Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dragon Age: Last Flight Review

The Fourth Blight.  Apparently this was one of the worst Blights to occur in the world of Thedas, where the Dark Spawn emerged from the Deep Roads, taking everyone by surprise, and starting a war that lasted for about a decade and almost saw Thedas fall to the Taint and Corruption as entire nations were thoroughly ravaged.

The Fourth Blight also happens to be the primary setting for Tor Book's latest novel, Dragon Age: The Last Flight.

In the present day, the conflict between the mages and Templars rages on, and some mages have sought sanctuary with the Grey Wardens in their secluded fortress of Weisshaupt.  One of these is the young mage Valya from the Hossberg Circle, with a few of her peers.

In no rush to put them through the Joining, the Chamberlain of the Grey has requested their assistance in combing for specific information regarding the Blights through their vast library, and Valya stumbles across a hidden diary from Isseya, the sister of the hero Garahel, who sacrificed himself to slay the Archdemon and end that horrible Fourth Blight.

Having never played a Dragon Age game before, Dragon Age: The Masked Empire was my first foray into the universe, and I enjoyed it immensely.  I'm pleased to say that I enjoyed myself just as much, if not more so, with Dragon Age: Last Flight.

The diary from Isseya, which provides much of the backdrop and narration for the novel, is dark and at times, thoroughly desperate.  I found this tone very appealing, as it narrates through key moments throughout this decade-long Blight, from when Garahel and Isseya were new Grey Warden initiates, to their maturity as leaders and the difficult and dangerous decisions they made, to the war's conclusion and a bit of its aftermath.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no griffons in the Dragon Age games, but of course a stylized griffon is the order's symbol.  During the time of the Fourth Blight, there certainly were griffons, and the Grey Wardens exclusively road them, giving them air superiority against the Dark Spawn that typically only the Archdemon could effectively counter.

With the end of this Blight, however, all the griffons died out and are now simply a memory to the Wardens and the people of Thedas.  The reason behind this, the real reason the griffons vanished, is ultimately the primary theme of the novel, and it's a rather interesting and sad twist and one that will affect Valya and her companions in the present day.

Liane Merciel, the novel's author, interweaves the story between the narration from the diary and Valya's overall reactions to them in the present day, and does so well with some solid foreshadowing of the plot points to come.  More time is spent recounting the Blight, and that worked strongly in my opinion as it's not only where the real action lay but also the major choices of the story, choices that would have repercussions straight to the present. 

Garahel and Isseya, amongst other Wardens of the time, rode griffons into battle, using them to the best effect possible during offenses and defences, breaking sieges or simply passing messages.  Without the bonds between the Wardens' and their griffons, the Fourth Blight would likely have been lost, and even with their aid, the Dark Spawn were so strong and so well coordinated that the Wardens and their allies nearly failed and nearly lost everything several times over.

This forced the Wardens to make significant sacrifices to stem the horde, both in terms of people, locations, and morals.  To stop the Blight, the Grey Wardens did some rather bad things with good intentions, and it left its mark on Thedas, but was subsequently buried to time and mystery.  Until now, until Valya goes through Isseya's diary.

I was so taken by the story and the locations that Merciel wrote about that for a few days afterwards, I found myself reading up on the nations, races, Blight's, etc. from the world online, simply to immerse myself more in the story and to understand and appreciate it all the more.

That, to me, is the mark of a good novel, one that makes you want to expand your experience happily and to long for more.

For current fans of the series looking to dig themselves deeper in the rich history of the franchise, for those anxiously waiting for the next game, or for those simply looking for an entertaining dark fantasy read, you'll find all of that in Dragon Age: Last Flight.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Dragon Age: Last Flight Released

Our friends at Tor Books have released the following press release for their latest, Dragon Age: Last Flight:

Tor Books Releases Latest Dragon Age™ Novel Based on BioWare’s
Award-Winning Dark Fantasy Role-Playing Game

New York, NY — Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC—the largest publisher of
science fiction in the world—and BioWare™, a division of Electronic Arts, are thrilled to announce the on-sale availability of a new paperback and e-Book title, DRAGON AGE: LAST FLIGHT (ISBN 978-0-7653-3721-4; $15.99; Sept. 16, 2014). Penned by acclaimed fantasy author Liane Merciel, who wrote The River King's Road and its sequel Heaven's Needle, this is the fifth novel in the award-winning Dragon Age™ fantasy RPG franchise.

The team at BioWare, responsible for such beloved classics as Baldur’s Gate™, Neverwinter Nights™, Star Wars®: Knights of the Old Republic™, and Mass Effect™, set a new Fantasy RPG storytelling standard with the Dragon Age franchise, which has won over 80 awards between the release of Dragon Age: Origins in 2009 and Dragon Age II in March 2011. BioWare’s upcoming release (Fall 2014), Dragon Age: Inquisition, is a next-generation action RPG that gives players a story-driven, open world filled with complex characters, challenging combat and difficult decisions.

The previous four Dragon Age™ novels, Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne (March 2009), Dragon Age: The Calling (October 2009), Dragon Age: Asunder (December 2011) and Dragon Age: The Masked Empire (April 2014), have been well-received by fans and further establish the dark, heroic nature and epic scale of the Dragon Age Universe.

DRAGON AGE: LAST FLIGHT returns to Thedas, the setting of BioWare's award-winning Dragon Age dark fantasy RPG, and discover what dark, forgotten secrets lurk in the history of the legendary Grey Wardens.

The Grey Wardens are heroes across Thedas once again: the Archdemon has been defeated with relative ease and the scattered darkspawn are being driven back underground.  The Blight is over.  Or so it seems.

Valya, a young elven mage recently recruited into the Wardens, has been tasked with studying the historical record of previous Blights in order to gain insight into newly reported, and disturbing, darkspawn phenomena.  Her research into the Fourth Blight leads her to an encoded reference scrawled in the margins of an ancient map, and to the hidden diary of Issenya, one of the last of the fabled griffon riders.  As the dark secrets buried in Isseyna's story unfold, Valya begins to question everything she thought she knew about the heroic Grey Wardens. . . .

Fans of BioWare are invited to visit the official Dragon Age™ website at:, where they can preview and find additional information about all of the Dragon Age novels.

I really enjoyed the last Dragon Age novel, and I'm looking forward to this one!

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Dragon Age: The Masked Empire Review

BioWare is a developer known for their excellent, in-depth games and wonderful story telling, and their Dragon Age franchise is currently one of their most popular universes along with the Mass Effect series.  While I have enjoyed all three Mass Effect games extensively and read all four novels in the series, I actually have no experience with the Dragon Age franchise.

Our friends at Tor Forge sent me a copy of the recently published Dragon Age: The Masked Empire to read, thus marking my first experience with the world.  I've heard a lot of praise for the original game in the series, and a lot of criticism for its sequel, as well as mixed regarding the games' stories, so I wasn't sure what to expect going in.

The dark fantasy universe of Dragon Age is set within the world of Thedas, filled with men, elves, dwarves, kingdoms and orders of knights and mages, as well as enemies of undead, spirits, demons, and other conventional fantasy fair.

Unlike conventional fantasy however, and one thing that really stood out for me is that elves are not revered by men, but rather they are mainly a conquered race living in slums and serving the reigning human empires and kingdoms, with scattered clans of "free" elves living in the wilderness, the Dales.

Dragon Age: The Masked Empire takes place in the empire of Orlais, the strongest empire of men, which seems heavily based on our own former kingdom of France.  Orlais is ruled over by the Empress Celene who claimed the throne around the tender age of 16.  Throughout her reign, Celene has sought to bring further enlightenment to the Orlesian Empire, enhancing and supporting its art and education, and she is also slowly trying to introduce tolerance of the elves, thanks in no small part to the influence of Briala, her elven handmaid since childhood.

Taking place after the events of Dragon Age II, a war is brewing between the Circle of Mages and order of the Templars, and Grand Duke Gaspard, cousin to Celene, is urging action.  He believes that the Orlesian Empire would be stronger through military action and war and he views Celene as weak and an elf lover who will only bring ruin to the empire.

Thus Gaspard gains the favour of several prominent nobles and begins to undermine Celene in an attempt to take the throne, and this coup attempt makes up the central conflict of the novel's story.

Standing loyally by Celene is Ser Michel, a Chevalier, or knight, who serves as her personal bodyguard and champion.  Having a strong sense of honour and duty, Ser Michel harbours a dark secret that he struggles with constantly, lest it be revealed and ruin him.  His true metal, and loyalty, is tested in the conflict to come.

Briala, loyal to Celene and seeing her as a strong chance to help her own disenfranchised people, secretly learns about her own culture's history and roots through the wandering Dalish mage Felassan who patiently guides her and teaches her to simply think for herself.

Most game-related novels I read I honestly find rather predictable, with endings that I usually see coming a mile away.  I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised that Dragon Age: The Masked Empire broke that expectation.  Perhaps it's because I'm unfamiliar with the source material, or perhaps it's because Patrick Weekes did such a great job writing the tale and its characters and plot twists, but the last few Chapters certainly kept me guessing, and I did not predict the outcome in the slightest.

While the central conflict certainly revolves around Gaspard's attempt to take Celene's throne, the story branches out further and sees the characters not only try to secure a kingdom, but also an ancient power, one that other forces are also interested in, and one I suspect will figure prominently in BioWare's upcoming game, Dragon Age: Inquisition.

It should also be noted that the novel has a heavy subplot involving same-sex relations, and bears heavy influence from the feedback and contact of BioWare's LGBTQ fans.  BioWare has always been a developer looking to push the boundary of same sex relations with its stories, evident in the Jade Empire and Mass Effect franchises and now in Dragon Age as well, and I think that's absolutely great.  It's 2014, such plot lines provide extra options and content, and shows open tolerance and acceptance for relationships that are quite commonplace.

I've thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Age: The Masked Empire, and it's certainly been a positive introduction to the franchise.  Featuring compelling drama, characters, and history, the novel was greatly entertaining, and I'm sure fans of the series will be delighted by it.  I've enjoyed it so much, that should I ever get through my game backlog, I might look into checking the franchise out in full.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Halo: Mortal Dictata Review

In my personal opinion, Karen Traviss' best work is in her Star Wars: Republic Commando novel series.  For those who haven't read it, the series follows the exploits of Omega Squad and their training Sergeant, Kal Skirata, who ultimately becomes their adoptive father.  Kal is opposed to the concept of the clone army the Republic has created for itself and the accelerated aging the clones go through and is bent on freeing his "kids" so they can have normal lives.

There's no question at all that the core themes of this series have found their way into Traviss' latest work, Halo: Mortal Dictata.

Halo: Mortal Dictata is the third and final novel in her Kilo-Five trilogy, and Osman's crew is engaged in tracking down the stolen Covenant CCS-Class Battlecruiser, Pious Inquisitor.  This pursuit has lead them to the insurrectionist world of Venezia where they discovered Naomi-010's father, Staffan Sentzke, in residence and potentially interested in buying the missing ship to pursue a plot of revenge against the UNSC.

When Naomi was abducted years ago to take place in the Spartan-II program and replaced with a clone to fool her parents, Staffan deduced quickly that this wasn't his daughter, yet no one believed him.  After the clone's death, he spent years searching for his real daughter and learned from a rougher crowd how to survive and deal with a corrupt government.  Having no love for the UNSC or Earth, Staffan has spent years working for the insurrection while piecing together what happened to his real daughter.

The character, in truth, bears many similarities to Kal Skirata that while reading the novel I kept picturing him as Kal.  The manerisms, emotions, and strong connection to family all resonate between both identities, and I personally felt this really helped the narrative.

While Traviss explores a tapestry of politics and black ops, both from the perspective of the UNSC and their ONI branch, the insurrection, and even the Jackals, I still personally feel she doesn't have a firm understanding of the species dynamics in the Halo universe, particularly the Brutes.

For example, on Venezia, humans, Brutes, Jackals, and Grunts are living together in the same communities.  While I can see this with the humans, Jackals, and Grunts, as this has occurred before in another novel under plausible circumstances, the Brutes' presence is in complete contrast to how they've always been represented.  The Brutes would not, under any circumstances, live peacefully next to humans.

Same with the Elites.  In the novel, some Brutes are still working for the Elites, which contrasts the return of the Elites and Brutes trying to wipe each other out in the past novel, which in turn corrected the horrible representation of Brutes gardening for Elites in the first novel of the series.  The Kilo-Five trilogy has flip-flopped on its representation of inter-species politics a few times, lacking consistency, and demonstrating a lack of the core specie traits on Traviss' part.

Excluding this discrepancy, however, the novel is a good read unto itself.  The moral line of the Spartan-II program, and the fallout that has on the lives of others, is really explored here in detail.  We also get to see the Jackals and their society and culture brought to the forefront for the second time in franchise history, and that widens up what we can expect from future Halo media.

The core story also really focuses on spy work and infiltration as befitting this branch of ONI.  Large scale battles are out, but back stabbing, plotting, and moral ambiguity are represented in spades, which is another fresh look for the franchise.

The fact that the story also seemed to be a mini, condensed version of Traviss' earlier Star War: Republic Commando work also played a nostalgic cord for me, allowing me to appreciate it as the strongest book in her trilogy.

At the end of the day, the Kilo-Five trilogy is an overall fun read, expanding the core universe and fleshing out some of the back-story for Halo 4.  Any fan of the franchise looking to broaden their scope of the Halo universe will enjoy what Traviss offers here.