Dragon Age: Inquisition is creeping ever closer, and like many other fans, I'm filling in the time by exploring other areas of the Dragon Age expanded universe. My most recent conquest is The Calling, the second novel by lead writer David Gaider. It's a sequel to The Stolen Throne and a prequel to Dragon Age: Origins, taking place about 20 years before the action in the game starts.
I'd enjoyed The Stolen Throne, but The Calling felt like a clear improvement. It retained many of the things I thought the earlier novel did particularly well, like surprisingly exciting and well-realized fight scenes. (I think this is something that players of the games might be in a particularly good place to appreciate. Even in DA:O, the fights were incredibly cool-looking, so when a passage in the book describes a character running up the back of an ogre and then stabbing a broadsword between their shoulder blades while vaulting over their head, I have a very specific picture in mind of what that would look like.) The Calling is also another character-oriented novel, focusing on a small group of compatriots joined in an occasionally uneasy alliance. This time around, there's a wider cast of characters; not all of them can be as fully-formed as the four at the heart of the first book, but there's also more opportunity for interesting webs of relationships between them. Also, on a purely technical level, this book felt more strongly edited: free of typos or any other distractions.
MEGA SPOILERS (for the book & the games)
Of course, one major reason to read these books is to glean more lore, and it certainly doesn't disappoint on that front. Some of this was stuff I had known about going in: I knew that a young Duncan would be a main character, and was looking forward to learning more about his background and his evolution into the firm leader we see in DA:O. That was cool, but there were also some major revelations that make me fundamentally rethink some of the most important characters in the franchise. These are things that don't exactly contradict any events in the game, but add huge layers of potential irony, and (depending on player choices) some even-happier symmetries.
Sorry to be vague about this, even in mega-spoilerville, but I was frankly surprised to have escaped spoilers in the four years since the book came out, especially considering how attuned I am to the franchise, and I would hate to be responsible for anyone else being spoiled.
Big surprises aside, this book was also great for deepening my understanding of history and culture in Ferelden. I've written at length before about The World of Thedas answering lots of questions, but there's a lot of flavor and color you can get from a novel which you won't gain from an almanac. We met Maric in The Stolen Throne, and The Calling shows the kind of king he was: not a great king, but a decent king, and a great man. There are also even more justifications for Loghain's actions at the start of DA:O, as if the events in TST weren't enough. And there's also a lot of insight into the Grey Wardens, some of which was hinted at in DA:O:A and DA2:Legacy, but makes more sense and forms a fuller picture here.
Maric is the one major returning character from TST; Loghain is still around, but much less present. All of the other heroes are Grey Wardens, of varying ages, genders, and orientations. There's another romance here, a very touching one with Maric and a young elven grey warden mage named Fiona (who I think might become First Enchanter Fiona, but I believe that's in later fiction). The Maric/Fiona match is a very deliberate echo of the Maric/Katriel tryst from the first novel; this isn't exactly a redemption, but it takes on more significance in light of what occurred before. She has a nice arc; you only catch brief glimpses of her life before the Wardens, but it's enough to understand the frustration and anger she clings to in the beginning and only gradually relinquishes.
Duncan is very different here from how I thought of him. He isn't a strong warrior, but rather a thief, only a few months removed from the streets of Val Royeaux. Along with Maric, he's probably the most comic character, frequently complaining about the cold Ferelden winters. This isn't a comparison I've made before, but reading his passages made me think of some similarities between the Grey Wardens in Dragon Age and the Black Watch in A Song of Ice and Fire. Both are ancient organizations tasked with holding back a nearly-unthinkable evil, and while they nominally are honorable posts, they may be particularly attractive to thieves, murderers, and others who would face death if not for recruitment. Anyways, Duncan also evolves gradually over the novel, to the point where he embraces his identity as a Warden even more strongly than his official superiors.
Through Duncan we catch a brief glimpse off-page of Kristoff, whose body would later be inhabited by Justice in DA:O:A. He's also tied into Genevieve and Bregan, Warden Commander siblings who experience the full horror of corruption that comes with the Calling. Most of the remaining heroes are more sketchily drawn, though still interesting. My favorite minor character was probably Utha, one of the Silent Sisters and thus a mute. She communicates with sign language; interestingly, it isn't directly translated in the narration and we never get a point-of-view from her perspective, so we're reliant on other non-POV characters to translate her words. Anyways. Dwarves are awesome, and female martial artist dwarves are probably the awesomest of all. Seeing her here made me feel pre-emptively sad; I encountered her in DA:O:A, but she's very much an enigma there, and if I were to re-play that section now my decision would be much more difficult to make.
I'd kind of thought that Utha and the other Wardens would just be red shirts, and some of them sort of were, but Gaider spends enough time fleshing them out that I felt genuinely sad when they died. Particularly Hafter, one of the greatest doggies ever. Hafter's keeper, Kell, would be sympathetic just for his association with the Mabari, but he's also possibly the most mature and reasonable person in the entire party. He's quiet, and doesn't open up much about his past, but he has great reserves of inner strength, and is the one person brave enough to directly challenge his leader when he sees the problems with their mission. Finally, Julien and Nicolas are warriors and lovers; it isn't the first same-sex pairing in Dragon Age, but I think it might be the earliest canonical (non-PC-initiated) one. We don't get to know them as individuals all that well, but there's a very touching depiction of grief when their union is destroyed.
And, of course, there's the Architect. He's such a baffling figure in DA:O:A, and it was kind of amusing to see characters in this book react to him in almost exactly the same way I did when I'd encountered him in the future: is this guy for real? Is this all a trick to raise another Old God? Do we have the authority to make this bargain on behalf of all humanity? Would a future with darkspawn but no blights be better than a future of blights? We never get a POV from him, but reading this made me feel a bit better about rejecting him in the game, while simultaneously convincing me of his honest intentions.
There's one more novel coming up, Asunder. I imagine I'll read it before Inquisition drops. It sounds like Gaider isn't interested in writing more (and I can't say I blame him - writing a book takes a really long time!), but Patrick Weekes, a fantastic writer from Mass Effect who recently moved over to Dragon Age, is writing the fourth novel, which should be out in a couple of months and will do its part to help slake the insatiable hunger of us fans for more Thedasian goodness.
On a totally unrelated topic, I read and enjoyed The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. I've been struggling to think about what to write about it, and have had a single paragraph sitting in my blog drafts folder for nearly a week now. It's a beautiful story, simple but elegant, about an amnesiac mathematics scholar who forms a profound yet intrinsically transient relationship with a single mother and her son.
Math and, to a lesser degree, the hard sciences are often used in literature as a shorthand for severity, lack of emotion, or tedium. One of the many things I liked about this book was its depiction of the passion that math can inspire, and the transcendence one can feel when communing with this study of pure abstraction. The Professor is downright poetic when describing his field, describing math as the language of the universe, which existed before the universe began. He also has a wonderful gift for allegory; he doesn't use story problems to explain math, but more lyrical and evocative phrases.
I felt some brief nostalgia at all the math in the book. Math was my best subject in school, and in some years it was my favorite as well. Late in high school I began to drift from math to English, and almost totally abandoned it in college, but I still have warm feelings of the sense of elation I would feel at solving an interesting problem, or the serenity that came with acquiring a perfect mastery over this domain of pure knowledge. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have pursued the study of math further; from what I understand, math at the highest levels is radically (heh) different from what we start out learning, and work on the cutting edge of math today bears very little resemblance to the gentlemanly pursuits of Euler and Fermat.
Of course, the book isn't really about math. It's about human relationships, and memory, and kindness. I think it's one of the most universally enjoyable books I've read recently, one of the few that I could recommend to pretty much anyone.