Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Book Review: The Peloponnesian War, by Thucydides (and Rex Warner)

The Peloponnesian War happened the best part of 25 centuries ago between the Ancient Greek city states of Sparta and Athens. Athens was a sea power that, perhaps counter-intuitively for a democratic state, maintained an empire and forced lesser powers to pay tribute. Sparta enjoyed dominion over the Peloponnesus, the peninsula of Greece, through a mighty reputation for prowess in battle.

Thucydides was a brilliant writer, possibly the earliest proper historian. Yes, Herodotus was first, but Herodotus also talked nonsense at times. Thucydides related events which he not merely heard of second hand, but participated in, to a limited extent.

He was a minor and not terribly successful Athenian general, but did spend many years working on his excellent book. Like Polybius, he is more concerned with truth and fact than Livy-like exaggerations, although it is probable that in parts his mind was swayed by personal interest.

One similarity with Livy is that Thucydides does sometimes invent speeches when he cannot know what was said. Whilst not strictly historical, I find that (for both authors) this does actually add to the value of the history, and the sentiments expressed by Thucydides are likely to at least be approximately accurate.

The war lasted for decades and the two principle cities involved were supported by scores of weaker allies who were either strong-armed or persuaded through friendship or reason to side with Sparta or Athens. Unlike the Second Punic War, which was dominated by the excellent Hannibal, there was no one predominant figure, probably due to the lengthy nature of the war.

Thucydides writes in a detailed, dedicated way, and is quite happy to have a sentence that lasts 8 lines and has 12 clauses if it makes his point. He does an excellent job of describing not only what happened, but explaining why it happened. In addition to detail he also paints a good picture of the more general situation and atmosphere in a given time and place. For example, at the height of the conflict numerous cities were torn between siding with Athens or Sparta and the two sides within a city would embark upon bloody rampages, moderation was accorded cowardice and murder was rife.

I would also say that the book is as relevant today as it was the day it was written. I imagine that if Blair and Bush had read it, and viewed with horror the unnecessary expedition the Athenians mounted to try and defeat Syracuse when Sparta was on her knees they may have been dissuaded from invading Iraq when Afghanistan seemed to be going so well.

The book is not especially easy to read, but it is absolutely worth the effort. It chronicles the ebb and flow of an ancient conflict but the principles involved are as true today as they ever were.

I can also recommend Donald Kagan’s excellent book (The Peloponnesian War: Athens and Sparta in Savage Conflict) which is festooned with fantastic maps and puts a lot of what Thucydides writes into a more understandable context.


Monday, 30 May 2011

Fantastic Davros video

One of the best Who villains (although the New Who version was a bit rubbish). The background music is Diem Ex Dei, by Globus.

Some of the sound is taken from the various radio productions that feature Davros. I can heartily recommend Genesis of the Daleks to those yet to see it, in which the character is brilliantly introduced.


Saturday, 28 May 2011

Doctor Who: The Almost People

The concluding part of the adventure featuring the Flesh (programmable matter) was quite entertaining, until the end, which was staggeringly good.

The gangers and their human counterparts continued to plot one another’s demise, whilst the Doctor and Smith (I think John Smith was a name the Third Doctor sometimes used) tried to confound them and keep everyone alive.

Rory got tricked by Fleshy Jen who, in stark contrast to her sickly sweet human counterpart, was a bloodthirsty lunatic. Rather stupidly, even given his ignorance, he allowed her to trick him into locking the Doctor et al. in a room that would burst with acid. The Doctor and Smith worked together to ensure their freedom, and the gangers and humans ended up both fleeing the twisted monster Jen became.

It’s possible Smith survived his self-sacrifice (he used the sonic screwdriver to dissolve Monster Jen but it destroyed him as well), and that would prove a useful turn of events when it comes to explaining the first episode of the season.

Very much enjoyed the two Doctors collaborating, and the odd reference to the earlier incarnations (especially reverting the polarity of the neutron flow).

However, what made the episode particularly good was the ending. The Doctor had deliberately sought out the Flesh and his knowledge of it was alluded to in the previous episode. I’d thought it might be the forerunner of Time Lord regeneration technology, others have suggested it could be Sontaran cloning technology.

In fact, the truth was that Amy was a ganger. Her real self was pregnant, which explained her strange quantum physics approach to procreation. The creepy eye-patch lady really was a midwife, and a rather horrid one. When the Doctor dissolved the ganger Amy awoke in confinement, about to give birth.

It seems that she’s been a ganger for the entire season, raising the question of when she was taken, how, and by whom.

Very exciting and excellent ending, and we have just one more episode before the mid-season interval of about three months.


Thursday, 26 May 2011

Early preview: Skyrim

There are just under six months to go until Skyrim’s released, but there’s already quite a lot of interesting info to chew over. Unlike Dragon Age, which had a very fast (too fast, in fact) sequel, the follow-up to the epic Oblivion has been a long time coming. Oblivion came out in 2006, and has been one of the defining games of the RPG genre and the latest generation of consoles/PCs. It sold in droves, deservedly so, but was not without flaws. So, how will Skyrim compare and contrast to its illustrious predecessor? 

Size matters: Oblivion was pretty damned big. In terms of area, Skyrim will be very similar, but will seem a bit larger because it’s very mountainous, making certain areas more inaccessible and, effectively, further away. General approach: Pretty similar, if you’ve played Oblivion or Fallout 3 it should be very easy to get up to speed. Single player, first person by default (the third person has been improved if you opt for that), free-roaming, tons of side-quests and a huge number (120 plus) of dungeons.

Ten races: Happily, we get the full 10 races of Oblivion back. These include the human grouping (Nords, Redguards, Bretons and Imperials), the elves (Dark, High, Wood) and the beasts (Argonian, Orc and Khajiit). Early
screenshots of an Orc and Khajiit have emerged, and they look significantly better than their Oblivion counterparts.
Sound: The same composer from Oblivion has returned, and the trailer music sounds pretty damned good. Very little info is out about voice actors right now, although it has been confirmed that Swedish actor Max von Sydow will play an important character.
Two hands, two weapons: Oblivion had a typical weapon set-up, whereby you could have a one-hander and a shield or a two-hander, and always had a spell ‘open’, as it were. Skyrim will allow players to have two one-handed weapons, or two spells (one per hand), or one spell and one one-handed weapon. 
Archery is improved: Early on in Oblivion it was great being a stealth archer. You could kill or seriously injure opponents with one shot but later on in the game it became less enjoyable as opponents survived the initial stealth attack and then hit you in the face with an axe. It sounds like Skyrim will give a bonus to attacks from stealth, with different levels of alertness (from oblivious to the enemy staring right at you) offering higher bonuses. Arrows will be more powerful but fewer in number. 

Levelling: A pet hate of mine was the loathsome Oblivion levelling system. It was overly complicated, and any levelling system that can lead to your character becoming progressively weaker (in relative terms) is clearly flawed. The Skyrim system sounds simpler and more sensible, and will include a number (280, to be precise) of skill-related perks, like in Fallout 3. I believe that perks are attainable based on how proficient you are in a given skill, rather than just what level you are.I’ve not gone off games, but my enthusiasm for them has waned a little over the years. However, Skyrim is one that I am very much looking forward to, and hopefully it’ll be even better than Oblivion.


Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Review: The Seventh Gate (Death gate Cycle) by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

The seventh and final book in the Death Gate Cycle is aptly named. It brings together the various worlds that have been visited in the earlier instalments, the main characters and central threads of the storyline.

The integration of important characters from different worlds (Ramu, Xar, Balthazar, Kleitus etc) works very well. There is definitely a strong sense of the plot building to a crescendo, from the first chapter almost until the very last. Perhaps unexpectedly the dragon-snakes and Sang-drax do not feature too prominently, but I think that this is to the advantage rather than the detriment of the book.

A lot of the book is spent with characters trying to retrieve others. Initially, Hugh the Hand and Marit track down Alfred, who went missing during the battle in Labyrinth. Later, they try and bring back Haplo by entering the fabled Seventh Gate, which was imbued with incredible power by the Sartans before the Sundering. The Seventh Gate is also sought by Xar, who wants to use it to bring together the worlds and rule what they become, and the dragon-snakes.

I think that the ultimate conclusion of the Seventh Gate and the main storyline (the Patryn/Sartan battle for supremacy and Xar’s quest to unify the worlds under his rule) could have been handled a bit better. For a start, Haplo dies. Nothing wrong with the protagonist snuffing it, but he comes back without any cost and with not much explanation. More importantly, Xar got hoodwinked almost immediately by the dragon-snakes and even when he doesn’t trust them anymore turns his back on them and almost gets killed because of it. Never mind that he’s a tremendously powerful and wise fellow, you’d have to be a damned fool to do that.

I think that the higher power storyline wasn’t really fleshed out enough. There was no definitive conclusion and that made the manner of Sang-drax’s death seem a bit feeble.

However, I did think that the dovetailing of other important characters, especially Balthazar, Ramu and the Patryns/Sartans who lived in the Labyrinth worked well.

I also think that the explanation of Zifnab’s history was a good one (first mentioned in Into the Labyrinth, I think).

I liked most of the book, but the climax could have been better.

Having finished the Death Gate Cycle I’m going to try making some progress with The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Not sure if I’ll have many book reviews in the next few weeks, but I’ll try putting together an early Skyrim preview.


Monday, 23 May 2011

Review: Wrath of the Lemming-men (Chronicles of Isambard Smith), by Toby Frost

The third (and presently final) book describing the escapades of Space Captain Smith once again features the Ghast, but this time they’re joined by new allies. Allies filled with insane rage, and the suicidal instinct to hurl themselves from high places. The Yull, also known as Lemming-men, featured briefly in God-Emperor of Didcot and are more prominent in Wrath of the Lemming-men (as might be expected, given the title).

The Vorl also make a ghostly return. Beings of an ethereal nature and great power, they are sought after by the dreaded Ghast 462, who plots to splice their super-advanced genes into Ghast bio-technology. This would provide Gertie with incredibly powerful soldiers, and Space Captain Smith is dispatched at once to stop the diabolical plot.

We also get a pair of new adversaries, the high ranking Number Eight of the Ghast and Colonel Vock, deadly lemming and nemesis of Suruk the Slayer.

The plot’s a bit meatier this time around, and the characters get a little bit more developed. Carveth, the escaped sex toy who became the ship’s pilot, mechanic and chief coward, in particular sees a bit more of the spotlight.

Isambard Smith leads his motley assortment of misfits, aided along the way by Dreckitt and Wainscott, from world to world as they track down the likeliest place to find the mysterious Vorl. It’s unusually packed with plot developments and twists, actually, particularly in contrast to God-Emperor of Didcot which was a bit simpler. Suruk’s family make a welcome return and provide some of the most amusing moments.

Suruk remains my firm favourite due to his, er, unorthodox take on the universe, but it’s nice to see the others, especially Carveth, get a bit more fleshed out.

The book's got as much humour as the previous two, but benefits from developing the characters a bit more. All of the crew get some sort of development and a bit more of the limelight. However, the story doesn't get bogged down with terribly serious moments, and although it's a more complicated plot than God-Emperor of Didcot the book doesn't suffer for it.

What does the future hold for Space Captain Smith?

Well, he’s going to star in some audiobooks of the present three stories chronicling his heroic deeds.

When I interviewed Mr. Frost, the author, earlier this month (http://thaddeusthesixth.blogspot.com/2011/05/interview-with-toby-frost-author-of.html), he had this to say:

Q: Lastly, will we see a new Space Captain Smith book and, if so, when?

TF: I really want to do more Smith. I certainly feel that there are loads of jokes and adventures still to come, and I’ve made notes for more. Unfortunately it’s really difficult to say when I'll be able to write them at the moment.

So, it’s likely that we’ll see him again, though we don’t know when. Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.


Saturday, 21 May 2011

Doctor Who: The Rebel Flesh

First off: I made a mistake last time out, and this was the first of a two-parter, not a stand-alone thingummyjig.

Anyway, this episode saw the Doctor, Amy Pond and Rory the Part-time Corpse get caught in a solar storm that effectively washed them up on a strange, small island in the 22nd century.

A bunch of contractors are doing work on behalf of the military, fiddling about with particularly potent acid. Instead of using actual slave labour to handle the dangerous stuff, they’ve got a swanky hi-tech alternative. They use something called the Flesh, which is programmable matter, to create duplicates of themselves to do the work with the acid.

Unfortunately, the facility is powered by solar energy, and the two solar storms cause power problems. This leads to the doppelgangers becoming free, rather than remote control clones. Naturally, both sides distrust one another, a situation not helped when the original team leader kills one of the doppelgangers.

The episode ended with the highly expected sight of the Doctor’s doppelganger greeting the real Time Lord.

I quite like the premise of this, and the Doctor seems to know something about the Flesh. It’s a little bit similar to how Time Lords are meant to reproduce (effectively being knit on genetic looms), but that creates genuinely new individuals rather than copies. Freaky eye-patch lady made a predictably brief reappearance, and Amy is still pregnant with Schrödinger’s Cat.

The clone-Doctor could easily be used to explain the early season death of the Doctor, although that would be a shade obvious.

The conclusion to this two-parter is also the final episode before the mid-season interval, so hopefully it’ll provide a tasty cliff-hanger.


Friday, 20 May 2011

Anglo-Saxon dominance in fantasy

The first roots of fantasy are probably in ancient tales that are partially or wholly religious in nature, such as Gilgamesh and the Iliad. Monsters like the gorgon Medusa have lasted the test of time thanks to their easily imagined yet horrifying nature, and even today many creatures, heroes and villains first spoken of thousands of years ago are commonly known.

Modern fantasy is often considered to have been founded by two great British authors: CS Lewis, who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, and JRR Tolkien, who wrote the Lord of the Rings.

As George RR Martin remarked in his recent interview with Joe Abercrombie (http://www.joeabercrombie.com/2011/05/08/in-conversation-with-grrm/), they were men of their time. That’s no criticism, and we can clearly see how morality in fantasy has shifted from the immediate post-war era, when it was very black and white, to a more nuanced and less certain nature in the works of chaps like Mr. Martin and Mr. Abercrombie.

I didn’t think of this until I cast an eye over my bookshelves, but it’s slightly odd that just about every author of modern fantasy that is represented there is British or American. Obviously, there’s a language barrier for people who aren’t Anglophones, but lots of people are fluent in English without it being their first language and translation’s hardly impossible.

Shortly, I’ll have finished the present set of Space Captain Smith books and the Death Gate Cycle, and I’ll be on the lookout for something new. I’d really like to find something that originated overseas, to see whether the different literary heritage and tradition yields a different kind of story.

A good example of this would be comparing Robin Hood with Outlaws of the Marsh. They’re both stories from several centuries ago and they both feature outlaw gangs fighting against the corrupt and greedy. But there are substantial differences. For a start, the Outlaws of the Marsh are huge in number, and the book itself is around 2,200 pages long. Secondly, the Outlaws are a hugely mixed bunch, and include the entertaining psychopath Li Kui, a mad axeman with a penchant for killing as many people as possible. Thirdly, the structure of the Outlaws of the Marsh is significantly different to anything I’ve read from a Western author, of any period. Characters can be dropped for hundreds of pages and then re-enter the plot, and it takes a hell of a long time to actually discover who the main character (if you can single one man out) is. I won’t spoil the ending, but that too is something I would never have expected from a Western writer.

I’m not knocking the Anglo-Saxon approach at all. I’m glad that British writers essentially founded a modern genre and continue to contribute to it in a major way, but I am curious to see how a Chinese or Arabic or African approach to a fantasy story might differ to that of someone British or American.

I’m also thinking of getting some more Greek myths. I only have the Iliad, Odyssey and a quartet of plays by Euripides right now.


Wednesday, 18 May 2011

An interview with Toby Frost, author of the Chronicles of Isambard Smith

To my delight that splendid fellow Toby Frost agreed to a little interview. So, here it is:
Q: I remember reading somewhere (probably on Chrons http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum) that you almost accidentally fell into writing Space Captain Smith and actually planned to do something else first. What’s the story behind that and Smith’s origin?
TF: Yes, I started writing Smith whilst writing a very serious fantasy epic, really just as an outlet for all the jokes and silliness that weren’t happening in my grim and bloody version of the Renaissance. Needless to say, the fantasy masterpiece isn’t published, and Space Captain Smith is. I still have hopes that one day, perhaps when I’ve backstabbed my way to Prince, I’ll be able to get the fantasy novel published at last. I think it’s great, but that’s just me.

Q: In my review of God Emperor of Didcot I describe the world of Space Captain Smith as Blackadder meets Red Dwarf. What were your inspirations when you wrote the books?
TF: Blackadder always has been a great inspiration. It strikes a great balance between fart jokes and historical references. There may be funnier comedy, but not much better comedy. While I enjoyed some of Red Dwarf it’s never been that much of an influence. I’d also cite Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, the Biggles books and of course Dan Dare. Frank Hampson was a genius. A lot of the things I’ve parodied are also pretty good: ranging from old war films to The Difference Engine and, of course, the British.

Q: I checked your website recently and saw you have a number of free mini-stories available for download http://spacecaptainsmith.com/, and that Smith is now on twitter http://twitter.com/isambardsmith. What d’you make of the rising importance of technology, including eBooks and eReaders?
TF: To be honest I’m not a natural technocrat. Twitter baffles me pretty much, although I do like having a web presence. I think it brings readers and writers together in a way I wouldn’t have imagined when I was younger. As to ebooks, they’re not really to my taste – I much prefer actually owning a solid object, especially since all the digital technology I own breaks with alarming frequency – but if they get people reading, so much the better. I wonder if we will get some new way of quality assurance better than the Amazon review stars, though.

Q: What one piece of advice would you offer an aspiring author?
TF: I’d suggest new writers keep reading and keep writing. You have to get the practice in to get better, as with any craft, and reading widely enables you to see things you wouldn’t normally get. I write comedy, and often find myself turning to Raymond Chandler and George Orwell, neither of whom are renowned for their levity, just to see how good writing can be done. I’d also suggest joining a good writing group. There are some excellent ones out there. That’s actually about four pieces of advice, but then again the world is a better place for me not having gone into maths.

Q: What’s your favourite aspect of being a writer?
TF: I’m not sure, really. Getting paid for doing what I enjoy is pretty good, as is being able to do what I’m probably best at. I’ve still not got used to going into bookshops and seeing my name on the shelves. That’s pretty excellent too.

Q: Do you ever suffer writer’s block, and, if you do, how do you work through it?
TF: I don’t really get much writer’s block. Whenever I’ve found myself not getting into a scene, I do tend to write a later one and go back to the first scene later on. I try to keep this to a minimum, but it’s sometimes necessary. But to be honest, most of the time I’m so keen to get the words down and the story out it isn’t really too much of a problem.

Q: You mentioned on Chrons that audiobooks of the three SCS books will be out at some point. Can you give away who the reader is?
TF: The reader of the audio books is a chap called Clive, and very good he is too. He has a good feeling for the characters, and manages to strike the right balance between being slightly silly and completely ridiculous. They’re coming together pretty well. Highly recommended!

Q: Lastly, will we see a new Space Captain Smith book and, if so, when?
TF: I really want to do more Smith. I certainly feel that there are loads of jokes and adventures still to come, and I’ve made notes for more. Unfortunately it’s really difficult to say when I'll be able to write them at the moment. There should be a new longish short story out in the next few months, and of course the audio-books, but I’m still trying to get life and writing in general sorted out enough to be able to promise a fourth book at a definite date. That doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of Smith, though: I’ve loved writing it and would love to do more!

Many thanks to Mr. Frost for kindly agreeing to give me the interview, and here’s hoping Space Captain Smith gives Gertie a darn good British-style thrashing in the fourth book.

Monday, 16 May 2011

And now for something completely different

I was doing important work yesterday, browsing Youtube, and came across this enjoyable tune by Weird Al Yankovic. It's a damned sight better than Madonna's cover of American Pie.


Sunday, 15 May 2011

Review: Into the Labyrinth, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

This is the sixth of the seven Death Gate Cycle books, and is very much a book of two halves.

The first half was not as good as I’d hoped it would be. The pace was a little slow, but, unlike earlier books, there was no brand new world to enliven the story with new and interesting distractions. Similarly, in the first half, there was just one new character and she was a little two-dimensional.

Despite the title, it takes about half the book for the Labyrinth to be entered, which is a great shame. The story becomes a lot livelier and more engaging as we finally see the infernal prison that was so often referred to in earlier books. Haplo and Alfred continue to develop as characters, and there’s a substantial surprise waiting for them in the Labyrinth.

Every single world that was explored in the first four novels is visited at least briefly, and we learn some more about the lore of the Sundering. Unfortunately, a lot of the book takes place on Pryan, and rather plods.

Into the Labyrinth is somewhat similar to Hand of Chaos (book 5) in that it’s less focused on exploration of new worlds and more about the devious machinations of Xar and Sang-drax. This works reasonably well, but it’s not in the league of Tyrion Lannister or Sand dan Glokta.

Strangely, despite not being all that fond of the first half of the book, I absolutely devoured it (a habit with the Deathgate books). In fact, I read the whole thing in under 24 hours. There’s just one more in the series for me to read (The Seventh Gate). I’m looking forward to seeing how the series is resolved and the ultimate fate of the protagonists.


Saturday, 14 May 2011

Doctor Who: The Doctor’s Wife

This episode was written by the fantasy author Neil Gaiman and is the fourth in the first half of the season. So, there’s only two more to go before the mid-season interval. As usual, spoilers abound.

Another filler episode, albeit more substantial, if less lovely, than the Siren. It was definitely darker than the previous episode, less swashbuckling and grimmer. I do like darker episodes, but certain parts of the episode irked me.

The Corsair is a cool name for a Time Lord. However, we didn’t get to see him [well, except for a harvested forearm] or any other Time Lord because, once again, it was just a teensy tease with no payoff. Can’t really fault Gaiman for this, as the restoration of the Time Lords would be a huge storyline and not something for a single episode, but it does annoy me that the Time Lords are often alluded to and sometimes half-come back only to disappear once again.

Stop messing about, and bring them back. Given the daleks are properly returned, it should only be a matter of time (ahem). Well, I hope so.

I very much enjoyed the psychopathic House and his mental torture of Amy in the TARDIS, plus it was nice to see everybody’s favourite tentacle-faced telepaths, the Ood, return. They’re almost like the red-uniformed expendable chaps from Star Trek now.

The storyline of a distress call summoning Time Lords to House (essentially a sentient planet beyond the universe) who then ate their TARDISes and used their bodies as spare parts for his minions is pretty cunning. Then the Doctor used the human-TARDIS (the TARDIS’ matrix was stored in a human body so House could occupy the TARDIS itself) and various parts of previously destroyed TARDISes to make a new one. Hmm. Lots of TARDISey references there.

Quite liked the interaction between human-TARDIS and the Doctor, but I think the emotional parts (most obviously when the shell died and the TARDIS matrix returned to the TARDIS and slew House) was unnecessary and overdone. I’m not a fan of melodrama, and although it’s been less pronounced with Moffat at the helm it’s one facet of New Who of which I am not fond.

I think that the next episode is also a stand-alone one, and then we have the first of a two-parter which will be separated by the three month mid-season interval. I’ll write more on that later, but a few potential storylines present themselves:

  • Amy’s Schrodinger’s Cat pregnancy comes to fruition
  • River Song does her incredibly horrid thing (murdering the Doctor?)
  • The Time Lords return (wishful thinking)

Given that the human-TARDIS told the Doctor that “The only water in the forest is the River” it seems likely that the mid-season two-parter will involve River Song heavily.


Thursday, 12 May 2011

Review: God Emperor of Didcot (Chronicles of Isambard Smith), by Toby Frost

God Emperor of Didcot is the second book featuring Space Captain Smith (the first being cunningly entitled Space Captain Smith). It’s a sci-fi comedy set in the fairly distant future and detailing the escapades of the heroic space captain as he battles the evil enemies of the British Space Empire.

The sci-fi world Smith inhabits is very much Blackadder meets Red Dwarf. There is a lot of gentle mockery, both of the British and Johnny Foreigner. Moments of amusement are almost constant, and some parts are quite hilarious.

Smith, equipped with a moustache and healthy distrust of the French, has a small but interesting crew, including a navigator android who is actually an escaped sex toy and a hippy Smith desperately wants to get into bed. However, my personal favourite is Suruk the Slayer, a Morlock psychopath who collects severed heads and enjoys mocking Carveth (the navigator).

The author doesn’t get bogged down with scientific technicalities, and the plot is nice and fast-paced. Unlike the fantasy I usually read, this is absolutely not gritty, although there’s plenty of violence. The comedy’s often sarcastic and satirical, which suits me and fits in nicely with the British theme.

In God Emperor of Didcot, Smith is ordered to the planet Didcot, home of the empire’s most productive tea plantations, to try and head off a potential insurrection by lunatic zealots. Naturally, things go awry, and our British hero must use all his cunning to try and claim victory.

The book is simple, very enjoyable and well worth reading. The only potential downside is that I only have one more Space Captain Smith book to read now. Hopefully, more will be forthcoming.


Tuesday, 10 May 2011


I hadn’t planned on writing this post, but a cunning new gamebook (available for free) by a splendid, if silly, fellow I know has spurred me to it. It’s available in pdf form here, though as it’s a largeish file (60 odd megabytes) you might prefer to right click and save that way.


The 200 section adventure included above is no walk in the park. In my first attempt (admittedly with rolls that stunk like a skunk) I got killed in my second section. My second attempt was better, I got quite a long way in only to find myself defeated by the death traps.

When I was younger I played a number of gamebooks. For the uninitiated, the genre (aka ‘choose your own adventure’) involves making decisions as you read, and then turning to a given numbered section of the book. Complexity can vary from doing only that to having a full-fledged character with numerous attributes and skills and participating in combat.

Ah, the joy of Lemmings. Not only did they have staggering success with computer games, there were also a few gamebooks about the green-haired lunatics. Given the nature of the lemmings (they each specialised in a given skill/ability) they were strangely well-adapted to gamebooks. Sonic the Hedgehog had some too, and likewise Asterix.

However, my favourites were easily the Lone Wolf books by Joe Dever. Crammed with fantasy staples such as implacable Darklord enemies, being the sole survivor of a massacre and so forth, the adventures took place in a wide range of locations, even in the hellish realm of Naar, god of chaos, itself. It was an advantage to have played previous books (you could keep certain especially good items and get extra skills) but not necessary to succeed in any given adventure. I must still have about a score of them.

Unlike an ordinary book, you can get killed whilst reading. If this happens, you have to start again from the beginning. Deaths can occur in combat, or sometimes from stupid choices. Likewise, there will almost always be certain sections that must be read (bottlenecks, if you like), the start and the end being most obvious (although alternate endings can be included).

Of course, with RPG games becoming more popular, it could be difficult for a concept such as the gamebook to survive. However, when flitting through Amazon (almost a reflex reaction) I saw that there was a new book by Michael J. Ward out, entitled DestinyQuest: The Legion of Shadow. It’s a gamebook, with 17 reviews, and every single one gave it a cracking five stars.

As my retro-review of Phantasy Star IV showed, a fantastic story can sear itself into the memory of the reader or player. Graphics, computing power and improving technology can help, but the beating heart of an RPG, whether tabletop, on the computer or in book form is the story.

Speaking of which, I managed to navigate my unorthodox and Byzantine folder system to find two documents: an old sample chapter and character creation plan for a gamebook. The test chapter was deliberately short (49 sections, which probably means 15-20 are needed to get from the start to the finish). I might see about lengthening it a little and maybe submitting it to the same fanzine that Sunil got published in. The character creation is much more complicated (I’d intended to write a full-on story and there are multiple races and classes), but I rather like it.

For those interested, there’s not only Mr. Prasannan’s challenging story available for free. Thanks to Project Aon, many of Joe Dever’s excellent Lone Wolf books are available for free, here: http://www.projectaon.org/en/Main/FAQ

Please bear in mind that the work done by Project Aon cannot be redistributed and must be for personal use only (http://www.projectaon.org/en/Main/License).


Monday, 9 May 2011

Retro-review: Phantasy Star IV

Phantasy Star IV is about as old school as an RPG can be. It was released over a decade ago for the Sega Megadrive (aka Genesis), and has since been included in a number of Sega collections for the PS2 and PS3.

The game has a number of features which were well ahead of its time, an interesting and pretty large cast of characters and a top notch plot.

For a start, it has two protagonists, Chaz Ashley and Alys Brangwin. They’re both Hunters (mercenaries), with Chaz the apprentice of Alys, who is not so much a mother figure as a feisty aunt figure. They’ve been sent to investigate an outbreak of monsters at a university, but I won’t go further than that with the details of the plot.

The story is connected to the previous instalments of the Phantasy Star series, but you don’t need to have played or read about their plots to thoroughly enjoy IV. There’s no voice-acting, of course, and characters are represented by nicely drawn pictures or 2-D figures. The script is generally excellent and the characters are (script-wise, anyway) very three-dimensional. They flirt, they bicker, they get jealous and pissed off: they’re a decade earlier but a mile better than the likes of Penelo and Vaan from FFXII.

The battle system is pretty damned fantastic. For a start, you get up to 5 party members at a time. Each one has a predefined set of skills and techniques. Techniques are basically magic, and require points to be used. Skills can be used a limited number of times but once they’re exhausted they can’t be used again. Probably the best part of battle is the ability for co-operative attacks, usually with 2-3 members working together to inflict substantial damage. If there’s one gripe with the battle system it’s that techniques and skills are not explained, so if you get a new one you have to use it to see what it does. However, the prefix system (Nares is an improved version of Gires which is an improved version of Res) does help this a bit.

Naturally, the graphics are dated. Unlike Vagrant Story, where things had moved on to three-dimensional dungeons, everything is firmly 2-D. For me, it’s filled with old school charm, though if graphics are your thing it may be a weak point.

There are side quests. As a Hunter, you do get to perform optional Hunts, which are contracts that do not necessarily involving actually hunting something down. In addition, there are areas that you do not need to visit and might only find by exploration. However, the game doesn’t take prisoners and if your levels are too low you’ll end up dying pretty sharpish. The optional areas often have rather tasty equipment for your characters.

Ultimately, this game is one of the best games I’ve every played. It’s up there with Vagrant Story and Shadow Hearts. If you haven’t played it, and aren’t put off by the 2-D graphics, I’d strongly advise you consider buying one of Sega’s collections.


Saturday, 7 May 2011

Doctor Who: The Curse of the Black Spot.

After the good two-part season opener, I thought this was a bit of a filler episode. However, after the more convoluted plot and darker moments of the previous episodes it will be a bit easier for the kids watching to enjoy.

A ship is having its crew whittled down by a rather lovely Siren, played by Lily Cole. When a chap is wounded or ill she appears, lulls him into ecstasy with her song and then makes him disappear.

The Doctor arrives and finds himself made to walk the plank by the captain, played well by Hugh Bonneville. Due to being escorted by the most inept pirate in the seven seas, Amy stumbles upon a cutlass, displays a rather odd proficiency with the blade, and saves the Doctor (but not without accidentally cutting a pirate and Rory).

The Doctor manages to rattle through a number of theories before realising the Siren comes through reflections. After she saves Rory from drowning, the Doctor, the captain and Amy voluntarily prick their skin to summon her.

They’re transported to an advanced alien vessel the crew of which has long since perished. The writer decides that scientific explanations are unnecessary (although it doesn’t drift into the awful realms of the Doctor-Donna, thankfully) and the approximate reasoning the Doctor comes up with is that the ship’s in a parallel dimension but close to this one, occupying the same space(ish) as the pirate ship.

The Siren turns out to be a kind of automated doctor, like a pretty version of Voyager’s EMH. Now her crew are dead she’s been trying to heal the sick and injured from the pirate ship.

The surviving pirates stay on board the vessel and pilot it away from our world, and the Doctor et al., after a brief spot of tension where Rory might have died, fly off.

Not a terrible episode, but most definitely filler. One of the most interesting bits was a few seconds when Amy saw the woman with the futuristic eye-patch again. That suggests she might be in a coma, possibly, but my own suspicion is that she’s in two parallel universes, hence her Schrodinger’s Cat approach to being pregnant.

That’s the review over with, below is a preview of the next episode.

The Doctor’s Wife suggests River Song might be involved, but she wasn’t in the preview shown after The Curse of the Black Spot.

There is another Time Lord alive. Those we know of include Rassilon, the Rani, the Master and Romana. I doubt it’s any of those, based on the preview clip. In a strange world some being (presumably the Time Lord) has effective control of an unknown number of minions, and seems pretty evil from the little that was shown. The Ood make a reappearance. In addition, tthe Time Lord/villain’s voice slightly reminded me of The Beast, one of my favourite New Who villains, though I doubt it’s come back.

Anyway, rather looking forward to the next episode, which is written by Neil Gaiman.


Friday, 6 May 2011

Review: Beyond the Shadows, (Night Angel Trilogy 3) by Brent Weeks

Beyond the Shadows is an interesting fantasy book, with some excellent points and a few that could be improved upon. On the whole, I rather liked it.

The author has a number of main characters (Kylar as the central protagonist but with many other significant figures) and flits between them, sometimes persisting for a few chapters, otherwise visiting a central figure for a short time. There’s always a risk of spreading the jam too thin with this approach, but I think Mr. Weeks does a good job balancing multiple points of view with a cohesive plot.

Typically, I prefer characters to stories. When I think of why I like The First Law Trilogy or A Song of Ice and Fire Glokta and Tyrion are my first thoughts. Unusually, the story of the Beyond the Shadows is what I appreciate most about it. I do think the pacing was a bit off, with the middle part slower in comparison to the start and end. However, there are multiple twists and turns, and Mr. Weeks has done an excellent job of describing the hellish nation of Khalidor. Briefly, the story is about numerous nations and their collective desire, embodied by the virtuous Logan, to destroy the infernal power of Khalidor. The style of fate conflicting with personal desire and forcing people into making a loathsome choice is reminiscent of the Aeneid, when Aeneas and Dido are star-crossed lovers.

When it comes to characters, it’s a more mixed picture. Dorian is easily my favourite in Beyond the Shadows, and the tangled situation he finds himself in was always enjoyable to read. Logan I like less, as he’s pretty much a paragon of virtue, and Elene similarly. Most of the others are good, without standing out as excellent.

The plot of the book and series is tightly bound to the history/mythology of the world the author has created and in particular that of Kylar and his master Durzo. There’s a distinct difference between the nations (they aren’t merely lines on a map) and a number of different magic systems.

I think the book could’ve been improved with a shorter, faster middle and a slightly longer end. It all comes together very neatly, but I don’t think that’s a problem given the genre and the way it happens. My to-read list grows endlessly, but I will be looking for more stuff by Brent Weeks to read.

In the near future, I’m thinking of getting the second Space Captain Smith book, by Toby Frost, for my Kindle.


Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Forthcoming games: LA Noire and Hunted: The Demon’s Forge

There are a pair of potentially great games coming out in the near future. These are Rockstar’s LA Noire (20 May) and Bethesda’s Hunted: The Demon’s Forge (3 June).

LA Noire sounds fascinating. It’s set in America shortly after the Second World War, with the protagonist playing a rozzer. The policeman’s role varies from patrolling the streets to investigating murder and vice, and given Rockstar’s prolonged experience with the likes of Grand Theft Auto the world is likely to be large, interactive and well-made.

Investigations look to be complex, with a keen eye for clues and judgement calls when interrogating witnesses and suspects yielding additional information. Bad calls could see potential avenues of information closed off.

However, that’s not the biggest reason to look at buying LA Noire. I’m a huge fan of voice acting, and have been since MGS when Cam Clarke and David Hayter played as Liquid and Solid Snake. LA Noire offers another step up from this, with visual acting. New animation technology allows actors’ faces to be accurately reproduced using the game’s graphics. What this means is that when you question someone you can really sense their guilt or innocence based upon both their voice and their face. If this is as good as it sounds it could mark a big step forward for games.

Of course, other games (DA2, for example) do feature emotive faces, incorporating eye muscle movements in smiles and wrinkled brows, but LA Noire does sound a cut above that.

The world and its premise sound intriguing, though I do wonder just replayable such a game will be.

Hunted: The Demon’s Forge is a completely different kettle of fish. It seeks to blend the power and sophistication of modern gaming with the old school charm of dungeon crawling. Interestingly, it features a pair of protagonists, sexy elf lady E’lara and hulking Caddoc. The former wields a bow and attacks from range using her weapon or magic, the latter is a typical sword and board warrior.

The two are always present, so if you play solo the computer controls the other character (you can pick and stick with one or flit between the two). It sounds similar to the Uncharted series, except that you get to play as one of two characters rather than being just the one. Naturally, you can get a friend to play the other role.

E’lara and Caddoc can heal one another or perform combo attacks, harking back to ye olden days of games like Phantasy Star IV (I’ll be writing a retro-review of that this month).

Hunted also includes The Crucible, which is a level designer. I remember Tenchu’s (I forget if it was in 2 or 3), and that was as user friendly as Lego, so if The Crucible is anywhere near as good it should be enjoyable and easy to use with the added bonus of being able to share created levels with friends.

Looming in the middle distance is Skyrim, due out in November. I’m really looking forward to that, but it’s some way off for now.

I’m still playing F1 2010, so I’m not going to get either of the above games upon release. I’ll be keeping a beady eye on the prices and reviews though.


Monday, 2 May 2011

The Best Roman Emperors

It’s probably easier to try and pick the best, given that so many emperors were incompetent or completely insane. Caligula, the incestuous sister-murdering, foetus-eating lunatic, for example, or Commodus, who also an incestuous sister-murderer (although he never ate his own unborn child).

I’m just thinking of Western emperors, so excellent chaps such as Basil II and John Comnenus don’t come into it. There are a few contenders, including the long-reigning Augustus and Constantine, the wise and subtle Diocletian and the conquerors Trajan and Aurelian.

I would not even consider Marcus Aurelius. Yes, he was a philosopher and kind and sensible, but he also made an absolutely appalling error of judgement which was critical in the long term destruction of Rome. Previously, Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian had nominated others as emperors rather than letting it be hereditary. This worked tremendously well, as each emperor wisely picked a top chap (or chaps, as Hadrian picked two Antonines, the younger of which was Aurelius). But Marcus Aurelius then, stupidly, not only broke with tradition but did so when his own son proved to be an appallingly awful emperor. Commodus ruled for over a decade, murdering numerous excellent senators, playing as a gladiator and generally terrifying the upper classes until his own household pre-emptively killed him before he could slay them.

After this, the Praetorian Guard effectively become the rulers of Rome, installing or destroying emperors and the habit of regicide became firmly ingrained in the Roman system. And all because the philosopher broke with tradition.

I’d consider Constantine a contender, but not the very best. Undoubtedly he had many virtues and enjoyed great victories, particularly in the early part of his reign. It is debatable whether his selection of Byzantium as a new capital removed any hope of Rome’s own survival as a real power or whether it enabled the Eastern Empire to thrive when it would have collapsed otherwise. But, he became a tyrant later in life, murdering his own excellent son, Crispus, and his wife.

Trajan enjoyed almost unfettered success. Under him Rome’s empire grew to its largest ever size (briefly, the territory of modern day Iraq he conquered was soon left for the Parthians to retake) and he also established the new province of Dacia. The only potential reason not to consider him the greatest of emperors is that he reigned during the time of Rome’s zenith, so it was a bit like being manager of a Brazilian football team that wins the World Cup.

Two of my favourites, recently read about in Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, were the Gothic Claudius (not to be confused with the successor of Caligula and forerunner of Nero) and Aurelian, who ruled during the time when Rome’s power was rapidly waning. Claudius smashed the Goths in battle, but died after a short time as emperor, succumbing to smallpox.

Between the reigns of Claudius and Aurelian was that of Quintillus, which lasted less than a year. Aurelian was emperor for about five years, during which time the empire was rife with insurrection and self-declared emperors. Following in Claudius’ footsteps, he bested the lot of them, including the interesting Zenobia, an empress of Palmyra. In fact, he was so successful he got the (pretty deserved) title of Restorer of the World. [I plan to get a history of him in the nearish future].

However, even the tremendous success of Aurelian could not prevent the regicidal habit, and the Romans, at this stage annoyed by his strict regime, killed him. Aurelian’s conquests extended the Western empire by centuries, but his death prevented any prospect of returning to the Nerva-Antonine golden age.

Diocletian was a more practical sort than Marcus Aurelius, but he also made a similarly enormous error. He established the tetrarchy, ruled by two senior Augusti (with himself as top dog) and two junior Caesars. Whilst he was in charge it worked well, but when he abdicated the system, predictably, led to fragmentation and yet more civil war. At one point there were six emperors, from which Constantine alone emerged victorious. It’s also worth mentioning that Diocletian oversaw widespread persecution of Christians, but they had the last laugh when Constantine converted.

Of the above, I’d pick Aurelian as the best. He enjoyed constant success despite facing numerous opponents and his successes bore strategic fruit. A little more moderation in civil administration might have seen him live longer, but his victories saved Rome and came at a time when the empire could have fallen or fragmented.