A Journey through the world of The Witcher (part three)

And so to the books but where to start? The Blood of Elves was supposed to be the start of the novels so I began there and…hang on, this isn’t the beginning – the characters are talking about Geralt and Yennefer and the things they’ve already done. Look again…ah, there are two books of short stories first. Now we’re talking.

The Last Wish

Temeria. King Foltest has a stryga situation. This is very familiar. Haha, he just said ‘whoa there, Roach’. Later Geralt arrives in a place called Blavakin and I know this isn’t going to end well. Here is the Cintra where Ciri is supposed to be a Princess. The stories are nicely contained and slightly unexpectedly from my experience of the games, particularly the first two, they are funny at times and not afraid of the odd cheeky cultural reference. There’s a line about not about not wanting to dispatch a troll because he does good work maintaining the bridge that could have almost been in place in Terry Pratchett. When I later revisited the games I realised some of this humour can be found but this is a journey and we’re not there yet.

Overall, the tone is much lighter than the grimdark I had expected having played the games. Being separated from Geralt’s leaden delivery helps in this regard. Book Geralt is world-weary and cynical it is true but he’s also more sardonic and generally animated. He also pontificates on the nature of things from time to time. In short, game Geralt isn’t nearly as good company.

I get to the Last Wish that is heavily referenced in the quest of the same name in Witcher 3. This is more or less the Yennefer we meet in the games. Spoilt, headstrong and manipulative, living in luxury and putting noses out of joint in every direction. As before, it’s a more light-hearted affair than is hinted at by the Witcher 3 and provides a satisfying set up for what is to come.

 

The Sword of Destiny

I later found out that Sword of Destiny wasn’t released in English for a long time. I wonder how followers of the books got on because it’s quite an important missing piece to remain unfilled. I’m glad I started reading them when this volume was available as it is vital to understanding the relationship Geralt has with the two most important women (for that matter people) in his life; Yennefer and Ciri.

I’m also glad Sword of Destiny was available to me from the beginning as it remains by far my favourite of all of Sapkowski’s works. It makes the tonal transition from the lightness of The Last Wish to the gloom that will follow. As an aside, I always have a fondness for the parts of a series that hit this sweet spot. Goblet of Fire and Mass Effect 2 also fit in this category but that is a matter for another blog.

Yennefer is back and on fine form and the dragon hunt is on. Witcher 2 references paying off here with the Crinfrid Reavers (in fact they are only in Witcher 2 to do this) and Yarpen Zigren. There’s also a GWENT card pay off and the conversations between Geralt and Yennefer in The Last Wish quest now make a lot more sense.  The oft spoken of Zeugl also makes an appearance later on. In terms of the relationship between Geralt and Yennefer, if the games had been set between where they end up here and the next time they meet the Yennefer/Triss choice would have been more finely balanced.

The short form seems to suit Andrej Sapkowski. One thing he does very well is introduce characters and quickly make you care about them even if you will only know them for a short while. Sometimes it’s heart-breaking and I wonder why he did that to me. A life, like the Sword of Destiny, has two sides. There is the life of the person and there is the life that their effect on other people has. I understand now why he did that. Sometimes to understand someone you need to see how they act towards other people and how they suffer at their loss.

Sword of Destiny is mostly about the two women in Geralt’s life. For me, it is also where I started to like Dandelion. His humanity emerges from behind the facade of ridiculous hedonism. I find he is at his best when he is prepared to contradict Geralt and in these moments their unlikely partnership seems to make the most sense. Sometimes you need to see how people act towards others to understand them. Through Sword of Destiny and beyond you see the flashes of Geralt’s soft side. Not weakness but a fierce if somewhat begrudging loyalty to anyone or anything that falls under his care, even if he does call them ‘Roach’.

A point of view is like a camera. It can only focus on one thing at a time. In the world of The Witcher this often means that important things are happening out of sight. Sometimes this works, other times this is frustrating. We never get to see the Battle of Sodden. We get to stand on the hill and feel it’s aftermath. Names are mentioned that I’ve heard in the games. I think about the sorceresses who fought together there and wonder how Sapkowski would feel about how their fates play out in them. Is Sabrina Glevissig supposed to end up burnt on a wheel?  It’s an idle question really. I get the impression that Sapkowski doesn’t give the storylines of the games too much thought.

I’m glad I didn’t start with the novels. The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny is where the main characters are properly established. From what I have gathered so far it also seems that the events of these books are set to feature heavily in the upcoming Netflix series. In essence, if you want to get to know Geralt, Yennefer and Dandelion; read the short stories. I think you could go from here into the games and need almost no explanation for who is who and why these things are happening. With one exception; Witcher 3 is in many ways Ciri’s story and her story is yet to be begun. To understand that properly I had to read the novels.

 

Featured photo.

Photographer: Victoria Romanova aka Milligan Vick

Model: Galina Zhukovskaya

 

 

 

Advertisements

A Journey through the world of The Witcher (part two)

the_witcher_3_v6_by_harrybana-d8a4bxlHaving ploughed (maybe not the best word in context) through Witcher 2 I went straight on to Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. First of all, I have to say I am in awe of the work done on this game. Witcher 2 is in some ways quite a confined game. With this game they broke down the walls and made instead the game that any RPG fan would want.

In some ways this era could turn out to be a golden age of RPGs. Not necessarily, as for me story and a sense of place are the alpha and omega of an RPG. It’s not a given that these will improve. On the other hand, there seems to be a real sense of learning. I’m sure games developers play the output of other studios more extensively than me. I tend to find a game and play it to death. One a year can sometimes be enough. Nonetheless, I can still see cross-pollination for the good.

Elder Scrolls and particularly Skyrim reimagined the scope and beauty of a single-player open world RPG. This clearly had an effect in the development of Dragon Age: Inquisition. Horses become a standard feature (also through Red Dead Redemption) and the possibility of exploring a vaster landscape unfolds. But gamers aren’t satisfied they want to fight from horseback and this mechanic appears in the Skyrim DLC. It’s not quite there yet. Now Witcher 3 comes along and (at least on keyboard and mouse) it now works and, most importantly, is fun.

There are many points in Witcher 3 that I felt that the designers were responding to something that fans of RPGs wanted and it is then delivered. None of this is to say the RPG form has been perfected. Far from it. There is so much more that can be done and some things that should be dropped but this is for another post. The point here is that CDPR with Witcher 3 gave me a real sense of responding to what people want.

Personally, I immediately felt that my issues with the previous games had been addressed. It was no longer aimless, rather it gave clear opportunities to progress the storyline as and when suited. The graphics were once again improved (beardy Geralt is a huge improvement over previous versions). The combat was enjoyable, the interface more intuitive and gameplay was more logical (e.g. taking potions before a big fight actually possible).  After the trio of barren locations I had endured in Witcher 2 a more verdant and varied vista opened up before me

Last but not least, the VA was a step up from previous games. There was a bit more variety there (helped by more expressive animations), although there are a number of times when Geralt acts needlessly put upon, sighing when exiting a shop screen for no apparent reason and saying a begrudging ‘fine’ more times than I can count. The greater length of the game and opportunities for interactions also mean Geralt is able to show more of his character than before.

I knew I was going to choose Yennefer based on the fact that she was who he was with before he lost his memory. It seemed a bit odd to sideline Triss after spending the game before trying to save her but Geralt lets on several times that easy-going sweetness is not his bag and when previously in possession of all his faculties he had chosen Yennefer. If in doubt, do what you think the character would do.

The game moves on to Skellige and once again I was in awe. This viking-celtic mishmash setting (perhaps meant to be Orkney or the Shetlands) could have been the whole world for many a game and here it is just one place to visit. I think on this in more depth. Skyrim has myriad locations but actually how extensive are they? Even Riverun is only a few screens, probably only a part of the size of Oxenfurt let alone Novigrad.

I have probably only played a tiny fraction of RPGs out there. Still, some things stick in your mind. There’s a game called Summoner on the Playstation 2, horrible controls/gameplay, mediocre graphics, good story and a fabulous setting. Reasonably early in the game you get to the main city, Lenelle. You first enter the market on the outside then and interior market region. From there you can progress to the old town, the upmarket district and the temple area. I don’t think I’d ever seen so much space given to an urban environment before in an RPG. Now I expect nothing less.

Initially, I ignore Gwent. Once I get a feel for the shape of the game I restart in completionist mode. This time I learn Gwent. Who are all these characters on the cards? Oh look, there’s Phillipa Eilhart again. She’s referred to again but first time round I missed ‘Redania’s Most Wanted’. There are others, Milva, Cahir, Regis. Menno Coehoorn I recognise from the back story of the Dun Banner. I still want to know more about Brenna and Sodden.

I complete the main quest and move on to Toussaint. Riding out of Beauclaire I often have to stop and spin around the panaroma. Once again, I am in awe. Ah hello, here’s Regis from the Gwent card.

Something is nagging me at this stage. All this interaction with people Geralt knows but are strangers to me. I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of references and back history. I feel a bit like an outsider when I should be right in the midst. This was fine when in the previous game Geralt was recovering from amnesia but now I need to know the full story. I feel like I’m coming in late on this and I hate coming in late. I want to start from as close to the beginning as possible.

There is only one solution…I have to now read the books.

A Journey through the world of The Witcher (Part One)

the_witcher_2_enhanced_ed_for_windows_8_oblytile_by_masakari666-d5n4cngThis is not a review. I am not making a recommendation or judging whether anyone else should like the Witcher books or games. This is simply my meandering journey through the series of games and books and my thoughts along the way.

For a long time I didn’t like the Witcher and it was such a shame because I really wanted to like it. Friends, whose opinions on games I trusted, told me it was great. Reviewers told me it was great. I even liked the concept. Yet still I didn’t get on with and to explain this I have to go back to the beginning of my journey.

As previously stated, friends had told me the Witcher was great, specifically that the Witcher 2 was a great game. Long time fans of Andrzej Sapkowski’s writing might well be horrified at coming into the series from this angle but that’s how it was for me. So what was wrong with the Witcher 2? The answer is nothing, initially, as I didn’t start there. I hate coming in late on any series so I started with The Witcher.

There were things to like about the first game. I was keen on the setting and the mythology. The procedural nature of Witcher work seemed like a good tool for telling self-contained quests within a larger story. Ropey graphics (at least by the time I started playing it) notwithstanding the Grimdark aesthetic was one I could buy into.

My stumbling blocks were threefold. Firstly, by the time I got into the Vizima investigation there seemed to be a lot of going back and forth and waiting for things to happen and it all became a bit aimless. Secondly, the combat gameplay was not particularly enjoyable and this exacerbated the first problem. If you’re going to have to do some trudging it needs to be fun. Thridly, and this is the major one, I didn’t like Geralt.

That’s not to say I thought he was a bad character I just didn’t like him because of how he was presented.  This may enrage fans but I hated the voice acting. I’m not going to call it bad acting as I feel that is an accusation made far too liberally. Time and again I’ve heard people label a performance in a film or TV ‘bad acting’ when in fact it was a terrible script. The actor gets the blame for the bad line as if they were the one who wrote it. Another way in which actors get blamed unfairly is that it is sometimes the director’s fault. The actor gave the performance that was asked of them; they were merely asked for something that was bad.

As a consequence, I’m not sure the VA performance in the Witcher isn’t what the creators wanted. It seems as if there was a line about Witchers being purged of emotion and the whole performance stemmed from that. The trouble with this is that one, there is little evidence that aspect of Witchers is anything more than one of the many slanders aimed at them and two, no other Witcher in the game speaks that way. This leaves Geralt as being the sole deadened performer in the piece and comes across more as a poor-man’s Wolverine who’s been given an overdose of sedatives.

A further problem arises from this performance when it comes to the ‘Geralt as a horndog’ parts of the first game. Amorous lines delivered like that come across as skincrawlingly creepy and all the more immersion-breaking when the female characters respond favourable to it.

And so I left Geralt just as he entered the trade quarter thinking I might come back at some point but with no real enthusiasm. I could have left my journey into the world of the Witcher here but, after all, it was The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings that people were raving about not the first game. Perhaps the faults with the first game would be fixed?

The Witcher 2 is widely reckoned to be a pretty good game. There’s a story that when President Obama visited Poland he was given a copy of it as a gift. I can’t help but try to imagine him trying to play it. It’s not easy. I assume he stayed away from the brothel.

On to the second game. Some things were indeed fixed. The combat was much improved, as were the graphics. Unfortunately, the voice acting was the same and the sense of aimlessness had not been eliminated. It was not an amazing place to hang out like Skyrim and the world and relationships were not as engaging as in the Dragon Age series, a fact I found curious as by this time I was aware there were years of book lore behind it.

Once again I left Geralt, this time in the drizzle of Flotsam thinking that one day I might go back. Here my journey seemed to end and had the Witcher series only been games it may have ended indeed. During my time away, however, another Witcher game came out, Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Once again, people raved but I was cautious. However good it was I still didn’t like Geralt. In the other ear, so to speak, came tales of how the books were actually really good and the kind of thing I would enjoy. Here the seeds were sown for I really thought that I ought to like the Witcher.

Time passed and I had a period where I was minded to start gaming again. The nagging thoughts about giving the Witcher series another chance bore fruit and I determined that this time I would play Witcher 2 through to the end (gameplay of Witcher 1 was still a bit offputting).

I started again rather than trying to pick up where I left off. I do this often when coming back to an RPG, I don’t like coming in late. This time the Kayran was defeated and I followed the story (beware spoilers ahead). I took Roche’s path as he seemed the more natural ally and it took me to the bleak surroundings of the Kaedweni camp. After the damp drabness of Flotsam I had hoped for a bit of light and shade but at least the story was moving now. I found out the reasons behind the curse and probably at some point around here I had become immersed. The VA was grating less, I had deliberately hung out with Zoltan and Dandelion more and Geralt had started to seem less one-note than before.

Without going into the ins and outs of every quest, I arrived in Loc Muine. This was something of a disappointment. After two cesspits I had hoped for somewhere more like some of the crags I had visited on the way to Vergen. Instead, I was in an infested ruins. Oh well, I’m invested now. Clearly I had missed a number of things along the way and this would not be my best ever play-through. Might as well see this thing out. A dragon appears controlled by Phillipa Eilhart (who is this person? I mean a sorceress, obviously, but I feel like I meant to know who she is.) Everything is a mess. Sorcerers are butchered and now Nilfgaard is coming. Bloody hell.

I’ve got a bit of time on my hands, obviously the next logical step is to immediately download The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt…

 

 

Mars Fallen Released!

FallenstraightenedAfter what has been a number of months of frustration both for Nexus and JW Whitmarsh, Mars Fallen is finally here. It is available in ebook format from Amazon.

Click here for US.

Click here for UK 

As is traditional we had a chat with the author, JW Whitmarsh about the new release and how it fits into the Elemental Cycle.

Nexus: Many might see this book and assume it is a piece of historical fiction. Notwithstanding the fact that it is set in a parallel world, how historically accurate is it?

JW Whitmarsh: Well, the fact it is in a parallel world is a huge factor. So in one sense, it’s not historically accurate at all. None of the events of the story happened in our world. In another sense, there is some mirroring of genuine history. The Senatian Empire developed in a similar fashion to the Roman Empire for example, the expansion across Europe and beyond followed by a split between West and East is more or less the same with a few of the details altered along the way.

Nexus: What is the main point of difference then?

JW Whitmarsh: The main divergence is around religion and mythology. In a world where people can do magic, favour of the Gods or God is seen in a much more literal sense. This changes things. Where miracles are often seen the role of prophets and saints becomes much diminished. People will probably see a link between Patriarchism and Christianity but Patriarchism is not built upon the personality of Jesus. The similarity is in the structure and organisation of a monotheistic religion born out of a later Roman period.

NX: The Senatian Empire feels a bit more like the Empire period rather than the post Empire Kingdoms of Italy that were around in the Dark Ages.

JW: Yes. I’ve said before there is an ahistorical element to the series. In many ways the Senatian Empire is about a century behind the Lands of the West, which in turn are about a century behind the Northern Kingdoms.

NX: Is this an effect of magic?

JW: Partly, I like to think that the more demonstrable power of magic has kept the old pantheon clinging on a bit longer than it did in our world. With that goes the gladiatorial games, which are more closely aligned to celebration of the old gods than they were here. Likewise, the Empire in the West has lingered intact a bit longer thanks to the interventions of the Patriarchists.

The other part to it is that on another level the whole Elemental Cycle is a celebration of world mythology and legends. You can’t visit the Mediterranean world and not feature classical mythology and gladiators any more than it would make sense to remove castles and wizards from Arthurian legend.

NX: Is there a limit on that historical flexibility?

JW: Yes. The technology and understanding of the world should be consistent. You won’t see plate armour alongside bronze weaponry or discussions about the theory of evolution. As I’ve said before, there are some technologies that would likely have come much earlier to cultures that could wield magic, such as the use of glass. You could argue there might be others that would come later because people use magic instead but I tend to think there aren’t enough mages for people to become too dependent on them. In any case, I try to pitch everything at an early Dark Ages time.

NX: Just to remind people who may not have read previous interviews, what are the entry and exit points to Mars Fallen, with regard to the series.

JW: Mars Fallen takes place after the end The Book of Water (Enchantress Awakening, Enchantress Apprentice & Enchantress Destiny) although it does recap events that happened concurrently. It’s not necessary to have read The Book of Water but it helps. There is a slight overlap with Valkyrie Rising but it mostly takes place in the months following. There is no need to have read Valkyrie Rising to understand Mars Fallen as they don’t cross over in any way.

As for the exit point, the book ends a couple of months into the beginning of A Clash of Gods (Book 6) and a couple of weeks before Venus Ascending (Book 7) resumes the tale.

NX: What would you say to fans of the Book of Water hoping to see more of the characters from those volumes. Is the story of the West over now?

JW: The initial quest is over but the story continues for the characters. The Book of Water and Valkyrie Rising are quite self-contained tales. Mars Fallen is where the various strands start to leak into each other. In Books 6 and 7 their is full scale blending. The West and its cast will be seen again and their stories will converge with the overall story.

I think you could say Mars Fallen is the last book which stays true to its element and setting. Book 2 of Earth spends a lot of time in the Senatian Empire as well as the Northern Kingdoms. Book 2 of Fire includes sections from the West and the Southern Expanses, where Spirit is the ruling element.

NX: Cheeky final question. Valkyrie Rising came out in 2016. Can we expect another volume of the Elemental Cycle in 2020?

JW: Who knows? Novels take as long as they take. It might take longer than two years it might take less. What I will say is that I don’t expect there to be much of a gap between 6 and 7 being finished. But again, that’s just a guess at this stage. In some senses it is easier writing the second and third books of each element as there is less world-building to be done. On the other hand, the time taken between books isn’t just about writing it’s about the writing plus everything else that is happening in your life.

NX: Then we wish you a very settled and uneventful year to come.

JW: Err, thanks.

Dear Critics…(part II – Bright)

Bright. According to the critics, the worst film of 2017. By any rational measure it was not even the worst film the week it came out. What’s going on here? On Rotten Tomatoes the critics give an absolutely stinking 26%. That’s bad. That’s really bad. That’s a film so bad that it leaves you feeling dirty, like you’ve soiled yourself. With the disappointment there’s a measure of anger. Why? Why was I tricked into wasting my precious life on this? Just as well the audiences were forewarned.

And yet, and yet. Apparently a number of people went ahead and watched it anyway and…well, they seemed to like it giving it 85%. Hang on, 85%? That’s not a stinker; that’s a genuinely good film. People are saying they not just thought it was ok or short of being awful; they thought it was really enjoyable. A 60% difference seems to require some kind of explanation.

I’ve read a number of the bad reviews and well…there’s nothing particularly insightful about them. It’s a series of cliche’s. It doesn’t work. I didn’t like it because whatever. That’s not to say any of these critiques are necessarily untrue or unfair (albeit uninspired) but they could be levelled at any number of films that don’t lead critics to declare them the worst film of the year (some of these same critics were probably the ones who listed ‘Mother’ as one of the best films of the year so…yeah). Something else is at play here.

images (4)

Theory#1 – We are afraid of Netflix.

This theory is also pertinent when it comes to the discussion of Altered Carbon. It goes that Netflix has become hugely successful and is changing how people view films and TV. In the case of the latter, the critics don’t appear to be so worried because, let’s face it, most of them don’t want to have to sit down and watch hours of live TV. They are used to being given viewings in advance, binging four episodes on the trot. They might be a little bit worried about how traditional TV channels are going to cope (and maybe they should be) but it’s not impinging on how they’d choose to consume the product.

Films are a different matter. Many film critics truly love cinemas. For them, their first visit to the picture house was a seminal experience. The smell of popcorn and worn out seat coverings still causes their stomach to clench with excitement like remembering the first kiss of a favourite lover or a first professional level goal, try, century or crossing the winning line as number one. Cinema is at the core of their being, an integral part of their personal history and sense of self. That’s why films about films and cinemas always feature so highly in critics’ lists. It speak to something very real within them. It’s how they can give the Best film Oscar to ‘The Artist’ without a trace of self-awareness.

And there is nothing wrong with any of that until it gets in the way of the day job, namely making fair recommendations for the general public. Netflix represents an existential threat to the cinema-going experience (or so some believe) and they must be stopped. Bright was a big investment for Netflix, a chance to show they can do films as well as series. So, naturally, any true lover of cinema must use their power to stop this juggernaut regardless of whether the film deserves their disdain or not.

Personally, I’m not totally convinced I buy into this theory. There may be an element of that in play but whether it is uniform is debatable. In fairness, there is a argument to say Netflix should release these things in the cinema first. Why not? If they back a film that much let people see it on the big screen. People are going to use Netflix anyway. Anecdotally, I binge on Netflix a fair bit but I’m also going to the cinema as much as I ever have in my life.

Theory #2 – The ‘buy in’.

Another theory as to why ‘Bright’ received such a mauling is that the concept itself just alienated the critics from the get-go and they failed to appreciate the buy-in factor that many fans of sci-fi and fantasy bring to what they enjoy. Here’s a concept; buddy cops but it’s in a world where there are orcs and elves and one of the cops is an orc. You may well read that and go, ‘oh come on, that’s stupid’. Apparently this was the standard critical response.

On the other hand, lots of viewers were given that concept and thought, ‘yeah, I’ll go with this’. Second generalisation alert: fans care about world-building, critics care about performances. Ok, this may be a generalisation too far but there’s something in it. When futuristic and fantastical worlds are unveiled before our eyes a lot of people are just on-board with it. For them, this suggestion of another world to explore is the thing that enthrals them. It’s why they can look at the maps of Middle Earth or even Treasure Island and feel a sense of excitement just at the thought of going to these places, even if they are never really touched by the story. That feeling of immediate investment is something I got watching the title sequence of Game of Thrones and also the sense of instant familiarity when they visit the ‘Oasis’ for the first time in ‘Ready Player One’. Certain things tick certain boxes for certain fandoms and that should not be dismissed.

When you are gazing at the horizon whether the facial expression or vocal inflection of the person in the foreground is 100% convincing is less of a concern. For many critics, by contrast, the acting performance is the alpha and the omega. It’s why the accusation of 2-D characters is so often used and why some critics can feel fulfilled watching an actor’s face as he stares off into the distance while nothing happens. The interior world of the performer is where they want to explore.

From this perspective it’s easy to see why the critics love films like ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’ (ok, I really enjoyed it too). It’s all about performances and it is stacked with them. If on the other hand, you went to that film hoping to see a world you’d never seen before where your mind can go off on adventures of its own, you’d be disappointed. The point here is thus, internal and external worlds are both valid forms of entertainment. There’s no rule saying that the former is worth more than the latter.

fantasy-2801105_960_720

Dear Critics Part 3 – Altered Carbon. Coming next…

Dear Critics, we need to talk about fantasy and sci-fi.

It’s been long established that critics prefer realism to flights of imagination. And by realism I mean commentary on the existing world as oppose to actually being remotely realistic. In the mind of the average critic the ability to build and entire world with cohesive culture, history, language, geography and mythology and then weaving a compelling plot on top of that is a feat far short of taking a swipe at what currently exists.

In the minds of such critics, Jane Austen is the revered Goddess. She wrote about what she knew and will therefore be forever brilliant, while Tolkien created so therefore it will forever be lightweight and in no sense ever profound. Apparently, imagination is a non-existent virtue in such thinking.

This view has always annoyed me, not least from a creative perspective when you consider the general difficulty of the two models. I’ve always felt fantasy and sci-fi writers (perhaps genre writers in general) have been unfairly judged when what they do is in many ways considerably harder.

Lately, this thought has bugged me less as I’ve felt since the Lord of the Rings films that kind of dullard thinking has been in retreat. Once Tolkien’s work moved off the page and on to the cinema screen it attained a level of respect hitherto denied to fantasy. Through a direct line this led to Game of Thrones which (albeit begrudgingly) has managed to snatch a few Emmys along the way. Arguably, less than it deserves but progress nonetheless. The traditional prejudice seemed to be wearing thinner to the point that critics could accept fantasy and sci-fi on its merits and not dismiss it out of hand.

And then the last few months happened and I feel we are back to square one. The reason is for the reaction to the trio of releases in that time; The Last Jedi, Bright and Altered Carbon. I’m not saying that the critical responses to these films is necessarily a reaction against sci-fi/fantasy. My argument is that they show the mainstream critics are ill-equipped to evaluate sci-fi/fantasy.

I’m going to start with a highly controversial assertion. If the critics say one thing and the public says another, the critics have failed in their job. I can immediately hear a flood of counterarguments rolling my way at that idea but hear me out. What I’ve stated is unequivocally wrong if, 1) a critic’s job is to tell us what we should like and not what we will like and 2) a critic is not there to recommend but only give their personal take. I tend to think both of these ideas are deeply flawed. The idea of someone appointing themselves as an arbiter of tastes is incredibly dubious from the outset, while the idea of a personal take doesn’t sit with having a paid position in the media as a gatekeeper to culture. It’s either personal or it’s a judgement on what people will enjoy; it can’t really be both. There has to be a compromise somewhere.

The next argument would be the idea that what is popular and what is good are not necessarily the same thing. I would completely agree with that statement. On the other hand, there are far too many who seem to take the view that because something is popular it is disqualified from being good. If 3 million people rate something as 8 out of 10 there is a reason for that. You don’t have to agree with that reason but you should acknowledge it exists. And if your conclusion is that reason is people are idiots I go back to my previous assertion. If it is your job to recommend things to idiots, then you should recommend what idiots like; anything else is an indulgence.

All this is very black and white and too easy to pull apart. In reality, there is a middle ground and for the purpose of this piece I will focus on the discrepancy factor. If the critics say a film is a 93% film and the public say it is an 87% film, (or vice versa) it’s probably fair to say that most people think it’s good. There may be reasons why one group likes it more than the other but there is a consensus. Example, ‘Aliens’; on Rotten Tomatoes critics say 98% and public says 94% based on a considerable amount of reviews. It’s fair to say that reviewers professional and amateur think this is a very good film. I would say more often than not there is this kind of agreement.

Where I grow wary is when there is a huge discrepancy, let’s say more than 20%. There’s clearly two ways this can go. You can have something loved by critics that leaves fans unmoved and you can have something appreciate by the public that is dismissed by the critics. In the case of the former this seems to happen with film that are quirky, understandably so. Critics see a lot of derivative and formulaic films, Anything that breaks the mould will be appreciated. By the same token, fans who see maybe a handful of films in a year are generally less bothered by cliches and more concerned about entertainment.

In the latter case, it happens more often with genre films or blockbusters. The critics get fixated on a couple of details (something they deem people ought not to like) or parts that seem derivative and miss out on the sense of escapism and the fact that the average audience member may never have seen something like that before.24218725477_c283330936_b

All of which brings me back to the trio of sci-fi released that have so far divided critic from fan starting with the first release; The Last Jedi. At time of writing rotten tomatoes has this as 91% from critics and 48% from the public. I’ve read some articles (which I’m not going to link as they don’t deserve the attention) that have summarily dismissed this discrepancy with justifications ranging from mass bot attack to a backlash against the progressive nature of the film.

My judgement is that the bot attack theory is nonsense. There are too many reviews on rotten tomatoes that are simply from people who are disappointed; not people with agendas. Not everyone is giving one star and claiming it is the worst thing ever. Many are three star reviews fairly explaining what they felt was lacking. For the record, I’d put myself in this group. I don’t think it is worth 91% nor is it worth 48%. It wasn’t awful but it was far from being great.

As to the PC backlash. It’s fair to say that is a thing for a few people but it does not seem to be a majority. Anecdotally, the most common criticism I’ve read, heard or seen is that there were elements of the film that were off (ahem, flying Leia), poorly plotted and lore-breaking. And I think here we have something close to an explanation for the 50% discrepancy.

Generalisation warning: critics like to be surprised. Fans like continuity. Critics applaud when Luke throws aside the lightsaber. Fans irk at the seeming change in Luke’s personality. Critics enjoy the change of the good guys plans not going to plan. Fans get irate that people on the same side aren’t talking to each other for the sake of a plot contrivance. Critics swoon at an artful silent black and white shot. Fans pull their hair out when a hyperspace ram is suddenly a thing, apparently going against all previous logic of not just the film in question but the entire series.

In essence, the critics think they are watching a piece of cinema and do not have sufficient respect for the world in which it is set. Sure they may consider themselves above such things but now we’re in the territory of music magazines sending someone to review the gig of a band they hate. It all gets a bit pointless.

Next up Bright, which according to the critics was the worst film of the year…(continued in next blog).

 

The Elemental Cycle: An Update

vrperFor those paying attention, it has been a while since anything was released from the Elemental Cycle. The reasons for this are myriad (marketing and editing issues, whole-scale relocation etc) but the good news is JW Whitmarsh is still writing and book five ‘Mars Fallen’ is in its final stages. Therefore this seems like a good point to look at what is to come in the next few months for the Elemental Cycle.

The first thing on the horizon is a second edition of ‘Valkyrie Rising’ with all new artwork consistent with the spellbound editions of the Books of Water. Hot on the heels of that we expect to be able to release the first edition of ‘Mars Fallen’. As for what lies in stall after that, we thought it best to ask the author….

Nexus Fiction: We’ve had three books from Water, one book from Earth and one book coming from Fire. How can we expect the story to continue from here? Are we going to start again from Air and Spirit or are the stories unfolding going to continue before that?

JW Whitmarsh: It’s always a difficulty when writing a story that develops across continents keeping hold of what is concurrent and what is consecutive. That said, the further the story goes on the more linear it will become. So far book 3 of water finishes before then end of book 1 of Earth, while book 1 of Earth finishes a couple of months before the end of book 1 of Fire.Fallenstraightened

NX: Will that staggering of events continue through the next volumes?

JW: We shall see. Nominally, I consider book 2 of Earth to be book 6 overall and book 2 of Fire to be book 7 but they will happen in tandem.

NX: Do you intend to write them in tandem?

JW: Provisionally, but the writing process is never simple. You have to allow yourself to be carried along. Some chapters are also easier than others. In many ways the prospect of writing two stories simultaneously is quite appealing. It’s harder to get writers block when you have two outlets.

NX: Is writer’s block a constant issue for any writer?

JW: I can’t speak for all writers. What I would say is that for me it’s never a case of running out of ideas; it’s more how to organise them and bring them to life. But more than that it’s about having the time to sit down and work through whatever is giving you difficulty. I prefer to write in long blocks of hours. Unfortunately, life doesn’t give you those all that often.

NX: What has been the biggest problem with ‘Mars Fallen’?

JW: I would say pacing and balance more than anything else. With previous volumes the story has primarily revolves around a singular protagonist. ‘Mars Fallen’ has three. Finding the right way to give each their voice is a new challenge.

NX: There are many characters in the Elemental Cycle. Are there any that you find easier to write than others?

JW: Yes. [Spoiler alert]. Tovrik is generally quite easy to write because he comes from a perspective of knowledge. He has spend so long in study that there is no need to show a road of discovery. He has his history already, he is fully formed. Whenever I write Tovrik there is a sense of confidence that I know what he is going to say or how he is going to react because nothing surprises him.

NX: By the same token then, who is the hardest to write?

JW: Probably Caleigh. She has the burden of carrying the story quite often and doing that while asserting your identity is not easy.  Coupled with the fact that her identity is not yet fully formed. She is being asked to do things that are utterly unreasonable for someone of her age and experience. So often she is in the role of learning by doing that it’s difficult to know until something is in process how she’s going to feel about it.

NX: Will we ever get to see more into the lives of the support characters?

JW: Well, yes. In the main story there are many who have a great role yet to play. In terms of stand alone stories though, there are a few. We’ve talked about it before and the more I think about it the more I’m sure there will be some side tales for Owain, Ysabelle and Eleric. I can definitely see a prequel trilogy there.

NX: It may be far too early to ask but have you thought about what is to come for the world of the Elemental Cycle after the Elemental Cycle is finished?

JW: Yeah, there are several thoughts in motion. I don’t see there being direct sequels as by the time the Elemental Cycle is done there will be plenty enough but I have ideas for the world some hundreds of years after.

NX: Can you give any clues about what that might be?

JW: Pirate wizards. That’s all I’m saying for now. We’re a number of years away from that.

NX: Suppose a new reader sees ‘Mars Fallen’, can they join the Elemental Cycle at that point?

JW: There’s no strict order so far from element to element. It’s possible to start from Book 1 of fire if you like. A lot of things will make more sense for readers who start on the Book of Water but that’s not to say there isn’t as good a journey working from Fire first. As an author you are kind of omnipotent in your world so you can never predict exactly what experience a reader will have when they don’t know what is going to happen.

NX: Going back to the previous point about intersection of storylines, do you have a notion of where the books of Air and Spirit are going to fit in?

JW: First of all, there’s not necessarily going to be distinct trilogies as with the Book of Water. That may well be the only time that three stories of one element conveniently flow into each other. It’s also quite likely that the other elements will not have 3 distinct parts. Earth and Fire are on a definite collision course and I think that is something we can expect a lot from here on with all the elements.

There you have it. Look out for more pages being added to this website along the way and for links to the new books as they are released.