Thursday, 25 April 2013

Review: Septimius Severus: The African Emperor, by Anthony Birley

I actually bought this book a long time ago (Amazon indicates it was 2004), but for one reason or another I only rediscovered it recently.

Septimius Severus was a Roman emperor who ruled shortly after Commodus and the two very short-lived emperors who succeeded him. His reign predated the crisis of the third century, and some blame him for contributing to that and the strategic weakening of the empire.

The biography is full of information, but I've got to say that I sometimes found it slightly hard going. It seems a very academic book, and for that reason I would not recommend it to someone who hasn't read a bit of classical history already. The author does a good job of critiquing the available sources and doesn't hesitate to say when he suspects the ancient historians of being mistaken or just making stuff up.

The importance of Septimius' African background and the shifting approach of Rome away from an Italian-dominated Senate to one where men from the provinces held more sway is well-described.

There's quite a lot written about the period preceding his rule, from both the perspective of Lepcis Magna, his home, and the emperors of Rome. Commodus' misrule gets quite a lot of coverage, and it's interesting to see how Septimius repeated Marcus Aurelius' mistake when it came to letting a violent son take over. 

The subject and characters are interesting but the writing style could be a bit easier to read. I was slightly disappointed that after a quite lengthy treatment of the period prior to Septimius' rule there was not more written about the immediate and long-term consequences for Rome. This period was covered, but a little briefly, I felt. That said, the reigns of Caracalla, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus are concisely covered.

Now I come to think of it, it reminds me a bit of Philippe Contamine's War in the Middle Ages. Oodles of information, could've been easier to read.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. It illustrates in (occasionally a bit too much) detail the critical shift in the imperial destiny of Rome from the tail end of the Golden Age under Marcus Aurelius through the bloodletting of Commodus and the increasing belligerence of the army. Imperial strength was being spent more and more in internal fighting, and greater pay (bribes) for the army stoked inflation, making life harder for most people.

Septimius comes across as a competent man who was, although not especially morally virtuous, not prone to the savagery and widespread slaughter of Commodus or earlier emperors such as Nero (and certainly a better man than his immediate successors). His major weakness was the same as Aurelius, and had he returned the purple to the adoptive principle of the Golden Age, Rome might have lasted a lot longer.

If you enjoy this book, you might also enjoy the biographyof Aurelian, who was emperor several decades later at the peak of the crisis of the third century.


Monday, 22 April 2013

Fantasy Without Crowns

Monarchies are standard fare for fantasy, and it's easy to see why. The basics of monarchy are easily understood (we still have several in the modern world) but an active monarchy (ie one that actually runs the country instead of acting as a sort of national figurehead) is distant enough from most people's experience to be exotic and intriguing. In addition, most fantasy is set in a basically medieval world, when such monarchies were prevalent.

However, there are alternatives:


Alright, this sounds a bit weird, but it actually fits. If Ancient Greece and Rome could have something approaching democracy, then why not a fantasy world? You can mix it up with aristocracy/senators if you wish or have a pure democracy. As modern America shows, you still end up with dynastic families (Clintons, Kennedys etc) but with the added fun of vote-rigging and propaganda.

Ecclesiastical rule

Around the 15th century Italy was a proper mess, politically (in terms of money it was actually doing very well). One of the most interesting clashes was between the Guelfs and Ghibellines, the supporters of the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor (who wasn't holy, wasn't Roman and wasn't an emperor, but still…). A number of lands in Italy were ruled by the clergy, and were ecclesiastical principalities. You can of course make a religious-ruled land very extreme (cf Iran) or have a more moderate version.


The Spartans were famous warriors, but the only reason all the men could afford the time to devote to such a way of life was because of the helots. Helots did the agricultural work necessary to support the Spartans and were a subjugated people (accounts vary as to whether they were entirely slaves or had a sort of halfway status between slavery and freedom).

A mixed constitution

As created by Lycurgus for the Spartans and the system of Rome that Polybius praised, a mixed constitution involves the three noble elements of governance (democracy, aristocracy and monarchy). So, an elected assembly or individuals (tribunes) would be involved, as would a wealthy elite and a small number (not necessarily one, as there were two consuls) of leading lights. Sparta also had two kings, and was therefore a diarchy. Probably a bit trickier to write to get the balance right, but this is a very stable form of government (Sparta's constitution lasted about eight centuries and Rome's about five before it became an empire).


When writing Bane of Souls I realised that both Felaria and Denland (kingdoms) were pretty hierarchical and wanted something different for the Kuhrland (a third 'country'). So, I went for a minimalist approach. The people are not bound together by loyalty to a feudal leader but by common traditions, customs and laws. Taxes don't exist (although custom dictates certain 'donations'), which means people keep more cash, but it also means there isn't money available for a central authority to pave roads or build grand edifices. There's a greater degree of personal freedom, as well as actions being dictated less by noble commands than by the obligations of duty and honour.

For those who think the last option sounds interesting, the Kuhrisch play a role in Bane of Souls and the Kuhrland is the primary setting for the forthcoming Journey to Altmortis, which I hope to have out in the final week of May.


Tuesday, 16 April 2013

No new DLC for Skyrim

As the title states, there shall be no more DLC for Skyrim. This is slightly surprising as there were quite a lot of rumours about a new, sizeable DLC entitled Redguard. However, Bethesda has said clearly they're leaving Skyrim (save for minor patches and the like) for pastures new. The likelihood is that they'll be working on Fallout 4.

There are 3 DLC options open for Skyrim: Dawnguard, Hearthfire (a mini-DLC) and Dragonborn, which is the largest (I think). Being against DLC generally, and having a dodgy/slow PS3 internet connection, I haven't downloaded them. However, I am hoping that the news that there won't be any more DLC means that we might get a Game of the Year Edition which has the original game plus all DLC included (total DLC cost is circa £30, so if we do get a GOTY edition then that'll probably be £20 and something of a saving).

Patch 1.9 was recently out for the PS3, and enables the Legendary/Suicidal difficulty setting. I've played a couple of hours as a sneaky Khajiit murderer and must say that it's pretty tough. Two examples of what I mean:
1) In the very first fight my one-handed skill increased twice, to 22, because it took so many hits to kill my foes.
2) I very nearly got killed by three wolves on the road. Wolves, by Talos!

Anyway, it'd be nice to get a full version of Skyrim. Not sure if I'll buy it (I decided against Dragon's Dogma's bigger version, Dark Arisen, which comes out on the 26th of this month).


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

An always online console is mad

We're at that stage in the cycle of videogames where the old consoles will soon be surpassed by the next generation.

Or, are we?

The PS4 looks like a swankier PS3, although there's not a huge amount of innovation. The Xbox720/Durango/Nextbox looks like it might, perhaps, be the most deranged marketing decision since Gerald Ratner decided to make a witty speech.

Speculation is rife that the next Microsoft console offering (due to be unveiled in May) will have a unique feature. Unfortunately, that feature is rumoured to be the necessity of always being online.

There's been a lot written about this, and here's a concise summary (apologies if I missed off any obvious points):
An always online system with a camera is very 1984
If your connection is even slightly dodgy you'll never be able to play for more than a few minutes
If the online infrastructure at Microsoft's end is less than perfect then when *they* have a problem *you* won't be able to play
When the Xbox1080 comes out there's every chance the 720 online infrastructure will be axed and you won't be able to play
It could mean that new games come with a code needed to enable play, verified online, killing the whole second hand games market for the Xbox
Huge areas of the world, even including First World countries, have either no internet or patchy internet, severely limiting the potential market
The PS4 has the same sort of hardware and has been confirmed not to need a permanent internet connection

Now, excepting the Mega Drive I've had Playstations, so the odds always were I'd be looking at Sony's console first anyway. But if the PS4 had always-online and the Xbox didn't, I'd either not buy a console or, more likely, go for the Xbox. My desktop has a pretty solid connection but my console's wireless is ropey. If I needed always-online now it'd make playing videogames frustrating to the point at which I'd just stop.

Then there's the issue of subscription. Again, this is not confirmed (or denied), but I've heard that there will be two versions of the Xbox1984 available. For $500 you'll be able to buy the console. For $300, the console, but on a subscription basis (presumably meaning you pay X dollars every so often to get it to work, and because it needs an online connection [possibly] if you don't buy they can deny you whatever online thingummyjig enables the console to work and play games).

Jim Sterling, of the Escapist's Jimquisition, had a very good rant about SimCity for its similar approach to online connectivity and the efforts of the industry to shift from selling a product to selling a subscription or a service, which entails repeatedly charging people for things they already own.

When I was a kid cartoons were much better, but in addition to that there were two big game companies: Sega and Nintendo. Nintendo has ducked out of the battle to an extent and ploughed its own furrow and Sega's Dreamcast/Saturn failure ended its console creation. Neither Sony nor Microsoft have a God-given right to own the market, and I'm hoping that if one has always-online as a requirement and one does not then the former has bloody awful sales and gets crushed by the latter.


Tuesday, 2 April 2013

An Interview with Walter Spence, author of House of Shadows

I'm delighted to say that I've conducted an interview with that splendid chap Walter Spence, author of House of Shadows.

Q: I think I read on Goodreads that House of Shadows is planned as the first of a 12 part series. What made you decide to write such a lengthy series?

A: What I wanted most of all was to give my readers an engrossing storyline which would act as linking chain for all the stories I wanted to tell. I’ve long been a fan of the epic tale, the one that draws into its embrace a large and fascinating cast of divergent personalities, and a background/history that gives their stories both richness and depth.

Q: With other mega series (notably A Song of Ice and Fire, and Wheel of Time) authors can sometimes lose their way. Have you sketched out (or possibly planned in detail) the entire saga, or are you taking each book as it comes?

A: I know all the nasty and terrifying details of what’s truly going on, and I know how it’s going to end. That being said, sometimes both characters and plotlines have a way of redirecting events, so I never get married to my own preconceptions. As I grow and improve as a writer, it’s entirely possible I’ll come up with something even better than what I have in mind at the moment, so I always leave the doorways of possibility open.

Q: Which authors have inspired, or influenced, you both in terms of getting into writing and your own style?

A: That’s a difficult question. I’ve long been a fan of Stephen King, because he marries both plot and characterization so well. Plus, he never forgets he’s telling a story. I love beautiful narrative styles, like Shirley Jackson’s, as well as the poetry of writers like Dylan Thomas. Recently I discovered the gorgeous prose style of Jacqueline Carey. I hope these discoveries never end.

Q: What aspects of writing do you find most challenging and most enjoyable?

A: Editing my work is probably the most challenging thing. I don’t know how many times I went through House of Shadows, only to find new mistakes or typos.

The most enjoyable aspect? When I feel myself in sync with the story, and can literally feel the impact that what I’m writing will have on the reader.

Q: What one piece of advice would you give an aspiring author?

A: Vet your work with a good critiquing group. One reason writers need copyeditors is because we’re prone to tunnel vision where our own work is concerned. And that’s simple mistakes in spelling or grammar. Larger issues, like plot holes or inconsistent characterization, are even more demanding, because they’re qualitative in nature. Writers need multiple sets of eyes, because no matter how hard it is to have our peerless prose critiqued in a group, it’s better than hearing the same criticisms from a reviewer.

Q: Excepting House of Shadows, which is your favorite fantasy/paranormal book or series?

A: My favorite stuff is the older stuff, like Roger Zelazny’s ‘Chronicles of Amber’, though George R. R. Martin has created a great work in his ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series.

Q: Joe Abercrombie has talked about writers being gardeners or architects, in that their habits tend to be either organic/spontaneous or meticulously planned. Which camp do you fall into?

A: Mostly the former. I believe that there is a subconscious layer to our brains where a great deal of both these forms of learning take place. I wrote about my views on this in an article on my blog titled ‘The Sexing of Baby Chicks and How to Write More Better’, which was inspired by David Eagleton’s book, ‘Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain’.

Fiction that transcends, that hits those chords deep within is - I believe - largely born from that part of our brains. We have to have the skills, grammatical and otherwise, and these are learned, but telling a fascinating and compelling story is a separate thing.

Q: Without spoiling anything, House of Shadows gives a few details and hints at a significant amount of history and lore. Have you written a complete history for the people involved, or do you prefer to write lore as and when it's needed?

A: A combination of both. I have a framework in my mind to hang everything on, but there are any number of corners and cubbyholes still empty. That subconscious part of the brain I believe the best fiction comes from takes time to weave the good stuff, and I try to give it as much time and space as possible.

Q: When is the next part of the series due out?

A: I’m working on the second book in the series, ‘The Secret Room’, as we speak. I hate to pin myself down to a date, since it’s far more important to me that it be done right than when will it come out. One of the advantages of being self-published, I can say that it will be ready when it’s ready. It took Martin five years to write ‘A Dance With Dragons’, which I found truly sobering. I’m at close to 13,000 words now, but previous experience has taught me that I write best in spurts, so I could go for a month without writing anything and then come up with 3000 words in a week’s time. But I want to get TSR done asap, so here’s to hoping it might be done by year’s end.

Many thanks to Mr. Spence for the interview.