Book Review - Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne
Note: The following may look like it contains plot spoilers from The Stolen Throne, but it doesn't, really, because they're all given away in the book pretty much as soon as the relevant characters are introduced. If you're hyper-allergic to that sort of thing, you might want to skip straight to the conclusion.
-- So, Mr. Gaider, let's hear about this book project of yours. Fantasy, yes?
-- Yes! Dark fantasy! You know, magic, swords, princes, monsters, witches, dwarves, elves... but dark! And gritty! And, you know, mature! Also, it's pronounced "GUY-der."
-- Sorry, Mr. GUY-der.
-- It's OK, I get that all the time.
-- So, dark fantasy. What's the story about?
-- It's called The Stolen Throne, and it's about a rightful prince who wants to regain his ancestral throne from an evil foreign usurper who has... stolen it. In a kingdom called Ferelden. His name is Maric, and he's the son of the Rebel Queen, Moira.
-- Tell me about this prince. What's he like?
-- He's blond, and handsome, and has an infectious charm, and terribly courageous, he's very good with a sword, and he wouldn't think twice to sacrifice his life for his people, but his people love him so much they won't let him.
-- Any character flaws at all?
-- Yes! He's naive! Trusting to a fault. He always believes the best about people. That's how he brings out the best in people too.
-- I trust he has some kind of sidekick to balance this out? An older man, perhaps? A hardened veteran? Someone... dour, rough, but with a heart of gold?
-- You have it exactly! His name is Loghain, and he's sort of unwillingly drawn into the whole mess, but Maric's charm and noble character win him over, and he becomes his most trusted lieutenant. He's totally essential to the story.
-- I see. What about the romance angle? Are we talking Lord of the Rings or Conan the Barbarian here...?
-- I told you it's dark and mature, didn't I? There's this beautiful, courageous, noble warrior princess called Rowan who's promised to Maric, but she's really in love with Loghain, who's actually a commoner, and he loves her back, but they're all completely loyal to each other, and Maric is in love with this elf called Katriel who's really a spy who will betray everyone. It's all very tragic.
-- An Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot kind of situation?
-- Yes! Exactly! Except there's also the elf. There's sex, too, has to be -- because it's mature. I even put in a couple of rape scenes. Thoroughly nasty!
-- Hm. Tell me more about the setting... what was it again, Ferelden?
-- Yes, Ferelden! It's this kind of kingdom that was settled by some barbarians, with war dogs, who came from the North led by a woman who was kind of a saint and a warrior at the same time, but she ended up burned at the stake by the Magisters.
-- Let me guess: her name was Jehanne of Arke?
-- No, Andraste. I though Jehanne would be a bit too transparent.
-- What was this about the Magisters again?
-- That's not important. Anyway, there's Ferelden, which is sort of feudal, with knights and barons and earls and stuff -- I call them Banns and Arls, though, and spell Sir Ser, to give it a bit of a twist -- and then there's Orlais, which is an empire and has chevaliersinstead of knights, and also legions. The usurper's from there.
-- What's he like?
-- Young. Debauched. Cruel. Whiny. Weak-willed. Drinks too much and kills people for fun. Dark and handsome, though. Name of Meghran.
-- Any redeeming qualities?
-- None whatsoever! He's a total sicko. You'll be hating him from Page 1.
-- With a more capable, power-hungry right hand who secretly manipulates him, I take it?
-- Totally! A wizard! Also from Orlais. He's... power-hungry. And ruthless. Also lecherous. He's called Severan, because he's severe. Heh.
-- No redeeming qualities either?
-- None! Total Dark Lord material.
-- Does he have a counterpart on the good guys' side?
-- Well, they do have a wizard too, to balance out... name of Wilhelm, but to tell you the truth I haven't thought all that much about him. He's not that important, really. More of a heal-o-mat, fireball cannon, and golem remote control unit than a real character.
-- Loghain, Rowan, Moira, Maric... Orlais, chevaliers... I'm getting a bit of an Ivanhoe vibe here.
-- Very perceptive! Although I suppose the Rowan-Rowena thing is a bit of a giveaway. Yeah, I wanted to evoke that kind of situation, so I gave the heroes mostly Saxon and Celtic-sounding names and made the villains vaguely French. Can't go wrong with the French, everybody hates them! And instead of Rebecca, I put in an elf. In Ferelden, elves are sort of like the Jews -- racial prejudice, persecution, you know. Topical.
-- You mentioned dwarves. What's the deal with them?
-- They're... you know, dwarves. Tunnel great cities in mountains, mine, sing mournful dirges in a guttural language, staunchly wield axes (and hammers) against their ancestral enemies, that sort of thing. Only, here they have a caste system and politics and stuff, with only the rejects going above ground. Twist!
-- Right... and elves? Beautiful, pointy-eared, bright-eyed, handy with a bow...?
-- Yep! Except in Ferelden (and Orlais too) they're sorta down and out. Humans despise them, so they're either slaves, servants, or prostitutes, or else they live in the woods as these rebellious barbarian bands. As I said, there's some heavy stuff here, topical and
-- That reminds me of some computer game from a year or two back that my kid was going on about... but never mind. Tell me more about the setting. Are we talking ancient enchanted forests...?
-- Twisty trees, eerie mist, werewolves, a witch, ancient ruins... totally enchanted. Ominous!
-- Dark and monster-infested. See, Maric and Rowan and Loghain and Katriel get into this kind of Paths of the Dead situation and need to cut through some abandoned dwarven tunnels to get where they need to go. And it's... dark, and monster-infested, and there are ancient ruins and locked doors even hidden treasure.
-- Let me guess: an ancient evil woken by the dwarves because they
tunneled too deep?
-- Nah, that's already been done. So I thought, what else lives in tunnels? And I got it: spiders! Big, nasty, poisonous, chitinous spiders that go clickety-click in the dark!
-- Spiders. Anything else?
-- Yep. Darkspawn.
-- What's a darkspawn?
-- I'm really proud of them myself. It's, like, my most original idea for this book. They're very very cool, totally nasty, totally scary, and make for great fight scenes. They're an ancient evil that lurks in the tunnels, and... oh, I guess there was one there after all. The
dwarves didn't really wake them up though, they just sort of... ...
-- ...spawn from the dark? Very well, Mr. Gaider, send us the manuscript and we'll let you know.
Two weeks later.
-- I'm sorry to say, Mr. Gaider, that we're going to have to decline your manuscript at this time.
-- Aw, really? That's such a bummer! My first novel too, I mostly write computer games. Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, that sort of thing... What's wrong with it?
-- Well, for one thing, there's the sex. I mean, sure, there's "mature," but eight pages straight of pumping and thrusting and erect elven nipples is just... well... too much. I mean, the spurting arteries and death gurgles and blood pooling on the floor is already a bit heavy, but... think of the children, man!
-- That's no problem! I can easily cut out the graphic stuff. I'm good with implied sex, I do that all the time. How about, "He laid her gingerly down on the rocks by a magical stream in a forgotten ruin with darkness all around them, and it was perfect?"
-- Well, yes, that would do it, although it does sound a hair necrophiliac, but... thing is, Mr. Gaider, there's nothing really wrong as such with your manuscript, it's just that ever since Harry Potter, we're getting thousands of fantasy manuscripts a year. Yours isn't the worst by any means, it's just that... well, there isn't anything much there that's not in any of the other ones. Also, I can't help feeling that it wouldn't actually hurt the tension if you didn't give away all the major plot points the minute you introduce the characters. "This is Katriel. She's an elf spy. She's going to seduce Maric and then betray everyone."
-- But that's very important for the readers to know, for character development!
-- Right... but anyway, I'm afraid we don't have room for your book at Tor at this time. The darkspawn are promising, but they make such a small appearance that it's not quite enough to carry it. Have you considered writing another book about them, maybe about one of those times they were supposed to rise to the surface? What did you call
-- Well... there is something else. I didn't want to mention it, but... this is actually a tie-in.
-- A tie-in? To what, a movie? How did you manage that?
-- No, a computer game. A triple-A multi-platform title from one of the biggest names in the business. Projected sales are between 1.5 and 2.5 million units over the next 24 months. As it happens, the game is about the Blight, when the darkspawn rise to the surface.
-- I see... so, if, say, 10% of the game's fan base bought the book, that would make...
-- ...a pretty respectable number, yes. We can even provide the cover art.
-- That does change things. Yes, I think we can deal. The pumping and thrusting and spurting and elf-nipples will have to go. And please, tone down those rape scenes too -- no throbbing members, although you can keep the torn chemise if you insist. Could you maybe make them... implied, or explained, rather than described, or something?
-- Consider it done. Rocks, dark, it was perfect, that's all. No pumping, thrusting, elf-nipples, or throbbing members. Cross my heart!
-- Very good, then. Our lawyers will get in touch with your lawyers. Welcome to the Tor club, Mr. Gaider!
Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne has numerous flaws. Occasionally clumsy writing? Check, especially towards the beginning. Plot points given away in advance? Check. Standard love triangle? Check. Elvish elves, dwarvish dwarves, wizardly wizards, knightly knights, noble heroes, dastardly villains, foul monsters, ancient ruins, giant spiders living in tunnels? Heroic swordplay, flashy magic effects, a dragon or two? Check on all points -- just about every fantasy cliché (other than orcs, thank goodness) that you could possibly fit into just one book makes its appearance, even if it's a cameo.
Nevertheless, it's a book that's hard to dislike. The Stolen Throne is a bit like Prince Maric -- naive, trusting - perhaps not the brightest bulb in the socket - but enthusiastic, honest, and well-meaning to a fault. In particular, the author's enthusiasm for the setting he has crafted comes through loud and clear, and Ferelden springs to life in all of its endearingly clichéd splendor. Even the fountains of blood and graphically depicted death gurgles mandated by the "dark" and "gritty" theme end up somehow very sweet in their earnestness. No, there aren't any throbbing members or erect elf-nipples, and the only thrusting and pumping involves swords and arteries. Instead, there are literary equivalents of fade-to-black that are so bashfully innocent it's hard not to go "Awwww..." when they turn up.
If you have a few more hours to spare and intend to play Dragon Age: Origins, I have no doubt that reading The Stolen Throne will enhance the experience. I'm quite keen to take a tour of the Korcari Wilds and maybe do a little dungeon-crawling in ancient dwarven tunnels myself. The sheer enthusiasm Mr. Gaider has for Ferelden bodes well for the game, and the darkspawn really are cool. On the other hand, if you consider The Stolen Throne purely on its own merits... well, The Lord of the Rings it isn't, but then again it's not Eragon either - and that in a good way. It would make for enjoyable enough beach reading, even if it isn't about to revolutionize the fantasy genre. It certainly exceeded the expectations I had from reading the excerpt published earlier. Not the best - not the worst - but despite its flaws, fresh and easy to like.
Images used are from the 1982 television series Ivanhoe.
Information aboutDragon Age: Origins
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2009-11-03
· Publisher: EA