Teaser Tuesday

Tonight I am doing a reading at the Red Brick for ChiSeries Guelph, run by the peerless event organizer Angela Keeley and hosted by the Red Brick Cafe.

I am reading from Bloodlust: The Shield Maiden, mostly because it has some less familiar elements in terms of world building, but a more familiar narrative structure than the first two books.

Bloodlust TSM cover

“I grew up here,” said Auria. Chosen Brightloch’s daughter and Vintia were gazing upon the Spires of Kirif as their ships idled, waiting to Dock at an artificial beech outside of the defensive reefs. Some of the sailors and the Legionnaires were staring at the distant city, but many more were casting looks at the Kirifan dockworkers, especially the women, or the brutish looking Dolphins circling around their ships. “This is my home, not Krass. One of my first memories is a ride on one of the Fologi, the Dolphins you see below us, when I was a young girl. I thought they were wonderful pets then. They are actually equal under the law in Kirif, Spireless, of course…”

“The Spires are amazing,” said Vintia, trying in vain to process Auria’s expository ejaculations while taking in the view of the Spires themselves. They were immense, bigger than the tallhouses of Krass, the fifteen story tenements that were built to house the huge numbers of refugees that took shelter in the city during the Reckoning. Some of the spires were three times that height.  Unlike the square, rigidly structured tallhouses, the Spires of Kirif had an organic look to them. No two were alike, and their natural shape was rounded and smooth, sculpted in places where the inhabitants cared to add features to the structures that they could not grow. They certainly rivalled the majesty of all but the largest edifices of Krass.

More than just physically impressive, Vintia could sense life and magic within the Spires. These buildings were a product of The Reckoning; a mutant form of coral with which the strange-eyed Kirifans formed a symbiotic bond. The unfamiliar patterns, still wild after eleven centuries, dazzled her senses but she could still sense that those within were manipulating them.

“The Fologi are carnivorous,” said Auria, leaning in close, almost breathing in Vintia’s ear.

“… Pardon?” said Vintia; the idea of killer Dolphins snapped her attention away from the Spires and back to Chosen Brightloch’s wayward daughter. Auria was smiling playfully, almost like a girl showing off a favoured toy.

“They feed on the flesh of the enemies of Kirif,” said Auria. “They’re cunning too, dangerous beyond belief in the water. They operate in formations and such. Many of the [click] and [pop] Sounds in the Kirifan language are from Fologi communications. They have fifty terms for water, each a different…”

“Stop, stop, Auria,” said Vintia. “Take it slowly; did you say these Dolphins, the Fologi… are like citizens?”

The first glimpse of the spires of Kirif is an obvious starting point.

“FATHER!” Auria’s anguished voice seemed to tear from her throat.

A second explosion rocked the Spire. Vintia sensed tremendous elemental magic at play. Pieces of spire the size of cottages arced through the air, burning, to slam into nearby buildings and then crash into the sides of nearby Spires and onto the hapless people below.

The revels became a chorus of screams and shouts of confusion.

“We have to get out of the city,” said Katarina.

“No, we have to get to my father,” said Auria.

“We won’t do him any good without our weapons, girl,” said Katarina, severely. “The streets are going to run red now. This kind of Chaos is never good for strangers like us.”

“I need to get to him, ancestors curse you!” said Auria, voice tearing with emotion.

“What good can we do for him, girl?” said Katarina. “He’s a fucking Chosen – anything that can take him down will swat us like flies, especially if we aren’t ready. You will just distract him Auria!”

In response, Auria started to run. The Centurion made a grab for her, but the sly scout slipped around her, diving into the water. Vintia and Katarina started to run after her but Auria disappeared beneath the surface, navigating the dark water with the familiarity of a native.

“Bugger me!” snarled Katarina. “The bitch can swim like a fish.”

“I’ll go after her,” said Vintia. “I can protect myself with magic.”

“FUCK!” shouted Katarina. She stood staring at the water for a moment, fists balled, back hunched, eyes wide and glowing in the light of the distant fires. When she turned to Vintia she was calm again. “You’re right. We’ll gather the men. Hephus and I should be safe. Druin’s boys are on patrol, the camp is secure. If you can’t make it out, hide and we will come for you even if I have to take this place apart!”

Vintia pounded her fist against her breast in salute then they split and turned away, running.

Ash began to fall from the sky as Vintia sprinted along the walkways. The nearby Kirifans stood, shocked, as Spire [Click]kith, the proudest of the Spires of the city, smouldered. Closer to the ruin, screaming could be heard and people limped out of the darkness, some bearing frightful wounds. Vintia’s ears picked up the clash of metal on metal: fighting had already broken out.

Vintia could see no sign of Auria, and so she ran toward the remains of Spire [Click]kith.

A little bit of action without giving the main plot away…

Plumes of earth and rock shot up from the palisade as the cannons of Khazak Khrim loosed another volley. The debris filled walls of the fort were made to withstand such impacts, however, and were holding up so far. The Vvath were being forced to concentrate their fire to small areas in order to even have a chance of creating a breach.

Lightly armoured enemy archers fired at the defenders from behind the shields of their comrades or thick wicker screens. The shots they fired kept the defenders wary, sometimes even killing an unlucky Legionnaire. Vintia responded with attacks of her own, killing a dozen Vvath who strayed too close to Fort Nerus with lightning attacks.

The Krassian siege weapons returned fire. The Legion had fewer guns than the Vvath, but better engineers. Hephus and master Gunner Grannoch, cunning and methodical, had already knocked several Vvath cannons out, shattering them with precise cannon fire of their own.

Around the Vvathi engines the land was now a sea of slave soldiers armed with wicked looking weaponry. Once the Vvath judged that the fortress was sufficiently reduced they would unleash their horde in the hopes of simply over-running the fort.

Vintia was warding their engines, screening them with spells against Vvathi cannon fire. Behind her a group of craft-Vassals drew huge slabs of rock and earth from the ground with their magic. Some of this would go to reinforce the walls and palisades, while the rest would be sculpted into ammunition that would be launched from their own siege weapons. Teven said that, after the first day, this battle would be an endurance test, with both sides forced to manage crucial supplies. The Legion was doing everything it could to prepare for an extended battle.

The cannons boomed again, shaking Vintia from her reverie; this time a small section of the wall collapsed, spilling debris down the rise. The Vvath slave warriors cheered, a sound like the roar of a wave smashing against rugged coast. The defenders tensed and shifted, but the break was too small. The rubble fill cascaded into the breach, temporarily plugging the hole. Breach crews rushed to reinforce using magic and a quick-stone mix. The Vvathi began reloading their cannons, aiming for the new weak-point.

“Two volleys,” said the First Shield from beside Vintia. “Anyone?”

“I won’t bet against that,” called Hephus from behind the battery.

“Two for sure,” said Teven.

“I’ll call three, on ten to one odds, First Shield!” shouted Centurion Drusus from down the palisade.

“Fair enough,” said the First Shield, grinning broadly. “If the wall goes on two I make some money, if it lasts for three, I lose a month’s pay to Drusus, but get another ten minutes of rest. I win either way.”

The battery behind them fired. This time one of the Vvathi cannons suffered a direct hit, flipping through the air and shattering the wooden casings around the iron barrels. A cheer went up from the Legionnaires.

And a taste of the final battle!

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Ruminations on Intellectual Property: The Great Warhammer Diaspora

Today, I was struck by the realization that the two computer games in my current play rotation and one of the two that are on my release radar so far this year are all based on Games Workshop’s Warhammer fantasy universe.

The first of these is Mordheim, City of the Damned, a turn based strategy game based on the old Mordheim boardgame from what I see as the golden age of GW creativity. The computer game tried to remain as faithful as possible to the rules and spirit of the original while making concessions to modern play styles. It is a decent game, with a fun advancement system, but I wish they had dropped some features of the original altogether in favour of a tighter game. Still, I enjoy it quite a bit and hope it does well so that the studio can branch out on its next effort.

The second of the Warhammer Games I am currently playing is Vermintide. This one is not based at all on a Games Workshop product, but rather lifts the world-building and setting popularized by Warhammer Fantasy and marries it to Left 4 Dead style gameplay. Instead of a modern land overrun by Zombies, you have an ancient city overrun by Skaven. It is one of the few multiplayer games that I am actually willing to tolerate, and makes great use of the IP.

The final game, the one that I am considering pre-ordering (I know, shame on me) is Total War: Warhammer. I love the Total War series, but the modern age has not been kind to it. Rome II was a botched mess that bored me to tears and tried to sell me DLC instead of fixing bugs, and Total War: Attila was not enough to regain lost glory, especially with more DLC shenanigans. While there is a controversy over the Chaos faction pre-order bonus in Total War: Warhammer, the game looks good and the combination of two old franchises could lead to a real revitalization here. I am willing to bet that this one could be a beautiful match.

The other game I am looking forward to in 2016 is the new X-Com, but that has little to do with this topic.

After my little revelation, I realized that the fact that I am knee deep in Warhammer based computer games is not an accident. There are a lot of them on steam and may of them are new. It used to be that Games Workshop was very selective in allowing the use of its beloved intellectual property and consequently we were starved for Warhammer based computer games in my youth. Now, it seems the floodgates are open and I am drowning in options.

Why?

The simple answer seems to be that Games Workshop is a recognizable and valued IP that has been built up over 25+ years and can reach a broad audience, but that the core game is doing poorly. Warhammer has faced strong competition in the US from Warmachine/Hordes over the last decade and from other games in other places. Then as profits began to sag, they blinked. They ran an enormous campaign to hype the players up and they destroyed the Old World, their setting for eight editions in a climactic battle. The thought was that they would reboot with a new setting in the same world a few decade or centuries afterward… instead, GW replaced Warhammer Fantasy Battles with Age of Sigmar.

Age of Sigmar barely resembles the old Warhammer game. It is fair to say that quite a few of those who loved the old games hated the new version, or just found it unrecognizable. Of course, others loved it, but the problem remains that all of that juicy old IP is wasted… or not.

It seems that since Age of Sigmar is the main focus right now, Games Workshop has been allowing much more freedom in farming out that old IP. No doubt they see it as a way to shore up their finances. While GW might not be interested in the Old World, other companies see real value in the IP that they spurn, and thus tons of new players can experience a rich, meaty setting built up through years of lore (including quite a few novels) and play in these new games. The Old World has escaped its masters, for now, and it will be very interesting to see where this great IP diaspora leads…

 

 

A Teaser for Tuesday

Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim is out! Here is one of my favourite passages from the book, with a little author commentary afterward.

Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim Cover

Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim Cover

The test called the Waters of Sorrow took place in a specially constructed channel fed by the waters from the ice-melt atop the Father’s Pulpit, the mountain in which most of the halls of Khazak Khrim were built. The test was simple enough: Durekk would be lowered into the channel and expected to make his way to the other side. Of course, he would be submerged over his head, pushing against rapidly flowing water that was cold enough to sap the warmth from his body in less than a minute. On the other side of that channel waited a steep ramp that the survivors of the test would not only have to find as they pushed their way to the other edge and find the strength to climb while fighting hypothermia, fatigue, and lack of breath. It was daunting, but it was the only way to prove one was worthy to join the greatest warriors in the world.

Prince Thorkhrim himself was overseeing the testing this year. Of all the many sons of old king Keurik, Thorkhrim was the most respected among The Blood. Not only had he been initiated into their ranks at an early age, but his heroism had been proven many times on the field of battle since then. No other living Dwarf had earned so many accolades. Thorkhrim favoured The Blood and they favoured him.

“Candidates!” the Prince’s voice carried clear and strong over the sound of the waters. “This is the final obstacle between you and your destiny. If you survive these waters, you will join The Blood. You will be elevated to the status of Nobility with all of the rights and privileges of your station. You will be blessed in the eyes of the Forge Father and your offspring will have the right to train to join the Blood. Your clan will be honoured as well. It will not be easy. I am often told to emphasize the harshness of the cold waters and the difficulty you will face holding your breath for the long minutes required to claw your way across. But you have all heard of the Waters of Sorrow; I would rather tell you of what awaits you on the other side. The warmth of fire and feast, women ready to serve you, and above all the honour of standing with me as we defend these sacred halls and earn our place at the Forge Father’s right hand!”

Durekk cheered, even though his throat was parched from hours of marching without water. The other aspirants raised their voices as well.

The first dwarf lowered into the river was Herlin of Stonebreaker. The fast-flowing waters of the channel were so deep that only the tip of Herlin`s back-banner stood out, yet they were clear enough that he could see the other man’s form well. The tip of his weapon glittered like a diamond in sun and snowmelt.

As soon as he touched bottom Herlin began to push against the waters. He struggled about halfway before he paused. After a breathless moment, the banner began to move again, more slowly this time. Then less than two paces from the ramp, it shuddered to a halt once more. Several voices, led by the prince shouted encouragement. The banner twitched for a moment, then stopped. The cheers slowly grew silent. Durekk’s heart felt heavy. Herlin had been a good man from a good family. They hooked the banner and pulled the body out of the water to return the precious armour and the corpse to clan Stonebreaker. They treated his body like that of a warrior, despite his death. At this stage in the testing, even failure was an honour.

The next candidate, Keldin of Sharpedge, forged his way steadily across the waters, never wavering. The cheers grew louder as he approached the other side. As he emerged from the water, the prince himself greeted the new member of The Blood by slitting the throat of a sacrifice, a strong Niyiki boy. Keldin’s massive heaume was removed from his head and the prince poured steaming blood, mixed with whiskey, down his throat. Keldin’s armour was removed by comely dwarf maidens and a shapely Orcish slave-girl, all naked, and then he was led away, dazed and smiling, to the feast.

Durekk wanted nothing more than to join him.

This passage was added well after the first draft. Durekk is a character that I added to give the reader some insight into the rank and file of the Dwarves of Khazak Khrim, especially The Blood. He appears in several passages as a minor character.

The Blood are warrior nobility, like the Spartans, Knights, or Samurai. They are born into it, and train their whole lives, with the weak being weeded out by horrific tests. The Waters of Sorrow is the last of these horrific hazing rituals. Anyone who survives is part of The Blood until the day they die, bringing great honour to family and clan.

The Blood combine the worst elements of Nazis, Confederate Slavers, and Crusade/Jihad Theocracies with a twisted view of reincarnation thrown in for good measure. That they are fantasy Dwarves is mostly incidental — it just makes sense that people who believe in defensive architecture had a better chance of surviving the Reckoning, after all. Despite all of this, Durekk is almost likeable. He has empathy, to a point. He is determined, optimistic, and brave. Of course, he is also a fanatic whose views on race, gender, and religion are shocking to modern sensibilities (represented by the Domains). The point is that bad people don’t immediately grow horns and start cackling, it helps to understand where the Vvath are coming from.

Another point of interest is how The Blood immediately begin an orgiastic feast after The Waters of Sorrow, complete with comely maidens and sex slaves (ew). They are accepted now, the kings of Khazak Khrim. The test is not a demonstration of competence or certification in a particular set of skills, but rather a claiming of position and birthright.

Lords of Khazak Khrim

Bear with me. This is the first post I have typed on my phone…

My next book, which I am currently working on, is about a war between two enormous Empires and their various proxies and opportunistic enemies.It is a more modern conflict in that it is driven by ideology and politics more Than migration, expansion, or the need of resources.

The Domains of the Chosen is an Empire based around the city of Krass, the last city to survive the Reckoning.  This event was the magical equivalent of a nuclear war, beginning with powerful spells and ending with apocalyptic storms of uncontrolled magic.  The people of the Domains survived putting aside their differences and banding together. Their union is an imperfect one, and is held together as much by magical Oaths and fear of their enemies than anything else. 

In book terms the Domains are represented by familiar fantasy races and cultures. Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, powerful mages, and even Vampires were forced to coexist in a confined space and work together to survive against tremendous outside forces. When they emerged into a post Reckoning world, they were mostly united.

The societies outside the Domains are my own creations or inspired by the odder ideas in the world of fantasy and history. The Wirn to the West of the Domains are a people who seek to finish what the Reckoning started, reshaping the world into a new form. They claim to be the children of wild magic and exhibit the ability to twist the weaves of traditional magical forms. More interestingly the Wirn have a shared consciousness which allows a remarkable degree of cohesion. The Kirifans descended from nomadic survivors of the wild magic storms, mutating and changing as they migrated to escape the dangers. They have strange eyes with slitted pupils and aquatic adaptations. Their society is based around a symbiotic relationship with the massive coral spires which they shape with their magic. 

The Vvath are a true Empire, like the Domains. They, too, predate the Reckoning. Khazak Krim was once part of a larger Dwarven Kingdom. It was a border fortress overlooking the only land route between the continents of Sudra and Ithal’Duin. When the Reckoning began the wealth of the Dwarves was a tempting target to the Gifted, and Khazak Krim quickly found itself cut off from the rest of the kingdom. They shut their doors and decided to wait out the worst.

Meanwhile the first Sword-Bearer was born. While forging and enchanting a weapon, an old smith created a strange blade. He felt odd when he made it, disjointed. It was later discovered that his spirit had bonded with the blade. Eventually they discovered the true powers of this process, including the ability to possess the wielders of the blade, and used it in their conquest. However, the immediate problem of the early Sword-Bearers was acceptance among their own people. They realized that their abilities could be seen as monstrous, or even tainted magic. So they claimed that their lore was a gift from the great forger.

The Kings of Khazak Khrim, however, are not Sword-Bearers. Knowing that they would be seen as terrible if they tried to wield power directly, the early Sword-Bearers agitated for the nobles of the Fortress to declare a new dynasty and then made themselves indispensable to the new king.

The differences between these two Empires stem from their seeds.

The City/The Fortress: Krass is a mighty city. While its walls are high and kept out the worst of the Reckoning it was always a place teeming with people and it only got more crowded. The city is a place were cultures mix and barriers are broken down and replaced. Racial and Ethnic tribalism were replaced with factional politics and class warfare. Khazak Khrim on the other hand began as a Fortress. Virtually unassailable, the Dwarves of Khazak Khrim put security above all else. They never learned to mix with other groups and emerged with a sense of racial superiority, encouraged by the Sword-Bearers who see living things as chaff.

Refugees/Military Colony: Krass took in many refugees during the early days of the Reckoning. The last of these were some of the most powerful magic users left alive, some of these had even begun the war that led to the magical storms. The multicultural aspect of Krass is not good for unity or purity of vision, but it allows the Empire to absorb new people and ideas and grow. Khazak Khrim has retained the militant mindset of the fortress. To them it is conquer, or be conquered. Strength is what keeps them safe. Enslaving and destroying other races is seen as desireable, and the Vvath employ a kill em or convert em methodology.

The Chosen/The Sword-Bearers: The people of Krass had the foresight to see that the Chosen would be needed to undo the damage of the Reckoning and hold back any tainted creatures that made it over the wall. They made a compact with the very people they feared the most to ensure that they all would survive. The Chosen are bound to them by oath, although they lack unity and vision. The Sword-Bearers were united in their need for secrecy and have a common vision for the Empire. They believe in strength and authority above all and seek to secure their Empire at all costs. Because of the powers of the blades, they are able to take over the bodies of potential foes, often conquering an enemy simply by giving them a blade as a gift.

The Krassian Empire and the Empire of the Vvath are both huge, sprawling affairs. The people of the Domains believe in freedom and prosperity, but are still nationalistic and often violent depending on which group of Chosen is calling the shots. The Vvath are more careful, but their system of morality is repellent, involving racism and even slavery.

To be continued…

Review of The Battle of Five Armies & Musings on the Hobbit

The_Hobbit-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies_26

A few days before Christmas I went to watch the last part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy: The Battle of Five Armies. As anyone who reads this blog or knows me personally understands, I have mixed feelings about this series of movies, despite my love of the source material. I will give a general review first, and then dive into specifics after the red spoiler barrier.

Here is my review of The Desolation of Smaug (w/Spoilers), the second movie, which was the worst offender, in my opinion.

In short, once I set aside fidelity to the book, I enjoyed The Battle of Five Armies. It certainly did not suffer the same level of (new) plot violations that The Desolation of Smaug did. It was an entertaining action movie with a great Tolkien backstory, worth seeing for anyone who loves massive fantasy battles and over the top action scenes. The parting scenes at the end of the movie are particularly poignant, considering that this is the last time that we will see a new movie set in Middle-Earth for a while, at least. I think Mr Jackson was sad to put this chapter of his life behind him, and his love of the source material does shine through despite the somewhat clumsy attempts to alter and improve upon it. Unless you are complete Tolkien snob or just don’t really feel excited about a fantasy themed action romp, it is worth seeing.

As a whole I thought the Hobbit trilogy was decent, but lacked both the emotional impact and epic scope of The Lord of the Rings movie. The best scene in the whole trilogy remains the first one they shot, the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Here Be Spoilers!

The Good

  • Billy Connolly as Dain Ironfoot: I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Billy Connolly’s Dain. Mr Connolly’s distinctive voice brought a strong personality to the pugnacious Dwarf (Thorin’s Cousin). Although the character was obviously CGI, the animation was decent enough (not Gollum level mind you) and really shone in fight scenes. Dain made the movie for me: Finally a Dwarf who isn’t outshone by Legolas!
  • The Dwarven Army: Although their screen time is fairly brief, the Dwarves finally show up in force and don’t immediately flub it. I was pleased to see some nice Dwarven formations and fighting styles here.
  • The Battle Scenes: The battle scenes were fantastic. There is some nice formation fighting, great epic shots, and wonderful fighting both in the field and on the ruined streets of Dale. My only complaint about the battle scenes is that there could have been more. The climactic scenes occur in an isolated ruin far away from the main battle.
  • The Acting: The acting was good. Nobody really seemed to phone it in or break immersion.
  • The raid on the Necromancer’s Tower: This is a scene that Jackson added that I actually liked, showing Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Radagast working to free Gandalf and confront Sauron in the guise of the Necromancer. I thought it was well done, did not step on the toes of the source material, and gave Mr Jackson the chance to get those familiar faces on screen once more. Martin Freeman is amazing, but more on that below.
  • Legolas Running out of Arrows: I hate Legolas in the Hobbit. I nearly cheered when his endless streak of awesome ended and he ran out of arrows.
  • The Beorn Bomb: Sometimes Jackson’s penchant for over the top action works out. When the eagles drop a transforming Beorn into the midst of the orc army it is an amusing moment.

The Bad

  • The Book is Called the Hobbit for a Reason!: Martin Freeman makes for a great Bilbo. Tis unfortunate then that this movie robs Bilbo of his major triumphs. In the book Bilbo sends a Thrush to tell Bard where the Dragon’s armour is weakest, thus helping defeat the great beast. While Bilbo is present in the third film he mostly putters around and looks conflicted. I was disappointed in his conversation with Thorin at the end and very annoyed that Bolg knocked him out.
  • Smaug’s Death: For fuck’s sake what is wrong with just having Bard shoot a bow? it works for Legolas! Everything about Smaug’s death stank. It was too early in the movie, occuring a mere fifteen minutes into the film. I blame the studio for this one, since they demanded that Mr Jackson make three movies, which required a longer battle of the five armies. It would have been much better for Smaug to die at the end of the second movie than at the beginning of the third.
  • The Thirteen Dwarves: Thorin’s company mostly remain inert once again. You think with all this extra time they could develop personalities for the Dwarves that accompany Bilbo and Thorin, but the closest they come is giving them unique facial hair styles. They don’t even get to show their fighting skills here. Much like Bilbo they seem overlooked in this movie. Lost opportunity.

The Ugly

  • CGI Muckups: The CGI was generally pretty decent. However, there were some pretty silly bits. After Azog kills Fili, the brother with no love interest, his weapons are strangely devoid of blood, let alone the serious gore that comes from running someone through. I understand the desire to keep in PG, but that was just silly. Even worse, however, was the way Smaug shrunk when he died. Before Bard kills him, Smaug is so enormous that he towers over the largest buildings in Laketown, striding with his feet on both sides of the canals as he attacks. When he falls out of the air, however, all he does is take out a boat. WTF.
  • Alfrid: Why the fuck does this guy get more screen time than any other character? Also we seem to be straying dangerously into the whole Randian ugly = evil trope with this character and all the orcs.
  • The Trolls: Every single troll in this movie was a unique and special snowflake, yet somehow they were not as interesting as the more uniform trolls seen in the first trilogy. The CGI jumped the shark a little when Legolas jumped onto a quadrapegic troll with ball and chain limbs and eyes that had been sewn shut. The ram troll was ok, the rest seem like the art department got a little out of control or the studio needed more filler.
  • The Sandworms: I nearly got up and left. The orc army has access to tunneling beasts that resemble the Sandworms from Herbert’s Dune. These serve no purpose in the movie, merely add a mindless visual flourish in getting the orc army onto the field. Too bad they also make Azog the Despoiler seem really, really stupid. I mean really, if they can burrow through solid rock why not have them burrow into the Fortress you want to take. Why not use them as weapons and undermine the enemy army or have your troops emerge at closer quarters so those elves get off less shots? No thought went into the tactical implications of adding these beasts to the story. How do the orcs even control them? For that matter where did they go afterwards? Why haven’t they used them before/after? AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. King Kong moment right here.

In all, I enjoyed the movie, but found it deeply flawed. I think the series would have been better as one or two movies focusing more on Bilbo and the Dwarves. I much prefer the book in this case, while I thought the Lord of the Rings movies were better in some ways than the written trilogy.

Fantasy World Building: The Vvath

A Doom Reaver from Warmachine.

A Doom Reaver from Warmachine.

For this week’s post I wish to return to the subject of world-building. Much of Warbound: The Shield Maiden takes place beyond the borders of the Domains of the Chosen, following the Ninth legion as they travel the long route home. I am going to share some of my world-building ideas here. There is a long list of does and don’ts for fantasy world-building. If you are looking for direct advice I would try the worldbuilding and fantasywriters pages on Reddit. Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson also have great podcasts and other material on world building. I’m not going to expound on those, but rather go through my own process, which is decidedly utilitarian.

Inspiration and Goals: The Vvath

With the Vvath I started with an idea stolen shamelessly from one of my favourite games; Warmachine by Privateer Press (with some influences via Michael Moorcock and others). In the Iron Kingdoms, one of the warring factions has unearthed blades enchanted with ancient dark magic, covered in gibbering faces. These blades turn the wielders into homicidal maniacs. Rather than recoil at the discovery, Khador decided to put these powerful, dangerous weapons to good use. The blades are given to convicts and condemned men who are then shipped off to the front and used as shock troops. What could go wrong?

The troops are called Doom Reavers, and they look more or less like a mystical version of a serial slasher from an eighties horror movie crossed with a decidedly evil knight. The idea of corrupt blades intrigued me, especially with the idea of the Reckoning, the great magical war that spiraled out of control and devastated the Domains and tainted the rest of the world. I can see these sort of weapons being created as part of the the war of the Reckoning and then becoming central to one of the new cultures that arose from the ashes.

  1. History [general goal] All of the civilizations in Warbound: The Shield Maiden must be juxtaposed against the Domains of the Chosen. For various reasons the Domains are a very familiar society, early America as settled by the Roman Empire if you will. The names are all easy, based around the Chosen, with only a few hints of the civilizations that existed before the Reckoning and the reconquest. The goal with the Vvath is to create a little blister of culture that helps define the Domains from the outside.
  2. Alien Flavour [general goal] The Domains are mostly free of the after-effects of the reckoning. The walls of Krass never fell before the wild magic or the hordes of tainted. The people of the Domains consider themselves the last bastion of civilization and have a very imperialistic past. I want the Vvath to be a harsher reflection of this — a society bent on conquest and domination.
  3. Dwarven Heritage [Vvath goal] I have always had a soft spot for dwarves in Fantasy fiction, and the idea of using a nation of imperialistic Dwarves as the basis for a set of antagonists really appeals to me. The archetypal dwarven penchant for smithing makes the blades an ideal weapon for them.
  4. Intelligent Blades [Vvath goal] The blades themselves have to be interesting, with a unique enchantment process and look. Obviously I don’t want to just copy the Doom Reavers; inspiration is one thing, outright plagiarism is another.
  5. All is not as it seems [Vvath goal] I want there to be something cunning and insidious about the Vvath.
  6. Ideology  [Vvath goal] The Vvath are a competing ideology to the Domains. They must present a view of the world that is at odds with the Krrassian Empire, yet understandable to the modern reader.

Outlines of the Vvath, the Sword-Lords of Khazak Krim

  1. History [general goal] Khazak Krim was once part of a larger Dwarven Kingdom. It was a border trade city overlooking the only land route between the continents of Sudra and Ithal’Duin. When the reckoning began the wealth of the Dwarves was a tempting target to the Gifted, and Khazak Krim quickly found itself cut off from the rest of the kingdom. Never numerous, the Dwarves of Khazak Krim realized that they did not have enough people The original blades did not originate from within Khazak Krim, but the Vvath saw their potential and used them to create an army which helped protect them throughout the Reckoning and expand afterwards.
  2. Alien Flavour [general goal] The Vvath believe in slave labour. All races are seen as inferior to the Vvath and Dwarves in general. Khazak Krim is a wondrous paradise that overlooks an empire of squalor where non-dwarves are, at best, seen as potential hosts for a Vvath blade.
  3. Dwarven Heritage [Vvath goal] Aside from the swords and totalitarian society the Vvath are very similar to a regular society of Fantasy dwarves. Slave labour does  make them less inclined to be miners, however.
  4. Intelligent Blades [Vvath goal] When a Vvath comes to middle age they craft a Vvath Blade. Their consciousness is transferred into the blade in a dark and crazy ritual which I have not thought up yet and possesses the living, but mindless husk of their own body or whatever body wields the blade. When the Vvaths original body is slain or destroyed, a new body is sought out. Obviously, this changes their psychology somewhat 🙂
    1. Soul Eating? I also toyed with the idea of the Vvath blades being able to animate the dead that they kill or to eat souls to heal the wielder. Not sure yet.
  5. All is not as it seems [Vvath goal] The Vvath hold contests in the far flung regions of their Domains and among their slaves. (Maybe even some Gladiators) The worthy are gifted with a Vvath blade. The blades have a reputation of making the wielder invincible in battle, gifting them with supernatural strength and toughness. Of course this is true, but the blades also erode the consciousness of the wielder and allow the Vvath in the blade to take control. Bodies that are possessed long enough start to take on the features of the Vvath — hence many of the hosts wear copious amounts of armour and masks to hide their growing deformities. At Khazad Krim host bodies wear a mask that resemble the original face of the Vvath.
  6. Ideology  [Vvath goal] The Vvath are a totalitarian society, ruled by ancient sword lords. The sword lords are the opposite of the Chosen in many ways, since the contest to choose new bodies is a ruse. The idea of slavery is one that readers will understand but generally find repulsive.

Spoiler Alert: Smaug, Bilbo, Thorin, Legolas, and Peter Jackson’s Mary Sues.

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The Return of the Elf

I watched the Hobbit today with my Girlfriend and her seven year old son. I enjoyed it for the most part. The action was superb, the casting was excellent, and despite the insane length (2 hrs, 41 mins), it kept everyone’s attention. All things considered I would say it is worth watching, especially if you have children who are fans of the series or are budding geeks. On the other hand if you know any Tolkien purists, do not go to the movie with them — they may explode.

Aside from its prodigious length, the series has a few issues which were exacerbated in this film. The vaunted and feared addition of Evangeline Lilly actually did not really spoil the movie, at least for me. To discuss my feelings about Mr Jackson’s latest Tolkien film will require me to withdraw into spoiler alert land. Do not read them until you have watched the movie.

I would recommend the movie to any fan of epic fantasy who is not a Tolkien purist.

>>>>>SPOILER ALERT<<<<<

The heart of the novelization of the hobbit is a series of three conversations. Bilbo and Golem with the riddle game, Bilbo waking and encountering Smaug in the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo and Thorin at the end of the book. Mr Jackson’s screen adaptations have done an excellent job on these thus far. The riddle game was awesome. If anything the interaction between Smaug and Bilbo is even better, perhaps because Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch have worked together before. That chemistry really shines through despite the fact that Smaug is not only computer generated, but his facial features aren’t human either. If Mr Jackson can manage to clinch that third conversation in the last movie I will find it impossible to hate his adaptations.

Unfortunately Thorin is, thus far, poorly written and wrongly directed. I don’t place the blame on Richard Armitage here; I know he can be charismatic when allowed. Unfortunately Thorin comes off as petulant and unlikable, especially in the scenes that Jackson adds. I feel that Mr Jackson is trying to go for an Aragorn vibe with Thorin, but he ends up being too gruff and not showing enough heart. If the dramatic finish to the movie is to have any real power then Thorin will have to be better in movie number three. It all hinges on those few words between Thorin and Bilbo at this point, at least for me.

Mr Jackson adds a lot of fluff to the series in this second movie. I feel he stretches it too thin, even with the epic action scenes. Very little happens that justify a two hour and fourty one minute movie that ends in a cliff-hanger. However, since it was action, and gave me some fun ideas for games and writing, I can forgive this.

Some of Mr Jackson’s visualizations really annoy me. I really hated his version of the giants throwing rocks in the mountains in the first movie, for example — it reminded me of a theme park attraction rather than the myth-building moment that it was in the books. I’d rather more care be spent on giving each dwarf a bit of personality than a unique look. Still, I feel those crazy visualzations were toned down in this second instalment — you don’t need to go overboard for colossal action when Smaug is on the prowl. The only offenders are run-on action scenes. An improvement I’d say.

Some of the embellishments are just plain wierd. Instead of the black arrow being an actual arrow passed down to Bard by his forebearers, that the archer regarded as lucky, it is now the last ballista bolt for an anti-dragon weapon  built by the dwarves for the men of Dale long ago. I can see that Mr Jackson is trying to add a sense of drama here by having Bard’s forefather using the previous bolts (er black arrows) creating Smaug’s weakspot, and then never getting time to take the last shot. Bard is out to redeem the family name. It felt unnecessary. Bard had plenty of motive for killing Smaug in the books, and I like that Bilbo found the Dragon’s weak-spot and the thrush told Bard. The worst part about this whole scene is how Thorin comes off as an utter asshole, actually using Bard’s story and his family’s legacy of failure against him at one point. Not a good addition. Thorin needs to be more redeemable.

Mr Jackson’s character additions remain the worst part of the series. Evangeline Lilly, although a classic Mary Sue, was an exception to this. She kicked ass, but was not a scene stealer. She also added a feminine presence to the movie and the action scenes, something that was arguably lacking in the original tale. I didn’t even mind her romance with Kili, which may have to carry the third movie if Mr Jackson can’t get that key interaction between Thorin and Bilbo down. In fact, alone out of all of the add-on characters in this movie, she helped make one of the Dwarves, Kili, seem more interesting and dramatic. The other additions all flew screaming into fan fiction territory. I will deal with them in order.

  • Azog the Defiler: Azog keeps becoming more and more important. I don’t see why. He has no personality whatsoever. The only thing that distinguishes him from other orcs is his unique appearance and combat prowess. In the first movie he kicks the crap out of Thorin. In this movie he challenges Gandalf — seriously? Azog adds nothing to the movies. Why give the orcs faces and names if they all have the same personality? Azog is another potential problem character in the third movie — I suspect he will deliver the fatal wound to Thorin, a feat which he is not worthy of. Azog is a kind of villainous Mary Sue — an invention of the director placed in another author’s works who seems to get more and more powerful, bashing down established characters. People often feel they can beat Tolkien in the villain department, and Azog is a spectacularly visual enemy, but rather hollow as a character.
  • Bolg: Azog is called to muster, so he sends his Lieutenant, Bolg, to deal with Thorin. Bolg is another orc with a unique appearance, but no personality.  In everything but appearance he is exactly interchangeable with Azog. He hates dwarves, but so do all the other orcs. He does kick ass though, rampaging through the Elven Part of Mirkwood and living to tell the tale and also going toe to toe with Legolas and actually surviving to escape. He is actually the only character in the series to make Legolas bleed a bit, something that apparently deserved a closeup and some screen time. Again, another super-powerful character added by the director for no good reason beyond visualization.

The worst character addition in the second Hobbit movie is actually an old favourite from the Lord of the Rings series: Orlando Blood returning as Legolas. In the first trilogy Legolas is a scene stealer, but this is forgivable since he is part of the story and presented as quite awesome. Last time I checked however, Legolas wasn’t in the Hobbit, and he certainly wasn’t the main part of the action. Stealing a scene you are supposed to be in is one thing, stealing scenes you aren’t mean to be in is an egregious offence on the part of Mr Jackson.

  • The barrel escape from the elves turns into a running action scene in the movie as orcs attack the barrels in the river. The Dwarves show great resourcefulness and wonderful teamwork in the first part of this scene, in what amounts to a creative and fun fight scene that lets the dwarves shine as a company. Sadly it is immediately overshadowed as Legolas shows up and makes the whole group of dwarves, who seemed awesome a heartbeat ago, seem like lackluster amateurs. At one point he even fells a squad of orcs while standing on the faces of two the dwarves as their barrels race down the river, which more or less sums up the whole scene for me. Legolas steals scenes at the expense of the Dwarves. I hate this. I disliked that Jackson reduced Gimli to comic relief in most of the first trilogy, I hate that Legolas outshines the Dwarves in their own story, which he is not even supposed to be in. 😦
  • Legolas in the Hobbit movies is a terrible kind of Mary Sue. He is not an avatar of the writers or the director, however he is an insertion that excels at everything he does, and really steals every action scene he appears in. In the Rings movies his prowess was countered by the fact that Mr Jackson was *mostly* held to adapting scenes that were actually in the books. Not so now, where he gets scenes written more or less for him! I really dread what Mr Jackson in going to do with him in the final adaptation. Again, this not Orlando Bloom’s fault, if anything a bit of age has made him a better Legolas — it is the way the character is inserted into the script at the cost to other characters that were originally there. Mary Sue, Mary Sue, Mary Sue. Bard was supposed to be the archer of this set. UGH!

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is this. When we left the movie, the young lad I was with was leaping off snowbanks, shooting his imaginary bow and arrows at imaginary orcs. No doubt he was like Legolas firing at Azog and Bolg, in his imaginary mindscape. But I had to agree with my girlfriend when she thought it was sad that he wasn’t pretending to be any of the dwarves.

What I get out of this is that if you have to add characters to modernize or expand a great work, fine, but don’t do so at the cost of the characters that are already there. Inserting your own characters, and having them outshine the characters that already exist, is a kind of Mary Sue authorship — it may not be a direct author avatar, but it certainly has that same feel to it. Perhaps showboating would be a better term.