The Masked Empire
by Patrick Weekes, fantasy (2014)
Tor, $15.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3118-2
The Masked Empire is set in Thedas, the world of Bioware's fantasy RPG franchise Dragon Age, and it is released to serve as a bridge between Asunder and the game Dragon Age: Inquisition, which would be released later this year. If you get the impression that this book feels more like a product than anything else, you're right, but this has been the way with franchise fantasy novels since day one, a way where the author is contracted to write a story with the plot and such already pre-determined by the company.
Patrick Weekes is a senior staff writer at BioWare as we speak, but this doesn't mean that he's necessarily a great writer, as David Gaider demonstrated with his clunky efforts for the Dragon Age novel line. Still, Mr Weekes was behind some of the more poignant arcs in Mass Effect 3, especially the Tuchanka arc, and I am pretty hyped about the upcoming game, so I thought it wouldn't hurt to give this book a try.
The Masked Empire refers to, of course, Orlais, a kingdom patterned after 17th-century France with fantasy elements tossed in. Here, members of the nobility wear masks and spend their days in supposed idyllic ennui while the lower classes toil. It is the largest and most powerful kingdom in Thedas for a reason, however: the members of the nobility are constantly playing what they call the Game, a constantly evolving flux of treachery, political hedging, and power struggle. The ones that stay in power are the most ruthless and cunning, and it says something about Empress Celene I that she holds on to power for this long despite being unusually young for a monarch.
Celene isn't without help, of course. She has Briala, for all appearances her handmaiden when in truth Briala is her lover, her spy, and her confidante. This relationship is taboo, not because they are both women (in this fantasy world, homosexuality is generally considered okay) but because Briala is an elf, and elves have been the standard slave caste in many places in Thedas, including Orlais. Celene also has a fanatically loyal bodyguard, Ser Michel, whose violent xenophobia towards elves mask the fact that he's terrified that people would one day discover that his mother was an elf. (Half-elves show human characteristics - that's how it works in this setting.)
Celene has plenty of problems in this story. Thanks to events in Kirkwall, the mages are now at war with templars, and that war is threatening to spread in Orlais unless Celene does something. But before she can look into that matter, she has to deal with her cousin, the Grand Duke Gaspard, who wants to plant his own rear end on the throne. Gaspard is a respected war hero, so he has allies in high places too. Meanwhile, the elves are fed up of being treated like crap, and when one of them is killed solely because a nobleman has a bad day, they decide to revolt. Briala has been subtly influencing Celene to ensure that the elves are better off than they normally would be, so this revolt puts her in a difficult position. Should she support her lover, or her own people? It's not an easy choice, as her own people consider her an outsider and even race traitor for consorting with the queen.
The Masked Empire is noteworthy because it features two lesbian main characters in a manner where their sexuality isn't the focus of their entire personality. Both are strong and capable females too, and while Celene has a bodyguard, he's more like the mule that does all the dirty work. She can protect herself. Apart from Gaspard, most of the main characters - even the capable villains - are female, and yet, they are villains because they want power or vengeance. This is a very nice change from the usual stereotypical female villain who is the way she is because she either loves the male villain a lot or she is just mad because the lead male character doesn't love her. The fact that this whole thing is presented without the author conflating everything into a "Look at me! I'm feminist!" bundle only makes this book a more fascinating read. Even better is how Celene and Briala may be lovers, but they never let their affection cloud their judgment. These two can turn on one another in a heartbeat for the cause they believe in. Seriously, how often do I find female characters like these? Hardly ever.
On the down side, the male characters tend to be the ones that do the dumbest things in this story, starting with Gaspard who thinks that it's a great idea to start a civil war when another more dangerous war is knocking on the kingdom's doorstep. Two crucial plot developments here are motivated by what one can argue to be stupidity of the male characters, and this may not sit well with some people, heh. If you don't like this, I can see where you are coming from, but I'm too impressed by the fact that we have two strong female characters here that don't go all visceral and lovey-dovey - and are not castigated for this - to get too worked up over that.
Mr Weekes has a pretty good thing going here for a long time. The political machinations feel credible and the main characters are, morally, all over the place and I really like that. It's hard to label them solely as "good" or "evil". I guess Briala comes closest to being the most obvious "good" character here, but even then, she's a ruthless killer who has no remorse for what she does. These people do what they do because they believe in something, and I have a ball with that, especially since it's hard to find female characters who are frighteningly passionate about a cause rather than a man in my kind of fiction.
The story loses some steam when it moves from the urban setting to the wilderness, where it then becomes another standard fantasy road trip adventure. Still, things wouldn't be so bad if Felassan, Briala's enigmatic mage mentor, didn't become the author's go-to character to get our main characters out of difficult situations. Oh, things are getting tough for Briala and Michel? Just have Felassan show up suddenly and wave his staff to save the day! Hey, it works for Gandalf, no? I am not fond of this because the other characters have demonstrated that they can do pretty amazing things on their own. Felassan feels like a lazy short cut on the author's part, and it doesn't help that this character has an annoying stand-up routine with one-liners that is everything but humorous.
All things considered, The Masked Empire is a pretty entertaining read, although I'd also caution folks to approach this one with some degree of caution. Most franchise fantasy novels thrive on black and white morality, so this one may not be for everyone due to its lack of such a morality system, so adjust expectations accordingly. On my part, I find that the story does lose its momentum considerably as it shifts from its more urban setting to a rural one, but still, it's an upgrade from the previous titles in this line, and more importantly, it tells a story that has me sitting up and taking notice. Oh, and two strong female characters that make no apologies about all kinds of mean or evil, don't forget that.
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