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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…
Posted on December 19th, 2014 in process
It’s taken me 3 weeks, which was a good deal faster than I’d hoped, to get a reasonable 2nd draft of Half a War together. It usually does tend to be the case that the process is less horrifying than you expect once you start to tackle it. Some chapters needed some pretty heavy pruning and addition. Others went through largely unchanged. According to my pedantic charts the first draft was 110,200 words, the second is 107,900, but in fact I’ve probably taken maybe 10,000 out and added 8,000 back in, including 2,500 of entirely new scenes. This slight net reduction is pretty usual for me at this point as I reorganise and strip out the dead wood, but further stages of editing and revision concentrating on personality and setting will probably add quite a few more back in, so we’re probably looking at 110-115,000 for the final book. For comparison, Half a King was 77,000 and Half the World 106,000, but Last Argument of Kings about 230,000.
This has actually left me with a couple of spare work days before Christmas kills things off, so I’m going to use those to look again at 4 key scenes – 3 fights, 1 romance – and try to get as much honesty and originality into those as I possibly can. I write quite a lot of fight scenes so there’s a tendency to reuse the same language and ideas – it pays a lot to go through really thinking about the point of view character and their feelings, the things that make this scene unique, to reach a bit further for some more arresting images and details. In the case of the more romance-y scene I just want to get as much wit and zing into the dialogue and actions as I can so the reader really feels this relationship as believable, and therefore everything that results from it that little bit more intense.
Then it’s time to deliver this book unto my first readers, who have been, ever since I started writing, my Mum, Dad and brother. Hopefully they’ll tell me the book doesn’t suck, which will be hugely important for the confidence. They’ll also have a few comments on what works well and what perhaps doesn’t. While they’re reading my latest book I’ll be reading the previous two to see if there are any little subplots I’ve neglected, details of setting or character I can incorporate. Then I’ll get together a big crib sheet of all the significant primary and secondary characters with some thoughts on key mannerisms, physical characteristics, ticks of speech or action, because the next pass through to produce a 3rd draft, which I’ll hopefully get done early January, focuses on personality, trying to replace the generic with the distinctive both in dialogue and description, and give every person as much character as I possibly can. Plus tackling any outstanding plot and arc issues I didn’t quite get right first time round. And fine-tuning any clunky writing. And putting in more character voice.
Then it’s time to hand it off to the editors. But let’s not get cocky. I still have my own passes to do on setting and language before I’m anywhere near done…
Posted on December 16th, 2014 in announcements, news
Half the World, second book in my Shattered Sea series, is out in hardcover, e-book and audiobook in the UK on February 12th and US February 17th, and you can now read the first three chapters right here.
Blurb, a couple of early reviews, further information, other options for viewing and downloading the extract, and those all important preorder options over here.
Posted on December 14th, 2014 in process
There was a time I was posting here three times a week, but there’ve been no posts for over a month because I have had my head firmly in putting together the 2nd draft of Half a War, third book in my Shattered Sea trilogy.
When I first started writing I’d revise every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter as I finished it. Every time I wrote I’d start off by going over what I wrote last time. This was a really useful exercise for working out the basics of how to write, how to pace, what to attend to in a scene and what to ignore, for getting confidence from seeing that I could produce something worthwhile, for distilling down the voices of the characters and getting comfortable in their skins. But it’s not a very efficient way of working.
I’m a pretty thorough planner, but even with the best of plans, it’s not until you reach the end of a book sometimes that you really know where you’re going, really know how you’re going to get there, really know what you need the characters to be, how you want them to change to get you from the start to the end in a believable and compelling way. Over time I’ve started to get a better result from scratch much more quickly, so I’ve started to really push through the first draft as fast as possible, sketching each chapter honestly pretty roughly, then having a look over and tidy up of each part as I finish it, planning the next one in detail, thinking about what I might need to change as I go on.
The result is, I must admit, a pretty shoddy 1st draft, often with the characters rather inconsistent and incoherent especially at the beginning, probably resolving themselves and taking their proper places as we get towards the end, and often with a few plot holes as new ideas occurred or I changed my mind about things. Typically, I hate the book at this point. The process of producing the 2nd draft is perhaps the key phase these days. Here I’m doing the heavy lifting of revision, especially towards the start of the book. I’m thinking hard about how the point-of-view characters might need to change to have a more interesting and coherent arc. What defining experiences of the past and motivations for the future might shape them. What character traits and emotions they might need to display throughout. How their key relationships, especially with each other, might form and develop. I’m further defining and differentiating their individual voices. I’m fixing plot holes and introducing information that might have become necessary as new ideas have occurred. Partly I’m working from a checklist of stuff I’ve put together that I know I need to include – some things specific, some more general to bear in mind as I go. Partly I’m just reading it and seeing how it feels. I’m doing an awful lot of tightening – partly cutting stuff that no longer seems necessary or appropriate, partly just general tightening and sharpening of the writing. Some scenes might go altogether, though that’s pretty rare for me. There might be new ones I need to add from scratch.
A lot of this is about just trying to get the book firmly in mind, knowing where everything is, reminding yourself what happens where, how everything interlocks. I spend a lot of the first draft forcing myself to put the chair time in. By the time I get to the second, hopefully, I’m at the screen for hours at a time, thinking about it constantly. In bed. In the shower. Walking to the postbox. Ideas should be constantly firing off. Probably quite annoying for those around me, but I know I’m cooking when I frequently walk out half way through conversations in order to add something, flicking through chapters, yes, that conversation is the right place for that thought, that line, that idea which guides us through that development of that relationship.
This is the part of writing I most enjoy, where you take the ugly clay of the first draft and mold it, form it, chop it away until you have something resembling a book, where the characters make sense and develop in a meaningful way, where each scene is punchy and effective and contributes to a believable and coherent plot. There’s still an awful lot of work to do, a whole set of further phases of revision and editing to go through. But by the time the second draft comes together, I’m hopefully starting to feel I may have something worthwhile on my hands…
Posted on November 7th, 2014 in Uncategorized
Because one cover reveal in a week is never enough, here’s the forthcoming UK Mass Market Paperback cover for Half a King:
A less graphic, more filmic design choice … This one’s going to be hitting British stores in January, just ahead of the February release of the hardcover Half the World. You can find some further info over here…
Posted on November 5th, 2014 in announcements, artwork
Yes indeed, SFX have revealed the UK hardback cover for Half the World…
I said, “Half The World is the story of Thorn, a young woman determined to take a man’s place as a warrior, who finds herself on the crew of the deep-cunning Father Yarvi, undertaking a dangerous voyage up the unmapped rivers of the world to seek allies against the numberless warriors of the High King. There’s love, hate, death, wit, vivid characters, crunching action and, yes, an awful lot of swords…”
It’s coming 12th February 2015, but you could probably preorder via the publisher and a range of other key retailers, if you so desired. OH LOOK YES YOU CAN.
Posted on November 3rd, 2014 in progress
Slight delay on this month’s progress report, but I’ve been at Lucca Games and Comics without a reliable internet connection. An amazing event, by the way, with untold crowds rammed into the old walled city. Don’t think I’ve ever seen such swarms of excited and enthusiastic people, or such a high density of dedicated cosplayers.
Anyway, another couple of months roll by. Page proofs of Half the World for both the US and UK editions have now been read over so the text is finished, and aside from some work on maps, copy, covers and etc. the book is done and ready for its Feb 2015 publication.
In spite of a lot of dealmaking distractions which all seem to have come up at once, and a quick trip to the Frankfurt book fair, most of my time has gone into working on the third and final book in the series, Half a War. I’ve drafted the third part and am now well underway with a first draft of the last, so it’s looking good for a finished first draft near the end of November. I’ll then need to spend some time considering what needs to be done, before embarking on some hefty revision and rewriting in December to hopefully produce a coherent second draft by the end of the year. We shall see. Feels like there’s a hell of a lot of rewriting and reshaping to do, right now, and just a fair bit of detail, personality and, you know, good writing to add, but in the past things have come together surprisingly quickly once a first draft is finished. That’s the moment when you know where you’re heading, when you know the paths the characters need to take, and therefore exactly where they need to start. So, fingers crossed that we’ll still be able to get Half a War ready in time for a July 2015 publication as planned.
We should know by the end of the year…
Posted on October 27th, 2014 in film and tv
Fury, ladies and gentlemen, is a war film. Of this there can be no doubt. Some heavy spoilers ahead though, I would argue, nothing you can’t see coming from the opening few scenes…
Hard-bitten Brad Pitt steers a tank-crew of dehumanised veterans plus one raw recruit through a World War II shitty, gritty, and horrible even by the standards of World War II. The crew are pretty horrible. Being in a tank is really horrible. Warfare is extremely horrible.
It’s a pretty good film, too. Performances are strong. The mud, the blood, the horrifying ruination are highly convincing. The tank interior suitably claustrophobic. The action is crunching.
But, for me, it was far from a great film. It touts itself early on as unflinching, ultra-real. It shoves the viewer’s face in the slaughter the way Brad Pitt shoves his raw recruit’s face in it. Bodies are bulldozed into trenches. Civilians dangle from lamp posts. Corpses are splattered by tank tracks. LOOK AT IT. CORPSE. TANK TRACKS. SPLAT! HOW HARDCORE IS THAT?
Well, yes, I suppose that is very hardcore, except that, as it goes along, the core of the film seemed to me to end up being very traditional. Tightly-knit group of tough veterans lead wide-eyed recruit through the war-torn country, dribbling casualties, to a violent and ennobling last stand is about the most classic 2nd World War film plot going, and Fury hits all the expected beats, but Saving Private Ryan, for all its occasional soft-centredness, seemed a more honest treatment of the material, with a lot more to say than Fury about warfare and what it does to the men caught up in it. Fury lacked any theme, really. Religion wandered in and out but to what purpose it was unclear.
There was negligible effort to treat the german soldiers like people, even up to the point that their tactics seem rather dumb – more intended to service the needs of the plot than to make any sense. Unsupported Tiger crews drive straight at the enemy to expose their one weak spot. Unsupported infantry swarm pointlessly into optimum mowing-down positions. ‘I have a family!’ one prisoner shouts desperately in subtitles before Brad Pitt flings their photographs in the mud and forces his recruit to shoot him in the back. This is deeply nasty at the time, except it’s presented in the long run to have been at worst grimly necessary. The dehumanisation of the veterans is offered up as a real bad thing early on, but it’s not long before our reluctant conscience-ridden green recruit has been converted to a one-man slaughterhouse, literally dubbed ‘machine’ by his comrades, snarling ‘die motherfuckers’ as he mows down nazis by the dozen. Nuanced it is not.
By the time of the climactic final battle, pretensions of deep hardcore-ness and realism seem to have been abandoned in favour of strangely traditional gung-ho noble last stand-ness. Even the visuals and the editing go strangely dark and muddy, as though everyone ran out of ideas a bit. Every significant death is accompanied by a little pause in the savage action for the crew and audience to contemplate the significance of that death. Brad Pitt can get shot four times by a sniper and still slither back into the tank to growl his last lines. ‘You’re a hero,’ murmur awestruck rescuers to the one survivor. Finally, when we pull back from the ruined tank to show a veritable sea of German corpses, I felt I was invited to see this as a good, even a noble and heroic, even a religiously righteous thing.
It’s full of sound and fury, no doubt, and at times highly effective, but when the smoke clears I’m not sure Fury is signifying very much…