Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Ten Thousand

The Ten Thousand is a not very original name for a group of Greek mercenaries. Before Alexander’s father conceived of a plan to invade Persia and Alexander implemented it, there was a civil war in Persia. Cyrus, a younger brother and would-be Great King, collected allies within Persia and hired Greek mercenaries, of whom there were ten thousand(ish).

The Ten Thousand went with Cyrus and fought a battle against the forces of Artaxerxes II, Great King of Persia. Unfortunately Cyrus, whilst brave, lacked an Alexander-like fortune and got killed almost immediately. The Persian forces who had allied with him were mostly forgiven by his brother and defected wholesale to Artarxerxes.

This was bad news for the Greeks. They now had no allies, had little food or water, and were in the middle of a hostile empire. They tried to get hired by Artaxerxes or his satraps (a satrap was an important fellow who ran a satrapy, in the same way a Medieval duke might run a duchy but be ultimately responsible to the king), to no avail.

However, when prompted to surrender their response was not dissimilar to that of Leonidas at Thermopylae.

Tissaphernes was the name of the satrap they had hoped would hire them, who demanded their surrender and who then employed guile and deception. He hosted a big feast for the Greek leaders at which they were arrested, led to Artaxerxes and then had their heads lopped off. The Greeks then elected new leaders and set off marching home (which was thousands of miles away).

Xenophon was one of the men elected to lead the Ten Thousand, and he rather helpfully wrote a history about the march. I must admit that whilst the story itself is fascinating, I found the book a bit of a slog. But more on that (and it’s implications for the time it was written) later.

What followed was an incredibly impressive and prolonged rear-guard action/lengthy march home. Although fewer in number by far than the Persian forces, the Ten Thousand were all skilled warriors, and had no intention of surrendering meekly. Xenophon and the other new leaders were talented men, enabling the army to negotiate tricky situations such as narrow, snowy mountain passes, surviving arid deserts and foraging for food despite their lack of cavalry (a military wing the Persians were skilled in).

Greek cities not only dotted the western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), they also existed on the coast of the Black Sea, which is where the Ten Thousand ended up (although, by then, they’d lost around 40% of their numbers).

The tale of the Ten Thousand, the Anabasis, might well have been seen and considered by Philip II of Macedon, creator of the greatest army in the world and father to Alexander the Great. Although Alexander did brilliant work in annihilating the Persian Empire it was his father, not himself, who conceived of the plan and built the army capable of achieving his son’s stunning victories.

The Anabasis included lots of useful information for a would-be invader. Asia Minor would be relatively well-known due to the Greek cities on its western and northern fringes, but the Ten Thousand went far deeper than that and Xenophon wrote much that would be of use. Perhaps even more importantly, ten thousand Greeks had defied the military might of a sprawling empire, granting hope that Persia might not be capable of destroying a strong Hellenistic force that was well-led.

In the introduction to the Anabasis there was an interesting note that the Ten Thousand used to be a tale told regularly in classrooms, but that this has now ceased to be the case. I never learnt about it at school, and that’s rather a shame as it’s a worthy story in itself and acts as a natural precursor to the exploits of Philip and Alexander.

In unrelated news (unless, of course, he’s 2,400 years old and saw action at the Battle of Cunaxa) I’d like to thank All Seeing Eye ( for adding me to his links, but if he’d let me know I would’ve added him to mine at the same time. I shall rectify this now. [I think I might start sorting them a bit as well].


Monday, 29 August 2011

Skyrim presets, streaming updates and Sauron’s blog

I’ll begin at the last of those. Recently I came across Sauron’s blog, which is/was an entertaining diary of the evil lighthouse from the first days (well, before the first days, actually) all the way to the arrival of the Numenoreans. Unfortunately, the blog (around five years old) appears to have suddenly died, as the eagle-eyed Mr. Llama pointed out in the comments to the last post. There’s still a twitter feed (!/SauronsBlog) so hopefully it’ll just be a technical issue and Sauron will return to If it does return I’ll provide a heads-up here.

Bit disappointing to find a witty blog only for it to disappear shortly thereafter. Still, Sauron does have a habit of coming back.

In happier news, the presets for Skyrim’s races have been revealed. There are 20 for each of the 10 races (half male, half female). People have mixed views about the Dunmer, but the Argonians and Khajiit have been very well-received and the races generally are a substantial step up from Oblivion. I’ll link to a UESP forum thread (I can recommend the forum, incidentally) with links to the full pictures, but I’ll just post a sample of each race/gender here to avoid an overly long loading time.

As you can see in the picture above, eyes can vary (and can be blind), there’s a wide variety of face paint and scars can be added. In-game character customisation (like in Fallout 3) appears unlikely, but may be added later. Individual races do get specific bonuses (Argonians can still breathe underwater, for example) some of which are passive and others of which are activated.

Luke Skyrimer (on the official forum) made a very nice comparison picture (below), showing how much the faces have evolved from Morrowind and Oblivion to Skyrim.

However, there’s some potentially bad news too. The 11/11/11 release date is set in stone, with Bethesda offering streaming quick fixes to any bugs identified. I’m sure the firm will seek to eliminate any serious bugs prior to release, but this does sound like putting a release date ahead of actually getting the game sorted. Big bugs can sometimes be worked around (the pit stop and research bugs in F1 2010 were both substantial but could be gotten around mostly), so hopefully this won’t disadvantage people (like me) who don’t have an internet connection for their console.

There may also be some release date DLC, which is a pet hate of mine. If it’s ready for the release date, it should be part of the game. It’s like a surcharge for spoons when you buy a cutlery set.

Those grumbles aside, Skyrim looks fantastic and promises a better levelling system, greater customisation and an even more in-depth game than Oblivion.

To kill the time between now and the release date I’ll be getting Chris Wooding’s The Iron Jackal (Tales of the Ketty Jay), which is out in October, and may make a start with volumes 4-6 of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.


Saturday, 27 August 2011

Doctor Who: Let’s Kill Hitler

Woe, disappointment and spoilers lie ahead.

Unfortunately, after a prolonged wait following an unusual mid-season break of a few months, Dr Who returned with an episode as anti-climactic as can reasonably be imagined. It wasn’t awful. There was no Dobbie the House Doctor moment (cf the Master’s first, and horrendous reappearance), but it was just a bit tedious.

The Doctor, Amy and Rory together with a stranger they’re immensely close to (and we’ve never met before called Mels) take the TARDIS to Berlin in 1938. Mels gets shot by Hitler (imprisoned by Rory in a cabinet) and regenerates, as she’s River Song (something her parents managed not to notice). She then assassinates the Doctor, poisoning him with lipstick.

It’s quite hard to write up, because although there is a justice robot that effectively has a chameleon circuit and is populated with miniaturised time-travelling humans, nothing much happens. The Doctor eventually dies, and River saves him by sacrificing all her future regenerations, but there’s no sense of tension, only a few (not especially good) comedy moments early on and no vicious villain (Hitler’s in briefly and is a character of light relief rather than tyranny).

Almost the only thing of interest is that we learnt that the Silence is not actually a species, but a religious order.

Anyway, let’s hope the next episode’s better.


Thursday, 25 August 2011

Review: The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire (volumes 1-3), by Edward Gibbon

Although six volumes in total, the set is divided into two parts of three volumes each. The version I read was the Everyman’s Library edition (reckoned by people better read than me to be easy to read, with the Penguin version also praised for being more scholarly).

I ordered this in early February and it’s taken me this long to get through the nearly two thousand pages. I already knew the basics of the early Empire and something of its latter stages, and very much enjoyed reading of the emperors after Commodus in more detail, as well as a fuller account of the downfall of the Western Empire.

Gibbon wrote in the later 18th century and his style is not something that can be read with utmost rapidity. It is certainly enjoyable, but any notion of devouring the book should be knocked on the head. Immense detail abounds, particularly with regards to numerous footnotes (which must make up 20-25% of the total word count).

The first three volumes takes the reader from the golden age of Imperial Rome to the latter stages of the 5th century. The general trend is one of decline, occasionally arrested or even reversed by significantly excellent men (Aurelian stands out especially) but never permanently changed. It is equal parts fascinating and saddening to read of a glorious people and empire sink into the mire of degeneration and servile weakness, and provides many lessons that are important and relevant today. (One of these is seen in recent looting: when a people love the fruit of labour but will not even bear the necessity of labour they are barbarians if poor and degenerates if rich, and a society comprised of such people is in a poor state of health).

The great size of the book (around two thousand pages to cover a few centuries) enables greater detail than I’ve read before, including little snippets that I rather enjoyed (such as Mascezel and Gildo, the former of whom fought and defeated his rebellious brother only to end up betrayed). However, this also means that there are some digressions of significant length though less than significant interest (whilst parts of early Christianity seem interesting a lot of it seems… less so). Sizeable digressions from the strict business of Rome and Byzantium include early Christianity and the migration of the Huns. On the whole, these add to the value of the book, I think, but are not universally to my taste.

Reading it reminded me slightly of Thucydides, in that Gibbon is not afraid to go into detail, which usually adds to the historical narrative. Little anecdotes or substantiated stories about individuals and events help paint a more accurate picture of their character. The context of historical occurrences is also well-founded, with helpful descriptions regarding the degeneration of later Rome making stark the contrast between the days of Punic and Trajan glory and the latter days of weakness.

Rome conquered Italy, then defeated Carthage before acquiring the provinces of Iberia and Gaul, and others further east. This book helps explain why and how the greatest superpower in Europe (probably the world) fell by small degrees from undoubted supremacy, as its martial spirit fled, the worth of Roman citizenship was devalued and the virtues that made the republic great were unwittingly abandoned during the reign of the emperors.

It is not always an easy book to read. If someone is new to the subject or a bit impatient of the occasional slog I would not recommend it to them. However, if a prospective buyer knows a little about the topic already and is content to work their way through a book that is largely excellent but occasionally digresses into obscure areas Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (volumes 1-3) would make a fine addition to their collection.

Incidentally, for those after an easier read of Roman history [admittedly of a different era], I can heartily recommend the accounts of Polybius and Livy regarding the Second Punic War. (Reminds me, actually, I still need to acquire Appian’s account, which I think can be found in an online format here:


Tuesday, 23 August 2011

DLC, bugs and patches

Warning: this post contains old man-style ranting. If you’re too young to remember a VHS tape, it may seem incomprehensible.

I’m not a total technophobe (says the blogger), but I can’t help but feel that certain things were better back in the day when memories of a 30 minute wait for a cassette tape game to load were still fresh.

Obviously, graphics and sound have improved immeasurably and games now are longer, and, frankly, better in most regards. But that’s the relentless march of progress, akin to the introduction of water wheels and iron replacing bronze.

What annoys me is that the internet is being used as an excuse for unnecessary failings. Back in the early 1990s, if a game was released that didn’t bloody work, nobody would buy it (excepting the poor sods who got it at release). Nowadays, they release it anyway (yes F1 2010 with your bloody enormous pit stop and research bugs) and then release a patch via the internet months later.

Leaving aside that some people don’t have net access for their consoles, whatever happened to releasing a game when it was finished? You know, when it worked and wouldn’t corrupt your save files or make you sit in the pits so long you grew a beard? If I sold a book for £40 and 23 pages were in Linear B people would be hacked off, and rightly so.

I have mixed feelings on DLC as well. I did get the Ultimate Edition of Dragon Age: Origins, which includes all ‘proper’ DLC (not some items, but that doesn’t bother me). Again, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, why not just release a complete bloody game, that works, and then leave it and make another one? The most annoying thing is when something serious (say, a playable character) becomes DLC. Everyone who buys the game ought to get, at least, its core, and I think making characters DLC is a bit cheap, frankly.

Of course, back in ye olden days things were simpler. Games cost pretty much the same, but if they didn’t work it wasn’t because a patch had failed or the initial game was buggy or anything like that. It was because some dust had gotten into the underside of the cartridge. Blow the dust out, and everything magically worked. You’d still be playing a game with rubbishy beeping music, poor graphics and short length, but it’d work.

Next week: Thaddeus complains about how impersonal printed books are compared to those lovely ones the monks used to illustrate.


Sunday, 21 August 2011

Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch

This is the second book of the Gentlemen Bastards sequence, following on from The Lies of Locke Lamora.

One of the few downsides to The Lies of Locke Lamora was the fact that its beginning was a little slow. Mr. Lynch has improved this aspect in its successor, and Red Seas Under Red Skies has a much better start.

In addition, the interludes from the past are somewhat less common and blend seamlessly with the main thrust of the story.

The plot is simple in general and complex in detail. Locke and Jean are plotting a huge robbery (not so surprising), when the Bondsmagi take a hand in their affairs which leads to them being reduced to puppets of a military leader.

The pair are tasked with travelling out to sea and stirring up trouble with pirates, causing the military leader to crush said pirates, enhancing his own standing and helping him deal with his political rivals.

Locke has to balance completing his grand heist with doing his reluctant but unavoidable task, whilst a third unknown party tries to kill him and Jean.

I don’t want to give away much more than that as, similarly to the predecessor book, a real strength of Red Seas Under Red Skies is the complexity of the plot, the slyness of Locke Lamora and the cunning writing of the author.

The relationship between Locke and Jean is developed as it changes in the aftermath of the events that occurred in the previous book, and Scott Lynch does a fantastic job of creating two characters that are not merely credible but likeable and engaging.

In a similar vein, the world the escapades take place in is curiously realistic. The world is never the centrepiece of the book, but the detail and realism (in a fantasy-based context) is a great backdrop upon which the story unfolds.

A minor negative is that, whilst the start is better than The Lies of Locke Lamora, the build-up to the end lacks the feeling of a car accelerating downhill and going faster and faster and getting more and more exciting and unpredictable. The end itself is probably even more complicated than the last book, but it does all make perfect sense. Mr. Lynch is brilliant not only at creating characters, but at putting together a subtle and enticing plot.

A third book, The Republic of Thieves, is due out next year. It’s been oft-delayed, but hopefully we’ll see it in hardback in March 2012.


Friday, 19 August 2011

E-publishing: the agony of choice

I’ve still got to redraft the last few chapters and then write some extra scenes, but my mind’s drifting towards publishing my book. (I’ve got some new title ideas, but I’ll decide that nearer publication).

I’ll almost certainly be self-publishing online, and will use the blog to respond to any reviews, praise, criticism and suggestions, as well as for publicity/advertising.

The question is, how to publish. There are three main options.


This might be the easiest. I’d put the whole book together in one document, and then sell it as a Kindle eBook on the Amazon website. I’ve only had a quick look, but commission seems to be 35% or 70%, which is nice. It would necessarily limit readership, however, and I’m not sure how the price is set, or who does it.

Chapter-by-chapter donations

This was my original plan. I’d put up a couple of chapters for free on the blog, then ask for donations. When a certain threshold is reached I’d then release a couple more, and so on. Obviously this would mean 100% ‘commission’ but if donations were either incredibly rapid (a nice thought) or very slow I’d have to decide whether to release the book entirely or eke it out, or (worse) whether to leave it half-released in a sad limbo.

Free, but ask for donations

Probably the simplest, but might result in the least money. I’d release it in its entirety on the blog and put up a donation button, then see what the generosity/appreciation or lack thereof of the People of the Internet yields.

The latter two options would involve the book being or becoming a sort of freeware book. It’d be free to download or copy or print and so forth but any rights relating to other things (TV, film etc) would remain mine and it would be illegal to sell it for financial gain.

I also need to sort out a cover. I’ve got a few ideas, but I’m no artist. No map will be included (almost all the book takes place within a single city) but an appendix or two might be created.

Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings is undoubtedly the best-formatted eBook I’ve read so far, and I think I might slightly copy his usage of little images here and there.

My goal is to get enough sales/money to either be able to use it in future submissions to agents/publishers or (should it go very well indeed) to simply be able to continue writing and publishing myself.

I’m also considering doing a spot of creative writing (just 500-1,000 words) for the blog, but that would take time away from redrafting and getting the book itself ready.


Updated 20th August:


As so often happens (I’m pretty absent-minded) I’ve forgotten the rather important matters of ISBN and copyright issues. On the plus side, I was going to leave that until after it was properly finished anyway, and at least I remembered before publishing.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Review: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World is a futuristic dystopian book, comparable but very different to the other most famous dystopian story, 1984.

The world is one of total material freedom, where people are free to drink, do drugs and have promiscuous sex (indeed, one character is told not to be ‘anti-social’ when they maintain a more than one-night relationship with someone).

Family units are things of the past, and looked upon with distaste by the modern citizens. Instead, people are grown and their role in life is genetically determined. The genetic castes run from Alpha (the top dogs) to Epsilons (intellectually sub-normal types who do the dirtiest, lowest grade jobs).

Political freedom is non-existent, in stark contrast to the freedom to shop. In the political/capitalist spheres it actually reminds me slightly of modern day China. By all means, open a business, become a millionaire, buy yourself a mansion, but you still can’t vote and if you call for that right you might just go missing in the middle of the night.

When an outsider (what we might call a normal person) is introduced to this world of material plenty and instant gratification they come to loathe it. The provision of recreational drugs, guaranteed sex and so forth does not outweigh the loss of personal freedom. In Brave New World, the system is dominant in precisely the same way the more savage system of 1984 runs Airstrip One.

Like 1984, the storyline and characters are secondary to the world itself, which is a monstrous realm of trivial gratification and juvenile pleasures.

However, unlike the other dystopian classic, Brave New World has proven, I think, a realistic prospect. China has become an economic superpower without any of those pesky democratic votes. The EU is steadily becoming more integrated, and is led by the unelected and unaccountable, and recently the UK came close to permitting the state to lock people up for 90 days without needing any evidence.

I am not arguing we live in a Brave New World, just that Huxley’s comfortable prison cell world is disturbingly realistic.

For those into dystopian novels and after some others to read (after this, 1984 and Animal Farm) I’d suggest We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and The Iron Heel by Jack London. Both are on my to-read list.


Monday, 15 August 2011

Review: Sir John Hawkwood (Chivalry and the Art of War), by Stephen Cooper

A slight departure for me, as 14th century stuff is relatively modern compared to the Punic Wars and so forth.

Sir John Hawkwood was an Englishman, born a commoner but later knighted, who participated in The Hundred Years’ War with the Black Prince and Edward III before moving to Italy to work as a mercenary.

He began his Italian adventures first as an officer of a military company and then rose to become a leader. Unlike England or France, 14th century Italy lacked a cohesive monarchy and was divided into numerous warring city-states (such as Pisa and Florence) which were also divided according to Guelf and Ghibelline (pro-Pope and pro-Holy Roman Emperor, respectively) tendencies. The Italians were fantastic merchants, very wealthy but lacked standing armies, making the prosperous but war-torn country mercenary heaven.

Hawkwood fought for numerous differing employers over a long career, fighting numerous battles (which he usually won), getting captured once (for a brief time) and participating in the occasional massacre. His military talents were universally respected, though there was and is discord regarding his moral standing.

Mr. Cooper has split the book into a chronological account of Hawkwood’s life, with the latter half of the book concerned with a general discussion of his character and a closer look at certain events (battles, and a contentious slaughter). The book is replete with Italian terminology, and (as someone pretty much ignorant of the era) I welcomed the small glossary at the start and the explanations within the text.

I think some of the second half of the book (such as the battles) would have fitted in better with the general account of Hawkwood’s life. It was slightly odd to read a concise summary of a battle only to have it explained in detail later in the book.

There are one or two maps, but I think a few more (and larger) ones would have been useful. The author describes well the Apennines (like the Pennines do England, they run down the spine of Italy but are significantly higher) and other important features, but maps are quite helpful.

As is common with this sort of book there are a decent number of black and white photographs (and some illustrations) in the middle, including some excellent examples of architecture (notably the Chamber of Notaries at Avignon and the Hawkwood Tower).

One of the things that irritates me is when people try and crowbar modern morality into history. Mr. Cooper’s discussion of this topic was enlightening, as it describes both Hawkwood’s actions and what the normal behaviour for the age was. He also considers what the facts of the matter may be, and the reception Hawkwood has received from contemporaries and historians.

The events of the book take place around a century before Machiavelli’s The Prince was written, and it’s interesting to see that the political and military situation was actually quite similar back in the 14th century.

Overall, I quite liked the book but I think a few technical changes could have made it better. The political situation in Italy (vital to understanding the bulk of the book) is well-described and Hawkwood undoubtedly led an interesting and successful life.


Saturday, 13 August 2011

Was Hannibal greater than Alexander?

Alexander never lost a battle. He never failed to take a city by siege. On a number of occasions he won battles where he was enormously outnumbered (although I’m more impressed by his victories over the Indians, to be honest). So, it might seem a bit odd that in my book Hannibal (who only lost one battle in the Second Punic War, but with it the war itself) was a greater general.

There are a few areas that need to be considered: authority and army, opponents, strategy and reinforcements, and personal qualities.

Authority and army

Alexander, although he became king at just 19, had already seen battle (playing a crucial role in the Battle of Chaeronea when he was 17). He was battle-hardened, king and commander-in-chief. Whilst the Macedonian king wasn’t fawned over like the Persian Great King, he was clearly in charge (like a Prime Minister rather than a President). His army consisted of Macedonians and Greeks, both of whom were Hellenistic and quite similar in terms of fighting style. As well as the throne, he inherited the best army in the world, brilliantly developed and trained his excellent father, Philip.

Hannibal also grew up fighting, first for his father and then Hasdrubal the Handsome, his brother-in-law (both in Iberia). Then he assumed command of Carthage’s Iberian forces. He did not have particular political authority, and had a mixed army of veterans from numerous corners of the world all speaking different languages and with different weapons and armour.

In terms of authority, Alexander had a clear advantage. Hannibal had a very good army, although here too I’d give Alexander a slight edge (his elite soldiers were so good they were still in high demand decades after his death).


Alexander faced three sets of opponents. Firstly, the Greeks. They’d been smashed by his father and sought to escape the rule of Macedon when Alexander took the throne. They were cunning opponents and almost ended his career before it got going, but he overcame them fairly quickly. Secondly, he faced the massed armies of the Persian Empire. Although the horsemen were brave and talented, the foot soldiers were less so and no match for the high calibre of the Macedonian army. Furthermore, Alexander was tactically brilliant, and (by making the Great King flee twice) made hordes of Persians flee at Arbela and Issus. I’d say the Indians, who were pretty damned clever and had lots of war elephants, were his greatest opponents (particularly Porus).

Hannibal did fight the Iberians, but that was mostly under the command of others. Whilst he was in charge he only really fought the Romans. During this time he inflicted numerous defeats upon numerically superior forces, including one of the greatest ambushes in history at Lake Trasimene and the most crushingly brilliant victory in history (arguably) at Cannae. He did lose to Scipio at Zama, however. After the war ended he continued, after a brief pause to lead the city, to fight the Romans, on behalf of Eastern despots.

Alexander had the easier task, I feel. Yes, the Persians had huge manpower, but the armies crumbled like rotted wood when Darius fled and Alexander had the finest soldiers in the world. Hannibal, meanwhile, faced Rome at the zenith of its patriotic determination and fervour. Even after the slaughter of Cannae the city did not contemplate surrender, and although initially they were tactically naïve, later the likes of Marcellus, Nero and Scipio learnt the lessons Hannibal had taught them to good effect.

Strategy and reinforcements

Alexander’s strategy was simple. March at Persia, accept surrendering cities kindly and slaughter everyone who didn’t recognise him as king. However, the detail of this was intelligent. He did not leave strong cities at his back (unless they were besieged by his lieutenants), and if a city did rebel or refuse to kneel he was pretty ruthless, encouraging the others to fling their doors open instead of having them rammed to splinters. In the open field he was victorious, in siegecraft he was relentless and he made scarcely a mistake when it came to invading Persia. He did, however, bugger up the end of his reign by unnecessarily marching through the Gedrosian desert. Reinforcements came as and when he needed them and he also recruited heavily from Persian soldiers who had served Darius previously, much to the irritation of his fellow Macedonians.

Hannibal took the heroic/slightly mental approach of marching an army, including elephants, over the Alps. In winter. His strategy relied upon gaining local support in Italy itself, and he achieved this to a certain extent, but it was never sufficient to deliver him ultimate victory. He was hamstrung by the fact that Carthage rarely sent him reinforcements and, although rebellious Gauls did offer him some more men, the army of his brother (also called Hasdrubal) that crossed the Alps was immediately slaughtered by the consul Nero.

Alexander did better when it comes to strategy, I think. He made a damned silly error at the end, but he succeeded in his overall objective of smashing Persia. The ample reinforcements he received did help considerably. Hannibal’s strategy was difficult, but his objective was harder. Fighting in Italy was the right thing to do, but manpower became an issue in the later years and he was sadly unable to be reunited with his brother.

Personal Qualities

Alexander was a great leader, and not just in a tactical or strategic sense. He delegated well, he was merciful to cities that surrendered and he was always ready to lead the charge (indeed, he very nearly got killed when two scaling ladders broke and he was shot in the lung, facing numerous opponents and had just two bodyguards still with him). However, he did have little flaws, like murdering one of his best friends (Cleitus, who had saved his life at the Granicus) whilst drunk. His ambition enabled him to achieve great feats, but ultimately his army forced him to turn back from India, having grown wear of being away from home for a decade. It is notable that he treated the wives and children of Darius well, and was merciless to those Persians who had slain the Great King.

Hannibal’s personality is harder to judge because his history is written by the opposing side. Despite having a mixed force with very few actual Carthaginians in it, he suffered from desertion just once (a few hundred Numidian cavalry after years in Italy) during 10 years in enemy territory. He was rather more civilised than the Romans when it came to honouring the dead, searching for Flaminius’ body for hours after the ambush at Lake Trasimene so that he might give it a decent ceremony. By contrast, the consul Nero, who slew his brother Hasdrubal, cut off the head and had it hurled into Hannibal’s camp.

Hard to assess. I think it’s reasonable to say that Alexander exceeded Hannibal in vices (Hannibal never got in a drunken fight and killed a close friend), but that Alexander may have been a better leader of men.

Overall, I think Hannibal’s achievements are the greater. He fought for longer against a more difficult foe, usually outnumbered, permanently (after the Alps) in enemy territory, rarely receiving reinforcements and lacking total authority over the Carthaginian state. That’s not to belittle Alexander in any way. He never lost, and deservedly became a legend in his own lifetime. Would he have done so well in Hannibal’s position, or vice versa? If he had lived and then gone west from Macedon I daresay Rome would have become yet another conquest of his.


Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Skyrim: updated info and Dunmer and Argonian screenshots

After a drought of new information, there’s been a little from the recent QuakeCon. For those after screenshots of races other than orc and khajiit there’s a new one released by Betheseda of a dark elf thief (which I’ve trimmed down and put below), and the journalists who got to play the game will each get a screenshot of the characters they made (one of which is an Argonian).

The dunmer is definitely less human and better than its Oblivion counterpart, but I prefer the orc and khajiit. However, my dark elf characters are usually female so we’ll have to see what they look like.

Naturally mini-spoilers abound below, so if you want to go into the game totally unaware of what awaits you, better stop reading here.

Skyrim is split between those loyal to the Empire and Stormcloak rebels, who are a faction that can be joined.

When doing character creation the creator remembers your settings, so if you make a khajiit and move away then return your khajiit creation will be waiting for you. There are tons of creation options (I’ve previously mentioned facepaint and so forth, but two new ones is that dark elves, and maybe others, can have eyes of different colours and laughter lines can be added).

Crafting an item is a six-stage process, and alchemy occurs with a lab.

As with Fallout 3, there are travelling merchants, who set up camps along riverbanks.

Companions (similar to Fallout 3) exist, including animal companions.

There’s a mysterious black door which sounds reminiscent of the Dark Brotherhood’s hideout in Oblivion. It’s probably them, but some reckon it might involve vampires.

Last but not least, here’s a rather good spliced together Skyrim theme, created by smeagol92055:


Update 12th August:

The journalist screenshots are now being released. I’m not going to post them all now, but as the Argonian has been eagerly anticipated I thought I’d put it up. (For those wondering, she’s Lizzle-Bob, created by the Destructoid journalist, and I got the picture from the excellent UESP forum):

For what it’s worth, I think the Argonian looks bloody fantastic.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Forthcoming games: nostalgia edition

I’m fussier buying games than books, and check the new releases every so often to try and see what’s coming down the track that might be of interest. Along with Skyrim, there are three games with some potential coming out in the nearish future.

Perhaps the least expected of these is Monkey Island: Special Edition. For people unfamiliar with Thundercats and mobile phones the size of a brick, let me explain. The Monkey Island series was a set of adventure games that first came out decades ago and they were tremendously popular. Monkey Island was/is an old-fashioned point and click adventure game starring Guybrush Threepwood, a would-be pirate. Unusually, the game isn’t packed with violence or serious dramatic tension. It’s essentially a comedy, a small genre in the world of gaming (The Bard’s Tale is the only other out-and-out comedy I think I’ve played).

The new game is very much an updated version of the first two games, so loyal to the original that you can press a button to seamlessly shift from the modern graphics to the old ones at any point. The music has been redone (in ye olden days ‘music’ was a series of electronic beeps) and the original cast rehired. I can’t remember how long the games were (I think I played one of them, loooong ago) but given the starting price is under £15 it’d have to work hard not to be value for money in terms of playing time. If you want to have a closer look at what it’ll be like the game’s website ( should make it clear whether you’ll be into it or not.

Money Island: Special Edition is out on the 9th of September, for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.

Sticking with the nostalgia theme, there’s another Tomb Raider out. Unhelpfully, it’s just been entitled Tomb Raider. This is due for release in the Autumn of 2012, but there’s some info out already.

Sadly, Keeley Hawes (whose voice is perfect for the role) no longer plays Lara Croft, though the new actress’ name has yet to be revealed. Graphically, the game looks to be enormously superior to Underworld, (also for the present generation of consoles), and the premise is more original than is usually the case.

Lara is on a ship that gets struck by a bloody big storm, and ends up sinking. She gets washed ashore, with multiple wounds, and has to try and get off the island. Makes a nice change from breaking into tombs and nicking stuff.

I’ve played probably half of the Tomb Raider games, most recently Anniversary (for the PS2) and Underworld (for the PS3). I do wonder whether the series is beginning to run its course. I enjoyed Anniversary a lot, but Underworld less so. The Uncharted series is, in my opinion, better in most regards (Drake’s a more engaging character, the gun battles are more enjoyable etc etc). Anyway, we’ll have to wait and see whether the new game can reinvigorate the old girl.

Last in this little preview of forthcoming games is Dark Souls, from the lunatics who made Demon's Souls. I was very tempted to buy Demons Souls, which is (by common account) excellent, thrilling and bloody difficult. It’s still available for those who don’t mind a serious challenge (no, really, it’s reportedly incredibly hard but still very fun) at a knock-down price.

Dark Souls, out on the 7th of October, also comes out in a limited edition form (which, weirdly, is under £40) for the PS3 and Xbox 360, which includes an artbook, Making Of DVD, official sound track CD and a (downloadable) guide to the game.

Dark Souls is not a direct sequel to Demon's Souls, although much of the same elements that made its predecessor such a hit will feature. The widely praised online features have been enhanced and there looks to be a large number of massive boss fights (as well as all the underlings). In terms of graphics and sound, the game looks solid, and given its predecessor’s high regard I’d be surprised if it didn’t sell very well.

So, very much a nostalgic feel to these games, with two (very) old favourites and a sequel. I hope Monkey Island does well. Maybe, just maybe, Phantasy Star IV might get a proper remake, if it does. A man can dream.


Saturday, 6 August 2011

Retro-review: Shadow Hearts & Shadow Hearts: Covenant

Shadow Hearts and Shadow Hearts Covenant are both fairly recent games from 2001 and 2004 respectively. They’re innovative RPGs, the first of which was initially planned for the original Playstation but ended up coming out on the PS2 (as did Covenant).

Shadow Hearts is set in the real world, in the early 20th century. The protagonist, Yuri Hyuga, is half-Russian, half-Japanese and is not a typical hero, as the excellent starting cutscene makes plain. Not for Yuri the over-sized sword and kind-hearted nature of a standard RPG protagonist. He’s slightly messed up, a bit cheeky and obnoxious and has the ability to fuse with demons, becoming a range of powerful monsters. He also hears voices. (Well, one voice. And if he disobeys her he gets stabbing pain in his skull).

The intro seems him on a train, rescuing a very sweet Christian girl (with a rather short skirt) from an English gentleman in a top hat who has murdered half the passengers. A cuddly, cutesy RPG this is not.

Compelled by the voice in his head and Alice’s short skirt, Yuri travels with Alice to find out why the gentleman (Roger Bacon) wanted to capture her. They begin in the Far East, where they meet some new party members including the entertaining Zhuzhen, the spy Margarete, an amusing vampire named Keith and an annoying kid called Halley.

The game takes place first in the Far East and then Europe, and sees not only the mystery of Roger Bacon unravelled but the deepening relationship between Yuri and Alice. The dark undertones, excellent writing and three-dimensional characters really do make it stand out.

In particular, the sound is great. There’s no voice-acting outside of cutscenes, but the music is absolutely top notch. The graphics, however, are below par and it’s not hard to see it was originally meant for the Playstation rather than PS2.

Gameplay is excellent. Each of the characters is unique, with Alice wielding holy magic, Zhuzhen more offensive spells, and so forth. An especially innovative and excellent feature is the Judgement Ring. Basically, a character has to hit sections within a circle as a marker moves around it. It sounds simple (and it is) but it also adds a great element of timing and fresh opportunities for status effects. If the player is tired or a bit rubbish at timing it can be turned off, but the opportunity for critical hits (achieved by hitting the last few degrees of a coloured section) is lost.

There are two endings to the game, and a New Game Plus option (the same applies to the following game).

Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a direct sequel, and also on the PS2. Yuri returns but none of the other main characters from the original game are playable.

World War One is well underway, and a certain village in France is protected by a ferocious demon, which is, of course, Yuri. However, a German officer and a man from the Vatican manage to curse him and he and his companions (a puppeteer and Blanca the wolf) are forced to flee. The German officer switches side and joins them. There are a further four characters that join the party, some of which are more, er, interesting than others (the gay vampire superhero being far more original than the rather tedious Lucia, for example).

The first part of the story is about Yuri overcoming his curse and wreaking vengeance upon those who caused it (which is handy, as the same people want to rule the world). Amusingly for a game that starts off with the standard “Any resemblance to events or people living or dead is purely coincidental” message it features Rasputin, Tsar Nicholas II and a few other historical characters.

Later the story shifts from Europe to the Far East, where the party must prevent the destruction of the present timeline and the rewriting of history.

The graphics are a clear step up from its predecessor, the music remains very good and there’s more voice-acting. Something which is a bit niche but I loved was the varying language options, and I used this game to practice my German. The game also has a lot more quirky/surreal/silly humour than the first, and although it has darker moments the tone is generally lighter than its predecessor.

The Judgement Ring is improved upon, with the ability to add new areas for more hits in a standard attack or widen areas. Each character has a unique set of abilities and means of improving them. I especially liked Blanca’s, which involve fighting and defeating other wolves to gain new abilities.

I didn’t include Shadow Hearts: The New World in this retro-review as, although it’s part of the series, it isn’t really a direct follow-on, Yuri isn’t the protagonist and it isn’t as good.

Shadow Hearts and Shadow Hearts: Covenant have sharp writing, fantastic music, an innovative and brilliant combat system and are two of the best modern RPGs there are. It’s a damned shame the series ended after The New World.


Thursday, 4 August 2011

Women in fantasy

A dilemma facing authors in fantasy is how to balance roles for women in terms of realism and modernity. Most fantasy is set in a Middle Ages type world, or something comparable, when almost all women lacked serious power and were definitely not soldiers.

If you’re opting for something that’s as realistic (in a fantasy-based context) as possible, that’s probably what you’ll go for. A while back I did some groundwork for a military fantasy (think 300 meets The Black Company) and it had almost no female cast members at all. [For those wondering, I decided to go with my present, and almost finished, book instead of pursuing The 300 Company].

Modern women are told, rightly, that they are quite capable of doing the various things chaps can do, such as leading large companies, running countries and committing heinous crimes. However, it was not always so. The only woman I can remember being mentioned in the entire Second Punic War, which lasted for decades, was Sophonisba, and that was because she slept with two Numidian kings and then got executed.

Fantasy is often rooted in history, but it is the case that throughout time there have been occasional and glorious women who have forced their way out of the home and into politics or onto the battlefield. A very early example was that in the navy of Xerxes there was a female ship captain, who was his particular favourite. The rebellious (though ultimately unsuccessful) Boudicca in Ancient Britain is another fine example, as is Zenobia, the ruler of the Palmyrene Empire who had the misfortune to face Aurelian.

Powerful women also played a significant role in the Byzantine Empire. Unusually, the wives of the emperors had a real, defined political role, almost like the First Lady of the United States, but in an imperial setting. Due to the surprisingly high number of very rubbish Byzantine emperors they quite often played significant roles helping the empire when the nominal man in charge wasn’t up to it. It’s worth mentioning also that quite a few of them were a bit, er, frisky and sometimes meddlesome, as the wife of Justinian the Great was.

The reasoning behind the lack of female warriors is, I would argue, more to do with demographics than anything else. Until quite recently childbirth was very, very dangerous, and huge numbers of women died giving birth. Because the number of women define the potential size of the next generation more than the number of men (a man can have, theoretically, thousands upon thousands of children, women cannot, especially when childbirth is risky) it as vital for the future prosperity of a city or nation that women survive. In short, men were more expendable.

It’s also true that, generally, women are weaker than men (not just in raw strength but also in terms of resilience when bearing a heavy load for a long march).

Of course, the fantasy writer does have an easy get out clause if he or she wants to have plenty of lady warriors. A race of Amazons solves the problem at a stroke, and women can also be put into positions of spiritual or arcane power.


Monday, 1 August 2011

Incest, murder, rape, infanticide: how far is too far?

The trend in fantasy is definitely towards gritty and even gruesome realism (in a fantasy-based context). Gone are the days of Tolkien, when almost none of the main characters end up dead despite ever present mortal woe and numerous fights against huge odds.

To be honest, I rather like the approach of modern authors such as Abercrombie, Martin and Lynch. Important characters should have a genuine risk of being killed off, and villains (not necessarily the principle antagonist) ought to have a horrid side. This doesn’t have to be explicit. A very recent, and excellent, example of this is the relationship between Ramsay and Reek in A Dance With Dragons by George RR Martin. Terrible past instances are referred to, but in the present the writing is riveting not due to explicit horror but because of the terror Reek feels and the psychopathic way Ramsay has screwed him up. It’s all about mentally ruining somebody and manipulating them.

We live in an age mostly free of deformity and pox scars, rotten yellow teeth and club feet, which makes it easy to forget that in the roughly Middle Ages world most fantasy occurs in that sort of thing was shockingly common. Not only can adding a few pox scars or cataracts be an easy way to give a chap some character, it also helps build up a more immersive world.

There is, of course, a potential pitfall. Going too far when it comes to magic or how fantastic dragons are will make a fantasy silly (which can be forgivable) but if you go too far with gritty gruesomeness it can end up being a bit sick or even repulsive.

I suspect most things with adults can be gotten away with. Abuse of children, on the other hand, is probably something that should be handled with care (if used at all). Brent Weeks uses this* (not in explicit terms, more as a threat that’s alluded to by someone written as a despicable character) in The Way of Shadows (Night Angel Trilogy book 1). It’s a pretty severe idea, but because it doesn’t actually happen it does serve a useful purpose and moves a character from merely horrible to the-reader-wants-him-to-die.

*I read this a year or two ago and haven’t checked, but my memory is that this was well-handled by Mr. Weeks. Apologies if I’ve made a slight error, but I’m pretty sure I’m mostly correct.

Although recently the shift has been from worlds where few main characters die to ones where they die, and get raped, mutilated and thoroughly abused, the question of quite where to draw the line isn’t a new one.

I would not recommend buying Ovid’s Metamorphoses as, although there are some good bits, it’s generally a bit of a slog. However, one excellent episode does stand out.

Tereus, Procne and Philomela features a man, his wife and his sister-in-law. It involves rape, mutilation, false imprisonment, infanticide and what might be termed incestuous cannibalism (so, fun for all the family). It’s also one of the highlights of the Metamorphoses, partly because the harshness of the miniature plot makes an indelible mark upon the mind of the reader.