Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne review

    The Dragon Age universe is one of my favorite Dungeons and Dragons-inspired fantasy settings. It has a direct link to Baldur's Gate, which means it's linked to Forgotten Realms, which means it's plugged into my childhood.

    Dragon Age novels take themselves seriously, despite being game-fiction, which I appreciate. As a thirty-three-year-old man who reviews video games as well as books, I need to pretend I'm not the big kid I am.

    The Stolen Throne is the first Dragon Age novel, written by series writer David Gaider, and details a lot of the backstory relating to the country of Ferelden. Ferelden was the setting for Dragon Age: Origins and developed surprisingly well.

    While Ferelden was fantasy England like 90% of all Medieval settings in RPGs, it included a lot of cool little details. Ferelden culture was strongly influenced by dogs, for instance, and they'd recently overthrown their pseudo-French overlords. The chief villain of Origins, after the Archdemon, was the character of Teryn (Duke) Loghain. This is not a spoiler since anyone who looks at Loghain knows he's going to be the villain.

    The thing is, while he remains your antagonist, the game hints he's misguided rather than evil. You even have the option of sparing his life and recruiting him as a party member, allowing him to redeem himself for his crimes.

    The Stolen Throne is both Loghain and Ferelden's story. Ironically, Loghain plays less a role than Prince Maric. Maric is the lawful heir of Ferelden's throne (and father to series' favorite Alistair) who has never sat upon it due to the fact the Orlesians (the aforementioned pseudo-French) have ruled over his kingdom for a couple of decades. His mother, the Rebel Queen, is a legend for her resistance to Orlais but Maric is more or less a pathetic disappointment.

    Then the Rebel Queen dies.

    Poor Maric ends up in charge and it's up to a clever peasant boy named Loghain to help him become a man. Loghain doesn't want the job since he resents all nobility for hardships his family has had to endure but gradually warms up to the prince. Loghain won't, however, become a believer in the hereditary system of rulership and I appreciate that.

    The book has some very fun female characters like Rowan the Warrior Noble and Katriel the Elven Bard/Double Agent. Katriel is more or less Leliana (from Origins) with pointy ears so I was automatically inclined to like her best out of the characters in the book. Rowan, by contrast, is probably better qualified than Maric to lead the nation but can't because she doesn't have the right bloodline.

    Can they take back Ferelden from the Orlesians? Well, since Ferelden is an independent nation by the time of the games, yes, but how they do it is a winding twisty path.

    Part of what makes this story so appealing is it works entirely on its own. If you've never played any of the Dragon Age games, you can still enjoy this story on its own merits. Everything you need to know about the franchise is included in this volume and it has a satisfying narrative. Some characters will live, some will die, and others will have an unhappily ever after. How this happens is entertaining to read.

     I also like the book's relatively modest stakes. Countless fantasy stories have the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of our heroes. Here, the fate of a single kingdom is on the line and it's not from monsters but their fellow human beings. The Orlesians are a brutal and repressive ruling class but not cartoonishly so. Or, if they're incredibly evil then it's because real-life regimes tend to be that way to conquered territories. You can't really outdo history in that regard.

     I found myself caring about the heroes and their personal lives, too, which I almost never do in fiction. The fact the romance story arcs aren't preordained to end in the way they traditionally do in these things is a nice change of pace. People get their heart broken, class stands in the way of true love, and sometimes what's broken can't be repaired. Which is, frankly, more true-to-life than most of us would like to admit.

    The book lives and dies on what I consider to be its authenticity. The world feels like it could have happened on some parallel Earth. Questions of morality, economic exploitation, racism, feelings of inadequacy, and cultural posturing all help ground the piece. It's really-really good and, in my opinion, not just a good game novel but a good novel period. Non-franchise fans could pick this up as an introduction to the setting.

    Buy it.


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