Dungeons, Demons, and Dull Dalliances in Dragon Age: Asunder
Tom Doherty Associates (Tor.com)
December 20, 2011
Some would call me a horrible fan of Fantasy and SciFi—go ahead, I do it! While I have a great appreciation for the genre, I am woefully lax in my dedication to the written realms of it. I have many difficulties reading books, migraines within minutes of starting being near the top of the list. I am, however, slowly persevering in finding comfortable ways to pick the hobby up again–for instance, using Kindle apps rather than actual books.
You may have noticed by now that I’m a fan of Dragon Age video games, particularly Inquisition. So what better place to start than with Asunder, the third book in the Dragon Age tie-in novels? Some of you may be confused—starting with the THIRD book? That makes no sense! It does, actually, based on the timeline. The first two novels, The Stolen Throne and The Calling, both take place prior to the events of Dragon Age: Origins, whereas Asunder takes place between Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition. [Editor’s note: unfamiliar with Dragon Age? Here’s a primer!]
While I have some interest in the other books (such as the proceeding The Masked Empire), this one really stuck with me, as one of the main characters is Cole, our conflicted and adorably-confused rogue ghost-boy companion in DA:I. The game gave some explanations as to Cole’s origins, but I felt that there was more to explore and discover there. I was certain the novel would help flesh this out, so I was eager to learn the whole truth.
Joining Cole in the cast is Rhys, a senior enchanter in the White Spire; Adrian, his best friend and leader of the Libertarian fraternity; Evangeline, the Knight-Captain of the White Spire’s Templar Order; and our old friends from Dragon Age: Origins, Wynne and Shale. Together, they venture forth to investigate the demonic possession of Wynne’s friend Pharamond—an unsettling occurrence, considering he is Tranquil and it should be impossible for a Tranquil to become possessed. Amidst this quest is the uneasy relations between mages and mundanes following the events of Dragon Age 2 (Damnit, Anders!). Tensions are running high between mages and their templar keepers, with many young mages suffering from neglect. This is where we find Cole, smack in the middle.
Before we delve too far into the book itself—the cover. I’m not a fan of this cover. It’s not a bad front, per se, but I feel like it neglects the main focus of the book: Cole, Rhys, and Evangeline. The cover depicts a zombie-like Lord Seeker Lambert, who acts as antagonist to, well, everyone. While he plays a prominent role as cruel villain, I feel that it gives the wrong impression to make him the focal point of the cover. It just doesn’t make sense to not have one of the main characters, especially Cole, on the cover. Or maybe a landscape of The White Spire, the home of Val Royeaux’s Circle of Magi. It just doesn’t work for me as-is.
But I digress. This is about the book, and the cover is only a part of that! As for the book itself, I rather enjoyed it. I may be biased about this though, as I’m a sucker for Cole and really wanted to learn more about him. I was intrigued to find Wynne and Shale in the book, and in such forward roles. Familiar characters such as Leliana and Divine Justinia V make appearances, whereas other fan favourites are mentioned in passing, such as Anders (DAMNIT, ANDERS) and The Warden (aka “The Hero of Ferelden”). They’ve done well to avoid any specific gendering or origin mentions for the Warden, and eschewed Hawke from Dragon Age 2 altogether, so no particular canon is put forth. There has, of course, been a little canon asserted, as both Wynne and Leliana were killable characters in Origins (though DA:I retconned Leliana’s death in that respect), and Shale never had to be recruited (being from optional downloadable content). As a fan of the games, it was nice to play light catch-up with old friends, as well as a peek into the minds of characters outside the old circle and wondering, “How the hell do all of these people know each other?”
Let’s cover the things I enjoyed, outside of my Cole fangirlness. Firstly, I enjoyed the further peek into the politics of College of Enchanters and the intricacies of a different Circle of Magi—a working, albeit failing one. Ferelden’s Circle was in ruin when all Wardens encountered it in Dragon Age: Origins, unless they were of mage origin, so we really didn’t get a feel for what it was like being in a Circle. Asunder lets us glimpse into the lives of mages, such as the fraternities (differing ideologies), restrictions, and tricks for escape.
I was also pleased with the characters, though they could be a bit stereotypical. Rhys is like a charming rogue almost—he’s laid-back, good with people, just sarcastic enough, but also smart enough to know when to shut his trap. Foil to him is his friend Adrian. She is loud, brash, and abrasive, but she is also passionate, dedicated, and looked to as a leader. This is despite the fact that Rhys is her only friend—people don’t like her as a person, but they support her tenacity and are willing to follow her as a leader. Evangeline is the most stereotypical to me. She joined the Templar Order and believed she would be doing good, but has more recently realised that her sense of duty is conflicting with her personal ethos. She is also the rebellious noble daughter that ran off to be a warrior, forsaking a high-class inheritance to stay with the templars. They are common enough tropes for putting her in a position of power, while being sympathetic to both the reader and the other characters.
Cole is harder to pin down, and that’s what I like about his character. When he first arrives in Dragon Age: Inquisition, he is certainly odd, but still seems together enough to command a presence. In Asunder, he is a confused mess. His logic is flawed, bordering on sociopathic (if not over the border completely). He has as little idea of what he is as everyone else does, and that scares the daylights out of him. Is he a demon? Is he a ghost? Is he even real, or a figment that will fade away? These are thoughts constantly running through his head and it’s really interesting to see how he went from the absolute mess to a slightly-more-organised mess for the beginning of Dragon Age: Inquisition. It also sets up how he got to where he is in the game and why he was following the templars at that time.
My favourite part is probably the description of magic use. It went well into describing how much physical exertion and mental concentrating it took to channel magic. I don’t really like when magic is merely plucked from the air and limitless in story settings, so I liked that magic here took effort and could be heavily taxing on the user if the spell was strong enough. I felt this was communicated well, that you could sympathise with it, like using your own muscles to do something strenuous. I also like the descriptions of what are obviously in-game magic spells. Wynne uses spells that are easily identifiable as Winter’s Grasp/Blast and Chain Lightning/Reaction, besides standard healing. Rhys is a Spirit Medium, so many of his own spells (besides communing with spirits) are reminiscent of this skill tree, such as Spirit Bolt (in contrast to Wynne and Adrian using Elemental magic), as well as Arcane spells like Barrier. There is no doubt in my mind that Adrian uses Apocalyptic Firestorm, given the vivid and destructive description.
As much as I liked this book, this was one big glaring issue I had with it that really threw me off as I went. It actually annoyed the hell out me—everyone is so damn “attractive.” I see nothing wrong with characters being attracted to each other, or being described as exceptional beauties, but the descriptions here were just lazy. In fact, most times, people were just dumbed down to “attractive,” “beautiful,” “pretty,” or “handsome.” That was it. Yes, we were given physical descriptions, but these were more fact-based and gave no indication as to which of these traits made them so “attractive.” For example, Evangeline is described as a beauty and that Rhys, of course, finds her attractive. This is dull and boring. I don’t mind if Rhys thinks she’s hot-stuff, but tell me why. Is it her eyes? It it her hair? The sweep of her jawline? The draw of her lips when she smiles? The way she carries herself with confidence, yet some hidden gentility? We don’t just find people hot—there are specific things we like in them, and I would have found it a better insight into Evangeline’s appearance and Rhys’s character if this was explored. The same goes for Rhys himself; everyone says he’s charming and handsome, but when Adrian and Evangeline think about him through the narrative third person, neither one picks out what each woman likes about him in that respect. Surely they don’t find him attractive in the same way, as they are very different people. If anything, it makes any of the romantic moments feel bland. We don’t really know why these characters are attracted to each other but they just … are.
Our main villain, Lord Seeker Lambert, is an over-used stereotype. A military man with a high rank, he is dedicated to his duty and believes that giving the mages an inch means they’ll take a mile. He is staunch and harsh in his reign of the Spire is determined to keep the mages down. His character appears time and again in everything—a strict totalitarian with no room for nonsense or rebellion, and he has no qualms with getting rid of anyone who threatens his “peace.” There is a point in the book where Lambert sits over a captured and wounded Rhys, extolling why he is the way he is, that he has seen how magic corrupts good men. Again, a massive stereotype: an ideological young man who witnesses friends turn corrupt when given power, and thus turns a complete 180 on his beliefs. He goes from working with mages, to completely and utterly dominating them in a prison-like tower. Rhys internally bemoans that he didn’t want to hear any of it, anything to make Lambert a sympathetic character, and would rather just keep thinking of him as a cruel heartless prick. Honestly, I asked a similar question—except, why did we need to take one specific point in the book to make him a sympathetic character, two-thirds of the way in? And the way it was done was incredibly weak. It was very much a “Now that I have you, Mr. Bond, let me tell you why I’m a good guy, really.” It’s just a worn-out scenario and, again, it’s lazy writing and development.
The last thing that really took me is a bit of a coin-flip. I like it, and I don’t. And this is about Cole’s origins, what he actually is. If you play the game, you get an understanding for what he is. If you read the book, you also get an understanding for what he is. It is only together that you get the whole picture. That’s fine, I suppose, to ensure people digest both mediums. But what’s a little jarring for me is that the book resolves with Cole as being one thing, and then the game disproves this in a fashion. You feel bad for Cole and Rhys at the end of the book if you’ve already played the game, because you know that the story is resolved and they are both wrong, in a bad way. They both believe something terrible of Cole, because that is the information they have at the time. And that does make sense. But it doesn’t sit well as someone who already played the game and knows that that’s just not it. It’s difficult to describe, and I’m not sure if there’s anything else they really could have done with this. But, like I said, it just made me feel bad for them.
All in all, I did enjoy the book. I really liked the way magic was described, the physicality of it. And I was happy to find out more about Cole’s background, even enough to form a mini-theory about his origin that the book may be hinting at but is not fully spelled out. It is, however, way too long and spoilerrific to go into here. The characters worked well together, but when it came to the romantic aspect of the story, it fell flat and I wasn’t invested in their relationships at all. I love romance in stories as well, so I feel like it just wasn’t fleshed out enough and we were expected to just accept that these people liked each other, rather than showing us how they felt about each other. It was a missed opportunity to go deeper, especially when the romances in the games do intimacy and amorous intrigue so well. Finally, if you’ve not played the game and only read the book, I suggest playing the game to reveal Cole’s full story because the book’s ending just doesn’t do him justice. It resolves well enough, but if you’ve played the game, you know that the characters have all rested on the wrong idea of things with a horribly bleak outlook on Cole.
If you played the game, give it a go. It’s a simple read, not that long, and you’ll get a much better insight into Cole and the Circles. If you have not played the game but plan to do so, it gives a good starting point and background in terms of setting and mythos, especially for the Mage-Templar War. Now, if you have not played the game and do not plan to (or you know nothing about the game), I don’t know if it’s worth it. It really is set up as a companion tie-in to DA:I and without an understanding of Dragon Age, particularly the portions about magic and Spirits/Demons/The Fade, won’t make much sense. You’ll just get confused, wondering “why should I care about this again?” I just don’t think it would stand well on its own. In truth, I can’t imagine reading the book and not playing the game to appreciate, or even fully comprehend, Asunder.