Selasa, 31 Desember 2013

The Legend of Korra - Book I: Air

The Hundred Year War ended when Avatar Aang defeated the Fire Lord Ozai and brought peace to the Four Nations. Aang and Ozai's son, Zuko, founded the United Republic of Nations where people from all over the world could live together in peace. Its capital, Republic City, became a beacon of hope and integration for all of humanity.

Seventy years on from the end of the war, Korra, the new Avatar, arrives in Republic City to begin learning the art of airbending from Tenzin, Aang and Katara's son. Born and raised in the Southern Water Tribe, Korra is initially overwhelmed by the bright lights and perceived glamour of the city. But there are inequalities and simmering tensions in the city, stoked by the enigmatic Amon who desires a world where magic-benders no longer exist. When he reveals that he has the power to strip a person's abilities from them, he becomes the biggest threat the city has ever seen...a threat that only the Avatar can defeat.

The Legend of Korra is the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, arguably the greatest slice of western animation of the past twenty years. The task of crafting a sequel to such a beloved show was daunting, but the producers have risen to the occasion by doing the only thing they could: take the sequel in a very different direction from the original series.

Whilst Avatar was more of a traditional adventure story featuring Aang and his adventures travelling from place to place, Korra is much more locked into the location of Republic City. Heavily influenced by both New York and Shanghai in the 1920s, Republic City takes influences from history, retrofuturism and steampunk. It's a towering collection of skyscrapers, sporting arenas, industrial parks and cars (sorry, 'Satomobiles') where fortunes can be made and lost overnight. It's clearly the same world as seen in Avatar, but the technology we saw beginning to develop in that series (such as airships and steam vessels) has moved forwards dramatically. The show makes use of these stylings in various ways, from the 1920s-influenced soundtrack to the cinema news reel which plays at the start of each episode and acts as a recap of the story so far.  Moving away from the setting of the original series was a clever idea and provides not just a great backdrop for the new series, but also (via flashback) brief opportunities to see the later adventures of Aang and his friends as they built up this society from scratch.

The setting is beautifully-depicted, but characterisation is a more mixed bag. Korra is a sympathetic and winning heroine, even if she does settle into the 'brash and headstrong teenager' trope a little too easily. Mako and Bolin, the pro-bending brothers who become Korra's key allies, are more standard archetypes: the square-jawed hero and his wise-cracking sidekick. The non-bending member of the 'new Team Avatar', Asami Sato, may be the most interesting character of the bunch but she gets relatively little development compared to the others. The supporting cast is better-handled. Tenzin is a stoic, serious man clearly overburdened by the weight of his late father's expectations but who opens up a little to Korra. His kids are played for comic relief, but provide quite a few excellent laughs as the series progresses. Another key supporting character is Lin Beifong, Toph's daughter and the city's chief of police, who starts off being thoroughly unlikable but grows into a more relatable character over the course of the season. The enigmatic Amon, with his smoothly threatening voice and blank-faced mask, is also an effective villain.

As with Avatar, the show can be watched and enjoyed by kids and adults on different levels. Kids will likely respond to the action-focused storylines and cute animal characters, whilst adults will likely appreciate the allusions (and even satire) to our own history and society. The inequalities in the setting, based on both the growth of capitalism and the fact that benders are almost able always to get jobs whilst non-benders suffer (fuelling Amon's revolution), are tackled head-on in a surprisingly mature way for a kid's show. However, the socio-economic tensions emerge organically from the setting and its development from the original series rather then being developed too incongruously. This extends to magic as well, with the new forms of bending discovered towards the end of the original show (metalbending and energybending) both playing key new roles in this series and being developed logically.

The show suffers a little from being restricted to just 12 episodes in its first season (compared to Avatar's 20 episodes per season). Story arcs that the viewer might have expected to last a bit longer are compressed into just an episode or two, and sometimes the pacing feels off. This lack of time also means that some elements - such as the size of Amon's forces and the firepower available to it - feel a little unconvincing. More damaging is the decision to base the season's main emotional arc around a love triangle between Mako, Asami and Korra. With more time to develop, this could have made for a more effective background element (much as how romance was handled in the original series), but here it's much more front-and-centre and dominates two episodes to their detriment. The limited screentime also means some characters (like General Iroh, Zuko's grandson who amusingly shares his grandfather's voice actor) aren't really fleshed out at all and just show up, do some stuff and disappear without much being learned about them.

Still, the flipside of the fewer episodes means that there's less hanging about and each episode feels busier, developing multiple storylines in tandem as well as building up the setting and the backdrop. It could all have exploded into an incoherent mess, but the writers manage the chaos quite well.

Despite some flaws, The Legend of Korra - Book I: Air (****) is a worthy follow-up to Avatar: The Last Airbender. It tries to be different whilst also exploring the consequences of the preceding series and manages to pull both off. The characters aren't quite a match for their predecessors, but this remains a highly watchable and engaging animated series. It is available now on DVD (UK, USA) and Blu-Ray (UK, USA). Book II: Spirit will be released in 2014.

The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles Vorkosigan, home on leave from the Barrayar Academy, is given a job by his father: to adjudicate a case of infanticide in a farming community. Aral Vorkosigan has pioneered laws designed to protect ill and deformed young babies from being killed out of hand, as has been the custom for centuries, and wants to see the law enforced. Miles reluctantly heads for the village...only to find a seething morass of secrets and local intrigue which makes finding the real killer more difficult than he thought possible.

The Mountains of Mourning is a short (80 page or so) novella set in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosgian universe. It's a slight work but an interesting one, showing the changing face of Barrayar society due to the reforms introduced by Aral Vorkosigan after the events of Shards of Honour and Barrayar, the first two novels in the sequence.

The writing is pretty good, with Bujold pulling out some interesting twists to overcome the superior technology of Miles's investigating team (who are armed with instant truth drugs). On a character level, it shows Miles growing and taking more responsibility. It's a much more serious story than the previous (chronologically) novel in the series, The Warrior's Apprentice, and Bujold handles the change in tone quite well. Bujold also does reasonably well to avoid the worst cliches of the 'high-minded folk from the city telling the country bumpkins what to do' trope, with the villagers turning out to be smarter and less primitive than they are initially set out to be.

The Mountains of Mourning (****) is a fine novella, but it's not really worthwhile purchasing this as a separate volume. Fortunately it can be found conveniently packaged alongside The Warrior's Apprentice and the succeeding novel, The Vor Game, in the Young Miles omnibus, available now in the UK and USA.

Senin, 30 Desember 2013

The Wertzone Awards 2013

Best Novels

1. The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
Priest releases his second novel in two years after a decade-long gap. The Adjacent is ambitious, taking a complex idea, tying it into knots and allowing the reader to untangle it. Bolder and braver even than The Separation, this is Priest at his best.

2. River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay returns to his alternate China for a more lyrical and thought-provoking novel than its thematic predecessor, Under Heaven. Beautifully written, pitched perfectly and with memorable characters.

3. Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins
A strong debut, painting a vividly atmospheric picture of an alternate-reality Soviet Union. Let down a little by more being the first half of a longer novel than a book in its own right, but still a riveting read.

4. Ancilliary Justice by Anne Leckie
A new, distinctive voice in space opera. Leckie fuses the 'social science fiction' of Ursula LeGuin with a dash of Iain M. Banks to create something intriguing and fresh.

5. A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
A series most people had written off a decade ago is finally brought to an appropriately epic finale. There are a few more unresolved minor plot points than might be wished, but based on the history of 'sequels by other hands' this is far better than anyone had any reason to hope for or expect.

6. Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear
A sensitive, well-written and imaginative take on fantasy, reimagining Central Asia as a hotbed of magical intrigue and struggle. A startling mix of the original and familiar.

7. The Ace of Skulls by Chris Wooding
Wooding brings his fantasy airship series to a conclusion. Arguably the most out-and-out 'fun' fantasy series of the last few years, and its ending does not disappoint.

8. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
A six-year wait for this book resulted in raised expectations which did not work for some, but Lynch's clever ticking narrative timebomb over Locke Lamora's true identity and the reasons for his unhealthy obsession with a childhood crush is brutally effective. Sharp and funny, the novel is let down by a lack of stakes in the central election storyline, but Lynch leaves things on a compelling knife's edge for the next few books in the series.

9. On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds
A step-up from Blue Remembered Earth, with better characters, a stronger plot and a return to Reynolds's more traditional milieu of interstellar space. It's still not up there with his earlier novels, but this is still a compelling, well-structured read.

10. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Time travel and serial killers meet in a story which is brutally effective, if a bit too lacking in character motivation or explanation.

11. The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham
Abraham's morally ambiguous fantasy, influenced equally by Babylon 5 and the history of the Medicis, passes its middle volume with aplomb.

12. The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce
A slight let-down from Joyce: hauntingly atmospheric, well-written and completely convincing in its depiction of a place and time, but the overall impact of the novel is slight.

13. Fade to Black/Before the Fall/Last to Rise by Francis Knight

A complete trilogy, you say? Released all in one year? Impressive. Knight's debut series is rough-around-the-edges, but its magepunk stylings and main storyline are effective.

14. Queen of Nowhere by Jaine Fenn
Fenn returns to the quality of her debut novel after a couple of slightly disappointing releases in the Hidden Empire series.

15. The Grim Company by Lucas Scull
This epic fantasy debut may be more Abercrombie than Abercrombie, but it's still an effectively-paced, entertaining action story.

16. The Art of War/An Inch of Ashes/The Broken Wheel by David Wingrove
David Wingrove's Chung Kuo relaunch has run into trouble, with Corvus considering putting the series on indefinite hold after the eighth volume is released next year. This is troubling news for Wingrove's fanbase (some of who have been waiting for more than a decade and a half for the series to be completed according to the author's intentions) and newer readers impressed by the breadth and scale of Wingrove's vision. However, one can't help but think the main problem was the decision to split the series into twenty very short novels rather than ten reasonably-sized ones.

17. Parasite by Mira Grant
Above-average prose for this kind of schlock thriller make Parasite an enjoyable read, but the plot twists are spelled out in fifty-foot-tall neon letters 200 pages before they take place and the premise (itself reminiscent of Greg Bear's Blood Music) is rather credulity-straining.

18. The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett
Brett scored an impressive debut with The Painted Man but has struggled ever since to match it, with its increasingly bloated sequels featuring less and less character and plot development in favour of repetitive explorations of tedious backstory. Hopefully he can turn it around in the upcoming fourth volume of the series.

The Wertzone Award for Pulling It Out of the Fire

Bringing a series beloved by millions of readers to a successful, satisfying conclusion after the death of the original author is a very tall order indeed, but Brandon Sanderson managed to pull it off. Yes, the fates of a few minor spear-carriers may be left unresolved, but overall this was a satisfyingly explosive end to a series twenty-three years in the making.

The Wertzone Award for Best Books Read in 2013 Regardless of Release Date

Four books, four five-star reviews. No other series in this blog's history has managed to pull off that feat. The Acts of Caine is a mind-blowing fusion of science fiction and fantasy, exploring character and thematic ideas against a backdrop of action and philosophy. It also manages to be 'grimdark' without resorting to cheap misogyny (most of the major characters in the series - bar Caine himself - are female). It's also bewildering how each of the four volumes in this series are written in a somewhat different manner to the rest, even occupying a different subgenre. Inventive, imaginative and unrelenting.

Best Games

1. XCOM: Enemy Within
It shows how lacklustre this year was that an expansion for a year-old strategy game was the best title released. Enemy Within expands upon XCOM: Enemy Unknown's compelling gameplay but adds new options, missions and ideas to make for a very different-feeling (but equally excellent) game.

2. Metro: Last Light
An excellent sequel to Metro 2033, with a better-pitched difficulty level, a more tragic storyline and a more convincing-feeling world.

3. Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches
Dishonored was one of the best games of 2012 and these two DLCs were perfect expansions, adding interesting new ideas and storylines to that game without overloading it. The journey through Daud's soul was almost as gripping as Corvo's journey in the original game and some of the new locations and challenges exceeded the original game in atmosphere and playability.

4. StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
I had mixed feelings about 2010's Wings of Liberty, but the (ridiculously) late first expansion was a much better game on almost every level. The storyline was more original and interesting, with the Zerg made into a more compelling player-race. Some major storylines stretching back all the way to 1998 and the original game are finally concluded, leaving this feeling less like the middle volume of a trilogy it really is.

5. Shadowrun Returns
One of the earliest big successes of Kickstarter, Shadowrun Returns brings old-skool gameplay to modern audiences. A more linear experience than was originally expected, blighted by the absence of a save-anywhere feature, but a solid storyline, great writing and some really good combat overcome the problems to make for a highly enjoyable RPG. However, there is still a lot of untapped potential in the engine.

6. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim - Dragonborn
Dragonborn sees Skyrim bid farewell to the world with style. Providing a large, new island (or an old one, if you're familiar with Morrowind's expansions) to play around in, Dragonborn is the whole Skyrim experience encapsulated in a smaller, more manageable location with some great new ideas (even if the dragon-riding mechanic is rather terrible) and some unusually interesting (by Bethesda's standards) characters.

7. Tomb Raider (2013)
Lara Croft's first adventure in several years is a clean reboot, ably written by Rhianna Pratchett and focusing on characterisation and motivation as well as combat and exploration. Old-skool fans may be put off the lack of actual tomb-raiding in favour of combat, quick-time events and cut-scenes, but Tomb Raider makes these often-annoying mechanics work in its favour to create an enjoyable experience.

8. BioShock Infinite
One of the most visually impressive games of the year, with a highly imaginative setting and some excellent combat set-pieces. The storyline is interesting and the complicated ending works really well. However, even moreso than its forebears, BioShock Infinite is screaming out to be an RPG and seems to only sulkily settle for being an action game. The restrictions of having to lay waste to everything in sight and not being able to interact with characters badly chafe in this title, but if you can deal with this there's plenty of fun to be had.

9. Company of Heroes 2
Company of Heroes 2 is a pretty solid sequel to the original, genre-redefining RTS. However, a weaker storyline and poorer writing hamper the single-player side of things, whilst the multiplayer is not (yet) as compelling an experience as the original game. A playable and enjoyable sequel, but also one that feels a little bit too conservative.

10. Total War: Rome II
Creative Assembly are no strangers to releasing incomplete, buggy games and patching them up later on, but after two solid launches in a row, fans believed that their troubles were behind them. Instead, Rome II launched in a poor state. Four months and eight patches later the game is far more playable than it was at launch and a compelling, rich strategy experience awaits the patient. But there's still a few too many problems to be able to fairly assess the game so far.

11. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
2K's almost embarrassed attitude towards this game didn't bode well prior to release, and this turned out to be a bit of a shame. It may be Mass Effect 3 with an XCOM skin draped over it, but it still features excellent combat (better than ME3's, it has to be said), some great team mechanics and some good ideas that even the main XCOM series hasn't replicated yet (like being able to split your soldiers between different missions simultaneously). The storyline is also more twisty than you might expect, with some nice ideas emerging towards the end. Certainly not a classic - it's a little too repetitive - but definitely a worthwhile shooter.

11. Space Hulk (2013)
Stomping around a space hulk with a bunch of Terminator Marines and destroying everything in sight is, as it has always been, brilliant fun. However, a near-vertical difficulty curve and an overreliance on pure luck over strategy become frustrating long before the final missions are reached.


Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Director's Cut
One of 2011's best games is re-released with its most egregious flaws - most notably the annoying boss fights - reworked into something far more palatable. What was once a flawed gem is now improved to the status of stone-cold classic.

Brutal Legend: PC Edition
This interesting RTS/RPG/action hybrid always felt more suited to the PC than console, so it's a relief to finally see it arrive on that platform. However, the failure to rework the awkward controls into something better-suited for a strategy game means that it's still failing to fulfil its potential

Best TV Series

1. Orphan Black (Season 1)

Packing more plot and character into its pilot than most shows manage into a whole season, Orphan Black arrived with a bang and never looked back. It's relentless pace never came at the expense of character development and even a couple of iffy supporting performances couldn't dent the achievement of lead actress Tatiana Maslany, whose charisma and jawdropping versatility gave us no less than seven of the best performances of the year. The only question is whether the show can maintain the same level of quality into its second season, due next year.

2. Game of Thrones (Season 3)
Game of Thrones's third season delivered two of TV 's strongest moments of the year, with the explosive finale to the fourth episode only exceeded by the horrors of the Red Wedding in the ninth and tenth episodes. Elsewhere the show occasionally struggled for pacing and some storylines were revisited a bit too often (the 'torturing Theon' storyline went on way too long, with a very dull denoucement), but overall this remains a compelling, if controversial, adaptation of George R.R. Martin's novels.

3. The Returned (Season 1)
This French drama was deliberately-paced, beautifully-characterised and awesomely-shot, with its central mystery unfolding slowly but inexorably over the course of eight episodes. An overreliance on ambiguity and a lack of explanation for what's going on suggest this Gallic Twin Peaks could turn into Lost rather too easily if the upcoming second season doesn't deliver some anwers, but for now this was one of the most intriguing new shows of the year.

4. An Adventure in Time and Space
A drama about the real-life origins of Doctor Who might sound a little dull, but Mark Gatiss's script and David Bradley's astonishing central performance as First Doctor William Hartnell are both gripping. A galaxy of excellent supporting actors and some fiendish attention to detail result in a more-than-fitting tribute to the show's 50th anniversary.

5. The Walking Dead (Season 3.5)
This really should have been better than it was, with David Morrissey's Governor finally providing the zombie drama with a much-needed main bad guy and antagonist. However, some bad pacing in the latter part of the season and too many episodes (they should have remained at 12 episodes; don't go to 16 unless you have the story to fill it) resulted in too much filler.

6. Agents of SHIELD (Season 1.0)
One of the most eagerly-awaited new shows of the year had a very ropey beginning, with badly-written scripts and confused-looking actors eventually giving way to a more compelling, pulp action show by the mid-season cliffhanger. SHIELD really needs to go for the jugular on its return, however, if it isn't to be judged a failure.

7. Doctor Who (Series 7.5 and specials)
In its 50th anniversary year, Doctor Who should really have been firing on all thrusters. However, a typically muddled, confusing and badly-explained story arc from Steven Moffat, a surprisingly subpar script from Neil Gaiman and rather poor use of new companion Clara (played with enthusiasm by Jenna Coleman) resulted in a half-season to forget. The actual 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, was surprisingly good with some great performances and a clever way of tying in with the show's ongoing storylines. However, this good work was undone by the Christmas special which addressed outstanding plot holes with all the grace and subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Roll on the Peter Capaldi era and, hopefully, a much-needed change of production team.

8. The White Queen
A historical drama about the Wars of the Roses should be absolutely brilliant, with the rich characters and gripping political intrigue of the era ripe for historical exploration. Instead, this show was completely all over the place tone-wise, with pacing that was shot to hell, excruciatingly awful battle sequences and highly variable performances. At rare moments, some strong promise shone through, but ultimately this show wasted its terrific potential on cheap melodrama.

9. Under the Dome (Season 1)
Utter, utter drek. Stephen King's rather poor novel becomes a poor TV show, complete with dire acting, predictable plot twists and a total lack of plot coherence or logic, culminating in a tepid cliffhanger. This really should have been cancelled, but we will have to endure a second season next year. Hopefully, against all likelihood, the showrunners can turn this around and allow it to start fulfilling its actually interesting premise.

Best Film

1. Pacific Rim
It's a commentary on how weak 2013 was in the cinema - and how few films I saw - that a movie about big robots hitting big monsters with rocket-powered arms was the most enjoyable thing I saw this year. Still, Guillermo Del Toro's kaiju movie was a satisfying romp, mixing in some awesome character names (only Idris Elba could pull off a guy called 'Stacker Pentecost') and a nod at a multi-national response to an international threat (most of the film is set in Hong Kong and few of the castmembers or characters are American). Del Toro also showed Michael Bay how it's done, with massive CGI set-pieces which you can actually follow thanks to some well-judged direction. The film was also notable for the difference in reaction across the world: the USA was lukewarm, but Chinese audiences brought in more than $100 million by themselves, helping the film recoup its budget and making a sequel likely.

2. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Peter Jackson's second Hobbit movie is the least-faithful Tolkien adaptation he's helmed, but it's still an enormous improvement on An Unexpected Journey. Better action beats, much better pacing and more inventive use of the dwarven characters result in a movie that doesn't feel as long as it is (unlike the stupefying three-hour length of the original, which felt more like six). However, there's some decidedly iffy effects moments, too many superheroics from Legolas and an ill-judged cliffhanger ending.

3. The World's End
The third and final movie in the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy is also the weakest, despite some solid direction by Edgar Wright and some surprisingly good performances from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. However, the film mishandles its tonal shift from friendship drama to sci-fi action flick and too many gags fall flat. Entertaining, but ultimately much less memorable than either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz.

4. Iron Man 3
Having Tony Stark suffer from PTSD in the aftermath of The Avengers is a bold idea that could have resulted in a fascinating movie. Instead, it's not long before we descend into action mayhem with more explosions than you can shake a stick at. As usual, Robert Downey Jnr. remains the most watchable actor on the screen, single-handedly preventing the movie from sinking into disposability. He even handles an ill-judged 'cute kid sidekick' subplot with some skill. Ultimately, watchable and fun

5. Star Trek - Into Darkness
It's likely that the J.J. Abams Star Trek movies are going to be remembered as films featuring a great cast desperately searching for a good script. There are brief moments in Into Darkness when it feels like they might just get it, but the ill-conceived decision to turn the movie into Wrath of Khan fanfiction (only nowhere near as good) blows it out of the water before the final act.

6. Man of Steel
Another case of a really good cast let down by an execrable script, though here the film starts going down in flames as soon as the action moves from Krypton to Earth. Structurally weak, with some awful dialogue and some of the most unconvincing CGI put on screen in a decade or more, Man of Steel is only saved from total disaster by Russell Crowe's steely-gazed presence and charisma.

Note: I haven't seen Gravity or Thor: The Dark World yet.

The Wertzone Missing in Action 2013 Award

For once, this wasn't the fault of George R.R. Martin but of some artists who allegedly were a bit late in turning in their work (though GRRM took advantage of this to deliver tens of thousands more words of material than originally planned). Originally announced in 2008 and with multiple release dates mooted and then missed, this book is currently scheduled - and finally seems a lock - for November 2014. From early sneak previews, it looks like it's going to be more than worth the wait with both compelling new backstory material and some terrific artwork.

The Wertzone Award for Best Genre-Inspired Career Boom

This may have more properly begun a decade-and-a-half ago with his casting as Argus Filch in the Harry Potter movies, but 2013 was really a bumper year for 71-year-old David Bradley. His character of Walder Frey was responsible for the most shocking moment of television of the year on Game of Thrones, whilst his performance as William Hartnell in An Adventure in Space and Time was simply sublime. He even fitted in appearances in The World's End and Broadchurch before ending the year on a high, being cast as the lead on Guillermo Del Toro's TV series The Strain.

The Wertzone Award for Special Achievements in Eyebrow Acting

'Nuff said.

Jumat, 27 Desember 2013

The Warrior's Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold

Miles Vorkosigan is the son of one of the most powerful men on Barrayar, but is also a cripple, cursed with fragile bones and occasional hubris. When his pride overrides his good sense and leaves him too injured to take part in entrance examinations to the Barrayaran academy, Miles is washed up and left without a future. Intrigued by a mystery involving his bodyguard, Bothari, Miles decides to take an offworld trip...but nothing goes to plan and before long Miles's fast-talking has earned him the command of a fleet of starships, thousands of mercenaries and involvement in a civil war which is none of his business. Miles has some explaining to do.

Whilst chronologically The Warrior's Apprentice is the third volume in The Vorkosigan Saga, for most people it's where the series really begins. This is the book where the main character of the series, Miles, debuts as an adult character and it also represents a notable tonal shift from the previous two volumes, Shards of Honour and Barrayar. Whilst those two books were fairly serious (aside from brief comedy-of-manners episodes), The Warrior's Apprentice is more rambunctious. It's a bit of a romp, actually, with Miles' fast-talking mouth and off-the-cuff inventiveness (i.e. lying his head off) getting him in and out of trouble so quickly readers may experience whiplash trying to keep up with it.

It's a novel which can be firmly filed under 'fun', although there is a tragic core to the novel involving the character of Bothrai. Bujold writes this mystery so it works from two angles: if you've read Shards of Honour and Barrayar, you know what's going on long before Miles does and Bujold milks the tension effectively as Miles investigates the matter. If you haven't read those books and are as much in the dark as Miles, it works just as well. The tragic interlude (and the finale, which involves a brief dash of political intrigue) are a bit out-of-keeping with the book's overall tone, but Bujold shows impressive mastery of pacing in allowing the narrative to organically shift to integrate them before moving back to a less serious feel.

The result is a novel that is often quite funny, but also reflects the central character very well. Miles is a ball of energy that tends to drag people along behind him into various crazy schemes they'd never normally want to be a part of, but his momentum somehow keeps everything afloat. The novel works this way as well, with the plot taking increasingly ludicrous turns but it not mattering because Bujold infuses the novel with so much energy and verve you just want to read along and find out what happens next. Bujold's skills with characterisation also help define the book's setting much more clearly, with even briefly-appearing secondary characters getting fleshed out into three-dimensional people within just a few paragraphs.

Negatives? The narrative sometimes feels a little too silly for a book that actually isn't an out-and-out comedy. The concluding section on Barrayar is also perhaps a little too neat and tidy, and there seems to be a narrative disconnect between Cordelia's treatment by her own people on Beta Colony in the first two books (where she was treated as a criminal) and her well-regarded position here. But there are fairly minor issues.

The Warrior's Apprentice (****) isn't high art or hard SF, but it is entertaining, fast-paced and well-characterised, with just enough pathos and tragedy to add some depth to it. It is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Young Miles omnibus, along with the novella The Mountains of Mourning and the novel The Vor Game.

Kamis, 26 Desember 2013

Very Early Predictions - 2014 Oscar Nominations

As we know the Academy Awards nominations will be announced on Thursday, January 16, 2014 but as the majority of critics groups have already announced their 2013 winners plus we have at least one guild nominations and because some of you have been asking for how I see the possible Oscar nominations, will dare to play the guessing game this early.

Please recall that -with exception of the guilds- NONE of the critics are Academy members consequently do not vote in the nomination process, but definitively they are viewer's influencer and after all, like it or not, Academy members are also viewers.

My crystal ball says that for the following categories probable Oscar nominations are ...

Best Picture
Very Sure
12 Years a Slave

American Hustle
August: Osage County
Dallas Buyers Club
Inside Llewyn Davis
Saving Mr. Banks

Wouldn't mind if are NOT nominated
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street
Lee Daniels' The Butler

Dare the Academy to nominate
Blue is the Warmest Color
Jagten (The Hunt)

Best Foreign Language Film
Very Sure
Jagten (The Hunt)
La Grande Belleza (The Great Beauty)

The Broken Circle Breakdown
L'image manquante (The Missing Picture)
The Notebook
Two Lives

My Winner: The Hunt

Best Director
Very Sure
Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity
Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave

Spike Jonze for Her
David O. Russel for American Hustle
Joel and Ethan Coen for Inside Llewyn Davis

Wouldn't mind if are NOT nominated
Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips
Alexander Payne for Nebraska
Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street

Dare the Academy to nominate
Woody Allen for Blue Jasmine
Abdellatif Kechiche for Blue is the Warmest Color

Best Actress
Very Sure
Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Hope the next three (to make the 5 nominees) are:
Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks
Judi Dench in Philomena
Meryl Streep in August: Osage County

Brie Larson in Short Term 12
Kate Winslet in Labor Day
Greta Gerwing in Frances Ha

Dare the Academy to nominate
Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color

Best Supporting Actress
Very Sure
Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave

Amy Adams in American Hustle (should be nominated in this category to have better chances)
Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine
June Squibb in Nebraska
Octavia Spencer in Frutivale Station

Wouldn't mind if are NOT nominated
Julia Roberts in August: Osage County
Oprah Winfrey in Lee Daniels' The Butler

Dare the Academy to nominate
Scarlett Johansson in Her (already read that will not qualify BUT absolutely disagree, voice only require great performances; if not agree, have you seen dubbed movies with awful voices that have absolutely nothing to do with what you see in the screen?)

Best Actor
Very Sure
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club
Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips
Bruce Dern in Nebraska
Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels' The Butler
Joaquin Phoenix in Her
Michael B. Jordan in Frutivale Station

Wouldn't mind if are NOT nominated
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street
Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis
Robert Redford in All is Lost

Dare the Academy to nominate
Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt

Best Supporting Actor
Very Sure
Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club

Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave
Daniel Bruhl in Rush
Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips
James Gandolfini in Enough Said

Wouldn't mind if are NOT nominated
James Franco in Spring Breakers

Best Documentary
Very Sure
The Act of Killing
Stories We Tell

20 Feet From Stardom
The Square
The Crash Reel (because director is Lucy Walker)

Movie that will win most tech awards, similar to what Life of Pi did last year, Gravity.

Up-to-date most critics predictions for all categories rotate around the SAME movies, let's hope that when the nominations are announced they include a larger number of films and not only the 5+ that many predict will be nominated so will not be too easy to guess who will win in what category. Sigh.

That's it. Wont guess more as is too early. But if you ask me which movie(s) I believe is the best that have seen during 2013 have to say that there are three choices that make very difficult to select only one: The Hunt, Blue is the Warmest Color and The Act of Killing.

Sabtu, 21 Desember 2013

'Thousands' of cans of missing TV episodes returned to the BBC and ITV

The British Film Institute hosted one of its Missing: Believed Wiped events today, in which British television programmes and films that were believed lost are discussed and celebrated. A few weeks ago they announced the successful return of nine missing episodes of Doctor Who, amidst heavy rumours of additional finds.

Tonight, the event organisers confirmed (following reports on Twitter) what had been speculated for months: that 'thousands' of cans of material had been recovered, mostly from Africa where copies had been sent for broadcast in the 1960s. The figure 10,000 cans was at one point mentioned, though later the organisers stressed they did not have a confirmed figure and that was speculative. However, it is clear that a substantial amount of material has been found.

What this material consists of and how much of it is of missing material and how much extra copies of episodes that already exist in the BBC and ITV archives is unknown at the moment. Apparently the BBC and ITV are assessing the material and will make further announcements in due course. However, it is rumoured that the three missing episodes of classic British sitcom Dad's Army are among the find, alongside possible episodes of Steptoe and Son and Hancock's Half Hour.

The holy grail for fans of British cult TV would be the 24 missing episodes of The Avengers and of course more missing episodes of Doctor Who. Following the find a few weeks ago, 97 episodes of the series remain missing. The most extravagant rumour - and sadly already reported to be wildly optimistic - was that 81 of these episodes had been recovered. The true figure is reportedly significantly lower, but would still comprise a number of eagerly-missed episodes. It is believed that the BBC will only confirm recovered episodes once they have been fully checked and are ready to be released to the public via iTunes and DVD.

In a separate development, Doctor Who 'superfan' Ian Levine has recovered five episodes from Taiwan. However, these were additional copies of already-extant episodes. Whilst it is disappointing not to find lost episodes, this discovery, hot on the heels of the announcement of the find of nine episodes in October, gives further hope that there is more material out there to be discovered.

86th Academy Awards Foreign-Language Film - Shortlist of 9

To my surprise late yesterday the Academy released the names of the nine (9) films that will advance to the next round of voting in the category and to must Oscar season followers the selected films meant surprises and huge snubs. We know that every year this is one of the most controversial Oscar categories and this year is NO exception.

There is an article written by Scott Feinberg that if you wish to read in full go here, that could help us understand more about the selection process. The following is a cut and paste paragraph from the article.

The Academy's best foreign-language film Oscar short-list is determined in two phases. During the first, all of the eligible submissions -- which this year numbered 76 and included three documentaries, two animated films and 16 films directed by women -- are divided into groups, as are the members of a foreign-language committee which consists of several hundred Los Angeles-based Academy members, all volunteers from a wide cross-section of the Academy's branches whose names are never released. Each group of members is then assigned to a different group of films. In order to retain the right to weigh in on the short-list at the end of the process, members must attend screenings of a certain percentage of the films in their assigned group. This year, screenings of all of the submissions took place between mid-Oct. and Dec. 16, and members had to attend no fewer than 17. Those who maintained their eligibility then got to vote, and their six highest-scoring films were passed along to an executive committee.

So we know that watching 76 films is almost humanly impossible in a couple of months (unless you really enjoy films like me) so the shortlist is generated by selecting films from each of the groups with eligible voters. From this exercise six (6) films are selected giving to the executive committee the task to add 3 more films that they considered HAVE to be in the shortlist. If you don't remember this decision came after excellent non-commercial films were left out of the race. Even if the process has improved a lot than in the past, still is not infallible and excellent movies are left out of the race in the first phase.

From the films I have seen major snubs for me come from countries like Argentina, Chile, Iran, Mexico and Romania. These five films are absolutely must be seen and strongly recommend you do not skip them. But then let's be honest, if you enjoy great cinema there are about 50+ movies that were submitted to Oscar that are must be seen for me and most of you that read the blog regularly, so I assume that all the fuzz and buzz about snubbing is that some USA distributors already had commitments with movies that they hoped will made the list of nine at least.

From the list of 9 films, haven't seen more than half BUT can share with you that definitively The Hunt and The Great Beauty HAVE to be nominated plus if one of them wins the Oscar I would not be upset at all. Still my Oscar goes to The Hunt even when Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza was a true cinephile pleasure like the ones that Fellini used to give us back then.

These are the nine (9) films that advance to the second phase that ends with generating five nominees to be announced on Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 5:30 am PT.

Belgium: The Broken Circle Breakdown, Felix van Groeningen (Berlinale)
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Epizoda u životu berača željeza (An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker), Danisa Tanovića (Berlinale Jury Grand Prix winner)
Cambodia: L'image manquante (The Missing Picture), Rithy Panh (documentary) (Cannes Un Certain Regard winner)
Denmark: Jagten (The Hunt), Thomas Vinterberg (Cannes 2012)
Germany: Zwei Leben (Two Lives), Judith Kaufmann and Georg Maas
Hong Kong: 一代宗师 Yi dai zong shi (The Grandmaster), Kar Wai Wong (Berlinale)
Hungary: A nagy füzet (The Notebook), János Szász, (Crystal Globe for Best Film at 2013 Karlovy Vary)
Italy: La Grande Belleza (The Great Beauty), Paolo Sorrentino (Cannes)
Palestine: Omar, Hany Abu-Assad (Cannes Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize winner)

Basically we have 4 Cannes films, 3 Berlinale films, 1 from Karlovy Vary and 1 film from Göteborg (Germany), so ALL are festival films, which only assures an above average film quality. Let's go more in-depth.

Belgium: The Broken Circle Breakdown by Felix van Groeningen
From all the films in shortlist perhaps this is the one that pleased audiences the most as many of the film accolades are Audience Awards in festivals like Berlinale, Karlovy Vary, Tallinn Black Nights, etc.

I believe that film has excellent performances, great screenplay, and good director which makes a very unusual non-commercial crowd pleaser film.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Epizoda u životu berača željeza (An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker), Danisa Tanovića
To be honest I was going to skip this film but now I know will watch it as not only won the Jury Grand Prix at 2013 Berlinale but now is being honored by the Academy.

From trailer and images imagine that will be not easy to watch; still story reminds me of a great Romanian movie about how hard life can be when you deal with state institutions.

Cambodia: L'image manquante (The Missing Picture) by Rithy Panh
The most interesting facts about this film is that is a documentary, is animated plus tells a story that IF told not this way surely could be unwatchable. Film has collected major honors like the Un Certain Regard Award at 2013 Cannes, Best Documentary Award at 2013 European Film Awards and 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival's In Spirit for Freedom Award.

No doubt that 2013 is the year when documentaries told unthinkable stories in the most unthinkable way (bordering beauty) that definitively touches viewers deep. Also think Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing.

Denmark: Jagten (The Hunt), Thomas Vinterberg
Thomas Vinterberg masterful opus won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury in 2012 Cannes as well as Best Actor for the incredible performance by Mads Mikkelsen; also won Best Screenwriter award at 2012 European Film Awards, 2013 Nordic Council's Film Prize Award and was not 2012 Denmark submission to Oscar because was released after the Academy deadline. So one year after was sent and made the shortlist of 9. Not a fan of ranking movies I see BUT this year will be the exception as The Hunt is my number 1 movie of the year, the one that has my Oscar and the one I hope wins.

Strongly suggest you watch movie as film is fantastic but watching Mads is truly, truly an awesome experience I highly recommend to many people that call their profession "actor".

Germany: Zwei Leben (Two Lives) by Judith Kaufmann and Georg Maas
Have not seen movie and yes, I am "dying" to see it especially because lead performances by Liv Ullman and none other than Juliane Köhler that many of you will remember from great Aimée & Jaguar. Film was not screened in major festivals but was a selection in 2013 Göteborg Film Festival running for the International Debut Award.

It is the second film by Maas (documentary filmmaker) and the first by Kaufman (cinematographer) and know their work as have seen Maas Liv Ullmann documentary and many movies were Judith Kaufmann was the cinematographer like 4 minutes, When We Leave, Unveiled and more.

Update: film has extraordinary cinematography, good performances more Scandinavian than German style, an interesting story told in slowish pace but believe is not Oscar worthy material as is entertaining but not much else.

Hong Kong: 一代宗师 Yi dai zong shi (The Grandmaster) by Kar Wai Wong
Some of you know my blind love for Wong Kar Wai and his master filmmaker style so masterful developed in films like In the Mood for Love, 2046, Chungking Express and more; add that I still believe that the greatest actor in the world is Tony Leung (thanks to his extraordinary performances in Wong Kar Wai's films and other directors) and you have an idea of the expectations I had for this film. Perhaps my expectations were too high but film doesn't look/feel much like great Wong Kar Wai (perhaps the close film style is Ashes of Time) so in a way I was disappointed but not much as film is absolutely outstanding when you think cinematography, truly awesome visual pleasure.

Still film has already won 14 awards plus more nominations, including Ziyi Zhang winning Best Performance by an Actress at 2013 Asia Pacific Screen Awards, Best Cinematography in 2013 Golden Horse Awards where also won the Audience Award. Worth watching but try to minimize the effect the director may have in your expectations.

Hungary: A nagy füzet (The Notebook) by János Szász
Not really interested in watching as many will remember that do not enjoy war movies and need someone/something to force me to perhaps consider watching.

Still seems that film has impressive cinematography and already collected accolades at 2013 Karlovy Vary where won the Crystal Globe and Label Europa Cinema awards.

Italy: La Grande Belleza (The Great Beauty), Paolo Sorrentino
My second favorite actor in the world is Toni Servillo and see everything with him, not really a fan of the director (but loved Il Divo with Servillo) and had no expectations. This film gave me the greatest surprise this year as never, never imagined Sorrentino could make a movie so decadent that gave me the chills as almost felt I was watching early Fellini. One of the best five movies this year and one that already won great accolades from being in competition at 2013 Cannes to win several awards in 2013 European Film Awards including best film and best actor. If you ever loved (and miss) great Italian cinema then this film is must be seen for you.

Palestine: Omar by Hany Abu-Assad
Not in my film watching queue (even when won 2013 Cannes Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize) but called my attention when won Best Film at 2013 Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Surely will not be easy to see but accolades suggest that maybe story has something different, especially when story has been told too many times in many different ways/points-of-view. Will watch.

Kamis, 19 Desember 2013

Makers of ARMA and MAFIA to make a historical RPG

Computer RPGs tend to come in two flavours: ones set in fantasy worlds (or fantasised versions of the realm world) and games set in science fiction mileus. RPGs set in historical periods are not so much 'thin on the ground' as 'almost non-existent'. The closest such games are probably the Mount and Blade ones, and even they are focused on multiplayer combat over anything else.

New develoment studio Warhorse, based in the Czech Republic, is out to change that. Staffed by former members of Bohemia Interactive and 2K Czech (formerly Illusion Softworks), Warhorse is creating a historically-accurate RPG set in the Holy Roman Empire in 1403 AD, during the 'dying days of the middle ages'. The game will focus on character development, a wide range of combat techniques informed by the real warfare of the time (from field battles to stealth to sieges, either fighting on foot or horseback) and will feature an open world narrative. Basically, think Skyrim but set in Europe with less dragons and magic.

It's an interesting approach to take but the pedigree is impressive. Some of the developers worked on the ARMA series and the original Mafia. Kingdom Come: Deliverance will be released on PC, PS4 and X-Box One in 2015. Many screenshots can be seen here.

Selasa, 17 Desember 2013

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and David Goyer to make a SANDMAN movie

It's been announced that actor/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt and screenwriter David Goyer are to collaborate on a movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels.

Gaiman's comic series has been optioned several times before, but never made it out of development hell. According to Gaiman, whilst some of the scripts have been pretty good several have been absolutely horrendous, treating Morpheus like a superhero more than like the mythological force he is. This new project seems more promising, especially since Gordon-Levitt tweeted the hashtag #preludes, hinting that the first film will be a straight-up adaptation of Preludes and Nocturnes, the first Sandman graphic novel. This has always been the most logical place to start the project, but most previous scripts have been original stories featuring the characters or only loosely based on the actual texts.

Gordon-Levitt has starred in films such as Looper, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises and also gained critical acclaim for his directorial debut, Don Jon. Goyer has had a more mixed career: he has been praised for writing or co-writing the first two Blade movies, the three Christopher Nolan Batman movies and Dark City, but he also wrote Man of Steel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and Blade: Trinity. According to some reports, Goyer is only outlining the Sandman movie as he may be too busy working on the Man of Steel sequel and other projects. He will have a producer's credit on the final movie as well.

Gordon-Levitt is currently only attached to produce, though some reports have him negotiating a deal to star and possibly direct.

2013 Prix Louis-Delluc Winners

Today the jury members of the most prestigious award in France had their annual meeting at Fouquet in Paris with Gilles Jacob, Cannes Festival president, announcing that this year winner is extremely well deserved and is the second Delluc that Kechiche wins in only five years, as his first was for excellent La Graine et le mulet in 2007 and now for La Vie d'Adèle.

Prix Louis Delluc for Best Film: La Vie d'Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color), Abdellatif Kechiche

For reference these were the films considered for the award.

Elle s'en va by Emmanuelle Bercot
Jimmy P. by Arnaud Desplechin
Camille Claudel 1915 by Bruno Dumont
Mon âme par toi guérie by François Dupeyron
9 mois ferme by Albert Dupontel
Le Passé by Asghar Farhadi
L'inconnu du lac by Alain Guiraudie
La vie d'Adèle by Abdellatif Kechiche

Prix Louis Delluc for Best First Film: Vandal, Hélier Cisterne

To read the news in French go here.

Senin, 16 Desember 2013


In the aftermath of the Battle of New York, SHIELD is putting together a new team led by Agent Phil Coulson...who is supposed to be dead. Recruiting two combat specialists and two scientists, Coulson goes after a hacker working for an activist group, the Rising Tide, and aims to be ready to face a whole host of newly-emerging threats to the security and peace of the world.

Agents of SHIELD is Marvel and ABC's collaborative TV show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which in English means it is set in the same continuity as movies such as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers. Agent Phil Coulson returns - despite being apparently killed by Loki in the first Avengers film - to assemble a new team of agents to take care of relatively low-level threats whilst the superheroes are dealing with bigger stuff in their own films.

This is a fine idea for a TV show, especially one created (although, crucially, not run) by Joss Whedon, and there was a fair amount of hype in the run-up to the show's launch a few months ago. Despite hugely impressive launch ratings in the USA (which have dropped off somewhat, though not - yet - disastrously), the show has endured a fairly tepid critical reception since its launch. Rumours of rewrites and creative re-jiggling behind the scenes (with rumours of Whedon rewriting scripts whilst he's prepping The Avengers: Age of Ultron) have hinted at a show in some creative trouble.

It'd be fair to say that Agents of SHIELD has not set the world on fire since its launch. The show has varied its tone all over the place and the writing and characterisation has been inconsistent. One problem is that whilst the series may have an impressive budget for network television, it's still not a patch on anything the films can do and as a result the action scenes and superheroics can feel very tepid compared to the movies. Also, the series seems to suffer from an issue where the threats our team are facing can't be too dire, as then SHIELD would simply jump in with helicarriers and Iron Man and Captain America to solve the situation. This results in a show that feels like it's riding around with its training wheels still on. Rather than using and exploring all that the Marvel Universe has to offer, the film instead feels straitjacketed by its mythos. That is definitely not what fans signed on to see.

As a series lead, Clark Gregg works as well as ever as Agent Coulson. He's restrained and stoic, but his deadpan humour and well-judged leadership works well. Ming-Na Wen brings considerable presence to the role of Agent Melinda May. Although she's a walking example of the 'taciturn badass' archetype, May works because the actress brings total commitment to the role. More problematic, at least initially, is Brett Dalton as Agent Grant Ward. Ward is a weapons expert, capable in combat and the show's action hero. In early episodes he's about as interesting as a solid block of wood, but as the series goes on he improves, his rather cliched characteristics become a topic of humour and his ill-advised romance with a colleague allows him to show another side to the character. Dalton also shows some promising comic timing.

The plane is a high-tech Serenity stand-in, but works as a (easily-infiltrated) mobile base of operations.

Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge as scientists Fitz and Simmons start off as irritating geeks, but fortunately get some much-needed development a few episodes in and become a lot more likable as a result. In fact, the most problematic character is, unfortunately, also our audience-substitute one. There's no denying that Chloe Bennett brings enthusiasm to the role of hacker Skye, but she fails to convince in her portrayal of a supposed computer expert. Her story arc - trying to learn the identity of her parents - is also rather half-baked in these opening episodes. Bennett is at her best when either making quips or showing a vulnerable side, but otherwise seems to be as confused by the constant shifts in the quality of the scripts as the viewers are.

The episodes themselves leap around in quality. 0-8-4, complete with its South American cliched characters, is embarrassing and Girl in the Flower Dress completely fails to evoke much fear or tension when the team go up against a genuine supervillain. The Well is a tie-in to Thor: The Dark World which simply doesn't work. Repairs, The Asset and Eye Spy all show some promise, but the episode FZZT may be the stand-out so far. This isn't due to its premise (which is ropey) or denouncement (which is unconvincing) but simply because the episode focuses on the dynamics of the team and how they work together and does so more convincingly than any episode before. The pilot and mid-season finale The Bridge also feature J. August Richards (a regular from a previous Whedon show, Angel) as a would-be superhero whom the team initially fights against and later joins forces with. Richards's presence and charisma gives an immense lift to the show and should really have been a regular all along.

Still, despite some problems the show generally (if erratically) gains more in confidence and quality as it goes along. Ten episodes in, by the mid-season finale, there's at least several ongoing storylines gaining traction, the characters are better-defined and the show as a whole seems to be getting more of a sense of direction and purpose. It's all still taking a lot longer to work than it should, and it's rather dismaying that the super-spy heroics are often less convincing than the same things on comedy-drama Chuck (which is starting to look like some kind of weird trans-temporal piss-take of Agents of SHIELD), but the show has at least managed to elevate itself from the 'total write-off' stage.

Agents of Shield's first half-season (***) is moderately entertaining, despite having enough teething troubles to write a book about. There is a huge amount of unfulfilled potential here. If the show can start delivering more regularly, it might become something more worthwhile. The remainder of the season starts airing on 7 January in the United States.

King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Jorg of Ancrath has seized the throne of Renar and now rules the Highlands as a king and a sworn enemy to his father. When one of his companions is consumed by fire magic, Jorg resolves to take him across the Broken Empire to a distant volcano where he might find help. But this is the beginning of a longer journey across the continent as Jorg seeks new allies to stand against another king who may be able to unite the Empire...a king more noble and honourable than Jorg.

King of Thorns is the middle volume of The Broken Empire trilogy and the sequel to 2011's Prince of Thorns. Like its predecessor, it is an at-times uneasy and bleak read but also one that is interesting, broodingly atmospheric and fairly well-written.

As with before, the focus is on Jorg and his band of not-so-merry cutthroats and pillagers. The events of Prince of Thorns have, if not mellowed Jorg, than certainly caused him to re-appraise his life. The result is a less amoral and ruthless Jorg than before and one who is more introspective. Whilst there's still plenty of mayhem in the book, Jorg is less likely to cause it (at least not without more convincing need than before).

The book is structured as two narratives unfolding simultaneously: a flashback set four years in the past (picking up just after the end of Prince of Thorns) and a present-day storyline focused on a massive battle as Jorg's kingdom comes under attack. This structure is the book's biggest weakness: the battle takes place over a short period of time but the flashbacks are much longer and dozens of pages pass between each present-day interlude. Each interlude also relies on events from the flashback to make sense, meaning that we are in the dark about Jorg's plans until he reveals a new weapon, tactic or group of allies that was explored in the preceding flashback sequence. The structure means that the battle feels like a sequence of amazing coincidences and turns of fate which have only just been set up a few pages earlier (so whilst not technically a series of deus ex machina, they do feel a bit like them). What would have worked better (and fortunately the book can be read this way) is if the flashbacks had been one continuous narrative, followed by the present-day storyline taking all of the revelations from the flashbacks and letting them unfold in one go.

Moving beyond that issue, King of Thorns is mostly a success: the characterisation is stronger, the prose is better and the book is more nuanced than its predecessor in terms of morality and consequences. There are also some outstanding sequences, such as a creepy encounter with the undead in a swamp and what appears to be a typical heroic quest which goes rather badly wrong at the end. The book asks some hard questions about rulership and ambition, but on occasion the novel feels like a retreat from Prince of Thorns's hard-edged ruthlessness. A key conflict in the novel is that Jorg's enemy is, in many ways (well, almost all ways), a better man than Jorg and Jorg himself wonders if he should be opposing him or become allied to him. This conflict is all-too-neatly undone by a plot twist revealed quite late in the novel that confirms if this other force wins, the consequences will be horrendous. This feels like the author giving his character too easy of an 'out' of his moral dilemma. The novel also handles its main female character, Katherine, rather oddly. After giving her quite a lot of development through the book (her letters are the only part of the novel not from Jorg's POV, giving her an interesting perspective on events) she vanishes in a rather confused and muddled way in the finale. Hopefully this will be clarified in the final novel in the series.

King of Thorns (****) is a highly intriguing novel, though it can be bleak and hard-going. The structure is problematic and some character arcs are better-handled than others. Those who had a hard time time believing that a 14-year-old could do all the things he did in Prince of Thorns won't find much more plausibility here (though Lawrence amusingly subverts Jorg's occasionally-threatened Gary Stuness several times). However, the novel is also well-written with some excellent turns of phrase and features some memorable setpiece moments. The overall direction of the series remains compelling, even if this is a slight step back from Prince of Thorns in quality. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Minggu, 15 Desember 2013

Will Obsidian and Red Eagle put a WHEEL OF TIME RPG on Kickstarter?

Yesterday, Rock Paper Shotgun interviewed the guys at Obsidian Entertainment about their upcoming plans. Their latest big-budget game, South Park: The Stick of Truth, is due to launch in April 2014 and their Kickstarted, overhead RPG Pillars of Eternity should follow soon after. Obsidian are already looking at ideas for a new Kickstarter project.

They talk at length about ideas for a much more open-world style of game using the Unity Engine (which they are using for Pillars of Eternity), but they also drop hints to what the next Kickstarter should be. One of the ideas they are actively discussing is a licensed game as part of a pre-existing franchise. This, to me, hints that they might be talking about their long-delayed Wheel of Time RPG.

Backing up, about three years ago Obsidian signed a development deal with Red Eagle, the rights-holding company which controls the rights for Wheel of Time video games. This deal was to make a single-player RPG set in the Wheel of Time universe and world. Obsidian seemed excited by what they could do with the game, and fan response was positive, especially when it was revealed that Obsidian's best-known writer, Chris Avellone (the creative force behind Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Neverwinter Nights II: Mask of the Betrayer and Fallout: New Vegas - Old World Blues, several of the greatest RPGs ever made), would be working on the project.

However, nothing has happened with the idea since. Red Eagle was in charge of securing the funding for the game, and failed to do so. Electronic Arts signed a speculative distribution agreement for the game, but chose not to fund and formally publish it. With Triple-A RPG budgets heading towards $100 million (Skyrim, for example, cost $80 million and the Mass Effect trilogy not far off that per game), Red Eagle proved unable to come up with the cash themselves.

Last year, both Red Eagle and Obsidian launched Kickstarters. Red Eagle launched one to make a Wheel of Time casual strategy game for tablets and smartphones, Banner of the Rising Sun. They asked for $450,000 and raised $3,000, a hugely disappointing failure. Obsidian launched one to make an isometric, 'old-skool' RPG with impressive graphics but a much tighter focus on story and character. They asked for $1.1 million and instead raised over $4.1 million, an absolutely massive success.

With both Red Eagle and Obsidian willing to use Kickstarter to achieve their goals, it makes sense that they might consider joining forces to do the same for a Wheel of Time game. The viability of this depends on the deal with EA. If this has expired, there's nothing stopping them doing this. However, if EA retain the distribution rights the project will likely not be viable: Kickstarter is for games that otherwise wouldn't get off the ground, and the involvement of a massive company like EA would be toxic for any such campaign. Provided there are no obstacles, the combination of Obsidian's Kickstarter and game-making experience and Red Eagle's Wheel of Time licence could be highly appealing.

Obsidian will announce what their next project is in the spring, so we have a few months to find out if this is the direction they are going to go in.

Sabtu, 14 Desember 2013


It's only been two months since The Republic of Thieves was published, but clearly Scott Lynch isn't resting on his laurels. Keen to avoid the six-year-wait between volumes, Lynch is already hoping to get the fourth book in The Gentleman Bastard series on the shelves before 2014 is done. From Fantastical Imaginations:
My next book, The Thorn of Emberlain, ought to be out in the fall of 2014.
The Thorn of Emberlain, the fourth book in the Gentleman Bastard sequence, picks up about half a year after The Republic of Thieves and finds Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen trying to get back on their feet with a major con. They’re trying to sell the services of a non-existent mercenary company to the besieged city-state of Emberlain, hoping to escape with the hiring fees before the chaos of the Vadran civil war overruns Emberlain. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan…

I can confirm that Scott's publishers are themselves confident that this date can be met: Scott began work on The Thorn of Emberlain some time before the final edits on Republic were done, and the novel is already in an advanced stage of writing. Whether they will hit this target remains to be seen, but all parties involved seem to be confident.

ELITE: DANGEROUS combat alpha begins

Elite: Dangerous, the forthcoming, Kickstarted fourth game in the highly influential Elite franchise, has launched its combat alpha for backers of the project. This will allow backers to play a series of combat missions to get a feel for the game's user-interface, combat mechancis and spaceflight model.

The second and third games in the series, Frontier (1993) and First Encounters (1995), were lauded for their use of Newtonian physics and vast universes, but criticised for their combat which was confusing, messy and unenjoyable. The new game will employ a system more akin to that of the original Elite (1984) and games like the Wing Commander and Freespace series, allowing players to pull dynamic maneoeuvers and shunt energy from one subsystem to another for a quick boost to speed, shields or weapons. However, this system will be more complex in Elite: Dangerous and allow players to mask their energy signatures altogether to go into stealth mode (at the risk of overheating).

In the linked interview, David Braben also talks about the modelling of star systems within the game, with the 150,000 star systems closest to Earth modelled accurately (even down to their exoplanets, if known).

Elite: Dangerous will enter its beta stage in the New Year, with a full release hoped for by the middle of 2014. UK SF publishers Gollancz will be published a range of novels to tie in with the release of the game as well.

GAME OF THRONES actress to play Sarah Connor in new TERMINATOR films

Emilia Clarke has been cast as Sarah Connor in the rebooted Terminator franchise. The new movies will not be related to either the first four films or The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series of several years ago (which starred Clarke's Game of Thrones castmate Lena Headey in the Sarah Connor role).

The new franchise will incorporate at least two films and a related TV series. Whilst Clarke will star in the films, it is unclear if she will also appear in the TV series; her commitment to Game of Thrones (which is expected to last through at least 2017) may preclude that her having too much of a role. Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) will play the future version of her son, John. The first film will be helmed by Alan Taylor, the director of Thor: The Dark World and - wait for it - multiple episodes of Game of Thrones, and has the working title Terminator: Genesis. It will be released in summer 2015. Arnold Schwarzenegger is apparently in negotiations to appear in some capacity.

Jumat, 13 Desember 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Spoiler warning: This review is being posted on the film's day of release and some spoilers are discussed.

Bilbo and the thirteen dwarves have escaped from the orcs on the banks of the Great River and made their way to the home of Beorn. From here they must brave the depths of Mirkwood and cross the Long Lake to finally reach Erebor and conclude their quest. Meanwhile, Gandalf is summoned south to investigate rumours of great evil stirring in the abandoned fortress of Dol Guldur.

The Desolation of Smaug is the middle film of The Hobbit movie trilogy, Peter Jackson's prequel to the Lord of the Rings movies of a decade ago. Its predecessor, An Unexpected Journey, had a mixed reception last year with its lighter tone, great performances and occasional visual splendour being lauded but the overlong running time, over-use of CGI and jarring tonal variances being criticised.

The Desolation of Smaug is, thankfully, a stronger and more consistent movie than its predecessor. Indeed, it feels like Jackson has even listened to his critics, though with most of the trilogy in the can before the first film was released this seems impossible. Still, it may have affected his editing choices. The film is both punchier and pacier than the first movie. Action beats and quieter moments of character-building support one another more organically and there's a distinct lack of totally time-wasting, filler material: no overlong goblin king japery or random moments of erinaceidae resuscitation here. That's not to say there aren't moments that could have been trimmed (most of the action sequences tend to go on a bit longer than they should, though not to the extent of the likes of Man of Steel or The Matrix Reloaded), but generally you can see what Jackson was aiming for and most of his ideas - this time around anyway - are actually good. Sequences that could have bogged down the movie are surprisingly brief: the interlude with Beorn (thankfully much more convincing in motion than the early photographs) is so quick, to the point, effective and then dispensed with that it's hard to believe that Peter Jackson directed the sequence. Presumably a 35-minute version of the scene will be on the extended cut.

Similarly, the trip through Mirkwood unfolds at a rapid, crisp pace, with montages used to depict the wearying journey rather than having it just go on and on. The passage through Mirkwood is one of the areas where the book slows to a crawl and it's rather pleasing that this is one area that the film handles more effectively than the novel. Jackson employs some cleverness - or cliche, depending on your POV - to depict the talking spiders by having the Ring translate their hisses into speech. This idea is not incompatible with what was shown in Rings (with Frodo first hearing Sauron's Black Speech and then what he was saying in Westron) and handily gets around what appeared to be a tonal incompatibility between The Hobbit and Rings (talking animals are present in the former but not in the latter). Jackson again strikes gold by suggesting that Bilbo's surprising viciousness in combat is driven by the Ring and layers some moments of internal struggle into the film, as Bilbo is shown being surprised by this new side to himself, but willing to use it when things get rough. This is a darker, more edgy Bilbo than we saw in the first film and Martin Freeman relishes the chance to play him.

The visit to Thranduil's realm is where the film threatens to go off the rails. Intriguing ideas (like Thranduil being hideously scarred from a previous battle with a dragon but masks it with magic) are presented here and Evangeline Lilly debuts as new character Tauriel, the captain of Thranduil's guard. Tauriel is a more earthly warrior-elf than Liv Tyler's Arwen from the first trilogy, less likely to bog down in emotional self-examination and instead get out and take action. Lilly - who had retired from acting after concluding her role on Lost - provides a stronger performance than some of the material warrants: her flirtation with Kili (Aidan Turner) only really works because both actors sell it so well but some of the dialogue is painful. Fortunately, it's less interminable a relationship than Aragorn and Arwen's constant angsting in the original trilogy.

Less successful is Orlando Bloom's reintroduction as Legolas. Much as the make-up and effects teams do their best, they can't totally hide the fact that Bloom is a decade older (and, a pain I can relate to, just ever so slightly heavier). In particular, he seems to be wearing some contact lenses that look slightly unnatural and make him look a bit more ethereal than in the original film, something I found distracting. Legolas also has no real role in the film: what should have been perhaps a background cameo in the elven-king's hall has been fleshed out into an arse-kicking action hero, the character who took down a mumakil singled-handedly in the original trilogy here turned up to eleven. The scenes where he's using the dwarves' heads as stepping stones to cross a river whilst shooting down multiple orcs are less 'badass' and more 'unconvincing' due to the amount of obvious CGI in use. A scene where he mocks a picture of Gloin's son is also amusing until the film decides to spell out the irony of that son being Legolas's future sparring partner Gimli in neon glittering letters fifty feet tall. Yeah, we got it, Peter.

The Laketown interlude works surprisingly well in the film.

A more surprisingly successful decision is the one to flesh out Laketown. What was a brief waystop in the novel turns into a full episode in the film, complete with scheming intrigue between Stephen Fry's Master of the Lake (not a role that stretches him, but one he plays to the hilt anyway) and Luke Evans's well-played Bard the Bowman. There's also a potentially controversial decision to split the dwarves up here into two camps, but this actually works out well, giving us a leg in both locations where the inevitable showdown with Smaug will unfold.

The film's climax - or the closest we get to one - involves the showdown between Bilbo and Smaug in the caverns of Erebor. This goes pretty well, with Benedict Cumberbatch bringing the requisite level of menace to the dragon, up until the confusing decision is made to give the dwarves an epic battle of their own with Smaug. This results in much running around and jumping on machinery in an over-clever attempt to kill the beast. It appears this scene stems from a perceived (but unnecessary) need to have the dwarves more active in the battle with Smaug, but all it does is reduce the threat of the dragon. Given the flashbacks in the first film showed him storming the fortress and slaughtering hundreds or thousands of dwarves in minutes, the ease with which nine dwaves give him the run-around makes him look like an idiot and the concluding scenes (which are from the novel, where they are much more logical) unfathomable.

Spliced between these scenes are why this had to be a trilogy in the first place: the new storyline where Gandalf travels to Dol Guldur to investigate the mysterious 'Necromancer'. These scenes would be creepier if the Rings-seasoned audience wasn't sick of ancient, mysterious and creepy towers by this point. Gandalf's face-to-face confrontation with the Necromancer is also rather disappointing, and carries less weight than his fight with Saruman in Fellowship of the Ring (the use of Gandalf creating a magical force shield complete with lighting and strobing effects is also rather unnecessary compared to the more subtle effect he uses to stand against the balrog in the original trilogy). Watching through these scenes, one can't but help feel that Tolkien's decision to keep the Necromancer as an off-page threat was the correct one.

Ultimately, The Desolation of Smaug (***½) is more watchable, drags far less and is less twee than its predecessor. The new characters and actors all do great work, the effects are better and more of the dwarves are given their moments in the sun (even Bombur takes a level in badass at one point and turns into an orc-killing machine). New locations, characters and subplots - even non-Tolkien ones - are inserted into the story with more skill than I think many were expecting, and Jackson is able to tie most of the narratives together satisfyingly (the Dol Guldur strand excepted, which still feels too disconnected from everything else). But where the film comes undone - to the point of triggering audible gasps of horror and then anger from the audience I watched the film with - is the exceptionally bad choice of where to end the film. The last act of the film builds and builds to an epic showdown...only to push it off at the last minute to the next film. If this was in just the main storyline it could perhaps be borne, but no less than five plots and subplots are all left on cliffhangers for the final movie, robbing this one of any sense of satisfying climax or catharsis. It's a poor editing choice by Jackson, one which will presumably leave the next film with a very muddled and anti-climactic opening.

The Desolation of Smaug is on general release now and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray, again twice over, in 2014.