Empress Celene struggles to navigate the dangerous political climate of her powerful nation, Orlais. Her cousin, The Grandduke Gaspard, seeks to undermine her power at every turn and treasonous whispers can be heard among the nobles who hide behind the veneer of the Orlesian Court. Orlais’s peace with the wild neighboring nation of Ferelden balances dangerously on the edge of a knife, but not all Orlesian’s desire peace. At the same time, the winds of revolution and civil unrest stemming from the nation’s population of elves threaten not only Celene’s seat of power, but the bond between her elven handmaiden and secret lover, Briala.
Dragon Age: The Masked Empire is one of the best tie-in novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Sometimes when you are reading one of these tie-in novels, there is a clear dissonance evident in the writer’s tone of voice and treatment of the material that suggests the book was merely written for a paycheck. While I have no qualms with writers trying to get paid for their work, the lack of passion for the source material damages the quality of the final product and ultimately the enjoyment of the reader. A quick Google search of the author, Patrick Weekes, reveals that he has had a key role in developing some of my favorite video game franchises of all time and is actually a writer for the developers behind the Dragon Age video game franchise, Bioware. I wish all franchises across media could take this approach with their tie-in novels because the author’s intimacy with the source material is apparent.
For those of you who are unaware, Dragon Age is a popular roleplaying video game set in a fantasy setting populated by complex characters who dwell in moral grey areas rather than the tried and true heroes versus villains archetypes. There are three main entries within the game series: Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II, and Dragon Age: Inquisition. This book is set right before the events of the third game, Dragon Age: Inquisition.
If you’ve played any of the video games(especially Inquisition), you will obviously get the most out of this book. However, I think this book is well-written enough that casual fiction fans might get a kick out of reading it. This book is part political thriller, part action, fantasy adventure, and part romance. Its really got it all.
While someone who has never played any of the games might not get some of the character or location references, Weekes does a great job at explaining the most important parts of the Orlesian political system and cultural norms. This is not just a book for Dragon Age fans, its a damn good book for fans of the fantasy genre and fiction. I sincerely believe that this book could convert people who were previously uninterested in the video games into future Dragon Age fans. The spot on writing, fully realized, tumultuous world and memorable characters customarily found in a Bioware game can now be found in book form. Its really quite an accomplishment when a book makes you long to return to that world in video game form.
Lastly, I would like to champion the author’s treatment of his characters and their relationships. While I am not a member of the homosexual community, as a Latino male I empathize with the underrepresentation in storytelling. However, I also hate it when diversity is forced into our media just to check off the boxes and give the appearance of diversity, rather than to add to the complexity and nuances of a story. Bioware has always been known for tackling heady subjects and they excel at exploring diversity of all types in their worlds.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Empress Celene and Briala’s sexual relationship could have read like the salacious, fantasies of a juvenile. Instead, what you get is a touching story about human love, both the good and the bad. Their relationship is the emotional core and through line of their journey. It didn’t matter that they were both women or that it was an interracial relationship because at the end of the day it was just a story about love and that is a story that most anyone can understand. So if the lack of gay or interracial relationships in literature saddens you or makes you feel more alone, just know that you can find that here and that it’s treated with respect.