I read: The Calling by David Gaider

The second book in the adventures of King Maric, who is long dead before the Dragon Age: Origins game began – introduces some characters from the game in a way that is a mix of character and world building – and oddly transparent set up material.  Most oddly, it provides almost no insight into the titular topic, but rather seems to assume the audience is familiar with all the lore already.

When Dragon Age: Inquisition was released, many people expected the Architect to be the big bad or at least a pivotal figure – and reading through this novel it’s easy to see why.  It does very much set him up as a pivotal figure for future events, and somewhat rehash his goals revealed in Awakening.  Certainly the book suggests there is more than enough depth to make him the focus of a whole game in itself – its just all unrealised potential.

Reading the book, it feel a little as though watching a tabletop adventure game party consisting of a few player characters and a bunch of non-player characters included to assist.  It also unfortunately somewhat undermines the significance of the events in Origin, making the events seem oddly common due to a comical amount of negligence by various groups.

Ultimately its a story that feels very like it had a lot of potential but was under developed and under edited, being put out with a set agenda to achieve a few goals relation to the game rather than really expanding out the lore of Dragon Age or providing a satisfying story.  So much potential is on display, and yet so little of it is really fully explored.

This makes sense to a certain degree, since games are made as a collaborative effort and writing an expansion novel is largely a solo endeavour, both are done to deadlines but as the novels were secondary it seems safe to assume that less time was available (both relatively and actually)

Spoilers follow:

The story of The Calling focuses primarily on  small cast of characters who seem to invariably be less interesting than the support characters – in part because of the prescribed focus of their roles in the larger world.

Duncan, sacrificial father figure of Origins, is introduced as a young footpad freshly recruited into the Grey Wardens.  The story serves as a sort of coming of age narrative to suggest how Duncan started on the path to being the stern, dutiful man we know from Origins – but ultimately raises many questions there will never be time or cause to answer.

King Maric shares the role of focus character with Duncan, and largely seems along for the ride to be the exposition character to whom all the important matters must be explained, and to ultimately sire Alistair in the womb of Fiona.

Genevieve, an obsessive Grey Warden who drives the plot forward and is initially presented as the model of a Grey Warden… then revealed to be somewhat the opposite before she gets… almost redemption.

Bregan, the lost Grey Warden who serves as a McGuffin and later is granted a real redemption. at the end of his plot arc despite having done very little other than pass message on.

Fiona, the elven mage who exists to assist Duncan and Maric be the heroes of the story, have a torrid moment with Maric in the Deep Roads and otherwise be a plot instrument to explain Alistair’s existence.

The Architect, the antagonist who has a grand vision to end the Blights by killing off all of the Old Gods – then imbuing the taint into humans so as to make them able to lead the Darkspawn.  He receives surprisingly little exploration and little is covered that isn’t covered in Awakened.

If it seems like the female characters get a rough treatment here, it’s because they do.   Largely the whole story moves more on plot and all character development focuses on surprise plot twists or on characters who were already established (mostly in Origins).  In fact, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the book is that it so often flirts with exciting representation, then goes down a predictable path of worn out tropes instead – not because of laziness on behalf of the writer but the demands of the plot.

The extras line up includes a pair of Grey Wardens who are gay lovers (though this is not confirmed until one is dead), a mute dwarf monk who communicates in sign language and has exceptional awareness (and later appears in Awakenings), and a hunter with a Mabari hound.  All of these would be more interesting than any of the main cast, but this is not their story and most of them meet their end before climax of the story.

Most of what we learn about and confirm about these characters is in a sequence where they are cast into the Fade, trapped by the illusion of their ideal lives.  This worked reasonably well in Origins, with characters who we were already familiar with and were due to have a deep reveal of – but in this case feels more like something that was shoehorned to try to build investment in them.

The only other characters of note are Katriel’s ghost (who exists for Maric’s character development) and a collection of Orlesian mages who manage a coup of the Tower without incident… because… it needed a plot twist to set up the resolution of the book.

The majority of the story takes place with an old school dungeon crawl adventure into the Deep Roads, where the party seeks out Bregan, then finds that everything was a double cross which was dual masterminded by the Architect (somehow) and the barely mentioned mages.

This creates the problem that the only characters who we develop any attachment or sympathy for are the ones who die before the climax of the story.  Furthermore the motivations of the villains are not revealed until the twist, and tend to read as simple moustache twirling evil for the glory of Orlais.

There are impressive plot twists in the story, such as a magic dagger turning out to be critical in the future but the lack of early development and the proper resolution reduces it down to a half-page moment.  In the reverse, Genevieve’s redemption arc gets cut short and handed over to Bregan due to her being instakilled in order to solidify his goals and motivations.

These kind of oddities are sometimes workable in a game where the goal is to surrender control to the player for the pivotal moments, but in this format it feels disappointing and undermines the general drama.

One of the biggest oddities is the exploration of Duncan’s origin story in the book – everything from the events that led to him becoming a footpad and the robbery gone wrong that led to him becoming a Grey Warden.  The problem with it is that the gap between who Duncan is at the end of the book and who he is at the start of Origins is still so wide that it doesn’t feel like we’ve really expanded the character.

The main trait he gains is a fierce devotion to being a Grey Warden, which is supposed to be a constant among all Grey Wardens, so really we learn nothing that makes us relate more to him.  Again, it makes sense given that his role in Origins is to be an iconic Grey Warden, but learning it provides no satisfaction or great insight.

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