Friday, October 24, 2014

You Gotta Flight For Your Right To (Form A) Party

Thanks to Inquisition’s delayed release, I’ve been able to completely catch up on all of the extant novels. The most recent one, Last Flight, was just released and would have arrived shortly before the game’s original planned debut.

Last Flight is interesting in several ways. Perhaps most obviously, it is the first novel to not have been written by a member of the Dragon Age writing staff. It’s also the first one to not include any characters who have previously appeared in the games (although, granted, it’s possible that some may appear in Inquisition). It also has a unique structure and different voice that set it apart from the others.


I’d been curious about when the novel would be set, and it turns out that this curiosity was well-founded. It actually spans two different time periods. The initial storyline, set in the “present” time during the Dragon Age, is probably roughly contemporary with the timespan of Inquisition. Within this story, a character discovers a journal, and in reading the story therein, we enter into the main plot, set during the Fourth Blight. The structure actually reminds me a lot of 19th-century novels, where the author has to explain how they came into possession of the document that describes the story, although here both stories are told in the third person.

Lore-hounds will find a ton of stuff here to enjoy. We’ve previously learned the broad outlines of the Fourth Blight - where it started, which Archdemon led it, who ended it - but Last Flight closely tracks a Grey Warden who was the sister of the hero who would ultimately end the Blight, and we get a very in-depth look at politics within the Grey Wardens and between the free nations, as well as some original insight into blood magic and the origin of several now-famous locations and families.

The flagship lore treatment, though, covers the griffons. We’ve heard about griffons ever since Origins, when Wynne would dismissively deflect any attempts to discuss these extinct beasts. The mystery of exactly what happened to the griffons has, well, been a mystery, and Last Flight reveals exactly what happened to them. It’s a pretty compelling story, and doesn’t follow the directions I expected it to.

My favorite part of the book, though, is probably the main character, Isseya. It’s not surprising to have an awesome and effective female as the protagonist of the story, as this is the sort of thing we’ve long associated with BioWare. Rather, it’s her nature and the nature of her story that I found particularly compelling. Most tellingly, while there are some romantic entanglements in the book, Isseya herself doesn’t have any sort of romance arc, successful or otherwise, in contrast to the four earlier novels. On the one hand, BioWare is very well-known for doing romances, but I found it pretty refreshing to have a woman who was totally focused on her mission and didn’t “need” to pursue a partner. It fits her character, and also perfectly fits the times: a blight is a catastrophic, world-threatening event, and with all the Wardens making constant sacrifices, it’s very easy to believe that this would not be a priority for her.

I keep feeling tempted to describe Isseya as bad-ass, but she isn’t exactly, not in the same way Leliana or Briala are. She is a mage, and one of the most thoughtful, curious, intelligent characters in this franchise. She doesn’t stride into the center of a battle, hurling giant fireballs from her hands. She studies the situation, she performs reconnaissance, she consults experts, she plans, she executes. Some of the most satisfying passages in the book don’t involve any fighting at all, but rather her figuring out very clever ways to save lives, construct a safehold, or ease another’s burden.

These plans don’t always work, and Isseya feels it keenly when they fail. She’s fairly introspective; she will harshly self-criticize when something goes wrong, and will sometimes fret whether she made the right decision. Of course, this is what humans (or, er, elves) do, and makes her all the more relatable.

In the absence of romantic arcs and battle scenes, this book reads pretty differently from the earlier novels, and for the most part I really enjoyed the change. In one or two instances, it felt like it was trying a bit too hard to be more typical, and generally suffered as a result. Most noticeably, the novel ends with a small skirmish set in the present day; it’s executed well, but I hadn’t spend enough time in that timeline to feel very invested in the characters, and frankly the foes they face were hard to worry too much about. (After slaying numerous dragons and demons in the games, it’s hard to get worked up about a single ash wraith). Still, for the most part the novel does a terrific job at telling its story in an interesting way, while continuing to illuminate more about the history of Thedas and how its institutions work.

Last Flight was a really fun, easy read, and might be one of the better entry points into the franchise. It’s less directly connected to events and characters from the games than the earlier novels, and seems more likely to be something newcomers can dig into and appreciate. Of course, Dragon Age veterans are likely the intended audience, and if you’re looking for something to hold you over until Inquisition comes out next month, this might be the ticket.

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