Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Monday, 16 October 2017

RIP Roy Dotrice

Roy Dotrice, a veteran actor of stage and screen who achieved a new level of late-life fame through his collaborations with George R.R. Martin, has passed away at the age of 94.

Dotrice was born in Guernsey, one of the British Channel Islands, in 1923. When the Germans invaded in 1940, he escaped in a rowboat to the south coast of Britain. Aged just 16, he entered the Royal Air Force as an AA gunner before being assigned as a gunner on board aircraft. He was imprisoned for three years in a German prisoner of war camp. Released at the end of the war he started acting almost immediately, appearing a play later in 1945 called Back Home about ex-POWs reintegrating into civilian life.

Dotrice cultivated an extensive stage career in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He began appearing on television and in film in the early 1960s, but his heart remained with the stage: his one-man performance of Brief Lives, starting in 1967, eventually wracked up 1,782 performances and earned him his first Guinness World Record.

During the 1980s he gained renewed fame in the United States, first through appearing in Amadeus in 1984 in a celebrated supporting role playing the title character's father. He was then cast as Father, the mentor and leader of an underground community in New York City, in the urban fantasy series Beauty and the Beast. During his three-year stint on the show, he met and befriended George R.R. Martin, who worked on the show as a producer and writer.

After Beauty and the Beast was cancelled, Martin began working on a fantasy novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire. When the first book, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996, he personally requested that Dotrice perform the audio book version. Dotrice agreed, voicing 224 distinct characters in the novel, earning him his second Guinness World Record. Dotrice returned to voice the audio books for each successive novel in the series; A Storm of Swords saw him break his own record for the largest number of distinct characters voiced. Dotrice was unavailable (due to ill health) to voice A Feast for Crows in 2005, but returned by popular demand. In 2014 he voiced the audio book version of The World of Ice and Fire.

Dotrice continued to appear in television and on film, including a recurring role on Picket Fences. He also wracked up other genre credits, playing Frederick Lantze in the Season 2 finale of Babylon 5, Wesley Wyndham-Pryce's overbearing father on Angel and Zeus on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

Despite advanced age, he continued to act on stage and on screen. In 2011 he was cast in the role of Grand Maester Pycelle on HBO's Game of Thrones, the TV adaptation of Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels. Ill health forced him to pull out of the role at the last minute; his friend and occasional colleague Julian Glover agreed to take the role over partially as a favour to Dotrice. Recovered, Dotrice did appear in the series as Pyromancer Hallyne in two episodes of Season 2.

A tremendously gifted and talented actor, with a career spanning a remarkable eight decades, he will be missed.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 15-16

B15: And Now For a Word
Airdates: 3 May 1995 (US), 16 May 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Mario DiLeo
Cast: Cynthia Torqueman (Kim Zimmer), Ronald Quantrell (Christopher Curry), Psi Cop (Granville Ames), Johnny (John Christian Graas), Mother (Leslie Wing), Eduardo Delvientos (José Ray), Lt. David Corwin (Joshua Cox)

Date: The ISN report is aired on Earth on 16 September 2259. It was filmed “recently”, presumably within a couple of weeks previously.

Plot:    ISN broadcasts 36 Hours on Babylon 5, an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the controversial diplomatic space station, with interviews with diplomatic staff, station personnel and Earth politicians who are uncertain about the future of the Babylon Project. The ISN team arrives during the middle of a fierce argument between the Narn and Centauri. G’Kar accuses the Centauri of transferring weapons through Babylon 5 in clear violation of interstellar law. Londo denies it, but points out that since all cargo transfers take place outside the station, ship-to-ship, B5 legally cannot intervene. Narn and Centauri cargo ships start firing on one another outside and Sheridan impounds the ships on both sides. Londo tells Sheridan that if any of the Centauri ships’ cargo holds are opened the Centauri government will not be pleased. Sure enough, a Centauri battlecruiser arrives and blockades the station until their equipment is handed over, unopened. Sheridan decides to call the Centauri’s bluff by sending an unmanned cargo ship through the jump gate. The Centauri do not fire and agree to reopen negotiations. At that moment a Narn heavy cruiser jumps out right on top of the station and fires on the Centauri cruiser. Taking the Centauri by surprise, the Narn manage to destroy the Centauri warship, despite taking heavy damage. However, when the Narn ship activates its jump engines the ship explodes. After the battle Sheridan confirms that the Centauri were shipping weapons of mass destruction though the station and the Earth Alliance files an official complaint against the Centauri government, although again it is insufficient to get Earth to take sides against the Centauri.

On Earth senior senators question the need for Babylon 5 and an especially arrogant senator claims that diplomacy is unnecessary, since recent developments in Earth technology means that even if another war with the Minbari took place Earth could win with ease (!). The ISN reporter questions Delenn on why she has changed her appearance and wonders how the families of those killed by the Minbari during the war will react to this apparent insult. Delenn is left speechless.

In a final interview Sheridan tells ISN that Babylon 5 is essential if Earth and the other worlds are to be brought together in peace.


Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle between Marvel & DC by Reed Tucker

In 1961 DC Comics was the biggest comic company in the United States. Its superhero comics - Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman - were the most popular in the world and it had absolutely no competition of note. But that same year Atlas Comics was branded Marvel and its editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby released a new comic called The Fantastic Four. Within a decade Marvel had displaced DC as the biggest comics company in the US and snatched away a lot of talent and critical acclaim that had gone to DC. DC fought back, starting formidable Superman and Batman movie franchises and releasing a series of artistic, critically-acclaimed comic books in the 1980s and 1990s from the likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. But in the early 2000s Marvel finally entered the movie scene in force with X-Men and Spider-Man, and never looked back.

This non-fiction book looks into the 50-year competition between DC and Marvel, the two titans of comic book publishing. Reed Tucker has exhaustively interviewed many key players involved and scoured the archives for interviews with those who are no longer with us. The result is a potential interesting book that examines the corporate battle between the venerable establishment figure and the plucky upstart newbie.

Or at least it's a potentially interesting book that tries to do that. The opening chapters expand on this, detailing how Stan Lee took over a moribund company and injected some 1960s inventiveness, irreverence and character development to win over young fans from the older, more moribund publisher. We're told that Marvel focused more on the characters' internal lives, on the distrust with which they are treated by the government (helping young readers identify with similarly confused and mistrusted characters) and gave their writers and artists much greater freedom to express themselves, throwing away the style guides DC saddled their readers with. Marvel also used real locations, particularly in and around New York, which excited readers more than stories set in completely fictional locales like Gotham and Metropolis.

All of this stuff is great, but Reed never really moves on from this basic assumption: Marvel was the plucky underdog with greater creative energy and freedom, and DC was the staid old man taken by surprise by what the youngster was doing and whose attempts to replicate it by "getting down with the kids" were embarrassing. That applies very well to the 1960s and the early 1970s. However, some of Reed's conclusions and anecdotage are questionable: he challenges the wisdom of DC poaching Jack Kirby from Marvel and putting them on the Jimmy Olsen comic book, but this was both Kirby's own choice (so he wouldn't cost anyone a job on another comic, as the Jimmy Olsen book didn't have a permanent artist at the time) and also allowed him to set up his own, more original books later on by introducing characters like Darkseid.

By the time the 1980s have rolled around, Reed is still expanding on Marvel being the plucky underdog beating the boring old figure of DC, but seems to contradict himself by then talking about DC's artistic achievements with books like Swamp ThingWatchmen and Sandman, as well as how Marvel had become the biggest-selling comic book company, making DC the underdogs. Aware that this is getting repetitive, he switches to studying the film business and how DC got some great movies made whilst Marvel flirted with moderately successful TV shows but otherwise couldn't get a decent movie on screen until twenty-two years later. This is interesting, with some great stories of bizarre behind-the-scenes battles and the film companies not "getting" comic books at all, but again it lacks depth.

The book is ultimately a bit constrained by its premise, and it's to Tucker's credit that he remains laser-focused on the interrelationship between Marvel and DC. It would have been very easy to get sidetracked in the internal history of the two companies and discuss more creative decisions, but Tucker stays on point throughout. This does mean the book veers towards the more corporate side of things rather than the creative one, which I think will be of less interest to those keen to learn more about the origins of superhero characters or how the books developed. But it has some value: this is an under-told aspect of the comic book story and Tucker keeps the story ticking over nicely.

Slugfest (***½) is a readable and intriguing book about the titanic competition between the two biggest comic book companies in the United States. It's also a bit on the repetitive side, with not as much depth as perhaps might be wished, and a lack of information on the creative choices as opposed to business ones. It's still a good story, well-told and interesting, but one for hardcore comic book fans only. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

StarCraft Remastered

2499, in the remote Koprulu Sector. Two centuries ago, a group of penal ships with tens of thousands of prisoners were lost in hyperspace, emerging in a distant system on the far side of the galactic core. They established an interstellar civilisation, the Terran Confederacy, which now rules the human worlds with an iron fist. A hostile alien race, the Zerg, have arrived in human space. Hot on their heels are the technologically advanced Protoss, whose main goal is to destroy the Zerg no matter the cost in human lives. A three-sided war has begun, a war which will determine the fate of three races and hundreds of worlds.

StarCraft was originally released in May 1998, rapidly becoming the biggest-selling strategy video game of all time. It became an international phenomenon, noted for its fiendishly addictive multiplayer mode, and became an unlikely cultural craze in South Korea. It took Blizzard Entertainment from a small, modestly successful studio to one of the biggest companies in the entire field, giving them the resources needed to make later games such as World of WarCraft and Overwatch.

Almost twenty years on from release (and a startling nine and a half years since I reviewed the original game), Blizzard have released a new revamp of the game. These kind of "remasters" have become extremely popular in recent years, taking old games and sprucing them up so new players who might be put off by their old graphics can see what the fuss is about and old players can enjoy their favourite games with a fresh lick of paint. How companies handle these remasters is critically important: change too much (especially making old games easier or removing key features) and old players will hate it and denounce the game. Change too little and people will, justifiably, ask what is the point?

StarCraft Remastered, which updates both the original game and its expansion, Brood War, definitely falls on the conservative change of things. This is exactly the game originally released in 1998, with the exact same user interface. The graphics have been sharpened up substantially, of course, and the sound has been pleasingly remixed, but the remaster, crucially, also carries forward all the problems, clumsy UI issues and baffling design choices that Blizzard was criticised for twenty years ago and have been annoying players ever since.

Rewinding a little for newcomers, StarCraft is a real-time strategy game. You play one of three races and have to build up a base to produce different types of military units. You then take these forces into battle and attempt to defeat the enemy. There is a lengthy single-player story campaign consisting of 56 missions, separated by mission briefings and occasional animated cut-scenes which tell a story. This story is cheesy but great fun, and is surprisingly rooted in characters on each of the three sides (divided between several sub-factions). Some of StarCraft's characters are the most iconic in all gaming, such as the divisive Sara Kerrigan (a villain to some, a tragic fallen heroine to others), the grizzled marshal Jim Raynor and the noble but constantly-misunderstood Zeratul of the Dark Templar. The story is pure pulp space opera, but is told economically and energetically (unlike the story in StarCraft II, which could often be stodgy, badly-paced and tedious), with a lot of humour.

StarCraft's ace in the hole has always been its terrific sense of asymmetric balance between the three sides. The Zerg are genetically-engineered creatures, animals from hundreds of worlds turned into biological weapons. Strongly influenced (cough) by the Tyranids from Warhammer 40,000 (and the xenomorphs from the Aliens franchise), the Zerg are fast and cheap, but also extremely fragile. The key to using them is both deploying them in enormous numbers, using suicide tactics and also intelligently using support units who can scout out the enemy, entangle or poison upon their troops. The Protoss - strongly influenced (cough cough) by the Eldar from Warhammer 40,000 - are much more advanced and powerful, equipped with energy shields and using plasma weapons and telekinetic powers. The Protoss are tough but slow to move and slower to build; mastering them requires working out how to defend against early Zerg rushes to deliver an unstoppable knockout blow later on. The Terrans are jacks of all trades, falling between the two sides with a more traditional arsenal of aircraft, tanks, marines, nukes and powerful battlecruisers.

It's this balance between the three sides which was Blizzard's masterstroke, something they never quite achieved with the same degree of precision in either StarCraft II (witness the constant balance changes they are still doing seven years after that came out) or WarCraft III. The relatively small unit roster for each side also allows players to master each unit, try out difference combinations of forces and tactics. StarCraft is essentially an ultra-fast, real-time version of chess, with a fascinating array of tactics to try out. It's impossible to say which of the three sides is the best or which is the optimal strategy for winning. There's reasons why this game is still lionised twenty years after release and is widely considered superior to its own sequel, and, impressively, the game still lives up to those reasons.

The remastered version of the game maintains all of these strengths. Units now look much sharper, the up-resolved CGI cut scenes are hugely improved (although not re-rendered from scratch with Blizzard's modern level of graphical fidelity, to the surprise of many) and the sound is punchier and more evocative.

Unfortunately, it also maintains a lot of the game's problems. On release, StarCraft was widely criticised for a sometimes-stodgy control scheme, some really weird limitations - you can only select up to 12 units at one time - and a decidedly primitive control system which forced the player to micro-manage a lot of tasks that should have been automated (Total Annihilation, released a year before StarCraft, spoiled a lot of players with a far superior control scheme and better 3D graphics). StarCraft II fixed a lot of these problems and players were expecting some of these to be retrofitted to StarCraft Remastered. Bafflingly, especially as far as the single-player experience goes, these quality of life improvements have not been carried over. You can't send newly-built resource gatherers straight to a mineral patch, you can't send marines straight to bunkers and so on. This adds a lot of tedious busywork to the game that felt antiquated and tiresome in 1998, let alone in 2017.

There still isn't a difficulty slider for the single-player campaigns, which isn't a problem for the 30-mission base game, which scales very nicely in difficulty, but definitely is for the 26-mission Brood War, one of the most punishing games ever released. The Protoss and Terran campaigns are - more or less - okay but the final few Zerg missions are among the hardest single-player strategy challenges ever put in front of players and there are zero concessions for people who don't have dozens of hours into trying different strategies and approaches before finally beating them.

There's also a nice 4-mission mini-campaign meant to show off the powerful level editor, "Enslavers", but the game doesn't tell you this exists: you have to go through the custom skirmish menus before you stumble across it.

A further issue a bit of technical revisionism. Hit F5 at any time and the game will switch back to the way it looked in 1998. However, it doesn't, because makes the original version of the game look substantially worse than it did originally (confirmed by a quick re-install of my 1998 CD-ROMs). Don't get me wrong, the remaster still looks a lot sharper and nicer than the original, but the difference is not quite as great as Blizzard is trying to sell us.

The issues with StarCraft which could be - reluctantly - dismissed as niggles back in 1998 feel like bigger problems in 2017, simply because they could be fixed so incredibly easy. Even if you accept Blizzard's questionable claim they couldn't change these without offending the harshly old-skool multiplayer scene which doesn't want a single change at all, there's zero reason the sequel's better UI and control scheme couldn't be implemented for the single-player campaign alone.

This leaves StarCraft Remastered feeling underwhelming, especially in the light of the monumentally superior Homeworld Remastered, which also took a nearly-20-year-old strategy game and really did make it look like a contemporary title with a better UI and an absolutely fantastic improvement in graphical and cut scene fidelity. StarCraft Remastered feels lacklustre by comparison.

The original StarCraft (*****) and Brood War (****) are two of the finest strategy games ever released when viewed and placed in their original historical context. However, this re-release (***½) fails to update and revamp the games in a way that makes them more approachable and playable for newcomers, whilst people who still enjoy playing the original games will find this remaster only a minor improvement. Any excuse to go back and replay StarCraft is welcome, but this remaster exposes the truth that maybe this game isn't ageing quite as well as it could have done with a more thorough remaster more prepared to kill a few sacred cows in the service of greater playability.

The game is available now via Blizzard.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

After twenty years, Gollancz finally signs Steven Erikson

It's taken almost two decades, but Gollancz - the UK SFF imprint of Orion Books - have finally signed up Steven Erikson.

Erikson's new stand-alone SF novel, Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart, will be published in October 2018. The novel is described thusly:
Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart tells the story of the Intervention, which begins when Samantha August, science fiction writer, disappears into a beam of light, apparently from a UFO, while walking along a busy street in Victoria, Canada.  While footage of the incident – captured on smartphones – goes viral, Samantha wakes up in a small room, where she is greeted by the voice of Adam, who explains that they are in orbit and he is AI communicant of the Intervention Delegation, a triumvirate of alien civilisations seeking to ensure the continuing evolution of Earth as a viable biome. Thus begins an astonishing, provocative, beautifully written and startlingly visionary novel of First Contact.
Back in 1998 Erikson sold his debut fantasy novel, Gardens of the Moon (the first in the Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence), to Transworld/Bantam UK. Gollancz attempted to lure Erikson away and the result was a fierce bidding war, which ended with Bantam signing up Erikson for nine additional books for £675,000 (over $1.1 million back then). As far as I can tell, this remains a record for a debut fantasy author.

This is Erikson's first "serious" science fiction novel, following his Wilful Child series of comic SF books.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 2, Episodes 13-14


B13: Hunter, Prey
Airdates: 1 March 1995 (US), 2 May 1995 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Menachem Binetski
Cast: Derek Cranston (Bernie Casey), Security Aide Zack Allan (Jeff Conaway), Sarah (Wanda de Jesus), Dr. Everett Jacobs (Tony Steedman), Max (Richard Moll), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain), Lurker (Damon C. Reiser), Aide (Debby Shiveley), Merchant (Robert Silver), Guard (Bryan Michael McGuire), Station One (Joshua Cox)

Date: July or August 2259.

Plot:    An Earthforce security agent, Derek Cranston, arrives on Babylon 5 alongside his team. Dr. Everett Jacobs, former the personal physician to President Clark, has gone AWOL with sensitive information which could damage the Earth Alliance. It is thought he is coming to Babylon 5, presumably to pass this information onto one of the alien governments. However, Sheridan is contacted by an agent of General Hague’s who tells him that they helped Jacobs escape from Earth. He has evidence proving that Clark didn’t really have the ‘flu when he got off Earthforce One at Mars, evidence that could help indict Clark when the time comes. Sheridan is ordered to find Jacobs and make sure Cranston doesn’t get hold of him. This task isn’t made any easier because Jacobs has an implanted beacon like all Earthdome personnel so he can be located in a hurry, although it will take some time before Babylon 5’s sensors can be adjusted to look for the signal. Sheridan despatches Garibaldi and Franklin into Downbelow to find Jacobs.

Ambassador Kosh speaks to Sheridan, confirming Sheridan’s guess that Kosh telepathically communicated with him during his recent trials aboard the Streib warship (B11). Sheridan wants to learn more about the Vorlons, but Kosh isn’t impressed by Sheridan’s attempts to interpret his obscure sayings. He decides to take Sheridan under his wing to prepare him for what lies ahead.

Jacobs is captured by two Downbelow criminals who plan to give him over to Earthforce in return for a fee, but Garibaldi and Franklin rescue him. They hide him in Franklin’s quarters but it is a temporary measure at best. Worse, Cranston has discovered that Babylon 5’s massive external sensor arrays can be recalibrated to scan the interior of the station for energy emissions (as in episodes PM and B6), such as that given out by the implant. Sheridan and Ivanova begin, slowly, reconfiguring the sensors. Ambassador Kosh’s ship leaves the station, though Cranston demands that it be scanned as well, despite the extreme unlikelihood of the Vorlons harbouring an Earth criminal. No trace of Jacobs can be found and Cranston leaves the station, puzzled. The Vorlon transport returns and Jacobs is deposited out of the ship, where he has been hidden in a comatose state. Despite his unconscious state he is sure the ship ‘sang’ to him in his sleep. Jacobs leaves the station for a safehaven prepared by Hague, but Sheridan is told that this is merely the start of the fight back. They need a lot more evidence to convince a tribunal of Clark’s guilt.


Monday, 9 October 2017


Warner Brothers have confirmed that they are remastering the classic Batman: The Animated Series from the 1990s in high definition for a 2018 release.

The project was inspired by the remastering of the animated movie Mask of the Phantasm (from the same time period) last year, which was both effective and popular. Despite some of the technical difficulties involved in updating animation cells from twenty-five years ago, the team seem to have decided it was well worth the effort to tackle the entire series.

Warner Brothers have not confirmed if this will be a single box set (which is most likely), separated season boxes or some other arrangement.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams

Thirty years have passed since the Storm King's War. Simon and Miriamele have ruled Osten Ard well, keeping the peace between the nations that make up the High Ward and the noble families within them, but their life has been tinged by the tragic death of their son. Their grandson Morgan stands to inherit the throne, but he is a wastrel more interested in drinking and wenching than in learning what he needs to rule. The heroes of the old war are passing and a new generation is coming to power, one that is less impressed by stories of old conflicts that they only half believe.

But in the far north, Stormspike is stirring. The Norn Queen has awoken after a long sleep and the lust for vengeance against humanity is resurgent. A band of Norn and half-Norn warriors strikes out on a quest they only barely understand. In the far south the kingdom of Nabban is on the brink of civil war. The Sithi have gone silent, their last messenger shot with arrows within sight of the Hayholt. The long peace is coming to an end, and the fate of the world again hangs in the balance.

The Witchwood Crown is the first novel in the Last King of Osten Ard trilogy, which sees Tad Williams return to the setting of his classic original trilogy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower) and the short novel The Heart of What Was Lost, published earlier this year. It's been twenty-three years since Williams last wrote in this world, the author wary of "franchising" his earliest and most iconic work until he had a story that was worth telling.

There is much to admire about The Witchwood Crown. Williams is telling a very large story from a large number of points of view. The original trilogy was very focused in the Hayholt and told a more linear, focused narrative which only gradually expanded outwards. This novel starts with a more George R.R. Martin-esque approach of having a larger cast in disparate parts of the world. One second we are with a slave living in the depths of Stormspike and then we're a thousand miles or more away in the palaces of Nabban, riven with Byzantine plotting. Old favourite characters return, including Simon, Miariamele, Tiamak, Eolair and Binabik, but there's a lot of new characters such as Morgan, as well as the return of characters like Porto from The Heart of What Was Lost. The worldbuilding is more in-depth, with reflections on time passing (Erchester is now a real city rather than the more modest town of the previous trilogy). Epic fantasy, as a genre, is at its best when it can indulge in "long-breathed storytelling" and The Witchwood Crown certainly does that. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and Williams develops his story with surety, confidence and time.

This does mean that The Witchwood Crown is a slow-paced work. Major plot revelations are separated by many chapters in which apparently little happens (although it does, it's just a lot more subtle). Although Williams tries very hard to make this book approachable for new readers, there's some instances of self-indulgence as Simon catches up with Binabik and asks about his family and his wolf, but this is generally kept to a minimum. The reason this book is so large (700 pages in hardcover) and so deliberately paced is because he is setting up a very big story and it's only towards the end of the novel that he fires the starting pistols which really get the narrative fired up.

This slow pace could be a bigger problem - and it's certainly put some other reviewers off - if Williams didn't also take his time to explore thematic ideas of ageing, grief and the passing of the years. Simon and Miriamele are now grandparents in their early fifties and apparently slightly baffled that so much time has passed so quickly. Those of us who read the original books when they first came out or shortly afterwards can sympathise: I finished reading the first trilogy on a fine summer afternoon in the park behind my old house almost exactly twenty years before I started reading this book, and a similar shock at the passage of time went through me. The characters are also haunted by the memory of the death of their son, John, and how this has impacted not just them but his son Morgan. Ironically, the joint grief they share has also divided them, with the natural lack of understanding between the generations preventing them from reaching an understanding.

This thematic idea gives the book a somewhat melancholy aspect. We also learn a lot more about the Norns and even sympathise with them (or at least some of them): they are a slowly dying race and their constant search for blood and vengeance seems pointless, corrupting further what was once a noble people. When they gain access to a new supernatural weapon, the reaction from some of the Norns isn't triumphant but instead weariness at the idea of yet another war, yet more pointless slaughter. The Witchwood Crown, on this level, is an epic fantasy that rejects some of the martial triumphalism and blood-letting that other epic fantasies revel in.

At the end of the book, some long-standing questions are raised, some long-missing characters return and other characters are left on immense cliffhangers, their fates unclear. Fortunately, we will not have to wait to learn more: the second novel in the trilogy, Empire of Grass, is already complete and should be published in late 2018 or early 2019.

The Witchwood Crown (****) is slowly, deliberately-paced and sometimes meanders or is allowed to become self-indulgent rather than being tightened up. It's certainly a slower novel than even the original Dragonbone Chair, and Tad Williams newcomers may be put off. But it's also wonderfully well-written and explores ideas of ageing, dying and living which are universal. For the most part the new storylines are logically extrapolated from the original trilogy without lazily rehashing it and confirms that yes, the return to Osten Ard is (so far) worth it. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

On the Edge of Blade Runner

Back in 2000, British film critic Mark Kermode made a BBC documentary called On the Edge of Blade Runner, in which he investigated the cultural impact of the movie and its torturous filming process. Harrison Ford and Sean Young declined to take part, but director Ridley Scott, the writers, producers and most of the rest of the cast participate, for an insightful look at what was a very difficult movie to make. You can watch the whole thing below: