Saturday, 30 July 2011

What happened to Byzantium?

Greek city states.

I imagine the first thing that most people think of when they hear or read that is Athens and Sparta. Similarly, Ancient Rome easily evokes a whole host of well-known images and characters (Scipio Africanus, Julius Caesar, Caligula etc).

If you mention the Middle Ages, people will think of the Black Prince, Henry V, Agincourt, knights and, perhaps above all else, English longbows.

But there’s a thousand years or more between the pomp and glory of Rome’s power and the premature death of Edward of Woodstock. Hastings and Vikings fill a bit of the gap, but the rest of it seems to be almost a black hole of history.

The Byzantine Empire is the obvious superpower that fills the gap, yet it’s remarkably unknown. I’m not a historian, but I’d also not describe myself as historically ignorant, and I knew sod all about Byzantium until quite recently.

It lasted for over a thousand years and mingled Greek mysticism with Roman power, and acted as a long term bulwark for Europe against the Persians and, latterly, the Ottoman Empire.

In acts that now read as little more than insanity, the Catholic Christians of the West organised a Crusade against Greek Orthodox Byzantium, leading to a period of exile for the rulers (though they did regain the city in time). Byzantium was, by turns, assisted, despised and ignored as the Emperor desperately sought aid to see off the Ottomans.

Sadly, this didn’t happen. Byzantium fell in the most tragic circumstances possible and the city’s unique position within the world of culture and religion was lost. Now, Byzantium/Constantinople is better known as Istanbul.

The history is as fascinating as the Roman period (although more topsy-turvy, as Byzantium’s power waxed and waned regularly whereas the Rome’s power expanded for ages and then slowly collapsed), and it’s baffling as to why it isn’t better known.

Maybe it’s because Byzantium never ruled over Britain (it sort of overlapped a bit with the unified empire but when the West/East split happened Blighty was always Western) and was rather further away than Rome. Plus, the destruction of Byzantium as a religious rival to Rome will have decreased its spiritual status. (There are still many churches in Istanbul, but the city itself is mostly Muslim, obviously).

It might also be because the writers of history might have been reluctant to dwell on the fact that the Christian West alternated between ignoring Byzantine pleas for help and actively harming the city state as it tried to defend itself from the expanding Ottoman Empire.


Thursday, 28 July 2011

The strange parallels of Alexander and Caesar

There are perhaps three generals of antiquity who stand head and shoulders above all the rest. Alexander the Great, Hannibal Barca (my personal favourite) and Julius Caesar.

All three have fantastic biographies/military histories by Theodore Ayrault Dodge, and it was reading these that I first came across the almost eerie parallels between Alexander and Caesar.

Both men were born into good families (in Macedon the kingdom was theoretically hereditary but it was pretty common for an uncle of a king to take over, as Alexander’s own father did). Alexander played an instrumental role in the Battle of Chaeronea at 17, slaughtering the elite Theban Sacred Band, and became king at 19 until his death just over a decade later. Caesar was a slower starter (it is scarcely possible to be faster) but he too rose to become the undoubted leader of his armies and effectively became a king.

The two generals led elite military forces that grew accustomed to unprecedented success under their leaders. Alexander clearly had the greater achievement, in my view. After centuries of fearing the overwhelming power of Persia he led the Hellenistic armies to total victory, scoring staggering victories and reducing every city that dared defy him by expert siegecraft (Tyre being particularly impressive). However, Caesar also had a great military record, finally exorcising the ghost of the Gauls who had ravaged Rome centuries earlier.

Neither man truly knew defeat on the battlefield. Caesar did not enjoy unmitigated success, but his record is nevertheless excellent. Alexander’s feats almost defy belief and he was a legend even in his own lifetime.

However, both men died premature deaths. Alexander probably died of a fever, although there is a suggestion that Antipater (who ran Macedon in Alexander’s absence) had Iollas, his son and the king’s wine-pourer, poison him. Caesar, rather famously, got stabbed to death by a large number of people.

Sadly, there’s a rather more gruesome coincidence between the two. Caesar’s son was called Ptolemy Caesarion, and was executed by Octavian (who became Augustus) before his 18th birthday. Alexander’s son was officially king, but regents ruled in his stead. He was killed by Cassander, ruler of Macedon, when some claimed a 13 year old could rule on his own.

Ironically, both men, who barely knew defeat in their military careers, died younger than Hannibal (who lost the Second Punic War). Neither of their sons succeeded them and both defeated a great foe (admittedly, Caesar did slaughter his own side).

Both chaps also had epilepsy, which is a rather strange coincidence. [Hannibal was also disabled, but he had one eye, having lost one to exposure during the perilous march through the Arnus Marshes].

There were some rumours that Caesar was also friendly with fellows, as Alexander famously was, but there’s some doubt about that.

So, unusually, both chaps had epilepsy, both died prematurely, and neither were succeeded by their sons (both of whom were murdered). It is possible both were murdered and partial to man-on-man action, but the former is uncertain regarding Alexander and the latter regarding Caesar.


Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Dr Who Preview and Trailer

Yes, I’ve resorted to stealing ideas from Mr. Burdett, not unlike Davros stealing the Hand of Omega (only without the dreams of universal domination, genocide and unlimited rice pudding). Obviously, there are spoilers in the trailer itself and the bit below it.

Rather a good trailer, with plenty of interesting hints and some more obvious shots of various villains. I love the Weeping Angels, but I hope they don’t get overused.

River Song appears to either be the creepy eye-patch lady or plan to impersonate her.

The cybermen (still the New Who ones rather than the Mondas ones, alas) make a reappearance. Hopefully this is for a reason beyond getting massacred, as happened in the last episode.

The Silence are back.

The strange beast creature reminds me a bit of the description of the Royal Beast of Peladon in The Curse of Peladon. It was an old serial (Jon Pertwee was the Doctor). I never actually saw it, but did have the book.

As has been widely trailed, Adolf Hitler (whose life is apparently saved the Doctor et al.) features. I wonder if they’ll end up making a Downfall spoof of the meeting on Youtube.

There are quite a few creepy doll-like/automaton creatures, reminiscent of (but distinct to) the clockwork robots.

Guest stars include James Corden, and Daniel Mays (I think) who played the diabolical Keats in the final Ashes to Ashes series.

So, it looks pretty good, and is due to return in a little over a month. The psycho-dolls, Silence and Weeping Angels suggest (to me anyway) that we might see some darker episodes, like the excellent two-parter that opened the series.


Sunday, 24 July 2011

Review: Gladiator: The Roman Fighter’s (Unofficial) Manual, by Philip Matyszak

I must admit I was a bit hesitant about buying this. I’d already got a good book on gladiators (Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport, by Fik Meijer) and was uncertain whether this would have anything extra. As it turns out, it’s the best book in a small but growing series of excellence.

Mr. Matyszak brilliantly blends wittiness with an easy-to-read but informative style. Some of the captions (typically to mosaics) are quite hilarious and the dry wit the author employs helps add some comic relief to a topic that is actually rather horrific.

The book takes a concise look at the rise of gladiatorial popularity, from funeral games to pre-election bribes for the masses to saturating the Colosseum with blood during the reigns of Commodus and Trajan.

Different gladiator types are briefly explained, along with the daily routine of the men (and, occasionally, women) in question. There’s a slightly paradoxical view of them held by the Romans, in that gladiator games are hugely popular yet gladiators are shunned socially.

In addition to gladiatorial combats there’s a quick look at similar/alternative events, such as the beast hunts (a kind of morning matinee for Ancient Rome); the bizarre practice of blindfolding condemned prisoners, giving them swords, pushing them into the arena and telling them to kill each other; and shows involving dwarves and women fighting one another.

The author’s also made good use of the Ludus Nemesis, a German re-enactment group who have, through practical exploration of gladiator armour/weapons, discovered some cunning tricks their bloody forebears might have employed.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic.

For those wondering about getting this or Fik Meijer’s book, I’d say that Meijer’s is more sober and in-depth, but Matyszak’s is more entertaining (without becoming low-brow).


Thursday, 21 July 2011

Review: A Dance With Dragons, by George RR Martin

This is the long-awaited fifth books in the epic A Song of Ice and Fire series (intended to be a series of seven parts). Naturally, this review has some spoilers, both for A Dance With Dragons (ADWD) and the series generally.

It runs more or less concurrently with A Feast For Crows, the fourth part of the series, but features as the main characters those neglected in the previous book (namely Tyrion, Jon and Daenerys, backed up by Melisandre, Ser Barristan and Stannis). The characters/storylines of A Feast For Crows do make fleeting appearances towards the end of the book.

ADWD did take me a little while to get into, simply because of the enormous scale and complexity of the series (not aided by my own rubbishness with names). The quality of the writing is as good as ever, and I did prefer it to A Feast For Crows, which was reckoned by many to be a dip in form after the first three excellent books.

That said, I do have some mixed feelings. The story progressed quite well in some regards (around the Wall and Winterfell, with Jon Snow, Stannis and so forth), but for others either little happened (Daenerys) or what happened seems somewhat insignificant (Tyrion).

Tyrion was my favourite character in the first three books, but I think Theon Greyjoy was perhaps the best written this time around. There was some excellent writing describing his rather horrid relationship with Ramsay Bolton.

The Epilogue was amongst the strongest parts of the book, and dealt with characters in King’s Landing rather than the North or Essos where most of the book’s time is spent. That aside, the ending was somewhat unsatisfying. I don’t want to say anything more specific, but whilst new storylines were added in ADWD none of the central ones were resolved.

That said, it is worth pointing out that the series’ storyline is as complex and large at this stage as it is likely to get, and that (with only two more planned books to go we) things should start to come together in The Winds of Winter (title of book six).

So, overall I enjoyed it. The writing was as good as ever, and the plot advanced nicely in the North. However, some more action/progression in Essos would have been welcome. I’d give it four stars out of five.


Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Why do dragons exist in so many cultures?

I was beginning to write an article about fantasy staples (dwarves, elves, dragons etc) when a more interesting question struck me. Why are dragons present in so many distant and different cultures?

In the large islands south-east of the Asian mainland there’s a better explanation than most. They have komodo dragons, enormous monitor lizards that can eat a whole pig. Admittedly, they have no wings (although dragons don’t necessarily have to have them) and don’t breathe fire, but they are massive, dangerous reptiles. The imaginative leap from a komodo dragon to a real dragon is much smaller than in, say, England.

England is a green (and wet) and pleasant land, but it most certainly is not troubled by marauding reptiles. We have almost no snakes, and of those we do have only one, the adder, is properly dangerous. However, the explanation could be the Book of Revelation (easily my favourite bit of the Bible, due to its bonkers and entertaining imagery). In Revelation, Satan turns into a huge dragon with… 7 heads and 13 horns, I think.

That does beg the question of where the Biblical dragon came from, though. I think the Zoroastrians wrote of Azhi Dahaki, the splendidly named super-dragon that was the offspring of the Father of Lies. The bad news is that at the end of the world Azhi Dahaki breaks free of his bonds and destroys the world.

Which sounds a bit like Revelation. Norse mythology also features dragons, specifically Nidhogg, who chews on the roots of the world-tree, Yggdrasill.

The Far East has its dragons too. The Chinese dragon is pretty famous, and participated in the race to decide the order of the Chinese zodiac. (The dragon came fifth, incidentally, after helping people out by creating rain and assisting a rabbit [who came fourth] reach safety).

Religion seems the common thread between the differing cultures, a common source for stories involving dragons.

Of course, dragons have been popular for a long time, from the Zoroastrians to Christianity and Beowulf, all the way to the present day.

They’ve long been a staple of fantasy as well. The Lord of the Rings does not feature any dragon prominently (I think the Nazgul ride them later on), but they have a larger role in the Silmarillion. More recently, George RR Martin makes excellent use of them in A Song of Ice and Fire (review probably coming on the 21st) and Skyrim will feature them heavily.

Why do they remain so popular?

Probably because a massive, flying, evil, fire-breathing reptile is cool. Just as fantasy has dwarves (likely grumpy smiths with beards) and elves (slender, snobbish archers) it needs a big bad wolf. And that’s the dragon.


Sunday, 17 July 2011

History Books Worth Buying

I’m nearly halfway through the third volume of Edward Gibbon’s epic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s taken me quite a while (whilst fascinating it’s not the swiftest of reads) so I’ve started having a look at some other history books to buy.

The most obvious is, of course, the box set of volumes 4-6 of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I do tend to buy historical series together (I got all three of John Julius Norwich’s brilliant Byzantium history in short order, and likewise Bob Bennett’s and Mike Roberts’ two books on the Successors).

A lighter read could be Philip Matyszak’s Gladiator: The Roman Fighter’s (Unofficial) Manual. The (Unofficial) Manuals are a new series, presently featuring three books (I have the other two, Legionary, by Matyszak, and Knight, by Michael Prestwich). Although quite light-hearted, they’re crammed with interesting historical facts and are very enjoyable. I think I read somewhere that future releases include Viking and Samurai.

I got Gladiators: History’s Most Deadly Sport, by Fik Meijer, a year ago, and rather liked it. Meijer does an excellent job of being objective and not thrusting modern moral concepts onto the ancient world. However, he did paint such a vivid picture of the plight of gladiators that I found myself shifting my view and feeling rather sorry for them.

A while ago I wrote that Aurelian was perhaps the best Roman emperor, in my view. John White has written a biography (well-rated albeit by a single person) of the Restorer of the World which I will get, sooner or later. It’s not a particularly well-known era or individual, but Aurelian picked up where the Gothic Claudius left off and won a series of victories, which does beg the question as to why he isn’t better known.

There’s another series, which seems to be unnamed, which takes the form of historical travel guides and has titles such as “Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day” (that book happens to be, again, by Matyszak). They’re well-rated and cover quite a number of historic locations, including Athens, Florence, Shakespearean London and Ancient Egypt.

It’s been some time since I read anything about Alexander. (I can recommend TA Dodge’s military history/biography, incidentally). JFC Fuller’s The Generalship of Alexander the Great is a book that I’ll probably get, but not for a while. It seems, from reviews, to be a good but tough read, and given I’ll have read the six volumes of Gibbon before buying it some lighter books in between would probably be welcome.

Similarly, A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to St. Louis, by Professor RHC Davis, was praised by a sound fellow I know and is something I’ll be looking at buying, but given the subject matter is something I’ve read a bit about lately (Gibbon and Norwich) I’ll leave it for a little while.

I’d still say that my favourite part of history is the Second Punic War, followed by Alexander and his Successors, but I am finding the transition from Ancient to Medieval eras more interesting than I thought I would. It seems baffling, now, that I’d heard almost nothing regarding the thousand years of Byzantine history before Norwich’s trilogy.

Anyway, I’ve decided to get Gibbon’s latter volumes, and Gladiator.


Friday, 15 July 2011

e-Publishing: pitfalls and advantages

The vast majority of aspiring authors get shot down when they seek an agent/publisher. This is, of course, unpleasant, but the agents and publishers exist to make a profit and if they became lax in their business then they’d be out of it before long.

The effect of this long term approach has been to reduce the number of authors on the market (not necessarily a bad thing) and to act as a kind of quality control. Not many published authors are out and out awful, and those who sell badly may not get another book published.

However, there is a downside. Because agents/publishers actively look for reasons to reject a prospective author, they can miss gems. The most famous modern example is JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series, but she’s not the only tremendously successful author to be rejected multiple times.

It is undoubtedly the case that whilst the agent/publisher net has prevented a huge number of rubbish and mediocre writers from entering the market they’ve also stopped a significant number of excellent writers from doing so.

But now, the stranglehold/quality control role of the agents and publishers is becoming loosened. People can and do publish online, offering books for a price or free, bypassing the traditional ink and paper route altogether. It’s now much, much easier for an author to get into print (well, e-Print) than it ever was before, and there are also print-on-demand (POD) services for physical copies.

The role of quality control has perhaps not disappeared, but been taken over by reviewers on websites and bloggers. If I put out a book and Amazon reviewers gave it 1/5 stars it’d sell very badly. With 3.5-5 stars I imagine it’d do ok or pretty well. Naturally, reviewers are subjective (as are agents/publishers) and not professionals (usually), but ultimately the prospective readership matters more than industry insiders. If a book is rejected by 100 agents, gets released by the author and sells a million e-Books then I suspect the author will be the chap with a big smile on his face.

Returning to Ms. Rowling: she’ll shortly be launching the Pottermore website, which will include digital downloads of both e-Books and audiobooks. This will bypass the retailer link in the chain altogether. It’s an interesting new development, and the latest in a string of technological advances which are changing the way books are written, published and sold.

As regular readers will know, I’m writing my own book, to be released as a stand-alone e-Book (although I’m still considering the exact route I’m going to take). I do think the increased freedom for authors the e-Book offers is a good thing, but at the same time the shift towards online sales and retailers, and books that are reduced from physical copies to mere information is not something I want to become total.


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Classical history: modern and ancient historians

Aside from fantasy, classical history is probably the genre I read most at the moment. Ancient Greece/Macedon, Rome and Carthage are my favourite areas and there’s quite a lot of stuff to be read.

The biggest difference between authors is the gaping chasm between primary and secondary sources; between chaps who were literally (or nearly) there when the ancient events happened and modern writers with access to much more general knowledge but lacking any hope of speaking to eyewitnesses and the like.

Ancient authors are sometimes blatantly partisan. Livy, being a Roman, was rather understandably pro-Rome when writing about the Second Punic War. This doesn’t render his entertaining history worthless, however, as he does an excellent job of conveying the pervading sentiment of the city during the crisis of Cannae’s aftermath.

They did, however, have access to people who witnessed or even participated in events of importance. Thucydides, for example, was a general in the Peloponnesian War and had decades to speak with others who participated or witnessed its moments of interest.

I quite like primary sources, and prefer them to modern ones on the whole. They’re imperfect, often biased and (excepting a few top chaps like Polybius) aren’t necessarily bothered about being entirely accurate, but they’re of the same time as the events they relate, and without them we would not have such a rich knowledge of history.

Naturally, modern authors and their writings are largely dependent upon their forebear historians. However, they do have access to a large number of ancient sources and modern techniques are constantly increasing our understanding of the ancient world (for example, it was found quite recently that gladiators were mostly vegetarian and usually quite chubby).

Some ancient writers are easy to read (Suetonius, for example), but others can be more difficult (such as Thucydides). Modern writers are typically much easier, and aspire to a greater degree of objectivity than some of their ancestors.

Not that there’s a total dichotomy between the two. I’m presently halfway through the third volume of Edward Gibbon’s excellent Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is a couple of centuries old. So, it’s not really ancient, but can scarcely be called modern either.

Anyway, once I finish off Gibbon there’s quite a few history books I’m looking ay getting. Perhaps a biography of Aurelian, or the Gladiator Unofficial Manual. Hmm.


Monday, 11 July 2011

Review: Pyrrhus of Epirus by Jeff Champion

Pyrrhus of Epirus is a concise biography of the chap in question, from his origins in Epirus (roughly where Albania is now) through numerous battlefields from Phrygia (modern day Turkey) to Italy, Sicily and Greece.

Jeff Champion has a nice, easy-to-read writing style, and the book’s suitable as the first book of this type for someone, but also interesting for people who’ve read a bit of classical history beforehand.

Mr. Champion, very wisely, begins by setting up the context of the world in which Pyrrhus was born. Essentially, the world was slightly disintegrating as the power vacuum left by Alexander’s premature death led to what could be loosely described as a massive, decades-long civil war of Macedonian leaders. Indeed, Pyrrhus had to be smuggled out of Epirus as a baby to avoid him being murdered.

Later, he returned and was hailed as king. He fought in arguably the single most important battle of the Diadochi (Successors to Alexander) alongside Demetrius Poliorcetes, his brother-in-law. Later, he became Ptolemy’s son-in-law and then fought against Demetrius (Pyrrhus’ sister had died so they were not bound by that tie anymore).

However, he is most famous for heading west from Epirus and fighting the Romans. After beating them in battle he deserted the Tarentines, who had invited him in to save them from the Roman menace, to help the Greek cities of Sicily drive out Carthage. He succeeded, almost entirely, but (and it’s hard to be sure because of the lack if historical sources) ended up managing to get on the wrong side of the cities through high taxation and a failure to conquer the last tiny bit of Carthaginian power on the island.

So, he left Sicily, fought the Romans again and lost this time, and then went over to Macedon where he defeated Antigonus Gonatas, the son of Demetrius Poliorcetes, and became King of Macedon. Following this, he assaulted Sparta but failed to take it and got involved in some fighting in Argos, where he met his end.

Motivated by ambition and a lust for glory, Pyrrhus was an interesting character. He was unimpressed with social inferiors, but loyal to friends and (in the spirit of the age) had great personal bravery in battle. Tactically, he was an intelligent man but a reckless and impulsive one. Many victories were his, but a lack of strategic foresight meant that he was unable to consolidate his battlefield triumphs into any lasting success. He was also not especially diplomatic, devoting himself to military education and neglecting the softer but useful art of diplomacy.

His life was never less than interesting, with mortal danger faced the moment he left the womb, family ties to two of the most powerful Diadochi dynasties and becoming King of Epirus, King of Macedon and effectively the ruler of Tarentum/Sicily for a time. He was involved in an enormous battle, with over 100,000 men fighting, and impressively beat the Romans in two battles out of three (albeit in such a manner as to create the term ‘Pyrrhic Victory’).

If there are any criticisms of the book, I suspect the slight brevity would be one, but when there aren’t many historical sources I prefer this to a book padded with blind speculation.

Pyrrhus forms a crucial link between the era of the Diadochi and the decline of Hellenistic power and the rise of Rome, epitomised by their victories in the Punic Wars. The Pyrrhic Victory term has meant his name is fairly well-known, but he has slightly fallen in the shade between the two ancient geniuses Alexander and Hannibal.


Friday, 8 July 2011

Review: The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson [Part One of the Stormlight Archive]

This is the first book I read by Brandon Sanderson, about whom I’d heard good things. I’ll try to avoid serious spoilers in the review, but obviously there’ll be some small ones.

The Way of Kings is a mighty tome, just edging over a thousand pages (it can be bought in two smaller paperbacks) in physical format.

After the departure from my usual fare with The Night Watch, The Way of Kings is a return to the kind of thing I typically go for. It’s set in a fictional world, has an epic feel to it, and has some interesting touches.

As is quite common, Mr. Sanderson has a number of main characters from whose perspectives the world is experienced and the story advanced. These are interrupted occasionally by short but interesting interludes from minor characters (most of them only appear once, though one is of greater importance).

The Way of Kings tells the tale of what happens after the murder of a king, Gavilar. It leads to war between his kingdom and that of the people who hired the killer, which soon settles down into a war of attrition and stalemate. The nobility bicker and plot and experience little hardship, excepting Dalinar and Adolin, the brother and nephew of the late king. Almost alone of the lighteyes (higher caste members of society) they display a sense of honour and conscience.

If a single character could be said to be the protagonist it might well be Kaladin, whose early success in war and subsequent fall into slavery is the backbone of the story. We also see flashes of his past which help flesh him out as a character. Kaladin’s a capable and intelligent chap but suffers abysmal luck and struggles between doing his best and sinking into despondency.

The world of The Way of Kings is very enjoyable to read about. Mr. Sanderon’s crafted a full-blown history, from mythology to early history through a theocratic dictatorship to the modern era. He also has an interesting approach to magic, and makes an integrated magic system that involves money, elements of history/religion and technology.

Soil is uncommon, and most of the world is stone. Plants, accordingly, have some motion with which to avoid the highstorms, tremendous storms that can recharge the spheres that are used as money. Although the majority of the story takes place on the Shattered Plains and much of it in the city-state of Kharbranth, there are brief glimpses and hints of numerous other lands, and I hope we get to see them in later instalments.

The characters are generally good and three-dimensional, Shallan (a young lady in Kharbranth) and Sadeas standing out in this regard. I found Dalinar to be a little too good. The world is well-described and the flashbacks of Kaladin’s history are well-spaced, but I think a little more pace and urgency here and there would have added to the book.

The story has a great beginning and quite a number of excellent twists at the end (some that are possibly predictable, others that are very hard to foresee). Whenever the second part of the Stormlight Archive comes out, I’ll be buying it. [Cunning research has revealed that the series is intended to be a 10-parter. Blimey].

The Way of Kings has also won the David Gemmell Legend Award.

A lengthy interview with the man himself was recently conducted on, and is available here:


Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Skyrim Q&A

There’s lots of info, and I’ve sifted out the bits I thought were most interesting.

Character creation includes scars and face paint, along with all the other stuff which sounds like a superior version of the Oblivion creator. In fantastic news, every race has a light and heavy build, and it sounds like you can pick something in between as well.

Body armour is done as in Oblivion, save that the upper and lower armour (ie torso and trousers) are now one. So, helmet, gloves, boots are all separate and distinct from the main armour.

Sounds like there are some unique/special items, with Daedric artefacts singled out.

No spears, and armour is light or heavy, there’s no medium option.

It’s possible to get married and own homes, make friends and go adventuring with your mate.

Races are differentiated (besides appearance) by different starting skills, passive abilities and starting spells. Speed and encumbrance (what you can carry) are the same for all races, with the latter based on stamina. There are separate male and female animations, and the beast races (Argonian, Orc and Khajiit) now have some specific animations.

Tavern brawls are included (they’re non-lethal).

Dragons can do lasting damage, but events such as destroying buildings are relatively rare.

Last but very much not least: you can continue after concluding the main storyline, as in Oblivion.

The full 25 questions and answers can be found here:


Monday, 4 July 2011

A Song of Ice and Fire: summary so far, and look ahead to A Dance With Dragons

Dance With Dragons is the fifth instalment in George RR Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s been long awaited, and comes out in just over a week (12 July). Given the slightly protracted wait and my own rubbishness with names (I somehow managed to forget several important characters in Best Served Cold and The Heroes) I thought it’d be cunning to have a quick refresher as to what’s happened and who’s who.

Naturally, there are bloody enormous spoilers for the first four books. So, if you just watched A Game of Thrones and are just getting into the series, stop reading. Unless you like spoilers, obviously.

King Robert Baratheon asks Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and his best mate, to become his Hand (effectively, doing all the work of kingship but without the shiny hat). Eddard agrees, despite his predecessor dying rather suddenly.

Unsurprisingly, Robert ends up dead and his son Joffrey (of House Lannister) gets the job. Eddard discovers the three kids are illegitimate and that Stannis, Robert’s younger brother, ought to be king.

Meanwhile, Renly, Stannis’ younger brother, contests the throne and Robb Stark, Eddard’s son, is pronounced King of an independent northern kingdom.

Eddard got the chop in A Game of Thrones (rather predictably), and George RR Martin has a rather splendid bloody red streak running through his plots. Likewise, almost all contenders for the throne (including Joffrey) end up dead one way or another (the death of Renly was pretty damned good even by Mr. Martin’s exalted standards), except for Stannis, who is a miserable bugger (imagine a competent, decent person with the charisma of Gordon Brown).

The throne is sat upon by the unlikely and, if my fuzzy memory is right, quite likeable Tommen, a little boy and brother of Joffrey.

Stannis, being miserable, gets little support from the nobility of the realm and heads north to The Wall, where he seeks to protect the kingdom. It’s an action of both self-interest and responsibility.

The Wall is, er, a wall. A bloody enormous wall erected to keep out horrid things (the Others) from the far north, and manned by the Night’s Watch. Joining the Night’s Watch is meant to be an honour, but quite often people end up there when convicted of a serious crime and given the choice between that and death. Jon Snow, a bastard son of Eddard, rises to become the leader of the Night Watch.

All of this has occurred in Westeros, which is a large continent of Seven Kingdoms, with Winterfell, in the north, being the biggest. The other part of the story takes place in Essos.

Robert took over as king from Aerys II, a Targaryen with the Caligulan nickname of The Mad King. The sole two Targaryen scions remaining, Daenerys and her elder brother, escaped the death of their dynasty eastward. She marries a powerful warlord, who in turn killed her brother (don’t be sad, her brother was an arsehead).

Daenerys, however, lost her husband to sickness and gradually rose to become a power to be reckoned with in her own right. She also has three dragons, a Targaryen tradition.

NB: I’ve obviously missed tons out, and only covered the basics. If you want more info, there’s plenty on wikipedia:

Whereas the first three books developed these three storylines together, the fourth (A Feast For Crows) only looked at half of the cast of the series, and I think A Dance With Dragons will do likewise, but for the other half.

There are thought to be two more books that will finish off the series, although it would be a brave man who tried to predict when that would be.

I am really looking forward to A Dance With Dragons. I absolutely loved the first three books, and whilst A Feast For Crows was not quite so excellent, I still enjoyed it.

Went hunting for a picture to use, and came across this post by Mr. Martin. It’s a good reminder that good writers are often rejected repeatedly and may then have a slow-burn success rather than a Harry Potter-style big bang:


Saturday, 2 July 2011

Writing: an update and some musing

Merde, as Comte Charles might say. I’d been planning to call my book either Shadow’s Whisper or Shadows Whisper (or try and use the Latin Umbrae… er, and whatever ‘Whisper’ is in Latin) but a quick bit of Amazon-searching reveals a few books with similar names.

So, I’ll have to come up with a better name. I’m pretty rubbish at naming things, but Rod Stewart did help me out with a short scene I just wrote featuring a maid, Maggie, that my rogue (who happens to be called Thaddeus) was keen on.

I’ve done two of the scenes I needed to add, but they will require some polish and perhaps extending. Continuity needs checking too. Redrafting has helped me in this regard, but I still make little mistakes now and then.

To be honest I’ve been making slower progress than expected or hoped, which could be attributed to any number of circumstantial woes but is really just down to me being a bit lax and needing a slap. On the plus side, I’ve made some good progress already today with a new scene involving a minor but enjoyable chap (Roderick, a lieutenant of the City Watch) hunting down a nefarious fellow of dubious intent. It probably helped taking a few minutes at the start to plan the rough course of the story for that little section, rather than diving straight in.

I expect the sum total of the new scenes to be around 10-20,000 words, so I’ll still need to flesh out other aspects of the book. However, even after the new scenes, I’ve got a reasonably long to-do list, which is mostly adding new bits to the story (but not requiring full-blown scenes).

I think I’ve done a good job in most regards when it comes to giving Highford its own character. The most common sport is cockfighting, lots of people smoke pipes and there’s a healthy dose of snobbery and plenty of dislike between the various races who dwell there. The religious occasions will probably ring a bell with those interested in Roman/Byzantine history. An earlier story I wrote was distinctly lacking in light relief (I was so busy being incredibly gritty I forgot that even MacBeth had a silly porter to lighten to mood after regicide), and it’s not a mistake repeated in my present story.

Still undecided regarding how to sell it. There’s the Amazon/Kindle route, but I do like the idea of giving it away free, with a donation button and chapters being released after certain (modest) sums have been raised. If I do go down that route I’d need to find out how to do it and, more importantly, whether I’m subject to income tax for that sort of thing.

Anyway, that’s how things stand. Plenty to do still, but the lion’s share is finished.