Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dragon Age: Last Flight review

    The latest book out from Bioware set in the Dragon Age universe, I poured through Last Flight in a single night. Like all of the Dragon Age novels, it's a cut above your typical Dungeons and Dragons fair, and has a lot going for it. Still, I feel the book is somewhat marred by its ending and has somewhat less interesting subject matter than previous volumes. Those who enjoy the setting, however, will adore several revelations about the game world's lore and it is a good fantasy novel.

    Just not a great one.

    The premise of Last Flight is a group of mage refugees from the Mage-Templar War, set up in Dragon Age: Asunder, have joined the Grey Wardens to escape the fighting. They are put to work studying the ancient lore of the Grey Wardens and one of them stumbles on a account of the Fourth Blight.

    Blights, for non-fans of the game, is something akin to a combination of zombie-invasion and Orc attack. This account sheds light on the extinction of the griffon race, the morality of the Grey Wardens, and the dangers of Blood Magic.

    I'm not a fan of books which don't have anything to say about the real world and I'm pleased to say this book does have a message. It's an analysis of the consequences of an "ends justify the means" mentality. While the protagonist of Dragon Age: Origins can be anything from a bog-standard fantasy hero to a ruthless murderer to Mage Jesus, the Grey Wardens he belongs to have this as their bailiwick.

    Grey Wardens swear to do anything to stop the Blight, no matter how heinous, and are willing to give their lives to do it. Indeed, every Grey Warden does give their life to stop the Blight because the source of their powers eventually kills them.

    A lesser writer would have universally condemned this attitude or puffed it up. Liane Merciel, however, presents ruthlessness' upsides and downsides. We see why the Wardens do what they do and the sometimes disgusting things they need to do. We see them abandon refugees to die, lie to the public, literally prostitute themselves (a male for once), and animal experimentation. None of this is presented as a good thing but sometimes it works.

    Not always, though.

     Much like Zombie Apocalypses, the Blight is an excellent way of exploring the extremes of human morality. When faced with a natural disaster meets war situation like the Blight, what are the limits to what a person should be willing to do to survive?

   The Grey Wardens believe anything is justified and while the book doesn't go into some of the worst things I've seen in such fiction, it touches on enough of them you get the idea how this sort of attitude can blind you to other options. When you assume ruthlessness is the path of the strong, you begin to think any other way is weak.

   This is embodied in the treatment of the griffons. The griffons are gigantic eagle and lion hybrids which are used as flying mounts by the Grey Wardens. They represent the best in the Grey Wardens and are symbols of their higher natures. Despite "only" being animals, the griffons are presented as noble, beautiful, and intelligent beasts. They trust the Grey Wardens and should, theoretically, be treated with respect in return.

   Instead, the Grey Wardens find a means to make them more effective fighting machines at the cost of the griffons' lives. What follows is a story of exploitation, cruelty, and the consequences of messing with nature's delicate balance. It's a good metaphor with Blood Magic serving as a nice stand-in for both science and industry but sadly gets undercut by its ending.

    Without spoiling anything, I can't help but feel the story of the griffons' extinction would have been better without the sliver of hope provided at the end. It worked in The Lorax but in real-life, there are no take-backs and the world is diminished every time we let a species go extinct. Letting them stand as a monument to the selfishness of humanity, even in theoretical good-cause, would have made the story more powerful.

    In conclusion, Last Flight is a book with a lot going for it. It is an interesting premise, gives good insight into what a long-standing Blight is like, shows how Blood Magic works in the setting in greater-detail, and has something to say about morality. The environmental message is neither heavy-handed nor easy-to-miss. I liked the majority of the characters, even though only a couple of them were underdeveloped. In short, I suggest you pick this book up if you like fantasy or Dragon Age in particular. Just don't expect to be blown away.


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