Middle-earth: Lamenting the Adventure

Over the weekend I finally got the chance to see the final Hobbit movie, The Battle of Five Armies. In a strange mirror to my experience with the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, I only watched the last two parts at the cinema. I think that the cinema experience adds to films like these. They are lent an additional depth as you sit in a vast, quiet, dark space and focus on the movie and nothing else for the best part of three hours. You can almost imagine yourself seated in a hall in the depths of Erebor, peering out at events unfolding on the surface.

But today I don’t want to talk about movies, as such. I want to talk about a very important theme that Tolkien’s work seems to invoke. A theme that the movies by Peter Jackson replicate perfectly, and perhaps even convey better than the books.

I’m referring to the adventure, the journey, and how we are made to lament their coming to an end.

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Taking Aggro: Shields in Fantasy

If you’ve ever played any kind of RPG, you’ll probably be familiar with the concept of ‘tanking’. Basically, because nobody except a warrior is allowed to wear decent armour or carry a bit of metal to stop their arms from being lopped off, they have to keep their cloth-clad, squishy bodies out of the way of enemy steel.

If you do have the good fortune to be a warrior in your fantasy realm of choice, you’ll be further subdivided into two groups: those who deal damage (DPS) and those who take it (Tank). But if you want to ascend to the illustrious position of ‘tank’, you usually need to own a shield. And not just any shield – a nice big one that you can barely see around, adorned with fire-breathing lion heads and more spikes than an acupuncturist’s utility belt.

Shields in RPG’s have been reduced down to their very basic form. They are solely the tools of the tanking warrior, who uses them to block, bash and occasionally even throw. But if we overlook the ridiculousness of a warrior throwing his shield at the charging enemy and then expecting it to boomerang and return to his waiting hand, we are left with a very versatile piece of weaponry being used for precisely two purposes.

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The New Wave: Fantasy Debuts in 2014

As promised in my previous article Fantasy: What’s Next? these are my most anticipated fantasy debuts coming in 2014. If you have any recommended reads for this year, please share them in the comments below. I hope you enjoy!

(These are in no particular order!)

#1 – Traitor’s Blade (The Greatcoats) by Sebastian de Castell

It’s being marketed as Joe Abercrombie crossed with Alexandre Dumas. Heroic fantasy with a streak of darkness. Plus, some awesome cover art makes this a compelling debut.

Traitor's Blade

Falcio is the first Cantor of the Greatcoats. Trained in the fighting arts and the laws of Tristia, the Greatcoats are travelling Magisters upholding King’s Law. They are heroes. Or at least they were, until they stood aside while the Dukes took the kingdom, and impaled their King’s head on a spike.

Now Tristia is on the verge of collapse and the barbarians are sniffing at the borders. The Dukes bring chaos to the land, while the Greatcoats are scattered far and wide, reviled as traitors, their legendary coats in tatters.

All they have left are the promises they made to King Paelis, to carry out one final mission. But if they have any hope of fulfilling the King’s dream, the divided Greatcoats must reunite, or they will also have to stand aside as they watch their world burn…

Release Date: 6th March 2014

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Fantasy: What’s Next?

Well, that’s the title done. Ten minutes to come up with that! Would you believe it? This is one of those posts where I know exactly what I want to say, but I struggle to find a title to do it justice.

Anyway, onto the topic at hand. I want to talk about the fantasy genre right now and look ahead at what I think we can expect from our fantastic fiction in the near future. It feels like the last decade has been a kind of “fantasy dark ages”. Not in the sense that we’ve had no innovation, but in the sense that I feel a great big grey cloud has been hanging over us, stifling our creativity. I speak, of course, about the phenomenon that was gritty/grimdark fantasy. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about this. I’ve already done that elsewhere.

Now, I’m absolutely not saying I don’t like this kind of fantasy yarn. I was an Abercrombie fan right from the off. I love A Song of Ice and Fire (epic fantasy, but I consider it gritty nonetheless) And I’m a bit of a Warhammer Fantasy fan too. Basically, this type of fantasy was original when it started to rear its head. I’m not saying Joe Abercrombie and George R. R. Martin are the same, either, but they could be loosely categorised under a similar grouping.

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The problem, though, that I have with this sub-genre of fantasy is that it can all take quite the emotional toll. There are only so many times I can stomach reading a graphic torture scene or a battle where people are being eviscerated and dismembered all over the place. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that I don’t really enjoy this sort of stuff. I read this type of fantasy for the flawed characters, for the disturbingly human conflicts and for the quality of the writing. I don’t enjoy gore for the sake of gore. I know that this is the reality of war and of violence, but it can be executed with a lightness that doesn’t turn the reader’s stomach. Continue reading

The Ultimate Fantasy Christmas Wishlist

Well, it’s Tuesday and that means it’s time for our round-up of the ten coolest fantasy-themed gifts for your wish lists this Christmas! Yes, I know it’s probably too late to order any of these in time for Christmas. No, I don’t feel bad for that. Yes, you may buy all of these gifts for me as a way of showing that you forgive me.

#1 – Game of Thrones Dragon Eggs Collectible Set

Game of Thrones Dragon CollectiblePerhaps one of the most awesome things I’ve seen this year. You can now actually own Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon eggs and mooch around your living room naked, pretending you’re the goddamn Mother of Dragons or something!

Alternatively, you could pretend you’re Eragon. Yeah, not as exciting is it?

Go check it out at the official HBO store.

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Gritty Is Good?

You only need to have heard of works like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Grim Company or Prince of Thorns to know that the current trend in fantasy is to practically brutalise your heroes before letting them win (or die). Perhaps influenced by Hollywood and the trend in society towards ‘gritty’ heroes and tales, the fantasy genre has more than followed this trend; it has shaped it.

If you had asked anyone if they had heard of Game of Thrones before the TV series made such a huge splash, they’d probably have just stared at you blankly. Nowadays, the series is everywhere and its followers encompass fantasy fans and ‘average joes’ alike. It seems people really love the brutal ‘fantasy realism’ (is that even a thing?) of the show and just can’t get enough bloodshed, betrayal and incest. Other TV shows hold a similar appeal (I’m looking at you, Breaking Bad).

Gritty, dark, grimdark, grim and err… horrible?

Fantasy likes to invent different names for things that are practically the same (in fact, all genres do). It seems that every day more and more authors are being included in the mentions when discussion about ‘grimdark’ takes place. Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan are two of the first to have been grouped under this banner. But just the other day I saw Scott Lynch referred to as ‘grimdark’. Hmm, I’m not so sure.

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Genres and sub-genres change all the time and gritty fantasy is no exception. For his time, Tolkien’s writing was just as gritty and complex as perhaps George R. R. Martin’s is now. Perspectives change over time and, the truth is, putting your characters through hell is an essential part of many stories, not just the ‘gritty’ ones.

Our heroes now are almost anti-hero in nature. We’re meant to root for the thief, the assassin and the mercenary. Where are our knights of justice, our superheroes? Well…

The ‘Dark Knight’ Problem

When Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot, Batman Begins, stormed onto the silver screen back in 2005, all the talk was on how superhero movies had been made relevant once again. But let’s not forget we had Spider-Man back in 2002; also successful, also with elements of darkness. For me, at least, it feels like Chris Nolan kicked off this ‘new’ idea of gritty, grounded superheroes and cemented it into the public’s subconscious. Now it’s led us down the road where Superman no longer has red briefs, Batman can fight no villain with supernatural abilities and Captain America’s mask must take on the design of a helmet, just so it’s all believable.

But they’re god-damn superheroes! Do they need to be believable?

Yes and no. Yes, the audience needs to be able to relate to them. No, every detail doesn’t need to be scientifically consistent. We don’t really care how Batman’s grapple-gun actually works, or how he has a powerful enough sonar in his suit to summon clouds of bats, so long as it looks cool and is at least consistent within the fictional world.

So… Fantasy?

OK, so we’ve established what gritty/grimdark is, but how does it fit into the world we’re concerned with: the world of fantasy fiction? Well, it turns out the fantasy genre is in the grip of the concept of ‘gritty’ right now. Namely, a drive for realism (and the occasional penchant for visceral gore). This trend has been intensifying for a long time now and I personally believe we’re reaching critical mass. Joe Abercrombie’s work was pretty violent and dour, giving you a sense of hopelessness as you read it. Following on from that was Mark Lawrence with Prince of Thorns and then the latest entry in the ‘grimdark’ arena is Luke Scull. With each new work, things get darker, more gory and far more grim. It’s only a matter of time before readers decide they want something fresh, something upbeat.

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I think a great way to wrap this article up is with a list of recommended reads, of what I consider to be some of the best gritty fantasy out there. What you need to understand is that I am a huge Abercrombie fan and I do enjoy the odd gritty tale or two. Lately, I’ve been exploring other works that you wouldn’t really classify as ‘gritty’, because I’m growing tired of the similar style and atmosphere in my fiction. I want to see a return to the great epics of old, but with a decidedly modern twist. It’s something I hope to at least try with my own writing.

The ‘Gritty Is Good?’ Reading List

  1. The First Law Trilogy (Joe Abercrombie)
  2. The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch)
  3. Prince of Thorns (Mark Lawrence)
  4. Waylander (David Gemmell)
  5. A Song of Ice and Fire (George R. R. Martin)
  6. The Black Company (Glenn Cook)
  7. Malazan Book of the Fallen (Steven Erikson)
  8. Acts of Caine (Matthew Stover)
  9. The Darkness That Comes Before (R. Scott Bakker)
  10. The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher)

Honourable Mention: The Engineer Trilogy (K. J. Parker)Can this be characterised as gritty? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but be sure to check this one out. K. J. Parker is somewhat under-appreciated and deserves a lot more attention.


The Bestiary #1: Orcs

Welcome to a brand new series imaginatively entitled ‘The Bestiary’. In said series, we’re going to be looking at fantasy races and creatures and documenting them as if we’re some sort of fantasy David Attenborough. Why are halflings so short? Do dragons ever get burnt tongues? How many ogres does it take to change a light bulb? I’ll offer you my theories and thoughts alongside a great big slice of hard scientific evidence and fact.

Ok, maybe not scientific fact. More like fantatific fact. Or is that just facts about orange-flavour fizzy drinks? Hmm…

* * *

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Ukrug gar bethk u skog!

That means ‘Good day, my fine fellow. How is the weather?’ in Orcish. Or does it? In fact, I just made that up. Here’s a ‘proper’ orc phrase from Mr. Tolkien:

Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai!

Which (roughly) means: ‘Uglúk to the dung-pit with stinking Saruman-filth, pig-guts, gah!’

Aren’t orcs just a bunch of lovely individuals?

No? OK, fair enough. But they are a race with a long and varied history, complete with their own language and intricate tribal customs. That depends on what particular type of orc you’re talking about, of course. If we’re talking Warcraft, then you’ll find orc shamans, orc cities and even orc diplomacy. If you’re talking Warhammer, then you’ll be lucky if you can get so much as a ‘WAAAGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!’ out of your average orc as it picks its nose and eats mud soup from a human skull.

Orcs are curious creatures, then. Humanoid, but not human. Sometimes they’re depicted as an ancestor or offshoot of the human race; other times they’re sentient globs of green space phlegm and others they are corrupt versions of elves. This makes determining just what the heck they are supposed to be a little tricky. Personally, I always consider them a distant ancestor of humankind, kind of like Neanderthals or something. Just don’t ask me to explain the green skin and tusks (maybe they cross-bred with diseased mammoths at some point, who knows?).

Orc Warrior

Now, again, depending on which universe you’re talking about, orcs use a variety of different weapons and ride a variety of different creatures into battle. Tolkien probably did it best by showing us the relationship between the wargs and orcs of Middle-earth and then it was only another short leap of imagination for us to believe that the orcs then rode those same wargs as humans rode horses. In other works of fiction, orcs ride all manner of beasts, from gigantic wolves and wild boars to plain old horses and sometimes even more exotic creatures.

Just check out a game series like the Elder Scrolls (or any traditional fantasy RPG) and you’re sure to find an orc blacksmith or two. Orcs love fighting and they love weapons, so why do orc-crafted weapons always look so damn crude and ugly? If they just took a little more time and effort… well, you get the idea.

Hmm, hold on one second…

  1. Enjoys fighting
  2. Loves pointy/bashy weaponry
  3. Often unintelligible

Remind you of anyone else? Yep, you guessed it… dwarves.

And that segues nicely into our introduction for the next instalment of ‘The Bestiary’!

The mountain slopes are alive with the sound of feasting, of drinking… and of war! Secreted safely away in their subterranean strongholds, the dwarves have many foes but fear none. They may be short, but they’re ferocious fighters. And whatever you do don’t tug a dwarf’s beard! And never, under any circumstances, stroll into town and proclaim: ‘Yo! Where the women at?’

Some things are better left uncovered.

Got anything to say about orcs? How about an interesting fact? Oh, do share!

The Top 10 List of Fantasy Cities & Settlements

This is my personal list of favourite fantasy cities, towns, castles and villages. Join in and leave a comment below!

  1. Marienburg (Warhammer)
  2. Helm’s Deep (LOTR)
  3. The Imperial City (Elder Scrolls)
  4. Adua (The First Law)
  5. Stormwind City (Warcraft)
  6. Ankh-Morpork (Discworld)
  7. Avalon (King Arthur)
  8. Altdorf (Warhammer)
  9. Midgar (Final Fantasy VII)
  10. Minas Tirith (LOTR)

That was not an easy list. I know I’ve missed out some awesome cities. Let me know which ones!

The Top 10 List of Fantasy Famous Last Words

Welcome to this week’s Epic List of the Week! As always, you can let us know if you agree/disagree with our list by leaving a comment below.

We missed last week’s Fiction Friday: The Story, but rest assured it will be along this week!

  1. ‘Hmm, I’m not sure if you should touch that sword. It’s glowing an awful lot…’
  2. ‘There’s no way you can hit me with that bow and arrow from all the way over th–‘
  3. ‘Zombies? Yeah. I’m 100% sure you stake them through the heart.’
  4. ‘Werewolves? Trust me on this. Get the garlic crusher.’
  5. ‘A sea monster? Well, I don’t see anything… apart from this huge dark cavern.’
  6. ‘If you’re really a demon prince, why don’t you prove it?’
  7. ‘What kind of giant evil chicken god are you? Why, you couldn’t even squash a fly! You chicken or something?’
  8. ‘It’s our last chance to defeat evil! Just put that cursed amulet in the slot on the pedestal and pull that lever.’
  9. ‘When the wizard said it was a bad idea to experiment with our powers, I’m sure he wasn’t referring to genocide… right?’
  10. ‘A horse? Nahhhh! I want to ride that huge thing with the spiky back!’

Come on, I dare you to tell me those were rubbish!

The Top 10 List of Magic Objects

Welcome to the second Epic List of the Week! I want to hear your suggestions to add to the list, so drop a comment below.

  1. Excalibur (King Arthur)
  2. The One Ring (Lord of the Rings)
  3. Stormbringer (Elric)
  4. Frostmourne (Warcraft)
  5. The Infinite Gauntlet (Marvel Universe)
  6. The Flying Carpet (Aladdin)
  7. Elder Wand (Harry Potter)
  8. Dagger of Time (Prince of Persia)
  9. Necromantic Bells (Abhorsen)
  10. Hermes’ Winged Sandals (Ancient Mythology)

Got anything to add?

Reviewed! – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Trailer


Who would have thought back when The Fellowship of the Ring came out in cinemas, how popular and how far-reaching that movie series would become? Who would have thought that a movie based on a book written in the 50’s about elves, dwarves, magic rings and wizards would have struck such a chord with modern audiences? And, most of all, who would have ever expected that Peter Jackson could one day return to that world and adapt Tolkien’s earlier work, The Hobbit, into another trilogy of movies?

Certainly not me. And not you either (no fibbing)!

Let’s get down to the trailer, then. There was an early trailer released a while back for this movie, but it pales in comparison to this new one. What we’re greeted with here is shots of the band of dwarves who scoop up Bilbo for an epic treasure hunt, wise old Gandalf the Grey, some nice scenes of Rivendell and Elrond and tons of goblin/trollage.

The first thing that strikes me from watching this trailer is how different this trilogy is going to be from The Lord of the Rings. Where LOTR focused on the hopeless, desperate fight against Sauron, this movie looks like it’s centred on adventure, high jinks and mystery. It seems to have a great sense of humour, too; something LOTR also had in a poignant sort of way. Of course, you’d need the movie to have that humour, with a band of dwarves and a hobbit driving events.

Not just any hobbit, mind you. This one’s played by the fantastic Martin Freeman, well loved in the UK for his roles in The Office and Sherlock. This man has a natural talent for bringing warmth and a sense of reality to his characters. His face conveys every emotion known to man and he has a really likable “every man” kind of way about him. He’s going to do this character justice and it looks like he’s managed to still keep Ian Holm’s older Bilbo appearance from LOTR relevant and believable.

Now, onto the internet’s favourite Hobbit-related topic… Gollum returns! But wait, it’s not just the old CGI Gollum as you once knew him! This one’s… the precioussssss.

That’s right, Peter Jackson/WETA have ensured Gollum looks his absolute best for this movie, while not detracting from his LOTR look. Somehow, in this trailer, Gollum looks like more of a part of the world, rather than an obvious CGI creation. He has more detail in his face and seems to inherit even more personality from his real-world counterpart, Andy Serkis, who is in my view a fantastic actor. What’s more, we’re going to encounter Gollum just as Bilbo originally did and witness him within his own domain, rather than lost and worn down in the harsh world of LOTR.

With great things promised for this series, including the fantastic Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon Smaug (who should naturally play off Martin Freeman), the Battle of Five Armies and expanded storylines following Gandalf and Legolas facing off against the Necromancer (A.K.A. Sauron Mk.I), this promises to be an unmissable trilogy of movies.

Now, if they can just develop a tie-in video game of the quality of the highly addictive Return of the King, I’ll be a very happy bunny.

Watch the full trailer on Youtube here.

Have you seen the new trailer yet? Let us know what you thought!

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The Top 10 List of Fantasy Little People

Here’s our new Monday feature, Epic List of the Week! I’m sure I’ve missed out some famous characters and some personal favourites of yours, so join in and let everyone know who else should be included in the list! You can leave a comment on this post underneath or you can click ‘Leave a Comment’ just above.

  1. Tyrion Lannister
  2. Bilbo Baggins
  3. Gotrek Gurnisson
  4. Gollum/Smeagol
  5. Muradin Bronzebeard
  6. Dobby the House Elf
  7. Gimli, Son of Gloin
  8. Frodo Baggins
  9. High Tinker Gelbin Mekkatorque
  10. Gilius Thunderhead

Don’t forget, you can still enter the Fiction Friday weekly contest! You could have your writing featured on the blog on Friday! Just visit this link.