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.