Tor, $15.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3721-4
Let me start by saying that I am a big fan of the Dragon Age role-playing fantasy video games. Therefore, Liane Merciel’s Last Flight, which is a book tie-in to those games, may not rate as highly with folks who have no clue what these games are or dislike the games. In fact, this review may seem like gibberish to folks who are not familiar with the Dragon Age setting, although I’d try to be as clear as possible. This is always a problem with reviewing media tie-in books, so Last Flight isn’t an unique case.
Okay, some background. We are in the fantasy world of Thedas. It’s the usual world of sword and sorcery populated by humans, dwarves, elves, and such, with some notable differences from the usual fare. Magic is very powerful, but very dangerous, because magic-users draw their powers from the dream world-like plane called the Fade, and doing so leaves their mind vulnerable to temptations from demons. Demons, you see, always love to possess a mortal and commit mayhem, and magic users who are too weak to resist or are actually willing to succumb after believing the demons’ promises are called abominations. There are several schools of magic, and the most powerful is blood magic – which is also the most dangerous, as it leaves the magic user especially vulnerable to demonic possession.
Because of this, many places that believe in the religion of Andraste establish a system where all folks with an affinity for magic are corralled off to live in colonies called the Circles. The Circles are basically self-sustaining communities isolated from those around them, but they have no independence. The Chantry – the church of Andraste – watches each Circle carefully, and their militant arm, comprising trained soldiers called the templars, is always present to ensure that no mage steps out of the acceptable code of conduct established by the Chantry. As you can imagine, this system is ripe for abuse from both sides – templars literally hold the lives of every mage from child to adult in their hands, which means overzealous and abusive templars can do whatever they want unchecked. Mages who feel that they are oppressed or power-hungry mages resort secretly to blood magic.
In the game Dragon Age 2, this system collapses, when a runaway mage blew up the Chantry of the city-state of Kirkwall to incite a mage rebellion against the templars. He got what he wanted: the templars and the mages wage open war on one another. Last Flight takes place during this period of strife.
Before I go on, I have to touch on the Grey Wardens.
Even before the mages and the templars giving one another the finger, there is another threat to the folks in Thedas: the darkspawn. The darkspawn are humanoid monsters that were once normal folks until they became tainted by some kind of plague-like condition that transforms them into murderous creatures. The darkspawn dwell mostly underground, putting them in constant warfare with the dwarves, but once a while, a powerful undead dragon, called the Archdemon, will awaken from its hibernation. The Archdemon’s mind is linked to the darkspawn, and with it being actually a god from olden times, it can marshal the darkspawn into a fearsome army to sweep across Tyria. Those who come in contact with darkspawn blood run the risk of being tainted and becoming a darkspawn, so this is one army that will never run short of soldiers. When an Archdemon awakes and the darkspawn sweep the surface, the resulting war is called the Blight.
The Grey Wardens are an organization created solely to combat darkspawn. Due to their role, they have considerable clout, at least on paper – they can freely make anyone from anywhere to join them, with or without the consent of the fellow or anyone else, they are free to move in any country. They don’t form any allegiance to anybody, and they don’t care about morals or ethics – they would do anything in their power to fight darkspawn, Grey Warden mages openly practice blood magic and the Chantry can’t touch them. Unlike other organizations, the Grey Wardens do not segregate or discriminate, thus elves – the lower caste in practically every civilized corner of Thedas – often join the ranks of the Grey Wardens to escape poverty and prejudice.
However, joining the Grey Wardens comes at a great cost to the individual – the Grey Warden drinks darkspawn blood during his or her initiation ceremony, which can either kill the person or give the person an ability to sense darkspawn presence and movement. It also makes the Grey Warden immune to the taint – although this is because the Grey Warden is already tainted once he drinks darkspawn blood. This makes the Grey Warden an efficient killer of darkspawn, but the practice also causes the person to become corrupted, albeit at a slower pace due to the magical rites performed during the initiation ceremony. Depending on the individual’s resistance to this slow-acting taint, the Grey Warden has anything from ten to thirty years before the corruption becomes too much to bear. Assuming the Grey Warden survives his vocation up to the point, this person would then embark on the Calling, where the Grey Warden would descend into the caverns and tunnels beneath the ground for one last glorious fight with the darkspawn.
Okay, enough background information. Let’s talk about Last Flight.
It is during the midst of the war between the mages and the templars. During this time, the Grey Wardens remain a neutral faction, so those who do not want to take sides in the war – both mages and templars – often seek refuge with the Grey Wardens. Some eventually join the Grey Wardens – or die trying, while others remain to assist the Grey Wardens in other capacities. In Anderfels, Valya is among the new recruits who arrive at Weisshaupt, the main HQ of the Grey Wardens. She and her companions are all mages from a new disbanded Circle who do not want to fight any longer. The Grey Wardens will put them to various capacities around the place, and if they feel that any of these newcomers show any potential to be Grey Wardens, they would recruit these people. Valya is ambivalent about joining the Grey Wardens – there are pros and cons, naturally – but she diligently helps the Grey Wardens by researching on various matters that perplex the order. Eventually, she discovers the diary of Isseya, a now forgotten twin sister of the Grey Warden hero Garahel, who slayed an Archdemon about 400 years ago.
One of the greatest mysteries of Thedas is the extinction of the griffons – proud winged beasts that served as loyal comrades and companions of the Grey Wardens – in the years after Garahel slayed the Archdemon. From all accounts, those magnificent beasts slowly died – they just died, no one knows why. Isseya knew why – in fact, she was right there in the midst of action when the event that eventually led to the demise of the griffons happened. But it isn’t only about the griffons – these beasts were mere collateral damage in the Grey Wardens’ desperate war of attrition against the Blight. Isseya knew first hand the cost of heroism – she paid for her actions dearly, even if it meant saving the lives of millions of people.
Last Flight is actually Isseya’s story, and Valya’s presence in this story is to bring some closure to Isseya’s story by discovering the legacy left behind by the Grey Warden mage.
Last Flight is also one of those stories that have some problematic issues but still knock my socks off nonetheless. The characters on the whole could use more character development, and there are moments set in the present (especially the last chapter) that drag and come off as filler.
However, one thing this story does very well is to drive home the horrors of a war where victory seems impossible. Isseya finds herself doing many things that are against her nature – and some things that horrify her – all to win the war against the darkspawn. And yet, she doesn’t have the luxury to argue. She has to do what it takes to win and save others, and it is only in those rare moments when she has some quiet time that she can feel some degree of loathing for what she is turning into. Even then, as the war drags on, she becomes insensate to everything but winning the war at any cost. Isseya eventually learns blood magic – anything to win, after all – and uses it to do many amazing things that help turn the tide against the darkspawn… even if doing so each time hastens her corruption. Isseya ends up becoming everything she hates, and even her comrades soon stay away from her even as they continue to use her talents, and in the end, she is left to suffer her private hell on her own even after the Grey Wardens have achieved victory. The Calling becomes her salvation, her chance to find peace. It’s not so surprising that the poor dear ends up disillusioned about the Grey Wardens even as she believes in their cause.
Yet, it is hard to fault her or the Grey Wardens. In war, to save millions of lives, a few hundred or even thousand casualties are often deemed necessary. Isseya’s sacrifice isn’t noble – it’s her responsibility, and she receives no thanks for it. She also doesn’t blame anyone for what happens to her. Rather, she blames certain parties for how they treat other beings. The whole thing is heartbreaking, and yet, her courage is inspiring.
What makes Last Flight work so well with me is the author succeeding so well in capturing all the emotions, the sacrifice, and difficult choices one has to make in truly desperate times like the Blight. It’s about good people having to do horrifying things for the cause, driving home the fact that victory in war often comes at a great cost even to the most selfless of heroes. Despite all this bleakness, the story ends on a bittersweet hopeful note that has me tearing up. The story resonates with me because the author manages to capture the close bond between a Grey Warden and a griffon very well, and the destruction of the griffons ends up being a parallel to the eventual obliteration of Isseya’s idealism.
It’s hard to express this in writing, but this book manages to drive home many things that the video games only hints at: the horrific despair of those caught in the Blight, the true – and often terrifying – extent of the price paid by the Grey Wardens for doing what they do, and the consequences of blood magic.
You see, I love the Dragon Age games because, for being mere silly games, they still have stories and characters that resonate with me. My hero’s companions feel so alive sometimes, and in many ways, playing these games are like watching epic fantasy movies only with greater immersion effect because I am in the the hero’s shoes. But in Dragon Age: Origins, fighting the Blight makes my Grey Warden a hero, and he casts blood magic liberally. Oh look, here comes a pack of darkspawn! Let my Arcane Warrior hero first cast Mana Clash on the spellcasting mutant – done, dead in one hit – switch on the Blood Magic mode, cast the Blood Wound spell, and voila, almost everything is dead after a few minutes of hacking and slashing. After reading Last Flight, however, I understand even more now what Duncan meant when he said that joining the Grey Warden comes with a price, and the tragic selflessness of the Grey Warden heroes become heartbreaking and even inspiring. In the game, the Blight ends up with my hero being hailed as the champion of everything and everyone, and this book makes me view that game in a different, even bleaker, light. Oh, and after having cast so many Blood Wound spells. would my poor Warden end up losing his handsome good looks? Now I feel like I need to replay the whole thing and skip choosing the Blood Magic specialisation this time around.
As I’ve said in the first paragraph of this review, Last Flight works very well on me, mostly because I’m a big fan of those games, and this book makes the lore of the setting so alive that I end up appreciating the whole franchise even more. The story makes me tear up and feel all choked up especially by the last page, and it also makes me want to replay those games again and see whether I would live through them through a different point of view this time around. Any media tie-in book that does all this is strictly a winner to me, so this makes Last Flight an awesome book to remember. Now, let’s go save Thedas again – my Inquisitor is ready.