Thursday 20 July 2023

Lord of a Shattered Land

The once great city of Volanus has fallen. The Dervan Empire has invaded, crushing all resistance and driving its people to extinction or slavery. Their greatest general falling to his death in the sea. Soon, there will be no trace of Volanus left if Derva has anything to say about it. Little did they count on the ghost of Hanuvar, Derva's greatest enemy, to return in order to free his people from slavery.

Thus begins the epic tale of Lord of a Shattered Land by Howard Andrew Jones. For full disclosure, I have been provided with an advanced reading copy by the author for review purposes.

In the realm of fantasy, good sword and sandals stories are few and far between. With the early fantasy genre having been partially defined by works like Conan the Barbarian (and my own childhood by shows like Xena, Mythic Warriors and the film Prince of Egypt to excite my own imagination) this often seems like a terrible oversight! However, with sword and sorcery having many avenues for adventure, the works of Howard Andrew Jones fill a niche that readers will be thankful for! Jones has a distinguished writing career, from writing historic and epic fantasy, work inside Paizo Pathfinder line and was the Managing Editor of Black Gate before it transferred to the digital sphere. When he's not writing tales of suitable drama and action, he is currently the editor for the sword-and-sorcery magazine Tales From the Magician’s Skull

Jones then has quite a lot of skill in weaving together exciting, fast paced, and enthralling tales of heroism alongside short sighted evil. That means that he knows how to wind a series of short stories into a fast paced epic that weaves well together! Lord of a Shattered Land is set more like a TV series, or perhaps an anthology, with episodic content tying into a grander arc that tells us Hanuvar's story. And Hanuvar has many stories to tell!

From his fortunate escape from imprisonment, to his clashes with literal gods, Hanuvar endures a long series of traumas. First through watching the destruction of his home, then through the wrinkles of old age. Heroism is a younger man's game, but he is the only hero remaining to Volanus. Without him, his people will disappear. Through this all, he has only one constant ally, the playwright turned unlikely hero, Antires. The young actor wants to tell Hanuvar's story to the ages, and though the thought amuses the aging hero, he sees the earnestness in the young man and invites him on what Hanuvar believes will be a suicidal mission. Fortunately for Hanuvar, he's Hanuvar, the greatest military mind of a generation!

In each of the stories within, that mind is as much an asset as his sword arm. The way in which Hanuvar reasons out traps, outthinks opponents and gains allies is thrilling to watch. We see this master strategists mind at work, and it's a joy to behold. In the later stages of his life and skill, he has nothing to prove, only a quest to fulfill. Jones portrays this masterfully as the old warrior must confront not just mortal enemies, but monsters and gods who are more powerful than any single human. Too often he comes within spitting distance of death, only to just wriggle out of reach.

Through his journeys he finds many unlikely allies besides Antires. From former Volani warriors to Dervan soldiers unwillingly serving alongside him, Hanuvar makes allies and slays enemies. Jones has an impressive array of foes for Hanuvar to fight past. With a flare for both quiet conversation and intense action, Jones delivers many exciting scenes for the reader to chew on, plotted out cleverly against the greater story of the quest to free the remaining Volani from slavery.

Each story builds on the next progressively, and set as episodic as they are, if you really enjoy one you can simply go back and read it and have a self contained short story to chew on during a coffee break. It makes for good dialogue and small character moments that are compiled against a great backdrop. The more tender moments where we explore Hanuvar's life, his story, and the sheer scale of the loss he has suffered after the Third Volani War are as well told as the scenes of action and adventure. Jones skill as a writer can't be missed here!

Choosing to draw from history, Jones does excellent work in portraying the Dervan Empire - and in a very sword and sandals style epic, no prizes for guessing who they're based off - in excellent detail. From the marching matters of a unit of legionnaires, to the casual pursuits of the Dervan upper class and their backstabbing politics, its a well built and interesting world for Hanuvar to inhabit. Pushing up against that world of course are all manner of magical beasties, from mythic creatures with a taste for human flesh, demons, indifferent gods who seem to regard the lives of all men as playthings, and more benign spirits. The more you read of Hanuvar's backstory, the more impressed you have to be with what he accomplishes, even in comparison to his historical counterpart!

The stories here head towards a genuinely action and horror packed conclusion which tie together some threads from the early stories in a way which is extremely satisfying! Old enemies meet again, and old allies are forced to work together once more under a threat greater than anything even the empire might present! And don't worry, there's no great cliffhanger, we are guaranteed a sequel which is also coming out this year!

Jones has created a fascinating setting, populated by intelligent, witty, honorable, idiotic, evil and outright monstrous characters that can keep a reader entertained for hours! There's plenty of room for rereading, and I think that I've got lots to look forward to from Hanuvar yet! Don't miss out on something the fantasy genre sorely needs more of! Grab your copy on August 1st!

Sunday 9 July 2023

The Ross 248 Project

Humanity has a future amongst the stars. One such star system is the Ross 248 system which sits 10 light years away from Earth. As a red dwarf star Ross gives off less intense radiation than our sun, but is much dimmer. The creators of the anthology, Les Johnson and Ken Roy (real scientists who've also done some real great fiction) chose this because it was suitable for their purposes. They modeled the system on the Trappist-1 planetary system, which gives the readers (and importantly the writers) a shared universe with firm rules to play in. In doing so they draw on real science, and extrapolations of other existing scientific ideas to create the fascinating world of The Ross 248 Project.

In the 27th Century, so the premise goes, four starships; Ceres' Chariot, Copernicus, Guardian E, and 34-of-Kristie, arrive within decades of one another within the Ross 248 system and begin establishing habitats for the various peoples of humanity. By the 25th Century, in the background, there's a few distinct groups. Regular humans from Earth and her Lunar colonies, Cerites who are the genetically modified peoples that live on Ceres, Artificial Intelligences which propagate through careful selection of futures, and members of the Space Patrol, a transnational military arm of Earth and her colonies which exists to protect people from the dangers of space or the domination of space as a tactic against other factions. These are the different groups populating the stories.

Below I will be posting largely spoiler free reviews of these stories!

Garden of Serpents (Patrick Chiles): Arriving at Ross 248e, a small planet optimistically named Eden, the Space Patrol vessel Guardian E heads into this seemingly good to colonize world to set up a beach head so the scientists can get down to business. The soldiers go first to make sure there isn't anything that decides humans are tasty with whatever the local variant of ketchup is. Private Chandler makes his way down with his fellows and at first its nothing but a boring patrol, and then members of his unit begin to disappear without a trace. Well paced and full of a subtle edge of threat, I enjoyed this one because it set the tone for the potential dangers of an alien world right off the bat. It also has a good communication between soldiers, with a good sense of duty mixed in. The ending is suitably thrilling, and one which I think may take readers by surprise!

The only critique I might personally offer is that, tonally, it seemed off with the rest of the anthology. There was nothing wrong with the story at all however. Chiles characterization and prose are excellent.

And a Child Shall Lead Them (Stephanie Osborn): The Cerites from the Solar System are setting up their own little colony on the airless moon Liber and Arinna, a Cerite who has not yet reached adulthood to earn the 'C' prefix to her name like her parents C'Ekeko and C'Eiru, or her awkward suitor C'Helios, is working on her study of the star Ross 248 itself. It's difficult as a child among her people to be taken seriously, and occasionally she resents that fact. However, she does know a lot about stars, but will it be enough to convince them that something potentially disastrous is coming? The "disaster movie" vibe of this story was terrific in the best sense of the word. It has enough legwork put in by Osborn that the growing sense of unease hits you early on, and then the pel mel scramble as the story builds is gripping to read. My biggest problem was leaving my lunch break and not finishing it in one sitting!

Once again, nothing wrong with the story, as it is functionally amazing and well plotted with its highs and lows. However, without a concrete understanding of Cerite biology going in immediately the reader may be somewhat lost as they could find the flow confusing without knowing the ins and outs of Cerite society. That said, it sets up the Purple Parrot Bar, a water cooler which will show up again and again in this anthology!

Philosophical and Material Foundations of the Space Patrol (Brent Ziarnick): Less of a story and more of a treatise on this universe's Space Patrol, its founding, and what it represents as an institution and its goals. I loved this one because it takes real history and ideas and fleshes them out into what an institution could be and why it might be called for. In case no one had picked it up, the Space Patrol is based off Interplanetary Patrol from Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet novel, with similar goals and a relative detachment from national governments as well. It is institutionally further fleshed out with more for readers to understand. While I enjoyed it, I did hope we got a bit more of the "future history" to set up this institution, but it comes only in the broadest sense. Still well written from a philosophical perspective and worth checking out in the anthology just for its ponderings.

Somebody's World (Laura Montgomery): Yes, in space, we will still have lawyers. Laura Montgomery writes an interesting depiction of salvage rights in another solar system. I must sadly say I did not really enjoy this story. Not that it was boring, as it offered some tantalizing mysteries, but the argument between the lawyers of whether they had the right to settle the planet, who owned it, ect, seemed so trite. It didn't help that there does not seem to be a large oversight body which can definitively come down on what the law is, even the Space Patrol seeming nebulous in that regard. Without a sense of stakes, who benefits, or why this is the most important thing for us to be doing, the story felt wound together from twine with my suspension of disbelief constantly at a dangerous breaking point. Perhaps someone with more background in law than myself would be riveted, but it just wasn't for me.

Kraken Rising (Daniel M. Hoyt & E. Marshall Hoyt): Set on the water world of Poseidon, we get a front row seat to some intense machinations between scientists. The brilliant, but distractible, scientist Adam believes he can turn the water world into a planet humans can easily inhabit quickly. His old friend and colleague Sabrina, is at odds with his data, and the project managers of the whole endeavor see no point in trying to run a messy colonization effort that stands a not inconsiderable chance of also ruining the planet for life for centuries if it goes wrong. Unfortunately, Adam decided he knows better. It's a race against time to see who can reach him first and, hopefully, make sense of his plans. Its a fun story told in flashbacks, present action scenes, and with some running scientific explanations. I loved this story because it was two well established characters and a deteriorating friendship all against the backdrop of a potential doomsday device going off! The action was solid, and the imagery they evoked of a water world always trapped in a slight crimson storm painted a haunting, yet beautiful, picture in my mind. The Hoyts knocked this story out of the park, one of my favorites in the anthology!

Terraforming Planets Under a Red Sun (Matthew S. Williams): Another essay versus a story. However, this one is great for prospective science fiction writers who enjoy info which could be invaluable to world building. Williams writes a great essay chock full of useful scientific information.

Dim Carcosa (D. J. Butler): Private Investigator Prashanth Satyadeva on Toe Hold is having trouble. First, he has a series of strange and unrelenting dreams that claw at his mind when he sleeps, depriving him of rest. Secondly, the daughter of the colonies one coffee consortium (and thus fabulously wealthy family) has gone missing and no one knows where she may have gone. That means he has to navigate the currently decaying colony to try and track her down. But life on Toe Hold is difficult as a resource shortage and crammed living space is making people much more tribal than they may have been even a decade ago. Can he navigate the various factions on Toe Hold, keep his head on his shoulders, and figure out what is wrong with his head? A really clever detective story, and I'm a sucker for science fiction crime stories. With a readers deeper understanding of the issues in Ross 248 by this point, there's a lot to enjoy as Prashanth works his way through the corridors of the various habitats. If you understand the title reference, you'll find this story extra fun!

Echoes of a Beating Heart (Robert E. Hampson): Childhood can be hard, especially when you're not technically a child. Davey is a young Artificial Intelligence growing up with a human family on Eden while his mother (the AI that 'birthed' him, Juno) resides aboard a ship. His human 'parents' Hans and Molly are helping socialize him with humans. However, Davey, like any child, is bored and a bit moody. What can his whole family do? Fortunately, a new family moves into the dome where he resides and they soon begin getting together and researching the planet itself. They start their own adventures, and like any children on the cusp of being teens, get into trouble. As someone who is never particularly moved by stories about AI, I have to commend Hampson for how he wrote about a hypothetical development and childhood of AI. It made for an extremely compelling story of maturing, fitting in, and how what are effectively two different life forms can interact and thrive in the same environment. The friendships and family bonds formed are quite touching, and you see the work put in by all participants to keep the children, mechanical and biological, safe and thriving. Definitely one of the best in the anthology.

1-of-Antonia (Monalisa Foster): Taking a bit of a break from the Ross 248 system, we travel back to Pluto where AIs have their own little culture. It is also where humans go to immerse themselves in virtual reality. How this works is well explored by Foster as a man refuses to leave his virtual world and an AI, the titular heroine, is tasked with bringing him out. It's a bit off kilter at first getting run back to the Sol System, but the story it establishes works to immerse you more in how virtual reality is placed into this setting. I did enjoy the way this story played with how the lure of virtual worlds could be addicting, maybe even semi-soul destroying.

MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure) (J. L. Curtis): Another detective story, but with a buddy cop addition. Nik and Bear, two members of the Patrol, one human and one AI, are tasked with taking over the banking system on the world of Nordheim in the emerging colony of New Hope. There they will run transactions, and most importantly, police errors in the system which could spawn disasters. Unfortunately for them, at New Hope there seems to be many disasters, but small. Why are they only showing up now, and who is behind it? Why would someone want to sabotage a thriving new colony? Curtis runs the angles well here, with a fun mystery that obscures the outcome for readers. Is it a rebellious AI? Some shady human faction? Curtis leads you through this with lots of clever worldbuilding, funny characters and high stakes. Definitely one of the best installments in the anthology!

A Field of Play (K. S. Daniels): Once again back in the Solar System at Pluto, we have our first all AI cast working for human good. Yato and Noburu, the 'children' of the AI Chandra, are tasked with running a simulation of the future for a wealthy client. In doing so they make some disturbing discoveries about humanities trajectory and fall into the robotic version of despair. How can you make your imperative to protect humans align with what looks like the mathematical certainty of human caused self-destruction? Daniels writes a convincing voice for AI, while also presenting them with a fascinating problem to solve. I absolutely can't spoil this one because it has elements that bring much of the anthology together!

Not Too Tired (Les Johnson & Ken Roy): The story by the men who put it all together! Unfortunately, I can't go very deep into details as it picks up almost as a direct sequel to Field of Play with narrative elements which takes from almost every other story. Needless to say, you combine the hard science these two authors have with some well driven conflict set up over the arcs of these smaller stories, and you arrive at some excellent drama to end the anthology off on!

As usual, Baen has delivered us an anthology packed to the brim with excellent stories. Filled with hard science fiction, and a few fantastic elements, you have an anthology that delivers all the perils of settling a new star system from the comforts of your home. If you love space colonization stories, don't miss this one!

Friday 28 April 2023

Antimatter Blues

In this greatly anticipated sequel to Mickey7 summer has come to the world of Niflheim. Mickey is enjoying what he hopes to be a pleasant change in career paths, while avoiding the potential wrath of colony administrator Hieronymous Marshall who still hates him on general principle. Unfortunately, with the change in season comes unforeseen consequences for the colony. The mysterious aliens the creepers are still skulking about, but there are new and unforeseen threats on the horizon. Mickey may find himself called out of retirement in his job as an Expendable whether he likes it or not. Thus he finds himself with a case of the Antimatter Blues.

Picking up roughly two years after the events of Mickey7, the colonists have managed to get things more or less up and running. However, disaster threatens as their reactor seems to be going haywire. And unfortunately for them, the only source of readily available fuel in the region just happens to be in the hands of the inscrutable aliens. And what do these aliens know about antimatter?

Mickey Barnes is once again our cheerfully irreverent and wisecracking protagonist who is, as per usual, in way over his head. Seeing this world through his eyes is a delight, and he brings a sort of everyman view to the utterly fantastic. Doing his best not to get murdered by a furious Marshall, the local fauna, or even a beat down from his girlfriend Nasha who is, understandably, annoyed by some of his antics. That level of pressure would cause anyone to crack, but not Mickey, whose unenviable immortality allows him to have a sense of detachment from things while also not quite wanting to have to be killed in the line of duty again just yet.

His supporting cast of Berto and Nasha is still excellent. They both offer some witty ripostes to one another, but still act as his friends. Nasha definitely has his back no matter what the circumstances, while Berto can be seen as a little more suspect. His friend, perhaps former lover, Cat, is still around and still looking out for him too.

Niflheim now that it isn't a massive iceball, has more to offer the colonists too. That doesn't make it any less dangerous however! Dangers lurk (literally) just beneath the surface in some places. The creepers are not the only threat, and the colonists are only just realizing that they have explored so little of the planet that it could represent an overall fatal end to their whole endeavor to fling the light of human consciousness further into the void!

I won't spoil anything because this is one book you simply have to read. I'll just say we get lots of action, and plenty of high minded philosophy just like the first novel. I genuinely love how much thought gets put into the situations our characters are in. They assess their options and (rarely) go in shooting as a first resort. Mickey himself thinks on his feet and manages to make the right call, more or less, most of the time.

Amazing sequel to a stellar piece of science fiction. Definitely take the time to read it! I couldn't put it down!

Sunday 16 April 2023

Serpent Sword

Welcome once again to the world of Battle for the Wastelands in the newest installment of Matthew Quinn's epic steampunk fantasy Serpent Sword! Picking up shortly where the first installment left off, the Merrills are fighting hard to drive as fast as they can to the old capital Jacinto so they can stop the rush of Grendel's numerically superior armies and maybe, just maybe, carve out a land where they can be free. Will our heroes manage to keep Grendel on his heels, or will his forces end up grinding the Merrills into the dust?

As a disclaimer, I was given an advance copy for review purposes.

The sequel is undoubtedly more action packed than the initial installment, with a long series of short, sharp, vicious fights that never let me tear my eyes away from the page for too long. It's a huge rollercoaster from start to finish. The action is up front, up close and personal, and more in line with what we'd semi-recognize in the modern world as the two sides, the Merrills now better equipped with Old World weaponry, and the forces of Grendel now better armed with the might of the Northlands behind them, get to grips with one another. In a nice touch, we often see the Merrills trying to conserve all that Old World weaponry, while Grendel can use it with (relative) impunity.

Andrew Sutter is in the thick of the fray this time as some of the hard riding and hard fighting cavalry at the tip of the spear of the rebel advance. He gets some wonderful character building in a few scenes (and some fun with his new squeeze, Alyssa) which helps ground him and the whole rebel struggle. We, mostly, see the action of the war through his eyes as Alonzo Merrill is either politicking, directing strategy, and the big bad Grendel is doing the same.

Speaking of everyone's favorite warlord, Grendel is once again in action. This time he's first picking up the pieces of the now unlamented dead Jasper Clark, formerly of the Flesh Eating Legion. Rebellious generals, unreliable vassals, and tantalizing hints of what lies across the desert are all at the heart of his worries in this volume. Once again I loved reading the villain perspective. His concern for whether his empire will survive, and how it will survive is at the forefront of his musings. He is seriously concerned about how to keep one (or more) of his unruly vassals from turning on him if his military situation goes south. Indeed, he sees the rebellion as more of a distraction than anything else.

That said, he's just as concerned about his impulsive son Falki. With Falki in the fight he still has a stable of concubines and heirs back home, but they're engaged in harem politics of their own. This is another potential headache as the chaos of war may prompt some unwise decisions by them. One in particular, the imprisoned Catalina Merrill, is still scheming and trying to remind her son of his true heritage. 

Catalina is a much more active character in this book. Though she is still imprisoned, she acts out in small ways to try and influence Grendel, whether appealing to his political nature, or by establishing covert links with the resistance in her homeland. Her plot was quite thrilling to read here as it has all the hallmarks of a spy thriller, but also shows just how villainous Grendel can be. In one memorable scene he calmly talks about destroying the remnants of her family and subjecting her people to a cruel rule, only to ride in as a savior on a white horse and free them from the very oppression he forced on them. It was a very cold and calculating plan, and Grendel's villainous impulses are so well written by Quinn that I loved any scene Grendel was in because of it.

The action too, of course, cannot be faulted. From fighting armored trains, battles with mutants, and the delightful use of language to establish the setting, we have some unique scenes. For me, the most visceral came when the Blood Alchemy Host, one of Grendel's more disturbing band of allies and literal monsters, got involved. It raised the stakes considerably, and had some grim and gruesome connotations. Let's just say, weasels are not fun when they grow past a certain size!

With the Merrills outnumbered and outgunned though, they must resort to desperate measures to try and win a peace on their terms. Hence the name of the book itself. I won't give away any spoilers, but for fans of The Romanov Rescue by Tom Kratman, you'll definitely see something you like in this book! From start to finish Quinn is clever in his use of the technology in his world, and all the ways it can be exploited against the enemy!

Definitely worth checking out, and please go out and support Matthew Quinn with this excellent new steampunk series!

Monday 20 March 2023

Invasion of Iraq Twenty Years On

On this day in 2003, the announcement was made that land operations were being undertaken against Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the Ba'ath Party which had brutally ruled it for decades. In a little over a month, the Coalition forces overran Iraq and occupied the country. The invasion, while an unqualified military success, contained almost no planning for the political and economic aftermath. Almost immediately Iraq fell into anarchy and the forces of occupation had to struggle to maintain order. A rising insurgency, civil war, and unclear strategic goals, lead to a chaotic war that attempted to stabilize the country. Even so, this paved the way for the nihilistic death cult of ISIL to expand into a power vacuum. Overall, the strategic aims of the United States and it's allies failed spectacularly, and plunged the region into continued chaos with effects that are still felt to this day.

The war began on extremely dubious justification. We now know that ever since the day of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration was looking for a way to attack Iraq or somehow blame them for the exportation of terror around the world. Enter the extremely nebulous "Weapons of Mass Destruction" which were toted by the administration as the reason Iraq had to be invaded. They were never found. Instead, there was a post-facto justification for "spreading democracy" and rebuilding Iraq, despite the men who decided to invade Iraq having no intention to do anything of the sort.

Over the course of the intervention the US did topple a dictator, but had to spend blood and treasure on rebuilding the country because they had no plans to do so. The appointed governor/dictator Paul Bremer then proceeded to sow the seeds for a brutal little civil war and cock up creating a government quite badly. This allowed nearly a decade of violence to be played out with only a few bright spots until the withdrawal was negotiated and agreed to by the US, with all Coalition troops leaving by the end of 2011. Unfortunately, in linking the war to the wider war on terror the US had allowed terror cells and movements the ability to coalesce around Iraq and use it as a rallying cry. The Iraqi government then became embroiled in sectarian fights which led to the rise of ISIS, necessitating the US to deploy to Iraq once again.

Most damningly, throughout it all Iran steadily increased its own powerbase in the country and plays a large role in internal Iraqi politics to this day. Making an entire aspect of the ostensible reason for the US to be there pointless! It was a strategic failure from start to finish, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, most of them civilian.

In short, it was a baseless, brutal, nasty war that served no purpose.

Yet, against the odds, to this day there are people who will say it was the right decision. Everything from saying "well weapons of mass destruction could have existed" to "well we overthrew a dictator!" Which is all so much whitewashing. The consequences of the US's unsanctioned invasion of Iraq are with us to this day as it showed that power could flout international norms, and the wars we see from Ukraine to Armenia are now proof that countries are willing to use violence to settle their differences in a way we had assumed was not possible or desirable at the end of the Cold War. The casual flouting of the idea of a rules based international order will have consequences far down the road that we cannot yet conceive of.

I was young when the war started, but I have a vivid memory of watching the news one night and seeing the announcement that the invasion of Iraq had started. I turned to my father and said "Dad, am I watching history right now?" 

"Yes, this is history," he said.

What I most vividly remember leading up to the war was the divisiveness, with many media pundits and commentators (and even our then Prime Minister, Jean Chretien) disagreeing with the US policy. The UN was telling people there were no weapons of mass destruction hiding under rocks anywhere, while the Bush Administration aggressively said they were. This was, of course, all lies based on either deliberately selected faulty intelligence or willful ignorance, but it took a long time to discover that.

I remember Jon Stewart lampooning most of discourse leading up to the invasion, and the backlash that he got. France in particular for spurning the American claims so much that there was a briefly known as freedom fries. Journalists who questioned the honesty of the decisions leading up to the war were branded as unpatriotic, while even the Dixie Chicks - as they were then known - received threats for being insufficiently patriotic.

Discourse was heavily divided, the evidence was lacking, and even as a youth I could see that, but the war went ahead anyways. Maybe I'm more cynical because I've looked back on those years and just finished reading some excellent books on the decision making processes, the rush to judgement, and the terrible mistakes made during the war. My mind was further hardened after a visit to the George W. Bush museum in Texas last year where I saw the ongoing effort to whitewash the war. However, even with hindsight, I am happy I was such a little radical as to oppose the war at a young age and still be a staunch critic of it now.

What makes me sad is all the blood, death, and destruction visited on countries that had nothing to do with 9/11, the losses of so many innocents, and the ongoing sectarian and regional violence it has enabled. This war leaves many scars and will have a long shadow cast over not only the Middle East, but the United States as well.

Saturday 18 March 2023

The Last of Us Season 1

In 2003, a mutated fungus which had managed to make its way to human hosts through contaminated crops caused a global outbreak. In mere weeks millions were infected and driven by the urge to spread the infection. The Cordyceps Brain Infection wrought havoc on the globe and forced humanity back into fortified strongholds, leaving those who could not flee behind its walls to fend for themselves in a crumbling wilderness.

On the day of the infection, Joel (Pedro Pascal), his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) and his daughter Sara (Nico Parker) are trying to flee like so many others, only for tragedy to strike and his daughter dies in his arms. Twenty years later, he is estranged from his brother and living in the Boston Quarantine Zone (QZ) working as a smuggler alongside his love interest Tess. He gets an offer to transport a girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) to the headquarters of a group of freedom fighters called the Fireflies. In doing so, he might just save humanity.

Thus begins probably the greatest videogame adaptation of all time in The Last of Us. Spoilers follow!

The opening episode is one of the best adaptations of a game I've ever seen. Expanding on game material and the constraints of live acting, it delivers an amazing rendition of the chaos of the early infection and the loss suffered by the characters. It establishes the bleak tone of this post-apocalyptic world, fleshes out our main characters, and gets the message of grim reality across amazingly well. By the end I couldn't wait to see episode two and what might happen next.

The Last of Us, through its first few episodes, had moments before the opening credits rolled that set up how the virus was scientifically feasible for fiction purposes, as well as showing us some events from before the outbreak. The very first episode opens with a fake TV interview from 1968 in which two scientists talk about their fears over the future. One, portrayed by John Hannah, presciently warns that in a warming Earth many terrible diseases, but also fungus, could well end up infecting humans. In the second episode this is also done through the reaction of a mycologist in Indonesia discovering the first victims of the infection mere days before the outbreak. While a few pre-outbreak moments take place in other opening episodes, it was a sad thing to see that it was dropped across a few and we instead got into the immediate opening credits. I had hoped that each episode would open with some backstory, a cool scene spinning the pre-outbreak world or the post-outbreak aftermath before the present, but I can understand the time constraints.

In episode three, we have one of the bigger divergences for possibly the best post-apocalyptic love story ever told. It's the meeting of lone and closeted survivalist Bill (Nick Offerman) - who has effectively turned himself into Robert Neville from I am Legend - is bunkered down in an abandoned town. One day a trap is set off by Frank (Murray Bartlett) and the two develop an unlikely romance. In a short film style we explore their relationship, problems, and introduction to Joel and Tess. It was a bit of a departure from the full plot, but it expands the emotional stakes for Joel and Ellie each, while also telling one of the most tear jerking stories I've seen in a while. Simply a phenomenal episode.

Episodes four and five are a smaller arc where the characters take a detour through Kansas City only to be caught up in the aftermath of a violent revolution against the old authorities. Kathleen (Melanie Lynskey) has inspired her followers to rebel and take the city from them and is engaged in a brutal series of reprisals. Here the two leads meet Henry (Lamar Johnson) and Sam (Keivon Woodard) who must work together to escape. In an action packed finale, we see that the wages of revenge are death, and just how bleak this world is! Wonderful series of scenes and acting which made it all come together.

Episode six sees Joel and Ellie meeting up with Tommy again, and meeting his new wife Maria (Rutina Wesley). In some extremely humorous explorations of survivor politics and ideas, we see the brothers reunite and Jeol and Ellie bond. It sets up the ending quite well.

Another small arc in episodes seven and eight address the final bonding of the pair, and an effective flashback to Ellie's discovery of her immunity. It also giving us one of the most iconic game villains, the cult leader David (Scott Shephard). David is an excellent foil as the sinister leader, and his introduction was a magnificent turn around and play on expectations while being supremely well acted. His creepy obsession with Ellie and desire to dominate her is fiendishly portrayed, and the final showdown is perfect. Joel's rampage through his followers sets up the final act of the show quite well.

Episode nine is probably the most divisive for me personally. It's very short for one, probably one of the shortest episodes. It also hews extremely closely to the game which, while very inspiring as an adaptation, felt like it missed some opportunities to do some legwork for the second season. Well done and effective at tugging your emotions, it could have been better I feel.

Overall however, the show is amazing. The acting of Pascal and Ramsey is stupendous with Pascal bringing out the jaded survivor in Joel and the ferocious protectiveness of a father who has already lost one child. Ramsey's portrayal as the 14 year old Ellie is really well done, and she's hilarious to watch, while delivering some amazing lines and well acted scenes. Her chemistry with Pascal is also excellent, making the pair an effective onscreen team.

The supporting cast is also amazing. One of the best performances I felt was given by Lynskey as Kathleen, where she hammered home how brutal this world is, even just between people.

The chemistry of the characters was superb, and we saw many important bonds formed. This was, ostensibly, a zombie show. However, the infected do not take center stage and are mostly an environmental threat, not the drivers of the plot. While the infection is omnipresent, zombies and killing them is not the point of the show. That made it a nice departure from The Walking Dead, but also allowed viewers to focus on the story and the more human element. It added something to the genre that really hadn't existed for a while.

Departures from the game and additions to the story we well done, and for myself, pretty universally well received. I think this is destined to go down as one of the best adaptations of all time, with an amazing story being told and being visually stunning. Definitely one to watch!

Friday 10 March 2023

Tress of the Emerald Sea

As part of his record setting kickstarter campaign Brandon Sanderson revealed he had a batch of secret novels he had written and planned to publish across the coming year. The first of these was Tress of the Emerald Sea, a touching and extremely humorous story in answer to the question "What if Buttercup went looking for Wesley rather than assuming he was dead?" as its' genesis. Honestly, it delivers so well in Wit and style that this is easily in my top ten list for one of the best books of 2023.

Some general spoilers and cosmere related information follows!

Once again Sanderson crafts a clever and unique world for the reader. Set on a world where spores rain down from the moons, filling the 'oceans' which are moved through the process of fluidization (air drifting up from deep vents causes the 'ground' to move and behave like a fluid). These are no ordinary spores however! Each possesses different properties, from the merely annoying, to the magical and deadly. It is on the Verdant Sea where Tress lives on The Rock, a small, unprepossessing little island where not much happens, but due to its strategic location no one is allowed to leave.

Against that backdrop the titular Tress leads a largely unexciting life. She washes windows at the Duke's manor, takes care of her parents, and talks with the 'gardener' Charlie, who she conveniently pretends is not the Duke's son and heir.

Tragedy strikes when he must leave the island to find a bride suitable for his station. Instead, he finds himself shipped off to try and bargain with the evil Sorceress of the Midnight Sea and is captured. When the king refuses to ransom him, Tress must set off herself to rescue him. Cue pirates, talking rats, Hoid, and many other highjinks which come to befuddle our poor protagonist!

Told through the voice of Hoid himself, we get a delightful story filled with a more mundane magic than Sanderson usually gives, but one no less exciting. It is cosmere related, so many hints from previous stories and other elements play a great part in bringing the whole world to light. For more cosmere aware fans this one is extremely exciting! I myself was making connections that had me more and more eager for the greater cosmere universe.

We also have a lot of humour, but in Sanderson's signature style, genuine tenderness and acts of redemption. An entire ship of pirates seeking to do penance for their crimes provides for a rich backdrop of characters. Tress gets some great moments with them, and her own personality and attitudes towards not wanting to impose are consistent, filled with growth, and wonderful examples of mercy, humility, and overcoming simply staggering odds.

With the nearly whimsical style that the story is told in the reader is almost led along by Sanderson's prose. You're pulled through the narrative rather than having to do any work to read it! I had difficulty putting it down, and ended up reading the last two thirds of the book in one sitting! I genuinely loved the story and characters, but the work was also visually beautiful. 

Like many of Sanderson's recent releases, his work has come to include art from many artists which brings the story to life. It added to my imagination and also set up some humorous images for the reader (a particular one near the end had me in peals of laughter). It's not just a work of art, but a beautiful rendering of the cosmere itself.

Take some time to inject a little joy and hope into your life, get your hands on a copy and enjoy the ride!