which isn't to say my sf isn't scary and dark. The metal walls of Inish Carraig, that mould around to imprison people, are pretty memorable. But it's a different sort of darkness: my fantasy has things that can barely be seen in the corner of your eye; my sf your worst fears made real.

So, why, then, if I like fantasy so much have I written lots of sf (and intend to write more)?

Sf is huge fun. It is escapist. It is visual. It has no limits (if you ignore the physics). It is bold and loud with blasters and space ships. For sheer shove-the-story-down-and-have-a-blast there is nothing better.

Which brings me back to my first musing. Will readers who have liked my sf enjoy my fantasy?

That's the worry and challenge.

Mostly, I think they should. There are certain things standard across both genres for me:

Expect characters who feel real, and expect to be held close to them. Not just the lead characters, but the secondary ones too. Expect them to have their dysfunctional moments, and for the narrators to not always be honest.

Expect to walk on the darker side of life. I don't do fluffy bunnies and sparkly unicorns. Waters might be the darkest book I've written to date (hard to tell!) in feel and tone, if not horrific events. Whilst not full-on grimdark, it should cause the odd shudder in the reader.

Expect to have questions. As in Inish Carraig my characters don't entirely know what is going on around them and I don't step back to tell the reader the wider world. If that wrong foots people, I'm not sure it's a bad thing. For sure, it's the thing that I do.

Above all else - Waters and the Wild is as much a Jo Zebedee book as any of my sf is. The feel, the pace, the cadence - they all complement my earlier work. If you pick up a copy, I hope you come away with that sense that, otherworldly as opposed to spaceworldly though Waters might be, it's still my world, in my words, and in my style. I do hope readers enjoy it.

Jo Zebedee writes sf and fantasy, sometimes in her space opera world of Abendau, sometimes on the streets of her native Northern Ireland. She blogs at and has a busy life with work, kids, pets and, somewhere in the chaos, a long suffering husband.

Waters and the Wild can be found at:

Friday, 14 July 2017

Traitor’s Prize discounted for pre-order!

In quite literally fantastic news, Traitor’s Prize, the second book in The Bloody Crown Trilogy and sequel to Kingdom Asunder, is available for pre-order now.

It’ll come out on the 28th of July, and in the pre-order period (and for the first week of release) is priced at the monkishly humble pittance of US$2.99. Less than a coffee, less than bus fare, but brimming with lashings of bloodshed and treachery, backstabbing and betrayal, brothers-in-arms and family loyalty (or not, perhaps).

The story follows immediately on from the events of Kingdom Asunder, which, if you don’t already have it, has had its price slashed to just 0.99c (but only during the pre-order period of Traitor’s Prize, so now is the perfect time to snap it up).

The plot twists and turns like a pole-dancing anaconda, and is as dark and menacing as a psychopathic honey badger.

Traitor’s Prize purchase links: 

I’ve sent out some feelers for reviews already, and if you’re interested in an ARC do get in touch (@MorrisF1 on Twitter) and I’m sure we can arrange something.


Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Traitor’s Prize cover reveal

Traitor’s Prize, the sequel to Kingdom Asunder, will be out later this month. It’s the second part of The Bloody Crown Trilogy, and follows immediately on from the events of the first book.

As you can tell, I have gone for maximum subtlety on the cover.

The story is the middle portion of the ruthless, bloody and sly battle for the Kingdom of Denland, warred over by the rival Penmere and Esden families. Treachery abounds, nobles manoeuvre for advantage, and armies line up to wreak carnage upon their enemies. But it’s the smiler with the knife who makes the nobles tremble...

If you haven’t bought Kingdom Asunder yet, now’s the perfect time as (prior to the release of Traitor’s Prize), the price has been reduced to 0.99.

There will be an announcement of pre-order very soon, so keep your eyes peeled. During the pre-order period, Traitor’s Prize will be available at a substantial discount.


Thursday, 6 July 2017

SPFBO 2017

Apologies for the slight hiatus from bloggery and blogcraft. Due to the aligning of the stars, I had a lot of formatting for not one but two books. Traitor’s Prize and Sir Edric’s Kingdom will hopefully both be forthcoming in the next few months.

The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) was created a few years ago by Mark Lawrence, author of The Broken Empire Trilogy, amongst other things. It’s a Ronseal title, as between 250 and 300 self-publishing fantasy authors submit their books and are brutally torn to pieces/lavished with praise and adulation by 10 elite and very attractive bloggers/reviewers. Each reviewer/judge-overlord starts with a list of 25 to 30 and whittles that down to just 1.

The final 10 are then all read by every Supreme Selector and rated, with just one being pronounced the winner.

In short, there’s a 96% chance or so of losing out at the first round, and a 99.7% chance of not winning outright. However, the SPFBO is still an excellent contest, and I hope you do pay it some heed (just check the hashtag on Twitter for more).

It’s a great way for publicity-starved self-published writers to get on the radar of potential readers, and to do so in a way that depends on the quality of their writing rather than paying for marketing. Not only that, it’s a great way for readers to find new books they otherwise might not have seen. Those who win, or even come close, may well end up with traditional publishing deals.

So, it’s bi-winning, as Charlie Sheen might say. It’s also now an annual contest, so if you have a self-published fantasy, keep your eyes peeled for next year. And who knows? Maybe you’ll win.

For myself, I’ve entered Kingdom Asunder, the first part of The Bloody Crown Trilogy. Its sequel, Traitor’s Prize, will hopefully be out soon.


Friday, 16 June 2017

The Good Lucifer

Prometheus was one of the titans, the generation of gods whose rule preceded that of the more famous Olympians. His name means ‘forethought’, and he was one of the few titans who sided with Zeus, the Olympians’ leader, rather than Cronos, father of Zeus and titan leader. As such, when the other titans were thrown into Tartarus (darkest pit of the underworld), Prometheus was left in peace.

However, there was a problem. He saw mankind scrabbling about on the Earth, lower than gods but barely above animals, and Prometheus wanted to help them. Zeus forbade it, perhaps fearing men might usurp the supremacy of gods in time.

The titan defied the Olympian, and stole fire from Mount Olympus, which he then gave to people. Knowledge spread rapidly, and the use of fire kickstarted technology. It was used for heat and light, melting down ore and casting metal tools. People benefited greatly and civilisation flourished.

But Zeus was not amused.

Prometheus was chained to a rock, and each day a great eagle came to peck out his liver. The titan could not die, and each day the liver grew anew, only to be feasted upon once again.

It’s a sort of immortal martyrdom that Prometheus suffered to give a great gift to us all.

And yet, there are startling similarities between this story, which portrays Prometheus as a clear benefactor of mankind, and the Devil in the Garden of Eden (Satan, of course, depicted in a rather different light).

For those unaware, in the Bible God creates man and then woman (Adam and Eve). The pair live together in an idyllic garden, Eden, where all is lovely and super. God orders them not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and they obey.

God then apparently fell asleep or wandered off, or briefly forgot he was omniscient and omnipotent, because Lucifer, masquerading as a snake, slithered into Eden. He persuaded Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and she did so, and gained awareness (not least shame about her nudity). Eve then persuaded Adam to eat.

God returned and was furious. He banished the pair from Eden forever, and handed out punishments. Eve would face pain in childbirth, and Adam would have to toil and labour in order to survive. The snake appears to have gotten off quite easy, as God punished him by sentencing the serpent to ‘slither on its belly’.

The similarities to the Prometheus story are pretty obvious, but so too is the contrast between Prometheus the friend of mankind, bringing us knowledge at great personal risk (and, ultimately, cost) and Satan, the meddler who interfered in paradise and got us thrown out. However, that does lead to the interesting conclusion that, in the Bible, ignorance actually was bliss.

You might simply sign this up to the Prometheus figure being pagan and therefore condemned (as an aside, Lucifer means light-bringer). But lots of pagan ideas (check out how much Christianity stole from Mithridates’ followers) were simply borrowed wholesale, given a lick of paint and incorporated into Christianity. So, why not the story of how mankind gained knowledge?


Friday, 9 June 2017

Space Adventures of the Proximate Kind

There are plans already under consideration for the colonisation of Mars. Bases on the Moon, mining the asteroid fields, exploring Titan (Saturn’s moon) for life, all are on the horizon.

To be honest, it’s all quite exciting, both in real life and in terms of the sci-fi that can be written about such things. Scientific advancement, commercial gain and military advantage could all play a role in the near term exploration of the solar system.

On the scientific front, Mars and Titan present the most intriguing prospects. Mars is nearer, although getting there will still take months. Establishing a base will require substantial resources, but modern technology does offer some short-cuts that even a few years ago would have been impossible. For example, 3D printers mean that you don’t need every precise structure or tool to be carried with the human crew. Printing materials could be sent on ahead with unmanned or robotic expeditions, and future blueprints for improved structures could be sent from Earth and printed on Mars.

Any trip is believed to be one way, because of the lower gravity on Mars that would create health problems for anyone returning to Earth (not to mention prolonged exposure to zero-G on the way to Mars). For a long term settlement, a stable gene pool would be needed (which would also tie in neatly with the generally international approach towards space exploration). Of course, not everyone has to go at once. Farming would require internal agriculture (cultivating Mars would require it to be terraformed). Energy supply and other fuel sources is an interesting one. Solar panels could add some juice but I’m not sure if that’d be sufficient. Due to long flight times and the potential for mishaps, sustainability would have to be the goal. If the colony were reliant on fuel sent from Earth then it could easily find itself cut short.

There are diamonds the size of cars in Jupiter. Unfortunately, fishing them out is technically problematic. However, the delicious deposits contained within the asteroid belt are altogether more accessible.

In my short story Dead Weight (in Explorations: Through the Wormhole), I had to rework the early draft because I’d wrongly believed the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt was some sort of Star Wars maelstrom. It’s not. There are big open spaces between the various rocks and, although you’d still need to be careful, mining them is eminently possible in the near(ish) future. The bigger problem is likely to be how you divvy up fairly, between either companies or nations, the resources of the asteroid belt.

An international company could be the way to go. So far, after the 1960s space race between superpowers, space exploration has generally been along rather friendlier lines than terrestrial politics. Whether that continues remains to be seen.

Mining could probably be done largely by robots, which would dramatically reduce the cost and complexity of operations. Humans are a pain in the arse to move through space. They need oxygen, food, water, psychological well-being (an increasingly important factor for longer flights), somewhere to get rid of the waste they produce daily, and if you land them too quickly they turn into meat paste (landing a robot too hard will break it, but they won’t leave behind upset relatives).

Titan is a moon of Saturn, and the only other place in the solar system where liquid water seems to exist. This presents the best possible chance of finding life in our near neighbourhood, which is very exciting until you remember that also means it makes an impending apocalypse a lot likelier. Leaving aside the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter, life on Titan could also present a serious pathogen problem. It is, nevertheless, a fascinating prospect.

Any visit to Titan would be much harder than visiting Mars. For a start, it’s a lot further away. That means more time in zero-G and more time floating in a tin can, which will increase physical and psychological effects. Secondly, a mission would probably be about collecting samples and the like. Now, you could do this just with robots. That’s cheaper and safer. But humans are smarter than robots and more adaptable. The gravity, however, is less than half that of Mars. So, if you’re sending a human, that’s moving from prolonged zero-G to 0.14g. Very much a one way trip for something organic and squishy (it also raises the question of what happens if you actually found something advanced, say a space-donkey, and tried bringing it back to Earth. The affect would probably be the same as if you tried moving an Earth-donkey to a planet with 7g).

However, the Moon has surface gravity of 0.16g. That’s a seventh higher (akin to a human moving to a world with 1.14g). You’d notice, but it wouldn’t be horrendous. Species (or returning humans) could go to a lunar base for experimentation. No need to try and establish a permanent base on Titan, the gravity’s practically identical, and it’s miles (and then some) closer to Earth for fuel, communication, supplies and so on.

Most of the above assumes that we continue to have relatively friendly space adventures. However, the history of the human race is one riddled with conflict. Any nation that acquired dominance of space would have huge advantages. Asteroid-mining would give a resource and commercial advantage, access to the Moon, Mars and Titan would offer scientific progress denied to lesser nations, and the military aspect of near-Earth domination would be significant.

There are a number of existing or near-term weapons projects that operate from or in space. Tungsten rods operate by firing a rod of tungsten (as you may have guessed) at the Earth. The kinetic energy of it hitting the planet is immense, but also highly localised. It’ll annihilate a house, and the next door neighbour will be fine. (Sidenote, all ICBMs have nuclear warheads because a smaller payload would have less destructive potential than the kinetic energy of the missile itself).

Masers are also in development currently and would probably work in space. The problem with space warfare is that damage would commonly include explosive decompression and total destruction of the ‘enemy’. It’s hard to think of anything other than a war of annihilation (you might think of an EMP to knock out the electrics, but do that and how long will the oxygen and warmth last?).

Hopefully we won’t see military nonsense in space, but we’ll find out in the coming decades.


Thursday, 1 June 2017

Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger – Episode 3 out now!

The Tiger and The Demon, the third episode of Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger, came out today.

It’s the fun, action-packed finale to the initial run of the serial (first episode free), featuring dramatic plot twists and memorable characters. Perfect Saturday morning adventure, set in a mythologised version of Ancient China. Enjoy!


Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Dragon Age – What I want to see next

I really like the Dragon Age series. Origins is one of my favourite RPGs, and whilst DA2 was clearly rushed, it also had a certain charm (and a rare case of retconning improving something, namely the Qunari). Inquisition had its plus points but also took a step in the wrong direction, I think. Size was emphasised over quality. Maps were enormous but the side-quests were shopping lists.

Inspired by this great article by Shinobi here’s what I’d like to see in the next Dragon Age game.

But first, a note. It’s eminently possible, probable, even, that a Dragon Age Tactics game will come out. I have no idea if this would be before or after DA4 (my guess is before). These suggestions are about a main franchise sequel to Inquisition rather than the intriguing Dragon Age meets XCOM game that’s been mooted.

Origins. I do like the increased mentions of race and class (mostly mage) in Inquisition, but the origin stories in the first game were a great addition to help make every combination of race/class feel more distinct, and I’d like to see them brought back.

Combat tactics. These were present in the first two games and inexplicably axed in Inquisition, replaced with a rather rubbish system whereby the skills were tagged as Use, Use Often, and Do Not Use. The Origins/DA2 approach of having, say, Alistair use an attack to knock down enemies but only if they were elite or higher was a straightforward and effective way of ensuring you didn’t have to micromanage companions in combat.

Weightier decisions. In Origins (I’m harking back to it a lot, but it’s a bloody good game) there were numerous stark choices to make, from a possessed child to werewolf attacks on elves who might not be entirely innocent. These choices affected who your allies would be in the final battle. Whilst there are decisions in Inquisition (who to put on the Orlesian throne, for example) they don’t actually seem to have much consequence in gameplay.

I’d also like more moral conflict within parties (this could tie in with the decisions point above). It’s an approximately medieval world, and this can (and historically did) lead to some difficult decisions. If you’re being besieged and there’s food for 10 days, or 40 if you force out all the non-combatants, then you’ve got a dilemma. Suppose you’ve accepted the surrender of a 1,000 men, but an enemy army has appeared and is blocking your access to fresh water, which is running out fast. They offer to let you past if you release the prisoners. Do you do it? Try and negotiate as your water runs out? Kill the prisoners so the men guarding them can join the army and battle the enemy? Or, on a smaller, more personal scale, suppose an arranged marriage could end a war, but one or both of the couple don’t want it. Do you force them to bring peace to many and misery to them? Or let them have freedom at the cost of ongoing conflict? Or what if you’re chasing enemies and they take refuge in a chantry? Do you burn it down or camp outside, risking being attacked by their followers? Difficult choices create meaningful decisions, and the potential for moral conflict.

I’ve already mentioned side-quests. The shopping list approach (fetch 10 dead rams to feed some refugees) is boring. It’s worse still when put alongside the excellent side-quests of The Witcher 3. Quality over quantity, writing little storylines over Fetch X, is much better as well as providing the opportunity to give more depth to role-playing and companions.

Add more weight to judgements. The judgement system in Inquisition was a good addition, capping off a questline by sentencing the defeated foe. However, the upshot was mostly you lop off the bugger’s head, throw them in jail, or they become your ally (which usually meant a small bonus side-quest from the war table). I think this should be expanded. If someone’s imprisoned, they could escape or be rescued, or even have a ransom offered for their release. If they’re killed, their followers/family might seek vengeance. If they become an ally, they could betray you, or (as a one-off) become a party member. I’m not saying have this for every judgement, just make them possibilities that have to be considered. In Inquisition, the ‘good’ option (make them an ally) got most approval and in-game bonuses. There’s no downside. Adding betrayal possibilities would help balance that.

Base improvements to be more substantial. I don’t mind if the cosmetic stuff has no gameplay impact, but other decisions (focusing resources on income or information, diplomacy or military) could be used to affect how things progress. Originally, Inquisition was going to have every conquered keep in the field be designated diplomatic, military or espionage, and something like that could work well.

I’m not a DLC fan. I didn’t get it for Inquisition, though I do know how things turned out. And when I buy a game, I expect the whole storyline in the game, not to be finished off in DLC. Extra content should be just that.

Bring back the murder knife. It was possible, and fun, for the Origins protagonist (the Warden) to be pretty damn evil. A bit more in the way of dark options would be good.

Frivolous stuff:
More armour styles. Some of the armour/clothing looked pretty nifty in Inquisition and I liked the customisation options, but there’s not much range.
Better haircuts. It’s a shame they axed the original set (also used in DA2) because there were only one or two I liked in Inquisition.
A photo mode. I loved this in The Last of Us Remastered.
Bianca and Scout Harding as companions.


Thursday, 25 May 2017

Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger – episode 2 out now!

Liu and Guan return in the second action-packed episode of Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger.

In The Demon Attacks, the outlaws go their separate ways, Liu Shanshan and Guan Shi heading to Xuzhou to stay ahead of Ximen’s lackeys. But it’s hard to relax when there’s a demon on your tail…

The third episode, The Tiger and The Demon, is up for pre-order and comes out a week from now.


Friday, 19 May 2017

Skyrim PS4 mods – thoughts and recommendations

It’s been a little while since they came out, but mods for the PS4 edition of Skyrim are an interesting addition to an already immense game. However, as is known, there are limitations compared to not only the PC but the Xbox One (which has a clear advantage), namely total file size (only 1GB) and the total absence of new assets. There’s also a 100 mod limit.

So, given all that, are mods still worth bothering with if you’re on the PS4?

In a word: yes.

As well as nice little additions, some offer substantially changed weather effects, tweaks to gameplay, or even a full-blown overhaul (more on that later). The file size isn’t a problem because the absence of new assets (including scripts) means that you’re almost certain to never reach the limit.

So, are there any downsides to mods? Well, sometimes they conflict, although this will often be obvious. I’ve had a few more crashes (not loads, maybe one every 10 hours or so) when playing as The Red Panther. And the greyface bug is irksome (new NPCs can have freaky faces). But they add a lot to the game, so if you’ve sunk a lot of time into Skyrim and want something a little different, mods can really add to the experience.

Below is a list of mods I’ve particularly enjoyed. Do remember (I keep forgetting...) to like/rate mods that improve your game. These are all free, remember.

Darkness Falls, by Grumpy-Gazz

Since Dragon’s Dogma introduced totally black nights (save for your lantern’s limited light) I’ve really liked this approach. Nights are miles darker, practically impossible to see unless you’ve got a torch, magical light or are Khajiit. The only downside is this is incompatible with Dolomite Weathers (see below). It dovetails very nicely with the two mods bracketed together below.

Lanterns/Lampposts of Skyrim, by MannyGT and Micahghost (respectively)

The first of these mods adds little lanterns to settlements. In the newly darkened world, these really help make the villages and cities a spot of illuminated civilisation in the middle of the wilderness. The lampposts work much the same, providing lighting for the roads. Neither overdoes it, instead managing to get the balance of light just right. They work perfectly with Darkness Falls, and also fit the darker (although not as dark) nights of Dolomite Weathers.

Simple Survival, by Worlds

Now, I’ve only played with this a little bit because it’s not compatible with the Great Realism Overhaul, and when I made two new characters to see which I preferred I went for the latter. That said, this simple survival mod seemed to work very nicely. It adds a requirement to eat, drink and sleep regularly. Fail to do so and you take penalties, including your health, magic or stamina (or multiple) not regenerating. The mod’s author increased the frequency of finding salt to enable more cooking. I liked this a lot, and the only reason I didn’t stick with it is because I liked the other mod even more.

The Great Realism Overhaul, by Simtar123

This mod changes a colossal amount. The perks, especially those for warriors, have been reworked massively, and mostly for the better. One-handed, for example, has various multi-tiered perks to improve your skills with daggers, swords, axes or maces. Backstabbing perks are now located in one-handed, for daggers, and archery, for bows. Crafting replaces smithing and includes perks to improve cooking (curtailed options initially), create pottery as well as the armour/weapons you’d expect (tip: to improve rapidly, focus on arrows).

Combat is utterly reworked. On the recommended Legendary setting, damage both dealt and received is x2 normal, and you can’t shift mid-swing. So, enemies can be side-stepped and whacked, wolves are suddenly a bit dangerous (early on), and fighting multiple enemies is much harder. Correspondingly, a good follower is worth a lot, and summon spells are much more powerful. Stealth is also more valuable because of the enhanced damage, balanced out by enemies searching for you for much longer.

Carry weight has been utterly nerfed (100 initially) and fast travel is verboten, so this will put off some players, and I completely understand that. It’s particularly irksome when you kill a dragon (which is much harder than it was) only to find its valuable bones and scales weigh so much you can barely carry any of it. Travel by carriage is a lot more useful, but you can’t use it when you’re over-encumbered. Perks to make your armour (when worn) weigh less are also really helpful.

One discrepancy I found (I briefly played with a Breton mage to see how magic worked) is that my Khajiit, The Red Panther, had more or less the starting skill numbers I’d expect whereas my Breton, Laura de Mirgnac, had 1 for everything. Incidentally, the Breton starting spell (conjure familiar) is actually of some use.

It also has two supplementary mods for enemies and looting I recommend getting.

The Great Realism Overhaul really does change an awful lot. For me, it’s reinvigorated a game I’ve already (on the PS3) sunk hundreds of hours into.

All Armour Lootable and Wearable, by Bear

A great little mod that does what it says on the tin. If you get attacked by a Dark Brotherhood minion, why shouldn’t you be able to steal his snazzy masked cowl? Also good for getting a load of cash from selling looted stuff. Not compatible with the Great Realism Overhaul (but you wouldn’t be able to carry all the extra armour in any case).

Dolomite Weathers, by Megaloblast

An all-in-one weather mod (there are a few varieties, I just went for the original) which improves things a lot. In particular the higher intensity and sound effects of rain gave me goosebumps, it’s very good. Fog is denser, and the sky (clouds, aurora) just seems a lot better. I think that the distance you can see has been dramatically increased, although before this I was using the weather mods below so I can’t swear to it. Nights are darker, although not as black as Darkness Falls. The only downside is that the aforementioned mod is incompatible with Dolomite Weathers, but, generally, this is really good.

Supreme Storms, by MannyGT

A weather mod that turns rain showers into torrential downpours. It’s even more intense than the Dolomite version, and works very well (obviously incompatible with Dolomite, though).

Supreme and Volumetric Fog, by MannyGT

Similarly, dense fog for those who don’t want to go down the Dolomite route. Before I had the all-in-one mod, I used this, Supreme Storms and Darkness Falls, which all meshed nicely together.

Master the Summit, by SpaceGoats

We’ve all been there. Heading for Ivarstead. Discovering you’ve got to go all round the houses. Master the Summit adds bridges, steps and so forth to various places in Skyrim, making it easier to get around on foot. Especially useful for those going without fast travel, and fits in perfectly with the game.

Rich Merchants, by Jason069

Pretty simple. Stops merchants running out of money when you want to flog them stuff. Straightforward and very useful.

Smooth Human Female Faces, by FiNwolf

At the risk of sounding shallow, wrinkly foreheads don’t do it for me. This simple mod gives them (particularly Bretons) smooth foreheads so you can have a character who isn’t looking inexplicably old.

Phenderix Magic World DLC, by Phenderix

I’ve not played extensively as a mage, but had to include this mod. It includes several new locations (not visited them) and hundreds of new spells, some of which I’ve messed around with. There’s a vastly increased range of summons, and the destruction magic is improved with new spells too. New bosses, followers, loading screens and the mod bundles together a number of previously released, smaller mods. If you’re playing as a mage or part-time magic user, this is well worth a look.

Immersive Patrols, by Ameermohamedtt

Adds patrols from the various factions (Imperials, Stormcloaks, Thalmor etc) throughout the roads. These can, and will, encounter one another. They can also be very handy if a dragon shows up. I happened upon a fort that’s usually bandit-held (in the vanilla game) and instead found a massive Imperial-Stormcloak battle, which was pretty cool. It’s a nice touch that makes the world feel more alive.

Immersive and Levelled Items, by Gehirnmutant

There’s a problem with finding cool items early, which is that you get lumbered with a basic level of enchantment. However, this nifty mod means you can then level it up to improved versions, if you have the right material. So, if you get Chillrend early on, you’re not stuck with the n00blet level effect forever. Pretty simple, and a nice addition.

Late addition:
Fix: Restore Vanilla Settings, by DylanJames

After writing the above, I wanted to check to make sure I wasn’t over-egging the cake with certain things (particularly to see whether I was misremembering how far you can see the landscape without mods). So I started a new save, without mods. However, my character had far lower skills (1 for most) than she should’ve. Lakraz Ogre-Killer was not amused. I tried making another new save, but Gryzelda also had the same problem. Mostly, this didn’t change a lot, but I couldn’t actually sharpen the iron dagger in Riverwood because I lacked the skill (my smithing was only about 6 or 7).

Happily, the above mod fixed things, although I did have to make a new character.

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but there’s a fair range of good mods that players both hardcore and casual might enjoy.


Monday, 15 May 2017

Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger – episode 1 out now (free)!

Fast, fun and free, the first episode of new fantasy serial Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger is out now.

It’s very much Robin Hood meets Ancient China, as the story follows the adventures of the feisty and irascible Wandering Phoenix, and wise and experienced Roaming Tiger, as well as featuring their loyal friends and implacable foes. Lots of action and dramatic plot twists abound, with a minimum of flim-flam, so it’s perfect for some fantastical escapism.

The first episode is less than half the size of the next two, a nice bite-sized snack to see if you like the style and characters. Episodes 2 and 3 should be up shortly (plan on submitting episode 2 later today for pre-order). So, give it a look and if you like it the next two episodes will be available soon, and, if not, you’ve lost nothing.


Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger cover reveal

Here it is, the cover for the first run of my new serial, Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger:

Many thanks to Jamie Glover for the cover art, which really captures the Far Eastern feel of the story. 

Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger is akin to Robin Hood meets Ancient China, featuring the two title characters and their friends as they fight injustice and face treachery, oppressive noblemen and fearsome warriors along the way.

I’m hoping to get the first episode released within a week, and will put up a new blog when that’s the case. Once Episode One is price-matched (for zero) on Amazon, I’ll put up Episodes Two and Three for pre-order.

Being free, the first episode is quite dinky and will be an easy way to find out if the serial’s for you. It’s fast, action-packed, high on drama and adventure. If you’ve read Outlaws of the Marsh or Three Kingdoms, it may well appeal to you especially.

So, keep your eyes peeled. Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger will be on the loose soon!