Wednesday, 7 October 2015

THE LAST KINGDOM gets UK airdate

The Last Kingdom, the BBC drama based on Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories, will debut on BBC2 on Thursday 22 October at 9pm.

For unclear reasons, the drama is airing first in the United States starting this Saturday on BBC America. The drama has also received a massive amount of marketing support from BBC America, including an excellent website and plenty of trailers and featurettes. The BBC press for the show in the UK has been virtually non-existent in comparison. The airdate and time is also not particularly exciting: this should really be a prime-time Sunday night show airing on BBC1, given its clearly large budget and appeal.

Despite the BBC's baffling (but not unprecedented, as anyone who can recall the shabby handling of Rome can attest) treatment of the show, it's building up some good advance press in the States, with Variety giving the first episode a glowing review and proclaiming it the equal of Vikings and much better than the similarly-themed Bastard Executioner. Den of Geek also has a positive review.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

FAR CRY: PRIMAL announced

Ubisoft have announced Far Cry: Primal, a side-game in their monstrously popular Far Cry series of first-person shooters. Like Blood Dragon, this isn't the next full game in the core series, but a stand-alone interlude which experiments with different ideas and mechanics to the main game series.

In this case, Primal takes place at the dawn of human history with you playing the member of a hunter-gather clan. You fight rival clans and hunt sabre-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths. There are no guns, vehicles, radio towers or, apparently, conversations in modern English, all of which the previous games in the series relied on. Instead the game will double down on the crafting, hunting, stealth, melee combat and use of bows that were side-features in Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4.

It's definitely a bold and unusual move for a huge, AAA franchise, and a welcome one for a FPS series that used to defy expectations and be more experimental before it became so massively successful.

The game will be released in February 2016 on console, followed by the PC version in March.


Bantam (in the USA) and HarperCollins Voyager (in the UK) released A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms today.

This book is a collection of George R.R. Martin's three Dunk and Egg novellas, short novels spanning a period of time beginning eighty-nine years before the events of A Game of Thrones and expected to conclude approximately fifty years later. The series chronicles the adventures of Ser Duncan the Tall, a hedge knight who rises from obscurity to great fame and high office, and his squire "Egg", who is more than he seems.

The collection consists of The Hedge Knight (1998), The Sworn Sword (2002) and The Mystery Knight (2010). Martin is working on the fourth story in the series, which has the working (but not final) title of The She-Wolves of Winterfell, but he decided some time ago to rework the story. It will not be released until after The Winds of Winter comes out. A working title of the planned fifth story in the series, The Village Hero, has also been disclosed. Martin has said there may be up to a dozen of these stories in total. Existing Song of Ice and Fire characters have appeared in the Dunk and Egg books, such as a very young Walder Frey, whilst Aemon Targaryen has been mentioned, but as the novellas progress and get closer to the present other characters are likely to appear. Fan speculation is high that the final story will take place at Summerhall on the fateful night of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen's birth.

Of course, in the meantime Martin does have two rather large novels to finish.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Opening title sequence for THE LAST KINGDOM

BBC America has released the opening title sequence to The Last Kingdom, a new ongoing historical series based on Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series of novels. The first season of the show is expected to cover (more or less) the first two books in the series.

The series debuts on 10 October on BBC America. Bafflingly, no airdate has been given for the UK, where it is expected to air on BBC2.

Patrick Rothfuss's books to be adapted into many things

Patrick Rothfuss has struck a deal with Lionsgate over his Kingkiller Chronicles books, The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man's Fear and the forthcoming Doors of Stone. The deal will involve feature films, a TV series and a video game.

The exact details of the deal remain to be hammered out, but will include both films and a TV series that will adapt the books, as well as potentially telling new stories in the world of Termerant. Robert Lawrence, who worked on Clueless, Rock Star and The Last Castle, will executive produce the project.

The level of Rothfuss's involvement also remains to be seen. Rothfuss is finishing off The Doors of Stone for (hopefully) a 2016 release, so will be free of any immediate, announced obligations in the near future. Rothfuss also picked up some recent video game writing experience when he contributed characters, quests and dialogue to inXile's forthcoming Torment: Tides of Numenera.

It's unlikely we will see anything on screen before (at the earliest) late 2017/early 2018, but the level of commitment from Lionsgate is seriously impressive.

The news also confirms that the Kingkiller books have sold just over 10 million copies, making it easily the most successful debut epic fantasy series of the past decade.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 15

One of the criticisms levelled against epic fantasy and some of its trappings - worldbuilding, magic systems, maps, constructed languages - is that it runs counter to the more traditional idea of fantasy as being strange, exotic, weird. East of the Sun and West of the Moon is not a point on a map (to quote Pratchett expert Stephen Briggs) and knowing the metaphysical rules that allow a princess to be put into suspended animation for a century only to be woken up by a passing prince is a bit unnecessary to the story at hand.

There's also the fact that an awful lot of fantasy can feel like a history of the real Middle Ages but with dragons and fireballs replacing research. Starting in the 1980s, some authors wrote books that looked like epic fantasy and had many of the same trappings, but had rather different settings and were combined with other genres to create more interesting and original stories.

The Gunslinger

As a child, Stephen King developed a fascination with the poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came (1855) by Robert Browning. This was one of a number of poems and poetic works that would stick in the minds of various science fiction and fantasy authors, to be extensively quoted later on (see also The Second Combing by W.B. Yeats and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot). King's take was rather more literal: a man named Roland seeks out a dark tower. Working out exactly what that meant took King over a decade, with him writing down the first version of the short story known as The Gunslinger in 1970. He finally published it in 1978. A series of four further short stories followed, with them being collected together and published as one volume in 1982.

When The Gunslinger appeared, King was already a rising star. He'd published Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Dead Zone and the novel that had arguably defined him more than any other, The Stand. The Stand is itself a work of epic fantasy using modern American characters to stand in for archetypal fantasy heroes and the destruction of the modern world through a viral epidemic as its backstory. North America itself stands in for a fantasy landscape, with Las Vegas serving as the novel's Mordor. The novel was hugely successful, but some readers felt that there was a lot more to its mysteries - such as the enigmatically evil Randall Flagg - than King revealed on the page.

In the back of King's mind (perhaps influenced by Moorcock) had been the idea of a multiverse, a layering of fictional universes in which different stories could take place but where all these stories could intersect with them. What he lacked was a way of tying them together. The Gunslinger, with its ambiguous setting and the ability of its characters to pass between shifting planes of reality, provided that mechanism.

Seven more volumes in The Dark Tower series followed The Gunslinger: The Drawing of the Three (1987), The Waste Lands (1991), Wizard and Glass (1997), Wolves of the Calla (2003), Song of Susannah (2004) and The Dark Tower (2004), along with a stand-alone spin-off novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012). The novels focus on Roland Deschain, a knight and gunslinger who pursues a mysterious "man in black" across a desert, gathering allies along the way. There are hints of a post-apocalyptic world, strengthened by references to The Stand and its characters. Real-life figures, including (controversially) King himself, make an appearance. Many other novels King wrote during this period tied into the main work: The Eyes of the Dragon (1987) is King's only "traditional" epic fantasy novel and features the return of Randall Flagg and references to The Dark Tower. Black House, Hearts in Atlantis, Rose Madder and Insomnia (among others) also feature blatant references to the series. In fact, some King fans suggest that all of King's work (even the non-supernatural thrillers like Misery) is set in the Dark Tower multiverse and they may be right.

Cloud Warrior

Patrick Tilley had already had an interesting writing career before he started writing his magnum opus in 1983. His first novel, Fade Out (1976), had been an SF novel about the arrival of an alien spacecraft on Earth that drained the planet of electricity, throwing us back into the Middle Ages. His second, Mission (1981), had asked what would happen if Jesus turned up in present-day New York City.

For his next work, Tilley decided to fuse together Mad Max, Shogun, The Lord of the Rings and the American Western because, well, why not? The resulting series was The Amtrak Wars, the kind of inspired, crazy genre mash-up that we don't seen nearly enough of in the genre.

The books open in 2989. The Old World was destroyed in a nuclear apocalypse (which took place in, er, November 2015) but a group of American industrialists and billionaires survived in a massive underground shelter beneath Houston, Texas. With the surface world too radioactive to survive on, they expanded the underground facilities into a vast subterranean empire, the Amtrak Federation. Emerging centuries later, they found to their horror that the surface world had been taken over by "Mutes", the mutated survivors and descendants of less fortunate Americans who'd had to struggle to survive after the thermonuclear war. The Federation initially waged war against the Mutes to retake the surface world, but ran into problems when it was discovered that the Mutes had somehow gained mastery of the elements and magic. Complicating matters further was the presence of a large nation of descendants of Japanese survivors on the eastern seaboard, Ne-Issan.

The books chronicle the development of the Talisman Prophecy, which the Mutes believe will see the destruction of the Amtrak Federation, and the role played in it by four young people from both the Federation and the Clan M'Call of the Mutes. The books are also notable for their vivid action scenes and extraordinarily complicated politics and schemes-within-schemes developed by the central character, the Machiavellian antihero Steve Brickman.

Six volumes were published in the series: Cloud Warrior (1983), First Family (1985), Iron Master (1987), Blood River (1988), Death-Bringer (1989) and Earth-Thunder (1990). The sixth volume ended on something of a cliffhanger, intended to lead into a sequel series set 15-20 years later when the Talisman Prophecy came to fruition. However, Tilley chose to move onto other projects. There was a renewed attempt to continue the series in 2007 with a new trilogy, whilst an Australian production company licensed the film rights in 2010 with a view to making a movie called The Talisman Prophecy, but neither came to fruition. Still, the series remains remarkable for the ease with which Tilley brings together a myriad number of sources and ideas into a coherent world and story.

The Wizards and the Warriors

Few could accuse New Zealand novelist Hugh Cook of lacking vision. In 1986 he published The Wizards and the Warriors, the first novel in a series he called Chronicles of an Age of Darkness. Cook's plan was for this series to run to twenty volumes, to be followed by two series of equal length, Chronicles of an Age of Wrath and Chronicles of an Age of Heroes. The sixty-book plan was overly ambitious despite Cook's high speed of output, but ultimately he only finished the first half of the first series (ten novels in six years) before it was halted due to lack of sales.

Unusually, the series was not one massive epic story. Instead, it was more episodic with some novels taking place simultaneously alongside others, with events varying depending on who was witnessing or instigating them. The books used unreliable narrators and a prose style that could vary significantly from volume to volume. The books also eschewed a lot of epic fantasy tropes, with the books not following a set chronology and not having a central hero or villain. The books featured whimsical humour and influences from sword and sorcery as well as planetary romance. Some books were reminiscent of the later New Weird movement (China Mieville was a big fan). Some books were more like roleplaying games, with Paizo Publishing reprinting one of the volumes, The Walrus and the Warwolf, as part of its Planet Stories line.

After the series concluded (prematurely) Cook published several more books before sadly passing away in 2008 from cancer. His massive mega-series was never finished, but its breadth, vision and general batshit insanity remain intriguing (and echoes, intended or not, of the tonal variations, dark humour and continent-skipping structure can be found in Steven Erikson's Malazan novels).

Wolf in Shadow

We have already looked at Legend, David Gemmell's first novel, published in 1984. Gemmell subsequently produced several more books in the same setting and he was soon being pigenoholed as a heroic fantasy author.

In 1987 he shifted that perception with Wolf in Shadow (sometimes published under the title The Jerusalem Man). This was a post-apocalyptic novel, set in a world devastated by an unspecific event known as "The Fall". An episode later in the novel has the titular Jon Shannow, a gun-wielding antihero, discovering the wreck of the Titanic, indicating the action is set on the now-bone-dry floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The novel and its two sequels featured post-apocalyptic tropes combined with fantasy, particularly with the introduction of the Sipstrassi or Stones of Power, items with magical capabilities.

The core series featuring Jon Shannow is among Gemmell's most popular works, but it was later expanded with a duology set in ancient Greece and featuring Alexander the Great. The duology initially appears to be historical fiction, but the introduction of the Sipstrassi linked it to the Jon Shannow books and hinted at a grander, weirder scheme in place. Gemmell later returned to his Drenai setting and several new fantasy worlds before concluding his career with pure historical fiction, so it is unclear how this series would have continued.


Released in 1989, the roleplaying game Shadowrun has a central premise which it executes very well: epic fantasy meets cyberpunk.

The roleplaying game and its attendant video games and novels postulate an existential catastrophe which takes place in 2012. The world is transformed, with some of the human population transformed into fantasy races like elves, dwarves, trolls and orks. Magic also suddenly comes into existence, other planes of existence are revealed to exist, allowing demonic entities and dragons to enter our world. Despite widespread death and destruction resulting from the catastrophe, humanity manages to survive and prosper, with technological advancement proceeding and the new races integrated into human culture.

The roleplaying game is set fifty years further down the line, with massive mega-corporations controlling the world and people surviving best they can. The game focuses on "shadowrunners", freelance agents who act as corporate spies, soldiers of fortune and mercenaries, working for themselves or corporations or underground resistance groups.

In Shadowrun's case, the mashing together of epic fantasy races, tropes and magic with science fiction and cyberpunk is wildly successful, bringing both a sense of fun from simply colliding the two worlds together and also allowing the creators to investigate themes of technology versus spirituality in unusual ways. After a lengthy period of relative quite, Shadowrun recently exploded back into popularity with the release of three new video games, Shadowrun Returns, Dragonfall and Hong Kong. Its future seems bright.

The mashing up of fantasy with SF and other genres has generated interesting results, although success and sales have often been patchy when this has been attempted. The once exception is historical fiction, which epic fantasy has riffed on with frequent and ongoing success.

PACIFIC RIM 2 put on indefinite hold, Del Toro considers new projects

Guillermo Del Toro's next flick was supposed to be Pacific Rim 2, the sequel to his 2012 mech-vs-monster action movie. Although only a modest success in the United States, it was a strong worldwide hit and the movie had been greenlit to begin shooting in the New Year for a 2017 release.

Unfortunately, the movie has run afoul of a political game of football between the production company, Legendary, and the studio releasing the film, Universal (Warner Brothers released the first film, but Universal has inherited the sequel). The two publicly remain committed to the film, and Guillermo Del Toro has said he wants Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams to join the cast, but it now has no production or release date.

Del Toro has also indicated he may put another film into production before Pacific Rim 2. There is no word on what the film may be, but Del Toro has been talking recently about some of his favourite vampire and horror books, including Alone with the Horrors by Ramsay Campbell, The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee and Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin. With Del Toro producing The Strain, a TV series about vampires (or, more accurately, vampire-zombie hybrids), it may be less likely that his next work will again be about the undead bloodsuckers, but if so he's got some great inspiration going on.

He also mentions Martin's Sandkings, an SF short story that was, prior to A Song of Ice and Fire, probably Martin's best-known work. It was previously filmed (in a very different form) as the first episode of the newer The Outer Limits in 1996, but a more faithful, big-budget feature film version would be brilliant.

A History of Epic Fantasy - Part 14

By the latter part of the 1980s, epic fantasy had established itself as a big-selling, popular genre. The shadow of Tolkien still loomed large over the field, but authors had begun moving away from his paradigm. David Gemmell was telling stories about heroism in worlds bleaker than Middle-earth, Glen Cook was challenging fantasy conventions of good and evil and David Eddings was releasing feel-good stories in which everything always worked out okay.

What the genre did not have was a work that tried to follow up on Tolkien directly, a work that built on - but maybe challenged - his themes and ideas over a very long page count and covering a vast amount of territory and characters. That work, and important step up in the development of epic fantasy, arrived in 1988.

The Dragonbone Chair

Robert Paul "Tad" Williams started writing The Dragonbone Chair in 1985. It was his second novel, having previously published Tailchaser's Song, a fantasy that used cats and an internal mythology that recalled both Watership Down by Richard Adams and Tolkien. The Dragonbone Chair, the fist volume of a planned trilogy called Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, was a more traditional fantasy.

The story is set in Osten Ard, a continent consisting of several distinct nations unified into a single empire by the High King, Prester John. As the story opens, Prester John is failing and his oldest son, Elias, prepares to take the throne in a peaceful transition. However, Elias is quarrelling with his younger brother Josua Lackhand and is under the influence of Pyrates, a priest commanding strange powers. As Elias takes the throne and begins a reign of terror over the population of Osten Ard, risking civil war and anarchy, a young kitchen boy named Simon is thrust into prominence when his mentor, an enemy of Pyrates, is killed. Simon flees into the wilderness after rescuing the imprisoned Josua, triggering a war for succession at the same time that a supernatural force of apparent evil, the Storm King, arises in the distant north.

So far, so standard. But the novel, and the trilogy as a whole, challenges conceptions of the genre. The Storm King and his minions have a genuine grievance against humanity and their plan to conquer/destroy Osten Ard is surprisingly original. There are tinges of science fiction around the edges of the story: the elf-like Sithi are hinted at being arrivals from another planet and the presence of Prester John (a legendary Christian king who established a kingdom in the far east in medieval times) and some very Earth-like cultures suggests an ancient link between our world and Osten Ard. The book also engages with other subgenres of fantasy: Simon Snowlock's journey into the mystical realm of Jao e-Tinukai'i recalls the woodland fantasy of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood and the Amber series by Roger Zelazny. The vast and forbidding fortress known as the Hayholt, riddled with secret tunnels and long-forgotten rooms, a relic from an ancient, more glorious time, feels like a nod towards Mervyn Peake's titanic Castle Gormenghast.

The series also has extensive maps, a glossary and notes on pronunciation, as well as appendices and cast lists. The books feature an elaborate backstory extending across thousands of years, and numerous notes on culture and language. The trilogy heavily riffs of Tolkien but also does not just steal ideas but repackages them. There is an implicit criticism of the (unplanned but implied) racism in Tolkien's work, which Tolkien himself later struggled with, and also a darker take on the elves, whose continued existence over thousands of years has ossified them and their culture. There is also a nice nod to historical revisionism: our initial understanding of the complex backstory is later challenged, both by the Storm King's own (and rather different) viewpoint of what happened and by the revelation that Prester John may not have been quite the man he is presented as when the story opens. Williams's Aragorn-analogue, Prince Josua, is also shown to be riven by self-doubt and sceptical of his own claim to the throne, as well as his ability to lead the fight against Elias, in sharp contrast to Tolkien's character (although, interestingly, Peter Jackson's film version of the character is more similar to Josua).

Williams's work was influential on what came later. In particular, American SF and horror author George R.R. Martin had not been particularly inspired by the fantasies that had come after Tolkien (Stephen Donaldson's work aside) and had no plans to write in the genre. That changed after reading The Dragonbone Chair, with its use of memorable sayings ("All Men Must Die," is said in the first chapter), the notion of freezing winters lasting years and the alien, otherworldly pale white beings threatening from the north, as well as a dynastic struggle between competing factions and a more realistic take on violence and sexuality. Only three years after The Dragonbone Chair was released, Martin would start work on his own fantasy novel, A Game of Thrones, which he has acknowledged many times as being inspired by Williams (and Tolkien, Vance and Zelazny).

In addition, there are echoes of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn to be found in Scott Bakker's challenging Second Apocalypse mega-series. The (apparently) space-borne race in a fantasy setting, the elves whose immortality has come at a terrible price (of ennui in Williams and outright insanity in Bakker) and the philosophical-religious overtones (much more central in Bakker) are shared ideas between the works.

Williams also, like Tolkien before and Jordan and Martin after, found that his tale had grown in the telling. The Dragonbone Chair was 900 pages long in paperback. Its sequel, Stone of Farewell (published in 1990) was only marginally shorter. And the third volume, To Green Angel Tower (1993), was almost as big as both combined, and remains the longest individual work of fantasy ever published. The book was so huge it had to be split into two volumes for paperback publication, creating a "four-volume trilogy". Williams would also repeat this trick later on, with his cyberpunk/fantasy hybrid series Otherland (which he cleverly pre-sold as four volumes as he knew what would happen, only to find the fourth volume so huge it narrowly avoided being split itself) and a later fantasy trilogy, Shadowmarch, which also expanded to four books.

Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is now an acknowledged classic of the genre, important in its development and ambitious in its scope. It also set the tone for a variant form of fantasy, works consisting of thousands of pages extending across multiple volumes. Many, many authors would follow in his train, not least himself: in 2017 Williams will publish The Witchwood Crown, the first volume of The Last King of Osten Ard, a sequel trilogy set thirty years after the events of the first three books. It is one of the most eagerly-awaited epic fantasy projects on the horizon, and it remains to be seen if Williams can recapture the impact of his classic trilogy.

As epic fantasy began transitioning to the Big Fat Endless Series that has become one of its defining features, there was also a different subset of fantasy that was interested in mashing things up, blurring genre boundaries and generally being a bit weird.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

BATTLETECH Kickstarter launched

Harebrained Schemes has launched its Kickstarter campaign for BattleTech, a new, turn-based tactical wargame set in the universe of the miniature game BattleTech and its roleplaying-based spin-off, MechWarrior.

The new game will be helmed by Jordan Weisman, the co-creator of the entire BattleTech/MechWarrior franchise, along with many of the same team who worked on the recent Shadowrun RPGs.

As of this time of writing, less than 24 hours after the launch of the campaign and with 34 days to go, the game has already made $600,000 and seems likely to hit the $1 million target, at which point the game will get a fully-fleshed out singleplayer campaign in addition to a skirmish mode.

Preliminary Initial TitanCon Report Preview


More to follow.