This is a dark tale with a fair dollop of adult tragedy and compromises. In fact, The Stolen Throne‘s biggest strength lies in its dark twists away from where a tale of daring adventure and a war for a throne usually goes. Dark fantasy is my favorite cup these days and David Gaider delivered on that in his copious free time from game development.
For those not in the know, The Stolen Throne takes place in a world created for BioWare’s Dragon Age games and is a direct tie-in to historical events within those games. As is often the case with books written for games, there are points at which there are deliberate parallels between the book and the game (in this case Dragon Age: Origins) which can feel forced. But unlike the majority of books written as companions to games, this one is readable as a standalone work of fiction and a very good tale in its own right. In fact, in a lot of ways, I suspect it would be even better if you hadn’t played the game yet because the none-too-subtle cross-overs would be lost on you. Something to bear in mind if you’ve decided to venture into the best fantasy setting modern gaming has to offer.
Briefly, Le Plot
Fereldan has been invaded by its neighboring country of Orlais which has placed a tyrant on its throne. Maric may never have laid eyes on Calenhad’s throne himself but he’s raised by a formidable mother who has fought at the head of the Fereldan rebels his whole life. When misfortune suddenly cuts Maric off from his allies with traitors hunting him for the usurper king the unfortunate princeling must survive, find a way back to his ragtag army and find some way to free his country. With the reluctant aid of Loghain, a dour and angry young commoner who has lost much at the hands of the Orlesians, Rowan, Maric’s betrothed and Katriel, a mysterious elven girl, the four of them bleed, weep and fight to change the future of Fereldan, paying a steep price in return for the stolen throne.
The yays and nays
A lot of what is at first teeth gritting in this book pays off towards the end. Loghain and Maric are both uncommonly twatty dudes on occasion when it comes to making decisions on behalf of their romantic partners. Not out of character for the setting but still, egad! The struggle of being stuck in a political relationship is always a hard one to prove to a modern reader. Why don’t they just marry someone else? Why can’t he make an elf a queen? Etc. I think David could have spent a little more time on hammering home why that was impossible. Why preconceptions of race and gender roles are unquestioned in this society. When the stories that take place in it keep making those very pointed questions. But this was his first novel so he gets a lot of leeway on that in my book.
Loghain simultaneously grows into a much deeper character and even a good man in some respects. Still he manages to be this arrogant prick that crushes his best friend’s heart and feels completely justified in doing so. A romantic would read those defining segments of this character and despise Loghain even more. But a pragmatic might feel very differently about that outcome and subsequently about his decision at the Battle of Ostagar. And maybe that’s what I like best about this book. It’s complicated, the relationships are messy and messed up and feel very real and unstilted to me.
Maric’s evolution from goofy companion (-cough- Alistair -cough-) to the hard case rebel king who kicked the Orlesians back out of Fereldan after many years of bloody war is a tough, painful one. In some ways it feels like how you train someone to become a killer and an emotional cripple. And maybe that’s what you need in a King. At least an exiled one who faces years of civil war as his immediate future. When the mold you start out with is a man who is decent and kind you need to break some things to become what the task requires. Again, many similarities with Maric’s youngest son, Alistair.
“But you can’t always be a good man, Maric. Your people need more than that.”
– Rowan tells him.
Rowan, as a character is a mirror of Ser Cauthrien in a lot of ways. Cauthrien is Loghain’s right-hand woman. She’s with him at the Battle of Ostagar and protests his decision, she encounters the Warden when you try to free Anora in the late game of Dragon Age: Origins. That npc always struck me as having a lot more story folded into her and maybe The Stolen Throne is where that story came to life.
The inclusion of Shale and her mage owner was wholly and completely unnecessary and I can only assume it’s there in some part to sell copies of The Stone Prisoner DLC at the time. Bleh. Not because I don’t love Shale but bleh that her previous mindwiped existence is in evidence and never questioned. Oh yeah, that’s a golem, dwarves made them so long ago we all forgot about them, no biggie, cup of tea?
The jaunt into the Deep Roads, however and the particular company of dwarves encountered there was spot on. In fact, that whole segment was top notch fantasy entertainment. Giant spiders regained a lot more threat in my mind than they’ve had in a long while in any rate.
In the space of a fairly short fantasy book, David covers the high points of the Fereldan resistance and war against the Orlesian usurper and there are some time jumps to fit everything in and still keep the book at a coffee table length. It could have benefitted from a little more breathing space in some parts, especially toward the end. But as a first installment in the series, written when David Gaider didn’t even think it had a chance of being published, I’d call it a roaring success. What’s more is, having read the subsequent books I can already tell you that the stories keep getting better. Whether or not you’re a fan of Dragon Age, if you like complicated adult stories in fantasy settings you will like these books.
4 out of 5 Conspicuous cheeses.