I don’t talk a lot about video games on here, but there’s one thing you need to know before you go into this review: I am a huge fan of the Dragon Age games. Dragon Age: Origins was one of the first games I ever fell in love with and really connected to, and the whole franchise holds a very dear place in my heart. I’ve collected all the novels set in this world (and I’m working on the comics) – so I was absolutely thrilled to be asked to review the new short story anthology, Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights!
Book: Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights edited by Chris Bain, Patrick Weekes, Matthew Goldman and Christopher Morgan.
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Titan Books. All opinions my own.
It’s hard to know where to start with this review, as I don’t imagine it’s the sort of book you’d pick up if you weren’t already a fan of the series, but I think you definitely could enjoy it without the context, as the stories themselves are fairly self-contained. I hope that it might even make some people want to try the games, if they get a taste of the flavour of them here; they’re fun fantasy, with a lot of wit and amazing characters, but set in a world full of very complex politics and grey morality that feels very realistic in its exploration of difficult issues like poverty, slavery, free will and power. Anyway, while my thoughts as a die-hard fan might be something like “This is a great look at the Qun”, someone who doesn’t know the series might think “this is a great look at a society that values utility over free will”, so I think it works on both levels. I’ll try to balance explanation with fangirling!
The stories themselves run the gamut from sword-and-sorcery to horror, via city politics, heists and even a country house murder mystery – and much like the games, there’s a mixture of darkness and humour. Most of the stories are centred around new characters, and outside the time frame of the games, so you really get a sense of the huge and complicated world of Thedas. One of the things I love about Dragon Age is this variety of cultural texture, with different societies and mindsets to explore, so given that all the stories are playing in an exceptionally well-built world, that’s definitely a standout aspect of the anthology. As always with collections of stories, there were some I liked more than others, but I genuinely never found myself bored at any point! I like that all of the writers included are people who worked on the games, so you know their knowledge and style is just going to be perfect.
The first story in the collection, ‘Three Trees to Midnight’ by Patrick Weekes, opens it brilliantly. Weekes was one of the main writers for Dragon Age: Inquisition and is the current Lead Writer for the franchise, so it’s not surprising that this totally nails the tone of the games! This looks at the effect of the Qunari invasion of Tevinter on two prisoners in particular, a Tevinter mage and an elf. Tevinter is a decadent but decaying empire, ruled by magisters (the aristocracy) and built on the backs of elven slaves; the Qunari follow an extremely strict way of life that provides for all, but allows for almost no deviation from the ‘correct’ path – so it’s easy to see the underlying tension between the two cultures, even if you’re not familiar with them from the games. The two prisoners, a human mage and an elf, are chained together on a work squad, and have to overcome their prejudices about each other if they are going to survive. It’s a time-honoured trope, and makes for a fun escape story, but one that really helps to illuminate the absolute mess of Tevinter politics and offers an insight into the ways of the Qun.
Some of the stories look at aspects of the Dragon Age world that we’ve barely seen glimpses of, so they have some extra freedom to explore new things. A great example of this is ‘Down Among the Dead Men’ by Sylvia Feketekuty, which focuses on the Mortalitasi (necromancers) of Nevarra, a place we haven’t been to in any of the games, and have only heard a little about! This story could easily sit in any anthology of city-based fantasy, though there are a couple of nice nods for fans. Feketekuty’s second story in the book is also a great standalone – though it does involve one of my favourite characters, Dorian, it’s set in the Tevinter capital and features an unknown, genderfluid fortune hunter who gets caught up in a monster hunt. It’s brilliant fun. (I’ve also just found out that the author wrote some of the most interesting quests in DA:I, so that says a lot!)
Others, like ‘Callback’ by Lukas Kristjanson, are extremely enjoyable for existing fans, but I’m not sure how they’d hold up to someone new. This is perhaps the story most linked to the games, as it features Skyhold, the base of the Inquisition, abandoned after the events of the game, and several of the minor characters who worked there during the storyline of DA:I. It might be too fan-servicey for new readers to get into, but I really enjoyed the attention to detail in the depiction of Skyhold – after hours of running around it while it was filled with people, it was creepy as all hell to see it abandoned. This story more than any made me reflect on how very connected I feel to these games; obviously I’ve only ever seen Skyhold on the screen, but I feel like I lived there! Maybe it’s a result of the fact that I never play RPGs as anything other than a more magical version of myself…
A couple more favourites were ‘Hunger’ by Brianne Battye and ‘The Wigmaker Job’ by Courtney Woods, both of which feel like awesome side quests – the latter in particular was fun as it focuses on the Antivan Crows, a guild of quip-making assassins who (judging by the ones we’ve seen) tend to have hearts of gold. I also loved ‘Eight Little Talons’, also by Courtney Woods, which offers a country house murder mystery with a twist – everyone in attendance is a high ranking Crow, so everyone has clear motive and excellent means. Less my cup of tea was ‘The Horror of Hordak’ by John Epler, simply because I don’t love the eldritch horror aspects of the world (there’s quite a lot of… pulsating abominations that I usually try not to look at in the games!), but this still does a lot of character- and world-building work in a short space of time.
Overall, this is one of the most consistent and cohesive anthologies I’ve read – every story feels right. I’m left wondering how much of this is teasing aspects of the upcoming Dragon Age 4 – it’s pretty certain it’ll be set in Tevinter, but there’s a lot of focus here on the Antivan Crows, the Rivaini Lords of Fortune, and the Mortalitasi that makes me very hopeful that we’ll get some of these in the next game (maybe even a return to DA:O style player character backgrounds?). One thing is certain, and that’s that this collection of stories has made me even more excited about the world of Thedas, and that’s brilliant. Five out of five cats!