Saturday, September 6, 2014

Dragon Age: The Masked Empire review

    One of the major problems I had with Dragon Age 2 was the game had something of a monomaniacal focus on the Templar and Mage issue. The Qunari were also present, thank the Maker, but the game seemed to make the setting smaller rather than larger.

    One of the most appealing elements of Dragon Age: Origins was it illustrated the staggering number of issues which were plaguing the continent: elvish bigotry, dwarf classicism, mage oppression, religious fanaticism, Qunari totalitarianism, Tevinter slavers, and the fact the nobility ranged from the Stark-like Couslands to Joffrey-like psychopaths like Arl Howe.

    With the set up of Dragon Age: Inquisition initially looking like it would deal with the Mage and Templar War I was rather worried the other elements would fall to the wayside even further. Thankfully, both the information coming out from Bioware as well as The Masked Empire. The Masked Empire deals with areas of storytelling almost untouched by Dragon Age 2 and which I think will play a big role in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

    Specifically, the plight of elves and the Orlesian Empire.

    Orlais has been a country which has long had an important role in Dragon Age but has yet to be fully detailed until now. Whereas Ferelden has served as the archetypal stand-in for England, Scotland, and Wales--Orlais has served as an analog for France. It is a country which is much more than this, though, embodying the setting's concepts of autocracy and the divine right of Kings. Orlais is the largest, most powerful, richest, and most dangerous nation in Thedas.

    It didn't get there by being nice.

    Interestingly, Orlais is shown to be a multifaceted nation too. Whereas much is made of the brutality and cruelty of Orlais' nobility during their occupation of Ferelden, Awakening's Baroness being based on Elizabeth Bathory, we also have fan-favorite Leliana (one of the sweetest characters in the franchise) hail from said nation. They are a thoroughly humanized bunch of characters but have cultural attitudes which are decidedly, well, Medieval.

    As for the elves, one of the things I always enjoyed about Dragon Age was they were a race which was as far from Tolkien's conception of them as godlike immortal beings as you could get. As the settings analog to both Jews and Romani, elves are a despised minority desperately trying to cling to their cultural heritage in the face of brutal oppression. Ferelden, normally treated as much better than Orlais, still has elven women abducted for sexual assault from their wedding and a full-on pogrom when they try to resist.


    The premise follows the political struggles of Empress Celene and her elven lover, Briala. It's rare enough we see women in authority without being overtly sexualized. It's doubly-so to see a lesbian woman in authority. Empress Celene could have easily been cast as a bisexual but there's no indication that she or her lover have any interest in men other than potential political allies.

    Celene appears to be a woman who holds liberal attitudes to the plight of elves and is more interested in patronizing the arts versus military expansionism. However, looks can be deceiving, as she's also a master politician with the ruthless streak necessary to rule a country which has institutionalized intrigue. Briala has a somewhat rose-colored view of Celene, viewing her as a messianic protector of her people who will deliver Orlais out of its current dark age of autocracy.

    She's wrong.

    Opposing our heroes is Grand Duke Gaspard, a brutal imperialist warlord who wishes to invade the nation of Ferelden and put it under a military dictatorship for no other reason than to distract Orlesians from their constant infighting. He's a monster planning the deaths of thousands for no other reason than because, as a chevalier, war is his trade and he sees nothing wrong with practicing it. Yet, despite this, Duke Gaspard reveals himself to be possibly one of the few Orlesians with any sense of integrity. Most characters in the novel would throw away their honor, for whatever worth that is, when it threaten their position.

    Gaspard's word is his bond and he doesn't rules-lawyer it either. Between he and Empress Celene, I'm not sure who I would rather have as my ruler. Empress Celene as an enlightened liberal ruler seems like she's the sort of person who would be better to my modern sensibilities. However, she's a politician and flat-out untrustworthy. Duke Gaspard, by contrast, is a ruthless war monger but you can expect him to honor your agreements. That is an ugly pair of choices if our Inquisitor is called to support one or the other in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

    The supporting cast in The Masked Empire is great too. I despised the character of Michel and hope there's an option for killing him in Inquisition but, honestly, I can't say I don't understand why he chose to make the choices he did. I think those choices have damned him, either secularly or metaphysically depending on your beliefs re: Dragon Age's afterlife, but I understand them. I also loved the character of Felassan who is a delightful Trickster mentor and reminds me of the early legends of Merlin.

    The worldbuilding in this book is great with insights into how the Dalish mages view City Elves, the City Elves view Dalish mages, how half-elves are treated by society, and how the Orlesian nobility looks down on them all. We get insight into the Game which all of the Orlesian nobility plays and how their system of honor works. I've always liked how honor was treated in Dragon Age as we see in both the Dwarvish and Orlesian world that it allows you to do monstrous things but think of yourself as a good person.

    In conclusion, as much as I hated some of the characters for their actions, this is a really good book. I prefer Asunder but I think The Masked Empire is objectively better if that makes any sense. Fans of Dragon Age should pick this up ASAP.


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