Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Get some free games! For free!

Two of the online video game stores are giving away free games this week to entice people to look at their December sales.

Ubiplay has put up Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag for free for this week. This nautical take on the Assassin's Creed franchise is often cited as the best game in the series and an easy one to start off with.

GoG also has Grim Fandango Remastered up for free for this week. Originally released in 1998 by LucasArts, Grim Fandango is comfortably one of the best video games and certainly one of the best adventure games of all time. The remastered edition adds a revamped and much-improved mouse control system and enhanced graphics.

The Planet Factory by Elizabeth Tasker

Up to the early 1990s, the discussion of how life is formed and how many habitable planets there may be in our galaxy was massively restricted by us having only one star system - our own - and only eight planets and two dwarf planets to study. In the last quarter of a century, that has radically changed. 3,710 confirmed planets circling other stars have been discovered, with an additional 15,000 suspected to exist and awaiting verification. We have gone from having a handful of planets to look at to veritably drowning in them, with more discovered almost every month.

The key question is can any of these planets harbour life, even intelligent life, and if they do how can we find them? And how do you build a planet and a solar system anyway?

Astrophysicist Elizabeth Tasker tackles a large number of questions in her book. It looks at how the Earth was formed and the role played by the rest of the Solar system in its creation. This involves a detailed look at the phenomenon which, highly unusually, resulted in our gas giants ending up in quite distant orbits from the Sun (most gas giants end up orbiting their stars at a mere fraction of the orbit of Mercury, becoming so-called "hot Jupiters"), allowing the Earth to form unmolested in the inner Solar system. The book also looks at how water is formed and gets deposited on planets, and the degree to which water is essential for life or if other substances could be used.

The book also explores several dozen of the more exotic exoplanets, including worlds which orbit pulsars and are fried in their radiation beams on a regular basis; worlds covered in thick tar and others where diamonds literally rain out of the sky. There are water worlds with oceans thousands of kilometres deep and frozen iceballs which have been catapulted out of their parent systems and now wander on their own between the stars. These descriptions are vivid and show how chemistry and physics can combine to create worlds far stranger than any science fiction has come up with.

The book is approachable, with occasional dips into more complex discussions of chemistry and orbital resonances, but for the most part the book is perfectly readable for the layman. There's a nice line of humour in the book and the use of pop culture references to explain how certain planets work (a chapter on exomoons compares them to the Forest Moon of Endor from Star Wars, for example, and the one on rogue planets briefly invokes the Transformers homeworld of Cybertron which was likewise blasted out of its orbit around its home star).

The book also explains the techniques used for detecting exoplanets and how they are being refined further to look for planets the size of the Earth, or smaller, and how we may be able to pick up the telltale signs of life through atmospheric conditions.

One of the things I liked most about the book was its upbeat tone. Given that exoplanets seem to have added a whole load of extra steps to the conditions necessary to have life, it would have been easy to have concluded that if life is out there, it's even rarer than we thought and would be very difficult to find. However, Tasker instead keeps showing how even the craziest worlds may still be able to give rise to (at least) bacteriological or microbial life. In one of the most positive chapters, she even looks at the problems Earth has had in developing life - its frequent ice ages as the result of Milankovitch cycles caused by the gravitational tugs on its orbit by other planets, its occasional collision with large asteroids - and postulates planets that wouldn't have these problems and where life and even intelligent life could develop much more quickly than on Earth.

The Planet Factory (****½) is a fast-paced and readable non-fiction book which expands on current science, explains planet formation theories in an approachable way and is highly informative. It's also a good watch of catching up on what is a very rapidly-evolving field. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Monday, 11 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 17-18

C17: War Without End, Part 2
Airdates: 20 May 1996 (US), 11 August 1996 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Michael Laurence Vejar
Cast: Ambassador Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), Zathras (Tim Choate), Major Krantz (Kent Broadhurst), Babylon 4 Executive Officer (Bruce Morrow), Centauri Guard (Kevin Fry), B4 Tech (Eddie Mui), Voice (Melissa Gilbert – uncredited)

Date: Parts of this episode take place in 2254, late 2258 (coinciding with the time period of episode A20), January 2278 and approximately one thousand years in the past.

Plot:    On the Centauri Prime of the future a stunned Sheridan tries to find out what’s going on. Londo tells him that it is seventeen years since Sheridan started his great crusade against the Shadows and, although he defeated them, he failed to eliminate their allies, who have apparently devastated Centauri Prime in retribution for their defeat. Londo tells Sheridan he will be executed for his crimes and is returned to his cell. He is soon joined by an aged Delenn, who tell him that their son is safe and that she loves him. They are brought before Londo again, but Londo is now inebriated by drink. He tells them that drink is the only thing that can keep "it" asleep and shows them a strange parasitic alien creature attached to his shoulder, his "Keeper" as he calls it. He tells them he has arranged for them to escape on a Centauri shuttle, telling them that in return for sparing them he wants their forces to liberate Centauri Prime from its conquerors. They agree and depart. After they have gone G’Kar, missing an eye, enters and Londo tells him that if his Keeper awakens it will know what Londo has done and will stop Delenn and Sheridan from escaping. G’Kar agrees to put Londo out of his misery and starts strangling him, but the Keeper awakens and Londo tries to fight back. Later, Vir enters, finds the two corpses, and reaches for the Emperor’s circlet. Outside, Sheridan is pulled back to his own time and Delenn urges him not to go Z’ha’dum.

Meanwhile, back in 2254 Sinclair and the others board Babylon 4 and fake a hull breach in one section, arranging for the whole area to be sealed off. They begin preparing to send Babylon 4 through time and Sheridan reappears. Zathras has fixed his time stabiliser to some degree using extra power from a spacesuit’s battery, but it is still not fully functional. Sheridan and Sinclair enter Babylon 4’s fusion reactor and begin placing the equipment needed to begin the time jump, but a power spike causes the system to overload and move the station forwards in time. Zathras stops it, but the station has moved forwards in time by some four years, to 2258. Soon ships from Babylon 5 approach and events unfold as they did before (in episode A20). Sheridan vanishes again due to the time malfunction but reappears. During the confusion Delenn has a flash-forward similar to the one experienced by Sinclair and Garibaldi two years ago: she is in Sheridan’s quarters, watching him sleep. The door opens and a woman says, “Hello?”, shocking Delenn. She wakes up again, confused, on B4. Delenn swaps her time stabiliser for Sheridan’s and dons his spacesuit as well. Zathras is captured by B4 Security, meets with the past Garibaldi and Sinclair, and they see a spacesuited figure (Delenn) appear outside, who Zathras claims is "The One". Zathras gives Delenn the fixed time stabiliser to stop her leaping around in time and Zathras encourages the past crew to abandon ship as a new time jump begins. The B4 crew and their rescuers abandon the station and return to Babylon 5, just before Babylon 4 vanishes.

The crew reconvene in B4 C&C. Sinclair has aged some 20 years, apparently due to being exposed to the time field for a second time and not having a time stabiliser the first time he was exposed to it (in A20). He guesses that the closer he moves to his own time he will get older and older before dying, which is why he didn't want Garibaldi along on the trip. He volunteers to take Babylon 4 personally back in time to a thousand years in the past and Zathras agrees to go with him. Zathras tells Sinclair that the One is actually three people, the One who was, is and will be. He says that Sinclair is the One Who Was, Delenn is the One Who Is and that Sheridan is the One Who Will Be. The remainder of the crew abandon ship and return to the present.

The White Star reappears in 2260 and heads back to Babylon 5. Draal collapses and seals the time distortion in Sector 14 once and for all. Along the way Delenn explains some of what has transpired. She tells them that if B4 had appeared with a human on board, her people would never have accepted it. She also tells them that the triluminaries - the devices used by the Minbari Grey Council and by Delenn to perform her transformation - originated on Epsilon III. Marcus, shocked, recalls that the Minbari histories claim that Valen was a "Minbari not born of Minbari". Delenn tells Sheridan that her transformation was to close a door opened 1,000 years ago, the door that allowed Minbari souls to be born in human bodies...

1,000 years into the past, Babylon 4 appears. Several Minbari battleships detect its appearance and arrive to investigate, to find that two Vorlon transports are already on hand. On board they are greeted by a Minbari who says his name is Valen and grants them Babylon 4 as a place to be used against the Shadows, but there is much work to do...


Sunday, 10 December 2017

THE WITCHER TV show gets a showrunner

Netflix have tapped Lauren Schmidt Hissrich to helm their television adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher books.

Hissrich was a writer and co-executive producer on Netflix's Jessica Jones, Daredevil and The Defenders, as well as a producer on Power and a staff writer on The West Wing. This continues Netflix's tradition of promoting from within and giving writers and producers on their shows a shot at running their own projects later on.

The Witcher books chart the adventures on Geralt of Rivia, a monster-hunter who initially spends his time hunting and fighting monsters in the wilderness. Despite being a loner, he gradually attracts a number of allies, including the sorceresses Yennefer and Triss, the enigmatic young woman Ciri, the bard Dandelion and the dwarf Zoltan.

It is unknown what short stories and books the TV show will adapt, or if they will have anything to do with the highly successful Witcher trilogy of video games, since some of the game personnel will be working on the TV show in the effects department.

The Witcher is not expected to debut on Netflix until mid-to-late 2019 at the earliest.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 15-16

C15: Interludes and Examinations
Airdates: 6 May 1996 (US), 28 July 1996 (UK)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Jésus Treviño
Cast: Dr. Lillian Hobbs (Jennifer Balgobin), David Sheridan (Rance Howard), Morden (Ed Wasser), Ambassador Kosh (Ardwight Chamberlain & Jeffrey Willerth – uncredited), Vendor (Jan Rabson), Brakiri Ambassador (Jonathan Chapman), Ranger (Glenn Martin), Medtech (Doug Tompos), Tech (Mark Ciglar)

Date: 3 August 2260.

Plot:    Ten days have begun since the Shadows launched their assault on the Brakiri and other worlds. The attacks are random, senseless and unpredictable. Unfortunately, the League worlds are unable to stand up to the Shadow vessels, but on the other hand the Shadows have not yet attacked their homeworlds. Sheridan calls a meeting with the Brakiri and Gaim ambassadors, since the Brakiri have been hardest hit and the Gaim are their nearest neighbours. The Gaim have not yet been attacked and refuse to draw attention to themselves by aiding the Brakiri. After some negotiation, the Gaim agree to send ships to help the Brakiri, but only if Sheridan demonstrates they actually stand a chance against the Shadows by providing them with a victory.

Morden arrives on the station in secret, bribing a guard to circumvent Customs. He confronts Londo, annoyed that Londo has somehow arranged for all contact between Morden and the Centauri Royal Court to be cut off. Londo refuses to heed Morden’s threats or warnings and walks off, telling Morden that he cannot do anything more to him than has already been done. Morden notices that Vir is quite busy arranging something for Londo and learns that Londo’s one-time lover, Adira Tyree, is returning to the station after two and a half years. Morden begins plotting something...

Dr. Franklin loses his temper during an operation and begins to crack up under the stress. Garibaldi and Franklin’s assistant, Dr. Hobbs, both notice this. Franklin is forced to admit he has become addicted to stims and takes a leave of absence from Medlab until he can sort himself out.

Sheridan goes to see Ambassador Kosh and tells him that the War Council they have established is demanding to see a victory over the Shadows, to see that they are not invulnerable, before committing themselves to open warfare against them. Sheridan requests that the Vorlons intercept and destroy a Shadow taskforce, but Kosh refuses. It is not yet time for the Vorlons to enter the fray. Sheridan becomes annoyed, telling Kosh that he and Delenn have put themselves, their careers and their lives on the line because the Vorlons have told them to and now the Vorlons are needed they refuse to get involved? Kosh becomes incensed and comes close to killing Sheridan before admitting he may be right. He warns him that in return for this favour he will not be able to help Sheridan if and when he goes to Z’ha’dum.

A large number of Shadow warships jump into a Brakiri system and go on the rampage. However, a Vorlon fleet appears, led by a huge mothership cruiser. The Shadows, taken completely by surprise, are destroyed and the Vorlons suffer no losses. The League worlds are heartened and sign a formal treaty of alliance with each other, the Minbari, the Narn rebels and Babylon 5. Sheridan’s hope of uniting the lesser worlds against the Shadows seems to be on the verge of actually happening. However, Morden learns of these events and breaks into Kosh’s quarters. His two Shadow associates materialise and attack the Vorlon. Sheridan has an odd dream in which his dad appears and tells him he was too proud and too afraid to help him until it was necessary. A terrific blast of light fills the station and Sheridan discovers that Kosh is dead, murdered by the Shadows in retribution for the Vorlons involving themselves in the war. The Vorlon homeworld sends word that a replacement is on the way and instructs them to place Kosh’s belongings in his ship. The ship then departs the station and dives head-first into the Epsilon Eridani star.

Londo is shocked to discover that Adira is dead, poisoned on the transport before it docks with Babylon 5. He goes to Morden and learns that, just before they broke off relations, Refa expressed his anger and hatred of Londo to Morden for poisoning him and wanted to even the score. Londo demands Morden’s help in getting even, in return for re-opening the doors on Centauri Prime he closed, and Morden agrees.


Thursday, 7 December 2017

Taika Waititi in line for STAR WARS job

Star Wars franchise boss Kathleen Kennedy has said that she is interested in hiring Taika Waititi to direct a future instalment of the space opera franchise. Waititi has delivered a major, successful blockbuster for Marvel in the shape of Thor: Ragnarok and it's no surprise that Lucasfilm (also owned by Marvel's owners, Disney) are interested in seeing if they can sign him up as well.

However, it seems an odd match. Waititi has a laidback, humorous and improvisational style, noting that many of the funniest moments on Ragnarok emerged out of the cast and crew just playing around on-set. This is similar to the approach adopted by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord on the set of Star Wars: Solo, which so horrified Kennedy that she fired them and drafted in Ron Howard to finish the picture. Waititi himself has seemed dubious about tackling the franchise, noting it's less whacky and is less tolerant of changes in tone than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He even said, "Lolz, I like to complete my films. I'd be fired within a week."

Still, it'd be interesting to see what Waititi could do with the franchise, especially one that can occasionally be a bit too Poe-faced for its own good at times.

Netflix developing John Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR as a movie

Netflix have announced that they are developing an original movie based on John Scalzi's 2005 novel Old Man's War.

The book, which riffs off both Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, focuses on an old man who agrees to fight on the front lines in a war against an alien species in return for being given a younger body. The novel has been optioned previously, with some thought in turning it into a movie or a TV series. The novel has five sequels: The Ghost Brigades (2006), The Last Colony (2007), Zoe's Tale (2008), The Human Division (2013) and The End of All Things (2015), ensuring a lengthy franchise if the first movie is a success.

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 13-14

C13: A Late Delivery from Avalon
Airdates: 22 April 1996 (US), 14 July 1996 (US)
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by Michael Laurence Vejar
Cast: Arthur (Michael York), Emmett Farquaha (Michael Kagan), Merchant (Roger Hampton), Old Woman (Dona Hardy), MedTech (James Kiriyama-Lem), Lurker (Robert Schuch), Security Guard #1 (Michael Francis Kelly), Security Guard #2 (Jerry O’Donnell)

Date: mid-July 2260.

Plot:    The starliner Asimov comes through the jump gate, the first Earth ship to visit the station since Babylon 5 broke away from the Alliance three months ago. The ship brings the mail and also an eccentric human claiming to be King Arthur. He boards the station claiming to be needed here. Franklin thinks he’s mentally ill but Marcus ponders if the Vorlons could have frozen him in time like the inquisitor Sebastian. Franklin tests Arthur’s DNA and discovers he is really David MacIntyre, former gunnery sergeant on the EAS Prometheus. The Prometheus was the ship that led the fleet that made first contact with the Minbari. There was a miscommunication and the Prometheus’s captain, thinking the Minbari were about to fire on him, ordered MacIntyre to fire first, thus triggering the death of Dukhat and the start of the Earth-Minbari War. When Franklin confronts MacIntyre with this, he descends into some kind of catatonic state. He only snaps out of it when Delenn forgives him for his actions. Cured, he heads to Narn to help out with the resistance (after befriending G’Kar on the station).

Garibaldi has a package containing foodstuffs waiting for him but is enraged when the B5 Post Office charges him 100 CR to cover the now-extortionate export fees from Earth to the station. He tries to break into the Post Office, but decides to instead blackmail them, accepting a 101 CR bribe not to mention to Sheridan that the Post Office’s quarters and offices are no longer paid for by Earth and thus they should be paying rent.

Sheridan is getting worried about relying on the Minbari too much for defence. He brings together the ambassadors from the League of Non-aligned Worlds, many of whom are fighting each other, and offers the use of Babylon 5 as a free diplomatic centre for negotiations and mediation in return for them donating ships to defend the station. Most accept the offer and additional warships from the League worlds soon arrive to aid the Minbari in defending Babylon 5.


Empire: Total War

1700. The world is divided between several major European powers, a smattering of colonies in the Caribbean and Americas, and the rising power of India, which European nations are starting to take an interest in. There is an opportunity here for an ambitious nation to seize real power and conquer the world through trade, diplomacy...or total war.

Empire: Total War was originally released in 2009 and is the fifth game in the Total War series (following Shogun, Medieval, Rome and Medieval II). It was the first game in the series to use the Warscape engine - which all subsequent games in the series have used - and also the first to move into the early modern period and depict the use of muskets and cannons on a large scale. It was also the first game in the series to actually depict large-scale naval battles between galleons and warships. It also, famously, launched in a broken state with numerous bugs, graphical and AI issues which saw it lambasted by fans.

Eight years later, following numerous patches and the somehow-even-more-disastrous launch of Rome II, Empire's problems have mostly been fixed and the game can now be assessed more in line with how its creators intended it.

For newcomers, Empire: Total War is a strategy game which is divided into two modes. There is a turn-based grand strategic map, on which armies can be formed and assembled, cities can be fortified, towns and factories upgraded and diplomacy and economic agreements formed. When two armies meet, the game switches to a real-time battle map. These battles favour real-life tactics, such as forming  strong lines to pepper enemy lines with fire whilst manoeuvring cavalry to conduct flanking attacks. You can also use artillery to soften up the enemy before closing to battle.

Empire has the widest scope of the entire series. Earlier games mostly focused on the European continent, the Middle East and the north coast of Africa, whilst Medieval II introduced the coast of North America. Empire has three distinct theatres: North America, Europe and India. Europe and India are (slightly awkwardly) linked together on the map, but for most powers the only practical way of moving between the theatres is by ship. This results in different types of military campaigns in the different theatres: a European nation invading India will be constantly outnumbered and will have to secure and hold territory in the face of unrelenting attacks (allying with one of the two native powers and pitting them against one another whilst you carve up the subcontinent is a viable tactic). The colonies in the New World are much less-developed and armies will be more primitive, mostly consisting of native American allies and colonial militia. But back home in Europe much larger armies featuring state-of-the-art equipment are more the rule. Empire feels truly epic.

One of the game's biggest changes is moving most of the buildings out of the cities and into the surrounding countryside, as well as the establishing of towns, secondary settlements lacking heavy defences which warring factions can raid or capture to cut off money. This is a good idea as it drastically reduces the number of sieges, the most repetitive part of any Total War game, and results in far more interesting field battles. It does add more micro-management to the strategic layer, with lots of clicking on towns to find out which ones need to be upgraded, but it does give more Civilization-style options to the gameplay. You can also research new technology, which unlocks new buildings, new units and new weapons.

Graphically, the game has aged very well. Both the strategy map and the in-game battles are fantastically detailed and well-presented, and of course even a moderately capable modern gaming PC will blast out the game with everything switched up to max with no problem at all. The music is excellent and the game can be very atmospheric. Once you get used to the secondary settlements and switching between the different theatres, the game settles into that sweet spot between complexity and simplicity that the best Total War games occupy. The core gameplay mechanic of building armies, fending off attacks, seizing territory, pacifying it and moving on is very moreish and it's not uncommon to get that "just one more turn" feeling that ends with you switching the computer off at 3am. On all of these fronts, Empire delivers the goods.

In other areas, the game is more problematic. The battlefield AI is not great, even on the harder difficulty levels. Some battles will feature stunning enemy tactics such as cavalry riding parallel to your infantry, with the AI happily letting its horses get mown down my your infantry rather than engaging. It's also very easy to set up kill zones and letting enemy armies eagerly rush into them. The campaign map AI is fortunately much stronger, with the computer using diplomacy, feints and tactical withdrawals far more intelligently than on earlier games (although they are still reluctant to engage in naval landings and invasions). Naval battles are unfortunately a slight let-down, with generally the bigger fleet of better ships winning. Although they look amazing, the naval battles soon get repetitive and you'll soon be auto-resolving all but the most critical naval battles.

The game does have an interesting variety in factions, with nations such as Prussia, Sweden, Russia and Austria favouring continental armies and forging land empires whilst England and Spain focus more on massive fleets and establishing colonies dotted around the globe. Minor powers such as the United Provinces face a steeper struggle to conquer enemies but can make judicious use of alliances and colonies to fund a military machine. The game leans away from the idea of painting the entire map in your colours (which is inherently unrealistic, even though you can do it with difficulty) in favour of giving your empire historically-inspired, more limited objectives. Even these limited objectives can be quite tough to achieve, but it's a lot of fun to try. The real hardcore gamers can also settle in for massively long campaigns where they try to conquer the entire world and all three theatres.

Modern editions of Empire: Total War come bundled with the Warpath Campaign expansion, which offers a very steep challenge where you play as one of the Native American tribes and have to try to hold back the invading Europeans. This is exceptionally tough, pitting guerrilla forces lacking line formations and guns against massive European field armies, but it can be quite satisfying when you rout a "superior" enemy force with cleverer tactics.

Empire: Total War (****½) is a fine game and, now it's technical issues are long in the past, very enjoyable to play. It's wide scope and lots of upgrade options make it one of the most strategically satisfying games in the series and it also has much more gameplay freedom than later titles (starting with Rome II, the series has bafflingly allowed only 3 buildings per city which is limiting). The AI sometimes struggles with this freedom, but ultimately the game emerges as one of the more enjoyable and interesting in the series. The game is available now on Steam.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

BABYLON 5 Rewatch: Season 3, Episodes 11-12

C11: Ceremonies of Light and Dark
Airdates: 8 April 1996 (US), 23 June 1996 (UK)
Working Title: Ceremonies
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Directed by John C. Flinn III
Cast: Lord Refa (William Forward), Boggs (Don Stroud), Sniper (Paul Perri), Lenann (Kim Strauss), Lt. David Corwin (Joshua Cox), Sparky (Harlan Ellison), Morden (Ed Wasser), Maintenance Man (Vincent Bilancio), Guard (Doug McCoy), Thug #1 (Jim Cody Williams), Thug #2 (Ron Royce), Thug #3 (Kristian Sorensen)

Date: Mid-to-late April 2260.

Plot:    Following Babylon 5’s declaration of independence, most Nightwatch and other Earth loyalist personnel have been thrown off the station. One group of Nightwatch extremists remains in hiding. The group’s leader, Boggs, comes up with a plan to capture Delenn and blackmail the Minbari cruisers guarding the station into leaving, allowing Earthforce troops to occupy the station.

Meanwhile, Lord Refa arrives on Babylon 5 to meet with Londo. He is rather startled when Londo informs him that he has poisoned Refa and will spare him (by not having a second poison given to him that will trigger the first and kill him). In return for this Refa will arrange for all Centauri warships and battlecruisers to be withdrawn from their campaign against the League of Non-aligned Worlds. The Centauri fleet is spread too thinly and is making Centauri Prime a tempting target for attack. In addition, Refa will stop all relations between himself and Mr. Morden and, furthermore, ensure that Morden has no contact with any official in the Centauri government. Refa is utterly outraged but also totally impotent to do anything about it. He reluctantly agrees to Londo’s idea and leaves the station, shocked at his former associate’s ruthlessness.

Boggs and his group capture Delenn and Lenann, one of the Minbari captains. Marcus and Lennier work together to discover their location. During this manhunt, Lennier confesses that he is in love with Delenn but knows that she is “fated for another”. Their intelligence allows Sheridan, Garibaldi and Zack to rescue the captives, although Delenn is slightly injured during the altercation. Delenn gives a gift of new uniforms to the Babylon 5 command staff, but is regretful they cannot carry out the Minbari ceremony of renewal they were planning (due to her injury). The others decide to bring the ceremony to her and make several startling confessions: Sheridan that he has come to care for Delenn, Garibaldi that he is scared of what will happen if he loses control, Ivanova that she was in love with Talia Winters and Franklin that he has “a problem”.


Dancer's Lament by Ian Cameron Esslemont

The continent of Quon Tali is divided into a morass of squabbling city-states, the days of the Talian Hegemony long past. But, in the south, the Kingdom of Kan is on the move. Its armies are moving on Li Heng, the great crossroads city at the heart of the continent. The Protectress of Heng and her powerful (but eccentric) cadre of mages are prepared to stand against them, but they are distracted by the arrival of a bizarre mage, a skilled assassin hungry to make a name for himself and a warrior of preternatural skills dedicated to the service of the God of Death. Unbeknown to all, these three will take a broken continent and forge out of it one of the greatest empires ever known.

The Malazan universe of fantasy novels (which now number twenty-one) has attracted a reputation for being unapproachable and difficult to get into, with the traditional first novel in the setting, Gardens of the Moon, having a confusing opening and little in the way of exposition. Some readers are fine with that, but many are not. Since then, authors Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont have mused on other ways to get into the series (you can arguably start with Deadhouse Gates or Night of Knives instead, or even Midnight Tides, but all have arguments against them). Erikson even tried to create an alternate entry point with Forge of Darkness (the first in the Kharkanas prequel trilogy) but only succeeded in creating a book that only makes sense if you've read the rest of the series first.

Dancer's Lament, on the other hand, is the first book in the series since Gardens that I would feel really comfortable suggesting that people start with. Unlike most Malazan novels, which are enormous, sprawl in lots of directions, have huge casts of characters (which sometimes completely change from one volume to another) and feature dense and sometimes obtuse writing, Dancer's Lament is tight, focused, relatively straightforward and relentless in pace. It has all the strongest hallmarks of the Malazan series - impressive sorcery, intriguing (but never overwrought) worldbuilding, good humour and the use of compassion as an overriding theme - whilst dumping most of the negatives. Or, to put it more primitively, Dancer's Lament is all killer, no filler.

The tightness comes from there just being three POV characters. Dorin Rav is an assassin beyond compare looking for fame and fortune. Malazan veterans will know him, of course, as Dancer, but in this book he's just a young man with real skill but who sometimes gets in over his head. Silk, one of the mages of Li Heng, is an arrogant and apparently amoral fop who comes to realise, in his darkest hour, how much this city and his employer has come to mean to him. Iko, a Kanese Sword-Dancer, is a formidable warrior who has invested so much time in her fighting skills that she has neglected her personal ones, and has trouble forming bonds with her fellow warriors as a result. Silk and Iko appear in other books (Iko under a different name, and it's fun for old hands to try to work out who she is), but here they're presented as newcomers and youngsters trying to find their way in the world.

The book takes place a century or so before the events of Gardens of the Moon and the central plot is refreshingly simple: Li Heng is under siege, the city's rulers are trying to repulse the attack, the attackers are trying to take the city and a whole bunch of other people are caught in the middle, most notably Dorin Rav who is navigating his way through the city's underworld in search of profit. The problem is that Dorin keeps tripping over his conscience, spending too much time worrying about the friends he's made on the way and is constantly distracted by a crazy mage he bumped into on the plains and now can't seem to avoid coming into contact with. The common complaint about prequels is that they're either not telling us anything we don't know or they're going out of their way to create new stories which don't gel with what's gone before.

Dancer's Lament skirts this problem quite straightforwardly. His earlier novel Return of the Crimson Guard features sections about one of the conflicts that is mentioned in this novel, but it turns out that a lot of those reports are erroneous or conflate two separate conflicts into one and it's entertaining seeing the "real" events unfold in this book. It also helps we're in a period of time a while before our protagonists even arrive on Malaz Island, so there's a lot of room to manoeuvre. Indeed, getting to know characters like the Protectress when we know what her ultimate fate is can add a bit more resonance to events. Of course, it might be that "what is commonly known" may not turn out to be the truth at all.

Esslemont has a more direct and sparse prose style than Erikson, which has sometimes made his books feel like a light salad compared to Erikson's four-course meals. Not so here, where Dancer's Lament leaps off the page with verve and confidence. The characters are vivid and feel real (Erikson's depiction of characters - even the same ones - can sometimes feel remote and alienating in contrast) and we come to care about even minor bit players such as the bird-keeping girl Ullara (a damaged, philosophical character who sometimes feels like she's been parachuted in from a China Mieville novel) and the various soldiers manning the walls of the city.

There are some negatives, but these are minor. Esslemont's brisk and energetic style in this book is very refreshing for the series but it leads to the opposite of the usual problem: if most Malazan novels could stand to lose a few dozen pages of repetitive and laboured introspection, Dancer's Lament sometimes feels too short and some storylines feel like they could have been expanded and spread out a bit more. The distribution of chapters between characters also feels a bit too uneven, with Iko sometimes vanishing for large chunks of time and the plots of the various city mages not really going anywhere (although some of them will be picked up chronologically later on, particularly in Return of the Crimson Guard, which revisits Li Heng at the height of the Malazan Empire). This does make the world feel alive and still changing and evolving outside of the focus of the main plot, however.

Dancer's Lament (****½) is, overall, a fast and satisfying read, the best Malazan novel in quite a while. It is available now (UK, USA). Its sequel, Deadhouse Landing, was published last month. The third book in the Path to Ascendancy series has the working title Kellanved's Reach and should be out in late 2018 or early 2019.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Quentin Tarantino might direct the next STAR TREK movie

It's a bit of a surprise to learn that J.J. Abrams is even considering producing a fourth Star Trek movie, given the disappointing box office of the previous movie, but it's even more surprising to learn that Quentin Tarantino may be involved in the project.

Star Trek Beyond grossed $343.5 million on a budget of $185 million in 2016, meaning that the movie probably only barely broke even (when marketing costs are considered as well) and probably needed media sales and streaming sales to get that far. Although producer J.J. Abrams wanted to move on with a fourth film which would reintroduce Chris Hemsworth as James Kirk's father, Paramount has been slow to get the ball rolling on the project, possibly over cost concerns.

Tarantino's idea seems to have reignited interest in the project, with Paramount likely judging that Tarantino's involvement might at least bring in a larger audience out of curiosity to see what he does with an established franchise.

Tarantino is a big Star Trek fan, particularly of The Original Series and The Next Generation, and has said he far prefers it to Star Wars (in contrast to Abrams' viewpoint). In the past he's batted around the idea of repurposing TV episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever and Yesterday's Enterprise into films.

Abrams, who is deep in pre-production for Star Wars: Episode IX (due out in December 2019), is putting some writers on the idea and will likely produce the film if it goes ahead. Tarantino is making a Los Angeles-based movie set in 1969, due for release in 2019, so likely if the two film-makers do collaborate on this project it won't be until after then.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Netflix releases official ALTERED CARBON promo pics

As well as the trailer and release date (2 February 2018 people, remember to mark your diaries), Netflix have released a number of official promo pics for Altered Carbon, as follows:

In the future mankind has colonised other planets, including one called Harlan's World. Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee, at least to start with) is an Envoy, a brutal and ultra-skilled soldier. He fights alongside his sister Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman) in a war on the colony.

A key point of worldbuilding in this future is that consciousness has gone digital and is now stored (or backed up) on an implant in the spine called the "cortical stack". This means that if someone's body is killed, their stack can be removed and implanted in a new body, allowing them to live again. If a stack is destroyed, a person can be restored from a "backup", missing the memories of the period after they were backed up. It is existentially questionable if this is the same person, though, or a copy.

Because FTL travel does not exist (the colonies were settled by massive slower-than-light ships with frozen crews), the only fast way to travel between Earth and its colonies in a hurry is "needlecasting", with their personality transmitted through micro-wormholes to receivers on other planets. Early on in the story, Kovacs's services are required on Earth so he is "needlecast" into a new body, that of a man called Elias Ryker (Joel Kinnaman).

Kovacs is hired by Laurens Bancroft (the immortal James Purefoy) to solve a personal murder: his own. Bancroft's body was killed and his stack destroyed. Restored from a backup, he directs Kovacs to find out who killed him and why (a quirk of this situation is if the victim did something to get himself killed after the backup point, his restored self won't have a clue as to what that was).

Bancroft lives in - or, more accurately above - Bay City, a 24th Century version of San Francisco which is divided between the poor living in slums, the ultra-rich living in towers far above the clouds and the middle classes strewn in massive towers inbetween.

Kovacs' former boss is Quellcrist Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry), the commander of the Envoys. The Envoys have specialised combat training and have undergone special conditioning to allow them to be frequently resleeved without the psychological disorientation and existential anxiety that affects other people. The Envoys are so dangerous and lethal that they are not allowed to hold government office, with people fearing that they would become an elite class of citizen.

Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda) is a detective with a complicated past, who soon teams up with Kovacs to help find an answer to the mystery.

Another factor in this future is religion. Roman Catholics vehemently reject the resleeving technology as a way of subverting divine judgement after death and want the technology banned.

Kovacs stays in a heavily-fortified (with an emphasis on the heavily) hotel run by a sentient artificial intelligence modelled on Edgar Allan Poe (Chris Conner), who takes a shine to the Envoy. This is Jimi Hendrix in the novel, but Netflix couldn't get the rights to use Hendrix's likeness. Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh) is a military veteran whose wife has been imprisoned, forcing him to take extreme measures.

The fight scenes are going to be particularly brutal, with Game of Thrones director Miguel Sapochik (The GiftHardhome, Battle of the Bastards, The Winds of Winter) directing the pilot episode, Out of the Past. The other directors are Netflix regular Uta Briesewitz (Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Orange is the New Black), Peter Hoar (Daredevil, Da Vinci's Demons), Nick Hurran (Doctor Who, Sherlock), Andy Goddard (The Punisher, Luke Cage, Downton Abbey) and Alex Graves (Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards, The West Wing).

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.

Full trailer for Netflix's ALTERED CARBON released

After a couple of weeks where images, videos and GIFs for their new show Altered Carbon started leaking out, Netflix have finally released the first full and official trailer for the show, along with the logo.

Set in Bay City - a futuristic San Francisco - in the 24th Century, the series revolves around a former Envoy or mercenary named Takeshi Kovacs who is called in to investigate a murder. The murder victim has been reborn - "resleeved" - in a new body - and wants to find out who did it, and why given the pointless nature of the crime where people can be reborn from back up information and cortical stack implants.

The 10-part series is one of the most expensive shows Netflix has ever produced (outstripped only by The Crown, Marco Polo and Sense8). It is based on the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy by Richard Morgan, starting with the novel Altered Carbon (2002).

Altered Carbon will be released on Netflix on 2 February 2018.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

C.S. Friedman's COLDFIRE TRILOGY optioned for television

C.S. Friedman has confirmed via Facebook that her Coldfire Trilogy has been optioned for television.

So far it has not been revealed what company has optioned the project, but it is early days and it is not guaranteed that the books will make it to the screen. Still, it's a good first step and interesting that TV studios are looking beyond the obvious big-hitters in the genre to lesser-known but critically-acclaimed works.

The Coldfire Trilogy consists of Black Sun Rising (1991), When True Night Falls (1993) and Crown of Shadows (1995). It is a rationalised fantasy, with a (somewhat) traditional epic fantasy narrative unfolding on an alien planet colonised by a futuristic Earth society. It is generally well-regarded as one of a number of early 1990s fantasy series that codified the genre and showed it was possible to do things other than Tolkien knock-offs.

Synners by Pat Cadigan

In the not-too-distant future, the world is a morass of internet-based TV shows and corporate greed. The people best-equipped to survive in this world are those who synthesise content for the net: synners. The arrival of sockets, cybernetic implants which allow people to directly interface with computers through their minds, marks a major change in society and technology, and what it means to be human. But when something goes wrong, it falls to one group of synners - outcasts, failures and data junkies - to save society, fix the net...and discover that intelligence itself can be synthesised as well.

Synners is the third novel by American SF author Pat Cadigan. Originally released in 1991, it was a late-breaking novel in the cyberpunk movement, championed by the likes of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and Neil Gaiman. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and has been enshrined in the Gollancz SF Masterworks range as one of the all-time defining works of science fiction.

Synners is interesting for coming towards the end of the cyberpunk movement, at least before subsequent books like Jeff Noon's Vurt and Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon began taking it in very different directions and the movement was subsumed more into science fiction as a whole. It's also interesting for coming during the earliest days of the internet as we know it, so at least some terminology (laptops, email, virtual reality) rings true, unlikely earlier cyberpunk whose invented terms now feel very dated. Like most cyberpunk authors Cadigan missed mobile phones, but it oddly doesn't feel as archaic in this book. Cadigan is more interested in how technology and being networked impacts on the human condition and the methodology for accessing the net is less important. It is impressive how many other things she got right: satnav systems which actually don't really help anyone get anywhere, hackers uploading viruses to the net just for giggles and self-driving vehicles all feel pretty much on-point at the moment.

More impressive is how the novel feels like it's subverting cyberpunk itself. The Los Angeles of Cadigan's future America is, well, pretty much Los Angeles today, maybe slightly bigger and dirtier but certainly not the Los Angeles of Blade Runner. There's nary a mirrorshade or ill-advised superskyscraper (in an earthquake zone!) in sight and cyborg cops smashing down doors and firing massive guns are notable by their absence. But growing corporate power and tech companies acting like they are above the law and pressurising baffled politicians who can't see beyond the next election into giving them carte blanche to do whatever the hell they want without regard for the consequences for society and the economy have never felt more appropriate.

Cadigan's prose mixes poetry with hard-edged science fiction descriptions of hardware and software. They are sequences of people immersing themselves in the net and drugs which come across as lucid fever dreams. The novel also delights in the mundane: one of the most important viewpoint characters, Gabe, has marriage problems and a changeable relationship with his daughter, Sam. There is a frustrated air of rebellion in many characters, who take drugs and listen to loud music but no-one really cares any more, certainly not the government which is now wholly in the pocket of corporate interests.

Synners has some sins (syns?). The novel is slow to come together, taking a hundred pages to assemble a large cast of viewpoint characters (possibly too many; Gina, Gabe, Sam emerge as the main viewpoints and the novel may have benefited from dropping some of the secondary viewpoints). The scattershot opening makes the world feel grounded and realistic, but the lack of focus makes it hard to work out what's going on. But about a quarter of the way into the book starts to coalesce and the last quarter has the pedal fully to the metal as a global crisis erupts and only our "heroes" - the most dysfunctional bunch of hackers and artists you could ever hope to meet - can save the day.

Synners (****½) is a smart and grounded cyberpunk novel that gave the genre a final shakedown, stole its wallet and told it go and do something more interesting. Not the easiest of reads (especially at the start) but one that more than rewards the effort. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

Update on the Marvel/Netflix TV shows

2017 was a successful year for Marvel's collaboration with Netflix. They got no less than three seasons of television on-air: Iron Fist Season 1 in March, The Defenders mini-series in August and The Punisher Season 1 in November. Each one of these shows had impressive viewing figures and cemented the success of the partnership between the two companies.

Well, it did, anyway. Disney, who own Marvel, have announced that they are launching their own streaming service in 2019 with an adult-oriented, Netflix-style channel which will feature both a Marvel TV series and a live-action Star Wars show. This has left the fate of the Netflix shows up in the air and relying very much on the contractual agreement between Marvel/Disney and Netflix. It might be that the shows will move from Netflix to the new Disney channel (not likely to be called that, for branding reasons), or that they will remain on Netflix as long as Netflix keep renewing them. It's also possible that Marvel will also buy out Netflix of any long-term contractual agreement. Netflix would probably like to keep the shows as long as possible: they have good brand awareness, they've been generally well-received and they're surprisingly cheap (at least compared to the likes of Altered Carbon and The Crown).

The long-term future of the Netflix/Marvel universe may in question, but at least in the short to medium term we know what's going on. Here is the status of the Marvelflix shows going forwards:

Jessica Jones Season 2 was filmed between April and September 2017. The season is in post-production and is likely to air in February or (if Netflix want to clear everything out of Altered Carbon's way) March 2018.

Krysten Ritter, Rachel Taylor, Carrie-Ann Moss and Eka Darville return and are joined by Leah Gibson, Janet McTeer and J.R. Ramirez as new characters. No word on the who the villain is, but David Tennant will return for flashbacks as Kilgrave.

Luke Cage Season 2 was filmed between June and November 2017. The season has only just started post-production. It seems likely to hit the August 2018 release slot.

Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Rosario Dawson, Alfre Woodard and Theo Rossi return from Season 1 and are joined by Mustafa Shakir, Gabrielle Dennis and Thomas Q. Jones. Finn Jones will also feature in a multi-episode arc teaming up Luke and Iron Fist, seen by some as a possible pilot for a future Heroes for Hire series (although logistically how this will work with the new Marvel/Disney streaming service remains to be seen), which could potentially replace both a Luke Cage and Iron Fist third season if the collaboration is well-received.

Daredevil Season 3 started filming in November 2017 and is likely to run through April 2018. This is the same filming slot for The Punisher last year, so this makes it pretty likely we'll get this in November 2018.

Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vincent D'Onofrio return and Wilson Bethel joins the cast.

Iron Fist Season 2 starts filming in the next week or two, with shooting likely to run through May 2018. This is an unusual filming slot for a Netflix series, suggesting that Netflix may be considering getting it out on screen in December next year shortly after Daredevil, although that might be tight. More likely they will put it in the February 2019 slot. Still, getting new seasons of all four Netflix shows out in one year would be impressive.

Finn Jones and Jessica Henwick return and it is expected that Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup will also return. Simone Missick is expected to cross over from Luke Cage as well, and is possible that Rosario Dawson will also cameo.

The fate of the Marvelflix universe beyond the second season of Iron Fist remains questionable (neither The Defenders nor The Punisher have been renewed yet), and it will be interesting to see if the cataclysmic events of The Avengers: Infinity War have any bearing or even be mentioned in the new seasons (given that the trailer depicts New York as a key battleground in the new movie, you'd assume that it would come up). But we have another four seasons of these shows to get through before we know for sure what's going to happen.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

FALLOUT board game released in the USA

Fantasy Flight Games have released the Fallout board game in the United States. It is now available from Amazon or your favourite game store. UK and European gamers may have to hold on for a week or so as stock makes its way to our shores.

The board game allows players to set up one of four possible maps (one each based on the Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 video games, and one each based on the Pitt and Far Harbor expansions) and then engage in exploration, scavenging and combat which will be familiar to any player of the video games. The game can be played by 1 up to 4 players, with a surprisingly welcome solo play option.

Reviews are starting to emerge, with Polygon offering a strong review in favour of the game. Man vs. Meeple also has a positive review of the game. The early emerging consensus seems to be that this is  a very solid board game in its own right but it gains a lot of additional flavour if you're a fan of the Fallout franchise (if you're not, check out our Franchise Familiariser for the game here) and know ahead of the time who the Brotherhood of Steel and the Institute are.

There is scope for expansions to the game. The developers tried to add missions based on Fallout and Fallout 2 but ran out of space, so we may see further content based on those games, New Vegas and maybe even Fallout Tactics added further down the line.

As soon as I can get hold of a copy, I'll post more information about it here.

Modiphius Games are also working on a much more elaborate - and far more expensive! - tabletop wargame called Fallout: Wasteland Warfare. This game will be released in early 2018.

2018 will be the year of the BATTLETECH relaunch

2018 will see a return, in force, for the venerable BattleTech science fiction franchise. For over thirty years the franchise has fuelled a tabletop wargame, a roleplaying game, dozens of novels and over twenty video games. After a lean few years the franchise returns in force next year. Polygon has a massive, in-depth guide to the franchise, its history and its future going forwards.

The new BattleTech renaissance will be spearheaded by three games. Piranha Games has spent five years developing MechWarrior Online and has turned it from a game with a mixed reception to a much more successful title with a widespread, international following (with now a startling 700 battle mechs available to play). They are now developing MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries, a new single-player game in which you play a 'mech pilot and lead a group of mercenaries across the galaxy, looking to find riches during the chaos of the Third Succession Wars. Set in the period 3015-3049 AD, the game will have a large sandbox campaign which unfolds differently depending on your game choices. The game promises unmatched replayability.

The game is the latest in a series of games consisting of MechWarrior (1989), MechWarrior 2 (1995), MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries (1996), MechWarrior 3 (1999), MechWarrior 4: Vengeance (2000) and MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries (2002). There is also a related strategy series, consisting of MechCommander (1998) and MechCommander 2 (2001). These games are very well-regarded, not just by franchise fans but gamers in general, for their emphasis on strategy and tactics as well as combat. The resurrection of the franchise with modern graphics has generally been welcomed, but it remains to be seen if Piranha can match the quality of the games that came before.

The next game in development is BattleTech. This is a turn-based strategy game under development by Harebrained Schemes and personally overseen by Jordan Weisman, the original co-creator of the BattleTech and MechWarrior franchises. This game will mix turn-based combat with a freeform campaign in which you guide your team of mechs from mission to mission in a starship with its own crew of individual characters. Weisman and his team promise a mixture of giant 'mech action and Firefly-like interrelationships on the ship.

Of course, there is also where the game originally began: miniatures. Catalyst Game Labs is now in charge of the BattleTech wargame and is developing new rules, expansions and miniatures, as well the related A Time of War roleplaying game. In 2018 they aim to make getting into the BattleTech tabletop game easier than ever with the release of new starter sets complete with miniatures, terrain and counters.

The game also has an enormous amount of fiction and lore backing it up. More than one hundred novels tell the story of the future of the human race, from a post-Cold War alternate history of the 21st Century through to a period of instability at the start of the 32nd Century.

2018 looks set to be a huge year for the setting. It'll be interesting to see how successful these companies are in bringing in a new generation of fans to the venerable big 'mech franchise.

Cities of Fantasy: Asshai

Located in the furthest east of the known world, beyond the Jade Sea, Asshai is one of the most storied and fabled cities known to man. Sailors and merchants sail there seeking riches and arcane knowledge. Sometimes they find it, and are haunted by what they have seen all their lives. Sometimes they return changed for the experience. To visit Asshai is to risk passing under the Shadow, and not all who do so return whole.

The City of Shadows by René Aigner, from The World of Ice and Fire.

Asshai is located at the mouth of the River Ash, at the tip of an enormous peninsula on the south coast of the continent of Essos. Asshai is located almost exactly six thousand miles south-east of the city of King's Landing in Westeros, and is located very close to the equator. It is one of the southernmost cities known to exist; only Ebonhead in the Summer Islands is further south. It is also one of the easternmost cities known to exist, with only Carcosa in the Mountains of the Morn believed to lie further east.

Asshai is often called Asshai-by-the-Shadow. This is because Asshai is located at the edge of a region known as the Shadow Lands, a land of towering, jagged mountains that plunge the valleys between and the lands around them into near-perpetual shadow.

There are no good roads linking Asshai to other cities, only a single track leading up into the mountains, stretching for 300 miles before terminating at the corpse-city Stygai, where only the shadowbinders are allowed to tread, and a rough caravan track leading north along the coast towards the border of Yi Ti. The only other way in or out of the city is by sea. Asshai is the eastern-most port on the so-called "Traders Circle" around the shores of the Jade Sea, with ships typically stopping off at the city before bearing west for Marahai and other islands on their way back west to the Cinnamon Straits and the Summer Sea.

Asshai also guards the entrance to the Saffron Straits, which link the Jade Sea to as-yet unknown oceans to the east and divide Essos from the island-continent of Ulthos to the south. No ship has ever sailed more than a few hundred miles up the straits and returned to report their findings. For these reasons, Asshai is believed to lie right on the very edge of the known world.

Physical Description
Asshai is the largest city known to exist. It sprawls on either side of the Ash for miles upon miles, consisting of thousands of buildings, mostly built of a curiously, oily black stone. The city is walled, but with the nearest neighbours being thousands of miles away, it is unclear what the walls are designed to defend against. According to some cartographers, the walls of Asshai could comfortably hold Volantis, Qarth, Oldtown and King's Landing combined. However, less than one-in-ten of the buildings in the city are inhabited. Most of the city is abandoned and dead.

Known buildings in the city include markets, taverns, bazaars, temples and palaces. The port is the busiest part of the city, with numerous ships from across the known world usually in port at any one time. It's also the area of the city which feels most alive, where laughter can be heard. The city has an oppressive atmosphere, and is often shrouded in gloom and shadow, with mists rising from the Ash and storms brewing over the mountains. Visitors to Asshai prefer not to spend too much time there.

The origins of Asshai are unknown. According to the Asshai'i, their forefathers in the Dawn of Days simply found the city standing as it appears now. Whoever built the city and for what purpose is unknown. Some imaginative maesters draw a link between the oily black stone of Asshai and similar stones found as far afield as the Basilisk Isles, Yeen in Sothoryos, Battle Isle in Oldtown and Lorath, suggesting that a pre-human (and perhaps even pre-Children of the Forest) civilisation once existed and flourished before being destroyed in an unknown cataclysm, long before even the migration of the First Men to Westeros twelve thousand years ago.

This story is not widely accepted, but it remains unclear who could have built Asshai. It was not the YiTish or their forefathers in the Great Empire of the Dawn, nor was is the Ghiscari, Valyrians or Sarnori. No other candidate civilisation is known to exist. This is a mystery, and may remain one forever.

What is known is that Asshai was an inhabited sea port during the time of Old Ghis and the Great Empire of the Dawn. According to myth, the Great Empire forced Asshai to pay tribute for a time but overextended itself and had to withdraw from the region. According to the Asshai'i, it was their emissaries who taught the nascent Valyrians how to tame and train the dragons they had found nesting in the Fourteen Fires of their peninsula, and it was their fire magic that helped save the world from the oblivion of the Long Night.

Asshai's history is remarkable for how lacking in incident it appears to be: the city and its curious people have simply existed at the edge of the world for millennia uncounted, trading knowledge and riches with outsiders in return for food, never suffering attack and rarely facing an external threat. 

Origin and Influences
Asshai is a city frequently mentioned in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels and, occasionally, in the HBO TV adaptation, Game of Thrones. It is a place of mystery and foreboding, mentioned with awe and dread by characters who have heard of it.

Only one of Martin's POV characters, Melisandre, has seen Asshai with her own eyes and even she is not a native of that city. We have met Quaithe, who is from the Shadow Lands (not Asshai itself), but she is not a POV character and has only appeared very briefly.

Much of the information given about Asshai has been very general: it is a place of mystery and strangeness, it is located in the far south-east of the world and it is a great port on the Jade Sea. It was later revealed to be a centre of R'hllor worship and dragons may live in the Shadow Lands beyond the city. Much more than was not known until A Dance with Dragons (2011), when Melisandre was promoted to a POV character and we got very brief flashbacks and mentions of the city as a place of great power (Melisandre notes that the Wall is the only place in the world where her powers are greater than in Asshai). Lands of Ice and Fire (2012) shows the city for the first time on a map, with the mysterious city of Stygai located beyond it. Finally, The World of Ice and Fire (2014) answered many questions about the city, but introduced more. In particular, Martin used the power of the unreliable narrator in the world book to make statements that are not necessarily true (such as there being no children in the city).

For fictional inspiration, Martin was inspired heavily by the works of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. The city of Stygai was almost certainly inspired by Stygia, a forbidding city in Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "Shadows in the Moonlight". The notion of Asshai as a city built by a mysterious pre-human civilisation at the dawn of time and the current human inhabitants are merely confused primitives playing in the ruins is positively Lovecraftian.

Will we learn more about Asshai? Melisandre will presumably remain a POV character in The Winds of Winter and we may see more of the city through her eyes and flashbacks. A direct visit to the city in the series itself has been explicitly ruled out, but it's possible that Martin will one day write more about it, maybe in a short story or prequel expanding more on characters from there. Disappointingly, the city seems to have been virtually ignored by Game of Thrones after the second season, and the chances it will show up in the six remaining episodes of the series are pretty much non-existent. But it may be better and more fascinating for the city to remain an enigma.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs. The Cities of Fantasy series is debuting on my Patreon feed and you can read it there one month before being published on the Wertzone.