Titan Books, £6.99, ISBN 978-0-85768-647-3
I don’t remember purchasing Asunder, so it is a good thing that I stumbled upon it in my pile of unread books, just when I was thinking of getting a copy. You see, the video game Dragon Age: Inquisition is coming out later in 2014, and as one of the few people who enjoyed both the games that came before it, Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2, equally, I wanted some Dragon Age meat to sink my teeth into while waiting for that game. Okay, that sounds obscene, but I am an impatient person.
As this story is set in the world of Thedas, people who are unfamiliar with the games, especially Dragon Age: Origins, may not be able to appreciate this story, as the background of one of the principal characters, Wynne, was fully revealed in that game. David Gaider assumes that readers are familiar with Wynne’s back story, so he gives minimal information for newcomers to catch up. An event in the pivotal moment of the story, therefore, may cause these newcomers to scratch their heads and wonder what is going on in that scene.
Also, this story contains major spoilers for both games, especially Dragon Age 2, as it takes place a few months after events at the end of that game. It is not possible for me to review this book without coming off like a big tease as well, so if you wish to play that game one of these days without being spoiled, you have better skip reading the book as well as this review until then.
You still here? Alright, let me get comfortable first.
Where we last went off, there was a brewing war building between the templars and the Circle of Magi. A little background for those out of the loop: in the world of Thedas, the principal religion is the Chantry, which is like a matriarchal version of Christianity, with the martyr being a woman named Andraste, who died at the pyre for her beliefs. Her sacrifice touched the emperor who ordered her execution, and he soon played a part in expanding the faith to almost all corners of the world. One of the tenets of the faith is that magic must serve man. This is interpreted to mean that magic-users cannot be trusted, as they can be possessed by demons once they lose control of their willpower while doing their fancy woo-woo stuff, and therefore, all mages must be corralled into Chantry-run settlements called Circles, where every move they make is watched by the martial arm of the Chantry called the templars. The templars are specially trained to counter magic, and therefore, they tend to have the upper hand in a confrontation with the mages.
As you can probably guess, abuse of power is rife and there are many mages that want to just shove a finger to the templars and the Chantry. In Dragon Age 2, the biggest finger came in the form of Anders, a possessed mage who decided to blow up the Chantry in the city-state of Kirkwall to get the templars to war with the mages. It is only when the mages are galvanized to fight, he believed, that they would finally overthrow the tyranny of the templars. Being that Anders was a Grey Warden, and the Grey Wardens’ motto is “In war, victory! In peace, vigilance! In death, sacrifice!”, it is not surprising that he viewed the death of many to be a sacrifice for the greater good.
The brewing war becomes an outright war in Asunder. Unsurprisingly, one of the chief mages pushing for outright defiance against the templars is Fiona, a former Grey Warden. With Lord Seeker Lambert, leader of an arm of the Chantry whose authority is higher than the templars, gunning hard to crush any dissent among the mages in the wake of the party at Kirkwall, and with more mages starting to wonder whether it is time to fight back before they all get cut down as part of the retaliation against the incident at Kirkwall, all it takes to cause a conflagration is a tiny spark.
That spark arrives in the form of Wynne, who travels to Orlais with Shale as part of her ongoing efforts to help the golem become a dwarf again. Along the way, she is requested by the Divine in Val Royeaux to check into a… situation. A Tranquil, Pharamond, has been conducting research on the Rite of Tranquility – surprisingly enough, for the Chantry, and of late, there is a possibility that he has been possessed by demons. A Tranquil… possessed? That’s impossible, right? Wynne arrives at the Circle of the White Spire to seek the aid of two other mages to bolster her firepower when she travels to find Pharamond. Wynne, by the way, is an old woman.
She arrives just in time to extricate her son Rhys – whom she is not close to, having been forced to give him up after his birthing, just like all mages that have given birth (templars’s orders and all that) – from deep trouble. You see, someone or something is killing the mages in the Circle, and Rhys is caught in a most suspicious circumstance by the Knight-Captain Evangeline of the templars. With the authority invested in her by the Divine – who is the Pope of the Chantry, so to speak – she grabs Rhys and Rhys’s ex-girlfriend Adrian with her. Evangeline tags along, as mages aren’t allowed to travel and do things without templar supervision. Unknown to the others at that point, Lambert charges her to silent Wynne and the rest by any means necessary should the mages discover anything to prove that the Rite of Tranquility is not fool-proof.
Also tagging along is the killer of the mages, a… creature… called Cole. He is not a demon, and while he may be a spirit, he’s not benevolent like spirits tend to be. He acts more like a sad and lonely child who needs to kill in order to remain in this plane. Rhys is one of the few people who can see him, and, therefore, he considers Rhys the only friend he has in this world.
This group of five – Shale tags along too – make up a rather unbalanced party. If you have played the game, you may immediately notice that there are three mages in this party and that means this party is overpowered to the maximum level. Fortunately, Rhys is one of the biggest colossal idiots in Thedas and Wynne is too much of a pacifist to the point of folly, so the enemies here do stand somewhat of a chance.
The story in Asunder is solid. It has everything: pathos, conflicted loyalties, a beautifully tormented woobie in the form of Cole, and rousing cries to arms. Unfortunately, the execution is nowhere good enough to bring these elements to life.
The biggest problem here is Rhys, the designated hero. Let me put it this way: if we replace him with Oghren’s more brain damaged drunken brother, the collective IQ of the party would actually increase by at least 100 points. Rhys can’t and won’t make any decision, he has to be dragged along all the way by others, and his actions all land on the side of stupid. He knows that Cole is the killer, but doesn’t tell anyone, therefore dooming his fellow mages just because. It’s not like he has any compelling reason to keep Cole’s existence a secret. He doesn’t know what Cole is, and he doesn’t have solid proof that Cole is someone worth helping.
Not only that, Rhys loves to walk out in the dark alone, and needs rescuing as a result. When he is called on his stupidity, he just smiles and tries to say glib things, only, he lacks the charm of Alistair and ends up looking like a dumb putz. The author tells me repeatedly that Rhys is talented and powerful, but the few times this joke tries to do his magic powers, he blacks out after a while. Every single time! Seriously, as a lead male character, this guy is such a total failure in every single way, I can only wonder whether the author is having a laugh at my expense.
I love Wynne in Dragon Age: Origins. Here, someone must have beaten her dumb with the stupid stick, because this version of Wynne is like that idiot who sat in the middle of the rail tracks, insisting that she’s staging a peace protest and she will not be moved, when everyone else can see the train coming in fast. She is a bloody hypocrite too. It is fine if other mages are dying as long as she gets to pretend that she’s Aung Sun Suu Kyi, but the moment tragedy hits close to home, she’s all “Destroy them all! Kill them all!”
Evangeline, whose personality is akin to Aveline Vallen being pasted onto this character but with any hint of intelligence exorcized, is supposed to be this tough but intelligent lady who would eventually see the good in mages and feel conflicted, blah blah blah. Only, in this story, she just stands by and lets the mages do all kinds of things without putting much of a fight. Of course, this is necessary for the plot to advance – Rhys needs lots of quiet time alone to do stupid things, after all – but it also makes her character look like a weak pushover. Naturally, she is the love interest, although heaven knows why, as she and Rhys have zero chemistry.
Another problem is that the author shows the templar in such an awful light here – Evangeline apparently is the only nice one around, and that’s because she’s a pushover – while making Wynne a pacifist that advocates the mages to not sue for independence (war is bad, you see?) and Rhys being just an idiot that can’t decide what he wants to do. At the same time, the “bad person”, Adrian is written in such a one-dimensional awful manner that I can only wonder whether she’s based on an ex-girlfriend from a bitter break-up. Yet, despite all her overwrought theatrics, Adrian advocates independence from the Chantry. As a result, the author creates a situation where I find myself actually rooting for that caricature over the designated good guys. Whether this is intentional or not, it’s just… bewildering.
Lambert is ridiculous too, and he’s too much of a Looney Tunes villain to be taken seriously, but he seems like a genius compared to the joke that is Rhys. This is one story where the brainpower seems to be possessed only by the extremists in the cast, and the take-home message is: “Screw this, let’s just beat the crap out of these morons.”
The Dragon Age games have some lovely storytelling elements. While the overall stories may not be great, there are moments of great pathos and emotional poignancy, even thought-provoking moral dilemmas. In this book, however, everything is just a mess. A flat, awkward mess that suggests that the author has no clue what he is doing half the time. And he’s the lead writer! Maybe he should have gotten the whole writing team to work along with him in the book.