Book Review: The Masked Empire by Patrick Weekes
Genre: Gaming, Fantasy
Series: Dragon Age
Publisher: Tor Books (April 8, 2014)
Author Information: Twitter
Tiara’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
I joked that this was going to be the first review that I wrote using only emojis, but then I realized that I almost wasn’t joking. Discussion of this book with other people mostly involved me using varied emojis, from agitated to mildly amused, to get my point across. When I started writing this, I had to chew on what I wanted to say about this book. Then, when the words started coming, they wouldn’t stop!
As with The Stolen Throne, I read The Masked Empire to learn more about the lore of the Dragon Age universe. I know there are plenty of books and comics between these two books, but while connected, it is easy enough to read these books as standalones. I started The Masked Empire because it serves as a bridge between Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition. It gives readers a history of the recent political climate in Orlais, which factors in heavily in Inquisition.
I started this book after playing the quest “Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts” in Dragon Age: Inquisition. After completing that, I wanted to understand the relationship these characters had with one another and how they got to the point of civil war. Inquisition didn’t do much at giving me a foundation with these characters, and the tidbits I did learn in the game weren’t enough to satisfy my questions about the situation.
This book deals directly with the characters and circumstances surrounding that quest. I picked up this book before I finished the game, nearly right after I played that quest, and in a way, I’m glad. It added some weight to certain parts of the game. When I encountered another character from the book later in the game, I knew this character and what they were seeking to achieve. If I hadn’t read the book, this character would’ve been just part of a random side quest that held no real significance for me.
The Masked Empire follows three key players—Empress Celene, her elven handmaiden, Briala, and her cousin, Grand Duke Gaspard de Chalons. Celene’s bodyguard, Michel de Chevin, also plays a considerable role, but in a different manner than Celene, Briala, and Gaspard. Celene has long ruled Orlais after ascending as a teenager when she outwitted Gaspard for the throne. During her rule, she has worked to make Orlais a beacon of education, knowledge, and art. Now, Thedas is in a state of constant flux as the templars and mages wage war against each other. She also has to contend with elven unrest in her empire. Elven dissidents whisper among themselves as discord between the elves and nobles brews toward rebellion.
Celene fears that her grasp is weakening on a empire known for being fickle, politically savage, and unforgiving. Gaspard, who feels he is the rightful ruler of Orlais, challenges Celene’s diplomacy and her right to rule while Briala implores her to be fair to the elves who serve her as loyally as any human. Celene believes she is the only one who can keep Orlais afloat in such precarious times, and she is determined to hold on to her throne by whatever means necessary.
I wanted to love this book, but I was just so annoyed through most of it. This book proved that having too much knowledge about the lore of a game can really kind of stain one’s view of the game. This has the distinction of being a deliberate path between Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition rather than just being story featuring characters we may or may not know during that in-between period. This book serves up something that is an important factor in Inquisition.
I want to stress that these things do not break the game for the player who hasn’t read this book, and I will probably repeat this throughout the review for emphasis.
One of my main issues with this book was that some things stated in the book seemed like they should’ve had some impact on Inquisition but didn’t come up at all. Canon that was created in this book was nowhere to be found in the game. I’m one of those people who feels that books about games should enhance the lore for those who decide to read the books without punishing people who decide to only play the games.
While not knowing about the things in this book won’t hurt game play, it does make me question why these things are included in the book but not reflected in the game canon. It’s one thing to pad and expand canon more, but it’s another to add canon that should, technically, have some impact on the in-game story. There’s a very specific circumstance I’m thinking of in the book that bugged me because I encountered it in game, but the experience in game is nothing like it’s described in the book or even vaguely hinted at being like the experience in the book.
Some of the canon that did find its way into the game from the book seemed one-sided without any potential way to find out that there’s much more to the story that’s being held back from the player. Again, this wouldn’t be something that would break the game for players, but having the knowledge of these characters and what they’ve gone through in the book, it feels like a disservice to give this one-sided account of things without any way for players to optionally learn the full truth.
In my personal opinion, there’s one particular opportunity of finding out how what you’re dealing with connects experiences from the previous two games. There was a chance to show the significance of these encounters and what part this played in the turmoil in Thedas. It could’ve been more than just a random side quest, but you won’t understand the puzzle without all the pieces (or even just the important pieces).
Another issue I had was, just as in the game, I still don’t like the main players. No, maybe that isn’t the right way of phrasing it since I don’t think I’m necessarily meant to like these characters. The game and book tries to present them in a way that shows they have their merits and they have their sins. It’s like playing two truths and a lie with them, but I digress. The problem is: I just don’t care about these characters. They are paper thin, uninspiring, and dull in game, and the book didn’t do much to make feel any differently about them. Their sins, both real and perceived, are the only things that make them somewhat interesting.
There was only one character that caught my attention and that was Michel. What intrigued me about his character was the conflict, the incongruity, that impacted him where his personal story was concerned, which is a side ripple in the book that ties in with the bigger issue of race and class in the world of Thedas. His personal story can also be seen as a very convenient plot device, depending on who you ask.
Maybe I set myself up for this disappointment in really getting to know the characters and their motivations. I know it’s common advice to not expect much from books based on a game/movie/TV show, but I rebel against that idea. I don’t feel like I should hold them to a lower standard simply because they may or may not be a cash grab. This is a world I care about with lore that I care about, and I hold these books to the same quality standards as I would a series of novels set in a world I enjoy. The media it’s based on shouldn’t matter and is not an excuse to give mediocre a pass.
With that being said, I don’t think this story or the writing is mediocre. The things I did like about this book fueled my annoyance more because this could’ve been a story I really loved. Political intrigue, quiet duplicity, court scandal—yes, these are all things that I live for in books. There were scenes I thought were just brilliant in this book.
While I didn’t connect with the characters, the story was actually good with my grievances put aside. This was less generic feeling than The Stolen Throne and really sparkles at highlighting the posh deception that rules the Orlesian empire with an iron grip. Learning more about “The Game” (what the Orlesians call the intricate mostly political scheming they engage in) and how it factored in for these characters was fascinating. Seeing more of how the Dalish elves and city elves view their respective frustrating situations and how they view each other was intriguing. These are things we learn in game, too, but this touched upon it a little more in prose.
Despite it falling flat with me, I think the average Dragon Age fan—who likes to buy the books and comics, that is—will likely enjoy this story. There are gems here, and there is a certain sense of excitement it adds when you’re playing Inquisition and have this context to help shape the in-game story.