Lego Engines

We're always on the lookout for cool Lego stuff in this house, so imagine how pleased I was to stumble across this Lego Traction City. I'm not sure if it's inspired by Mortal Engines or just a case of parallel evolution, but it's a fine thing either way. There are more pictures at Eurobricks Forums > Crawler Town.

Middle Earth on a Budget

I saw a remarkable film on Saturday night. Born of Hope is a sort of prequel to The Lord of the Rings, based on a few paragraphs about Aragorn's parents which are buried in the appendix to the book (the bit that, even as a Tolkein-mad ten year old, I never got around to reading). What's remarkable about it is that it's a fan-film, produced on a non-profit basis and distributed for free on the internet. The total budget was £25,000, which, in movie-making terms, is almost literally nothing, and it's been spent on making an exceptionally good looking 60-minute film.

It's true that it's a little humourless, but then so is much of Tolkein. It's also true that it sometimes looks as if it's been shot in an open-air museum rather than a real village, but no more so than Farrow & Ball TV costume dramas like Cranford and The Devil's Whore, and at least Born of Hope has the excuse that it was shot in an open-air museum (the replica Saxon village at West Stow.) And while I thought it a pity that the producers stuck so closely to the visual style of the Peter Jackson movies (because they're clearly clever people and I would have liked to see their own take on Middle Earth) the tattered dark cloaks of the Rangers look magnificent as they stride through the autumnal woods; the battles are vivid and violent; there are some hissable orcs, a good troll, and hardly any elves.

There are some good performances, too. I particularly liked Christopher Dane as Arathorn, father of the more famous Aragorn, a tough-yet-tender-hearted Ranger trying to protect his scattered people from orc raiders in the years before The Lord of the Rings begins, and at one point making a long and expensive-looking journey into some splendid snow-bound mountains. But he's also a bit of a nana, because he falls for a mimsy lady refugee and completely fails to notice that his fellow ranger Elgarain is cooler, prettier, much better-dressed and clearly in love with him.

She is played by Kate Madison, who conceived and directed the film, and who apparently funded it with her life savings, along with donations from fellow enthusiasts. She has a kind of earnest beauty, and when she is on screen the whole movie seems to come a little more alive, as if even the camera can tell that she is the creative force holding the whole thing together. Her final scene is a cliche, but she plays it so well that it becomes both believable and moving. I hope she'll go on to make and act in many more movies, and that in future she won't have to pay for them herself.

You can find out more, and watch the film, at

Angels over Mayda

Following on from the map which I posted here a couple of weeks ago, here is David Wyatt's original cover artwork for A Web of Air, showing Mayda from above in all its 3D glory. It looks slightly less built up than in the map - perhaps it is an image of an earlier stage in the city's development, or maybe Mr Wyatt was working from unreliable traveller's tales and cheap souvenir woodcuts which have found their way to him aboard the wandering land-barges. No matter; it captures just about perfectly the sense of light and space which I have tried to describe in the new book.

Anyone familiar with Infernal Devices will know that it contains a rather cruel caricature of Brighton, which is portrayed as a flakey (and, indeed, flaking) hell-hole full of self-styled artists and pleasure-seeking idiots, drawn from all my bitterest memories of the place. In some ways Mayda is based on the better side of Brighton, as I remember it both from my younger days, and from the summer of '88 when I first moved back there after college. Then, with its white buildings, steep streets and marine light, it felt like a city of dreams, and it became a sort of starting-point for Mayda. But once I started writing, Mayda soon became its own place; part Spanish, part Portuguese, part Cornish, it's a city of merchants and sailors who worship the Goddess of the Sea, fear most technology, and just about tolerate the angels, whose ugly mugs are such a feature of David's painting. The angels are the WOME's first really non-human characters: mutated gulls who who briefly achieved enough intelligence to have a sort of society of their own, but are now regressing back into common birds, and mostly just interested in snacks.

To my sorrow, David's artwork will not be featured on the paperback editions of A Web of Air, for Scholastic have done some market research and concluded that it looks old fashioned and is Not What The Kids Want. It is to be replaced by a simpler cover which uses mainly type and which I can't be bothered to show you as I feel it's rather ugly and would lower the tone of the whole blog. Happily, for those old fuddy-duddies amongst us who still like our books to come wrapped in a good picture, there is to be a special hardback edition which will carry this fine painting.

A Web of Air will be published in April. David Wyatt's blog is full of good stuff and may be found at

Coming Out of the Toy Cupboard

Three cheers for fatherhood, which gives grown men the excuse to indulge all over again in the things which they enjoyed as boys. I thought I'd given up playing with toy soldiers when I was thirteen, but it turns out that I was just taking a thirty year break. For Sam, who's nearly eight, is just getting into Warhammer, a hugely complicated fantasy war-gaming system, and I'm spending a surprising amount of my time painting tiny plastic figures and fighting elaborate battles with them on the living room floor. And do you know, I'm rather enjoying myself. I spent a lot of my own childhood doing much the same thing (though my armies were napoleonic ones, not orcs and goblins) and I think I only stopped because adolescence was kicking in and some dim instinct told me that girls wouldn't be interested in chaps who played with toy soldiers. In retrospect, that was rather a sad reason for giving up something I enjoyed (also a total waste of time: girls weren't interested in me anyway).

Now, helping Sam to paint and fight his little armies, I'm starting to realise what an important part of my life this odd hobby was. I first learned to draw people by studying and drawing these tiny figures; the first narratives I came up with up were wargame scenarios, and the first imaginary worlds which I created were two neighbouring 19th century countries whose bitter rivalry was fought out across my bedroom carpet in a series of campaigns which formed the background to my earliest 'novels' - each the exact length of one of those red Silvine exercise books they sold at the newsagents round the corner, and featuring two of the dolls from my sister's doll's house as the heroines. There are a few place names in the WOME - Murnau, for instance, and the Tannhauser Mountains - which are drawn directly from those long-ago games. They remind me that writing stories is really just another form of play.

Furthermore, I'm happy to report that, unlike telly, films, books, sherbert fountains and all the other things that Aren't As Good As They Were When I Was A Boy, toy soldiers have become about 1000 times better. My old Airfix ones were made of a plastic so soft that the paint kept cracking off them; Sam's Games Workshop figures are moulded from something far superior, crisply detailed and often beautifully visualised by anonymous artists who presumably never went to art college, or who, if they did, had the iron self-control to avoid being seduced by the dominant conceptual art meme and ending up smearing poo on the walls of fancy galleries at the tax-payers' expense*.

So it's rather a pleasure, on evenings when I have nothing better to do, to sit painting these miniatures, thinking back over the day's writing and trying to work out where tomorrow's will take me. Clearly I shall need an army of my own so that Sam can get plenty of games in despite the shortage of opponents here on Dartmoor. Of course I'm far too old and dignified to start collecting tiny elves and goblins. But there's a company called Warlord Games who do some cracking 28mm Romans...

*Coincidentally, Paul Bonner, whose beautiful fantasy paintings I mentioned here a few posts back, started out with Games Workshop.

Out of the Forest...

For a long time I've been meaning to write a piece for blog or website about all the artists and illustrators who inspired me when I was a teenager. I still haven't got around to it (sorry Justin), but while I was noodling around on the internet the other day, looking for examples of my erstwhile heroes' work, I came across a new one; an illustrator called Paul Bonner. He clearly had much the same upbringing as me, being exposed at a similar age to Tolkein, Brian Froud and wet mountains in Cumberland. But he can draw and paint a great deal better than I ever could, and has forged these influences into a very vivid, cinematic style that is all his own. I'm not so taken with his sci-fi stuff, but the fantasy pictures, in which wonderfully grotesque and characterful creatures adventure through lovely nordic- looking hills and forests, is a treat. His work can be seen at his website,, and is also collected in a rather fine book called Out Of The Forest... This friendly minotaur appears on the cover.

(Image: Rackham Games)