I have a vague strategy to provide myself with a steady drip of Dragon Age-related goodness until Inquisition finally arrives in October. Fortunately, a wide variety of official non-game material has been published over the years, so this has been the perfect excuse to get caught up on the novels. I seem to be timing it rather well: Patrick Weekes' The Masked Empire was released earlier this year, and a fifth novel will be appearing in September, which should provide the perfect way to coast into some fine gaming goodness.
For now, the novel I just finished reading is Asunder, the third and final entry written by David Gaider. It's interesting in a few ways. Perhaps the most obvious is the difference in setting. The Stolen Throne and The Calling were both set prior to the events of the first Dragon Age game. Asunder, in contrast, takes place after the first two games and shortly before the start of Inquisition. So, the first two books were extremely lore- and canon-friendly: they provided excellent additional background that helped fill in some gaps from the games and provide additional color and texture to some elements of those games' plots.
Asunder is the first novel that has to wrestle with the question of how to accommodate the vast variety of choices that players may have made while playing their games. I've previously whined about how I wasn't able to get into the Dragon Age comics because the world they depicted had diverged so significantly from the state in which I had left it. On the opposite extreme, the Mass Effect comics were carefully written in such a way as to be compatible with any of the permutations in which players could tell their stories... but, that has the side-effect of cutting out entire swaths of possible story material. (You can't even include certain characters if they might not be alive, for example.)
I think Asunder does a fairly good job at navigating this territory, although your mileage may vary. It does include some characters from the first game, and references several plot events. Most of the plot events are fixed in the canon of Dragon Age and will always be true. The Warden is a revered figure in this novel, and Gaider pulls off the challenging task of describing their role while leaving them perfectly compatible with any possible origin and outcome. The story does make several assumptions that are less sure; the big ones happened to be correct for me, and I imagine for the vast majority of players, but there's a good chance that some players out there will feel some dissonance at who appears in this book.
The writing itself is very well done. I think that each of the three novels I've read has been better than the one before: the writing has gotten more confident and more fluid with each book. The earlier ones felt very focused on the individual characters and a few set-piece battle scenes. Asunder felt more focused on the story as a whole: there are still some great characters, but it feels like narration now pulls relatively more weight than exposition. There are still battles, but they seem to arise more gracefully and resolve expediently.
MINI SPOILERS (for Asunder, and kinda for Inquisition)
The first two novels had some shared characters in Maric and (to a lesser extent) Loghain, and I was kind of expecting a similar carry-over here, which was not the cast. In retrospect, that makes a lot of sense: only a few years separated the first two novels, while a few decades passed before Asunder. The one exception that I spotted is Fiona, who played a significant part in The Calling, but has pretty much just a cameo here. (But, between her appearance here and her significant showing in Heroes of Dragon Age, I'm suspecting that she will play a role in Inquisition.)
The two game characters to show up here are Wynne and Shale. Wynne technically can be slain by the Warden in the Circle Tower, but I highly doubt that many people do that. Shale is an interesting choice, since she requires DLC. On the one hand, that may make her more compatible: she never explicitly says in the book that the Warden activated her, which leaves open the possibility that some other buffoon restored her rod. Except, there is a line in the book where Wynne reminds Shale (paraphrasing) "The first time you were in the Ferelden Circle Tower, it was swarming with demons and abominations," to which Shale replies, "It was an improvement." (Granted, that is an excellent line, and I was happy to read it, even though I didn't travel to Honnleath until after restoring the Circle and the Arl.)
Both characters are fantastic here. The writing is sharp and feels perfectly true to their characters. I know that Gaider wrote Shale; I'm not sure if he wrote Wynne or not, but he perfectly captures her demeanor (generally kind, but condescending, and occasionally prone to outbursts of exasperation). Wynne is a bit more active in the plot while Shale seems to be around mostly to be very sarcastic and to smush soft squishy things, an arrangement that appears satisfactory to everyone.
If this book has a hero, it's Rhys, a Senior Enchanter and Libertarian at the White Spire (the Orlesian Circle). Rhys later learns that he's Wynne's son; and, although I don't think he is privy to this information, we know from Wynne's banters in DA:O that this probably means that Rhys's father was a Templar. Rhys seems like a decent, kind man... he's beset by extremists, but argues for sanity, and goes out of his way to stand up for people he feels have been wronged.
One of those wronged people is Cole, a mysterious young man who lurks in the basements of the White Spire. Cole's exact identity is a puzzle for most of the book; he will be one of the Inquisitor's companions in Inquisition, and I'll be curious to see if they revisit any of the revelations of this book. If not, I could see this being somewhat akin to the expansion of Loghain's character in The Stolen Throne, where the book provides significantly more context and coloring to a character. Anyways! Cole is interesting, and sad, and strange, and while I'm not sure I'll have room for yet another rogue in my party, I look forward to speaking with him in October.
Actually, other than Rhys and Cole, pretty much all of the other significant characters in this book are female... cool! In addition to Wynne, Shale, and Fiona, we also meet Adrian, a fellow Senior Enchanter and Libertarian. She's far more radical than Rhys, and has been agitating to capitalize on the upheaval after the upheaval in Kirkwall to dissolve the Circle of Mages. She has unrequited feelings for Rhys, which is actually pretty interesting... I've read a ton of books where the girl doesn't love the boy, but this is one of the few where the boy doesn't love the girl. You can get inside both their heads regarding their relationship; while it's far from the most important thing in the book, it adds some really nice melancholy.
Instead, Rhys's main potential love interest is Knight-Captain Evangeline, a Templar of the White Spire. I really liked her character, and I'm probably pulling more for her than any other character here to appear in Inquisition. One of the many things I love about the Dragon Age franchise is how it avoids sweeping generalities: it regularly shows that any institution is made up of many members, and those members will cover a broad spectrum of beliefs. Evangeline is a devout Templar, and adheres to the core of Templar doctrine, recognizing that their core goal is to protect the mages. This provides a welcome contrast to the outright hostility we generally see on both sides. Throughout the novel she's probably in the toughest position, torn between conflicting orders from her immediate superior officer and her supreme commander, traveling with allies she cannot trust, and being forced to lead without access to the information she needs. She bears up extremely well under the pressure, and emerges as possibly my favorite character here.
We also catch a glimpse of the Divine, the recently-elevated Justinia (replacing the elderly Beatrix, who I previously saw in Dawn of the Seeker). She plays a major role in the events here, and doubtless will continue to do so in Inquisition. We also hear of, but do not see, Celene, the Orlesian Empress. She's involved in some sort of civil war near the Ferelden border; we never learn exactly what this is about, but I wonder if it might be related to the canceled Exalted March DLC for Dragon Age 2. It's very possible that these events will grow clearer once I read The Masked Empire.
And, last but certainly not least: Leliana, my love! This was some particularly deftly done writing. Of course, not all players will have romanced Leliana; but, for those of us who have, it's easy to read some extra meaning into her words and project our thoughts about their romance into her scenes. What's interesting about her is not so much how she's similar to the character of the first game, but the ways in which she has deliberately changed. This whole business about her evolution into Sister Nightingale is all very mysterious, and is one of the things I'm most looking forward to discovering in Inquisition, not least because I suspect her motivations may radically change based on the Warden's actions.
Phew... so, yeah, a good number of characters! (Oh, and also Pharamond and Lambert, but I don't have much to say about them.) The plot itself ties in to the main continuity of the Dragon Age games, describing events that were sparked by Anders in Dragon Age 2; it also deals with some interesting bits of Dragon Age lore, particularly the Rite of Tranquility, spirits and demons, and the history of the Seekers. (I briefly rolled my eyes when this novel, again, teleported an entire party into The Fade to fight against a demon by destroying illusions... but it's always interesting, and was much more relevant to this book's main plot.)
The templars-versus-mages thing has obviously been one of the major driving forces for most of the Dragon Age series: it's a crucial component of one of the four major questlines in Origins, is the single most important element in Dragon Age 2, and appears to be one of, and possibly the, biggest plots of Inquisition. I suspect that by the end of the next game, that question will be settled, and I'm mostly curious if the Inquisitor will be able to affect the outcome or not. In the meantime, Asunder really drives the blade home, showing just how desperate the situation in Thedas has become.
So, yeah! Good book! This is probably essential reading for anyone who's enjoyed the games and wants to get more out of them. I've enjoyed all the Dragon Age novels so far, but I think this is my favorite one to date: it's very well-written, ties into the games in a very satisfying way, and holds the promise of deepening our enjoyment of Inquisition once it drops. It's a bit of a shame that we won't be getting any more novels from David Gaider any time soon, but in the meantime I'm looking forward to what Patrick Weekes has in store for us!