Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Dragon Age: The Masked Empire by Patrick Weekes

Lowdown: Love, war and politics in the game of securing the throne to a fantastic realm.
By now I can safely say Patrick Weekes and I go a long way together. Not that he would know me, but I am a veteran consumer of Weekes’ work. Between his writing in all three Mass Effect games, as well as his novel The Palace Job, Weekes has had direct involvement is some of my most favourite works of fiction ever. Now, with Dragon Age: The Masked Empire, he confidently proves the point yet again.
I did approach The Masked Empire with significant apprehension, though. The book is one of several books already released to cover the Dragon Age swords and sorcery video game franchise, no doubt written to set the scene ahead of the third major game release coming this November, Dragon Age: Inquisition. My problem was my total lack of familiarity with anything Dragon Age: I never played any of the games nor read any of the books. Sure, I like Weekes’ other work, but what good will that do me if I was to pick up the best book ever but totally miss out on it by virtue of my ignorance in its background?
So I did what every normal person does nowadays. I tweeted the question to Patrick Weekes:

Honestly, he already had me by virtue of answering. Now that I’ve read the book I can say that perhaps I could have made more of his creation were I to read the prequels or play the first two games, but what I do know is that I never felt like I was missing out on anything.
Indeed, we start off with well familiar themes to Weekes veterans: female lead characters + same sex relationships. Clearly, Weekes is a person for whom equal rights and same sex marriage in particular represent topics very close to the heart. Me? I’m clapping as he goes along.
Thus we have ourselves Empress Celene, the human ruler of the empire in which our story takes place. Celene’s main pastime is playing The Game, the political game of wheeling and dealing with all those after her position. It’s a lot like Game of Thrones, only that Masked Empire players are more shrewd. Or rather, there’s less blatant sex and outright thuggery and more sophistication to the process, but it all still feels like an Henry the 8th type conundrum from Middle Age Europe.
In addition to magic wielding rings and a knight in shining armour as her official champion, Celene yields a very powerful weapon: her maid, Briala the elf. Elves are the realm’s poor cousins; consider them the niggers of the land (I do not doubt Weekes molded them in that particular shape). Briala may be an elf, she may be a seemingly weak woman – and a maid, at that – but she is also Celene’s secret lover and her main asset in The Game. Just like that Spy that wins you a game of Stratego without the other side knowing where it hit them from.
Together, the two have to deal with aristocrats thinking too highly of themselves, a rebellion of elves that turns into a mini Intifada for reasons very similar to what I have seen pouring through my Twitter stream out of Ferguson USA, and a war that breaks loose when a contender to the throne realises all of the above creates the best of constellations for his claim to the empire. The war, however, is fought over many things: some fight it for the title, some fight it for the status, while others are fighting it in order to gain the rights they deserve.
I started reading The Masked Empire expecting a simplistic D&D grade like story, a cheap fantasy tale like those I used to read in my teens. I thought there will be wizards forging lightning bolts, backstabbing thieves and knights on cavalry. I was right, all of those are present, but there is so much more to The Masked Empire. What starts with the plight for equal rights for gays and develops into the fight for equal rights for the elves goes on to develop into a sweeping political drama with significant depth. We have certain demographics rebelling against the "natural" order of things; we have characters realising that belonging to the same race does not necessarily mean being the same; we have characters having to deal with the collateral damage their seemingly just actions carry; and we have other characters having to make sacrifices in order to achieve their aspired goals. The morality and ethics of the way these characters lead themselves is constantly there for us to witness. More importantly, all these deliberations our characters go through are oh-so-relevant in today’s real life environment, from Gaza to Ferguson.
In particular I liked Masked Empire’s ending. Obviously, I am not about to say much about it, but I will mention it took me by surprise. I was expecting your typical fairy tale ending but instead got an ending worthy of the political drama at hand. No doubt this ending was meant to provide the setting for the video game that follows, but regardless – it’s rare for books to offer such superb endings to follow on such a complex setup. Weekes certainly learned from the Mass Effect 3 ending’s fiasco!
Coupled with its very rich language, a quality far from expected in the 4th book in a video game based book franchise, and you can say I was thoroughly impressed with Dragon Age: The Masked Empire. Or rather, I was very thoroughly impressed with Weekes’ repeat achievements.
From start to finish, I thoroughly enjoyed The Masked Empire. 4.5 out of 5 juicy crabs mean that Patrick Weekes is placing himself firmly in my shortlist of most favourite authors. More importantly, he won himself the title of Restorer of My Faith in the Fantasy Genre.
I very much look forward to his upcoming sequel to The Palace Job. If it’s half as good as this one then we’re in for a major treat!

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