Apr 11 2014 1:00pm

Dragon Age: The Masked Empire by Patrick Weekes

This is the first videogame tie-in novel that I’ve had for review. It’s been a little difficult for me to figure out where to start talking about it. Do I start with the world, with the games, or with a story that should stand on its own: a story that, without the context provided by Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2, never actually will?

Maybe a media franchise tie-in novel doesn’t need to stand on its own, though. Certainly I’m not alone in really having enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins and DA:2 (for all their flaws) and in wanting to see more exploration of the interesting aspects of the world of Thedas, and places that have not yet been visited in the videogames. Dragon Age: The Masked Empire does a little of this, but it fails to avoid the major problem with the majority of media franchise tie-ins.

It echoes the atmosphere of, and recalls events from, its foundation texts to such an extent that its individual voice is muted and its ability to be its own thing is entirely compromised: the more so—I will tell you this in advance—when none of the major political developments that arise in its pages are resolved in any secure way by its conclusion. The Masked Empire feels more like a prologue for a future game—one presumes, in this case, the forthcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition—than a complete narrative in and of itself.

Although Patrick Weekes is a significantly better prose writer than David Gaider, who authored the previous Dragon Age tie-in novels, so it’s a fairly enjoyable prologue.

Dragon Age: The Masked Empire opens at some point relatively soon after the events of DA:2’s finale, at the court of the Empress Celene of Orlais. Her Grand Duke, Gaspard de Challons, is plotting against her rule. He wants to start a war. He wants to be emperor. With the Chantry, the established religion, torn by internal division after the events of the end of DA2, and Celene’s support among the nobility undermined by her perceived lack of decisive action and her willingness to compromise with old enemies, there are only two people the empress believes she can trust: her bodyguard, Ser Michel, and her lover, Briala. But Ser Michel has secrets of his own, and Briala is an elf — for all her position as the empress’s trusted handmaiden, she’s still from a people who are despised as a class, whose horizons are limited by law and custom, who are abused with impunity by the powerful. When the elves revolt against their human overlords in the city of Halamshiral and Gaspard moves into open rebellion, Celene finds herself separated from her supporters. Isolated and on the run, with only Michel, Briala, and Briala’s elven friend Felassan for her allies, it’s an open question whether or not she’ll survive long enough to reassert her imperial authority.

If thus far I’ve made it sound as though this is Celene’s book, that’s not entirely accurate. While Michel and Gaspard have occasional interludes from their points of view, Briala is the other major point of view character, and she and Celene are equally The Masked Empire’s protagonists. Briala is set apart from her people by her knowledge and skills, and by her closeness to the empress, but her loyalty has always been as much to them as to Celene. When politics require the empress to suppress the elven revolt in Halamshiral with violence, it creates a rift in their relationship that no apology can heal: a rift made worse when Briala realises the truth of a certain secret that Celene’s been keeping from her since their shared youth. If Briala is to claim her own kind of power, it will be necessary for her to do so separate from the empress whom she has served for nearly twenty years—the empress who’s also the woman she loves.

As a further adventure in the Dragon Age universe, The Masked Empire is a fun read. As a novel, it possesses some flaws. It is unfortunate that Celene and Briala, women in their thirties, both of whom are experienced in matters political, should come across in the text as younger and rather less experienced than they are. Not unrelated: the political manoeuvring in The Masked Empire is drawn in unfortunately broad and simple strokes, and all our protagonists seem decidedly easy to manipulate, and to fool. And The Masked Empire prefers set-piece fights—action sequences—to tense emotional confrontations, rather than successfully balancing both.

The central relationship between Celene and Briala is worth examining briefly here. The Masked Empire is a novel approved by a major franchise fantasy property that features a loving sexual relationship between its two main female characters. That’s still a bit on the radical side. It is not a romance—there isn’t a happily ever after ending for these characters—but neither is it a case of Bury Your Gays (warning: TV Tropes link), as both characters are still alive at the end. Personally, I’m conflicted: on the one hand, positive depiction of complicated female characters who’re attracted to other women; but on the other hand, they don’t exactly get to enjoy a stable and lasting relationship.

This is, though, part of the problem with having relatively few queer female main characters in speculative fiction: every time we get one, their depiction bears impossible burdens of expectation.

Fans of the Dragon Age videogames will enjoy Dragon Age: The Masked Empire. It’s an entertaining novel, despite possessing in full measure the flaws of its source material. I had fun reading it—and I’ll be keeping my eye out for other novels by Patrick Weekes, as well.


Dragon Age: The Masked Empire is available now from Tor Books.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

1. DougL
Thanks, but it's still a book I will not buy because I do not want to suppor the current version of Bioware until they have earned my trust again. Still, I will book mark it, and if DA3 is any good (looking sketchy), then maybe I will come back and pick it up.
John Hatteberg
2. Oronis
The whole DA franchise has been mismanaged. My expectations for DA3 are very low. I'm expecting a bisexual dating sim with a hackneyed story line thrown on top. Also, DA2 was a major kick to the stomach with its reused environments, uninteresting story, low production values and bland characters. It was a major step back from the masterpiece that was DA1.
3. nickrl
Great review. I'm glad to hear about the same-sex couple, I think that's pretty awesome.

I guess I'm the only one, but I actually loved Dragon Age 2. Probably even more than the first one. I thought the story, characters, worldbuilding, and art were great. Yes, the dungeons are recycled, but I can't believe anyone actually cares about that enough to write off the whole game. I barely noticed myself.

I'm utterly unable to understand how someone could think DA2 was a 'bisexual dating sim with a hackneyed storyline thrown on top' while at the same time believing DA1 was a 'masterpiece'.
Jonas Schmiddunser
4. Jineapple
I haven't played DA1 yet, but I also liked DA2. Yes, the dungeon recycling was awful and the waves of enemies could become a bit tedious at times, but that's something that results from the short production time. I thought the story was great. The dilemma between mages as humans beings and possible 'terrorists' excites me a lot more than a fight against an Arch Demon.

DA2 had a great basis for a game, it just didn't have enough production time. DA3 took longer, so I'm positive it will be a great game.
Walker White
5. Walker
Man, the BioWare haters are out in force on this thread. Even on Kotaku they have started to disappear.

BioWare has really only made one major misstep in recent years: DA2. The people who continue to complain about the ending of ME3 sound increasingly irrational. There are so many decisions early on in that game that matter, so focusing only on the RGB ending trivializes the story. And the people who still claim ME2 is not an RPG (ignoring the entire history of RPGs throughout the 70s and 80s) should just go find other games to play.

The failure of DA2 is extremely unfortunate. BioWare only tells "save the world" stories, and they were originally trying for a more intimate story here. It was way too rushed in development. Furthermore, the city was too empty. Recycling the city locations would have been okay if the city was as alive as an Assassin's Creed game. But it wasn't, so it did not have the city-focused feel that it needed.

From what we see of DA3, it seems that the lesson learned was that they need to go back to a save the world story. And the locations are still relatively empty of people. Sigh.
6. hoopmanjh
@nickrl -- No, you're not the only one. Yes, I wish they would've created more than one dungeon map (or at least started hiding inaccessible areas in the navigation screen) and the waves were a pain, but I enjoyed the story and I really enjoyed getting to know the different characters and hearing them banter as we walked through the city.
7. Alceste007
I enjoyed both DA:O and DA2 despite their flaws as well. The book sounds interesting but I am not normally a big fan of tie in products. I also have issues with characters being too easily tricked. I will still most likely pick this when I travel next.
8. tfrett
I wish they made some sort of place in Thedas that is loosly based on east european folk inspiration. The whole Orlais copy of France is really boring...
11. hoopmanjh
@Tfrett -- Have you played the Witcher games and/or read the books by Andrzej Sapkowski? Lots of eastern European influences (since the author is Polish and the books are only slowly being translated from Polish to English).

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