The Dragon Age novel-writing torch was recently passed from head writer David Gaider to new teammember (but established author in his own right) Patrick Weekes, and the first product of this new combination is The Masked Empire. This novel came out earlier this year, and covers roughly the same time period as Gaider's Asunder, helping lay the groundwork for events leading into Inquisition.
I've been looking forward to this book for a while. Weekes hasn't been immersed in Dragon Age lore for as long as Gaider (who did much of the work to invent the setting), but he's a long-time BioWare writer, and wrote some of my favorite characters and arcs on the last two Mass Effect titles, including Mordin, Tali, Priority: Rannoch and Priority: Tuchanka. By this point Thedas (the world of Dragon Age) has been very well developed, and I'm always excited to see what new pieces of art people will create in it.
I'd been curious how Weekes' style would be different from Gaider's. They're pretty compatible, so it wasn't jarring to jump into TME after the first three novels: there's a similar mixture of background world-building, character development, and action, with a mixture of humor and horror sprinkled throughout. Weekes did seem to be a bit more focused on dialogue and less on battles than Gaider, though it's hard to say how much of that is due to the writers and how much due to the setting; Orlesian court drama is generally (though not invariably) less violent than the Deep Roads.
The book is, of course, a good and fun read, engaging as a story while also satisfying my craving for more lore about Thedas's history and culture. While Asunder was mostly focused on magic, Templars and spirits, TME focuses more on Orlais and the elves (both city and Dalish, and particularly the differences between the two). There's some overlap between the books - Leliana is quite active as a fixer and the Divine's right hand, and each group of heroes is vaguely aware of events taking place in the other book - but they diverge fairly early on and manage to get pretty deep into their respective areas of concern.
Let's talk about characters!
I've been intrigued by Empress Celene for a while now (and only now while reading the book have I finally realized that the name Selene Hawke comes close to infringing on the name of the famous monarch. Whoops!). In Dragon Age: Origins, Loghain was paranoid and obsessed with the idea that Celene was plotting to re-conquer Ferelden, which had just won its independence a generation earlier. In the DLC Return to Ostragar, you learn that his paranoia was actually well-founded: King Cailan had failed to produce an heir with with Loghain's daughter Anora, and there were secret discussions about divorcing Anora to marry Celene. It would have been a stunning coup, and in this book we can see that gambit from Celene's perspective. She wasn't attracted to Cailan - in fact, I'm not sure if they had ever met - but she wistfully reflects on how that single act could have united two nations, secured Orlais's southeastern flank, quieted anti-Orlesian sentiment within Ferelden, allowed her to divert more resources to her social, economic, and cultural projects, and presented a formidable front to the Tevinter Imperium.
To put it bluntly, I like Celene a lot. She's a schemer, but one who schemes to good ends: she uses guile, duplicity, and flattery in her pursuit of a better society. She isn't a starry-eyed idealist, but has the clarity to see where conventional wisdom holds her people back. Many people would oppress the elves because they believe them to be inferior; others would seek to elevate them out of a moral belief that they have equal rights to humans; Celene elevates them because she recognizes that they are valuable assets that can make her country stronger.
She does have one (and possibly only one) vulnerable spot, which is her love for Briala, an elven servant who has been her friend since childhood and her lover in adulthood. As a side bar, I've come to really appreciate the way Dragon Age looks at sexuality, which is to say, it has a nuanced and expansive set of mores that vary from nation to nation. On Earth, different societies at different times and places have held varying attitudes towards what's proper, variously encompassing polygamy, monogamy, bisexuality, etc. Likewise, in Thedas one might find that homosexuality is uncommon in Ferelden; in Antiva, it is much more accepted; Orlais and Tevinter have elaborate etiquette around relationships, with a focus on producing favorable bloodlines (of political prestige in Orlais and of magical power in Tevinter), but much leeway granted once such duties have been fulfilled.
Anyways! Celene keeps their relationship secret, as it breaks almost every taboo. Not so much that Briala is female, but more because she is an elf and a member of the lower class. Celene recognizes that her hand in marriage is a powerful trump card, which will have a lasting impact on the future of Thedas, so she holds that card in reserve while she quietly pursues her happiness with Briala.
Briala is at least as capable as Celene, and in some ways more so: we follow her point of view for a while, and see how she can use her role as a servant as a mantle of invisibility, allowing her to gain access to places and eavesdrop on conversations that would never happen in the Empress's presence. She's not technically a bard, but has a similar skillset, including a talent for stealth and archery. (One of my favorite game-inspired details in this novel was figuring out everyone's class. Felassan is a Primal Mage; Michel is a sword-and-shield tanking Warrior; Briala is an archery Rogue; and Celene, amusingly/awesomely, is a dual-wielding Rogue.)
Caught between two worlds, Briala fully understands Celene's realpolitik, but also has a strong emotional sense of obligation towards "her people," the oppressed elves. The affection between the two women is genuine, and at the same time, they're each aware of the quid pro quo involved. Briala devotes her considerable skills to keeping Celene secure on the throne; Celene goes farther than she otherwise might in promoting elven interests, going so far as to promote elven matriculation in the universities, support tax policies that will benefit poorer elven (and human) merchants at the cost of wealthier nobles, etc. This simultaneous mixture of romance and ambition makes for a great dynamic that does much to propel the story.
The single most mysterious character in the book is probably Felassan. It's tough to figure out what he even is. He presents himself to Briala as a Dalish mage, but I found myself questioning that very early on: he never introduces her to any other elves, and grows extremely evasive whenever talking about his "tribe". For much of the book I thought he was either a spirit or a demon, possessing some useful body to further his opaque agenda; at one point I thought he might be an incarnation of Fen'Heral, the Dread Wolf of Dalish legend; near the end, I suspected that he might have been one of the Dreamers who slumbered through the fall of Arlathan, and is wandering the current world to do... something.
While I may not have understood him, I did enjoy him. Like most characters in these books, he has a quick wit, and manages to amuse even while he baffles. He had a particularly interesting relationship with Briala, one that is kind of protective but also sort of gently pushing her to take more responsibility. He's curiously passive for much of the story, lending his considerable power in support of whatever plan his companions have most recently devised.
Michel de Chevin is one of the most purely likeable people in the novel. He has a Dark Secret, which has shaped most of his life, but learning how he overcame his circumstances only made me appreciate him more. Orlesians in Dragon Age are famously obsessed with honor, and in the games that often comes off as pompousness, but Michel is a great example of the positive results that are possible from such a devotion to duty and training.
And, weirdly, that same devotion to honor made me a grudging admirer of Gaspard de Chalons, who is the obvious villain for most of the novel. Gaspard wants to be Emperor, and has been using all the tools at his disposal to acquire the throne. He fails to match Celene's skills at politics, and so he turns to his considerable skill at arms. He has won many victories in battles, which makes him feel entitled to rule the nation; Celene has prevented many wars from even starting, which makes her feel entitled to the same. They present two strongly opposed viewpoints about the role that Orlais should play in the world, and what makes Orlais great. I am, of course, fully sympathetic to Celene's enlightened policies, and opposed to Gaspard's reactionary, racist, warmongering ways.
Yet, despite all that, I can't help but admire the man. He has a code that he adheres to, trumping even his desire to rule the realm. He believes that it is his devotion to duty that makes him fit to reign (shades of Stannis!) and refuses to make the kinds of compromises that would win him the crown at the cost of his honor. In contrast, as Celene's situation grows more dire she reveals herself completely willing to take any advantage, forge any alliance, sacrifice any ally, do whatever it takes to come out ahead. While I continued to intellectually agree with her throughout the novel, by the end I found it difficult to emotionally endorse her decisions.
Of course, this is a major part of what Dragon Age is all about: for the most part, there is very rarely a clear-cut "right" and "wrong" side of any given argument. The early stages of the Gaspard/Celene conflict reminded me of the Harrowmont/Bhelen division in Dragon Age: Origins, with Gaspard/Harrowmont representing the cultured, traditional, honorable, caste-based society, and Celene/Bhelen promoting a modernizing, more egalitarian society. Needless to say, BioWare doesn't repeat themselves: Gaspard is far more aggressive than Harrowmont, and Celene doesn't share Bhelan's bloodthirsty ruthlessness, preferring instead to diplomatically neuter her opponents. Anyways, that's one of the many things that I love about Dragon Age: while many books and games will present a villain, and throughout the story demonstrate just how fully bad that villain is, so we can all cheer when the villain is defeated at the end, BioWare is much inclined to do the opposite: present someone absolutely awful at the beginning (Loghain's betrayal at Ostragar, Gaspard in TME), then humanize them throughout the story, leaving you unsure where your sympathies lie by the end. This rings more true to me than a lot of fiction. There are evil people in the world, but for the most part it's different people all trying to do the best they can by their own lights.
TME also pulled off the neat trick of retroactively endearing me to a character. Much like The Stolen Throne made us all fans of Loghain, The Masked Empire does a lot to redeem Duke Prosper, the villain of Mask of the Assassin. In that game, I had been completely under the sway of Tallis / Felicia Day, cheerfully agreeing that we should rob the Duke and protect the identities of the Qunari spies embedded in Orlais. I was initially taken aback in TME when Celene flashes back to a fond memory of Prosper, and thought, "Wait, Prosper? Wasn't he the bad guy?" But, once you start looking at it from the perspective of an Orlesian, the situation changes dramatically. The Qunari have been one of the biggest threats facing Thedas for centuries, and Prosper, a refreshingly loyal servant of his Empress, is acting to keep them from conquering yet another land. I'll probably play through MotA again before too long, and next time it'll be much harder to decide whether and how strongly to support Tallis's mission.
Man, between Asunder and TME, things are looking really grim in Orlais. The Templars have revolted against the Chantry, the mages against both of them, a faction of Orlesian nobles are revolting against Celene, and it looks like there's a good chance of the elven ghettos rising up within the cities. And this is all before the sky opens!
It'll be interesting to see how all of this plays out in Inquisition. I'm vaguely imagining something similar to Origins' plot structure, with multiple major plots running at the same time, and you picking and choosing the order in which to resolve them.
Random interesting lore things:
Eluvians have been a big part of Dragon Age at least since Witch Hunt, and this was by far the best explanation we've gotten yet about how they work. It reminded me in some ways of systems that have been developed in other fantasy novels to solve the problem of "How do I get the characters from this side of the map to that side in a short amount of time?", somewhat like the Ways in The Wheel of Time. In Thedas, though, the Eluvians were developed by the Elves, which has some interesting effects (most notably, humans find it more difficult to move through those spaces).
Given that eluvians have been defunct for millennia, and Briala seems intent on activating as many as she can, I've started wondering if this might have a mechanical in-game effect: specifically, given the vast territory we'll be covering in Inquisition, having access to Eluvians could give a somewhat-plausible explanation for the availability of fast travel within the game. (Not that we need an explanation; I've long thought that it's perfectly acceptable for a game to just say something like "Six days passed" when traveling between distant points, but if there are also going to be time pressures in Inquisition it would strain credulity to go tromping from Ferelden to Orlais to the Free Marches and back again each time you accept a new side-quest.)
I find myself wondering whether Imshael will be one of the antagonists in Inquisition; he certainly seems to intend causing some mischief. Other major candidates (besides Gaspard) include whoever kills Felassan at the end.
On the canon front, I was quite happy with how the novel positioned itself: Leliana is still alive (which has been well established by now), but I don't think it gives any details about who rules in Ferelden or other major decision points from the games.
So, between the time I started writing this post and now, I've learned that Inquisition has been delayed six weeks, until November 18th. My immediate reaction was dismay, but upon measured reflection, it's an almost unquestionable good move. I'd always much prefer a game to be released in a polished and mostly-bug-free state than released early. I'm attending a wedding the weekend after the original release date, so now I'll be able to focus on my duties without worrying about my incipient dual-wielding inquisitor. And I'll actually get a chance to play Civilization Beyond Earth instead of waiting until 2015 like I'd thought I would need to do. And, heck, in the worst case I'll now have two full months to check out Last Flight after it drops in September.
But, yes, back to The Masked Empire: it's a fun book, probably one I'd suggest primarily to people who are already fans of Dragon Age, have played through the games, and are looking for more. I didn't think that it stood on its own quite as well as The Stolen Throne and The Calling did; but that's because it gets a lot of mileage building on top of things we already know (Bann Teagan, the fraught history between Ferelden and Orlais, the plight of the elves, etc.), so there's extra resonance and treats for people who enjoy the setting. It also should reassure anyone who might have been apprehensive about Patrick Weekes' move to join the Dragon Age team: he clearly groks the setting and the tone, which bodes very well for his contributions to the upcoming game.