11/22/11

David Gaider is a Virgin: a review of Dragon Age: The Calling

I do not usually make predictions as I read – I have no inclination to do so and hardly believe that anybody who reads for pleasure does – but I knew immediately what I expected to happen at some point in Dragon Age: The Calling when Fiona, the elf mage, gets into an argument with King Maric of Ferelden. She accuses him of being a poor father. He gets angry and tells her that she doesn’t know the first thing about him.

And all I could think was: “Oh no. He’s going to fuck her.”

Dragon Age: The Calling is the sequel to David Gaider’s debut novel, Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, which was awful. The Calling opens with King Maric, who successfully expelled the Orlaisian occupation and regained his kingdom in the first novel, holding court with the Grey Wardens, an order of warriors dedicated to fighting the darkspawn, considered irrelevant by the major political bodies as the darkspawn are quarantined in the underground ruins of the Dwarven civilization.

Maric agrees, with the flimsiest of reasoning, to accompany the Grey Wardens on an aimless quest into the Deep Roads based on the questionable visions of their new leader. And off they set, meeting with mages, fighting with darkspawn, slaying dragons, and making stilted conversation. If The Stolen Throne used fantasy plot #5, The Calling is written according to fantasy plot #1: the dungeon crawl. This plot is the bread-and-butter of licensed fantasy fiction, a travelogue through a particular location often interrupted by interminable battles and sex scenes written by people who do not seem to have ever been in a fight or a woman.

As readers of The Stolen Throne will recall, the Deep Roads were already the location for the most boring portion of David Gaider’s first novel. They are the setting for the majority of this novel. It is safe to say that plot is not Gaider’s strong suit, and he attempts to make up for it here by narrating incidents. The plot itself is just substantial enough to fill a two-hundred page paperback. The Calling is just a bit shorter than my hardback copy of Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardour.

At 440 pages, the narrative structure of The Calling shakes under the weight of all the incidents Gaider packs onto it, especially when so much of the narration is on the order of “he thrust his sword into the darkspawn.” I could easily forgive the contrivance of Maric accompanying the Grey Wardens on their quest in the Deep Roads if those incidents were not so similarly contrived, described in such beige prose.

I previously praised Gaider for having moved on from his reliance on adverbs. It seems I spoke too soon, as we get such descriptions as: “The water was littered with bits of flotsam that pooled at the edges, lapping wetly against the stone…” How else would water lap? Particularly grating is the statement that “Fiona was glad to be getting out of there finally.” Say that out loud; every time I do, it comes out as “thud.” And it follows – somewhat less gracefully and grammatically – the same formula as nearly every sentence from The Stolen Throne. X does Y, Zly.

The childish humor also makes a return. When talking about dreams and visions, Maric, King of Ferelden, confides in the Grey Wardens: “I once dreamed Loghain brought me a barrel of cheese. I opened it up, and there were mice inside. Made of Cheese.” When faced with an insurmountable horde of opponents, one of the Grey Wardens mentions that he has very few arrows, to which another replies “I’m running out of clean smallclothes.” I cannot roll my eyes enough.

Probably the worst of the extraneous bits is the encounter with the demon, which traps Maric and the Grey Wardens in dreams tailored to their deepest wants. Maric realizes first that he is trapped in an illusion, breaks free, and travels across the Fade (Gaider’s term for the world of dreams to which the consciousness travels when asleep) to help the others. Only Fiona, the elf-mage Maric will so obviously boff at some point, has a bad dream. Maric and company find her tied up, her back whipped raw by the demon’s avatar, a handsome gentlemen from Fiona’s memory. The sexual tone of this scene is patently obvious, and it sets up what I can only refer to as the fantasy maiden’s mating call.

The fantasy maiden’s mating call is when the fantasy novel's masturbatory object signals to the protagonist that she is ready for him to fuck her by telling him about some sort of horrific abuse she survived as a child. It could be sexual, physical, or supernatural, but the telling of it always ends on the tip of the protagonist’s erection. Fantasy authors (and writers in other genres, to be fair) mistake this as good characterization; the characters share important details about their pasts which lead to mutual affection. Unfortunately, its not only a cliché, but somewhat creepy.

Fiona, who has just physically and mentally relived the sexual torture she tells Maric that she experienced from the time she was seven until she was fourteen years old, informs Maric of her past. He tells her about his – he saw his mother killed in front of him. Granted, he eventually avenged her, regained his kingdom, and now rightfully presides over it, but both he and the narrative seem to think that this is a rough equivalent to the torture that Fiona underwent. And it puts her in the mood. They do it only a few feet from where their fellow spelunkers sleep.

Now, as a straight male, I am not one to speak about women’s issues. It is not my place. But even then, I find this scene offensive; not even so much for its subtext, but for its utter contrivance. It rings spectacularly false, from the moment it starts until the actual sex ends in (thankfully) abbreviated fashion.

The fetishization of the elf mage becomes even more blatant when Maric, knocked unconscious during a battle, looks up at Fiona, who is cradling him in her arms. “He looked up at Fiona’s face and thought only how beautiful she was. Those dark eyes had seen so much suffering.” So she’s covered in “black ichor” as Gaider redundantly puts it, bruised all over, and has confided in Maric a past fraught with horrific abuse, and Maric, thinking he will soon die, leaving his very young son in charge of a kingdom, can only think of how hawt Fiona looks, that he wants to comfort her, and tell her that things will be okay.

I cannot continue to read or write this review; I cannot see. My eyes are so permanently rolled.

My review of The Stolen Throne received numerous comments to the effect that I set my standards too high for a fantasy novel, particularly a licensed one. Putting aside the ability of supposed fans of the genre to denigrate it as a whole with their low expectations, I have to point out that I am only judging Gaider’s writing according to his own metric. In a recent interview at the New York Comic Con, Gaider said about Dragon Age as a whole: “It's also character-driven, and thus concerned more about the human condition than it is about being epic.”

That statement is utterly gob-smacking when juxtaposed to The Calling, which is the very definition of plot-driven and ham-fistedly characterized. It is the apotheosis of tie-in literature, the quintessence of all those malignant aspects I previously enumerated. The Calling, and its author, have nothing to say about the human condition. They trade in only the worst kind of fantasy; neither entertaining nor escapist, but dull and imprisoning in its rote plot and tortured prose. It is the sort of fantasy writing that does not evoke the imagination; it does not challenge the reader. It is not fantastic in any sense. The Calling panders.

A little bit of humility would behoove a writer who is fairly new to prose fiction, but it occurs to me that David Gaider is not, and likely never will be a writer a prose fiction, nor humble about his position. He is a pretentious writer of game books. The Calling is a Fighting Fantasy book or a D&D campaign in which the player makes no choices, builds no characters, and participates in no adventure. We only read Gaider’s fantasies as told to himself, relevant only to those who share them.

14 comments:

  1. Wow. So I take it you're basically an asshole who just pretends to be a critic?

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  2. Funny how nobody ever accuses a random blogger of being a "pretend critic" for a positive review.

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  3. Alistair "Swooping. Swooping Is Bad" TheirinDecember 8, 2011 at 10:21 PM

    I don't know why they bother. We all know that critics are just failed writers anyway, amirite?

    Good review. I expect you'll be flamed to death when this is discovered by the hordes of fanboys and -girls who, having been raised on Salvatore and video games, delude themselves into thinking Gaider's writing is anything above mediocre. But maybe some of them will be able to look back and realize just how prevalent adolescent humor, ham-handed characterization, cliche-filled plots and lacking prose are in his works.

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  4. I like these reviews, it's nice to see someone actually pick apart David Gaider's trashy writing. Dragon Age Asunder is out, do you plan on reviewing that too?

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  5. One of my friends actually gave it to me as a Christmas gift. I gave him a copy of Christopher Paolini's latest to round out our gift-giving sacrilege.

    So, yes. I do plan to review DA: Asunder once I actually get around to reading it.

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  6. I laughed so hard at this review, I think I actually started crying.

    Gaider isn't much of a writer, although I can see why he does all the things that make our eyes roll so far back into our heads we'll need ocular forceps to see properly again. I sometimes find myself doing them too... which is why you need editors and your family to read your work and give you good criticism.

    But then again, writing for a game and writing a book are two different things, I think. Making a character is one thing, but actually deciding its fate and making it move is quite another... in gameworld the player gets to decide the fate, but the book isn't quite so.

    And some of the sexual puns in the game made me cringe, but it was also laughable. I find it refreshing after teenage vampire romance novels that made all my twenty-something peers go ooh and aah over it.

    I always found it a little annoying that so many of fantasy's heroines were no more than a damsel in distress with a sword or a staff in hand. Why can't we have a nice, normal girl become a hero through fate? This is probably why I liked the mage origin the best from DAO: not a noble, not a desolate pauper, but from being with friends with the wrong person at the wrong time, the character is thrust into the action.

    This does not mean I'm upholding Tolkien as the master teller of epic fantasy stories. To be honest, The Helm's Deep bored me to tears. What I'm trying to say is, yes, Gaider sucks like a black hole when it comes to novel writing, but it's also a bit unfair to compare him to Anne MacAffrey or David Eddings. (Salvatore doesn't impress me much as a good writer either... Drizzt's whinging got very irritating right before the Orc King started.)

    Since Gaider's characters are fairly well written in the game, he probably should have stuck with that. Ah well.

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  7. Gaider? Humility? In the same sentence? Not in this universe! If you've paid any attention to his posts on the BioWare forums, you'd know that the man is utterly full of himself...and full of barely-disguised contempt for people who don't agree with his "vision." He got even worse after the backlash against Dragon Age 2.

    The best I can say about the Dragon Age tie-in novels is that they're better than the Baldur's Gate novelisations...and if you've read those, you KNOW that's damning with faint praise. But to his credit, Gaider can write interesting characters (as Dragon Age: Origins showed), and he ought to stick with that.

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  8. I don't have to tell you this, Pigsy, but a lot of people appreciate what you're doing. These glorified fanfiction enthusiasts - excuse me, "video game writers" - deserve every bit of negative criticism they get, and even then it's not enough. These people need to be discouraged.

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  9. You mean a crappy writer who has written crappy soap opera romance and crappy fan fiction-level trash since day one (no, Baldur's Gate 2 really isn't that awesome because its villain has a good voice actor) also happens to produce crap writing? Colour me surprised!

    What really gets me isn't even that his writing is awkward, or banal, or pandering, or even offensive, or uninspired... it's that it is fundamentally incompetent on such a base prose level. He cannot write dialogue. He cannot write interesting characters. He cannot write descriptions of events. He cannot write history. He cannot write action scenes. There is something primally jarring about the sheer badness of it that comes before all the ham-fisted themes and scenarios.

    Thanks for the review, not that I was in danger of actually spending my money on Gaider's retirement fund. I certainly enjoyed reading it a hundred times more than any Gaider novel.

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  10. Hater goona hate. You people complain about everything. The Calling is a great novel and belongs to Bioware - David Gaider auge connected with that masterpiece called Dragon Age Origins. Duncan, Maric, The Architect... those are great characters with outstanding personalities, unlike the ones from Dragon Age 2.
    This is a great novel, not as good as the game itself, but also enjoyable.

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    1. A novel should be understandable and of quality regardless of franchise when published. After all, people like Pigsy will read it without doing the game. Stolen Throne read like a mad lib, and Calling was mediocre at best (although a bit less mad-libs).

      Do note that everything went downhill after Karpyshyn and Knowles busted out of Bioware like rats before a shipwreck. The true mastermind behind Dragon Age: Origins was KNOWLES, who is now a writer (I think). It was his baby project for years. One of the most memorable arcs in the game (by vote, not personal opinion) was written by Jennifer Hepler.

      Gaider is a crappy writer. Unless you find Philip Athans' Baldur's Gate novelisation awesome... then I rest my case. We must be living on different planets.

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  11. "This is a great novel, not as good as the game itself, but also enjoyable."

    Says it all, huh?

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  12. Although The Calling is unnecessarily long for a story with such a simple plot, permeated with mistaken notions here and there of how a court works or how a romance should develop, not to mention the overall childish logic applied to the resolution of certain conflicts between characters, it posesses at least one redeeming feature.

    The dialogues Bregan have with the Architect were the best bit of The Calling. It's interesting to see, as a fan of the Dragon Age franchise, the relationship between a darkspawn and a human from a more philosophical perspective.
    What makes the darkspawn such horrid foes is the complete impossibility to establish any compromise with them. The world must therefore always wage war against them, a process that sacrifices thousands of people and nears mankind erradication.

    In the story, Gaider presents a ray of hope for mankind: a talking darkspawn, with full awareness, who accepts suggestions from his natural enemies to do what every Grey Warden is sworn to do: end the Blight.

    The problem is how this particular darkspawn envisions attaining this goal: he proposes a possibility of peace which first is conceived as one simple, cohesive plan, but as the story progresses, it begins growing and including other ideas out of nowhere.

    Gaider could've shown more care with plot coherence and scenes continuation. After going through the first half of the story, as we learn more about the Architect's intentions, the reader has the sensation that everything he knew about him was wrong so far.

    The first impression we have of the character is of someone who never met a Grey Warden in his life, nor a human. He is intelligent, but has limited information to work with.
    Then, he suddenly reveals he had already met another Grey Warden before Bregan and pulls out of his hat a more elaborate plan to end the Blights, despite already having told Bregan he intended to do something else.
    Out of nowhere, he reveals he not only intends to spread the taint to the surface (an obviously horrendous idea, which Bregan pathetically agrees with after applying a rather lousy logic to see any merit in it) but he also wishes to kill the Old Gods.

    Considering the reader knows as little about the whole taint thing as Bregan himself (which is at least a damn incoherence, since he is an experienced Grey Warden and, therefore, should know relevant information about the issue), this leaves the reader at this point completely baffled.

    How does killing the Old Gods prevents future Blights if the taint's corruption remains unchecked (is what the reader asks himself)?

    And as if he realized his mistake, Gaider then complements the Architect's plan ONCE AGAIN by adding further ahead that he admits to the darkspawn going wild after the Old Gods are slain and killing each other, besides killing everyone on the surface afterwards.

    It's clear Gaider created The Architect as having only one simple plan in mind: turn every human being into a Grey Warden. But as he wrote the story, he couldn't have the character fall short of coherence and appear as being stupid for not anticipating such problems, such as the darkspawn running amok after the Old Gods died, right?

    And then there's the brilliant addition of a whole new villain near the end. This was so random that it's obvious why First Enchanter Remille was added right in the last pages: Gaider had to close the story in a way that it would keep its coherence with the games's plots.
    The natural course of events pointed to a reasonably happy ending, where Bregan and Genevieve would live, work alongside Utha and the Architect, while Duncan, Fiona and Maric would be on their way.
    But no; for the sake of game/book coherence, a random villain had to be included in the last moments, interrupting the natural flow of the story.

    For those who are diehard fans of Duncan, Maric or The Architect, it is an interesting tale worth reading. But don't expect much more than fanservice from The Calling. You'll be disappointed.

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  13. Gaider is a moron.

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