Thursday, 15 March 2018

Tales of Knights and Nitwits: Episode 8

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As I mentioned before, episode 9 is due in a fortnight. And if you enjoy this style of comedy, do give The Adventures of Sir Edric, by me, a look. And a buy. 


Friday, 9 March 2018

Review: Angel’s Knight, by AJ Grimmelhaus

Angel’s Knight is the third book in the Angelwar Trilogy. Naturally, there will be some spoilers for the preceding books (reviews here for book 1 and here for book 2).

The story follows immediately on from the events of the preceding book, with Tol and Stetch in hot pursuit of the captive Katarina. Elsewhere, a traitor from within the Seven is picking off its knights, and Tol is uncertain just who he can trust.

The writing style is, as you would expect, similar to the other books. Fast-paced, some nice lines to add a sense of realism/humanity, although there were a small number of errors which I hadn’t seen in the earlier books (nothing huge).

I have mixed views about the plot twists. One felt less weighty than it should have because those involved had had relatively little time, particularly in the last book. Another was out of the blue but I felt it worked for that reason (and the nature of the surprise fit well).

I did like the ending, which I shan’t spoil. The ending itself capped both the book and the trilogy nicely.


Saturday, 3 March 2018

Review: Discourses on Livy, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Think Machiavelli and immediately the mind jumps to The Prince. And why not? It’s a damned good book, despite the outrage generated when he had the temerity to be honest about how political reality worked.

However, he also wrote a number of other books, including Discourses on Livy. It’s larger than The Prince’s slender proportions, similar in terms of including advice on governance but differing in the general preference for a republic over a principality.

The Prince was written [in a rush] for a specific individual, Lorenzo de Medici, at a specific time, when it seemed the Medici family might be able to form a solid Italian state and rescue it from what Machiavelli saw as perpetual infighting, leading to weakness and making Italy ripe for foreign invasion.

Discourses on Livy took longer to write, and was not aimed at a specific individual who might give Machiavelli a job and spare him from drudgery. It’s also, as the same suggests, more focused on commentaries about Livy’s (surviving) writing and comparing ancient Rome to modern Italy. There are some other historical and contemporary comparisons, but that’s the heart of it.

You do not not need to have read anything by Livy to get the references, which are explained both by Machiavelli himself and the very helpful notes (as an aside, I still hate endnotes and this edition, by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, uses endnotes).

Machiavelli’s commentaries are a mix of domestic governance and military advice, and whilst I don’t agree with everything he says, he does back everything up with his own reasoning and historical/contemporary examples.

The hero-worship of Rome does lead to some questionable conclusions. For example, he praises Hannibal’s skill unstintingly but nevertheless describes the Carthaginian general as treacherous and cruel. The first is a charge made by Romans who thought battle tactics amounted to cheating (specifically cited was his provoking Flaminius into chasing him to Lake Trasimene, which didn’t end terribly well for the Romans), and the second is a shade rich given Livy himself praised his ancestors for wiping out so many adult males from a rival. (Hannibal also never committed genocide, unlike Alexander or Julius Caesar).

However, for the most part Discourses on Livy is an interesting blend of history, politics, and human nature. Unlike many at the time, Machiavelli is ready and willing to face up to the fact that people are capable of acting horrendously in their own self-interest, and that those at the top of politics have their actions governed more by expedience than morality (more recently termed ‘reasons of state’).

The main flaw, endnotes aside, is the Animal Farm problem. Like 1984 to Animal Farm, Discourses suffers a bit by way of comparison with the slimmer and similar ‘other book’. I’d probably suggest buying The Prince, and, if you like it, then giving Discourses on Livy a look.


Thursday, 1 March 2018

Tales of Knights and Nitwits: Episode 7

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Apologies for the slight delay with this episode, beyond the expected wait. The art for episodes 8 and 9 is done and I plan on putting them up something like a fortnight apart. Thanks to those who partook in the recent Twitter naming poll. There will likely be another one, again for a minor character, in the nearish future.


Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Two Drawings

One downside to the otherwise enjoyable experience of drawing lots of stuff for Tales of Knights and Nitwits is that it’s occupied all my time available for drawing. I’m still working on Crown of Blood, the final part of The Bloody Crown Trilogy, and wanted to draw a map for it. A little time off from the comic was therefore needed.

Here’s the map of Falshire, the north-west corner of Denland, where many things occur in the final part of the trilogy. It’s not perfect but I’m broadly happy with how it’s turned out. That said, I still need to assess how it will appear on a Kindle, which is the single most important question.

Ages ago I had guides to several Final Fantasy videogames. Due to lack of space, and also the rarity of me going back to replay them (I am a hoarder, still have games dating back to Sonic the Hedgehog), I got rid of them all some time ago. However, I did find a small (maybe an inch, half an inch, something like that) depiction of Vivi, from FFIX, in that game’s manual. Given the diminutive nature of the reference material, I’m quite pleased with how the drawing eventually turned out. The trousers could be better, but they’re somewhat tricky.

[There was something else I meant to add here but I have forgotten what it was. I am quite certain, however, that it was witty and insightful].

The next episode of Knights and Nitwits will hopefully be up next week.


Saturday, 17 February 2018

Kingdom Come Deliverance: early thoughts on realism versus micromanagement [PS4]

Kingdom Come Deliverance is an open world RPG, but unlike most of the genre it’s set in a real time/place (Bohemia [roughly, the Czech Republic], 1403) and has a heavy emphasis on realism. So, no magic, no dragons, the buildings actually visited, photographed and presented in game as close to reality as possible, etc.

Now, the realism slant has intrigued a lot of people but also divided them. Some think of historical immersion and want to throw themselves into the early 15th century. Others think it’s going to mean a lot of micromanagement.

The game is out for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, and the version I’m playing is for the PS4.

I’ve been following this game’s development for a long time, and here are my early thoughts on Kingdom Come Deliverance, specifically focusing on the realism aspect. For comparisons, I’ll largely reference Fallout 4’s survival mode, because a huge number of people have played that and, as an open world RPG, it’s broadly similar.

There are only three ways to save: automatic checkpoints, drinking a Saviour Schnapps (you get given some of these early on), and sleeping in a bed. I like most aspects of realism in the game, but this one needs a small tweak. As with the Fallout 4 survival mode, the addition of an exit save would be immensely beneficial because if you’ve played through a tough half hour but you know the nearest save point is some way off it’s not great to be faced with a choice of giving up all that progress *or* slogging through when you have other things to do. Until/unless they had the exit save feature, I’d recommend being cunning and always having Saviour Schnapps on you, and use them as an emergency exit save option. The alternative is to power nap. You can just sleep for an hour in the middle of the day to save it.

Nourishment happens much more on a graded curve than Fallout 4, which had a smaller number of more severe steps. In addition, it’s possible to over-eat (as I discovered after consuming my bodyweight in cheese and apples) but that’s also entirely avoidable (you just need to keep an eye on your Nourishment number. Food is commonplace, inexpensive, and whilst most of it goes off (meat lasts a couple of days, fruit the best part of a week) it’s never been a problem. It’s also less urgent than in Fallout 4, in which hunger worsened a lot faster. Indeed, the main problem I’ve had with food is being paranoid about having enough and then collecting so much it weighs a ton.

It turns out jumping off a bridge will hurt your feet. Fortunately, not enough to break them (in my case) but I had two wounded foot symbols appear, with a slowly shrinking yellow indicator of malady. You can break feet (I’ve read) and you can certainly bleed. This can be staunched with bandaging, a skill you learn early on. Health does not automatically regenerate. Sleeping, eating food and drinking potions can restore it. You cannot heal mid-combat.

Even knowing how the combat worked, it still took me a little while to get the hang of it, with attacks coming from one of six directions, consuming stamina, chaining attacks and blocking. There was a very fun moment when someone started a fist fight with me and I whipped out my sword (he ran off, screaming). Having more men on your side is a massive advantage. Even with the weirdness of the system, a few fights in I felt a lot more comfortable with it. There’s also an interesting trade-off with armour, as it weighs a lot. So you can be a shiny steel tank of a man but have little carrying capacity, or go in more lightly armoured but capable of carrying a lot.

One unusual option available is to play an almost pacifist game. There is only one character you have to kill in the entire game. Obviously, most people will kill more, but you can spare enemies and/or avoid combat so if you want to play the game as Henry Pax and have almost no bloodshed, you can. This was my initial intention, but then some bandit attacked me on the road and I instead played as Henry Malleus Bandittorum (and got some nicer clothing from looting the corpse).

I’ve only tried archery once, and shamed England with my ineptitude with a bow.

Fast travel:
This option does exist but it’s a bit different to other games. In most RPGs, it’s effectively a teleport. In this game, you see your character making his way across the map, energy and nourishment slowly going down. I think it’s possible for encounters to occur during fast travel (although this hasn’t happened to me in my limited play time). It’s quite a nice halfway house because it fits with the realism slant of the game without forcing the player to literally walk (or ride) everywhere.

Obviously this is subjective to a large extent. Personally, I think the approach taken is generally a good one. It offers something new, and, as someone who likes history, the setting also appeals to me a lot. There are other things to be considered when I get round to a full review (graphics, bugs etc) but, for the most part I like the realism. If you enjoyed the Fallout 4 survival mode you won’t have many problems with this.

I wasn’t going to mention anything other than the realism, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the enormous day 1 patch, which is 23GB. For years I had no internet connection for my console, and I’m really not fond of this practice of having such massive patches.


Saturday, 10 February 2018

Projectile weapons in history

I tend not to chase hits, and just ramble as I like, but did notice that the medieval taxation blog got more hits than average so thought I’d write some more in a similar vein.

Projectile weapons, by which I mean one- or two-handed weapons rather than siege equipment, have been used throughout warfare. Most recently, we have sniper rifles and the like, but the bow and arrow go all the way back to prehistory, and the sling likewise.

But which was more effective? And what about darts?

Slings were used by many people, perhaps most notably the shepherds on the Balearic Islands. Because the terrain was very rugged and it was a pain to wander around, the shepherds would sling stones to get sheep to move this way or that. Naturally, the ability to (fairly) accurately hurl stones was handy in warfare too.

In war, slingers would prefer to use the lead bullet, which would be a pellet of lead similar in shape to a rugby ball or acorn. A big advantage they had over archers was that if they ran out of ammunition they could just scrabble for stones and use them instead. Armouring oneself against a bullet or stone from a sling is difficult. Not only are they harder to see than an arrow (which might be three feet long, give or take), but the sheer concussive force is significant. An arrow might be deflected by a curving piece of armour or shield, but a lead bullet will give you a solid thwack wherever it hits. The Romans had a specific surgical tool (fancy tongs) for removing lead bullets because, hitting unprotected flesh, they would get deeply embedded.

That all sounds impressive, but there are two major drawbacks with slingers. Firstly, the range is much less than that of an archer. Secondly, the accuracy is much lower. There are some other pros and cons. You can sling in the rain, whereas bowstrings go a bit iffy, and I’m not sure there’s any record of riding slingers (unlike mounted archers or mounted darters). Another pro is that a sling can just be tied around the waist, so you could have a few shots at the enemy, then pick up your ‘proper’ weapons to meet their charge. (A bow and quiver are rather more cumbersome, although you could still have a sword or suchlike, or even just smack enemies in the face with your bow).

The shorter range and poorer accuracy made slingers significantly less useful for the attacking party during sieges, because simply reaching the defenders (assuming they’re atop a wall) and hitting them was harder than it was for archers. Naturally, the sling was still pretty handy in defence, with gravity helping the distance and weak accuracy compensated for by the funnelling of attackers (who would cluster against a gate, at scaling ladders, or the site of a breach).

Side note: slingers were also involved the first ever literal form of friendly ‘fire’ in history, when messages were passed between opposing sides during a siege. On a less amicable note, lead bullets would sometimes be engraved with offensive messages to their intended targets, as per the modern world with bombs.

Archers have a special place in English history, largely due to helping crush the French at Agincourt. And they’re pretty damned impressive bits of kit. They can shoot at a faster rate than a Napoleonic-era musket, with better range and accuracy. Not only that, they’re pretty good at getting through most armour (eventually armour caught up and the curving plates became very successful at deflecting arrows). There were, in Parthia, famous horse-archers who could shoot from the saddle (including backwards, the famous Parthian Shot). These Parthian chaps were amongst those who cut Crassus to pieces at Carrhae. At one time, it was illegal in England and Wales not to perform archery practice, so useful were the peasant archers to the army.

However, this indicates the single biggest drawback of the bow. Teaching someone to use a war bow takes a long time because immense strength is required. Give an average man one, and his skeleton would bend before the bow was pulled all the way back. Unlike slingers, arrows have to be used, and you don’t just find ammunition scattered about on the floor. Mentioned above, but the strings also went a bit wonky in the rain.

During a siege, arrows were a very good means of ensuring the besiegers didn’t wander too near. Whilst archers could also be used offensively, battlements and arrow slits offered good protection for defending archers, and gravity made their job rather easier than the men tasked at firing upwards at tall walls.

There is, however, a third type of projectile weapon used in the ancient world: the thrown spear (or dart. And also throwing axe). My favourite example of these would be the Numidian cavalry that accompanied Hannibal in his famous invasion of Italy. These fellows rode small horses, rampaging around battlefields and peppering the enemy with darts (small thrown spears) before retreating. Now, those au fait with classical history will be aware that the Roman cavalry was rubbish but, nevertheless, the Numidian cavalry was a key strength of Hannibal’s army. They were also highly disciplined, which enabled them, having chased off the Roman horse at Cannae, to return to the battle and help complete the encirclement of the Romans.

A foot soldier equivalent, of a different nature, can be find in the Romans themselves. The legionary would have his own throwing spear, the heavyweight and hated pilum. The pilum was deliberately designed to be useless for most of the things a spear is usually good for (walking stick, three to a make a tripod, two to make a stretcher etc). It was heavy at the sharp end with an intentionally weak spearhead that would become hopelessly bent upon impact. This was cunning, because if it struck a shield, the sheer weight made the shield worthless. The pila were thrown right before the charge, killing some enemy and rendering the rest shieldless moments before the legion closed the distance and introduced their foes to the business end of their swords.

A third example would be the Frankish throwing axe. Smaller than the pilum, and with a curving handle which, according to an impeccable source (Lindybeige), ensured it bounced unpredictably, the throwing axe would be the Franks’ warm welcome to their battlefield opponents.

Thrown weapons, naturally, have much shorter range. In common with archers, but even more so, once ammunition is spent, that’s it. Because arrows are smaller than darts, the number of projectiles available is correspondingly smaller. There’s also a chance that the enemy might throw your weapon back, depending how the battle is going (although obviously this isn’t a problem with the pilum, which is a one-throw spear). There’s also a very clear divide, with horse rolling up, throwing some darts and then buggering off before the enemy get close, and foot throwing then immediately charging whilst the enemy are in disarray (in short, Numidian horsemen want to avoid getting close at all costs, whereas Roman legionaries want to get close as soon as possible after throwing).

In sieges, thrown weapons were either very handy (and could encompass heavy rocks or boiling sand/water) or bloody useless, depending which side you were on and the size of the walls.

NB I decided specifically not to include crossbows because the mechanism involved enables a shot to be held, imminently ready to be loosed, whereas all the above examples require the exertion immediately prior to release. That might sound like a finickity reason, but it fundamentally alters the way that crossbows were used in sieges (you could load then aim at a specific point waiting for a patrolling guard, something very hard to accomplish with a bow).


Monday, 5 February 2018

A Denar Delivered

Now and then I’ve written about the forthcoming (out next week, actually) videogame Kingdom Come Deliverance, which is an open-world RPG set in Bohemia, 1403, with an emphasis on realism.

By chance, I happened to see that there was a free Twitter raffle at the account, retweeted the relevant tweet and won the first contest for a Bohemian silver denar from around 1390/1400. And it arrived in the post today.

For a size comparison (ahem) I naturally sought my sixpence jar, which all Yorkshiremen possess for such occasions, opting for a 1947 George VI sixpence (good condition but not especially shiny). As you can see, the denar is substantially smaller (and the sixpence isn’t large). What you cannot see is that the denar is incredibly thin, almost wafer-thin.

This small diameter and thinness is not unique to the denar. I have it on good authority that English pennies of the same era were very similar. That’s because the value of the coin was based on its silver content (and why many rulers got into trouble for devaluing their coinage by lowering the silver content).

You may have guessed from the fact I have a sixpence jar that I have a small collection of coins, so getting an addition for just retweeting something was a very nice little bonus. There’s also an off-chance that the coin in question was handled by some of the historical figures in Kingdom Come Deliverance, which is quite a nice thought (and one marketing advantage that games with a historical setting might enjoy).

KCD is out on the 13th of February. I’ll probably post a quick blog with my early thoughts on it when I’ve had a chance to see how things stack up.


Saturday, 3 February 2018

The Last City: pre-order now!

Good news! Sci-fi anthology The Last City, featuring stories from a dozen authors including me, is out on 15 February. The UK pre-order link (just 99p for Kindle pre-orders) is here.

The Last City, cunningly, revolves around a city in space that mines asteroids in a distant solar system. Human explorers arrived there some time ago, and also have small (mostly rubbish) colonies on the system’s planets. Over time, the City has evolved into a political structure akin to corporate feudalism, with President Toros Strand enjoying a firm grip on power.

From the glittering heights of power to the criminal underworld beneath, twelve tales of excellent new sci-fi await within The Last City.


Thursday, 1 February 2018

Tales of Knights and Nitwits: Episode 5

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Tristan has discovered being handsome and virtuous is no match for taking a deadly spell to the face. Will Freya's fantasy man die in her arms? Will Lord Grimshag prove friend or foe? Read on to find out. 


Saturday, 27 January 2018

Review: The Norman Conquest, by Marc Morris

I snapped this paperback up when it was just £3, and it turned out to be (a modest amount of) money well spent. (At the time of writing, that sale, at Amazon UK, is still on).

My knowledge of the Conquest itself, and the situation preceding and immediately succeeding it, was basic at best, and I found this book to be excellent in all three regards.

The author paints a picture of pre-Conquest England that’s detailed enough to give a very good impression of the state of play (early on it’s almost a dual biography of Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror) without getting bogged down. This is invaluable as it portrays the heavy Scandinavian influence on England, which included a live threat of invasion before, during, and after the Conquest.

There is also a concise look at the formation of Normandy, from conquest by Vikings to Frankification [my own term, I should stress]. This includes not just a brief look at the culture and power structures of the realm (and how it stayed strong when much of the rest of what later became France splintered), but also the difficult and dangerous early life of William.

Naturally, most of the book revolves around the Conquest, specifically the reign of William the Conqueror. Whilst the events of 1066 are covered, I was glad that this didn’t form an excessive focus of the history because the basics are done to death, and the succeeding events, of which I previously knew little or nothing, were more interesting to discover.

The lack of Englishmen at the top of society afterwards was partly policy, and partly the fault of those who embarked upon repeated rebellions, forcing their removal (imprisonment being more common than execution). That said, the Harrying of the North, which may have led to three-quarters of those in Yorkshire dying, and general rapacity of the Normans in seizing land and forcing free men into servitude, paint the Conquest in a very dark light.

After the end of William’s reign there’s a quick summary of the events that followed, which I found very interesting.

There is one huge negative in this book, which is the vile, heretical, and unacceptable use of the Brownian tautology ‘pre-prepared’. Alright, this won’t do more than annoy most people, but for me it’s a pet hate. Honestly, Marc Morris. I expected better of you.

Leaving that abominable abuse of the English language aside, I was really pleased with this book. The writing style is easy to understand, the detail underpins explanations of why the author opts for specific interpretations of historical sources, and the scope of the book covers the preceding situation as well as the full reign of William the Conqueror.