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.