Sunday, 27 May 2018

The Next Elder Scrolls Game (discussion)

Like many, many people, I’ve played a lot of Skyrim. And then watched as it got repackaged and released for various new consoles (next gen consoles, the Switch etc). And waited for the next Elder Scrolls game. And waited.

Skyrim came out in 2011 and there’s seemingly no prospect of the next Elder Scrolls game coming out this year, so it’ll probably be an eight year gap at best. Oblivion, the previous entry, came out in 2006/7 (latter year for the PS3).

I enjoyed both Oblivion and Skyrim a lot, but must admit I’m wondering if the next Elder Scrolls game will stand up against the competition. Videogame franchises can decline either due to making poor changes, or standing still whilst the industry moves past them.

Plenty of new RPGs have come out since Skyrim. Many of them have had a strong focus on your choices making significant changes to the world (in Skyrim, the only real choice is in the civil war, with the Dawnguard expansion choice of good/evil, although both choices have similar paths).

The Witcher 3 and Kingdom Come Deliverance are particularly good in this regard, as is Pillars of Eternity. When we look at the most recent Bethesda RPG (Fallout 4) I think it surprised on the upside when it came to companions, but there was, again, a lack of significant choice. Most quests were simply run on train tracks rather than presenting serious options that changed things in-game.

It is worth pointing out that there is no single way to make a good RPG. Games might emphasise realism/survival heavily, as per KCD, but The Witcher 3 takes a more traditional/softer/easier approach to this aspect. Both styles work perfectly well. However, the old style of quests, where almost all of them (including major storyline quests) have one outcome and no player input beyond jumping through hoops is beginning to feel as outdated as fetch quests.

A good example of how this could’ve been different in Skyrim would be the Thieves Guild. At no point can you destroy this, or report it to the authorities. You *can* do this with the Dark Brotherhood, although that isn’t flagged up so most people were never aware it was even a possibility. And the same opportunity (reporting werewolves to the authorities, for example) isn’t possible elsewhere either. You can’t side with the Thalmor, even if you’re a high elf.

Now, it might sound like I’m having a go at Skyrim. I have sunk a lot of time into it and really like the game. But if the next entry doesn’t make some changes it’ll suffer by way of comparison with recent RPG entries, many of which are really rather good.

I do have some optimism. The settlement system is overdone in Fallout 4, but the bones of the idea are sound. And imagine it in Elder Scrolls VI. It’d be building your own castles, and that sounds fantastic, if they take the good ideas from Fallout 4 and remove the repetition, giving us fewer but larger sites.

Likewise, the companions improved substantially from Skyrim to Fallout 4, from a huge number of people with little character to a smaller number who were much more individual and had more depth. Continuing that pattern for the next Elder Scrolls would be another good, and obvious, step.

However, the key for me is choice in quests. And not just X or Y which alters nothing (yes, Redguard woman in Whiterun, I’m talking about you), but a choice that makes a meaningful impact upon the world and/or my character. If I piss off a local lord, that should have consequences beyond a line of dialogue.

The next Elder Scrolls game will sell like hotcakes regardless of whether this change comes about. But in the long term, Bethesda can’t just rely on churning out the same game when we’re seeing others make more interesting RPGs that actually allow the player to make choices that affect their game.


Sunday, 20 May 2018

Thoughts on Babylon 5

On Pick (UK free-to-air channel 11), they often repeat sci-fi shows. I recently finished watching the full run of Babylon 5. And I’ve got to say, I thought it was pretty damned good. Despite being old enough to have once owned a walkman that only had three buttons (if you wanted to rewind you had to flip the cassette over and fast forward, then flip it back), I’d never seen Babylon 5 before, and it was interesting to see it a couple of decades after it aired.

Naturally, major spoilers abound in this discussion/review of the whole show.

Unlike most, maybe all, preceding sci-fi series, Babylon 5 was characterised by long-term story arcs and character development. Beginning with Jeffrey Sinclair (played by Michael O’Hare in series one, he had to leave due to sadly suffering from serious psychological problems) and then John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) the show followed the leader and crew of the space station Babylon 5 as it sought to be a meeting place for alien races and thereby foster peace.

Besides the senior staff (second-in-command Ivanova, security chief Garibaldi, Dr. Franklin), show regulars include the ambassadors of various races: Delenn, the wise Minbari representative; Londo, the dissatisfied Centauri who dreams of the glorious past; G’Kar, the Narn who (initially) delights in tweaking Londo’s nose; and the mysterious Kosh, the ambassador of the highly advanced Vorlons who never gives a straight answer to anything.

Over the first four series (of five) we see the preamble to and then break out of galactic scale warfare, with the lesser races being unwitting pawns in a proxy war of ultra-advanced races. This coincides with, and is related to, coups occurring on both Centauri Prime (where the emperor gets replaced with a Caligula-style lunatic), and Earth (where the president is replaced with a tyrant fond of secret police).

A feature of the show is the smart writing. One exchange early on, between Ivanova and Dr. Franklin, was very sharp. The doctor is forcing his colleagues to eat more healthily. Ivanova doesn’t want to gain weight and complains about becoming part of the ever-expanding Russian frontier, to which Dr. Franklin replies: “But you have such lovely borders.”

The writing quality isn’t limited to the comedy, which is present but to a lesser extent than, say, Stargate: SG-1 (rightly so, given the varying tone of the shows). There’s a fantastic scene in which Sheridan confronts Kosh, begging for help because the war’s going badly and his own government wants him dead, whilst Kosh led Sheridan into the war but appears to be doing little to help. What’s great is that the scene works perfectly in itself, but a short time later the meaning of it is turned on its head as both Sheridan and the audience realise that Kosh’s actions and words did not mean what we thought at the time, with tragic consequences. “You do not understand. But you will.”

The usurper who becomes Earth’s president institutes the Night Watch, a sort of delator/informant network. There’s a chilling line (“sedition comes in small packets as well as large ones”) when Zack Allan, a good guy who finds himself walking down a dark road, questions whether inconsequential things (people saying they dislike the president) really need to be reported. It’s the type of telling, and disturbing, political realism that helps make Babylon 5 great.

Walter Koenig, best known as Chekhov in Star Trek, recurs as the Psi Corps’ determined, self-interested and morally questionable Bester. Must admit he was a favourite mine, being dodgy as hell but smart too, so it was never quite clear whether he or the Babylon 5 staff, with whom he had a fractious relationship at best, would end up ahead. He also got to star in one episode which revolved around him and the Psi Corps, rather than the space station, and it helped give a new perspective to things.

Babylon 5 was one of (perhaps the) first sci-fi series to use CGI rather than models. Not unlike the videogame Vagrant Story (a pioneer of 3-D rather than pre-rendered backgrounds) this has led to the earlier series in particular sometimes looking rather dated. Later series and the specials, naturally, look a lot better.

A particularly strong episode was Intersections in Real Time, a late series 4 episode that is almost entirely devoted to scenes between Sheridan and his authoritarian interrogator, seeking to break Sheridan down and force or persuade him to confess. For his own good, you understand. It has 1984 vibes, and really works well laying down the hopelessness of the situation (and there’s a nice twist at the end too).

The fifth series is probably the weakest, but there is a good excuse for that. The show was meant to end after the fourth (which can be seen by the ending of that series), only to unexpectedly return with most of the long-running story arcs concluded. That said, the 18th episode in particular is very good, in which the new war comes to a climax.

There was always a certain feeling of inevitable failure or doom about Babylon 5. Even in success. Sheridan wins the war but has his life expectancy severely curtailed. Londo becomes emperor, and finds himself little more than a slave. Ivanova is saved, but struggles to move on from the guilt.

Victory tinged with sadness, triumphalism curbed by the price paid, and the certain knowledge there’s more struggle to come in the future brings bitter sweet realism, and is, perhaps, why Babylon 5 at its best is fantastic.


Friday, 11 May 2018

Review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain, by Ian Mortimer

This is the third Time Traveller’s Guide that Ian Mortimer has written, the previous two being of Medieval and then Elizabethan England. They’re completely self-contained, but I thought it worth mentioning in case anyone reading this preferred to get them in chronological order.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain is a sort of everyday history, relating the habits of people high and low through the latter half the 17th century, when the monarchy was restored after the censorious puritanism of Cromwell’s reign. Innovations and advancement are everywhere, as Newton, Purcell, and Wren set to work furthering the boundaries of science, music, and architecture (the latter ‘aided’ by the Great Fire of London in 1666).

It is in this period that superstition really buckles beneath the weight of science, or starts to, at least. Speech becomes freer as newspapers spring up and a short-lived attempt at regulation ends, enabling a free press (which has continued to this day). Literacy rises, transport is improved with flying coaches and the impressively swift postal service. The plague sees its last occurrence on British shores, doctors soar in number, and women begin to break into art, acting, and other fields.

But it also sees terrible fires, the coldest winter ever, political turmoil when James II is deposed, the ongoing battle between puritans and those who preferred a freer society and many attitudes we would consider horrendous today (a love of cockfighting, religious segregation, kidnapping people for enforced servitude on ships/in colonies etc).

Ian Mortimer tells of life from the very richest to the very poorest, what people ate, how they lived, what work they did, and how the country changed so dramatically from the austere reign of Cromwell to the flamboyant Charles II (and his successors). It’s engaging and places you in the boots of the 17th people he describes.

This did throw up an interesting question. Until quite recently I didn’t give books specific ratings (on a personal level, I dislike them because a small problem for one reader is a deal-breaker for another, but do appreciate that others find such things useful). How to define a five star book? Something nigh on perfect? Something that’s 81% or better?

Regardless, I believe this excellent book, full of interesting snippets of information and insightful commentary, to be a five star book.


Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Stargate Franchise: Universe

After the combined 15 series of SG-1 and Atlantis came something a little different. Universe features a small group, partly military, partly scientific, and partly wrong place/wrong time people, being hurled onto a ship far, far away from Earth and with no prospect of returning.

Immediate concerns are sustainable water/food supplies, ensuring the ship (Destiny) doesn’t fall to pieces and deciphering how the damned thing works. I really like the premise, and two of the leads (Rush, played brilliantly by Robert Carlyle, and Eli) gel very well together. I’m not normally a fan of everyman figures, but Eli (normal in character albeit mathematically genius) is great.

Most of the other characters were either ok or not of much interest, to be frank. There were some nice moments, such as coming at the friendzone from the other direction, when politician’s daughter Chloe essentially tells Eli there’s no chance of romance and doesn’t want him to see being a friend as a consolation prize or being second best, but on a persistent basis Rush and Eli were the two chaps I found intriguing.

However, there is a very big but. Two, in fact. The tone is grim and dark, which I like, but it absolutely doesn’t fit with the Stargate approach of all preceding series. There’s very little levity, and when O’Neill makes a guest appearance with his trademark humour, it grates against Universe’s dark and cynical tone.

The other problem is that of adversaries. Initially, there’s the problem of survival, and then an ongoing conflict between military and civilian personnel, and both are well done. Beyond this, there’s nothing to match the Goa’uld, replicators, Ori, or Wraith. A couple of persistent villain races (intelligent machines, and some aliens deliberately tracking the Destiny) are introduced, but neither are especially engaging.

There is the Lucian Alliance, a group of inter-galactic freebooters who cause trouble sometimes directly for the Destiny and sometimes on Earth, before a small number are incorporated into the crew. Individually these villainous groups aren’t bad, but they should be the garnish, not the main course. Nowhere is there a Baal being a smug jester, or Evil Carter outwitting everyone.

Viewership declined and the show was cancelled after two series. It did have a perfect ending, which leaves things open should anyone wish to resurrect the series. The central premise is great, as are the actors portraying Rush and Eli, but that isn’t enough, alas, to make Universe more than the third and least of the Stargate series.

I like grimdark things. But not everything has to be like that. SG-1 and Atlantis were fun, witty, and had great characters.

There’s been recent murmuring about a reboot or new series (although Stargate Origins hasn’t gone down too well, probably because fans wanted more than a few 10 minute episodes). I wouldn’t be surprised if Stargate returned. With a total of 17 series and over 300 episodes, there would certainly be interest. If it does, I hope they take their time with it, and get it right.


Friday, 4 May 2018

An Interview with Terry Mancour

Pleased to say that today I’ve been joined by Terry Mancour, author of the Spellmonger series (10 parts currently and still going strong). There are some spoilers in the interview below.

What's the premise of Necromancer, the tenth and most recent instalment in the Spellmonger series?

Necromancer is a climactic book, in a couple of different ways. First, it’s the tenth book in the series, and hitting double digits deserves some celebration, plot-wise. There are elements that I brought up in Spellmonger, Book 1, that I didn’t revisit until Book 10. Secondly, it’s also the conclusion of a trilogy (quadrology?), of sorts. Books 8 (Court Wizard) and 9 (Shadowmage) take place partially concurrent with Book 7, Enchanter, but from different character perspectives. In Necromancer I had to unite those three disparate character and plot perspectives and put Minalan back into the picture, character-wise. All of those deeply personal questions that arose at the end of Enchanter had to be answered.

Plot-wise, Minalan the Spellmonger is in rough shape . . . but he has hope. It involves an impossible quest and a tricky set of moves in which he manipulates everyone he needs to, from his own vassals to the very gods, to get what he wants. Thematically, it’s a quasi-Orphic quest in which he goes into both a figurative and a literal Land of the Dead in order to bring his wife, Alya, back from a persistent vegetative state. It’s a fight between Min’s ego and intellect and the dark forces around him – not all of which are readily apparent. He emerges from a dark place, by the end of the book, but only at great cost.

The early books focused very much on the goblin threat, but more recently it’s on the backburner. Can you tell us whether the Dead God and his goblin hordes will be coming back soon, or even at all?

The role of the gurvani (goblins) has changed, since Spellmonger, but they are still very important to the over-all plot, as is their fossilized Dark Lord. As truths about Callidore’s past get revealed, Sheruel’s simple desire for genocide will seem quaint and wholesome compared to Korbal – or, at least, the reader might feel a little more sympathetic to the gurvani. They have been kicked around by a lot of different peoples over the years, and they feel sidelined by the Nemovorti. They were finally on top, with an undead Dark Lord of their very own, and now this! They very aren’t happy about it. We will see Sheruel again, and the rise of the Goblin King as rebels against Korbal’s betrayal. Gurkarl will decidedly play a role, because yes, I enjoy drawing out plotlines that far for the pure hedonistic joy of it.

There are many parts already in the series, and many planned ahead. How much detail have you charted out the course of future books, or do you make a vague outline for each planned instalment and only develop it when you arrive at that book?

In some cases, quite a bit. I know how it ends, more or less. I know what has to happen for the end to happen. I know the cool scenes I want to write. But there is much undiscovered country along the way, and part of the joy for me, as the writer, is having unexpected stuff fall out of my brain and onto the page. I know we can expect to see some familiar fantasy tropes tackled in a slightly new or different way.

Min will go on the road, during his exile, and there will be a lot of adventures before the end. But I’ve learned not to over-plot my books before I’ve started them. That’s boring for the reader and for me. And its too much work. It’s easier to hitch my subconscious to the plow of my keyboard, or somesuch other analogy, and let it do the heavy work. That opens my writing up to spontaneous inclusions of interesting bits of stuff I pick up in my research.

Writing a series offers both writer and readers the ease of a consistent world and characters, as well as enabling for more character depth and development than a single volume, but keeping consistency without making things repetitive or ‘samey’ can be tricky. What’s the greatest challenge you’ve found writing a series which is now up to part 10?

Thankfully, while the piano only has 88 keys they still keep getting new songs out of it. Fantasy is much the same. Both J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin use the medieval European fantasy setting, dragons, swords, magic, etc., but they are two entirely different stories. Hopefully, Terry R. R. Mancour will be able keep playing across those tropes in an entertaining way.

The episodic format of series fantasy fiction is helpful. But it’s also important for the writer to not abuse that. I make a point that each of my novels is a complete novel, in itself, not merely a section of a larger work. That means they need a beginning, a middle, an end, a plot, character development, and the rest.

Part of that can rest on the natural progression of events and character development. If you do it right, and understand human nature sufficiently, then figuring out how your character is going to change and develop in response to the course of events isn’t as hard as most writers seem to make it. In Enchanter, Minalan underwent stages of psychological response to a major personal trauma. That’s a pretty clear course of development to follow, and it gave the story greater depth without a lot of psychobabble. Or not much.

Part of that has to be supplied by the author applying a different approach or perspective on the same old medieval fantasy tropes. I find I take a lot of inspiration from significant events of the Middle Ages. Journeymage, for instance, was inspired by the Children’s Crusade.

Thankfully, the Middle Ages had a lot of fascinating stories that Fantasy literature has endlessly reinterpreted. While knight vs. dragon, elf vs. dwarf, etc. has had a lot of play, there are plenty of great tropes I haven’t used yet. In the future, expect some stories and plots revolving around the plague, voyages of exploration, peasant’s revolts, pirates, a succession crisis, and perhaps even the Inquisition. I’ll also be doing some more-familiar Fantasy tropes, such as the Dragon’s Lair, the Secret Cult, the Lost Civilization, the Ancient Evil, etc. Any of these is enough to hang an entire novel on, if you do it right. Mixing and matching them in the Spellmonger universe is a joy, and I have a long way to go before I start running short of material.

The series is focused entirely on Minalan to start with, but more recent instalments have seen other perspectives become increasingly important. Was this always planned, or did you feel that either telling the story or offering a new point of view was necessary to keep things fresh?

At a certain point, I think you have to vary the perspective in order to keep the reader’s attention. Consider that an awful lot more happened in the Civil War than what Rhett Butler saw and experienced. Offering those different perspectives allows you to give true depth to your world-building. It also allows the author to inject differences of perspective that can be jarring.

A case in point is how I handled the character of Dara in Necromancer. Dara has been the lead in the Young Adult/Cadet spin-off series I’ve done chronicling the events of the Spellmonger Series from her perspective. An adolescent girl and a middle-aged man see things very differently, and their perceptions of each other are as flawed and biased as anyone’s. I caught some flak from fans about how Dara, after being a strong and resilient character in one series, seems to be a whiny and self-absorbed girl in the main series.

Here’s the thing: to Minalan’s perspective, she is a whiny and self-absorbed girl. But Min’s perspective is informed by only a few brief scenes, not the introspection that Dara is undertaking as she moves from childhood to adulthood. To her, Min is a wise and powerful wizard who always knows what to do, not a self-doubting and sometimes self-loathing mage who frequently feels he’s in waaaay over his head. Which perspective is the “true” one? Neither. Each is just as valid, and by shifting viewpoints and characters to review the same events I hope to build up a tension that eventually erupts into conflict between the two.

A similar thing occurred with Pentandra. Responding in part to the popular ideas that a) there were no good female leading characters in Fantasy (which I dispute) and b) that men could not write good or convincing female characters, I wrote Court Wizard from Pentandra’s perspective. Within the novel she sees quite a bit of Callidore’s society that Minalan doesn’t, thanks to both her class and her gender. More, I had to change not only the nominal gender of the main character, but had to work to understand her perspective myself. Regardless of the politics of the moment, men and women generally tend to approach the same situations from slightly different directions. While there are notable exceptions, writing a female lead convincingly had to encompass some of these basic differences or Pentandra would have just sounded like Min in drag. No one wants that.

The further excursions into perspective, specifically Book 4, Knights Magi, and its more-or-less sequel Book 9, Shadowmage, explore the relationship with Tyndal and Rondal, Min’s senior apprentices. They’re undergoing an entirely different journey than Dara. They have different motivations and seek different risks and rewards. And they all see Callidore differently.

It’s not just a matter of keeping things fresh. Changing characters and perspective can serve the greater story when the reader knows things that the main character doesn’t. In fact, keeping track of who knows what, when, and how that advances the plot is something I spend a lot of time on.

Your books are selling nicely and well-reviewed, but do you ever want a break from the Spellmonger world? Are you working on anything else/have other plans, or are you just enjoying writing the series?

I’m so glad you asked! I am absolutely devoted to the Spellmonger series – it’s like a rich mug of ale. But I have two sci-fi series underway, at the moment.

The first is my Tanith series, a continuation of H. Beam Piper’s classic space opera novel, Space Viking. After the original author tragically committed suicide with no heirs, his work became public domain. I’ve written two short sequels to the original already, Prince of Tanith and Princess Valerie’s War, and I’m working on a capstone finale to the work now, called Trask’s Odyssey.

And I will be totally honest: one reason it’s taking so long to produce the final book is that I’m enjoying it too much. If Spellmonger is like a rich mug of ale, then the Tanith Series is like a dirty double martini with three olives.

Secondly, I have a second sci-fi trilogy I’ve begun publishing. I won’t get into the background of the work here, but it’s an original time-travel piece that’s also (wait for it) openly pornographic. Sexually explicit. With all the best dirty words. It’s called the Casanova’s Butterfly trilogy, and the first book, Bad Penny, was released last summer to generally good reviews. I’ll be releasing the other two parts this summer and next, respectively. It’s already written, I just want to space it out because I’m like that.

It’s a trashy beach read and a lot of fun for any student of history or erotica or both. The main character is an anti-hero Pick-Up-Artist who goes pro by joining an elite government-sponsored time-travel program which goes back in time to insert certain genetic corrections into the human genomes to avoid a future catastrophe. The Old Fashioned Way: by seducing your grandmother. Most of the MC’s work is in the mid 20th century, the 1940s-1970s, one of my favorite historical periods. Along the way, the character’s hubris and arrogance screws up the time stream but good. If Spellmonger is a rich cup of ale, Casanova’s Butterfly is like a classic Manhattan with a roofie in it. I like to think of it as the Thinking Man’s porn novel.

The Spellmonger series is classic high fantasy. What were your inspirations, whether fictional or (for the political side, probably) real life?

It goes without saying that Tolkien is my bedrock inspiration, and my appreciation of the Professor grows every time I start another book. I also credit George R. R. Martin for some inspiration, because I began reading him before Game of Thrones and enjoy his approach to prose.

Other influences may be more obscure or subtle, even when I try to make them blatant, but here it goes: First and foremost would be Steven Brust’s Adrilankha series. My approach to Min’s character is closest to how Steve handles Vlad, his main character. Careful readers of both series will recognize me blatantly ripping off Steve’s character for a kind of cross-platform cameo in Shadowmage. But Steve’s wit and humor informed Min, and his approach to a well-drawn character is something I am proud to have stolen from him. Brust is the spiritual heir of Roger Zelazny’s amazing style, and I can’t recommend his stuff highly enough. Zelazny, himself, is a huge influence as well, particularly the Chronicles of Amber and the Lord of Light, but I even tracked down his “hard boiled detective novel” from the 1960s, and it rocked.

Another powerful influence was Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. Even though it has dragons and castles, it isn’t Fantasy. Not a lick of magic in it. It’s high-concept Sci-Fi with really good characters. Much of my cadet novels were cribbed from her Harper Hall YA trilogy. Another was Andrew Offut, who might be a little obscure for some folks but who did some great work back in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly for the Thieves’ World shared-universe series (for which Brust contributed a story, last volume). If you aren’t familiar, Thieves’ World was a wonderful collection of fantasy stories that really demonstrated the chops of some of the better fantasy writers of its time. Offut’s stories always impressed me the most. His original novels were likewise superior, though he didn’t get the acclaim that he deserved for their quality. Andy Offut knew how to get the most out of his characters, especially the minor ones, and when I need inspiration I frequently turn to his stories in the anthologies.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Fritz Lieber and Robert Howard, whose magnificent bodies of work informed the adventurous imagination of my childhood and occasionally leak all over Spellmonger. They made the world safe for brawny-thewed barbarians everywhere.

Non-literary influences should be included. Count the Boy Scouts and Dungeons & Dragons (which I was, incidentally, introduced to in Boy Scouts by Chris Evans – thanks, Chris!) as among my strongest. The BSA led, of course, to the Kasari culture in Spellmonger, and D&D has been a constant source of both inspiration and research.

Looking back at the 10 parts to date, which character (whether major or minor) have you found most enjoyable to write, and why?

I have a few favorites, and I’ll take the various main characters off the table for the sake of this question. Writing Crazy Alya was fun, largely because she’s usually so level-headed. I love writing the various Wizards of Sevendor, especially Olmeg the Green and Banamor. Both are based on people I know. Gatina the Kitten was a delicious delight to write, because she combines utter commitment with youthful enthusiasm. Onranion is a blast because he just doesn’t give a crap, and so is the Sorceress of Sorsha Wood, Lilastien the Rebel, M.D., the last remaining member of the Callidore Colonial Medical Service.

I love Sire Cei. I love writing Azar. There are characters that I absolutely love and who I haven’t even gotten to, yet. And yes, sadly, some won’t make it. But I have plenty to work with, and as long as I can keep them all sounding different and exciting, we’ll keep seeing them. Some will even get their own books. Banamor, Olmeg, Sire Cei and Zagor the Hedgemage will all get separate stories focusing on their perspectives, hopefully this year. Others will be explored in the future.

When can we expect the 11th instalment, and can you reveal anything about the premise?

I thought I might tell this one from the vampire’s point of view.

Seriously, Book 11 begins the second major arc of the series. The first ten books (decalogy) is The Spellmonger Ascendant. The second ten will be The Spellmonger’s Exile. In the first series, we see the rise of Min from lowly village spellmonger to senior noble of a unified kingdom. We saw how he built Sevendor from scratch and changed the feudal society he found himself in for the better: Magic in the Service of Man.

The second series will go a little darker. Now that Min has been exiled from Sevendor for at least three years, and then put unexpectedly in charge of the Magelaw, he has an even greater task ahead: building Vanador, a city designed to challenge the might of the various Dark Lords directly, without messing around too much with the rest of the Five Duchies. He has recovered his family, somewhat, and finds himself threatened in ways he never suspected once he becomes Count of the Magelaw.

In one way, the pressure has never been higher. At the end of Necromancer we saw our understanding of the war, so far, challenged by events and revelations from the past. Humanity has finally caught the attention of the Sea Folk, and now Min has to figure out what to do with it . . . as well as solving the complicated thaumaturgic puzzle of how to re-create the freak Snowstone spell. His wife is only beginning to recover her sanity and her fragmented memories. He faces a dauntless foe with very few resources or advantages, and no allies nearby to speak of. His political situation has never been more dire, and the future looks grim.

Yet in another way, Min has never been happier. The accomplishment he feels after retrieving the Handmaiden in Necromancer gives him great power, and he doesn’t see the various threats to Vanador as serious, compared to Korbal and Sheruel. The goblins are fighting each other, for a change, and the thousands of former slaves he helped free are struggling to rebuild their shattered lives in a shattered and depopulated land. Min has learned how to develop a country, thanks to Sevendor, and he has a lot more help this time. He’s living where he originally wanted to (more or less) with the girl of his dreams and their children. His enemies are far away and think he’s been bound by his exile, when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Min sees his exile as a means of catching up on some important work while allowing Sevendor to grow naturally, without his direct guidance for a while. In a way, he’s off the game board of Kingdom-level politics. In a way, he’s at the center of it.

It’s a time of restful watchfulness and preparing for future battles. A time of repose, reflection, rebuilding and consideration of the future. So, nothing of consequence happens. I anticipate that it will be a really long and boring book on peasant market economics and the fascinating study of crop rotation’s effects on overall productivity and peasant farmers’ risk management schemes. I foresee some fascinating discussions on comparative thatching techniques. Perhaps some titillating debate about the differences between canon and secular law. Livestock will be discussed in depth and detail. There might even be some authentic pottage recipes, if you’re good.

There will be a mix of old characters and new. To the fore will be Tyndal, Gareth, Ruderal, Carmella, Azar, Wenek, Sandoval, Terleman, Landrik, Caswallon, Thinradel, Cormoran, the Dradrien, and others. On the back burner (in the “Meanwhile, Back In Sevendor . . . .” sense) will be Rondal, Gatina, Pentandra, Anguin, Sire Cei, Banamor, Olmeg, and Dara. Ithalia and Onranion will be present. Varen, Fallawen, and Lilastien will have cameos, at best.

We’ll also see some new folk in the woods of the Wilderlands: Rumel’s people, commonly known as Wood Dwarves. Durin’s Folk, they ain’t. Some new critters we haven’t seen before, including powderhorns and shapeshifting predators. We’ll see how someone other than Dara commands a wing of Sky Riders. We’ll start to get to know Min’s kids as more than names. Including the children of Greenflower. We’ll see what light an ancient AI from humanity’s past can shed on the current colony’s precarious position. We’ll find out more about the Forsaken. And we’ll see just who among his many manly minions Korbal considers powerful enough to challenge the Spellmonger.

As to when it will be out, that’s difficult to say. It takes a while to craft a book like that, a lot of research and a lot of writing. I took much of this year off of Spellmonger to prepare for the next series and finish up the audiobooks for the first one. I’ve committed to publishing three other novels and some stories before I even get there. I’m also feverishly working on additional texts, like the Atlas of the Five Duchies and a FRP module and sourcebook, in conjunction with superfan and recognized Mage Knight of Sevendor, Aaron Schwartz. I need to continue my marketing efforts and my development efforts. I’d really like to see some elements of Spellmonger in an AV format, someday, and have been working in that direction. I’d also be interested in exploring a comic adaptation, if I could find the right artist. I’ve been looking for a few years, now, but haven’t found someone who can do it, yet.

All of that being said, I can make this simple guarantee: YOU WILL SEE BOOK 11, THAUMATURGE, BEFORE YOU SEE WINDS OF WINTER. Likely sometime in early 2019.

So, suck it, George R. R. Martin.



Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Info-dumping, a few thoughts

When I did my first snapshots post (reviewing a small number of SFF samples) one thing that struck me was the varying approach taken by the authors when it comes to the problem of informing the reader about necessary backstory, without splurging information in a wall of text (info-dumping).

The background is, as the name suggests, just there as a backdrop for the action, it shouldn’t be the mainstay of the story. There’s only so much information people can, or want to, take on board at once. If you throw constant references to past events and new character names, keeping track becomes difficult. And reading for relaxation shouldn’t be about trying to remember a splurge of information.

There’s also a trade-off with pace. Beginnings can work whether fast or slow, but the more backstory you include the slower the pace. If you have a dramatic fight scene right at the start, and keep banging on about the past events of the protagonist, you slow down the action and rob it of urgency, making something that should be fast into something turgid.

Fantasy and sci-fi often have a lot of backstory and putting it into context (after all, there’s usually a whole new world to try and get across to the reader, although this should be done where it informs the story not to flood them with irrelevant information) without erecting a wall of info-dumping can be tricky. Character interaction can help. As well as fleshing out individuals, if someone’s mocked for a certain accent, you introduce [without it being clunky] the differing nations. Instead of writing ‘she was a man-hater’ you could have a woman mock a chap as a ‘fallopian-deprived ape’. If someone has long sleeves, they can dip in a drink or the sauce/gravy of their meal.

In short: show don’t tell, where possible.

That’s easier said than done, of course. [I’ll be doing more snapshot reviews in the future. At the moment, I’ve got books to read, so it’ll be a little while].


Sunday, 29 April 2018

The Stargate Franchise: Atlantis

The start of Atlantis overlaps with the last few series of SG-1. A group of Earth’s top military and scientific minds are sent into another galaxy, into the lost city of Atlantis. It’s thought to be a fantastic hi-tech place, as it was built by the technologically advanced Ancients.

Almost immediately, problems start. As well as being a one-way trip (due to huge power requirements), Atlantis is underwater, the shield protecting it from flooding is failing, the military commander ends up dead, and his successor accidentally wakes up a far more advanced race from hibernation. To top things off, said race (the Wraiths) have a diet primarily consisting of humans. In short, it’s about as successful a start as a man attempting to impregnate a beehive.

After the initial woe is dealt with, the series settles down and is quite similar in nature to SG-1. There’s a four man team (Sheppard, McKay, Ford and Teyla) that swan off around the Pegasus Galaxy, trying to find allies against the Wraiths, recover technology and so forth. A nice addition is the discovery of Atlantis’ puddlejumpers, small space craft that can fit through the Stargate (especially useful for gates that are in space).

I do have a bit of a problem with the party. Ford is amongst the most boring of sci-fi characters (I’m glad the actor got to display a bit more range when Ford goes off the rails), and is duly replaced with Ronon. Ronon is a charismatic warrior, but there’s a bit of a lack of character development. His world has been destroyed so (excepting a couple of episodes where he encounters old acquaintances) there’s not the same level of interesting backstory we got with Teal’c.

This is the same for the first Pegasus resident companion, Teyla. She initially starts off with her people, they’re forced to evacuate to Atlantis, and then the two drift apart. Teyla does possess some vague psychic abilities to detect the Wraith, though.

Sheppard leads the team, and is a likeable character with a wry sense of humour. McKay is overloaded, I think. He’s not only the science guy, he’s also the chap who knows the most Ancient history, is the everyman (being far less gungho than others, and quite realistic in that respect), and has his own sarcastic sense of humour. Unlike the equal parts of the SG-1 team, it feels a bit imbalanced.

There are some interesting new takes on things, particularly two enclosed episodes. One features McKay trapped in a puddlejumper that’s halfway through an open gate. The gate automatically shuts down after about 38 minutes, and because the puddlejumper’s halfway through (and in space) that would mean he’d find himself floating in zero-G unless they can get him out. Another involves McKay becoming trapped with Carter (who commands the mission in the fourth series) and Doctor Keller in a confined room on an alien world (which sounds rather nice, to be honest), which featured a seriously tilting floor and was well carried by the three thespians who had almost the entire episode to themselves.

For much of the early days, the Wraith are treated as a kind of race threat, with no significant individuals. This changes later on with a couple of interesting characters (such as Tod), and I think that approach works better, as it allows for more nuanced episodes. Instead of simply being viewed as irredeemably evil, some level of trust can develop, which also allows for betrayal and uncertainty.

Atlantis is an enjoyable show, which ran for five series. Universe is the next and final Stargate TV programme (to date), which I’ll write about shortly.