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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Guest Review: Dragon Age: The Masked Empire by Patrick Weekes (Reviewed by A.E. Marling)

Order Dragon Age: The Masked Empire HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Patrick Weeks is a senior writer at BioWare and has contributed to all three of the award-winning Mass Effect games. His stories have appeared in Amazing Stories, Realms of Fantasy, and Strange Horizons. He has also published a stand-alone fantasy novel.

CLASSIFICATION: The story reads very much like a Dragon Age game, with long and frequent fight sequences but more character depth, love, and moral ambiguity than a typical swords and sorcery adventure.

FORMAT / INFO: Tor Books published a  384 paged paperback and eBook. Narration is third person, switching scene by scene primarily between the three heroes and the villain. The story was released from its Veil imprisonment on April 8th, 2014.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Reignite your love for Dragon Age with The Masked Empire by senior BioWare writer Patrick Weekes. Fans of the games will delight in another diverse cast of characters who struggle to survive in a world of uncertain evils and treacherous goods. And if you haven’t yet played Dragon Age, well, there’s your first mistake.

Writing novels about a game franchise where the player makes impacting choices has its risks. The prior Dragon Age novels struck discordant notes with my constructed narrative, such as a cameo of a character I’d previously killed. At that point it’s like the novel disintegrates into dust in my hands. The Masked Empire avoids similar feel-bad’s while keeping the nostalgic delights. When the heroes battle tree grotesques, my heart pounds faster since I’ve fought sylvans myself. By the Maker, don’t let their roots reach the mages! 

In Dragon Age: Origins, Leliana had a lot to say and sing about her life as a bard in Orlais. She claimed to have played in a deadly game of masks and daggers, where a wrong look could topple an empire. Leliana also said that god spoke to her in a rose garden, and she named her pet nug Schmooples. Not exactly trustworthy.

Turns out, Leliana was right. In Orlais, she meets secretly in a Chantry with Empress Celene. They bargain for stability of the realm. Too bad they live in the Age of Dragons. The mages are threatening to break from their Circle, and the repressed elves are starting a rebellion.

In the world of Thedas, the elves are outcasts and slaves. Humans have betrayed them and left the beauty of their elvish empire in ruins. Playing as an elf in the game gives a skin-crawling insight into The Other, where you can call your other party members on their accidental discrimination and fetish innuendo. In this story, the elf Briala suffers through the condescending slur of “rabbit” and the insult of “knife ears.” As a handmaid of the empress, Briala influences policy to help her people in the slums. The dirt-street elves accuse her of not knowing true hardship. The Dalish elves in the woods don’t even acknowledge her as kin.

She has to stop the elvish rebellion before it topples the reign of her empress and lover. Briala plans to assassinate the lordling whose cruelty sparked the uprising. A bardic master at deception, infiltration, and fine dressing, she’ll kiss the lord goodnight with her dagger. The rebellion will diffuse, and Briala can go back to helping her people through peaceful channels. A fine plan, if the antagonist had nothing to say about it.

Duke Gaspard has had enough of the empress’s complacency toward inferior people and nations. She refuses to conquer the dog-lovers of Ferelden. She permits elves to study in the university. What’s next? Will she allow commoners and knife-ears into the order of chevaliers? As a chevalier himself, Duke Gaspard has a duty to Orlais to unseat the empress. To do this, he attacks her political position with the Game. Then he strikes at her head’s position atop her body with his sword. The Empire of Masks gives a great taste of the deadly courtesy and verbal sparing required at court. Then it transitions into magical blasts and mayhems of steel. The fights are choreographed in detail, in a similar style to R.A. Salvatore.

Wounded politically, Empress Celene has to regain the favor of the nobles by crushing the elvish rebellion. She cares about prosperity and peace. If that means slaughtering elves and alienating her lovely handmaiden Briala, then that’s a price they’ll all have to pay. Regret has been trained out of Celene. Beneath her rosewater-scented gowns wait daggers, blazing with both magic and her ambition.

Her faithful bodyguard, Ser Michael, is the duke’s worst fear. Michael was born to an elvish whore, but through deception and impeccable swordsmanship, he excelled in the noble order of chevaliers. His code is death before dishonor, so he’ll kill anyone who might expose his half-breed heritage. And he’s a juggernaut of a warrior, even without his silverite blade. At one point he defeats two armed elves using only a wet blanket. No joke, especially not to the dead elves.

That Ser Michael is one of the protagonists illustrates the moral uncertainty of Dragon Age. The party is further destabilized by a Dalish mage, Felassan. He crushes the clichés of elvish wizards with his unsanctimonious glee and silly jokes. At one point Briala yells at him for his unstealthy use of lightning bolts. He shrugs. What did she expect? He’s going to toss boulders around and sometimes rip holes in the Veil. He’s a mage, after all, and he even has the mod that shrinks his staff out of sight between battles. The spell callbacks to the game make me smile. Remember the overpowered Crushing Prison that could one-shot your hero? Yeah, that can happen in books, too.

In addition to the long fight scenes, the book fires off several volleys of character backstory. The sort of fire-side stories that characters might tell at camp are dumped into the reader’s lap. The upside is, it’s interesting.

CONCLUSION: Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a jaunt into an Eluvian mirror. I understand that’s where I can meet the better sort of elves, the kind who’ll sell their souls to demons to reclaim their lost empire.

GUEST AUTHOR INFORMATION: A.E. Marling is a fantasy writer, dancer, law-abiding citizen, human being (in that order). Discover his fantasy-appreciation blog and follow him on Twitter, @AEMarling, or the kitty gets it.



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