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.

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