I’d like to share with you the following statement by youtube user hyrulehistorian, posted on Bioware’s youtube page for their new game, Dragon Age: Origins.
“this is legit, im reading the prequel novel right now, and im getting the feeling in my gut that we are seeing the birth of what will become one of the all time great fantasy universes.”Do I seem hung up on what other people like? If I am, it’s because of statements like that.
As a preface to my review of David Gaider’s Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, I must say something of my stance on franchise novels. Franchise novels allow the terminally uncreative the pleasure of saying that they read without actually requiring much beyond functional literacy. Rather than asking the reader to stick with the author as he or she tells a story, the tie-in novel asks for the player to read up on a familiar setting, characters, or events out of brand loyalty, or to satisfy the inherently nerdy obsession with (entirely made up) minutia and trivia. The plots cannot interfere with each other, or an excuse must be made for why person x is still around when person x previously left/died/inter-dimensionally relocated in one of the previous novels/games/comic books. These products exist solely to market the video games on which they’re based, with the hope that the video games will hook people into buying the novels to learn more about the setting, and the made up lore, or the political/religious/historical conflicts that might be only obliquely mentioned in the game.
Here’s a quote from Game Informer’s (Issue 175, pg 151) review of Mass Effect, which I think illustrates the mindset of somebody who reads tie-in novels, and likely nothing but tie-in novels:
“[Mass Effect] is an amazing work of fiction, a visual work of art, and a property that is so fully realized and so rich in its backstory that its content could fill countless games, books, and movies. This is the next big franchise for science fiction junkies to latch onto, and a huge step forward for video games.”
What does this tell us, besides that editor Andrew Reiner is a giant rube? Think about the idea that the “backstory” could “fill countless games, books, and movies.” That’s pretty much the greatest virtue that anything could have for the sort of audience that reads Game Informer. Despite all of the breathless superlatives Reiner ascribes to Mass Effect as fiction, the one element that he actually delineates is the milieu and the world-building that accompanies it, because that’s all that matters to him. It’s something for the people he thinks are “science fiction junkies” to escape in and over which they can argue, until the next novel or game comes out and provides a conclusive answer. Essentially, it’s there to answer all the questions, raise just enough new ones to keep its audience interested in the next product, and prevent them from thinking too hard.
Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne fits well in this line of thinking.
It opens with Maric being chased down by the underlings of traitorous banns (apparently, the word bann substitutes for the word baron in David Gaider’s D&D campaign) who just killed his mother, the rightful queen of Ferelden. Maric escapes capture only to find himself in the company of Loghain, whose father leads a large band of outlaws. The outlaws were once good citizens, until the unfair taxes of the newly appointed King Meghren of Orlais forced them to willingly break the law. Maric doesn’t tell them that he is the prince and that his mother, the rebel queen, has died, or that Meghren’s troops will be looking for him. Consequently, the camp of outlaws is raided, and Loghain’s father demands his son help restore Maric to the rebel army. Of course, Loghain’s father dies, giving Loghain a reason to be emo for a while, and Maric a chance to win him over as a friend who will do all of Maric’s dirty work.
Eventually, Loghain manages to put Maric back into contact with the army. Loghain falls in love with Rowan, Maric’s betrothed, while Maric falls in love with an elf named Katriel as they campaign against the Orlaisian usurper. Then the army suffers a major loss, and Maric, Loghain, Katriel and Rowan have to travel through the Deep Roads (i.e. Mines of Moira) where they encounter giant spiders, darkspawn (orcs), and Dwarves who agree to help Maric regain the thrown. But even after making it safely back to the surface, Maric must face treachery and the difficult reality of a king’s duty.
Does it all sound like generic fantasy plot #5? It is generic fantasy plot #5, and Gaider doesn’t do much to make it worth reading. The pacing in the first half janks about due to it being primarily about Maric’s military campaign, and settles into a rote dungeon crawling sequence for much of the final act. But one might forgive the plotting were it not for the characterization, which reeks of cliché. Maric is blonde, handsome, and noble; he loves his subjects and cares for people to a fault. He’s naïve. He’s unsure of himself and incompetent as a strategist. Yet all the women love him, and he inspires hope among every warrior he meets with what Gaider calls “infectious charm,” and I call grating attempts at sophomoric wit, always ready with some flaccid quip when the tone gets too serious. He’s the self-portrait a lot of nerds paint when they’re being dishonest. He’s destined to not suck.
Loghain is an equally lazy stock character, an angsty, brooding fellow with “piercing blue eyes.” Rowan is too. She’s an Amazonian lady-warrior who wants Marric to see her as a woman, not just a warrior. Meghran is a debauched, violent pussy who has no redeeming qualities or even a personality. Severan, his right hand man and sorcerer, is an equally violent, though much more effective pussy, and has no redeeming qualities or even a personality. Dwarves build tunnels and hit things with warhammers. Elves shoot bows, and… uh, are pretty, I guess. Ugh.
Even Gaider’s writing is leaden and expository, frequently juvenile in the worst places and in the worst ways. Among the more embarrassing aspects of the prose is Gaider’s commitment to adverbs, particularly in certain paragraphs where every sentence contains at least one. For example:
“Maric dug into his stew ravenously. Katriel picked at hers gingerly, sipping on some of the broth. The dwarf all but gulped his down greedily, finishing it long before the others were even half done, and then belching loudly. He wiped his beard with the back of his hand.That whole passage is just infuriating. It’s like filling out a list: this person does this, this way. This person does this, this way. This person does this, this way, then does this, this way. That’s not to even mention the context of this scene, in which Maric and Katriel have just walked for miles, injured and without much food or water, and Katriel is picking at her food rather than just eating it. It’s terribly lazy writing, acceptable in a first draft but damning in published work from somebody who claims writing as his profession.
‘Not as Hungry as you thought?’ he asked, watching their progress.
‘No it’s fine,’ Maric quickly commented…”
“Maric stared at her in disbelief. He wasn’t quite sure she could have said anything else that would have been less surprising. Well perhaps a confession that she was actually made of cheese.”Frankly, I’d be less than surprised were the admission Mr. Gaider’s.
In defense of Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, there are moments when it isn’t horrible to read. I liked when Maric confronted the banns who killed his mother. I liked that David Gaider at least tried to develop a theme of the unpleasant, even morally reprehensible things that must be done in order to effectively govern, and the guilt that accompanies them. The battle descriptions plod, but Gaider, in his mercy, spares his readers a similar treatment of sex (and rape). I appreciate that the obligatory dragon scene doesn’t involve telepathic communication.
But these moments are few, and they don’t mitigate flawed nature of the narrative, the writing, and the prose, even the setting. The world feels Tolkeinesque -- Dwarves, elves, etc. -- with some French and some fabricated titles. Knights are called chevaliers, for reasons I don’t really care to ponder, although I suppose that Orlais could be some sort of caricatured French empire. Various characters of high rank have titles like arl (earl), bann (baron?), and Teyrn (I’m flummoxed). Worse, Gaider doesn’t seem familiar enough with Medieval custom and manner to know that “your highness,” “your grace,” “your majesty,” and “my lord” all relate specifically to people of different ranks. The portrayal of magic is right out of a video game. All that’s missing is “Magic Missile!” or maybe “Blizzara!” Is all this nit-picky? I don’t care. It annoyed me.
Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne also speaks the veracity of that old truism, “write what you know.” Let me amend that: If you don’t know anything, don’t write. Or, if you don’t know anything, write for a video game. Or a video game franchise novel.
David Gaider is the lead writer for Bioware’s video game, Dragon Age: Origins, of which I’ve heard good things. I disliked, immensely, the marketing for that game, and I dislike this novel, which is part of said marketing. There are those who excuse this kind of writing as being purely escapist, not worthy of any praise, but also not deserving of a thorough critique. To this, I say that there is a great deal of escapist fantasy that’s actually engaging, intelligent, and well written. Franchise novels, by and large, aren’t. They’re books designed for people who don’t read, to ensure that they won’t read as much as they watch movies, play video games, and buy enormous card collections and rule books.
It isn’t actually that much fun to rip something like Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne on the internet. But such novels developed a huge market, allowing kids and tasteless adults like hyrulehistorian the undue (mostly imagined) honor of being a “reader” -- the fun of feigning literacy on their youtube and facebook profiles. Consider this a referendum on all video game, card game, board game, and Star Wars/Star Trek/whatever novels. When I go to my local book store and there’s no longer a full three rows devoted to this crap, I’ll take this review down, and replace it with my assurances that David Gaider’s probably a swell Canadian fellow IRL.
Be sure to read my review of David Gaider's follow up to The Stolen Throne, Dragon Age: The Calling. It sucks too.