Sunday, 2 August 2015

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Laia is a Scholar, a member of the underclass subjugated by the Martial Empire in the city of Sarra. When her brother is abducted by the Martials and her grandparents murdered, Laia is reluctantly forced to ally herself with the Resistance. In return for their help in finding and rescuing her brother, Laia has to infiltrate Blackcliff Academy, where the Empire's most elite soldiers are trained.

At the same time, Elias is a Mask-in-training at Blackcliff. Sickened by the Empire's callousness, he contemplates running away but is instead compelled to remain when he is prophesied to become the next Emperor and could lead the Empire into a new golden age. However, first he must pass the Trials and win the crown for himself...and must defeat his best friend in the process.

An Ember in the Ashes made a bit of a stir when it was acquired by Penguin last year, winning a large advance and resulting in the film rights being sold for seven figures before it even hit the shelves. The novel also piqued my interest because it was apparently a stand-alone, with more books in the same world possible but apparently not necessary.

Well, that, it turns out, was not true. An Ember in the Ashes is the first volume of a multi-part story and ends on a series of cliffhangers, so those looking for a stand-alone book are directed elsewhere. The book also feels a bit overly familiar at times: the Trials that define Elias's storyline are more than a little reminiscent of The Hunger Games while the brutal regime brought down through a reluctant female double agent reminded me more than a bit of the Mistborn trilogy. Tahir mixes up the standard tropes enough that the book never feels like a rip-off, most notably by taking the standard YA central romance and turning it into more of a tragic story of betrayal and the promise of later all-out vengeance, which is at least something a bit different.

Elsewhere the book attempts a few interesting things: the novel is written in the present tense, which normally would have me hurling it out the window. However, Tahir's prose is good enough to overcome this stylistic quirk (one which a lot of readers don't have). The prose is readable but occasionally feels a bit more flavoured and distinct than the norm before settling back into something more generic. If Tahir could hold the quality of the prose at her best for longer, the sequels could be a lot better. The setting, which is more inspired by Rome than most medieval fantasy settings, also holds some promise.

The most disappointing thing about An Ember in the Ashes is how standard it is. It's reasonably well-written, the setting is interesting and the characters enjoyable enough to hold the reader's attention, but the book doesn't really bring anything new to the table. It's a solid story told in a solid way which is good but not outstanding. The story and setting are a little more brutal than is normal in a YA novel, including the frown-inducing appearance of almost-rape for no apparent reason, but it's not exactly going all A Song of Ice and Fire. Some of the ideas are also rather implausible: the training for the Masks is so insanely brutal that it's likely that the Masks simply wouldn't exist due to the rate of attrition among applicants.

That said, An Ember in the Ashes (***½) does hold enough promise to warrant a second look when the sequel appears. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

The 100: Season 2

The Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war, with the survivors either being mutants ("Grounders") who have adapted to the radiation or genetically-enhanced exiles who have survived in space on an orbiting ark. A hundred delinquents have been sent down from the Ark to see if the ground is survivable, but they have also encountered both the Grounders and a society of survivors living in a massive fallout shelter under Mount Weather, west of the ruins of Washington D.C. The hostility and paranoia of the shelter-dwellers forces both the crew of the Ark and the Grounders into an uneasy alliance.

The first season of The 100 took a while to get going, being mired in tiresome teenage romance and lots of trekking around Canadian woodland for quite a few episodes before it cut loose and turned into a bleak story of survival and moral compromises. The second season of The 100 turns this up to the max and is a much stronger set of episodes from the off.

The second season benefits from a multi-stranded storyline which rotates through sets of characters and locations. The main storyline sees the youngsters from the Ark forced to team up with the survivors of the station's dramatic crash-landing in the Season 1 finale and then attempt to forge a peace with the Grounders so they can rescue their friends (from both factions) who are imprisoned under Mount Weather. This story is rich with drama, with both camps having internal problems and the kids from the Ark - who have spent months surviving on the ground - understandably refusing to relinquish authority to the very people who sent them to their deaths. There is the scope for melodrama, but the show largely skirts it through a relentless pace, stronger worldbuilding (the culture of the Grounders is explored a lot this season) and occasional harsh plot turns that manage to out-shock Game of Thrones.

The main subplot is set inside the Mount Weather shelter and explores what happens to the forty-odd kids taken prisoner at the end of Season 1. This story is also pretty decent, but becomes a little stretched out due to its obvious benefits as a budget-saving measure (since it uses just a few interior sets as opposed to the tons of exterior footage for the Ark/Grounders stuff) and a limited number of characters to explore. Another storyline follows Jaha, the former leader of the Ark, as he - quite randomly - survives the Ark's crash and becomes - even more randomly - a messianic figure who believes he can lead his people to salvation across the desert. This story is the most preposterous, but works because Jaha is played by the hugely enjoyable Isaiah Washington and purely exists because the producers were going to quite blatantly kill the character and then decided to keep him around because they liked the actor. Fortunately it does fulfil a purpose at the end, forming the bridge into the forthcoming third season which will up the stakes even further.

The series works thanks to some enjoyably spirited performances from an enthusiastic cast, a genuinely impressive desire not to wimp out on hard decisions and moral muddles, a plot that spins on a dime and some quite impressive action sequences. That's not to say it isn't perfect. Some storylines feel a bit random and the longer episode run (three more than in the first) feels like it was more accomplished with filler than because more episodes were needed to pack everything in. An episode featuring characters hiding from an escaped gorilla in a desolate zoo is rather pointless, for example. Dialogue also too often based around exposition, and the show does feel like it could do with more humour. More on the plus side of things, the forced romance elements have been dialled way back (and the few romances which do emerge feel a lot more plausible) and the characterisation is very strong. Particularly impressive is how Bellamy, the primary antagonist in the first half of Season 1, evolves into a heroic figure through a natural and believable progression of events.

A few hiccups aside, the season builds up to a genuinely startling finale (apparently based on the idea of what if the good guys were put in a position where they had to carry out a Red Wedding?) that leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the third season, due to air in early 2016.

The second season of The 100 (****) improves on the more variable opening season and soon becomes hugely enjoyable viewing. The season will be released on 13 October on DVD and Blu-Ray.

The VURT RPG is something that exists

A Kickstarter campaign is currently underway for Vurt: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game. As the title implies, this is a roleplaying game based on Jeff Noon's seminal 1993 cyberpunk novel Vurt and its sequels.

Vurt (which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel in 1993) takes place in a dystopian future where people can escape into other realities ("vurts") by ingesting feathers. However, these other realities are not virtual (as first though) but alternate universes brought into being by the thoughts and dreams and nightmares of humans. Noon followed up Vurt with a sequel, Pollen (1995), and a prequel, Nympthomation (1997), as well as Automated Alice (1996), a semi-stand-alone novel that both lays the groundwork for the other books and links them to the works of Lewis Caroll. Short stories from the setting also appear in Pixel Juice (1998).

The Vurt RPG will be produced by Ravendesk Games, who have been working with Noon for four years on trying to bring the project to life. The plan is to produce a large core rulebook full of artwork (check out the Kickstarter page for more, most of it is cool) and, with additional stretch goals, a supporting line of adventures and sourcebooks. The game will use the Cypher System developed by Monte Cook for Numenera and The Strange.

As of this time of writing, the Kickstarter has already raised more than half of the initial requested goal, with almost a full month to go, so it looks likely that this will be a success.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Ian McShane cast on GAME OF THRONES Season 6 in "mystery role"

Ian McShane, star of the BBC drama series Lovejoy and the HBO Western Deadwood, has been cast in the sixth season of Game of Thrones. His role has not been disclosed, but he will apparently have a small but hugely important role in the forthcoming season.

McShane's casting is a bit of a coup, due to his role as the hard-drinking, hard-swearing Al Swearengen on three seasons of Deadwood. This propelled him into film roles including The Golden Compass, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Snow White and the Huntsman, as well as leading TV roles on series such as Pillars of the Earth and the short-lived Kings.

There are several roles coming up on Season 6 that McShane would be a good fit for. These are as follows, and be warned of SPOILERS from the books.

Euron Greyjoy
Euron Greyjoy is the younger brother of Balon Greyjoy, the proclaimed King of the Iron Islands, and the uncle of Yara and Theon Greyjoy. He is a black-hearted pirate who has sailed to the ends of the earth, reaving and despoiling everything in sight. In the books he returns to the Iron Islands to contend for his brother's crown, helped by fell sorcery found in the ruins of Valyria.

On the pro side, McShane can quite clearly play a badass pirate. On the negative side, Euron is a somewhat younger character in the books, as indeed is Balon. However, McShane is only two years older than Patrick Malahide (who plays Balon) and could pass for younger with some good make-up. He wouldn't perhaps be as physically imposing a warrior figure, which may be an issue if, as some fans speculate, Euron's role is being combined with that of Victarion Greyjoy. However, and crucially, Euron becomes a relatively major antagonist in A Feast for Crows whilst only having a modest amount of screen time. This could match McShane's rumoured role in the series.

Randyll Tarly
Lord Randyll Tarly of Horn Hill is Samwell Tarly's father, a humourless, ruthless soldier. His battlefield skills are legendary (he is accounted the finest general in the Seven Kingdoms) and he is sworn to House Tyrell.

This may be a more likely prospect, as we know that Randyll is being cast for Season 6 and the age is less of an issue. However,  Randyll is also said to play a big role in the events of Season 6, suggesting he is very active in Sam's storyline, which doesn't fit the suggestion of a smaller role. More importantly, and unlike Euron, Randyll hasn't actually done anything crucial to the overall storyline yet. It is possible that this will be changed for the series.

Septon Meribald
Meribald is a world-weary ex-soldier who is now a septon, wandering the Riverlands giving succor and spiritual guidance to the poor and to refugees from the War of the Five Kings.

We know that Meribald - or a very similar character - is being cast for Season 6 and it'd be good to see McShane playing a more nuanced character. It is also quite a small role. However, Meribald's only major plot contribution (so far) is related to the "Gravedigger" storyline, which it seems is less likely to be depicted on the TV show, and even with that taken into account it seems unlikely that they would go for such a (relatively) well-known actor for such a small role.

Howland Reed
Howland Reed is the father of Jojen and Meera Reed and was also Eddard Stark's closest friend and confidante, as well as being his constant companion during the War of the Five Kings.

Howland Reed has not appeared yet in the books, but according to Martin will appear at some point. Reed is also a keeper of secrets, the only confirmed living person who knows what the hell happened at the Tower of Joy and may know more about Jon Snow's parentage. According to Martin, Howland is one of those characters (alongside Varys and Littlefinger) who will never be a POV character, as knowing his thoughts would spoil a lot of things ahead of time.

On this basis, Howland could be a possibility, although it would make him twenty years older than Eddard rather than the close compatriots in age suggested by the books. It's also likely that the Tower of Joy sequence is being filmed for Season 6 as the show's second flashback sequence. However, if this is true it will likely involve the younger Eddard and his companions, and not an actor of McShane's age. However, for a present-day Howland, McShane would certainly be possible.

The Mad King, Aerys II Targaryen
This is very much an outside shot, but it is possible that the promised flashbacks (or possible visions courtesy of a returning Bran) will also encompass events in King's Landing during or before the Rebellion and will feature the Mad King. This would fit McShane's casting to a T, with it being a hugely important role but also one that would naturally be very limited in appearance. With no evidence of there being any Mad King flashbacks, treat this as very much an outside bet.