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Posted on March 17th, 2015 in opinion
I was asked by a librarian in Visby, Sweden, to write a letter of inspiration for their fantasy section that might inspire people to read fantasy books. Thought I might as well re-post it here so that people outside of Visby might also benefit from my inspirationality (that’s a word now). Forgive my unusually pompous tone, if you can…
Dear Readers of Visby.
Fantasy is about myth, magic, monsters, mystery and wonder. It’s a window into other worlds, other times, other realities. Places that have never existed and could never exist, except in the minds of writer and reader.
But fantasy is also a window into our world. A way of talking about us. About the modern world. About the things that are universal to humanity. Love and hate, war and peace, truth and lies, courage and cowardice, victory and defeat, right and wrong and all the grey space in between. About politics, parenthood, money, violence, progress, belief, betrayal, ambition and triumph. About what it means to be a hero. About whether it is possible to be a hero.
And, of course, fantasy wouldn’t be much good if it wasn’t about fascinating, funny, strange, honest, conflicted people getting themselves into terrible trouble. And getting out again. If they’re lucky…
Posted on March 10th, 2015 in progress
Back from a very pleasant trip to the Emirates Literary Festival in Dubai and having, for the first time in some considerable time, a little bit of a break, actually. Maybe the one I was supposed to be having when I started writing the Shattered Sea trilogy a couple of years back. The last book, Half a War, was a tough one to edit and with limited time, but I’m pleased to say it’s now turned in, edited, copy-edited, and due for release in July in hardcover, e-book and audiobook in the US and UK. Still some work to do on covers and maps and so forth, and because of the tight turn around the dates aren’t totally set yet, but I’ll have further details soon.
There’s not much rest for the grimdark, though. I’ll now be turning my attention back to the adult arena, hoping to get a few more stories together for a collection of First Law-based short stories which should hopefully be coming out in 2016 some time – that’ll contain all the short stories I’ve written in the First Law world, including those that have been published in special editions and anthologies and a few as yet unseen. As far as full-length books go, the plan is still for another trilogy set in the First Law world, but I’m still at a very early stage in the development of that, earlier than I’ve ever been before when finishing up a book. My plan is still, ideally, to draft out all three books before preparing the first for publication, which will hopefully mean we can publish all three in a timely fashion and in as good a state as they can be, but would mean a long wait for the first. We shall see. There are a few other non-book irons in the fire at the moment which look like they may keep me busy while I’m dreaming up ideas for this next trilogy.
I also seem to have got a hell of a lot of travel stacking up for this year. I’ll be at Eurocon in St. Petersburg in April, in Barcelona in May, Berlin and Stuttgart in June, touring in the UK for the release of Half a War in July, Poland in August, and Ireland in September. No firm details on any of these quite yet, but I’ll hope to let you know in due course…
And that is your progress report for March.
Posted on March 2nd, 2015 in process
Things have been exceedingly quiet around here over the last month because I’ve been touring in Australia (further details on how that went over here) and also working flat out to get Half a War edited and then copy-edited. The downside of the quick publication schedule (three books in a year) is there’s always going to be a quick turnaround, and therefore high pressure on the edit for that last book. And so it has proved.
I cannot articulate how crucial a good edit is to a book. I finish a first draft knowing a lot of major changes I need to make, end up with a much tighter second draft and go through a whole round of further revisions focussing on secondary characters, on setting, on the detail of the writing, before turning it in to the editors, but even then new sets of eyes (and experienced expert eyes at that) will see shortcomings and areas for improvement you’ll never have thought of. It’s not necessarily the solutions you’re offered that are so important, as the problems that are brought to your attention and that you’ll work out your own solutions to – it’s important to maintain your own judgement. It’s also important to realise that your first reaction to every suggestion is to scream ‘fuck no!’ (preferably inside your head), and to give yourself some time to let things sink in, to see what you really do profoundly disagree with and what maybe hurts because it strikes a bit of a chord with some small doubts you’ve already had over a scene or character.
For the First Law books I had one editor, with the Shattered Sea books I’ve had four, plus three agents giving comments. That makes for a very different process, where rather than comparing one opinion with your own, you’re looking at a whole set of opinions, seeing what there’s agreement on, maybe discounting what there’s not agreement on, and trying to maintain your own judgement throughout.
The result was, in fact, not a lot of big changes, but an awful lot of small ones and also a general feeling that the book was a little loose and the writing not quite as sharp as it had been in previous books. There was concern about an event happening off-screen so I made an effort at writing a new chapter that brought it on-screen, but wasn’t totally happy with it and, indeed, my editors weren’t either, so I ditched it. There was one new one-page scene added and a few sections heavily cut and/or rewritten.
Otherwise it was a host of small tweaks, mostly centring on one of the three viewpoint characters, who, it was felt, was too sure of herself, too adult, and lacked a clear mission in the book. A lot of other minor issues to attend to, plus a thorough, detailed overhaul of the writing with an eye to cut, cut, cutting anything that made me the slightest bit uncomfortable. Ended up with a much improved book, I think, and one some 3,000 words shorter, despite all the additions of new thoughts.
The copy-edit, therefore, was pretty light, with just the usual hyphens, capitals and ‘z’s swapped for ‘s’s, and a few comments to consider, relatively easily dealt with. Job done. Half a War weighs in at 106,000 words, very close to Half the World in length. It’s due to be published late July, but I should know in the next couple of weeks whether that’s going to be possible. If not then, it should hopefully be very soon after…
Posted on March 1st, 2015 in film and tv
Sons of Anarchy Season 6 – My love/hate relationship with the Sons somewhat continues, but hey, I’ve made it this far, so they must be doing something right. It’s still an odd mix of the rather cliche, silly and wearyingly sexist and the utterly clever, shocking and unpredictable. Charlie Hunnam has grown into his increasingly darkening role, somewhat, and the surviving members of the biker gang are thoroughly comfortable there. The violence is, if anything, dialled up a notch and there are some really spectacular shocks in this season. I expect the next and final one to be an absolute bloodbath.
Walking Dead Season 4 – Yes. Tough, sweaty, shocking, uncompromising, zombies, even worse people, etc. etc. A slightly bitty season which spends the first half tying up the last season, in a sense, and the second on a set of scattered story lines of somewhat varying effectiveness, but the core values remain in place. Good stuff.
True Detective – I must confess that I found this a bit less impressive than some of the gushing praise on twitter led me to expect. Undoubtedly it’s good, with a great pair of central performances from the lately rehabilitated Matthew McConnaughey and Woody Harrelson, plus much beautifully filmed deep south strangeness, long-drive philosophising and one particularly cracking one-take action sequence. I found the central thread of the case more than a bit meandering, though. Maybe that’s the truth of detective work but a show like the Wire managed to seem just as true while delivering much more narrative payoff. Your mileage may vary, evidently. I’ll certainly watch a second season.
Marco Polo – Netflix exclusive historical hischmorical programming with hot young Italian Marco Polo abandoned among Kublai Khan and his various Mongol and Southern Chinese friends and enemies and their poisonous politicking. Early episodes seem intent on out-boobing game of thrones. Boobs everywhere, like a collision between two boob trains. Like an explosive accident at a boob factory. But the boob quotient reduces later in favour of riding around, catapults, mysticism and some odd kung fu. It looks pretty, there are some good performances, and it’s interesting to see a western-made series with only really the one white actor and an otherwise pretty diverse cast, but it’s not exactly electrifying.
Attack on Titan – My mind was blown by Akira when I first saw it – on a massive screen at Glastonbury festival 23 years ago, funnily enough – and there will always be a place in my heart for the overwrought insanity of Fist of the North Star, but despite the occasionally gobsmacking ideas my history with anime has been a rocky one. Death Note was my last effort a few years back and it didn’t really work for me, but when I was in Detroit recently there was something on the screen that kept drawing my eye and someone said, ‘oh, yeah, that’s Attack on Titan, that’s supposed to be brilliant,’ so when I noticed it on Netflix I thought I’d give it a try, and I’m very glad I did.
Humanity have been herded into a walled compound beyond which lurk herds of gurning, brainless giants. Who eat people. Horribly. When they start coming over the walls, the outclassed military must try to find a way to fight them. And get eaten. Horribly.
These things often can’t sustain, and there are are perhaps worrying signs towards the end that it’s going to go in a slightly more familiar special-teenagers-pilot-giant-robots-to-save-the-world direction, but the first half of the season is great, horrifying, with some crazy ideas, and communicates a really powerful sense of what it’s like to fight an implacable, incomprehensible, undefeatable enemy.
Knights of Sidonia – the horrifying charms of Attack on Titan led me to look for more Anime. Knights of Sidonia has similar special teenagers taking on an implacable alien enemy, but this time from the confines of a generation ship in space rather than a walled compound. Not nearly such an edge on this, though, and the slightly weird art style, though pretty, is a bit distancing.
Arrow Season 2 – watched the whole season on flights to and from Australia, and thoroughly enjoyed it, I must say. They’ve maybe dialled back the pretensions of depth and I think the show feels more comfortable in its own skin as a result, with an extensive cast of mildly absurd heroes and villains now well established and striking nice sparks from one another. It all looks a million bucks, there’s some nice patter, some nice action, some nice split narrative between past and present. If you don’t like watching really pretty people work out a lot you may be bored, but hey, if you don’t like watching really pretty people work out what the fuck is wrong with you?
Posted on February 12th, 2015 in Uncategorized
Half the World is published in the UK, let ring the bells!
Signed copies have been leaking out via Waterstones for some time now, in fact, but Amazon and other retailers should be shipping and stocking as of today. The mass-market paperback of Half a King, meanwhile has already been out for a couple of weeks:
Those across the pond need not despair, for Del Rey’s hardcover edition of Half the World will be with you in but a few short days on February 17th. Enjoy responsibly…
Posted on January 29th, 2015 in appearances
Details for a few forthcoming events. The UK tour for Half a King was but seven months ago, so we’re not doing a full tour this time around, just the one UK event at Forbidden Planet London, who have supported me with every book I’ve brought out, right back to The Blade Itself:
Sunday 8th February, 13.00-14.00, Forbidden Planet London, 179 Shaftesbury Avenue, WC2H 8JR
I may read and talk a little beforehand, but the space isn’t ideal so we’ll see how it goes. I can’t promise to sign anything you don’t buy on the day, but I will try to as long as you buy something, and given that it’s a lunchtime event I expect I’ll fit everything in.
If you can’t make the event, I believe you can also order signed stock from Forbidden Planet at the bargain price of £9.99. You could probably even arrange a dedication…
THEN, shortly thereafter in February I will be touring Australia, with events in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, and Perth. Details:
Friday 13th February, 16.30-18.00, Dymocks 424-430 George St
Sunday 15th February, 14.00-15.30, Galaxy Bookshop 1/131-137 York St.
Monday 16th February, 18.30-20.00, Harry Hartog Bookstore, Westfield Woden
Tuesday 17th February, 18.00-20.00, Dymocks 234 Collins Street.
Thursday 19th February, 9.45-10.30, School’s Day Session – Keeping the Story Alive for ages 12-15, Murdoch Lecture Theatre
Friday 20th February, 13.00-14.00, The Hero’s Journey, Dolphin Theatre
Saturday 21st February, 13.00-14.00, In Conversation on Half a King, University Club Theatre
Sunday February 22nd, 16.00-17.00, Drawing from History, Woolnough Lecture Theatre
For further information on exactly what’s happening, you’re best off contacting the venues or events.
Posted on January 28th, 2015 in interviews
Here’s an interview focusing on Half a King conducted by my brilliant Italian translator, Edoardo Rialti. The Italian translation can be found over here. But I thought I’d put the English version up for those of you (like me) whose Italian is a little rusty…
Once in Italy you introduced your “First Law Trilogy” as a sort of Lord of the Rings combined with L.A. Confidential; then you spoke of “Best Served Cold” as a Montecristo mixed with Point-Blank, but with a female Lee Marvin. What image would you use to introduce “Half a King”?
Vikings meets the Lion King, maybe, but Simba’s a lot more like Scar than Mufasa this time around…
Why you decided to write a YA trilogy? What was in that kind of fiction which especially intrigued you?
I’d been approached about the possibility of writing some YA books a few years before, and the idea had stuck with me as an interesting one, an opportunity to try a different kind of tone and format, but at the time I was busy with my adult commitments.
By the time I finished Red Country, though, I’d written six big, complex, unapologetically adult fantasy books set in the same world in a row and I felt the need to try something different. I’m a big believer that you’ve got to push yourself as a writer and keep trying new things if you’re going to keep yourself, let alone your audience, interested in what you’re doing. This was a natural break in my adult books, and I thought that a young adult series would give me the opportunity to try something different, but complimentary. Creatively, I obviously wanted to maintain whatever I fondly imagined had made the adult books work – the cynicism, the focus on vivid characters, the crunching action, but I’d need to work with younger, unformed characters, which were a different kind of challenge to the older, experienced, world-weary people I’d tended to center on in my adult work, and I’d be aiming at something much shorter, tighter, more focused. Commercially it felt as though I could still produce something which would appeal to most of my established readers while hopefully reaching out to some younger readers and maybe a type of adult reader who is interested in fantasy but a bit turned off by the big length of some of the stuff that’s out there.
What have been the greatest challenges (style, characters…) on writing such a book? And what has been the greatest fun?
It was certainly a liberating feeling to start work in a new world, where I wasn’t having to consider what characters had done before or what bits of history I’d dropped in. And writing in a short, punchy format where I’m constantly aiming to keep everything as tight as possible is definitely exciting. Each book doesn’t seem like quite the huge project I was taking on with each of my adult books, and the rounds of reviewing and editing end up rushing by. I remember proof-reading three different editions of Before They are Hanged at once and the heap of papers on my desk was head high. But the shortness and focus of these books also means there’s less time for the characters to mature in the writing, if you like. The whole process is more concentrated, more intense, and with a six-monthly publishing schedule, there’s a hell of a lot to get done…
Where do you think lies the difference between a good YA novel and “just” a good, great novel for adults-at least for you? There are things, words or subjects that “should not be showed” to a younger audience, or is the eventual difference in something different?
I honestly don’t think there’s much difference at all. A young adult novel has to have a young adult protagonist, and so there’s likely to be something of a coming-of-age flavour to it. It may well be shorter and more tightly focused than your average adult novel. It may be (but certainly isn’t always) somewhat less explicit in the approach to sex and violence and the language used, but there are no hard and fast rules, and over the last few years there’s been a gradual shift in what can be accepted in young adult literature, to the point that there’s very little you can’t include if it’s done right and works for the story. My own feeling has always been young adults are above all adults, just young ones, and there are plenty of people in that 12-16 age range who read my fully adult work, after all. What I wanted to read at 12-16 isn’t so greatly different to what I read now.
Can you tell us something abut the peculiar culture of your “Shattered Sea” World, as it is reflected in its pantheon? We meet couples of Deites which often overturn our traditional images (or maybe our clichés). Is that just an echo of a different culture as the nordic, viking image of the cosmos, or there’s something more you want to tell?
I’d worked with a very patriarchal society in the First Law, and with the Shattered Sea I wanted a setting that would help me to get a lot of varied female characters into the stories. Women enjoyed a lot of authority and freedom in viking society compared to the rest of europe, particularly in commerce and the management of the households which were the basic unit of viking society. I took that and extrapolated it a bit into a society in which, although fighting and work are traditionally male spheres, money, commerce, and the keeping of knowledge are female ones. As business and trading have become more important, women have become more powerful, and the Ministers, who stand behind and advise kings, are mostly women.
I wanted to extend this division of labour to the gods as well, so they tend to take the form of binary pairs, a male and female deity such as Mother Sea and Father Earth, but I thought it would be interesting to suppose the relationship between a person and their patron deity is almost a marriage. So a male warrior worships Mother War. A female minister worships Father Peace, and so on. Another way of bringing some female-ness into parts of epic fantasy where, for some reason, we don’t tend to expect it.
Yarvi’s journey is interwoven of sayings from his difficult past: wise words by his mentor Mother Gundrig, but also by his hard parents, Queen Laithlin and even the dead King. Can we say that Yarvi’s journey is not just spatial, but also “temporal”, a journey “into” his past, where he will discover a deeper relationships, a new light on his own family and personal history?
Yeah, I think that’s quite apt. A lot of Yarvi’s past isn’t quite as he sees it initially. People he thinks are his friends turn out to be his enemies. People he thinks despise him turn out to have much more complex feelings. He’s also got a lot of self-disgust to overcome as a result of being something of an outcast due to his disability, having been told he isn’t and can never be a real man in the context of this warrior society. So Yarvi has a lot of reinterpretation and reassesment of the past to go about. This is a story about becoming an adult, coming to terms with yourself, accepting who you are.
It seems to me that both “The Odyssey” and “Hamlet” were playing a major part as references of your own tell. Is that true or were you pointing to other stories?
I don’t know that those two were necessarily at the forefront of my mind but I can certainly see the echoes. A kid at a school event asked me if I’d noticed that the story’s very like the Lion King … I pointed out there’s no lions in it, but she definitely had a point. I personally like a classic story retold in a new way, though. I think originality can sometimes be a little overrated. When you pick up a well known and well loved scenario or genre, it creates all kinds of echoes and expectations in the reader that you can then exploit to your own ends…
Many of your stories deal with the great, perennial theme of revenge. Recentely the noir writer J. Nesbo stated that revenge seduces us so much, because it shows our inner, rational nature: we are “creature of consequences”. Do you agree or do you feel there’s something different at stake?
Revenge undoubtedly does appeal to us on a deep level. Who hasn’t fantasised about murdering a room-full of other fantasy writers, after all? Oh, that’s just me…? I think for my part I’d become a bit frustrated with the world-saving style of hero we’ve tended to see in fantasy an awful lot in the shadow of Tolkien. People who always try and do the right things for the right reasons. I find people with good and bad in them feel a bit more believable to me. The best villains are those who have plenty to admire in them. The best heroes are the ones who have to overcome their own darkness. So I like to see protagonists with some darker motivations – greed, self-preservation, revenge.
You are often regarded as a major voice in the grimadark fantasy. Do you think there has been just a caesura between the classical fantasy and the path taken by some of the most beloved contemporary voices, or maybe that things are more complex? My (veeery poor) opinion is that-maybe- only a deep lover of classics can find also a new way for telling the shades, the ambiguities, the untold possibilities of “lighter” stories from our past, as Sergio Leone did with the John Ford’s western, just as an example.
I think you’re absolutely right. No one sets out to spend years writing a giant book series in a genre they hate. The desire to do something new with a form never arises from contempt for the form, but from a really deep love for it, I think, but perhaps a desire to move it on, to jolt it out of a rut, to bring something new into the mix. For myself I was (and am) a huge fan of Lord of the Rings, and read it every year as a kid. I read a lot of the commercial fantasy that followed in Tolkien’s footsteps, things like Dragonlance, David Eddings’ Belgariad, but I suppose after a while I started to become a bit frustrated by what I saw as a lot of repetition and predictability, and the lack of the kind of modern, visceral, exciting edge I saw in a lot of noir and western fiction I was reading. Then I read A Game of Thrones, and of course saw a lot of the grit, darkness, and danger there that I felt the genre had been missing. When I talk to other writers of my generation – guys like Scott Lynch, Brent Weeks, Peter Brett, Pat Rothfuss – they’re all huge lovers and fans of fantasy. They just want to make their own contribution to the genre in their own way.
Once R. L. Stevenson said that the great gift of works of fiction is that “They do not pin the reader to a dogma, which he must afterwards discover to be inexact ; they do not teach him a lesson, which he must afterwards unlearn. They repeat, they rearrange, they clarify the lessons of life ; they disengage us from ourselves, they constrain us to the acquaintance of others ; and they show us the web of experience”: would you agree? What would you say is the “gift” or the gifts you seek and receive on writing or reading a novel?
Phew…that’s somewhat of a big question. There’s a degree to which I don’t think you go into writing a book with big ambitions for theme, depth and meaning. You set out to tell a story, to entertain the reader, but if you try to write honestly I don’t think you can prevent your attitudes leaking into your work, nor would you want to prevent it. If you present vivid characters you’ll inevitably touch some readers in a profound way. The books I most enjoy are ones that present unique voices, that express things in a way I would never, ever have thought of, but that I nonetheless find to be true.
Posted on January 12th, 2015 in appearances
So I’m going to be over in the US of A later this week at ConFusion in Detroit as a guest of the wonderful Subterranean Press. I think it was 3 years ago I was last there, and it’s a great small con with an informal atmosphere and a lot of writers around. Plus there’s Peter V. Brett’s annual author D&D session, which I last attended three years back. I have a feeling elven thief Darque Shadeaux will be sowing chaos once again…
Afraid I have no further details, but I’m sure there’ll be more information on site. Usual rules apply, I’m signing on the Saturday afternoon, but feel free to ask me at other times, I will do my best to oblige.
Posted on December 31st, 2014 in announcements, appearances, film and tv, games, news, reading, reviews, whisky deathmatch
New Year’s Eve, my friends, and you know what that means? Yes, indeed, I am 40 years old today. You would never think I used to be young. Truly horrifyingly, this is my 6th yearly review post. I’ll have to have a review of my best yearly review posts one of these new year’s eves…
A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – Again, in spite of all my complaints, I really can’t complain. Partly due to the ongoing success of Game of Thrones, I’m sure, The First Law books continue to chug along very, very nicely. I had a short story in Martin and Dozois’ highly successful Rogues anthology in June. Then Half a King came out in July and made no. 3 on the Sunday Times hardcover list, which matches the ranking of The Heroes way back in 2010 but at a much more competitive time of year. I toured more extensively than I ever have before, with some 15 events in the UK, all of them pretty well attended, and I did a few bookshop events down the west coast of the US for the first time too and made it to Comic Con in San Diego, to Sicily, to Lucca, and a third visit to my old friends in Aviles, Spain.
A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – The heavy touring schedule through July and August got in the way somewhat, but even so it was a good year in the writing department too, if a pretty demanding one. I wrote the last quarter of Half the World, revised and edited it, then wrote a first draft of Half a War, and gave it a fair hammering this month to produce a second draft that I’m starting to get happy with. I’ve a few more things to do and another pass through focusing on the secondary characters to get to a decent third draft which I can hand in to my editors mid January, but the book’s mostly there. Seems like only yesterday I was pitching this series to publishers and now it’s nearly done…
BOOKS – I really am hardly reading at all these days, it’s a disgrace. When I finish Half a War I desperately need to take my foot off the gas and start reading again, hoover up some ideas and inspiration, catch up on the truly massive backlog I’ve got sitting in tottering heaps all around me. But two things I read this year that I’d certainly recommend are Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, and Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Neither the kind of thing I write, particularly, but then who wants to piss where they eat…?
TV and FILM – Boy, the cinema has barely registered this year. I think the only film I reviewed was Fury, which was OK but ultimately a gritty wrapper around a rather traditional, sentimental war movie. Guardians of the Galaxy was good fun but I was a little underwhelmed after all the nerdgasms I’d seen about it – seemed like more of the Marvel same in the end, if with a few more laughs. Gone Girl was a very well-made film but seemed a bit hamstrung by a really odd casting choice in Ben Affleck – the guy just comes across as too much of a likeable lunkhead and I felt they needed someone much darker and more dangerous to really balance the central relationship and make us unsure what was going on. Rather than equally evil couple of bastards reap the whirlwind they sow for each other, we got mildly unpleasant idiot is totally screwed over by his psychopathic wife, and that’s a lot less interesting in all kinds of ways. For me the TV standout was the searing climax of Breaking Bad, which has to be one of the greatest pieces of TV I’ve ever seen, about as close as you’ll get to a single 5 season story arc with novelistic coherence of theme and character. Highly honourable mentions to a bloody, strange and gritty second season of Vikings and the punishing 3rd and 4th seasons of The Walking Dead after its slightly limited 2nd season. Justified continues to be elevated way above its rather banal set-up by great script and acting in which every character overflows with Elmore Leonard-y detail. Orphan Black was good largely thanks to its brilliant central multiple performance. Suits is entertaining if a little lightweight. The Good Wife continues to be highly watchable and always that little bit darker than you expect. Arrow was enjoyable enough superhero hokum but fell short of its gritty ambitions. Black Sails was enjoyable enough pirate hokum, good when it put to sea but too often foundering on land. The 1st season of House of Cards was very strong, with a great mood and super central performances from Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, but I felt the 2nd season was a lot less believable. Hell on Wheels sadly crashed off the rails for me in its 3rd season after an action-packed 2nd.
GAMES – Last year had some splendiferous stuff in the form of The Last of Us, Bioshock, Tomb Raider, Telltale’s Walking Dead etc. as developers pushed the last generation of consoles to their limits and stretched unused storytelling muscles while doing it. This year began on a high with Dark Souls II, more ultra dark, ultra hard Japanese/Western hybrid roleplaying but with the difficulty softened just a little this time around. Moving over to PS4, the results have been a little more pedestrian than last year. Destiny was pretty and compelling and did give me a hell of a lot of gaming hours but ultimately was a slightly empty experience. Diablo III I found rather by-the-yard-y. Far Cry 4 good, but very much like Far Cry 3. Which leaves Dragon Age: Inquisition as my personal game of the year. One could criticise the gameplay, the voice acting, and the somewhat vanilla plot line, but the world, characters, detail and sense of immersion were top class.
WHISKY – Lack of time meant my planned Whisky Deathmatch: Islay Bloodfeud never happened. Well, it happened in the sense that I drunk the whisky, I just didn’t get round to writing about it. In brief, though, bottles I’ve particularly enjoyed this year: Lagavulin 12yo cask strength (smashed in the face with a sack of burned lemons), Ardbeg Supernova 2014 (Ardbeg, only more so, and with a touch of sweetness to it), Laphroaig Triple Wood (salty medicinal goodness with a sherry-wood softening), Amrut Fusion (awesome whisky distilled in India from Scottish and Himalayan barley), Talisker 30yo cask strength (full fathom five thy father lies).
CONTROVERSIES – I noted last year that after 7 or 8 years in the business I’m getting less and less interested in the cyclical nature of genre commentary. I’ve already expressed my opinion one way or another on most issues of note, and when they come up again, I find a world weary sigh gets across most of what I feel, an attitude reflected in my post on this year’s controversial Hugo Awards. That’s part of the reason for the greatly reduced blog presence of late, though that’s also a function of the sheer amount of stuff I’ve got going on. I’m finding twitter (@LordGrimdark) a better medium for general conversation, and I’m tending to use the blog only for more considerable announcements and reviews. This relatively thin level of posting may well continue next year, because…
THE YEAR AHEAD – My, oh, my, but 2015 is shaping up to be a busy one. I’ve already got visits confirmed to Detroit in Jan, Australia in Feb, Dubai in March and St. Petersburg in April. I’ve got not one but TWO books coming out: Half the World in February and Half a War in July, the first time I’ve done a publishing schedule anything like so densely packed. Since I toured in the UK and US only a few months back there probably won’t be a lot of events for Half the World, but expect another full-on tour in July for Half a War. Writing-wise, I’m going to be kept fully busy until the end of February with edits and revision on Half a War, then I’ve got a few short stories to write to complete a collection which will hopefully come out some time in 2016. It’s looking as if the main part of next year may be given over to some exciting non-book projects, of which more in due course, but I also need to lay the groundwork and do some thinking for another trilogy in the First Law world, although the publication of that looks like it will be some way off…
Happy new year, readers!
Posted on December 21st, 2014 in games
I liked Dragon Age: Origins a lot when it came out way back in 2009. I’d long been a fan of Bioware’s D&D based fantasy RPGs, especially Baldur’s Gate I and II. Dragon Age seemed to introduce a new level of grittiness both moral and physical to the genre, with some interesting characters, dark themes, and tough moral choices. I was pretty disappointed with Dragon Age II, though, which followed only a year and a half later. The setting still worked and there were some good characters but it felt rushed, repetitive and decidedly un-epic. I finished that review by saying, “I hope they do another, and do better with it, because the game world has great potential…” So, three and a half later, have Bioware done better with Dragon Age: Inquisition?
In the midst of a civil war between wizards and templars, a giant explosion destroys the ineffectual leadership of Thedas (The Dragon Age Setting, believe it or not) and tears giant holes in the sky through which demons begin to pour. But can a hastily instituted new Inquisition save the war-torn and politically fractured world from enemies without and within?
I guess you could say Baldur’s Gate had a pretty open world, but over time, with games like Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, Bioware tended to move towards more limited, linear game worlds with the emphasis more on story and character interactions. It’s Bethesda that have tended to do the truly huge and flexible open worlds with games like Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls, offering huge potential for exploration but less in the way of plot and personality. Inquisition makes as good a fist as I’ve seen of trying to combine the two.
The world isn’t truly open – it offers maybe ten or so regions you can open up and explore, but each of them is pretty damn big and beautifully realised, much less artificially enclosed than the likes of Mass Effect, and with all kinds of side quests and collections to get lost in. Then episodes in the central storyline will occasionally take you away to other areas for some specific purpose, even into the world of dreams or a possible future… You don’t get quite the magnificent vistas, varied light and weather, and freedom of Skyrim, but the world still feels massive. And there’s just a lot more actual people in it. In Skyrim you feel you face the world largely alone. In Dragon Age you feel you’re part of a group of companions, but also of a wider society, and there’s a strong sense that your actions impact on the world and people.
The setting is a strong one with plenty of believable background, offering dark twists on fantasy staples. Elves are fallen from past glories and enslaved. Dwarves are fallen from past glories, embittered and isolationist. Wizards are fallen from past glories and in constant peril of falling to demonic madness. The nobility are self-interested backbiters, the church is hidebound and oppressive, their templars drug-addled zealots. Inquisition gives you the chance to steer the fate of most of these groups, for better or worse, but few actions come without consequences…
Gameplay will take the form of a hell of a lot of running around and a fair bit of killing stuff. Three classes, various skill trees and heaps of customisable weapons, armour, potions and accessories give you the option to tailor your approach to this in some detail. You can control your character in real time and allow your sidekicks to follow their own script, or for particularly tough fights you can pause things and give out detailed orders before advancing time bit by bit. There’s probably a fair bit of depth and complexity to all this but I must admit, playing on normal difficulty I never really needed to do much beyond the basic. Even fighting the ten (magnificent) dragons which are the game’s most challenging additional content a few judicious potions were enough to get me through.
Still, Dragon Age is more about the story than the action and on that front it delivers admirably. It’s not Skyrim-massive in terms of its sheer sprawling enormity, but it would be a bitter critic indeed who complained about the quantity of content. After about 20 hours of solid play there was a prolonged sequence that made me feel like I’d just got through the prologue and, completing pretty much all the significant side quests, it took a full 100 hours to finish the game and my enthusiasm never really flagged. I’d even consider playing it again with a new character, which is truly rare for me these days. Your nine companions are varied and well-realised, their off-hand interactions while you wander the wilderness often a real high point. You also have three advisors – military, spying and diplomacy – who can contribute to the cause via a strategic map of the world, and all have their own distinct personalities, concerns, and outlook on events. Some of these folks are people we know well from the previous games, which only adds to the feeling of an ongoing, developing world. There is a lot of depth and clever detail out there, and I encountered very few bugs or nonsensical bits of conversation. The whole thing feels extremely polished and carefully thought through.
Criticisms? Well, dialogue isn’t always supremely well written and the acting is a little patchy, with some characters way more entertaining than others, but that’s highly forgivable considering the sheer quantity of content. Compared to Dragon Age 2 there’s vastly more range in the movement and expressions of the characters, as well as the way the conversations and cut scenes have been ‘directed’. There are some sequences that fall a bit flat but also some great moments – even some you could call moving, and seeing a character you’ve customised and created yourself fully participating in the drama can be a real buzz. Sometimes you’ll get a tight close-up of a face in a certain light with eerily convincing skin and plant-matter stirred by the wind in the background and the whole thing looks magnificent. At other times expressions can seem a little off, delivery weirdly halting, and my character had a really peculiar, stiff-shouldered walk, a bit like John Wayne, which bugged me every time she walked into the war room.
If you were being harsh you might say dialogue options seemed a little limited. Usually there’s a ‘nice’ response, an ‘arch’ response, and a ‘harsh’ response, and the harsh one just seems overly prickish and calculated to piss people off, giving you the feeling you’d have to be evil AND an idiot to pick that one. One of the nice things about Mass Effect was it tended to give you the choice between Ruthless Hardass or Generous Paragon, both conceivably sensible for the mission. In this version of Dragon Age I found it hard to be harsh without feeling like I was foiling my own aims – the choices more or less boiled down to lightly snarky hero or entirely unironic hero. It didn’t feel quite so dark a world or a game as the first Dragon Age, either. Origins served up lashings of slavery, betrayal, madness and apocalyptic pessimism which (no surprise) I rather liked. This serving did feel rather more vanilla. I never really doubted the heroes would prevail.
Still, overall I’d have to call it a massive success, much the best of the three Dragon Age games, with a vivid and vibrant world and characters, plenty of drama and oceans of content. If you dislike the whole concept of long, involving fantasy RPGs you need not apply, but I’ve always liked em a lot, and there hasn’t been a better one since Skyrim. Maybe before…